08
Apr
09

A Response to David Brooks’s “The End of Philosophy”

Published in the NY Times yesterday, David Brooks writes about the possibly newly dominant way in which we do (or should) look at morality.

Brooks’s motivating point seems to be that our morality, in this case the part of ourselves that makes the ordinary sort of decisions, doesn’t seem to work the way philosophers, specifically Socrates, have come up with it. He claims that we don’t act on some reasoned judgement about right and wrong, instead it’s more of a gut reaction and if we do have some judgement we call “reasoned” it’s probably because of some innate and/or primitive and/or subconscious and/or biological predisposition. He points to the work of Michael Gazzaniga for support that moral reasoning affects moral action.

Brooks writes

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.

And follows that with “Moral judgements are like that.” He does allow that these sort unconscious “snap moral judgements” are not the solitary source we base our decisions on in that there are rare times in our lives “when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions.”

Perhaps the most important question I have is whether it is possible at all to have one’s reasoned and thought out moral philosophy change our moment-to-moment underlying moral framework. It may be true that we rely heavily on un-reasoned emotions when we decide on our reasoned moral philosophy (Brooks quotes Jonathan Haidt, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality”) – but isn’t it obvious that emotions can conflict? Do we then have some other emotion or naturally innate source to tell us which emotion to act on and which to ignore? Can this really be truly consistent, and what if it can’t? Is our reasoned moral philosophy just there to come into play when our “snap judgements” fail us? Can’t we learn to appreciate things we didn’t like the taste of before, even if the act of tasting is the same?

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7 Responses to “A Response to David Brooks’s “The End of Philosophy””


  1. 1 MACRAY
    April 9, 2009 at 4:33 am

    These questions take me in a lot of directions. Here are a few.

    I think that a well-reasoned morality, that is arrived at through thinking, is shaped by the workings of power that prioritize, prior to the thought, certain knowledges. I think therefore that a well-reasoned morality is likely to frame or limit a moment-to-moment morality by rendering certain durable, inherited forms as morally relevant and others as not noteworthy.

    It could also be argued that a “moment-to-moment underlying moral framework” is not really that different from a well thought out morality because well-thoughts-outs arise in a moment-to-moment way just like your impulsive idea to lick that pole or kiss a stranger or whatever: in the present.

    I haven’t really made peace with the evolutionary morality argument that Brooks employs in suggesting that there is a evolutionary basis for altruism or human morality. He doesn’t seem to really offer any substantive critique of it. This reasoning almost always denies the influence that socially oriented decisions have on our decisions to reproduce and thus contribute to the process of evolution, selection, etc. It also takes the body as fixed and inherited instead of a living and evolving life process. That line of thinking also has a weird past of being used to justify a certain morality, such as one that tolerates violence or eugenic decisions, as biologically determined and for some reason fixed and unchanging.

  2. April 9, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    We do have a moral base center, ingrained in our instincts, which means, our genetics.

    There are certain “right and/or wrong” things which are social in birth. – you shouldn’t stare, cursing at your parents or other people is wrong, etc etc —

    But there are certain things, like killing another person which we inherently feel negative toward. When you’re a kid, even if raised in a vacuum from media, you have a certain affinity toward life.

    before (or when) you kill a bug, you’ll have a chance to feel three different ways: bad, good, or apathetic.

    This has nothing to do with societal views being placed upon the individual. This is pre-disposed.

    The bigger issue is when you approach killing a fellow human. The same reasoning can be applied.

    I disagree with Macray in the idea this reasoning fixes the human as a static creature. We can surely evolve beyond those innate moral centers — the protecting ones family vs. taking a life scenario.

    We evolve those centers when certain outside factors come into play. Now, I think the trouble begins when the majority of people cannot separate and clearly differentiate between what society is telling them, what they actually believe, and what their instincts tell them.

    A good example of this is: A deer in the wild raises its head — it doesn’t hear a sound, because its hunter is a professional killer, but this deer knows its being hunted. And it books. No second guessing. It listens to this instinct.

    Tasting foods is a good example of not only the evolving instincts, but of the mind as a ‘social’ thing. You taste a food — your taste buds do not like it. You do not like the taste. Why? Is it because of the actual taste? Or is it because of factors like — you don’t like how it looks, or you saw someone else taste it and not like it, or someone said you’d love it and you don’t like that person for whatever reasons, or all these other things which attribute to your initial distaste. After time has gone by and those biases have left, you then grow to enjoy the food.

    But there are times when you just plain ol’ don’t like the taste of something. I believe this is a genetic marker which is telling us your body does not like this food. You should not eat this food. This could be a hark back to when our ancestors would know that a certain tasting food was bad, but now we’ve evolved to handle this food. But, if you think about it, you cannot be completely certain how a particular food will affect your body down the road. Even if its deemed ‘healthy’. Some foods do not react well in some people. This could be a warning system.

    And we have TONS of warning systems that people tend not to follow. You have soldiers who constantly tell you of that “feeling”, which is 99.8 percent never wrong (some would tell you it is NEVER wrong). That feeling which saves their lives daily.

    This is nature. This is quantum physics.

    Wow…this was long…

  3. 3 johuat
    April 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I would argue that staring at other people is covered by instinctual tendencies, i.e. eye contact.

    “A good example of this is: A deer in the wild raises its head — it doesn’t hear a sound, because its hunter is a professional killer, but this deer knows its being hunted. And it books. No second guessing. It listens to this instinct.”

    Maybe it doesn’t consciously perceive a sound, but you seem to be implying it raised its head in response to something, either due to a triggered instinct or whatever.

    “This is quantum physics.”

    What is? Quantum Physics uses terms like “momentum” and “wave function” and “state” and “probability,” and deals with very small numbers of particles and very specific qualities of them. I don’t see any of that sort of talk here.

  4. April 10, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    You’re right — it raises its head to a response to something. The triggering of an instinct. What triggers this instinct?

    I say quantum physics — why I say this is because of the communication between atoms. Such as when you split a carbon atom, both halves react as mirrors no matter the distance between them.

    There is also the deal with atoms popping in and out of ‘existence’, transporting themselves between point A and point B, by breaking the laws of physics.

    This leads to the idea of how we share atoms…if I touch a piece of wood, I am trading atoms with this object.

    Atoms tend to communicate between one another — I’d be ignorant to think that this communication cannot climb the ladder up to the semi-conscious level. Meaning, when an idea forms, it begins as an atom, which then makes up chemicals that will eventually turn into the thought.

    With the many process running in our systems, on the genetic level, I would not be surprised if our atoms are informing our… uhh… ‘higher selves’ (higher meaning our conscious selves, the ones with the power to choose, which is a whole another subject).

    And to inform, one must be informed, you know? So its delivering and receiving messages. Okay, back to what I was trying to say —

    The instinct is the spark — atoms popping out of that the hunter, and the atoms popping into the hunted, the minute messages trekked up into the animal’s consciousness. I feel as if I’m explaining this a little wrong…

    Mostly because I feel like I’m leaving out the idea of energy — for example: let’s say you’re in an elevator, and someone walks in, and you automatically feel suddenly uncomfortable around this person. Many factors could attribute to this — environment, way you were raised, social cues, prejudices, etc. But there is also the fact that our genes, which then make up our instincts, are telling us this person is not a good person. This person has hurt another person or will and can hurt you. Get away now.

    With no other signifiers except that ‘feeling’.

    This is because we emit energy, and this energy is made up of atoms (you can go deeper into sub-atomic particles). We are reading the book by reading what is described on the outer cover and on the inside flap. Maybe even the introduction, the blurbs, the first few pages. We may not even get to the actual book, but we get a sense of what they’re about. And some people read faster than others, get more of what the book contains.

    But like I said, this requires people to see through social cues — such as being uncomfortable around someone who’s homeless — this is not instincts. People assume it is. I mean real instincts.

    Don’t know if I’m 100% correct. But this is what I’ve derived from my studies….

  5. 5 johuat
    April 10, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Ok I feel I have to say that your understanding of physics differs from mine – I could go into a detailed discussion of where I think you may be mistaken, but I don’t want to go into an unwarranted lecture. Just a few short points though, you are touching on some areas you might want to investigate a little more:
    1. Entanglement – this doesn’t mean split carbon atoms (there are very specific cases where it comes up and I don’t think atoms are the typical case).
    2. Vacuum fluctuations – these are “virtual” particles that are permitted by quantum mechanics, “virtual” because they are essentially undetectable.
    3. Energy – its usually not measured in atoms, but in quantities like “joules” or “electron-volts.” And when you touch a piece of wood, you may leave a residue of atoms and some (very small bits like dust) of the wood may end up on your skin, but neither of this is the source of the sensation of “touch.”

    Sorry if that ended up being a lecture, I just felt I had to clarify a little.

  6. April 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Go for as long as you want. I don’t know why people got this weird thing about “lectures” — I guess school. They got the wrong teachers or something. When someone lectures to me, I associate it with them just engaging in a discussion that can potentially release information that neither of us knows. Isn’t a lecture supposed to be a symposium of sorts? A good thing. Anyhoo, I’d suggest when engaging with me to talk more. Heh, cuz I’m down to learn new things.

    Energy may not be measured in atoms, but everything that has “substance” in any fashion, is itself carrying atoms, no? Even subatomic particles like, lets say quarks — are there any items in existence that do not contain quarks? As if they are the basis of reality (or… I guess perceived reality?), that must mean all objects contain these things.

    I get that it isn’t the genesis for the touch-sensation. But, atoms are stardust, and we’re similar to imprints upon many, many an atom, does this not mean we are, in essence, the universe attempting to understand itself — which means the sensation of touch is born out of the ‘thing’ which makes us up? Okay, so if it all can be boiled down to the ‘base particles’, what’s the point in discussing anything, right? Maybe we’re talking about “perceived touch” — the act of perceiving that I am touching something, or something is touching me?

    Hmm… I’m thinking that if we move past the sensation of touch, and talk about the residue, is it not possible this residue is not merely remaining on the surface, but then falls into us similar to how the pores in our skin take in outside particles, which then either are attacked by our defense systems, or integrated into our systems, living among our other many cell-parts, coalescing?

    Should we be discussing ‘typical’ cases? Or ignoring them? All cases, no matter typical or atypical, are cases nonetheless. Very possible that atypical cases are simply cases observed at a less frequency, but still happening at the same amount as other, more typical cases. (I could be misconstruing, or stretching your point here)

    After refreshing my idea of entanglement, I think it may further prove my point. After entangling more than five objects, a sixth object comes into existence, but at the same time the original entangled object is destroyed, only leaving a copy, so it still remains at six. But all these objects, since they’ve been entangled, are now all connected. So no matter what you do to one object, it happens to them all.

    How does entanglement begin? Can it happen naturally? Must it always be, “forced” by a scientific hand? If not, our atoms could be entangling on a mass level every neuro-second, unknown to us… which leads to a crazy thought about how connected we really are…

    For example — I remember in Jr. High getting into the van when my mom picked me up. I sat in the back like I usually do. She acted normally, saying Hi, etc. But I had this weird feeling. I ignored it. We stop at a light, and then it hits me, this feeling births itself, and I know. My great uncle died. I loved this man. He was a real man to me. We were close. And then my mom tells me right after I think this: “Uncle J.C. died today.”

    Please explain how vacuum fluctuations pertains to what I spoke about in my previous post. Very curious. Because I have no idea.

  7. 7 johuat
    April 11, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Ok, then I’ll do point by point:

    Energy may not be measured in atoms, but everything that has “substance” in any fashion, is itself carrying atoms, no? Even subatomic particles like, lets say quarks — are there any items in existence that do not contain quarks? As if they are the basis of reality (or… I guess perceived reality?), that must mean all objects contain these things.

    Not everything in the universe is made up of quark or atoms – photons, the particles that make up light, are a fundamental particle (they have no internal structure), and electrons aren’t made up of quarks either. I think what you may be referring to is the difference between “Fermions” and “Bosons” – fermions can’t pass through each other, and bosons can. Quarks are fermions, electrons are too, but photons are bosons, as are the other “vector bosons” which represent the “forces” of physics (like electromagnetism and the strong & weak nuclear forces, and gravity might have one too but no one has detected it yet.) All the “solid” matter that we interact with is ultimately composed of quarks, electrons, and the particles that make up the fields that keep them together, and it’s the fermion property of the quarks and electrons that keep them from passing through other quarks and electrons. Although when you press your hand to a table, its actually virtual photons that create “pressure” because of the charges of the particles involved opposing each other – I don’t think the property of fermions being impenetrable to each other comes into play until you press a lot harder. Also, while photons can pass through each other, they can’t pass through all atoms, sometimes they are absorbed by an atom, which is how we see – the atoms in the cells in our eyes absorb photons.

    I get that it isn’t the genesis for the touch-sensation. But, atoms are stardust, and we’re similar to imprints upon many, many an atom, does this not mean we are, in essence, the universe attempting to understand itself — which means the sensation of touch is born out of the ‘thing’ which makes us up? Okay, so if it all can be boiled down to the ‘base particles’, what’s the point in discussing anything, right? Maybe we’re talking about “perceived touch” — the act of perceiving that I am touching something, or something is touching me?

    Atoms are stardust, but I don’t know what you mean by “imprints” – that word has no meaning in physics that I know of. I can’t claim that the universe is “attempting” anything – it simply behaves in a way that the evidence we have says is consistent over time and is partially mathematically predictable. Physics says nothing about what the universe may want or tries to do, only what its observable behavior is. Can things all be “boiled down”? I don’t know, that’s a major question I think about a lot, its a question of reducibility – can you explain the entire universe by looking at one of its parts. If you can, then the universe is completely reducible, but if not, it’s not. We may be “composed” of quarks and electrons and photons and bosons, but that does not necessarily mean that we can be entirely explained by the properties of those particles alone.

    Hmm… I’m thinking that if we move past the sensation of touch, and talk about the residue, is it not possible this residue is not merely remaining on the surface, but then falls into us similar to how the pores in our skin take in outside particles, which then either are attacked by our defense systems, or integrated into our systems, living among our other many cell-parts, coalescing?

    What do you mean by “residue”?

    Should we be discussing ‘typical’ cases? Or ignoring them? All cases, no matter typical or atypical, are cases nonetheless. Very possible that atypical cases are simply cases observed at a less frequency, but still happening at the same amount as other, more typical cases. (I could be misconstruing, or stretching your point here)

    I meant “typical” in that when most physicists talk about entanglement they talk about things other than carbon atoms, so either I don’t understand how carbon atoms relate to entanglement, or they don’t relate, or it’s simply not well researched.

    After refreshing my idea of entanglement, I think it may further prove my point. After entangling more than five objects, a sixth object comes into existence, but at the same time the original entangled object is destroyed, only leaving a copy, so it still remains at six. But all these objects, since they’ve been entangled, are now all connected. So no matter what you do to one object, it happens to them all.

    You can’t “entangle” particles like you would lasso an animal, and you also can’t just create “objects” (what do you mean by “object”? a particle? particles are always created in particle-antiparticle pairs in places where there is enough energy to create them.) To have an entangled pair, you have to start with an original whole with very very specific properties. The usual example is a “spin neutral” object that splits into two particles. Since you know the spin of the original whole, you know the sum total spin of the parts it splits into, but you don’t know any more than that until you actually measure one of the particles and find out. One particle could be spin up or spin down, and that would mean the other particle must be either spin down or spin up, respectively. Quantum mechanics says that until you measure it, the spin of each particle is partially both. The act of measuring one particle can therefore make some determination on the state of another, instantaneously, even if it’s on the other side of the universe. BUT, this is not something that can apply to ANY quality of particles – you can’t have two entangled particles and hit one and expect to see the other particle jerk back in recoil. This phenomenon is very particular and tricky.

    How does entanglement begin? Can it happen naturally? Must it always be, “forced” by a scientific hand? If not, our atoms could be entangling on a mass level every neuro-second, unknown to us… which leads to a crazy thought about how connected we really are…

    What’s the difference between “naturally” and “forced”? Can the particles tell the difference? But yes, the idea of entanglement does strike another blow against the simplicity of physics.

    For example — I remember in Jr. High getting into the van when my mom picked me up. I sat in the back like I usually do. She acted normally, saying Hi, etc. But I had this weird feeling. I ignored it. We stop at a light, and then it hits me, this feeling births itself, and I know. My great uncle died. I loved this man. He was a real man to me. We were close. And then my mom tells me right after I think this: “Uncle J.C. died today.”

    Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists after Einstein, told a great story about a similar occurrence that happened to him in his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” You should read it, I think parts if not all can be found here. Just search for the word “grandmother.”

    Please explain how vacuum fluctuations pertains to what I spoke about in my previous post. Very curious. Because I have no idea.

    You’ll have to be more specific. Do you want me to relate them to an idea of yours or do you just want me to help explain them more?


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