From Michael Fuchs               Mar 21, 01 10:52:13 AM -0800
To: (Scott Christensen)
Cc: (Jeremy Kassis)
Subject: Re: 2000.03.20


Executive Summary: EXACTLY. I'll try to elaborate while my mad
scientist load testing experiment runs in the background. I'm also
cc'ing my buddy Jeremy--who if he has time to read this that would be
great--because we've been discussing the same themes--as recently as 12
hours ago.  

Scott Christensen intrepidly averred:
> I'll have to check [Wright's _Nonzero_) out soon.

It seems like it might be up your alley--ie address some of your
capital-Q questions.

> Anyway, my take on the [_The Moral Animal_] is that it's awfully accurate.

Yeah; depressingly so.

> I'm
> still fascinated by the "free will" question which he only briefly
> glances upon. It feels like it's more complex than the simple delusion
> of free will

That's actually the one area where I take real issue with Wright.
Albeit, I'm aware I take issue because I want to, ie I'm deeply attached
to my free agency. However, the fact remains that Wright is not rigorous
(philosophically). He seems to make the claim that ALL behaviour is
determined by environment and genetics. But, then, almost in the same
breath, he makes prescriptions for ways we ought to try and act. ?! If
you're a strict determinist, which he appears not only to be, but to be
comfortable being, then the only prescription you can ever make is to
kick off and play golf. Wright can't both make suggestions for behaviour
and suggest that we have no choices to make in our behaviour.

That's my technical quibble. More substantively, I just think he's got
it slightly wrong. We do have autonomy, or a soul--and I think I've
found it. More on that in a second.

> Most of the time that's clearly the way it works. In my own life I know
> I've noticed that I often do things and as I'm doing them I'm wondering
> what the hell I'm doing. It's like you lose control over you actions
> sometimes.

Absolutely. I know the feeling. It's frightening and powerful. But, as
you note . . .

> However, if you try you can force yourself through any
> internal pressure that the subconscious/genetic parts of your being are
> exerting. I've done that too.

. . . it's not the end of the story. We can override our programming,
and pull ourselves up by our mental bootstraps. Do you recall where
Pinker pointed out the 5/50/45 split? Ie, testing (on twins, siblings,
and unrelated children raised together) seemed to show that 5% of
personality is environmentally determined; 50% is heritable (ie
genetically determined); and 45% is . . . ??? I think of it as the
X-factor. I also latched onto it as the seat of the self, of
self-autonomy. I'm incented to find room for such a thing, because I am
deeply attached to the notion of myself as a self-created entity, every
brick in the edifice of my belief system carefully examined and laid.
So, I was thrilled there was this whole area of personality that seems
to escape the crushing jaws of the old, blighted nature/nurture prison.

> I suppose you could rationalize that by saying that sometimes it would
> be in your genetic interest to not follow your instincts

EXACTLY. God, you're timely. It was just a couple of days ago that I
read, for the first time, about the nature of the pre-frontal cortex.
Part of its role seems to be to override other, more primitive, selected
behaviours. Ie it's what gives us power (albeit limited power) to take
control of the machine. And I believe such a mental module would be
selected for in an uncertain and fluctuating ancestral environment. Ie,
I'm evolution making your brain: "Okay, dude, here are a bunch of
pre-programmed behaviours which should maximize Darwinian fitness.
However, things do change, and sometimes these behaviours will actually
fuck your shit up. So, here also is this 'override' module to let you,
sometimes, choose other behaviours."

THAT, I'm positing, is the soul--the true seat of the self. The soul is
located in the prefrontal cortex. (Notably, even our closest genetic
relatives lack this.) 

Jeremy knows more about the prefrontal cortex than I do, and has already
corrected in part my account of it. He may care to further correct.

> Which is another problem I had with his conclusions. This is my area of
> focus for the past year or so, the "What is it all about?" kind of
> questions. He and Singer and a host of others end up saying that
> everyone should be nice to people because it would be nicer if everyone
> were nice to people.

Again, EXACTLY. From a perpsective of philosophical rigor, this is very
problematical for Wright's view. You've put it so well, I won't belabor
it. Though, I will note that he wriggles a little way out with ethical
utilitarianism. But you're right, ultimately he punts: he says, "Well,
you just really need to agree that maximal human happiness is good."
Moreover, he doesn't even ADDRESS what may be the REAL barb of the
problem of morality: our durable notion that SOME THINGS ARE ALWAYS
WRONG, regardless of ethical utility. The classic example is
recreational torture. We are in pretty strong agreement that
recreational torture is ALWAYS wrong--even if it makes the toturer
happier than it makes the victim sad (which would make it okay in an EU
view). The rub is: WHERE DOES THAT "ALWAYS wrong" come from?

> The problem with all that for me is that it ends up as a "because we say
> so" arguement when trying to describe the rightness of doctrine no
> matter. If there is no _meaning_ to Life then being nice to people
> doesn't matter in any way other than as a deliberate calculation as to
> how much your actions can help you. No matter how much you wrap it up in
> logical agruments and reason it always ends up at the "because I say so"
> argument.  This bothers me in a deep and fundamental way.

I agree, but I find it disturbing not on intellectual grounds, but on
practical moral ones. The sad fact is, the more you know, the more the
conclusions seem to lead to nihilism. And I want a moral and honorable
world. So it's depressing that the facts seem to lead us in the opposite
direction. I've always felt that morality was one of the great unsolved
problems in philosophy; and science isn't helping. [Interestingly, the
other huge unsolved problem in philosophy was the mind/body problem;
and science DID solve that--with information theory and computational
theory of mind. Though not everyone has admitted it yet.] I think the
challenge is to find a *rational* basis for morality. Camus quoted
someone, I forget who: "In the tomb, vice and virtue are
indistinguishable." We need for this to be wrong. But how?

> What's Life all about? Is this the end of evolution? Is there something
> more? Is Life a process of growth or a process of aimless exploration
> and filling a niches? If the only point to all this crap is to make more
> life, then what does it matter how any of that life acts toward the poor
> and the downtrodden of their kind? If life is a process of growing up,
> like people have always thought for millions of years, wouldn't it make
> more sense for the weak and superfluous to be weeded out the way
> evolution has always done up until a few thousand years ago? Why should
> you question a process that made these really cool human brains?

These are the questions; and, interestingly, most of us agree about how
we want the answers to turn out. Moreover, most of us agree that
*nothing is more important* than that we answer these questions
correctly. (And you probably know I'm using the other (moral) sense of

> And I'm still terribly interested in the loose theories espoused by
> Howard Bloom and the grroup selectionists. Wright dismisses them as
> wackos and stupid which might have been the case in the early days, I
> don't know enough of the history and original science to say either way.

I, personally, found his account (nearly a refutation) of group
selection very persuasive. It changed my view.