Thursday, September 11, 2008

Secular Humanist

Today, as we were working on the boat, my brother asked what task I wanted, and I took the more difficult task, thinking that he would offer to trade later, or at least willingly trade if I asked. In my head I was doing something nice, but in retrospect, if I had it in mind that the action would later be reciprocated for my benefit, the act was never really an altruistic action in the first place. This got me thinking about altruism. I never thought that it existed, and I defy you to think of an action that is truly altruistic. Do you ever do anything without expecting some kind of reciprocal benefit as a result of that action? I had a discourse with the philosophy of religion teacher at Pitt, who Brooke reffered to me when she thought I would enjoy joining the discussion that was budding. In my boredom while we worked I was reminded of that conversation. I ended up writing a pretty intense summary of my beliefs on how morality could have evolved strictly through darwinian theory, and I think I accomplished my task quite well. I will copy it here, I would like to think it is worth reading, give it a glance. Brooke had mentioned to him that I describe myself as a secular humanist.

Tony, the prof, says:


"Secular humanism" is a very curious phrase.

1. How does your friend define it?

2. Does he have views about what is the case, or only about what is not the

3. What are his arguments for his views?

4. What, in particular, are his arguments for common sense, ethics, and
(democratic?) politics?

In short, if you want to make it a worthwhile discussion, then he has to
accept the burden of proof for what he holds, just as you have to accept
the burden of proof for what you hold. He can't just hide out in some
duck-blind and shoot at your ducks.

Bon appetit.


My Response:

Ha, well first of all I definitely stand right out in the open when I shoot at your ducks with a big ol sign begging you to shoot back, and when when the ammunition is a "burden of proof"... I like to think I'm packin' a pretty strong arsenal (i went way too far with the duck shooting analogy didnt I, haha), but anyway... When I call myself a secular humanist i do so only because it is sometimes convenient to have someone to align yourself with. I place a burden on myself as a humanist of my own definition to strive towards the truth as best as i can and more generally place the burden on humanity to do the same in order to advance towards the truth that my astronomy teacher in a rare moment of actually interesting lecture called "the reality state". He said that science in the past was flawed and incapable of achieving this "reality state", giving the example of the human heart, there were many previous theories about how the whole blood and guts thing worked, but we now know through adequate science exactly how the heart works and the blood pumps. I also believe that through modern science we are advancing towards this "reality state" and that God plays no part in it. I like to base my views on the most logical scientifically or philosophically sound argument or I can think of or have come across, relying on the words and ideas of people like Darwin, Dawkins, and Hobbes, and never Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Specifically addressing ethics and politics I would argue that, evolutionarily, humanity has come to gain from a tendency to operate as a progressing social group, which promotes ethics, and the resulting upholding of these ethics, ultimately leading to a political system. I could go on but I think thats enough for now, hah.


Tony responds:

Hi, Brooke,

Your friend writes:

> Specifically addressing ethics and politics I would argue that,
> evolutionarily, humanity has come to gain from a tendency to operate as a
> progressing social group, which promotes ethics, and the resulting
> upholding of these ethics, ultimately leading to a political system. I
> could go on but I think that's enough for now, hah.

My views are probably closer to his than yours, but not on this point. If
he tries to turn this sketchy remark into a deductive argument from truths
of evolution to norms of ethics, he'll find himself trying to deduce
"ought"-judgments from "is"-judgments--i.e., he'll be committing non
sequiturs. His uses of "gain" and "progressing" hide this problem, since
in his remark they do double--i.e., equivocal--duties as value-free terms
in biology and as value-laden terms in ethics.

In short, invite him to provide the argument that he "would argue". ("Pay
up, Buster.") Then, when he sees how awful it is, encourage him to read
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.


I respond:
When I said I could go on, I meant it, haha. I didn't want to go into it if that wasnt where we were going, but I guess if he wants it, I will be glad to put my thought into words.
Most of the studies I refer to I learned about in my animal behavior and evolution classes, I wrote this sitting at work without any references, so I didnt cite my sources, but I am confident in the validity of the data I gave, as I didnt have to go into much detail to get the point across.

In order to try to rationalize an evolution of morality and politics, I am hardly an expert, but I will try to use what I have learned as a student of biology to deduce a mechanism for the production of ethical norms from evolutionary fact. Aristotle's Nicomachaen Ethics does not seem to address the issue i thought was at hand, it certainly addresses the "why" of ethics, but I think the more relevant issue is the "how". In an effort to unearth how ethics came to be, the whys would be inherent in the production of the mechanism, and if a reasonable scientific solution can be reached, it would hopefully stand as a physical culmination of many of the philosophies presented by Aristotle.

One of the first problems encountered is how this act of apparent altruism has any place in the dog eat dog world that exists under the rules for survival first set in place by Darwin in his Origin of Species. When the purpose of life is above all to most effectively spread your genes. The many factors that can influence the fitness of your genes include most effectively producing offspring, increasing the fitness of those offspring, as well as increasing the fitness of those with similar genetic makeup to your own, which includes parents, siblings, cousins, and so forth. Perhaps the most obvious display of altruism in animals is the colony life of insects such as bees and ants. As would be predicted by Darwin's theory, the insects have a high genetic similarity, due to the haplo-diploid genetic structure, and the common mother (the queen). The colonies consist of almost all females, who actually mathematically gain significantly more genetic fitness by assisting their queen in the production of more siblings than they would from creating progeny by mating themselves (this is due to the haplo-diploid genetic make up of the bees). I have seen studies on behavior in lions, meercats, naked mole rats, and many other species that act as a group. The "altruistic" behaviors are linked significantly to who is a benefactor (kin or not), with the behavior increasing with increasing genetic relatedness. This shows that what appears to be altruistic behavior from the bees and others is actually done for their own good. Another behavioral phenomena I think is relevant is the mobbing behavior that has been observed in seagulls. When a seagulls nest is approached by a predator, the neighboring gulls will attack the predator together, regardless of whether the nest being attacked is their kin's or not. The interesting part of this study was in the reciprocation of the mobbing. If a gull did not partake in the mobbing of a predator for someones nest, the response to an attack on its own nest would be greatly decreased. Once again showing the trend that these seemingly altruistic acts have an effect on the individuals own fitness, whether it be from direct benefit to kin, or indirectly through reciprocation of an initially selfless act.

Using these ideas, one can construct a theoretical mechanism for the establishment of the ethics system present in todays society. The behavior of the seagulls displayed a fairly high level of understanding, with the apparent understanding that in the future their actions would be rewarded. The capacity of a human to make this connection, in the nomadic group structure of early homosapien, would presumably be even greater, allowing for more of these types of behaviors at a higher level than the gulls. One can imagine what society would be like if we didn't have these "selfless" behaviors instilled in us. It would be brutal, unorganized, every man for himself warfare, our lifespans would no doubt be shortened, our children less likely to survive, and general health would diminish dramatically, resulting in a decrease in our fitness. It is not out of selflessness that we strive to uphold the ethics of our society, it is through an understanding that our efforts will be reciprocated by those around us. There are no altruistic acts, there is no "for the greater good", there are only individuals helping to create an environment that best suits their own needs. These behaviors developed in individuals operating completely through the devices of Darwinian evolutionary theory.


He replys:

Your friend doesn't see the task at hand. He offers causes of ethical
behavior instead of reasons for being ethical.

-and he wrote a few interspersals through my response which just echo these arbitrary philosophical meaningless discrepencies. I could see he was going down a road in which these same meaningless questions would lead down an ugly road to nowhere (which I think is often the case when a philosopher gets to a point of confusion in a duscussion), so I chose to end the conversation here. The causes for being ethical that I presented are the reason. There is no reason for all this philosophical crap, I put it all on the page, straightforward clear cut science. The cause is the reason.

a.k.a. I win. Go science.

So, let me know what you think if you read through it. I will be especially pleased if you find a problem with what I said.


thoughts... said...

You kind of dig yourself into a hole here... what you're implying is that you've solved the nature vs. nurture argument once and for all, which you definately haven't. there are lots of simple arguements that can defeat your "go science" attitude, a simple one to start off with.

if everything were to follow the laws of nature than you have an arguement, but there are many animals (humans, and possibly others) that have a sense of reasoning beyond the impulses that nature has worked into them... in fact many would argue that this sense is what seperates humans from the rest of the animal world. for example, what if a young man with his whole life ahead of him is walking down the street, sees a woman who reminds him of his great grandmother, and this woman has a red laser from a sniper scope square on the middle of her forhead... he's an excellent gamer and immediately realizes she'll be killed if he doesn't do anything, so he runs and dives on her, a shot is fired, he's on top of her, it hits him in the head, he dies, then the sniper shoots the woman in the head anyway. why did he do it? what do humans have to gain by losing a brave nice young man, why would he sacrifice himself for an older woman who has not much left to give... especially if he knew, being the expert gamer that he was, that the sniper would probably just kill him and then kill her anyway.

BLRownsU said...

As a single solitary incident you are correct, that was worse for humanity, but I am looking at the bigger picture here. This action shows that humans have within them the ability to decide that another's life is more important than their own, and act upon that decision even to the point of sacrificing their own lives. Yes, in the situation you described the decision was obviously not the most beneficial for humanity as a whole, but that is not the norm, you must assume that usually better decisions are made that are beneficial to humanity. And where does nurture come in? Its nature vs. religious philosophy.

thoughts... said...

what i'm saying is that there are many situations that come about due to nurture that are altruistic that wouldn't happen if people were only influenced by nature, and religion is one of those things. i couldn't follow what tony's actual ideas on any of this were, mainly because he just sat in the blinds and shot at your arguements, but i'm sure that he wouldn't insist that religion would be around if there was no nuture involved.

Alan said...

im reminded of the movie pay it forward here...

the little boy had the whole pyramid of happiness and goodness thing goin on..
he would show three people kindness, namely, exhibit altruistic behavior towards 3 people, in the hopes that they would go forth and repeat this same behavior
BUT, was he expecting that these acts would eventually return to him? Perhaps for the recognition of such an inspiration philosophy, or that if this flood gate of "altruism" actually broke and went all new orleans on our societies ass, would the resulting betterment of his surroundings be considered the reciprication to strike down the seem less selfless atitude that his philosophy appeared to stem from

BLRownsU said...

Yup, thats the way the world goes round Alan. And thats why humanity prospers. And thats why I say there is no 100% true altruism. Sounds like an interesting movie.

Alan said...

i would think that in general, the exhibition of acts of kindness at the very least instill some degree of gratitude in the reciever as well as an improved look upon the current situation, ie, maybe make their day a little more "shiny"
and also i would think that in general, that instillerer inherits some sense of, maybe accomplishment, in the knowledge that this reaction is expected

but helping out a complete stranger with no expectation to ever even see them again or leave with the basic impossiblity of them ever being in contact with you again, seems a dicey situation

Alan said...

and if u r a religious person, that completely negates the whole copncept of altruism
bc all your actions are to benefit ur fate in the afterlife
or if u think the everything is pre-determined by god, and there really is no choice in the world

BLRownsU said...

Good point. God is the death of altruism.

brooke said...

religion presents those problems if you are a catholic person.

religion doesn't always mean christian and doesn't always mean a belief afterlife.

As for the pay it forward concept:

If the good will never returns to the giver, and he or she doesn't think it will return (for various reasons, like imminent death or abandonment from the culture) then it would be altruistic. For example, a person who steps in front of a bullet and is killed to save another person's life--how is that not truly for the other person's benefit? Some may say it is to the "martyr" would not have to live with the pain or guilt of losing the other person--but what if there's no connection to the other? What selfish motives are there?

Is there really no giving to enhance anothers' life without expectation attached?

I can think of a few times, personally, where I have offered my time, money and other things just to help another person out so they weren't suffering--some of which I did not even know. I didn't expect anything back, and still don't.

However, the real flaw in all of the arguments is this--

the very premise of altruistic behavior is that you do something for another's benefit. However, ever action elicit an emotional/intellectual response, because we operate in that manner. Therefore, with every action there is a response, thus with every altruistic action has a response. If altruistic is defined as offering an action in return for nothing or with no expected action, it is impossible to be altruistic, due to the human condition and the definition of the word.

No offense, but science and studies don't have anything to do with the problem. You just like to involve them. :)

BLRownsU said...

Allright Brooke, first of all, Thoughts... already raised the point of someone jumping in front of a bullet to save a stranger, and it was a good point the first time. I see that as a verrry rare case where that altruistic character that makes us human gets a little out of control. I had not thought about that martyrdom aspect, and it is a good one. That also makes me think of the major thing that could possibly a selfish act in that situation. Religion. Poeple killing themselves in the name of their God is probably the reason for many/most of these acts that have been committed. And when you say

"If altruistic is defined as offering an action in return for nothing or with no expected action, it is impossible to be altruistic, due to the human condition and the definition of the word."

That is exactly what i am trying to convey with this post. That human condition, and i think it is wonderful, and i also think it is a beautiful result of darwinian evolution, as explained in the post. And, no offense, but for you to be so pompous as to say that "science and studies don't have anything to do with the problem. You just like to involve them. :)" just because you say so? Well I say science does have something to do with it, and not just because I say so, it is because of the entire post you are responding to. So maybe if you can do anything more than say that it doesn't, just because you don't like to involve it, that comment could have some merit, but as it stands it is just ignorant. No offense.

Link said...

You guys do way to many drugs... or im just not stoned enough to even follow