Rebelling Within Nature

Fol­lowup to: Fun­da­men­tal Doubts, Where Re­cur­sive Jus­tifi­ca­tion Hits Bot­tom, No Univer­sally Com­pel­ling Ar­gu­ments, Joy in the Merely Real, Evolu­tion­ary Psychology

“Let us un­der­stand, once and for all, that the eth­i­cal progress of so­ciety de­pends, not on imi­tat­ing the cos­mic pro­cess, still less in run­ning away from it, but in com­bat­ing it.”
—T. H. Huxley (“Dar­win’s bul­l­dog”, early ad­vo­cate of evolu­tion­ary the­ory)

There is a quote from some Zen Master or other, who said some­thing along the lines of:

“Western man be­lieves that he is re­bel­ling against na­ture, but he does not re­al­ize that, in do­ing so, he is act­ing ac­cord­ing to na­ture.”

The Re­duc­tion­ist Masters of the West, strong in their own Art, are not so fool­ish; they do re­al­ize that they always act within Na­ture.

You can nar­row your fo­cus and rebel against a facet of ex­ist­ing Na­ture—po­lio, say—but in so do­ing, you act within the whole of Na­ture. The sy­ringe that car­ries the po­lio vac­cine is forged of atoms; our minds, that un­der­stood the method, em­bod­ied in neu­rons. If Jonas Salk had to fight laz­i­ness, he fought some­thing that evolu­tion in­stil­led in him—a re­luc­tance to work that con­serves en­ergy. And he fought it with other emo­tions that nat­u­ral se­lec­tion also in­scribed in him: feel­ings of friend­ship that he ex­tended to hu­man­ity, hero­ism to pro­tect his tribe, maybe an ex­plicit de­sire for fame that he never ac­knowl­edged to him­self—who knows? (I haven’t ac­tu­ally read a bi­og­ra­phy of Salk.)

The point is, you can’t fight Na­ture from be­yond Na­ture, only from within it. There is no acausal ful­crum on which to stand out­side re­al­ity and move it. There is no ghost of perfect empti­ness by which you can judge your brain from out­side your brain. You can fight the cos­mic pro­cess, but only by re­cruit­ing other abil­ities that evolu­tion origi­nally gave to you.

And if you fight one emo­tion within your­self—look­ing upon your own na­ture, and judg­ing your­self less than you think should be—say­ing per­haps, “I should not want to kill my en­e­mies”—then you make that judg­ment, by...

How ex­actly does one go about re­bel­ling against one’s own goal sys­tem?

From within it, nat­u­rally.

This is per­haps the pri­mary thing that I didn’t quite un­der­stand as a teenager.

At the age of fif­teen (four­teen?), I picked up a copy of TIME mag­a­z­ine and read an ar­ti­cle on evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy. It seemed like one of the most mas­sively ob­vi­ous-in-ret­ro­spect ideas I’d ever heard. I went on to read The Mo­ral An­i­mal by Robert Wright. And later The Adapted Mind—but from the per­spec­tive of per­sonal epipha­nies, The Mo­ral An­i­mal pretty much did the job.

I’m rea­son­ably sure that if I had not known the ba­sics of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy from my teenage years, I would not cur­rently ex­ist as the Eliezer Yud­kowsky you know.

In­deed, let me drop back a bit fur­ther:

At the age of… I think it was nine… I dis­cov­ered the truth about sex by look­ing it up in my par­ents’ home copy of the En­cy­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­nica (stop that laugh­ing). Shortly af­ter, I learned a good deal more by dis­cov­er­ing where my par­ents had hid­den the se­cret 15th vol­ume of my long-be­loved Child­craft se­ries. I’d been avidly read­ing the first 14 vol­umes—some of them, any­way—since the age of five. But the 15th vol­ume wasn’t meant for me—it was the “Guide for Par­ents”.

The 15th vol­ume of Child­craft de­scribed the life cy­cle of chil­dren. It de­scribed the hor­rible con­fu­sion of the teenage years—teenagers ex­per­i­ment­ing with al­co­hol, with drugs, with un­safe sex, with reck­less driv­ing, the hor­mones tak­ing over their minds, the over­whelming im­por­tance of peer pres­sure, the tear­ful ac­cu­sa­tions of “You don’t love me!” and “I hate you!”

I took one look at that de­scrip­tion, at the ten­der age of nine, and said to my­self in quiet re­vul­sion, I’m not go­ing to do that.

And I didn’t.

My teenage years were not un­trou­bled. But I didn’t do any of the things that the Guide to Par­ents warned me against. I didn’t drink, drive, drug, lose con­trol to hor­mones, pay any at­ten­tion to peer pres­sure, or ever once think that my par­ents didn’t love me.

In a safer world, I would have wished for my par­ents to have hid­den that book bet­ter.

But in this world, which needs me as I am, I don’t re­gret find­ing it.

I still re­bel­led, of course. I re­bel­led against the re­bel­lious na­ture the Guide to Par­ents de­scribed to me. That was part of how I defined my iden­tity in my teenage years—”I’m not do­ing the stan­dard stupid stuff.” Some of the time, this just meant that I in­vented amaz­ing new stu­pidity, but in fact that was a ma­jor im­prove­ment.

Years later, The Mo­ral An­i­mal made sud­denly ob­vi­ous the why of all that dis­as­trous be­hav­ior I’d been warned against. Not that Robert Wright pointed any of this out ex­plic­itly, but it was ob­vi­ous given the el­e­men­tary con­cept of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy:

Phys­iolog­i­cally adult hu­mans are not meant to spend an ad­di­tional 10 years in a school sys­tem; their brains map that onto “I have been as­signed low tribal sta­tus”. And so, of course, they plot re­bel­lion—ac­cuse the ex­ist­ing tribal over­lords of cor­rup­tion—plot per­haps to split off their own lit­tle tribe in the sa­vanna, not re­al­iz­ing that this is im­pos­si­ble in the Modern World. The teenage males map their own fathers onto the role of “tribal chief”...

Echoes in time, thou­sands of re­peated gen­er­a­tions in the sa­vanna carv­ing the pat­tern, an­cient rep­e­ti­tions of form, re­pro­duced in the pre­sent in strange twisted map­pings, across genes that didn’t know any­thing had changed...

The world grew older, of a sud­den.

And I’m not go­ing to go into the evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy of “teenagers” in de­tail, not now, be­cause that would de­serve its own post.

But when I read The Mo­ral An­i­mal, the world sud­denly ac­quired causal depth. Hu­man emo­tions ex­isted for rea­sons, they weren’t just un­ex­am­ined givens. I might pre­vi­ously have ques­tioned whether an emo­tion was ap­pro­pri­ate to its cir­cum­stance—whether it made sense to hate your par­ents, if they did re­ally love you—but I wouldn’t have thought, be­fore then, to judge the ex­is­tence of ha­tred as an evolved emo­tion.

And then, hav­ing come so far, and hav­ing avoided with in­stinc­tive ease all the clas­sic er­rors that evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gists are tra­di­tion­ally warned against—I was never once tempted to con­fuse evolu­tion­ary cau­sa­tion with psy­cholog­i­cal cau­sa­tion—I went wrong at the last turn.

The echo in time that was teenage psy­chol­ogy was ob­vi­ously wrong and stupid—a dis­tor­tion in the way things should be—so clearly you were sup­posed to un­wind past it, com­pen­sate in the op­po­site di­rec­tion or dis­able the feel­ing, to ar­rive at the cor­rect an­swer.

It’s hard for me to re­mem­ber ex­actly what I was think­ing in this era, but I think I tended to fo­cus on one facet of hu­man psy­chol­ogy at any given mo­ment, try­ing to un­wind my­self a piece at a time. IIRC I did think, in full gen­er­al­ity, “Evolu­tion is bad; the effect it has on psy­chol­ogy is bad.” (Like it had some kind of “effect” that could be iso­lated!) But some­how, I man­aged not to get to “Evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy is the cause of al­tru­ism; al­tru­ism is bad.”

It was easy for me to see all sorts of warped al­tru­ism as hav­ing been warped by evolu­tion.

Peo­ple who wanted to trust them­selves with power, for the good of their tribe—that had an ob­vi­ous evolu­tion­ary ex­pla­na­tion; it was, there­fore, a dis­tor­tion to be cor­rected.

Peo­ple who wanted to be al­tru­is­tic in ways their friends would ap­prove of—ob­vi­ous evolu­tion­ary ex­pla­na­tion; there­fore a dis­tor­tion to be cor­rected.

Peo­ple who wanted to be al­tru­is­tic in a way that would op­ti­mize their fame and re­pute—ob­vi­ous evolu­tion­ary dis­tor­tion to be cor­rected.

Peo­ple who wanted to help only their fam­ily, or only their na­tion—act­ing out an­cient se­lec­tion pres­sures on the sa­vanna; move past it.

But the fun­da­men­tal will to help peo­ple?

Well, the no­tion of that be­ing merely evolved, was some­thing that, some­how, I man­aged to never quite ac­cept. Even though, in ret­ro­spect, the causal­ity is just as ob­vi­ous as teen rev­olu­tion­ism.

IIRC, I did think some­thing along the lines of: “Once you un­wind past evolu­tion, then the true moral­ity isn’t likely to con­tain a clause say­ing, ‘This per­son mat­ters but this per­son doesn’t’, so ev­ery­one should mat­ter equally, so you should be as ea­ger to help oth­ers as help your­self.” And so I thought that even if the emo­tion of al­tru­ism had merely evolved, it was a right emo­tion, and I should keep it.

But why think that peo­ple mat­tered at all, if you were try­ing to un­wind past all evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy? Why think that it was bet­ter for peo­ple to be happy than sad, rather than the con­verse?

If I re­call cor­rectly, I did ask my­self that, and sort of waved my hands men­tally and said, “It just seems like one of the best guesses—I mean, I don’t know that peo­ple are valuable, but I can’t think of what else could be.”

This is the Avoid­ing Your Belief’s Real Weak Points /​ Not Spon­ta­neously Think­ing About Your Belief’s Most Pain­ful Weak­nesses an­tipat­tern in full glory: Get just far enough to place your­self on the first fringes of real dis­tress, and then stop think­ing.

And also the an­tipat­tern of try­ing to un­wind past ev­ery­thing that is causally re­spon­si­ble for your ex­is­tence as a mind, to ar­rive at a perfectly re­li­able ghost of perfect empti­ness.

Later, hav­ing also seen oth­ers mak­ing similar mis­takes, it seems to me that the gen­eral prob­lem is an illu­sion of mind-in­de­pen­dence that comes from pick­ing some­thing that ap­peals to you, while still seem­ing philo­soph­i­cally sim­ple.

As if the ap­peal to you, of the moral ar­gu­ment, weren’t still a fea­ture of your par­tic­u­lar point in mind de­sign space.

As if there weren’t still an or­di­nary and ex­pli­ca­ble causal his­tory be­hind the ap­peal, and your se­lec­tion of that par­tic­u­lar prin­ci­ple.

As if, by mak­ing things philo­soph­i­cally sim­pler-seem­ing, you could en­hance their ap­peal to a ghost-in-the-ma­chine who would hear your jus­tifi­ca­tions start­ing from scratch, as fair­ness de­mands.

As if your very sense of sim­plic­ity were not an aes­thetic sense in­scribed in you by evolu­tion.

As if your very in­tu­itions of “moral ar­gu­ment” and “jus­tifi­ca­tion”, were not an ar­chi­tec­ture-of-rea­son­ing in­scribed in you by nat­u­ral se­lec­tion, and just as causally ex­pli­ca­ble as any other fea­ture of hu­man psy­chol­ogy...

You can’t throw away evolu­tion, and end up with a perfectly moral crea­ture that hu­mans would have been, if only we had never evolved; that’s re­ally not how it works.

Why ac­cept in­tu­itively ap­peal­ing ar­gu­ments about the na­ture of moral­ity, rather than in­tu­itively un­ap­peal­ing ones, if you’re go­ing to dis­trust ev­ery­thing in you that ever evolved?

Then what is right? What should we do, hav­ing been in­scribed by a blind mad idiot god whose in­car­na­tion-into-re­al­ity takes the form of mil­lions of years of an­ces­tral mur­der and war?

But even this ques­tion—ev­ery frag­ment of it—the no­tion that a blind mad idiocy is an ugly prop­erty for a god to have, or that mur­der is a poi­soned well of or­der, even the words “right” and “should”—all a phe­nomenon within na­ture. All trace­able back to de­bates built around ar­gu­ments ap­peal­ing to in­tu­itions that evolved in me.

You can’t jump out of the sys­tem. You re­ally can’t. Even want­ing to jump out of the sys­tem—the sense that some­thing isn’t jus­tified “just be­cause it evolved”—is some­thing that you feel from within the sys­tem. Any­thing you might try to use to jump—any sense of what moral­ity should be like, if you could un­wind past evolu­tion—is also there as a causal re­sult of evolu­tion.

Not ev­ery­thing we think about moral­ity is di­rectly in­scribed by evolu­tion, of course. We have val­ues that we got from our par­ents teach­ing them to us as we grew up; af­ter it won out in a civ­i­liza­tional de­bate con­ducted with refer­ence to other moral prin­ci­ples; that were them­selves ar­gued into ex­is­tence by ap­peal­ing to built-in emo­tions; us­ing an ar­chi­tec­ture-of-in­ter­per­sonal-moral-ar­gu­ment that evolu­tion burped into ex­is­tence.

It all goes back to evolu­tion. This doesn’t just in­clude things like in­stinc­tive con­cepts of fair­ness, or em­pa­thy, it in­cludes the whole no­tion of ar­gu­ing morals as if they were propo­si­tional be­liefs. Evolu­tion cre­ated within you that frame of refer­ence within which you can for­mu­late the con­cept of moral ques­tion­ing. In­clud­ing ques­tion­ing evolu­tion’s fit­ness to cre­ate our moral frame of refer­ence. If you re­ally try to un­wind out­side the sys­tem, you’ll un­wind your un­winders.

That’s what I didn’t quite get, those years ago.

I do plan to dis­solve the cog­ni­tive con­fu­sion that makes words like “right” and “should” seem difficult to grasp. I’ve been work­ing up to that for a while now.

But I’m not there yet, and so, for now, I’m go­ing to jump ahead and peek at an an­swer I’ll only later be able to jus­tify as moral philos­o­phy:

Em­brace re­flec­tion. You can’t un­wind to empti­ness, but you can boot­strap from a start­ing point.

Go on morally ques­tion­ing the ex­is­tence (and not just ap­pro­pri­ate­ness) of emo­tions. But don’t treat the mere fact of their hav­ing evolved as a rea­son to re­ject them. Yes, I know that “X evolved” doesn’t seem like a good jus­tifi­ca­tion for hav­ing an emo­tion; but don’t let that be a rea­son to re­ject X, any more than it’s a rea­son to ac­cept it. Hence the post on the Ge­netic Fal­lacy: cau­sa­tion is con­cep­tu­ally dis­tinct from jus­tifi­ca­tion. If you try to ap­ply the Ge­netic Ac­cu­sa­tion to au­to­mat­i­cally con­vict and ex­pel your genes, you’re go­ing to run into foun­da­tional trou­ble—so don’t!

Just ask if the emo­tion is jus­tified—don’t treat its evolu­tion­ary cause as proof of mere dis­tor­tion. Use your cur­rent mind to ex­am­ine the emo­tion’s pluses and minuses, with­out be­ing ashamed; use your full strength of moral­ity.

Judge emo­tions as emo­tions, not as evolu­tion­ary re­lics. When you say, “moth­erly love out­com­peted its al­ter­na­tive alle­les be­cause it pro­tected chil­dren that could carry the allele for moth­erly love”, this is only a cause, not a sum of all moral ar­gu­ments. The evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy may grant you helpful in­sight into the pat­tern and pro­cess of moth­erly love, but it nei­ther jus­tifies the emo­tion as nat­u­ral, nor con­victs it as com­ing from an un­wor­thy source. You don’t make the Ge­netic Ac­cu­sa­tion ei­ther way. You just, y’know, think about moth­erly love, and ask your­self if it seems like a good thing or not; con­sid­er­ing its effects, not its source.

You tot up the bal­ance of moral jus­tifi­ca­tions, us­ing your cur­rent mind—with­out wor­ry­ing about the fact that the en­tire de­bate takes place within an evolved frame­work.

That’s the moral nor­mal­ity to which my yet-to-be-re­vealed moral philos­o­phy will add up.

And if, in the mean­while, it seems to you like I’ve just proved that there is no moral­ity… well, I haven’t proved any such thing. But, mean­while, just ask your­self if you might want to help peo­ple even if there were no moral­ity. If you find that the an­swer is yes, then you will later dis­cover that you dis­cov­ered moral­ity.

Part of The Me­taethics Sequence

Next post: “Prob­a­bil­ity is Sub­jec­tively Ob­jec­tive

Pre­vi­ous post: “Fun­da­men­tal Doubts