Does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove anything?

English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum

English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not religious.  I don’t think morality comes from God, gods, or any religious precept.  But often, when I see debates on whether or not morality can only come from God or religion, an atheist philosopher will mention the Euthyphro dilemma, state or imply that the question was conclusively handled over 2300 years by this Plato narrative, and move on as though the matter was settled.  However, I’ve never particularly felt that this narrative really settled anything.

Just to review, the Euthyphro dilemma asks the following question.  Is what is morally good, good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?  This is a question Socrates asks of a man named Euthyphro in the book named, conveniently enough, ‘Euthyphro’, written by Plato.  In the story, Socrates and Euthyphro agree that the answer must be that God, or in their case the gods, command it because it is good.

The answer accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro is often thought to be problematic for Abrahamic theology, since it implies that God is not omnipotent, that he would be subservient to a moral law that he does not control.  I fully understand the theological difficulty with this answer.  It does seem like it should be unacceptable to an orthodox Christian, Jew, or Muslim.

What I don’t understand is the problem with the other answer, the idea that something is good because God commands it.  In the articles I’ve read about this, the concern is that this would make morality arbitrary, subject to God’s whim.  If God commanded that rape and murder were good, the argument goes, that wouldn’t make rape and murder good, would it?

My response is to explore how do we know that rape and murder are not good.  Of course, most of us are horrified by these actions, so that seems to be an excellent reason.  But why are we horrified by them?  If God exists and he created us, the universe, and everything, then it stands to reason that this visceral revulsion we have toward rape and murder was put there by him.  If God is the omnipotent creator of everything, then by definition, everything is his whim, including our deepest moral convictions.

Now, personally, I think it’s unlikely that God is there (except perhaps as a synonym for nature).  From what I can see, morality is a cultural framework built on top of common pro-social instincts.  Instincts that our species, as social animals, evolved for cooperation.  Cooperation that enhanced our survival prospects.  But if I thought God was there, and that he was indeed the creator of all, I wouldn’t have a problem with the good-is-good-because-God-says-so answer.  A philosopher once told me that by accepting that answer, I was “biting a bullet”.  Well, it doesn’t seem like much of a bullet to me.

You could argue that God’s commandments don’t always match the feelings he purportedly put in us, and I think that inconsistency is indeed a dilemma for believers who hold to scriptural inerrancy.  But my understanding is that this is not the central argument of the Euthyphro dilemma.

So, my question is, what am I missing?  What does the Euthyphro dilemma actually prove?  Does it prove anything?  Or is it just a demonstration that people have been struggling to find the basis of morality for at least 2300 years?

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SMBC: Proof altruism exists?

(Click through for full sized version and for the red button caption.)

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Of course, as we discussed on the Selfish Gene post, even if we are acting completely altruistically at a conscious level, our impulse to do so is broadly tied up with evolutionary survival advantages.

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Biology uses quantum effects.

When I first saw this article by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, my skeptical reflex kicked and I was, well, skeptical.  Often when quantum mechanics gets mentioned with biology, it’s questionable material.  But I’ve seen enough of Al-Khalili’s other work, and as President of the British Humanist Association, I’m not inclined to think he’s subject to being taken in by woo:

You’re powered by quantum mechanics. No, really… | Science | The Observer.

For years biologists have been wary of applying the strange world of quantum mechanics, where particles can be in two places at once or connected over huge distances, to their own field. But it can help to explain some amazing natural phenomena we take for granted.

Al-Khalili and McFadden describe three biological processes where quantum effects are crucial: enzymes, photosynthesis, and animal navigation via Earth’s magnetic field.  They finish up with this:

All these quantum effects have come as a big surprise to most scientists who believed that the quantum laws only applied in the microscopic world. All delicate quantum behaviour was thought to be washed away very quickly in bigger objects, such as living cells, containing the turbulent motion of trillions of randomly moving particles. So how does life manage its quantum trickery? Recent research suggests that rather than avoiding molecular storms, life embraces them, rather like the captain of a ship who harnesses turbulent gusts and squalls to maintain his ship upright and on course.

The more I learn about how much quantum physics encroaches on processes in the macroscopic world, the less confident I feel about our knowledge of how the universe works.  If quantum effects are so critical to biological processes, that seems to imply that quantum uncertainty plays a much larger role in macroscopic reality than is commonly acknowledged.  It seems like a serious strike against determinism, at least determinism within observable reality.

Given our recent discussions, I have to admit that it also makes me a little more nervous about the feasibility of mind uploading.  The fact that fundamental and evolutionarily ancient biological processes, like photosynthesis, utilize quantum effects seems to raise the probability that the brain also makes use of those effects.  It wouldn’t necessarily mean that we might not someday be able to copy a brain, but it might make the idea of running that copy anywhere but in another biological type substrate infeasible.

Unless of course I’m just overinterpreting this?

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‘The Selfish Gene': Classic science worth checking out

TheSelfishGeneCoverI don’t usually read old science books.  After a decade or so, I find that their content tends to have too much dated material.  But ‘The Selfish Gene‘ keeps coming up in conversations, not just because its author, Richard Dawkins, is the world’s most famous atheist, but also because of its core message, that genes are the center of evolution, and that animals, including humans, are largely programmed to act in the interest of their genes.

A substantial portion of the book is filled with game theory analyses demonstrating why apparent acts of altruism really aren’t.  They may feel like conscious acts of altruism on the animal’s part, but the acts follow programming that benefits the animal’s survival or genetic legacy.  Dawkins is careful to make sure that we understand that these aren’t conscious calculations the animals make, just the naturally selected programming that drives them.

Toward the end of the book, Dawkins discusses humanity directly, noting that as intelligent creatures, we are the first animals able to override our selfish gene’s programming  (think birth control) and that game theory demonstrates that being nice is often a survival advantage.

The book finishes up with a discussion of memes, units of cultural information that may replicate similar to genes, and of the extended phenotype, the idea that the causal effects of genes reach outside of their host animals to affect other animals and their habitats.

All in all, I enjoyed this book.  It wasn’t nearly as dated as I feared it might be, and where it was, the 30th anniversary edition had excellent end notes with updated information.  Note, religious readers should know that, although Dawkins mostly leaves religion alone in this early book, he does take the occasional swipe.

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I’m not doing book reviews anymore.

Since I started this blog last November, I’ve occasionally done book reviews.  Some of them have been fictional books, but many have been non-fiction.

I find book reviews difficult to write.  I have this urge to make sure they’re done right, to be fair to the author, and to give a useful comprehensive summary of what’s in the book, along with my assessment of how it’s handled.  These impulses make writing book reviews feel like writing a school paper.  I can’t say I really enjoyed doing school papers, and I don’t enjoy writing book reviews.  For a recreational blog, they just feel too much like work, particularly when I end up needing to take notes while reading, something I’m not naturally inclined to do.

So I don’t think I’m going to do them anymore.

What I will continue to do is occasional posts, or even series of posts, inspired by a book I’ve read.  When I do that, I’ll mention which book (or books) did the inspiring.  I’ve actually done a few of these and found them much more enjoyable to write, and actually more immediately popular than the actual reviews.  (Book reviews do tend to build up more traffic over the long term, but not enough to make them worth it, at least not for me.)

I think I’ll also occasionally do brief book recommendations, small posts to note a book that I particularly liked or found interesting.  But my plan is for these to be, at most, 300 words, not the 1000-3000 word treatments I’ve done in the past.  I did a few of these brief mentions when I first started blogging, but came to feel that they were inadequate after reading other blogger’s lavish reviews.  I’ve decided I can get past that.  The nice thing is, since brief recommendations are easier to write, there will probably be a lot more of them than there were full reviews.

Anyway, that’s the plan.  It may change.  I’ve discussed books with some of you that I was either reading or planning to read, perhaps saying I might do a post on them.  Part of the purpose of this note is to set expectations for what those posts might look like.

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The mind / body dualism of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

This weekend, I watched the movie, ‘Edge of Tomorrow‘, also known as ‘Live. Die. Repeat.’  It’s the latest in a common motif in science fiction and fantasy, the time loop story, where the hero repeats the same events over and over until they find a way to break out.  It’s a concept that’s been explored in the past by films such as ‘Ground Hog Day‘, in Star Trek and Stargate SG-1 episodes, and probably numerous other venues.

In this movie, aliens have attacked the Earth and taken over most of Europe.  The protagonist, a public relations officer named William Cage (Tom Cruise), after being arrested, awakens to find himself on a base, drafted into the infantry, and heading for the front line of an attack.  The attack is a disaster, with Cage being killed, but as he dies, he is bathed in the acid like blood of one of the aliens, and suddenly awakens again at the base with the events of the disastrous attack still ahead of them.

Of course, no one listens to him when he tries to warn them, and the events end up repeating, with minor variations resulting from Cage doing things differently based on his experience from the previous iteration.  But he dies again, and again wakes up at the beginning of the day, and the events repeat again.

As he repeats the day of the attack over and over, he finds allies in other characters that know what is happening to him, gets combat training, and grows as an individual.  This growth is important because he starts the film as something of a dandified coward, arrested when he tried to blackmail a general to avoid reporting from the front lines of the battle.  But gradually as the movie progresses, he becomes battle hardened, experienced, and more admirable and sympathetic.

Cage is primarily assisted by Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the most decorated soldier in the war, who it turns out used to be in a similar time loop.  Just like Cage, she had been bathed in alien blood while dying.  Her time loops lasted until, wounded on the battlefield, she received a blood transfusion.  She warns Cage not to allow himself to be only injured, to insure that he is killed in each loop, to forestall this possibility of his losing the looping ability until they can destroy the aliens.

I enjoyed this film, and I recommend it.  It’s got a lot of action, humor, and character development.  Both Blunt and Cruise do an excellent job in their roles and the visuals are well done.  And the aliens, as we learn more about them, turn out to be an interesting.  Among other things, their blood causing the time loops are their secret weapon, the ability to rewind the day and adjust their battle strategy.

But given the debates some of us have had recently about mind uploading and dualism, one thing that struck me when watching this film, was the strong implication of mind / body dualism in the plot.  And I realized that this applied to just about every occurrence of the time loop motif.  The hero is transported back in time mentally, but not physically.

In this movie, it’s the exposure to alien blood that causes Cage to start looping.  This is interesting because the blood is a physical contamination, infestation, or infiltration that causes a mental shift in time.

I tried to fathom if there was anyway the plot might work without dualism.  Maybe the alien blood had nanobots in it, that analyzed the human nervous system, recorded the brain state, and transplanted that state back in time.  (A type of mind uploading and an engineered form of dualism.)  But this brought up a lot of issues.  The nanobots were intelligent enough to record human brain states, but not intelligent enough to realize they were aiding the wrong species?  And how exactly would the nanobots have transferred that state to Cage’s brain when he woke up, again without realizing they were aiding the wrong species?

Or maybe the alien blood transported just Cage’s nervous system back in time, or some part of it?  But transporting any physical portion of Cage would require that the blood know how to integrate that physical portion with the version of Cage at the beginning of the day.  And doing so would have led to a part of Cage’s physiology being subject to cumulative fatigue as he looped over and over again.  The movie implies that Cage goes through the day of the attack hundreds of times, possibly thousands.  This would only be possible if Cage’s entire physical state was being reset at the beginning of each time loop.

No, the only way the story works is that Cage’s mind is separate from his body, and can be transported and relinked to his body at the beginning of the day.  It also simplifies the mechanism of the blood, since all it really has to do is monitor the connection between Cage’s physical brain and his separate mind, and act when that connection becomes separated.  Of course, the implication is that the aliens have the same dualistic arrangement.

This makes the dualism in the movie of a pretty strong variety.  Cage receives cumulative combat training as he loops over and over.  So it’s not just his high order thoughts on the mental side of the connection, but his muscle memory, his learned reaction times.  It seems to me that such a strong form of dualism is pretty incompatible with current scientific understandings of the human nervous system.

But the concept works for audiences because our common intuitions are dualistic.  We don’t think of ourselves as our body, but as possessing and controlling that body.  Studies looking at children have demonstrated that they consistently have this intuition as infants, before cultural and religious influences have had a chance to be stamped on them, at least on all of them.

No doubt I’m putting far more thought into this than the actual filmmakers did, but that only shows that they themselves likely held the dualistic intuition, probably without even explicitly thinking about it.

What do you think?  Is there a way I’m missing that the time loop story can work without mind / body dualism?

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Identity, a neurobiological perspective

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

320x240by William Skaggs

The philosophical problem of identity is epitomized by the paradox known as the “Ship of Theseus.” Suppose a ship is rebuilt by removing one plank at a time, and replacing it with a new plank of the same shape and material. Is it still the same ship? Most people would say so. But suppose all the planks that were removed are brought together and used to construct a new ship of identical form. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that is the same ship as the original, and the one with new planks is a duplicate? There is no easy answer. Every possible reply seems to lead into a morass.

The Ship of Theseus and several related paradoxes have been tangling philosophers in knots for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Greeks and continuing with Locke, Hume, Kant, etc. It is easy to get a…

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