Monday, April 13, 2009

Brooks on 'the end of philosophy' or 'the end of humanity'

The End of Philosophy by David Brooks (New York Times)

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but ... what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.”

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

Read the rest of this wretched but interesting piece here.

My commentary:
As science comes up with 'explanations' for why humans feel the need to be moral, the moral 'values' that we hold will become useless. This is because, as science will have proven, it's all biologically determined anyway. This sort of reasoning admits a limit on what is reason; reason is strictly limited to the verifiable or empirical. Science hasn't accounted for feelings like "patriotism", but as Brooks asserts, eventually it will. Hence the title: "The Death of Philosophy". How does this not give a person pause? Reason is limited to materialistic determinism? Say 'bye, bye' to philosophy, theology, and reason-based ethics. An "epochal" shift. I think the article should be titled: "The End of Humanity". Brooks doesn't seem to get where this is going.... the topic is "above his pay grade".

The scientists seek to pair human morality with the reigning dogma on evolution/chance. This, of course, is not science but ideology. How are terms of 'value' and 'morality' and 'purpose' scientific? Explain why it is valid for scientists to be theorizing about such topics. Brook's article assumes evolution of random chance is true (so much for God's creative Spirit), and is more interested in taking such a view into the realm of morality with metaphysical underpinnings. The article posits, at least the scientists (it seems to me that Brooks doesn't get it), that reason is the slave of emotions because that's the only account empiricism can make for any 'moral' judgments. It very much appears that the 'science' going on here in Brooks' piece is just what you rail against in the quote above. This is especially seen when Dr. Quartz moves from 'the brain processing info at a vast rate' to 'this is what the brain is for' (assigning purpose... but I thought we were just moving particles at random?) to assigning 'value' to 'this is how we make moral judgments'. Where did the science end and the philosophy begin? I don't know about you, but I find it absurd when humans are compared to bees, moral decisions to tasting food, and that adults are no more qualified to make moral judgments than babies (yes, the article asserts all of those things). Hence, Brooks notes in the conclusion that the proposition of the 'moral scientists' is "an epochal" change; aka kiss religion, reason based morality, and what Lewis calls "the Tao" goodbye. Forget "The End of Philosophy" and enter "The End of Humanity". Which reminds me, you need to read The Abolition of Man if you haven't already; it's a great account of reason based morality that gives a role to emotion that I think you will find interesting.

At this point, the more important discussion is about the Brooks piece, and it gets back to The Metaphysical Club as well as Neuhaus' brilliant summation of Rorty and liberal irony.
One must choose:
a) To be with the materialists asserting that man's reason is slave to the emotions, and morality is simply as pragmatism describes (ready, fire, aim); truth is also always evolving and in-flux and determined by the utility in any given time by 'majority' consensus. Reality is really just what man percieves in his own mind; it does not apply to others. Such claims foundationally are anti-institution, anti-tradition, and anti-religious; usually if not always they favor a radical and unbridled positivism in the academy/polis.
b) To be with the realists who believe that man ought to and can order his emotions by using right reason and conquer his appetites, striving for the good, true, and beautiful which exist 'out there' and is accessible by our (God-given) reason, and embodied in the eternal Logos (in this account one can still recognize that we often act on emotions without thinking.) Such claims are friendly to religions, traditions, and hierarchical institutions (they are also not 'western' arguments exclusively); positivism has its place, but it is ordered to right reason.

There is no half-way house between the two. It's option 'a' or 'b'. This is the crux of our entire discussion! Again, even Brooks sees it as "an epochal" change - hence the problems of modern education as Deneen, Fish, and many others argue. Neither choice gives any road to a 'third' option; they are diametrically opposed. I'm interested to see what your choice is, and why.

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