Chris Wood
Monday April 27th, 2009

A sequel to “Ethics Beyond Humanism”

Here extensive comments from Professor Gertrud Nunner-Winkler on the article “Ethics Beyond Humanism” by Chris Wood together with his answer (rather tough food for thought).

Prof. Dr. Nunner-Winkler:

I found your article ‘Ethics beyond humanism’ interesting and provocative and I do disagree with some of your main statements:
‘God is a delusion’ from my perspective is too strong a claim to be defendable. I think we just do not know what may be the case beyond this short span of our individual lives. Even though I personally believe that there is nobody but worms waiting I feel agnosticism is the only position one can reasonably hold. In that respect I follow your insight: “We should never really be certain about anything.” (p 4) (By the way – I find that Dawkins’ polemic outbursts against religion – his way of using biblical language to convey his reductionist views – show how intimately he still is tied to the tradition. He surely would not need to fight so strongly if he had truly liberated himself from early indoctrinations).
‘Do we live in a computer simulation?’ If we did – what difference would that make?
‘Free-will is an illusion’; yes our thoughts occur physically in the brain. But the letters I type also occur physically on the screen. Does that explain the content of what I am trying to say? The interpretations of the Libet experiment overlook several aspects: The subjects voluntarily entered the experimental situation, the experimenter carefully set up the design, he interprets his data and claims truth for this interpretation, his colleagues may criticize him for having made blunders and suggest he should have proceeded differently etc etc. The physical reactions of the subjects in the situation may be seen in analogy to the behavior of a boss who told his coworkers to get a certain task done and then stops caring about how the task is concretely fulfilled, in other words: there may be some automated processes working in the brain. (You may step on the brake in a situation of danger before you are consciously aware of what is going on – because driving has become a largely automatic routine for you). If there were no such a thing as some freedom of reflection no claims to truth could be upheld – whatever the scientist says would just be determined by his brain waves. The very idea of claiming something would not make any sense. The same is true of your writing the blog – it would be absolutely meaningless if you did not assume you had reflective power and an interest in finding truth.

What makes you develop such a negativistic world view?

There are some philosophers who take the ability to reflect as constituting freedom of will. It presupposes the cognitive and motivational capacity to distance oneself from one’s immediate impulses and take a stance towards them – in a way deciding which one to follow. But I’ll think about it again once you’ve written your response.
I also value truth highly. But I also value freedom highly and tend to think that life would be rather meaningless if everything were determined. There is a very good article by Strawson ‘Freedom and Resentment’. He argues like that: We will never find the answer to the metaphysical question about freedom – we will never know whether – ‘in truth’ – there is some God (or our genes or whatever) who hold us like puppets on strings But in our everyday life we differentiate between more or less free actions. Even though my pain will be the same whether you stepped on my foot by mistake or on purpose, only in the second case will I react with indignation. Emotions like indignation, gratitude, egalitarian love – which are constitutive of our human way of living – would not be possible without ascribing freedom to others.

What’s the use of warning mankind – if everything is determined anyhow?

Reply to Prof Gertrud Nunner-Winkler

God is a Delusion:-
Yes, I suppose I should explain why I agree with Dawkins that God is a delusion.
No belief is an absolute certainty, not even my belief that I exist, or that two plus one makes three. It is stupid to believe in something when there is no reasonable evidence for it. When people for thousands of years have tried and failed to find such evidence, it seems to be time to abandon the idea. To remain agnostic is almost like refusing to accept evolution or having doubts whether the Earth is flat. Of course, I am referring to a God at least slightly like one proposed by a religion; e.g. any omnipotent intelligence. William of Ockham declared that one should not devise complex explanations when a simple explanation fits. Dawkins wrote that before Darwin it was very hard not to believe in God, since there was no other credible explanation for the diversity of life.
Dawkins and I rate our degree of atheism as more than 6 on a scale 1 to 7. (An agnostic should be 3 to 5).

The Motivation of Atheism:-
Yes, I am sure that Dawkins’ motivation and mine are affected by our early years in the Anglican Church. He writes that he would probably have preached against religion much sooner if he had grown up with another sect. The tolerance and laudable principles of the Anglican Church left me unsure for decades whether one should support the Church, even though it teaches falsehoods. I thought perhaps mankind needs this delusion. Now the writings of Dawkins, Russell, etc. have convinced me that the truth is better than any religion. When I approached my local vicar for a character reference for Cambridge University, he asked me when I might get confirmed. I told him probably never because I no longer believed in God. He wrote a very nice reference referring to my “uncompromising honesty” (he could have written “surprising degree of trust”).
The various religions in the world mostly make trouble. They obviously had evolutionary advantages for themselves, but that does not mean that they were good for people, even for primitive people. The meme as well as the gene is largely selfish. I am particularly worried about Islam. Recently I heard the beautiful Queen of Jordan on TV say that she knows the Koran well, and that it is against violence. Last year, having heard differing views on this, I took the trouble to read it. It explains how to divide the booty, after plundering a caravan. It says that it is wrong to wait for an undefended caravan; guarded ones should also be attacked. Mohammedans are told not to discuss their religion with unbelievers. Any promise should be accompanied by “God willing”, (which gives a good excuse for non fulfilment). The Old Testament is pretty bad, and the Hindu caste system is terrible, but the constant gloating about unbelievers burning in Hell and the widespread Islamic view that it is the absolute word of God set the Koran apart.

Perhaps we live in a computer simulation:-It would make a slight difference. Computers and their software tend to fail. So the apparent age of the universe is an argument against this idea. But perhaps millions of such simulations have already failed.

Free will is an illusion:-
(My brother Frank objected similarly to this).
The main clear point I was making is that our thoughts (and actions) are the results of fairly deterministic physical processes, together with random (quantum) effects.

My second point is that people tend to overrate the innate importance of human conscious thought, as well as the differences between thought in humans and other animals. The jump to civilised, scientific thought is more important than that from apes to early humans. Homo sapiens almost died out 70,000 years ago. Until civilisation developed, the survival value of a big brain must have been cancelled out by the resulting difficulty of birth. Of course before civilisation people had plenty of knowledge, but they surely did not indulge in long chains of logic. Note that a zoo ape was recently observed calmly building a pile of stones where they would be handy for throwing at spectators when the zoo next opened.

My third point is that simple introspection is a poor guide to how our minds/brains work. Your comments about the Libet experiment do not really affect this. Many fairly recent experiments have come up with similarly surprising results. Some of these experiments could easily have been done hundreds of years earlier; but people just assumed they knew how their minds worked, (or were not interested to find out).
In the late 60’s, my father asked me to review a small book by Mikhail Botvinnik, which was a design for a chess program. I didn’t think much of it either as a program design, or as ideas for how to play chess. He was the leading teacher of chess, and was generally regarded as the player who played most logically (in contrast to the intuition of Tal). Later, I met him when he visited my father, and with great respect I hinted at my opinion. With admirable humility, he agreed with me, saying that he now realised it too. What I am saying is that he played wonderful chess, without knowing how. The little bit that was conscious thought, got into his book, but was too vague to be a program design. It is surprising how little difference it makes whether a chess game takes 10 minutes or 6 hours. It is much easier with a given game to guess the strength of the players, than the speed of play. So practice is more important than logic.
The advantage of conscious thought may just be that it can give time to collect information relevant to a decision. I suspect that consciousness is just a side-effect of memory. When one sleeps, muscle driving is largely disabled, and dreams are not remembered unless one wakes up in the middle. But the brain is as electrically active as when awake.

My fourth point is that this emphasis on human consciousness, like religion, is motivated by dangerous megalomania. Roger Penrose book, “The Emperor’s New Mind”, is a case in point. He argues that mathematical thinking cannot be algorithmic, because it transcends the limits of algorithms. He explains these limits, (shown by Gödel’s theorem), at great length, But his reasons for believing in the extreme power of mathematical thought are very dubious and partly clearly wrong. He seems to write that any mathematician can understand any correct proof if he tries hard. But I cannot even understand exactly what he means, even though I am fairly fit in this direction. There is a chess ending with 6 pieces that has been “proved” with best play to result in checkmate in 262 moves (see http://www.rack.de/). Nobody is capable of proving this with paper and pencil. It was “proved” by a computer program. I consider it unlikely that anybody could prove the correctness of the program by studying it. Of course the program was tested enough to build confidence in its results. Could Newton, at the height of his reputation have understood such a proof? No; his remaining lifetime would have been too short to learn enough! This shows that the algorithm of conscious thought is rather limited. Chess is finite (in this case 64 squares and 6 pieces), but the limitations shown by Gödel’s theorem only show up when infinitely many “things” are involved (e.g. the whole numbers). A suitable algorithm can prove an unlimited number of theorems. It just needs to keep running (or keep being restarted). A mathematician cannot keep thinking indefinitely, nor be restarted.
I postulate that every finite sequence of digits (or bits) occurs in the expansion of π. I doubt whether this will ever be proved. (But perhaps it has been already)?
Penrose thought (thinks?) that a breakthrough in physics is needed to explain consciousness.
That would really separate us from other animals! Such “megalomania” must be a big help in becoming famous or notorious. Incidentally, the book gives a wonderful run through of modern maths and physics. It really took me back to my student days.
Incidentally, a computer was used in the first proof of the “4 colour map” hypothesis. People had problems convincing themselves that the proof was correct. Perhaps a more elegant proof has since been found.

Free Will, Conscious Thought and Meaning:-
So I am not impressed by the association of free-will and consciousness. It is usually more important that you quickly step on the brake, than that you remember about it. Reflective powers are not needed for truth. The goose egg “knows” that foxes are dangerous. This is true despite lack of reflective powers. I believe my reflective powers and interest in finding the truth are particularly strong, but they have not done much for me. My friends are generally not so strong in this, but many have achieved more in life.
I am sure our writings have meaning, whatever the mechanism that produces them. Any writing has meaning if somebody can read it and partly understand. There is obviously a general evolutionary tendency for true knowledge to work better than nonsense. But there can be exceptions (e.g. religion). Even with religion, it may be that selection for science and reason will eventually overcome the early advantage that religion has (for itself).

Negative World View:-
My mother once remarked that I had always been gloomy. Perhaps there was something in my early years. (Roland Duerre, the blog chief, also found me terribly cynical. I think I am just realistic. A cynic is either gloomy, or has a low opinion of human nature. I find most humans rather lovable. This is not much affected by my view of how they got to be like that).
My World View when I wrote my first article was heavily influenced by two periods of G.W. Bush. (Incidentally when I read positive things about Schwarzenegger, I keep thinking how he bellowed “four more years” repeatedly in support of Bush). Now we have a finance crisis, rapid destruction of the environment with its species, growing human population, the Indian caste system, militant Islam, a trend towards superstition and thousands of atom bombs. The damage done by Ratzinger and Spaemann is relatively slight. Of course I am happy about Obama, but how much of the mess can he clear up in (maximum) 8 years? I find myself strangely optimistic.

Free Will as a Useful Illusion:-
I find myself well capable of indignation, gratitude and love. You may consider me schizophrenic that I can use this illusion, despite knowing that it is one. I can ascribe freedom to people without really believing in it.
Your arguments seem to be slightly contradictory. You associate freedom with the capacity to distance oneself from one’s emotions, but see it as necessary for gratitude, indignation and love. I see these things as having conscious and subconscious aspects. For instance when a footballer intentionally steps on a foot, there is an initial indignation, which may well be modified by the thought that this is common practice among professionals.
I think my writings on punishment are relevant to this. Punishment is (should be) intended to modify behaviour. The modification does not require free-will. A person may be so programmed that years in jail will produce no useful modification. Another may react automatically to the threat of jail, (e.g. a sentence with probation). In the latter case the illusion of free-will is employed.

Determinism and Usefulness:-
I do not believe in determinism! Quantum theory denies it. In particular, radioactive carbon in our brains decays at random, which must sometimes affect our thoughts. Radioactive decay before or just after an egg is fertilised probably has even more dramatic effects, as there is less redundancy than in the resulting brain. Without determinism, it makes sense to say that something is useful, (for instance the existence of Obama). The only difficulty is that we need an ethics metric to judge whether something is more or less useful (i.e. good).

I plan that my next article will be more practical. It will consider ethics in the context of the Earth, and reduce the timescale to rather few decades. Concentrating on upbringing and education is probably sensible, but I think global thinking is needed, not just the developed countries. Incidentally, I find it very tiring understanding Penrose and writing this stuff.

CW

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