Monday, October 05, 2015

Existence is rather important

Consider the ontological argument:
"The ontological argument attempts to prove God’s existence through abstract reasoning alone. The argument is entirely a priori, i.e. it involves no empirical evidence at all. Rather, the argument begins with an explication of the concept of God, and seeks to demonstrate that God exists on the basis of that concept alone.
All forms of the argument make some association between three concepts: the concepts of God, of perfection, and of existence. Very roughly, they state that perfection is a part of the concept of God, and that perfection entails existence, and so that the concept of God entails God’s existence.
The ontological argument was first formulated in the eleventh century by St Anselm in his Proslogium, Chapter 2. Anselm was a Benedictine monk, Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the great medieval philosopher-theologians. Anselm’s ontological argument rests on the identification of God as “that than which no greater can be conceived”. Once it is understood that God is that than which no greater can be conceived, Anselm suggests, it becomes evident that God must exist."
The usual rebuttal, due to Kant, is that "existence is not a predicate".

There is a biological analogue: that the zoological properties of a species are predicated upon that species actually existing. An animal's behaviour is such as to ensure the continuing existence and successful reproduction of its genes: in the jargon, its inclusive fitness.

I think about this every time I hear some clever-stupid contortions in moral philosophy.

Take Peter Singer's observations that we would all help a drowning child in a pool before our very eyes - even at the cost of ruining our maybe-expensive clothes. Yet there are people in similar dire circumstances across the planet but out of our view, right now. We should therefore make similar material and effortful sacrifices for them too.

But, unless we are very gullible, we don't much (don't get me started on virtue signalling). So there's a moral deficit to explain and counter - if you're a moral philosopher of that persuasion.

The proximate reason we help the drowning child in front of our very eyes* is that we feel a strong emotional reaction, that of empathy, which drives us to action. And the causal reason we experience that emotion is that we have mirror neurons in our brains which emulate the child's fear and panic.

Let us progress. The ultimate reason for the evolution of empathy (and its enforcer, guilt) via the apparatus of mirror neurons was to facilitate reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism allows cooperation with non-kin across time and space to mutual advantage and can therefore be subject to positive selection (Robert L. Trivers).

We have a term for the network of those with whom we can work to the benefit of our mutual inclusive fitness: family and friends. The outer limit to the number of people you can do deals with has been quoted as around 150. Beyond that, people are just an anonymous mass.

When E. M. Forster made his over-quoted remark “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” he was capturing the essentially fictive notions of 'fatherland' (and indeed ethnicity) as objects of spontaneous emotional attachment. **

Politicians, religious leaders and ethnic spokespeople have to work hard to create feelings of mass emotional solidarity, ("Brothers and Sisters ...!", "Friends ...!"), misusing the language of small-group bonding. Sometimes they are right to do so, as there are indeed inclusive fitness benefits to some social organisations of scale. And sometimes they are just conning people and reducing their life chances (cults such as scientology come to mind).

Giving away your material goods to people with whom you can never hope to have any reciprocal relations of advantage is plainly a case of the latter. Which is why, (except for the most gullible who invite their extinction from the gene pool), people tend not to do it.

The argument above is related to this issue:
... the “problem of human ultra-sociality“: from an evolutionary point of view, how was it possible for the human species to go from living in small foraging bands of close relatives in the Palaeolithic to the global network of billions of anonymously interacting strangers that we see today ?
To read more, refer to this current post from Pseudoerasmus.


* We should note the perverse power of television in making the whole world appear as 'in front of our very eyes' and thus further scamming our emotions. Expect things to get worse in the coming days of virtual reality.


** Suppose that in a foreign and dangerous land you happen to meet a fellow country person. You might well feel a warm feeling of anticipatory camaraderie, as did those merchant seamen who, captured by the enemy, were rescued by sailors who were strangers to them with the cheery words "The navy's here!". Plainly a shared culture and heritage can make it more likely that there is a basis for future reciprocal altruism - prosocial dispositions may facilitate such an outcome.

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