Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beyond The Happiness Hypothesis: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

In monitoring the hits this blog gets I’ve noticed that my review of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom has been getting the most visitors, particularly in the most recent couple of months. While I’m not sure why this is happening I’m glad that it is. I have found Haidt’s book interesting and thought-provoking. He is working on his next book: The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. It is scheduled to be published in 2011 by Pantheon Books.

To give you an idea of what it will cover here is a part of the book proposal.

This book will be a friendly slap in the face to liberals and atheists, delivered by a liberal atheist who desperately wants his peers to wise up, drop their self-righteousness, and understand the moralities of conservatives and of religious groups. The central idea of the book is simple but its implications are far-reaching:

Liberals and atheists generally do not understand the breadth of human morality. They think morality is about decreasing harm and increasing justice and autonomy. But for most of the world, morality is primarily about binding people into cohesive communities with strong institutions and collective goals.

The book is based upon my empirical research in moral psychology. I have discovered that there are five innate psychological systems upon which cultures build their moral systems. The first two are Harm/care (involving compassion and nurturance), and Fairness/reciprocity (involving concepts of justice, which generate rights and autonomy). These two psychological systems account for nearly all research in moral psychology, and they provide most of the psychology needed to explain the long history of liberal moral theory in which society is a human creation, a social contract entered into by individuals for their mutual benefit and protection.

But there are three other foundations of morality used by conservative and religious communities, foundations that liberals generally reject as causes of immorality. One is the Ingroup/loyalty foundation, which gives people the strong feeling that being a committed and trustworthy group member is more important than maximizing overall utility. When conservatives say “my country, right or wrong,” liberals say “dissent is patriotic.” Another is the Authority/respect foundation, which motivates conservatives to defend hierarchical social structures in which authorities (such as teachers, parents, and the police) have a duty to establish the order and stability that is necessary for everyone’s benefit. Liberals, in contrast, instinctively “question authority” and often equate it with oppression. The last of the five foundations is Purity/sanctity, which underlies religious conceptions of persons as having a divine soul housed in a body that is disturbingly animal-like. Moral systems built on this foundation urge people to cultivate their higher, spiritual nature and to shun carnal pleasures and petty concerns. Many Christians believe that their bodies are temples, on loan from God. But for secular liberals, people have full deed and title to their own bodies and can adorn them, pierce them, drug them, and stimulate them however they please. Most culture-war issues are really battles over the legitimacy of the Ingroup, Authority, and Purity foundations.

Objectivists probably would disagree with Haidt’s discussion of and homage to conservative moral foundations and would agree more with the liberal advocacy of autonomy. After all autonomy is at the individualist root of Objectivist philosophy. Nonetheless, I believe Objectivists would benefit by seriously considering Haidt’s thoughts on this. Personally, I’m looking forward to the release of his The Righteous Mind.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Signature in the Cell -- Comments

Anyone familiar with Objectivism knows that Rand was an atheist. While Rand didn’t write specifically on intelligent design (ID) I’m sure she would have dismissed this argument because of its support for a supernatural being. Although I know it’s blasphemous (to use a religious term) to give any credence to the intelligent design argument I believe we need to test of our beliefs and principles by facing the best arguments of opposing viewpoints. Thus I recommend seriously reading books like Michael Behe’s Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, William Dembski’s The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction and Decision Theory), Anthony Flew’s There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind and Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.

Behe’s book started the current resurgence in the intelligent design argument by introducing the idea of irreducible complexity that is displayed in various components of living organisms. Behe contends that evolutionary processes as envisioned by Darwin cannot explain the development of this complexity. Dembski’s approach is more philosophical, offering a scheme for identifying the causes of events as the result of natural law, chance or design. Flew touches on a number of factors that lead him to abandon his life-long atheism.

While I won’t discuss Dembski’s or Flew’s approaches here I do want to take a second to discuss how Behe uses a mousetrap to illustrate irreducible complexity. Even though it is a relatively simple device the mouse trap won’t work until its pieces are assembled in the right order and in the right configuration, making it irreducibly complex. Behe shows how many of life’s features such as the bacteria flagellum, the blood clotting mechanism or the chemistry of vision are much more complicated than a mouse trap. Behe contends that the development of these complex mechanisms could not have evolved by a step-by-step process because the components will not work until they are fully assembled.

Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design takes a different approach by focusing on the special characteristics of DNA. I have provided some key quotes below but I want to mention that I recently learned of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s pick of Meyer’s book as Book of the Year for Times On Line (The Times Literary Supplement). Nagel is primarily known as for his work in ethics and surely is not noted for being a mystic.

As Nagel says:

Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

Here are selections from various parts of Meyer’s book which summarize his case.

The theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause – that is, by the conscious choice of a rational agent – rather than by an undirected process. Either life arose as the result of purely undirected processes, or a guiding intelligence played a role. Advocates of intelligent design argue for the latter option based on the evidence from the natural world. The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time or even common ancestry, but it does dispute the Darwinian idea that the cause of all biological change is wholly blind and undirected. Even so, the theory is not based on biblical doctrine. Intelligent design is an inference from scientific evidence, not deduction from religious authority.

The design inference defined here does not constitute an argument from ignorance. Instead, it constitutes an “inference to the best explanation” based upon our best available knowledge. … an inference to the best explanation does not assert the adequacy of one causal explanation. Instead, it asserts the superior explanatory power of a proposed cause based upon its proven – it’s known – causal adequacy and based upon a lack of demonstrated efficacy among the competing proposed causes. … The inference to design, therefore, depends on present knowledge of the demonstrated causal powers of material entities and processes (inadequate) and intelligence (adequate). It no more constitutes an argument from ignorance than any other well-grounded inference in geology, archaeology or paleontology – where present knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships guides the inferences that scientists make about the causes of events in the past.

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.

Intelligent design constitutes the best explanation of a particular feature of life because of what we know about the cause-and-effect structure of the world – specifically, because of what we know about what it takes to produce large amounts of specified information.

I’ve provided these quotes to give a flavor of Meyer’s argument. It's impossible to do justice to his 624 page book here. Based on my reading of Meyer, Behe, Dembski and Flew I have concluded they are not whim worshippers or raging subjectivists. Yes, they are making an argument for a belief in God or at least some kind of unknown intelligence that is responsible for the design of life, a conclusion with which we might ultimately disagree. However, to be fair, these authors craft arguments, marshal facts to support them, anticipate objections, and try to address them. I’m not saying the ID argument is irrefutable. Unfortunately the “refutations” I’ve seen in books or on the ‘net are heavy on sarcasm and ad hominem but are light on true objective analysis.

My point is that Objectivists and others who summarily reject ID arguments do not do them justice but, more importantly, also lose an opportunity to truly check and test their own premises.