Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The origin of values

Eric left a comment on the last post suggesting that I respond to Evanescent here as I have been banned from his blog. For the sake of the readers sanity I will not reproduce the entire last post here but I will extract the arguments from it and respond.

I notice how you say “emotional desires”, instead of just desires. Didn’t you earlier say that desire is an emotion? So what you just said is like saying “emotional happiness” or “emotional sadness”; it makes no sense. But you must qualify the word “desire” with “emotional” because you realise (now) apparently that desires have sources. Desires from emotion can still have a rational source (they usually do), because reason can shape our emotions.

This is probably the main source of our disagreement. I believe that humans are first emotional beings and make use of our enlarged brains and our reason to further our desires.

I’ll try to make a clearer case for what I am getting at.

It was many moons ago when I was considering an artificial intelligence that the primary stumbling block of the effort to produce a fully fledged A.I. occurred to me. Machines can in theory think much like a human. If you had a complex enough neural network with the ability to alter it’s own weightings and maybe even expand the network as it goes along, you could produce a rough electronic simulation of a brain. There is nothing mystical or fantastic about the basic mechanism of the human brain. The brain is a truly amazing organ, no doubt, but the basic mechanism behind its functioning is relatively simple.

Lets do a little thought experiment then. Let us suppose then that we have produced a brain that functions like a human brain in terms of being able to process information in a massive neural network and adjust itself in response to information. The real problem as I see it is motivation. Why would the brain choose to do anything at all? Why would it think? Humans think in response to goals they acquire. If you get hungry, you respond by thinking on the goal of finding food. The biological urge creates the goal. When people go looking for food, they are not at first thinking about blood-sugar levels and specific sustenance requirements of their bodies. They are thinking that they are hungry and a built in drive, purely instinctual, drives them to find food. The reasoning process comes later. A good illustration of how these primal desires override our reason is the unfortunate mariner who finds himself adrift without water. He knows that drinking seawater will not help him and will in fact dehydrate him but when the thirst instinct becomes too great he will eventually drink the seawater. His instinctual drive overpowers his reason. He might even be aware of the statistics which show a drop of about 35% probability of survival for those adrift who drink seawater. In the end the temptation may be just too great. His desire to drink the water is not a rational thing. It is pure emotion. He doesn’t like being thirsty. He wants to drink the water. That’s it.

The same is true of almost any of the survival urges. When they get strong enough, reason takes a back seat. I’m sure the strongly christian Uruguayan rugby team stranded on the mountain top would have proclaimed with confidence that they would never eat a dead person before the events dramatised in the movie “Alive”. The survival instinct is incredibly strong and most people will abandon their reason and their morality when placed in the right (or the wrong) circumstances.

So getting back to our machine. It has no urges, it has no desires. You can hard code in instructions that tell it to do a certain task, much like conventional computers are programmed. In either case, it will do as it is compelled by it’s instructions but it doesn’t want to do it. Neither does it not want to do it. It just does it. It’s behaviour will never change in terms of it goals. It doesn’t really have any. It might even be able to reason but it will never desire. That’s the rub. Without motivation, without desire, it will only ever be a tool. A very smart tool maybe but it will never be anything more. Suppose the brain is self aware, why would it choose to do anything at all? It wants nothing. In all likelihood, such a brain would probably do nothing. If we found a way to give the brain feelings about things then you would have a personality on your hands. We rationalise and reason about the things we want. We consider how to make things better either for our own immediate ends or in a broader sense. Better means nothing objectively. Better than what? If you asked this brain if it wanted to continue on or be permanently switched off, it would have no preference. Why would it? Life is only valuable to us because we are programmed to feel it is. Consider life and death from a purely objective point of view - that’s objective not objectivist :)

Is it valuable. I don’t think the question even makes sense in a purely logical consideration. It requires emotion to give it value. Just as an unfeeling brain would not value life, neither would we if we were not the emotional creatures we are.
The objectivist here might suggest that this is their point. That life is only valuable to the living, that the notion of values only makes sense to the living. Fair enough. I have no argument with that but it is more a coincidence than anything else. What the objectivist is overlooking here is that living things are all instinctual entities. All life has the in-built motivation to stay alive. Life is not valuable to the living, life is valuable to all things that want to stay alive. The expression of this instinct is more overt in the more complex examples of life. While instincts are not emotions per se, they generate emotions. Instinct generates emotions. An animal, which could hardly be said to be a rational and reasonable entity will still value it’s life. It will feel fear when placed in danger or an unfamiliar circumstance. It values its life it would seem. Consider it this way. Imagine you are in a car crash and you suffer brain damage. Your ability to reason is not effected, only your ability to feel emotions. Now suppose a man walks up to you and points a gun at your head. You feel no fear. You understand quite well that if he pulls the trigger you will be killed but being unfeeling you are the epitome of apathy. So what if you die? Why is that a bad thing? You don’t value anything. You don’t feel any particular way about anything. You are alive, I don’t think most people would dispute that but you don’t value your life because you cannot feel.

Evanescent suggests that humans being primarily emotive entities is necessarily false. The only explanation of this that he gives is

Notice how you equate desire with emotion as if they are one and the same? They aren’t. Emotions are the instantaneous psychological reactions to our values being realised or frustrated. They are the RESULT of our experiences, not the guide to them. Humans, to be rational beings, must primarily act through reason and logic, and therefore attain happiness. It doesn’t work the other way around.
Chimp, if you think humans are “first and foremost emotive beings”, I would like you to PROVE this statement. That should be easy enough, huh? Hang on, you can’t PROVE anything without establishing a rational chain of argument based on logic and a process of reason. Therefore, in order to make ANY statement, you must presuppose that you have the capability of reason and rational thought, which means rationality is a prerequisite to any statement of knowledge. So to say that humans are primary emotive beings is blatantly false, and self-contradictory.
In real life “what if” terms, for the utilitarians out there, imagine you are aroused and want to have sex. An emotive man rapes the first girl he sees. A rational man doesn’t. Why? Which one are you?


I don’t agree with this definition of emotion. instantaneous psychological reactions to our values being realised or frustrated

If this definition were accurate, how does the objectivist explain something like clinical depression or bi-polar disorder. In the case of these disorders a person feels a certain way because of brain chemistry. Their emotional state is entirely divorced from their values being realised or frustrated. What you will notice though is that the individual suffering from these condition will think differently on account of the emotional motivation they are experiencing. They will often act irrationally?. Their reason is clearly slave to their emotions. Emotions can be instantaneous psychological reactions to our values being realised or frustrated but I think the definition is unnecessarily narrow.

To be brutally technical, emotion is a chemical reaction in you brain but that doesn’t really help us solve the chicken and the egg problem we have here. Evanescent argues that our rationality and our reason is where our desires come from, that while we can act on emotion, we learn our values thought he rational interpretation of our experiences. This is more or less backwards. Evanescent seems to be ignoring the fact that our reasoning about our experiences is emotionally directed. What do I mean by that?

Rational action would seem here to be an action that is consistent with what you value. But if it is by rationality that we learn our values we are entering into a circular reasoning process. I rationally conclude what it is that I value, rationality is acting in accordance with my values. How does an individual first determine what is valuable. In a purely rational sense, as we examined above nothing has value unless it is satisfying a desire. How then does rationality help us to determine our initial values? We need a starting point. We need a motivation or prejudice to inform our reasoning.
Killing is only wrong because we feel like it is. If everyone were to go about killing indiscriminately we would quickly become extinct. So what? Why is that ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? We decide what is right and wrong. I doubt the objectivist would disagree with that. We decide what is moral and immoral. These things are purely prejudice. There is no objective, free floating moral absolute. It is how we feel about things that determines our morality, not our reason. This is not to say that reasoning or rationality have no place at all in determining our morality. Of course they do, I merely contend that the impetus is provided by how we feel about things. Our reasoning is what allows us to expand our moral prejudice beyond our immediate circumstances and surroundings, to abstract basic urges into more complicated moral action.

you can’t PROVE anything without establishing a rational chain of argument based on logic and a process of reason. Therefore, in order to make ANY statement, you must presuppose that you have the capability of reason and rational thought, which means rationality is a prerequisite to any statement of knowledge. So to say that humans are primary emotive beings is blatantly false, and self-contradictory

The above is one of those statements that doesn’t really pass the ‘so what’ test. I don’t need to prove my emotions in order to feel them. Evanescent is asking me here to prove something using a rational chain of argument. Fair enough. What that has to do with the emotive states of humans is beyond me. Why should the proving of something, i.e. the natural condition of a thing mean that it must be predicated on the same rational thought process that was used to describe it. This is just non-sensical. The logical deduction that Evanescent attempts here is senseless. In order to make a rational statement you must presuppose you are a rational entity, therefore you can’t be primarily emotive. Lets just do a quick word replace here.
In order to make a rational statement you must presuppose you are a rational entity, therefore you can’t be primarily orange. Is there a logical difference I’m not getting. He is saying that in order to use a faculty you must be primarily predicated on the faculty. That is not logical or rational or reasonable.


Lets look at this statement again

NO OTHER PROCESS IS ACCEPTABLE, because only reason can identify the nature of man, the nature of existence, and figure out how the two can harmonise for one’s life to be maintained and flourish

This is apparently why humans must be first and foremost rational entities.

Only reason can identify the nature of man. This again is a highly prejudicial statement. What do we mean when we say the nature of man? His motivations, his desires, his values and his physical parameters? We are right back here it seems to talking about the values that mankind holds. The remainder of the statement is just words strung together. It is at absolute best, trivially true and unimportant to the discussion. It certainly does nothing to advance the claim that humans are primarily reasonable and rational. I stand by my initial assessment.

Animals manage to maintain their lives and flourish without identifying their natures though reason and similarly without reasoning out the nature of existence. They certainly so not devote considerate thought to harmonising the two. Some creatures operate on a purely instinctual basis and do just fine. Instinct generates emotional motivation. Does the sensation of being hungry drive a creature to eat? I don’t think the sensation itself does. It is just a sensation, much like the tactile sensation of heat. If there is too much heat the sensation becomes unpleasant. We don’t like it. It feels ‘bad’. We have immediate placed a value judgement on the sensation. It is bad and not good. We have not reasoned out that it may be harmful to our skin cells, we just didn’t like it. If you leave your hand on a hot radiator, you can reason that it will be detrimental to your hand but it is not this reasoning that makes you pull you hand away. You don’t like the sensation. In a purely rational sense, there is no difference between pleasure and pain. They are both sensations, each one just feels different. We like pleasure we dislike pain. Most people eat not to ingest calories but because they are hungry. We want to make the hunger sensation go away. We derive pleasure from doing so. Dessert has no rational place in our diets. It is purely an emotional addition to eating. We eat our desert, regardless of its nutritional valu,e (usually deserts are not the healthiest foods around) because we desire it. We like it.

“I take it this case is closed now: values should be rationally chosen, not emotionally. In fact, emotion is the physiological RESPONSE to our values. Your original error was to put the cart before the horse. “

A bug will act to protect its life, obviously valuing it. Bugs are not reasonable or rational in any meaningful sense. They are instinct engines. Purely reactionary. They react to stimulus. Consider a purely emotional realm, value most certainly can be present. In a purely rational realm, value has no meaning. Carts and horses are certainly being juxtaposed, no doubt.

This disagreement about the origin and nature of what we value is my first disagreement with what I take to be objectivist though on the topic. If I have it wrong I would be glad of an explanation. I should stress though that I would like an explanation not an assertion.


Eric says/asks:

I'd be interested in knowing why you think the dictionary definition is better/more accurate than the one Evanescent provided. Whether you accept Objectivism or not, the notion that anything is intrinsically valuable is difficult to defend.

The reason I consider the dictionary definition more accurate is because this is what I believe most people mean by the term value. The fact that it is the dictionary definition is fairly strong support for that notion. You cannot start redefining terms to suit your philosophy and expect not to be called on it. Objectivists will be right about everything if they define every term to suit themselves. Anyone will be. I am not an objectivist, why should I adopt their esoteric definition of a commonly understood term?

I am not suggesting that anything is intrinsically valuable in some totally objective sense. I am suggesting that our primary values are built-in. A derivative of the evolutionary process. Much like our higher thoughts are an emergent property of billions of highly simplistic neurons interacting, so too are our higher values and our morality emergent from baser instinct. Nothing can be reasoned to be valuable without an emotional bias.


Evanescent is at best unlcear on this point.

Me: If I were offered the choice between being kept alive but never being able to do anything, not only would my life lose all its value to me, it would be a burden I would seek to get rid off.

Evanescent: Well, there you go then! All the things you enjoy are a value to your life. You don’t live in order to value, you value in order to live!

Me: As I have already stated, many people believe there are concepts that are more worthy of pursuit than life. There are many things that people would accept death sooner than living with.

Evanescent: Yes, many people believe that. So what? I didn’t dispute that. People who pursue immoral irrational goals like slavery, religion, socialism, communism etc are not pursuing life.

…but I thought people valued in order to live. Am I missing something? This looks like he is contradicting himself.

When someone acts against the objectivist idea that values are rationally derived, indeed can only be derived by rational means. Remember: NO OTHER PROCESS IS ACCEPTABLE they are being irrational Isn't irrational the opposite of rational?

So when someone acts in a way that is clearly contrary to this notion they are acting irrationally……but I thought they couldn’t derive values by anything but rational means.

Life is apparently the end to which all values are directed but above, slavery, religion etc. are not pursuing life. Clearly then by his own statement not all values are directed at life. This is only a problem if you start with the presupposition that values are derived from rationality as opposed to emotion and that life is the end to which all other means are ultimately directed. What does irrational even mean here? Contrary to what Evanescent feels is rational? Can it be logically determined that slavery is irrational? I doubt it.
What does the objectivist suppose is the reason for people being irrational? Do these irrational people consider themselves irrational or is the 'irrational' we are using here subjectively defined in accordance with our values and our prejudices about what rational is?

I don’t think Evenescent has answered these questions or stated a particularly good case for his view. I would like to hear from more objectivists on the topic. I am not opposed to the notion, I just don’t think that the evidence leads to that conclusion. I am open to persuasion though.

10 comments:

Eric said...

“The real problem as I see it is motivation. Why would the brain choose to do anything at all? Why would it think?”

Exactly. Rand uses a similar thought experiment in TVOS, only to show that in order to value or even desire anything, the robot would have to face the alternative of life or death. Only by needing to sustain its own existence would the robot have any need or reason to do anything at all. Desires and emotions are contextual and only relevant in light of a need to take action to survive. I’ll expand on this later.

“Humans think in response to goals they acquire. If you get hungry, you respond by thinking on the goal of finding food. The biological urge creates the goal. When people go looking for food, they are not at first thinking about blood-sugar levels and specific sustenance requirements of their bodies. They are thinking that they are hungry and a built in drive, purely instinctual, drives them to find food. The reasoning process comes later. ”

The physical sensation of hunger alerts the person that his body needs food. The act of finding food is not instinctual. If it were, you would be mindlessly shoveling food into your mouth without any thought on the matter multiple times a day. You reason in response to the physical fact of reality that your stomach is empty. You perceive the sensation of hunger and through a process of reason determine how/where to obtain food and what kind of food will taste the best while giving you the most nutrition. Any disagreement here?

“ A good illustration of how these primal desires override our reason is the unfortunate mariner who finds himself adrift without water. He knows that drinking seawater will not help him and will in fact dehydrate him but when the thirst instinct becomes too great he will eventually drink the seawater. His instinctual drive overpowers his reason. He might even be aware of the statistics which show a drop of about 35% probability of survival for those adrift who drink seawater. In the end the temptation may be just too great. His desire to drink the water is not a rational thing. It is pure emotion. He doesn’t like being thirsty. He wants to drink the water. That’s it. ”

I’m not clear what your position is here then. This seems to be an argument in favor of man needing reason in order to survive. Only reason allows him to know why drinking the sea water is bad for him. That he gives into his physical urges and evades the fact of reality that sea water will kill him is an argument against instinct and emotion as man’s means of survival in the world. The man may want the sea water, but that doesn’t make it good for him. If your point is that sometimes people do irrational things, you’ll get no argument from me. But that doesn’t change the fact that in order to live (and live well) humans must act rationally.

“The same is true of almost any of the survival urges. When they get strong enough, reason takes a back seat. ”

Not necessarily, and definitely not for those who want to continue living. The people who survive in the world are the ones who rely on reason to distinguish between their desires and the values that actually further their existence. You’ve already outlined the consequences of relying on emotion or instinct.

“I’m sure the strongly christian Uruguayan rugby team stranded on the mountain top would have proclaimed with confidence that they would never eat a dead person before the events dramatised in the movie “Alive”. The survival instinct is incredibly strong and most people will abandon their reason and their morality when placed in the right (or the wrong) circumstances. ”

This is not an example of abandoning reason. Of course it would be irrational to eat dead people when you can afford to buy more nutritious, non-human food at the store down the street. However, choosing to eat dead people in an emergency situation—where no other source of nutrition is available—in an effort to survive as long as possible while awaiting rescue is perfectly rational and moral.

“So getting back to our machine. It has no urges, it has no desires. ...Without motivation, without desire, it will only ever be a tool. A very smart tool maybe but it will never be anything more.

Life is only valuable to us because we are programmed to feel it is. Consider life and death from a purely objective point of view - that’s objective not objectivist :)”


You’re correct that there’s no such thing as a purely objective view in the sense that you’re using it.. Views are only objective to minds . You can’t step outside the context of a living mind and ask if life is objectively valuable. This is more than just a coincidence.

“While instincts are not emotions per se, they generate emotions. Instinct generates emotions. ”

For lower animals, I’m not sure how you would demonstrate such a thing. Does a cockroach feel fear as it evades your stomping foot? Or is it just responding to the perceived threat of a predator? What about a mouse running from a snake? Is it terrified? Or bees defending their hive? Are they actually feeling the emotion of anger?

For humans, the notion that instincts generate emotions is demonstrably false. If I tossed a photo on your desk of two naked people having sex, what emotion would you feel? Arousal? Excitement? Maybe, if you’re not too conservative about pornographic imagery. If you were a priest, you might feel embarrassed or even disgusted. You might feel furious and betrayed if the photo is of your wife having sex with another man. Emotions are contextual and based on reason. You feel the emotion in response to a thought process, whether you’ve identified it or not.

“I don’t agree with this definition of emotion. instantaneous psychological reactions to our values being realised or frustrated

If this definition were accurate, how does the objectivist explain something like clinical depression or bi-polar disorder. In the case of these disorders a person feels a certain way because of brain chemistry. Their emotional state is entirely divorced from their values being realised or frustrated. ”


Again, you’ve provided an example that proves the point you’re trying to refute. You may be right that people with certain brain disorders are slaves to their emotions. But the norm among human beings is not to be bi-polar or depressed. If depression and bi-polar disorder were the norm, humans never would have made it out of the savannah. Why? As you’ve pointed out, being driven by uncontrollable emotions makes a person behave irrationally and do things that might endanger his life. But this is exactly the point you’re defending. You think our emotions are driven by instincts beyond our control, no?


“Rational action would seem here to be an action that is consistent with what you value. But if it is by rationality that we learn our values we are entering into a circular reasoning process. I rationally conclude what it is that I value, rationality is acting in accordance with my values. How does an individual first determine what is valuable. In a purely rational sense, as we examined above nothing has value unless it is satisfying a desire. How then does rationality help us to determine our initial values? We need a starting point. ”

The starting point is reality. Reality is what you’re trying to understand with rational thought. Now, you can go through a process of reasoning and determine that drinking nothing but wheatgrass juice is the best course of action for the rest of your life. But if you put that conclusion into action, you will quickly run up against the fact of reality that the human body cannot survive on wheatgrass alone. If nothing else, at the perceptual level you will feel the physical effects on your deteriorating body and eventually you will die, no matter how much you “feel” like drinking wheatgrass juice is good for you. It’s by validating your thought process against reality that you determine whether your reasoning is sound.

“We need a motivation or prejudice to inform our reasoning.
Killing is only wrong because we feel like it is. ”


Try telling that to yourself when Vorhees kicks down your door wielding a bloody axe. “It’s only wrong for him to kill me because I feel it’s wrong. If only my instincts told me it was right…”

“If everyone were to go about killing indiscriminately we would quickly become extinct. So what? Why is that ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? We decide what is right and wrong. I doubt the objectivist would disagree with that. ”

What you’ve described is moral subjectivism. I think just about every Objectivist would disagree with that. We don’t “decide” that drinking Drano is bad and eating nutritious food is good. It’s a fact of reality for human beings. The Objectivist position is that all moral/ethical issues can be validated against the facts of reality, including whether or not taking a life is justified.

“Only reason can identify the nature of man. This again is a highly prejudicial statement. What do we mean when we say the nature of man? ”

I think you’re misunderstanding. I took him to mean that only through a process of rational thought can one possibly determine the nature of man (or anything for that matter). You can’t get at it with all the feelings, intuition, or instinct in the world.

“You cannot start redefining terms to suit your philosophy and expect not to be called on it. Objectivists will be right about everything if they define every term to suit themselves. Anyone will be. I am not an objectivist, why should I adopt their esoteric definition of a commonly understood term?”

Again, validate the definition against reality. You’ve just said that you reject the idea of intrinsic value, yet you insist on sticking with a definition that cannot possibly correspond with reality. Why? Because most people define it that way and Websters said so? How can you possibly hope to arrive at reliable conclusions if the definitions you’re using are admittedly invalid?

"What does irrational even mean here? Contrary to what Evanescent feels is rational? Can it be logically determined that slavery is irrational? I doubt it."

The answer is yes, slavery is irrational. I may or may not come back to explain later, as I’ve already spent more time on this response than I intended. In the meantime, read TVOS.

"What does the objectivist suppose is the reason for people being irrational? Do these irrational people consider themselves irrational or is the 'irrational' we are using here subjectively defined in accordance with our values and our prejudices about what rational is?"

Whether irrational people consider themselves irrational is irrelevant, and the fact that they are irrational is not subjective or subject to bias. See the wheatgrass example above. The rational action is the action that corresponds with the manner a human being must conduct himself if he chooses to live. Doing heroin all day, every day is irrational (and immoral) if your goal is a long and healthy life. So are rape, theft, murder, etc. Actions have consequences that cannot be evaded. That’s the crux of Rand’s philosophy as I understand it.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Eric,

Thanks for the response.

I don’t see why being faced with life or death would make any difference at all. The notion that life should be rationally valued is a purely objectivist one. The robot would lack any desire to sustain it’s existence, that is what I am driving at. Logically, there is no reason to choose life over death. It is an instinctual urge that drives most living things to preserve their lives, not rational judgements. Rationality comes in to play in figuring out how to achieve that.

The physical sensation of hunger alerts the person that his body needs food. The act of finding food is not instinctual. If it were, you would be mindlessly shoveling food into your mouth without any thought on the matter multiple times a day. You reason in response to the physical fact of reality that your stomach is empty. You perceive the sensation of hunger and through a process of reason determine how/where to obtain food and what kind of food will taste the best while giving you the most nutrition. Any disagreement here?

The need to find food is instinctual. This is obvious from observing non-rational life in action. Do you suppose an ant rationalises about its next meal? Why also should the fact that the desire to eat is instinctually predicated mean that rationality must be entirely abandoned? Why must everything in objectivist thinking be absolute? Of course humans use their ability to reason and to be rational thinking entities in the pursuit of food but we do not think our way to wanting food.

That he gives into his physical urges and evades the fact of reality that sea water will kill him is an argument against instinct and emotion as man’s means of survival in the world.

Who said anything about instinct and emotion being man’s means of survival. I suggest instinct and emotion are what first moves us. Our primary motivators. Powerful enough that we will often act contrary to what our reason is telling us.

“The same is true of almost any of the survival urges. When they get strong enough, reason takes a back seat. ”

Not necessarily, and definitely not for those who want to continue living. The people who survive in the world are the ones who rely on reason to distinguish between their desires and the values that actually further their existence. You’ve already outlined the consequences of relying on emotion or instinct.


The important part of my statement above is when they get strong enough . We can choose to act against even our strongest survival instincts but such instincts will almost inevitably assert themselves beyond our control. Holding your breath is a good example. You can choose to do it, but eventually the urge to breath will overcome your decision and you will draw breath.

Re: Alive

This is not an example of abandoning reason. Of course it would be irrational to eat dead people when you can afford to buy more nutritious, non-human food at the store down the street. However, choosing to eat dead people in an emergency situation—where no other source of nutrition is available—in an effort to survive as long as possible while awaiting rescue is perfectly rational and moral.

This is not meant to be an illustration of abandoning of reason. It is an illustration of the power of human instinct. For a devout Christian to eat a dead friend in not to them a morally neutral act. I agree with you that it not a morally wrong action and is a rational course but the Christians would not have thought so. They were risking their immortal souls from their point of view.

You’re correct that there’s no such thing as a purely objective view in the sense that you’re using it.. Views are only objective to minds . You can’t step outside the context of a living mind and ask if life is objectively valuable. This is more than just a coincidence.

This seems to just ignore the point being made in order to make a different and not entirely relevant one. In order to consider a purely rational and logical mind, one need not presume that it is not the mind of a living thing. A purely rational and logical mind would be as objective as any perspective can be as it is utterly devoid of emotional prejudice. Do you think this entity would value life, even its own? Why would it?

“While instincts are not emotions per se, they generate emotions. Instinct generates emotions. ”

For lower animals, I’m not sure how you would demonstrate such a thing. Does a cockroach feel fear as it evades your stomping foot? Or is it just responding to the perceived threat of a predator? What about a mouse running from a snake? Is it terrified? Or bees defending their hive? Are they actually feeling the emotion of anger?


I would agree that cockroaches do not feel emotions, as we would think of them. They are purely instinctual. Machine like in that sense. Machines hard coded to eat, reproduce etc. The point at which instinct becomes or leads to emotion is unclear in the sense that it is a matter of complexity. A bug simply doesn’t have the complexity to display emergent properties like emotion. Cats, dogs and animals on that order do. Primates can display an astonishing level of emotional awareness even to the point of complex social relationship not strictly aimed at survival. There is evidence of banobos using sign language and many instances of tool use and reasoning that goes beyond simple stimulus reaction. If you are interested this is not a bad overview. I find this completely unsurprising. Assuming you believe in evolution, you believe that there was a time when humans (or their precursor species) could not reason. The current capacity of humans to think and reason is the end result of millions of years of tiny gradual improvements in our mental hardware. To separate humans entirely from animals if to simply ignore the fact that we are just a more intelligent animal. Chimpanzees have display behaviours which one might have been tempted to conclude where exclusively human. They have even been observed having what amounts to a civil war within a community between different factions. The point is that humans are not quite as unique as we might like to think. Certainly our ability to reason gives us incredible advantages but it an evolved advantage not something that is somehow the essence of being human. We were once just as instinctual as the cockroach. In as much as the chimp feels instinctual motivation to value its own life and its ability to feel emotion originating in those instincts; we humans are not really all that different. We are just more complex. It is entirely consistent with this that people would act in a way we might consider irrational. Rape, murder, theft. Are these surprising actions from emotive/instinctual beings? I don’t think they are, in fact they are exactly what I would expect. What I would like to know from your perspective; at what point in our evolution did humans cross this imaginary line from being instinctual, emotional creatures to being firstly rational and reasonable?

It is worth noting too that most species manage to survive without reason. Why should it be supposed that humans would not manage also?

For humans, the notion that instincts generate emotions is demonstrably false. If I tossed a photo on your desk of two naked people having sex, what emotion would you feel? Arousal? Excitement? Maybe, if you’re not too conservative about pornographic imagery. If you were a priest, you might feel embarrassed or even disgusted. You might feel furious and betrayed if the photo is of your wife having sex with another man. Emotions are contextual and based on reason. You feel the emotion in response to a thought process, whether you’ve identified it or not.

What you are doing here is taking our emergent ability to reason and presuming it must be the originating impetus of our feelings because our feelings can change in reaction to our reason. Consider the developmental path of humans though the evolutionary process.

Would you agree that we were first purely chemical? Single celled organisms.

Would you agree that we were then purely instinctual? Something on the order of a bug

Would you agree that we were then emotional? Something like a primate

Would you agree that we are lastly and on the evolutionary timescale, lately, rational? Modern Human.

A modern human has not replaced the motivations above, he has just evolved more complexity. We are still chemical, instinctual and emotional, we just have a new thing to pile on top.

The real heart of this disagreement comes back again to the first motivator. I argue that it cannot be reason because reason cannot attribute value to anything. I think we should talk more on that point, as it is the basis on which we both base our views.

On bi-polar/depression etc.

Again, you’ve provided an example that proves the point you’re trying to refute. You may be right that people with certain brain disorders are slaves to their emotions. But the norm among human beings is not to be bi-polar or depressed. If depression and bi-polar disorder were the norm, humans never would have made it out of the savannah. Why? As you’ve pointed out, being driven by uncontrollable emotions makes a person behave irrationally and do things that might endanger his life. But this is exactly the point you’re defending. You think our emotions are driven by instincts beyond our control, no?

I do indeed think that our emotions are driven by instincts, not necessarily beyond our control in normal circumstances. We are subject too to many competing instincts and desires. All of this is built on a chemical framework. If the chemical balance in your brain is off, all the reason and rationality in the world isn’t going to change how you feel about things. It should, if our reason is what ultimately generates our wants. Everything we think and feel is based in the chemical engine of our brains. What you consider rational is just what most of us do. There is no objectively rational course that we should take, we just label the course that most of us take as rational, in accordance with our instinctual and emotionally informed values.

The starting point is reality. Reality is what you’re trying to understand with rational thought. Now, you can go through a process of reasoning and determine that drinking nothing but wheatgrass juice is the best course of action for the rest of your life. But if you put that conclusion into action, you will quickly run up against the fact of reality that the human body cannot survive on wheatgrass alone. If nothing else, at the perceptual level you will feel the physical effects on your deteriorating body and eventually you will die, no matter how much you “feel” like drinking wheatgrass juice is good for you. It’s by validating your thought process against reality that you determine whether your reasoning is sound.

All of the above presumes that you want to live and life and good health are of value to you. I would not at all contest the notion that our reason makes us better able to survive. My point is that what we value (i.e. staying alive in this case) is necessarily an instinctual and emotional value rather than a rational or reasonable one.

“If everyone were to go about killing indiscriminately we would quickly become extinct. So what? Why is that ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? We decide what is right and wrong. I doubt the objectivist would disagree with that. ”

What you’ve described is moral subjectivism. I think just about every Objectivist would disagree with that. We don’t “decide” that drinking Drano is bad and eating nutritious food is good. It’s a fact of reality for human beings. The Objectivist position is that all moral/ethical issues can be validated against the facts of reality, including whether or not taking a life is justified


Yes, but ONLY once you have established that being alive is ‘good’ and being dead is ‘bad’ That is an instinctual/emotional prejudice. Reality has absolutely nothing to say about whether or not taking a human life is justified

Again, validate the definition against reality. You’ve just said that you reject the idea of intrinsic value, yet you insist on sticking with a definition that cannot possibly correspond with reality. Why? Because most people define it that way and Websters said so? How can you possibly hope to arrive at reliable conclusions if the definitions you’re using are admittedly invalid?

The definition speaks about what is considered valuable. You are the only one bringing the word intrinsic into it. It doesn’t concern itself with the origin of the value at all. Where have I admitted to using an invalid definition?

The answer is yes, slavery is irrational. I may or may not come back to explain later, as I’ve already spent more time on this response than I intended. In the meantime, read TVOS.

Well this, as I think you are admitting here, is just a statement. I would be interested in your explanation of this.

"What does the objectivist suppose is the reason for people being irrational? Do these irrational people consider themselves irrational or is the 'irrational' we are using here subjectively defined in accordance with our values and our prejudices about what rational is?"

Whether irrational people consider themselves irrational is irrelevant, and the fact that they are irrational is not subjective or subject to bias. See the wheatgrass example above. The rational action is the action that corresponds with the manner a human being must conduct himself if he chooses to live. Doing heroin all day, every day is irrational (and immoral) if your goal is a long and healthy life. So are rape, theft, murder, etc. Actions have consequences that cannot be evaded. That’s the crux of Rand’s philosophy as I understand it.


If this is the case, back in the days when rape, murder and theft were part and parcel of soldiering and carried no consequence to the individual engaging in them; they were not immoral?
If we remove the consequences to an action does it lose it’s moral dimension?

Suppose it is my objective to die. That is what I want to do. Am I acting rationally when my actions lead by virtue of reality to that end? If I step over the edge of a cliff and let reality have its way?
In all of this, you are basing what you consider rational on presupposed values.

I would like to see how a value of any kind can be found by rational means alone.

I apologise if this repsonse is a little rambling at times, it was produced very quickly.

Will Dwinnell said...

"Machines can in theory think much like a human. If you had a complex enough neural network with the ability to alter it’s own weightings and maybe even expand the network as it goes along, you could produce a rough electronic simulation of a brain. There is nothing mystical or fantastic about the basic mechanism of the human brain. The brain is a truly amazing organ, no doubt, but the basic mechanism behind its functioning is relatively simple."

Every sentence above is at present, conjecture, not fact. Despite such claims, no such "artificial brain" has yet been constructed, and certainly not for lack of trying. The most complex artificial systems constructed to this point don't come close to the capability of the human brain.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Will,

Yes they don't come close and the cae stated was hypothetical. The point was to illustrate at least the possiblility of an emotionless consiousness.

Well done for managing to find the least significant part of the post to critique

Eric said...

Chimp,

Thanks for your response. You've touched on several elements of Objectivist philosophy that I'm still a bit foggy on myself (as in not sure what the "official" Objectivist position is and not sure whether I agree with it). I do intend to reply, but it may be a few days before I have time to give your comments/questions the attention they warrant.

More later...

The Celtic Chimp said...

Eric,

Sure thing! Even if you are not sure of the objecivist line I would be interested in hearing your personal view.

..and there is no rush. I am quite well aware of how much of a time sink blogging can be! I've hardly done any work in days :)

Will Dwinnell said...

"Yes they don't come close and the cae stated was hypothetical. The point was to illustrate at least the possiblility of an emotionless consiousness."

My point was that since such things are- at least today- only fictions, then whether they are even "possibilities" is an open question.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Will,

Regardless of whether or not the are even possible, the whole point of the hypothetcial was to consider the idea of an emotionless, purely logical mind. It was a thought experiment meant to illustrate the fact that without emotion and instinct, nothing would or could have any value, as a purely logical mind would not be able to determine a pereference between any two states without an already present goal. I was trying to illustrate that goal and motivation must in the first instance be instictual or emotional.

Also, regardless of the state of current human technology or thoery on A.I. consider the idea as just possible in terms of it not being decidedly impossible. This is not something worth getting hung up on in this particualar discussion. The possibilities and the state of play regarding current A.I. thinking and current projects might make for an interesting topic in its own right, it however an incidental topic in this current debate.

theObserver said...

The biggest irritation about Evanescents style of argumentative writing is he expects definitions to function as arguments.

He will define a concept in a contentious manner ("Rights only apply to rational creatures"), completely ignore any requests for elucidation of said definition , then sneer at those who question his conclusion ("Show me a rational animal").

I wonder how many Randians are lapsed Christians?

The Celtic Chimp said...

Observer,

Evenescent does indeed smack of the brainwashed adherence to dogma. Any request for explanation is responded to in Rand quotes. He believes that Rand's view is completely faultless. In my experience only the religious believe they have a perfect worldview, all the answers and believe that everything can be thought of in absolute terms.

He defines himself right. You have a big argument about rights and at the end he defines rights are being only attributable to rational entities based on what? you guessed it, Rand - defining herself right.

debate with Evanescent goes something like this:

Normal person: Of course animals can have rights, why can't they?

Evanescent: Rights only apply to rational beings.

Normal person: ...wait a sec there Ev, why should a right only be applicable to rational beings, who made up that rule. A right is a legally defined privalige. I mean there are no free floating absolute rights only those we choose to recognise. Surely you don't think rights are granted by some external agent, do you?

Evanescent: Even though you are way beneth my intellectual level and I insult the very notion of debate by responding to your entirely vacuous and pathetic little questions, I shall deign on this occasion to stoop to your level.....rights only apply to rational being because Rand says so. NOW do you understand?

Normal person: So what if Rand thinks so, thats not an argument!

Evanescent: I can't believe you STILL don't get it. How stupid can one human being be. Everyone reading this thinks I'm great and thinks you are a turd. Being the generous intellectual giant that I am though; I will try one last time to explain this to you......RAND says so and that is backed up by Rand. Here is Rand sayinf the same thing AGAIN!!
I trust now that you will accept the gosp..I mean the truth and admit to everyone here that I am a brilliant genius and you are a turd. I forgive you for being so stupid, you have to read Rand to have the truth revealed to you.

Normal person:.....

Evanescent: Ah, you are silenced by unassailable logic! I'm so great.

Normal person:.....ah, well you do know that its possible Rand might be wrong!

Evanescent: !!!!!BLASPHEMER!!!!
You are a turd! I am great. I love me becasue I am great. Your comments are now blocked.