Enough of religion pretending to be science!

Climate science raises some interesting philosophical issues. Just as remarkable as climate science are attitudes to climate science. I would argue that its methodology precludes it from being a science at all. Yet it is touted as a science by people who mistakenly think science is the most trustworthy form of human knowledge. Many such people vilify its detractors as “deniers” who have an unwholesome political agenda. A “denier” is someone who wilfully turns his back on the obvious, presumably because his judgement of obvious facts has been derailed by malice. This sort of vilification involves strong feelings.

But these strong feelings are not the product of epistemological, scientific or political insight. Instead they express an old-fashioned hostility to something like heresy. The orthodoxy that the “heretics” fail to respect is the idea that there is a “way things were meant to be” in nature, which humanity is straying from, to our collective peril (or so the story goes). The non-believer isn’t seen as a modest sceptic who begs to differ, but as a ringleader perverting the proper course of humanity, endangering “the planet”, disrupting the “ecosystem”, a blasphemer whose opinions are an affront to those who do see clearly how things were meant to be.

Whatever it calls itself, this is really a reference to a something like a “divine plan” in nature. Such primitive religious nonsense lurks in the background of most discussion of climate change, and I think it’s about time we brought it out into the open.

Scepticism can enter the debate over climate change in a number of places. We might reasonably doubt whether current change is anything out of the ordinary, as a changing climate seems to have been a routine matter over the course of the Earth’s history. In addition to that, we might also reasonably doubt that current change is primarily caused by human activity rather than, say, fluctuations in solar activity. In addition to that, we might also reasonably doubt whether there is anything effective we humans can do to prevent climate change, rather than just dealing with new problems as they arise. In addition to that, even if we can take some effective steps, we might also reasonably wonder whether our “cure” is worse than the “disease”: putting the world economy into reverse would bring famines which kill people. In addition to that, we might also reasonably doubt whether climate change would be a bad thing at all, especially if it involves a change to greater warmth. By and large, civilizations advance and diseases retreat when the climate warms.

There is evidently plenty of room for doubt in this debate. The last sort of doubt brings me close to my central point. Why do so many of us assume that any sort of change would be change for the worse? – I suspect it is because many of us entertain residual religious assumptions about there being a “way things were meant to be”. We are inclined to see the world as a delicately balanced or finely adjusted “mechanism” rather than what nature blindly settled on – or better, whatever current pattern nature is randomly and aimlessly exhibiting as it passes from one pattern to the next – as evolutionary theory would say instead. Most of us claim to accept evolutionary theory, but we don’t think about its ramifications enough, or about how directly opposed it is to traditional religious ideas about nature having a “design”.

The concept of an “ecosystem” has been a great help or hindrance here, depending on which side you’re on. It sounds like a legitimate scientific idea, a biological “place for everything and everything in its place” like the organs of a single living organism. But really the idea is just the apotheosis of the way things currently happen to be, which is not designed by any sort of mind or agency, and cannot be regarded as having any greater value than any other arrangement – at least not from a larger perspective than that of human aesthetics.

It’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on the differences between the body of an individual living organism, which really is a genuine system, and a habitat or so-called “ecosystem”. The organs of the body of an individual organism are indeed arranged in such a way that they work together, and help to promote the proliferation of the organisms’ genes. Because they serve a purpose to the larger body they belong to, we might think of them as having a “design”. They were shaped and in that sense “designed” by natural selection. But the word ‘design’ here is strictly a metaphor – they were not literally designed. We can speak of their “purpose” as a shorthand way of referring to the contribution they made in the past to the survival and reproduction of their owners’ forbears.

An ecological system is completely different – so different that it hardly deserves to be called a “system” at all. Its pattern is simply whatever happened to result from competition and other random forces. Many such forces are mere coincidences that come into play as the living things that share an environment jockey for position, often against each other, with indifference if not outright cruelty. If some aspects of the environment happen to be useful and therefore serve a “purpose” to us or other living things, that is a sheer accident. The chips fell wherever they happened to fall, and if we re-arrange those chips, there’s no reason to think they will end up in a worse arrangement.

The fervour with which climate science is defended is not really the passion of true lovers of science. Anyone who thinks science gives us more secure or trustworthy beliefs than common sense has a poor grasp of science, which is theoretical and inherently risky. The fervour is really the defensiveness of people whose articles of faith are challenged. I think the main article of faith is that there is a design in nature that we are morally obliged to protect.

In the 1960s, it became fashionable to speak of nature in “romantic” or even mystical terms, as Wordsworth and others had done during the original romantic movement. In many ways that was a good thing: various forms of pollution were recognized as an evil rather than an acceptable by-product of progress. And it is good for people to “respect” nature, both its beauty outside us, and its inescapable and often destructive forces inside us.

But we mustn’t let respect for nature turn into reverence for nature. It is quite appropriate to be inspired, impressed, awed, touched, or appalled by nature. It is not appropriate to treat nature as “the way things are ordained”, an attitude that is becoming increasingly common. The worship of “the natural” has become a sort of religion, all the more insidious for masquerading as science.

Who put the ‘mental’ in environmentalism?

This is how Wikipedia shows the extent of the red squirrel:

Notice how the map shows that as a species the red squirrel is losing its grip on the eastern half of Britain and the southern “heel” of Italy. That is because in those places the red squirrel’s competitor — the notorious grey squirrel — is taking its place. That sort of thing happens a lot in the living world.

Now take a look at how Wikipedia shows the extent of the grey squirrel:

Notice how the grey squirrel does not appear to have gained a toehold in Europe at all. There is a remarkable reason for that. Environmentalists treat the living world as having a design, in other words, they think there is a “way things were meant to be”. According to the Master Plan, the grey squirrel in Europe is not part of the “way things were meant to be” because it is a mere “introduced species”. It is not ordained that the grey squirrel be in Europe. And for that quasi-theological reason it doesn’t make it onto the map.

Let us pass over the fact that every single species everywhere was at one time an “introduced species”. Let us pass over the fact that grey squirrels are all over the place in the UK, such as in parks in Central London. Since environmentalists do not consider the grey squirrel’s presence in Europe a part of The Legitimate Plan for The World, it is a mere artificiality, a temporary aberration, something wrong and even hateful – whose artificiality, temporariness (etc.) preclude acknowledging it on the map.

So the map shows how things were meant to be rather than how things actually are. This strikes me as quite disturbed, because reality and wishful thinking have “got all mixed up”. It is a bit like entertaining the idea of an imaginary friend — or an imaginary enemy. The vitriolic expressions of hatred routinely heaped upon the innocent, charming and intelligent grey squirrel strike me not just as slightly psychotic, but frankly as paranoid psychotic.

Haters of the grey squirrel – of which there seem to be many – often try to re-establish a link with reality by talking about the cruelty, indifference or injustice of grey squirrels, which steal eggs and even fledglings from nests. But they don’t talk about the fact that red squirrels do exactly the same. That’s just what squirrels do, although it is not Disney’s version of what squirrels do.

It is a strangely disturbed double standard that deems grey squirrels to be an abomination upon the face of the Earth, whereas red squirrels are perfectly fine, when both species of squirrels behave in much the same way. As indeed do we humans – we steal eggs and eat young birds (in our own case, they are mostly chickens).

Environmentalists are not the only ones whose paranoid psychosis re-draws maps and lets “what is ordained by God” overrule reality. Schools in many Arab countries “redact” the image of “the Zionist entity” in their atlases. Not only can it not be mentioned by name, it cannot be seen by the eyes of children, although of course an Israel-shaped blob of black ink remains up at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Presumably, it never occurs to children to point at the big black blob in their atlases and ask “er… What’s that?”

Religion explained

Religion is a funny thing. It presents special problems to people (like me) who think religious beliefs are mostly false, because religion seems to be a human universal. It exists in all human societies, past and present. How can this be, given that false beliefs are usually a hindrance to those who have them? As a rule, false beliefs tend not to promote the proliferation of the believer’s genes or culture. Is religious belief an exception to that rule?

I want to sketch an explanation that turns the usual understanding of religion on its head. The usual understanding assumes that religious beliefs inspire religious behaviour. In other words, it assumes that our ideas about “how the world is arranged” cause and hence explain rituals, ceremonies and religious “observances” of various kinds. For example, the belief that God is omnipotent gives people a reason to pray, and that explains why religious believers pray. Note the pattern there: belief first, behaviour second. I want to suggest the very opposite is true: that religious behaviour is selected for because it serves a real biological function, and that religious belief is a sort of after-the-fact rationalization of that behaviour. Instead of the beliefs explaining the behaviour, the behaviour explains the beliefs. For example, acts of prayer tend to promote belief in an omnipotent God rather than vice versa.

Looked at that way, religious beliefs are not an exception to the rule above, but are instead a mere side effect of something else — something that really does confer a biological advantage. There is much more to religion than belief, and religious beliefs are highly “theoretical”: they tend occupy the “inner” recesses of our minds, emerging in behaviour only rarely, such as when we discuss theology (if ever). Nor do many of us have first-hand “religious experiences” by observing miracles or supernatural phenomena. So I would argue that religious beliefs survive despite being mostly false, because selective pressures do not bear on them very directly — not as directly as, for example, beliefs about the current location of the furniture in the room. When that sort of belief is false, it leads to injury: I bruise my shins on the coffee table every morning when walking across the room to let the dog out.

I submit that religious behaviour promotes social cohesion in a special way. It works within groups (but not between groups) by providing a framework for expressions of sincerity. This is how rituals work in the social lives of other animals, such as in the courtship displays of monogamous birds. Ritual has a much greater importance for our own species, because ours is easily the most cooperative species on Earth. Religions also give their adherents distinctive ways of understanding right and wrong, so that co-religionists tend to agree on moral questions. All of which probably oils the wheels of reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism is the biological version of “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” between unrelated individuals. It requires trust and familiarity, but cannot depend on shared genes as a guarantee of good faith. The next best alternative is to check that “we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet”, in the present context almost literally.

If religion serves social functions of the above sort, then it is bound to involve “costly signalling”. This is an important idea that has entered mainstream biology in recent decades. To advertise something of value such as good genes or good faith, the most reliable indicators are those that cannot be imitated; for that, they have to cost an honest communicator something that dishonest communicators cannot afford. The classic examples involve sexual ornamentation such as the peacock’s tail. The tail handicaps its owner, but it must if it is to send a convincing signal that honestly advertises his genetic worth. The tail is not long and unwieldy despite but rather because it’s an obvious danger to its owner’s life. Costly signals have to handicap the signaller.

This sort of costly “handicapping” signal seems quite common in human social life. Parents of engaged couples throw wedding parties of enormous expense to indicate the sincerity of their commitment to the new union. Men drive cars that invite comments such as “that must’ve set you back a bit!” — By being “set back a bit” yet avoiding disaster, they advertise their solvency. And in both sexes, conspicuous self-denial can reach the level of self-destruction and beyond (as in suicide bombers).

In these cases of handicapping, hardships are not imposed by the environment. They are self-imposed in more or less arbitrary fashion by the signallers themselves. I deliberately choose the words ‘arbitrary’ and ‘fashion’ here. The peacock’s tail feathers happen to have blue “eye” features, but purple stripes would have done just as well, had that fashion taken hold, and as long as they were equally hard to arrange.

If religious observances serve the social functions described above, it wouldn’t matter much what they involve as long as they are demanding enough — by calling for a costly fastidiousness, or self-harming for example. Flagellation is as good as fasting — and more convenient if you’re short on time.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the differences between my approach here and that of mainstream atheism, which tends to see religion as ridiculous, as a pathological waste of time, or as something we would be better off without. But I see it as arbitrary; and if it is time-consuming, it has to be to serve its social purpose. We can’t really hope to get rid of it, because our sociality is indispensable, apart from a few individuals here and there. As Burke remarked, “man is by his constitution a religious animal.” The few who really succeed in giving it up have to relinquish their own constitution a bit.

Despite the biological requirement of some such framework for ritual observances, we shouldn’t be surprised if we find a reasonably wide range of different frameworks, because social cohesion within a group often requires friction between such groups, especially if they have competing interests as groups. A given set of observances indicate specific commitment to this group, and not that group.

That seems to be what we find when we look around the world at different peoples, especially those whose interests conflict. Over the course of history, where group interests begin to conflict, their religions begin to diverge. For example, most of the population of the US is descended from people drawn from a smallish range of religions. If we ignore the “social cohesion” aspect of religion, we would expect to find a similar homogeneity of religious practices in the present-day US. But what we find in fact is that new religions and cults spring up as groups and their interests diverge — notably in newly-acquired territories such as Utah and California. It’s as if social cohesion within groups is promoted where differences are created between groups.

So far, I have focused on religious behaviour. But what of religious belief? Mainstream atheism tends to see religious belief as one of the “craziest” aspects of religion, the origin and cause of all the “pointless” ritualistic behaviour. But look at it from the other direction: that sort of behaviour only seems pointless from a traditional perspective that overlooks handicapping. Once we take account of handicapping, the behaviour may be arbitrary and guided by fashion, but it isn’t pointless at all. I suggest that the beliefs “come later” as the product of rationalization, and are in fact the “least crazy” aspect of the whole operation, even though most of them are false.

Recent philosophers in the tradition of American pragmatism such as Daniel Dennett and Donald Davidson have argued that the content of beliefs (and other mental states) is a matter of interpretation guided by a “principle of charity”. (Anything that has “meaning” such as mental states or language depends on interpretation like that.) An agent’s beliefs as a whole have to “make as much sense as possible” by meshing with each other, with the agent’s behaviour, and with the way the world is. That determines what they are “about”. It seems to me that ritualistic activities and the beliefs that rationalise them are indeed woven into a coherent whole like that. But this coherence of beliefs has a cost — what they gain by meshing smoothly with each other they lose in clarity, concreteness, testability, and truth. Thus a typical religious belief is likely to be “mystical”, abstract, hard to check, and false.

It is hardly surprising that there are differences between the beliefs of different religions. But they have quite a lot in common too. I would argue that they converge mostly as a result of that principle of charity, which in effect insists that they be consistent with shared human nature and with our most widely-held assumptions.

Let’s look at an example. I mentioned above that religious beliefs were highly “theoretical”. They have to be, because otherwise they would be too strongly selected against. So they exist as a hotchpotch of commitments to such things as “creation” stories about the origins of the world and of humans, to “legalistic” rules and regulations, to “cautionary” accounts of punishments and rewards, to vaguely “spiritual” ideas about the nature of the person. Consider the last of these.

We humans are unique in our use of language and in the complexity of our thoughts. When combined, these human abilities give rise to something even stranger — our use of language to describe the contents of our thoughts. This special sort of language is remarkable for the “roundabout” way it describes its subject matter. For example, when we describe an experience we’re having — an experience of red, say — we use a word whose primary purpose is not to characterise experiences but common public objects such as tomatoes and poppies. Children first learn to use the word ‘red’ to describe the colour of that sort of public object, and only later co-opt the very same word to describe the nature of their own “internal” experiences, experiences of a sort that normally occur when they look at those public objects. That is, they describe the state of their brains by using a word that originally applied to the quality of light reflected off fruit and flowers. Something similar applies to the content of beliefs (and desires, hopes, fears, etc.). We describe the way we believe things are arranged in the world by using an “embedded sentence” that describes how things would be arranged if the belief were true. For example, I might describe my belief that there is someone on the roof by uttering the sentence ‘I think there’s someone on the roof.’ That description of my mental state contains the embedded sentence ‘Someone is on the roof’, which on its own describes a state of affairs in the world rather than a mental state in my head.

To make a long story short, the language we use to describe our internal mental representations of the world “mirrors” the language we use to describe the real external world. If we’re not careful, this apparent “mirroring” can weave a sort of spell, a spell that tricks us into assuming that our ideas are ghostly versions of the physical things they are ideas of. We assume these “ghostly” entities must inhabit a “spiritual” realm, so now we think our minds are themselves “ghostly”, and maybe even entirely separated from the physical world. This is just the sort of “conjuring trick” played by language that prompted Wittgenstein to characterise philosophy as a “battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”. As it happens, practically the entire population of the world has fallen for this trick, and subsequently most of us understand minds as non-material “ghosts”, which need not always stay inside the “machines” of their hosts’ physical bodies.

Now along comes religion, gravitating as it always does towards the theoretical and the arcane. It seizes on this almost universal “ghost” idea, and develops it by weaving a mythology around it. Practically all religions have developed the idea, each in its own distinctive way, of course, as befits any framework whose details are partially determined by the requirement that it be different from other frameworks.

This interplay of convergence and divergence is not all that unusual. We can see something like it in the development of computer software. Windows has its “Explorer” and Mac OS X has its “Finder”: their main purpose is similar, but their names and finer details differ, not by accident but by design. Or again, image editing software such as Gimp and Inkscape deliberately differ from Photoshop and Illustrator to avoid breaching copyright law.

I mentioned above that mainstream atheists see religious belief as pathological. But I would agree with Burke that it’s “natural” for humans. It’s therefore very hard to shake off. It may be easy to dismiss the idiosyncrasies of specific religious beliefs, because it’s pretty clear that they are more or less arbitrary products of fashion and random divergence. But where religious beliefs converge, as almost all do on the idea that the mind is “spiritual” or “ghostlike”, they reflect nearly universal human assumptions.

Another nearly universal assumption is the idea that the living world is filled with precariously balanced “ecosystems”, which is really belief in design or “a way things were meant to be”. Even people who explicitly reject design in nature treat “ecosystems” with a misplaced reverence. Again, we see man’s religious constitution at work.

But perhaps the most ubiquitous and unshakable aspect of our religious constitution can be found in our epistemic habits. Most of the time, most of our beliefs are acquired through adoption from others — we take beliefs on because we want to fit in with a group whose members have those beliefs already. The prevalence of that habit throughout human life — and disgustingly to me it seems to be everywhere — is the surest evidence that social cohesion plays an overwhelming role in how we think and act. It seems to me that philosophers must work hard to lose that habit, at least as far as our human nature will let us.

The worst mistake of all time

Pop psychologist Sam Harris tells us that

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

I think this encapsulates in a single paragraph the worst and most persistent error in philosophical thinking in all recorded history, East and West. It is inspired by the wholly mistaken thought that our minds are essentially non-physical, and so are “cut off” from the physical world. If my mind doesn’t directly interact with the physical world, the idea goes, then I don’t see the physical world directly, but instead exist as a centre of consciousness or “eye” watching a “cinema screen” of conscious experiences. And when I act, the idea goes, I am really trying to make pleasant things appear on my “screen”, rather than manipulate the physical world that lies behind the “screen”, outside my mind. Does this sound familiar? If so, you may require a sort of philosophical “therapy”!

I think it’s pretty clear where the idea comes from. Man is a religious animal. We have an awareness of — but aversion to — our own mortality, and so prefer not to face up to it. So we pretend to ourselves that our minds do not really belong to the physical world: the physical world of disease, decay and death. Thus, all over the world and throughout history, we humans have a weakness for belief in ghosts and we trust “shamans” who supposedly can “transcend the physical”. (A recent science-fiction version of these ideas imagines that a person’s mind is a mere “pattern” that can be transferred to a super-computer by super-intelligent computer boffins, thereby making that lucky person’s mind immortal.)

But whatever the source of the idea may be — you don’t have to agree with my story above — the idea is just plain mistaken. Minds are what brains do, and brains are the product of evolution. Unlike a “soul”, a brain is not a non-physical entity “breathed into” an alien physical body by God. A brain is a functioning physical organ shaped by natural selection to serve its purpose in a living organism, of which it is an integral part.

Primarily, the brain of an organism helps the organism to achieve its goals (which are shaped by the common goal of its genes, to proliferate in future generations). And almost all of the organism’s goals are external, not internal. In other words, the brain’s main purpose is to make sure external physical things are arranged in a particular way, rather than to make sure internal experiences have a particular quality. Organisms have goals such as getting food and shelter, killing enemies, and so on, as opposed to removing the experience of hunger, or having the sensation of warmth, or enjoying the conscious satisfaction of revenge.

The goals are external, because that is where natural selection applies pressure. An animal will not pass its genes on if it does not eat food or find shelter, or if it gets killed by its enemies. So there is selective pressure to pursue food, seek shelter, and alas, to kill. These are external goals. But there is no selective pressure to have this or that sort of conscious experience. A wide variety of “primitive” creatures do not experience anything at all, neither hunger nor cold. Some are emotionally indifferent when they kill others. Natural selection is largely indifferent to the internal experiences that accompany our perceptions of outside conditions.

Humans evolved through a long series of small steps from earlier creatures that did not have brains at all. There is no line dividing “before” and “after” — between earlier creatures that sought external goals, and later creatures that sought internal goals. The “after” here is largely illusory, a figment of our imagining that the mind is a “ghost in the machine”. What really happened as mammalian-type brains evolved was that organisms’ goals became more and more multifarious, and the internal representations (like maps) needed to achieve them became more and more detailed, and hence the “internal” life of some organisms became richer and richer. But at no stage did any organism’s goals move inwards to become primarily “internal”.

Let us return to Sam Harris’s claims quoted above. We emphatically do not “form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness”. We seek friendships because alliances are of real value in passing on our genes to future generations. Alliances enable reciprocal altruism, in other words, mutual support between individuals who are unrelated by descent. If we do not achieve our goal of forming friendships, we recognize that fact, and the recognition is accompanied by a conscious sense of failure which we call loneliness.

Love is not an emotion. It is a biological condition, usually of benefit to the genes of those who are in it. Love enables the sharing of burdens and the division of labour in raising offspring. This can be a rocky road, and the fortunes of those who travel along it vary. As they vary, lovers can experience a wide range of emotions, from lust to murderous jealousy.

Harris’s Bambi-and-butterflies approach to “love” isn’t just laughable, it’s downright dangerous. A lot of people think they aren’t in love when actually they are, and vice versa, because they have swallowed a “spiritual” philosophy that assumes the mind is essentially disembodied, so that the human condition boils down to “feelings”.

That mistake can have a very dark side. What’s wrong with killing? — If your answer to this appeals to experience, you’ll probably say what’s wrong with killing is it causes pain to the person or animal that gets killed. But then you’d have to accept that killing is OK as long as it’s painless. That is a licence to murder.

Against Harris, I would argue that we do not usually “eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues”. Usually, we eat food because our stomachs are empty, and we are drawn to foods that provide us with the nutrition we need most, foods that are typically high in calories, high in fat, salt or protein, and unsurprisingly taste best to us. To deliberately create food with a specific taste, appearance and texture is as much to create good food as to create the experience of eating good food. If it were possible to have the experience on its own, as in a dream, I think most of us would opt for the real thing instead. The legendary “vomitorium” of the decadent Roman empire had nothing to do with puking, for the simple reason that people like good food, not the mere experience of eating.

But I accept, sometimes we do seek particular sorts of experience. That is a relatively rare occurrence, and when it happens it is part of a larger project that has an external goal as its eventual object. To seek a particular sort of experience is a bit like deliberately programming a flight simulator to give a trainee pilot the experience of a particular sort of aircraft malfunction: the eventual aim is to deal with real malfunctions of that sort better.

Harris’s assumptions about motivation — essentially, that we always do things in order to have various kinds of conscious experience — is remarkable in two respects. First, it seems untouched by the most important breakthroughs of twentieth-century philosophy, such as those of the later Wittgenstein or the American pragmatist movement. Second, it amounts to a denial of evolution. Living things whose primary purpose is to achieve “internal” goals simply cannot evolve through the process of natural selection.

(The quoted passage is taken from his blog post “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”, in which he argues for the legalization of all drugs. I’m happy enough to accept its conclusion, but I refuse to accept a discredited, non-physical view of the mind as the basis for that conclusion.)


Is hedonism bad?

It’s often said that hedonism is a vice, meaning that people are too greedy, or too ready to seek their own pleasures, when it would be better if they were more charitable, or more self-denying.

I think things are more complicated than that. In a trivial sense, we all seek to satisfy our own desires. It’s what we desire that matters. Some of our desires coincide with the desires of others, and some don’t. Some people have unsavory personalities in the sense that their desires routinely come into conflict with the desires of others, so that when they satisfy their own desires (as we all do trivially anyway) they tend to thwart the desires of others. This is what most people mean by a “selfish” personality.

As far as I can see, there’s not much anyone can do to make a selfish personality less selfish, or an unselfish one more selfish. I don’t see how anyone can strive to become less or more selfish than they already are, given that we desire whatever we happen to desire, and “reason is the slave of the passions”. So I don’t think it gets us very far to say that greed is a vice, or that selfishness is a virtue. It is worse than useless to talk about vices and virtues as if we could change human nature itself. It’s better to take human nature as it is, and try to make the best arrangements we can for humans as we really are.

We can allow for selfishness. The least bad political arrangements harness it, so that pursuing something for one’s own gain can have the unintended consequence (unintended by the agent, that is) of delivering the goods for others. For example, in a reasonably non-corrupt democracy, elected representatives advance their own careers by promoting the interests of their constituents. Or again, in science, individual scientists seek recognition for themselves rather than “truth itself”. But in seeking recognition, and in achieving recognition by exposing flaws in the attempts of others to gain recognition, individual scientists turn science into something special. By settling disputes through appeal to tests, observation, explanation and logic, science becomes a uniquely objective, penetrating and progressive enterprise.

What about charity? Or self-denial? Are these not virtuous? Well maybe, if you’re into that sort of thing, but blind self-harm rather than informed other-help usually helps no one, because the deliberation involved is narcissistic. That is, its focus is the self — the aim being to avoid any “blemish on the soul” — rather than the consequences of action. Well-aimed charity can tide people over in the short term, charitable gestures often have the unintended consequence of harming their intended recipients. Good intentions are not all that closely correlated with good consequences, and narcissistic “gestures” are negatively correlated with good consequences. So renouncing “hedonism” in this sense is not always a good thing.

Now I’m going to change the subject.

In a different, strictly philosophical sense of the word ‘hedonism’, I do think hedonism is indeed a terrible vice. What I mean by “hedonism” in this new context is the appeal to pleasure to explain motivation.  (By “pleasure” I mean any sort of positive experience, including the avoidance of pain or anxiety.) This sort of hedonism assumes that agents do things in order to get pleasure.  Putting it another way, it assumes that our primary goal is pleasure, and that when our actions do alter the arrangement of things in the world outside our minds, that is a secondary by-product of our trying to get what we really want — namely, this or that type of conscious experience.

Hedonism is mistaken, and it’s easy to see why: we evolved to get things done, not to have sorts of experience; so having a goal is more rudimentary mental state than having an experience. Imagine simple creatures (or man-made robots) that behave as rudimentary agents with goals — but agents that are so rudimentary they can hardly count as having any sort of conscious experience at all. For example, think of a sea anemone whose goal is to draw a prawn into its mouth, or a spider whose goal is to climb the sides of a bathtub, or a cruise missile whose target has been programmed by its controllers. These rudimentary agents have goals, but surely no conscious experience of pleasure upon achieving their goals. The cruise missile in particular heads for its target because that is what the engineers who made it designed it to do. They didn’t have to first give it consciousness, then make some of its conscious experiences pleasurable, and then make hitting the target a pleasurable sort of experience for it. Similarly, natural selection did not “design” the sea anemone or spider to have experiences, but to catch food and successfully get out of tight corners.

These rudimentary agents illustrate why we don’t need to appeal to conscious experience for behaviour to be goal-directed. For the most part, even among higher creatures, desires are desires for the “outside world” to be arranged in a particular way, rather than for “internal experiences” to have a particular quality. If you doubt this, ask yourself the following questions: Do you want your lover to actually be faithful to you, or do you want to be given the impression that your lover is faithful to you? Which would harm you more, your lover being unfaithful and admitting it to you, or keeping it a secret from you?

Despite being mistaken, hedonism remains an almost-universal assumption. That is because most of us suppose that the mind is essentially non-physical, and so is cut off from the “outside” physical world in a problematic way. We tend to visualize the mind as a unitary “eye of consciousness” looking at a “screen of its own experiences” — a “screen”, because supposedly it cannot make direct contact with the real world behind it. Daniel Dennett called this image of the mind the “Cartesian Theater”, and much Western philosophy of the last century (e.g. American pragmatism, the later Wittgenstein) has been a struggle to escape from it.

We must treat goals as conceptually more basic than experiences in general — in particular, as more basic than pleasure. We have to explain desires, preferences, interests, benefit, etc. in terms of goals rather than experiences. Here goes:

We desire the achievement of our goals. Some desires are stronger than others, not because they are more experientially vivid, but because we have a consistent preference for one goal over another. This is revealed when we choose one course of action over another. In is in our interest to achieve our goals. This is complicated, somewhat, by the fact that sometimes after we have achieved a goal, we discover that if we had only known before what we know now, we would have pursued a different goal. But that just goes to show we change our minds from time to time. Interests remain essentially a matter of achieving goals. Much the same applies to benefit, the main difference between them being that we talk about future action as being in our “interest”, and past action as having been to our “benefit”.

Found: lost chords

Some academics tell us that “romantic love was invented in the Middle Ages”. That is a fine example of ideology overruling common sense.

Philosophers call romantic love “erotic love” to distinguish it from parental love, patriotic love, the love of oneself, or the love of money. As its name suggests, erotic love is supposedly “guided by the god Eros”, so sex is definitely involved, but nothing especially pornographic is meant by the term. I will use the term ‘erotic love’ rather than ‘romance’ here because it avoids the suggestion that this sort of love has any special connection with Romance languages or the Romantic movement. Nor does it have much to do with Medieval troubadours, who are sometimes credited with its “invention”.

Far from being “invented in the Middle Ages”, erotic love exists in many bird species and some mammals, and something like it can even be found in some other kinds of animal. It is found in all human societies, throughout history, and it serves a clear biological purpose: it keeps parents together long enough for offspring to reach viable maturity. This is only of use to species whose offspring normally require the support and attentions of both parents. The mothers of many species (and of course all mammals) invest a great deal in their offspring, so there’s nothing particularly unusual about “female parental investment”. Parental love is quite common. However, genuine erotic love only exists among species whose males also invest a comparable amount, in other words they exhibit high male parental investment. This “investment” is only possible where there is a pair-bond between the parents, one strong enough to overcome male suspicions about paternity.

Biology being what it is – it has rather “bad aim” because life is not literally designed by an intelligent designer – erotic love can exist between individuals who never become parents, or between individuals who cannot become parents, such as homosexuals. It might even be prolonged by deliberately avoiding parenthood.

Plato wrote about erotic love in one of his best dialogues, the Symposium. A “symposium” is a drinking-party, and the dialogue describes a discussion between participants who take turns to make speeches in praise of erotic love as they get drunk together. The first few speeches are rather stilted and misguided. (For example, it is proposed that erotic love is good between homosexual men because that makes them more loyal soldiers.) But as the evening wears on, and the empty bottles pile up, the speeches simultaneously get deeper and more frivolous. Aristophanes, the celebrated comedic playwright, makes a funny, touching speech in which he describes an earlier state of Man. At one time human beings had two heads, four arms and four legs, and they would cartwheel around joyously. But the gods grew jealous of their self-satisfied glee and so cut them in half down the middle, drawing the wound closed and sewing it up as a cobbler makes a shoe. We still bear the scar of that operation on our navels, as Freud might have observed. Following this painful separation, humans were destined to wander through life looking for their “other half”, often never finding it. Homosexuals are the product of bisecting one of the original beings of a single sex. Heterosexuals are the product of bisecting a hermaphrodite.

Plato’s own ideas about erotic love are revealed when Socrates’ turn finally comes to give his speech. It seems that love is a series of upward steps on a difficult path to understanding the true nature of The Good. (I’ll leave it as an exercise what “The Good” is, and why I have used title case letters for it.) A modern biologist might update this rather mystical idea. Without erotic love, members of a species are not capable of compassion, nor are they willing to accommodate differences such as those that necessarily exist between the sexes. In the case of humans, our intelligence and all its products – art, science, philosophy – are only possible because of our unusual brain, which in turn is only possible because of the long human childhood and (normally) the attentions of both parents, which in turn are only possible because of erotic love.

The structure of Plato’ dialogue itself reflects the pattern of this path of discovery, as each speaker inspires the next to go deeper to express more profound truths, as well as to see the funny side of this often painful human condition.

Leonard Bernstein composed music for the Symposium. His Serenade is one of his less accessible pieces, although it does reward repeated listening. At the same time as he was writing music explicitly inspired by Plato’s dialogue, he was writing some more accessible music for the movie On the Waterfront. The two pieces have the same intellectual “theme”, as the movie tells a story that perfectly illustrates Plato’s idea of love as expressed by Socrates in the Symposium. (This connection is probably what led Bernstein to study the Symposium in the first place.) A young man’s life is directionless. But then he discovers erotic love, and as he does, he begins to understand the nature of “The Good”, and the difficult, unpopular things he must do to promote it. The music itself is among Bernstein’s very best. The love theme has a clear “dialogue” form, between two string “voices”, with each lifting the other up to its own level, then inspiring it to something even higher.

A while ago, I downloaded a medley of music from the original soundtrack of On the Waterfront from a rather obscure (Spanish) source. Amid the familiar bits of music I had heard so often before while watching the movie, I was surprised to hear a passage that I had never heard before. I think it must be from a scene that never made it into the final version of the movie. I don’t question director Elia Kazan’s artistic judgment in removing this scene, as the movie is a masterpiece without it. But it is very interesting to hear what sounds to me to be the long-lost music to Aristophanes’ frivolous and profound speech from the Symposium.

Are there any “alpha men”?

Today’s topic is filed under the category “Mind and evolution”. I have purposely avoided the term “evolutionary psychology”. Although the latter ostensibly aims at understanding the mind from an evolutionary perspective, it has so far done little better than extend the methods of academic psychology a bit beyond its traditional “blank slate” view of the mind. I reject those methods because I regard them as unscientific.

As an example of the sort of sloppy thinking that evolutionary psychologists get up to, consider the popular idea that there are “alpha male” humans. The idea is all wrong, I think, and it’s misinformed by bad logic and bad ideology.

It’s bad logic, because it’s really an “argument by analogy” gone wrong. In an argument by analogy, two things are noted as sharing various characteristics, and then a further characteristic of one of them is extrapolated to the other. Here’s an example of a perfectly good argument by analogy:

A has four legs, and B has four legs
A barks, and B barks
A fetches sticks, and B fetches sticks
A wags its tail
Therefore, B wags its tail as well (probably).

That is a pretty good argument, because tail-wagging is a typical characteristic of dogs. (It’s an inductive argument rather than a valid deductive argument, if anyone’s interested.)

Here’s an example of a bad argument by analogy:

A has four legs, and B has four legs
A barks, and B barks
A fetches sticks, and B fetches sticks
A responds to the name “Hieronymus”
Therefore, B responds to the name “Hieronymus” as well (probably).

This is a bad argument because responding to the name “Hieronymus” is not a typical characteristic of dogs. Arguments by analogy work when the characteristics in question are truly representative of their respective kinds.

The supposedly “scientific” grounds for thinking there are human alpha males follows a similar pattern:

A has a humanoid body (bipedal, hands, face, etc.), and B has a humanoid body
A uses tools, and B uses tools
A has genes x, y, z,…, and B has genes x, y, z,…
A belongs to a species that has alpha males
Therefore, B belongs to a species that has alpha males (probably).

The reason why that’s a bad argument by analogy is that there is no such thing as a “typical ape reproductive strategy”. The reproductive strategy of a given ape species can never be representative of apes in general, because apes have diverse reproductive strategies. For example, gorillas are polygamous, but gibbons are monogamous. Even very closely related species such as chimpanzees and bonobos have strikingly different sexual arrangements and different societies. These reproductive strategies are diverse in the same way as dogs’ names are diverse in the above example.

Some people assume that the genetic closeness of humans and chimpanzees means we are “really” chimpanzees in disguise. Scratch Tarzan and you’ll find Cheeta underneath. But very small genetic differences can lead to very great behavioral and functional differences. There are half a dozen species of Galapagos finch, and they are genetically very similar to each other. But their eating habits are completely diverse. Their similarities in other respects (similar habitat, similar metabolic rate, etc.) drove the diversification of their eating habits. They had to diversify in order to exploit the limited food supply.

Instead of relying on a “sophisticated” argument, evolutionary psychologists should simply observe the living world. The living world of humans, that is, not of chimpanzees. If they did, they would see that human life is full of conflict and competition, but there’s nothing like a single sexual hierarchy. It’s more a feeding frenzy than a pecking order. Women are attracted to rich, clever, tall, charming men, with no single characteristic “trumping” all the others. Henry Kissinger might charm the pants off one woman, yet repel another. One woman’s Shaggy is another woman’s George Formby.

I mentioned above that the human “alpha male” idea was bad ideology as well as bad logic. What I meant was this. Some people find the idea very attractive. Men like it because it suggests that men are “tough”. Women like it because it suggests that men are stupid.

Underneath the surface, there’s a sort of Hitler–Stalin pact between laddish men and feminists. The laddish men embrace the idea that the proper role for men is “slugging it out in the world of competition”, whereas feminists embrace the idea that women remain in charge of the home, where they have always dominated. These supposed “opposites” have remarkably similar agendas, and remarkably similar ideologies, which helps explain why they dislike each other so much.