Sunday, March 27, 2011

Commitment as the basis of moral judgments

I want to write about morality soon, and certain concepts have become vital to my ideas about morality- engagement, commitment, significance- that I haven't quite figured out how to talk about yet. That's what I'm at work on now, and what's coming out of it is a theory of the nature of value which is both philosophical and psychological, and which also has the potential to be badly mistaken. I hope it's not, and after I've sketched it in my blog with all appropriate disclaimers, I'll have a lot of independent research to do in order to determine whether it's consistent with empirical results in modern psychology. One of my biggest worries is that I'm just spinning my wheels with all of this, and nothing of interest will finally come of it. Time will tell...

I want to say a few things right now about these ideas that I'm working on. Let me first put forth what will be, for some, the most troubling proposition I'll be advocating: There is no ultimate justification for anything.. Not for praising or condemning, not for war or peace, not for oppression or charity, not for anything. From the very beginning of Western philosophy, thinkers have attempted to discover the ultimate bases for their values in what truth they could discover about reality. I'm as certain of this as I am of anything: Our values have no ultimate basis in objective truth of any kind. When we clear away the obviously subjective influences of emotion, craving, desire, and preference from our moral schemes, what we are finally left with is not truth, but rather commitment. Commitments are deeply rooted and firmly directed motivations that drive us to achieve projects relevant to our own identity, to the lives we want to live, and to the world that we hope to be part of. They are closer to being mechanical impulses than to being statements that could be true or false. While commitments can be consistent or inconsistent with one another insofar as we aim through them toward conflicting results, and are therefore amenable to reason, they are never correct or incorrect in a way that transcends their contexts. It is commitment, rather than truth, which stands behind our judgment about what is right and wrong, what is good and evil, what we are required or forbidden to do, and how things should be.

After all that, I want to say this: While truth and falsehood do not lay at the basis of our moral judgments, they certainly play a vital role in our morality. Every day, ordinary decent people go about their ordinary decent business because they understand a little bit about how the world works and they're committed to living their lives in it. Meanwhile, deranged assholes oppress and terrorize populations of ordinary decent people because they're committed to the creation of a world in which their horrifically false ideology comes to fruition. Remember that there is no ultimate justification for choosing between these commitments, but ask yourself whether ultimate justification is something you really need in this case.

When we understand this principle correctly, we do not find ourselves required to abandon our commitments; rather, we come to understand that our commitments, and therefore our values, originate within us rather than within a perception of some transcendent scheme of ultimate value, and we cannot turn to such a scheme to nullify what pangs of conscience and empathy would call on us to question those values when we consider acting upon them. Understanding this about our commitments, we will still act upon them; what we will not do is adopt the kind of absolutist ideology that would triumph by any means necessary. My commitments include working for a world in which such ideologies are ancient relics.

That's enough for right now. I just wanted to put something here to convince myself and everyone else that I'm actually doing something. I'll post more about this stuff as I get it ironed out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I'm not going anywhere.

Hey folks. I haven't abandoned this blog and I don't intend to. I still have a lot to say with it, and I'm making plans for future posts. I hope to be posting much more frequently in the near future so I'll get more traffic, which will let me reach more people and host ads for stuff I actually think is cool.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Contra Misanthropy

I don't know how to say this. I'm writing this blog, I'll write book after book, I will do lifetimes of research to find out how to say it. But I want to say it tonight.

Because we love, because we cherish, because we give, because we create, because we truly enjoy, because we fight to find the truth, because sometimes we do, because every single one of us is unique in history and a total surprise, because we rage, because we grieve, because we laugh, because with each of us the world is new again, I love us. I know about all of the other stuff, I know. I know that we have something better to be. My faith is in us, and I'm doing this for us.

Cynicism is so fucking boring. If you don't have anything helpful to say, stand in back and stop bothering the rest of us.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Imagine believing

I have seen the light rushing into your life, drawn by a desperate beauty that the world would crumble away in shame for letting go unseen. This is what we are. The rest was some kind of dreadful mistake.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My naturalistic worldview

The ideas I present in this blog will presuppose a background worldview that is similar, in many ways, to ordinary naturalism, or physicalism. I'm writing this post to clarify and justify that worldview a bit before taking it for granted in the posts that follow. I won't try to give any conclusive proofs of the conclusions I offer here, but I will try to show them to be plausible, and the worldview they're part of to be worth exploring.

First, I want to say what my kind of naturalism, if I may call it that, means in the most immediate and humanly significant terms: I think that consciousness and all other personal qualities are processes that emerge within, and are totally contingent upon, a larger impersonal reality (most proximately, the body that hosts them). There may be some confusion about what "personal qualities" means here, and I have not managed to come up with a precise definition (and I've tried). What I mean by it, however inexactly, is the collection of qualities by which we recognize one another as persons. This is a densely connected and difficult to delineate cluster of qualities which includes planning, intending, thinking in general, valuing, reasoning, having purposes, and the ability to comprehend and manipulate symbols. No one of these qualities indicates that the system having it is a person, but it would be hard to deny that title to a system possessing all of them.

Atheism and mortality are corollaries of this view: it rules out a personal God in any traditional sense, since such a God would have to be prior or parallel to any impersonal reality rather than contingent upon it, if any "impersonal reality" is compatible with belief in such a God at all. This brand of naturalism also rules out any kind of "soul" or conscious aspect of personhood that could exist independently of the body, since everything personal is contingent upon the body's operations.

Another point of my naturalistic worldview that I want to emphasize is that consciousness and mental activity in general are fully embedded in the vast impersonal reality upon which they are contingent, and are in no way exempt from the network of orderly interactions obtaining within it. This principle speaks against the powerful intuition that a psychologically normal humanbeast is associated with an abstract or immaterial "I" or self that somehow stands above or apart from the organism, directing events in a mysterious fashion that goes by the name of "free will", which can be used (intuitively but incoherently) to justify things like moral judgment and retributive punishment. This philosophical shadow of the soul is not a notion that will find much respect here.

The two italicized principles together hint at my skepticism of the idea that abstract objects such as numbers, laws, and concepts can have any existence independent from the minds that are thinking about them.

Naturalism is traditionally justified along these approximate lines: when divine revelation, mystical insight, naive intuition, and the dictates of authority are evaluated critically, they come up quite short as reliable explainers and predictors of reality as it is objectively observed and described. What seems to work best for that purpose is science, which I can describe well enough here as a combination of systematic observation, inspired guesses, and rigorous testing by logic, further observation, and heuristics such as simplicity and explanatory power. The world revealed to us by this most reliable method of knowledge formation is a world that seems thoroughly natural- that is, it proceeds spontaneously according to an inherent order, rather than being directed or sustained by any supernatural agency. This includes the behavior of humanbeasts, which leads to conclusions, including those described above, that many people throughout history have found chilling and even (mistakenly) nihilistic, and which has been a major barrier to the acceptance of naturalism wherever it has been proposed.

I will add to the above argument a point that I'll lift largely from my previous post. We humanbeasts learn about the world by understanding new experiences in terms of what is more familiar to us, and what is most familiar to us from the very beginning is ourselves, and one another. Our most fundamental experiences, beyond the basic sensory modalities, are personal, social, and symbolic. The concepts in terms of which we understand these experiences are those with which we will first try to interpret the world at large, wondering who put the stars in the sky, why water chooses to run downhill, what it feels like to be a tree, and how to translate animal sounds into our languages. We anthropomorphize promiscuously, construing for ourselves a role in an enchanted world, and we as a species have only slowly and painstakingly come to know that the real world really doesn't revolve around us. Science has been a long and painful process of disenchanting the natural world, withdrawing that anthropomorphizing impulse as far as we can to gain a clearer understanding of the reality we are part of. I am convinced that what is typically understood as "supernatural" has largely been an artifact of that impulse, and is something to grow out of rather than cling to.