Loop: Consciousness and morality


Dan Dennett opens up with the proposition that consciousness is an illusion in the sense that it is not what it seems. That which is not what it seems does not equate not real. Instead, Dennett illuminates the many pre-programmed visions of reality our brains tend to project even if it is not what it really seems like. There are great examples in which our brains fool us to see that which isn’t there for plausible reasons. It is most certainly useful to be able to believe that the red and yellow blobs hovering over the benches far away from us as people and streetlights, for those are most likely what they are. However, it also means our very brain is biased towards inaccuracy.


The link above describes a study in which neuroscientists have discovered how our unconscious motor responses dictate our actions before the conscious region of our brains shows any activity, Milliseconds after the action, our consciousness becomes aware of it. This shocking study does light a path towards debunking Free Will. Despite the radical implications of this article, the questions raised by the end elucidate the fact that the debate has not been concluded yet. “Why, for example, did humans evolve consciousness instead of zombie-brains if consciousness is not a channel for exerting free will? And given the nature of quantum indeterminacy, what does it mean to live in a universe of fuzzy probability?”

All of the search for understanding cognition and the human mind I’ve done for the past few months has been a result of my desire or obsession to clarify Morality. To understand Human Nature and Morality. Following the logic of the studies listed above, Sam Harris poses a daring statement that Science can provide answers for Morality. https://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right

Sam Harris believes Science can permeate through the boundaries of morality, because there was no boundary to begin with. There is no such thing as an ought claim other than a stronger form of should. It can never become an absolutist statement. Harris believes Science has discovered many normative truths of human well-being. He insists that it is absurd to not presuppose human well-being as a precursor to any moral commitment. When Scientists go into the lab, they have certain moral pre-requisites they follow rigorously. A Scientist will not senselessly murder a participant with a chainsaw. We could argue about why or how this is wrong, but Harris believes such questions are fruitless and ridiculous. If our definition of Morality does not contain in its sense any ties to human well-being, then how is it moral? Doesn’t Morality entail Goodness?

One of the greatest objections to Harris’s view of Morality is G.E. Moore’s open ended question or naturalistic fallacy.

  1. Premise 1: If X is (analytically equivalent to) good, then the question “Is it true that X is good?” is meaningless.
  2. Premise 2: The question “Is it true that X is good?” is not meaningless (i.e. it is an open question).
  3. Conclusion: X is not (analytically equivalent to) good.

G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy reminds me of Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach which illuminates how our cognition of knowledge is full of such fallacies. Famously, Russell’s paradox \text{Let } R = \{ x \mid x \not \in x \} \text{, then } R \in R \iff R \not \in Ror “This sentence is false.”

Dan Dennett’s video above also presents us with various examples of how there might be inherent faults to our conscious experiences or the brain’s capacity to take in knowledge. Richard Rorty’s book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: Richard Rorty Philosohy and the mirror of nature. This book gives insight to how our language also does not mirror nature as it actually is. For example, “Juliet is the Sun”. Douglas Hofstadter believes at the heart of these fallacies and incoherencies is the concept of a loop. Hofstadter observes and sees that every instance of cognition contains self-reference, recursion, and formal rules. How does emergent properties such as consciousness arise from unconscious things like cells? When you look at a computer, it doesn’t need to have the perfect ability to know or calculate all things. It simply needs a set of instructions (1,0) to keep turning its wheels to operate. Hofstadter believes that our cells do the same through looping self-reference, recursion, and formal rules. Dan Dennett’s example shows many examples of self-reference our minds create. Also Hofstadter’s Law “Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” Recursion and formal rules are the crux of logic and Mathematics. Following this logic, we are turning machines. Some may argue that humans are fundamentally different from machines, because we feel and have consciousness. Why can’t we be turning machines? Where is the evidence against our consciousness being transcendent? There is none. Isn’t it fascinating how we can be self-aware through physical means?

Based on Hofstadter’s materialism, I believe that Sam Harris has a point. Moral truths may simply be natural preferences. Moral relativism may be inevitably true. Now the questions is should all preferences be respected? Surely, it is illogical to endorse those who wish to mutilate female genitalia even if its a cultural ritual. Perhaps Harris is right. (“… conceptions of morality that are relative and even nihilistic do not prevent people from criticizing moral systems that causes suffering or violence. Harris says “Unless you understand that human health is a domain of genuine truth claims — however difficult “health” may be to define—it is impossible to think clearly about disease. I believe the same can be said about morality. And that is why I wrote a book about it.”) Murder is normatively not good. Kindness is normatively good. If many people are kind, more people tend to be happy. When people are happy, they tend to be productive and violence decreases. Is violence inherently wrong? Perhaps not. Should violence be avoided as much as we can? Probably. The naturalistic fallacy might be an unsolvable fallacy or simply a picture of our mind generated due to its self-referential nature.

Maybe our view of morality need to shift from absolutism to maximization. It might be true that we may never be able to escape this cycle of uncertainty and clarity.
Here I am. Digging a hole to another endless loop for me to obsess with until my cells give away and return to mother earth.


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