Rebelling Within Nature
“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.
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”