On the objectivity of Morality and Beauty

Free thoughts and speculations on Truth, Art and Bees.

A beautiful flower.

Sometime before Christmas, a friend pointed me to a great conversation between Sam Harris and Quantum Computation maven David Deutsch. Their discussion revolves on the ideas presented in the physicist’s book “The beginning of infinity”, seamlessly touching on science, knowledge, progress, the relation between humanity and the universe, and the objectivity of morality and beauty.

Yes, that’s right, the objectivity of morality and beauty. That’s why I had to read “The beginning of infinity”.

The book is composed in equal parts of insight and intelligent speculation. And who doesn’t love insight and intelligent speculation? Here’s my highlights of the book, diving directly into the controversial bits!

Reality, Truth, Objectivity

Deutsch defines something to be objective if it figures in our best explanations of the world. This way, objectivity doesn’t directly refer to the reality out there anymore. That’s because there’s no way to access that reality in its raw form – no such thing as knowledge from raw sensory experience: all knowledge is theory-laden.

All we have is our theories. However, our theories can and do sometimes contain elements of truth, reflecting the properties of the reality out there. The tools we have to make sure that the content of truths of our theories grows are conjecture and criticism. That is, we improve our theories by conjecturing competing explanations and we criticize them against some criteria. The criteria are theory-laden and are themselves subject to change, again through conjecture and criticism .

In physics, for example, we can consider a conjectured theory as an improvement in respect to the others if it better meets the criteria of explaining the available data, do so simply, and of producing testable predictions. These criteria weren’t born with physics itself, but emerged after centuries of discussion and criticism – and are not presently devoid of controversy either.

The power of conjecture and criticism – the power of reason itself – can be applied to more than just science. Philosophical theories that can be criticized against factual knowledge are also fair play. Take Morality and Aesthetics, for example.

Reason and Morality

Deutsch defines moral philosophy as tackling the problem of “what to do next”, that is to decide between a wide spectrum of options by reasoning about which options are better and which are worse. The Moral relativism point of view on the question is that there’s no real “better” or “worse”: these judgments only exist inside the arbitrary standards of culture.

Here’s where the factual knowledge in Deutsch’s claim makes its entrance. Moral theories do not just appear out of thin cultural air. They are connected with the physical world through the explanations we create to support them.

As an example, a person could consider gay adoption wrong because they think that homosexuality is a severe mental illness and, as a consequence of being raised by mentally ill parents, the child would suffer harm.

This moral theory can be pitted against physical reality. In fact, we observe plenty of adoptions by gay couples in which the child develops normally. At the same time, current science excludes the possibility that homosexuality is a severe mental illness, through its own reality-anchored cycle of conjecture and criticism. The explanation which underlies the moral theory is at odds with reality: we need a better moral theory. Luckily, we can create one through reality-anchored conjecture and criticism.

Morality is not the only philosophical theory that can be pitted against physical reality. Deutsch considers Aesthetics as another important example

Beauty, the common structure

Aesthetic pleasure can be derived by a multitude of means, as listening to great composers, looking at great paintings, or studying mathematics and physics.

Deutsch believes that there is a common structure underlying what we consider Aesthetically pleasing. If we want to explain why we find some things Aesthetically pleasing but not others, that structure has to be part of our explanation. Thus, given the definition of objectivity presented at the beginning – “objective is that which figures in our best explanations of the world” – the structure has to be considered objective.

To explain why he guesses that a common structure exists, Deutsch uses an argument which I really can’t get myself to like. He thinks that there’s no good explanation yet for why we like flowers, and guesses that the reason is that flowers evolved to produce objective beauty, and we have some of the knowledge to recognize it. In his argument, flowers and bees co-evolved so that the flowers could produce (and the bees recognize) a code to signal past the genetic rift between them – a code with universal reach. Humans are also separated by rifts, due to the fact that the content of each human mind is radically different from that of the others. For this reason human artists produced knowledge of the same nature as the one contained in the flowers’ genes, knowledge about what we call Beauty – a common structure which can inform codes of universal reach.

This is certainly a piece of intelligent speculation, but not very insightful to me. The flowers argument is a way for Deutsch to anchor Aesthetics to factual knowledge about the physical world, and detach it from parochial human experiences: if we are not the only thing in the universe able to produce and recognize beauty, then beauty cannot be cultural – flowers and bees don’t participate in our culture. Still, this argument is not really convincing to me. Is the rift between humans really as profound as that between flowers and bees? Humans can create profound connections even when they cannot even rely on a common culture or a common language to communicate; is art then really answering a need for universal communication? And why should codes with universal reach be biased to go towards beauty anyway? Would humans which never had contact with art not consider flowers beautiful? Given that bees evolved to (imperfectly) recognize beauty, and we created knowledge to (imperfectly) produce beauty, does that mean that bees would be attracted to our art if we adapted it to fit their way of experiencing the world?

I think we are in need of a better argument if we want to introduce Aesthetics to the physical world.

Conclusions

I absolutely loved “The beginning of infinity”. Deutsch’s views on the nature of knowledge and the means to attain it resonate with my own – never been a fan of positivism nor relativism. I think he is spot-on when he writes about science and how it is about better and better explanations rather than just predictions.

I still have to think carefully about his views about morality, as they imply that different cultures applying conjecture and criticism to theories, and their moral theories in particular, would in the limit converge towards the same moral theory. Then the aim of moral philosophy becomes to try and approximate a singular and specific moral reality. Can such a thing really exist?

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