Austin Philosophy Discussion Group (APDG) Message Board Philosophy for Real Life Monday night group › Part II: FREE WILL, ETHICS, AND NATURAL LAW

Part II: FREE WILL, ETHICS, AND NATURAL LAW

James I D.
user 72846152
Austin, TX
Post #: 5
Let’s consider some examples. Slavery has existed throughout history. In Greco-Roman times, religion, culture, politics, caste or class divisions was the usual basis for discrimination, but it was justified by the ancient Greek doctrine that “might makes right” which came from a flawed interpretation of natural law. That is, since there is a pecking order within other species, it was natural to assume that there should be one in human society. Of course, there is a pecking order in human society today, but most modern societies do not condone slavery. The unstated justification for slavery has always been to provide preferential economic treatment of certain classes within society. When the “might makes right” theory was challenged by those who wanted to abolish slavery, a modified theory based on race was developed. The idea was still that there is a natural pecking order, but it was justified by the notion that races of human beings with outwardly different appearances from the dominant race were naturally inferior, or even subhuman. Of course, whether the ancient or the modern theory was used, they both amounted to fallacious interpretations of the laws of nature. When we recognize that the appearance of superiority among ethnic groups is largely due to differences in prevailing knowledge in those groups at that time, it becomes clear that the pecking order has little to do with genetic differences. The correct biological law of nature, derived from the genetic code, shows that all races are equally capable when endowed with equal knowledge. Racism had some credibility because a false but popular interpretation of natural law was believed by too many,especially those in political power.

Political doctrines justified by flawed interpretations of natural law have also had serious moral consequences throughout history. The doctrinal differences between Athens and Sparta are exemplary of ancient times, but we have had the most glaring examples in modern times. Darwin’s theory of evolution was generally misunderstood and was used by many factions in order to justify false analog theories. Gross misinterpretations have been used to justify race prejudice, class warfare, economic theories, and genocide. Expressions such as “Survival of the fittest” and “Red in tooth and claw” laid the foundation for misinterpretation. Even Karl Marx believed his economic theory was supported by the theory of evolution, i.e. his false interpretaion of that theory. His false interpretation justified his racism, which is made clear in the following quotation from a letter he wrote describing his socialist competitor, Ferdinand Lassalle: “...Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also nigger-like." His false analog theory also led to communism, supported class warfare, justified the gulags and led to mass killings in Mao’s China. The Nazis used the theory of evolution to support their idea of the super race, extermination of the Jews and other “inferior” races. When the fundamental basis for Darwin’s theory, the genetic code, was finally discovered in the 1950s, there remained no doubt that social interpretations of the theory were grossly flawed analogies.

Finally, it is unfortunate that Einstein’s theory of relativity has a name that suggests interpretations of the theory that the theory itself does not support! Einstein’s goal was to show that the laws of physics are the same for all observers. He recognized that different observers moving relative to each other will see things differently, i.e. measured quantities will have different values, but that is merely an artifact of measurement. Einstein’s great discovery was that the laws of physics are universal; i.e. whether in another galaxy or in the building next door the same laws of physics are valid. Several scientists at the time Einstein proposed his theory thought the chosen title was “very feeble.” The great mathematician Hermann Minkowski suggested the title “Postulate of the Absolute World,” and the great physicist Max Planck shared his view. But the name stuck and has been co-opted by false analogy to support many pseudo-scientific theories. During the 20th century, such (“postmodern”) theories gained wide support in universities and has led to insidious intellectual movements in which Einstein’s theory is invoked to add credibility. For example, we have “ethical relativity,” the idea that there exist many ethical systems of equal validity (in the extreme version, one for each individual), and “cultural relativity,” which is similar, but applied to cultures rather than individuals.

We seem to go off track into a cesspool of immorality when we attempt to make false analogies with the laws of nature. When we properly understand nature’s universal physical laws, they offer guidance toward universal moral laws, and provide a clear distinction between right and wrong. It all comes down to finding the right explanation and avoiding the many false explanations. Knowledge itself is nothing more than the right explanation. Right and wrong have objective meaning, and virtue increases in proportion to knowledge.

SUMMARY: The notion that humans generally have a degree of Free Will is essential in order to have a civilized society. A civilized society is one in which its citizens belief that there are some fundamental principles underpinning ethical behavior. Those fundamental principles are discernible through a proper interpretation of natural law.
Guy J
lifetoward
Austin, TX
Post #: 14
This is good stuff, Jim. I'd add on a few points:

The moral relativism and "man as measure" concepts do have bearing within certain levels of consideration. In other words, it's not either/or between these two camps. There's no doubt that individuals' views of what's right or wrong have enormous importance in our social interactions, regardless of how false those views may be. In this sense, we very truly must reckon with manmade and arbitrarily false notions of ethics all the time, and we must have functional means for dealing with such scenarios. Einstein's relativity does mean more than that the laws hold everywhere: It also means that perspective matters when making qualitative judgments. Quantum mechanical realizations corroborate this idea, and it is not inconsistent with there being universal laws.

This doesn't mean there isn't some consistent set of natural laws of ethics out there being revealed to us over time. Even so, the only means we have to discover them are social (in this case it must be so since society is where the test must be performed), and certainly their reality will be understood by consensus, and certainly at the core of our discoveries only human desire will be the guiding force. In other words, we might expect to spend a lot of time in the dark even if we work hard to uncover such laws.

I happen to believe that there is a natural basis for ethics which is discoverable, but I also think its complete discovery is impossible or will require as long as sentience exists. Perhaps it's even more readily discoverable than you've suggested in your two posts.

It's usually politics which gets in the way. The application of the will to power can be expected to cause individual agents to 1) seek those natural laws, including those of ethics, even while 2) obscuring from others or privately applying those laws with bias as a means to maximizing their own relative local power. However I also think, and I don't think even Nietsche would disagree, that as a person discovers and applies these laws he will find that contrary to a more myopic view, maximizing one's own power is actually facilitated through promulgating such truths as widely as practical, though not haphazardly or without exception.

Also keep in mind that even the "laws" themselves must apparently be real emergent properties of the macrocosm, not just in the microcosm. More extensively derived laws change the most over time and are even later perceived. The case in point: A law of interpersonal or societal ethics, if there is a natural law to it, is certainly one that could not have existed more than 100,000 years ago, because there was no society in which it could have meaning or be expressed. Similarly, modern ethics should be expected to truly vary from former ethics. Just consider that now we need a corollary at least which deals with light-speed communications between individuals who have never met bodily. So either the laws themselves are emerging, or they were never really absolute in any eternal sense. I'm not sure it's meaningful or important to distinguish whether these evolutions of ethics are the result of humanistic moral relativism or fundamental emergence of the macrocosm. In practice we gotta deal with what we got, and appealing to natural laws has little more clout than appealing to the divine decree of God. In fact, evidence from history suggests that using a concept like God works better for these applications!
James I D.
user 72846152
Austin, TX
Post #: 6
Guy: I agree that, right or wrong, the entire society or, perhaps more specifically, the power structure controlling the society determines ethical laws. My goal was to make the case that there is a nexus among the notions of Natural Law, Ethics and Free Will. I think it would be beneficial to society if those in power were more mindful of the nexus when making law.
a.m.
user 11085356
Austin, TX
Post #: 50
I'm not very familiar with the concept of "Natural Law" but having admitted that, I have to say that it sounds like an oxymoron as it is being used here. I presume "Laws of Nature" are purely scientific (ie empirical) where as "Natural Law" is derived from human thought. Is the application of Natural Law As Universal Truth (like way we apply axioms as truths when solving math problems) the very basis of power?
Kim
user 7355689
Austin, TX
Post #: 600
I presume "Laws of Nature" are purely scientific (ie empirical) where as "Natural Law" is derived from human thought.

http://en.wikipedia.o...­
http://en.wikipedia.o...­
James I D.
user 72846152
Austin, TX
Post #: 7
I thought it was clear from the text that I am using "Natural Law" to mean law(s) of nature. That expression may be used differently in other contexts but, for me, I would have a hard time explaining the grammatical difference in meaning between "natural law" and "law of nature." Of course, not all laws of nature are yet known or fully understood, and one of my points was that misinterpretation can create major problems.
James I D.
user 72846152
Austin, TX
Post #: 8
Anine and Kim: I apologize if my use of the expression "natural law" led to confusion. As you point out, the expression has a variety of meanings depending on one's background. Being a physicist rather than a traditional philosopher, I tend use terms grounded in science versus traditional philosophy.

Regarding the the role of empiricism in science, we can have a longer conversation sometime. It plays a minor role, if any at all. Empiricism is certainly not the basis for valid scientific theories (natural laws); in fact, it has been rejected by the scientific community for almost a century. The theoretical framework underpinning science is what guides the progress of science. In Werner Heisenberg’s book Encounters with Einstein, he recounts Einstein’s clear statement (ca. 1925) of the problem with empiricism:

“The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, has made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: "Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote of it, but it is nonsense all the same."... ...He pointed out to me that the very concept of observation was itself already problematic. Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness. But we can only be sure of this connection, if we know the natural laws by which it is determined. If, however, as is obviously the case in modern atomic physics, these laws have to be called into question, then even the concept of "observation" loses its clear meaning. In that case, it is the theory which first determines what can be observed.”
Kim
user 7355689
Austin, TX
Post #: 606
In Werner Heisenberg’s book Encounters with Einstein, he recounts Einstein’s clear statement (ca. 1925) of the problem with empiricism:

“The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, has made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: "Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote of it, but it is nonsense all the same."... ...He pointed out to me that the very concept of observation was itself already problematic. Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness. But we can only be sure of this connection, if we know the natural laws by which it is determined. If, however, as is obviously the case in modern atomic physics, these laws have to be called into question, then even the concept of "observation" loses its clear meaning. In that case, it is the theory which first determines what can be observed.”

Thank you for an interesting quote.
gary
catalunya
Austin, TX
Post #: 11
Anine and Kim:

Regarding the the role of empiricism in science, we can have a longer conversation sometime. It plays a minor role, if any at all. Empiricism is certainly not the basis for valid scientific theories (natural laws); in fact, it has been rejected by the scientific community for almost a century. The theoretical framework underpinning science is what guides the progress of science. In Werner Heisenberg’s book Encounters with Einstein, he recounts Einstein’s clear statement (ca. 1925) of the problem with empiricism:

“The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, has made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: "Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote of it, but it is nonsense all the same."... ...He pointed out to me that the very concept of observation was itself already problematic. Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness. But we can only be sure of this connection, if we know the natural laws by which it is determined. If, however, as is obviously the case in modern atomic physics, these laws have to be called into question, then even the concept of "observation" loses its clear meaning. In that case, it is the theory which first determines what can be observed.”

I think this deserves clarification. Popper said that all observation is "theory-laden". Einstein appears to be referring to a version of this: theory "determines" (I would say "guides") observation in at least two important ways - by selecting *what* to pay attention to (no one is looking for the aether any more, but we're more interested than ever in dark matter), and by technologically extending the reach of our senses (dark matter may recently have been *observed* through its antiproton signature).

We're not looking for the aether because we now have an excellent theory, that interlocks with other excellent theories, in which the aether cannot exist. Once upon a time, everyone was looking for physical evidence of a physically real aether. What qualifies as "physical evidence"? As Einstein pointed out (echoing Hume), there's no direct connection between an external phenomenon and our perceptual experience. We can never be certain that any sense impression is not an illusion (in a sense, we know that it is).

But we do know that our naive interpretations of our sense impressions of the tables and chairs and walls and doors that decorate our rooms happen to be damn good theories of them, in the sense that they explain to us why we should not try to walk through walls (correctly predicting broken noses and failure). They're informal theories that work, and we trust them. When we formally extend those theories by accepting the explanatory reach of scientific theories, we also accept that the technology created on the basis of some of those theories - radio telescopes, large hadron colliders - extends our observational reach, in a way that is no less justified than our belief in the utility and existence of doors, given our naive theories that we need to find them if we want to get out of rooms.

I agree that classic empiricism doesn't work, and no scientist today is that kind of empiricist. Explanations don't emerge from mere observations, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. But I consider Popper's notion of scientific method to be a modern form of empiricism. It insists that anything we call a scientific theory must have skin in the game. It must contain at least one empirical statement by which the entire theory stands or falls. This statement must be falsifiable through physical observation - where "theory-laden" technologically-extended observation counts. Our theories about walls and doors are easily falsifiable, but never yet falsified.

It's true that there are many scientists who claim to reject Popper's views. They say that his idea of falsification is too restrictive, that in practice we believe a theory because of its success rather than its lack of failure. Certainly, a history of predictive success gives us a sense of confidence. But a sense of confidence is not a method. The debate about string theory is a good example. So far, it has made no testable predictions that differ from those of the rest of physics. It's not clear (so I've read) that it's capable of making falsifiable predictions in Popper's sense; for Popper, such a failed prediction has to weaken the foundation of the theory, and shouldn't be fixable by tweaking minor assumptions. This is what some mean when they say Popper is too restrictive - it's hard to build a theory that way.
a.m.
user 11085356
Austin, TX
Post #: 52
Thanks, Jim and Gary, for those informative and interesting explanations.

I have a few thoughts/questions:

When and why did the Heisenberg principle change from the proposition that the interaction of measuring a particle altered the accurate property of the particle to the proposition that merely observing the particle caused the change.

Gary's description explains somewhat my question re: Einstein's quote, "Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness... " or as Gary paraphrased, "There is no direct connection between an external phenomenon and our perceptual experience."
But I can't help but find this assertion a huge sticking point. Can our personal, unmediated, physical, (ie actual) experience with the so-called phenomena be that connection? ( I hope the answer doesn't create a response that devolves into hair-splitting definitions of vocabulary. ) If I hear a thunder clap, I experience a visceral response. That physical experience is the connection. Just because I interpret the sound as Thor swinging his hammer on his foe doesn't change that actual experience.

Is this a kind of a "what comes first, the theory or the experience" question?

As I was reading Gary's post, I was reminded of my reaction when I first read August Strindberg's play, "The Father" http://en.wikipedia.o...­. The Victorian patriarch's "natural order" is undermined by his wife playing the Uncertainty Card: Is he the biological father of their daughter? Today a simple lab test would give him a result with 99% accuracy. But even though he couldn't know for certain, was all the invective and mental distress worth it?
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