Natural evolution can only directly produce survival machines.
For biology only evolves from chemistry when some chemical combinations — organic or proto-organic molecules — come together in forms so complex and rare that they would be neither significant nor noteworthy unless they were in some way self-sustaining. For otherwise, they would be rare, isolated, and literally of no consequence.
So, biology emerges from inert matter when complex, unstable compounds (compound both in molecular composition and in structural architecture) develop randomly after long periods of combination and recombination.
Every such combinatorial recipe is the end product of a long line of accidental combinations. That long line of combinations creates a compound with a lineage quite distinct from all that surrounds it.
That lineage, unless perpetuated, disappears as fast as it is formed. Faster, in fact, because order is difficult and hard to sustain, while disorder and entropy are the natural state of things, the generic, undifferentiated end state toward which the second law of thermodynamics relentlessly drives all energy embodied as matter.
Therefore, only survivable, self-perpetuating, self-reproducing lineages matter.
Biological survival machines.
Survival is thus the prime directive of all life.
How, then, does, the idea — and perhaps even the reality — of the moral agent arise from the relentless pursuit of survival by the biological world order?
Because organisms need energy to fuel the processes by which they sustain themselves, survival is competitive, for energy in usable form, or in the most efficiently usable form, is limited.
Life, the release of biological survival machines into the world, expands much the way matter does, much as the Big Bang from its first beginnings expanded explosively into whatever emptiness existed beforehand, available to be filled by this relentlessly expanding universe, this empire of matter aggressively acquiring new territory after new territory.
Similarly, life always seeks to expand its domain.
Life is colonizing.
Nature may not abhor a vacuum, but matter abhors empty space, and life abhors unused resources and uninhabited environments.
The colonizing drive of life, in all its divergent forms, and the limits to resources guarantee that life will proliferate until resources are scarce.
So life quickly becomes a competition for scarce resources.
Plants compete with one another for limited access to sunlight, one of their most needful resources. Heliotropism is the autonomous, unthinking biological mechanism with which senseless plants compete for sunlight, detected somehow chemically, yet without consciousness.
For animals, the most conveniently packaged and most usable energy is that already packaged as living organisms. And thus begins predation.
Plant-eating animals (herbivores) prey upon plants. Some herbivores, by eating only fruits, nuts, or something less than all leaves, allow the plant to survive, while others strip plants bare, devour their roots, or in other ways weaken and destroy them.
Herbivores also compete with others for the territories that host the plants upon which they survive, sometimes even to the death. And losing all claim to any territory ends in death anyway, the slow death of starvation.
Carnivores and omnivores prey upon other animals, in whole or in part.
In carnivore predation, the prey is mobile and struggles to escape, by flight or by fight. So, predation is a zero-sum game with a surviving winner and a perishing loser.
How, then, does moral agency arise, when all of life is about competing with and even preying upon other forms of life?
The gentling of competition, paradoxically, arises from the ever-sharpening competitive evolution of competitive advantages for survival.
For, ultimately, the best tool for survival, the best bodily structure or organ for competitive advantage is the least specialized one, the most general one — the one that generalizes as its most characteristic product: the mind, that is, the processes of reasoning that occur within the brain!
By a very roundabout road, a road that winds through the most ruthless paths of brutal expediency, the conditions under which mind and reasoning prosper are the conditions that make limited forms of morality useful to survival, and make the broadening of morality appealing, the more so the more time progresses.
So, what really is intelligence, and what makes it so powerful an advantage for survival?
Intelligence, reasoning, inferring, calculating — whatever you want to call it — is a power of adaptation in real-time to changing situations and conditions, generated by the individual in response to their immediate conditions and thus custom-made to suit their particular reality, rather than some generic genetically-coded reality that doesn’t quite match the specifics of their current situation.
The survival value of intelligence is the advantage of custom-made solutions to generalized standard solutions — the only kind natural selection can select for.
Anyone subject to a bureaucracy knows the limitations of generalized standard solutions!
Put differently, by evolving intelligence, natural selection delegates the power of adaptation to the individual striving for survival at the critical moment, with the specifics of the situation known and thus factored into the adaptive response to the threats and opportunities of the actual situation in real-time!
It’s the same advantage held by a flexible, adaptive AI software program to any set of hard-wired encoded directions.
Intelligence responds to the actual, present circumstances of a time-slice of life rather than to a general stencil that fits most, and the most representative, instances of the general situation.
So, the advantages of intelligence are clear, and the inevitability of its emergence as competition drives the discovery of better and more competitive solutions to the problems of survival.
From Intelligence to Morality?
But, how could this relentless competitive struggle lead to moral agency?
If you have not the slightest clue, that can only mean you’ve not read or pondered the historical thinking of Kant or Hegel (or Hegel’s bad-boy student Marx). The clash of embodied interests — whether of all within a society or of the interests of the entrenched guardians of the old order and the revolutionary advocates of the new order — is the key.
And, yes, that’s also how revolutionary scientific progress takes place, according to Thomas Kuhn.
Kant calls it unsocial sociability; Hegel calls it the dialectic of history; Marx calls it class struggle. In each case, it means progress and refinement through the struggle of thoroughly egoistic perspectives.
The turn toward the moral arises from the conditions for developing intelligence: extended nurture, social animals living in durable groups, and a sufficiently stable social order within the group.
Brainier animals require longer childhoods for extended nurture, that is, the training in the use of intelligence.
Also, the more complex and time-consuming developments required for an advanced nervous system and brain means that infants are incomplete at birth, helpless, and incapable of surviving without parental care. This is obvious in mammals and birds.
This means, to begin with, stronger mother-child bonds. Males must either be a part of the bonded family or kept at its periphery by the matriarchy.
Drop-and-run parenting, common among insects and reptiles, won’t serve.
So, all mammals and birds are social animals during the child-rearing stage, however solitary they may become once they are grown.
But most of the more intelligent animals are social animals.
The advantage of social animals in developing intelligence is that the coordination of individuals within the troupe requires the development of social signalling, communication, and ultimately, language, however rudimentary.
Intelligence, the gathering and ordering of experience under generalized categories and generalized routines for behavior, develops best and most quickly when it draws upon the shared experience of multiple individuals. From many perspectives comes the best general perspective, and the one most usefully shared back out among members of the troupe.
Social animals are bound together by needs, beginning with the overwhelming need of the helpless infants for their parents.
And fulfilled needs give rise to affection (as every pet owner knows).
First, because it is natural for the child to develop an affection for the parent that feeds and protects it. The child likes what is good for it. The child even likes inanimate things that bring it pleasure. More importantly, mutual liking between animate thing leads to the mutual signalling of friendliness, of the offer of help rather than harm, the smile of comfort rather than the frown of fear.
Second, natural selection needs to implant a motive in the parent for its care of its offspring. As the body takes pleasure in the good things that satisfy its needs. so the mind feels affection for the good animate things that satisfy its impulses. Some of this is simply positive associations from past encounters, but hormones and neurotransmitters do their bit.
Caring begins with the self but extends from the self to others necessary for the survival and prosperity of the self, for the offspring its parents, for the parents their offspring, for all members of the troupe the other members.
The group works best for the survival of its members when their actions are coordinated to some degree. Signalling and other forms of communication help with this, as does a hierarchy or pecking order, as do customs supporting cooperation, anything from the social grooming of apes to the gossiping of humans.
Groups initially survive by establishing hierarchies recognized within the group and by intuitive rules of cooperation, like the trading of favors.
With human language, a whole new level arises. Laws become formal and committed to words, at first in oral tradition, later in written form, as honored texts, whose traditions are upheld and interpreted by dedicated scribes, priests, judges, and so on.
The prototype of true morality is tribalism, loyalty to the tribe and its traditions. Later these traditions become the formal laws of the tribe, the basis of tribal morality.
With the less naturalistic, more contemplative and meditative forms of religion, and with philosophy, tribal loyalties and moral codes begin to embrace universals.
Religions now evolve from tribal religions with tribal gods, who are mere supernatural advocates of a particular people, otherworldly kings to lead the people against its enemies. These religions, many arising in what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, look toward universal definitions of what a human being should be, the first notions of moral agency as a common human birthright, bringing with it both responsibilities and, later, rights, and extending beyond the native tribe to any human beings willing to rise to the occasion.
From here the narrative merges into others I’ve told, with the theories of the social contract a good place to begin, or perhaps to end up.
Choice is not some unconditioned force operating independently of instrumental forces (i.e., deterministic causality); choice is simply factors influencing outcomes that are anchored in more comprehensive or longer-term considerations than one’s immediate reaction to a stimulus-event
For the operating causes of deterministic causality are transmitted immediately and directly from the sum of acting forces distributed over the sum of objects affected. Such causes take no account of remoter consequences.
An organic system evolved to maintain its instrumental organs in equilibrium, and within the limited ranges of conditions required for their operation, guides the design of the system — and consequently the design of the deterministic causes that make it work — while at the same time maintaining the suitability of those causes and their outcomes to the self-sustaining organic system. It does this by the action of natural selection, a form of probabilistic causality that eliminates unsuitable organisms and organic components from a population (i.e., an aggregate of organisms) over generations (i.e., an aggregate of individual life-and-death events).
Choice is a parallel form of indirect causes at work over a wider context than simple deterministic causes, that is, choices are events conditioned by the goals of a conscious being involved in its own survival and prosperity that must, like the indirect causes of an organic system, work through lower-level direct, deterministic causes that are nonetheless organized by the deliberate goals of the agent of choice. Here, in place of natural selection, we have the deliberate selection of means to ends that have proven successful in the past, as well as the deliberate exploration (through trial-and-error) and innovation (by experiments suggested by imaginative evaluation of past successes).
In both cases, an after-the-fact sifting process directs future deterministic causes by culling deterministically caused outcomes that undermine, in one case, the sustainable organic system, and in the other, the overarching purposes of the choosing agent.
Paradigm shifts are a key concept in TOK (Key #12 is all about them). The concept means a shift in the conceptual frameworks we use to evaluate things or events.
Famous examples include the shift from geocentric to heliocentric conceptions of the solar system and from the Newtonian to the Einsteinian conception of gravity.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with paradigm shifts in the natural sciences, since paradigm shifts in the natural sciences are knockout elimination tournaments — as with the Highlander, in the end there can be only one.
It’s easy to talk about them in retrospect (when the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won) but how do they look as they may (or may not) be unfolding?
There may be one underway in evolutionary biology, according to a re-post on Quanta Magazine online (quantamagazine.org/scientists-seek-to-update-evolution-20161122/).
In this corner, the Modern Synthesis, a term coined in the 1930’s as geneticists and evolutionary biologists began to merge their thinking.
Darwin had already laid out the basic principles of evolution: 1) Biological traits are transmitted by inheritance, 2) Later species diverge from common ancestors, and 3) natural selection guides the changes.
But Darwin knew nothing of genetics. Geneticists added to evolutionary theory that hereditary transmission works through genes whose differences are coded in DNA. Further, transcription errors in the transmission of DNA (i.e., mutations) produces the raw, blind variations upon which natural selection works after the fact.
In the other corner, the challenger paradigm, the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, without denying the primacy of the genetic inheritance mechanism, adds factors beyond genes that guide genetic inheritance: 1) epigenetic modification of gene expression distinct from the genetic code itself, 2) developmental predispositions towards certain particular mutations, 3) adaptive adjustments in plants or learned behaviors in animals, and 4) ancestrally-modified environments.
I’ll begin with #2, because it’s the simplest to illustrate. Lizard toes develop in a certain sequence, a bud appears on the body whose 5 typical digits emerge in sequence. Some lizards, however, lose one or more toes, but in doing so they lose them in reverse of the developmental sequence. In other words, the easiest and least divergent mutation from the norm is the premature aborting of the standard developmental process. All mutations are not equal, since failure to complete a standard developmental sequence is only a single step away from the norm.
Epigenetic changes (#1) act on the underlying genetic code without “rewriting” it, turning gene expression on or off, but leaving the capability of reversion intact. So, epigenetics is a more temporary and provisional form of genetic alteration. But if the organism’s environment continues to control the gene epigenetically for a long time, the combination of actual environment and epigenetic reaction to that environment, effectively functions as a new adaptation-inducing environment at the genetic level. In other words, epigenetic change can function as a kind of probationary prelude to fully encoded genetic change, once the the suitable mutations occur and are offered up to natural selection.
Adaptive adjustments in plants (#3) are well illustrated by smartweed, a plant that in bright sunlight grows narrow, thick leaves but in dim light grows broad and thin leaves. Genetically identical samples can look like they belong to different species. This flexibility, known as plasticity, allows the plants to spread to habitats they could not otherwise colonize, ultimately leading to standard genetic evolution as isolated populations fix mutations that pass muster with natural selection.
Learned behavior begins to shape evolution when habitual animal behaviors or human cultural traditions change the local environment to which the organism adapts (#4). Beavers, by cutting down trees, building dams, and creating ponds, change their environment in ways that force themselves and neighboring organisms to adapt to the new conditions their behavior has brought about.
And that goes exponentially for human culture, which is beginning to wreak such overwhelming changes on our environment that many scientists say we are now in the anthropocene age, in which human actions increasingly determine geological conditions.
From these perspectives, the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis is not so much an overturning of the Modern Synthesis, as an expansion of it. It is not suggesting mechanisms that countervail against genetic hereditary transmission, but focuses on larger contextual factors that influence how that transmission takes place, making it less random and more structured, less a matter of genetic drift and more a matter of environmentally-adaptive natural selection.
And by making their environment more suitable to themselves, beavers accentuate those beaverly traits that allow them to remake their environment. Likewise, by making our environment more suitable to ourselves, we accentuate those human traits that allow us to do this.
Note: this is a longer read than the typical post, about double that size.
Free will is best thought of, not as a violation of causal processes or an exemption from them, but as an arrangement within causal processes from which new capacities emerge, capacities that breach the limits of pre-conscious causal processes — those in which the cause occasions its effect solely in terms of forces in play immediately at the point of contact, oblivious to wider concerns or longer-term factors.
Free will as we know it is found most clearly in human beings. It involves the awareness of possibilities (Daniel Dennett’s “degrees of freedom”) within the power of the agent to realize, no matter how wide the scope or how long the term of the expected benefit.
Free will is a special kind of will, one that involves deliberation, which is the conscious consideration of possibilities.
Wills aim at some benefit, whether to an individual (self-interest), to a group (altruism), or to a virtual group (universality, that is, a will benefiting equally anyone who meets a threshold requirement that is not morally arbitrary). The initial, and enduring self-interest of any organism (which alone wills things) is survival, but in a social and cultural species self-interest can expand to include: 1) first, the self-interest of the group which supports the survival of its members, and 2) second, presenting a character in one’s actions aligned with a self-image encouraged by either the group or the individual.
This second expansion of self-interest accounts for those who sacrifice their own survival to act as a good Christian or a good Roman. These are still interests in which the agent has a stake, but they go beyond the simple survival of the individual.
So, there are only three possible beneficiaries of a will: the self, the physical group to which the self belongs, or the virtual group to which the self belongs (some version of an Enlightenment universal, say, human beings, understood by definition as bearers of rights).
Free will aims at benefits selected from a range of possible outcomes and from a range of possible benefits. This introduces longer terms and wider considerations, both of which require sustained deliberation rather than impulse or instinct
Even if one only aims at survival, one can choose short-term risks to increase one’s long-term chances of survival. But as different kinds of benefits are considered alongside survival, deliberations become more complicated and such beings find themselves choosing within wider parameters and facing all kinds of trade-offs.
Yet free will does not happen outside of causal processes, but rather in spite of them. That is the core of compatibilism (the view that, when understood properly, free will and determinism are compatible). Free will comes into being when causal processes are arranged in such a way as to make possible the deliberate consideration of possibilities that the agent can initiate, as it considers the comparative benefits of different courses of actions.
But before that can happen, there must exist pre-conscious systems in which organic homeostasis occurs, that is, organisms in which system-wide equilibria are sustained by causal processes whose workings are determined by the blindly mechanical action of immediate causes on their immediate effects.
In other words, it is as if a machine were engineered with a purpose in mind, except that the engineer is blind causation, randomized over immense lengths of time. Evolution casts up mutations that mostly fail to produce a viable machine. But when, at long last, a viable machine is accidentally produced, the parts work together within a system that functions to a recognizable end. And organisms go a step farther than machines in that they are provisionally self-maintaining for the lifetime of the organism.
The most critical organ for free will is the brain, which, in order to enhance the prospects of survival, develops ever more in the direction of processing information about the organism’s environment and internally projecting imagined scenarios of action in order to safely test their viability before committing to them. This was at first purely a matter of perceptions of prey and predators and the instinctive emotions fueling the pursuit of prey (desire) and the flight from predators (fear).
As the brain increased its powers of inference, anticipation, and deduction, calculation began first to serve the driving emotions and passions (a` la David Hume) and then to begin to control, organize, and discipline those emotions to serve a desired self-image or character, that is, a honed ability to function as needed to achieve the agent’s chosen benefits. Early on, that meant the cultivation of the virtue of the gatherer, the hunter, the warrior, and the leader.
The cultivation of astuteness (prudence in the amoral sense) is the system-maintaining highest order that serves self-interest and survival. Machiavelli demonstrates the scope and limits of this in his two great works, The Prince, on how this works in principalities, and The Discourses on Livy, on how this works in republics.
The cultivation of moral virtue (prudence in the moral sense, now more commonly called probity or practical judgment) is the system-maintaining highest order that serves those final ends or values that go beyond mere self-interest, culminating in altruistic ends.
Free will, then, means an arrangement of causal processes that escapes the limitations of inorganic causality — that it is conditioned by immediate causes, and thus blind to distant consequences; it does this by enlarging the conditions of action to include considerations that go beyond the impulses of the moment, the interest of the isolated self, and the attainment of material benefits — beyond all that to the attainment of exemplary kinds of character, that is, to the perfection of the self (according to some code or standard) rather than its mere gratification.
Will: Absolutely Free or Absolutely Conditioned?
The notion of absolute free will, metaphysical free will, or libertarian free will, is misleading. To face choices free of all conditioning would be to face them without any formed character or any awareness or experience of consequences. Such freedom would be meaningless because it is stripped of the context that gives it meaning. It would be the freedom to act randomly and without purpose. That describes the condition of infancy or mental breakdown, not the condition of a fully-functioning moral agent.
I am suggesting that the concept of absolute free will slips free of the real-world context in which alone it makes any sense.
Aristotle discusses a similar slippage from context in those who ascribe actions to god (as Aristotle understood god, the prime mover). Aristotle’s prime mover was perfect and complete, and as such had no need of action, for action is a necessity only for imperfect beings, who have needs and desires arising from their incompleteness.
I argue that both Aristotle’s complete god and absolute free will’s unconditioned willing are limiting cases, that is, reference points outside the range of meaningful free will, that serve only to define the limits of the concept, but do not define the concept itself.
Thus, free will concerns the choice of appropriate ends and of a suitable organization of the self (created by good actions leading to good character) rather than the creation by fiat of possibilities that did not exist previously.
Habit is both a help and a hindrance to free will. Experience allows us to build our astuteness and technical abilities (instrumental capacities) and our probity (moral capacity). In both cases we enlarge our capacities by developing suitable habits, by discovering useful routines and, by making them routine, reserving our active deliberation for special cases, borderline cases, and the careful weighing of the highest-ranking ends, when trade-offs among them are necessary.
But a habit is a purposeful rut, and when the rut has become obsolete or counterproductive, it is hard to break (for the same reasons it made choices easier when it served our purposes).
To act without being subject to any conditions would be to act without purposes, experience, abilities, or character. It would mean being reduced to the state of a helpless and dependent infant.
One of the problems with lengthy linear arguments within established traditions (orthodoxies) is that such habits of thought crowd out the real-world context which alone gives the topic its real meaning.
Advocates of absolute free will model their idea of will on a context-free ideal that is impossible and that would be without meaning or value if it could exist.
They also ignore that agents undergo an organic process of maturation. If free will is anything, it’s a capacity. Agents begin as infants lacking even the capacities necessary to survive. Maturation is the organic processes of acquiring abilities through nature and nurture, and a a third kind of conditioning, experience (sometimes included under nurture). Free will, like any other skill-based or knowledge-based capacity, can only be acquired through some combination of these kinds of conditioning.
By contrast, hard determinists disregard that, as agents, we act on our own agency, selecting from among ends available to us, but starting from pre-existing limits.
Agency as a Self-Correcting Condition
Agency should work much as Karl Popper says science should.
Both activities are neverending and perpetually incomplete.
Both are prone to error and false or premature certainty, but both are capable of self-correction.
Both work within the limits of their current assumptions (i.e., beliefs, paradigms), of their methods for comparing alternatives and hypotheses, of their technical capacities, and of their current store of process-tested tentative knowledge.
And, crucially, both have the capacity to review and reconsider every previous choice using new data, new considerations, and new and different minds, if necessary.
Instead of defining free will in terms of an idealized, absolutely unconditioned and context-free concept (of dubious applicability), modeled on the fiat creation capacity of the biblical God, free will should be defined comparatively, in terms of the more limited capacities that precede it in its development.
These include the inorganic cause operating immediately on the object it affects, the organic homeostatic cause operating to maintain a self-regulating system (i.e, an organism), a sentient system of desired opportunities and feared threats, typically mediated by pleasure and pain (i.e., a personal character formed within a culture and its enforcing institutions), a self-conscious system that calculates self-interest, and, finally, a self-conscious system that both calculates self-interest and also recognizes values beyond self-interest (in the simplest sense) and evaluates opportunities and threats in terms of those values.
Science can describe the causalities involved in these processes up through calculations of self-interest (for such things as survival , health, wealth, status, and power can be observed and measured, bringing them within the scope of science).
But science stops short at values (distinguishing them as value-judgments, distinct from the empirical statements that can be made about observable facts) since they are not precisely measurable. Values as well come in different kinds which are not measurable by a common measure (i.e., they are incommensurable, apples and oranges), and thus can only be balanced in a painful kind of value-judgment known as a trade-off (a characteristic focus of economic evaluations and moral dilemmas).
Let’s distinguish three kinds of scientific theories: predictive, origin, and comprehensivetheories.
Predictivetheoriesdeclare universal laws or rules that always apply. These typically apply to measurable or verifiable quantities, so they can either be measured against a common scale or their instances can be counted and then measured by the probabilities of an occurrence. Newton’s 3 laws of motion are an example.
Origintheoriesare chronological accounts that explain how the particular configurations we observe came about. Our current understanding of the 8-planet solar system is an example of this; as these theories build from incomplete evidence and records, by connecting the dots, they are always somewhat speculative, and are routinely revised as further evidence comes in.
Comprehensive theories are much more expansive, providing a conceptual framework for the topic as a whole. They typically combine multiple predictive theories and origin theories along with some overarching principles or axiomatic assumptions that provide coherence and context for the other two, but are not themselves directly testable. Newton’s and Einstein’s theories of gravity are examples of this; both made claims that were not immediately testable, while containing predictive theories that were testable.
Predictivetheoriespredict what will happen in limited or controlled circumstances where the universal laws they declare can be put to decisive tests. The ideal experiment or observation controls all variables except for two, the independent variable which the experiment or observation controls and the dependent variable, changes in which can be directly correlated to changes in the observer-controlled independent variable. Universal laws said to determine the correlation between these two variables can thus be put to a test controlled by the observer.
Predictive theories are governed by unchanging laws that apply throughout the whole universe and in each of its parts. To test these theories empirically, one need only create a microcosm of the universe, setting up a carefully limited, controlled, and measured (and, thus, artificial) original configuration. In this microcosm, isolated variables can be measured and correlated as one systematically varies only the independent variable, providing measurable, quantified data. The controlled experiment creates an isolated module in which the forces, laws, and causal correlations operative in every other module in the universe can be isolated, made thereby observable, and put to decisive tests.
Origin theoriescannot be so tested. Remember, they try to explain the creation of a particular configuration — a result of universal laws and original configurations, but vastly complicated by the unplanned interaction of all events in the ongoing sequence of events leading up to the particular configuration. There can be few if any observer-controlled variables here.
Origin theories, unlike predictive theories, cannot be directly tested. 1) They are not isolated, controlled modules, but uncontrolled event free-for-alls, in which multitudinous independent chains of causality interact in ways too complex and multivariate to be controlled and made predictable by the observer. 2) They are not representative modules, in principle, repeated everywhere else in the universe; they are unique chronologically accreted results of the random, undesigned interactions of causal events blind to everything outside the forces acting immediately upon them. 3) Because they generate one-of-a-kind situations and entities, they are often mistaken for history (i.e., what happened in the human past to give us the present that we humans find ourselves in), but they are not history, because the generative events occur without intentions or purposes, being strictly causal and deterministic, in the strong sense. Such origin theories include cosmological accounts of the origin of our present day planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe, as well as geological accounts of the origins of geographical features, rock strata, and continents, as well as evolutionary biological accounts of the origin of all species, and of the extinction of lost species.
Origin theories are random from the perspective of an overarching design or purpose (even in history, large-scale events have no overarching intelligent design, just the clashing designs of competing agents and interests), yet not arbitrary, for, if one could observe, measure, catalog, and inventory all the constituent events, the outcome is necessary in accordance with universal laws. For the current configuration resulted from universal laws acting on a long-ago original configuration; but that configuration has been so altered in the meantime, and impacted by so many independent variables, that we can neither observe nor measure its constituent events. No controlled module can be constructed from such a menagerie.
Instead, we must piece together a narrative, roughly analogous to the investigation of a homicide, especially if we focus on the forensic evidence, and the testimony, not from human observers (except in the case of history), but from mechanical recording devices. Short of directly observing the final homicidal event itself (rarely possible for the jury and judge), we can only examine the current configuration of evidence, piece together a sporadic chronological and forensic record from the evidence, and match it against a list of suspects, each suspect’s status as a suspect being supported by an origin theory claiming that the suspect’s doings sufficiently match the evidence at hand to account for the origin of, in this case, a murder victim. And if the comparative matching of each origin theory makes one such theory the likeliest, the suspect named by that theory becomes our prime suspect.
But where is this top-down functionality I’ve been hinting at?
Evolution may produce one primal function, but it’s entirely accounted for by blindly mechanical, purely reductive forces and mechanisms.
Let’s look again at our early self-replicating network of complex molecules.
It’s complex, and fragile, readily disintegrating into its lifeless, and ultimately inorganic, components. This thing can’t last. Internal replication and self-repair isn’t enough. It’s got to recreate itself in a fresh form that can survive beyond the original, which must ultimately succumb to the wear-and-tear of the combustible, energy-consuming, and risk-ridden processes of life. It must procreate, and colonize. This will require new functionalities, greater complexity, more differentiation of parts, and those differentiated parts are structures, tissues, and, at a certain level of complexity, organs.
Even before procreation, and the procreative organs, there was differentiation within the organism, to perform the several integrated functions that support life and survival amidst competition for resources, for living things use up resources and must compete with other living things for the available resources.
Even single celled organisms must have differentiated parts: a cell wall to keep its internal resources from dissipating into its surroundings, cytoplasm through which needed materials can move within the cell to where they are needed, ribosomes to manufacture proteins for constructing body tissues, DNA for reproduction, and sometimes flagella for locomotion or pili for anchoring. With greater complexity comes organelles, functional units like the energy-producing mitochondria, separated from the cytoplasm by membranes to maintain their internal integrity.
Each differentiated part of a single cell organism serves a necessary function aiding the survival of the organism as a whole. We now have a top-down hierarchically-organized system of differentiated parts serving the top-level function of survival by performing useful subordinate functions.
Something new has erupted into our so far purely reductive universe: organized wholes composed of differentiated parts networked together functionally within an integrated system ordered from the top down by the primal function of survival, and survival of a unique genetic lineage, nothing universal.
As such organisms continue to evolve, more complex, and more differentiated organisms emerge. They grow large enough that organelles must be replaced by specialized tissues and organs, such as the circulatory system which circulates a plasma substitute, blood, to transport oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body. This system, in turn, needs tubular vessels to carry the transport fluid, a pump to drive the fluid’s circulation, a filter to remove toxins and waste, and so on.
With consciousness and sense perception, a whole new realm of functionality appears, within which elaborate behaviors of pursuit and avoidance pit predator against prey. Tactics now emerge, some pre-programmed or hard-wired, others left to develop through learned experience and habit in organisms blessed (or cursed) with consciousness.
Yet in this world — organized, guided, driven, and ruled by function — metrics still matter, and empirical science can still be done.
Think of the cheetah, a smallish cat, the fastest land animal, capable of reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour in short bursts. That metric matters because its speed gives it an edge in its pursuit of its prey. So, the metric matters, even though it is encapsulated within the functional network of competitive pursuit and flight.
Now consider stotting, a vertical leap performed by gazelle, especially when they detect predators such as wild dogs that run their prey down (as opposed to stalking them, as do cheetahs and other cats). Stotting seems to be an announcement of the health and strength of the gazelle, which stronger gazelle use to deflect the attentions of wild dogs from them to weaker, easier prey.
(Not very sporting but, as Leo Durocher famously said “Nice guys finish last”; he just left off the part about getting killed and eaten.)
Stotting cannot be understood in terms of a simple metric; after all, it wastes time and energy. Stotting must be understood in terms of tactics; it signals to the predator a better tactic that redirects the predator to other prey.
So, in the world of organisms, function trumps metrics, both in understanding differentiated parts, organelles, and organs, and in understanding behavioral reactions, habits and tactics. In the world of organisms, function is primary, metrics (though still significant) are secondary.
The analysis of organisms — whether biological and anatomical or behavioral, psychological, and social — is top-down and functional more than it is bottom-up and metric. But, as one moves from the biological sciences to the human or social sciences, one moves from mechanically deterministic functionality to deliberate functionality, purposiveness, and choice, in all of its human dimensions, from the instrumentally prudent choices about which Machiavelli and Sun Tzu advise princes and generals to the ethically prudent choices about which Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Kant and John Stuart Mill advise the likes of you and me.
Darwinian nature is a system of organisms each of which expropriates parts of its surroundings to serve its own survival. Excepting photosynthesis, expropriation means destroying other organisms to refuel or rebuild the predatory organism’s body. Nothing in nature is sacrosanct: every organism is potential fuel for an organism evolved to expropriate it.
Social Darwinism is a pseudo-morality that stops here.
Limitations upon this evolve among social animals, since consuming parts of the society upon which they depend would undermine their own survival. So, natural predation is transformed into pack behavior or tribalism, in which members follow an internal code of restraints on how they use one another, that need not apply to outsiders.
Act Utilitarianism (as typified by Jeremey Bentham’s remark that the concept of rights was “nonsense upon stilts”) stops here (at least when aligned with the power to enforce, because that is always limited geographically).
Most, if not all, forms of cultural or historical morality — understood as general, society-wide habits of behavior, rather than as the behavior of the truest models and moral icons of a given culture-wide morality (e.g., as Christians rather than as Christ) — have treated insiders and outsiders dramatically differently. And so too with not only pure outsiders (i.e., aliens) but also underprivileged classes within slave societies, caste systems, and hierarchical societies of every kind and degree. In other words, these are still forms of tribalism, in which degrees of membership can be described in terms of innermost, middling, and outermost circles.
Naturalistic moral theories are limited to the foregoing. Their purpose is limited to the surviving and thriving of some organism, or collection of organisms.
Empirical natural science can only produce or support naturalistic moral theories. Anything else would be either beyond its scope or beneath its notice.
Morality so conceived meets here a dead end.
To conceive of a different kind of morality, one must move beyond the natural organism.
That can only be, I think, the conceptually-defined member of a possible community. Let’s call this hypothetical being an agent.
Morality, in this view, becomes the conditions for the existence of the community the agent desires to form.
If the agent or agents impose their community on others by force, they fall back within the confines of naturalistic morality, that is, pseudo-morality (or the morality of the free dictating terms to the unfree). At best, theirs is a relative morality, moral among the rulers, tyrannical over the ruled.
If, by contrast, the community is an elective community of free agents, the conditions of that community must be acceptable in principle to all potential members, otherwise they would not freely elect to join.
This follows whether that community is the national community among fellow-citizens of a social contract, of spouses within a community of marriage, of friends within a community of friendship, or of all human beings within the community of humanity.
In each case, to the extent that the community is one of free agents, the conditions of community, what each owes the other, are the rights of membership for that community.
Rights, then, are the basis of morality as it applies to the relations among agents.