Friday, September 26, 2014

A good argument for atheism

I will not spend a great deal of time arguing for atheism or even naturalism here, but they are certainly givens to our best understanding of the world. I found someone circling this old argument for atheism, and I have always thought it is the strongest case to be made. It is the problem of the contingency of any religious belief someone holds. Not surprising, it follows one of the main themes of this blog which is trying to understand how our own beliefs and attitudes arise in our selves. The argument then asks whether we should continue to believe facts or continue to reproduce certain habits given where they come from.

I do not know if there is a better way to put this, but there is a traceability problem. I can examine any proposition or especially any proposition that I believe in, trace it to its roots, generally speaking, and I can find an answer that makes intuitive sense. If I believe the New York Yankees (hypothetically speaking) are the greatest team ever, I can trace that to my childhood, location, and parents. Maybe, in the end, I accept that it is less of a proposition and more just my tribal loyalties, and stop worrying about my cheering for the Yankees.

For other propositions of a more general nature that traceability becomes more salient, such as the sun is the center of the solar system. We can trace that to scientific agreement of coherence, reproducible experiment (etc.). We may have the historical contingency problem that any particular scientific belief has, but, for us good naturalists, we have to shrug off that kind of contingency, mark it and move on. When it comes to a proposition such as “God blesses the cracker and awards me for taking in it,” the traceability of the problem simply dead-ends in some brute historic fact. This is of a contingent factor that seems empty to most reflective minds, simple statement by some priest, tribe, or council that simply gives us a belief about the world. As we trace one of our particular beliefs to this kind of belief-creation, I think most people (say atheists) are troubled by such odd creation of that belief.

For a simpler example, it would be as if a 15yo has had someone question her belief that “black holes are made of toads,” a proposition that she believed because she was born into strange parents in a very strange cult. As outsiders tell her that her belief in this piece of information is contingent on the accident of her cult years ago, the traceability goes back to an insane cult leader who simply stated it out of the blue, the traceability arrives at a brute statement that seems problematic. As she learns some other facts of the world according to physics, understands how they arrive at their answers and why in general their origination seems more respectful than the idea that a cult leader said it 20 years ago or that it had simply been traditional beliefs for 2000 years, facts that trace themselves to a more reflective and empirical nature will come to enjoy greater respect in her mind, because she is a budding common-senser.

Lastly, you have conglomerate problems. Religion gives all sorts of propositions, beliefs, and prescriptions whose contingency seems problematic, seems localized, and when we trace them they end up in these empty brute fact statements by some priest. The majority of religious propositions that have ever been espoused are regarded as nonsensical to any individual, and thus as we trace various beliefs to their origins we find some tribe or priest simply stating it or misinterpreting some phenomena. So, not only does one's own specific religious proposition dead-end into an empty brute statement or creation by a given people, but those of all religious propositions do, most of which we all readily agree are wrong. It becomes difficult to maintain the justification of one's own brute creation of one's own proposition, especially when they seem a little odd, especially when I turn to faith to justify my answer for such a belief.

So, there goes that.    

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Analyzing behavior; against evolutionary psychology

In a repudiation of some strands that emerge from evolutionary psychology, I argue that the genetic capacities of at least 95% of the population means that they can become individuals with talents (characteristics) and behaviors that are as remarkable as we see in those we revere most for their scholarship or projects. Taking the materialist picture of the world, we can deny the kind of agency (or free will) that is commonly attached to the creation of behaviors and talents of individuals, where we turn inabilities and inefficiencies of some skill or action, that cannot be easily explained by previous environmental structures or genetics, onto some internal power resting within that individual—say through that individual’s will or reasoning. This “will” or “reasoning” is a fine explanation: there are problems in this individual’s will or reasoning that is causing her behavior or that is keeping her from developing some talent. But this will or reasoning, though being a complexity of this individual’s brain/mid, that is, resting wholly within internal conditions of this being, can still be traced or analyzed as something that has been structured by the previous interactions of genes and environment or by a previous internal state of affairs of this individual’s brain. And the likewise is true for any talent or skill that we praise, once we set aside genetic and environmental explanations for that behavioral set. For those keeping score, what I am offering we could probably construe as some kind of behaviorism (also see Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility).

We can separate standard behaviorism out. The basic idea of behaviorism revolved around the belief that it was best and easiest (and possible) to ignore the middle conceptions in the process of: EnvironmentMind/Mental FunctionsBehavior. Since that middle term was difficult to understand, rested within a subjective sphere of each individual, and was not necessary for controlling the individual—since simply controlling the environment would necessarily lead to behavior changes, behaviorism tried to leave it out. In some sense, ultimately speaking, this is not an incoherent project. It is only that it in the end would have actually been a tougher project than to begin to understand the brain, such as through neuroscience. Both sides of these equations that are trying to understand behavior, either through strict behavioral analysis of the environment conditions or of a psychological or neuroscientific project of understanding how the brain/mind produces behavior, are nowhere near the capacity of giving a thorough overall assessment of behavior. Some combinatorial effort is also lacking at this moment in time. Human behavior is just too complex, but we have made a great deal of progress. The more important consideration here is simply accepting the deterministic structures that underwrite both of these ways of viewing human behavior.

Onto evolutionary psychological explanation for behavior and identity, the following still makes some sense to me, and I will tweak it to more current thinking. Here is Richard Rorty speaking against E.O. Wilson:

However, Professor [E.O.] Wilson would be right, if indeed evolutionary biology were able to set constraints on sociocultural experimentation, if we were able through the discovery of further epigenetic rules to say, "this looks like an interesting way to program ourselves (way to develop ourselves, use to make of ourselves), but it won't work because it runs up against a certain epigenetic rule." For all I know there are such rules, but I'm not going to take the sociobiological or evolutionary psychological initiative very seriously unless they produce some testable hypotheses of the form, "if you try to do so-and-so, it won't work:" if you try to nationalize the means of production, it won't work; if you try to let women into combat units in the military, it won't work; if you try to let overt homosexuals into the military, it won't work; if you try to tax the rich in order to make things better for the poor, it won't work. Until they can say, "here's something that we might plausibly think to do but biology is against (there's an epigenetic rule which will foul it up)," as one might say to a software programmer, " that sounds like a good programming idea, but it won't work because of the way the thing is hard-wired," then I think we should be dubious of the claim that we're going to get beyond rather uninteresting epigenetic rules like the ones about the incest taboo and color spaces.

Rorty here lays out what will be an ongoing theme in much of my thinking. Following the 60's backlash, the waning of feminism, the fall of communism, the entrenchment of American conservatism, the rise of greater genetic and brain understanding (etc.), there arrived a malaise about givens to our social institutions, ensconced in ideas like “genetically, human just do not have the psychological equipment to allow for socialism.” Or in the examples of parents who swear their daughters just always loved pink and their boys blue; or that their girls just naturally took to Play-doh cooking kitchens. Anyways, more on some of those at a later date, but much of my focus here is on knowledge and skill attainment. So, to steal Rorty's structure:

Evolutionary psychology does not say: “If we had taken these 10,000 high school dropouts (that is their bodies as inherent in their DNA) and placed them in the homes of the elites (of parents who thoroughly asked questions about socialization/education) and sent them to the absolute best schools and provided them with the best psychologist and doctors and nutritionist, they still would have been dropouts. Questions that have to be asked: If we had given them a radically different environment, would they have attained college degrees? Would they have learned foreign languages? Would they have been adequate doctors, lawyers, managers. The answer in almost every case is surely going to be yes, we must assume (not counting individuals with significant brain damage).

What I am focusing on here is just the raw genetic capacity for skill attainment, say the skills and knowledge of what a baseline doctor would need. Behaviors are complex, and are even more complex to analyze as they interact with prevailing institutions, which in turn structures the individual. Furthermore, there is playback between slight skill differences or temperamental differences that are in constant interaction with other in society, including primary socializing agents. The complexity of the social arising of identities, desires, attitudes, beliefs, and characteristics of any individual as they interact with other agents is one of the reasons why analysis of how genetics structure behavior is so muddled. A lot of this is walled off. People do not want the basics of their character to be put under the microscope. They also do not want institutions, say the basic habits of their family structures, to be questioned. George Herbert Mead has an enjoyable line that we can change individuals and institutions will necessarily change; or we can change institutions and the individuals will necessarily change. That they are opposite sides of the same coin. When we drastically alter the social discourses and social world in itself around individuals, we can make large changes to who those individuals are.

There will be plenty more to say about identity in the future, about how we form the selves that we do, and about how socializing processes can take small characteristics and turn them into ensconcing attributes or life opportunities. Though I think evolutionary psychology has gotten a lot wrong and made poor statements about the connection of genes to behavior and identity, it is also unquestionable that we are creatures of evolution, that certain propensities and brain structures exist because of evolutionary pressures. The question is what do these qualities mean for the kinds of selves and societies that we build. Can we radically alter identities? If we dramatically change institutions on a social level or on the individual level, do individuals radically change? And, lastly, what are the limits to the kind of institutions that we can place around individuals? Some of these questions were highlighted in two popular books recently, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Amy Chua's the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, which I will take a look at as well. Jesse Prinz claims in his excellent book Beyond Human Nature that the nurturist position is coming back into the mainstream, but I have not quite seen that, but perhaps time will tell.

Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Jesse Prinz, Beyond Human Nature
George Herbert Mead, On Social Psycholoy
Owen Flanagan, Self Expressions
Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality
Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Bronwyn Davies, Frogs, Snails and Feminist Tales
Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Against free will and moral responsibility

I hold a nonrealist position for free will and morality. Or, more pointedly, I believe free will and morality are a hindering discourse to our best description of the world and human behavior, and thus they prevent our creation of better selves and societies (unless illusionism of free will and morality is vindicated, but good luck).

Humans make choices on the same plane as computers playing chess make choices, or as Watson choosing to answer on Jeopardy!. Right now humans have broader scopes and greater reflective capacities than any computer, but “consciousness” (and what we make of it in the end) does not mean that humans somehow make selection processes of a different quality. What humans certainly do is to have a robust model of their self at the center of the world and represent (loosely speaking) all sorts of different possible effects on that self that will result because of their selection process. In that way human choices are very open and our brains are still unrivaled in analyzing a multitude of factors that are relevant to us.

As to creating selves that choose well, both in a personal and social perspective, then there is no reason to continue to refer to those choice making processes as “free will.” It is time to acknowledge the machines that we are. And, no, studies that show effects of a certain limited repertoire when subjects are described a deterministic world do not show that illusionism is going to be beneficial in the end.

A similar story plays out for morality. There are not moral facts in the world and actions and states of affair are not right or wrong. Furthermore, the discourses that people wish to perpetuate, to call certain behaviors sins, to say that stealing is wrong, to say that charity is right, to say that raising your children well is morally good; people desire to reproduce these discourses for the conversational weight they hold and for the connotational structures they sneak in. As regards much of the population, I would argue these statements carry connotations such that, simply, “stealing is wrong." Similarly, many people believe that “homosexuality is a sin,” however they maintain such. Because they carry such connotations for much of society, use of moral language carries conversational weight.

Our moral beliefs and attitudes come partially from evolutionary ingrained factors. This gives certain actions and perceptions a given status. Dead flesh just is disgusting, and similarly, being slighted in a transparent way may just be deeply upsetting. This encourages us to believe that it is just wrong to slight people in certain ways. Furthermore, and I will expand more on this someday, how we are socialized into behaviors probably encourages our early belief in moral facts. It is “wrong to hit your brother,” at least this is what your parents want you to believe. From an early age then we come to accept that simply “one does not hit one's brother,” which seems a given to the world, and it carries a great deal of emotion with us. We feel it is wrong to hit one's brother. That feeling is separated from a rational account of why, in a more reflected state, we agree such an action is problematic to society. Such feelings thus encourage us to see those actions and the values that hang on them as stand alone in the world: we find it difficult to imagine a world where it is okay to hit ones brother or have sex with the wrong person. Though we have non-rational feelings towards a lot of things, I think there is a story to be told about innate machinery, socialization processes, and then internalizing of social and familial rules, and how all of that relates to our believing in moral facts and our use of moral language. (See Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes on some of these issues.) 

Evolutionary inspired attitudes do not create moral facts in the world, they may structure our societal behaviors in ways that benefited groups in the past and may benefit groups today. As we analyze the combination of innate psychological factors with how they develop in different individuals and how societies create different rules and structures, we do not need to continue to say that “stealing is wrong.” We are perfectly capable of describing the social outcomes of societies that allow stealing and why this action goes against our different desires and personalities. As we understand these factors, I argue it becomes easier to ask what kind of society we want to live in and to ask what social rules we need. Continuing to put our rules into the language that it is morally wrong to do X, obscures the if/then statement: If we as a society allow X, it will have these effects. The latter is not pretty to us, but as to descriptive force it should never give any of the confusions that we have been apt to give the subject.

I perhaps can grant the argument: “In the society that I live in, I need moral language to be an active agent.” It is another thing to continue to reproduce that moral language and its overall descriptive obfuscations when we turn to talking about morality itself and different aspects of it. On free will, we do not need a term to talk about choice making without coercion, as some compatibilists believe that is all the term means. In most cases it is fairly obvious the factors that are limiting the individual and if the choice is being constrained in some overt way. Our best description of human choice making procedures should be asking about all the structures of our past that make up this brain that chooses at this moment. Those factors will include evolutionary structures, socialization/education, other developmental factors, and other, perhaps seemingly random, environmental factors that structure this brain at this particular time.

How I see

[[Something written a while ago in a more playful mood, but it should help lay out my beliefs and goals. And for the record, I do not understand poetry, poets, or have any inclination that I am in that ballpark, whatever that may be.]]

A Dream of a Constructionist

I can write stories that bite sharply the bitter thoughts of young girls’ brows.
I can sing words so darkly that boys are awed in wonder.
And I will tell you of all that we once knew,
Of selves we disavow.

Sitting still there was nothing to do,
Truth was based on fractious reviews
Of thoughts unseen and worlds submerged.
But through heuristics our eyes anew;
Seeing the mechanics of seeing.

But, still, too many ran and screamed:
How dare you endanger the mind so sacred!”
And of their selves they refused every reflection.
Our characters ensconced,
Our desires unblemished.
Give us a world and the selves we see,
Only the edges curtailed, please.
But of the heart of humans (which reside in the head),
Do not touch, “Who I am.”
No again: Do Not Touch,
The human condition.

But your self, your world, is not made of stone.
At the cleft we cleave, ho.
Of such a cleft not knowing its presence,
Your dismay, your disgusted reaction,
Kept others abreast of your silly condition.
And still others you abjected to frivolous poverty,
Of poor institutions and normalities.

So to the ground we took,
Opening cracks not before seen.
Reification was performatively strewed,
Only in repeated words had your beliefs held.
Only in sights that appeased could your ideas be confirmed,
And characters believed to simply be, who one is, unconditionally.

But, alas, we can give to each mind something new.
We can grant skills and knowledge unanimously,
If only we are shrewd.
If only first we tear asunder our institutions, our norms, our selves,
To see the baby swimming as the ape that she is,
And the woman that she is to become:
Because we make her and that brain that is one.

It is simple, I know, to program. But of humans and self-programming,
It is surprisingly difficult,
At least in the finest ways—and universally.

So, to the labs we set again, like the rats of our forefathers,
The misguided Skinners.
But this time we cut deeper, we use better words.
With Foucaultian cleavers we are better weavers.
With neurotools we may avoid neurosis.
The mistakes we make will be new,
But yet we just may prove that all machines are capable of manufacturing.
And of that “I,” it is only an inward representation.
Of those feelings, there is something baser,
Something deflated, of simpler properties,
Something without quite so much meaning,
As the qualia that we place so high.
These simple things can be quarked.
They can be understood, or at least rebarked.

And selves of strength will rise impetuously.
Knowledgeable beings created by our own hands.
Skills laid at the feet of every child.
And the world of our desires, first recreated, then consumed.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Opening Salvo

The main goal here will be to help shift discussion toward reflections on social institutions and those institutions impact on our selves. Opening up those institutions to reflection, we have to take responsibility for the reproduction of such institutions and the creation and maintenance of more enlightened ones. I use the term institution here in a very wide sense, which includes norms and beliefs. It includes pretty much anything of a social nature that is contingent, or practically contingent. Or, more pointedly, anything of the environmental side of “genes and environment” that goes into structuring us as individuals. Social institutions, broadly speaking, is the place most apt for reflection and change, until we start opting for eugenics and robust transhumanism.

As we move into a more unified picture of our world, materialism for us true believers, I feel that a real unease or misgiving has taken place around certain areas in our description about who we are. We could say that many have neglected the nature/nurture argument. By bracketing off certain possibilities of radically altered social environments, either in a grand and hypothetical sense but also in the local, personal sphere, reflections about what our selves could be is usually not given a full accounting. Conversely, things that we think are inherent natural products of our genes are usually misappropriated as such. They may be structured by genes in some general ways, but the idea that they were givens to who we are, as a given identity or behavioral repertoire, is not necessitated. And often could be structured in a radically different way that we would readily welcome. At other times, perhaps we would not welcome such changes. Our inability to reflect on these changes becomes more difficult due to essentialized and reified social structures and discursive structures, ones that emotions encourage us not to open up, not to rethink.

A failure to put the political/social/institutional front and center, to be argued about and rethought, is a failure to argue for the creation of selves that are as robust as they could be. An example: The general social conditions that structure different individuals, say the kind of education/socialization that is set up around these individuals, such structures are going to be far more important in determining that they are well-educated, well-established (say socially and of personal character), than an analysis and careful monitoring of certain brain biases that inundates certain popular spheres. The failure to put the social and political on the table, to see, in most cases, the social as the political and the political as the social, leads to a poor analysis of the most important factors in determining our lives, of letting us live better lives, to make better choices. Given that much discussion in brain sciences, philosophy, and on moral thought is concerned with creating better selves and societies, I argue that in the end they ultimately fail to ask the most pressing questions about the most important aspects of who we are.

So, in time, this blog will solve the nature versus nurture question, put philosophy/science on the right track, and foster the appropriate social revolution.

Feel free to follow along.