Saturday, November 28, 2009

Interesting Thought About The Brain

Lately I've been reading a few books about raising kids, specifically about the father's role. One of the many common themes in them is that you must teach your kids not only by verbal instruction and correction, but also by example. They all stress that even if we are not active in any of those three, we are still teaching. Our children watch us intently and learn from everything we do and don't do, whether we intend to teach or not. This kind of behavior by children is recognized all over the psychological community. Kids do because we do, even though they may not have a deeper reason.

I remember in my Philosophy 101 class several years ago that we had debates about whether we are born tabula rasa (latin: blank slate- knowing nothing, having no instincts) or not. Modern psychology has definitely established that a "blank slate" is in the brain. I was having a hard time deciding which side I fell on because I knew that I could be taught, but I also knew that I had some instinctual behaviors that would nullify the idea of a blank slate. Little did I realize at the time that the professor had actually proposed a "false dichotomy" (the insistence that only two options exist when others are actually available). This was proposed because of the "nature vs. nurture" debate among philosophers and psychologists. It was a fun exercise. I remember defending both positions. The professor was ambiguous in his statements about where I was leading the class. So I wasn't sure at the time if I was on the right track or not.

I was reading Thrilled to Death by psychologist Dr. Archibald Hart the other day (my review). I came across an interesting observation. As we all know from junior high science, the brain has many parts. Dr. Hart stated that the outer layer (cortex) is what is the "blank slate" when we are born. I place "blank slate" in quotes because it is recognized that the cortex is preprogrammed with many things. The quotes are specifically because the cortex acts as a blank slate- it is highly teachable and programmable. This programmability has the power to override any instinctual behavior or preprogramming that might be present anywhere in the brain. I found this quite the fascinating statement. It vindicates my confusion at my philosophy professor's proposition. Our brain contains a foundational set of behaviors and beliefs, but they may be overridden by "teaching" the cortex.

I have heard some philosophers use this to explain an interesting behavior in the adherents to certain worldviews. Theists hold that behaviors and beliefs can be described as morally right or wrong at the objective and absolute level (behaviors and beliefs can be classified as being right or wrong whether or not humans existed to classify them as such). Theists argue that absolute, objective morals are grounded in God. Since atheism is by definition god-less, theists argue that atheism is incompatible with absolute, objective morality. Yet atheists constantly try to show why they feel obligated to act morally right, and many do act morally right. Theists do not believe that atheism requires morally wrong behavior; they believe that there is no difference between morally right behavior and morally wrong behavior in atheism. The atheist is able to define morality as he sees fit (he can use whatever arguments he wants to support his decision, but another atheist could use whatever arguments to support the opposite, and neither would be more valid than the other).

Theists explain the behavior of trying to make atheism compatible with objective, absolute morality by pointing to the brain's preprogramming. Theists believe that God preprogrammed the brain to know that there is an objective, absolute moral law. Theists also believe that God preprogrammed the brain to know that consistency must exist in a belief system if it is to be claimed to accurately reflect reality (in other words, to be true).

I want to point out that many atheists have abandoned objective, absolute morality because that abandonment is required to maintain consistency. However, I would like to point out that atheists are required to give up either absolute, objective morality or consistency in order to maintain their atheistic belief. Which brings up another problem for the atheists. If they have to give up something that has been preprogrammed in their brains by natural processes (random mutation) because it is false, how can they trust that anything their brain produces, including the conclusion, that one of the preprogrammed notions is false, is true?

Now before someone tries to tell me that atheists can establish objective, absolute morality and consistency without preprogramming of the brain, let me point to a couple things. Whether or not these two notions are preprogrammed or obtained (learned) by observation does not really matter. I agree that Atheists can establish that the populace agrees on what is morally right. However, agreement does not determine truth. So they can establish, at the most, absolute moral neutrality with basic majority agreement of which behaviors are beneficial to the considered community in the short term. I agree that the Atheist can establish consistency- but only consistency in the physical world (the world of empirical observation)- they cannot establish that the physical world and the world of thoughts and ideas must be consistent with one another. Atheists can get out of that last statement by saying that thoughts and ideas are part of the physical world, but they can't really establish that because of natural selection's castration of their epistemology (how we know what we know is true) described above.

To bring this to a close, atheists cannot explain their drive for finding consistency between what they know to be true intuitively and what they find to be true by their observations. Not only that, since natural selection operates based on survivability (vs. truth) they cannot establish that what they know to be true intuitively or what they observe to be true, are even true, themselves. Theists can explain all this without stretching their worldview one iota.

Other posts related to this one:
Consistency Among Disciplines
What's Important About Consistency?
Atheism and Morality
Can You Trust Your Senses or Your Logic?
Nature Vs. Scripture

Recommended Books:
Thrilled to Death by Dr. Archibald Hart
Come, Let Us Reason by Dr. Norman Geisler
Relativism by Greg Koukl
A World of Difference by Kenneth Samples

Recommended Podcasts:
Just Thinking
Let My People Think
Straight Thinking
Stand to Reason

14 comments:

  1. Good post - thank you. See you there!

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. We can attain moral knowledge through experience. I experience that pain is bad and know that other people do as well. To deny this fact is to misunderstand what pain is. I don't deny that there might be some moral instincts as well, but I agree that "agreement" doesn't prove a moral reality to exist.

    What we know intuitively is not necessarily what we know instinctively. Intuition is merely a difficulty in explaining why a belief is justified. That doesn't mean it can't be done. For example, we know 1+1=2 and we might have a hard time explaining why. That doesn't mean God must give us moral intuition. Instead, our brain seems to be able to deal with abstract and conceptual ideas.

    The idea that evolution is against accurate belief formation is not necessarily true. Accurate beliefs could be a reproductive advantage. An ability to reason well can be a reproductive advantage as well.

    The thought that God must have interfered with the formation of human beings is an immodest and unjustified hypothesis that attempts to explain something we simply don't fully understand at this time. To suggest that it is absolutely impossible to attain mathematical or moral knowledge without God is not so easy to prove.

    The belief that moral realism and atheism can be compatible is not so immodest because knowledge of a specific moral fact is enough to prove moral realism -- and that moral fact may or may not involve God's existence. To assume that it must requires you to rule out every single possible atheistic worldview.

    We don't actually have to embrace an entire worldview to make a single argument, which seems to be your implication. This is a form of the argument from ignorance fallacy. "You don't know how everything works, so we shouldn't consider your view within the realm of possibility."

    I don't know why you think atheism can't have a consistent argument for moral realism. That is exactly what contemporary moral realist philosophers have been doing. There are no plausible arguments for theistic moral realism at this time in contemporary philosophy.

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  4. J.W. Gray,
    Are you talking about objective morality being real or another kind of morality being real (or all kinds of morality being real)?

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  5. Luke, I am talking about morality beyond our opinions. For example, pain is bad even if no one ever feels pain; and it's wrong to transform a person into a frog even if it could never happen.

    I think it qualifies as "objective morality" but I don't think the word "objective" helps clarify the idea. It could be that value resides in consciousness, but consciousness is part of the world. For example, if there were no minds then nothing of moral significance could ever occur.

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  6. J.W.

    Did consciousness originate? And when you say "world" to what all are you referring?

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  7. Luke,

    Consciousness seems to originate from the brain, but that is a scientific question that I think is mostly irrelevant.

    The "world" merely refers to reality itself. If something is real, then it is part of one reality.

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  8. J.W. and ethicalrealism,

    I want to point out that the debate is not whether morality (regardless of type) is real. It can be real that someone has the opinion that murder is wrong, and that opinion be based on something else real, like pain. The fact that it is real does not change the fact that it is an opinion. Keep in mind that pain is subjective. People have differing thresholds of pain tolerance. Any moral propositions that are determined based on pain is ultimately subjective. Which means that it does not transcend humanity. It cannot even transcend the individual into a culture (relative morality), much less all humanity, or even the entire world. The real morality that you speak of is a subjective morality. It is dependent upon our opinions, not independent of them.

    If consciousness originated with the brain, value originated with consciousness, and morality is based on value, then morality had an origination sometime after the origination of the brain. This means that any morality would not be real prior to that point in time, so it cannot be applied to any creature living prior to that time, or even any creature living at the same time that does not possess a minimum of a brain, and secondly consciousness (the creature must be in the bloodline of the organism that develops a brain, then consciousness, then consciousness capable of discerning morality, then consciouness capable of discerning morality that actual does discern morality). If morality transcends our opinions (thus the individual, culture, and species) then it would have to (at the minimum) begin with the universe.

    Morality, though real as far as being a proposition expressed by the brain via the body, does not go beyond the individual on the naturalistic view.

    The debate is not about whether morality is real, but what kind of morality is real. The distinction between objective, relative, and subjective morality is extremely important in this debate. If such a distinction is not made, then those on the different sides will be talking past one another, and fruitful debate will be impossible.

    Keep in mind that determining in a proposition is morally right or wrong assumes that we have a unit of measure to compare to. How do we know what "right" or "wrong" even mean on naturalism? If you wish to say that we know based on pain, we're right back to it being subjective at best (explained above), and circular at worst (morality is based on pain, but pain is based on morality).

    If you wish to cite agreement on the level of pain and the resulting moral proposition, that is fine, but that only allows morality to go past the individual to the cultural level. All cultures would have to agree that a proposition was morally "right" or "wrong" (see above with the problem here).

    Theism solves all the problems. Theism grounds morality in the nature of God. God subsists eternally and is causally prior the the universe. Since morality is grounded in an eternal source that is not part of the world, it is both real and independent of any humans' opinions (objective).

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  9. I tried to give a reply, but I was blocked. I wrote an essay concerning your argument here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/an-argument-against-atheistic-moral-realism/

    I will write more about your concerns soon.

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  10. >>I want to point out that many atheists have abandoned objective, absolute morality because that abandonment is required to maintain consistency.

    If we do not believe in a god or a moral giver. How can we abandon your fictitious objective absolute morals?

    >>If they have to give up something that has been preprogrammed in their brains by natural processes (random mutation) because it is false, how can they trust that anything their brain produces, including the conclusion, that one of the preprogrammed notions is false, is true?

    You do comprehend what an atheist is...right?

    >>However, I would like to point out that atheists are required to give up either absolute, objective morality or consistency in order to maintain their atheistic belief.

    Again! We can not give up something we do not think is real.

    >>If they have to give up something that has been preprogrammed in their brains by natural processes (random mutation) because it is false, how can they trust that anything their brain produces, including the conclusion, that one of the preprogrammed notions is false, is true?

    So here you are asserting this drivel. Prove it.

    >>Theists believe that God preprogrammed the brain to know that there is an objective, absolute moral law. Theists also believe that God preprogrammed the brain to know that consistency must exist in a belief system if it is to be claimed to accurately reflect reality (in other words, to be true).

    This is not proof. It is a mindless assertion by theists.

    >>Whether or not these two notions are preprogrammed or obtained (learned) by observation does not really matter.

    Then why bring it up? It mattered enough for you to waste two paragraphs trying to assert we are preprogrammed.

    >>So they can establish, at the most, absolute moral neutrality with basic majority agreement of which behaviors are beneficial to the considered community in the short term. I agree that the Atheist can establish consistency- but only consistency in the physical world (the world of empirical observation)- they cannot establish that the physical world and the world of thoughts and ideas must be consistent with one another.

    More vapid assertions. Are you going to prove something or just ASSert?

    >>Atheists can get out of that last statement by saying that thoughts and ideas are part of the physical world, but they can't really establish that because of natural selection's castration of their epistemology (how we know what we know is true) described above.

    Again you have not proven this.

    >>To bring this to a close, atheists cannot explain their drive for finding consistency between what they know to be true intuitively and what they find to be true by their observations. Not only that, since natural selection operates based on survivability (vs. truth) they cannot establish that what they know to be true intuitively or what they observe to be true, are even true, themselves.

    ASSertion!

    >>Theists can explain all this without stretching their worldview one iota.

    Yes theists can mold their personal delusion to cover everything their little minds can not comprehend. Which is why cherry picking their own bible is so plentiful. It would be very difficult to keep their blind faith based on actual scripture.

    This post was just you stating rubbish with nothing to back it.

    Try proving what you said! Assertions are not proof.

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  11. Slug Bug,
    First, I am not sure if you read the "Comments Now Open" post before posting your comment, but you have included in your comment ad hominems that are not welcome on this blog ("ASSert", "ASSertions"). If you do not know how to make a point without including them, I encourage you to find another forum. Future posts that include such language will not be posted.

    >>If we do not believe in a god or a moral giver. How can we abandon your fictitious objective absolute morals?

    >>Again! We can not give up something we do not think is real.

    In order for these to be a logically forceful rebuttal to my comments, you would have to assert that atheists NEVER believed in objective morals. If someone holds a belief then changes it, that is a form of abandonment. If an atheist wishes to assert that they, in fact, never believed such a thing, then they would have to explain away all actions and reactions that indicate that they believe that an action someone does is objectively right or wrong.

    >> So here you are asserting this drivel. Prove it.

    For this to have any force or be worthy of a response, an atheist must establish that they NEVER believed in objective morality.

    >>This is not proof. It is a mindless assertion by theists.

    Do you believe that "mind" exists? If not, then the statements of atheists are just as "mindless".

    >>Then why bring it up? It mattered enough for you to waste two paragraphs trying to assert we are preprogrammed.

    Please do not quote me out of context. In those two paragraphs I made points. Do you wish to respond to them in an intellectual manner.

    >>Again you have not proven this.

    My statement is based on my above statements. It still holds if the atheist cannot PROVE (to use your own epistemological requirements) that he has NEVER held that objective morality does not exist.

    I agree that assertions are not proof. However, neither is simple dismissal or ad hominem attacks a response. I ask that you engage my points rather dismissing them as "mindless dribble" without first establishing that atheism is consistent with the existence of mind.

    The burden of proof is not solely on the theist; it lies on the skeptic also.

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  12. ethicalrealism-

    Was it Blogger that blocked your initial response? Was there an error message that might give us some incite to correct the issue?

    I don't like to respond to points in my comments unless they are given in the text of the viewers' comments (most readers don't take the time to chase links, and I'd like them to have the original context of my response). Please post the text of that link. If it is too long for a single comment, you are welcome to split it up among multiple comments.

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  13. Luke,

    I think I tried blogger and wordpress to send the message and I got some errors involving html. It might be that my response used forbidden html.

    My post was 5 pages long and other my response is 4-5 pages long. Did you want me to copy/paste it all into here? Without html it won't be as readable.

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  14. Ethicalrealism,

    Just from glancing over the format of the response, it looks like the forbidden HTML is the change in size of the text and maybe a change in the font. You should still be able to change the style in the comments...that way it is more readable. The tag that is not allowed is "FONT"...that really limits the formatting, but the style should be enough to make it plenty readable.

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