Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Two Domains of "Ought" (Where "Is" Does Not Reign)


I'm with the main point of Xavier philosophy professor Richard Polt's "Anything But Human," which presents an argument against reducing humanity to subhumanity, against reducing consciousness to pure material conditions, against reducing "mind" to physical brain. There is something "more" about human beings; persons are essentially unlike other animals and unlike any computer.

Consider ethics. While Polt has no problem with evolutionary theory, he refuses "to admit that they teach me much about ethics." Even if "the human race has evolved to be capable of a wide range of both selfish and altruistic behavior, there is no reason to say that altruism is superior to selfishness in any biological sense." In other words, even if humanity has evolved to prefer A over B, this tells us nothing about whether to choose A as "better than" B.

Now here it comes - pay close attention:

"In fact, the very idea of an “ought” is foreign to evolutionary theory. It makes no sense for a biologist to say that some particular animal should be more cooperative, much less to claim that an entire species ought to aim for some degree of altruism. If we decide that we should neither “dissolve society” through extreme selfishness, as Wilson puts it, nor become “angelic robots” like ants, we are making an ethical judgment, not a biological one. Likewise, from a biological perspective it has no significance to claim that Ishould be more generous than I usually am, or that a tyrant ought to be deposed and tried. In short, a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless."

Again, one can't derive "ought" from "is."

Consider, in the second place, the mind-brain problem. Are you and I essentially no different from the computer I am writing this on? The answer is: we are different. For my computer understands nothing of the first (or any) sentence of this paragraph. The temptation to reductionism has been around at least since Plato. Holt writes: "Without a brain or DNA, I couldn’t write an essay, drive my daughter to school or go to the movies with my wife. But that doesn’t mean that my genes and brain structure can explain why I choose to do these things — why I affirm them as meaningful and valuable." (Here one such as J.P. Moreland would disagree, arguing for a mind-body dualism that does not require there to be a brain for their to be a mind.)

Enter philosophy and religion, the two domains of "ought": philosophy and religion (remember, science cannot help us here). Polt writes:  "religion has survived the assaults of reductionism because religions address distinctively human concerns, concerns that ants and computers can’t have: Who am I? What is my place? What is the point of my life?"

Indeed, the very choice to write a paper to present a theory that human choices can be fully reduced and thereby explained and understood in terms of pure material causality cannot itself be understood and explained in terms of pure material causality. "The same scientist who claims that behavior is a function of genes can’t give a genetic explanation of why she chose to become a scientist in the first place. The same philosopher who denies freedom freely chooses to present conference papers defending this view."