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April 08, 2009

Comments

On reflection, a better analogy might have been math. I am very intuitive about math and logic: I often feel I just know that something in logic is provable, and have some idea of where a proof might be found, though not what the proof is. (For this reason, in my logic study group I was known as "the scofflaw": I would rely on my sense of what general approach would work, whether or not it had much of anything to do with what we were supposed to be doing.) I was generally right, though on occasion I have been just certain of something that was in fact wrong, most notably in junior high when I flatly refused to believe that .999999 repeating was 1.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that everyone was this way: everyone just sees which mathematical and logical claims are true, given some set of premisses. Would this show anything at all about the role of reason in justifying those claims? Of course not -- you always have to back it up with proof, and in fact what I was intuitive about was the existence of proofs.

I was wondering if you'd post about this. I posted as well (with extra credit points for mentioning a famous philosopher!)

Did you see the comment (#78) that mentions neo-Kantians? I think he was the only one that got into the justification issue.

Some of the comments were truly bizarre.

I'm not sure exactly what Brooks was trying to establish. I agree that he's confusing what people are doing when they're "doing" morality with what philosophers are doing when they're philosophizing about it. That's obvious from the first paragraph. I took the title to be a riff on "the purpose of philosophy". It's a throwaway.

I do think that there's a sort of point in saying that the way we actually make moral judgements challenges philosophical theories that assert that we ought to use reason when making moral judgements. I think a lot of people see something like the categorical imperative as a calculation akin to the tennis player performing rigid-body physics calculations on the ball. If nothing else, the way our brains work delimits what is possible for us to do.

I have heard that the more mathematical intelligence you have, the more likely you are to reject the 0.999 repeating thing. I'm not sure if that's true, but it's definitely amusing.

In a minor interdisciplinary point, a friend of mine uses an extremely similar analogy to explain why linguistics (as a field) is useful when people can speak just fine; he used football rather than tennis, but the principle is the same.

David Brooks: Colbert for people who need long-winded pretentious versions of "I argue straight from the gut."

And who don't realize Colbert is a parody.

I think hilzoy's views in high school are much more interesting than David Brooks. hilzoy, were you willing to accept that 1/3 = 0.333...? If so, how did you cope with people who pointed out that 3 x 1/3 = 1? (Hence surely 3 x 0.333... = 0.999... = 1)

The thing is, the ancient Greeks would surely have taken your side. If they were "wrong", just what were they wrong about? Does reason dictate that infinite sums make sense?

how do we make moral judgments on the fly?

the same way we do everything else on the fly: brains are great at finding parallels between what the current situation and previous situations (even though those parallels sometimes turn out to be pretty askew); so we automatically find a parallel situation from our past, and apply the past solution.

Hilzoy I agree with what you're trying to say but a quibble: at the end of the day laws of the universe really aren't apples to apples comparison of human social constructs.

We can drop Venus Williams into any period of human history and with her ability to subconsciously internalize the laws of the universe she'd still be an impressive athlete.

But since moral constructs are subjective and entirely relative it's extremely unlikely she'd have the chance to demonstrate that in practically any of those time periods except the last three decades. Moral judgements are not absolute, despite the insistence of folks like Larison and Dreher, and therefore not subject to reflexive subconscious evaluation to always yield the "correct" answer.

Summary: Brooks' point is actually more accurately phrased even if I disagree with his message.

(It's easier to be a physicist than a social scientist. I suspect most physicists would commit hari kari before they could accept a universe with entirely relative metrics.)

Brooks' point is actually more accurately phrased even if I disagree with his message.

really?

because when i read the article, all i heard him saying was: Scientists, philosophers and theologists agree that scientists and atheists and are wrong; there really is a human soul, and it lives in the places science hasn't (and can't! hah!) figured out.

Declaring the end of philosophy is just about as old as philosophy itself. Protagoras or Gorgias or another of the sophist fathers said "with one hand I take philosophy away from you and with the other I give you sophism." That didn't quite work out.

"really?"

Really. I don't read that at all. I don't see anything in his writing asserting a soul.

He laid out a logic trail: people started as animals with visceral emotional reactions, and that those reactions evolved over time as natural selection preferred group-friendly reactions that preserved the species, and we eventually developed a strongly sentient mind that overlays and second-guesses the emotional core.

That scientists, atheists, and "Talmudists" (I assume he uses them as placeholders for religious players) all think they have the ultimate objective answer when in fact they are all rationalizing/projecting deeply subconscious emotions.

His entire article can be summarized here when he said: "We are all the descendents of successful cooperators."

I'm not completely agreeing with him, just noting that it is a reasonable logic trail.

I don't entirely agree with him as I think all too often people confuse mechanism with purpose.

Atheists point at the mechanism of evolution to make the untenable conclusion there is no G-d. Atheism is just another belief system subject to bias.

Many deeply devout religious folks are so wedded to primitive texts they refuse to accept that mechanisms uncovered by the Scientific Method may actually be the tools of a Creator.

A true scientist, whether in the hard or soft fields, would be a pure agnostic. That so many trained intellectuals feel the need to decide on the unprovable simply underscores that they are not as objective and rationalize as they too need to believe.

Regardless, we're all of us to one degree or another simply rationalizing our subconscious drives. When as Jackson Browne once noted, "Looking into their eyes I seem them running too."

"since moral constructs are subjective and entirely relative"

Has this been established? If so, where?

"(It's easier to be a physicist than a social scientist...."

Well, yes. Humans make absolutely terrible experimental subjects, introducing all kinds of errors with their perverse actions. Subatomic particles are much easier to work with.

"...I suspect most physicists would commit hari kari before they could accept a universe with entirely relative metrics.)"

While I don't think you mean it that way, your use of the terms "relative" and "metric" rings all kinds of (physics) bells.

We live in an entirely relative (relativistic) universe, the shape and evolution of which is governed by the metric. Cf. "Einstein, A., General Relativity, 1916." Most physicists alive today are entirely comfortable with that view, and in fact would give you funny looks if you proposed an "absolute" universe.

It may make amateur philosophers and conservitive hack pundits uncomfortable to live in a universe with no center, no absolute space, time, or rest state.

Tough.

"Atheism is just another belief system subject to bias"

Atheism is subject to bias but it is not a belief system. Are new born babies athiests? They are without belief. Brooks thinks rapture is as valid as reason.

(It's easier to be a physicist than a social scientist. I suspect most physicists would commit hari kari before they could accept a universe with entirely relative metrics.)

Posted by: Observer

Mmmmm . . . not so much, I think. I suspect it's more a matter of switching between different metrics on an ad hoc after-the-fact basis. I guess that's why most of my physics buds(actually, we're running buds, training for the Chicago marathon this fall) tend to be 'liberal' in the sense that they don't accept American-style capitalism on the strength of 'the magic of the marketplace' while simultaneously arguing that some institutions should get a helping hand from Uncle Sammy by virtue of what they represent.

Actually, maybe it's just selection bias, but most of the scientist types I know are 'liberal'. Bearing in mind that we're talking about mathematicians, physicists, biologists, an odd chemist, is this the case with other people here?

I suspect that the Bush administrations assaults on the scientific community didn't help much to recruit these types of professionals to their cause.

Has this been established? If so, where?

I don't think it's been established, but I think Observer is making a good point.

The physicist who predicts the motion of a tennis ball using mathematical formulas is doing physics. The physicist who asserts that the universe is mathematical in nature is overreaching.

Similarly, the philosopher using reason to puzzle over moral issues is fine. The philosopher that asserts that there are moral truths out there that reason can be used to discover is overreaching.

I don't know if Brooks was really talking about this in his article, but it's a way more interesting topic :).

This physics/tennis thing reminds me a bit of intuition/understanding. Intuition occasionally is wrong, and needs to be retrained. Intuition is something akin to what tennis players do; some understanding of how things move isn't necessarily required, but it attained through multiple observations of how they in fact behave. It fails, though, in situations where no such observational data has been collected, or in situations where the observational data doesn't make sense, because (possibly) the model isn't immediately obvious. Once understanding occurs, you now have a model with which to be able to predict (for example) motion of an object under certain conditions (e.g. if I notice that my opponent has hit the ball thus, I know that a particular spin has been imparted to the ball that will cause it to behave a certain way on the bounce). Once your brain gets trained to do this automatically (without conscious thought), you now have a better-trained intuition.

Side note: I think all of this business of ending things is fairly silly. It's nearly a fad, these days, to consider major areas of thinking completely settled; closed off, or to think that we're on the brink of some huge paradigm shift that will Forever Change The Way We Look At The World. Singularity. Or (and this is really my favorite, even though it occurs in fiction) the Knowledge Crash, which is this proposal (IIRC) that things have gotten so complicated that human beings can no longer properly function in any broad sense, but are instead limited to learning narrow fields of knowledge. The chief bit of evidence that the Knowledge Crash has already occurred is that no one knows whether it has or not.

The Ring of Charon, I think.

If Brooks were a well-regarded philosopher, I'd tend to pay attention to what he has to say about things a bit more. As it is: who has the time?

Most physicists alive today are entirely comfortable with that view, and in fact would give you funny looks if you proposed an "absolute" universe.

I agree -- but do you think there are still a lot of physicists who believe that there "immutable, transcendent, universal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that rule the universe with as sure a hand as that of any god"?

This "Platonist" way of thinking about the universe used to be pretty common. And a similar way of thinking about moral truths used to be fairly common in Philosophy.

Has this been established? If so, where?

Well I'm not a philosopher or a scientist of any stripe. I am however an amateur historian and historical theologist.

There are still pockets in our modern times where slavery is acceptable, where female oppression is practiced and enforced equally by men and women, where murder of innocents is indoctrinated to children by all members of the family, ad nauseum.

This behavior is not isolated to a few freaks living on the fringe of civilization. All too often they are the predominate culture of the area with centuries of reinforcing these beliefs.

I think that pretty much confirms there is no universally accepted absolute moral constructs. It's besides the point if another cohort has a different set of "absolute morality".

Are new born babies athiests? They are without belief. Brooks thinks rapture is as valid as reason.

They aren't born with much of anything, up to and including the ability to see anything more than fuzzy shapes. Let's not confuse larvae with fully matured organisms.

Brooks doesn't qualitatively equate reason with rapture. He's observing that both are susceptible to emotional bias. If I say some people like both cats and dogs I'm not saying cats are dogs and dogs are cats.

The physicist who predicts the motion of a tennis ball using mathematical formulas is doing physics. The physicist who asserts that the universe is mathematical in nature is overreaching.

That's exactly what I was getting at. FWIW I'm current on all Brian Greene's popularist books and am currently plowing through Lisa Randall's "Warped Passages".

I like Randall's tone, the admission that mathematical models are by definition incomplete and subject to emotional projection. She's quick to point out the brittleness of "constants". (Snarki made the same point) But her field is not observable physics, not engineering.

Philosophy and morality are not equivalent of course and even more susceptible to projection. A physicist can tweak a "constant" and immediately see where the model fails to reflect the observable universe (M-theory not a relevant example).

But for a philosopher to "tweak a constant" the danger is greater since human nature is so variable and consistent in its inconsistency. It's a real science but one that requires a more nuanced peer rigor.

Which takes us back to Brooks. There are no great ultimately objective truths. And human morality is, as he put it, more of an aesthetic. We know it when we see it, but "we" are not the same cohort across time and space.

I've blogged my reaction to Brooks's column here. I have 4 main criticisms -- here's one of them:

Brooks lists about 10 or 20 different values and, following the fashion among present-day intellectuals, announces with a flourish they're all rooted in evolution. There's reason -- but also emotions! There's competition -- but also cooperation! Individuals -- community! And to make sure you remember that Brooks is a conservative, he lists "loyalty, respect, traditions, religions."

Well, if you list enough different facets of human behavior and attribute all of them to "evolution," it's almost a foregone conclusion that you can find moral goodness somewhere in evolution.

But Brooks isn't just taking nature as he finds it. Even assuming he's correct in everything he describes as evolutionary, there are also lots of evil behavior that are easy to explain in evolutionary terms (a few examples spring to mind: theft, rape, murder, war). One way or another, he has to sift through the good and bad in order to isolate what he considers good.

How can he do that if he doesn't have some preconception of what's good?

For instance, he says:

The evolutionary approach ... leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.
Now, in that sentence, he's clearly viewing morality as much more than just a bundle of "aesthetic" reactions. He has a set of fundamental concepts ("individual responsibility," "goodness ... as an end in itself"), and he's using them to analyze what kind of behavior counts as morally good.

Isn't there a term for that approach? Isn't it called "moral philosophy"? Or "moral reasoning"?

As much as he might like to draw a clear line between his view of morality vs. what "philosophers" do by using "reason," he himself is doing philosophy and relying on reason.

As a side note, let me add that I prefer Randall's style to Greene's(not that Greene is bad at what he does.) She seems a bit more nuanced, as you say. I admit I caught some of that atrocious PBS series 'The Elegant Universe', so maybe I'm letting a little prejudice bleed off.

Is there a reason why these shows tend to be so awful? Is it just a PBS phenomenon?

I prefer Randall too but she has an inexplicable fixation on metro rail in this book. Greene reminds me Sagan in his worse moments, preachy without Sagan's gift for poetry. But I like reading Greene also. Both do a great job of thumbnailing topics for my feeble mind.

It's a PBS phenomenon that science has to be goofy to be mainstreamed. Distracting, one of the reasons I watch so little TV.

But then PBS has slipped quite a bit. I blame the shift to corporate sponsorship. For crying out loud, there was a NOVA episode this week on Harvard-educated doctors. NOVA? WTF...

Atheism is subject to bias but it is not a belief system. - judson

Of course atheism is a belief system. An agnostic says: "I don't know." Fine. But in contrast, an atheist says: "There is no God." OK, if that is somehow not a belief system, it must have objective reality. Provide proof. To avoid (possible) conflicts of belief systems, you only need to provide proof that will be accepted by agnostics, not proof that will be accepted by other believers.

Absent such proof, what you have is a belief. Like the theist, it may or may not be a correct belief. Until someone provides solid proof, it remains a belief. Nothing more.

Apply http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/04/philosophy-not-dead-yet.html?cid=6a00d834515c2369e201156f11d9cd970c#comment-6a00d834515c2369e201156f11d9cd970c>wj's notes on the difference between atheism and agnosticism back to http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/04/philosophy-not-dead-yet.html?cid=6a00d834515c2369e2011570083d2e970b#comment-6a00d834515c2369e2011570083d2e970b>david kilmer's claim that:

"...the philosopher using reason to puzzle over moral issues is fine. The philosopher that asserts that there are moral truths out there that reason can be used to discover is overreaching."

This should cause one to observe that sticking a "not" into the above claim after the are and before moral is still overreaching.

That is:

"...the philosopher using reason to puzzle over moral issues is fine. The philosopher that asserts that there are [not] moral truths out there that reason can be used to discover is overreaching."

has a similar truth value to the origninal. This should lead us back to observer's original claim that "moral constructs are subjective and entirely relative" and elicit once again http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/04/philosophy-not-dead-yet.html?cid=6a00d834515c2369e201156f1128c9970c#comment-6a00d834515c2369e201156f1128c9970c>hilzoy's query of "Has this been established? If so, where?"

For what it is worth, I always find it a little interesting to watch people so blithely state utter certainty on topics people have struggled with for thousands of years. This always leads me to query the wisdom of blogging (for me at least). Then I strangle my inner Burkean and all is well again.

Declaring the end of philosophy is just about as old as philosophy itself. Protagoras or Gorgias or another of the sophist fathers said "with one hand I take philosophy away from you and with the other I give you sophism."

And following in that illustrious tradition we find Mr. Brooks. There's one thing no remotely thinking person will ever be able to declare the end of: sophism.

There is so much about this column/editorial/whatever that bothers me I barely know where to begin. The more I think about it the more things I find to bother me.

First off--and I admit my reading of Plato(/Socrates) is kinda weird and definitely non-classicist, but still--it seems BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS to me and to apparently no one else (except my boyfriend, whose reading of Plato is maybe even weirder than mine) that two things should jump out at any reader of Plato/Socrates:

1. As David Brooks points out, Socrates talked. He did not write obscure and lengthy treatises. He did not live in a barrel and accost people on the street. He spent every moment he could manage in conversation with people, an explicitly cooperative, social activity.

2. Plato did write, but he too passed up dry or obscure declamations of truth in favor of writing (mostly) dialogues. He wrote conversations. There is a literary and social dimension of his work apparent right there in its form.

Ugh, there are more, but I'm going to stop there for now. If I get started on the "evolution" crap I'll never stop....

Closing bit of snark:

Bob Herbert is off today.

I'd say so is Brooks!

This should cause one to observe that sticking a "not" into the above claim after the are and before moral is still overreaching.

Maybe. But I'd say that one statement is more likely than the other, and that the supposition of external moral truths is the more extraordinary claim.

The physicist who predicts the motion of a tennis ball using mathematical formulas is doing physics. The physicist who asserts that the universe is mathematical in nature is overreaching.

Similarly, the philosopher using reason to puzzle over moral issues is fine. The philosopher that asserts that there are moral truths out there that reason can be used to discover is overreaching.

The physicist who asserts the universe is mathematical is overreaching because she is making an ontological commitment that goes beyond the ontological commitments of her physical theory. That is, her theory can save the physical phenomena while staying silent on things like the fundamental nature of reality. In short, she's overreaching because she's doing philosophy.

But it's unclear to me how anything analogous occurs in the case of the philosopher who tries to determine whether there are moral facts. She, unlike the physicist, has no methodological reason (unless she accepts a Quinean metaontology) for restricting her ontological commitments to those of our best physical theories. Thus, there is nothing illicit in her positing moral facts if such facts play some explanatory role in her overall theory of the world.

I'm certainly no Brooks fan. He often overgeneralizes and fails to acknowledge the limitations of his knowledge in the fields in which he writes -- leading him to throw around phrases like "many scientists" without really knowing the depth of research. However, I was disappointed to see hilzoy employing some of the tactics that I would expect from a writer like Brooks.

The first issue I had with this post is with the analogy. As one commenter has noted, it presupposes moral absolutism -- without any explicit acknowledgement of this. Maybe hilzoy expects that readers of her blog are familiar enough with her work that this would not need to be explained, but given the way the analogy is presented, I disagree with this. She uses the same tactics that others (like Brooks) use -- she characterizes the tennis example as a "fairly obvious fact," which implies that the other half of the comparison is just as obvious and factual. I have a big problem with presenting the equality of morality and physics in this respect as an obvious fact, especially without any overt reference to the statement this makes. In addition, the characterizations of aesthetic morality, such as "expressions of taste" and "some quasi-perceptual capacity," seem trivializing and patronizing -- just the sort of characterizations Brooks would use, were he on hilzoy's side of the fence.

What hilzoy seems to be arguing for is a discrete approach to morality studies when discreteness is neither advisable or even feasible. Categorizing aesthetic morality as "on-the-fly" is misleading at best. The reasons for studying these biological roots of morality include the fact that many moral decisions that were supposedly made based on reason -- not just off the cuff -- were actually motivated by aesthetics and later justified through after-the-fact reasoning. Even if one considers this irrelevant -- that we are not studying how well people reason in practice, but in determing the correct reasoning itself -- then how can we reach those "correct" reasons for moral decisions if we don't question whether or not our reasoning is being clouded by our aesthetics at level we can't perceive? Or even if the notion of "clouding" is simply quaint -- that moral reasoning is by definition a combination of aesthetics and their interaction with other cognitive processes? If hilzoy wants to argue against this idea, she should make her argument, not presuppose it while being dismissive of those who want to explore other possibilities.

"And someone who took the fact that Venus Williams does not (I'm assuming) come up with mathematical solutions to problems in mechanics very very fast when she's playing tennis to show that physicists and engineers are wrong to use mathematics in their work would be making the same kind of mistake Brooks makes here."

Once again, hilzoy appears to be using an inapt analogy to make the other side look silly rather than directly making an argument. I don't know a lot of people who insist that physicists and engineers are *wrong* for using mathematical equations in their work, but there are plenty of people who see Venus's brain's method to be just as valid as the equations. This isn't just the ludicrous extreme of moral relativist, either. Biomimicry and neural networking are just two examples of ways that scientists have looked at approaching problems, ways that appear to follow elaborate rules or equations but actually achieve their results by other means. The point to be made is that the mathematical equations may not be The Reality of the World -- it may simply be our method of describing the world, one that is more efficient on a larger scale for most of our purposes than the method in used in our brains or in those of bees.

A good read with respect to this, I think, is the first chapter or two of "The Empathy Gap," by J.D. Trout. Trout points out some of our biological limitations and stresses the need for societal interaction to understand and even utilize these limitations in developing ethical policies. He doesn't suggest that we simply disconnect from them in order to reach moral absolutes.

Thus, there is nothing illicit in her positing moral facts if such facts play some explanatory role in her overall theory of the world.

But it still is an ontological commitment. So at some point, she has to compare her theoretical model to the actual world and see whether her ontological commitment was correct or not.

"Atheists point at the mechanism of evolution to make the untenable conclusion there is no G-d."

Wrong. Atheists point to the absense of any evidence of a supernatural being. In the face of absense of any evidence for a thing, the logical conclusion is not to consider that it might exist, but to proceed as if it doesn't exist.

There might be an Easter Bunny, and Cthullu might exist, and elves might exist, but without evidence for them, there's no case to be made for agnosticism about them.

"Or (and this is really my favorite, even though it occurs in fiction) the Knowledge Crash, which is this proposal (IIRC) that things have gotten so complicated that human beings can no longer properly function in any broad sense, but are instead limited to learning narrow fields of knowledge."

Doc Smith more or less postulated this with the in Skylark of Valeron in 1948 and the Norlaminian's divisions of knowledge into ever-smaller slices of speciality.

"OK, if that is somehow not a belief system, it must have objective reality. Provide proof."

One doesn't have to a prove a negative; it's positive assertions that have to be proven. Prove Krishna and Kali don't exist, why don't you?

There are thousands of theistic beliefs, most of them contradictory: one doesn't have to prove each one wrong to not believe tin them. One needs evidence, and proof, to believe a positive assertion is correct.

"But in contrast, an atheist says: "There is no God."

An atheist says "show me proof there is a God, or gods, and I'll see a reason to believe in gods or a God." Ditto as regards goblins, orcs, fairys, elves, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, or any other asserted being for which there is no proof.

Absent such proof, what you have is a belief. Like the theist, it may or may not be a correct belief. Until someone provides solid proof, it remains a belief. Nothing more.

There are two possibilities:
1. there's a god
2. there isn't

Neither can be proved, but that doesn't make them equally likely. Believing the overwhelmingly more likely possibility is actually something "more" than believing the less likely one.

This is not hard to demonstrate. If I make the claim, "invisible gnomes control the economy with mind powers", the belief that it is false is not equivalent to the belief that it is so.

The problem with being a pundit for a living is that you have to write a column even when you have nothing to say.

He did not live in a barrel and accost people on the street.

I think that was Diogenes.

Bob Herbert is off today.

Better luck tomorrow!

What Gary said. Atheism is not the belief that God cannot exist, it is simply the position that no evidence exists to support a belief in God. In the absence of such evidence, Occam's razor leads to a position of atheism. As Laplace said, there is no need for that hypothesis.

Atheists point at the mechanism of evolution to make the untenable conclusion there is no G-d.
To the extent that atheists point to evolution, they do so to counter the argument from design. Nobody claims that evolution somehow proves that God doesn't exist.

There's one thing no remotely thinking person will ever be able to declare the end of: sophism.

There's a true statement, and an encouraging one (for a philosopher): As long as sophists declare their "truth," they leave open the possibility of searching for it. In this case, Brooks is assuring us that our fuzzy sense of some moral truth (mostly in our own judgments) is just a delusion, and giving that sense any kind of credit is, as one comment said, "rationalizing/projecting deeply subconscious emotions." No doubt it is a very human delusion, that goes along with the very human rationalization of delusion. As Brooks holds our hand, "The question then becomes, What shapes moral emotions in the first place?" Evolution as an answer is ridiculous. The development of man has a lot to do with the state of things today, but this genetic account becomes an infinite regress: Our moral emotions come from early man in society! apes! amoeba! At some point, we need to 'behold the man'. Morals are a pretty reliable delusion, even without the help of parents and society, so crediting a group of guys in the past as the source does nothing but point away from the actual subject.
Only a narrow, scientific understanding of philosophy (as Brooks has) would think that the recent flurry of activity in neuroscience or whatever nullifies philosophy. Talk about delusions!

The problem with being a pundit for a living is that you have to write a column even when you have nothing to say.

And write it like you mean it. Ugh. F*#!ing sophist.

He did not live in a barrel and accost people on the street.

I think that was Diogenes.

That's totally what I was going for. Greek Geek high five! I kinda have a soft spot for Diogenes. Some days living in a barrel and exhorting people to be more like dogs seems like a step up...

(The 'obscure' was a nod to Heraclitus, 'lengthy and dry' to Aristotle. Big fan of the former, not so much the latter. When drunk I can be moved to argue that Aristotle is responsible for everything that's wrong with Western society. I actually kind of believe that. Plato gets a bad rap...)

/philosophy dork-out

I really like the analogy used here. The thing with someone like Venus Williams is that she doesn't just play from instinct--she goes back and re-evaluates her swing, watches footage of her opponents, etc., etc. And that's a pretty damn good example for anyone's ethical code, I think.

How about this analogy: moral philosophers are like sports trainers. They use careful reasoning and abstract theories to improve performance, developing better skills and habits that will lead to better intuitions and better 'snap' judgments by agents.

Sometimes that process involves developing explicit rules, like "stay on your toes when waiting for the serve", or "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". But the goal is better performance; the theoretical work is a means to that end.

Notice that in both cases the theoretical work can also justify or correct the intuitive judgments -- a trainer knows why certain techniques and habits work best, given human physiology, just as a moral philosopher knows why the Golden Rule helps people avoid wrong-doing, given human nature and the most general moral requirements on us.

An important difference is that the sports trainer knows the end, and is only thinking about the best means, while the purpose of moral philosophy is to determine the proper end (and if there are side constraints on how to achieve any ends). Venus' intuition is about the best means to making the shot, not about the proper end of tennis.

So I agree with Hilzoy's suggestion that the math analogy ultimately fits better. The intuition in the math case is about mathematical truth, with theoretical reasoning serving to justify or correct that intuition through formal proof. Same for moral intuitions -- we take them to identify what would really be good or right or virtuous, but a little anthropology or history makes us want to justify or correct them with a bit of moral philosophy.

The problem is it's harder for non-mathematicions to see how formal proofs or math theory could help train intuition. And it's also hard for many of us to see how there could be objectively correct answers about ultimate ends for moral philosophy to discover.

So I think the sports trainer analogy does the better job of dealing with Will's question of how theory could possibly matter to practice, when practice is driven by intuition and snap judgments.

PS.,

Brooks is gunning for Aristotle in his article, and he declares his victory in the final sentence.

The evolutionary approach...leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

He was arguing for the evolutionary approach the whole time, right? This final "payoff" sentence barely sounds like an endorsement, and is the crudest gloss possible of a deceptively simple concept. Whether or not Dresden agrees with Aristotle, the sophistry he insists on is nowhere clearer.

A few comments:

david kilmer: "Similarly, the philosopher using reason to puzzle over moral issues is fine. The philosopher that asserts that there are moral truths out there that reason can be used to discover is overreaching."

I would think that if one had an actual proof in hand, it would not be overreaching. It would be if one concluded from one proof that there were infinitely many moral truths, but not if one concluded that there is one.

Observer: "There are still pockets in our modern times where slavery is acceptable, where female oppression is practiced and enforced equally by men and women, where murder of innocents is indoctrinated to children by all members of the family, ad nauseum. (...)

I think that pretty much confirms there is no universally accepted absolute moral constructs. It's besides the point if another cohort has a different set of "absolute morality"."

Ah. I agree that there is no universally accepted moral belief -- at least, I'm inclined to think not, not having the actual survey data in hand. But I thought that you were saying not that no moral principle was universally accepted, but that none was objectively valid (or: true.) -- There's probably not uniform agreement on which continent the Nile runs through either, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a right answer.

JWelsh: "As one commenter has noted, it presupposes moral absolutism -- without any explicit acknowledgement of this. Maybe hilzoy expects that readers of her blog are familiar enough with her work that this would not need to be explained, but given the way the analogy is presented, I disagree with this. She uses the same tactics that others (like Brooks) use -- she characterizes the tennis example as a "fairly obvious fact," which implies that the other half of the comparison is just as obvious and factual. I have a big problem with presenting the equality of morality and physics in this respect as an obvious fact, especially without any overt reference to the statement this makes."

I must have been unclear. The "fairly obvious fact" here was supposed to be: that we do not use the techniques we use to solve problems in mechanics to predict the trajectories of balls when we are playing tennis. We do not run through a bunch of equations, only really really fast. We make those judgments immediately and unconsciously.

I think that the relationship between snap judgments in tennis and solutions to problems in mechanics is similar to the relation between snap judgments in morality and moral philosophy in this respect: that the two members of each pair can look very very different, and thus that you cannot infer much about the nature of the second from the nature of the first. I did not mean to assume that morality is as objective as physics.

I don't see how my argument presupposes that it is objective, but probably I'm missing something.

how can we reach those "correct" reasons for moral decisions if we don't question whether or not our reasoning is being clouded by our aesthetics at level we can't perceive?

I hadn't thought of this angle, but I think you're right on the mark. There's a distinction between "doing" morality and engaging in moral philosophy. But the ways in which our brains work determine what sorts of moral theories we can (or will tend to) have. Reason itself is a product of how the brain works. So it's more than "useful" or "interesting". It's fundamental.

I was reading Wittgenstein's _Philosophical Investigations_ not long ago, and the whole way through it, I kept thinking, "Man, I would give my left arm to go back in time and explain neural networks to him". In a way, he was crippled by the lack of this concept, and he didn't even know it.

I would think that if one had an actual proof in hand, it would not be overreaching.

A proof would go a long way ;). My comment was made from an ignorance of such a proof, but I'm always ready to learn! (In fact, that's secretly why I'm always trying to prod you into a discussion about moral philosophy.)

It would be if one concluded from one proof that there were infinitely many moral truths, but not if one concluded that there is one.

I think even one would be a pretty extraordinary claim (without said proof). Universal, absolute, and necessary things are not the most common realities.

I find I lack the energy to read through all the comments, so forgive me if I repeat a point made by another commenter.

I think your critique of Brooks should be much stronger: reason plays a bigger role than Hilzoy claims, not just a bigger role than Brooks acknowledges. It seems fairly clear that thinking moral questions through affects our "immediate" moral reactions. In other words, many of our "immediate" reactions are not immediate at all, but highly mediated by reasoned constructs.

This is one reason, surely, that we don't expect the same moral judgment of children as of adults.

The "fairly obvious fact" here was supposed to be: that we do not use the techniques we use to solve problems in mechanics to predict the trajectories of balls when we are playing tennis.

I won't pretend to speak for JWelsh (just because I'm married to her), but I personally think that what is a "pretty obvious fact" on the tennis side of your tennis analogy isn't so obvious on the physics side (or the moral side, for that matter).

In other words, what you called a "pretty dumb" statement about physics isn't all that dumb. There are types of modeling that do not involve reason at all, and which have, in fact, challenged hyper-rational, hyper-mathematical ideas in physics and other sciences. Much of complexity theory and its ideas about modeling fit this bill.

Atheism is not the belief that God cannot exist, it is simply the position that no evidence exists to support a belief in God. In the absence of such evidence, Occam's razor leads to a position of atheism.

And yet, the human impulse to conceive of and believe in god continues.

Some things, I think, are not amenable to proof. One chooses to affirm them, or not, based on other motivations.

I kinda have a soft spot for Diogenes.

Same here.

Diogenes has a job washing lettuce. Plato, then tutoring the prince of Syracuse for his bread and butter, stops by and says, "If you would work as a tutor, you wouldn't have to wash lettuce". Diogenes replies, "If you would wash lettuce, you wouldn't have to tutor the prince of Syracuse".

Touche.

"In a rich man's house, there is nowhere to spit but on his rug".

Snap!

Diogenes is a hard guy not to love.

I'm not sure I qualify as a geek. My exposure to both Diogenes and Heraclitus is through a very, very excellent translation of both their works (in one volume) by Guy Davenport.

I find Heraclitus extremely congenial. He's a tough SOB in many ways, but he's obscure like the Tao is obscure. In other words, he's obscure like being itself is obscure, no more no less. In my opinion.

Big fun, talking about Diogenes and Heraclitus online.

I think this has been alluded to upthread, but the reason that Venus Williams doesn't have to analyze the physics of how the ball bounces when she's on the court is because she has spent years and years exploring the physics in their direct, empirical manifestation.

She's hit the ball 3,472,937 times, and observed carefully how the ball behaved on each and every occasion.

She doesn't need the math, she has ingrained every and anything the math could tell her in her own muscle and bone. The math is embodied in a billion neural pathways in her brain.

Likewise, there is philosophical and analytic inquiry into moral reasoning, and there is moral reasoning. And moral reasoning itself occurs in the immediate, existential encounter between persons.

You look the other in the eye, and you either acknowledge the other as a person just as you are a person, or you do not.

Everything else follows from that.

You look the other in the eye, and you either acknowledge the other as a person just as you are a person, or you do not.

Ah, symmetry! About the only basis on which moral philosophy can be founded, and (curiously enough) the bedrock of physics as well. Physics relies on conservations laws, and every conservation law corresponds to a symmetry. Momentum is conserved because space is symmetric; energy is conserved because time is symmetric. Symmetry in moral philosophy is the Golden Rule. All else is mere elaboration and application.

One elaboration of the basic laws of physics, by the way, is the Principle of Least Action. It corresponds, in my philosophy of life, to a preference for minimizing fuss and bother. Not everyone would agree, but I think that laziness is an under-rated virtue. Few lazy people have ever started wars, for instance:)

To Eric, who says that "the sports trainer knows the end, and is only thinking about the best means, while the purpose of moral philosophy is to determine the proper end", I say no: it's means all the way down. The notion that life has a purpose that moral philosophers can identify is a mere illusion. For biological organisms like us, continuing to live is about the only "end" of living. People who can't hack that reality end up inventing the drug of apocalyptic fantasy: someday all this fuss and bother that we call "life" will be over and then we will know eternal joy in paradise. Such people are nuts of course. But at least they have a coherent "end" in mind. The rest of us, moral philosophers included, can only justify "ends" as means to further ends, which are means to further ends, ad infinitum. There is no paradise to be achieved, and life would be boring if we did achieve it.

--TP

We do not run through a bunch of equations, only really really fast. We make those judgments immediately and unconsciously.

I think to some extent, that's true. But to the extent that the neural net that is the human brain becomes untrainable because it doesn't know what other clues to connect with its failure to predict: untrue. In those situations, one must arrive at some sort of understanding, even of a crude sort, of what the problem is with one's current set of reactions (which I call intuition; sue me if that's not right), and "learn" to process the available inputs slightly differently.

To me, that sort of thing requires a revised sort of understanding of the underlying physics. The automatic-ness of the reaction follows later, after one imprinted that understanding into the...I'll call it "decision-maker".

I think of it as sort of an organic FPGA. First you have to develop the right set of responses, then you have to imprint those in what amounts to hard-wired organic logic.

All of this may be complete BS, but I've been thinking about this kind of thing for some time: sometimes you find your intuition is wrong, and that wrongness (for me) normally stems from an error in understanding. Once that error is rectified, the intuition becomes more reliable.

First, briefly, on atheism. What Gary Farber and "larv" and others said. Atheism isn't a matter of belief. It's a refusal to believe in the absence of (convincing) evidence. I'm tired of theists claiming otherwise. Tell us, if you must, what you believe; don't try to tell us what we believe. Thanks.

More interestingly, let us consider symmetry:

Russell: You look the other in the eye, and you either acknowledge the other as a person just as you are a person, or you do not.

Tony P. Ah, symmetry! About the only basis on which moral philosophy can be founded, and (curiously enough) the bedrock of physics as well. Physics relies on conservations laws, and every conservation law corresponds to a symmetry. Momentum is conserved because space is symmetric; energy is conserved because time is symmetric. Symmetry in moral philosophy is the Golden Rule. All else is mere elaboration and application.

I would distinguish between "the Golden Rule," which does imply a symmetry of sorts, and "the only basis on which moral philosophy can be founded," which is nonsense.

Most of human society, for most of history, has been based on a core assumption of inequality, usually expressed in hierarchical forms. This is a FEATURE, not a bug. Everything, everyone was higher or lower than everything, everyone else. Man was higher than woman. Older brother was higher than younger brother. Noble was higher than commoner. King was higher than noble. Etc. Etc. Etc. Look up "The Great Chain of Being" for European theorizing along these lines.

One of the things that was so utterly radical about the American and French Revolutions was, in fact, their insistence that "equality" was natural, universal, and desirable. It struck a huge blow at the way the universe had been conceived, not just in these two countries, but around the world. All over Asia (for example) later generations of nationalists were inspired by "Liberte, egalite, fraternite" and the "truth" that "All men are created equal." It is hard sometimes for us - for my students - to recognize just how revolutionary these revolutionary ideas were, how they rattled the very bedrock assumptions of the old Asia.

So before this, was there no "moral philosophy"? Of course there was! Centuries of it, even though much of it has since passed into oblivion. And although some philosophers, like Gautama (the Buddha) did preach an absolute equality/symmetry as a basis for ethics, others, like Kongfuzi (Confucius), did not.

In Confucianism, and many many similar moral philosophies, correct behavior lay not in treating others like yourself, but rather in behaving appropriately according to your station. A king should behave like a king. An official should behave like an official. A peasant should behave like a peasant. It would be as wrong - morally as well as practically - for a king to behave like a peasant as for a peasant to behave like a king.

You address your older brother as "elder brother" and he addresses you as "younger brother," and any variation from this recognition of the reality of hierarchy risks chaos. One of the core principles of Confucian thought is the "rectification of names," because until you call something by its correct name - corresponding to its position in the world - you cannot know how to behave toward it (and it cannot know how to behave).

Now it is understandable that with the past couple of centuries of "equality" sweeping over the world such moral philosophizing is not openly practiced all that much, which is fine with me. But let's not kid ourselves that the principle of symmetry is automatic, universal, and inherent in all moral philosophizing.

(With apologies to all actual philosophers and Sinologists out there. Like the scholar in the old story, when I couldn't find anything about Chinese philosophy I looked up an article on China and another article on philosophy and simply put them together. ;} )

I think that Durant(s) pays quite a bit of attention to Chinese philosophy in Our Oriental Heritage, but it's probably not nearly an exhaustive treatment.

I've got it handy; I could see if there's much more than Confucianism in there.

First, briefly, on atheism. What Gary Farber and "larv" and others said. Atheism isn't a matter of belief. It's a refusal to believe in the absence of (convincing) evidence.

Then Dawkins et al., in insisting that there's no God and that belief in one is actively pernicious, are no longer atheists, but advocates for a non-theistic religion.

But that's by the way: what I really wanted to point out is that tennis balls are smarter than people are. While we need to develop abstruse theories and perform complicated calculations to determine where the tennis ball will go when struck in a particular fashion, the ball, acting purely on instinct, goes to the right place every time.

That depends on an elastic definition of "right". Given enough stretch in how you define "right", we could make the same argument about humans: we do the right thing. We never, ever do anything other than what we do.

Yes indeed, this is The Best Of All Possible Worlds, and Whatever Is, Is Right!

Thanks to Drs. Leibniz and Pangloss (if memory serves).

PS: FWIW, I actually know more about Confucianism than one might surmise from the ancient joke I deployed with regard to "Chinese Philosophy." (Never was able to resist a set-up line.) I've even lectured on Confucianism. But not recently.

Hey Dr Ngo thanks for the thoughtful discussion of Confucian vs western (and other non-Confucian) thought.

I will cop to being western in outlook, it's good to be reminded of other points of view.

Mike Schilling: Then Dawkins et al., in insisting that there's no God and that belief in one is actively pernicious, are no longer atheists, but advocates for a non-theistic religion.

I cannot want to speak for Dawkins, whom I have not even read (much), but I regard this analysis is incorrect in a couple of ways.

If "insisting that there's no God" actually takes the form of claiming to prove that there's no God, then that's clearly dodgy, since it's very very hard, using most systems of evidence and logic, to prove the non-existence of everything. (I don't know what Dawkins actually says on this point.)

Yet in fact we all assume non-existence all the time. I'm guessing - please correct me if I'm wrong - that you yourself would claim that there is no Easter Bunny, or Cthulhu, or Loki, or Huitzlipochtli, or an invisible blue pixie dancing on the table right in front of you. Maybe not; perhaps you are truly "agnostic" about each and every one of these possibilities, and live your life as if each (or all!) of them is true, since you can't disprove any of them. But that would make you more rigorous in your thought than 99% of the human race.

What I surmise Dawkins is doing is reducing "God" to the same category of non-existent beings as these others (and myriads more that we don't believe in). That offends many, and I gather than Dawkins does this in a (deliberately?) offensive way. But that's hardly "advocating a non-theistic religion" unless you distort the meaning of the word "religion" beyond recognition.

As for his claim that belief in god (or God) is pernicious (assuming you have characterized it correctly), that has nothing intrinsically religious, or even philosophical, about it. It's essentially a historical and or sociological claim, an observation based on some core of presumably unspoken commonplace ethical beliefs such as "Life Is Good" (and therefore any human activity that tends to cut life short is pernicious). Having enough to eat is better than going hungry all the time. Being well is better than being sick. Hurting others is wrong. Knowing is better than not knowing. That kind of stuff. And he says religion in practice works contrary to these goods.

Now you have every right to contest this observation, and argue that belief in god (or God) does not in fact increase human suffering, but rather reduces or alleviates it. But that would be a historical/sociological argument, not a theological one - and certainly not one that requires your opponent to be advocating a "non-theistic religion."

There is in fact nothing logically inconsistent with believing in the existence of God (capital G) AND believing that such belief in general is pernicious. And there have been plenty of people in the past who, perceiving what they saw as the injustice of the universe, but unable or unwilling to part from their theistic presuppositions, actually did this. They cursed God - a God whose existence they did not doubt - as cruel, evil, callous, and completely unworthy of human devotion. They were apostates, but not atheists. There's no logical linkage.

So once again, I am bemused (more than amused - by this time it's stopped being funny) at the extent to which religionists try to force their opponents into the category of "religion" in spite of the logical contrariness of this characterization.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the childhood riposte: "Well, if I'm one, then SO ARE YOU!" And with about as much credibility.

FWIW, I actually know more about Confucianism than one might surmise from the ancient joke I deployed with regard to "Chinese Philosophy."

The smoking-hole-in-the-ground formerly known as my vain hope to have been equipped with some historical knowledge that the esteemed dr ngo has not been privy to aside, what are your thoughts on Confucianist thought as a possible answer to The Needham Question?

I have no idea to what extent this has already been beaten to death in academia, so please be gentle. If this is too long a conversation to get into in blog comments, a reading suggestion would be most appreciated.

hilzoy: Yes it was clear to what the “fairly obvious fact” referred to – I meant that using terms like “fairly obvious” and “dumb” when using an analogy set up the reader for some equivalent on the other side, e.g. it's fairly obvious that we make on-the-fly moral judgments in our brains, but it would be dumb to think that this fact upsets the basis of moral philosophy. If that is what you are arguing, then I'd like to hear the argument rather than this kinds of characterization.

“the two members of each pair can look very very different, and thus that you cannot infer much about the nature of the second from the nature of the first. I did not mean to assume that morality is as objective as physics.”

If you only meant to suggest that the two members look different, then why choose physics and mathematics as the comparisons? Let me offer another metaphor:

Languages are very complex. Unfortunately, it has not been fairly obvious to many people that we do not run through a series of linguistic equations as we speak (according to some, we are just born with a brain that's really, really, really good and fast at learning and solving these equations). However, cognitive linguists posit that we have a way of using language that does not employ such equations. A grammarian, however, might argue that his goal is only to outline what “should be,” not what actually happens in the brain. Sometimes we have feelings about word choices that turn out to be “wrong” according to the grammar.

The workings of the grammarian and our brains look very different. Is this analogy acceptable? Or does it seem less palatable, because what the grammarian codes is not objective in any real-world sense. There is no objective truth to the idea that prepositions must be followed by object pronouns, not subject pronouns. What “should be” is a compendium of historical development and the desire for clarity in communication, to whatever degree that is considered a goal. It is a codified, mutually agreed-upon modification of what our brains produce, with the modifications dependent upon the purpose of the grammar. The grammar does, in fact, have to take into account what happens in the brain, given Sapir's concept of language drift over time and geography. If it doesn't, that won't stop language from naturally drifting – the grammar will simply because less and less relevant.

While I'm not making a the case for a Sapirian-version of moral drift, it does pique my interest. That's not my main interest, though. You say that you have mathematical intuitions that turn out be verifiably false. That analogy suggests more than that the processes are different – it suggests moral intuitions can be verifiably incorrect. In the grammar analogy, it is much clearer that when we say “incorrect,” we mean only that it does not fit in with the grammar rules as we have developed them for our language. And it is clearer that the grammar works differently from the brain but is still a reflection of something that is brain-created, rather than existing out in the world like a bouncing tennis ball.

So once again, I am bemused (more than amused - by this time it's stopped being funny) at the extent to which religionists try to force their opponents into the category of "religion" in spite of the logical contrariness of this characterization.

I'm amused (as often as it happens, it's still funny) that you assume that I'm religious (much less a "religionist", which I presume on the analogy of Andrew Sullivan's "Christianist" means religious and belligerent about it). or that I am in some way the enemy of the non-religious. It's still possible, even in this day and age, to have a viewpoint rather than a side.

There are people far more intelligent than I am who are religious and say that they see evidence of God all through the natural world. (This is not the case for Loki, or Harvey the six-foot-tall invisible rabbit, or Quine's slum of unactualized possibles.) I myself don't. My intuition says quite the opposite: that the world is a purely material place, that whatever I mean by "me" will cease to exist when my brain no longer functions, and that the cosmos is without any larger purpose or meaning.

But that's just my intuition; as you agree, it isn't something that can be demonstrated logically. The premises from which one could draw those conclusions do not exist. So in refusing to say "there is no God", all I'm doing is refusing to privilege my unsupported (if deeply held) beliefs over those of other peoples, many of them smarter, more learned, and more accomplished than I. That is, refusing to take these beliefs and make a religion out of them.

Slarti: I have been familiar with what is now called the "Needham Question" since before Needham posed it publicly, I suspect. Back in the early 1960s my professor, the late Dr. Poon-kan Mok, raised it in undergraduate courses and gave his own nifty, if oversimplified, answer, which I reconstruct/paraphrase from fading memory:

The problem (he said) is not that the East is not practical enough, but that it is too practical! All learning was judged by whether it had practical uses, whether spiritual, social, or material. Learning for its own sake, that did not lead to spiritual enlightenment or social utility, was not valued. It was the supposedly "materialist" West that allowed, even encouraged, thought for its own sake, thought that could not immediately be turned into steps toward Nirvana, advice for kings, or improvements in agriculture. And from this arose Science.

Whether or not I accepted this formulation (and I've always had my doubts) this put the question in my mind, and I've thought about it in a rather desultory way for nearly half a century now. There are those who have pursued it systematically, some of whom are cited in the Wikipedia article you link to; I'm sorry I can't provide more precise references to the debate.

My own basic reaction would be that the objections raised in the linked article are valid, in that asking why something did NOT happen is a pretty odd historical question. ("Why was there no Renaissance under the Aztecs?") It would only make sense (IMHO) if the "normal" pattern was for early scientific knowledge to lead to a Scientific Revolution, however that is defined.

But that's clearly not the case. We know of significant scientific advances or insights in a number of civilizations besides Europe and China, e.g., India, the Islamic Middle East, and possibly Meso-America, to judge by the Mayan calendar. The "default" is NOT a long-term self-sustaining Scientific Revolution,
which only happened in Europe.

So the answer to the question is not to be found in Chinese culture, but in European exceptionalism. Somehow the European sub-continent developed a particular kind of self-sustaining knowledge industry, along with the nation-state and modern capitalism, which led to its domination of the world since the 19th century.

A number of historians have tackled this over the past few decades, but it's not easy, because most of these historians come out of the European tradition (if not Europe itself), and find it as hard to analyze the culture in which they are immersed as a fish might find it to analyze water. Even if outright racist explanations are no longer acceptable (We're Just Innately Smarter Than The Lesser Breeds Without The Law) it's hard to overcome the assumption that we - or our ancestors, or more precisely those people who probably used to kick our own sheep-farming ancestors around all the time - somehow figured out the Right Way to do things (history, science, life) while the rest of the world just botched it. But some efforts to overcome this bias have more success than others. (The Journal of World History is a useful entry-point to reviews relevant to such topics.)

My guess is that answers might arise out of some of the following historical/cultural questions, pertaining to Europe:
- What was held to constitute "knowledge"? On what basis?
- What values was "knowledge" believed to have? Spiritual? Practical? Innate?
- Who were the persons within society who were entrusted with generating and perpetuating "knowledge"? Who was prohibited from doing so?
- Who - what social institutions or individuals - employed, controlled, and paid the generators and keepers of knowledge? (In modern European history, the role of the arms industry may be critical here. With the rise of the nation-state, Europe had both units large enough to provide personnel, training, and funding for research AND military competition between these units, so there was a perpetual arms race in which all were conscripted [e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, who marketed himself as a freelance merchant of death]. Many other places either didn't have large enough units OR, as in the case of China, had a central unit so large and domineering it didn't have to compete in military technology with its neighbors.)

Only when we have sorted this out does it make sense to go back and say "Aha, China had X, Y, and Z, but not W." Which makes it for now a fun topic for speculation, but not a great one for serious research.

Mr. Schilling: There's no point in trying to carry on a dialogue with someone who persists in using "religion" in such a broad and cavalier manner. It's just silly.

"That is, refusing to take these beliefs and make a religion out of them."

Mike, absence of a particular belief isn't a religion.

And, by the way, certain flavors of contemporary Wiccans do see evidence of Loki in the world around us. Specifically, the folks who regard themselves as Asatru.

Dr. Ngo, I'm curious what you think of the work of Jared Diamond, and particularly of Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Gary: Pass. I'm embarrassed to report I haven't actually read Diamond's work, though I certainly know of it. Back In The Day I used to get free review copies of many books that interested me; in retirement this doesn't happen as much, and I haven't been proactive [wretched word!] in keeping up with my reading, especially since I can't tie it in with teaching.

And, by the way, certain flavors of contemporary Wiccans do see evidence of Loki in the world around us.

If by that they mean that the world seems perverse beyond the workings of random chance, I'd have to agree. Some days, anyway.

Anyway, I'll agree that the idea of trying to carry on any further dialog with Dr. Ngo has become silly.

dr ngo:

I'm grateful that you took the time to respond at length. I suppose it would be a good idea to look into the work of Needham himself, rather than Simon Winchester's (IMHO) excellent bio of Needham, but it was my impression that Needham's work was mainly a detailed history of China's accomplishments.

Accomplishment. There's a lot of cultural point-of-view in that word.

The thinking (if you can call it that) behind my query to you is that Confucius tended to advocate a live-in-harmony-with-others kind of life, and discourage activities that go counter to the status quo. The way I see it, invention and the struggle to improve oneself tend to go counter to those teachings. If everyone and everything has their/its proper place, it may be out of place to aspire to improve something, or someone.

I've been meaning to read the Diamond book that Gary mentioned. Perhaps it's time to check it out from the local library.

Again: my thanks.

dr ngo (and everyone else): Guns, Germs, and Steel is just fascinating. You'd love it. You know how there is "normal" really good scholarship, and then there are people who ask questions most people don't ask, and come up with answers you'd never think of, and even when you don't agree with them, they change the way you think of things permanently? Diamond, in GGS, is one of the latter. I mean this as very, very high praise.

I might also say: he's our closest contemporary analog to the Montesquieu of the Spirit of Laws, but only to Enlightenment buffs.

I'm about sixty pages into it right now, hilzoy. It's outstanding. The guy I borrowed it from said it was kind of boring but at the same time put out really interesting ideas, but I'm not bored in the least.

Nice dissection of Brooks's piece. I agree with the substance of what you wrote. I'm interested in hearing some philosophy-oriented responses to a piece I wrote about the role of moral education if we accept Brooks's premises as true:

http://www.thegenerationproject.org/blog/post/Moral-philosophy-is-dead-Whither-moral-education.aspx

Basically, I think that, even if morality is evolved, there's still some room for an Aristotelean or neo-Aristotelean moral education.

Due to the mysteries of synchronicity, I happened to, last night, run across this review by the legendary Eric Hobsbawm of Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China by Simon Winchester; it really doesn't bear particularly directly on any of the above discussion, but I couldn't resist mentioning the coincidence. :-)

Oh, wait, that's the book Slarti mentioned. Well, small intellectual world. :-)

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