“Purpose” in science and morality

IMG_0018A New video in the ongoing Kaufman-Pigliucci series is out, this one on the question of whether teleology, the idea that things have a “purpose” in the strong Aristotelian sense of the word, still makes sense in light of modern science and philosophy.

We begin our discussion by examining various meanings of “purpose” in science and in morality, and then by exploring Aristotle’s take on the subject. I argue that “what is it for?”, i.e., looking for functions, makes perfect sense in evolutionary biology, but not in other sciences, such as chemistry or geology. That’s because of the special role of natural selection in evolution. Accordingly, we explore the relationship between form and function and how the two reciprocally shape each other in living organisms.

We then move to ethics, exploring the idea of moral laws. From there, we discuss the different paths to human flourishing and how they relate to the concept of meaning and purpose. Finally, I explain once again what Sam Harris gets wrong about the relationship between science and ethics. But you can skip that bit if you are (understandably) tired of that particular dead horse… (or you can read my original critique here).

Here is the full video:

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Categories: Sophia Videos

156 replies

  1. For instance, I would argue Islam is the most abstractly pure form of monotheism, since Judaism is explicitly tribal and Christianity is implicitly pantheistic and on the Haj, they all end up swirling around a large black stone.

    = = =

    Your understanding of Judaism is painfully out of date, by about several thousand years. You really shouldn’t talk about things you obviously know nothing about. Judaism ceased to be tribal in the manner you describe since the Hellenistic period.

    Also, what on earth does any of this have to do with the freaking dialogue, which is on functional explanations in biology and science, more generally?

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  2. Socratic,

    “I would call myself, pace Massimo, a moral semi-realist”

    So have I, in a technical paper that I wrote for Zygon back in 1993: http://tinyurl.com/y72pg49x. If by that you mean that we construct ethics but within fairly strict boundaries imposed by our biological and physical reality, then yes.

    Coel,

    “How can you have three quarters of a truth value?”

    Easy. Just use multimodal or fuzzy logic instead of classical Aristotelian.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Massimo,

    “How can you have three quarters of a truth value?” Easy. Just use multimodal or fuzzy logic instead of classical Aristotelian.

    It’s easy to have a truth value that is three-quarters of the way between 0 and 1 (or between “true” and “false”), but I don’t see how something can be three quarters of the way between being truth apt and not being truth apt.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo,

    That’s because you haven’t read the entirety of my comment.

    I had read it. And I agree. It’s obvious that the values we have are heavily constrained by our biology. Indeed, all of our values are likely determined by our genes and past environment.

    But that doesn’t give you anything half-way to moral realism or half-way to moral facts (it does give you facts about morals) and it doesn’t give you something half way between being truth apt and not being truth apt.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Massimo,

    You are playing word games, as usual. You know perfectly well what I and Socratic mean, and you even agree.

    I never play world games; I only ever attempt to get at the truth of a matter.

    If what you’re saying is that our values are not arbitrary, that they are rooted in our biology, and that there are facts about what will enable humans to flourish, then sure, of course I agree.

    But that is not moral realism or even a tenth of the way to moral realism. At least it isn’t unless you also adopt a Sam-Harris-like axiom and define “moral” to equate to whatever produces human flourishing.

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  6. Although this is strictly tangential to the interesting discussion between Dan and Massimo, it should be noted that, while there may be no sustainable moral realism (and I don’t think there is), there can be such a thing as objective morality – and indeed there must be, for any community to function. Membership in a community requires some commitment to the ethics of the community, which are held as factual within and by the community, and are then necessarily spoken of in those terms. Within the community, these ethics are not perceived as personal likes or dislikes, otherwise belonging to the community itself becomes questionable.

    And there can be indeed a continuum of how members of the community perceive and practice the objective morality of the community.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Dan,

    “Your understanding of Judaism is painfully out of date, by about several thousand years.”

    I didn’t describe it as anything, other than having a significant blood lineage. It seems to me that without that, it wouldn’t be Judaism. Being from central Baltimore county, I know some fairly atheistic Jews, my brother-in law, for instance and from my uneducated, but instinctual point of view, it seems as tribal as Episcopalians, rather than being only a formal religion. I don’t think that connection to “several thousand years ago” has exactly been severed. Where is the dividing line?

    As for what it has to do with the debate, how is passing reference to religion out of bounds in a discussion about ethical and moral purpose?

    Socratic,

    “Of course there’s no “inherent” purpose in either science or morality. Contra what some ev psychers may hint, biological evolution doesn’t work that way. Determination of moral stances is an interplay, a complex one, between physical and cultural evolution. Physical evolution has no purpose, and cultural evolution has a purpose that itself culturally evolves.”

    I understand your point, but is it also how we define the term, “purpose?” It seems to me, that on another level, anything without some “purpose” wouldn’t exist, even if just a placeholder. It goes to my argument that what drives people is desire, not the objects of desire and what drives nature is energy, not information. Such that objects of desire and information are fulfillments of that underlaying drive and if they didn’t serve that function, they wouldn’t exist, because the drive wouldn’t exist. So by simply being manifest, they serve a purpose.

    It seems when the argument is that things don’t have “purpose,” the underlaying assumption is some top down intent is absent, rather than the bottom up expression that is manifest.

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  8. Massimo, thanks for refudiating Coel for me. I’ll click the link, myself, but nice to know we’re basically on the same page, or so it seems.

    And, yes, I meant something like that. It’s simply like physical inheritance. Height, we know, is highly heritable, with control under just a few genes, from what we can tell and thus also narrowly heritable. Schizophrenia is less heritable by degree of genetic influence, and, to the degree it is heritable, is under the control of far more genes.

    Why wouldn’t moral issues be like that? Murder’s pretty obvious. High degree of heritability for the general idea and exactly what it constitutes. Exactly what constitutes “incest” between consenting adults, as in, can you marry a first cousin or not? The general idea of “incest” is there, but … exactly what it is, is more variable. So, that’s kind of in the middle. Dietary restrictions with ethical overtones, in turn, at the other end from murder. And, more things like the incest taboo lying there somewhere in the middle.

    And, yes, from a somewhat different angle, we relate Uncle David to science and ethics in similar ways.

    Per that, Occam of course said don’t complicate entities, assumptions, etc., beyond need, but sometimes, of course, these issues are quite complicated. Complex. But, still not necessarily “hard” in the sense that some claim.

    (Also, Coel, I didn’t mention environment in my original comment. That itself is playing word games on your part.)

    This, of course, relates to what I’ve said before on matters of the will, etc.

    Again, your mileage may vary, but, people, I suggest less black-and-white thinking.

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  9. Massimo, very interesting, near the end of that piece, with game theory and “triangulation” between different cultures (or sub-cultures in a place with a large, overarching culture) on ethical issues that are less tightly bound to heredity. Bookmarked it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Socratic: “Determination of moral stances is an interplay, a complex one, between physical and cultural evolution. Physical evolution has no purpose, and cultural evolution has a purpose that itself culturally evolves.”

    I wish I had said that! Long live the interplay!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Excellent dialogue in the video by the way

    They all are but this one seemed especially interesting.

    For those with bandwidth issues you download the mp3 which is what I usually do.

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  12. Coel,

    “At least it isn’t unless you also adopt a Sam-Harris-like axiom and define “moral” to equate to whatever produces human flourishing.”

    Hmm. That comment makes me suspect you didn’t actually read my paper. Or anything I’ve written on the topic since… But I could be wrong!

    Synred,

    “Is there something like structure morality, by which I mean that societies that don’t have rules don’t survive”

    Well, I don’t know of any culture that is not regulated by moral rules of one kind or another, so yes, you can make that argument. And we now know of other social primate species whose groups seem to be regulated by proto-social (instinctive, in their case) behavior.

    Ej,

    “it should be noted that, while there may be no sustainable moral realism (and I don’t think there is), there can be such a thing as objective morality – and indeed there must be, for any community to function”

    Indeed, the confusion between realism and objectivity is a common one. In this post: http://tinyurl.com/3dlsxt5 (the one that Coel may have read a bit too hastily) I also discuss an NYT piece by Paul Boghossian (here: http://tinyurl.com/ybhft7vh; not to be confused with penis-hoax Peter B.) where he makes that distinction clear and explains why moral relativism does not imply lack of objective moral judgment. Just like, I would add, the arbitrary choice of axioms in math doesn’t imply that the results one derives from those axioms aren’t objectively true.

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  13. Massimo,

    Hmm. That comment makes me suspect you didn’t actually read my paper. Or anything I’ve written on the topic since …

    Yes, I’ve read some of what you’ve written on this. Your scheme is sensible and correct. But it is an account of subjectivist morals. It’s not any half-way house between moral realism and anti-realism, it’s a straightforward anti-realist account. Quoting from your blog post (added emphasis):

    “But human beings share certain (local to the species) attributes, such as preferring a long and healthy life to a nasty and short one, and it is those parameters of humanness that set the axioms of our moral thinking.”

    That is explicitly a scheme rooted in human preferences. That is a thorough-going rejection of realism and embrace of subjectivist anti-realism. Nothing about subjectivist accounts of morals requires human values to be arbitrary; of course they are heavily entwined with our biological nature, what else would they be?

    The fact that most children like chocolate ice cream, and would be repulsed by putrid meat, is obviously part of our biological nature for obvious evolutionary reasons, and it’s the same for morals.

    But many people seem to think there is something wrong with morality being subjective, and will go to lengths to find some way in which it can be regarded as objective, or try to find some middle way between the two. But there isn’t any need to try that, there is nothing with simply accepting that morality is subjective; it doesn’t have the negative implications that people seem to think. (There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!)

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  14. Again, “subjective morality” is a nonsensical concept. There is no difference betweeb “subjective morality” and “do whatever you please”. So why don’t we just say that?

    There is nothing wrong with “do whatever you please”. I suspect it is what everyone really does anyway.

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  15. The real boogey man would be moral absolutism. While it doesn’t seem to be much in evidence in philosophical debate, outside of some of the more extremist religious and political schools, those systems currently carry a lot of political weight and influence. Especially since political dichotomies are becoming increasingly polarized and extremist. Consequently philosophy doesn’t provide many tools for those in the middle to use as a counterweight to those tidal forces.

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  16. Robin,

    I would consider moral subjectivism to be more of a bottom up moral factor, than just complete moral mushiness. For instance, what is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken and there is no happy medium. That is because good and bad are a basic biological binary, of attraction and repulsion, not some cosmic conflict between the forces of righteousness and evil.
    As such, it would be the basis of the intellectual binary, yes and no, which is the basis of the computational binary, on and off.
    So just as computers can create a great deal of complexity from foundationally simple code, so can life create complex moral codes from such basic polarities.
    The cultural alternative is moral absolutism. That there is some absolute moral code everyone must obey, or else.

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  17. Robin,

    Again, “subjective morality” is a nonsensical concept. There is no difference betweeb “subjective morality” and “do whatever you please”. So why don’t we just say that?

    There is a big difference: accounts of “subjective morality” are descriptive; there is nothing nonsensical about describing human psychology and moral intuitions. In contrast, the phrase: “do whatever you please” is not descriptive, it is an instruction.

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  18. Socratic:
    “Height, we know, is highly heritable, with control under just a few genes, from what we can tell and thus also narrowly heritable. Schizophrenia is less heritable by degree of genetic influence, and, to the degree it is heritable, is under the control of far more genes.”

    Yes, height is highly heritable. No, not with control under just a few genes.
    https://www.broadinstitute.org/news/giant-study-reveals-giant-number-genes-linked-height

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    • Yes, height is highly heritable. No, not with control under just a few genes

      The fact the height is nearly normally distributed (within a population with similar nutrition) would indicate it controlled by quite a few genes … or order 10 or more.

      In my finch beak length simulation I use 16 (mostly because 16 bit ‘words’ and tools to manipulate them are readily available in c/c++.

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  19. Bradley, it seems I misspoke, based on older knowledge; I hadn’t realize this count had been expanded. That said, I’ll still venture for height its “relatively few genes” compared to schizophrenia; if not, still pretend it is for the sake of argument, or plug in some other narrowly heritable trait.

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  20. Massimo, nice link with the Paul B. piece. To riff on it, and Robin, “relativity” in physics isn’t the same as “everything goes” physics.

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    • Robin, “relativity” in physics isn’t the same as “everything goes” physics

      Indeed “relativity” in physics has nothing to do with “relativity” in ethics and space-time in relativity is still absolute in relativity though dynamic in General Relativity.

      Everything does not go in physics. Don’t waste your time trying to violate momentum conservation, travel faster than light or build perpetual motion machines.

      TANSTAAFL

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