Sunday, April 19, 2015

Drawing The Line: making the case for idea-ism

This post has been too long in coming.  I've been busy coding.  (Actually, I've been busy writing documentation, which turns out to be even more time consuming.)

A while back I promised commenter Luke that I would answer two questions:

1.  How can reason not be circular?

2.  Why is idea-ism (still searching for a better name) a better basis for morality than Christianity (or anything else for that matter)?

I answered the first question in a previous post.  The bottom line is that reason "grounds out" in the fact that the universe has discernible regularities in it, and our brains have hard-wired into them the ability to attach labels to those regularities.  We call that ability "language," and "reason" is an extension of language.  This post tackles the second question, at which point my outstanding rhetorical obligations will be fulfilled and I can get back to working on my startup :-)

First, a reminder of what idea-ism is, what it claims, and what it does not.  Idea-ism is the axiom that moral behavior is that which advances the interests of memes or ideas.  It is important to note that idea-ism is an axiom.  I can't prove it.  In fact, no system of morality can be proven because morality is not a question of fact.  The question of whether it is right to cut people's heads off for apostasy cannot be resolved experimentally.  Morality is a matter of social choice.  It is a question of what kind of world we want to try to strive for.  Which immediately raises the question: who is "we"?

This, I claim, is the more fundamental question.  Disagreements about what is moral really boil down to disagreements about where to draw the boundary between "us" and "them."  The meaning of "love thy neighbor" really depends on the meaning of the word "neighbor".  Back in Old Testament times your neighbor meant a member of your tribe.  The bloody genocides in Joshua that New Atheists gleefully point out as contradicting the sixth Commandment aren't contradictions at all, they are simply a reflection of how the line between "us" and "them" has shifted over time.  The idea that "all men are created equal" is a modern invention, a product of the Enlightenment, and it is nowhere near being universally accepted.  Nearly fifteen years after 9/11, Americans still go apoplectic over the death of nearly 3000 innocent civilians but (mostly) casually brush off the deaths of over 100,000 equally innocent Iraqi civilians.  And yet somehow we still manage to think of ourselves as the Good Guys.  That is because the 3000 who were killed were Us, and the 100,000 (or however many it was) were Them.

There is nothing wrong with drawing a line between Us and Them.  In fact, it is a necessary, even fundamental part of life.  Life is not possible without separating a replicator from its environment somehow.  Some barriers are natural (cell membranes, physical organisms), others are artificial (city walls, national boundaries), and still others are non-physical social constructs (family, ethnic group) but the fact that these boundaries exist is inescapable.  The trick is drawing them in the right place.

There are some possible places to draw the line between us and them that are clearly wrong.  For example, the idea that "all life is sacred" is obviously problematic.  The malaria parasite, for example, is alive, but I hope I don't have to convince you that it would be a mistake to argue that curing malaria would be immoral as a result.  Likewise, there are people who consider parts of their own bodies to be "the other" and believe that they would be happier as amputees.

This is clearly a pathology but it is still worth reflecting for a moment on why it is a pathology: it's not just because hacking off your own limbs makes most people queasy.  If morality were determinable by majority rule then torture and genocide would have been perfectly moral through most of human history.  It would be nice to have moral principles which were timeless and not subject to the whims of fashion.

One possible story to tell about the reason that Apotemnophilia is a pathology is that it is destructive to life.  A desire to chop your own limbs off puts the genes that produce this behavior at a significant reproductive disadvantage relative to its competitors.  That seems plausible enough, but it has a significant problem: this argument would seem to apply equally to homosexuality.  Surely genes that produce brains driven to mate with members of the same sex are at a significant reproductive disadvantage relative to genes that produce brains drive to mate with the opposite sex.  And yet homosexuality (in my view) is neither pathological nor immoral.

(Aside: it is worth thinking about how the genes for homosexuality do manage to survive as such a large proportion of the population.)

This, then, is the problem: is it possible to give a principled account of morality?  By which I mean, is it possible to construct a theory of morality that is not vacuous, that is not equivalent to, "Moral behavior is whatever people who think like me consider moral", and that can embrace variations in human sexuality and religious beliefs while rejecting pathologies like Apotemnophilia and ISIS?  My claim is that idea-ism is such a theory.  Moreover, I claim that idea-ism is the only such theory.  It may or may not be the only possible such theory, but it's the only one that I know of, and I've been looking for a long, long time.

Before I describe why I think idea-ism is such a theory, let me quickly review the moral landscape and explain what I find lacking in the competition.


Religious theories of morality are easily rejected as non-principled because they require an arbitrary adoption of some holy text or creed.  A principled theory of morality must be able to resolve moral dilemmas without resorting to asking what most adherents of the theory think is moral.  Religions can't do that, with the canonical contemporary example being the question of marriage equality: is it moral for gay people to marry?  Some Christians say yes, others say no.  Both sides can cite scripture to support their position, and there is no way (AFAICT) to resolve the question without resorting to some extra-scriptural criterion.  That makes Christianity non-principled, and all of the world's other religions have the same problem.  (One could even take this as the defining characteristic of religion!)


I've written extensively about this in the past so I'll just summarize: the problem with Humanism is that it (by definition!) takes man to be the measure of all things, so it axiomatically relegates primates, cetaceans, elephants, intelligent aliens and artificially intelligent robots to second-class moral status.  When pressed, most people who self-identify as Humanists will readily disclaim this definition, but that just leads to the next problem: having rejected the very definition of their self-identified creed, there is nothing to replace it with.  There are a lot of alternative formulations of the intuition that lead to the coining of the term "Humanism", but none of them work.


Sam Harris adopts the axiom that moral behavior is that which advances the interests of conscious beings.  Harris writes:
For my argument ... to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world.
This seems innocuous enough, but in fact Harris makes a third, tacit assumption: that the relative merits of one person's life versus another can be objectively determined.  Not only that, but he assumes that the determination is so easy to do that it cannot possibly be the subject of any legitimate dissent.
Anyone who doesn't see that the Good Life is preferable to the Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion about human well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc. enjoyed in the context of prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?
As I argued in my review of Harris's book, yes, we must, at least if we want a principled account of morality.  Because the fact of the matter is that Harris's views on what constitute the Good Life and the Bad Life are heavily biased by his status as a privileged western secular male academic.  If one is to seriously take the interests of conscious beings as the axiomatic basis of morality then one must take seriously the fact that some conscious beings have very different views from one's own, and it is not possible to reject those views on the basis of Harris's axiom.  Radical Muslims believe that the Good Life is serving Allah, and that this is worth sacrificing earthly comfort for.  On what principled basis can we reject this view?  We can't do it on the basis of Harris's axiom; radical Muslims are every bit as conscious as Sam Harris is.

Ethical Culture and Utilitarianism

There is a little-known but venerable secular tradition in the U.S. called Ethical Culture.  Its root go back at least to 1877 and possible as far as 1793.  About the same time, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were developing the theory of moral utilitarianism.  At the risk of oversimplifying, these approach morals from a practical point of view, trying to generally say that moral behavior is that which "does the right thing" or "produces a good outcome."  Which, of course, begs the question: what is a good outcome?

Ethical Culture, Utilitarianism, and even Harris's theory have a hard time with trolley problems, where people's intuitions about moral choices vary not just on the basis of utilitarian outcomes but also on the basis of the particular circumstances of the problem.  All trolley problems have the same structure: you have a binary choice to make, and depending on how you choose, either one person dies or five people die.  The utilitarian prediction is that the former is always the moral choice, but this is not the case.  My favorite counter-example is the "transplant" variant:
A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor . Do you support the morality of doctor to kill that tourist to provide his healthy organs to those five dying persons and save their lives?
Most people would argue that it is not moral to harvest the man's organs without his consent, and I agree.  Utilitarianism has a hard time accounting for this.


My claim is that idea-ism is the only principled (as defined above) moral theory that produces conclusions that coincide with most people's moral intuitions.  You can, if you like, consider idea-ism to be a predictive theory of morality, or you can adopt it as prescriptive in order to provide guidance for moral behavior.

To review briefly, idea-ism is the premise that moral behavior is that which advances the interests (or, to be more specific, the "bio-diversity") of memes, or ideas.  It is, in other words, the choice to draw The Line around abstract replicators rather than around any particular set of genes.  Many common moral principles immediately follow from this, but as conclusions rather than as premises.  In particular, the particular value of human life follows because human brains are habitat for memes.  So are books and computers, and so burning books is generally immoral, as is destructive hacking of computers.

The idea-ism axiom can be justified on the grounds that because memes are replicators, they are life, and so idea-ism is the ultimate endorsement of the value of life.  But that's not quite true.  Idea-ism is not equivalent to the premise that all life is sacred.  The interests of memes and genes are often aligned, but when they are not, idea-ism says that memes win.  So the malaria parasite is alive, but because it can't think, it's not habitat for memes.  And because it destroys human brains, which are habitat for memes. the humans win, and developing a treatment for malaria is a moral choice.

Likewise, birth control, autoerotic and homosexual sex are all moral choices.  If you'd rather read a book than raise a child that's perfectly OK.  (On the other hand, if you'd prefer to raise a child that's OK too, because your child's brain will also be habitat for memes.)  Likewise, if you were born with the body of a man but you feel like a woman, then living as a woman is also perfectly OK, if doing that helps you think.

On the other hand, cutting off your own arm can rightfully be condemned as pathological if not immoral.  If you cut off your arm, you will (almost certainly) impair your own ability to survive and hence reduce the available habitat for memes.  Suicide is likewise immoral, not just because it directly destroys your own brain (habitat for memes) but because the emotional distress this will cause the people around you will very likely impair their ability to think.

In general, the ability to think is a very powerful moral lever.  A direct consequence of idea-ism is that impairing someone's ability to think is immoral.  So, all else being equal, causing someone emotional distress is probably immoral because it will impair their ability to think.  This is not to say that idea-ism leads to extremes of political correctness.  The detrimental effects of causing someone emotional distress have to be weighed against the value of the free exchange of ideas, which is beneficial to memes.  This is why "all else being equal" is an important caveat.  Offensive speech can causes emotional distress, but addressing this problem by trying to suppress offensive speech in general will work to the detriment of memes, because only those memes which don't offend anyone would be allowed to propagate.  So: simply insulting someone with the intention of causing them emotional distress is immoral.  Publishing offensive cartoons or writings with the intention of making a political point or spreading some other kind of idea is not.

Idea-ism easily condemns the actions of radical Muslims as immoral because chopping off people's heads and destroying ancient artifacts directly destroy memes and hence are immoral acts.

Hopefully by now the answer to the transplant variant of the trolley problem should be obvious: the reason it is not moral to harvest someone's organs without their consent even if it would save five people is that this would create pervasive societal fear that any time you go to the doctor you might not survive the encounter.  Clearly that would have a detrimental effect on people's ability to think.

I claim that idea-ism is principled, congruent with most people's moral intuitions, and free from pathologies.  Moreover, I claim that it is the only known moral system (though not necessarily the only possible moral system) that has all of these properties.  If anyone can think of a counter-example I'd love to hear it.

OK, it's a little terse, but I really should get back to work now.

The best way to answer anti-gay bigotry

With humor.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Answers to Tuese's Questions for Atheists

Tuese Ahkiong posed some questions for atheists, so I thought I'd take a whack at them.

• If the atheistic worldview is true, why do they knock people of faith?

I try not to knock people of faith, but I think there are two main reasons that people do:

1.  They think that ridicule is an effective means of getting people to question or abandon their faith.  (I think they're wrong about this, but some people believe it.)

2.  They think that faith deserves ridicule because of the bad effects it has on the world, like climate-change denialism, or ISIS and the Taliban destroying historical relics in the name of stamping out idolatry.

Also, some people knock faith because they are jerks.

• Aren't people of faith, as well as atheists, the way they are b/c of their genes, environment, family, upbringing, chance, indoctrination?


• Didn't the universe just randomly make people into atheist, murderers, Christians, Muslims, etc.?

That is a deep philosophical question to which I don't have an answer.  We humans (at least those of us who aren't Calvinists) like to believe that we have free will, and so we can choose not to murder people.  Whether we have free will to choose our beliefs, though, is a different question.  I feel like I don't have the free will to choose what I believe.  I believe based on evidence, experiment and reason, and I have no idea how I could do otherwise.

• If we're just cosmic accidents waiting to be annihilated, why make such a fuss about truth as if your life and truth really matter?

Because truth and life do matter.  Life is a pre-requisite for caring.  Non-living things can't and don't care about anything, so if you're going to care about anything you have no choice but to care about life.

Also, it makes sense that living things that have brains capable of caring about things should care about life because those genes that produce brains that don't care about life don't reproduce as well as those genes that produce brains that do care about life.

• If the world is just material, accidentally, randomly, chaotically, meaninglessly floating around, what does it matter if one is right or wrong?

Because the world isn't "just material, accidentally, randomly, chaotically, meaninglessly floating around".  The world contains living things, and living things evolve according to a process that includes both random variation and non-random natural selection.

And being right matters because being right gives you the gift of prophecy.

• Btw, what one thing do you know to be absolutely true about evolution?

It is the process that created all known living things.

• And how would the atheists know that people of faith are wrong or bad or misled unless they had some absolute standard to judge from?

We do have a standard: evidence, experiment and reason.  And we don't generally believe that people of faith are "bad".  But the problem with faith is precisely what you say: there is no standard.  You can choose to have faith in the Bible, or you can choose to have faith in the Quran, or you can choose to have faith in the Book of Mormon, or the Bagavad Gita, or Dianetics.  Without an absolute standard there is no reason to prefer one faith over another.

• Do atheists believe in absolute truth?

I don't know what you mean by "absolute truth."  But yes, we believe that there is a real world out there, and that some claims about the world are true and others are false.

• Where does absolute truth come from?

It is a property of objective reality.  And it's a remarkable property.  It didn't have to be the way it is.  There's no inherent reason that the world has to operate according to physical laws, but as far as we can tell, it does.  We don't know why.  Albert Einstein once said: the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.

• Did absolute truth just assemble itself in the Big Bang?

We don't know.

• Are morals absolute?

No.  But there are some universal moral principles that are wired into us by evolution.

• Did life come from non-life?

Yes, almost certainly.  We don't know exactly how yet, but there's no reason to believe that it was not a natural process.

• Did intelligence come from non-intelligence, i.e., DNA?

Yes. Intelligence evolved gradually, just like everything else.  Simple nervous systems evolved into more complex nervous systems, which evolved into small brains, which evolved into bigger brains.

• Did order come from disorder?

Yes, but only locally, and only with a net energy input.  In the case of earth, the energy required to power the local ordering process comes from the sun, which is becoming more disorderly over time.

• How do you know what you know?

Years of study and careful consideration.

• What is you?

I (the thing writing these words) am a software process, essentially computer program, running on a biological computer called a human brain that is the result of about four billion years (more or less) of evolution.

• How do you know that you are you?

Because there's evidence that I am me.  I can effect changes in the world (like writing these words) and other people provide evidence that I did in fact write these words by writing other words in response (I hope).

• Where do the laws of logic come from?

They come from the fact that computation is universal.  What this means is that all computational processes, whether they are running on an electronic computer or a human brain, can be modeled in one very simple way (or, if you prefer, in many ways all of which turn out to be equivalent to each other).  The theory of how this happens was first worked out by Alan Turing in the 1930s.

• Is ok to torture babies for fun?

Of course not.

• Why or why not?

Because babies are habitat for memes.

• Where did the universe come from?

We don't know (yet).

• Does evil exist?  Does love exist?  Do non-material particulars exist like logic, numbers, ideas?


• Are ideas physical?

That depends on what you mean by "physical."  Ideas exist in the physical world, but they are not made of "stuff", they are made of "configurations of stuff" (the technical term is "computational state").

• Is logic material?


• Do non-physical particulars like logic, numbers, ideas, people's spirit or soul, love exits?


• Where do human rights come from?

They are a human invention.  And a damn good one if you ask me.