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Unread September 12th, 2006, 10:37 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Arrow Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

TS:
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My feeling is that meaning comes from within nature as well: our widespread convention linking meaningfulness and good human judgment to ethereal abstracts outside of nature are probably harmful in the long run because they don't reflect the biological reality of how our brain works.
MM:
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More in terms of seeing that from another angle - rather than disagreeing - it seems to me that ethereal abstracts that emanate from the human brain are one of the more interesting products of nature. As to their being harmful, that's another question that can have different answers depending on how you look at it.
I agree with you here Margaret. I think of abstract ideals as part of nature, a part that we have specialized in using, sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill. My negative judgment of "ethereal" abstracts in the long run is that rather than treating them as ideals, they get hooked into our nervous system as concretes, we take them so seriously as to kill and die for them, often overriding our ability to take the current circumstances into account. I can only guess that this may have come about because it is adaptive in some sense, but I lean toward thinking of it as something we should recognize in ourselves and come to grips with, limiting its power.

[Kathleen Taylor's relatively recent book "Brainwashing" from Oxford Press runs this argument much longer and in great detail, showing examples how and where ethereal ideals are leveraged past the point where they serve our best interests.]

MM:
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I know that by saying "within nature" you meant ideas that our present science can somewhat verify according the rules of its parochial system - scientific theories of nature. But, I think it's good to remember that that distinction makes a huge difference when judging whether an idea is "harmful in the long run" or not.
Perhaps, but it seems to me that "parochial" here is nothing more than a statement of politics. It is almost trivially true that we aren't talking about some sort of closed perfect system for explaining all of nature. At least from my perspective. So one can take the political stance that science (considered as some sort of political group) needs to be taken down a notch in their influence, or the political stance that it needs to be elevated. Myself, I wasn't making either argument. Science and mathematics are as close to a universally objective way of approaching a topic as anything any human being has ever considered, so calling such things "parochial" is to me just to say that our knowledge is not perfect, and probably cannot ever be perfect.

Judgments about what is harmful are partly objective, because human beings are real things and share very much of their biology and ecosystem and basic needs with each other. Regardless of what they may believe, and regardless of the range of their preferences, human beings live under certain real biological constraints for their survival and the quality of their life. I'm not going along with the relativist argument that refuses to acknowledge the objective component of basic human needs and pretends that facts and solid causal models should have no bearing on our moral and ethical decisions. I wouldn't go to the opposite extreme either, and claim that there is some sort of direct deductive path from causal models and facts of nature to ethical decisions.

The only sensible relationship, in my opinion, is that our epistemic values can and do shape our knowledge of facts and then facts should help inform our other values.

I don't see any reason why we can't continue to better understand the foundation of the mind and brain and biological needs and apply that knowledge to better decision making in all areas. What is the point of your own theory, if not to accomplish something like that? Is your whole point in proposing the theory to try to prove that we shouldn't try to understand the brain better because there is a hard line of mystery somewhere?

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To reduce possible confusion I'll specify that I interpret "ethereal abstracts" in this case to mean unifying beliefs that serve the purpose of uniforms on a soccer team - so that players can know who's on their team and who they can trust to share their survival interests - who's out to help them and who's out to do them in. Although I think these come in the non-ethereal form as well - like communism.
I consider communism's abstract ideals to be just as ethereal (in the sense I originally intended) as those of Christianity or Islam of Judaism. The thing that distinguishes them is their ability to become drivers of decision making and behavior even though they are completely removed from reality and have taken on a life of their own in culture-space and mind-space.

Think about mathematics. A given system worth using might contain a model that accurately represents the thing you are looking at, or you might have a perfectly valid model that is completely independent of the real world you care about. In neither case have you completely understood the world, but you may or may not be doing a good job representing the thing in front of you. To me, science is mostly about trying to do a good job representing the thing in front of me, and then drawing reasonable conclusions from that, but recognizing that I can't capture everything (or if I do, I will surely not be able to prove that I have done a good job at it!). This isn't (just) my butchery of Godel, it is also how I think of the power and limits of the modelling process.


MM:
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The other part of your statement - the part about good human judgement - deserves a post of its own when I get time.

PS - Thanks once again for writing posts that prevent me from applying my brain to my own economic support for so many hours of the day.
Looking forward to it ... and right back atcha.

Thanks, and kind regards,

Todd
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