Everything arises bottom-up

It occurs to me that, as we’ve come to understand things better, often a “top down” conception of how something arises has been replaced by a “bottom up” account.

An obvious example is political authority.  The Medieval concept of a God-appointed ruler issuing commands by divine right has been replaced by agreement that legitimate political authority arises bottom-upwards, from the consent of “we the people”.

Similarly, human rights are sometimes supposed to be absolute principles with which people are “endowed by their Creator”.  But, in reality they are collective agreements, deriving from human advocacy about how we want people to be treated, and thus resting only on their widespread acceptance.  Does that make them more insecure, more alienable?  Maybe (and perhaps that’s why some attempt to treat them as absolute and objective), but that’s all there is to it. 

It’s the same with the wider concept of morality. Many have sought to anchor morality in the solid foundation of either a divinity or objective reason.  But neither works: morality derives from human nature and human values. It bubbles up from each of us, leading to wider societal norms and expectations, rather than being imposed on us from outside. Some see that as producing only a second-rate morality, but wanting there to be an objective morality to which a supra-human authority will hold us doesn’t make such a scheme tenable. 

Likewise, principles of fairness and justice can only be rooted in human evaluations of what is fair or just.  There isn’t anything else, no objective scale against which we can read off a quantification of “justness” or “fairness”, any more than there is for moral “oughtness”. What we call “natural justice” is justice rooted in our human feelings of what is fair.  Beyond human society, nature is literally incapable of knowing or caring about concepts of “fairness”, “justice” or “morality”. These are human concepts arising from ourselves. 

And then there are concepts of meaning and purpose. Some argue that, without a God, there can be no meaning or purpose to life.  They tell us that, unless there is an afterlife, our lives are ultimately pointless. But the only forms of meaning and purpose that exists are the purposes that we create for ourselves and the meanings that we find in our lives. As thinking, feeling, sentient creatures we create purposes and we find things meaningful.  That they are local and time-limited doesn’t make them less real.  

But then sentience and consciousness also bubble up from below, forming out of patterns of non-sentient matter. These local and temporary patterns of material stuff arise as a product of evolution, that creates such patterns (“brains”) to do the job of facilitating survival and reproduction. 

It’s the same with intelligence. The top-down conception that the universe starts with intelligence, which dribbles down from there, is wrong.  Rather, intelligence bubbles up from non-intelligent precursors. Over evolutionary time, successive generations of animals developed greater capabilities to sense their environment, to process the information, and then compute a response.

Of course life itself is the same, arising out of non-life.  We’ve long ditched the dualistic notion of elan vital giving spark to inanimate matter.  Simple molecules can replicate because atoms of the same type act like each other, and so, in simple circumstances, simple collections of matter behave similarly. And it complicates from there as simple structures aggregate into complex ones. And when replicators get sufficiently complicated we call them “life”. 

The above traces social sciences into biology and into biochemistry and simple chemistry.  But maybe the same bottom-up approach also applies to physics.

Richard Feynman starts his Lectures by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis, that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

And everything builds from there. 

But even atoms are built of particles, and as for what “particles” are, well we are still pretty unclear on what the ultimate ontology is.

How about causation? It’s a fundamental concept on the macroscopic scale that thing happen at time t+1 because of how things were at time t. But even that may be an  emergent property, since causation gets less clear at the microscopic scale. Quantum indeterminacy holds that things occur for no discernible reason. A virtual particle pair can just arise, with no proximate cause. 

Maybe the concept of time is similar. Special Relativity has long destroyed the idea that there is a time that is absolute and the same for everyone.  Maybe time bubbles up and emerges so that we can only talk sensibly about “time” at a macroscopic level.  Such speculations are beyond established physics, but are being advocated by Carlo Rovelli and others.

And lastly there is space.  Again, the conception of space as an inert, static backdrop in which everything else plays out has long been overturned. Relativity tells us that space is distorted and warped by matter, such that it can no longer be thought of a separate from the matter it interacts with.  Speculative theories suggest that space itself may be created at the local, particle level from the quantum entanglement of adjacent particles.   

All of which leaves me wondering whether there is anything left for which a top-down conception is still tenable.  And, further, does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations? 

38 thoughts on “Everything arises bottom-up

  1. Dan Steeves

    Can atheists disprove with scientific evidence the following statement?…”ALL LIVING INTELLIGENT EFFECTS MUST HAVE A LIVING INTELLIGENT CAUSE.” And the prime example of an intelligent effect is the living biological cell in all its staggering complexity with its DNA genetic code the purpose of which is to replicate the cell.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      One couldn’t provide proof that there was no hidden intelligent agent tweaking everything, but there’s also no evidence for it, and, like Laplace, we “have no need of that hypothesis”. So it falls to Occam’s razor.

    2. Brent Meeker

      Sure. The geologic and fossil records show that there was no life on Earth for the half a billion years and then about a billion and half years after that there was single-celled life. No “intelligent” cause available. And various laboratory experiments starting with Miller-Urey and the discovery of amino acids and peptides on meteorites show that spontaneous emergence of life on Earth was not just possible, but almost inevitable. Read Nick Lane’s book “The Vital Question”.

  2. Rob

    “…does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations?”

    I don’t know. But gods are out of the question so what else could they be? Life and consciousness are the best way the universe has of creating entropy. So maybe it’s just thermodynamics. Creatures like us are the most efficient way for the universe to wind down to equilibrium and bring an end to it all.

    Reply
  3. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    I can see Feynman’s atomic theory example as being, in theory, a bottom-up explanation for:

    Political authority, rights, morality, fairness, justice, meaning, purpose, consciousness, intelligence, and life. (I have no opinion regarding causation, time, and space.)

    However, I pity whoever seeks to understand any of these based on atomic theory. Explanations for life might be most manageable but would still be stupefyingly challenging. Perhaps I misunderstood your point.

    On the other hand, existing top-down explanations are direct and revealing.

    For example, isn’t life best understood as the natural consequence of thermodynamics acting on some suitable substrate (usually atoms)?

    Aren’t political authority, rights, morality, fairness, and justice solutions to cooperation problems?

    And aren’t meaning, purpose, consciousness, intelligence best understood as products of biological evolution?

    I don’t see our choice as either top-down or bottom-up explanations. If our science is coherent, consistent explanations from both directions must be possible, at least in theory. If the two explanations are not consistent, then our science is incoherent.

    The top-down explanations are attractive and useful because they so readily explain so much superficially chaotic data. – the mark of robust scientific theories.

    Reply
  4. Rob

    Dan Stevens, can you prove that all (seemingly) intelligent effects must have an intelligent cause? Yours is just the argument from incredulity which is no argument at all.

    Reply
    1. Dan Steeves

      The 2nd law of thermodynamics and entropy are convincing evidence of a Creator. Can you give me evidence that biological cells created themselves and then came alive clearly violating the law of increasing entropy?

    2. Coel Post author

      The 2nd law of thermodynamics is purely a product of statistics and probability. It would inevitably be a feature of a universe lacking any god. Indeed, a universe *not* obeying the 2nd law would be a better candidate for a created universe.

      Also, cells evolving and arising from non-life does not violate the 2nd law. All that is needed is an input of energy, and that is provided by the sun (possibly supplemented by the earth’s radioactivity).

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Dan,
      You don’t understand thermodynamics. Entropy commonly decreases locally, there is no law against that. Indeed thermodynamics may be key to understanding the origin of life. Have a read of the following, the best explanation of the emergence of life I am aware of:
      “An MIT physicist has proposed the provocative idea that life exists because the law of increasing entropy drives matter to acquire lifelike physical properties.”
      https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-new-thermodynamics-theory-of-the-origin-of-life-20140122/

    4. Dan Steeves

      Entropy means that everything wears out, rots, desintegrates etc. Immediately after an organism dies it begins to deteriorate so there´s nothing left but dust and bones. Entropy does not permit the inanimate chemicals of the earth to organize themselves into aminoacidos and proteins and then create the awesomely complex biological cell. It´s very interesting to note what the bible states about the creation of the first man Adam in Genesis 2:7 where it shows that the Creator formed the man out of the DUST OF THE GROUND. And when the man Adam rebelled against his Creator and he was sentenced to return to the dust of the ground in death. Genesis 3:19.

      I live in Colombia where I work as a photographer and colombian emerald dealer. Once I was photographing the vaults used to bury the dead. At that moment some workers removed a corpse that had been in the burial vault for about 6 years. I took a close look at what was left of the deceased and all I saw were little piles of reddish brown dust all along the bottom of the coffin. This was the remains of the deceased. Immediately I thought about what Genesis 3:19 stated….”dust you are and to dust you will return.” This simple biblical statement confirms the law of increasing entropy in action. So it´s very clear to me that all biological matter decomposes into the original chemical elements from which it came. So scientifically speaking the bible is totally correct.

    5. Brent Meeker

      Entropy doesn’t mean what you think it means. It means that IN A CLOSED SYSTEM energy tends to become evenly distributed. The Earth, thanks to sunshine and radioactivity and cold space, is very far from closed system. It exists in huge gradient of entropy. Solar photons arrive at a temperature around 5500degK. The Earth radiates at about 225degK, so it has to radiate 20 photons for each one it receives…a 20:1 entropy ratio. And that’s why life arose spontaneously on Earth.

    6. Coel Post author

      Entropy does not permit the inanimate chemicals of the earth to organize themselves into aminoacidos and proteins and then …

      That’s not what the 2nd law says. All it says is that you need an input of energy for such things to happen. That’s why it’s a law of thermo-dynamics (= “energy movement”).

      If you want to invoke the authority of science by invoking the 2nd law, you need to apply the actual scientific version of the law.

  5. Brent Meeker

    Seeing things as “bubbling up” is one way to understand them; structures and interactions that are complex because they involve many simpler entities. This aides our understanding because we can understand the simple entities and we can understand the interactions. Even if we struggle to understand the whole, we can reassure ourselves that we’ve got a handle on it…in principle. But notice how an epistemic (not merelogical) chain goes: atoms->quantum fields->string theory->mathematics->language->intelligence->society->animals->biology->chemistry->physics->atoms->… I think of this as “the virtuous circle” of explanation. If you seek to understand something you have to work your way around the circle until you find a basis of explanation that you already understand.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Brent,
      I like the expression “the virtuous circle of explanation” of why the top-down and bottom-up perspectives will be consistent if our understanding of top-down and bottom-up source phenomena is correct. If both perspectives do not provide consistent explanations, then at least one is wrong.

  6. Rob

    Mark Sloan, I read the paper by Jeremy England a couple of years ago. It explains a lot and its why I mentioned thermodynamics in my post above. Complexity and life didn’t need gods to get going. An energy gradient and some raw materials was all that was required. I also recently read England’s book “Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things”. When he finally gets to the science it’s good but his constant harping on about the Jewish Bible made the book pretty much unreadable for me. Much better to just read the published papers.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      “An energy gradient and raw materials” generates life. I agree that is a cool insight. I’ve not read England’s book but did read he is religious. Maybe for him, it is just a preferred choice. Or maybe he thinks there is another support for the necessity of a god’s existence such as morality.

  7. Rob

    No, he’s just steeped in Judaism and tries to find resonances between thermodynamics and the Torah. I guess that’s ok if that’s what he wants to do but when writing for a scientifically literate audience he should stick to the science and save the other stuff for the synagogue.

    Reply
  8. vampyricon

    Not to dispute the main point, but

    >A virtual particle pair can just arise, with no proximate cause.

    Virtual particles are by definition not real. They are mnemonics for terms in the perturbative series of particle interactions. They can’t exist in the real world any more than the number 42 can exist in the real world.

    Not to mention the fact that they rely on perturbation theory, and cannot be applied to non-perturbative QFT, e.g. the low-energy limit of the strong force.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Well, we don’t really know the ultimate ontology underlying quantum mechanics. A “real” particle in QFT is an excitation of a quantum field; a “virtual” particle is also an excitation of a quantum field, just a less “organised” one. Further, “virtual particles” do have measureable real-world effects, e.g. the Casimir effect. So when it comes to ultimate ontology there is likely to be something that maps to “virtual” particles just as there would be something that maps to “real” particles.

    2. vampyricon

      Sure, I’ll grant that we don’t know the ultimate ontology of QM, but I think we know quite a bit about what it is not. I struggle to see a reasonable explanation of the Casimir effect through a virtual particle ontology, as it has a perfectly good explanation via waves.

      Again, it’s not about what virtual particles can explain, but about what they can’t: Virtual particles can’t explain anything that doesn’t use perturbation theory, so they can’t correspond to anything real, unless one posits a qualitative distinction between perturbative and non-perturbative interactions, which I doubt.

  9. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    I’d like another bite of this apple, please.

    Science does begin with bottom-up looks at natural phenomena. Those bottom-up looks assemble the data sets to be explained by hypotheses. This is consistent with “Everything arises bottom-up”.

    However, once our hypotheses become well-accepted theories, those theories become the top-down sources (such as the gas laws) we use in science and engineering to predict and understand the behaviors of new things. We don’t try to use bottom-up quantum mechanics to understand how to optimize a new turbine engine design; we use top-down gas dynamics.

    Similarly, it is impractical to optimize cultural moral norms to best achieve shared goals based on the bottom-up sources you suggest for human rights, morality, justice, and fairness. People in disagreement can just say “My moral intuitions disagree with yours”.

    It is much more practical to optimize cultural moral norms based on the top-down understanding of morality, including (human rights, justice, and fairness), as elements of strategies that solve cooperation problems. This is consistent with the growing consensus that human morality (cultural moral norms and our moral sense) was selected for by the benefits of cooperation it produced.

    Adopting this top-down perspective on human morality enables people disagreeing about moral norms to reduce their arguments to a much simpler question “Which alternative will be most effective at solving cooperation problems and thereby most likely to achieve our shared goals?”

    I don’t mean to argue over word meanings or whether a top-down or a bottom-up perspective is ‘true’, but rather which perspective is most useful for a given purpose.

    Isn’t the top-down perspective of human morality as cooperation strategies much more useful for the important task of refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals?

    Finally, you asked the question “… is anything left for which a top-down conception is still tenable… does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations?”

    Rather than the “morality as solutions to cooperation problems” property of morality being emergent, the opposite seems to be the case. The top-down mathematics of strategies that solve cooperation problems are the ultimate sources of the emergent bottom-up sources of human morality you mention.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      However, once our hypotheses become well-accepted theories, those theories become the top-down sources (such as the gas laws) we use in science and engineering …

      Yes, high-level descriptions are adopted because they are useful. The perfect gas law is much simpler to use and is thus very useful.

      Similarly, it is impractical to optimize cultural moral norms to best achieve shared goals based on the bottom-up sources you suggest for human rights, morality, justice, and fairness. People in disagreement can just say “My moral intuitions disagree with yours”.

      But people in disagreement with your scheme can equally just disagree with you.

      It is much more practical to optimize cultural moral norms based on the top-down understanding of morality, including (human rights, justice, and fairness), as elements of strategies that solve cooperation problems. This is consistent with the growing consensus that human morality (cultural moral norms and our moral sense) was selected for by the benefits of cooperation it produced.

      Yes, but all of that is an “is” statement. It doesn’t say what we “ought” to do. Similarly, human sexuality was selected for to maximise the number of descendants we leave. That does not mean we ought to have children.

      Adopting this top-down perspective on human morality enables people disagreeing about moral norms to reduce their arguments to a much simpler question “Which alternative will be most effective at solving cooperation problems and thereby most likely to achieve our shared goals?”

      No, firstly because the above carries no “oughtness”, and secondly because people do not all have the same goals. People have very different ideas about what sort of society they want. That’s why we have politics, with people seeking compromises between what different people want.

      There is no such thing as a solution, a mode of society, that would please everyone. Even if you try to develop a metric that maximises the number of people whose goals are achieved, the above “is” statements carry no implication that we “ought” to adopt that metric.

      I don’t mean to argue over word meanings or whether a top-down or a bottom-up perspective is ‘true’, but rather which perspective is most useful for a given purpose.

      But people have lots of different goals and purposes, and everyone’s goals and purposes can be different. They may overlap a lot, but there will always be differences.

      Isn’t the top-down perspective of human morality as cooperation strategies much more useful for the important task of refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals?

      We do not share all our goals.

      Even if we invented some metric that maximsed the number of goals fulfilled, there would be no sense in which we “ought” to adopt it, except that some of us might want to. Again, everything comes down to what people want. There’s no getting round that.

    2. Brent Meeker

      Sure, “everything comes down to what people want.” But it’s an objective fact that people can on the whole get more of what they want by cooperating and by adopting and enforcing various ethics (I prefer “ethics” to distinguish public oughts, from “morals” as personal oughts). And as social animals people mostly want some public ethics that they can rely on other people sharing. Are some ethics better than others? Sure, Nazism was worse than most. In broad terms you can say ethic A is better than ethic B, if people who move from B to A are happier than those that move from A to B. But that means that a lot of ethics are a wash.

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      So your thinking is that people are unlikely to prefer to use a top-down scientific view of what morality ‘is’ (cooperation strategies) to refine cultural moral norms because 1) they will prefer to use their bottom-up moral intuitions with their innate bindingness to decide what they ought to do, and 2) people will, in any event, disagree about the goals of enforcing their moral codes?

      But if our bottom-up moral intuitions about what we ought to do are only heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb) for cooperation strategies, then our moral intuitions cannot provide a more solid grounding for morality. Our moral intuition’s bindingness (what everyone ought to do regardless of beliefs and preferences) is just an “illusion foisted on us by our genes” as Michael Ruse seems to delight in saying. Assume people can understand their own and other people’s often confusing moral intuitions as heuristics for cooperation strategies. After that, I don’t think they could rationally prefer to try to resolve moral disputes based on arguments about whose diverse, contradictory, and bizarre moral intuitions are most correct. Why wouldn’t they prefer to go to the top-down source unobscured by illusions of bindingness and the natural diversity of heuristics?

      It is far easier to resolve differences about cooperation strategies than intuitions. And once the rational agreement for which moral norms are most effective at achieving shared goals is done, our moral sense is fully capable of supplying all the moral bindingness needed for a well-functioning society.

      What about people having different goals?

      Versions of “Do to others as you would have them do to you” are found around the world and, in the Christian Bible, Jesus is quoted as saying it summarizes morality. I’ve heard many people say it summarizes their morality. Versions of the Golden Rule are totally silent about the goals of the cooperation they advocate initiating. John Rawl’s theory of justice (which I take to be about morality) is silent about the goals of moral behavior. What the ultimate goals of moral behavior ought to be is arguably irrelevant to human morality (here referring to cultural moral norms and our moral sense).

      Our moral intuitions and past and present cultural moral norms are remarkably silent on goals. But these arguably irrelevant to human morality goals for moral behavior is a favorite topic in traditional moral philosophy. I see these goals being proposed as products of ultimately failed intellectual exercises in imposing order on human morality.

      The lack of defined ultimate goals in human morality as understood by science is an advantage, not a weakness. It is one less thing to argue about as we refine cultural moral norms to better achieve whatever our shared goals are at the time.

    4. Coel Post author

      Mark, as usual you just ignore the central point of my reply. So, here goes again:

      So your thinking is that people are unlikely to prefer to use a top-down scientific view of what morality ‘is’ (cooperation strategies) to refine cultural moral norms because …

      … because knowing what morality “is”, why it evolved, does not tell us what we ought to do. Morality evolved to enable humans to cooperate. But it does not follow that “therefore we ought to cooperate”. Nor does it follow that “therefore we ought to refine cultural norms to enhance cooperation”. This is the naturalistic fallacy. It does not follow. The “is” of why we evolved like we have done does not entail an “ought” of what we “should” do.

      In the same way, knowing that our sexuality evolved in order that we have children does not mean that we “ought” to have children.

      Similarly, knowing that male aggression evolved (in part) because conquering others and enslaving their women enabled men to leave more descendants, does not imply that we “ought” to behave like that.

      … 1) they will prefer to use their bottom-up moral intuitions with their innate bindingness to decide what they ought to do,

      There really is nothing else, other than our values, goals and desires, on which we can decide what to do.

      … and 2) people will, in any event, disagree about the goals of enforcing their moral codes?

      Yep, it is a fact that people have a range of different opinions about what sort of society they want. That’s why we have politics and perpetual disagreement, negotiation and compromise.

      But if our bottom-up moral intuitions about what we ought to do are only heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb) for cooperation strategies, then our moral intuitions cannot provide a more solid grounding for morality.

      You’re right, they can’t provide a “solid grounding” for morality. Nor can anything else. There is no such thing as a “solid grounding” for morality. It’s a hopeless quest.

      Our moral intuition’s bindingness (what everyone ought to do regardless of beliefs and preferences) is just an “illusion foisted on us by our genes” as Michael Ruse seems to delight in saying.

      Correct.

      Assume people can understand their own and other people’s often confusing moral intuitions as heuristics for cooperation strategies.

      So you are wanting people to leap from “our moral intuitions evolved as cooperation strategies”, to “therefore we ought to cooperate” or “therefore we ought to maximise cooperation” or “therefore … something”.

      It does not follow. It really, really, does not follow. The former is an “is” and that doesn’t entail an “ought”. It doesn’t matter how much you want that to follow, it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how much you try to make this work, it won ‘t.

      It doesn’t follow in the same way that “our sexual natures evolves so that we would have children” does not entail “therefore we ought to have children” nor “therefore we ought to maximise the number of children we have”.

      After that, I don’t think they could rationally prefer to try to resolve moral disputes based on arguments about whose diverse, contradictory, and bizarre moral intuitions are most correct.

      There is no such thing as a “correct” morality, there are no such thing as “correct” moral intuitions (any more than “correct” sexual preferences), and there is no such thing as whose moral intuitions are “most correct”. Like many people, you intuitively suppose that there must be some objective “correct” morality, and that is leading all of your reasoning astray.

      Why wouldn’t they prefer to go to the top-down source unobscured by illusions of bindingness and the natural diversity of heuristics?

      You really are leaping straight from “our moral intuitions evolved to enable cooperation” to “therefore we should work out the best way of cooperating to attain our shared goals”, correct? That is what you’re doing, agreed? But it does not follow!

      It does not follow any more than: “our sexuality evolved such that we have children, therefore we should have children”.

    5. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I apologize for not clearly addressing your central point. I know how frustrating that can be. Tell me if I am still missing the point this time.

      Is your central point that we are in no way morally obligated to solve cooperation problems just because the evolutionary function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes is solving cooperation problems?

      I have never disagreed with this statement or its variations expressing the same idea. The idea that what ‘is’ is somehow what ought to be is bizarre to me. Perhaps I was not responding as you liked because I thought we agreed on the subject while you were sure we did not.

      I argue the science of morality is useful for refining moral norms, not because it is somehow morally binding on us, but it is useful in the same sense the rest of science is useful: because it informs us how to better achieve our goals (or shared goals in the case of cultural morality).

      Am I still missing your main point?

    6. Brent Meeker

      I think it is confusing to talk about morality as if it were a thing that evolved like eyesight or digestion. There are human values that evolved and they include desire for companionship and the approval of others, for love and sex. But they are apiece with desire for security, dominance, adventure, curiosity and of other basic values. When you try to separate off some as “morals” what you are really doing is choosing the ones that you think are good ethics, i.e. ones that it is good to have public enforcement of. Different cultures choose different balances of these values. Just compare the Taliban to Denmark. You can’t get to “ought” from “is” on basic values. But you can get to “ought” for ethics in terms of ethics satisfy basic values and operationally you can measure it by which cultures people want migrate from and which to.

    7. Mark Sloan

      Hi Brendt,

      There are more than 40 years’ worth of scientific investigation into the question “Why do cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist?”.

      Below is a perhaps helpful extract of an essay I am writing laying out the different categories of things the science of morality and traditional moral philosophy study. Rather than what human morality ‘is’ (what science studies), traditional moral philosophy studies what our goals and values ‘ought’ to be by seeking answers to questions such as “How should I live?”, “What are my obligations?”, and “What is good?”.

      Extract from draft of “Moral philosophy and the science of morality study different subjects”:

      “In 1871 Charles Darwin proposed(4) that morality exists because it increases cooperation. Modern science agrees. There is a growing consensus that our moral sense and cultural moral norms exist because they were selected for by benefits of cooperation they produced(1,2,3,10). The biological and cultural evolution of human morality has made us SuperCooperators(7) and, thereby, made us such an incredibly successful social species.

      1. Axelrod, R. & Hamilton, W.D. (1981). The evolution of cooperation. Science, 211, 1390–1396
      2. Bowles, S., Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
      3. Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality. Springer.
      4. Darwin, Charles (1871) The Descent of Man, p. 159 Watts & Co., London.
      5. Harms, W., Skyrms, B. (2010). Evolution of Moral Norms. In Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Biology ed. Michael Ruse. Oxford University Press.
      6. Hume, David (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. Section 3.1.1, ‘Moral Distinctions Not deriv’d from Reason’
      7. Nowak, M., Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Free Press.
      8. McElreath, R., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. (2003). Shared norms and the evolution of ethnic markers. Current Anthropology,44(1), 122–130.
      9. Sloan, M. L., (2018) A Universal Principle Within Morality’s Ultimate Source. https://thisviewoflife.com/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/
      10. Tomasello, M., & Vaish, A. (2013). Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 231-255.”

    8. Brent Meeker

      That misses two of my points. First, evolution didn’t just shape our moral sense and cultural moral norms. It also shaped what might be called our “immoral norms”, i.e. our basic values of selfishness, dominance, etc. They are all of apiece. Second, “How should I live.” and “what is good” can be answered instrumentally in some cases, but ultimately they must be grounded in those evolved values, both moral and immoral.

      My point is not that Darwin was wrong, but that it’s a partial truth. It’s like saying the Mafia developed codes of cooperation because it made them more successful…therefore their codes are morals. That’s true…but it’s a very narrow view.

      And when I say “evolved” I include cultural selection as well as natural (biological) selection. Just look at how dogs were evolved from wolves by human selection. Humans are not less subject to human selection.

    9. Mark Sloan

      Hi Brendt,

      Of course, cultural ‘moral’ norms can be selected for that I hope you would find despicable. An ingroup can cooperate and benefit by exploiting outgroups such as by enforcing “Women must be submissive to men”, “Homosexuality is evil”, and perhaps even by “Eating pigs is an abomination”. It would be a worthless sort of science of morality that could not explain such exploitive moral norms.

      But science can. It is easy. For example,

      Descriptively moral norms solve cooperation problems but may exploit others.
      Universally moral norms solve cooperation problems but do not exploit others.

      Then it is up to you to choose which sort of moral norms you prefer to advocate and enforce.

      The science of morality is not complicated. It also has zero need for mysterious sources of moral bindingness.

    10. Brent Meeker

      You describe these moral norms selected by facilitating cooperation as “despicable” and “exploitive”. On what basis? You’re simply assuming that exploitive is bad and then you turn around and say it’s just subjective. It’s up to me to select the norms I prefer. What about cows and pigs. Is it good to exploit them? Why? You’re implicit assuming (a) you know what’s good and bad and yet (b) it’s purely subjective. See the contradiction? Your theorizing and philosophizing amounts to nothing but “Don’t we agree about what’s good…really?”. It doesn’t even try to solve Hume’s is/ought dictum.

      I maintain that some cultures have objectively better ethics than others and the operational test of this is whether people with a free choice will choose to live in the better one. On this basis the USA has objectively better culture and ethics than Afghanistan. But between the USA and France it’s a wash.

    11. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Is your central point that we are in no way morally obligated to solve cooperation problems just because the evolutionary function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes is solving cooperation problems?

      Yes, that is my central point. Because, as I interpret you, everything you say seems to depend on making that leap.

      I have never disagreed with this statement or its variations expressing the same idea.

      In that case it is utterly unclear what you are trying to argue. Part of the reason for this is the way you use the word “moral”, in that you seem to be slipping between descriptive and normative connotations of the word “moral”. To clarify things it would be really helpful if you would write out your central argument without using the word “moral” (but instead replacing it with an explanation of what you mean at that point).

      I argue the science of morality is useful for refining moral norms, not because it is somehow morally binding on us, but it is useful in the same sense the rest of science is useful: because it informs us how to better achieve our goals (or shared goals in the case of cultural morality).

      First, if everything, at root, comes from our goals, then the whole scheme is necessarily subjective, since our “goals” are the epitome of things that are subjective, they are properties of our brain state.

      Second, let me try to re-write your argument simply. It goes: “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”) and our knowledge of evolved human psychology, to help us attain those goals”. Is that a fair re-statement? (Note how it does not involve the word “moral” and is, I hope, very clear in its meaning.)

      If so, then, why yes, indeed so! Hardly anyone would dispute that claim. If that’s all you’re saying then ok. Or are you saying more than that? If so, what?

  10. Rob

    Yes, morality is a quagmire of unanchored and conflicting aughts, The best we will ever be able to do is to attempt to convince others that our aughts are the best aughts. Morality is not some weird law of nature imposed from above that acts top-down. It “arises bottom-up” from us and it varies because we vary.

    Reply
  11. Rob

    Mark Sloan said:

    “Our moral intuition’s bindingness (what everyone ought to do regardless of beliefs and preferences) is just an “illusion foisted on us by our genes” as Michael Ruse seems to delight in saying.”

    Well, yes. Why is that so difficult to come to terms with? We now understand that many things are not as they seem. The earth is not flat. The sun doesn’t go round the earth. Those who hanker for an objective morality just can’t get past how things seem to them. So they continue to fall back on the naturalistic fallacy and arguments from incredulity.

    Reply
  12. Rob

    But it’s not possible to prove that those who freely choose not to live under an American style ethical scheme are wrong. It’s not possible to show that because more people would freely choose one style of society over another that they are right or wrong. Majorities can be wrong.

    Mark Sloan and Brent Meeker, you are both are making the old mistake of jumping from “is” to “aught”. It can’t be done logically.

    Reply
    1. Brent Meeker

      I’m not saying they are right or wrong. I’m saying that if a lot more people freely choose to live in culture X over culture Y that is an operational definition of culture X being better, more satisfying of more people’s values. I’m not judging their values at all. I’m simply take them to be given and subjective.

  13. Brent Meeker

    Try reading this paper: Evolutionary Psychology
    human-nature.com/ep – 2006. 4: 234-247
    ����������������������������
    Original Article
    Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy?
    Oliver Curry, Centre Research Associate, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of
    Economics, UK WC2A 2AE, UK; Email: o.s.curry@lse.ac.uk.
    Abstract: David Hume argued that values are the projections of natural human desires, and that
    moral values are the projections of desires that aim at the common good of society. Recent
    developments in game theory, evolutionary biology, animal behaviour and neuroscience explain
    why humans have such desires, and hence provide support for a Humean approach to moral
    psychology and moral philosophy. However, few philosophers have been willing to pursue this
    naturalistic approach to ethics for fear that it commits something called ‘the naturalistic fallacy’.
    This paper reviews several versions of the fallacy, and demonstrates that none of them present an
    obstacle to this updated, evolutionary version of Humean ethical naturalism.

    Reply
    1. Rob

      “…if a lot more people freely choose to live in culture X over culture Y that is an operational definition of culture X being better…”

      All it would demonstrate is that more people prefer that culture and not that it is better.

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