Time Reborn

Einstein was wrong. Time is not the relative factor in space-time. Space is. Time is constant. Here’s a lecture on the topic of the book.

Lee Smolin Public Lecture: Time Reborn

As a result of a discussion with a colleague, on the possibility of variability or mutability of so-called physical laws, he recommended Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. He mentioned that it would be suitable as an audiobook. Since I had a credit on Audible, I decided to use it so I could listen to this without deep scrutiny and a need for taking notes.

There is a nice review in the Guardian from 2013. I suppose I am a bit behind the times.

Whilst running errands, I listened to the Preface and Introduction. I stopped at the start of the first chapter, and am debating whether to continue. Given his setup, I don’t believe I am Smolin’s target audience. Many of the beliefs he is attempting to dispel, I already don’t hold. Yet I don’t feel that I need to hold time as a constant to hold them. He seems to feel otherwise.

Preface

For the record, Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, who has written several books in this space. Quickly, recapping some of his points:

He provides examples of various illusions humans tend to be swayed by:

  • Matter appears to be smooth but turns out to be made of atoms
  • Atoms seem indivisible but turn out to be built of protons, neutrons, and electrons
  • Protons and neutrons are further made of still more elementary particles called quarks
  • The sun appears to go around the Earth, but it’s the other way around

Smolin relates that the prevailing perspective today is that time is an illusion—name-dropping Plato and Einstein, who hold this view. He conveys that he used to share this belief, but now he disagrees—whence the book. He tells us:

Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

Next, he posits that some people believe in timeless events—events outside of time, eternal and not a function of time. Here’s where he goes off the rails in my book.

“We perceive ourselves as living in time, yet we often imagine that the better aspects of our world and ourselves transcend it. What makes something really true, we believe, is not that it is true now but that it always was and always will be true.”

Evidently, he feels or felt this way. I am sure many others. I am not among them.

“What makes a principle of morality absolute is that it holds in every time and every circumstance.”

My position is that all morality is a social construct, so this doesn’t resonate with me.

“We seem to have an ingrained idea that if something is valuable, it exists outside time.”

Again, I am not in his intended audience.

“We yearn for “eternal love.” We speak of “truth” and “justice” as timeless.”

Love, truth, and justice are all human constructs—weasel words.

“Whatever we most admire and look up to — God, the truths of mathematics, the laws of nature — is endowed with an existence that transcends time. We act inside time but judge our actions by timeless standards.”

Yet again, I am unburdened by these beliefs.

Nothing transcends time, not even the laws of nature. Laws are not timeless. Like everything else, they are features of the present, and they can evolve over time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I think that this quote is a reason this book was recommended to me. I do believe that the properties that comprise laws can evolve over time. I’m not sure if this is by a probabilistic process or something else. There are a few possible implications. One is that the laws at the onset of the universe may have been different, making the understanding of that time more challenging if not impossible. I don’t know if I believe in multiverses, and I doubt I may ever live long enough to discover. However, even if there is only one universe, per the name, perhaps universes can exist sequentially and when one dies another appears with a different set of initial conditions and properties. Borrowing from evolution, perhaps these survive or perish based on the viability of this combination.

Smolin goes on to posit that, ‘thinking in time is not relativism but a form of relationalism‘.

He continues,

“Truth can be both time-bound and objective when it’s about objects that exist once they’ve been invented, either by evolution or human thought.”

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I’m not sure he is going to define truth, but I believe he conflates moral truths with axiomatic or tautological truths. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because both are constructed.

Smolin makes it clear that he is not a determinist, but unless you take the view he is proposing, as a physicist, you almost have to be. As he says regarding Determinism, theoretically. a person could suss out a mathematical equation to predict every future event. He also considers this belief to be a metaphysical vestige of religion.

Introduction

According to [the] dominant view, everything that happens in the universe is determined by a law, which dictates precisely how the future evolves out of the present. The law is absolute and, once present conditions are specified, there is no freedom or uncertainty in how the future will evolve.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

He continues to describe a deterministic system without mentioning indeterminism, which may be a more prominent belief given what we understand about quantum mechanics. He claims that this perspective diminishes time for several reasons. Inflating or at least elevating time is important for his thesis, and I am thinking that this is more an act of wishful thinking.

He takes a stab at the inherent reductionism of physics—it reduces everything to parts until there are no longer subparts, at which point the process fails—and explains that by adopting this approach, one needs to get outside of the universe to make some evaluations, but this is impossible. And this might be a true statement, but so what? The answer is not to make up a story that creates an environment where that’s no longer necessary.

Smolin reiterates over and again about timeless laws in a time-bound universe, but I question his notion of timelessness. He admits that he has no grand theory—just an idea he hopes others can pursue and build upon. Emergent properties appear to be an emerging theme.

Leibniz is next up, in particular his principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz’ vision is a relational universe composed of a network of relationships—the space is simply the absence of things. He contrasts this with Newton’s view that space is absolute and serves as the container for things. He sets up a future chapter that he says establishes that Leibniz’ vantage precludes the possibility of absolute time, but I don’t see this as a challenge for those of us who believe that time is constructed in the first place.

The Newtonian view prevailed until Einstein resurrected Leibnitz with his general relativity theory of space and time. The trending vogue is about relationalism, whether biology or information science.

He cites the challenges of maintaining Locke’s views on autonomy and personal liberties in a deterministic world (again leaving indeterminism unmentioned).

And he’s back on the emergence of emergence. (I was in the midst of writing a post on emergence when this interrupted my flow. I suspect it should be forthcoming in time.)

Falling

As it turned out, I ran another errand and listened to the first chapter of part 1. It is about gravity and parabolas, but I shan’t recount it here, save to note that he seems to be of the opinion that many people have the desire to transcend the bounds of human life. He may be right. I am not one of these people.

I don’t feel that I am in his target market.

English Language in Decline

My first academic love was linguistics, and I am still very interested in language. Besides philosophy, I spend a lot of time researching, reviewing, and enjoying content on linguistics and music.

I’ve listened to several episodes of Jade Joddle, and she’s become disheartened with the decline of the English language—in particular, the demise of British English. In this clip, she shares her perspective on what she feels are the causes.

One of her peeves is American English. I know, right? Specifically, the bollox known as Netflix. Although it’s difficult to disagree with tripe that passes as content on Netflix, I’ll have to disagree with the notion of declining. It’s obvious that Jade is a prescriptivist—a characteristic more evident in women than in men for some reason—and a nostalgic conservative. She sees change as negative or dangerous, so she resists.

What’s interesting to me is that as a language teacher she doesn’t have a strong grasp of the fluidity of language. I’d love to see her in dialogue with John McWhorter or someone of this nature.

Jade has an episode from perhaps 2020 where she explains why she doesn’t smile much—because she’s serious. She is genuinely put off by a supposed lack of literacy and decay of standards. In her earlier videos, she was more playful and even performed what might be considered to be skits. She went on location, but then something changed.

Meantime, I do my part in maintaining proper British English—or World English, as I prefer to call it.

The first person who says she sounds like one of the teachers on Peppa Pig gets a demerit.

Raising Kane

Robert Kane’s chapter in Four Views on Free Will is titled Libertarianism, and I’ve just finished it. I’ve been writing in the margins, and I’ll summarise my thoughts here.

TL;DR

As I wrote in my last post, I don’t find the Libertarian position on free will and agency compelling. Kane made some interesting points, but none persuaded me to buy what he was selling. The biggest challenge I had was to maintain focus because I think he was chasing red herrings—at least given my focus on agency. He spent a lot of time tearing down determinism and indeterminism instead of building up his own position. I feel the debate centres around agency. I waited for him to explain how this agency operated, but he just assumes agency—or at least a self to possess agency—from the start. I am not convinced. If you are interested, my more detailed commentary follows.

The Rest of the Story

My intent at the start is to approach this chronologically as I retrace my marginalia, hoping to recall whatever prompted my notes in the first place. I’ll be quoting or paraphrasing Kane’s positions to serve as a reference in the event you don’t have access to the book.

1, Determinism and the Garden of Forking Paths

Kane starts off by mentioning that determinism implies that ‘given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future‘. Within this unvarying environment, he writes, ‘We believe we have free will when we view ourselves as agents‘. I don’t disagree with either of these points, and, as agents, we are ‘capable of influencing the world in various ways‘.

Kane introduces a garden of forking paths illustration, which I’ve recreated here.

Garden of Forking Paths

He uses this as a visual decision tree, where an actor traverses the branches and makes decisions at the various vertices. To breathe life into this tree, he gives us one of several forthcoming examples. He introduces us to Jane.

In his scenario, Jane is faced with a decision with one of two possible outcomes, and ‘she believes there is more than one possible path into the future available to her and it is “up to her” which of these paths will be taken‘. He continues, ‘This picture of different possible paths into the future is also essential, I believe, to what it means to be a person and to live a human life‘.

And herein lies the rub. Jane is not making these decisions in a vacuum. She is a puppet to forces beyond her control. I shouldn’t be so hard on psychology and Freud, but as Luke 23:34 of the Christian Bible relates, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

Then Kane reinforces that if determinism were true that Jane would not have free will before bringing up the idea of responsibility, that ‘free will is … intimately related to notions of accountability, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness for actions‘. I agree with Kane here.

Next, he invokes an emotional appeal-to-nature argument, asking us to imagine a ‘young man [who] is on trial for an assault and robbery in which his victim was beaten to death.’ He suggests that our tendency to blame this man is natural, but that we might search for mitigating circumstances that might account for his actions. He leaves us with a question, Did these influences entirely determine his actions, or did they “leave anything over” for him to be responsible for?

I have this question, too, but as I said, this is an appeal to emotion in the way Westerners have been conditioned to believe. There is little reason to accept this as some sort of universal law or principle.

2. Modern Challenges to Libertarian Free Will

He starts this section as follows, ‘I will be defending the libertarian view of free will in this volume. We libertarians typically believe that a free will that is incompatible with determinism is required for us to be truly morally responsible for our actions, so that genuine moral responsibility, as well as free will, is incompatible with determinism.’

He continues his setup, ‘A goal of this essay is therefore to consider this modern attack on the traditional libertarian view of free will and to ask how, and whether, it can be answered. Much is at stake, it seems to me, in knowing whether we do or do not have a freedom of the will of the ultimate kind that libertarians defend. The modern attack on it has two parts‘.

Part 1: The first prong of the modern attack on libertarian free will comes from compatibilists, who argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, determinism does not really conflict with free will at all.

[A]ccording to compatibilists, esoteric questions about whether determinism is true or not – in the physical or psychological sciences – are irrelevant to the freedoms we really care about in everyday life. All the varieties of free will “worth wanting” (as a modern compatibilist, Daniel Dennett, has put it) do not require the falsity of determinism for us to possess them, as the traditional libertarian view of free will suggests.

He informs the reader, ‘Influential philosophers of the modern era, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill, were all compatibilists‘.

Kane ends part 1 with, ‘If compatibilists are right, we can have both free will and determinism; and we need not worry that increasing scientific knowledge about nature and human beings will somehow undermine our ordinary convictions that we are free and responsible agents.’

I agree with this statement. It’s also why I consider agency to be the pivotal target, not determinism.

In part 2, he writes ‘The second prong goes further, arguing that libertarian free will itself is impossible or unintelligible and has no place in the modern scientific picture of the world.

He conveys that ‘modern defenders of libertarianism, such as Immanuel Kant, have argued that we need to believe in libertarian free will to make sense of morality and genuine responsibility, but we can never completely understand such a free will in theoretical and scientific terms.’

This is a good point, and Kant is correct. As a moral non-cognitivist, I feel that morality is a non-sensical human social construct. Inventing free will to make sense of another invention doesn’t get much sympathy from me. Kant finishes with an appeal to noumenism, yet another concept I’ve got no time for.

Next, Kane introduces us to another foe of free will, indeterminism. ‘Events that are undetermined, such as quantum jumps in atoms, happen merely by chance. So if free actions were undetermined, as libertarians claim, it seems that they too would happen by chance.’

He ends this section with two issues a libertarian must address:

  • The Compatibility Problem: free will really is incompatible with determinism
  • The Intelligibility Problem: indeterminism can be made intelligible and how, if at all, such a free will can be reconciled with modern scientific views

3. Is Free Will Incompatible with Determinism?: The Consequence Argument

Kane opens with a plea, ‘[L]ibertarians who believe free will is incompatible with determinism can no longer merely rely on intuitions about “forking paths” into the future to support their view that determinism conflicts with free will. These intuitions must be backed up with arguments that show why free will must be incompatible with determinism.

If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us.

Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983, p. 16

Then he sets up The Consequence Argument:

  1. There is nothing we can now do to change the past.
  2. There is nothing we can now do to change the laws of nature.
  3. There is nothing we can now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
  4. If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
  5. Therefore, there is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.

In other words, we cannot now do otherwise than we actually do.

Indeed, I agree in principle with the logic, but I’ll reiterate that I feel that the entire determinism angle is a red herring. Next, Kane goes into a discussion about the Transfer of Powerlessness Principle.

In essence, TP ‘says in effect that if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.

As I don’t think it’s’ important to my ends and I agree with Kane’s critique of this tailing logic, if you are powerless to change something X, and something else Y is necessarily going to occur if X does, then you are also powerless to change Y.

Finally, he argues that there is a likely insurmountable semantic challenge that accepting one meaning of ‘can’ and ‘power’ (and some other terms) will determine [pun intended] if one is a compatibilist or not.

4. Ultimate Responsibility

Carrying over from the previous section, Kane reminds us that ‘as a result of this impasse, philosophical debates have multiplied about just what “can” and “power” (and related expressions, such as “could have done otherwise”) really mean‘. But he also concedes that ‘The problem is that focusing on “alternative possibilities” (or “forking paths” into the future) or the “power to do otherwise” alone, as the Consequence Argument does, is too thin a basis on which to rest the case for the incompatibility of free will and determinism.’

He sets up his position.

  1. Free will seems to require that open alternatives or alternative possibilities [AP] lie before us – a garden of forking paths – and it is “up to us” which of these alternatives we choose.
  2. Free will also seems to require that the sources or origins of our actions lie “in us” rather than in something else.

This second point he terms ultimate responsibility [UR].

The basic idea of UR is this: To be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient cause or motive for the action’s occurring.

To be ultimately responsible for the choice, the agent must be at least in part responsible by virtue of choices or actions voluntarily performed in the past for having the character and motives he or she now has.

This is what I am waiting for him to resolve. A red flag that has me on alert is the term character. This is on my list of weasel words. He also cites Aristotle as a reference—also relative to character—, so that’s a double red flag in my book.

He returns to his post that free will ‘does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. I call these earlier acts by which we formed our present characters “self-forming actions,” or SFAs‘.

My causa sui post already illustrates that Kane doesn’t actually answer the question of how the self forms the so-called self-forming actions. He just invents the term, appeals to idiomatic notions of self and declares victory. I recent post discussed the challenges with self.

In the sense that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he name-drops Daniel Dennett and a story Dennett had cited involving Martin Luther initiation of the Protestant Reformation. Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Kane then argues that Dennett’s deterministic interpretation is incorrect, but given that Dennett is a compatibilist, he doesn’t care if Luther was free or determined in a deterministic universe.

So the ability to do otherwise (“could have done otherwise”) or AP, says Dennett, is not required for moral responsibility or free will.

In the end, we are back into a language game—a semantic pissing match.

Continuing with Luther, Kane concedes, ‘We can grant that Luther could have been responsible for this act, even though he could not have done otherwise then and there and even if his act was determined. But this would be so, if UR is required, only to the extent that Luther was responsible for his present motives and character by virtue of some earlier struggles and self-forming actions.

I’m still left wondering how and when Kane is going to prove this argument.

Kane provides more context by telling us that an agent requires sufficient cause of motive, but he never does define sufficient. He is also aware that a causal chain can lead us back to the dawn of time, so he’s devised an angle:

‘The only way to stop this regress is to suppose that some acts in our life histories must lack sufficient causes altogether.’

Perfect. Let’s see how this works.

Now he’s bringing in his SFAs and character. No thank you, please.

‘UR makes explicit something that is often hidden in free will debates, namely that free will – as opposed to mere freedom of action – is about the forming and shaping of character and motives which are the sources or origins of praiseworthy or blameworthy, virtuous or vicious, actions.’

This is where the psychobabble word salad comes in full force. It feels that Kane is employing circular reasoning and claiming that free will is necessary to shape the character necessary to have free will. Perhaps I am missing something.

‘If persons are responsible for the wicked (or noble, shameful, heroic, generous, treacherous, kind or cruel) acts that flow from their wills (characters and motives), they must at some point be responsible for forming the wills from which these acts flow

This ‘forming’ argument feels like a non-sequitur. Let’s keep going.

5. Ultimate Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities

‘When one argues about the incompatibility of free will and determinism from alternative possibilities or AP (as in the Consequence Argument), the focus is on notions of “necessity,” “possibility,” “power,” “ability,” “can,” and “could have done otherwise.” By contrast, the argument from UR focuses on a different set of concerns about the “sources,” “grounds,” “reasons,” and “explanations” of our wills, characters, and purposes. Where did our motives and purposes come from, who produced them, who is responsible for them?’

These are my questions as well. He provides his answers to his own question:

‘To understand the connection between AP and UR, alternative possibilities and ultimate responsibility, we must first note that having alternative possibilities for one’s action – though it may be necessary for free will – is not sufficient for free will, even if the alternative possibilities should also be un-determined. This can be shown by noting that there are examples in which agents may have alternative possibilities and their actions are undetermined, and yet the agents lack free will.’

I can’t wait.

Next, he witters on about God and determinism and leaves us with the conclusion that ‘persons in such a world lack free will‘. Whew! Good thing.

I haven’t really addressed the issue here, but the very concept of will doesn’t sit right with me. It feels a bit magical, but let’s just leave that here.

This assertion relies on volition, cause, and motive—volition and motive feeling pretty weaselly.

Around here, he conveys a story about an assassin that I feel totally misses the mark. Pun intended because in this story, the assassin intent on shooting the Prime Minister gets an involuntary twitch and kills the aide instead.

‘UR captures this additional requirement of being the ultimate source of one’s will that is lacking in this imagined world. For UR says that we must be responsible by virtue of our voluntary actions for anything that is a sufficient cause or a sufficient motive (or reason) for our acting as we do.’

Kane says that the will of the assassin is sufficient motive and reason. I disagree. I’ll circle back to this in a moment with a robot assassin analogy. Kane goes on to say ‘Anything else he might do (miss the prime minister, kill the aide) would be done only by accident or mistake, unintentionally or unwillingly‘.

This second part is particularly interesting to me. If his intent was to kill the Prime Minister and failed but killed the aide without intention, does this mean he’s not culpable?

Kane tells us that ‘we are interested in whether they could have acted in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally, rather than only in one way voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally and in other ways merely by accident or mistake, unintentionally or irrationally.

Kane revisits UR: If (i) free will requires (ii) ultimate responsibility for our wills as well as for our actions, then it requires (iii) will-setting actions at some points in our lives; and will-setting actions require (iv) the plurality conditions, the ability to act in more than one way voluntarily, intentionally and rationally.

I’m feeling strongly that a person agreeing with this line of argumentation has to already agree with the underlying conditions. In fact, one cannot will oneself to believe in free will if one doesn’t and vice versa. I’m not inclined to agree.

Kane injects pangs of conscience into the equation. I’ll ignore it, as conscience in this context is wholly constructed. I understand that Kane wants to say that conscience is an impetus for free. I’ll disagree and level it at that.

If we are to be ultimately responsible for our own wills, some of our actions must be such that we could have done otherwise, because some of them must have been such that we could have done otherwise voluntarily, intentionally, and rationally.

We are still in agreement. Now what?

He closes with a dual regress of free will. We need to be ultimate sources of our actions and ultimate sources of our actions wills.

6. The Intelligibility Problem: Is Libertarian Free Will Possible?

Can we make sense of a free will that requires Ultimate Responsibility of the kind described in the previous section? Can we really be the ultimate designers of our own ends and purposes? There are many skeptics about free will who think not. They argue that being the ultimate source of one’s will and actions is an incoherent and impossible ideal…

Please. Are we there yet?

The “Intelligibility Problem” says that incompatibilist free will requires that ultimate responsibility is intelligible or possible and can be reconciled with modern scientific views of human beings.

Kane articulates how indeterminism and probability might affect free will and how, given the ‘exactly same past’, can possibly arrive at different outcomes on our forking paths. He provides an example. I’ll relate it, but mostly to critique his narrative.

Recalling the forking paths we have two scenarios. The premise is that, in the first scenario, John has to decide whether to travel to Hawaii or Colorado. Based on the state of his person, he chose Hawaii.

This can be illustrated about be following the green line from point T0 to T4b. At decision point T3a, John had to choose between Hawaii and Colorado. T4a represents his Hawaii preference.

Still looking at the same chart (above), under the second scenario, something ever so slightly changed and John could have chosen the top branch rather than the lower branch, thus choosing Colorado instead.

‘“If the past had been just a tiny bit different, then John might have sensibly and rationally chosen differently (chosen Colorado instead).” Determinists and compatibilists can say this.’

The problem (referring to the chart below) is that a different choice at T2, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, would have put him on a different path, choosing T3b on the lower branch over T3a on the upper branch. Therefore, the T4b option stemming from the upper T3a branch is not the same T4c option on the lower branch. Instead of a choice of travelling to Hawaii or Colorado, the choice may have between chicken or steak for dinner.

Whilst it is conceivable that the Colorado versus Hawaii decision might still occur, the person at T3 is not the same person.

Kane reintroduces Kant’s noumenal self by name, but he quickly discounts it on the grounds of obscurantism or mystery or “panicky metaphysics”. He’s right in doing so.

As Kane also admits creating the external actors tend to render supporters of these notions as nutters. Besides, if the external actor is the agent, it’s no different than a god doing it.

Before we move to the next section, I want to return to the assassin. My argument is that anyone, including the assassin, is a product of their environment. Full stop. Therefore, one cannot be responsible for anything. To illustrate this, let’s replace the human assassin with a robot assassin. We want to be sure the robot doesn’t twitch and miss.

The robot gets into place and does the assassination task as designed without a hitch (or a twitch). Is the robot in any way responsible for its actions? Not many would argue that it was. It was a victim of its own circumstances. Here, one might argue that the robot has no conscience, and so has no ability to do otherwise. The robot has been programmed. Even if this robot could acquire new information, it could only interpret it relative to the information and processes it already had. The human is no different. The human cannot transcend itself to invoke a different outcome. And any new input would. by definition, be an external influence.

7. Indeterminism and Responsibility

Kane wants to set the stage, so he conveys that ‘The first step in this rethinking about the Intelligibility Problem is to note that indeterminism does not have to be involved in all acts done “of our own free wills” for which we are ultimately responsibleonly those acts by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely the “will-setting” or “self-forming actions” (SFAs) that are required for ultimate responsibility.’

Kane believes that ‘believe these undetermined self-forming actions or SFAs occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become.’ Thus, he reintroduces character.

Next, he makes an assertion that I disagree with: ‘The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves.’ It should be obvious that I object to the notion of soul-searching from the start.

Kane advances another assertion: ‘Just as indeterminism need not undermine rationality and voluntariness of choices, so indeterminism in and of itself need not undermine control and responsibility.’ I suppose it may ‘need not’, but let’s see if it does.

Then he introduces an example from communications theory, suggesting that a person can willfully concentrate on the signal to overcome noise: ‘Whether you are going to succeed in solving the problem is uncertain and undetermined because of the distracting neural noise. Yet, if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, we have reason to say you did it and are responsible for it, even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle that you overcame by your effort’. My margin note reads ‘silly’. I’ll just leave it at that.

8. Parallel Processing

I’ll admit at the start, that this section was just an annoyance, adding little to Kane’s position. My commentary will be brief.

Kane brings in his SFAs and suggests that if we are at a decision point with two (or multiple) options, each option is processed on its own thread. Reflecting on a woman faced with a decision, he tells us that ‘the choice the woman might make either way will not be “inadvertent,” “accidental,” “capricious,” or “merely random” (as critics of indeterminism say) because the choice will be willed by the woman either way when it is made, and it will be done for reasons either way – reasons that she then and there endorses.

NB: Underlined words in the paragraph above represent Kane’s italicised words in the chapter text.

Here, Kane continues down a rabbit hole wintering on about SFAs. I’m not convinced. It’s getting late. I’m getting cranky. I’ll will myself to continue. [Yes, that’s a joke.]

9. Responsibility, Luck, and Chance

Kane now wants to remind us that although one might ‘still find it hard to shake the intuition that if choices are undetermined, they must happen merely by chance – and so must be “random,” “capricious,” “uncontrolled,” “irrational,” and all the other things usually charged‘, and that ‘such intuitions are deeply ingrained‘.

Fair enough. Also interesting is how ingrained the sense of self and soul is, but never mind that for now.

Kane continues to unwind the bias he notes. His punchline is this:

‘(Imagine the assassin’s lawyer arguing in the courtroom that his client is not guilty because his killing the prime minister was undetermined and might therefore have failed by chance. Would such a defense succeed?)’

The ‘law’ is not seeking this truth. it is seeking blame and will go to great lengths to do so. Law is about closure. This feels like a strawman on a non-sequitur. Nothing to see here. Let’s keep on.

Kane’s final blow is that if ‘they endorsed the outcomes as something they were trying and wanting to do all along, knowingly and purposefully, not by mistake or accident‘, then they are responsible.

This reminds me of something that may or may not have been uttered by the Dalai Lama explaining the mechanics or scoring system that karma operates by. There are effectively three dimensions of karma:

  • Intent
  • Action
  • Reaction

Intent is the desire to do something, whether to give a gift or assassinate a Prime Minister.

Action is the activity itself: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.

Reaction is your emotional response: giving a gift or killing a Prime Minister.

Exploring this, say a person gains or loses a karmic point for each good or bad thing and receives no point where an event did not happen.

Let’s start with the assassin.

If your intent is to kill someone, you lose a karma point. Sort of a thought crime, I guess. [-1]

If you do kill the Prime Minister, you’ve lost another point. [-1]

Now, if you feel good about your success in this case, you lose yet another point [-1], netting you with minus 3 [-3] all tolled. However, if you feel remorse, you gain a point [+1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].

Let’s say you have no intent to kill the Prime Minister, yet you lose control of your vehicle and smash into them. S/he dies instantly.

You get no intent point—positive or negative. [0]

You lose a point for the action. Sorry, Charlie. [-1]

Now, if you feel remorse about this event, you gain another point [+1], netting you with zero [0] all tolled. However, if you didn’t really like the Prime Minister and start singing—even in your head—Ding, Dong, the witch is dead, you lose another point [-1], netting you with a minus 2 [-2].

Let’s try gift-giving.

If you want to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]

If you don’t follow through, you lose a karma point [-1], leaving you with zero [0]. There is no cause for reaction, so you remain at zero.

Let’s up the game a bit and instead of just wanting to buy a gift, you promise to buy one.

If you promise to give a gift, you gain a karma point. [+1]

If you don’t follow through, you lose a point [-1], leaving you with zero [0].

If you feel good about the ensuing disappointment, you lose another point. [-1]

If you feel bad about it, you regain a karma point [+1], so you are ahead of the game. And this, boys and girls, is how you game karma. But karma is ahead of your sorry ass, and it takes back the point. And then it takes away a penalty point if you don’t feel sorry about being a jerk.

But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, I do not endorse Kane’s endorsement idea.

10. Choice, Agency, Efforts, and Causes: Further Objections Considered

If indeterminism is involved in a process (such as the woman’s deliberation) so that its outcome is undetermined, one might argue that the outcome must merely happen and therefore cannot be somebody’s choice. But there is no reason to assume such a claim is true‘, Kane relates. More subterfuge.

Self-forming choices are undetermined, but not uncaused‘, Kane says. Tell me more.

They are caused by the agent’s efforts.’ Them’s fighting words.

He continues, ‘Perhaps indeterminism does not undermine the idea that something is a choice simply, but rather that it is the agent’s choice. This objection raises important questions about agency. What makes the woman’s choice her own on the above account is that it results from her efforts and deliberation, which in turn are causally influenced by her reasons and her intentions (for example, her intention to resolve indecision in one way or another). And what makes these efforts, deliberation, reasons, and intentions hers is that they are embedded in a larger motivational system realized in her brain

A choice is the agent’s when it is produced intentionally by efforts, by deliberation and by reasons that are part of this self-defining motivational system and when, in addition, the agent endorses the new intention or purpose created by the choice into that motivational system as a further purpose to guide future practical reasoning and action.’

My reaction is that this so-called agent is just an invention.

Since those causally relevant features of the agent, which can be counted among the causes of the woman’s choice, are her reasons or motives, her conscious awareness and her deliberative efforts, we can also say that she is the cause of the choice by virtue of making the efforts for the reasons and succeeding.’

Just no.

Next, Kane conveys a situation where a guy smashes a glass table and blames it on chance events, ending with this argument.

We tend to reason that if an outcome (breaking a table or making a choice) depends on whether certain neurons fire or not (in the arm or in the brain), then the agent must be able to make those neurons fire or not, if the agent is to be responsible for the outcome.’

Let’s see if he comes up from this rabbit hole in the next section.

11. Responsibility and Control: Three Assassins

Watch out. Kane is doubling down—nay, tripling down—on the assassins. His primary argument appeals to emotion and indoctrination—the social programming of the reader.

‘Is the assassin less guilty of killing the prime minister, if he did not have complete control over whether he would succeed because of the indeterminism in his neural processes?’

Robert Kane, Four views on Free Will

Kane recalls the dilemma that I discussed in my Citizen Kane post of a woman to continue to the office or to help someone being mugged, and asserts (without evidence) that this is volitional and ‘is coming from her own will‘.

There must be hindrances and obstacles to our choices and resistance in our own wills to be overcome, if we are to be capable of genuine self-formation and free will. Compare Evodius’s question to St Augustine (in Augustine’s classic work On the Free Choice of the Will).

This seems like plausible logic, I suppose. But it doesn’t follow from this definition that self-formation—genuine or otherwise—or free will exists.

I tuned out at the God talk.

12 Conclusion: Complexity and “Being an Author of One’s Own Story”

Finally. The last section of this chapter before I turn to John Martin Fischer’s chapter on Compatibilism.

Kane introduces the complexity of chaotic systems next.

Agents, according to this modern conception with ancient roots, are to be conceived as information-responsive complex dynamical systems. Complex dynamical systems are the subject of “dynamical systems theory” and also of what is sometimes popularly called “complexity theory.” They are systems (which are now known to be ubiquitous in nature) in which new emergent capacities arise as a result of greater complexity or as the result of movement away from thermodynamic equilibrium toward the edge of chaos.’

Only when creatures attain the kind of inner complexity capable of giving rise to conflicts in their wills, or motivational systems, between incommensurable values does the capacity for self-formation characteristic of free will arise.’

Supposing a reaction by critics, he asks himself, ‘Even if one granted that persons, such as the businesswoman, could make genuine self-forming choices that were undetermined, isn’t there something to the charge that such choices would be arbitrary?

His response is that we can’t really answer this question and tries to redirect the reader’s attention to the semantics of the word arbitrary. In the end, his final position is that this is the right approach because he can feel it in his bones.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

I’m not buying what he’s selling.

Righteous Mind

Preamble

All too often, I’ll read or listen to a book and place bookmarks with the best of intents to revisit and comment. yet either never to return or to return and not recall the context and not wanting to reread to regain it. I am going to attempt to document my reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you’ve read some posts here, you’ll understand that I am not a moralist, so I don’t expect to like the book or agree with it. I’ve already ready the forward materials, so I’ll return to comment on that before I get too far ahead. I have done this before at university, and it is decidedly slow progress and can chase one down rabbit holes—this one, anyway.

I have a habit of abandoning books in favour of others including dropping them outright. This is one of 16 I have in progress at the moment, some commenced as many as 5 years ago. To be fair to myself, many of those books are substantially completed. I feel I got the intended message—or at least got what I wanted out of them—, and I just haven’t read the final few chapters. In some cases, the book is an anthology, and I have been slogging my way through it. A few books I’ve read before and am reabsorbing the material, so I may decide not to re-read cover to cover. I just pulled a second reading book off the list to get to 16 from 17.

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to
understand them.

— Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1676

Introduction

“Can we all get along?” — Rodney King

“Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”

Born to be Righteous

I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings.

Empasis mine

Straight away, I have a contention. The human mind is not designed to do anything. It has evolved and performs functions. Perhaps, this is just a matter of semantics, but it puts me on guard. Moreover, that it does morality doesn’t evaluate the relative benefit or if it should even be done. Without going down the aforementioned rabbit hole, language is a perfect example. We use language to communicate, but language as a social mechanism may be a secondary or tertiary function. As I’ve argued—even quite recently—, this is a reason I feel that language is insufficient for the purpose of conveying abstract concepts, like for example, morals and morality.

But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.

A primary function of the brain is as a difference engine. This is what allows us to discern friend from foe, edible versus poison, and so on. Reflecting on Kahneman and Tversky, most (if not ostensibly all) of this is a heuristic system I process, which is good enough but only at a distance. Morals allow us to create in-group and out-group distinctions.

I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.

To my first point—not only his insistence on a design metaphor, but doubling down and declaring it as not a bug or an error—, this is disconcerting. And it may be a normal human condition, but so is cancer. The appeal to nature isn’t winning me over.

Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship.

Agreed.

What Lies Ahead

Part I is about the first principle: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.

Haidt and I are much aligned on these points.

Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

Not buying the ‘go with your intuitions‘ advice. Moving on.

…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant … I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.

I’m not sure I am going to like this dualism, and I haven’t read The Happiness Hypothesis, so I’ll just have to see where he takes it. It seems like Haidt is a hardcore Traditionalist.

Part II is about the second principle of moral psychology, which is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.

This feels about right.

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.

OK. Let’s see where this goes.

Part III is about the third principle: Morality binds and blinds.

I like this pair.

…human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.

Did he say bee? I agree with the chimp reference. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought.

A note on terminology: In the United States, the word liberal refers to progressive or left-wing politics, and I will use the word in this sense. But in Europe and elsewhere, the word liberal is truer to its original meaning—valuing liberty above all else, including in economic activities. When Europeans use the word liberal, they often mean something more like the American term libertarian, which cannot be placed easily on the left-right spectrum.10 Readers from outside the United States may want to swap in the words progressive or left-wing whenever I say liberal.)

Decent advice.

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

— MATTHEW 7:3–5

I do find myself, probably too often, parroting this paragraph.

PART I

Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second

Central Metaphor: The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.

Where Does Morality Come From?

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

TBD

The Origin of Morality

Quick reaction for now. Details to follow…

I’m not quite buying into Haidt’s attempt to parse the nature versus nature argument into three segments: nativism and empiricism whilst adding rationalism insomuch as rationalism is seen by many as ambiguous and not a mutually exclusive option. It feels as though he’s throwing up a rationalist strawman to take down. We’ll see where it leads

Nativism
the theory that concepts, mental capacities, and mental structures are innate rather than acquired by learning.

Empiricism
the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience.

Rationalism
the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

Let’s pick up on this later. I knew this would take a lot longer.

Nicomachean Ethics

Someone will have to try very hard to convince me that the classical Greek philosophers were not strictly satirists. I believe I’ve commented on Plato in the past. I try to be well-rounded and not just cherry-pick material that supports my worldview—even though that competes for my available time and creates opportunity costs.

Listen on Spotify

This time, I decided to pick up Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. If there is anything I needed to read to drive another nail into the coffin of Virtue ethics, this does the trick.

Nails in a coffin

Reading Classical philosophical texts feels like reading the Bible or any other religious works. It feels like it is only meant for disciples. It’s just choir preaching. If one agrees with the foundational position, it all works. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

I am not going to deconstruct the text. That would quite literally take several posts. What I want to point out is that within the frame he attempts to establish, his position is entirely heuristic. In this case, if one believes in virtue and honour and how these may or may not connect to happiness, then this is right up your street in much the same way as a Christian knows that s/he will be forgiven because Jesus loves them.

In some ways, it feels that the philosophy underlying Western Civilisation is more insidious than Abrahamic religions. They act in a similar way, attempting to convey an underpinning that simply doesn’t exist. Both are aspirational, but they claim to be foundational.

Like Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics comes across (to me) as mental masturbation—some free-association thought experiment. I’m about 60 per cent through and tempted to quit, but on some level, I want to be able to defend that I have read it. Like the Bible, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur’an, and other such canon, I want to have read the source material and not just references to it.

So, I’ll take one for the team and see whatever gems I can find.

First page of a 1566 edition of the Nicomachean Ethics in Greek and Latin

UPDATE: I’ve finished the book. It doesn’t get any better. He drifts off into politics as he sets up his sequel. My biggest criticism is that he casts his elitist worldview as reality based on assertions based solely on his opinions and appeals to tradition and authority. Read this if only to understand where certain people derive this moralistic, virtue-laden worldview. I was surprised by the foreshadowing of Descartes’ Cogito—though given how that further led to popularise Dualism, I’m not saying that’s a good thing.

Millennial Morality

Surfing the Web, I happened upon a blog wherein Wintery Knight riffed on a conversation about morality with an atheist millennial man. My interest was piqued, so I scanned it and then read it. I scanned the About page, and it’s apparent that we hold diametrically opposed worldviews, and that’s OK.

As a result of the encounter with this millennial man, the post intends to answer the question: How could I show him that happy feelings are not a good basis for morality? But let’s step back a bit.

In the words of the author, ‘I asked him to define morality, and he said that morality was feeling good, and helping other people to feel good.’ Here’s the first problem: Although a conversation about morality may have occurred between the author and an atheist millennial man, the post is not in fact a reaction to Millennial morality. Rather, it’s of the respondent’s dim characterisation of what morality is (whether for a theist or an atheist). His reply that morality is ‘feeling good, and helping other people to feel good’ sounds more like hedonism and compassion. The author does pick up on the Utilitarian bent of the response but fails to disconnect this response from the question. The result is a strawman response to one person’s hamfisted rendition of morality. The author provides no additional context for the conversation nor whether an attempt to correct the foundational definition.

A quick Google search yields what should by now be a familiar definition of morality: principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.

morality (noun) : principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour

Oxford Languages

Clearly, conflating utility with rightness and wrongness, with goodness and badness, is an obvious dead-end at the start. This said, I could just stop typing. Yet, I’ll continue—at least for a while longer.

At the top of the article is a meme image that reads ‘When I hear someone act like they’re proud of themselves for creating their own moral guidelines and sticking to them’.

This is one of the memes from the Wintery Knight facebook page

Natalie Portman sports an awkward facial expression and a sarcastic clap. Under the image is a line of copy: If you define morality as “whatever I want to do” then you’ll always be “moral”, which is tautological, but a bit of a non-sequitur to the rest, so I’ll leave it alone.

Let’s stop to regard this copy for a few moments but without going too deep. Let’s ignore the loose grammar and the concept of pride. I presume the focus of the author to be on the individually fabricated morals (read: ethical guidelines or rules) and that the fabricator follows through with them.

That this person follows through on their own rules is more impressive than the broken New Year’s resolutions of so many and is a certainly better track record than most people with supposed religious convictions.

May be a cartoon of text
New Years’ Resolutions

First, all morals are fabricated—his morals or your morals. And you can believe that these goods came from God or gods or nature or were just always present awaiting humans to embody them, but that doesn’t change the point.

Let’s presume that at least some of his morals don’t comport with the authors because they are borne out of compassion. Since we’ve already established precedence for cherry-picking, allow me to side-step the hedonistic aspects and instead focus on the compassionate aspects. Would this be offensive to the author? Isn’t, in fact, in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31, the do unto others Golden Rule edict, is a call for compassion—at least sympathy if not empathy?

After a quick jab at abortion (tl; dr: abortion is bad) taking the scenic route to articulate the point that atheists typically don’t think of unborn children as people, apparently without fully grasping the concept of zygotes and gametes. The author then confuses the neutral notion of a probabilistic outcome with accidents, having negative connotations—as if I flip a coin, the result is an accident. Let’s ignore this passive-aggressive hostility and move on. Let’s also forgive the flippant—or at least facile—articulation of biological evolutionary processes as ‘the strong survive while the weak die’. We can let it slide since what is meant by strong in this context is wide open.

child (noun) : a young human being below the age of puberty or below the legal age of majority

Oxford Languages

The author continues with a claim that ‘you aren’t going to be able to generate a moral standard that includes compassion for weak unborn children on that scenario’. This feels like an unsubstantiated claim. Is this true? Who knows. Some people have compassion for all sorts of things from puppies to pandas without having some belief in rights. Some people like Peter Singer argues that rights should be extended to all species, and all humans should be vegans. I wonder if the author can live up to this moral high watermark. Maybe so. Probably doesn’t mix linen and wool because it’s the right thing to do.

“If the rule is “let’s do what makes us happy”, and the unborn child can’t voice her opinion, then the selfish grown-ups win.” This is our next stop. This is a true statement, so let’s tease it a bit. Animals are slaughtered and eaten, having no voice. Pet’s are kept captive, having no voice. Trees are felled, having no voice. Land is absconded from vegetation and Animalia—even other humans. Stolen from unborn humans for generations to come. Lots of people have no voice.

People are into countries and time and space. What about the converse situation? Where is the responsibility for having the child who gains a voice and doesn’t want this life? Does it matter that two consenting adults choose to have a child, so it’s OK? Doesn’t the world have enough people? What if two consenting adults choose to rob a bank? I know I don’t have to explicitly make the point that once the child is thrown into this world, the voice is told to shut up if it asks to exit or even tries to exit without permission. Unless circumstances arise to snuff out the little bugger as an adult.

Finally, the author is warmed up and decides to focus first on fatherhood. The question posed was whether the interlocutor thought that fatherlessness harmed children, to which the response was no.

Spoiler alert: The author is toting a lot of baggage on this fatherhood trip. Before we even get to the father, the child, or the family, there is a presumption of a Capitalist, income-based, market economy. Father means the adult male at the head of a nuclear family with a mum (or perhaps a mother; mum may be too informal), likely with 2 kids and half a pet. The child is expected to also participate in this constructed economy—the imagined ‘right’ social arrangement. It goes without saying that I feel this is a bum deal and shit arrangement, but I’ll defer to pieces already and yet to be written here. But if fathers are the cause of this ‘Modern’ society, fuck ’em and the horses they rode in on.

She asks him, if a system of sexual rules based on “me feeling good, and other people around me feeling good”, was likely to protect children. Evidently, he was silent, but here you can already determine that she unnecessarily links sex to procreation. And reflecting on a few paragraphs back, how is forcing a child (without asking) to be born and then told to become a wage slave or perish not violent and cruel?

(Self-guidance: Calm down, man. You can get through this.)

So the question is surreptitiously about procreative sex. By extension, if the couple can’t procreate for whatever myriad reasons, it’s OK? Sounds like it? Premenstrual, menopausal, oral, anal, same-sex coupling is all OK in this book. Perhaps, the author is more open-minded than I am given credit for. Not all humans are fertile, sex with plants and animals won’t result in procreation. A lot of folks would call this author kinky or freaky. Not my cup of tea, but I’m not judging. Besides, I’ve read that book—though shalt not judge. I’m gonna play it safe. And they couldn’t print it if it wasn’t true.

Spoiler Alert: Jesus dies at the end.

Seeking credibility, the author cites Bloomberg, as Centre to Centre-Left organisation as Far-Left. Clearly another red flag. Excuse me, your bias is showing. This piece is likely written for choir preaching, so we’ll take the penalty and move along.

A quick jab at the bête noire of ‘Big Government’ facilitating idle hands and, presumably genitals, to play. The idle rich as Croesus folks are idols to behold. At least I can presume she opposes military spending and armed aggression on the grounds of harm, so we’ve got common ground there. They’re probably an advocate of defunding the police, though by another name. so there’s another common platform. It just goes to show: all you need to do is talk to ameliorate differences. We’re making good headway. Let’s keep up the momentum.

Wait, what? We need to preserve a Western Way? I was shooting for something more Zen. Jesus was a Westerner—being from Bethlehem and all. (That’s in Israel—probably on the Westside.)

r/memes - Everyone else in the Middle East Jesus Christ
White Jesus from the Middle East

No worries. Just a minor setback—a speedbump. It’s just a flesh wound. But we’ve pretty much reached the end. A little banter about some other studies. There’s an impartial citation from the Institute for Family Studies on cohabitation they beg the question and employs circular logic. And another from the non-partisan Heritage Foundation finds that dads who live with their children spend more time with them. How profound. I’d fund that study.

And it’s over. What happened? In the end, all I got out of it is ‘I don’t like it when you make up morals’. You need to adopt the same moral code I’ve adopted.

Emotivism
AJ Ayer – Emotivism

Where was I? Oh yeah. Fathers. So these people don’t mean generic fathers. They mean fathers who subscribe to their worldview. In their magical realm, these fathers are not abusive to their mothers or children; these fathers are not rip-roaring alcoholics; these fathers are the dads you see on the telly.

Suspiciously absent is the plotline where the fathers are ripped from their families through systematic racism and incarcerated as if they didn’t want to be there for their children. And this isn’t discussing whether it’s an issue of fathers or an issue of money. It isn’t discussing whether someone else might serve as a proxy for this role. Indeed, there is nothing magical about fathers unless you live in a fantasy world.

Comment below or by email.

Your Morals – Part 3 of 3

Continuing my responses to Johnathan Haidt’s Morality survey…

25. I believe the strength of a sports team comes from the loyalty of its members to each other

Who TF cares about a sports team or where their loyalty comes from, whatever that even means. And the strength of what exactly? Players move from team to team with ease, and they are obliged to win in order to advance their own interests and personal glory. Weaker players can coattail by association to their team or their league.

26. I think children should be taught to be loyal to their country

Smh. No. I think that countries should be abolished. Children should be taught how arbitrary countries are and how they divide more than they unite.

27. In a fair society, those who work hard should live with higher standards of living

Weasel words—fair, hard, work, higher, and living standards. Perhaps the answer can be found in the definitions, like divining with tea leaves.

Hard Work & Enterprise

28. I believe that everyone should be given the same quantity of resources in life

What resources? A family with no children doesn’t need children’s shoes and clothing. A vegan doesn’t need a side of beef. What is this asking?

29. The world would be a better place if everyone made the same amount of money

I agree. And the amount should be zero. Didn’t I already answer this one?

30. I believe it would be ideal if everyone in society wound up with roughly the same amount of money

What is this obsession with money? I guess this is a reflection on Harvard. Get over it.

31. People should try to use natural medicines rather than chemically identical human-made ones

What? Sure. Maybe. I suppose if they are identical. Are they cheaper or free? Are they dosage- and quality-controlled? What is the function of the infinitive try to?

32. I believe chastity is an important virtue

Not more virtue. Make it stop. Chastity is defined as the state or practice of refraining from extramarital, or especially from all, sexual intercourse. This would be important why? And how would it be a virtue by any measure?

33. I think obedience to parents is an important virtue

Just why?

34. I admire people who keep their virginity until marriage

How would I know? Why would I admire them? I understand the traditional and statutory function of marriage, but this anachronistic chattel arrangement doesn’t need to exist.

35. Everyone should defend their country, if called upon

Perhaps we should abolish countries and property. What are the defending—their unique way of life? Their awesome achievements or prospects thereof? The dirt and natural resources? The buildings? Some mythos? Just no. If politicos want to fight for imaginary boundaries, let them fight it out in an old school cage match.

36. If I found out that an acquaintance had an unusual but harmless sexual fetish I would feel uneasy about them

Define harmless. Does this fetish involve me? If not, I don’t care. Might I roll my eyes? Perhaps. Might I laugh? Sure.

Summary

Having commented in some form or fashion on each of these questions, I can remain unmoral. Morality is an exercise in mental masturbation and power. As should be obvious by now, morality presumes that one subscribes to some underlying and supposed metanarratives.

In the end, reflecting upon other sources, a certain sense of what might be considered to be a moral compass may be present in infants and children, but these can be (and are) manipulated through education, books, entertainment from TV and movies to sports to civic instruction and all sorts of propaganda. So, the point that wee folk have propensities for certain behaviours is all well and good, but this feels an awful like confirmation bias in full view. Of course, it might be considered to be immoral to raise classless, less judgmental children especially if they make choices different to the leaders.

Your Morals – Part 2 of 3

Continuing my response to Johnathan Haidt’s Moral survey…

13. I believe that one of the most important values to teach children is to have respect for authority

This is a legitimate question without subtext. I happen to disagree with it, but at least it’s legit. Children should not only be taught to question authority, they should question the structure that perpetuates authority.

14. It makes me happy when people are recognized on their merits

dot dot dot … Let’s not retread in the nonsensical space that is meritocracy. Next…

15. I think people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute

smh … Next…

16. It upsets me when people use foul language like it is nothing

Sadly, this is another legitimate question. Language is language. If someone feels that some language is out of bounds—and this as well extends to the proponents of PC speech—then this is more a reflection of their repression than anything more. Liam Gallagher FTW

17. Our society would have fewer problems if people had the same income

Not another money-based economy question. I’ll leave it at ‘Our society would have fewer problems is people had no necessity for income’.

18. It pains me when I see someone ignoring the needs of another human being

I suppose it does, but given the ubiquity of this as well as the contrary situation, what’s one to do. On balance, this can either be a disconnected or misguided government or an apathetic person. Needs is a weasel word, but I’ll let it slide.

19. It upsets me when people have no loyalty to their country

Eyeroll, please. TF is loyalty anyway? And where’s the reciprocity? I think I’m on to something. Obviously, someone who fetishises a country has pathological issues. I’m not sure what the scale differential is between country fetishists and sports fans, but I’ll move along. Now you know what does upset me.

20. I am empathetic toward those people who have suffered in their lives

Sure. Sympathetic, perhaps even compassionate. Another vapid question. Each of these is contingent on what suffering is perceived.

21. Everyone should love their own community

Define community. Define love. Should? Is this my imposition? Everyone? What is this sorcery? Next…

22. I believe that compassion for those who are suffering is one of the most crucial virtues

Here we go with virtues again—more tripe about relative goodness and badness. Translation: I believe that being good is good. According to Google, compassion is sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others; sympathy is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune; pity is the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others; therefore, compassion is [feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune] [with the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others] and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. This is some recursive word salad if I’ve even seen it.

23. We should all care for people who are in emotional pain

More shoulds and alls and care and pain with a dash of emotional.

Maybe I'm too emotional*
But your apathy is like a wound in salt
Maybe I'm too emotional
Or maybe you never cared at all
Maybe I'm too emotional
Your apathy is like a wound in salt
Maybe I'm too emotional
Or maybe you never cared at all

24. I think having a strong leader is good for society

I think that having a strong leader is good in some cases…for some members of society. As with benevolent dictators, leaders can be beneficial, if there is a common cause. Oftentimes, the common cause is a contrived narrative, leading in a direction, which may or may not resolve in a better place for some—never all, and what about the rest? This is a role of society.


* Good 4 You — Daniel Leonard Nigro / Olivia Rodrigo / Hayley Williams / Josh Farro

Your Morals

I was commenting elsewhere on morals and was directed to Jonathan Haidt and his work. Notably, the questionnaire at YourMorals.org, where you can get your own assessment and contribute data points to the body of work.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this type of survey, as I’ve mentioned previously. Still, I made an attempt. Better still, I’ve copied the questions to critique. There are 36 all tolled. Perhaps, I’ll respond to a dozen at a time. The next dozen responses are here. Generally speaking, they present each question and provide a Likert scale as follows:

  1. Does not describe me at all
  2. Slightly describes me
  3. Moderately describes me
  4. Describes me fairly well
  5. Describes me extremely well

Standard fare. It starts off bad:

1. Caring for people who have suffered is an important virtue.

Why include an abstract concept like virtue? I don’t ascribe to the notion of virtue, so it’s an empty set. Given that, my response would be a 1. If I ignore the offensive nomenclature and assume it translates idiomatically into ‘beneficial for some target society’, then I still have to question what is meant by suffering, and how far does caring extend. Is it enough to feel bad about the homeless person, or does one have to care enough to provide sustenance and shelter? Talk is cheap.

2. The effort a worker puts into a job ought to be reflected in the size of a raise they receive.

This is fraught with all sorts of problems. In fact, it’s a reason why I consider myself to be a Postmodern. The inherent metanarrative is that societies are effectively money-based. I don’t happen to believe that, so I am again faced with responding to an empty set. Even if I attempt to abstract the ‘raise’ aspect to mean that effort represents input and output is a direct and (perhaps) proportional function, I am still left to wrestle with how this effort is measured and what could have been achieved had the others not been present.

Using a sports analogy—always a dangerous domain for me to play in—, what if LeBron James was to play an opposing team by himself? He needs the other team members. Of course, his teammates are compensated, too. But in his case, his salary is not only based on his athletic talent but on his celebrity power—rent in economic parlance. Perhaps LeBron makes a lot of baskets, but without the assists, he’d have fewer. And because he is the go-to guy, some other teammates might be sacrificing baskets as part of their winning strategy.

Finally, how do you measure the effort of an accountant, a janitor, and an executive? The question is fundamentally bollox.

3. I think people who are more hard-working should end up with more money.

On a related note, I can abbreviate my commentary here. Again, what is harder? Are we asking if construction workers should earn more than CEOs? More bollox.

4. Everyone should feel proud when a person in their community wins in an international competition.

Yet, again, an empty set and a sort of mixed metaphor. I don’t agree with the notion of identity and even less at scale—states, countries, and nationalities. Putting that aside, why should I derive pride (that cometh before the fall) because someone succeeds at some event anywhere? It’s facile. If the question was focused on whether I would be happy for that person, the answer might shift up the scale, but where would I have derived pride for that person’s achievements?

5. I think it is important for societies to cherish their traditional values.

First off, why? What values? Not to beat a dead horse, but what if my tradition is slavery? Should I cherish that? This is really asking should I cherish the traditions of my society. Clearly, it’s not asking if other societies should enjoy the privilege of cherishing theirs? From the standard Western vantage, many want to cherish their own, but not Eastern values of eating dogs or Middle Eastern values of burqaed women and turbans. Is this asking should the world subscribe to my society’s values? I’m not sure.

6. I feel that most traditions serve a valuable function in keeping society orderly

Speaking of tradition… We are not only dealing with the vague notion of tradition, we are discussing another vague concept, order, and elevating order over (presumably) disorder. Order connotes a status quo. And why is the superlative most present? Has someone inventoried traditions? I believe I am supposed to translate this as ‘I feel that the traditions I am familiar with and agree with help to create a society that I am content with’. Again, this betrays the privileged perspective of the observers. Perhaps those disenfranchised would prefer traditions like Capitalism and private property to be relics of the past–or traditions of two-party rule, partisan high court judges, or money-influenced politics, or politicians serving themselves and their donors over the people or Christmas.

7. We all need to learn from our elders

Learn what exactly from our elders? Which elders? The bloke down the block? That elderly Christian woman at the grocery mart? The cat who fought in some illegal and immoral war? The dude who hordes houses, cars, and cash at the expense of the rest of society? Or the guy who tried to blow up Parliament. I believe this is asking should we learn how to remain in place as taught by the privileged wishing to maintain their places.

8. Everyone should try to comfort people who are going through something hard

Define hard, and define comfort? This harkens back to the first question. Enough said. As far as lying is concerned, we should by now all be familiar with the adage trying is lying. Or as Yoda would restate it, do or do not, there is no try.

9. I think the human body should be treated like a temple, housing something sacred within

Obviously, this one is total rubbish. Here, I don’t have a structure that makes it difficult to answer. I may have sprained my eye rolling it, though. This said, what is a temple treated like?

10. I get upset when some people have a lot more money than others in my country

This one is interesting. Whilst I don’t believe that countries or money should exist. In practice, they do. So on its face, I can say that I get upset when we are thrown into a bordered region and told we need to exchange paper, metal, plastic, and bits for goods and services–that some people have more and others have less primarily through chance.

11. I feel good when I see cheaters get caught and punished

Which cheaters? Cheating requires perspective and a cultural code. It can privilege the individualist over the communalist. This reminds me of the cultures that are more interested in ensuring that all of their members finish a contest than having any one win.

Academically, it is considered to be cheating to work together on an exam because the individual is being tested. Of course, the exam is on certain content rather than on the contribution of the human being.

Again, the question feels targeted at cheaters getting caught circumventing something we value. If someone cheats becoming assimilated into some military-industrial society, I will encourage and support them. If they get caught and punished, my ire would more likely be directed toward the power structure that created the need to cheat.

12. When people work together toward a common goal, they should share the rewards equally, even if some worked harder on it

I’ll end this segment here on another question of meritocracy. I think it’s fair to judge the authors as defenders of meritocracy, though I could be wrong. This feels very similar to some other questions already addressed. The extension here is about sharing the rewards, whatever that means. Are we baking a cake? Did we build a house for a new couple? Did we plant trees in a public park? Did we clean up litter on a parkway? Did we volunteer to feed the homeless? And what was the work? Again, how are we measuring disparate work? Did the chicken farmer work harder than the cow farmer? Did the carpenter work harder than the organiser?

If the remainder of these questions is different enough, I’ll comment on them as well. Meantime, at least know you know more why I have little faith in the field of morals. This does nothing to change my opinion that morals are nothing more than emotional reactions and subsequent prescriptions. I don’t mean to diminish emotions, and perhaps that might be a good central pillar to a vibrant society. I’ll need more convincing.

Moral Tribes

Aside from the political realm, in my quest to gain more perspective on Anarchism in 2022, I am interested in behavioural aspects of the human condition. It seems to me that political constructs as dynamic systems are inherently unstable. Whilst I am predisposed to Anarchy versus the alternatives to which I’ve been exposed, it too is fraught will deficiencies. The question is which system has the fewest deficiencies at any given time. More on this later.

On my journey, I’ve come across Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene, a book recommended in Behave by Robert Sapolsky—perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the trailing decade, which is also to say my favourite book over this period. Professor Greene summarises his concepts on YouTube.

But

Of course, there’s a but. Joshua Greene seems to come from the same mould as Stephen Pinker. Two Pollyanna defenders of the Enlightenment and Humanism. As such, they are Moderns in the pejorative sense. They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. They both buy into the Classical Western narrative.

What interested me in Greene’s work was the conflict management aspect. I don’t believe in inherent morality, but I do believe in constructed morality, perhaps better known as ethics. I believe that these are self-serving, whereby self represents any entity at some point or limited expanse of time. They never derive from some neutral place without benefiting some at the expense of others.

The axe I have to grid with Greene in Moral Tribes is his belief in facile notions such as loyalty and some sense of definitive goodness and badness. These things, he believes are instinctual. If we can tap into them and manipulate those with broken instincts—or marginalise them—, all will be milk and honey—or wine and roses. Take your pick.

Deep Pragmatism

Greene is effectively a utilitarian as descended from Jeremy Betham and John Stuart Mill, and he views pragmatism as a sort of panacea. Although I operate as a pragmatist as a fallback position from my more existential nihilistic core, I don’t feel that his recharacterising utilitarianism as Deep Pragmatism™ is a viable solution. Presuming that one could actually dimensionalise a society in a manner to measure this utility is a fool’s errand at the start. And, as I’ve gathered from other sources, he not only believes that there is a best morality, and he’s found it—because of course he has. In my book this is a red flag—a flaming red flag signalling a rubbish claim. In some circles, they’d straight up call it bollox.

Given this foundation, I am not sure how much more I’ll be able to maintain my interest. But for now, I’m not optimistic that he’s relying on anything more than hoping to convert ises from oughts with his magic Modern wand. I’ll give it as least a few more pages, but I won’t promise not to skim through to the end.