Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice” — The Electric Agora

by Daniel A. Kaufman http://www.nyu.edu/classes/gmoran/WILLIAMS.pdf The last unit of my introductory level “Ethics and Contemporary Issues” course is devoted to the question of moral concern for non-human animals. We begin with excerpts from Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, then move on to Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People” (which I discussed in a This Week’s […]

via Course Notes – Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice” — The Electric Agora


This is a great essay, Daniel, capturing with clarity the central intellectual dilemma.

However.

I am astonished by the moral vacuity of all analysis that assigns significance to our material being. As a person of spiritual experience, I recognize that our significance to God is in the capacity we have for facilitating spiritual transformation. The conditions of our material experience are more or less propitious to that end, but are not sufficient. We must understand the nature of love, and discipline ourselves to its expression in all of our relationships.

That includes rendering gratitude for the sacrifices made to support us – including the food and weather. Our ancestors prayed for everything, and gave gratitude for everything.

They experienced more joy in the world – and we call them “superstitious!” Of our European reductionism, the Native American elders offer the rebuke: “You insist on learning the hard way!”

Furthermore, as we are late arrivals on the planet, our spiritual weight is slight, and God’s purpose for us includes redeeming the spirits bound to less evolved species. That does mean caring about them. I know that those in your Agora will argue against this, much as theologians once argued against Galileo. The Italian saw things with his telescope that compelled him to write, and in bowing to the perceptions of the heart of Christ, so am I.

A Gentler Atheism

When planning my trip to Portland, I envisioned walking in snowy woods. The view of the city from the plane did not disappoint – it was covered in a pristine white blanket. It was only when riding downtown on the MAX that I learned what a disaster this was for the residents. Portland rarely sees snow, and the city has been practically shut down for the last ten days.

I did get my walk in the woods out at Breitenbush, in between sessions of the Wild Grace workshop facilitated by Paula Byrne. The experience was refreshing, although challenging. I found myself revealing far more about my journey than I had intended. After my walk in the woods on Monday morning, however, I closed my eyes to offer my gratitude before breakfast, and when I opened them the two new friends at the table said “Thank-you for that.” I found acceptance among them.

Today was my first day driving over the ice and snow. The Dollar lot was kind enough to put me in an Impreza. I don’t know what would have happened without the 4-wheel drive. I was going to go down to the OMSI, but I needed a silk swab for my flute. I ended up bouncing around NW Portland, picking up some books at Powell’s to fill in the mornings and afternoons until heading out for the dance events that drew me here. And well that I did: the rain started this afternoon, turning the roads into an icy slushy mess, and prompting cancellation of tonight’s full-contact improv event.

I picked all my selections at Powell’s from the nature shelves. I’ve been paying far too much attention to the problems people have created for themselves, and feel a strong need to see the natural world through the eyes of people that cherish it. So I find myself with books on bees and nesting.

But I started with Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist. The author is a primate behavioral scientist, focusing on chimpanzees and bonobos (most similar among all the apes to our primate ancestors). Without dwelling on it, de Waal makes clear his preference for the matriarchy of the bonobos, whose casual sexuality supplants fear as social glue. But in both societies, primates evidence empathy, compassion and a sense of fairness that are often upheld by philosophers as markers of “moral” conduct. de Waal extends this attribution, through brief vignettes, to other species in the mammalian order.

Laced throughout the book are reflections on the work of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, famous for his apocalyptic visions. Motivated perhaps by recent works that characterized Bosch as a deviant, de Waal reinterprets the artist as a humanist, noting that there is no representation of God in Bosch’s paradise. The artwork serves as an interesting device in the narrative: de Waal references it in drawing parallels between bonobo and human behavior.

As a work of moral philosophy, the book is weak. de Waal asserts that the cooperative socialization of apes proves that morality is innate, rather than learned. But this is the morality of the tribe that suppressed intellectual innovation for so much of human history. That is not always a bad thing: nerve gas and atom bombs are tools that we probably should do without. But it is the human capacity to innovate that creates social disparity that eventually sunders tribal bonds. I remark that the Greek root – religio – means “to bind again.”

Ignoring this problem, de Waal asserts that religion exists only to claim authority over our moral energies. This is accomplished by generalizing and abstracting the moral impulse. Without demonstrating deep religious insight, de Waal suggests that any such system of moral reasoning divorces us from the physiological and emotional roots of our natural morality. Paradoxically, he observes that natural morality applies only to individuals familiar to us, which leads to gross abuse of the rights of the “other” = whether of different cultures or different species. The book closes with an appeal to broaden our moral attachments – in effect, to repeat the sins of religion by generalizing and abstracting our morality.

Unlike his more intemperate peers (such as Christopher Hitchens), de Waal does concede the benefits that religion confers upon the believer, among them longer life, social amity and a sense of meaning. He believes, furthermore, that as our moral impulse is rooted in emotional experience, any attempt to reason people away from faith is misguided. Religion is to be tolerated.

At this point, of course, de Waal has joined the camp from which I am now seeking to disentangle myself. Every human culture brought forth the concept of the soul from its tribal past. It is the most obvious mechanism for explaining the sympathy felt between intimates when one is hurt (mirror neurons having been proven to be a fiction). Taking the existence of the soul as a given, religion is then best interpreted as an institutionalized orientation toward spirituality, and the ground staked out by the atheist (de Waal among them) subsides in the tidal surge of love that originates from the divine source.

In the Year 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity

I went out to Pasadena yesterday to Caltech, where the Skeptics Society held its annual conference. The theme was set by Michael Shermer, whose latest book “The Moral Arc”, framed the conversation.

Shermer’s basic premise is that charting the course of science shows that it correlates with an improvement in moral decision-making. I would tend to caution that correlation does not imply causation. But let’s look at how the conference speakers responded to that framing.

The first speaker, Don Prothero, raised an alarm about the dangers of science denial. We are skating on the edge of ecological disaster. Species extinction is occurring at a rate never before seen in the history of the planet, and global climate change threatens human survival as well. Prothero pointed the finger at science deniers who have impeded the implementation of policies such as those pursued by Germany and France to reduce their fossil fuel dependency. But where did the power to extract and consume so much fossil fuel come from, Dr. Prothero? From science, of course. In conversation, I also pointed out to him my sense that the political investments made by the Koch brothers probably reflect a basic understanding of the science of economics.

Ian Morris did not look deeply into the future, but commented on the correlation between social moires and energy consumption in foraging, farming and fossil fuel societies. He noted that the citizens in the last stage consume nearly 100 times as much energy as those in the first stage. Only farming societies tend to accept hierarchical structure, while foraging societies accept violence. The fossil fuel culture has created a kind of “sweet spot” for citizens that are largely free from violence and also allowed personal liberty (although that conclusion seems weaker if we look at what we’ve done to the rest of the animal kingdom – pigs, chickens and cows might beg to differ). The future depends greatly upon discovery of alternative sources of energy.

Jared Diamond framed his comments on the perception of danger against his experiences among the natives of New Guinea. His charming vignettes included the wisdom that parents in New Guinea allow their children choice. While I agree that far too much of our children’s time is prescribed for them, I found his admission that his household ultimately held 150 or so reptilian pets to reflect more an allowance for children to decide for their parents. The overall flow of the presentation, however, seemed to argue against Shermer’s hypothesis: the medical benefits of advanced cultures comes with emotional disassociation and irrational anxiety that is unknown in tribal cultures.

Carol Tavris offered an amusing and enlightening look at gender and sexuality. Mostly it was directed towards disassembly of social stereotypes regarding gender and sexuality. The most significant revelation for the attendees should have been the debunking of studies that suggested that sexual orientation was a biological predisposition rather than a choice. The intervening years have demonstrated that there is no biological factor that determines sexual orientation, and sociologists have described societies that have age groups that engage in homosexuality before entering into hetero adulthoods. Tavris also emphasized that feminine rights (with a focus on the frightening practice of castration and mutilation) depended upon economic opportunity for women. Both observations have significant political consequences, and led to turbid discussions regarding Western cultural imperialism.

John McWhorter was on far safer ground in considering the future of languages. Many languages will die, and attempting to preserve languages that are dying is a lost cause – their structure is simply too irregular for anyone to master who hasn’t learned them from the cradle. In fact, the relative elegance of many modern languages is related to the need to bring adult learners (emigrants) into the social system. The language had to be “dumbed down.” For this reason, McWhorter confidently states that Chinese, although the language spoken by the most people, would not overcome the tide of English. The tonal and contextual subtleties of Chinese make it impossible for an adult to master.

After the lunch break, Shermer and Richard Dawkins had a conversation that was advertised to consider the future of religion, but became rather focused on the suitability of Darwinian theory as a moral weathervane. It was nice for Dawkins to admit that he would allow for an advanced alien species (a type of “God”), but that it would have to have arisen out of evolution. I found the discussion to be frustrating, and stood up in the Q&A to offer that human behavior and evolutionary success is driven by Lamarckian processes (due to the enormous plasticity of the brain, human adults pass traits acquired during their lifetimes on to their children). While competitive selection still applies in human society, attempting to use Darwinian processes to explain human morality is a broken proposition.

Esther Dyson gave humble and uplifting introduction to the work that she is doing in trying to change the systems that cultivate poor health choices in the economically disadvantaged segments of our society. She shied away from any claims to scientific process. I had to stand up and applaud the empathy demonstrated by her choice to feel the pain of these people, and respond by wading in to do something.

My assessment of Leonard Krauss was summed up in person to him. Since I left the field of particle physics in 1990, I have become concerned that physicists talk about mathematical constructs as though they were observed physical fact. Krauss agreed that was an issue, but when I asked what the corrective was, he simply said “people lose their funding.” I did try to introduce some of the concepts I’ve outlined here. The conversation was an experience that hopefully will prepare me to do better in the future.

David Brin was to talk about privacy and security, but ended up developing a philosophical framework for political action. I found his presentation to be fascinating, in that I think that he was actually trying to deal with moral complexity that the others escaped by narrowing their focus. However, it wasn’t terribly scientific: Brin’s claim that developed nations have a “diamond shaped” power structure (a broad middle class) ignores the third-world critique that we’ve merely exported our poverty (globally, the pyramidal structure still applies). Brin did characterize the war on the middle class as an upper-class “putsch”, and considered that a reflection of behavior held over from our Darwinian past. I was heartened by one particular marching order: liberals need to reclaim Adam Smith, whose thinking has been corrupted by the neo-conservatives.

Gregory Benford spoke about the future of space travel. He echoed Prothero with an alarm that if we don’t start pulling our space junk out of orbit, the gateway will close: we won’t be able to launch rockets through the debris generated by colliding fragments. He then considered economic models for resource extraction from the asteroid belt, which are apparently related to long-term (100 million years) plans to boost the earth from its orbit so that it won’t be dried out as the sun heats. As for the prospect for travel to other solar systems, Benford invoked the lack of foresight of Thomas Jefferson, who thought it would take 1000 years for Americans to settle the continent, and the importance of the explorer spirit to human culture: politics, rather than science.

Returning now to the framing set by Shermer, I offer this: science is the study of the behavior of things that lack personality. It has long been recognized that the stepchildren of political and social science struggle because the participants don’t sit still long enough to be studied – introduce a change in the system, and they’ll change their behavior. So while trying to manage morality must be a rational exercise, this conference offered weak indications that scientific practices are going to have an impact. Where the question of the basis of morality was addressed, it was in gross abstractions that were often contradicted by the evidence offered by other speakers.

The lesson that I would hope a skeptic would draw from this is that they should have far more sympathy for the struggles faced by leaders of religious and political organizations. St. Augustine, for example, was a rational philosopher whose thought shaped moral discussion for more than a thousand years. His writings might be worthy of consideration.

The danger of convocations such as the Skeptics’ Conference is that they create an echo chamber. The fact is that most of society cannot keep up with the developments described by these worthy speakers: we lack either the mental capacity or the time. In that context, ritual and mystery are essential and valuable props to social development. So don’t tell Christians that they are unscientific. Tell them that we need intelligent design, and since they are exhorted to be Godly, why not get into the game ourselves?

Why Physics is Important

For roughly 1400 years, from the time of Ptolemy until Kepler, the most accurate method for calculating the motions of the planets assumed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Ptolemy used a model of perfect circles. To account for observations that showed that the other planets sometimes appeared to reverse their direction of motion, circles were added on top of the circles (somewhat like the moon Deimos moves in a circle around Mars as it moves in its own circle). The size and velocity of the circular motions were calculated by comparison to nearly 800 years of observations of planetary motions. The care taken in that work made the tables of Ptolemy the best means of predicting the position of the planets until Tycho Brahe made more precise measurements of planetary motion in the second half of the 16th century.

The problem with Ptolemy’s model, when the telescope was finally improved to the point that we could observe the moons of Jupiter and the positions of the stars, was that it didn’t allow us to predict the behavior of anything else in the sky.

Did anybody care? Not particularly. What was important was to know the position of the planets precisely for purposes of navigation and agriculture, and the more arcane and less reliable discipline of astrology (predicting the future based upon the configuration of the planets against the stars). Until, perhaps, generals became concerned with the trajectories of cannonballs. Then the work of Newton, inspired in part by Kepler’s laws, produced a universal theory of gravitation that could be used to predict the motion of any collection of massive objects.

All of the great advances in science have come when a large body of data is shown to be encompassed by a simple behavioral theory. Newton’s theory of gravitation assumes that the force exerted acts along the line between the two masses, and drops as the distance squared. Often, however, these behaviors are overlooked because scientists, like Ptolemy and his followers, can do pretty well simply by adding more shapes to their models. It doesn’t make a difference that the only reason circles were used was because they were perfect (and therefore easy to calculate). As long as you could get the right result by adding more circles, that was easy and comfortable.

Those of you that stick with this blog will learn that I believe that we are at another turning point in physics. Since 1950, the theorists have assumed that the objects they use to describe the universe are “perfect”: they have no additional structure. As their data became more and more complex, they stuck with this principle, despite the fact that every revolution in physics has come from discovering structure inside of things that were previously thought to be fundamental. Matter was discovered to be made of atoms; atoms are made of electrons and a nucleus; the nucleus is composed of neutrons and protons; neutrons and protons are made up of inscrutable objects called quarks. These insights gave us, successively, chemistry; optics and spectroscopy; radioactivity; and particle physics.

Like Ptolemy, the theorists draw upon a huge body of measurements that provide numbers that they can use to accurately predict the results of experiments. They are so successful in this regard that they have stopped asking “why” about the numbers. Why is the electron mass 0.511 MeV/c2 while the muon mass is 140 MeV/c2? As a graduate student, this drove me absolutely crazy. Mass is a primary fact about the universe, and the failure to adequately explain it means that nothing else in the models can be considered secure.

So why am I going on in this in a blog about religion? Because I think that we’re in the same boat with ethics.

The most powerful theories of moral action have been brought into the world by people that insist that there is a soul. Yet over the last 300 years, those moral theories have been slowly eroded under the skepticism of scientists that can’t find the soul anywhere in their models. Thomas Jefferson, for example, went so far as to remove every reference to miracles from his personal copy of the Bible, and considered Jesus of Nazareth to be merely an inspirational philosopher.

This impact of this perspective has propagated so deeply into our religious dialog that our focus is now primarily on material facts. Does life begin at conception? Is it possible for natural selection (Darwinian evolution) to generate a human being? If marriage is the seat of the family, how can the sterile union of a gay couple be marriage?

So the reason that I bring up physics is because when I began to consider models of structure beneath that known to modern particle physics, I came up with a large class of models that contain a soul – a personality independent of a material body. The theories also support the ability of souls to accumulate large amounts of energy. The most efficient way for them to organize energy is to love one another. That insight allowed me to evolve a whole array of methods for controlling predatory personalities, methods that are suggested in all the myths regarding the exemplars of love that gave us our most powerful theories of moral action.

In other words, I believe that I can prove that Jesus and Muhammed and Buddha were right.

And I hope that I can give women enough courage to stand up and be counted in their number.