One last look at sight

This post is part of a series on morality and mathematics.  If you’re not into timeless conceptions of physics, you should probably check out the other posts first.

I’m swear at some point I’m going to finish up with the sight metaphor and get back to some of the posts I had planned, but in the comments of one of yesterday’s posts, Hendy brought up one idea I really want to address.

Hendy said:

Essentially, we seem to have honed in on what humans value and made systems that support those aims. If we took away the humans, would objective moral values still exist?

Part of my objection stems from the fact that morality is such a “cloudy” field and that of the senses is not (e.g. your analogy using sight). My objection to this moral “sense” is the same as my objection to those who claim (like WL Craig) that god can “immediately and powerfully be known.”

If we’re worried about what happens to morality if humans don’t exist, I think it’s fair to be equally worried about sight and visual existence. It’s easy to think of the visual nature of objects as an absolute, intrinsic property that we just happen to observe, but I disagree. Our conception of seen objects is incredibly tailored to humans. We can’t see ultraviolet patterning on flowers or any other wave outside of the narrow spectrum of visible light.

Of course, that trouble pales in comparison to the fact that we can’t see objects as they really are at all. At the scale at which we see and live, all objects appear to be solid, rather than largely empty structures of atoms, or, if you drill down deep enough, quarks. Our level of existence is a valid interpretation of the physical nature of matter at the scale where humans live and see. If no perceiving creature existed at our scale, the question of whether objects existed as we see them would quickly become a philosophical riddle.

The way I choose to think of it goes back to topology. My visual perceptions aren’t of the object itself but are more like taking a slice of an >n-dimensional object and embedding it in n-dimensional space. There’s nothing wrong with my perception, but it’s incompleteness can lead me astray and make me uncomfortable if I get a look at a different slice.

I think I’ll close with a quotation from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s excellent fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. In the selection below, Harry (who has been raised by a scientist, instead of the Dursleys, is trying to break the law of Transfiguration that claims you can only alter something as a complete unit.

All right, screw this nineteenth-century garbage.

Reality wasn’t atoms, it wasn’t a set of tiny billiard balls bopping around. That was just another lie. The notion of atoms as little dots was just another convenient hallucination that people clung to because they didn’t want to confront the inhumanly alien shape of the underlying reality. No wonder, then, that his attempts to Transfigure based on that hadn’t worked. If he wanted power, he had to abandon his humanity, and force his thoughts to conform to the true math of quantum mechanics.

There were no particles, there were just clouds of amplitude in a multiparticle configuration space and what his brain fondly imagined to be an eraser was nothing except a gigantic factor in a wavefunction that happened to factorize, it didn’t have a separate existence any more than there was a particular solid factor of 3 hidden inside the number 6, if his wand was capable of altering factors in an approximately factorizable wavefunction then it should damn well be able to alter the slightly smaller factor that Harry’s brain visualized as a patch of material on the eraser -

If you want to know if Harry’s Transfiguration works, you should check out the fic in your free time this weekend.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    Hmmm. I still think you're not illustrating some crucial premises…You also omitted some of my quote which I think might be more helpful. Do you take the bait when an apologist points to the veracity of god's existence because a large number of people "really, really feel" like he exists? Or that a large number of people "really, really feel" that conception x of god aligns with the truth and thus other conceptions are false?Sight is a means of perceiving visible things, but these things are interactions between matter and energy (light). If sight goes away, we have every reason to suspect that matter and energy don't. I don't know if this is the case with moral values. I don't want to focus on this, hence I would not have put forth the slice of my comment you chose as the "meat" of what I wanted to get across. I care the least about one-hand-clapping and tree-falling-in-deaf-forest questions and far more about your source of evidence for suspecting these values exist to be discovered.You still haven't painted quite the picture I am looking/hoping for when it comes to your evidence which you alluded to in the last post.Am I missing your whole point or would you say that your evidence actually is a form of "I feel it in my heart" or "everyone knows it"?To prove that you're seeing a slice of an >n dimensional object… wouldn't you need to establish other grounds for the existence of the object itself? I think what you're getting at is that we have a sense of morality and are trying to make it out in the same way as the 2d square interacts with the 3d sphere…Without sharing exactly why you suppose the 3d sphere (objective transcendent moral values), those of us proposing 2d figures (evolved, socially determined, human ascribed value-based) are putting forth equally valid proposals for both will look the same in Flatland.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17359788578212299468 Dylan

    All well and good, but I must once again rephrase my question (though I'll avoid talking about objectively ugly music and objectively lovable friends). As you show in this post, if you want to say that morality is as "objective" as sight, then what you need to say is that a moral sentiment is ultimately our way of perceiving something that would exist without us (though it certainly would not be perceived in the same way). I (and some of your other stubborn interlocutors) are arguing that morality may well be our way of mind's way of perceiving something that exists iff we exist (was going to say because, but causation isn't exactly the right language, see below), and not only would not be perceived as we perceive it if we ceased to exist, but *would not exist at all.* I have argued in my previous comments that when we when we feel a moral sentiment, we are perceiving something about the nature of our "selves." Moral sentiments are perceptions of something "internal" to "us." (when you start breaking down abstractions, scare quotations become pretty necessary).On the "perception" level, that equals "feelings that I feel." On the neurobiological level, that equals "connections in my brain that respond to external stimuli in a particular way." On the HP&TMoR-style; quantum level, those structures are described by wave-functions that approximate (define? — let's have a phil of quantum debate!) the matter that makes up my brain and thus (for you, at least, unless you've become a dualist) my consciousness. Yet on all these levels, this "morality" of which I perceive only the "consciousness-level" slice with my moral sentiments is still internal to me (insofar as the abstractions we call "Dylan" and "moral structures" remain well-defined entities on all those levels). Consider the particular set of (physical) reality-states (on any level of abstraction) that "generate" (more precisely, "are isomorphic to") the consciousness-level perceptions that we categorize under the consciousness-level abstraction called "morality." These states all exist (are the case) iff we "human beings" exist. Why? The morality-"generating" reality-states are a subset of total set of physical states that exist iff human consciousness exists in the first place (let the causal arrow go whichever way you like). As such, I think it's a stretch to say that moral sentiments tap into something "objective" in the way that sight qualia do, since sight qualia are are human consciousness's way of interpreting "things" that can exist even if we (consciousnesses, and the reality-states to which they are isomorphic) don't.Cliff notes: 1) Sight is our (insofar as "we" are consciousnesses) way of perceiving reality-states that exist in the universe even if "we" don't.2) Morality seems to be our way of perceiving a set of reality-states that are a subset of the set of reality-states that produce (more accurately, are isomorphic to) our consciousness.3) Therefore, morality isn't necessarily "objective" (ie. non-self-dependent) in the way that sight is, since it may well be a "self-perception" rather than a perception of reality "external" to the self.4) NB that all the complex baggage above was to enable me to talk about self-perceptions at levels of abstraction at which the "self" is not well-defined. A final thought: it may be that the moral law is written somewhere in (or outside) the universe other than upon the metaphorical hearts of men. I merely aim to show that the assumption that it *is* in fact written somewhere else is not as necessary an assumption for making sense of our perceptions as, say, the assumption of causation (or, say, the axioms of mathematics that allow us to do mathematical quantum theory).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    Ha! Ran across a post at Common Sense Atheism about just what I'm trying to get across. Perhaps Luke says it better than I can HERE. Snippet:—–So what is the atheist’s extraordinary evidence for this claim? Usually, it’s something like this:- “I experience a world of moral facts. I feel very strongly that rape is objectively wrong, and charity is objectively right.”- “Almost everybody believes in moral facts. It’s just obvious. Until you can prove there aren’t any, I’m justified in believing what people have always believed: that some things are really right or wrong.”Do those arguments look familiar? They should. They are the exact same arguments atheists reject when they are given for the existence of God. Consider:- “I experience God. I feel very strongly that he exists. I feel is presence, and I know that I know that I know that he exists.”- “Almost everybody believes in some kind of God. It’s just obvious. Until you can prove God doesn’t exist, I’m justified in believing what people have always believed: that there is some kind of higher power.”—–I think this summarizes well what I'm trying to get across. You haven't responded yet to whether you find the "many people just 'know' that god exists, therefore he exists" argument convincing.Unless you do, I don't see your moral argument so far faring any better. It just seems to be a modified form of, "I just know it and so does everyone else."It seems that whatever argument you provide along these lines for a "moral sense" or "moral sight" works equally powerful for a "god sense" or "god sight", doesn't it?


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