Why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

Benjamin Libet, neuroscientist

A few days ago, over at my other blog, I published an article that I touted on my social media as “the last piece on free will you will ever need to read.” That was a slight exaggeration, but only slight. The specific point of the post was to explain in some detail the ancient Stoic take on human decision making, what I and modern psychologists prefer to call volition rather than free will (given how loaded with metaphysical nonsense the latter term is). I also wanted to see how the Stoic position squares with the findings of modern science. As it turns out, that ancient view is highly compatible with what contemporary cognitive science says about the matter, but this is neither a miraculous coincidence nor indication that somehow the Stoics managed to anticipate scientific discoveries that would be made more than two millennia later. (Which would be just as preposterous as to maintain, as some do, that the pre-Socratic atomists “anticipated” modern physics. They didn’t, as even a superficial reading of the pre-Socratics, and a passing acquaintance with modern physics, should amply demonstrate.)

Rather, the reasons we still find so much of value in Stoic (or Aristotelian, or several other) ancient moral philosophy are twofold: first, some of the ancients were keen observers of human psychology; second, moral discourse has little to do with whatever mechanisms make it possible for human brains to think about morality (so long as some mechanisms that allow us to think do exist, of course). Both notions need to be unpacked a bit, which is what I intend to do in this essay.

What was so special about Aristotle, or Epicurus, or Epictetus? In a sense, not much. They were sharp thinkers who paid attention to the empirical side of what they were thinking about. We tend to forget that many others at the time and since have written about the same topics, and yet they are completely forgotten, or they appear at best as footnotes in philosophy books. (Have you ever heard of Aristippus of Cyrene? Not likely, and he was one of the major figures among the minor Greek philosophers…)

The reasons we read some ancient philosophers are, so to speak, evolutionary. Specifically, the cultural analogues of two basic processes that steer biological evolution: drift and selection. Drift is about statistical sampling: some books survive and others don’t because of luck. There probably never were too many copies — by modern standards — of the works of Chrysippus, one of the most noted Hellenistic philosophers, and unfortunately not a single one has come down to us. Selection makes it so that whatever authors are highly esteemed not just by their contemporaries, but further and further down in history, are the ones whose works and ideas tend to survive. In the case of Chrysippus, we know a good amount about what he thought because so many later commentators copied several of his passages, in order to praise him or criticize him. To put it into another fashion, we still read Plato and Aristotle because of what biologist Jacque Monod once called a combination of chance and necessity.

But we don’t read all of Plato and Aristotle nowadays, unless we are historians of philosophy, or of science. There isn’t much point in consulting Aristotle’s Physics if you are a physicist, because the field has moved very far from the Aristotelian positions, beginning with Galileo and arriving at Einstein and Stephen Hawking. By contrast, philosophers still find a lot of value in the Nichomachean Ethics. Ill informed people (who shall here go unmentioned) are under the impression that this is because philosophy, unlike physics, doesn’t make progress (usually, these people just happen to be physicists). But that’s sheer ignorance, which ought (morally) to be embarrassing. Philosophy does make progress (see here), but it is a very different kind of endeavor from physics, so any direct comparison is a category mistake.

No, the reason Aristotle, the Stoics, and so forth are relevant today (other than the above mentioned one that they were la creme de la creme of their period) is that modern science has little of relevance to say about certain branches of philosophy, and in particular ethics. (Yes, I know, certain individuals are making a cottage industry of arguing the opposite. But they too shall go mercifully unmentioned in this post. I’ve dealt with them ad nauseam in the past.)

The reason this is the case has been explained by philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wilfrid Sellars, and is exemplified by the work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. Let me explain.

First, Wittgenstein. In Tractatus 4.111 he famously wrote that “philosophy is not one of the natural sciences,” adding at 4.112 that “philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.” In the Philosophical Investigations we find:

“[Philosophy’s] investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.” (90)

While I think that Wittgenstein had too narrow a view of what philosophy does, there is quite a bit of truth in the above. The job of philosophers isn’t to discover new things about the world (we’ve got science for that), but rather to clarify issues by way of critical analysis, and to see how things that appear disparate “hang together,” so to speak. That is, for instance, why metaphysics isn’t being replaced by physics, it is transforming itself into a discipline informed by physics (and biology, and other sciences) whose objective is to make sense of the picture of the world that emerges from the discoveries of individual special sciences, something that no single science does or is concerned with. (See, for instance, Ladyman and Ross’ Every Thing Must Go, a sort of manifesto for a naturalistic metaphysics.)

Wittgenstein becomes even more relevant to the present discussion when we consider his concept of “language games” as presented in the Investigations:

“The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block,’ ‘pillar,’ ‘slab,’ ‘beam.’ A calls them out; B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Conceive this as a complete primitive language.” (2)

Ethics is another language game, or, rather, a multiplicity of language games, since there are a number of ways to conceive, talk about, and actually do, ethics. Within the human community, we talk about “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “immoral,” “ought,” and so forth, and any competent language user understands what others mean by those words. Moreover, .just like the words of the builder’s language actually help building things, so the words of ethical language actually help regulate our actions within a given community. The fact that science comes in and, say, tells us that “bricks” are really mostly empty space is interesting from within the science language game, but it is utterly useless, and indeed a distraction, to the builder. Analogously, that a neuroscientist may be able to tell us which parts of the human brain are involved in the production of ethical judgments, and by which cellular means, is interesting within the language game of neuroscience, but it is a useless distraction if we are concerned with improving social justice, or becoming a better person.

Which brings me to what I have termed the most important philosopher you likely never heard of: Wilfrid Sellars. My friend Dan Kaufman and I did an extensive video conversation on Sellars, which I think is worth checking out. One of Sellars’ landmark ideas was the distinction between what he called the manifest and the scientific images of the world. The manifest image is the way most people understand and navigate the world. The Sun “rises,” genocide is morally repellant. That sort of thing. The scientific image, by contrast, is the way science looks at the world: the Sun does not, actually, rise; it is the Earth that rotates on its axis. As for genocide? Ah, therein lies the rub. I’m sure there are scientific explanations for why genocide is such a recurring feature of human history, from the biology and neuroscience of violence to those of inter-group relations. While such scientific understanding of genocide may be useful, it does not give us the complete picture. Why not?

Because, according to Sellars, the manifest, but not the scientific, image deals with things like reasons and values. This is not a call to reject science. On the contrary. Sellars was quite clear that whenever the scientific and the manifest images of the world are in conflict (as in “the Sun rises” vs “the Earth rotates” case), then the sensible thing is for us to yield to science. But science simply isn’t in the business of doing a number of other things for which we have developed different tools: philosophy, literature, history, and so forth. These tools are complementary with, not opposed to, scientific ones. Ideally, says Sellars, we want to develop a conceptual stereoscopic vision, whereby we are capable of integrating the manifest and scientific images. Indeed, according to Sellars — and I wholeheartedly agree — developing and constantly updating such vision is a major task of philosophy, and our discipline is uniquely positioned to carry the task out because of both its methods (empirically-informed critical discourse) and its scope (very, very broad).

In a sense, what emerges from Wittgenstein, but even more so from Sellars’ thought is that there are a number of things about which we can talk at different levels of analysis, and which level(s) make the most sense depends on what it is that we wish to accomplish. While in theory a full integration of all levels may be possible, in practice it is often not desirable, because it doesn’t help with the particular language game we happen to be playing.

Let me then come back to “free will” (or volition), and use my discussion of Stoic philosophy as it compares to the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet to present a specific example of what I have outlined above, attempting to convince you of why I think science is largely irrelevant to moral discourse.

The Stoics thought that we have a faculty of judgment, which they call the hêgemonikon. It was a major goal of Stoic training to improve the way we use it, i.e., to arrive at better and better judgments about whatever life throws at us. In the post at my other blog I suggest that, roughly speaking, the hêgemonikon corresponds to the frontal lobes of the human brain, which are far more developed than in most other mammals, and are known to be associated, in fact, with our capacity for judgment, and in particular with our ability to “veto,” so to speak, certain actions that might otherwise come natural to us (as in: “there is a strange noise in my house in the middle of the night! Someone is about to kill me!! I need to run the hell out of here!!! … Oh, wait, it’s the cat. Back to sleep).

The Stoics themselves were spectacularly wrong about the likely location of the hêgemonikon: they thought it resided in the heart. But pretty much everything else they said about its functioning and how we can improve it was right on the money, as shown by the fact that 23 centuries later Stoic “psychology” still informs a number of evidence based psychotherapies, such as rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

How is this possible? Because most of what the Stoics thought about the hêgemonikon was part of the manifest image, and was useful then as it is now for the simple reason that people still deal with the same basic issues: unhealthy emotions like anger and fear, and the search for better ways to relate to others and improve the human polis. What the Stoics got wrong, not at all surprisingly, is the bit that belongs to the scientific image: as it turns out, our faculty of judgment depends on a particular part of the brain, not the heart. Crucially, though, this has had no effect whatsoever on Stoic philosophy or its usefulness. A modern Stoic simply updates that bit of information, thanks the scientist, and goes back to her practice.

Nowadays, whenever the topic of human volition comes up someone is bound to cite the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet, beginning in 1983. Briefly, he asked subjects to follow the movements of a dot on the screen of an oscilloscope. The dot moved like the hands of a clock, but faster. Libet told his subjects to move a finger at a moment of their choice during the experiment, noting the position of the dot when they became aware of their decision to act. The experiment showed that the decision to move the finger entered conscious awareness about 200 milliseconds before the actual movement. But, stunningly, there was a rise in the so-called “readiness potential,” which is thought to be associated with the preparation for action, about 550 milliseconds before movement. So the subjects appeared to get ready to move the finger a full 350 milliseconds before they became conscious of their decision to do so. (Indeed, in later experiments, the readiness potential has been shown to build up even as long as 1.5 seconds before movement.)

Taken at face value, Libet’s results seem to show that we decide our actions unconsciously, and that what we call consciousness is simply a (late) awareness of a decision that has been made. There are several well known criticisms of such conclusion, beginning with the obvious one, that the experimental conditions have precious little to do with the recursive, complex behavior that we normally label “conscious decision making,” and which is understood as a continuous feedback loop between what Daniel Kahneman calls System I (fast, subconscious) and System II (slow, deliberate) brain processing systems. Moreover, recent research has both amply confirmed, and yet significantly re-interpreted, Libet’s original findings.

But a good reason to think that Libet’s experiments do not mean what so many enthusiasts of the “free will is an illusion” bandwagon seem to think they mean, is Libet’s own commentary:

“The finding that the volitional process is initiated unconsciously leads to the question: is there then any role for conscious will in the performance of a voluntary act? The conscious will does appear 150 msec before the motor act, even though it follows the onset of the cerebral action by at least 400 msec. That allows it, potentially, to affect or control the final outcome of the volitional process. An interval msec before a muscle is activated is the time for the primary motor cortex to activate the spinal motor nerve cells, and through them, the muscles. During this final 50 msec, the act goes to completion with no possibility of its being stopped by the rest of the cerebral cortex. The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or ‘veto’ the process, so that no motor act occurs.” (B. Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, 2004, p. 137)

[Once more, to preempt distracting discussions: I do not think we should talk about “free will,” which is a hopelessly metaphysically confused concept. We are talking about what psychologists themselves call volition, i.e., the ability of human beings to make complex decisions informed by conscious thought. Hopefully no one will deny that we do have such ability.]

Interestingly, studies have found very good experimental evidence for the veto power Libet is talking about. But that is “interesting” from within the language game of neuroscience. It makes no difference at all in terms of the language game in which the Stoics — and most of us — are engaged, that of improving ourselves as individuals and of making society a better place for everyone to live.

That is why, as a scientist, I will keep following with interest the undoubtedly fascinating future developments of cognitive and neuro-science. But it is also why, as a philosopher and human being, I’m not very concerned with how those findings will impact my day to day life in the realm of ethics. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus aptly put it:

“You are not flesh or hair but volition; if you keep that beautiful, then you will be beautiful.” (Discourses III.1.40)

142 thoughts on “Why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

  1. synred

    The second is definitely true, the first is an assumption that I tend to agree with. But it is an assumption nonetheless

    I agree it’s an assumption and pretty likely to remain one. It is an essential assumption to the whole scientific enterprise. It can’t be proved, but could conceivably disproved — though we might just absorb ‘spirit’ or whatever into nature if it’s measurable/observable in someway.

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  2. Robin Herbert

    Massimo

    He wouldn’t, but why on earth would that matter?

    Because we are disagreeing that all competent language users will know what each other means by terms like “morally good” and “ought”. If that was true then a Christian who was a competent language user would agree with your definition.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Coel

    Massimo,

    There is no such thing as the scientific thesis about the unity of science. All such theses are, by their nature, philosophical, because they cannot possibly be settled by experiment or observation.

    The thesis I’m talking about can indeed be tested, since it is about what sorts of ideas will work in modelling the world (e.g. weak emergence) and what will not (e.g. strong emergence).

    Consistency is woefully inadequate, unfortunately for your stance.

    It’s amply sufficient for me!

    Everything science says is “consistent” with logic, and yet nobody has ever argued for the science-logic unity thesis.

    Yes they have, me, right here, for starters (and others elsewhere). Axioms of logic are adopted because they are useful in modelling the empirical world, just as laws of physics are adopted for the same reason.

    Exactly. Much of fundamental physics is entirely irrelevant to the majority of other sciences, and indeed to quite a bit of physics too. If that’s not disunity I don’t know what is.

    If you are doing one corner of a jigsaw, then is doesn’t much matter for that local issue what the pieces are at the other corner. But you then need to consistently link every part of the jigsaw together, with each piece fitting with its neighbours, with that consistency extending across the entire puzzle.

    It would seem to me weird to describe a complete jigsaw puzzle as “disunified”, just because the bits need only mesh with neighbours, and just because one corner is “sky” and the other corner “grass”. A better term for a completed jigsaw, with each piece fitting its neighbours both in shape and picture, and building up to a whole, would surely be “unified”.

    But there is nothing unifying the whole shebang.

    Yes there is, supervenience physicalism, such that if one replicates the lower-level behaviour exactly then the higher-level behaviour is entailed. Thus enforcing the “consistent jigsaw” overall.

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  4. Coel

    Massimo,

    He [the Christian] wouldn’t [agree], but why on earth would that matter?

    It matters because, if the Christian would not agree with you on that, then competent English speakers are not all agreed on what “moral” means, which was the starting point of the disagreement. Indeed I’d suggest that only a minority of people would agree with your exegesis; none of the moral realists would for starters.

    There is no such thing as “the right thing to do” without a framework, but some frameworks are better than others.

    “Better” in the sense of people’s subjective judgement based on their value system?

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Synred,

    “Just because we have ‘no idea’ does not mean there isn’t one.”

    Of course. I think life originated by physical-chemical means. I was merely pointing out that, as usual, Coel jumps the gun by assuming something to be true when we haven’t the foggiest of how it actually happened. His position is ideological, not empirical.

    Robin,

    “If one theory says the apple falls up and the other says the apple falls down then one must be wrong.”

    Obviously. But that’s got precious little to do with the unity of science. It just means that one of the two theories (or both) is wrong.

    Robin, Coel,

    I have already answered your comments several times. If you are not satisfied, fine. I will not allow additional comments on the same sub-topics by either of you, to block the usual descent into diminishing returns. And to save myself a modicum of sanity. Thanks.

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  6. brodix

    Massimo,

    ““Manifest” here doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on it, it just means as perceived and constructed by a normal human being, without the aid of scientific methods or instruments. Scientists themselves don’t necessarily agree on what count as specific aspects of the scientific image”

    That’s my objection. It seems a fuzzy comparison that doesn’t necessarily go in a useful direction. For example, epicycles are a scientific exposition of a geocentrically manifest perception.

    Would you be willing to consider that a primal feature of youth is energy and that as we age, we spend this energy gaining knowledge/mental structures, which we feed back into our environment to create physical and social structures, then try passing these forms, cultural, civil, capital, etc onto the next generation of youth, with ethics as a general set of interpersonal rules. All of this connected form being caught up and carried by that organic energy, hopefully to further heights but occasionally breaking structures, traditions, rules etc., in the process. Some of this breakage is necessary for healthy social relations and some is inevitable because of environmental limitations. All which cascades back down, creating more interactions and resulting relationships. Thus each iteration gets a little more complex.

    I’m not asking you to agree with this, but just saying as this is how I see this relationship between bottom up energy and top down structures manifesting in the social dynamic.

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  7. Massimo Post author

    Brodix,

    Same comment as to Robin and Coel: diminishing returns. Your insistence on bringing up physics and mixing it with whatever else is on the table is not helpful. Please refrain from the rest of this thread. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Robin Herbert

    Coel,

    The basic point is that all of this meshes together like a consistent jigsaw. A refutation of this “unity” thesis (this unity thesis) would have to be something like “strong emergence”.

    The refutation of this thesis does not require strong emergence because disunity of science at a theoretical level is not incompatible with Naturalism or Physicalism.

    Nagel considered the proposition that science meshes together at a theoretical level like a jigsaw and tried to describe exactly what this would entail. He argued convincingly that it would entail that we would be able to describe that meshing together mathematically, his famous “bridge laws”.

    Then Jerry Fodor took this and showed why it was not possible and so we can pretty much depend upon there being no unity of science at a theoretical level.

    If you disagree that Nagel’s claim that any meshing together would have to be describable in statements of mathematics or logic, then you will have to show an alternative account of how science can mesh together consistently in a way that couldn’t, even in principle, be described mathematically or logically.

    But if you could not describe the meshing together mathematically or logically, how would you know it is consistent?

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  9. Robin Herbert

    Massimo

    Obviously. But that’s got precious little to do with the unity of science. It just means that one of the two theories (or both) is wrong.

    You took one of my sentences out of context. Here it is with the completion of the point:

    If one theory says the apple falls up and the other says the apple falls down then one must be wrong.

    But if both theories agree on the motion of the apple then they can both be part of the unity of science even if, at a theoretical level they disagree.

    I was talking about the distinction that was made between a unity of science at a theoretical level and a unity of science at the level of observational descriptions, a distinction of which I am sure you are aware.

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  10. SocraticGadfly

    Mr., I don’t want to get us too far off topic, but, within previous posts here by Massimo, several months ago, a discussion of issues related to Haus Wittgenstein first really turned on the light bulb in my head that Ludwig is some kind of neo-Platonist.

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  11. SocraticGadfly

    Re Massimo and Cousin: To be precise, we need to distinguish between evolution and biogenesis, or abiogenesis if one accepts a this-planet naturalistic idea for the origin of the first living beings.

    Within the scientific world, the broad parameters, and many of the narrower parameters of evolution by natural selection are totally accepted.

    The details of abiogenesis, though, are not. (Darwin himself, of course, had the semi-rhetorical “warm little pond” question, but didn’t actually try to crack the nut of abiogenesis.) You have de Duve’s crystals, the volcanic smoker vents and other theories or combinations thereof.

    ==

    Otherwise good points by Cousin on issues related to the nature of science.

    On ethics, of course, and to get back to Laland, cultural evolution is part of the picture. And, all cultures evolve over time, just as there is no such thing as a constant unitary self.

    And, Massimo, that is itself probably another reason not to put too much weight on the weak reed of “neuro-” whatever, right? The neurons are still very much the same, over time, but I am not.

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  12. synred

    It would seem to me weird to describe a complete jigsaw puzzle as “disunified”, just because the bits need only mesh with neighbours, and just because one corner is “sky” and the other corner “grass”. A better term for a completed jigsaw, with each piece fitting its neighbours both in shape and picture, and building up to a whole, would surely be “unified”.

    The ‘jigsaw’ metaphor does not seem that. Biology and physics differ by more than the shapes of the pieces and when your done (if ever) the landscape in biology and physics will still look very different.

    On the other hand biology is likely to not completely independent. While much thermodynamics (my favorite well-understood example of emergence) w/o reference to what underlying particles are like, but not all. E.g., heat capacity depends on the vibrational and angular momentum states of the underlying particles.

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  13. synred

    Addy Pross pushes back selection effects to the chemical level of self- or even joint- catalyst. I don’t think he cares where it occurs (warm little pond or hydrothermal vent). Membranes get picked up from bubble or something and keep the need molecules together…then it’s off to the races. Some of the steps are little vague.

    My impression is the idea of dynamic stability that only arises in non-equilibrium situations is not entirely new as the sub title might make you think.

    The book does describe a lot of interesting experiment on auto-catalyst.

    The basic notion is the evolution by natural selection does descend down into abiotic chemistry. Better self-catalysis leads to those molecules dominating the test tube.

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  14. wtc48

    On the unity of science, it may be worth mentioning that the history of science is a well-established academic field. One of my housemates in grad school was the late Prof. Stanley Goldberg, who was writing his thesis under Bernard Cohen, one of the American pioneers in that field.

    As a former student of musicology, I see many resemblances in the question of the relationship (if any) of science to philosophy. Musicology embraces all aspects of what might be called “organized sound” from an objective but basically speculative point of view: historical, biographical, technical, analytic, etc. Performing musicians often doubt the relevance of the pure theorists, “who never set a squadron in the field.”

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  15. brodix

    If I may though, one more thought:
    Wouldn’t it make more sense to make sense of neurology in terms of ethics, than ethics in terms of neurology? Considering we have been social creatures for far longer than we we have had a well developed prefrontal cortex.

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  16. SocraticGadfly

    I’m becoming more of a Solipsist along with a Neo-Cynic. So, I don’t have to worry about others’ ethics. I not only reject their conventional social base, but also reject that it and they exist! 🙂 And, yes, that’s snark.

    More seriously, I do plan to further develop my Neo-Cynicism with age.

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  17. synred

    Hi Cousin Soc:

    Amazon blurb:
    Living things are hugely complex and have unique properties, such as self-maintenance and apparently purposeful behaviour which we do not see in inert matter. So how does chemistry give rise to biology? What could have led the first replicating molecules up such a path? Now, developments in the emerging field of ‘systems chemistry’ are unlocking the problem. Addy Pross shows how the different kind of stability that operates among replicating molecules results in a tendency for chemical systems
    to become more complex and acquire the properties of life. Strikingly, he demonstrates that Darwinian evolution is the biological expression of a deeper, well-defined chemical concept: the whole story from replicating molecules to complex life is one continuous process governed by an underlying
    physical principle. The gulf between biology and the physical sciences is finally becoming bridged.

    –>The Nick Lane book does look similar…

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  18. synred

    Pross and Lane don’t mention each other which seems curious as they are both in the same field more less. They are both real scientist, not science writers.

    Lane’s idea of selection working on autocratically reactions seems a little more fleshed out (though I’ve only had a quick skim of Lane). Both seem to have there vague spots.

    It does seem plausible that something along these lines will eventually work and perhaps we will be able to understand how life emerges from chemistry…that will still be a long way from understanding how ethics emerges from neurobiology. And, yes, from other things as well, biology will not be completely determinative.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. John Faupel (@JohnFaupel)

    The conceptually-conscious mind is premised on a priori thoughts about the world and our place within it, so we must seeks to find answers, whereas the sensually- body is premised on a posteriori feelings about its experiences of the world and each other, so couldn’t care a hoot about answers. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten that all a priori thoughts are second-order derivatives of a posteriori feelings, no matter how are back in our evolutionary history we need to go to find their origin, so tend to put the cart before the horse. No wonder the world we’ve created for ourselves has become such a mess.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Robin,
    I have a far less standard perspective regarding morality. (I wonder if this has occurred to you as well?) I consider us all to be selfish products of our circumstances rather than high minded moral beings. But then why do we promote moral notions so widely if we’re actually all selfish products of our circumstances? Well notice that by outwardly advocating high minded rightness and wrongness proclamations, we might then be able to put ourselves into better positions from which to manipulate others to our own purposes. Notice that if true, speaking plainly about morality as a social tool could actually cause one to be perceived as an immoral asshole. (Right everyone?) Morality is clearly the only game in town for philosophy’s branch of ethics today, and perhaps this is largely why. So punitive is this dynamic, I think, that our soft sciences today remain agnostic about what constitutes good and bad existence for a given subject. How might we effectively explore the nature of something for which existence can be horrible to wonderful, without formally theorizing what constitutes goodness and badness for it?

    I do have an alternative to the paradigm of morality however. I’d love to discuss this with you, and preferably in private. My email address is: thephilosophereric@gmail.com

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  21. Massimo Post author

    Synred,

    At this point I’m pretty skeptical of pretty much any theory of biogenesis. The reason is not that I don’t think there is a naturalistic explanation, of course there is. Rather, how would one test it, given the complete absence of historical traces? Even if we succeed in reproducing life in the laboratory, that still will only mean that it is possible to do it, that way. Not that it actually happened via that route. There is a big difference.

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  22. Robin Herbert

    Hi Eric,

    I have a fairly simple view, that I am doing good when I try to see to it, to the extent that I am able, to the well-being of others. Good acts are selfless, altruistic, kind, compassionate.

    I am doing bad when my actions lead to a decrease in well-being or an increase in suffering or fail to alleviate suffering when it is in my power to do so. Bad acts are selfish, cruel or indifferent to the plight of others.

    I don’t claim this as the “right” definition for these things, but it seems to be a functional definition that generally matches the things most people seem to regard as good and bad.

    I don’t think there is any obligation to be good or to refrain from being bad. To the limited extent that I am good, as I try to be, it is because I happen to be the sort of person who wants to be so. This is an accident of evolution, cultural development and the kind of family environment in which I happened to find myself.

    In fact, within this definition and considered realistically, I am utterly failing to be a good person most of the time, in fact being a very bad person because there are children, just like my own, dying in agony and parents just like me watching helplessly and I, who could help, am going to buy my kids stuff for Christmas.

    And it doesn’t even seem to bother me as much as it should that this is the case.

    But, then again, I am willing to bet that, even after his donations, Peter Singer has more disposable income than I do, so I am not the only monster.

    And that is the most sense I can made of the preposterous situation in which we find ourselves.

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  23. Bradley Sherman

    I was always skeptical of the claim that Biology obeys the laws of Chemistry because I wasn’t so sure that chemists had enumerated those laws. But now, thanks to Addy Pross (apparently; I haven’t read the book yet, but will) Chemistry obeys the laws of Biology. Catch 22.

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  24. synred

    At this point I’m pretty skeptical of pretty much any theory of biogenesis

    Well a plausible theory would be a good start and creating some kind of life in the lab wonderful.

    We likely never work out what happened exactly. Understanding the principles and verifying that it works would be enough for me. If there’s more than one way to do it that’s interesting in itself. The details of ‘warm pond’ vs. ‘hydro thermal vent’ don’t seem as important as the chemical mechanisms.

    In anycase chemistry and life are not completely disconnected, but neither does one completely reduce to the other.

    We weren’t around when the earth was formed either, but we have a pretty good idea what happened. It’ll be a long time before we can do that experiment, but theories can (and have) been falsified.

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  25. synred

    Bradley, Biology does not violate the laws of chemistry, but has additional ones. As things get more complex it hard to enumerate them. We won’t get back to three.

    Is a preon biology or organic chemistry?

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  26. Massimo Post author

    Synred,

    “We weren’t around when the earth was formed either, but we have a pretty good idea what happened”

    That’s because there are a lot more historical traces left.

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  27. Philosopher Eric

    Wow Robin, thanks. That does seem like a pretty effective assessment of “moral good” to me as well. Would you agree Massimo, or rather edit Robin’s above response to me in various ways to your own thinking?

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  28. synred

    Hi Massimo, There are lots of traces of life to, e.g., DNA and bacterial fossils, but yes it a harder to nut to crack. Maybe will find life on some moon of Jupiter or Saturn. It would be more interesting if it’s different.

    Anyway, I’m less interested in the ‘historical’ details than the mechanism. Even demonstrating a mechanism would be interesting at this point. I find Addy Pross’ mechanism interesting, but not completely convincing.

    I have no (well little) doubt there is a mechanism, which is all that really matters for philosophical issues.

    I really don’t get the unity/disunity argument. Science is one in that it studies reality and disunited, but not completely, by concepts needed at various levels. You might understand atoms perfectly w/o understanding thermodynamics. You can simulate w/o understanding too.

    When I was choosing what to study in grad school I chose particle physics because I thought it more fundamental than ‘solid state’ [a,b]. Then concepts developed for solid state (re normalization group [c]) turned out to apply to particles.

    So I’ve come to think that applying the adjective ‘fundamental’ to any particular field is misguided. While solid state is built on atoms, which in turn is built on particles, which in turn is built on fields, followed by strings or whatever, the concepts at each level are just as fundamental. Pross (and others) are trying to move natural selection ‘down’ (scare quotes) into chemistry where it helps explain results of auto-catalysis experiments (if not the origin of life).

    Concepts like feedback and resonance enter at all levels in various ways which is another way in which the science are united, rather than only metaphysically.

    [a] Now called ‘condensed matter’
    [b] Well, also, I rejected solid state partly because I nearly blew myself to kingdom come silver soldering in a solid state lab one summer.
    [c] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_G._Wilson.

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  29. Massimo Post author

    Synred,

    “Anyway, I’m less interested in the ‘historical’ details than the mechanism.”

    Forgive me, but spoken like a true physicist! As a biologist I wouldn’t assume that there is such thing as the mechanism. Life can probably originate in a variety of manners, and the evolutionary biologist is interested in the way it actually originated on Earth. That, I’m going to be, is likely to remain outside the domain of human ability. Which I’m fine with. As geneticist Richard Lewontin (one of my scientific heroes) once wrote, we have to abandon the childish notion that just because a question is interesting we will necessarily find the answer.

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