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Jeff Schweitzer - Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World
Posted: 31 May 2009 09:51 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer is an author, scientist and public speaker who has traveled widely speaking to varied groups about the application of the scientific worldview to public policy and ethical questions. He has published more than one hundred articles in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection, and even aviation. He formerly served as assistant director for international affairs in the Clinton White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is a featured blogger on Huffington Post. His new book is Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer argues that adopting the scientific view of human origins has implications for understanding that morality is a consequence of our biology. He argues that religion puts humanity on a pedestal, and why that is dangerous. He contends that religion has failed to morally guide humanity, and he attacks religion for impeding the moral development of humanity and for causing much human suffering. He explains that religion results from fear of death, an attempt to understand the universe, achieve social cohesion and political power, and an attempt to control our fate by appealing to gods. But he argues that in the age of science, these reasons are no longer compelling. He denies that science has become a religion in itself. He explores if and how religion and science ask different questions, and if science can answer the existential questions that religion attempts to answer. He argues that life has no ultimate meaning, and that he derives this fact from science, while denying that this leads to nihilism. He discusses existentialism and contrasts it with his scientific worldview. He argues against the concept of free will as a false concept of religion, and discusses the implications this has for moral responsibility. He talks about the biological component to human morality, and defends his position from the charge of moral relativism, while admitting a kind of cultural relativism. He discusses Social Darwinism, and distinguishes core values from social values that progress over time. He explains components of his moral view, and compares his view with scientific or secular humanism. And he suggests that humanity is at a crossroads where our continued survival is uncertain, and describes the kind of behaviors consistent with a natural ethic that may be key to humanity’s surviving the future.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/jeff_schweitzer_beyond_cosmic_dice_moral_life_in_a_random_world

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Posted: 02 June 2009 05:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I really don’t get this “why” and “how” question differentiation, I think its a false dichotomy. Scientific questions can be formulated in sentences beginning with “why”. I think its unhelpful to frame that as a distinction between scientific skepticism and wish-thinking religious belief. I also wouldn’t describe an all-powerful beings will, its intentions for our actions, the purpose of our creation, as “ultimate” compared to the purpose we arrive at without that being. This is all framing that is biased towards the religious viewpoint. It’s a fact that religion has concepts that the non-religious don’t always subscribe to, but that doesn’t mean that religion answers different questions or that it doesn’t try to answer the same questions science does, it clearly does attempt to answer the same questions.

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Posted: 03 June 2009 05:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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grin Wow, That was a great interview!

Lots of back and forth, statements challenged and clarified. Just what I miss in what passes for journalism these days.

I think that the “how” vs “why” issue is important. “How” asks for a description of a process. “Why” asks for the motivation behind the process. Our tendency to ask “why” seems to be linked to our propensity to see agents everywhere. So it isn’t a false dichotomy. It is a real distinction that steers us away from assigning motives where none need exist. This isn’t “framing biased toward the religious viewpoint”. It’s just an acknowledgment of an aspect of our humanity.

I agree with much of what was said, in particular the notions that uncertainty motivates much of our irrationality and the profound liberation that comes from accepting that uncertainty. I’m certainly going read Dr. Schweitzer’s book and I look forward hearing him speak.

-Leonard

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Posted: 05 June 2009 08:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Leonard Tramiel - 03 June 2009 05:24 PM

I think that the “how” vs “why” issue is important. “How” asks for a description of a process. “Why” asks for the motivation behind the process. Our tendency to ask “why” seems to be linked to our propensity to see agents everywhere. So it isn’t a false dichotomy. It is a real distinction that steers us away from assigning motives where none need exist. This isn’t “framing biased toward the religious viewpoint”. It’s just an acknowledgment of an aspect of our humanity.

Hi Leonard,

I’m with you on the need to challenge our propensity toward phantom agency, but I’m not clear as to why “why” in particular fosters that propensity. Isn’t “who” the question we really need to worry about?

cheers.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 09:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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jtfburgess - 05 June 2009 08:57 AM
Leonard Tramiel - 03 June 2009 05:24 PM

I think that the “how” vs “why” issue is important. “How” asks for a description of a process. “Why” asks for the motivation behind the process. Our tendency to ask “why” seems to be linked to our propensity to see agents everywhere. So it isn’t a false dichotomy. It is a real distinction that steers us away from assigning motives where none need exist. This isn’t “framing biased toward the religious viewpoint”. It’s just an acknowledgment of an aspect of our humanity.

Hi Leonard,

I’m with you on the need to challenge our propensity toward phantom agency, but I’m not clear as to why “why” in particular fosters that propensity. Isn’t “who” the question we really need to worry about?

cheers.

Hi folks, this may be obvious, so tell me if I’m out of context.

Why do the Birds sing?”; “What causes the birds to sing?”
How do the birds sing?”—This can be answered easily. Forcing air through a series of muscular contractions, and variances in beak, and tongue position.
“Why do the birds sing?”—mating purposes, communal alarm, food opportunities, etc…”
I know this is all obvious. I think it’s a little more than semantics though.  In some instances, like we have seen above, people choose to make points about others thoughts and views by concentrating on their usage of words, and then determine that persons ideology through these observations. Most of the time I think this is fruitless.
Can’t we usually take the context of someones words, and discern what they mean?
Who” is a question, in a theological standpoint that we don’t have to worry about either. There either is a “who”(for theists) or there isn’t a “who” (for non-theists).
I don’t think “when” will ever be relevant either.

Funny though, if we ask: “why do the stars shine” or “how do the stars shine” we get the same answer. Or maybe not?
How do the stars shine? By burning up fuel, and releasing energy.
Why do the stars shine? Because we can see them with our eyes and brain.(that’s a simplification, don’t get all “Qualia” on me LOL )
These two examples about stars can easily open up a huge can of worms, on different levels.(Focusing on the semantics, and usage issues, not necessarily the mechanics of astrophysics).

[ Edited: 05 June 2009 09:54 AM by VYAZMA ]
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Posted: 05 June 2009 10:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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jtfburgess:

I don’t think that “why” fosters a propensity to see agents. Since “why” asks for motivation it is *caused* by that propensity.

And, yes, “who” is worse.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 10:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Leonard Tramiel - 05 June 2009 10:07 AM

jtfburgess:

I don’t think that “why” fosters a propensity to see agents. Since “why” asks for motivation it is *caused* by that propensity.

And, yes, “who” is worse.

Yes “who” is worse in a causal sense. But, it really isn’t relevant because it’s a negative, or a no-negative type deal. There only is one “who”—the supposed “deity”. There isn’t an alterntive.
When I ask, “genuinely”, who took the cookies from the cookie jar, I am expectant of a varying possibilty of people. “Who” could be someone from a group of “real” people.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 11:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Leonard Tramiel - 05 June 2009 10:07 AM

jtfburgess:

I don’t think that “why” fosters a propensity to see agents. Since “why” asks for motivation it is *caused* by that propensity.

And, yes, “who” is worse.

Ah, I see the distinction you’re making. But is “why” necessarily asking a question of motivation though, where motivation reflects the desires of an agent? Can why instead be a question asking one to trace natural causality as far back as relevantly possible? For believers that chain will stretch back to a deity of some kind. But for rationalists that most remote knowable link will of course be a natural occurrence.  That what lies on the far side of the remote link has yet to be discovered is exciting, and provides us with another direction for research and exploration. That seems like something we want to promote. I can see that how also asks about sequence, but it does not appeal to causal origins in the same way.

It just seems a shame to me that we should have to marginalize a word that stimulated so much of my childhood development.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 11:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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VYAZMA - 05 June 2009 10:12 AM

Yes “who” is worse in a causal sense. But, it really isn’t relevant because it’s a negative, or a no-negative type deal. There only is one “who”—the supposed “deity”. There isn’t an alterntive.
When I ask, “genuinely”, who took the cookies from the cookie jar, I am expectant of a varying possibilty of people. “Who” could be someone from a group of “real” people.


Yeah, that makes sense. Still, I don’t think encouraging people to think more clearly about the question words they favor and what they mean by them is a fruitless exercise. It probably is futile for us to tell them *absolutely* what their question words mean, but the more we make the process of asking questions explicit and deliberate, the more precise and useful those questions will be.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 11:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Ah, I see the distinction you’re making. But is “why” necessarily asking a question of motivation though, where motivation reflects the desires of an agent? Can why instead be a question asking one to trace natural causality as far back as relevantly possible? For believers that chain will stretch back to a deity of some kind. But for rationalists that most remote knowable link will of course be a natural occurrence.  That what lies on the far side of the remote link has yet to be discovered is exciting, and provides us with another direction for research and exploration. That seems like something we want to promote. I can see that how also asks about sequence, but it does not appeal to causal origins in the same way.

It just seems a shame to me that we should have to marginalize a word that stimulated so much of my childhood development.

I couldn’t agree more with you. That is the whole purpose of why. “Why” is just another way of saying “what causes?”

Why don’t you want to go to the movies? = What causes you not to want to go to the movies?
That’s what I meant in my above post. Let’s not get to wrapped up in grammar, or usage. Syntax?(is that the right word?)
When someone is using “why” for the “wrong” reasons, all of us can easily see that.
” Why does it always happen to rain when ever I forget to say my morning prayers?”  I’m trying to say that, the whole mystery thing surrounding “why” is just incidental. It’s hard for me to word it. Like you said, why is based on causal relationships, these usually can be traced back systematically to a beginning. For every “why” question, one can ask “why” to the answer to the previous question…so on and so forth. It all leads to questions that Science doesn’t have an answer to, but religion does. Kind of a neat paradox!!

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Posted: 05 June 2009 03:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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re: how vs why

Religion trods on the “how” territory constantly. Christians will gladly assert:
-the historicity of some or all of the events in the bible (Historical science)
-homosexuals’ immorality is harmful to adopted children (psychology, sociology)
-dead people can come back to life (physiology, medicine)
-two individuals can create 6 billion without evident genetic issues (genetics)
-the mind (aka the soul) is magic untouchable ectoplasm separate from the brain or body (psychology)
-people can or could live to many hundreds of years of age (biology)
-evolution is a lie (biology)
-political rights or governmental authority are bestowed only by a god not a populace (political science)
-we must appeal to religion to solve our practical problems
-any given medical technology must be sanctioned by religion, not merely the law or populace

No one seems to have explained this how vs. why stuff to the godheads. They’re perfectly content to step all over science as they see fit.

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Posted: 05 June 2009 08:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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VYAZMA - 05 June 2009 11:45 AM

Ah, I see the distinction you’re making. But is “why” necessarily asking a question of motivation though, where motivation reflects the desires of an agent? Can why instead be a question asking one to trace natural causality as far back as relevantly possible? For believers that chain will stretch back to a deity of some kind. But for rationalists that most remote knowable link will of course be a natural occurrence.  That what lies on the far side of the remote link has yet to be discovered is exciting, and provides us with another direction for research and exploration. That seems like something we want to promote. I can see that how also asks about sequence, but it does not appeal to causal origins in the same way.

It just seems a shame to me that we should have to marginalize a word that stimulated so much of my childhood development.

I couldn’t agree more with you. That is the whole purpose of why. “Why” is just another way of saying “what causes?”

Why don’t you want to go to the movies? = What causes you not to want to go to the movies?
That’s what I meant in my above post. Let’s not get to wrapped up in grammar, or usage. Syntax?(is that the right word?)
When someone is using “why” for the “wrong” reasons, all of us can easily see that.
” Why does it always happen to rain when ever I forget to say my morning prayers?”  I’m trying to say that, the whole mystery thing surrounding “why” is just incidental. It’s hard for me to word it. Like you said, why is based on causal relationships, these usually can be traced back systematically to a beginning. For every “why” question, one can ask “why” to the answer to the previous question…so on and so forth. It all leads to questions that Science doesn’t have an answer to, but religion does. Kind of a neat paradox!!

I agree with you that why essentially is asking what causes, from the secular perspective.  But, we know that is not the religious interpretation.  They have a need for the why as purpose.  Why are we here?  Secularists says we are a convergence of chance events and incredible lengths of time.  Religionist says because we are a divine creation to do God’s will.  Both respond to the same question from entirely different perspectives.
Personally, I’ll take the rational (science) over the irrational cool smile .

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Posted: 05 June 2009 10:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Hawkfan - 05 June 2009 08:13 PM

... But, we know that is not the religious interpretation.  They have a need for the why as purpose.  Why are we here?  Secularists says we are a convergence of chance events and incredible lengths of time.  Religionist says because we are a divine creation to do God’s will.

And that is precisely the point. When the “why”/“how” issue is raised in the interview (about 7:15) it is clear (at least to me) that Dr. Schweitzer means “why” is an appeal to intention.

Science minded people can certainly ask “why” questions that aren’t about intention. The question is whether religious people can hear them that way.

-Leonard

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Posted: 07 June 2009 12:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Hawkfan - 05 June 2009 08:13 PM

I agree with you that why essentially is asking what causes, from the secular perspective.  But, we know that is not the religious interpretation.  They have a need for the why as purpose.  Why are we here?  Secularists says we are a convergence of chance events and incredible lengths of time.  Religionist says because we are a divine creation to do God’s will.  Both respond to the same question from entirely different perspectives.
Personally, I’ll take the rational (science) over the irrational cool smile .

If science answers the question “Why are we here?” with “by chance”, that is really saying there is no reason why. edit: Which is to deny there is an answer to the question. Is this a justified belief?

Stephen

[ Edited: 07 June 2009 01:12 AM by StephenLawrence ]
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Posted: 07 June 2009 05:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I just listened to this podcast. I am a newbie here so be gentle at first, please.

It seems to me Schweitzer clearly meant “why” in an existential sense. The big questions. He concludes that science tells him there is no ultimate why, as in “Why do we exist?”. Random, a branch, an aberration on the tree of life.

“How” he meant in a scientific sense. How things work, for which there is a never ending (perhaps) regression, with one “how” leading to the next question. The realm of science.

Life has no ultimate meaning. Words, like life and all bits and bytes of information, have no absolute meaning but must always be taken in context.

His point seems to be that science and religion are different realms, not miscible. One can displace the other, such as science displacing religion. They cannot replace one another.

I am still unsure how to get around the free will issue. I know many neuroscientists and philosophers are seriously questioning if free will exists. If no free will, where goes responsibility? I am not clear how Schweitzer rejects religious free will, but embraces some other type of free will. I guess I’ll have to read the book.

David

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Posted: 07 June 2009 05:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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unified theory - 07 June 2009 05:09 AM

I am still unsure how to get around the free will issue. I know many neuroscientists and philosophers are seriously questioning if free will exists. If no free will, where goes responsibility? I am not clear how Schweitzer rejects religious free will, but embraces some other type of free will. I guess I’ll have to read the book.

David

Hi David and welcome.

For the most part I find the question of free will boring and irrelevant. You just said Ultimate Meaning doesn’t exist, why search for Ultimate Responsibility? I know that the feelings I possess which I would call love arise from my genetics, neurotransmitters and so on.. does that change their meaning to me? nah. I don’t enjoy eating less because I know I’m biologically programmed to acquire sustenance. There is no ultimate meaning to love or pleasure but who cares? The proximal meaning is good enough for me. The alternative is, get off the ride early. Maybe there is no free will.. what’s that have to do with anything?

Free Will vs responsibility
I remember one of Steven Pinker’s books lightly touching this subject (sorry don’t recall which). The perspective was interesting: true free will would eliminate responsibility. If actions of people were utterly and totally free, that is unaffected by any environmental factors.. society would be impossible. Law and punishments could not deter crime because nothing could deter Free Will (if it could, then it wouldn’t be completely free). People would not repeat successful strategies in any arena because they would not be beholden to any rule system where considering successful/unsuccessful strategies was important. The fact that we can be influenced, we can intelligently limit our actions based on the environment, is what makes personal responsibility both possible. and worthwhile. At least, that is my vague recollection.

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