Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Emotion and Morality

188 days until the first class.

Sometimes, I have my doubts about my ability to do this whole philosophy thing and whether I can get into graduate school.

On Friday, when I was at the university, I overheard one professor say to another, that, unless an applicant shows no absolutely no aptitude, as long as the student can afford it, to go ahead and let them in the Master's program and see what that person can do.

Is that my status? I show at least some aptitude and can afford to pay for it?

Well . . . whatever . . . things are as they are. I will give it a shot and see what comes of it.

I have started my paper for this class I am somewhat auditing. An aspect of the class is concerned with the question of whether moral conclusions are based on emotion or reason. I wish to defend the idea that emotion is not a reliable foundation for moral beliefs; it is a reliable foundation for identifying the prejudices of one's age, but not all of them are moral. However, emotion (or desire) is essential for action, and emotions (desires) are, to some degree, malleable. Consequently, it is important to ask, "What emotions (desires) should we have?" This, of course, will get to the heart of desirism.

The first part of the course spoke about emotions as molded by evolution. This is true, to some extent. I have already sent the professor an email arguing that this gives us reason to deny that there are external reasons. If external reasons did exist we would have to postulate a strange coincidence between the perception of external reasons and that which will produce reproductive success. The best explanation we have suggests that we have evolved internal reasons that tend to motivate us to engage in behavior that is useful in an evolutionary sense. However, evolution has given us malleable brains that allow us to adapt to a wide variety of environments, and this malleability suggests that we have some influence over the desires that other people have.

The second part of the course has had to do with neuroscience and the different parts of the brain that "light up" when people make moral judgments. Here, too, I have already sent the professor an email that says that we can study the parts of the brain that "light up" as people address questions such as the age of the earth and the possibility that humans evolved from simpler forms of life. However, the former would not make us astronomers and the latter would not make us evolutionary biologists. There are differences between investigating beliefs about X and investigating X.

I do not know what she thought about those answers. She has not made any comments yet.

I am wondering what she would say about receiving actual paper.


Abi Jeph said...

I think you should listen to those doubts that you occasionally mention. You seem to be familiar with the work of more philosophers than I am. You write far more prolifically than I have ever been able to. A post you presumably create in a day is often written better than stuff I spend a week on. Your posts are composed of readable paragraphs that appear to me, to each convey their intended point quite well. I rarely think about your sentences and I surely would notice them if they were badly formed or otherwise difficult to parse. You probably should be doing something with that writing skill, but I don’t think philosophy is that thing.

I’ve been looking at your blog posts since sometime in December and admiring your writing skills, but wishing your philosophical understanding had more depth. I disagree with you on a lot of points and I began wondering if that was causing me to be overly critical of your understanding.
But one day I spent a few hours rereading some of the things that Dennett has written. I came away from that completely convinced that there is a very significant difference between the rigor of one of Dennett’s essays and one of your blog posts.
I suppose Dennett’s published essays are a high bar to measure your blog posts against. But I don’t see, that for all Dennett’s philosophical understanding and reasoning skill, that he has made the world a better place. So, what would be the point of comparing you to some lower standard? Frankly, I don’t think that anyone in western philosophy is ever going to make the world a better place, at least not with their philosophical writing.

I’m sure there have been both good and bad leaders that have been influenced by philosophers. But I don’t think that the multitude of severe problems in our society are because our politicians are failing to study philosophy or that philosophy has not yet reached a useful point. I think our politicians just have little motivation to make life better for the masses. They are motivated to try and make the masses think they care about them, but that’s different than actually caring. The world’s political leaders could do far better for the societies they govern than they currently do, just by actually caring about the society they govern rather than, their own interests, their political agenda, their legacy, etc. No philosophy needed.

Our society is a frantic, greedy and vain society. It is full of worship of money, celebrity, power and various other socially destructive things. I don’t see how western philosophy is part of pathway out of that toward a peaceful and contented society. Toward a society that doesn’t plunder the planet using resources that should have lasted for millennia, in a mere century or two. Even if philosophy could be helpful, it seems to me that you are not thinking deeply enough about a few key things. Consequently, everything you derive from your oversimplified versions of those things isn’t useful.

The three oversimplified things I have in mind at the moment are your definition of “desire,” your view of “logic,” and your understanding of the experience machine.

Abi Jeph said...

Regarding Desire
Here is just one of the ways of showing that you haven’t thought deeply about desire and that it needs far more clarity than you have given it.
First, I think you mention “a desire” in your posts somewhere. You can be in a state of desire toward something, but I question whether talking of “a desire” makes sense.

Suppose today you desire to eat some particular meal. You also had desire for a similar meal one day last week. Is that the same desire? If so what would make it a different desire? If last week you wanted the same items, but more meat and less potatoes than you want today, is it now a different desire? So, you sit down to eat and your fork is moving toward a piece of meat. You may be desiring that it be a certain temperature, have a certain level of seasoning, be of a particular texture or tenderness, etc. All separate desires? At your next bite, you may have an even greater desire for the meat after your first taste of it. Is it the same desire intensified or a different desire altogether? Suppose you are eating a dish with a number of different things in it, stew for example. As you are getting an attractive looking portion of food on the spoon, the food moves, some things stay on the spoon others fall off, you are millisecond by millisecond watching the process and changing the way you manipulate the spoon depending on your desire to have which bits of food on the spoon. Have tens or hundreds of small desires just appeared and disappeared? Surely, your desire is changing continuously during the process if you pay attention to the process of filling the spoon. I suppose you could be engaged in conversation, with a whole different set of desires occupying your attention, and without much conscious attention raise a spoonful of stew to your mouth. But if you are in a normal state of awareness doing some activity, talking, eating, typing, gaming, or whatever, on a scale far too quick for you to ever remember or document in any way, many different changes in desire are occurring.

If desire is something that has a constantly changing strength and a constantly changing target as well, then it is not something that could be defined in a way that you could ever use it to calculate things in the way that you seem to want to do. If you did not find the meal example helpful, change the situation to sex. During foreplay, doesn’t the thing you desire next, constantly change as you see what things are might work out, feel good, lead to more pleasure, etc. If you analyze closely, don’t you usually have thousands of small momentary desires during a sexual encounter? If you now see that desires might not exist as things, but might be a continuously changing state, isn’t the conclusion, that you have not yet begun to think about desire adequately?

There are other ways as well, to question the oversimplified almost cartoonish version of desire that you seem to be using as the foundation of desirism. But if you are open to looking closely at the issue, this should surely be enough to get you started.

Abi Jeph said...

Logic and reason
Logic and reason (and analysis) are another problematic issue in your writing. Logic is a tool we use, but it is a lifeless thing. Can’t logic exist on the pages of a book on a shelf? But sensation or desire which seemingly motivate or shape most of our activity, can only exist in a conscious living creature. Logic should not be seen as a mode of thinking we can use to arrive at absolute truths about reality.

Arguments can be provably correct (valid), but premises never can be, consequently it doesn’t matter if you have valid arguments, without provably true premises your conclusions are worthless. If your premises are the conclusions of other valid arguments which also have premises that are conclusions of other valid arguments, keep going, necessarily you must inevitably arrive at premises that are mere guesses of your nonlogical (irrational) side. If you manage to avoid ever reaching an unproven premise you must be in a circular argument, a tautology, I suppose.

Analysis, like logic, seems to be a tool that will get you to some real solid truths, until you look closely at it. Analysis is understanding something by looking at the smaller, more easily understood units, that make up the thing you are analyzing. It is a tool, that, like logic, in our everyday lives usually gives us excellent results. But if you try to use it in philosophy or otherwise push it beyond its limits you can get bad results. If you are unaware of the limitations, you can be misled into accepting a bad result as an absolute truth rather than an example of something that analysis is not able to address. In logic, there is no ultimate true premise that you can build up from. In analysis, there is no smallest unit that you can build up from. Whatever the smallest units are, of the larger thing you are analyzing, they will need to be understood by analyzing them as well. At some point in the physical realm you will arrive at a particle that science currently cannot take apart and analyze. You have no choice but to notice the properties/behaviors that it seems to have and assume that you understand it. At any time, someone could notice additional properties and/or develop a more sophisticated model of that particle that requires all the higher levels above that particle to be reanalyzed incorporating the new understanding. Logically, there cannot be any ultimate or final analysis.

Presumably, analysis of mind has limitations similar to analysis of the physical world (if we are in fact able to know any physical facts). Perhaps, a decade or so ago, maybe you began to examine “morality.” You thought about the components of mind, imagined how they interact and this analysis suggested a model and its label is desirism. At a certain level the model seems to work. But when you realize that one of the key components, “desire,” has not itself been properly analyzed and it not well understood, it should become clear that desirism is worthless without a much better understanding of desire itself.

Abi Jeph said...

Experience Machine
I read two of your posts from last year on the experience machine. I found them superficial. On my first exposure to the idea of the experience machine a few years back I can’t say that I did a whole lot better. However, I did take one important step that does not seem to have occurred to you. I realized that to take the experience machine seriously, you had to consider that you might already be in such a machine.

If you believe that the experience machine will ever be possible in the future, no matter how distant, then it may already be that future time and you may have chosen to enter the machine and experience life as if you were at this particular time. Anyone that cannot imagine that this is true, that everything you believe about the physical world may be wrong, is probably not going to be able to comment about the experience machine in a useful way.

The actual world/reality you come from might differ greatly from what you currently accept as reality. You might not be the race or gender or sexual orientation you currently think you are, or perhaps no such thing as humans even exist. You might be a completely different sort of creature. Or perhaps you are alone in the universe, the only being that has ever existed. You may be the universe, this seeming reality may be a dream or delusion you are having, or some fantasy that you deliberately initiated.

If you can’t seriously entertain the notion that everything you think you know about reality might not be real (a la Descartes), you aren’t actually doing the experience machine thought experiment. If you think about this deeply for a week or so and you can’t ever reach a moment where you experience a sudden chill of realization at how the world around you might not be real, keep trying or admit that you are not that good at thought experiments.

If you are a materialist, don’t you have to accept that an experience machine is a theoretical possibility? A materialist believes that matter (the brain) gives rise to mind. Manipulating that matter can affect mind. We continue to advance in our ability to manipulate matter on ever smaller scales. It is surely only a matter of time before we can manipulate the brain with the precision and scale necessary to create experience indistinguishable from reality. As I said above, if that will ever be true it may be so already. This means that we cannot know any physical fact about reality. We cannot even know if there actually is a physical reality. If we cannot know any physical fact about reality materialism seems to be refuted.

We know our mind exists because the question of its existence could not arise if it didn’t. Whether our brain or any other physical thing exists seems like something we can never know. It’s hard to see why materialists exist after Descartes. And now, decades after Nozick, they are still proposing convoluted theories about how a brain could give rise to a mind, when they should be wondering how mind creates the illusion of a brain.

We know the mental realm exists. Most of us exist in a mental state in which the material realm seems very real. But other than very powerful “feelings” that the physical world is real, I can’t find a reason to believe that it is real. But just as religious believers ignore logic and believe in a God that they have a very strong intuition about, materialists ignore logic and assume that their senses are reporting data from a physical reality.