Friday, March 02, 2007

Rational Ignorance and Platonic Moral Forms

This is my sixth weekend blogging on the presentations given at "Beyond Belief 2006". I am on session 4 (of 10) from that series.

In the first presentation of Session 4, Stuart Hameroff, director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, gave a presentation on the nature of consciousness - one that does not involve spirits or souls.

Rational Ignorance

I confess that I am not at all qualified to judge his theory. I know enough about the field to know that there is a tremendous amount that I do not know. There were others in the audience more knowledgeable than I am who seemed to be highly critical. This fact, figured into the principle that one should accept the ‘received view’ in any field one is not qualified to speak in, suggests that there were problems with the theory.

The most important reason why I am not qualified to judge Hameroff’s theory is because I do not have time to study every subject on the planet. Therefore, I have to make choices. I have so many study hours in a day, and so many subjects to spend them on. Everybody makes choices about what they learn and what they remain ignorant about. My choice to study value theory means ignoring the fine details of theories of consciousness.

I bring these facts up because they illustrate a point that I have made earlier that we all must use shortcuts in determining which believes to accept and which to reject. We do not have the time to give every claim in every field of study a full rational review. So, in certain areas, we pick up those ideas that we see floating around in society and adopt them, holding that the mere fact that they exist show that they are good enough for maintaining existence.

I ran a search of my own blog and have discovered twelve posts in which I used the term “conscious”. In these posts, I used the term as I learned to use it as a part of learning how to speak English. Nobody could expect the young boy that I was when I learned this concept to give the concept a detailed and rational evaluation. I simply picked up common usage. In doing so, I picked up common beliefs about consciousness. There is an excellent chance that some of what I learned is simply false – popular myth and superstition. Yet, because my attention has been drawn to moral theory, I do not have time to look at the issue of consciousness. I consider these common beliefs to be good enough to get by.

I assert that there are others who regard religious terms the same way that I regard ‘consciousness’. As they learn to speak, they hear people talk unquestionably about God and angels, and they adopt a belief in these things as a part of learning to speak. They learn these things under conditions where they have no capacity to give the subject rational thought. Learning to speak as if there is no God is like learning a whole new language – entirely alien, and extremely difficult (if not started very early in life).

There are people who deny that consciousness exists. They argue that the term does not refer to anything that plays any type of causal role – that we could eliminate the concept entirely and still adequately explain everything event in the real world. We can, for example, imagine a robot that behaves in a way that is indistinguishable from a human, yet the robot lacks consciousness. From this, we conclude that consciousness plays no explanatory role in human behavior, which suggests that even humans are robots that lack consciousness.

It seems obvious to me that they are wrong. They probably insist that reason dictates that I am wrong. They might well consider me to be stubborn, refusing to accept their belief in aconsciousness, and quite simply deciding to live my life as I had been living it, making an occasional reference to consciousness.

If there is a justification for condemning those who believe in God, I do not see how it can be any different than the possibility of condemnation for believing in consciousness. If a belief is not harmful, then I see little reason to be overly concerned with whether people have that belief or not.

When a belief is not harmful.

On the other hand, when a belief manifests itself in behavior where the agent interferes with others living a fulfilling life, blocks access to medical advances that could save lives and end suffering, dismisses qualified candidates from positions such as judge or President, insists that the school spend education time promoting myth and superstition as fact, or seeks to kill as many people as possible who do not share his beliefs, then the qualification of 'harmless' belief no longer applies.

This, I argue, is the key difference. I do not care if a person believes in God or does not believe in consciousness. I do care if a person has beliefs that make it likely that he will devote himself to activities that make him a threat to others.

The Platonic Form of Good

In another part of Hameroff’s presentation he made a fleeting reference to a “connection to deeper reality of quantum platonic information embedded in the universe.” In this context, he included moral or ethical information. In other words, he suggested that at the quantum level – a level at which consciousness works (on his theory) – the brain has access to the platonic form of “the good” written into the universe.

This does concern my area of interest and does suggest that perhaps I might have reason after all to get into the study of consciousness, to investigate the possibility of quantum level platonic moral information. However, Hameroff made a once sentence claim that he did not seek to defend. When Susan Neiman, a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, rose from the audience to report that she did not even know what it meant to say that the brain has access to quantum level platonic moral forms, Hameroff responded by talking about mathematical information instead.

I am still not motivated to go looking for quantum level platonic moral forms because I simply do not see the need to do so. I so not see any mystery that such an entity can possibly help to answer. The questions I do know about, as far as I can tell, can be answered by looking at rather common, ordinary, macro-scale entities.

There are desires. Desires are propositional attitudes that identify the ends or ultimate goals of intentional human actions – propositions that are to be made or kept true.

There are states of affairs. These are simply sets of facts about the world, where the propositions that are the objects of our desires are either true or false.

There are intentional actions. This is the mechanism through which desires bring about states of affairs. The agent seeks to bring about states of affairs where the propositions that are the objects of his desires are true. However, because of false or incomplete beliefs, or a non-cooperative real world, agents often fail.

There is the fact that an agent, seeking to make or keep a proposition ‘P’ true, has a reason to cause others to have desires that will tend to make or keep proposition ‘P’ true. There is the parallel fact that such an agent has a reason to cause others not to have desires that would cause them to make or keep ‘P’ false. That is to say, people have many strong reasons to promote in others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

The tools for promoting or inhibiting desires include praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

We are seeking to make or keep true the propositions of our desires. However, those desires have been molded by others, who seek to create in us desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. Thus, the propositions that we try to make or keep true will tend to be (to the degree that others are successful) desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others.

Please note, I do not need any “evolution of altruism” to account for altruism here. All I need is a malleability of desires and the ability on the part of others to mold those desires.

In all of this, I have been able to make use of ordinary entities of desires, states of affairs, the relationships between them, and ways of promoting or inhibiting desires in others. There are no intrinsic values and there is no mystery that requires that I go looking for evidence of platonic moral values.

I do not really see a need to study Hameroff’s theory of consciousness.

However, there have been times in the past where I saw no need to study something, only to discover that I was wrong. As a graduate student, I saw no need to study the philosophy of psychology. However, the department had a policy that required two classes in the Philosophy of Science, and I selected the Philosophy of Psychology as one of those classes.

It was in that class that I encountered the idea of desires as propositional attitudes. I went from there to consider desires as motivational reasons to make or keep certain propositions true, at the idea that ‘good’ could mean ‘the propositions that are the objects of some set of desires are true in that state.’ For example, a ‘good knife’ is a knife that is useful for making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of the desires of people who tend to use knives.

It was in that class that I learned that, even though we cannot rationally evaluate desires as ends, that every desire is also, at the same time, a means towards the fulfillment of other desires. So, we can measure the value of a desire by its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires.

Perhaps a study of consciousness will provide me with additional unintended and unanticipated insight. Perhaps not. I still have to make a decision based on limited information. That decision is that there is nothing to be gained by looking for quantum level platonic moral forms.

In light of this, I think that we can be a bit forgiving of those who decide that they are going to accept common wisdom on other subjects. That is, unless we start to find reason to believe that common wisdom makes an individual a threat to the well-being of others. When that happens, good people have a duty to question whether common wisdom is wise as some people think it is.


So, I have studied moral theory. Dr. Hameroff has studied theories of consciousness. I will admit to ignorance of theories of consciousness, mostly because I do not see in them anything relevant to moral theory. Hameroff sees a relationship, though I suspect that he has been too busy studying consciousness to learn much about moral theory.

There is nothing wrong about being ignorant of the specifics in any particular field of study. If there was, then we are all evil. There is nothing wrong with adopting conventional wisdom, whether it be on the existence of consciousness, the existence of platonic moral forms, or the existence of God.

There is no problem until we start to find reason to believe that those who adopt a particular belief are a threat to the well-being of others. When that happens, we have reason to require that others care a bit more about the truth of the matter. Until that happens, we have little moral reason to care.

1 comment:

BlackSun said...

Have you heard about Marvin Minsky's "Society of Mind" theory?