It was never the plan for this blog, but I’ve found myself several times writing about morals (for example: here, here, and very recently here). In those posts I touched on what morality means and how we might define it. I make no claim to breaking new ground or having anything particularly insightful to say — just my 1/50th of a buck based on my own observations, thoughts, and experiences.
The last week or so a set of three thought threads wound through the loom of my mind and seemed to form an interesting fabric. They have to do with the nature of morals, the usefulness of reason, and our modern sense of otherness.
Today I’m going to try to make something out of that fabric.
When people talk about the human experience, a common topic has to with the nature of morals. It’s a rich topic with no easy answers and perhaps no definitely correct answers. As with many of the more interesting questions, it has many facets.
Just trying to pin down the definition of the words involved can be difficult, let alone trying to explore the ideas behind those words. For now, I’ll define morals as a code expressing how we ought to behave, and here I’ll make no distinction between morals, ethics, or social mores.
Morals, then, are ideas we have about living life correctly.
In the context of religious or spiritual thought, morals are seen as objective and absolute, and their source is external — typically given by God(s). In the context of secular thought, morals are (often) seen as subjective and relative, and their source is internal — they’re things we make up or discover.
Some secular thinkers seek objective and absolute grounds for morality, but this has proved a tough nut to crack. The problem is that without a teleology, it’s hard to find that grounding. If existence just is, where is the ought?
The question I’ve been pondering is: Why is that?
What is it within us that leads to ideas of fairness, justice, and equality? Why do we altruistically seek to make life better for the species and not just ourselves? Is it merely, as some suggest, game theory — a realization of quid pro quo?
Is it possible that higher reason — higher intelligence — leads inexorably to morality? (This, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily mean religion is wrong. Our capacity for higher reason may yet turn out to be a gift from God. That is still very much an open question.)
Which takes me to the second thread: The usefulness of reason.
An idea floating around is that we actually decide things at a “gut level” and then use reason to justify those beliefs. I question this on several levels.
I don’t disagree it’s a feature of human thought. For example, there are a variety of experiments where test subjects account for lack of conscious knowledge by rationalizing an explanation. Other studies show other parts of the brain lighting up prior to conscious decision-making.
What I question is the implication that, therefore, reason is somehow secondary to emotional bias or preconceptions or hard-wiring. We live in an era where reason is often devalued over emotion, and this is a frequent point in many arguments (and, frankly, it really bugs me).
Arguments based on… reason. From studies and analysis based on… reason.
The effectiveness of science shows us the effectiveness of reason. The beauty of science is that it is self-correcting because of reason. Science proceeds despite scientists because of reason.
Reason is what gives us the tools to overcome our emotional biases. In the same way that science spirals in on correct answers to physical problems, reason allows us to discover correct answers to human ones.
Rationalizations can be demonstrated to be inconsistent through reason in exactly the same way that mistakes in science are.
The triumph of reason over emotion seems charted in the moral progress of the world as a whole. While we still have a long ways to go, the general trend has been towards a more moral world. A lot of this comes from our growing knowledge and application of reason.
Here’s a very interesting animated TED video that explores this:
I should point out that reason and logic are not quite the same thing. Logic is hard mathematics, but reason encompasses the human condition. As such, compassion and empathy are part of reason.
I’ll also point out that reason is only effective when we allow ourselves to be as self-correcting as science. Reason is only effective when we use it and pay attention to its results.
There is also that reasoning can deliver different results depending on your point of view. The world is far too complex for single answers that apply universally. A reasoned conservative view and a reasoned progressive view will differ due to different initial premises.
That is exactly as it should be, and reason allows us to blend these views in productive ways. Emotional back and forth bickering certainly does not. At some point, reason allows us to say, “Well, we disagree here, and both are arguments are valid, so let’s find a way to embrace both views.”
The connection with the first two threads is, perhaps, a bit tenuous, and may be more connected with my irritation about the idea that reason is trumped by bias or emotion (which is just a non-starter with me).
Brin writes about the Dogma of Otherness — our modern tendency to insist “that all voices deserve a hearing, that all points of view have something of value to offer.” We are the first society with a dogma that rejects dogmas.
We think, for example, that maybe dolphins are as smart as us — maybe even smarter — but we’re just not equipped to understand their awesome intelligence. This persists despite thorough research strongly indicating that, while dolphins are plenty smart, even the brightest of them lacks the problem-solving skills of a human toddler.
The flip side of this, often expressed in science fiction, is the idea that aliens might be so different from us that we would be unable to communicate with them, maybe even be unable to recognize them as intelligent (exactly as we “fail” to recognize dolphin high intelligence).
I think this is wrong.
I think there is something transcendental about intelligence that makes it recognizable to any other intelligence.
Mathematics and art are two key ways intelligence seems to express itself, and we see very little of that in the animal kingdom. (We do see some crude signs of possible art in chimps, but nothing in the way of mathematics.)
As many do, I believe mathematics is the starting point of communication with any putative alien race. It’s hard to imagine any intelligent species lacking mathematics. The moment we recognize classes of things, the requirement of counting is inevitable. (The moment we recognize is and is-not we’ve stepped into binary.)
But back to Brin. The intent is not to reject other views, other ways of thinking, but to recognize that all ideas are not equal. Some are irrational and demonstrably so. A common approach among the thoughtful is that ideas must stand scrutiny.
It is the transcendental nature of intelligence and reason that gives us the tools to scrutinize our ideas. The proof of this lies in the efficacy of science. Incorrect theories are eventually proven false.
Simply put, reason works. It may be the source of our ever-growing moral sensibility. It’s possible that it makes us very special, perhaps even unique, at least in this galaxy.
And, just maybe, it’s a gift from whatever created us.
Whatever it is, reason seems precious and powerful. It’s something we must embrace, encourage, and foster.