Archive | June, 2011

Rethinking Moral Philosophy

29 Jun

Ethics Matters!  Rethinking the Philosophy of Moral Thought/Reasserting the Primacy of “Is”

Fallacies of neuroscience as foundation for ethics  Posted in General at 12:18 pm by nemo

For people familiar with Churchland’s work over the past four decades, her desire to bring the brain into the discussion will come as no surprise: She has long made the case that philosophers must take account of neuroscience in their investigations.  Etc..

Why neuroscience? The implicit ‘rationality’ of the ethical (with a larger framework perhaps than the rational), as in the view of Kant, requires no discussion of the brain. Why is neuroscience given the top billing here all of a sudden? It makes no sense.


Why Neuroscience? … Because the brain matters! 

It matters to the consideration of the whole human being … and it matters to the ethics question too, since ethics and the philosophy of the mind can’t be (and shouldn’t be) boxed off from the brain [as if “mind” were a totally separate category from brain and its study by brain science].

(1)  The brain matters … Anyone who says it doesn’t should read the Phineas Gage account again and review that information.  Gage, the victim of a traumatic brain injury, was severely affected when a tamping iron he was working with was driven through his head during a railway-construction accident in 1848.  The explosive charge he had set, prematurely went off driving his iron in below his left cheek bone, out through the top of his skull, and landing several yards away in back of him.  And, though he did recover afterward (physically & to a lesser extent mentally) the psychological damage the accident inflicted on him from all accounts appears to have been significant.

His employers would no longer hire him for railroad work as they once had; acquaintances struck by the fact of his great change in personality.  … All this psychological change brought on by physical injury to the brain.

The mind cannot merely be thought of as a ghost in the machine.  If it were, the effect on Gage would have been far less significant than it was. “Mind” (at the very least) is rooted in the brain.  Damage the brain, alter or change its conditions, and you inevitably affect the mind and the state of human consciousness.  The brain is the essential root and vessel of the psyche; remove the brain from the equation here and you have no mind.

(2)  Secondly, ethics matters and the rationality of ethics matters.  The problem is – how is ethics going to be conceptually-grounded?  It’s all well and good to have a rational ethics (as Aristotle, Kant, and others well understood), but unless it is materialized and made substantial in a firm ontology or scientia of some kind, it loses any real meaning.  … It ends up being lost in metaphysical wonderland.

Value and ethos require some kind of ‘logos’ to make them real; in Classical thought that ‘logos’ was the idea that ‘Action’ followed ‘Being’, and that moral principle was oriented towards Esse and the laws of basic ontology (i.e., the study of real things, substantial form, essential being).

Thus, the moral good followed the existential good, the existential good based in the fulfillment of an entity’s due-nature; an entity’s due-nature was determined via its fundamental functions and tendencies.  Hence, a living system’s ‘good’ was to carry out its life functions.  The human good and social good was to achieve the best possible common benefit for people in a society (i.e., the common good) and the best possible personal good for its members (that is, to the betterment of them physically, mentally, emotionally, and culturally).  That was the aim of Classical moral thought, and how it followed-after the Philosophy of Being.

But, in modern psychology and normative theory, logos still requires its “is” to make “value”, telos, and ethos plausible.

While on a sociologic level, “culture” fulfills that role as do the structures of social value (i.e., norms, mores, and the like)(and all of them rooted in repeated human behaviors and shared ideals), psychologically they must be solidly based in some aspect of human nature readily understood and accessible for analysis.  ‘Free agency’ or ‘will’ as a principle (for one) may fulfill that role, if it is based in distinctly framed choices the chooser in question has to make and it’s oriented towards the betterment of individual and society, but it too must be under-girded by linguistic conceptual structures that emerge from the human mind, whereby our “ought” is crystallized and made real via an “is.”

If neuroscience can help by providing that modern “is” – by pointing to the neurological foundations of mental units integral in the formation of moral thought & the structural epistemology of human thought overall – then that is very good.

It is a welcome development and a much-needed alternative to standard moralistic arguments that one ‘can’t get an ought from an is‘, that ‘value’ stands on its own right, etc.

Ethics suffers when it becomes its own distinct ontological &
metaphysical category.

Without an “is” and a “logos” to provide it form, substance, and intellectual matter, “ethos” and “ought” becomes unhinged, a quasi-magical category, where no limits and no parameters define the power of the freely rational Will to shape its environment or be framed within it.

An undefined, unrestricted Power-To-Will [the real basis of all subsequent moral claims to an individual’s Will-To-Power in the social order & totalitarian designs on human living in society] is a ‘Will’ divorced from all other natural principles; thus making it the perfect vehicle for a supernatural interpretation of morals.

Metaphysical morality, therefore, must be a spiritualistic, supernatural phenomena.  And, for that reason, it’s easy pickings for religionists wanting to use it to advance
their faith-based arguments
about the world.

If ethics is to merit consideration in the discourse of human epistemology, then it will have to square its claims about “value” [and the unique propensities of the human “Will”
as a faculty of mind and consciousness] with the fundamental Philosophy of Being.

It will have to square “value” with the ontological realities of our world, no matter how ‘limiting’ those realities are seen as being or are, in fact, found to be.

An ungrounded ethics is a denatured ethics.  If ethics as a discipline is going to be of any use practically or philosophically, then it will have to address these issues about
its metaphysics or face losing credibility on the mistaken premises of its value-laden principles
.  Neuroscience may not be the  perfect intellectual model to work from in a reassessment of moral philosophy, but it can be of assistance in helping to re-think it.

Today’s ethical theory suffers from a lack of empirical rigor/epistemological sharpness to its study as a field of human inquiry.  It’s time that such a dimension of critical analysis was restored to it.  If not, then ethical theory will suffer.

It will become nothing more than a justification for the
ideological polemic of those wishing to use it to re-mystify
the world via an emphasis on “Value” and “Will.”

Ethics is too important a field to let that happen. … “Ethics
matters” just as “neuroscience matters.”  Without an “is”,
without its ‘logos’ … ethics is useless
.  Without its substance
firmly established in the bedrock of “Fact”, it loses all

Buddhism and the Taoist Alternative

15 Jun

Secular Buddhism, Meditation, and the Taoist Alternative (via Philosophical Taoism)



06.10.11  Sam Harris’ confusion over buddhism, and meditation

Posted in General at 12:34 pm by nemo

We have discussed Harris’ confusion on the issue of buddhism here already several times: …   I find Harris’ analysis dreadful, and somewhat frightening.

Harris isn’t stupid, but the influence of scientism is on its way to making him so.  In any case, the call to renew buddhism is absolutely right on, until you realize what is meant: the state of enlightenment will be factored out and replaced with vague ‘mystical contemplation’ to be studied by neuroscience. Please.  NOT!  The confusion of software and hardware here is fundamental: for millennia yogis and buddhists have reached enlightenment (which terminates the round of rebirth) using the ‘software of meditation.  Now the attempt to reduce it to science will no doubt destroy that concept and tradition and replace it with ‘feel good’ relaxation response as the purpose of mediation.


The Tao is a way or path to living as optimally as possible in accordance with the nature of things. … … There is no metaphysics … [in] Taoism).

Taoism as Hermit Philosophy


The argument here above from Darwiniana is that neutered, deracinated Buddhism does away with enlightenment/the doctrine of rebirth (i.e., the mystical tradition) and thereby makes this system easy pickings for the worst trends in secular scientism and the occult.  OK fine.  I wouldn’t necessarily agree with this assessment, nor with the idea that a secular Buddhism couldn’t achieve enlightenment without metaphysics, but I am willing for one to concede to Buddhism its traditional philos-sophia and doctrines on the grounds that these are noumenal principles and part of nature …

But there is an alternative.  The Taoist tradition and path to meditation.  Here’s a page describing it.

This is yet another path to enlightenment, and one that doesn’t and needn’t be attached to metaphysics to make it worthwhile or beneficial to people, without also supposedly watering down its tenets.

Maybe the Secular Buddhists could borrow a few pointers here from the Taoist playbook via a reading of the Tao Te Ching and the original vision of Philosophical Taoism.  That way, at least, they couldn’t be accused of selling out to scientific modernism.

Traditional Buddhism itself isn’t bad; but Lao Tse, I think, saw the writing on the wall.  Metaphysics would be the doom of it and other similar traditions as soon as it could be construed as being the “way that [could] be followed.”  Buddhism couldn’t … and can’t … and now we see the results.  … … … Metaphysical “religion” – the stuff of higher soul, supernaturalism, and spirituality (seen as being divorced-from the natural order around us and how it functions in the world) – is a minefield and it’s going to blow up in people’s faces.

This has already happened with regard to Taoist “religion” and “metaphysics” (vis-a-vis its emphasis on alchemy, shamanism).  It’s well on its way to happening with the doctrinal systems of so-called “religious” Buddhism and its metaphysical notions about reality in the world (i.e., via the doctrine of rebirth & all similarly-related principles).

The insistence on binding people to these esoteric concepts and a primordial, myth-laced soteriology of ascent (i.e., the idea of enlightenment-as-transfiguration) is going to make Buddhist religion a hindrance to people in their progression along the path of contemplative development.   …

If Buddhism is going to “get on” in the extended history of human thought, intellectual development, and the inculcation of wisdom … if it expects to make a real impact on human lives through the fostering of insight and inner peace, then it is going to have to differentiate its critical tenets as Practice from the cultural mythologization that attached to it over time through its religious structures and metaphysical concepts.  It’s going to have to learn how to distinguish its own Tao from its 10,000 Things, and then confront its own mystery, as Taoism does its.

The way that can be followed is not the Eternal Way.”
(Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching)

The Postmodern Critique of Free Will

14 Jun

Free Will and the Postmodern Critique:  The Deconstruction of Choice

More on the Free Will issue …


Here are some more pieces on the free will issue by John Landon, Jerry Coyne, and John Horgan.  I’m glad people are having this discussion on the matter.  But I remain convinced that unless supporters honestly address the objections-to and critiques-of  free will in their own considerations, then we’ll never get any further than Debating 101 and the rudimentary basics of choice/determinism in our exploration of the topic.  We have”choice” – but we also live in a very determinate world.

Unless, we can frankly account for both, without skewering the laws of physics and other scientific principles in the process, we’ll never truly understand “Freedom” or “Choice” as ideas.

Therefore, to that end, here are some additional pieces on the question.  They cover the Postmodernist critique of free will, choice, and the self.  I hope people find them helpful.


Dynamic Materialism

14 Jun

Dynamic Materialism:  The Root of Evolution and History

Chopra on evolution Posted in General at 1:43 pm by nemo

Is Evolution Ready to Evolve?

I respect Chopra’s honesty in challenging Darwinism, and his interesting suggestions for a better theory. But I think that his suggestions, unless taken as usefully heuristic, are based on the fallacy of a ‘conscious universe’, which makes no more sense than the fallacies of a mechanical universe. To brave the issues with this kind of assertion is nonetheless a provocative way to stimulate thought, and break out of the mindframe of scientism.  More commentary later on this, let Chopra speak for himself, with or without my endorsement.


AN OPEN QUESTION:  Besides “mechanism” or “consciousness” what alternatives do we have to account for nature’s unique workings in natural history and evolution? … For myself, I like the ideas put forward in complexity theory about dynamical systems, self-organization, and emergence; but still this begs the question about telic ‘design’ versus reductionist ‘mechanisms’ of change in the history of the physical universe.

Neither concept is satisfactory, but how do you possibly get around either of these alternatives? …

“Consciousness” is a good explanation in that it explains the unique formatting of natural systems to their environments and settings in the world; but in the end, it forces us to concede either a GAIA in physical entities driving them along to their natural outcomes or an outside spiritual or supernatural agency directing them to their ends.  … This is untenable … Therefore, we’re forced to scrap the consciousness idea.  It just doesn’t work in our science and theoria-based world.  Philosophy has shown this (in the classic rationalist, tradition of the West as well as in the overall history of human thought) and Science has demonstrated it, empirically and theoretically, in Modern times.

But, ‘mechanism’ falls short too in explaining the basic phenomena and natural principles of our universe.  “Machines” in this instance “requires” (a machine maker or agency) behind the rise of a mechanically-based reality … even if it is a purely physical or non-Intentional, non-Directing, and non-conscious agency responsible for producing the ‘machinery’ in question.

Worse yet, the only example we have to work from is an analogy to ‘humanmachine-making for explaining how the world operates.  That, in itself, projects an aspect of human experience onto nature that’s unwarranted – namely our propensity for technological creation and understanding, which may or may not actually be applicable to the reality of the universe as it stands.  Just because, machinery works for us in the world and our science has built for us a technology and a culture constructed on that mechanical understanding, doesn’t mean the cosmos itself is necessarily framed around that mechanical principle in its basic terms.  It could be  – in part – but not wholly because the explanation can only be carried so far as those kinds of phenomena that are uniquely suited to it (i.e. mechanically-representable kinds)

Anything else – which is pretty much everything that doesn’t fit into the standard framework of Newtonian-based physical science – is left hanging in lieu of this mechanical explanation not applying to it.  That means a sizable portion of natural phenomena is left unaccounted-for and/or unexplained by this mechanical model of scientific knowledge.

Even more, though, the appeal-to-mechanism itself can’t even realistically address the appearance of mechanically-geared phenomena in the world (in its own right), without holding such as being axiomatic, since to many it seems almost self-evident that the idea of ‘machinery’ recreates the material underpinnings of the physical order of reality.  In other words, the argument is that mechanistic models work because they supposedly mirror the fundamental material order of reality.

But do they really? … Do they actually re-create the order of nature or merely shadow it in their approximation of physical principles? …

It’s readily obvious they imperfectly shadow it because real-world phenomena is much more complex in its elements and its interrelations than mechanical science can reproduce. The world of molecular reality, atomic, and subatomic phenomena all showcase the absolute fallibility of clockwork-science, but even the phenomena of Classical Newtonian science do not completely work by its rules either.  They demonstrate the fact that something “more” is at play here in nature than just mechanical principles like we might see in an old fashioned clock, a simple engine, or similar devices.  Nature, in other words, is more than just a ‘mechanism.’

So what is it then that we see at work in evolution and natural systems? …

It’s clear that it’s some sort of dynamic principle … but one that’s multifaceted enough to replicate (1) the features of machinery (2) what we believe we see in conscious action and determination, as well as (3) preserve the basic laws of material reality as they’ve been drawn out by Modern Science.

That is to say, this is a kind of dynamic materialism or hylomorphism we see at play in natural systems and processes in the universe. Materialism, normally, isn’t thought of in this manner, but if material structure patterns itself dialectically on formalization and
substantialization, then we have a way in which matter, by definition, can mirror both the contingencies of conscious choice and mechanistic modeling.

Matter, from such a point, cannot only format itself to whatever conditions best optimize its  state and functions, but can self-regulate its form to fit its required niches.  The result: the nature-based equivalent of “smart matter” (i.e., material systems which, from the most elementary levels of material reality upward, can fundamentally program themselves to fill a given need in the physical environment).  Hence, by way of such dialectic up from the very roots of matter itself at the subatomic level and of material existence in the cosmos to begin with, space-constraints and time-constraints coupled with the nascent laws of physics would have predisposed material forms to build and fashion themselves into whatever they needed to be.

The very roots of “sentience” and “life” would have been patterned into matter from the beginning; all that needed to happen from that point was for natural progression in cosmological history to proceed apace; no magic touches, no ‘deus-ex-machina’ moments; just growing time and space for material interactions to produce their eventual outcomes.  It was inevitable, then, from that point that “biology” and “history” would have arisen from “matter.” These results were already ‘in the cards’, so to speak.  All they ‘needed to do’ was ‘to be played.’

That’s how this natural history/evolution paradox can be addressed … Not by consciousness, not by a homage to purely mechanistic and reductionist interpretations of natural phenomena … but by an enhanced understanding that materialism itself can – and did – create for us the ‘miracles’ of life and thought over the normal course of time.

To say anything less belittles nature and our material world.

The Analogy of “Choice”

10 Jun

Freedom, Determinacy, and the Analogy of “Choice”:  Back into the Matrix


We’re not here because we are free, we’re here because we’re not free. … There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose, because … without purpose we would not exist.

Matrix Reloaded


The power of “choice”, the core principle behind any discussion of freedom or free will, is framed in a paradoxical relationship.

You can’t be “free” in a deterministic ontology or setting of reality; and yet free choice is itself “determined” by the very circumstance of the chooser making a decision, choosing one or more option over others, the context in which the choice is made, AND those factors outside one’s control that led up to the situation of the choice to begin with.

That’s a mouthful!  But it’s important to point this fact out, because if it isn’t, you can easily be confused into thinking either (1) there’s no choice, or (2) vis-a-vis choice, there’s no determinacy when it comes to the ‘freedom-will’ issue.

Again the POMO-based literary view of the Matrix movie helps us here to think about this dicey freedom-determinacy issue.

We have choice, but it’s not complete, lasting, or metaphysically permanent.  It’s couched in the terms of our psychologies and environment.  But it is our power of choice nonetheless.  And, that makes it unique for it’s both a control and an open variable.

We are choosing!  … But, by virtue of the stream of events that lead us up to our choice and our decision, “we’ve already made the choice” (to quote the metaphor of the “Oracle” character from the story).

Furthermore, we’re ‘controlled’ here or are ‘determined’ by what itself has conditioned our psyche to see as its puzzle – namely the problem of why we need to select option “A” or option “B” and have a solution over not doing anything at all.  ‘Choice’ and the act of ‘choosing’ are thus both ‘determined’, even as they are ‘open-ended’ and ‘freely-made’ from the context of what frames them.

“No one can see past a choice they can’t understand” (Oracle, Matrix Revolutions), and yet from the vantage point of what inevitably brings us to ‘choice’ and what inevitably must come from our choices, we do live in a determinable world.


My open offer to others in this conversation over free will and determinism.  Already here, I’ve used literary concepts to illustrate my points in the discussion.  I invite others to do the same using novels, movies, music, or whatever media they choose in making their points.

I realize people’s hesitation over doing it, but if it helps carry the conversation forward and better frame ideas, then it is well-advisable to do.  Therefore, I hope you’ll contribute with your own considerations into literary theory and join me in exploring ideas from science, history, and social thought through literature and other literary media.  I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Batchelor’s Buddhism

9 Jun

Batchelor’s Buddhism:  Not Scientism, but an Exercise in Humanist Psychology

I expected I was going to find this. It seems Batchelor’s tie to the scientistic establishment isn’t as pronounced as people would think.

From this piece here, his Buddhism appears to be more of an attempt to frame Buddhist tradition within the scope of Psychological study.  In other words it’s a humanist psychological enterprise.

That’s not scientism; that’s not even giving a pass to scientism.

Critiquing Buddhism as “Religion”

6 Jun

Buddhism as Religion:  Dead-On-Arrival


There’s a sense in which Sam Harris’ idea here of “Killing Buddhism” is perfectly reasonable and justified.

As long at Buddhism is presented as RELIGION, then much of its merits are left languishing, and all we have left for it is a metaphysical jungle.  Easy pickings for every guru, religionist, and mystic to pull out from Buddhist thought whatever suits his/her fancy without in fact considering the core or essence of Buddhist tradition.  Think it’s bad when ‘seculars’ do it?  I can assure you, by virtue of what’s already taken place in the history of Buddhism, that it’s even worse when the followers of ‘religious Buddhism’ do it (i.e., the vagaries of the Tibetan variety, the Rinpoche story, etc.)

Buddhism isn’t served by being seen as a religion or a metaphysics.

If SCIENTISM gets the Buddha wrong, then RELIGION gets him even wronger.  It’s time, maybe, for both to step aside.  Perhaps it’s time for therapeutic PSYCHOLOGY to try its hand at dealing with this issue.

It can’t hurt.  Buddhism, I’d contend, was already DOA by the time that Harris and others arrived on the scene for “forensics” so-called.   The train wreck’s already happened.  Religionism and cultural warfare over millennia between the various Buddhist factions and other belief systems has already “killed” “Buddhism” as such.  All that’s left now is to pull the ‘historical’/’philosophical’ Buddha out of the crash.

That’s the most we can do!