Friday, 27 January 2012

A crisis update

So remember how I had a crisis? The reason that post didn't really explain what the crisis was was that I didn't know when I was writing. The first part of solving any big problem is working out what the problem is. I think I'm most of the way there. As for the solution. That's less clear. But I'm at least happy that I have a structure for possible solutions. So, here's a rough outline of what went wrong.

The crisis wasn't fundamentally an ethical one. It was a problem of justification, and more generally a philosophical project that didn't work. Remember how I had a nice little diagram that explained what my philosophy looked like? That diagram is stupid. 

The problem is I've not treated philosophy like I treat physics, maths or any other field of study other than art. Consider Rembrandt and Newton, both the Greatest (with a capital G) in their field at around the same time. There are a handful today as great as Rembrandt, I could never seek to become such a person. Today you cannot get a physics A-level let alone degree without being far more right about science than Newton ever was. I can do all the mathematics Newton could, I can do all the physics he could, with ease. That's not because I'm smarter than him. It's because he had to waste a lot of time inventing all of that mathematics and physics, I have it already digested in an easy to use form in textbooks. Science is progressive. I am naturally better than all the Greats of antiquity, that's an inevitable part of the process. In art this isn't true.

In philosophy it ought to be true. If philosophy is the creation of good ways of thinking about things or if it's seeking the correct way of dealing with various questions then it ought to progress in the same way. It should be obvious to us that whilst Socrates is Great, whilst he is deeply interesting, he is profoundly ignorant about many things that I ought not to be, and the things he does positively assert he is confused about. Note that just as with Newton it's quite consistent to claim both that Socrates is Great and that I am more right about philosophy than him.

In particular this ought to apply to Descartes. A Great thinker without whom modern science is impossible. But I've not got my historian's hat on, and with it off Descartes is wrong, not just about his conclusions but about what fundamentally the project ought to look like.

For Descartes we start with the simplest beliefs you have when you strip away everything you can doubt. These basis axioms then combine with clear and direct reasoning to produce other truths. Think long enough and hard enough and you've understood the entire world. The point is that he can prove he's right in the same way a mathematician can. Disagreeing with him, if he's done it right, is impossible. It should force you to believe the same way a proof does. Notice my diagram about what my project looked like. I had sense data and some basic assumptions, I concluded from them in an indisputable way. This project looks like Euclid. And that's not the way to think.

The problem is two assumptions. First that all of thought can be deduced from a few simple ideas. They cannot. Your brain is not a soul, an imperfect approximation of truths that are simple. It is a messy bunch of evolved meat and the truths are bad approximations to it. The shear complexity of an idea like goodness is incredible. It's not the kind of thing that you can write a one line description of. Second that you should start philosophy from scratch. The idea is that anyone will end up agreeing with you if you do this. Stupidly, I had already seen, but not grokked, the counterargument. I'd read GEB and in particular What the Tortoise Said to Achilles. Only I hadn't realised that it's not just a joke. Really there could be people who didn't have modus ponens, and no possible argument, no imaginable form of words, could logically compel them to accept it.

The job of philosophy is not the collection of true statements after the style of the Elements of Euclid. A Peter Winch quote is key "Learning to infer is not just a matter of being taught about explicit logical relations between propositions; it is learning to do something". Your mind is not a collection of facts standing on a foundation that can be taken apart and put back together freely. Your mind is a collection of processes. You get rid of the wrong process and you dont make a system with fewer assumptions, you loose the ability to be a mind.

An analogy: You should not think of your mind a sculpture, something that can be stripped down and built up anew on firm foundations. Your mind is an aeroplane. It's badly broken and you're flying over an ocean. You must fix it, but while you do that you must keep it flying. You can destroy and replace large sections of your mind. But if you get rid of it all you die. Taking your mind back to perfect emptiness is not like dismantling a bad sculpture to make a new one. It's fixing a crashing plane by taking the wings off.

So then I was shocked, some way down this path, that I had to add more and more assumptions in just to get ethics come out of it. I was having to create fantastic bullshit answers whenever people asked me the obvious questions. "So why do you define good like that?" "What counts as a person as far as moral calculations are concerned?" "How ought we to weight other people's utility functions?" My expectation always was that I would be forced to accept there was only one possible answer to these questions. That they were determined by logic. So when I failed to find the proofs for them I was distressed. Eventually I gave up and posted "My Crisis" in disgust.

So a mature philosophy has to be developed from an immature one. Not by throwing it away, but by making it better. What does this tell us about value and ethics? In fact this is especially valuable in ethics. Philosophers since Socrates (and doubtless the pre-Socratics too) have tried to define The Good in a sentence. If you're happy with the idea of a Form then it's obvious that there is an abstract absolute Good to be found through logic. If we accept the insight above then this no longer seems tenable. Value is not there to be found by logic.

So where is it to be found? To quote the deeply awesome MoR (which I have mentioned before) "There is no justice in the laws of Nature, Headmaster, no term for fairness in the equations of motion. The universe is neither evil, nor good, it simply does not care. The stars don't care, or the Sun, or the sky. But they don't have to! We care! There is light in the world, and it is us!" There is value. To accept even for a second that there is no value is to cut the wings off your plane. This does not make things clearer, it makes things crash. There are things that are desired, that matter, that are unendurable. But notice that it's people that make it so. *I* desire, *you* think it matters, *she* finds it unendurable. The value must be ours.

What exactly that value looks like isn't clear. Importantly how to change it isn't clear. I want to be the kind of mind that can change what it values, but only in a positive direction. Imagine someone gave you a pill that would make you want to murder people, not just that but the pill would make you think that murder was the right thing to do. Would you take it? Of course not. You dont want to murder, so you dont want to want to murder. To want to want something we dont want now seems wrong. And yet it is obvious that some changes have been for the better. Slavery was banned, it was never un-banned. Historical murder rates declined by many orders of magnitude over the last 10,000 years. This kind of moral *progress* is good. And yet it's not quite as simple as "becoming more like us", we can imagine people more virtuous than ourselves. In breathtaking doublethink we can say "I know I ought to give more to charity" or "I wish I didn't hate them so much", and not think this signals major insanity.

Exactly what the difference is needs clarification. Exactly how we ought to update our ethical intuitions on this basis needs clarification. Exactly how we ought to update our ethical intuitions based on the fact that our brain is very bad at a lot of things needs work. I'm still confused in short, but at least I've stopped being quite so stupid about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feedback always welcome.