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9:26AM

The Science and Philosophy of Brains

. . .Where science gives us a way to understand how the mental mechanisms we rely on in our daily and professional lives are made possible by brain functionalities, philosophy offers a way to understand how our intellect, our grasp of things, works in us. That is, an account of those features or elements in our mental lives (what goes on in us when we think about and understand things) which make up our grasp of the world around us (our subjective placement in the objective world we recognize as our milieu) requires a conceptual inquiry more suited to philosophy than science. Of course, the two cannot be divorced because science surely requires conceptual clarity in the formulation of its hypotheses and theories while philosophy depends on agreement with the best available empirical knowledge (scientific information) if it's to provide viable conceptual accounts.

If science can tell us what brains have to do to generate the elements we experience in our mental lives, and how our brains got that way, philosophy is needed to understand what the mental features caused by our brains' being "that way" actually consists of. That is, we need to know what's going on with us when we conceptualize the world around us in terms of spatial and temporal pictures and plan our actions, within that layered context, and evaluate the possibilities accordingly. Only with that sort of account can we know just what it is the brain's structure and functional behaviors make possible.

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8:42AM

The Mechanism of Moral Belief (Part III Making Moral Arguments)

[CONTINUED FROM PART II AGENCY AND COGNITION]

An Argument for Moral Goodness

Empathy, the recognition of ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves, is no less a stance we take toward others than Dennett’s “intentional stance.” In fact, empathy can be understood as an aspect of this latter orientation. As such, we may look to the intentional or subjective state of the acting agent, when he or she acts, in order to consider whether the action in question has the quality we deem morally pertinent. That quality, the expression of empathy, will be manifested in and through behaviors that look out for the concerns and needs of other subjects because empathy just is the expression of our recognition of subjectness in others. Those acts which deny or disregard the mental life of the other (its wants, needs, hopes, etc., i.e., it’s interests as a subjective entity), will fail to meet this standard while those which demonstrate acknowledgment of the other’s subjectness, manifested in both word and deed, will succeed. Behaviors which look out for others are the ones that represent the subject-to-subject reciprocity which being a subject implies. Acceptance of this reciprocity is then the basis for those decisions which put one’s own interests aside when there is reason to do so when we are presented with others like ourselves.

Because every action expresses valuation, every other form of value we express will be susceptible to this kind of judgment, too, i.e., to the evaluation of the quality of the intention(s) that underlie it in terms of the degree of empathy it reflects and expresses. Does that, which we intend to do, take account of the subjectness of others who will be affected by our intended action? If our action or our proposed action expresses recognition of that other’s subjectness by considering its needs as a subject, then the standard implied by empathy may be said to have been met. If not then the act in question will be seen to fall short. This standard will prevail in any complete evaluation of any action – for to be what we are in the fullest possible sense, we must trim our intentional behaviors to accommodate other subjects.

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10:48AM

The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part II (Agency and Cognition)

[CONTINUED FROM PART I (VALUING)]

Morally Relevant Features

To understand actions and how we can value them in terms of the intentions which underlie them (and which are thus expressed by them), we first have to arrive at an understanding of just what intentions are. And here we have to consider what we mean by the term itself. The word “intention,” when we think about it, doesn’t seem to name anything in particular that we can point at. When we look closely, in fact, there seems to be nothing there. Yet we cannot simply abandon the notion of intention without also abandoning the idea of agential action for if we don’t act for reasons, if we don’t have intentions when acting, which we can report to ourselves or others, if we only behave mechanically (in the fashion of machines), then there can be nothing to hold others or ourselves accountable for. Yet, it’s to this very possibility of accountability that we look when we wish to explain the difference between human and mechanical behavior.

We live in a world in which talk of reasons underpins talk of behavior in creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it cannot even make sense to speak of valuing without a notion of intention – for it takes a thinking subject, with the capacity to think about what it’s doing, before and while doing it, to engage in the very activity we call “valuing.” This activity is first and foremost a rational activity. It’s the process of finding and giving reasons for the different choices we decide to implement through our actions. But what are these strange things, these “intentions” which our reasons express and whose existence we must grant if we’re to make intelligible claims about the kind of behavior we find in ourselves and which those reasons we offer (to others and ourselves) give voice to?

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4:44PM

The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part I (Valuing)

IF VALUING is just the activity we must be capable of in order to reason about, and so interact with, things in the world (i.e., the capacity to arrange our options in some preferential order by sorting them in ways that allow for selectional differentiation), then moral valuing will involve applying this kind of activity to phenomena of the type we count as morally relevant, namely, to actions. To the extent moral judgments are about actions then (i.e., about distinguishing them along some preferential grid – just as we distinguish other referents in other valuing cases), what will be needed, in moral terms, is a way of determining the relevant markers that constitute a sorting standard suitable for actions.

Of course, not all evaluations of actions are about moral claims since every action we take in the course of deliberation expresses some underlying valuation and actions may be valued and evaluated in terms of those, too. That is, we often value actions for their role in these other types of valuation by considering them in terms of how, and to what extent, they serve as a means for securing other valued ends. Actions may thus be viewed either from a non-moral or a moral perspective.

Valuing as Giving Reasons

When we concern ourselves with the value of things which are objects of our behavior, our behavior expresses that value and is itself valued to the degree its performance is likely to realize the objective(s) in question. But what’s meant by valuing things in this sense?

I may call a scoop of ice cream, or a book, “good” and by this only mean that the ice cream is suitable for eating because it has a taste I consider desirable (and think you will, too), or that the book is one you should have on your shelf, read on your summer vacation or just shell out some cash for at your local book store. If pressed, I may offer still other reasons to back up these. The ice cream is good for you or will introduce you to a new flavor or the book is well written, will give you pleasure, you have something to learn from it, etc. If, when pressed, I can’t say why I think the ice cream is worth eating or the book worth reading my judgment of goodness in such cases must be suspect, for my use of “good” serves in such cases as a proxy for these other, more detailed statements I can make . . .

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8:32AM

Moral Realism as a Naturalistic Intuitionism

Have been reading an essay by Richard Boyd in the collection Essays on Moral Realism, edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. I think Boyd makes an interesting case. In a nutshell (and it's hard to get his argument into one nutshell), Boyd claims that, contra the non-cognitivist tradition, there is actually moral knowledge and that we come to know it empirically and in a way that is not radically different from how we come to know any scientific or other empirically discovered facts. The argument he makes commences with an analysis of what it means to know anything in a scientific way and he concludes that knowing is not a passive phenomenon, that we don't just soak up information around us. His view is that all empirical knowledge is achieved via the practices we develop, learn and employ against a developing theoretical background which enables new knowledge (new theoretical alterations), mitigated by the extent past theoretical underpinnings approach what is true. That is science grows in fits and starts but does so by building on itself and changing and improving the practices it enables which, as these improve, enable new knowledge and so better theories which thus adjust the background against which our current practices are employed and new practices developed.

He calls this "regulatory equilibrium" and argues that this sort of phenomenon, which is dynamic and interactive with others in our group(s), shapes the newer knowledge we obtain and is shown to be successful (and so to warrant acceptance) to the extent the adjusted theoretical background proves to predict better than what it replaced. In this fashion, he points out, modern chemistry and physics arose from the work of earlier centuries which were often based on what we recognize today as seriously flawed theories. Yet, he argues, we could not have gotten to our current state of knowledgeable science if we hadn't had the testing and measuring tools those earlier theories made possible. Similarly, he argues, there is a kind of intuitiveness at work in science for all scientific knowledge is not explicit. A great deal of it is implicit and representative of the unexpressed background theories the contemporary practitioner inherits and the training the practitioner obtains in the context of that unexpressed theoretical background. Thus, says Boyd, many scientific discoveries occur as realizations, as guesses that are prompted from the undergirding presumptions in which the scientist operates. Similarly, Boyd argues, knowledge of what's morally good can be understood to happen in the same way . . .

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11:20AM

Rejecting Morality

Continuing my efforts to look at the notion of moral valuing and the different explanations of how it works that it inspires, I recently had occasion to read Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. Actually I read his updated on-line version, Beyond Beyond Morality, which seems to be his effort to improve his earlier published book. Presumably his basic thesis hasn't changed although he has attempted to amplify and strengthen it for his readers. In a nutshell, the book rejects morality as such based on his embrace of the Humean picture of moral judgment being grounded solely in sentiment. But unlike others influenced by the Humean account, such as the non-cognitivists (emotivism, prescriptivism) or the subjectivists (those who ground moral discourse in individual preferences and those who ground it in consensus preference within particular groups), and, of course, unlike intuitionists like Michael Huemer (who argue that moral claims are cognitively respectable because they address rationally knowable facts derived from our concepts, themselves), Garner (like J. L. Mackie before him) rejects the idea that moral claims state any facts at all. There is no moral knowledge, he argues, and that's a good thing . . .

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4:55PM

Help Sean Wilson's New Book Project

Sean Wilson is seeking feedback on his next book project HERE
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