Thinking According To Scale

Thinking According To Scale November 21, 2011

PZ and Crommunist offer nice denunciations of the significance of a graphic which has been going around the internet which concludes that the chance of any given individual alive today ever existing was 1 in 102,685,000. 

Below the fold is the graphic, key snippets of their remarks and the lesson to draw for how we should consider the proper scale of existence to look for objective morality in a physical world that does not, taken as an entirety, care about us:

by visually via

PZ writes:

Sure, you can multiply out the probabilities of all the many events that led directly to you after the fact, but this wasn’t a process that began with the goal of making you. You are a contingent product of many chance events, but so what? So is everything else in the universe. That number doesn’t make you any more special than a grain of sand on a beach, which also arrived at its precise shape, composition, and location by a series of chance events.

And then he shows the irrelevance of likelihoods to value by approaching things from the opposite angle:

while the odds that the concatenation of chance events that led to me are really low, that’s not the same as saying that the odds of a person, or something, being here are low. You are one of 7 billion people, occupying an insignificant fraction of the volume of the universe, and you aren’t a numerical miracle at all — you’re actually rather negligible. Maybe you should go forth and feel and act like you aren’t any more special than anyone else on Earth.

And Crommunist does a nice job of debunking the value of looking at scales of infinity to find a significance matters on the human level in general:

The problem with the kind of reasoning that follows from considering the mathematics of infinity when it comes to human affairs is that it measures things against an entirely lopsided standard. If we measured all distances in Astronomical Units, then human beings would all be of identical height. So would, incidentally, every animal on the planet from bacteria to whales.

In order for this argument to have any kind of clarity, the units of measurement have to be useful in describing differences. It’s why we don’t, for example, commonly express weight in tonnes unless we are talking about shipping containers or elephants, and why we don’t commonly measure atomic weight in kilograms unless we are performing large-scale industrial chemical manufacturing. The standard of measurement should be scaled to the object or concept under consideration.

All the things that could possibly ever be known is not a useful or reasonable metric against which to measure human knowledge. All of the possible permutations of events since the beginning of the universe is not a reasonable metric against which to measure the likelihood of a given event. The comparison drawn is completely meaningless

And this is what I was trying to get across in my post against moral nihilism last Friday. After writing that post I read a confused argument for the supposed irreality of morality that misuses scales:

Humans need fantasy to be human. Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act, like there was some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged: Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point? My point exactly.

“Grind the universe down to the finest powder” and, indeed, not only will you find no single molecules of justice or mercy but you also will find no molecules of evolution or of trees or of global warming or of antibiotics or of any other parts of reality that do not exist on the subatomic level. It is an counter-productively irrational reductionist standard to hold any of those things to the standard that they must not emerge out of complex relationships but exist as the basic particles of known existence in order to be anything other than fantasy. There are more ways to see the world genuinely than through a microscope.

You will never gain any insight about astronomy by staring at the sky with a microscope. You will miss out on plenty of everyday levels of reality by never seeing the world in the magnificently rich ways our eyes naturally evolved to see it but by choosing instead to stupidly seal microscopes over your eyes so all day you see nothing but the microscopic level of what is around you. And this is not because you cannot cope without “fantasies” but because it will make you utterly and unnecessarily blinded to realities you were evolved to properly see and understand on the everyday level of existence.

In the The Blind Watchmaker, pg. 13, Richard Dawkins adeptly explains how to avoid absurd forms of reductionism and to reduce things in properly scientific and philosophical ways. His only mistake is first to imagine that no truly absurd reductionists exist:

The nonexistent reductionist–the sort that everybody is against, but who exists only in their imaginations–tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts.

This beast is not just mythical as can be attested by the Pratchett quote, which speaks for a great many moral anti-realists, including many moral error theorists, who refuse to look for moral truths and falsehoods in the levels of existence in which they are meaningful and rationally valid, and rather argue that since they are not present on the subatomic level of existence they cannot possibly have any true meaning or rational validity anywhere else.

Here is how Dawkins describes the proper reductionist attitude, the hierarchical reductionist:

The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complext entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on. It goes without saying–though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this–that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels. This was the point of explaining cars in terms of carburettors rather than quarks. But the hierarchical reductionist believes that carburettors are explained in terms of smaller units…which are explained in terms of smaller units…which are ultimately explained in terms of the smallest fundamental particles. Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work.

Using this same attitude we can understand how moral relationships can be explained as real even as we vigorously explore their roots in biological and psychological and evolutionary dynamics. We really can describe how effectiveness relationships are a perfectly fine, naturally consistent way to describe basic reality from one perspective (and if you doubt me please read and show me the flaws with this post: Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)). We can note that the word good, from an objective standpoint, only fundamentally refers to these natural. objectively describable, relationships of effectiveness. Every other sense of the word good we have can be reduced to a statement about such effectiveness relationships. And from here, we can use our understandings of psychology and biology and game theory  and all the rest of empirical knowledge to figure out how to effectively allow humans to maximally flourish, and we can think objectively (if not always conclusively) about the real worth of our moral systems, our subjective values, etc. in terms of how effective they are in helping us effectively be the kinds of beings we have the potential to be.

And on the level of practical decision making there are clearly ways to be more consistent or more inconsistent and there are clearly ways to make choices which are objectively more or less conducive to realizing our own ends. Understanding decision making and what it is all about means grasping the ways that it is only rational to act in ways that are ultimately conducive to one’s own true goals. It is not a “truer” way to understand practical decision making by reducing it and saying it’s just a “fantasy” since it’s really driven by a bunch of unthinking atoms and so there is no better or worse way to reason. It is not a “truer” way to understand practical decision making to think it involves no rules of better and worse, and that, therefore, no one could make any mistakes in understanding what is in their own interests.

The truth of what is rational or irrational, consistent or inconsistent, goal-realizing or goal-thwarting about a given rational judgment is objectively determinable (at least in principle) without ludicrous, obtuse forms of reductionism.

The proper, hierarchical reductionism (which I think in some ways Kant lacked) simply recognizes that standards of practical consistency and practical effectiveness in decisions must be grounded in the next more fundamental level of explanation down–levels of explanation about what kinds of beings we effectively are (psychologically and socially, etc.) and how best to effectively realize ourselves in the most maximally flourishing ways. It is only rational in our practical decisions to realize our own intrinsic powers as effectively as we can.

And it is important to realize that what we are psychologically and socially does not simply reduce to what we are biologically or evolutionarily. The processes that explain how our psychologies emerge or under what evolutionary pressures they did or how they might make us better at spreading our genes, are all not necessarily decisive in our proper understanding of how we flourish psychologically or socially. Understanding what value to my genes it is that my hands work as they do does not tell me the limits of what a strong and effective hand can do. My hands did not evolve for typing but they can still flourish better if they learn this extra skill exceptionally well than if they don’t.

And just because my genes would be well served by reproducing and the traits I have were selected for their fitness as reproducing genes, does not mean that I have to have any interest in reproducing necessarily. I can flourish in those traits’ intrinsic powers according to their own intrinsic standards of effective being and never put them to the purpose of reproducing–and yet still flourish as the being I am in terms of the objective excellence of my powers. Put in a formula: my thriving is not identical with my genes surviving.

Finally, moralities themselves can be rationally valid and objectively binding enough for us, even though they should be reduced to another level of explanation and justification themselves. Their standards of right and wrong gain their truth and validity from their abilities to create good and prevent bad for us. And different moralities, even ones which make quite opposite prescriptions from our own, may in different times and places be as good at creating flourishing as ours are for those people in those other times and places, without the value of moralities being totally subjective. Any given morality can be assessed as objectively better or worse for any given people compared to other possible moralities they can have. The key point to stress in this is that even though sometimes a different culture is objectively better off with a given different value judgment or a given moral rule than we accept this does not mean that just any values or moral rules are automatically good or automatically equal to all others for all times and in all places. A culture can still be wrong about what is its own good sometimes and be in need of improved values.

But enough for now, I have already written many posts on these and related topics. See the posts below if you want to explore more. Also look out for coming replies I will soon be writing to many provocative comments I received on my metaethics posts from Thursday and Friday.

And, in the meantime, Your Thoughts?

Are Sex and Morality Merely “Evolutionary Tricks”?

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

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