Morality is the Source of Biology (Physics, too)

One of the first books I ever bought for fun with my own money was The Biological Origin of Human Values, by George Edgin Pugh. I still have it. I remember buying it because it was a big, expensive book for a penniless college student; I visited it in the bookstore four times before I finally decided it was worth the money.

Pugh’s was one of the first in a long line of books that by now constitute a publishing genre unto themselves, of books that show how morality, religion, consciousness, love, and so forth reflect the logic of our situation as animals living among animals. This logic is interesting to a number of disciplines: economics, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, game theory, genetic algorithms, cybernetics, control systems theory, information theory, neurophysiology, cognitive science – and of course, philosophy of mind. I was really into all that stuff. Together with biology, chemistry and physics, it seemed to me that these disciplines bid fair to explain pretty much everything about human beings. It was a Grand Synthesis, in which every level of analysis supervened tidily upon the levels below, so that they translated neatly into each other, with physics at the bottom. Nothing of human life seemed to be left out, at least in principle. It was a beautiful and compelling vision.

There were just two problems.

First, once one understood the animal logic of human behavior, one was left with the perplexing question of how the fire got into the equations. The logic was there, but what motivated its implementation in reality? How did mere logic motivate action? Oh, sure, I could see how one could encode basic moral and aesthetic values, like pain and pleasure – and by extension, therefore, also our higher moral sentiments – in synaptic firing thresholds, and how synapses are logic gates in circuits that control behavior so as to guide the organism toward the maintenance of certain state values – temperature, blood sugar, and so forth. But why did the encoding happen in the first place, when it would have been far easier and far more likely and far more thermodynamically efficient (these being, NB, three different ways to say the same thing) for nothing of the sort ever to have happened? And once the values had been somehow encoded in synaptic firing thresholds, how then afterwards did they ever mean anything? What or who was decoding those thresholds, so that they could be effectual in guiding animal behavior? Who or what was translating a bunch of electronic events into signals?

The Grand Synthesis explained how animals worked, but not why. The logic of motivation does not itself constitute a motivation. The Grand Synthesis provided insight into the order of things, but could not furnish a reason why they should happen, or therefore why they do happen. Such is the famous dichotomy between fact and value. So long as that dichotomy stands, events cannot really be understood except as a brute facts, that just happen, for no reason, to display an apparent orderliness. 

Second, the scientific discourse that had produced the Grand Synthesis had proceeded on the basis of an effectual presupposition that the universe is completely dead. It did so for methodological reasons, in precisely the same way, and for exactly the same sorts of reasons, that, in the design of experiments, it sought to control the factors of events: to simplify the analysis, so as to make it tractable, by specifying the subject of inquiry as tightly as possible. Intentionality and teleology, being both uncontrollable and immeasurable, were to be excised from consideration.

But this meant that scientific discourse was limited to a description of a system of dead things. In the final analysis, this methodological simplification said that, whatever else things might be really, for purposes of scientific discourse they were to be treated as dead pebbles bouncing off each other. Now, it is not unusual for an expert used to working with a model to begin mistaking it for the system under consideration. Models are more tractable to thought – that’s why we use them in the first place – so they naturally tend to become the focus of attention. Since dead pebbles were all that scientists ever thought about, qua scientists, it was easy for them to begin thinking that everything is nothing but dead pebbles, and that there is really no such thing as intention – that there just isn’t any such thing as a translation of synaptic firing thresholds into signals. And this lapse was philosophically supported by the fact that materialism was fashionable, and intellectually respectable. This, for reasons mostly having to do not with philosophy, but with a political and ethical rebellion against the authority of the Church, and ipso facto against the authority of scripture and doctrine.

But notice now that if intentionality, meaning and purpose are eliminated from the scientific model of reality, they can play no functional role in the algorithms; they cannot do anything, and nor likewise can they impart any meaning to what happens. But because that model is discoverable only as a feature of conscious experience, the materialist elimination of consciousness from reality has the perverse effect of eliminating the materialist model of reality from the materialist model of reality. If the world is nothing but matter, science is nothing but noise, and the Grand Synthesis does not really exist to be known or understood.

This is rather like arguing that an analysis of the ink – its chemistry, distribution across the average page, and so forth – is all that there is to George Pugh’s book. Silly! And this metaphor reveals a yet deeper problem. If consciousness, knowledge, goodness, beauty and so forth are mere noise – are, i.e., nothing but firing thresholds at synapses, so that there isn’t any message or meaning that has been encoded in those thresholds, or that is ever decoded either – then what, exactly, were the materialist explanations of these items explaining? If eliminative materialism is true, then not only can no one apprehend or understand it, but it is not about anything. The materialist’s object of study is eliminated by his materialism; there is nothing there for him to understand, nothing that the Grand Synthesis can model. The materialist’s scientific description of the order of human behavior ends up being a description of something that doesn’t exist.   

Because it has excised teleology, intention, and meaning, the Grand Synthesis cannot understand life, persons, and consciousness. Or books; or itself. Yet materialists are themselves – or at least, they sure seem to be – living, conscious persons who read and write books that grapple with the Grand Synthesis. They cannot therefore write or talk or think sensibly – i.e., they simply cannot make sense – except by using language that treats persons and language as really meaningful. This is why, as Lawrence Auster has often pointed out, they cannot help but import to their discourse terms and concepts – such as “purpose,” “function,” “reason,” “code,” “signal,” “image,” and so forth – that their doctrines rule out of bounds, strictly speaking, as referring to nothing. They can’t help talking as if they mean something by what they say!   

To understand intension, “aboutness,” without abandoning the Grand Synthesis, a number of thinkers have turned to various “dual aspect” theories, which posit that there is an inward, subjective aspect to things, as well as an outward, objective surface. Science reckons the latter, while our experience is of the former. Under dual aspect theories, consciousness is what it is like to be a wakeful, alert brain. But the inner, subjective aspect of dual aspect theories is still causally extraneous. It does not add any causal effects to the model, it simply interprets the causal effects already apprehended in the Grand Synthesis as all having an internal, subjective dimension.   

But that’s OK. Because under a dual aspect theory, it therefore turns out that physical transactions just are signals. That’s the only way that they can be susceptible to translation in the first place. When you think about it, any “translation” of physical events, as they are construed by materialism, into meaningful signals is quite impossible. To see this, consider a pile of pebbles thrown together in no particular order. They are not wholly disordered, because they are still subject to the constraining order of natural law; but they are not ordered to any particular end, other than the faithful instantiation of that law. They mean nothing other than what they are, indicate only themselves. In other words, they are just like what the materialist thinks everything whatsoever is like. Alright: how would you translate that pile into a meaningful signal? You wouldn’t; you couldn’t. For, there is no particular meaning present in the pile, that might be available for translation. If therefore neural events are ever to be interpretable as signals, they must be pregnant with meaning, with “aboutness,” before any such interpretation occurs. You can’t translate a book whose pages bear no letters, words, or sentences into Italian.

The dual aspect approach is fairly promising. But notice that this is mostly because it is a total repudiation of materialism, so that it “solves” the philosophical conundra of materialism by refraining from the problematic doctrines that engendered them in the first place. It is in fact a return to the Aristotelian notions of substance and causation that were abandoned – not disproven – at the dawn of the modern era. Under a dual aspect theory of consciousness, our feelings of meaning – whether of intending to do, or to indicate – are what it is like to be finally caused. We could then equivalently say that the regularities we observe in nature are what it looks like for things to have intentions toward the actualization of certain forms, that express certain values.

Notice what has just been said: the regularities of physics, and of all the supervenient levels of analysis that together constitute the Grand Synthesis, are what it looks like for the world to seek certain values. Is it too much of a stretch to think that the world seeks certain values because they are good? Well, if our own experience of what it is like to seek certain values is any indication, then … no, it is not too much of a stretch. For, nota bene, our own experience of yearning is the only indication we have, or could possibly have, of what it is like to be a being that, however otherwise different from us, does, like us, tend: that is finally caused, as we are, and is in its nature (in its essential form) ordered to an end. The notion gives the term “strange attractor” a whole new meaning.

But, notice again what has just been said: the world moves according to the Good. The world is a moral project, through and through. The Pauli Exclusion Principle is a moral and aesthetic dictum; atoms seek to complete their electron shells because it is good to do so. Thus, it is not biology that gives rise to morality, but vice versa.

Notice, finally, that this move of repudiating materialism and returning to Aristotelianism has rescued the Grand Synthesis from total incoherence. It has, that is to say, rescued science as a philosophical project – has opened room again, contra Hume, al Ghazali, Derrida and all their ilk, for such a thing as natural philosophy.

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14 thoughts on “Morality is the Source of Biology (Physics, too)

  1. Is it too much of a stretch to think that the world seeks certain values because they are good?

    People can easily follow you up to the point. But the very nature of throwing out a rhetorical question like this is that the answer may very well be yes, it is too much of a stretch. If you’re going to actually prove this, you’ve got to provide arguments not just emotionally satisfying analogies.

    • What’s the alternative, though, that can provide us with an intelligible account of why things seek certain ends? I can’t think of one. I’m interested to hear if there is one.

      • I have tried to develop a perspective that might give you an answer to this question, and I am under way publishing it. If you want, I send you the article when it appears. Peter

    • It’s not necessary to say that the world seeks values because they are good as if it were an intentional and volitional agent. He’s speaking teleonomically. The world acts as it does because it could not act otherwise and still be the world, and it’s this characteristic which makes it good: it is acting according to the characteristic excellence of its own nature.

      • Yes, correct; sorry I wasn’t clear on that.

        Having said that, there is intension and there is intention. To the extent a thing is finally caused, it is intensional – it is about something other than itself. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it is intentional, as we are. But, however, intention of the sort that we feel is a type of the more general category of intension. So, intention shares certain basic characteristics with intension. Thus it can make sense to say that a surplus electron doesn’t “want” to stay in orbit around its nucleus, but “would” rather join up with some incomplete shell of some other atom. Intension can be understood as that urge in things, that moves them to action toward their terminus ad quem, their strange attractor; it is the source, that is to say, of the efficiency of efficient causation.

    • I am not. Hadn’t ever heard of him, before you asked. I googled him and read a bit, just enough to realize that he uses metaphysical terms in an unfamiliar way, so that I cannot quite grasp what he means to indicate by them – I cannot immediately figure out what his doctrines are. This means that I will have to get a book or two of his and spend some focussed hours on them, in order even to know if I agree with him. I suppose I shall have to add him to the list …

      As to being Catholic without being Thomist, yes, of course that’s possible. Dionysius and Augustine weren’t Thomists, nor were St. Clement of Alexandria or Boethius.

      Of course, the great thing about Thomas is that he integrates all those predecessors, mostly by dint of his many careful distinctions, that enable him to show how they all agree with each other and with the Truth, when they are properly understood. My experience is that Thomism is the best general theory of metaphysics, into which other theories, even later theories such as those of Whitehead or Leibniz, Spinoza or Descartes, may be fit. I feel pretty sure that Zubiri’s theories may be reconciled to those of these other masters. Perhaps, indeed, his theory is more basic than Thomas’s, so that Zubiri’s is the better more general framework, to which Thomism, Platonism, etc., may all fit.

      There must in actuality be such a fit; truth speaks to truth. Minds faithful to truth cannot ultimately disagree; at worst, they may misunderstand: each other, or themselves. Of one thing we may be sure: each of the men I have mentioned above must have missed, or mistaken, or misunderstood something important to a proper and wholly adequate comprehension. They are men, after all.

      This does not make them unfaithful servants, or poor. As Steve points out, one need not be able to parse the truth, in order to be informed by it, and live by it; to die by it, and by it rise again.

      • Kristor, I hadn’t heard of him until recently either. I discovered a blog this past week by a written by a man named Jonathan Prejean. He appears to be a very philosophically astute Catholic who believes that ‘Zubizantine’ theology serves as a bridge between Eastern and Western metaphysics, and thus as a bridge between (what appear to be) incompatible Eastern and Western doctrines of God. As an Orthodox Christian in the Western Rite, and as one who longs for reconciliation between the two apostolic churches, this issue is very important to me. If you have the time, I was hoping that you could maybe peruse the blog and read a few of his entries under the ‘Zubizantine Theology’ section and offer your feedback.

      • Andrew, thanks for this link. I read enough on Prejean’s site to know that he is indeed extremely astute – far, far more educated than I (course, that ain’t saying much) – and to have picked up some of the basics of Zubiri’s approach. It struck me as extremely reminiscent of Whitehead. I shall have to do some more reading.

        I have wondered for years what all the fuss is about the supposed gulf that separates Eastern and Western metaphysics. To me it all seems like an exercise in perspective; as if you had two men arguing with each other at sunrise from opposite sides of a fence that ran from south to north. One says, “The rails are bars of light!” The other responds, “No, you fool, the rails are bars of shadow, and the apertures between them are suffused with light!” I will leave it to you to infer which of the men represents the apophatic East, and which the cataphatic West. Hint: don’t be confused about the fact that one man stands on the East side looking West, and the other stands in the West, looking East.

        Take for example the problem of essence versus energies. Zubiri says, “The Trinity does not consist in functionality, but it is functional.” Yes! Obviously so! Likewise, God does not consist in his energies, but he is energetic.

  2. To me it all seems like an exercise in perspective . . .

    I hope that is so, and I’d like to believe that is so, honestly. In fact, I’m looking for people to convince me that it is so.

  3. I’ve always found Thomism arid and uncompelling, for various reasons, some of which I cannot properly express because they are rooted in subjective aesthetic judgments. I certainly don’t feel that way about Scripture, nor do I feel that way about, say, Tertullian, or Augustine, or the Cappadocian Fathers, or the ascetics of the Russian Thebaid.

    I also would tentatively suggest that Aquinas had a bad conscience and embraced the ‘twofold truth’ (i.e. that faith and philosophy are separate domains of knowledge which both lead to the truth) as a way of reconciling his enthusiasm for Aristotle with the demands on his reason made by the Catholic faith — or so it seems to me. In other words, I agree with the Straussians that Aquinas was a philosopher in Christian garb, and not vice versa.

    • Thomas is not for everybody. I find the Eastern neo-Platonists much more amenable. Indeed, I can really relish him only when I am in a certain, sufficiently caffeinated frame of mind. A deep appreciation of Bach calls for that same special alertness. Yet unlike Bach, Thomas cannot, it seems to me, elevate us. He can only cure us of errors due to carelessness; an arid business, to be sure. There’s not much romance in clearing away weeds.

      Still, somebody’s got to do it.

      None of this, of course, goes to the question whether Thomas was *correct.* I find nothing in him that *contradicts* the East, or Augustine; indeed, I find that they completely *agree* as to substance – so long, at least, as one is careful to discern who it is, to whom Thomas and, say, Palamas both point, and in whom they are reconciled. There is, rather, only a difference of method, and emphasis.

      I think it is incoherent to suppose that faith and philosophy are separate domains of knowledge. If the Truth is integral – and how can the alternative be even entertained? – they must rather, it seems, be different paths to knowledge, or to knowledge of somewhat different character, but knowledge nonetheless of the same ultimate object. I.e., as hearing and vision are different. Admittedly, faith is the superior mode of knowledge. Faith, that comes by hearing, must encompass, inform and constrain vision.

      Thomas would not disagree with this estimation.

      Wherever philosophic vision is not constrained by faith – of which, I would assert, common sense is the most basic and widespread form – it generates enormities, such as that there is no motion, or no world, or no time, or no God. Of the great philosophers, Thomas is one of only a few who do not propose enormities of one sort or another.

      Thomas a philosopher in Christian garb? His life story, I think, utterly belies that notion. The man was besotted with faith from puberty. His whole life was an exercise in that patient contemplation common to saints, whose insights he expressed in philosophical terms, as St. John of the Cross or Donne or Dante expressed theirs poetically; because he was thus talented and apt, as few men are; until, at last, like those of his fellow saints, it ascended beyond expression.

  4. Pingback: Father Knows Best: First Edition « Patriactionary

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