What makes weird beliefs thrive? The epidemiology of pseudoscience

epidemiologyMaarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and yours truly have published a paper on what we call the “epidemiology of pseudoscience.” Here is the abstract, to give you an idea:

What makes beliefs thrive? We model the dissemination of bona fide science versus pseudoscience, making use of Dan Sperber’s epidemiological model of representations. Drawing on cognitive research on the roots of irrational beliefs and the institutional arrangement of science, we explain the dissemination of beliefs in terms of their salience to human cognition and their ability to adapt to specific cultural ecologies.

By contrasting the cultural development of science and pseudoscience along a number of dimensions, we gain a better understanding of their underlying epistemic differences. Pseudoscience can achieve widespread acceptance by tapping into evolved cognitive mechanisms, thus sacrificing intellectual integrity for intuitive appeal. Science, by contrast, defies those deeply held intuitions precisely because it is institutionally arranged to track objective patterns in the world, and the world does not care much about our intuitions. In light of these differences, we discuss the degree of openness or resilience to conceptual change (evidence and reason), and the divergent ways in which science and pseudoscience can achieve cultural “success”.

This is obviously part of Maarten’s and my own continued interest in the science-pseudoscience “demarcation problem,” about which we have curated a volume of collected essays for Chicago Press.

Our approach in the paper is mix of philosophy, sociology and history of science and pseudoscience, as we believe that all three components are necessary to understand both cultural activities. This is different from an exclusively epistemic focus, which is characteristic of classic philosophy of science, as well as from one centered only or largely on sociology, which was the basic idea behind the so-called “strong programme” in sociology of science, centered at Edinburgh University around the figure of David Bloor, but that also included other controversial scholars, such as Harry Collins.

As always, of course, the interesting stuff comes not when one deals with uncontroversially pseudoscientific notions (such as “scientific” creationism, or astrology) or uncontroversially scientific ones (like evolutionary theory, or the Standard Model in physics), but rather when we consider less obvious cases, such as parapsychology (research about it has been carried out by legitimate scientists working at legitimate universities) or string theory (is it science, or mathematically based metaphysics?).

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26 thoughts on “What makes weird beliefs thrive? The epidemiology of pseudoscience

  1. Massimo,

    I have to say, I’m not particularly convinced. While this might seem a clear distinction from within the social organization of the academy, for someone outside, it seems more a debate between moderates and extremists of the same persuasion, with a serious and evident bias toward an appeal to authority.

    For one thing, there are lots of ideas, if not the majority, that started on the fringes and became accepted. From a heliocentric cosmos, to plate tectonics. Many more did not, but that is the nature of trial and error.

    Some of these ideas might be laughed at now, such as the Gaia hypothesis, but give it a few hundred years and having humanity seriously bump up against its limits and decide whether it wants to continue to be top predator in a collapsing ecosystem, or planetary central nervous system and your position might, in retrospect, look like the geocentric view laughing at Copernicus.

    Consider also that just about all of the ideas you put down as populist intuition, really don’t have much broad appeal. Other than organized religion, all these concepts are only of interest to very limited numbers of people. Possibly they might be vocal in their interests and this attracts the scorn of the academy.

    Personally I think there are various propositions ardently defended by the powers that be, such as much of the current cosmological model, that will be looked back on by future generations with as much respect as we view Apollo’s chariot pulling the sun across the sky. There are certainly a fair number of people with similar opinions of the situation, whose views are routinely dismissed or ignored, because they lack authority.

    Keep in mind that what makes religion such a potent force is not the beliefs it espouses, but the force of authority by which it espouses them. So an argument that seems largely biased toward currently accepted models, over potential competition, with the common straw man argument of focusing on the weakest alternatives, as representative of all alternatives, doesn’t seem a scientifically objective position.

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  2. “… but rather when we consider less obvious cases, such as parapsychology (research about it has been carried out by legitimate scientists working at legitimate universities)”

    Yes, this is what has always fascinated me. I have often wondered if they are sincere, or are they are hoaxing us. I think that , on general, they are sincere. That says a lot about how biases can affect the outcome of experiments. It has always interested me to find out exactly how that happens, whereabouts in an experiment does the experimenter do something that affects the outcome, without realising that they are doing it.

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  3. It also occurs to me, that given the 800b gorilla in the room is authority, not logic, even when it professes to be the authority of logic, that possibly many of those holding onto alternate views in the face of countervailing logic, are doing so because it is anti-authoritarian, more so than logical.

    Unless there are specific monetary reasons. I think it was Aldous Huxley who said something about how hard it is to get a man to see in something when his income depends on not seeing it. Which would be a primal form of authoritarianism.

    The reason alternate views can seem popular at times is due far more to the curious, than the committed. Those which eventually pass the test of serious attention gain authority.

    So I would argue, from Socrates on, that much of the premise of philosophy is understanding the difference between authority and logic.

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  4. I would quibble a little with this, in that the wording suggests that it is not uncontroversial that parapsychology is pseudo science. I think that parapsychology is as uncontroversially pseudo scientific as creationism or astrology, for all the scientific respectability of the proponents and hosting institutions.

    Therein lies the puzzle. If Princeton had a department devoted to Intelligent Design for a quarter of a century and continued to allow it to host its sites on the Princeton domain, they would be roundly (and rightly) condemned and a laughing stock. But they host a department devoted to the PEAR project for 25 years with its website still on the Princeton domain and no one seems to bat an eyelid (http://www.princeton.edu/~pear/). GCP also still borrows the implied prestige of the Princeton name.

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  5. brodix,

    “a serious and evident bias toward an appeal to authority”

    As Maarten and I have written elsewhere, there is nothing wrong with appealing to authority, if there are reasons to trust such authority. I’m sure you’d rather have your teeth fixed by a licensed dentist than by your neighbor (unless your neighbor happens to be a licensed dentist).

    “there are lots of ideas, if not the majority, that started on the fringes and became accepted”

    Not really. There are actually few cases like that. And at any rate, the system worked, as those ideas, as you say, have in fact become accepted.

    “Some of these ideas might be laughed at now, such as the Gaia hypothesis, but give it a few hundred years”

    I’m pretty sure people with laugh at Gaia even in a few hundred years, but of course that’s an empirical question.

    ” I think there are various propositions ardently defended by the powers that be, such as much of the current cosmological model, that will be looked back on by future generations with as much respect as we view Apollo’s chariot pulling the sun across the sky”

    I can’t think of any. Even ideas that may very well be discarded, like that of a multiverse, are hardly in the same category as Apollo’s chariot.

    “Keep in mind that what makes religion such a potent force is not the beliefs it espouses, but the force of authority by which it espouses them”

    I completely disagree. Religion gets its authority largely from the sort of (very appealing to many people) beliefs it espouses.

    Robin,

    “I have often wondered if they are sincere, or are they are hoaxing us. I think that , on general, they are sincere.”

    I agree, I think academics who work on fringe topics are sincere, which as you say tells us a lot about personal biases, even by people trained in the rigors of academic research.

    “I think that parapsychology is as uncontroversially pseudo scientific as creationism or astrology, for all the scientific respectability of the proponents and hosting institutions.”

    I tend to agree, but I try to keep an open mind…

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  6. Yes, I try to keep an open mind too, but I have come to the conclusion that the difference between the creationists and the parapsychologists is that the former have a certain expertise in obscuring the fact that the horse they are flogging is dead and the latter are operating under the sincere belief that the horse they are flogging is only experiencing an unusually deep sleep.

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  7. “From a heliocentric cosmos, to plate tectonics”
    Firstly, you’ve confused continental drift with plate tectonics. It’s worth pointing out that wegener and his chief critics didn’t speak the same language, nor did wegener’s mechanisms make any sense. There are a number of sociological reasons why the work failed to be picked up, including his supporters misunderstanding his arguments and his work being badly translated. After plate tectonics came along, the uptake was quick.

    Secondly, heliocentrism and geocentrism are metaphysical views, both are acceptable frames of reference from which to do calculations. The heliocentric frame makes it easier for calculations. It was a philosophical issue calling the natural philosophy of the period science also seems problematic to me. The underlying mistake of both was assuming there was one absolute frame.

    If the argument is in relation to science, it should be narrowed into time constraints where the respective field can be viewed as science proper (instead of a retrospective cherry pick of scientifically relevant parts of natural philosophy).

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  8. Massimo,

    There are some points I would concede and some I would argue, but I understand you don’t want to go too far beyond the topic at hand.

    I would point out the whole mathematical universe crowd, which I have heard you question, does have their tentacles deeply imbedded in theoretical physics and when the whole Gordian knot is eventually untangled, which it will have to be, in order to clear out the many patches currently employed, much of what is viewed as authoritative in the field will be seen in a different light.

    I don’t know how much you have examined its reach, but you did grudgingly agree, in a conversation with Marko, to my point that “causality yields determination, not the other way around.”

    That does go the heart of their treating time as a scalar measure of duration, rather than an effect of what is actually being measured, change.

    My reason for bringing this up, is my own personal experience with trying to raise a logical argument, with no woowoo, or handwaving, on a fair number of occasions, here and elsewhere and when those arguing for four dimensional spacetime as being physically real, realize the counterargument is as simple as “tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns, relative to the sun,” they invariably drop the conversation.

    So yes, I do think that even in science, authority will trump logic and using dentists as an counter example is a straw man tactic.

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  9. brodix,

    “you did grudgingly agree, in a conversation with Marko, to my point that “causality yields determination, not the other way around.””

    I’m not sure that was “grudgingly.” How could it be the other way around? Where would determination come from?

    “I do think that even in science, authority will trump logic and using dentists as an counter example is a straw man tactic”

    It isn’t a straw man anything. It was a legitimate analogy: other things being equal, one bets on the expert consensus in a given field. This doesn’t exclude the possibility that sometimes science goes astray. And historians of science have shown this happening a number of times. But what’s the alternative, exactly?

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  10. Massimo,

    The premise of determination is that all events throughout time are effectively pre-determined, given the laws of nature and inertia. If you get into what is being described as the fourth dimension of spacetime, it is often referred to as “block time,” with all events essentially existing on that dimension of time, just as different places exist in the dimensions of space. That our sense of the present is as subjective as our location in space.

    An perfect example would be this recent article in Nautilus, by Max Tegmark;

    http://nautil.us/issue/29/scaling/life-is-a-braid-in-spacetime-rp

    “Despite our intuition, however, the flow of time is an illusion. Einstein taught us that there are two equivalent ways of thinking about our physical reality: Either as a three-dimensional place called space, where things change over time, or as a four-dimensional place called spacetime that simply exists, unchanging, never created, and never destroyed.”

    As I keep trying to point out, this is based on our narrative impression of flashes of cognition creating sequences of events, so that we think of time as this point of the present moving from past to future. Physics codifies this intuitive view by treating time as measures of duration, from one event to the next, thus scalar units. That’s why they say time is symmetric, that it is the same going forward or backward, given a unit of time is the same, which ever way it is measured and only entropy creates the impression of asymmetry,

    They then relate it to measures of distance, thus treating space as three linear vectors and this narrative effect as similar dimensionality. So just as it doesn’t matter which way one goes on a spatial dimension, the same applies to the temporal dimension.

    Now if we consider it as an effect of activity, then the reason time is asymmetric is because of inertia. One of the primal facts of action is that it is going one direction, not any other. It matters that the earth spins one direction, not the other.

    So only the present physically exists and it is constantly changing, so that past events are residual effects of this process. Alan Watts used the example of a boat and its wake to describe this. In that the wake doesn’t determine the path of the boat, the boat creates the wake.

    If you read the Tegmark article, you will see the extent to which the mathematical model is treated as some foundational property of nature, but math is an abstraction. That makes it descriptive of reality, not foundational to reality. As penj3 points out above, a geocentric view is an acceptable frame of reference. Which means we can create a very effective and useful model of the universe, from our particular point of view. When we try to extrapolate this geometric description to some physical mechanism and argue the universe is a giant mechanical clock, we are projecting the model onto reality in a way that is not applicable. The same essential type of projection is being made in this case, with spacetime as the explanation for the mathematical effectiveness of General Relativity. It is no more real than those giant cosmic gearwheels.

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  11. brodix,

    this is getting pretty far from the topic(s) of this post. However, I need to note that your views — as far as I understand them — seem to have a lot in common with those of Lee Smolin, toward which, as you may remember from Scientia Salon, I am actually very sympathetic. (Moreover, I’m critical of Tegmark myself.)

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  12. Massimo,

    Thanks. I’ll leave the topic alone, but will say that actually I see it diametrically opposite of Smolin. I think space is foundational, in that it is the basis of geometry, not a creation of it. That space is the territory and geometry is the map of its potentials.
    That time is a particular effect of the activity occurring in space, specifically frequency and has more in common with temperature.
    I’l leave it at that, because I suspect time is on my side, so there is only stress in further pushing the issue at the moment.

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  13. Hi Massimo,

    I hope it doesn’t disturb you for me to comb your posts for quotes, but it’s difficult not to when you say such intelligent things:

    Science, by contrast, defies those deeply held intuitions precisely because it is institutionally arranged to track objective patterns in the world, and the world does not care much about our intuitions.

    Yes the world most certainly does not care about our pathetic human intuitions. I say this even though I fully agree with Daniel Kaufman’s position that morality can quite usefully be defined as an intuition based idea. (http://theelectricagora.com/2015/09/21/intuition-and-morals/). But then shouldn’t it be prudent for us to add something beyond the traditional “moral” approach to the field of ethics, given that the world doesn’t much care about what it is that our intuitions tell us is good and bad? Shouldn’t there be people who are concerned about determining “instrumental” good/bad? Yes I know that you’re busy with countless other things, and that you also don’t consider this specific topic to be a personal specialty, but I’m counting upon your inquisitive nature itself here. Do you believe that humanity should never develop an “actual” ethics, or something which would at least complement the traditional “moral” approach?

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  14. Eric,

    “Do you believe that humanity should never develop an “actual” ethics, or something which would at least complement the traditional “moral” approach?”

    I think humanity has done precisely that, and it is known as virtue ethics. As you probably know, my other blog — on Stoicism — explores in depth one version of this approach.

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  15. I suppose that you’ve been too busy with your own business to notice what my arguments have been suggesting, so let me briefly catch you up. Just over a month ago you told me this:

    “Eric, you keep using words like “good” and “bad” in a non-normative, descriptive sense. The whole idea of “x is good for y (but detrimental to the rest of society)” is at odds with what moral philosophers (and, really, pretty much everyone) mean by good or bad in a moral (as opposed to instrumental) context.” (https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/food-for-thought/comment-page-1/#comment-99)

    I was extremely happy with this, if you recall, since from April I’d been attempting to tell you and others that my own interests lie in the subject of “re-ality” rather than “mor-ality.” Since then I’ve been getting a good bit of use from your “instrumental” term, and mostly at The Electric Agora. But of course virtue ethics, as well as your stoic version of it, are instead moral theories. Notice that my own utilitarianism has always been judged in terms of morality, and given that it can be extremely immoral, has surely been no match (from this standard perspective) for the ideology which you espouse.

    Thus I must wonder if your curiosity itself regarding that which is actually good/bad (or “instrumental” rather than “moral”), is enough to see you through when other stoics would be expected to ask, “Why is Massimo exploring this ‘instrumental’ business, and simply calling the position which we share ‘moral’?” They surely would not approve. Actually now that I spell this out, it does seem quite improbable. Nevertheless, curiosity can indeed be a very potent sensation. At some point I do hope that I’m able to convince you to also explore this separate question.

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  16. Massimo,

    I would add a final clarification that I do throughly recognize the function of top down authority, but am just trying to point out that it still needs that bottom up justification.

    As history shows, often the authority extends and survives far beyond its own rationalizations and this generally has to do with other, unrecognized, or unacknowledged causes.

    For those on the outside, this cognitive dissonance is a bit like the story of the emperors new clothes, while for those on the inside, any problems tend to be viewed as minor and it is more of the little boy crying wolf.

    In the end of the story though, the wolf does show up. Even the mighty do fall.

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  17. Eric,

    at this point I’m sure I’m coming across as a bit dense, but I don’t get it.

    “of course virtue ethics, as well as your stoic version of it, are instead moral theories. Notice that my own utilitarianism has always been judged in terms of morality”

    Well, utilitarianism obviously is a moral “theory” (I prefer the word “account” or “framework”). Virtue ethics is that too but it is more broadly a framework for how to live one’s life in a way that is conducive to flourishing.

    “I must wonder if your curiosity itself regarding that which is actually good/bad (or “instrumental” rather than “moral”), is enough to see you through when other stoics would be expected to ask, “Why is Massimo exploring this ‘instrumental’ business, and simply calling the position which we share ‘moral’?” They surely would not approve”

    First off: nothing is *actually* good/bad. Good and bad are human categories, not cosmic ones. Second, Stoicism is based on practical reasoning, so it is instrumental. And yet it also concerns morality. So your distinction between instrumental and moral doesn’t necessarily hold. (There are, for sure, behaviors and attitudes that are instrumental but not moral, but my latest post at How To Be a Stoic explores one way in which Stoicism is morally instrumental).

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  18. brodix,

    “I would add a final clarification that I do throughly recognize the function of top down authority, but am just trying to point out that it still needs that bottom up justification”

    I’m not sure why you keep talking about top-down authority. There is no Pope in science. The authority comes from a collective back and forth among people who are members of the relevant epistemic community (be that the community of evolutionary biologists if we are talking about evolution, of fundamental physicists if we are talking about string theory, and so forth).

    “In the end of the story though, the wolf does show up. Even the mighty do fall”

    I can think of very few examples of anything like this in the history of science. And usually the mighty fall because of internal criticism from the rest of the scientific community, not because of an outside wandering in and seeing that the emperor has no clothes.

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  19. Massimo,

    Is it because I’m an outsider that I can’t get anyone to address a very, very basic observation?

    We experience reality as flashes of cognition. The premise rising from this that time is the point of the present moving from past to future. Not only does physics quantify this as measures of duration and then correlate them to measures of distance, but it is the basis of the linear, rational thought process. Where one thing leads to the next. Rising from this is the premise of narrative, history and thus civilization.

    Does this signify authority to you? It doesn’t have to be a particular hierarchical institution. It can be common or popular assumptions and then the frames built around and on them.

    My point, to repeat, is that this narrative effect isn’t external to any point of the present, but is rising out of the changing configuration of what is. Such that it is future becoming past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday. It is the face of the clock moving past the hands. Past and future do not physically exist in that fourth dimension of either Einstein, or Tegmark.

    The energy remains conserved as the present, not just in it. Duration is just the present state, as these events come and go.

    Maybe the obviousness of this makes it seem inconsequential, but it does go to the very heart of our cognitive framing.

    For instance, Lee Smolin sees time as fundamental to the laws of physics. That they grew with the evolution of the universe. Now it may be that laws are emergent with the properties they describe, but that could be thermal as well. That in the void of absolute zero, there are no properties and thus no laws to define them and that as positive and negative elements interact around this state of equilibrium, complex relationships become stable and those which don’t, collapse back to levels they are stable, creating the very premise of law.

    Time then would be an effect of this changing situation.

    If someone within science wants to address this, frankly they can take the ball and run with it.

    Otherwise, if someone has a cogent argument for something I’m missing, I’m all ears. I certainly didn’t get into studying physics for any other reason than it provided some conceptual grounding to make sense of sociology on mass scales.

    Maybe an outside view has its advantages.

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  20. Thank you Massimo, but if you’re coming across as “dense,” then the rest of the world seems to be as well, and so it logically might be me who has the true problem. I shall not be defeated by this however, since great theory such as Einstein’s did also seem quite confounding. The irony I see here is that while his ideas were quite non intuitive, nothing could be more intuitive than my own. It’s as if they’re so utterly reasonable, that they are also overlooked.

    In the post I linked to above where you told me that I’m seeking “instrumental” good, whereas virtually everyone else seeks “moral” good, this is what seems to have incited your comment:

    Derek Parfit’s “repugnant conclusion,” or “mere addition paradox,” does seem addressed once we acknowledge that different subjects naturally have somewhat different interests. If the subject happens to be the people of a given society, then someone who hurts it for personal gain, will indeed be “bad” to the magnitude of the diminished happiness of this subject. Nevertheless this “bad” may also be “good” for the individual that causes it, so let’s not pretend otherwise with notions of “immorality.” If we continue to formally deny qualia as the ultimate measure of good/bad for the conscious entity, not only shall ethics fail, but a vast array of associated sciences.

    So you did give me what I wanted here by implying that there’s something different about this “instrumental” good which concerns me, and what virtually everyone else seems to be concerned about. My simple point is that apparently qualia does quite effectively define good/bad for the conscious entity, and thus it would seem that the realities of “good” can be extremely immoral. In fact utilitarianism itself seems to have failed so far, because rather than seek “reality,” we have sought “morality.” As far as I know, I am the lone outsider — even standard utilitarians seem to erroneously argue that utilitarianism does happen to be moral, though it can quite obviously be very immoral.

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  21. That is a terrific paper(Boudry, Blancke & Pigliucci), lucid, well organised and insightful. For the first time I think I understand the subject.

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  22. Eric,

    I have also been arguing that good and bad are the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. Which even the most elementary life forms recognize and to which any functioning society must have a general agreement, in order to exist as a coherent unit. This group need is why we have the premise of a top down authority for deciding good and bad as cosmic ideals.

    Then the confusion sets in when we take this universality seriously. This goes to my point to Massimo about how the Gaia hypothesis cannot be too easily dismissed.

    As humanity presses up against its planetary limits, we will become ever more defined by this ultimate boundary, as any serious consideration of space exploration will have to recognize. So increasingly there will have to be the recognition and eventual acting on that which is most beneficial for the ecosystem, will be the highest level of benefit for its inhabitants. The maximum good.

    Obviously this might seem overly utopian now, but we do have quite a bit of negative feedback to process, as after several tens of thousands of years of expansion, we appear to be set to hit the end of the chain in a big way and transition from the growth of childhood, to the balance of adulthood.

    Thus making human civilization the planetary central nervous system.

    Or we could continue to operate as top predators in a collapsing ecosystem, if we fail to recognize the necessary benefit of sustaining our own environment.

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  23. Hi Brodix,

    If you were able to demonstrate that you have some comprehension of my own utilitarianism, which is purely subject oriented, and which I do not pretend to be moral, then perhaps you’d be able to relate your ideas back to me from this position. As things stand however, I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. I truly am a simple man with simple ideas. Right now I suspect that you’re talking about environmentalism in some capacity. Yes I do understand that in recent centuries we’ve made amazing changes that furure generations shall find progressively more difficult to cope with. So if this is your point, what else is it that you’d like me to understand? And regardless, tell me your position most essentially, as well as most simply, or I will surely be unable to help.

    Time does seem to be running short here, though you could always try the site under my name, or email, if you like.

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  24. Eric,

    The premise of morality and ethics are the propositions which are intended to hold a society together. The Ten Commandments, for example.

    My point is that while we have come to view good and bad as some form of cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, they are in fact the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken.

    Thus while even the most elementary life forms will respond to this dichotomy, a functioning society must also have a collective sense of what is positive and what is a negative. Otherwise it will start to fracture. Much as the United states seems headed in the direction of and as various Middle Eastern countries have effectively broken up, as significant parts of the population begin to view other parts as negative.

    As I’ve pointed out previously, the premise of God, an “all-knowing absolute,” as Pope John Paul 2 described it, overlooks the logical fact that an absolute would necessarily be an essential state from which complex form rises, not a Platonic Ideal from which it fell.

    So then biological life forms will naturally code all the various permutations of positive and negative forces and react correspondingly. Much like the analogy of having an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other, as our appetites and better judgements, etc. conflict.

    Basically how moral structure would rise with the life and societies it potentially defines and supports. As opposed to the top down premise of a theological “lawgiver” that is the traditional assumption.

    Now how one uses terms such as utilitarian are framing devices that may change somewhat, according to different points of view. Though I am not privy to your specific requirements.

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  25. By framing device, I think that if you were to develop a theoretical abstraction called utilitarianism and then input say an Eastern context oriented, collective view, versus a western, object oriented, individualist view, the output would necessarily be different, as points of view are inherently subjective.

    There is no happy medium, were both the fox and the chicken are satisfied.

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