Two bloggers argue that the only morality that makes sense is based on the Christian God

Reader Dean called my attention to an article on a site called Saints & Skeptics? :Meaning, morality, and Jerry Coyne’s world.” It’s a critique, à la Ross Douthat, on the coherence of secular morality—or at least what J. Coyne sees as “moral.”

I prefer to avoid using the term “moral behavior,” for it implies “moral responsibility,” which in turn implies that we have a choice about how we behave.  Since I don’t think we have such a choice, the notion of “moral responsibility” goes out the window. (I recommend Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility, which I’m halfway through, for a cogent argument about this, as well as a deft evisceration of compatibilist arguments. It’s a Professor Ceiling Cat Book of the Month Club Selection.)

Just because I reject the notion of libertarian free will and moral responsibility does not, however, mean that I don’t think there are better or worse ways for us to behave, nor that I deny that we can influence people’s behavior for the good of society. I hesitate to call the codification of those ways “morality,” since that plays into “moral responsibility,” but for the nonce let’s retain the word “morality.”

At any rate, look first at the “What we believe” section of Saints  & Skeptics?, whose subtitle is “For Saints with doubts and sceptics with questions,” for this tells us the starting point for its authors; the preordained beliefs that they must justify at all costs:

Saints and Sceptics is an Evangelical organisation. While recognizing that the early Creeds of the Church express central truths about God and salvation, Evangelicals emphasize the truthfulness of the Bible and the need for personal conversion. Evangelicals believe in ‘the Gospel’ – everyone needs to take responsibility for their moral failings, acknowledge that they have failed God, and personally acknowledge Jesus as their only Saviour and Lord. A brief statement of our beliefs can be found here.

The authors of the site are Graham Veale and David Glass, and I have to say that I’m not impressed with what Sophisticated Theologians™ would call their “subtlety and nuance” . For example, their list of “Five ways science confirms the existence of God” includes the cosmological argument as well as the fine-tuning argument, which are hardly confirmatory of God, much less the Christian Abrahamic God espoused by Veale and Glass.
But on to their argument. Their main point is that my view of “morality” fails because a). it’s consequentialist, and b). it’s incoherent because it’s the product of minds whose views are determined by the laws of physics:

So, Coyne begins with his subjective preference for a world in which we promote the well-being of our fellow humans. Of course, Coyne also believes that every human is an“evolved collection of molecules” which “takes pleasure in certain activities and feels that it has goals.” He is not sure about the origins of altruism: “My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural”.

So, to be a little more accurate, Coyne begins with his own feelings and goals, which are, in his view,  merely the product of his genes and environment. This is hardly the basis for rationally compelling ethical system. Moreover, to get something approximating morality Coyne must show why his preferences should be binding on all human beings.

However, Coyne immediately adds that his moral preferences are justified by their results. In other words, some of his preferences are binding on others because they make for a more rational world. We ought to protect the weak and poor because we would seek protection if we were weak and poor. Oppression is wrong because it “it creates a society in which disorder remains, but is hidden and suppressed.” This is detrimental to the “well-being of society”. So,  despite his protestations and best efforts, Coyne has identified the ‘good’ with ‘whatever benefits society’ (or in the longer run, our species).

Prima facie, this seems reasonable. If most people live by the rules of morality then most people will benefit. However, we wonder ask if Coyne could tell us a little more about his vision of a beneficial society. Is it just a place that maximises the satisfaction of its citizens preferences. Or should only certain citizens have their preferences satisfied? If so, how would he choose? In other words, who are the losers and who are the winners in Coyne’s ideal society? Without those details his proposals are empty.

In other words, my argument largely coincides with that of Sam Harris: our moral feelings, by and large (but perhaps not invariably) coincide with what promotes the “well being” of individuals and societies. But, as I’ve pointed out, it’s often a big problem how to quantify well being (the trolley problem), and trade off its different forms among individuals (why not give most of our money to charity?), as well as among individuals vs. societies (Is it “moral” to torture individuals to save a large number of people, or, even if that worked, does it create a bad precedent for society, yielding less well being down the line?).  These are not easy problems to resolve, and often come down to judgment calls. If every problem were as easy as “Should I kick this innocent dog?”, we wouldn’t have divided opinions on questions, even in the U.S.’s highest courts. Certainly not all religious people, nor even all Christians, agree on what they consider a “beneficial society”!

Veale and Glass are asking the impossible of me: before they’ll accept my proposed code of behavior, they demand that I draw a complete outline of how the good society should work.  Well, I could ask them same of them, too.

But what about their code of “morality?  It is, of course, based on the Bible:

How can we explain why each individual person is of immense, objective value? Why does the dignity of the person “trump” the long term interests of society? Here Coyne is extraordinarily unconvincing: he certainly does not allow humans the cosmic, metaphysical status that the theistic religions grant us:

If there is any “drama” in creation, most of it does not involve people at all. There’s the Big Bang, all those other galaxies, black holes, exploding stars, and, on our planet, evolution, on whose branching bush we are but one tiny twig.”

If the human race as a whole is insignificant, it is even worse for the human individual: each self is “a neuronal illusion”. Why should we value illusions? Coyne has no answer, yet stubbornly insists that each human life has meaning in his worldview. . .

This is a really dumb argument.  First of all, the value of humans are neither immense nor objective, at least compared to other creatures. Morality extends to other animals, too, and I don’t see, for instance, that a human is infinitely more valuable as an object of our consideration than are other primates—or cats. Other animals are, after all, capable of suffering and pleasure.  Nor are the value of humans  “objective”: they are, like all values, subjective, even if you adhere to the Bible. Jesus certainly valued slaves less than, say, his disciples. And did God tell us, for instance, that orangutans should be treated less kindly than humans? No, because the people who made up the Bible didn’t know about orangutans.  As for our “cosmic metaphysical status,” well, that’s made-up stuff, too. We don’t have it because there’s no evidence that theistic religions are true.

But of course it’s crazy to think that if we don’t have “cosmic metaphyical status,” the reasons for behaving “morally” go out the window. I won’t reiterate the centuries of secular thought that give us a non-goddy basis for morality; read Rawls, or Anthony Grayling, if you want some answers. As for the idea that an illusory “self”—and by that I mean  the illusion that there is an “us” in our heads that is something more than the product of our neurons—means that we lose all reason to value individuals,well, that’s dumb, too. Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, we certainly feel pain, misery, and happiness, and many of those emotions are the result of evolution (pain, for example, alerts us that something is wrong with our bodies, and happiness, like orgasms, can tell us that we are doing something that furthers our reproductive output). But regardless, so long as those qualia exist, it is good behavior for us to promote them, in both ourselves and others. If you ask me why, my answer is because well being is better than ill being, If Veale and Glass knew absolutely that there were no God, and that were were purely the product of naturalistic evolution, would they suddenly think it okay to go around raping, torturing, and murdering?

Now it falls to Veale and Glass to explain why their God-grounded morality is better than secular morality. But, as Hitch would say, “all their work is before them,” for first they must show that there not only is a God, but it’s the Abrahamic Christian God. After that they must tell us what they know of God’s nature, and how they know it. After all, they’re trying to convince us to adopt their morality. But they have not provided this evidence: the arguments for God on their website are pathetic.

They continue:

. . . When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that a revelation from God –the Bible, for example – is necessary to ground morality. Nor are they arguing that in the absence of a reliable secular moral code we should bet on religion.

Rather, the theist is pointing out that atheism cannot explain the existence of moral values and obligations. The simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power and moral experience is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for morality is deeply unconvincing.

Of course one can explain moral values and obligations without accepting God: such values can be seen as products of both evolution and of secular reason (an ability that is also evolved). If Veale and Glass think otherwise, I demand that they refute centuries of secular-based ethics, as well as more recent secular explanations for the origin of moral feelings as discussed by Jonathan Haidt, Peter Singer, and others.

. . . second, when humans seek a life with meaning and purpose, they are asking for rather more than a life in which they make a few choices.  Humans yearn for significance, the knowledge that we matter on some fundamental scale. But Coyne confuse [sic] discovering the good life with creating the self- perception that we are living the good life. The good life to Coyne is just a value projected on to the world by our cognitive systems. It does not correspond to any fact outside human psychology. Yet humans typically seek a good greater than themselves.

If there is no God—and Veale and Glass certainly have given us no evidence for one—then our yearning for “significance” is like a child’s yearning for a visit from Santa at Christmas.  We make our own purposes, just as we make our own Santas.

Yearning for something does not make it true. In that one sentence we see the whole fallacy not only of Veale and Glass’s argument, but of religion itself.

Insofar as we seek goods greater than ourselves, well, there are plenty of secular explanations for helping others, ranging from self-interest to reason. No, what Veale and Glass mean when they talk about “significance” and “purpose” is not donating to African charities, but by making your “purpose” to live by God’s will.

And here is their unconvincing explanation of why theistically-grounded religion is superior:

. . . Does the theistic worldview do any better? Arguably, yes. If atheism is true the only value that we have is the value that we choose to give to ourselves. And what the human race gives, the human race can take away. By contrast, God would be a transcendent source of moral value: the very source we need to make sense of ethics. If everything else depends on God for its existence then the value that God has for everything else cannot be surpassed.

God would be supremely rational, and his power cannot be limited by the irrational and chaotic effects of evil. The earth and the opinions of human beings will pass away into the void. God’s values are eternal. His judgments can be trusted, and his worth is inestimable. If atheism is true we are unplanned and insignificant on a cosmic scale. [JAC: yes, and?]

On theism we have immense significance because the creator of the Cosmos values us, made us to be like him, and can enter into a relationship with us. We have a great value because we are significant to God. There is no room for morality in Coyne’s world; therefore his worldview is unconvincing. In God’s world, morality makes sense. That does not prove that one particular theistic religion is true – but it should give the thinking sceptic moment’s pause before accepting the views of a writer who casually and glibly dismisses them all.

So tell us, Messrs. Veale and Glass, precisely what ethical values God “makes sense of.” If this pair of theists demand to know my system, then I demand to know theirs.  What does God tell us about how to treat gay people, women, and slaves? After all, their “Saviour and Lord” Jesus promulgates a moral code in which we are to leave our families, give everything away, and follow the Saviour. That Saviour also will send those who don’t accept him to an eternity of torment in flames, even (according to Catholics) for offenses like unconfessed adultery, homosexual acts, or masturbation. The Saviour implicitly condones slavery.

Or, if you don’t take Christianity as the “true” religion, then how about Islam? That morality consists of enforcing rigid dictates on female behavior, as well as killing gays, adulterers, and apostates. Under sharia law a woman’s word counts in court as only half as much as a man’s. And those dictates are also based on the “eternal values” of Allah.

In the end, Veale and Glass are grounding their morality on a God for which they have no evidence, and whose nature they do not know. By their lights, Jews, Aztecs, atheists, Muslims, and, in fact, all non-Christians will go to hell, and that is the threat that undergirds moral behavior. If they deny that, then they’re denying their own belief: “the truthfulness of the Bible.”  If they cannot give us convincing evidence of their God, and what He wants, then they cannot convince us to adopt a God-based morality.

If atheism really did dispose of morality, why are countries like Sweden and Denmark, which are largely atheistic, still moral? Are they deluding themselves? No, they have good secular reasons to adhere to moral principles.  And we can reason about those principles, and reject them or modify them if our reason is flawed. That, in fact, is why—if you believe Steve Pinker’s thesis—morality is improving over the centuries.  Those changes in how we view good or bad behavior have come not from religion, but from secularism: the values of the Enlightenment. There is no way to question or re-evaluate a morality based on God—unless you use secular reason!

The religious morality of Veale and Glass is unchangeable because it comes from God.  And if you want to see what kind of society we’d have if its morality were based on religion, imagine that the U.S. was run by the Catholic Church. What a horrible place this country would be!

60 Comments

  1. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Christian morality? No thanks, I want nothing to do with it. Check out this site where a christian going by the name of CumbriaSmithy is actually arguing for the return of slavery.

    http://www.atheismuk.com/forum/?mingleforumaction=viewtopic&t=654

    Slavery, per se, is not necessarily a bad system; in fact, were it not for the structure of modern society, it’s probably the best way to help those who are, for whatever reason, unable to manage their own lives. It’s the people who operate it who make it bad. The unscrupulous trading of slaves en-masse is what gave the system a bad name, and as we all know it was abused in an appalling way for many centuries. The ‘regulations’ we’re looking at are obviously formulated to give slaves some value and worth and prevent wholesale abuse. The laws are for both slaves and their owners and they are to prevent them from abusing their own property. In our day of course slavery is unnecessary due to high literacy rates and strong employment laws which enable even the poorest of people to be able to manage their own affairs. That said, I sometimes wonder if some people might do better if they were under the control of something akin to slavery.

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      “In our day of course slavery is unnecessary due to high literacy rates…”

      Slaves were forbidden by law from becoming literate. Literate people teaching slaves to read was illegal. Ditto, in some places, for teaching girls.

      So, this argument has it backwards. L

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Oh good grief! That’s tantamount to saying we should all imprison ourselves because you get three square meals a day! People who write such things really need to open their minds.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      People aren’t property. The discussion stops there.

      [Or if it doesn't, the secular values of human rights and freedoms as instated by the UN has cast the moral practice into universal agreement.]

      • Harrison
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

        If you want to take it further though, the big economic argument against slavery is that the majority of the enslaved are being consigned to labor which does not at all utilize their individual talents and thus denies the world their creativity. This is one of the big pitfalls of extractive economic institutions and why nations (and in the case of the US, regions) that rely on them fall behind technologically.

        Or in short: Slavery is a one-way ticket to economic backwardness for any country stupid and cruel enough to allow it.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 12, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      I have heard defenses of slavery of just this kind, a sort of temporary indentured servitude, from christians several times.

      There simply is no bottom to the hole that religious people, christian and muslim, dig when they start pretending to take the bible or koran at face value. I have actually heard with my own ears a family member say that we should exterminate all Arabs, even women and children, because the bible says to do so.

      But wait, there’s more! Not only do these “god hates fags” types pick and choose among the commandments in the bible, they also (try to control your shocked surprise here) tend to focus on the commands that affect other people, not on those that would affect themselves.

      Good elucidations of this can be found here, and in George Eliot’s essay Evangelical Teaching, available in The Portable Atheist edited by Christopher Hitchens, in Atheism edited by S. T. Joshi, or at this site.

  2. Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Humans are drawn to supranormal stimuli: high caloric foods, tiny waists on women, well developed muscles on male bodies, the perfect being, etc. Our drive to grasp the absolute, to embrace purity, to identify the authentic derives its benefits from overshooting, that is, we will increase the chance of getting some crumbs, enough to hobble along, and pop off the next generation. Religious fundamentalists are filled with this ‘smart’ greed. :-)

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, this is a superb rebuttal as you have picked apart Veale and Glass’s silly premises. Again and again, you have articulated your stances clearly, but people like these two twist them into something unrecognized.

    Just their premise of ‘follow Jesus or be condemned forever’ excludes most of humanity and is a foolish starting point.

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Following the dictates of a bronze age religion is hardly ethics or morality but simply blind submission that involves turning off your mind and obeying what is written in ancient texts (of course subject to many different interpretations). Instead of wasting time interpreting ancient texts, energy would be better put into understanding how humans behave and what motivates us. In other words, putting brain power toward asking the hard questions instead of disconnecting and following a prescription.

    If you look objectively at the self illusion and determinism, it does not lead to nihilism but gives us a profound understanding of why certain societies are successful. Understanding these things is exciting not tragic!

    • Posted January 11, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Excellent! I think this is one of the best possible responses to the claims of goddies (probably because I’ve used a similar, though not as clear, response many times).

    • Kurt Helf
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Check out Matt Dillahunty’s speech “The Superiority of Secular Morality” on YouTube. Excellent!

  5. Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Is there a way of prohibiting religious people from using the word morality? They always seem to conflate the word with their particular religious traditions, and in doing so muddy the waters.
    If they were forced to define words before using them, all the doublespeak they use would fall by the wayside and I’m guessing there wouldn’t be much left for them to ‘debate’ afterwards…

    • Ken
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      It becomes ever clearer to me that the religious are exactly backward in everything they believe. Morality is an inherent human condition for which they want their religion to take credit, but, ironically, whatever morality survives within a Christian does so in spite of their beliefs, not because of them. Moral people are simply going to be moral (acting for the good of others), and, if religious, likely must struggle against their limiting beliefs to do so. Where this became more apparent to me was the recent discussion of missionaries and their true agendas. Christian missionaries don’t care to help the needy in Timbukto, they just need to fill some ridiculous quota for souls saved, or some such nonsense. Balance that against missions from secularists that go to disadvantaged areas for the sole purpose of helping in whatever way they can.

  6. gbjames
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    I am simply in awe of Professor Ceiling Cat’s ability to thoroughly debunk this kind of foolishness day after day after day. After day.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      +1

      • Graham Martin-Royle
        Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        +1 more.

        • potaman
          Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          I am in awe of Professor Ceiling Cat’s ability to actually read through this kind of foolishness day after day after day.

    • Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      It ain’t no picnic, believe me! At least I’m not so thin-skinned that this kind of stuff upsets me.

      • Posted January 11, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Dr. Coyne, it is truly a blessing that you are able to respond as you do, and that you choose to do so as well (currently I am clueless on the topic of free will, so my remark is from one who is ignorant and understands choices in the old fashioned sense, rightly or wrongly). When you give a point by point rejoinder it provides a much appreciated service in educating me, and I assume many people like me, on the truths of non-theism and theism. It’s fascinating to learn that for each and every argument the religious conjure against you, you are able to logically and honestly refudiate. It has become my favorite source of education and entertainment.

        • JohnnieCanuck
          Posted January 11, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Refudiate.

          Fine word you have there. It’s a hybrid of ‘refute’ and ‘repudiate’ and was most recently made famous by that infamous mangler of words and logic, Sarah Palin, pbuhg*.

          Not only that, because of her, Oxford American Dictionary, declared it their Word of the Year for 2010. It even beat out ‘nom nom'; an affront to Professor Ceiling Cat on many levels, no doubt.

          *polar bears under her gun

    • strongforce
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      +1

  7. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    This is hardly the basis for rationally compelling ethical system.

    First you have to show that a rationally compelling ethical system should exist. Especially when the current outcome of evolutionary processes appears to be a number of emotionally driven behaviours that have no internal coherence. And merely have to be sufficient (in the current social and other environmental contexts) to pass the genes that support those behaviours into the next generation.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      Good point. Once we realise that morality is a human creation with all the imperfections and inconsistencies of humans, individually and in groups, then a top-down, objective and absolute (I’m not quite sure what those last two adjectives mean, but they are popular with theists) moral system looks fictitious.

      A terrific critique by JAC. That’s a keeper.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        A terrific critique by JAC. That’s a keeper.

        Precisely my reaction too. It’s now in my file of “replies to religionists,” for use as needed!

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      The fact that evolution has produced what Steven Novella referS to as “Our Deceptive Mind” – full of errors of perception, defective memories, and cognitive biases is the very reason that we need reason, logic and science. They weed out these errors and result in ethics that are likely to improve the human condition.

      The problem is that evolutionary mechanisms worked for making decisions “on the run” which was necessary for survival in the forest of our distant relatives. But the environment has changed rapidly since then and evolution hasn’t had time to catch up. Part of ethics to OVERCOME what Richard Dawkins called the “tyranny of our genes”.

  8. Kevin
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Causation. Fine tuning. Precision. Predictability. Order.

    Those are not necessarily reasons for a deity. And if they were, what knowledge does a belief in a deity provide? None.

    All five of those reasons were and are established by science.

  9. Jeffrey
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Yeah, Jerry, re your final two sentences; it would be even worse to be run by Sharia Law, than to be run by the RC Church.

  10. steve oberski
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Veale and Glass are asking the impossible of me: before they’ll accept my proposed code of behavior, they demand that I draw a complete outline of how the good society should work.

    I can’t tell them how a good society should work in complete detail either, but if they want some great examples of societies that don’t work just take a look at any region where the social contract is based on religious principles.

  11. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    The Abrahamic god represents such a pathetically puerile yearning for a parental figure that I can barely make my way through Veale’s and Glass’s nonsense to read the rebuttal – which was excellent, as usual.

  12. Greg Esres
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    “for the nonce let’s retain the word “morality.””

    How about “prosocial behavior”?

  13. Greg Esres
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “God would be supremely rational, and his power cannot be limited…”

    That is an assumption about a particular god; there is no reason to suppose that a god, even one that created the universe, is all-powerful, all-wise, or all-knowing. I would, in fact, be far more inclined to believe in a god who had good intentions, but was weak and not-very-bright.

    Is that logically possible? Sure. Humans create complex systems all the time that no human fully comprehends.

    • Posted January 11, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      And as any anatomist could tell Veale and Glass, a first year engineering student could have done a better job designing the human body, alleged to be his major work. That’s one of the many reasons to conclude there probably isn’t one (a god, that is, not an engineering student!)

  14. Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I often wonder what it is, psychologically, that separates the atheist from the theologically minded. I think a big part of it is revealed by part of what Coyne quotes:

    Here Coyne is extraordinarily unconvincing: he certainly does not allow humans the cosmic, metaphysical status that the theistic religions grant us:

    For me, I simply cannot find within myself the need to matter cosmically. Mattering to my family and friends is quite enough.

    But, it seems, the religious have a burning desire to believe that their personal significance extends to the most distant galaxies in the universe.

    It is certainly odd coming from those who normally extoll the virtue of humility. We are made in the image of god per the Bible, though when I look in the mirror I can’t discern a hint of an omnipotent, omniscient being who exists outside of space and time and created the vastness of the cosmos. The humble Christian apparently sees some resemblance.

    And, as Dr. Coyne’s piece shows so well, this need to matter on a cosmic scale can lead to some strange and muddled moral thinking.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      It is really bizarre how theists can actually take themselves seriously. The sentence might just as well have read “Here Coyne is extraordinarily unconvincing: he certainly does not allow humans the delusion that religions grant us:”

      Willful self delusion is the pride of believers everywhere.

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      The vastness of the cosmos wasn’t a concern of the people who told each other those just-so stories that eventually became written down in the Bible. They had no idea then and their guesses have turned out to be laughable when repeated by their deluded descendants today.

      That initial hubris of declaring themselves the Chosen People of the creator of all things was more of a “my dad/god likes me better than you” pr routine with respect to neighbouring tribes. Now the concept that the creator of some 100 billion galaxies each containing maybe 100 billion stars cares if you masturbate is simply ridiculous.

  15. Larry Gay
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    If this country (USA) were run by the Catholic Church, I would emigrate to Canada, Sweden, or Denmark.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      If they didn’t burn me at the stake first.

  16. Achrachno
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    All theist systems of “morality” are inherently irrational and basically immoral, IMO. The problems with the divine command theory of morality (to which Veale and Glass are plainly attached) are acute and rationalists have had a lot of fun poking holes in that nonsense for ages.

    I would like to see a believer in theist authoritarian morality give a general account of what morality is and then why we need it or should want it anyway. Fear of displeasing the sky monster they can’t demonstrate exists?

    I’m interested in what are moral systems supposed to do and what would justify our adherence to any of them? How are moral systems different from systems of rules on how best to grow corn in a certain situation? How does one tell a moral person from an immoral person, in the most general way? Why isn’t it considered immoral to plant your corn seeds too deep, for example?

    My general contention is that a moral person is one who restrains his actions for the benefit of those around him, does not grab advantages at the expense of others, not someone who follows some particular system of do/don’t rules. The degree to which you’re willing to restrain your actions in any respect is a crude measure of your morality. Sociopathic criminals are not willing to restrain themselves for the benefit of others at all, while Jains are very restrained, even with respect to flies. Flies are among the other beings that exist. Some specific restraints people put on themselves may be fairly stupid/fatal, but that’s another issue.

    This is all too complex to cover in a reasonably brief comment. Oh, well. I’m done for now.

  17. Achrachno
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    The only moralities that can’t make sense are those based on some “God” — others might make sense or they might not.

  18. Posted January 11, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that scientists are often poorly equipped to deal with the charlatans of this world. Scientists tend to assume that others are like them; open and honest in their thinking processes, and very unlikely to deceive. But ‘Human-Sub-Set Theory’ teaches that most people have brains dedicated to the production of ‘Solution-Ideologies’, which are self-serving cult beliefs, and are therefore without intellectual value. The name of the game is unlimited self-deception, by which their religious life as a culpable victim in a massive designed hierarchy from which all knowledge comes from above, means that all the roolz must, by definition, come by way of the authority, and not from a mortal mouths.
    The evidence is all there, that ‘Saints and Sceptics’ is yet another weak piece of apologetics by those who are so deep into the Baby Jeebus cult that only a shocking deconversion event could pull them to the surface. Odd that the deconversion process so often is triggered by a death in the family, or a close relative in hospital, when the delusion of ‘Grace’ suddenly seems very thin, and the assumption in one’s specialness, falls away.
    “…When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that a revelation from God –the Bible, for example – is necessary to ground morality. Nor are they arguing that in the absence of a reliable secular moral code we should bet on religion.
    Rather, the theist is pointing out that atheism cannot explain the existence of moral values and obligations. The simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power and moral experience is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for morality is deeply unconvincing….”

    For those trapped in religious cults, moral values are a gift from higher up the ranking. Anything else is inconceivable. And since the concept of morality is always wrapped in authority, the religious folk simply cannot conceive one without the other. To their eyes our professor Ceiling-Cat is playing god.
    For those who live by reason, it is necessary to be heard loud and clear that morality is not a gift from the authorities, but is best deduced by people themselves. And we have evidence. Their own bible is full of evidence with many examples of how the supposed authorities (mad prophets) simply made shit up, and try to pass it off as divine command. Their bible is a document excusing immoral acts, and cannot be considered a primer on basic morality. It lies like a long-dead donkey at the bottom of the drinking well, poisoning everyone who comes for a sip.
    If anybody tried to write a book on morality today which contained the nasty behaviour condoned by their bible, the book would be considered the ravings of a murdering psychopath. No need to go into detail; everybody now knows of the wickedness condoned by their bible.
    But there is more. How come the church itself has always concealed some of the most evil men and women of history? And how come it is the non-deists who have had to struggle to keep the holy men away from children? And how come that those religious organisations so full of deeply immoral men continue, with flourishes of audacity, to claim that only their world-view accounts for morality? Religion is a game of unlimited self-deception whereby deeply immoral men pose as men of integrity.
    See Religious Scandals in Wikipedia

  19. Richard Olson
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    ‘… cosmic, metaphysical status …’.

    This is a deepity new to me. It sounds like a collection of gibberish intended to escape classification as deepity while simultaneously expressing the ineffable of the ineffable dooh dah dooh dah day. In short, typical d*G-ist gibberish and a deepity through and through.

  20. Posted January 11, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    This is a superlative demonstration of how anything can be derived or justified when starting from incoherent or contradictory premises.

    b&

  21. Taz
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I see the cowards don’t allow comments.

  22. kelskye
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    If libertarian self-control is needed for moral responsibility, and alcohol reduces one’s self control, are we empirically obliged to reject the notion of moral responsibility? If not, how can we say we have libertarian self-control when our actual self-control varies by individual and by contingent factors?

  23. kelskye
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “The simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power and moral experience is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for morality is deeply unconvincing.”
    One of the things that pushed me towards moral scepticism was asking just what morality is. The theistic attempt at an ontological grounding of morality (morality is objective because it is held in the mind of God) is unsatisfying because it doesn’t actually use morality in the sense of it being practical. As they say, it’s a central feature of human existence, so why are we talking about a wholly unnatural reality of moral propositions? If one needs morality to have an objective existence but cannot find an objective existence in human experience, then how is the supernatural going to help?

    Though in terms of what best accounts for morality, that we evolved systems of thought for dealing with social issues seems adequate to explain how it is a central feature of human existence, and that it is illusory beyond its practical consequences seems to me to fit convincingly into a naturalistic worldview. People try to build morality into far more than it is, find that they’re asking too much of it, then appeal to God to make the concept make sense. Is it not enough to see morality as practical social reasoning?

  24. Vaal
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Nice take-down by Jerry.

    I think Jerry continues to take the right approach, a la Hitchens, which is: don’t let theists get away with their burden-shifting, and claims that, should secular morality fail, theism offers the ready alternative, easily “explaining morality.” The universe looks utterly amoral, revealed religious texts hardly bespeak the handiwork of a Perfect Being, and it seems a Perfect Being has been unable or unwilling to clear up the incredible amount of moral confusion.
    Literally NOTHING makes sense if you posit a Perfect Being behind the reality of our experience.

    From the article Jerry linked:

    . . . When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality,

    That has to be one of the most tiring aspects of dealing with Christians: that the new atheists are never arguing with what “Christians believe” because “Christians” actually believe whatever the particular Christian writing believes. Except that Christians believe all sorts of different things about Christianity and God.

    “By contrast, God would be a transcendent source of moral value: the very source we need to make sense of ethics.”

    First: saying it doesn’t make it so.

    Second: they’ve got it the wrong way around. God requires OUR characteristics in order for Him to do anything with purpose. When making up the concept of God, Christians are clearly importing OUR characteristics on to God. Try taking the very characteristics humans possess – having goals/desires, and the ability to deliberate about how to fulfill those desires – and notice how God wouldn’t be able to do anything with value, meaning or purpose without them.
    Invoking words like “transcendental” to distinguish God from us have nothing to do with this: One could posit a transcendental rock, and notice that adds nothing to the claim a rock would have purpose or meaningful actions, because a rock doesn’t have what humans already posses, to produce value and purpose. God needs our characteristics, not the other way around.

    “If everything else depends on God for its existence then the value that God has for everything else cannot be surpassed.”

    That is a simple assertion hanging in the wind, and it doesn’t answer the fundamental question about the nature of morality posed by those theists in the firs place.

    Why ought we value what God values? If God valued the torture of my child, how does it follow from God valuing it that I ought to value it?

    To answer “God is the Good” is simply begging the question, if you are smuggling into that “by good, I mean the things we ought to do/value.”

    There’s nothing as empty sounding as sneering theists when it comes to morality.

    Vaal

  25. darrelle
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Veale’s and Glass’s argument comes down to, morality is too hard for humans, therefore god. Typical of religious arguments.

    Also typical of religious arguments is the foundational contradiction of humans being wonderful, awesome, most favored, and yet all of the most interesting and important things are just too hard for humans to understand, so god takes care of all that for us.

    They always try so hard to make it sound so grand and wonderful. But, really, that is some seriously sick shit. If it were true the only ethical response, the only psychologically healthy response would be a determined “fuck you” directed at the creator dude.

  26. Posted January 11, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    “…Where this became more apparent to me was the recent discussion of missionaries and their true agendas. Christian missionaries don’t care to help the needy in Timbukto, they just need to fill some ridiculous quota for souls saved, or some such nonsense….”
    Ken (Letter 5)

    (As one of the few on this site who has been to Timbuktu,) I cannot concur with your analysis of the missionary’s motivations. In England many fine vicars (pastors) have been appointed to slum parishes and have worked tirelessly and, in shit conditions, for imaginary rewards in heaven. Around the world there have been countless missionaries of many faiths who have endangered themselves working for the poor and sick, out of altruism.

    I think we do well in being scrupulous in our observations (apart from humorous swipes at the religious). We do not want to resemble theologians who live a life of half-truths, deliberate distortions, and downright lies in support of their cult. We do not have a cult to defend, and so we can feel our way foreword honourably, by sticking to facts, and treading a steady path of reality.

    From our various corners of personal experience, we are coming to agreement in such a way that the religious tradition simply looks increasingly ridiculous, even to the true believers themselves. They are abandoning their old positions like a retreating army. I feel that reason and science are rapidly forging powerful new understandings, which work as unassailable platforms from which to dismiss the supernatural nonsense of three millennia.

    By the way Timbuktu is Moslem, and with a preponderance of warm and friendly people.

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Discussions about “moral responsibility” and “free will” almost invariably touches the idea of “self” or consciousness.

    It is therefore with interest that I was reading this recent neuroscience theory from Princeton University, which I’m putting out here for what it is worth. The theory connects the biological, evolutionary template to our model of “self”. It models this as a combination of two processes of attention: our modeling of what we focus our attention on, and our modeling of that focusing. Our combination of those processes would be our simplified model of awareness.

    In this context I am also reminded of when Jerry has described how ideas of “free will” are rejected by biological observations. Notably the brain forms decisions sometimes many seconds before we become aware of them. Again it suggests to me awareness could be our model of attention, here attention regarding the subject we decide on.

    As an aside, I wouldn’t touch the philosophical idea of “free will” with a stick even without the biological rejection. But I note that our related, simplified folk psychology model of “will”, that we are agents making decisions, are akin to the suggested simplified model of “awareness”. Both tries to cover complicated biological processes with the same success as Newton’s gravity, it works well within its area of validity but is not the most generic description.

    Instead of me expanding on the article at length, those who are interested can go and read it. I’m interested in neuroscience, but I’m naive on the research on consciousness so I don’t know its intrinsic value. It is such a simple, predictive model from biological template up so I’m nourishing hope that the problem of consciousness is in principle solved.

    But I want to close with 3 things:

    1. It is notable in the context of a religious discussion how all involved continually skewers “magic” and promotes computation. Here is an example:

    “”In this theory, the brain is an information-processing device. It doesn’t produce non-physical essences ["qualia"] — it computes information,” Graziano said.

    “We know that it accesses internal data and concludes that it has a ‘magical’ inner feeling. What scientific questions are we going to ask about that process,” Graziano said. “Most researchers wonder how the magic is produced, but I think that’s a red herring. Instead, I want to know the advantage of the brain computing an informational model of itself that contains an attribution of magic. Does it help to control behavior? How did it evolve? I want to know the systems in the brain that compute it, and what happens when those systems are damaged.””

    2. A reviewer describes this as the only theory that predicts both the “soft” and “hard” problems of the mind, how brain activity correlates with presence or absence of consciousness (“soft” problem) and how it produces consciousness (“hard” problem).

    “”Even if you think his theory is wrong, his theory reminds us that any theory that avoids the hard problem has almost certainly missed the mark, because a plausible solution—his theory—exists that does not appeal to magic or mysterious, as-yet-unexplained phenomena.””

    3. Two brain areas have been identified as the likely templates that creates our model of attention. It is the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the superior temporal sulcus (STS). It is interesting to ponder the evolution of such an ability, and to know what Jerry would have to say on it.

    The TPJ is situated between the temporal lobe, which processes sensory inputs, and the parietal lobe, which integrates sensory information. [Wikipedia] Having attention systems bridging these areas would not be surprising.

    Existence of templates doesn’t imply existence of ability. But as I understand Dean Falk’s review of hominin brain evolution [ http://deanfalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Hominin-paleoneurology.pdf ], the STS is ancestral in apes. While the TPJ is situated in an area that has undergone reorganization but has suggested homologs in other hominins: “Proposed homologs of human BA 40 and Tpt with chimp areas PF/PG (inferior parietal lobule) and TA (part of temporal lobe), respectively, are based on cytoarchitectonic and functional similarities and are tentative.” [Fig. 2 text.] The reorganized TA – TPJ – likely appears latest in australopithecines.

    It is likely then that when chimps are seen focus attention they are displaying their awareness – our evolutionary shared hominin consciousness.

    Of course, there should be degrees of consciousness. Since the TPJ helps organize language and manipulation in particular, one could hypothesize that both social and technical evolution has driven evolution of consciousness (and vice versa of course). Our eye whites that facilitates awareness of other’s people attention is one likely outcome. I’m also reminded of the recent find that contrary to what one may think, human brains handle toes much more like our hands compared to likely generic chimp feet clumping of toe handling. It seems that balancing during walking is much more in need of attention, at least during learning, than simply grasping.

    It is also interesting to ponder people who shows different awareness than most of the distribution, autistic people having problems with being aware of faces say.

    • Posted January 12, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Thank you! That is exactly the model of consciousness I envision — a sort of recursive self-reflecting meta-analysis.

      I’ll have to study their work in more depth.

      Thanks!

      b&

  28. Vaal
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    BTW,

    Prof. Coyne, thank you for recommending
    “Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility.”

    I now intend to pick that one up. I’d be very interested to find a compelling argument
    for that position.

    Vaal.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      And I meant to add (looking at the descriptions/reviews of the book): it will be interesting to see if you (Prof. Coyne) will also be swayed at all by Bruce Waller’s argument that, while we can’t maintain moral responsibility, nonetheless we can have Free Will.

      • Posted January 11, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

        Waller’s theory of “free will” seems to me lame, though I don’t want to argue about it here. In essence, it is that sometimes humans and other animals deviate from what would be a “normal” decision because it is adaptive for them to do so. For instance, a bear who makes the rounds of berry patches may, once in a while, go exploring because it may find a new berry patch that it would have missed.

        But this is nothing other than evolutionarily programmed (or learned) behavioral variation that is adaptive. It is not a “decision” in the normal sense, but a programmed or learned deviation from what one might (with imperfect knowledge) predict. So it doesn’t seem like “free will” in any meaningful sense, and, in fact, Waller doesn’t push it very hard. It is if even he is not convinced by this part of his argument It’s just one more lame form of compatibilism. He is pretty much a hard determinist otherwise, and, for example, dismantles Dennett’s arguments for compatibilist free will. And Waller’s evisceration of the idea of “moral responisibility” is powerful, as is his arguments that we need to reform our system of praise and reward–something I’ve agreed with, but not in the way Waller sees it. He may indeed be right that the way we praise and blame needs to be drastically modified to be made more effective.

        I may post on all this, but it’s complicated, and I need to finish the book first. And, at any rate, I don’t want to squabble about Waller’s “free will” right now.

        • Vaal
          Posted January 12, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          Sounds good. Thanks!

          Vaal

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        It’s on my to-read list so if the author is making the argument for free will we’ll see if I’m swayed. :)

  29. Posted January 12, 2014 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    The Problem of Consciousness has been Solved!
    Intriguing to read of the supposed advances in knowledge outlined by Torbjorn Larsson. OM, above. But Neuroscience is a mistake. The same kind of mistake one would expect of Stone-Age men looking at a Ferrari.
    The problem of consciousness has been solved, but those who have an interest in knowing about it are intellectually incapable of accepting the solution for interesting reasons. It all parallels 1859 when pretty-well all scientists were religious. Many were interested in the reasons for the diversity of ‘created’ life, but their false assumptions upon gods and creation precluded them from looking at the secular idea of evolution. Darwin and Wallace slipped away from traditional assumptions concerning gods, and went to look for themselves. And their actions emphasise a great truth of this world, that you can derive very little knowledge from a book-lined study!
    And so it is today. Almost exactly the same. Those who want to know about consciousness cannot know! First I’ll explain what it is, and then I shall explain why this idea is unavailable to academics.
    Consciousness is the booting-up of the brain based upon a seemingly arbitrary set of assumptions concerning the nature of world around us. It is shocking that our adolescent assumptions are arbitrary, but it is typical that the living world really works by trial and error, and not by central planning. So, human consciousness looks to be shockingly arbitrary, based, as it is, upon assumptions drawn from the family life of the adolescent. (So you see that religion is NOT a matter of indoctrination, but is a copying and calibration error of the brain. The adolescent brain, developing near religion, may absorb religious assumptions such as the false ‘fact’ that we live in an intentional universe)
    And so to the brain. It is a calculating machine, but it is dedicated to forming ‘Solution-Ideologies’ that attempt to reconcile the false assumptions of the brain with the qualia or experiences of the world around us. That is why the great intellectual cults of our times; religion, the Social Sciences, the justification for the Humanities, – all have similar characteristics; chiefly the appearance of forming ice-palaces of logical possibility unconnected to this planet, its objects and its processes.
    Science is an interesting aberration whereby those suffering from Asperger’s fail to interact with family and therefore fail to absorb traditional assumptions. He or she may go on to ‘reconstruct reality’ outside the mass belief of his peers; always trusting on observation and experiment rather than on second-hand beliefs. In a sense science is a strategy for coping with information by applying a naïve eye to things with no preconceptions.
    Human beings are not homogeneous. There is stark diversity in brain functions. It is a shock to know that there are several incompatible Brain Operating Systems. By the workings of Social Self-Selection (SSS) those with similar Brain Operating Systems tend to cluster; a bus-load of pastors; a convention of atheists; a a Collider of physicists!
    Here’s the thing. The strangest and most powerful cluster concerns Drones. That is a third of any population, anywhere in the world, that roughly runs along the ‘Cleric-Admin-Professional-Educational’ spectrum. Most academics outside the sciences are Drones. They are people who from a young age come to believe that there is a rigid authority-structure, and that they best self-actualise as people by identifying that structure of authority and finding their place within it. Drones live and work in hierarchical institutions; the church, offices, academia, accountancy, IT, Law, medicine, – anywhere where there is a hierarchy of authority with rigid placements within that hierarchy, by position or by qualification. Drones universally trust the ‘sacred texts’ of their profession; the accumulated wisdom, and then the rules, laws, guidelines, best-practices, and conventions. Diverse figures of history such as Hegel, Kant and Rawls, (all Drones) have tried to codify and enshrine their proclivities in reality, and psychologists are trying to do the same thing today.
    Drones probably developed as a feature of society sixty thousand years ago, and have been instrumental in the survival of the human race. It is because of a curious aberrations; the ability to make group decisions that do not necessarily benefit the individual but which benefit the tribe! Such as passing-on education. Becoming a healer and treating others. Above all, by becoming an administrator that oversees the viability of the group, by, for example, storing and distributing food for winter. That is why we survived, and Neanderthals who evidently did not have Drones within them, did not.
    Drones tend to identify themselves with their groups by uniform of by ritual forms of behaviour. On account of their allegiances to those higher in the hierarchy, they lose the ability to use individual thoughts and observations that clash with the authority view. Most academics are elaborate time-wasters, ever looking to justify traditional beliefs, often with mock experiments, just as theologians did in the last century or two.
    Drones lose the ability to ‘Process Experiential Information’. That is why it is a waste of time presenting ‘facts’ to them. For them, all knowledge comes from authority, and not from observation. And they are great users of ‘Solution-Ideologies’, ever trying to justify the glaring discrepancies between their beliefs, and the living world outside their door.

    By inventing hierarchies of which they are a member. Drones have invented gods, kings, emperors, and democracy itself. Drones are never leaders, but they are enablers of leadership. But on account of the fact that their brains are dedicated to forming ‘Solution-Ideologies’ they simply cannot get a grip with the practical world around them.
    ‘Human Sub-Set Theory’ is not a sudden hypothesis. It is not from a book-lined study. It is the result of years of travel; forty years abroad, doing such things as sitting cross-legged with a group of Imams in Muslim Africa, where they open ragged religious books the size of table-tops, and talk with me in French about the origins of their beliefs. Or attending classes on Political Philosophy in UC Santa Cruz, and identifying the mistaken underpinning of the teacher’s ideas.
    It is supported by a mountain of evidence, and collected in a book of 2,200 pages, which, for those who do not know, is the size of ten books, called ‘Origins of Belief and Behaviour’. All evidence. Don’t tell me that you are shocked at the suggestion that new knowledge comes not from Harvard, but from a kind of peripatetic adventurer of the mind who travelled this globe with open eyes! It should be just as expected! Even though I might be wrong on some or all of the hypothesis.
    Once again, most contemporary intellectuals are so heavy with the baggage of philosophy and the Social Sciences, that these theories, that may possibly come to dominate future understanding of humankind, must lie dormant for future generations who have not been suckered into the Social Sciences.

  30. Posted January 12, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Eh, I think you’re approaching the subject from a much higher level of abstraction.

    The question isn’t whether or not people live examined lives, which is what you’re ruminating on. The question here, rather, is the origin and nature of our perception of self. Right now, as in every waking moment of every day of your life, you’ve got a running monologue (at least) going on in your head. Who’s doing the speaking? Who’s doing the listening? When you’re struggling with difficult decisions, who’s fighting whom? When controlling your thoughts, such as with contemplative meditation, who’s doing the controlling and who’s the incessant chatterbox always going off on tangents?

    What these researchers are suggesting is that, similar to how “mirror neurons” enable us to build our own internal models of other people and what we think they’re thinking, we also build similar internal models of our own internal thought processes — and that it’s with these models-of-models where consciousness and self-awareness arise.

    This has nothing at all to do with how people actually use their self-awareness; it’s just an explanation for what self-awareness actually (perhaps) is.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted January 12, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Ben, thanks for the information. I didn’t mean to suggest that it was anything to do with examined or unexamined lives. That was not in my thoughts. That was clearly a misunderstanding. Maybe I phrased it poorly.
      I suggested that most people are not reflective upon their life in this world. Maybe I should have said that most people are not reflective upon their individuation.
      I was looking at the idea of self-awareness, and that researchers in this area assume that all people have the capacity to make models of models. I was from the poor Working Classes, and my parents seemed to have little idea of themselves. They seemed to have had no models of themselves; nor of anyone else. Nor were they that interested. They seemed to concentrate purely upon their needs, and not upon discovering their identity. When I once spoke of such things my mother suggested that I talk to a psychiatrist! There were no inner consultations, or self-image building. I learned to keep quiet about my constant sense of model-making, which changed so very rapidly through adolescence. Nor did friends and neighbours or anybody at school have inner monologue. It seemed to me that the act of inner self-reflection was thought to be distasteful, and most were not even aware that it was a possibility. The very basis of their thoughts seemed to have been assumed from outside themselves and absorbed without reflection. There was no inner monologue. No inner ‘magic’. In my travels in many cultures I was always surprised at the widespread lack of interest in self-identity. Maybe that concern of identity is a very Western Middle-Class thing.
      My departure from Attention Schema Theory is that for me, consciousness (and the inner monologues of consciousness) are based upon a constant referral of all new thoughts or experiences to fundamental assumptions of the brain. And we have considerable evidence for that. There is a dialogue, not between a listener and a talker, but between an observer and the matrixes of ‘reality’ held in the stockroom of the brain. And since most people have an active spiritual life, those brain matrices are deliciously flawed with assumptions of supernatural beings. There is no natural appraisal of the external world (eyes as hands!) There is only comparison of what has been, rightly or wrongly, stored in the brain as absolutes, against what has been heard or perceived.
      It has always seemed to me that so many people hold such very different stockroom contents. Often, as I say, those stockrooms have a considerable clutter of spiritual, supernatural and superstitious maquettes.
      The two (or more) serious objections remain; that Consciousness Theory should be drawn from universal experience, and not upon the singularity of the atypical brain operating systems of those socially self-selected into the research group. Always consider the paucity of research into mainstream intellectual processes, and the over-concentration of research applied to Psych students. And that there are many differing kinds of consciousness of self; that of men and women being only one example.
      Finally the use of scanners in research (rather than wider travel and conversation) suggest to me Stone-Age man confronting a Ferrari with a stone hand-axe as the tool of investigation.

      • Posted January 12, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Again, that’s not the level this is about.

        When somebody says, “I think she’s angry at me,” what is the nature of the I and the she and how does the brain construct the perceptions of each in a way that makes such cognition happen?

        That’s the type of models being discussed.

        And all people most emphatically do have an inner monologue. Next time you ask, “A penny for your thoughts,” and somebody replies with something other than “None of your business!” you’ll hear a fragment of said inner monologue out loud. “I was just thinking about what to get at the grocery store,” might not be an especially earth-shattering inner monologue, but it’s very real.

        These researchers are trying to understand how one can be aware of thinking about what to get at the grocery store, and their suggestion is that it’s by a similar mechanism by which one might suspect that “she’s angry at me.” In each case, the proposal is that the brain has (quite unconsciously) built an inner virtual reality model of sorts. One is of “her” with a reconstruction that resolves to, “angry,” and the other is of the “self,” with an half-baked grocery list. The “self” virtual reality, of course, will be more sophisticated and otherwise privileged over all the “others,” but, algorithmically (and, again, I must stress, unconsciously), it’s a variation on the same theme.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted January 13, 2014 at 4:58 am | Permalink

          Ben, thanks for the thought. I might be wrong, but I feel that it contains a confusion between two separate activities.
          I suggested that one pay attention to the paucity of research upon mainstream brain activity. So often research is confined to psych students who are rare and untypical. Psych students usually Socially Self-Select to go into psychology as a leap of ideology, usually to try to reconcile a false reality in their heads with the contradictory world outside their heads. Psychology grew from the same roots as Nazism and communism, and it is predicated upon the belief that there is one idealised form of thinking and being, and that one form is best herded under strong leadership whereby individual thoughts are expunged in favour of wider social demands. All forms of psychological counselling move to deny personality and individuality in favour of group approved ways of being. And one can recognise religion in there, somewhere.
          To the difference between thoughts and consciousness.
          There are commonly thoughts, and there is rarely an inner monologue. Everybody has thoughts, but a minority (the Middle Classes, perhaps) have a continuous inner monologue. It is sometimes seen as an inner virtual reality. And it is usually mistaken to be a healthy piece of human cerebral activity. But that monologue is not about nothing. It is usually about finding one’s place within an intrusive and rather threatening external world. Among research scientists such an inner sense of self has been diverted toward recognising an external reality not of one’s own making. You obviously had a deal of internal monologue when considering how to counter my ideas, and similarly, I sat in bed considering your ideas. We are both working towards a triumphant understanding (which may actually be the same understanding!)
          The plain thoughts are obviously practical and forward-planning, but the inner monologue, -in my observations of human activity, – seems usually to be the process of building a ‘solution-ideology’ by comparing externally-intruding qualia with the assumptions of the brain, and finding a way to reconcile the two mutually destructive pieces of information. Religion offers a startling example of this process.
          In the brain the intrusive external information must be reconciled with the religious assumption of an intentional universe, run by gods.
          By contrast, Science offers a startling example of the abandonment of building a solution-ideology in favour of a tentative resort of going to look for information (not evidence)
          There are several cerebral techniques to enable ideology-building process. The most important are denial and avoidance techniques. This is the first line of action of monasteries and campuses. The researchers at Princeton will obviously go out of their way NOT to read any objections to their ideas. Unlike the sciences which are a dialogue, the Social Sciences are closed and secretive. They only let fly their considered beliefs, and not the many steps leading to those beliefs. For example do you think that any researcher into psychology has any idea of his atypicallity (neologism!) as a thinker in this world? That is a significant matter when considering the viability of anything proposed in psychology. Everybody feels himself to be a genius when locked in his own book-lined study, and without access to what others know. It is the difference between Darwin who travelled the world, and the Bishop of Oxford who stayed at home reading through the eight million words of Aquinas. The first produced magnificent observations; the second augmented in his writings a solution-ideology by means of exponential error dispersion. (The more he thought, the more wrong he became!)
          Another technique on the way to the formation of solution ideologies is the deliberate limiting of observation to one’s own circle. Since all Social Science academics think the same, there is obviously danger there. That is a mighty element in developing historic fantasy. But here, a caveat. When you discover a nest of psychologists, as I have done, around a pool in California, and you mention to them that they all think alike, and that they share false beliefs about the world, they will explode with anger, and berate you with information of just how different they are, one to another. This is called the ‘bus-load of pastors fallacy’ whereby those in the bus will insist upon the variation among the group, where an outsider sees only astonishing uniformity of thought, appearance and belief.
          And there are more characteristics which I have considered elsewhere, such as the denial of personality and individuality by pretending that one is a kind of perfect thinking machine. The culturing of ‘dissembling’, known principally from the religious, where deliberate lies and half-truths are promulgated in support of one’s inner convictions. I have listed about 120 techniques of developing a ‘solution-ideology’ in my writings. Several are familiar to us all but in another context.
          So, you suggest that models of models are a legitimate objective of the ‘magical’ inner monologue of smart people, and I am suggesting that such an activity is not so admirable since it is more often than not simply the brain activity toward the building of false belief. And I suggest that the same inner voice is present in dreams, constantly reconciling the intrusional (neologism) thoughts and experiences of the day to the fundamental ideology holding our individual equilibrium and sanity together. And that same inner voice is thought by the religious, their gods talking to them. Their reality is that gods are real, conversational beings. Not good evidence for the probity of the magical inner monologue.
          The bottom line is something called ‘The Rate of Information-Flow’. By ‘information’ in this context I simply means exposure to unsought and casual information, rather than evidence to prove a point. Not a typical human activity. Most, especially those who work in the Social Sciences, and in religions, are collectors of supporting evidence. But a few, like Darwin and Feynman (and our host, JAC) sweep the world with a fine flea comb to discover the fleas of dissent to their understandings. Remarkable just how many of the topics raised upon the JAC website are toward tearing down excrescences of ideological thinking.
          Science is sceptical, even on the subject of its own comfortable understandings. When the Princeton research Group give me a call, then I might be persuaded that they are serious. Meanwhile the building of false ideologies within campuses continues at a rate.
          Finally, I look forward to the day in which academic Social Sciences begin their great reformation, like the change from astrology to astronomy; like the change from alchemy to chemistry; like the change from the Four Humours Theory of bodily health to Germ-Theory. The proposed new names reflect the importance of observation over ideology. Psychology should become Psychography, and Sociology should become Sociography, and they should send to the four corners of the world to gather information, particularly from dissenters. In other words they increase their rate of Information-Flow as Darwin did so spectacularly.
          I might be wrong, of course.


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