Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Reason vs.emotion sure, but is it a decsion?

In another great example of the mini-revolution going on in the science of how humans think, this article about some scientific underpinnings of morality found in primates appears. If you have doubts about evolution and "social biology" move right along. If not, and like me, you find the science compelling, pause for a moment.

What I find most interesting about the article is NOT the debate about emotion vs. reason that flows for example in this bit:
Many philosophers believe that conscious reasoning plays a large part in governing human ethical behavior and are therefore unwilling to let everything proceed from emotions, like sympathy, which may be evident in chimpanzees. The impartial element of morality comes from a capacity to reason, writes Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, in “Primates and Philosophers.” He says, “Reason is like an escalator — once we step on it, we cannot get off until we have gone where it takes us.”
But biologists like Dr. de Waal believe reason is generally brought to bear only after a moral decision has been reached. They argue that morality evolved at a time when people lived in small foraging societies and often had to make instant life-or-death decisions, with no time for conscious evaluation of moral choices. The reasoning came afterward as a post hoc justification. “Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes,” Dr. de Waal writes.
No, the crux of the issue really is the contention over how the result occurs. Again from the article (emphasis added):

Dr. de Waal’s definition of morality is more down to earth than Dr. Prinz’s. Morality, he writes, is “a sense of right and wrong that is born out of groupwide systems of conflict management based on shared values.” The building blocks of morality are not nice or good behaviors but rather mental and social capacities for constructing societies “in which shared values constrain individual behavior through a system of approval and disapproval.” By this definition chimpanzees in his view do possess some of the behavioral capacities built in our moral systems.

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured.”
That is, whether you call the cause "reason" or "emotion" or "approval and disapproval" the definition reduces morality to something causal. That is, there was no free "choice" in the matter of something we inherently view as a choice. Moral decisions in this view seem indistinguishable from any other physical system - billiard balls, rain drops, atoms. The added complexity just hides the contention that no independent choice was involved - any more than an electron "chooses" to orbit a nucleus.

Hmm, start with an assumption that only physical processes are needed to describe and understand physical results (science), and it's nice to know that you end up with nothing but physical processes controlling everything. Is EVERY question really a scientific one?

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