Go home, Philosophy. Evolution has got this.

Blue and BrutalI have no memory of a time when I didn’t believe in evolution.

Of course, that can’t actually be the case.

I was raised, at first, in a bland non-denominational Christianity. Then, after my parents separated, I was immersed whole hog into Catholicism. It seems likely, at some point, I believed in some version of Creationism. Even so, if I had a conversion moment — not on the road to Damascus, as it were — I don’t remember it.

I do, however, remember when I first started to understand the full implications of the theory. It was when I taught this essay by John Dewey, as part of an introductory course on human nature. I had, of course, read and studied the essay before I taught it, but it was only when I taught it that its message really hit home.

The message is simple, if you are ready to hear it.

Evolution elegantly explains the variety of species. It is also an explanation that offers no guarantees. Broadly-speaking, any outcome for any species is possible. The only condition is that the outcome is always going to be the result of a reproductive advantage.

That’s it.  

That conclusion may seem pretty innocuous these days. We live, after all, in the worldview that was shaped by evolution’s discovery. It is, nevertheless, a pretty earth-shattering conclusion for a vain little species like us.

Evolution tells us we aren’t special. We weren’t preordained. We weren’t a necessary outcome. We aren’t the best or even the fittest. The only claim that we can make is that our ancestors reproduced more successfully than their competitors. Who knows? Maybe some prettier, smarter, and stronger version of us decided having kids wasn’t worth the effort.

And, having thought about the implications of evolution for many years, I am also now inclined to think evolution answers – in broad terms – almost all the fundamental questions of philosophy. What are we? Why are we here? What is morality? Why are we moral? What is thinking? Why do we think? What is knowledge? What is beauty? Essentially, any question that can be transmogrified to the question, “why are we the way we are,” is best explained by evolution.

Of course, that means the only questions evolution can’t directly answer are metaphysical – but even now I’m wondering if an evolutionary lens might be usefully focused on these kinds of questions. Evolution, nevertheless, has an indirect answer to metaphysical questions. We ask metaphysical questions because we evolved to think about and understand the universe in these ways. Conceivably, we might never have evolved to ask and answer these kinds of questions. The planet is filled, after all, with very many successful species that aren’t particularly smart, reflective, or concerned about the nature of the universe.  

There are, of course, many smaller, more focused questions worth asking and pursuing, but, as far as the big “why, oh, why?” questions, it seems to me evolution will be the ultimate and fundamental explanation for all those kinds of questions about us. Physics and cosmology will, of course, take care of all the metaphysical questions.

Which is to say, I suppose, that Hawking is essentially right. Philosophy, as a discipline, is dead. Philosophy, thought of as an outlook or way of thinking, should and, of course, will continue. It should, however, be a kind of thinking done within an empirically grounded discipline rather than being a discipline onto itself. The notion that philosophy is a distinct discipline should go quietly into that good night. 

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The Performance of Teaching: Not Ready For Its Close Up.

Blue and BrutalTeaching, I’ve discovered, is a bit like theatre.

I’ve always known, of course, that performance is an important aspect of effective teaching, especially when the size of the class is more than a handful of students.

I’ve now learned that the kind of performance involved in teaching, like the performance involved in theatre, does not translate directly to video very well.  

I learned this recently while developing a video version of Brains, Minds, and Human Nature, a course I developed and delivered for Carleton University’s Learning in Retirement program.  

Originally, I had imagined I would make the video version of the course simply by delivering and recording new lectures using the lecture notes and slides that I used for the class. As soon as I tested the idea, a few weeks ago, I realized it wouldn’t work.

There’s a casualness of speech and tone in classroom teaching, which doesn’t transfer well to the detailed attention of an audiovisual recording. Similarly, audio recordings also require a pace and intensity that would be over the top in the classroom.

Repetition, in order to reinforce key details, is essential in classroom teaching. In an audiovisual recording, which can be stopped and played again immediately, that kind of repetition quickly becomes tiresome.

After a few false starts, I developed a script for the video which is much shorter and much more focussed than I thought it would be, focussing on only a few of the ideas I presented in the course. It will work, I think, but it will be different than a formal course.

Hopefully, it will be ready for sharing fairly soon, depending on the approach I adopt for its visual components. I’m considering a simple approach and a more elaborate approach. I’m inclined to keep it simple, but I won’t know for sure until I get the audio recorded and drop it into a video editor.

If you’d like me to send you a link to the video, when it’s posted, drop me a quick note at sterling.lynch@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Death Is The Only Consideration: Be Moral Because You Are Moral.

MoralityDeath, I’ve come to realize, is the only consideration. No reason for action survives its event horizon. Without immortality, a rational justification of morality, in the long term, is impossible.

Tomorrow, for example, I could choose to devote my life to the health and well-being of all other humans or, perhaps, only those most in need. Once I die, however, whatever good I experienced (and whatever hardships I endured because of my virtuous behaviour) dies with me. The people I helped will also one day die, and whatever good or hardship they experienced will die with them too.

Alternatively, I could choose to devote my life to harming all other humans or, perhaps, only those most deserving of such treatment. Once I die, however, whatever hardship I experienced (and whatever good I might have experienced thanks to my vicious behaviour) dies with me. The people I harmed will also one day die, and whatever good or hardship they experienced will die with them too.

Good and evil, hardship and suffering, virtue and vice, they are experienced and do not exist or perpetuate beyond those who experience it. We, of course, create conditions that will have an effect on future generations, but, even so, those effects will die with those generations too.

Effectively, on a long enough timeline, all our actions — moral or immoral — are inconsequential because they and their effects cease to be experienced. The total amount of happiness or suffering generated is inconsequential. The total amount of virtue or vice inculcated is inconsequential. The number of times people acted or did not act in accordance with a universal moral law is inconsequential. Even coming to understand or not understand the full meaning of death is inconsequential. It’s an experience like any other. It also won’t survive death.

Our genetic material, of course, will likely survive much longer than the effects of our actions. Nevertheless, even if we become self-consciously Darwinian, acting only in those ways that maximize the safe transmission of our genetic material, it does not seem likely that the species or its ancestors will survive forever. It’s theoretically possible, but it is too thin and tenuous a possibility upon which to build anything like a rational morality.   

I am, nevertheless, not terribly concerned by my revelation. I am moral or immoral because of an unknowable causal history over which I have exercised almost no control. Understanding that there is no rational justification for moral or immoral behaviour — really, any behaviour at all — seems unlikely to affect how I behave. At most, it may affect how I assess my behaviour and the behaviour of others. For me, it seems a bit silly to feel high and mighty about choices that weren’t made by me but, instead, have happened to me. Of course, that assessment is probably but one more happening that has arisen from the loose anarchical confederacy of environmental interactions for which my conscious mind takes credit.

I am reminded of a story I read in Zen Speaks. A doctor faces an existential crisis because he can’t see the point of practicing medicine when he inconsequentially saves the lives of soldiers who go on to die in battle. Whether in war or peace, death is the final end of all medicine. A doctor, at best, delays the inevitable, so why bother? The doctor returns to his battlefield medicine when he realizes that he practices medicine precisely because he is a doctor.

The universe is neither rational nor irrational, even if we humans have developed a rationality with which to make sense of it. Likewise, morality is neither rational nor irrational, even if moral behaviour has helped us to evolve into creatures capable of rationality. Rationality, I think, requires us to accept that there may be no rational justification for some of our most fundamental behaviour.

So, why be moral? Because you are.

My Learning In Retirement Course Wraps Up: More to Come!

LearningSix weeks goes quickly when you’re preparing new lectures and delivering them to a group of highly engaged and attentive students.

My Learning In Retirement course, Brains, Mind, and Human Nature, wrapped up at Carleton University last Tuesday.

I haven’t received the official feedback yet, but I expect it will be positive overall.

I’d say most people in the class enjoyed the course and my lecturing style. A few people even took the time to express their enthusiastic appreciation directly to me. One woman told me that she enjoyed my humor. I’ve also got a few more Facebook friends too.

For me, it was an exceptional experience. It’s rare to have the rapt attention of any number of people, but all the more rare while teaching. In sharp contrast to most undergraduate classes, everyone present wanted to be in the classroom and was very eager to engage with the ideas I presented. 

If you’d like to learn more about the course, I produced fairly detailed lecture notes to go along with my slides. Take a look below and send me your thoughts.  

  1. Introduction and Overview
  2. The Politics of Your Brain: Anarchy Not Monarchy
  3. The Unconscious: An Altogether New Kind of Beast
  4. The Geography of You: Where Do You Begin and End?
  5. You’re Not in Charge: Free Will and Moral Responsibility
  6. Exorcising the Ghost in the Machine: A New Understanding for an Old Vision of Self

I will also convert this course material into a series of YouTube videos. I expect the videos will have a slightly different tone, given the nature of the medium, but I expect the series will cover much of the same ground that the course did.

If you’d like to be notified when I produce and post the first video, send me an email: [Sterling.lynch@gmail.com]. I’m also available for tutoring — one-on-one or in small groups. 

Think you’ve got a lecture series in you? Contact the good people at Learning In Retirement. The program is exceptionally well-administered. I highly recommend the program to any teacher, who is ready to bring their passion to a group of people who are ready to share in it and to learn from it.

A Ghostly Spandrel Puzzles the Will: “Free or Not Free?” Isn’t the Question.

WillFor as long as there have been thoughtful people, there probably have been thoughtful people who doubted that we are, in fact, responsible for our thoughts and actions.

Whether it is gods, God, or cause and effect that is thought ultimately to rule the universe, a thoughtful person can easily question whether or not he is the ultimate cause of his thoughts and behaviour and, for this reason, easily question whether or not he should be held accountable for them.

On the one hand, this is easily done because the free will discussion is typically framed with inhuman and, essentially, divine expectations for our will. Framed in this way, it is thought that our will is free if and only if we can do other than what is demanded of us by any cause at any moment. If a thought, action, or decision is best described as the effect of any cause other than a cause outside of all causes, our will is judged insufficiently free to be called free. Free will, framed in this way, is so kooky and magical, it’s very easy to doubt and almost certainly impossible to find.

On the other hand, it’s easy to call into question the existence of a free and human will because there are so many repeatable and reproducible instances in which a person feels she is responsible for her thoughts, actions, and decisions and clearly is not. Whether it is a tumor in the brain or group dynamics or unconscious mental processes, time and again, people often feel like they are freely choosing when they are, in fact, not.

Alfred R. Mele offers a thoroughgoing defense of free will in his slim and accessible Free (2014). Although he convincingly questions some of the arguments and experiments that motivate recent claims that our sense of free will is illusory, he eventually concedes, “[i]f you think that having a free will requires being totally free from situational influences, you should conclude that there’s no free will.” This is an important and admirably honest concession to make. It also neatly illustrates that the debate about free will is definitional in nature.

The crux of the problem, ultimately, is that our brains are subject to the same laws as any other object in the universe, which means our “decisions” are as determined as the movements of billiard balls, even if they are as difficult to predict as the weather. Unless we expand our sense of self to include a bit of magic that exists outside of the laws of the universe, we are stuck. Our notion of a “free will” is impossible in this universe. Alternatively, we can redefine “free” or “caused” in whatever way that allows us to feel good about claiming that our will is “free.”

To this, one might respond, “Well, if free will doesn’t exist, why would we humans ever develop the notion that our will is free when it isn’t?” The evolutionary answer to that question is pretty simple. Either we developed a notion of free will because it provided us with a reproductive advantage or it is an evolutionary spandrel — a characteristic that emerged as a byproduct of some other beneficial characteristic. Alternatively, the whole notion of free will may be an intellectual spandrel best explained by our intellectual history rather than our biology. Our notion of free will might be as fanciful and unnecessary as the idea of God that spawned it.

Unfortunately, our modern moral and legal traditions are very much grounded in the notion that we humans have a free will. In the free will model, it is thought that people should be held accountable for only those wrongs they freely commit. If a person does not freely choose to do wrong, he should not be punished for it or, at least, not punished as severely.

Not surprisingly then, some people are concerned that if we give up on the notion of a free will, it will lead to moral chaos, in the same way that they fear atheism will lead to moral chaos. In support of this concern, studies have shown that students exposed to the idea that there is no such thing as a free will do sometimes act more immorally than those students who were not exposed to such ideas.

Fortunately, all is not lost if we give up on the notion of a free will or if we carry on believing in it. In the next post, I will discuss an approach to our moral and legal tradition, which doesn’t require a belief or denial of free will. Instead, it starts with the presumption that wrong behaviour is a symptom of an underlying cause that should be treated rather than punished. In effect, it represents an attempt to exorcise — once and for all — the ghost that still lurks in our moral and legal machine.

Intrigued?

If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the ideas discussed in this post.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

The Geography of You: Where Are Your Borders?

Springs eternal.Where do you begin and where do you end?

If you’re like most people, your answer to this question is probably something like, “I begin inside my skull, at a spot about an inch or two behind my eyes, and I extend only as far as my skin.”

Other than the feeling that this is the extent of your geography, is there any other reason to believe that these are the true borders of you?

Perhaps, and probably not.

Your sense of your identity’s geography, like everything else about you and your mind, has roots in your brain. Moreover, the parts of the brain responsible for this feeling can be influenced, damaged, and manipulated to change the feeling of where you begin and end.

In controlled experiments, for example, subjects can be induced to believe fake rubber hands, mannequins, and even other people are a part of who they are — in the same way that you currently believe your hand is a part of you. Similarly, damage to the brain can cause a person to deny that one of his limbs belongs to him — in the same way that you are likely to deny that another person’s limb belongs to you. Last but not least, a person can be induced to believe, by seizure activity, intentional stimulation of the brain, and psychoactive chemicals, that they exist outside of their body — in the same way you think you exist inside your body now. In other words, that feeling of where you begin and end is not set in stone and is open to influence and manipulation from and by stimulus in your environment.

Once we recognize and accept this fact about our sense of self, it become much easier to second guess the presumption that a mind — yours or mine — necessarily originates in one body or brain. If the feeling of where a person begins and ends can change depending on how the brain is stimulated, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to accept as natural and given the very modern notion that a mind is something that originates in and, ultimately, belongs to one body or brain. We might even come to question whether or not this modern notion is the correct understanding of the relationship between a mind and the environment in which it emerges.

For example, many indigenous people often talk as if the land is a part of who they are, in a very concrete sense. There is an easy temptation to understand such talk allegorically, but, if a brain can be induced to believe that a fake rubber hand is a part of its identity, presumably a brain can also evolve to see the land around it as a part of its identity, in a way that is as concrete as the feeling that your hand is a part of you.

More importantly, we can and should turn this observation on its head and ask, instead, if it is our modern sense of self that has been distorted, say, by colonialism and capitalism. It is, after all, much easier to exploit other people and the world around us, when we believe that our identity extends no further than our skin.

Intrigued?

If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

If you’re feeling more ambitious, take a look at Robert A. Burton’s A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind. It a friendly and accessible start to a fascinating topic, which discusses some of the research I’ve mentioned in this post.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in Burton’s book (and others) from a philosophical perspective.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.