Sunday, January 25, 2009

new find

A commenter who had left an interesting remark on Dr. Vallicella's philo blog (see this post) attracted my attention, so I clicked the link and found myself at Boram Lee's blog, Footnotes to Hume. Lee writes, in one post:

With respect to natural and social sciences, I am a non-reductive physicalist. I believe that biological, psychological, and social phenomena supervene on, but quite likely cannot be reduced to, physical facts. With respect to ethics, though, I favor a reductionist approach. I believe that morals can be reduced to biological, psychological, and social phenomena.

This is awfully close to where I stand. Lee's blog is as fascinating as Vallicella's, so on the sidebar it goes. Scroll down and you'll find it in the "Trouvailles" section.



Rhesus said...

So Lee wrote this:

"I believe that morals can be reduced to biological, psychological, and social phenomena."

Can you explicate this for me a little? I went to Lee's site, but something about the design and overall tone put me off, so I'm not interested in poking around there to find out more about this statement.

Anyway, I have two basic questions:

1) How can morals be phenomena? It's not clear to me that this is possible with a set of conceptions in our heads (whether or not we consider them to be derived from some transcendent). I can see how they might be derived from phenomena (observed and experienced) - maybe that's what Lee is saying.

2) I think Lee would say that biological, psychological, and sociological phenomena don't have any _Meaning_. There's no substance behind the operations we perceive (to attribute such means the acceptance of some transcendent). If the phenomena with which morals are associated don't have inherent substance, how then do morals have it? Or again, maybe this is Lee's point, but in that case why talk about morals at all?

Just ignore this if it seems too incoherent.

Kevin said...


Not incoherent at all-- this is an important issue.

Whether there exists an "absolute" morality, i.e., a morality somehow inscribed in the cosmos and not merely the subject of human convention, a morality that we discover, not invent-- has long been a topic of discussion and fierce debate, even among the non-religious.

We should note that, if there exists an absolute morality, this doesn't force us to the conclusion that that morality is the product of some sort of intelligent designer. That's one possible conclusion, but not the only one.

As for your first question re: how morals can be phenomena, I'd say that the word "phenomenon" is often just a fancy word for "thing," which encompasses everything from physical processes and substances to all that lies in the apodictic realms (i.e., mathematical truths and other abstracta).

Even if we go by, say, a Kantian definition of the term (online Webster's: "a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself"), morality qualifies as a phenomenon because it qualifies as an object of thought: it's something we can think about.

Lee is probably saying that, at the base of the pyramid, there's matter, which upholds everything. Life arises from matter, and mind arises from life. Each higher level of the pyramid arises epiphenomenally from the lower level (or "supervenes upon" it, as Lee says-- he may be partial to the supervenience school of mind, exemplified by people like philosopher Jaegwon Kim); each superior level is an emergent phenomenon.

Lee is saying, then, that morals and moral activity have their root in matter.

Regarding your second question re: the existence of (ultimate?) meaning, I haven't read enough of Lee's blog to have a sense of where he stands on this issue. Perhaps he believes there is subjective meaning, i.e., the meaning generated in the minds of sentient beings as they go about their daily affairs, but no objective meaning.

You don't have to be a theist to believe that meaning and morality are somehow inscribed in the cosmos. Stephen Pinker, in an interview with Robert Wright a long while back, seemed to acknowledge a certain trend, in evolutionary psychology, back toward a more Platonic view of morality as something a priori, because this seems to be where game theory is leading us. Pinker himself is uncomfortable with this trend in current thinking, but the idea delighted Wright, who leans more toward a qualified theism.

I've long been a fan of the idea that dichotomizing "is" and "ought" is a bad move-- that the "oughts" are, in fact, a subset of the "is"es. This doesn't solve the ultimate riddle re: whether this morality is, like being itself, anchored in some sort of theistic substratum, but it does at least allow people to perceive their lives as meaningful in some real sense.

A more pressing question, for me, is whether we are actually free. If the universe is deterministic (cf. Newtonian determinism or some form of theistic determinism), then we are no more than the unrolling of a film already filmed: the drama's conclusion is ordained. If the universe is fundamentally non-deterministic, well... randomness is no more an ingredient of freedom than determinism is.

I'd like to believe that I'm free, and therefore responsible-- and that's where morality becomes relevant. To be free, however, means to be able to do otherwise, which brings us into the metaphysical quagmire of counterfactuals-- the would-haves, could-haves, might-haves, wills, woulds, coulds, mights, and yes: the oughts. Do counterfactuals exist? Does the word "exist" apply to them if they are states of affairs unrealized? That's where I, personally, am stuck.

I realize that the above is not much of an answer. Maybe I'll have a better one later. Years later. Heh.


Rhesus said...

I'll respond when I have some time. I just hope that this post isn't too low in the stack by then.

Kevin said...


It's an interesting topic. I might make this into a post unto itself, if you feel it's worth such treatment.