Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Consciousness and morality revisited

As I am investigating the topic of morality (whether I have anything interesting to say about it is yet to be discovered), I bought “The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values” by Sam Harris. I was not surprised to see that on the first page, in the Introduction, Harris writes: “I will argue, however, that question about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” I am glad to have yet another example that humans use consciousness as a property defining objects of morality.

The notion of “well-being of conscious creatures” is repeated numerous times throughout the book. On page 32, Harris explains why he chose consciousness as the basis for morality:

“Let us begin with the fact of consciousness: I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is – it would seem, by definition – the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of human values and morality is not an arbitrary starting point.“

There are a couple of problems here. First of all, Harris does not present any constructive argument in favor of using consciousness as the starting point. He only says that all alternatives he can think of are either uninteresting or related to consciousness. This is an argument from ignorance, a logical fallacy, which Harris should be familiar with as an outspoken atheist. Unfortunately, Harris keeps on using arguments from ignorance in his book (see also p. 62 and p. 183).

Secondly, let us for a second consider the world of ants (rather than humans). We know that most ants are insects with complex rules of social interactions. The problem is how to design these rules in order to maximize ants’ well-being (e.g. “thou shalt not kill another ant from your nest”). Or to put it more generally, let us say we have any population of any social agents: they may be simple computer programs implemented in a cellular automaton, or super-intelligent aliens who have no characteristic that we would recognize as consciousness by any modern definition (they do not have brain tissue, they do not smile, frown, sleep, cry, nor talk). How do we go about designing optimal interaction rules for their population, i.e. how do we design their morality? If use of consciousness is necessary, does it mean that we cannot design morality for creatures that do not have it? It seems that this is what Harris is thinking: “altruism must be (…) conscious (…) to exclude ants” (p. 92). Why not ants? It seems that if we are to solve much more complicated problem for humans, maybe it would be a good idea to start with much simpler problem for ants? Harris seems to think that we cannot optimize ants’ behavior but we can optimize human behavior. Why?

We already know that despite what Harris is claiming, the choice of consciousness is arbitrary. This is what evolutionary psychology dictates and Harris tries (and fails) to rationalize this human intuition. And the question that needs to be answered in the first place is: should we follow our intuitions? Or, more precisely: why, when, and which intuitions should we follow, and which should we discard?

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