Miscellany: mind in science, Genesis, deontology & utilitarianism, etc.

On the limits of the scientific method and the imminent paradigm shift:

Francis Bacon’s elimination of formal causality (eide, logoi) from the purview of science leads to a sort of “blindsight” amongst scientists, and by extension, most of us living today, who defer to such scientists to establish our theory of reality. In the same way that a person stricken with blindsight may catch a ball without being able to see it—thereby making use of his visual cortex without knowing that he is doing this—so scientists tend not to see the consciousness and intelligence that they necessarily draw on for the practice of their discipline. This is obvious because otherwise they would not know what to study to begin with, and it would be, moreover, impossible to select which parameters were relevant out of the virtual infinity of measurements that could be made on any single occasion. The result of this blindsight is that the scientific method will never be able to account for something upon which its existence is nevertheless contingent. Put another way, the existence of science necessarily entails the existence of consciousness and intelligence via modus ponens. Hence, the scientific method can never deliver a science that is complete any more than an apple can fall back upward to its bough.


“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

—Genesis 1:26 (KJV)

It is said that a book is a mirror for the soul. It is said, moreover, that for someone who lacks the ability for understanding, a book will be of no more use than is a mirror to a blindman. Concerning the notorious “dominion clause” in Genesis quotes above: people who interpret “dominion” as “domination” inadvertently reveal more about themselves than the text. They are seeing their own image in the book’s pages. “Dominion” literally means “lordship” or “rulership.” Traditionally, the hierarchy implicit in lordship entailed the obligation for stewardship and care. A father must have dominion over his young child for the latter’s sake. Plato’s Republic dialogue begins with Socrates’ painstaking refutation of Thrasymachus’ assertion of the converse. As a doctor plies his art for the sake of his patient and not for his own sake, so the ruler governs for the sake of his subjects. “But the doctor actually works for money and not for the sake of his patients’ health” is Thrasymachus’s rejoinder, indicating that Socrates is naïve. Certainly, a doctor might be less obliged to clock in if he were not compensated for his work, but insofar as he is allowing pecuniary considerations to inform his action, he is acting as something other than a doctor. Put another way, a doctor is only measured by his actual orientation towards the health of his patients. If there were a doctor who refrained from healing his patients out of protest or for the sake of going fishing, he would not be a doctor at all, but a protestor or a fishmonger. Similarly, the ruler who governs for anything other than the sake of his subjects and the welfare of the state is serving in an ulterior office and thus should not be regarded as a rule altogether.

I believe that a misinterpretation of Genesis is something of a sign in the times. The difficulty that besets contemporary people when they are tasked with interpreting the “dominion clause”is likely a function of the essentially revolutionary ethos of modern Liberalism. “Lordship” carries with it, in contemporary ears, the connotation of an infringement on the consent of the governed, property rights, equality, separation of church and state, individual liberty, etc. In this way, the basic philosophical and political atmosphere that we are born into and ordinarily never notice as such seems to instill in us the proclivity to interpret Genesis’ “dominion” as “domination,” which is to say, “oppression” or “subjugation.” We tend to equate liberty with license and imagine the tyrant is the only sort of king. Naturally, history has shown that not every king is not a tyrant, but to assert that Liberalism and representative democracy is always better is no less one-sided.

Returning to Genesis: in essence, Adam was supposed to be the priest of Creation, which is to say, the intermediary between Heaven and Earth. Christ came to accomplish what Adam failed to do and show us the true meaning of lordship. It means that the higher serves the lower through love just as the lower submits to the higher through love.


On the difference between utilitarian and deontological views of ethics:

Some people say that the same action could be described in different ways according to deontology given that a given deed could be performed out of different motives. I think it would be more accurate to say that the same event could be described in different ways because the same event could actually represent entirely different actions. In the first case, event refers to what could be described from an external (i.e. “scientific”) perspective while action implicates an agent who is performing it and hence the motive that impels it. Put another way, event could be seen as what is manifest in appearance while action includes what is not so manifest but is in fact the reason for what is manifest. Suppose I wave my hand: the event as such really only makes sense in light of your immediate inference that the hand-wave is more than the physical movement but is in fact a gesture. This is to say that the outer movement is an expression of an inner motive. 

While I think it is fair to fault deontology for its tendency to rigidity and fundamentalism, I think utilitarianism warrants at least as much reservation given that it tries to reduce all actions to events by presupposing the generic motive of “happiness.” In other words, it conceptualizes a world of outsides with no insides except insofar as the insides can serve as an occasion for the experience of pleasure to “feed the machine.” As I have indicated, I am personally opposed to the utilitarian doctrine but I hope that I can show my reasons for this judgment so that you can weigh the issue yourself and come to your own conclusion. I tried to lay out this argument in the introductory sections that I wrote to each unit and also in my short piece at the end of the Utilitarianism chapter.  

One more thing that I would like to add is that, essentially, these theories of ethics are attempting to define what we mean by “good” and “bad/evil.” If you think utilitarianism is true, it just means you think “the action that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is an accurate paraphrasis of “good.” In other words, the terms are equivalent and could be exchanged. By the same token, there is nothing that is “good” outside of its ability to increase net happiness. If you are a deontologist, you think this is wrong and instead, something is morally good insofar as it is performed for the right reason, irrespective of what follows from it. I hope the above has been helpful and I look forward to hear any further 

***

In light of the fact that a consequentialist approach to ethics demands that our action precede our ability to evaluate it, “good” for consequentialism really means “my best guess at what is good.” In this respect, knowledge and learning becomes something like a categorical moral imperative for utilitarianism because one’s knowledge determines one’s ability to foresee the consequences of one’s deeds. Given that the ultimate measure of morality in deontology is the agent’s motive, another categorical imperative emerges. Namely, it is necessary to pay attention to one’s motives, which I think it is uncommon to do. Instead it seems that we have often already unconsciously adopted our motives before we decide to act on them.

***

I think the identification of utilitarianism with “ends-justify-the-means” thinking is very insightful. While it may seem right to reason in this way, it is clearly a very slippery slope to Hades and I may be the last one to see the lies I am acting out by rationalizing actions through appeal to a conjectured utopia. Hitler, Stalin, and all of the psychopathically evil figures of history would have happily explained to someone why the campaigns of mass murder that they undertook were “for the greater good.”

It is tempting to say that, while utilitarianism concerns itself with outcomes, deontology also takes into account the motives for the actions which led to those outcomes. Strictly speaking, this is not correct. Instead, deontology postulates that “ethics” means “the study of duties and motives” and that it really has nothing to do with outcomes except tangentially. By analogy, some people argue that science has nothing to do with its technological implications and applications. Is there any moral component to the Manhattan Project, in which scientists were gathered in Los Alamos, NM for the purpose of inventing the atomic bomb? Some people are arguing that science is responsible for having likely engineered the COVID-19 virus through gain-of-function research in the Wuhan laboratory. Others are arguing that if the virus did indeed leak from this lab as the evidence suggests, it is not science to blame but politics and incentive structures. This example is intended as an analogy to illuminate that from the perspective of deontology, whatever follows from an action is irrelevant to the moral question, which is decided already in the issue of the deed according to whether it was performed for the right reason. 

***

People often make statements like “someone who is loyal to utilitarian or deontological theories of ethics may end up choosing a different path when circumstances demand.” This is a very important point so I will place it in italics: how does one know just when “circumstances demand”? What is the standard that allows one to make such a judgement? The fact that one can say “sometimes we should make exceptions to one or another theory for the sake of doing the right things” begs the question by implying there is already another theory—even if it remains tacit—that could offer such guidance.

***

The “Achilles’ heal” of deontology, so to speak, is that duties are to be carried out irrespective of our personal inclinations and it is not clear how to adjudicate between two obligations if they come into conflict. Naturally, we would be disposed to appeal to our personal inclinations to settle something like this, but that is just what deontological ethics advises us against without necessarily providing us with an alternative procedure. 

It might be argued that “Someone’s duty cannot override what is right or wrong.” I think I understand the sentiment behind this statement but it begs the question by presupposing that deontology is false. From the deontological perspective, someone’s duty just is to do what is right. It is not as though “right” and “wrong” are one thing and our duties are something else. Instead, our duties are a function of what is right. Our duty is to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong. 

Neither is it adequate to appeal to consensus or “the will of the majority” to settle this issue. The idea of the majority determining what is good and right seems really arbitrary since there is nothing about being in the majority that equips a person to determine what is good or right. From the utilitarian perspective, being “good” or “right” just means “being in the majority,” in an important sense, and I think that is a corruption of meanings and it leads to a tyranny of the mob. It is an inherent problem with democracy which was recognized by the Greek philosophers and which led them to be very suspicious of this manner of organizing the state.


René Girard (1925-2015), the anthropologist, philosopher, and social theorist who is foremost responsible for articulating a comprehensive theory of the scapegoat mechanism, started out his career believing the Gospels were absurd fairytales. Over his decades of research, however, his view underwent an immense transformation and he ultimately came to see the Gospels as prophetic texts whose function was to reveal the only manner by which the scapegoat mechanism—latent everywhere—could ultimately be overcome. Namely, each of us must “take up the cross” of their own mistakes instead of trying to pin them on others. This is related to the two meanings of “sacrifice.” Christ transformed the function of public execution from one of propagating the mythic rites of renewal through lies to one of revealing the truth of scapegoating and fostering both personal responsibility and compassion for victims. The significance of this event in the history of ethics can scarcely be overestimated. 

I think the example of people blaming the former President for things he could not possibly have had any influence over is a helpful one since it reveals the tendency for people to ascribe all sorts of incredible abilities to the victim to rationalize scapegoating him. Many people discovered a source of solidarity in their violent antipathy towards Trump. At the same time, Trump’s case is far from an ideal expression of the scapegoat phenomenon both because (1) the people were not unanimous, (2) while he was impeached and arguably slandered, many people saw this as justified, and (3) he was not exactly a saint himself. I mention this last point because the epitome of the scapegoat would be the one who is perfectly innocent but who is indicted and sacrificed in the most violent way. Jesus of course fits this bill.

One Comment Add yours

  1. mitchteemley says:

    Excellent reasoning, as always, Max.

    Like

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