Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dignity and Darwin

A thoughtful blog response came in from Terrence.  I would like to up it in the blog food chain, select it if you will, for its survival value.

Terrence begins:

I hope you don't mind the intrusion, RkBall, but I'd like to respond to the argument (and without any references to "sky-friends.")

Let me first address the restatement of the argument you offered:

"...dignity as an abstract, non-material entity a) cannot actually exist if materialism is true, and b) that it is an absurd notion that there should be such a thing as dignity, or the lack thereof."

It seems tautological to me that a materialist would deny the existence of non-material entities. (I do think one can be an atheist without being a materialist, but let's set that aside.)

The question, I guess, is whether dignity is non-material in the relevant sense. If it's a feeling, then a materialist should only have trouble accounting for it to the extent he/she has trouble accounting for any feeling or sensation.

I could be wrong, but I think materialists can give plausible causal stories for most feelings. All of those stories would involve showing that particular sensations track actual states-of-the-world (hunger sensation tends to track an empty belly, etc.)

As I understand your argument, it's that the materialist cannot give a story like this one for the sensation of his own (or others') dignity. Dignity does not seem to track a state-of-the-world: we sense our own dignity regardless of physical state (empty belly, etc.) Dignity is simply felt, and its causal origin does not seem to lie in any particular world-state.

Is that about right? It's an interesting argument.

The Ball Bounces responds:


Terrence:  I'm going to respond. Please let me know where you think I am off or wrong.

T-man: "I do think one can be an atheist without being a materialist, but let's set that aside."

B-man: Definitely, yes. But 99.4% of atheism today is of the materialistic/darwinian variety.  It is possible that Darwin himself believed that Nature possessed something akin to a mind or will. In which case, he would be a soft-darwinian!

T-man: "If it's a feeling, then a materialist should only have trouble accounting for it to the extent he/she has trouble accounting for any feeling or sensation."

True.

The question is, is that all dignity is -- a feeling rooted completely in biochemistry.  If so, what exists is not dignity, but biochemical actions, which, perhaps, are interpreted by the brain as "dignity".

So, right off for starters, where does dignity reside -- in the sensation (biochemistry) or in sense, i.e.,  the brain's processing of the sensation?  Does the brain manufacture the concept of dignity, or does it recognize dignity, e.g., "when it sees it"!? (This gets us into Kantian categories.)

The next question is whether dignity (what we might call the concept of dignity, or dignity itself) exists outside of biochemical actions (sensation) and biochemical reactions (the brain making sense of them).  This moves us into something like platonic idealism, where the concept of dignity exists in its own right.  A theist response would be that dignity exists in the mind of God, and is instantiated in the biochemical processes of the human brain.

The next question is how mindless, directionless, purposeless darwinian processes could have stumbled upon something as exquisite as dignity as both a sensation and a sensed sensation, and how it could have then decided it was worth keeping, i.e., implanting it into the fabric of the human brain.  This is beyond my feeble mind to contemplate, but I am assured by those who know much more than me that it is soley  the result of simple biochemical actions and nothing more.

[Before we get to your money-quote, let me be bad and deconstruct (not your argument but) the sensation of hunger.  There's a living organism. It needs energy to live. It has this need.  A mindless process, darwinism, "tries" various options. It makes food taste like nothing.  Organism dies. It makes food taste terrible. Organism dies. It makes food taste good. Now, the organism eats its little heart out (if it had one). But, organism explodes when it keeps eating. Organism dies. Darwinism comes up with a mechanism for feeling full -- so the organism stops eating! But, when to eat again?  Try, try again. Darwinism tries no sensation. Organism doesn't eat, and dies. Darwinism tries feeling wonderful when it needs energy (i.e., is hungry). Organism dies. Tries feeling hungry. But, brain doesn't track this sensation. Organism dies.  Darwinism coordinates the sensation with the sense made of it. Voila -- problem solved!

Isn't it lucky that the sensations and the sense-made-of-them coordinate so nicely.  And isn't it lucky that good, protective behaviours just happen to map to a sensation we call love?  I'm sure that evolution tried matching protective behaviors with a feeling of distaste or rage, but that was just another failed attempt.]



Back to the T-man: As I understand your argument, it's that the materialist cannot give a story like this one for the sensation of his own (or others') dignity. Dignity does not seem to track a state-of-the-world: we sense our own dignity regardless of physical state (empty belly, etc.) Dignity is simply felt, and its causal origin does not seem to lie in any particular world-state.

Is that about right? It's an interesting argument.

B-man:  And you're the one who actually articulated it, so I'm going to agree with it and give you the credit for it.  And whereas you think it's interesting, I think it's more than that.  In my thinking, I place dignity in the same category as other abstracts that are "good" -- virtue, honor, integrity, etc. -- and wonder about their origin, their sufficient reason [for being].  All these things that are, to my mind, the very essence of what it means to be human, are diminished, demeaned and trashed under darwinism materialism -- it cannot be otherwise.

I mean, darwinism can say, oh no, a sense of virtue [dignity... etc.]  has survival value, and so, poof! there it is. But, come on.  A mindless, amoral process coming up with dignity, virtue, honor, nobility, integrity, etc. etc. etc.?  And, if it does, what is left of REAL dignity, REAL honor, REAL nobility, etc. When these things are created by an amoral process and nothing more they lose their own integrity -- they become nothing more than odd burps of an indifferent evolutionary process.

Here's my money-quote: Abstracts such as dignity, honor, virtue, nobility to be authentic and to authentically exist, must be caused by something more than mere (mindless, purposeless, amoral) darwinian mechanisms. If dignity, honor, virtue, nobility exist solely as the result of darwinian processes, they are inauthentic.

I argue from the position of sufficient reason (or cause).  Someone may come up with a naturalistic explanation for canvas and paint and paint on canvas.  But, when you're staring at the Mona Lisa, you're looking at more than mere paint on canvas.  And, even though you can deconstruct the effect by small, one-at-a-time incremental chance brushings of paint on the canvas, when you step back, you have to have an explanation for what C.S. Lewis calls "the whole show".

And when a human being looks into the mirror he can rightly say, "something greater than the Mona Lisa is here".

I await your thoughts.




4 comments:

Terrence said...

Hi RkBall,

I'm flattered my comment was turned into its own blogpost, and that you took the time to offer this response.

Let me see what I can do!

I don't want to load this down with distinctions, which is a bad habit of mine. But it seems to be important to distinguish between the property of having dignity, which (it is claimed) is possessed by humans, and the sensation that particular creatures possess that property.

I elided this distinction myself in my first response. Making it now, I am better positioned to respond to this:

The question is, is that all dignity is -- a feeling rooted completely in biochemistry. If so, what exists is not dignity, but biochemical actions, which, perhaps, are interpreted by the brain as "dignity".

Relying on the distinction, I think this can be rephrased, and broken into two problems or issues:

(1) Explaining the sensation that entities have dignity.

(2) Fitting a property like dignity into a materialist universe.

(1) can further be broken down into (1a) and (1b):

(1a) Explaining the causal origin of the sensation in terms of evolution, and

(1b) Making sense of the phenomenology of sensation -- any sensation -- in a materialistic universe.

(1b) is a serious issue in the philosophy of mind, though that isn't my area of study. I think most people agree that it is wrong to identify particular sensations with particular brain states.

Is epiphenomenalism compatible with materialism? It's at least compatible with atheism, and that's what matters at the end of the day. So we'll go with a view like that (for (1b)).

(1a) had to do with my use of the example of the hunger sensation. I do like the way you addressed that one. Can an evolutionist/materialist give a plausible causal explanation story for the sensation that certain things have dignity? I don't know.

The serious issue may be (2). No matter how compelling the explanations given to address (1) are, they may not be able to "stack up" to our internal sense of what dignity is like.

In that, I think I concur with what you said here:

"If dignity, honor, virtue, nobility exist solely as the result of darwinian processes, they are inauthentic."

... where "inauthentic" means "does not measure up to what people understand dignity."

A materialist should be willing to say that the sensation that things have dignity does not track any actual property things have. It is either (a) imposed on things subjectively, or (b) if it does track a property of things, that property (by its nature) does not fit well into a materialistic universe.

Sorry this is scatter shot. The argument is an interesting one.. I'm sort of Kantian in my leanings, so dignity is an important idea to me.

RkBall said...

Can you recommend a book or two that you think would be relevant -- metaphysical status of abstracts, etc.?

P@J said...

So lacking a definition of dignity, you just say it is ineffable, and attach magic sources to it. That isn’t philosophy, it is masturbation.

Self-worth (which is where I think you are going with dignity, honour, yadda yadda) is an emotional state. It is a result of biochemical processes in the brain. How do we know this? Because functional MRI studies can identify parts of the brain activated when issues of self-worth are considered. Because people suffering from debilitating brain injuries (traumas, tumours, strokes, etc.) that disable those parts of the brain result in a person with vastly altered self worth. In that sense, it is no different functionally than hunger. Sorry that doesn’t satisfy your ache for deep meaning in emotions, but the truth (pardon the pun) hurts.

Are you so lacking in imagination that you cannot see how emotional states like dignity, honour, integrity, and the ability to evaluate those in others would provide a survival advantage to large-brained primates living in complex hierarchical cultures? Why is that so hard to get? Interesting that “honour” is not the same across cultures, as one would assume if it were ordained by a single magical sky-friend. Are you proposing multiple magical sky friends, each encoding different information in the DNA?

RkBall said...

"you cannot see how emotional states like dignity, honour, integrity, and the ability to evaluate those in others would provide a survival advantage to large-brained primates living in complex hierarchical cultures? "

1. Most of these are not emotional states.

2. The issue, for the tenth and last time, is not survival advantage. The issue, as I state in the post, is coming up with a plausible scenario of how a mindless, amoral, disinterested process could produce such sublime sensations or concepts.

And, beyond you saying it's bio-chemical simplicity itself, you, are apparently completely unable to articulate a scenario of how this could happen -- because you, and everybody else, don't have the first clue. "Just did! just did!" does not a profound argument make.

I've talked about the Mercedes in the driveway. What needs explanation is not the survival advantage this offers, but how something like a Mercedes can show up in the first place.

I can't say this any better, and I'm not going to repeat myself, so, if you can't come up with something better than, "can't you see how a Mercedes in your drive-way would provide a survival advantage", please stop.

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"