Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Do the right thing; Or… should we?

In recent discussions regarding the existence of transcendent morality I have brought up the issue of “ought,” or “should,” and how it relates to the choices made by humans. Paul, one of my gracious critics, has presented an argument which, while I consider to be logically flawed, is interesting nonetheless. If I understand his argument correctly, he is essentially stating that my discussion of the “oughtness” of an action is irrelevant. For example, in my post critiquing the National Geographic article Was Darwin Wrong?, I conclude by examining the current research being performed to find a cure for TB. My argument is that if nature is all there is, and that our existence is merely the result of determinism and chance, then there is no reason why we should expend effort on helping other, albeit weaker, humans. My closing question was:
Has he [the author of the article] not considered why we humans should even care whether a weaker member of the species dies off?
Paul responded with, There is no should. Note that besides not answering my question, such a statement attempts to explain away “should” with… should (i.e., the contextual meaning of the statement “There is no should” is no different than, “One should understand that there is no should.”). Upon my questioning why one should believe that “there is no should,” Paul answered with,
You believe it, or you don't believe it. There's still no should.
Perhaps I don’t fully understand such a statement, for I find it to be nothing more than an irrational, baseless assertion (not unlike stating “There is a Santa Claus.”). It appears to attempt to link up the act of belief in the oughtness of helping other humans with, say, the act of belief in the law of gravity. However, choosing to believe or not believe in the law of gravity has no bearing on its existence. Similarly, whether I choose to believe or not believe that I should help others does not tell me if “should” exists. In an attempt to take the “there is no should” thinking forward to its logical conclusion I proposed that I call Paul’s “bluff” and posit that instead of advocating the helping of TB patients, I would advocate that we forcibly enlist them into scientific research programs. After all, so the reasoning would go, if there is no should, then what reason could there be to oppose such an action? Paul responded with,
Please feel free to call the bluff. Perform the experiments, get put in prison or put to death. That's your choice.
I think the error in this reply is that he still considers “choice” to be an integral part of whether or not “should” exists. It does not. I’ve never questioned whether he, I, or anyone else has a choice in the matter. What should be quite evident from the answers he gives is that his worldview is powerless in determining whether the actions of Hitler were wrong and those of Mother Theresa were right. According to the "there is no should" line of reasoning, there is no reason why we should value Mother Theresa over Adolf Hitler, or vice versa. I want to be very clear on this point – To advocate that there is no “should” - in the sense of “should” we help another human in need? - logically mandates that there is no difference between that of helping the needy and that of cannibalizing them. Can there be no greater banner with which to promote Naturalism? Further ref: Evolution Can't Explain Morality and Did Morals Evolve? - by Greg Koukl


Paul said...

An interesting amplification Rusty. Let me try to clarify something. I don't believe that there is any 'should' reason for protecting the weak (to use one example). There are practical reasons *why* we might, for example as part of being creatures that care for their young, or because the learning the weak impart is worth the investment. But none of these are 'shoulds', because humanity didn't decide to start protecting the weak, it just turned out that way.

To give you a trivial example. When I get dressed I put my left sock on first. Why should I do that? The fact is there is no reason, it's just something that I do.

I dress my kids the same way, so there's a better than even chance that they too will be left-sockers. They too will have no reason why they *should* do it, it will just be something they do. If it were something that gave them a competitive advantage (like checking their shoes for scorpions before putting them on) then there's a reasonable chance it's a habit that would spread. As it is it might spread, or die out, but will probably remain just a random thing.

All of our behaviours are the same. Some things arose and helped people, so those who didn't do them tended to falter. There are other things that arose that were neutral, in which case it made no difference if they carried on or not and it was left to chance. In all cases there were good reasons why they would help and be continued, but no reasons why the cavemen 'should' do them.

btw, a quick comment on one of the references you gave - Did Morals Evolve states "...understands what the goal of evolution is..." - this displays the understanding that's at the heart of our discussion. Evolution doesn't have a goal, any more than gravity has a goal. They both have means of operation, and consequent effects.

Rusty said...


Your comment on whether or not there is a goal in evolution highlights a problem, as I see it, for the evolutionary paradigm. While a mindless and purposeless process cannot, by definition, have a declared “goal,” we constantly see the natural selection process being touted as that of survival of the fittest. In other words, there is an unspoken goal of survival. A declaration can only come from a mind, so if the process of evolution is mindless, then any “goal” we attach to it is apparent at best, and fabricated at worst. Either way, we’re still left with a process that seems to be working to an ends. Does this mean that there exists some inherent law that mandates life forms follow this rule (in much the same way that gravity mandates adherence)? If so, then what of the randomness that is posited as one of the driving forces in evolution? If not, then how do we explain the history of life apparently striving for survival?

As a sidenote, you might want to check my post, Excel and Evolution, in which I discuss what we should expect to find if the world were truly driven by a random, mindless, and purposeless process.

Paul said...

There is no "unspoken goal of survival" - if you see one it's because of the worldview you bring with you, or poor writing in the material you're reading. Evolution isn't trying to get anywhere; if something equips an animal to survive better, then it will tend to survive better. Doesn't mean that surviving better is the point, any more than the point of gravity is to bring objects together; that's just what it does. Evolution is a physical force, that's all it is.

Paul said...

Oh, I checked the post you referenced, and unsurprisingly found the argument flawed. It's pretty easy to imagine the 'spreadsheets' that evolution messed up hopelessly - there are millions of them in the fossil record that worked for a while, then were overcome by the unexpected. And there are millions of examples in everyday life (spontaneous abortion being one sad example) where the spreadsheet didn't work out very well. Similarly there are many examples of designs that worked out OK, but wouldn't look like they do if we'd started out knowing in advance what we were trying to do (pick almost any function of a human body - eyes are really impressive, but not nearly as good as they would be if you'd actually designed them. Where's the zoom?!)

Rusty said...


The title of Charles Darwin’s book was “On the Origin of Species.” Was it not detailing how life forms originated, or developed, new species? Did it not present the process of Natural Selection as the means by which new species could be formed? Is not competition an integral part of the Natural Selection process? Competition to do what?... to survive.

Whether or not it is implicitly stated there is an implied goal within the whole process – survive and produce babies. If that were not the case then there would be no “process” of Natural Selection (as defined by the evolutionary community).

I find it interesting that after you claim that there is no goal with evolution you then proceed to provide evidence of creatures that evolution messed up and were overcome. For a life form to have been messed up and overcome means that it failed in some sense. Failing can only occur when there is more than one potential outcome.

Let me clarify what I mean by my spreadsheet analogy. I’m introducing the aspect of design to the process of unforeseen parameters. When I design an initial spreadsheet I attempt to make it as “clean” as possible based on the parameters I begin with. What inevitably happens, though, is that additional, and unforeseen, parameters enter into the mix. Being a semi-intelligent person I simply adapt the spreadsheet to accommodate the additional parameters. Over the course of time the resulting spreadsheet, while it may get the job done, is essentially a jumbled mess. If I knew at the beginning of the process what I know at the end, then I could have easily designed a much more efficient spreadsheet than the one I’ve ended up with. Okay – so here’s my point – even though the final spreadsheet works, it took extreme intelligent effort to accommodate the unforeseen events.

Now compare the process of intelligently accommodating unforeseen events with unintelligently accommodating them. One would expect that if such a process could successfully (there’s that goal again) accommodate the unforeseen events, then the resulting system would be orders of magnitude less elegant than the intelligently accommodated system. Indeed, the evolutionary community has no way of demonstrating that unintelligently accommodating unforeseen events has any creative power, much less that of elegant creation.

As for your examples, where you see life forms that were overcome, I see life forms that existed for millions of years in fine-tuned ecosystems, exactly suited to their environment. That’s hardly a jumbled mess of mindlessly made connections. That they went extinct does not indicate that they failed, unless you want to admit to an implied goal. Where you see an eye as lacking zoom capabilities, I see a designed and optimized system (e.g., the “backwards” wiring of the blood vessels allows for more information while the “negative” of having a blind spot is eliminated through the use of stereoscopic vision). Besides, because a system does not have a feature you’d like does not indicate that it was produced by unintelligently accommodating unforeseen events. It is quite amazing, when one considers that immensely complicated structure of the human eye, that the evolutionary community can only address one or two so-called imperfect features. If it was produced by unintelligent action, it's crudeness would dwarf the jumbled mess of my spreadsheet.

Paul said...

I think you're still not understanding the point. We can impose whatever goals we like on the system after the fact. As humans it is hard not to; we assume that whatever happens has a point, and that the point is us! But that's only because of where we sit, at the end of a very long process. From the point of view of Trilobites, evolution 'failed'; if I were a dophin, I'd consider evolution to be 50/50. But none of those entities has a privileged position; there isn't anything that says one or the other was the goal, it's just what we ended up with.

So no, there is no implied or assumed 'goal' to evolution. The things that survived were better at surviving, but that wasn't deliberate - they just couldn't help being better at surviving, and as surviving is very important to us we tend to think of it as a goal.

I do understand your spreadsheet example. And if there was only one spreadsheet then what you say would be true. But if we had millions of attempts at spreadsheets, combined with some method of weeding out the best ones (in the case of spreadsheets that's typically intelligent intervention, but that's inherent in the nature of spreadsheets, not in the selection of 'best' things generally) then we'd probably get to a reasonably good solution to the problem. Not perhaps a perfect one, but certainly good enough to appear 'designed'. Those that didn't work at all would be discarded immediately. Those that worked kinda, but ultimately weren't as 'best' as the others, would survive for a while and then die out. That's how we get an eye - it's a very good way of doing what it does, though there is room for improvement, partly because there wasn't a design, and partly because of the evolutionary route it took to get where it is.

So it is with animals. Those that worked well survived, those that worked better survived better. Over constant iterations we got to designs that were pretty good, though not perfect. No intelligent design required, just sufficient attempts plus something that set some criteria for success - success in this case being nothing more than 'getting to have another go'.

As to the claim that extinct species were exactly suited to finely-tuned ecosystems, while I think that you're overstating the close fit most of the time, much of what you say is true - they were well suited for a time, then something changed faster than their ability to keep up, so they didn't get to keep playing. No 'failure' in the sense you mean; they were for a while, and then they weren't and other creatures filled their niches.

Rusty said...


I think we may be dealing with semantics here. When I reference a goal in the evolutionary paradigm I am not claiming that animals act with the intent to survive and pass on their genes so that their species will survive (and evolve). You essentially state that animals just exist and do what they do… however some happen to pass on their genes by either doing it better or by just being lucky. Regardless, the fact is that the process of evolutionary natural selection is believed to perpetuate the species (and evolve new ones). Whether or not you want to call it a “goal” is irrelevant to the fact that the ends it entails cannot be achieved if all species died off without passing on their genes. There exists a means by which the ends can be attained, according to evolutionary theory, and the means is the process of natural selection. The ends are the Origin of Species.

If it were not so then one would not constantly hear of the so-called creative powers of evolution, indeed, The Blind Watchmaker.

Another analogy, besides that of my spreadsheet example, could be that of software creation or, rather, the conversion of one software system to another. Even with scores of intelligent programmers interacting daily, the potential for an error-laden product is great. The integrated complexity of a software system such as SAP virtually guarantees that errors in calculations, after a “go-live,” will occur. While most of the errors are minor, some are not – but the point is that the process itself was rife with intelligent direction that knew where it wanted to go! What basis is there to expect efficient functionality from a system with no intelligent direction working simply off random variation?

Your critique of my spreadsheet argument is essentially the claim that countless iterations over time will effectively counteract the tendency towards error and produce complexity. Such an argument has at least two major problems: 1) there are no examples of the process occurring on a complete system at a rate necessary to produce the changes required and, 2) there is no evidence that the types of changes claimed to have occurred actually occurred by the process proposed. It may sound nice to envision that millions of random iterations over time will effectively produce integrated complexity, but unless one can demonstrate how the process can overcome the probability factors involved, it remains an unwarranted extrapolation.

What I'm saying in my spreadsheet example is that if intelligent direction, acting based on unforeseen events, has a difficult time producing an effective spreadsheet, then how much more so for unintelligent direction. Time helps, to a degree, but the problem is that the probability factors involved demand orders of magnitude more time than the universe has been in existence.

Paul said...

I've heard this claim about the improbability of random progress before, and also of course heard it refuted. The fact is that there has been time for such variation to accumulate, partly because the billions of years life has been around is really quite a lot of time, but mostly because we have a massively parallel probability engine - we're not doing one experiment after another, we're doing trillions of them at the same time.

I also understand, but am poorly qualified to judge, that there are records of this sort of thing happening. We have plenty of examples in the historical record of approaches to life that worked for a while, and then didn't work so well. We have plenty of contemporary examples of individual approaches to life that don't work out, and either die before birth, soon thereafter, or don't prosper sufficiently to reproduce.

We should also remember the remarkable ability life has to continue living. We need only look at conjoined twins as an example of how far off the 'normal' path creatures can travel and still remain alive - there are a number of systems working very hard to keep us alive. Whether that's lucky, or a prerequisite of advanced life I don't know. But it does seem that it happens on 100% of the inhabited planets we know of.

I mostly agree with your semantics argument, but there is a critical point in there that I think you're inclined to overlook. Evolution has no goal *at all*, nothing. So drawing parallels between it and specific spreadsheets or large software systems is flawed. To give you an example with your software - if we tried to develop a SAP-level system from random variation we may well be disappointed (I could argue that as well, but that's a separate thread). But what are the chances that, given a billion years and enough computers, we could come up with *something*? I think we're talking pretty close to 100%. If you assume that there is a goal then we'll probably miss. If instead of a goal you just look at it as a process that happens, then you can be impressed by what you get. Run it 100 times (hypothetically)- maybe 1 time you'll get something SAP could sell, another time you'd get something a shareware guy could sell. Maybe 98 times you'd get intelligent life. Or maybe you wouldn't get that even after a million runs. But you'd get something, and if you *were* that something you might think that there had to be an intelligent designer involved.