Moral ontology

A while back I wrote a post titled “What is a moral claim” that did not do a good job of getting at the heart of the topic I was actually aiming to address. So I wanted to recalibrate and go beyond asking “what is a moral claim” by offering an answer. That has turned into a rather thoroughgoing presentation of what I now consider to be the moral ontology which is most likely true. Sorry for the length, but I hope its worth the effort.

First, some moral epistemology

This is what your conscience looks like

I am of the opinion that epistemology should inform ontology (and vice versa). In other words, understanding how it is that we know about something should play a role in defining what we think that something is. Likewise, our understanding of what something is should play a role in defining how it is that we know about it (I covered this more generally in My Ontology – Part 1). I have found that the discussion of morality, particularly in the God debate, often focuses on moral ontology – we like to talk about what morality is without giving too much thought to the epistemology. By asking “What is a moral claim?” in that post last year I was aiming to explore how moral epistemology might inform our moral ontology – contra William Lane Craig, who suggests we should just posit our desired moral ontology and then define our epistemology as a follow-on.

My assertion in that original post was that we can recognize moral claims, and distinguish them from other claims, and that this tells us something about the nature of morality. As was noted by several commenters, this supports nothing more than the notion that morality is at minimum a distinct mental concept. However, I was aiming for something more…

The moral referent

In one of the comments on that original post Dave compared morality to beauty, to which I replied by noting that:

“This is the question of the referent. For beauty, we can generally link the shared concept to ‘the way we feel about certain sensory perceptions’, like sunsets, music, etc…. There is a class of experiences which trigger a similar response in us and so we call those things beautiful.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. As with beauty, there must be some referent which shapes the concept of morality and, as with beauty, it appears that the best we can do is to introspectively trace this to a particular feeling. Just as the concept of “tree” is informed purely by the phenomenal experience of trees (and not through some special metaphysical access to the abstract ideal tree) the concept of beauty is informed by the phenomenal experience of conditions which trigger a particular feeling. Isn’t it most reasonable – perhaps even obvious – that morality is no different?

But there are trees out there in the real world which are separate from our phenomenal experience of them. What is the corresponding reality which feeds into the concept of morality?

When I presented my ontology, I identified universals as mental concepts which are constructed as generalizations of our experience of particulars. The particulars which inform a universal need not be mind-independent, objective entities. Despite the connotations of our language (e.g., “that’s a beautiful sunset”), most of us are not inclined to actually assign beauty as an intrinsic property of the object of our perception, but we rather accept it as a subjective component of our experience; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Likewise, we’re all familiar with the concept of sadness, but not because it exists ‘out there’ in some sense, but because we are all human and have been able to relate a similar internal state to a common idea which we can communicate. My proposal is that morality is like beauty and sadness. Morality is informed by my phenomenal experience of the feelings and intuitions which arise under certain circumstances.

I take it that the view I have presented for sadness and beauty is fairly uncontroversial, but for some reason morality is a different beast. We struggle against the prospect that the subjective experience of the feelings and intuitions which have informed our conception of morality might be wholly subjective – it’s uncomfortable to suppose that there isn’t an objective reality against which we can hold others accountable and point to and say “No! You’re wrong!” How do we account for this relatively unique property of the moral experience?

 The social theory of moral origins

I have been hesitant to adopt the standard naturalist explanation for the origin of morality as an evolutionary product of our social heritage. Regardless, I have since come to accept that the evolutionary development of a moral faculty driven by social selection pressures is quite plausible. In the following sections I attempt to summarize the key evidences and reasoning behind this conclusion.

Prosociality in non-human primates

If morality is an evolutionary product then there should be traces of it in other species and, in fact, morally relevant sociality is a characteristic of our closest evolutionary relatives (and beyond). This is perhaps best described by just about anything that Frans de Waal has published or, more immediately, his TED talk (below) offers a quick and accessible overview:

Social factors strongly influence our morality

If a social heritage was a key element in the development of our moral intuitions then we would expect to see that social forces have a continued impact on the expression of that morality. This appears to be the case:

  1. surveillanceSocial Awareness: A multitude of studies have demonstrated that even subtle awareness of “watchers” impacts our moral behavior. This may reflect a biological predisposition, but when we allow that our moral sense is in part a development that arises through our life experience, the social dimension of that development also corresponds nicely with this data point.
  2. Social Compliance: Setting aside survival instincts, ‘peer pressure’ is perhaps the most capable mechanism for getting us to act in opposition to our moral sense. The Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Nazi Germany and, more recently, Derren Brown’s “Push” program serve as some of the more extreme negative examples. However, this applies equally in reverse, where our tendency to realize an arduous moral good is substantially bolstered by encouragement from peers and anticipation of “other-praising” emotions.
  3. Social Feedback in Moral Development: From a developmental perspective, feedback about character and a disapproving response (a social consequence) is more influential on the formation of our moral sense than is feedback about the moral status of the action itself and a punishing response (a physical consequence).
  4. Social Comprehension: Our moral intuitions tend to calibrate moral culpability in accordance with the moral agent’s capacities and intentions. This feature depends on an interpersonal judgment built on a theory of mind, such as would be inherent in a socially developed morality where other agents inform that development.

In the end, it is clear that the social environment is a primary factor in our moral behavior even when the social consequences of our behavior lie well beyond our perception. This is consistent with the theory that social pressures have guided the development of our moral sense.

The rider and the elephant

elephant_and_riderThe long-standing traditions of moral philosophy and ethics infer that moral judgment is primarily a rational endeavor, but this appears to be a flawed conclusion. Jonathan Haidt has famously compared our moral sense to a rider on an elephant – the rider being our reasoning process and elephant being our emotionally driven intuitions. There is an extensive body of constantly growing literature on this topic, so for a deeper dive on the role of emotion in morality I will simply refer to the writings of Joshua Greene and Jesse Prinz in addition to those of Haidt.

Regardless, the proposition that our moral sense is predominantly emotional only lends support to the social theory of moral origins when we consider empathy and the explanations on offer for the causal link between morality and emotions. Claus Lamm is one of the more prolific researchers of empathy and is a cautious voice at a time when many are hailing mirror neurons and empathy as the underpinnings of our moral intuitions. Despite this caution he affirms that “there is compelling evidence that similar neural structures are activated when empathizing with someone and when directly experiencing the emotion one is empathizing with” (here) and that “There is some support for the above-mentioned role of empathy in morality, although the direct link between empathy and morality remains rather unclear and requires further investigation” (here).

I hope to heed Lamm’s concerns but I also cannot help but step back to view the big picture and see a tidy set of links wherein our moral intuitions are largely dictated by an emotional elephant whose course can be directed by the neurological capacity to take on the perspective of others – a definitively social faculty. The cohesive picture this paints is compelling and when one considers the implications for moral origins, the social theory seems a natural fit.

Moral agreement

bonobo_hugThe last piece of evidence I wish to present for the social theory of moral origins is the very concern which instigated this discussion – the apparently innate drive toward moral agreement. The desire to hold others and ourselves accountable to a particular moral standard has led many to conclude that morality itself is objective (in fact, this is the only non-pragmatic reason I am aware of for the claim of objectivity) but this phenomenon is also explained if our moral sense was developed through social pressures. To say that selection occurred through social pressures is to imply that there is a social dynamic to the evolutionary pathway. This, in turn, requires that there be some sort of reproductive advantage to the selected pro-social tendencies. However, a lone altruist among a band of free-riders is unlikely to realize any advantage. The advantages which arise from prosocial behavior are then also dependent on reciprocity and cooperation. This means that the development of prosocial behavior is most readily accomplished in coordination with the development of proclivities which favor agreement and reject disagreement with respect to those behaviors. The end result is not only a tendency toward prosocial behavior, but a tendency toward favoring agreement on those behaviors.

Some will object here and suggest that our intuitions regarding the objectivity of morality are more like the intuitions we have regarding the veracity of a proposition (e.g., I am sitting on a chair) than they are like a drive toward agreement with others. I’m not sure this is a proper assessment, but I do agree that on the spectrum of intuitions about an entity’s objectivity, our moral intuitions are generally weighted closer toward the ‘objective’ end compared to more broadly subjective claims like beauty, ice cream flavors, etc… This is perhaps most evident in the language we tend to employ in moral discourse, where objectivity is often inferred (though not always – and this inference is certainly also frequently employed in other domains that are generally regarded to be subjective). That said, I’ll offer two thoughts in response:

  1. As noted above, morality is deeply entangled with emotion. The majority of other subjectively informed claims do not carry the same emotional weight, and this is a significant component of the perceived difference and the drive toward absolutes. That is, the strength of the underlying emotions compels us toward an unwavering perspective. There may even be some degree of a subconscious post-hoc rationalization informing an intuition of moral objectivity. The emotional elephant leads the way and the rider can only make sense of the world by rationalizing the course it’s taking as if that is simply reflecting the objective facts about the world. Neuropsychology is replete with examples of how our cognition engages in this kind of post-hoc rationalization and confabulation.
  2. Though speculative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the evolution of our moral sense may have incorporated the same faculties which bear on our sense of objective veracity if this improves the effectiveness of morality as a motivating factor. Despite the protests of anti-realists, the data does seem to indicate that moral realism is more conducive to moral compliance than is anti-realism (see one, two, three). This makes intuitive sense – if we think that our moral judgments do not have any subjective wiggle room and we can thus be held objectively accountable to those judgments, then we are more motivated to align our behavior with those judgments. So if our moral sense evolved to incorporate some of the same cognitive machinery that helps us judge the veracity of non-moral propositions then the moral sense would be more effective in eliciting the advantage of moral behavior. The net result would be the subjective perception, to some degree, that our moral judgments are in fact objective. Subjective preferences like beauty wouldn’t carry the same selective advantage and so wouldn’t bear the same character in this regard.
Social origins objection #1: Widespread non-social moral intuitions

ralphiesoapSo what about those pervasive moral claims which are devoid of social impact? For example, why have so many cultures moralized purity and why has disgust been shown to influence our moral judgments? How does the social theory of moral origins explain this?

The first point to make on this topic is to note that whereas some moral claims are devoid of a direct social impact, they are typically not insulated from social feedback. In particular, the anticipation of shame is a significant factor in motivating against non-social behaviors which have been moralized.

Second, there may very well be an indirect social impact. In the case where purity or disgust is linked to the non-social moralized behavior we can note that an inadequate avoidance of pathogens is not only detrimental to the individual but also to that person’s social circle. The germ theory of disease converts a seemingly non-social disgust instinct into a socially relevant behavior, such that social judgment that accompanies moralization may in fact be efficacious.

Lastly, if our moral sense is largely an adaptive product of evolution then the evolutionary path is predicated on the behavior which corresponds with our moral sense (because the feelings themselves offer no selective advantage apart from behavior). Evolution favors efficiency, so it is likely that the neurological systems which serve to guide our behavior in general (through the feelings which motivate and inhibit) are also involved in our moral sense, such that there is some level of commonality in our interoception of the morally relevant motivations and the motivations which influence other aspects of our well-being. This would imply that there isn’t a ‘moral’ category that cleanly distinguishes moral interoception from other interoception. So even if the majority of the intuitions that we have categorized as ‘moral’ carry a social relation, it is reasonable that other, non-social intuitions may seem to fit that category as well.

Social origins objection #2: Culturally constructed morality

Many anthropologists have argued that morality is memetic, not genetic. That is, they suggest that the moral sense is learned and acquired from one’s environment – specifically, one’s cultural influences. I think there’s some truth to this perspective, but I don’t see that it is mutually exclusive with an evolutionary explanation. It seems quite evident that cultural influences serve to inform our moral intuitions but this alone does not explain the aforementioned ‘moral referent’, that distinct component of our interoception. I do not doubt that one’s moral compass is informed by their environment but it’s the compass itself that is primarily of interest here, and culture does not explain it’s existence in the first place.

This is an important concept when it comes to the discussion of moral progress. If morality is defined to be nothing more than a cultural construction then the realist is correct to suggest that there is no such thing as progress. However, if there is a biological basis for the moral sense then progress can be assessed relative to that faculty. Even if there is variability across persons, there is still a common origin that fosters some level of agreement at a fundamental level. Here anthropology re-enters the picture to support the notion of an innate moral nature, as elucidated in the work of Donald Brown and Richard Shweder. This is not to suppose that we can necessarily determine right and wrong answers to individual moral claims by reference to that nature alone, but rather to say that there is a general bent which our species shares.

What is a moral claim?

This was the question I asked long ago and hoped to also answer here. In case the preceding discussion has not made it clear, I am arguing that morality is the concept which refers to a particular set of feelings and intuitions that arise as a result of predispositions which developed in our species through social pressures and are shaped and influenced by our development, experiences and reasoning. As such, a moral claim is simply a claim which implicitly or explicitly refers to those feelings and intuitions (or their absence) as if they were properties of an action, person, object or event. This perspective entails a particular moral ontology, namely …

Moral relativism

So it seems that in adopting this view I have officially joined the moral relativist camp. I am quite comfortable with the epistemology and ontology this entails (as outlined above) but these are not informing my conclusion in isolation. Other considerations include:

  1. Dependence on biology:  Though I have already touched on this to some degree, there is much more that could be said. Neuroscience has increasingly demonstrated how variations in our neurology bear on our morally relevant judgements and behavior, as most famously illustrated by the classic cases of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman (also see Patricia Churchland’s ‘Braintrust’ and, more briefly, David Eagleman’s article in the Atlantic for overviews). While this state of affairs is not logically inconsistent with moral realism, it is more parsimonious with a relativistic ontology.
  2. Moral diversity:  In accordance with the biological dependence noted above, we observe that these variations manifest themselves in widespread moral disagreement. Though it is true that there are many claims where moral agreement abounds, and even some fundamentals that are nearly universal, it is also the case that moral disagreement is more rampant than is found in objectively arbitrated claims. That is, we are more likely to disagree about a moral claim than to disagree about a claim that is based on empirical observations. As before, though this condition is not incompatible with moral realism, it highlights a divergence from the ontologies we posit for most of the entities that we identify as objective and so it is in that sense unexpected. Conversely, such diversity is entirely expected under a relativistic framework.
The implications

Epistemology and ontology aside, relativistic normative ethics is admittedly troubling. Not because I am forced to subscribe to Dostoyevsky’s “all things are permitted” – the shallow characterization of relativism which completely abandons both normative ethics and moral discourse and is often parroted by theistic apologists. No, the trouble is that normative ethics are inherently social and even when we employ frameworks which seek to satisfy our moral intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, such as social contract theory, we are unable to realize the ideal. The application of a normative ethic at the social level will require some level of subjugation wherever there is genuine moral disagreement. Perhaps this is simply an inescapable tension which is intrinsic to our moral sense; a consequence of the unavoidable competition between the benefits of both freedom and cooperation. Just as the realists must concede the inability to objectively arbitrate the moral truths to which they subscribe, perhaps the relativist must concede that the implementation of normative ethics cannot escape the morally distasteful act of imposition. Thrasymachus made a similar observation 2500 years ago and as far as I can tell we’re no closer to a solution. It’s worth continued discussion, but I have grown increasingly skeptical that it will ever be resolved.

Moral relativism also does not mean that we surrender our ambitions of moral progress. There is a human nature and even pervasive moral intuitions are sometimes inconsistent, or in conflict with our nature, or uninformed or misinformed by errant beliefs. Moral discourse and experience can elicit change so that our moral judgments are more accurately aligned with reality and with our inherent nature. Relativism does not mean that we accept all moral claims as equally true. It does not entail pacifism, complacency or anarchy. It does not ask us to ignore our sense of indignation and stand idly by. No, none of these strawmen are true if you’re willing to scrutinize your moral judgments. Can a moral relativist tell somebody else that their behavior is wrong? Yes, but be ready to expose the inconsistencies and faults in their reasoning. Can a moral relativist promote or discourage social policy? Yes, but be ready to use evidence to justify your position, preferably with reference to fulfillment of human nature. Can a moral relativist fight back or intervene when they perceive wrong? Yes, of course. I’m not sure I understand why I even feel the need to answer that question but the rhetoric around this issue suggests that I do.

The big objections

hitlerWhich leads to the big question. It was going to happen eventually, so I might as well put Godwin’s law into effect now: “Relativism, huh? So the Nazis weren’t wrong?” Under relativism I am able to say that the Nazis were wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. Notice that the framing of the objection begs the question for moral realism, so it’s a bit of a trap that tries to force a response within the bounds of that assumption, pushing one to grapple with the intuition toward objective morality that was the focus of the prior discussion. That said, it seems to me that it’s also very reasonable to argue against the legitimacy of the Nazi program on the grounds of errant beliefs and an inconsistency with the moral nature of those who carried out the program. Furthermore, as noted above, there is nothing about relativism which entails inaction or ambivalence toward those with whom we disagree.

“and there’s nothing wrong with torturing babies for fun?” Again, I am perfectly able to say that this is wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. However, this is a bit more difficult because there isn’t any reason in this case to also object on the grounds of errant beliefs or conflicts in human nature. If an individual were to be biologically disposed so that they did not find this behavior morally abhorrent then I have nothing but disagreement to offer (though I would argue that in a practical sense, the realist is in the same position). As before, this does not entail inaction or ambivalence.

The last word

In the end, moral relativism is neither pacifism nor a blank check. It requires introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse. We sometimes act in ways which are in opposition to our true values and intentions; we experience regret. Relativism suggests that you take a hard look and try to understand those values and intentions – to consider whether they actually align with your nature and to examine how they are best achieved – and then to direct your life accordingly. You will still mess up, but at least you are trying and that diligence can eventually shift the underlying feelings and intuitions into closer alignment with reason and, hopefully, reality.

“Ha! Caught you. That’s self-defeating! You can’t say that moral relativism requires scrutiny of our moral judgments! That’s an absolute moral claim!”

I have indeed made a normative assumption, but that assumption was not moral. It was an assumption about the reliability of cause and effect. So allow me to rephrase: moral relativism is most rational and most able to accurately satisfy our morally relevant desires when coupled with introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse.

I embarked on this truth-seeking pilgrimage four years ago and in doing so devoted myself to following the evidence wherever it leads. Accordingly, I have refrained from aligning with any particular moral theory for most of that time. It is an incredibly complex, confounding, divisive and emotionally draining topic. Evidence is difficult to gather and interpretations abound. So while I have finally taken the step of adopting a moral ontology, it is perhaps more tentative and provisional than any other position that I have staked, even as I recognize that this hesitancy is almost entirely emotionally motivated. Regardless, if you disagree with the conclusion then you are welcome to try and change my mind. That’s why I’m here.


Entropy, causation and prophetic typology

For some time I have been slowly working through a gargantuan post that aims to review and comment on each and every one of the 355 Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus (and there’s still a long way to go). In the course of that process I’ve had to put some thought into the concept of typology, which claims that some earlier entity or event (E0) is a type, or prefigure, of a later entity or event (E0+t). With regard to prophecy, the idea is that E0 is directed toward E0+t in a teleological sense – that is, E0 existed for the purpose of serving as a pointer to E0+t. As I see it, this is a type of retrocausality, in that we could say that we have E0 because of E0+t. My understanding is that this was commonly accepted as a valid perspective in the ancient world, which stands in contrast to a more modern, “scientific” conception of causality that operates only according to the arrow of time.

S = k log WHowever, I have also been reading Sean Carroll’s ‘From Eternity to Here’ which, if I’m understanding correctly, suggests that the temporal causality we see (that earlier events ’cause’ later events) is merely a macroscopic artifact of the universe having started in a low entropy condition. At root, all physical laws are reversible, such that there isn’t really a direction of cause and effect – there’s just a universal trend from lower to higher entropy because high entropy states are simply more probable than low entropy states.

So now I find myself intuitively balking at the nonsense of the retrocausality suggested by typological claims while simultaneously pondering this entropic perspective on time and the reversibility of physical laws, and subsequently wondering whether E0+t really can be a valid part of the explanation for E0. I’m not sure I’ve really wrapped my head around this, so I’m hoping for some additional insight from any readers who feel like they might have something to offer. In short, does a properly scientific perspective on time and causality lend credence to notions of retrocausality, such as we find in claims of prophetic typology?

Note that I am not suggesting that prophetic typology claims would thus become the best explanation for an identified relationship between E0 and E0+t as a result of this perspective. We can still identify the best (i.e., more probable) explanations according to the probabilistic description of entropy, which we perceive as a causal direction from past to future in accordance with physical laws. The question is only whether those prophetic claims are more compatible with a proper scientific perspective on causality versus the classical view of an inviolable temporal order from cause to effect.


Counterfactual arguments against biological design as revelation

The design of a watchThe argument from design is perhaps the most intuitive and immediately accessible argument for the existence of God and can be analyzed from a myriad of different perspectives. We are surrounded by astounding complexity and see purpose in nearly everything. William Paley was reasonable to suppose that the watch infers a designer and the design proponents are reasonable to say that life is brimming with the appearance of design. But fifty years after Paley’s death, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of the Species” and the design explanation suddenly had a legitimate competitor.

When I consider the arguments for these two options – design and chance – I find myself repeatedly drawn to a niggling question: if design is correct, why is life designed in a way that is plausibly explained without design? That is, if the designer wanted us to infer design then it would seem that he could have done better. Upon making this assertion, the apologist in my head immediately responds with an emphatic “Like how?”; inferring that I am posing an alternative that may not be viable. In this post my aim is to explore that very question through a few counterfactual conditionals.

Counterfactual #1: Reproduction

The first counterfactual condition I would like to consider goes something like this:

“If God really wanted to reveal himself through the genetic design of living organisms then the mode of perpetuating life would defy a purely naturalistic evolutionary paradigm.”

Those familiar with the intelligent design movement will recognize that this is similar to what those proponents often claim. The arguments are rife with assertions of irreducible complexity and astronomical improbabilities for the spontaneous assemblage of molecules while simultaneously disparaging any plausible explanation for the origin of those structures as ad-hoc speculation. Though it may be true that it is extremely difficult to verify and obtain evidence for those explanations, this does not negate the fact that those explanations are plausible and consistent with the regular mechanisms of nature. Perhaps with a little imagination we can identify a way in which the designer might have made it more clear that life was not a purely natural phenomenon…

Let the earth bring forth living creatures NOT after their kind…

We are really only familiar with one kind of life: the kind where amino acids combine in various ways and facilitate production of new life which is nearly equivalent to the parent(s). We see this in bacteria, flowers, frogs and people. We call it reproduction because the output is essentially a new instance of the producer(s). The variation from parent to child is relatively insignificant compared to the full volume of information embedded in the process. For our purposes here, we can essentially say that A => A => A => …, or, in other words, life form A only begets life form A and nearly all genetic information is carried forward.

Now consider an alternative to this. Collections of molecules regularly interact with other molecules in the environment to produce new molecular structures. In fact, this is exactly what is happening when our DNA guides the production of proteins. Those proteins are wholly different from DNA and go on to perform many functions and interact with other molecules in ways which leads to other changes in chemical structures. These reactions may carry on for some time, maybe indefinitely, without ever going through the same cycle of inputs and outputs. This is like reproduction, but with the key difference that the product has a markedly different chemical structure than the producer. I propose that this scenario hints at a possible second mode of life (unified material which is capable of producing new life) which looks something like:

  • sloth_bear_babyA => B => A => …, or
  • A => B => C => D => A => …, or
  • A => B => … => Z => A => ….

The set of possible Rube-Goldberg like chains of production is enormous, so long as there is a recursive structure that allows us to avoid an infinite regress and constrain life as the set of outputs within the cycle. Otherwise – without recursion – every possible reorganization of matter would be “life” in some weak sense.

What are the odds that life, under the guidance of purely natural processes, would arise to operate under this second mode instead of the first? This question is probably answerable even if I’m not going to try and expend the resources to calculate it here. Regardless, it’s clear that the probability of this occurring by chance is significantly less than it is for the type of genetic duplication we see in the world now. So, at the very least, we have identified a possible mode of life which would have been a stronger indicator of design than is inferred by the current paradigm. Perhaps the current mode of life was intelligently designed, but if so, then it seems that intelligence might not have wanted us to know.

Counterfactual #2: Intelligence

Inspired by a recent post by Nate at ‘Finding Truth’, the next counterfactual condition I would like to propose is:

“If God really wanted to reveal himself by blessing us with advanced cognitive abilities then our cognitive limitations would not be compatible with the naturalistic evolutionary paradigm.”

Nate’s post was spurred by a theist’s claim that our advanced cognitive abilities, such as “philosophical insight, scientific acumen, or mathematical skills” defy natural explanation. I responded by suggesting that the converse seems more accurate.

thinking_fast_and_slowWe have become increasingly aware of our cognitive limitations as we have applied scientific methods to observation of human behavior, revealing a pervasive susceptibility to error through inherent biases and external influences (see Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ for a nice introduction). In fact, the scientific endeavor itself is a process for minimizing those errors. I outlined my own criteria for discernment (Part 1, Part 2) a few years ago when I realized that it was an integral and necessary part of any truth-seeking journey.

But this goes beyond errors in judgment. A substantial body of research is showing just how fragile and malleable our long-term memories actually are. The memories of our past are largely reconstructed. Even our short-term memory is limited to about 7 items. Then there’s also the consideration of those alleged “mathematical skills”. Hasn’t the advent of computers shown us just how slow and error prone our math skills actually are compared to what is possible?

There’s really no telling where we lie on the continuum of intelligence. Yes, relative to other lifeforms on earth we seem to be at the top, but as technological advances continue to give us glimpses into the kind of reliability which may actually be possible you can’t help but feel like we aren’t so close to the pinnacle after all. So, if a designer is trying to reveal himself through the gift of advanced intelligence, then why do these findings make it so easy to imagine a better human who isn’t dependent on tools and processes to mitigate against cognitive error and limitations? The holy books which purport to capture knowledge of supernatural origin also seem to be consistent with a natural origin and betray the humanity of their authors. Where is the evidence of a supernaturally gifted intelligence? It seems more likely that we’re just doing the best we can with the empirically grounded capacities which have aided our survival over the millenia and that we owe nearly all of our advanced knowledge to the cumulative efforts of past generations who have worked hard to pass on their knowledge of “what works” so that we don’t have to rediscover everything.

Counterfactual #3: Natural Moral Consequences

When I saw the most recent post at 500 Questions about God & Christianity I couldn’t resist including it here. The post asks “Why doesn’t sin carry natural consequences?“, which he translates into a counterfactual near the end of the post when he says “If God is truly the creator, and the commands in the Bible are his (and not man’s), then we might expect to see the creator enforcing his rules through his creation, but we don’t (suggesting the laws laid out in the Bible were reasoned by men, and not God).” Or, to put it in the context of questioning biological design as revelation, “If God valued the revelation of moral truth (and thus his moral nature) more than our physical comfort then he would have designed us to discover moral truths in ways that are more efficacious than the way that pain teaches us to avoid physical harm”. Moral disagreement is rampant, yet we all pretty much agree that it’s painful to touch things that are hot or sharp.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the 65 other questions. The whole blog is pretty much one giant counterfactual argument.

O man, who art thou that repliest against God?

Jars of ClayShall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?
– Romans 9:20 (KJV)

At this point you may wish to accuse me of naive arrogance in supposing that I can deduce how God should behave. You are right, but I ask that you hear me out. Certainly, if God exists, I am in no position to tell him how he should act, but this says nothing of how we are to interpret the evidence for his existence. If I wake on Christmas morning to find a set of binoculars under the tree made out of two toilet paper tubes, scotch tape and string, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that it was produced by my children and not by Nikon or Bushnell. Likewise, if God wanted us to infer his presence from the life found in his creation, then it seems he could have done better. If God directed acts of special creation, or the course of evolution, then it would appear that he chose to leave a signature which is indecipherable from what we might get from a lawful yet unguided process. Does this sound like the behavior of somebody who wants us to know him?

This observation offers no definitive conclusions regarding the question of whether a designer lies behind the structure of life and counterfactual arguments are inherently weak due to their speculative nature. What it does do, however, is offer an argument which generally favors either (a) the absence of a designer, (b) a designer who doesn’t really want us to find him through inference to design, or (c) a designer who is incapable of generating the most compelling inference to design. None of these fit with the classical theistic definition of God:

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse
– Romans 1:20 (KJV)

Feel free to share any other counterfactual arguments against biological design as revelation, or conversely, to show me the folly of my ways.

Whew, that was close. March……..☑


What is a moral claim?

ScalesI thought I had something like an epiphany several weeks ago and had finally identified a theory of ethics that I could say was, from my perspective, “most probably true”. I started writing and had drafted outlines for a 9-part series. I wrote, and read, and thought … and then I stopped. I hit a wall. The theory, like every other moral theory ever, was incomplete. There were unexplained assumptions and unanswered questions.

The pseudo-epiphany began with a realization that I had misunderstood the core definition of moral realism, which is

Moral Realism:  Moral claims can be true or false and some are true.
(extracted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article)

Despite my interest and reading on the nature of ethics these last couple years, my prior conception of moral realism did not align with the definition above. Through numerous sources and interactions I had been led to define moral realism as requiring ontological independence – that morality, in a sense, exists on its own in some way (though I should note that the SEP article does add the disclaimer that “some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way”). I guess that’s what happens when most of your education on ethics comes from sources in the God debate. Regardless, the definition given above is much less restrictive in its application than I had previously conceived and as I pondered this I found that it opened the door to new explanations for our intuitions regarding the truthfulness of moral claims, though I eventually began to doubt that I was really heading toward any kind of solution. Even so, I’m not yet willing to admit defeat, so I’m calling in reinforcements (yeah, that’s you). I have several “open questions” and I would like to solicit your input to help me clarify some things. My first request is for answers to the question “What is a moral claim?”, but before you answer, let me give you something to think about.

First, note that the definition of moral realism assumes that we know what a “moral claim” is and, the more I think about it, the more I question whether we can define “moral claim” without presupposing moral realism. To help illustrate this, I’d like to run through a couple examples. Consider the following two sentences:

  1. It is wrong to skin a cat.
  2. It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it.

We generally agree that #1 is a moral claim and that #2 is not. Now consider the following:

  1. It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Wednesday.

Now the turning of a screw has become a moral claim. What changed? What is it that makes #1 and #3 moral claims, but not #2? As best I can tell the difference is in the referent of ‘wrong’. Claim #2 is referring to a goal – the outcome of tightening the screw, so ‘wrong’ in this context means that the goal will not be met. What is the referent in #1 and #3? Well, the referent seems to be morality itself – some standard of good and bad that isn’t really definable in any other terms without presupposing the existence of morality itself. That does not, however, mean that morality is thus necessarily independent of everything else. It simply means that our faculties are not equipped to define it by reference to something else. As far as I can tell, this leaves us with some form of moral realism – and it’s worth noting that under the definition given above, relativism is a form of realism. It is just a limitation on the scope of the moral truth.

As far as I can tell, this throws various forms of anti-realism out the window. There may be gray areas where it’s hard to tell whether something is or is not a moral claim, but at the extremes even an anti-realist can identify a moral claim from other types of claims. There must be something that they’re drawing upon to do that. That “something” may reduce to emotions, or some neurochemical state, but that’s still something. It’s real.

What do you think? Am I right about this? Does our ability to distinguish moral claims from other claims require moral realism?

PS: If you’re interested, this theory that I’ve put on ice is somewhere in the vicinity of contractualism with a contract that is based on negotiation between the core value judgements of all parties, rather than rational agreement, where by “core value judgements” I mean something like what we see in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations.


Consciousness and the Brain

Last month a commenter suggested that “I would be interested to see you research and post on ‘How science addresses the subjective, in relation to consciousness and freewill'”, to which I responded that I might write up a summary of the ways this is addressed in the book I was reading, Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts”. Furthermore, the comment offered a particular direction to consider, namely that science can “collate and analyse subjective reports and hope something comes out of this – e.g. by correlating objective measurement with the subjective reports. … The problem with this is that these results are generally not accorded the same scientific status.” Dehaene actually spills a considerable amount of ink in the opening chapters addressing this concern. For example:

Consciousness and the Brain“This research strategy was simple enough, yet it relied on a controversial step, one that I personally view as the third key ingredient to the new science of consciousness: taking subjective reports seriously. … The participant’s introspection was crucial: it defined the very phenomenon that we aimed to study.” (pg 11)

“The correct perspective is to think of subjective reports as raw data. A person who claims to have had an out-of-body experience genuinely feels dragged to the ceiling, and we will have no science of consciousness unless we seriously address why such feelings occur. In fact, the new science of consciousness makes an enormous use of purely subjective phenomena, such as visual illusions, misperceived pictures, psychiatric delusions, and other figments of the imagination. Only these events allow us to distinguish objective physical stimulation from subjective perception, and therefore to search for brain correlates of the latter rather than the former.” (pg 12)

“All this evidence points to an important conclusion, the third key ingredient in our budding science of consciousness: subjective reports can and should be trusted. … introspection is a respectable source of information. Not only does it provide valuable data, which can often be confirmed objectively, by behavioral or brain-imaging measures, it also defines the very essence of what a science of consciousness is about.” (pg 42)

The Recipe

Those quotes refer to three key ingredients which go beyond the objective data about brain activity that we can gather through fMRI, EEG and the like. Dehaene identifies these ingredients as conscious access, manipulation of conscious perception and, as noted, careful recording of introspective reports. He then goes on to further define each of these.

Conscious access is defined as the awareness of specific information – it’s the foundational definition of consciousness that underpins more elaborate attributions, like self-awareness. As is elucidated in the book, our brains actually consume massive amounts of perceptual data. Much of what is received by our senses and processed in our brain eludes our conscious awareness. Conscious access is that sliver of data which enters our stream of thought from amongst the mountain of perceptions which bombard us from without and arise from within.

Our conscious access is reportable. As I type this, you are receiving a report of my conscious access. We cannot report on that which we are unaware of, so it is by definition that reports are only informative with regard to the content of our conscious access. Experiments can build upon this by asking participants to focus on a particular element of their perceptual space that has been carefully crafted by the experimenters. This manipulation of conscious perception is the experimental variable that allows the researchers to segregate the data into that which correlates with consciousness and that which does not. Dehaene outlines several primary manipulations – binocular rivalry, attentional blink, subliminal stimuli – and references several others throughout the course of the book. Each of these present an opportunity to separate conscious processing from unconscious processing and so look for the signatures of consciousness.

Dehaene then goes on to highlight the massive amount of work that our brains are doing subconsciously and how this surreptitiously influences our conscious access. Research in this domain paints a picture of the inverse side of consciousness and offered a baseline against which consciousness can be compared. After taking a side trip into discussions about the viability of the evolutionary origins of consciousness as a tool for organizing and prioritizing the competing interests in our subconscious processes, we are introduced to the findings that this recipe has thus far wrought.

Finding Consciousness

The toolkit described above has been extensively deployed in the lab and the cumulative results led Dehaene to identify four reliable signatures of consciousness. They are:


[1] “Although a subliminal stimulus can propagate deeply into the cortex, this brain activity is strongly amplified when the threshold for awareness is crossed. It then invades many additional regions, leading to a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits” (Fig 16, pg 119)

(2) "In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. This event emerges as late as one-third of a second after the stimulus: our consciousness lags behind the external world."

[2] “In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. … For conscious words only, the wave of activity is amplified and flows into the prefrontal cortex and many other associative regions, then back to visual areas. This global ignition causes a large positive voltage on the top of the head – the P3 wave.” (Fig 18, pg 123)


[3] “A long burst of high-frequency activity accompanies the conscious perception of a flashed picture … When viewers failed to see the picture, only a brief burst of high-frequency activity traversed the ventral visual cortex. … Conscious perception was characterized by a lasting burst of high-frequency electrical activity, which indicates a strong activation of local neuronal circuits.” (Fig 20, pg 136)


[4] “The synchronization of many distant brain regions [form] a global web … during conscious word perception, causal relations show a massive bidirectional increase between distant cortical regions, particularly with the frontal lobe. Only a modest and local synchronization occurs when the participants fail to perceive the face or word.” (Fig 21, pg 138)

The common attribute which ties these signatures together is that they all represent prolific activity across large areas of the brain. In contrast to Descartes’ pineal soul-suite, the evidence points to consciousness as a phenomenon that is spread throughout the brain when a massive avalanche of distributed activity is launched. This excitation is what Dehaene calls “global ignition”. After having presented all of the correlative data Dehaene anticipates a common objection – correlation does not equal causation – and so he offers evidences to support the proposal that brain activity is more than just a side-effect of the ghost in the machine and that there are reasons to believe we are glimpsing consciousness itself.

“Let us play devil’s advocate again … Might [global ignition] bear no specific relation to the details of our conscious thoughts? Might it just be a surge of global excitation, unrelated to the actual contents of subjective experience? … Calling such a brain event the medium of consciousness would be like confusing the thump of the Sunday newspaper on our doorstep with the actual text that conveys the news.” (pg 142-143)

The first stop for the counter against this objection comes at the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester in the UK, where Rodrigo Quian Quiroga enjoys probing individual neurons and finding ways to incorporate pop culture icons into his experiments. He has spent the last decade examining the relationship between conscious access and discrete patterns of neural firing at the level of individual neurons. The short story is that through a novel technique pioneered by Itzhak Fried, we have been able to take advantage of the surgeries performed on epilepsy patients to implant fine electrodes that record from individual neurons. When these are monitored during experiments there are very specific relationships found between perceptual and recollected concepts and individual neurons. Those experiments have not only identified a link between concepts and individual neurons, but the same tools used to investigate consciousness have been utilized to show that some neurons are only linked to conscious perception of stimulus – in effect, the neuron can be said to be a part of a conscious thought. These findings have been documented across many publications, but a few of the key overview papers are “Concept cells: The building blocks of declarative memory functions” and “Brain Cells for Grandmother“. Furthermore, similar findings led to the awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of place cells; individual neurons which correlate with our location in space. These were first discovered in rats and then subsequently also identified in humans. The extrapolations we can draw from the discovery of an association between individual cells and conscious perception are potentially monumental. In particular, it does not seem inconceivable that perhaps some day we may be able to translate the philosopher’s qualia as a pattern in the brain.


Transcranial magnetic stimulation in 1911 (C.E. Magnusson and H.C. Stevens)

While fascinating, the added specificity of the single neuron experiments has not yet established causation. It could be that those individual neurons are simply assigned dedicated roles as the bridge between body and particular concepts of the mind. Perhaps in those experimental observations we are simply bystanders watching as the train of thought passes by. That is not impossible, but there’s more to examine. The next stop starts with a bit of time travel back to the early 20th century, when several parties began toying with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and reporting various sensory anomalies in conjunction with the activation of the coils. Vast improvements in the equipment have allowed these experiments to continue today with sharp precision that enables experimenters to focus the stimulus to specific regions of the brain. In doing so, they have been able to trigger domain specific sensory illusion – light when there is none to be found, motion while sitting still and color in a monochrome scene.

Perhaps more significant, however, is not the creation of sensory perception through TMS, but rather the disruption of consciousness itself through the same mechanism. Magnetic pulses targeted toward the long-distance networks that facilitate global ignition have been shown to eradicate a conscious perception that would have otherwise obtained. Even more relevant to the question of the interplay between the subjective and the objective is a study in which the prefrontal lobes were overwhelmed with pulses, leaving an effect which lasted up to 20 minutes. During this time, the subjects were asked to perform simple tasks of judging shapes that were presented to them. Objectively, their accuracy was effectively equivalent to their performance prior to the stimulation. Subjectively, however, they reported significant doubt in their answers. Objectively they were just as capable but their conscious awareness of their judgement had been impaired.

Before closing this section I must acknowledge that for the resolute dualist, we still haven’t fully addressed the objection. Maybe the TMS is acting in the place of our sensory input, stimulating or disrupting those neural mind-bridges in such a way that the mind thinks it is receiving or missing sensory data. OK, then let’s go beyond the content of the book and take a look at some additional research. If we say that the mind is distinct from matter then theoretically our memories are also made of mind stuff. However, starting about 70 years ago with Wilder Penfield experiments have been shown to trigger memory recall through direct electrode stimulation of specific brain regions. Whereas the dualist could argue that this stimulation is no different than the recall we experience when a familiar sight or sound is encountered through sensory input, the distinction becomes apparent when stimulation is used to disrupt conscious memory recall. For example, by acting directly on brain regions associated with verbal memory, electrical stimulation can directly impair recall of names for familiar objects and this phenomenon is often used to locate brain function through the process of cortical stimulation mapping. It is not that the person’s sensory perception of the object is disrupted but rather that their recall of the memory content which associates words with the object has been impaired. I find it difficult to understand how this result fits into a dualist framework.

In total, there is a large body of evidence that the content of our thought-life is causally connected to our neurology. We have opened an objective window onto the world of the subjective and on to consciousness itself. Massive projects are underway and, though we are still far from grasping the means of translation between the subjective and the objective, the future appears to be one in which mind and matter are proven to be one and the same.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Dehaene outlines his theory of consciousness in the fifth chapter but it’s really just a review of the ideas that he has already outlined in the previous chapters. His theory, in short, is that consciousness is roughly equivalent to the concept of “global ignition” introduced above, with the added dimension of feedback loops containing the information which persists to define our subjective experience. This is what he calls the “global neuronal workspace” theory. Information is shared throughout the brain as an evolutionary adaptation which allows us to utilize it in various ways and prioritize our attention. Within this discussion several neural computer simulations are presented which demonstrate a similar type of threshold ignition and feedback, which is central to the theory, even though that particular behavior was not deliberately designed into the model. Then, having built his theory of consciousness upon the key signatures identified above, Dehaene sets out to find a way to test it. It is one thing to find correlates of consciousness, it is quite another to use that information to build a reliable “consciousness-o-meter”.


Jean Dominique Bauby and his secretary

The proving ground for this theory is found in one of the most difficult medical scenarios; that of the vegetative patient. We are introduced to the spectrum of states which manifest in response to a severe insult to the brain: from brain death, to a vegetative state, to minimal consciousness and locked-in syndrome. That last of these occurs when a fully conscious brain is “locked in” to an unresponsive body, as was the case for Jean-Dominique Bauby when he authored The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with just one blinking eye. The difficulty in these cases is that with only the subject’s external, objective behavior available to the clinician, the ability to determine whether there still any internal conscious life and hope for recovery is radically impaired. What’s worse, the manipulative tools which were used to detect the signatures of consciousness in the lab are also taken out of contention due to the inability to rely upon the subject’s ability to focus their sensory perception and report on their conscious access. An alternative technique relies on the observation that we are wired to detect novelty, such that changes in our surroundings trigger a response in the brain. This trigger, however, fires even if the novelty never enters our conscious awareness. That, in turn, means that the novelty itself is not sufficient for establishing the baseline that discriminates between the unconscious response and conscious detection of the change. To get around this the research team devised a clever tool called “global auditory novelty”. Relying upon the fact that the sense of hearing is rarely lost in these brain injuries, the subjects were presented with a pattern of four “beeps” following by a “boop”. The “boop” represents the local novelty which triggers the subconscious alert that something has changed, which may or may not enter our consciousness. Our long-term, or “global” conscious perception, however, is a bit more sophisticated. Once this pattern is repeated enough times the “boop” becomes part of the expected sequence even though it triggers the alert in the brain. This causes the “boop” to eventually slip out of our conscious awareness. So, by repeating the pattern several times and then replacing the local deviant “boop” with a global deviant “beep”, the team was able to induce a situation in which the subconscious alert was silent while the conscious detection of a global novelty was ignited.

What was the result? In the initial trial with eight patients, all three of the minimally conscious patients whose EEG’s lit up with the P3 wave in response to the global novelty later regained consciousness. In a subsequent study with 22 vegetative subjects only two yielded a P3 wave and they both became minimally conscious in the following days. While these initial tests were perfect in that they never yielded a false positive, there were still several false negatives. To address this the group compiled their data and ran a statistical analysis to refine the prediction from the EEG waveforms. This refined calculation, which incorporated the full suite of EEG data and the other signatures beyond just the P3 wave, led to an exciting result. Using a data set of over 200 patient they found that in 33% of the cases where the clinical diagnosis was “vegetative state”, the refined analysis yielded an alternative diagnosis of “minimally conscious”. Of these, a full 50% recovered to a clinically obvious conscious state in the next few months, whereas this false negative rate was otherwise only at 20%. Adding these up, we see that the clinical diagnosis was overly pessimistic for 30% of the patients while the EEG signature diagnosis was overly pessimistic for only 13% of the patients. For families struggling with questions about how to manage the care of their loved one as they cling to life, this objective detection of consciousness through physical measurement of brain activity may be the key to maximizing the realization of their hopes.

The Future

Dehaene spends the last chapter of the book examining the ways in which the science of consciousness will continue its assault on the mystery of the subjective experience. Here we are presented with data to show that the global workspace theory of consciousness tells us that infants are conscious at birth and that several other animals exhibit the signatures of consciousness. He then turns his attention to the philosophical problems of qualia:

“My opinion is that Chalmers swapped the labels: it is the ‘easy’ problem that is hard, while the hard problem just seems hard because it engages ill-defined intuitions. Once our intuition is educated by cognitive neuroscience and computer simulations, Chalmers’s hard problem will evaporate. The hypothetical concept of qualia, pure mental experience detached from any information-processing role, will be viewed as a peculiar idea of the prescientific era, much like vitalism” (pg 262)

and free will:

“Our brain states are clearly not uncaused and do not escape the laws of physics – nothing does. But our decisions are genuinely free whenever they are based on a conscious deliberation that proceeds autonomously … When this occurs we are correctly speaking of a voluntary decision – even if it is, of course, ultimately caused by our genes, our life history, and the value functions they have inscribed in our neuronal circuits.” (pg 264-265)

While I am not yet willing to express a level of confidence on par with Dehaene regarding his conclusions, I am obliged to say that I agree (and I posted similar thoughts on free will in the post which inspired those introductory comments last month). Even so, neuroscience may never be able to deal an incontrovertible death blow to the dualist paradigm. Like Sagan’s infamous garage dwelling dragon, the mind can always be excused from questioning and made into an extra immaterial layer that mirrors the brain even at the level of individual neurons and synapses. At some point, however, it becomes clear that we are just playing games. When that time comes, if it hasn’t already, we need to acknowledge the data for what it is and the implicit conclusion that we are nothing more than our physical body; that our identity – our conscious self – is found in our brain.


A pragmatic approach to free will

PinocchioEarlier this year I engaged in a discussion on doxastic voluntarism where a commenter stated that

“I use freewill to mean we can choose to change the physical sequence of events in our brains. … If we don’t have genuine freewill, then we can’t choose”,

to which I responded with

“Regardless of where one stands on free will, we agree that we engage in something called ‘choosing’. This phenomenon is universal whether we think it is performed by a ghost in the machine or it is just another cog in the chain of prior causes.

This thread of the discussion carried on a little longer without a mutual understanding and eventually ended with me saying that I would try to explain myself in a new post.

So here we are. I currently suspect that we do not have libertarian free will; that is, I doubt that there is an uncaused part of us which controls the act of choosing. This is not a certainty, but I am compelled by the evidence (and the lack of alternative evidence) that this is probably a correct description of reality. So, now that you have received this revelation, you may climb back in bed and curl up in a ball and wait for your death because you are just a cog in a chain of causes. You are no different than the computing device you are currently using. You are a powerless bag of molecules, a meat puppet dangling by the strings of chance. Upon believing that your choices are byproducts of everything else, you could, paradoxically, immediately succumb to a self-defeating fatalism or you could keep reading and take another path. What will you do? Is that even a meaningful question?

This post does not seek to argue whether or not we actually have libertarian free will. The point of this post is to consider the implications for our sense of freedom if we do not possess uncaused agency.

Wait. How do you explain our experience of choice?

Pinocchio_to_lifeGood question. Even though I have no intention here of making the case for an absence of libertarian free will, it is worth considering whether that situation is even possible. I would like to start by reflecting on some observations which are representative of things that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.

The other day the book I was reading included a comment that “…animals don’t seem to want to party, despite what we see in children’s cartoons like Madagascar.” About 30 minutes after reading that – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – I found myself with the Katy Perry song “Firework” in my head. Upon recognizing this I was surprised, so I stewed on it a bit. This is not a song that I encounter frequently in my listening habits. When I stopped to think about this, a faint scene began to play in my mind. It was an animation of zoo animals performing circus acts. You see, about a week earlier, I spent a couple hours watching Madagascar 3 with my sons. Near the end of the movie, the main characters engage in an elaborate circus performance set to the music of – you guessed it – “Firework”. Unbeknownst to me, the reference to the Madagascar movie in the book I was reading had set in motion a network of activity, drawing on recent experience, that led to the production of a particular song in my head.

When I was a kid my brother would play the “made you flinch” game. It may be a stretch to call it a game, but the rules are basically this: at any time, you can go up to your sibling and act like you’re going to hit them and then stop short. If they react in a defensive way then you have license to actually hit them. Twice. By definition, a flinch is involuntary. After enough bruises you learn to remain vigilant and can suspend your reaction, but eventually you will be caught off-guard again. Control of the flinch is subject to awareness.

As a final example, we’re all well aware that repetition can train us to do things effortlessly and thoughtlessly even though these things required considerable conscious attention during the initial training. This includes actions like reading, riding a bike, driving a car, using a mouse, etc… Even simple math eventually becomes automatic. These well-trained processes seem to lie on the borderlands between the intentional and the unintentional, lying just below the level of consciousness and waffling in and out of our awareness. We sometimes catch ourselves unaware that we had done something, or are doing something.

As these examples show, it is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control. They do not run through the “free will” filter. If we acknowledge that this is possible then it seems reasonable to acknowledge the further possibility that choice itself, our apparent exercise of free will, restraint and deliberation, can also arise through causative factors outside of our awareness. Under this paradigm, we might say that choice is what happens when our brain deals with competing interests. Even choosing to get up and get a drink is in competition with a desire to conserve energy and stay where you are. We have a remarkable feedback system that can recall past experiences and forecast future experiences. These work themselves in to the choice equation and sometimes we can spend considerable time and energy in deliberation as the network keeps pulling up data on both sides of the tug-of-war and reconfiguring itself in response.

The insistence that we make choices independent of causative influence begs the question. It assumes that our identity is fully contained within a singular, unified, independent perspective; in short, a ghost in the machine. Yet, if we ask someone who has flinched whether they chose to flinch then they’re most likely going to say that it wasn’t a choice while at the same time agreeing that they acted. Likewise, we will not deny that it was us who performed automated tasks, even if we weren’t fully aware of what we were doing. So in some cases our action can come from some sort of involuntary aspect of our self. That is, we do not always disassociate our self identity from the actions which were not clearly “under our control”. If we accept that this is a part of who we are and that the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice. Instead, our conception of the “self who chooses” must be revised so that it is consistent with the fact that we already include our involuntary self in our identity. We dispose of the idea that we are a singular, unified and independent soul and find that our identity is multifaceted, distributed and interdependent. Incidentally, a rare group of split-brain patients have offered us a fascinating window into how this works, as do patients who have experienced certain brain injuries (see blindsight, visual agnosia and hemispatial neglect). It appears that this distributed view of the self is the more accurate perspective.

You should believe that you can make choices

pinocchio_donkeyAs demonstrated by the original quote at the top of this post, it is common to see claims that the rejection of libertarian free will is also the rejection of choice. I will address that claim further in the next section, but first I want to briefly review why you should believe that you – this new, complex, multifaceted you – can make choices. When we believe in free will:

  1. We are less likely to harm each other and more likely to help each other (Baumeister 2009).
  2. We are more likely to act fairly and show gratitude (Vohs 2008, MacKenzie 2014; though Zwaan failed to reproduce Vohs).
  3. We show less prejudice against predetermined group membership (Zhao 2014, and accordingly, we show more prejudice against chosen group membership – Brewer 2013).
  4. We are more likely to detect errors and invest in thought (Rigoni 2014, Rigoni 2013, Lynn 2013).
  5. We are less likely to succumb to impulses and more likely to exercise self-control (Rigoni 2012, Alquist 2013, Job 2010).

Given these results, the evidence seems to suggest that we prefer the versions of ourselves who believe in free will. The pragmatist follows by suggesting that the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom.

But I can’t just pretend for the benefits

I completely understand the objection and agree that in the short term we can’t choose our beliefs – but I’m also pretty sure that you don’t have to pretend. Even when you think you can give a reason for your choice we can always just ask why again, and keep asking why until you get to the point of saying “I don’t know”. Eventually you will get there, which means that as far as we can tell from pure introspection, there appears to be something unexplainable going on. This is where we find our “free will”.

It is possible that there actually is no prior cause at the bottom of this search but, as we have seen, it is also possible that the prior causes are simply elusive or inaccessible. If you disagree, please explain to me how this kind of experience would differ from the experience under libertarian free will. I don’t see a difference and, introspectively, we have nothing but our experience to go on. So, if our internal experience regularly lacks a fully formed understanding of causation and if we recognize that we can choose between options, why does it matter whether or not our choice is actually uncaused? Pragmatism takes over when explanations run dry and suggests that instead of looking at causes, we should look at effects. We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?

pinocchio_homeFrom a purely experiential perspective, I make choices. If there is no libertarian free will then I may end up in bed, shut off from the outside world because all prior causes led to that condition. However, it is equally true that all prior causes may lead me to fight off the melancholy and seize the day. We don’t know which is the future path of the causal chain, yet we detect an ability to direct it. The internal experience is the same; our sense of freedom is present no matter what. This is all that matters when it comes to the choices we make. You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.

If you have read this, and you find yourself agreeing with my conclusions, then it is possible that your experiences have now changed you so that you are more inclined to invoke your sense of free will. Ironically, you have just been externally caused to have a greater sense of freedom. Run with it.


Mind and Cosmos

mind_and_cosmosThomas Nagel’s “Mind & Cosmos”, published in 2012, is almost certainly the book that has garnered the most attention over the last couple years in the God debate; and it has thus become required reading for those of us who are immersed in that milieu. My encounters with the book have primarily come through the off-handed endorsements of Christian apologists. It has become a weapon of choice for defense of the theistic worldview. Conversely, the naturalists were quick to call foul. Most famously, Steven Pinker called it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Deeply critical negative reviews abounded and those who rushed to Nagel’s defense were quick to suggest that he was, in an ironic twist, being treated like a heretic by the clergy of the church of science. With all of this in mind, my goal was to approach this book via the middle road, as someone seeking truth wherever it may be found. There’s no doubt that I am flawed and biased, but I honestly hope that I came to the text with an open mind.

So what is all the fuss about? Perhaps the subtitle of the book says enough: “Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” That’s a pretty bold statement which, when viewed through the lens of the God debate, clearly lands in the theist’s camp. Furthermore, students of apologetics will quickly recognize that the content bears a striking resemblance to some of the key objections to naturalism that have been levied by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. The primary difference here is that Nagel’s work does not go on to endorse a theistic solution.

Silver bullets…?

Nagel spends the first two chapters of the book – about 30 pages – outlining the high-level view of his concerns with naturalism. It is here that he introduces us to the “failure of psychophysical reductionism” and identifies three ways in which this failure is realized: in theories of consciousness, cognition, and value – each of which serve as the titles for the substance of the argument in the next three chapters. By this point the territory had grown familiar and I couldn’t help but wonder whether Nagel was fully aware that his thesis mirrors three of the most philosophically prominent arguments for the existence of God. He cites contemporary secular philosophers, such as Sharon Street, as his primary interlocutors yet on the theistic side we get little more than a single footnote reference to Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”. Whereas the apologetic versions of these arguments essentially all boil down to “Nature cannot produce (or access) X, thus God.”, Nagel is affirming everything before the comma and leaving everything after as an open question; though he does prod us toward accepting the possibility of an impersonal teleological force. Nevertheless, allow me to summarize his points and show how they couple into the case for theism.


What it's like to be a batHere we find Nagel reaffirming ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, as he has done in the past. In his 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” he closed with the statement that “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.” 38 years later, this chapter takes it a step farther and suggests that the subjective cannot be reduced to the physical:

“if Ψ [a mental event] really is Φ [a physical event] in this sense, and nothing else, then Φ [a physical event] by itself, once its physical properties are understood, should likewise be sufficient for the taste of sugar, the feeling of pain, or whatever it is supposed to be identical with. But it doesn’t seem to be. It seems conceivable, for any Φ [physical event], that there should be Φ [a physical event] without any experience at all” (pg 41).

In the next section this conclusion is then applied to the evolutionary story:

“Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this [explain the appearance of conscious organisms], the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth” (pg 45).

To put it briefly, the ‘hard problem’ amounts to the difficulty we have in translating the experiential (qualia) to the descriptive, and it seems clear that any physical explanation is inherently descriptive. To this the theist agrees and then asks, “What now?” The God answer has most notably been advanced by Richard Swinburne (see The Existence of God) and J.P. Moreland (see Consciousness and the Existence of God).

Disclaimer: These two books are on my list but I have not yet read them and am working from the content available online. Reader beware (even though I may have stumbled into full versions of the texts).

These heavyweights of Christian philosophy propose that consciousness is not only incompatible with a purely physical cause but that its very nature begs for a personal cause that is itself conscious. Why? To quote Moreland,

“on a theistic metaphysic, one already has an instance of consciousness and other mental entities, e.g. an unembodied mind, in God. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that finite consciousness or other mental entities should exist in the world. However, on a naturalist view, mental entities are so strange and out of place that their existence (or regular correlation with physical entities) defies adequate explanation. There appear to be two realms operating in causal harmony and theism provides the best explanation of this fact.”

Swinburne starts with the same assumption and then makes this being personal and gives him motivation for creating us by appealing to the moral capacity of conscious beings, wherein beings which can choose to do good are a valuable addition to the universe. Good activities include relationship and love and so the origin of consciousness should have these qualities as well.

If we grant that consciousness cannot arise from the physical then I honestly think I would favor the apologist’s proposition. If consciousness truly is something fundamentally significant and distinct from physical reality then explaining its origin in terms of an advanced, transcendent consciousness seems more sensible than positing a disinterested or unintentional source. This may not get us to a particular formulation of what that transcendent consciousness is, but it leads the way to further discussion. Regardless, the obstacle lies in that first clause – in establishing the failure of the naturalist account.


“We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs … We don’t take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable, in an objective sense, … human life assumes that there is a real world … and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly … It is difficult to make sense of all this in traditional naturalistic terms.” (pg 72)

Nagel goes on to grant that it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective for our faculties to accurately represent the world. Even more, he cogently describes the standard evolutionary explanation for cognition through the adaptive benefits of the mental faculties that enable us to generalize and symbolize and, at the end, acknowledges that the story as a whole is not impossible. Section 3 then commences with the deconstruction.

The first criticism raised is the circularity of reliance on our reasoning. He points out – and correctly so, in my opinion – that when we evaluate the evolutionary story and find it to be an adequate explanation of our capacity for reason, we are in fact relying on that very explanation in the process. The second shot is aimed at our ability to discern truth. Whereas consciousness may render a generally accurate picture of our immediate environment, reason allows us to step out of our subjectivity and compare and contrast data from an objective standpoint to locate truth. The reasons why we might see this as an obstacle to physical explanation are less clear and largely intuitive: “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis and therefore, … cannot be given a purely physical explanation.”

CS-LewisNot long ago I read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. The first half of the book says very little about miracles and purposes instead to set the stage for the allowance of the supernatural. His central argument for the existence of something which transcends the material was an examination of Reason and our ability to utilize it. This has come to be known as the argument from reason (which is actively defended by Victor Reppert at The argument can be summarized as “How can the rational come from the irrational?” It builds upon our intuition, crafted by our experience, that the unconscious world is generally not oriented toward truth. Nothing in random natural processes seems to work toward discerning correctness. Why should evolution have ended up with something that did?

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism argues the same position with a bit more philosophical depth and with the addition of the circularity observation that Nagel poses. I already discussed this argument a bit in a review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, so I won’t rehash that here. Regardless, both Lewis and Plantinga go on to suggest that if reason cannot be explained by the physical realm then the most sensible conclusion is that its presence in our world has its origin with something that is itself capable of reason, and which values rationality, and thus bestows that value upon us. Again, I find that this is a reasonable option if we agree that rationality necessarily transcends the physical. As before, it may not be the only conclusion but it is a strong and viable candidate.


Nagel’s final concern with the physicalist paradigm rests on value realism. His opening section again acknowledges that the target, this time the subjectivist account of value, is “not flagrantly implausible.” The subsequent section continues to discuss the distinction between subjectivism and value realism and then interestingly closes with a concession about the case for value realism:

“There is no crucial experiment that will establish or refute realism about value… Positive support for realism can come only from the fruitfulness of evaluative and moral thought in producing results, including corrections of beliefs formerly widely held and the development of new and improved methods and arguments over time. The realist interpretation of what we are doing in thinking about these things can carry conviction only if it is a better account than the subjectivist or social-constructivist alternative, and that is always going to be a comparative question and a matter of judgment.” (pg 104-105)

This seems to indicate that he thinks that our recognition of progress is the best indicator of value realism; but he also recognizes that the identification of progress is itself subjective. Ultimately Nagel grants that his grounding for the objectivity of value is purely an intuitive feeling and, as such, very little time is spent defending that conclusion. Instead, Nagel spends the next couple chapters outlining his agreement with Sharon Street in her proposal that a purely Darwinian account of evolution is incompatible with value realism (see A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value).

It’s probably painfully obvious how this relates to the theistic worldview. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I propose that the moral argument is among the two or three most important and widespread arguments for God’s existence. It was a favorite of C.S. Lewis, and nearly every apologist thereafter. Francis Collins indicated that it was the key factor in his conversion. Briefly, the moral argument says that moral value exists independent of our opinion. Some things, like the oft cited “torturing babies for fun”, are truly wrong regardless of what we think. The theists then take the next step and ask where these moral truths come from. They do not appear to be a material part of the world and yet regularly guide our actions and serve as the explanatory foundation of our reasoning – which is the key to the theists proposition. When we keep asking why, we will usually eventually hit a wall made entirely of value judgments. If the answers to the “why” questions are not found in the answers to the “how” questions, and we are the only part of the physical realm which seems to care about the “why”, then the origin of those values is reasonably accounted for in something capable of valuing – something intentional and teleologically motivated.

For the sake of argument, lets grant the assumption of moral realism. When I take this stance, I am compelled to agree with the problems it poses for a undirected evolutionary account of our moral disposition. As I thus proceed to examine the alternative explanations for its existence, here again I find myself appreciating the theistic answer. Why? Because value seems to be intrinsically tied to intention, and intention infers purpose and an agent pursuing that purpose. If value is independent of humanity then it makes sense that it be grounded in something that retains intention and purpose. Without this, it would seem, value loses its value.

…or misfires?

But, in the end, I am unpersuaded. As indicated by the quotes from the book, the rejection of the naturalist explanation appears to be intuitively driven speculation on what is possible within the framework. Yes, the naturalist position on these topics is also speculative, but it is utilizing the world as we know it and trying to minimize additional assumptions. Accordingly, there are several points of momentum carrying the naturalist explanation, and I contend that the current is strong:

  1. There is a continuum of mental faculties in the animal kingdom. It seems that we can incrementally walk down the chain of neural complexity until the brain essentially becomes a scrutable set of chemical reactions. There is no obvious reason why we should draw a line somewhere and start assigning significance.
  2. Neuroscience has made it abundantly clear that the mental is, at the very least, co-dependent on physical aspects of the brain. If this much is indisputable then it seems extraneous to postulate something more when there is a readily identifiable explanation for our lack of complete understanding; namely the complexity and inaccessibility of the living brain. The insistence that qualia cannot be reduced to the physical seems to be begging the question. See my brief comment on the ontology of qualia for more on the relation between the physical and the mental.
  3. The naturalist program hinges on regularity. So far, in the course of history, we have identified regularities in the underlying explanation of nearly everything and the only exceptions bear the distinction of unresolved complexity – we see the regularity of the underlying parts, but have not unraveled their cumulative behavior. We have not yet, to my knowledge, identified anything which is simple yet unpredictably irregular. Is it not reasonable to suspect that this trend will continue? If there truly is a teleology shaping the world then it is an odd coincidence that it only manifests within instances of unresolved complexity.
  4. Aside from the possibility that the physical parameters of the universe were fine-tuned at its birth, the universe as a whole does not obviously have the appearance of one in which a powerful, directive force or being is actively working toward the goal of consciousness, cognition and value. Conversely, the universe is overwhelmingly void of these things and seems indifferent to their permanence. It is conceivable that there are universes in which the life that sustains consciousness, cognition and value is less fragile, or in which the environment better supports that life. If Nagel’s teleologic force is constrained in its capabilities, or if I have misapprehended the possible set of life valuing universes, then this objection would disappear.

Accordingly, I simply do not see how a non-teleological evolutionary theory fails to enable consciousness, cognition and value. Physical reproduction is inherently dependent on the acquisition and manipulation of material that is external to the replicating being. A reproductive process which never replenished or adopted outside material would quickly come to an end. This means that accurate interaction with the outside world is imperative to reproductive success. Any system which does this better than its ancestor is more likely to flourish. Accordingly, what may have started as the most simple of interactive functions would be expected to improve as change creeps in. Eventually, the combination of consciousness and cognition yields the coordination of multiple external stimuli, an increased sample size by incorporating past experience, the projection of the past to the future to guide anticipatory motor control, and a generally accurate inference of the external world beyond our immediate perception. The associative machinery in our brain builds links based on real world input and so, when those links strengthen one interpretation over another, we favor it as truth. As more experience and information is added to those links the probabilities of aligning with truth increases and we gain an advantage in navigating the world. Finally, add the development of an innate bias toward that which is most beneficial to our survival and reproduction and out pops “value”. To top it all off, if those values are rooted in a common ancestry then they will be perceptually objective to the descendents.

The most inescapable criticism of this “just-so story” lies within the circularity of the naturalistic origins of our capacity to reason. I contend, however, that this is not limited to the naturalist. Everybody, it would seem, is trapped in this vicious circle. We necessarily start from a position of pragmatic reliance on our rational capacities and form our theory of its origin thereafter. Where the naturalist says “it’s reliable because it benefits survival”, the theist says “it’s reliable because God would not deceive”. Both parties have assumed the reliability of their cognition as a prerequisite to determining why it is reliable.

There is also definitely an intuitive appeal to the doubt that rationality can in some way arise from the irrational. Furthermore, this isn’t a concern that the naturalist can expunge with new evidence and further discovery. If the naturalistic explanation is true then this objection is here to stay and will only be reinforced as we learn more. I do not see, however, why it necessarily renders the story invalid. If all the evidence falls in line then we just have to accept where it points. Diverging from the evidence is a far less attractive option.

I commend Nagel for his continued willingness to think outside the box, go against the grain and challenge our assumptions. We all need to do this on a regular basis and society will never progress without those select few who break from the status quo. Even so, those ventures are only successful if they correspond with the reality of our world. It’s possible that I am among the masses who have been caught up in a false current and I am simply unable to see that I have been blinded to the faults of the “materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature” but, if that is so, then Mind & Cosmos has done nothing to snatch me from the rapids.