No Bell Prize Winner
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Re: Chapter 9 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
This is a payoff chapter. Lewis introduces the full range of issues around understanding morality, which is closely related to meaning. Starting with a good overview of moral emotion, including its roots in evolution, he rightly puts both group dynamics (the importance of cooperation) and reason (the effort to make sense of morality) in the center of the discussion.
His discussion of empathy was, I thought, careful and insightful. For example, I found the idea of "self-protective altruism" to be realistic and helpful. We help others in part to avoid the pain of seeing them suffer. We respond to the cries of a child, give to beggars, and help out in humanitarian disasters partly to feel better inside, because we carry other people in "mirror neurons" or other arrangements to feel their pain. This has been observed fairly carefully in the life of other primates, and we can be confident it is not unique to humans. Lewis also notes that in-group and out-group arrangements can lead us to override these empathetic feelings (including in primates).
I also appreciated his extension of the discussion to emotional contagion and emotional synchrony (the enjoyment of sharing an emotion with others). These are obviously important to understanding "spirit" which correspondents here will recognize is my key concept to understanding religion.
de Waal is his main source on empathy, but he goes on to discuss the work of Pinker and others featuring the role of reason in creating moral arrangements and understandings.
The next section deals with pieces of the puzzle - guilt, shame, disgust, and self-control, but also blocking of moral emotions - and how they fit together with the other matters. I found it interesting but familiar ground, and thought Lewis should have done more work to integrate the discussion. He is very deferential to expert researchers, which is good as far as it goes, but you get the feeling he is basing what gets discussed more on a survey approach to advancing knowledge than on an integrated worldview that he has arrived at. Fair enough, especially for this lay-person's level of discussion.
One issue I would take with all this is his description of moral learning by children as "internalizing the views of adults." While this is the standard way of discussing the process, it takes an entirely externalized way of viewing it. Because it sounds mechanical, we neglect the child's efforts to make sense of what they are internalizing. It can be tragic, as when the character Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" is treated to her older brother making sense of the social hierarchy of their milieu. But it is not mindless - the complexity Lewis has introduced is there, represented by neural connections, in the mind of the growing child.
It remains a huge area of study to understand how this sense-making occurs, and particularly the extent through which it is processed with reason and notions of fairness, through empathy and notions of suffering, or through a growing sense of power dynamics and privilege, and the attempt to assess one's capacity for getting and dominating. Obviously how we talk about our own reasoning process will strongly affect what links the child makes to particular reasons and motivations.
Lewis then engages one of the key "big issues" - the extent to which reasoning is subservient to emotion in matters of morality, as Haidt would have us believe. He does a good job of this in a short space, taking the discussion into realms of how artificial intelligence will deal with things, as Dennett would do. No resolution, but very thought-provoking. His explanation of the "response" to Haidt, by Pinker and Bloom, for example, is also interesting - their main point seems to be that reason is more flexible. When you consider all the complexity being added to our lives by technological advance, you can see that reason will play a key role in determining how we connect our moral emotions to issues like gender roles, sexuality, euthanasia, conformity, patriotism and racial tensions. What we in the U.S. call "social issues."
Yet reason still has to work at that level - informing our motivations which emotions are relevant. This is, I think, the key to understanding meaning, and it is also the sandbox of trolls who aim to disrupt the social process of building understanding of the world.
There follows a good discussion of the matter from the "reason" side, starting with game theory and the evolutionary advantages of cooperation in terms of "enlightened self-interest" and going on to discuss Leviathan and the social contract. It's a good introduction, and in particular if you haven't felt you understand the discussion of "tit for tat" strategies (Axelrod is the main name associated with the investigation), then you should check out Lewis' succinct explanation.
Lewis also includes a section on Democracy and Secularism which I found fair but necessarily shallow. Basically, avoiding religion doesn't automatically bring democratic methods or justice. Which I think we knew, and I am not clear where he wants to go with it.
There follows an interesting discussion, sounding like Harari, about the role of increased communication capacities and the social effects, both opening up limited world views and enabling echo chambers, that have resulted.
Finally he takes on the notion, pushed by Harris, that moral principles are derivable from reason. Basically his take is a "limited yes," emphasizing that the rational basis is becoming clearer, that we can learn a lot of the relevant facts and thereby derive our "oughts" mostly from "is" propositions (a la Harris), but also arguing that we should not see these as absolute and final answers as the implications of changing technology change the likely answers on matter such as euthanasia. I think he neglects to draw the obvious conclusions, that reasonable people will continue to disagree on such issues, and that good faith is required (as opposed to, say, corporate manipulation) to approach such disagreements with any hope of integrating the issues into our system of meaning.
In conclusion I will say that I think Lewis has redeemed himself from some of the early indications that this would be a circumscribed discussion of the "how" of meaning-making without ever exposing himself to what one might call the meaning of meaning-making, that is, to the hard questions of how one "ought to" go about the process rather than the scientific questions of how people generally do.