Why Variety is the Spice of Life When it Comes to Our Evolved Moral Sense

8 08 2010

Here’s the riff (developed from the paper I delivered at the recent AAP conference): because the success* of behavioural strategies – including moral strategies – depends on the environmental conditions in which the agent is situated, and because that environment includes the strategies employed by other agents, it pays to Mix It Up A Bit in terms of the strategies employed by the population.

As a result, you’d expect to see a diversity – or a ‘pluralism’ or ‘polymorphism’ – of strategies employed in a population. Some will be ‘nice’, some will be ‘suspicious’. That’s what I call Lesser Moral Diversity. Some will be ‘nice’, some ‘suspicious’, some ‘nasty’. That’s what I call Greater Moral Diversity. Details below:

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God is Dead! Long Live Morality!

27 04 2010

Once again, Michael Ruse plunges into the unfriendly country and ruffles the feathers of the natives with his rational and measured invective against the notion that morality is somehow not of this Earth. I couldn’t agree with him more.

His argument is strikingly similar to my own – although that’s no accident because I’m heavily influenced by Ruse’s writings. In fact, his classic declaration, that morality is “a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (Ruse, 1986), is the starting point of my thesis. So, unsurprisingly, I think his message is one that needs to get out.

Michael Ruse

The argument is actually relatively straightforward. There is no God, so all we have is each other. And when it comes to living well, we do better in groups than as solitary beings. If we want to live in groups we need ways to discourage those who would disrupt the other members in the group. That’s the starting point of morality. And evolution has already equipped us with a slew of tools – emotions as well as reason – to help encourage prosocial behaviour and discourage antisocial behaviour.

But these tools are not perfect; they’re heuristics that are prone to error. So we can’t just trust our evolved moral sense exclusively, as argued by Matt Ridley. We also need to apply reason. But we also shouldn’t swing too far the other way and only rely on reason to the exclusion of emotion (i.e. Kant), because, for better or for worse, emotion is the true driver of behaviour.

What we need to do is develop a framework for morality that agrees on its purpose of helping people live and work together in harmony – and we already have such a framework, called the social contract. There’s no ultimate arbiter, no objective truth about values, it requires hard work, hard arguing, emotional and psychological buy-in, and compromise. That’s the only way to do it. We’ve tried all the other objectivist, absolutist, dogmatic ways and it only ends in tears.

But here’s the twist. Regardless of our mistaken metaphysical beliefs about morality in the past, we’ve always been doing it this way in practice – if poorly because of some erroneous guiding assumptions about objectivity. Even for those who believe there is an absolute morality handed down by a supernatural being – it still takes people to understand, interpret and enforce it.

As I’ve mentioned before, morality isn’t as special as we think – it’s not divine, objective, categorical, universal – but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

I’m Not a Darwinist, and Neither Are You

22 12 2009

Brian Leiter reminds us that there are no ‘Darwinists’, and ‘Darwinism’ is not a theory in biology. This is a point that needs making and making again, whether to lay enthusiasts or members of the academy.

As we know only too well now, framing an issue does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of shifting opinion before the actual arguments even begin. So we can’t let those who would seek to misrepresent science for their own purposes re-brand evolution as an ideology. It’s not an ideology. It’s not dogma. It’s a scientific theory. And a very well supported one, at that.

There are no “Darwinists,” and “Darwinism” is not a theory in biology

Is New Scientist Losing Its Way?

8 12 2009

Science journalism is a funny game. I know that only too well from my experience editing two quite different science magazines. Building a bridge between the often esoteric world of science – with its breathtaking complexity, arcane language, super-specialised practitioners and often tangential relation to the real world concerns of every day people – is a daunting task.

Magazine publishing is also a funny game. Readers are fickle at the best of times. And they’re easily distracted by shiny new media. As advertising dollars dry up, budgets are also slashed, forcing magazine editors to do more with less. Often good journalism pays the price – not only because it’s expensive, but because that’s often not what the readers want.

How do you know what readers want? The easiest way is to look at your sales. If that cover story on a new strain of broccoli didn’t sell, but the one on super-duper-m-dimensional string theory did, then you know what to go for next issue. I imagine New Scientist – which also benefits from being a weekly, which means more granulated sales data to mine each year – reviews its sales very carefully, and uses that intelligence to plot its future issues.

A quick scan over the last three years of New Scientist covers gives a good indication of what sells well. Clearly psychology, particularly ‘mystery of the mind’ stuff, is popular. In 2009, 19% of New Scientist covers featured something about the mind – down from 22% in 2008, although up fractionally from 18% in 2007.

The environment has also been a big seller in recent years, particularly in 2007 – hot on the heels of the buzz from An Inconvenient Truth and the Stern Review – although it’s been less prominent this year, with only two covers featuring climate change.

But clearly the big winner – and the big money spinner – is super-duper-m-dimensional string theory/cosmology/zany physics; through 2009, a full quarter of New Scientist cover stories have concerned news physics and cosmology. In 2008 and 2007 it was even more prominent, capturing 28% and 34% of cover stories, respectively.

These aren’t any old physics or cosmology stories though. They don’t concern the nitty gritty of experiments going on in physics labs around the world – stuff like the behaviour of light passing through optical fibre, or nuclear physicists delving in to the structural properties of matter. No, these things are too mundane for New Scientist readers. They want to explore the lunatic fringes of physics, where dwell untold invisible dimensions and theories concerning strings.

Hence you get cover stories such as appeared in the last issue of New Scientist. This concerns what can only be called unfettered speculation about power sources for future – way future – spacecraft. One is to harness a one million tonne black hole and use the Hawking radiation as a source of propulsion. The other is to use a kind of Bussard scoop to gather up dark matter use use as fuel.

The only problem is – both notions are based on such flimsy science, such an abundance of unfounded assumptions and such wild fancy, that neither has much scientific value. We know only scarce amounts about black holes, less about Hawking radiation, and even less about how to create or even store one. Dark matter – well, we don’t even know where it is, let alone what it is. The idea of capturing a theoretical, unobserved form of matter to use as fuel is, well, absurd. Good for science fiction? Sure. But science? No.

Now, I can see why New Scientist insists on embarking on these wild jaunts into speculation. The readers lap it up. But it’s doing a disservice to science, and the long term prospects of the magazine. The more wild, unbelievable stories appear in New Scientist, the less stock serious science practitioners and enthusiasts will place in the magazine.

The solution? First, New Scientist should stop sourcing its stories from ArXiv.org. For those who are unfamiliar with ArXiv (pronounced ‘archive’), it’s a free pre-press server for science papers in physics, mathematics, statistics, computer science and quantitative biology. And by ‘pre-press server’, it means virtually any scientist can upload any paper to the server to be read by anyone.

There’s no peer-review, no strict selection criteria and little to prevent a scientist from uploading speculation rather than a considered, empirically-supported paper. That makes for some literally fantastic papers – and wonderful fodder for the cover of New Scientist.

In fact, both papers cited in the New Scientist feature on space travel are from ArXiv.org. Neither have been peer-reviewed. It’s questionable whether either would be accepted for publication in a reputable science journal.

Readers need to know that ArXiv.org is not a reputable science journal. Much of the stuff published there is of a high quality – but it lacks the checks and balances of a journal to be able to discriminate the solid from the fluff. That makes it a poor source for science journalism.

And I know first hand that New Scientist loves to use speculative material from ArXiv.org whenever possible. I authored a story for New Scientist last year on superheavy elements and was asked to use a paper published on ArXiv.org as the peg. However, that paper was thoroughly discredited by other experts in the field. The science was weak, the method was flaky, the conclusions were dubious. Yet New Scientist insisted the article be cited. As a freelancer, my job was to do what the editor ordered. So I did. Although I feel it went some way to weakening the article.

Don’t get me wrong. I love New Scientist. I want to see it thrive. I want to see it spread the word of science to the general public – which is a public service as well as a business. But I’m concerned with the magazine’s obsession with fantasy and speculation, and its reliance on dubious sources, primarily ArXiv.org.

New Scientist, please get back to your roots of reporting on real science, published in real journals and which affects the real world. It’s not too late to turn back and once again be the beacon for good science journalism in the world.

Nothing is Supernatural

10 05 2009

Russell Blackford has a nice discussion of the problem with the natural/supernatural distinction over on his blog (which I recommend), the Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

ghost_clipart1He talks mainly about the difficulty in fielding a definition of ‘supernatural’ as ‘things beyond the powers of science to explain.’ However, as I stated in the comments to that post, I don’t think one needs to define supernatural as such. Instead it’s far easier – and more consistent – to simply state that ‘no supernatural things exist.’

Here is my comment in its entirety, with some more detail on my argument:

This all reminds me of the opening lines to Quine’s On What There Is.

“A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word – “Everything” – and everyone will accept this answer as true.”

Likewise, when asked ‘what is natural,’ it might be tempting to respond with the same answer: ‘Everything.’

Yet, as Quine points out, we can still argue over cases. Are ghosts natural or supernatural? Is a the cause of a miraculous event natural or supernatural? But even the nature of this disagreement is problematic, as Russell has so ably stated.

However, I don’t think one needs to accept a rigid distinction between natural/supernatural ‘things’ because it seems more sensible to say that there are no supernatural things. Anyone who calls something supernatural is simply mistaken.

A ghost, if agreed to exist, becomes a part of the natural world. Should some characteristics of the ghost contradict accepted knowledge of the natural world, it would serve as evidence that our knowledge of the natural world is incomplete.

Compare this to the alternate: the ghost is agreed to exist, it’s characteristics contradict accepted knowledge of the natural world, but our conception of the natural world doesn’t change and the ghost is added to a new category of things: supernatural.

I suspect the vast majority of scientists – or naturalists – would not be comfortable with this. They’d either show the ghost doesn’t exist, or if they agree it does, they’d integrate it into their naturalistic world view.

Supernatural, as a vernacular term, can still be used for those things that naturalists don’t believe exist, but less informed individuals do, such as spirits, angels, demons etc.

Is Kant Compatible With Evolution?

9 01 2009

I don’t reckon it is. Specifically, his moral theory and the infamous categorical imperative. Here’s why.

Any individual who strictly adheres to Kant’s moral theory would be at a selective disadvantage to one who didn’t. Or, if you’re fond of group selection (or multi-level selection, or whatever supra-individual selection), any group that strictly adheres to Kant’s moral theory would be at a selective disadvantage to a group that didn’t.

This means that over multiple generations, Kant’s moral theory – regardless of whether it’s inherited via genes or memes – would eventually give way to another moral system that lent a greater selective advantage.

Game theory can be used to demonstrate this point. The only way to apply the categorical imperative to a game like the prisoner’s dilemma is think of the imperative as a general strategy, such as:

Choose only a strategy which, if you could will it to be chosen by all the players, would yield a better outcome from your point of view than any other.

This would result in you always choosing to cooperate. And as we know from the many iterated prisoner’s dilemma experiments, a Nice strategy like this gets thoroughly trounced by Nasty, or even more balanced strategies like Tit for Tat. So, should the Prisoner’s Dilemma (or other games) reflect reality and your chances of survival, then choosing a Kantian morality puts you at a significant selective disadvantage.

This can also be called the Fallacy of Enlightenment – a fallacy that I reckon riddles much of moral philosophy from the last two and half thousand years. It goes a little something like this: ‘if everyone was just nice to each other, we wouldn’t need laws.’

While this statement is true, it’s a terrible basis for a moral system. For such a system would be vulnerable to those individuals who weren’t nice, who could exploit the nice ones for their own advantage. And the world is a Nasty place; give an inch, and natural selection will make it a mile. So, no moral system that can be paraphrased as the Fallacy of Enlightenment – such as Kant’s – is compatible with evolution.

So let’s stop talking about moral theories that would be eliminated by natural selection in a handful of generations as if they were fair game. From here on in, if a moral system lends a selective disadvantage, let’s treat it as a test tube case, not as a viable real world option.

Bad Philosophy Joke

8 01 2009

Ever wonder why there aren’t any blogs advocating solipsism?

Who would they be trying to convince?

Boom tish.

Probably a Bad Idea

7 01 2009

As you may have heard – or seen, if you’re a London local – atheists have started their mission to convert you via the medium of London’s ubiquitous red busses. The slogan goes:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

I love the campaign. Sure, it may not turn many towards Godless ways, but the very presence of an atheist campaign causes us to reflect on religion and religious advertising.

But… “probably”? That’s a mistake. Richard Dawkins thinks so too, according to the Times.

Dr Dawkins, speaking at the launch in Central London, said he would have rather not had the word “probably” in the advertisement. He said the existence of God was about as likely as that of the tooth fairy.

Organisers of the four-week campaign said they had included the word “probably” because they did not want to be dogmatic in the way that so many religious leaders are.

I can understand them not wanting to be dogmatic, but “probably” is just weak.”Probably” ain’t going to win over any agnostics. Let alone the faithful.

I see it as a symptom of a broader problem with atheism: it’s a negative thesis. Until such time as there’s a secular philosophy that provides existential comfort, moral guidance and community services without relying on the supernatural, atheism isn’t really going to have much constructive to say.

And when that day comes, I’ll damn well stick up the billboards myself.