Posts Tagged ‘Robert Wright’

Judgement Machines

February 4, 2018

From natural selection’s point of view, the whole point of perception is to process information that has relevance to the organism’s Darwinian interests — that is, to its chances of getting its genes spread. And organisms register this relevance by assigning positive or negative values to the perceived information. We are designed to judge things and to encode those judgements in feeling.

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment

Like any paradigm, evolutionary psychology is an extreme oversimplification of our multifarious existence. Even if we accept the premise that human beings are shaped by evolutionary pressure, which I do, it does not automatically follow that everything we are is the direct result of “natural selection.” Many mutations and alterations in our genes are merely coincidental.

If, for example, a parrot with an efficient nutshell-crushing beak happens also to be blue, its descendants are likely to be blue despite the fact that their blueness does not foster their success like that marvelous beak does.

Human beings are not “designed” by evolution; we’re the product of happenstance. And nobody can say for certain what the “whole point of perception” is. But you needn’t be a natural selection determinist to appreciate Wright’s picture of human consciousness.

The Difference Between Berry and Toadstool

Wright is certainly correct to say that human beings automatically assign “positive or negative values” to “perceived information.” Every thought we have is wrapped inside a feeling. These feelings often had the benefit of keeping our Hunting Fathers alive long enough to pass along their DNA. That’s how we got here.

Determining the difference between berry and toadstool, lamb and lion, or friend and foe is an essential survival skill. Our ancestors survived and prospered thanks to the happy associations they made with the delicious berries that sustained them and the painful associations they made with frightening beasts that killed their friends and relatives.

The Old, Old Tale of Narcicussus

It’s natural for human beings to constantly analyze and reevaluate the world we live in. And, as social organisms, we evaluate ourselves in relation to others. That’s why we’re forever recalibrating our opinions of one another.

How we feel about others is a function of how they make us feel about ourselves. The world is our mirror, as W.H. Auden notes:

A friend is the old, old tale of narcissus.

Severing how we feel about others from how we feel about ourselves is not possible  we don’t exist in a vacuum. But we can examine our natural tendency to “judge things and to encode those judgement in feeling.”

Jesus commands: “Judge not.” But judgement-free perception simply isn’t possible. What we can do is listen to our thoughts and examine the feelings that ignite them.

Avoiding Misery and Masochism

Don’t squander your precious time on Earth trying to figure out who deserves to be happy. There’s always going to be people you can point to as undeserving of the gifts life has bestowed upon them. Should it really be your task in life to figure out who’s to bless and who’s to blame? By fixating on the unfairness of it all, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of misery and masochism.

I’m not suggesting that we should accept the world the way it is. On the contrary, fighting injustice and trying to make the world a better place is one of the best ways to find meaning in this crazy old world.


by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

July 20, 2010
Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

Morality is a human concept devoid of cosmic origin.

All of our notions of morality are predicated on the fact that human beings are mortal social organisms living in a world of finite resources. If there were only one immortal and indestructible being living in a land of unlimited resources, and none of her actions or decisions could negatively impact herself or others, she would require no rules. But human beings are not the only animals which require social conventions in order to ensure social cohesion. Thus, the laws and cultures we have developed are a “direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals” (6).

Human beings have developed elaborate rules and rituals in order to function as members of a group. This makes sense because “Evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (13).

Despite the obvious fact that human beings are hardly the only social organisms, biologists have been extremely stingy about acknowledging the possibility that other species are capable of making conscious moral decisions. Scientists with the temerity to suggest that even the most mentally developed non-humans such as primates, dolphins and elephants might be more than simple automatons are often accused of lacking objectivity due to their alleged sin of anthropomorphizing their subjects.

Enter Frans de Waal, the eloquent and outspoken primatologist who argues that morality is not the sole domain of human beings. He makes a convincing case that the same factors which have allowed human beings to develop ethical thinking exist in the higher primates. De Waal argues that continuity is the norm between evolving species in all manner of development, physical, emotional and moral. Therefore, the burden of proof should rest with those who argue that human beings are radically different from even our closest cousins when it comes to behavior and decision-making: “If we normally do not propose different causes for the same behavior in, say, dogs and wolves, why should we do so for humans and chimpanzees?” he asks (62).

In Primates and Philosophers (some brief essays from de Waal along with commentary from Josiah Ober, Stephen Macedo, Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer) de Waal blames the “behaviorists” (a group for whom he harbors unconcealed contempt) for the widespread antipathy to biologists who credit animals with anthropomorphic tendencies:

“The behaviorists’ opposition to anthropomorphism probably came about because no sane person would take seriously their claim that internal mental operations in OUR species are a figment of the imagination” (66).

Decades of close observation have convinced de Waal that certain higher primates possess all the prerequisites necessary to act upon ethical precepts. Despite being at odds with a substantial proportion of the scientific community, de Waal has an influential ally in his belief that humans possess “continuity with animals even in the moral domain”—Charles Darwin (14). Unlike many “Darwinists,” Darwin argued that:

Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man (14).

If, as the Apostle Paul wrote, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, then humans are not the only beings capable of such devotion. Famed primatologist Dame Jane Goodall believes that, on occasion, chimpanzees will deliberately risk their lives to save a member of their species. Although they cannot swim, Goodall has often observed them making

“heroic efforts to save companions from drowning–and [they] were sometimes successful. One adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother had allowed it to fall in the water” (33).

De Waal notes that “it is hard to accept as coincidental that scientists who have watched these animals [he’s including dolphins and elephants along with the certain primates] for any length of time have numerous such stories” to tell (33).

De Waal believes that in addition to possessing altruism, some primates have developed a concept of fairness. In a groundbreaking study capuchin monkeys would eventually reject a treat when another capuchin within view was given a preferable reward for performing the identical task. (See Brosnan and de Waal, 44-49)

It is clear that human beings are not the only creatures on earth which demonstrate highly complex mental states (and perhaps even in some cases, a Theory of Mind, 69-73). For example, de Waal is convinced that chimpanzees in captivity like to have a good laugh by playing practical jokes on their human masters:

Often, when human visitors walk up to the chimpanzees at the Yerkes Field Station, an adult female named Georgia hurries to the spigot to collect a mouthful of water before they arrive. She then casually mingles with the rest of the colony behind the mesh fence of their outdoor compound, and not even the best observer will notice anything unusual about her. If necessary, Georgia will wait ten minutes with closed lips until the visitors come near. Then there will be shrieks, laughs, jumps, and sometimes falls, when she suddenly sprays them. (59)

It is difficult to disagree with de Waal’s conclusion regarding the question of whether or not anthropomorphizing certain animals is a “dangerous” tendency for biologists:

There is a symmetry between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial, and since each has its strengths and weaknesses, there is no simple answer. But from an evolutionary perspective, Georgia’s mischief is most parsimoniously explained in the same way we explain our own behavior–as the result of a complex, and familiar, inner life (67).

by Richard W. Bray