Saturday, July 12, 2014

Genetic Philosophy

As I mentioned in a previous blog, “A New Paradigm?,” philosophy in general rarely seems to go anywhere or solve any problems because there is no well-defined starting place from which philosophy begins nor do we know where it is supposed to end. It is often asked, “How should I (or we) live?” which seeks a moral foundation for living while completely ignoring both the beginning and ending points of our nature.

While we might say that we do philosophy for the sake of examining our own lives, pursuing the truth (whatever that means, nevermind what the truth is alleged to do for us), or inoculating ourselves against bad ideas, whatever reason any of us have for doing philosophy is ancillary to our very existence. So, might it be a good idea to at least begin philosophy from the question “How did I (or we) get here?” and end it by answering the question, “Where am I (or we) going?” At first glance, it may seem a bit arbitrary to pick these as starting and ending points for philosophy, but I do not think there are better points to begin working from, for doing philosophy from these points is at least based upon something concrete; our existence. [Or at least one’s own existence since we cannot prove others exist. But I digress…]

To once again paraphrase Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, our genes use us, not the other way around. In the old Nature vs. Nurture debate (which shapes our lives more?), being nurtured is secondary to our Nature, our existence, so I don’t see how Nurture could shape our lives more than our Nature. Even the most rational person, nurtured to believe in logic and nothing else, is prone to bouts of irrationality. How could this be? Because we do not have conscious control over the entire world, much less ourselves, and this is due to the expression of our genes: Emotions are chemically driven and underwritten by the very way we are built. Realizing the power our genes have over us in attempting to get themselves into the next generation presents great explanatory power over otherwise seemingly irrational behavior. People who declare themselves rational constantly bicker over ideas because of the lack of a philosophical starting point and finishing line, but by agreeing with Dawkins about the goal of our genes gives philosophy a place to start from and finish. (And, of course, all rational people – or at least rational atheists – agree with Dawkins.)

Take, for example, how problematic devising an ethical system is. There is no flawless ethical system because there is no starting or ending point for ethical conundrums. In cases where those points are defined, such points betray what the person arguing for any given idea favors, revealing how they think the world should operate because it suits them. If an ethical system is, say, devised such that our actions should not cause physical harm to others, what is often revealed is that this is simply the preference of the person advocating such a position who, when pressed, can’t really express why they have taken such a position. What’s revealed is that the advocate’s position is actually rooted in their emotions and not so much in reason, with emotions being rooted in our biology to a greater degree than our capacity to be rational. Meta-ethics has failed to answer where ethics arise from because most meta-ethical hypotheses place ethical origins in some mythical, ethereal, or mental world and not in our own bodies. Meta-ethics has failed because it has failed to focus on the question “Why be ethical?” from the point of view of our genes’ survival (Evolutionary Psychology notwithstanding). Why ought we not physically harm others if it helps advance our genes or the best genes of our species into the next generation? [By ‘best,’ I mean two things: Genes that manifest the most favorable traits in a given environment and gives us the genetic variety necessary to withstand a disease that would otherwise wipe out the species.] Of course, maybe the belief that we shouldn’t physically harm others helps stabilize communities (read: tribes) which in turn gives us access to more mates and resources that aid survival.

These points considered, it is perhaps best to start philosophy from the point of “I (or we) exist” (having previously countered counters to Descartes’ initially false assertion). For now, since there are more pressing questions, we’ll have to regulate to the background how our parents genes got us where we are in order to focus on the question of how we’re going to live given that our genes are going to express themselves over the course of our lives. How will they make us behave? What problems will we encounter simply because we exist and how will we attempt to fix those problems?

Although not meant to be an exhaustive list, I have (as have others) identified several key obstacles regarding an individual’s existence. They are:

One is trying to overcome death (the most basic biological imperative).
One is trying not to be hungry (so as to overcome death and be fit for mating).
One is trying to avoid illness (so as to overcome death and be fit for mating).
One is trying to overcome fear (so they can take risks necessary to find food, mates, etc.).
One is trying to live without being controlled (so they can take risks necessary to find food, mates, etc.). 
One is trying to reproduce (or may have sexual urges based on a biological imperative…which is meant to overcome death through the passing on of genes.)

Now let’s attempt to ask a simple question – “How should I (or we) live?” – and see if Genetic Philosophy can give us a less complex answer and less hoops than traditional philosophy. Rationally, we know we cannot overcome death; our genes are programmed to die at some point. We have few options in overcoming death: either ensure that our name goes down in history (a short term solution, but potentially long if you’re a Greek philosopher or insane dictator), get our genes into the next generation through reproduction (potentially a long term solution so long as our offspring keep reproducing), or both. [Let’s rule out some mad scientist being able to manipulate our biology and make us live forever since none of us can outlive the universe. Would we even want to? Is immortality worth it? Ah, so many questions…]

Among our choices, trying to get your name to go down in history is fraught with difficulties; in fact, almost all of the most famous people in history weren’t even attempting to be famous and are instead famous because of others’ fascination with whatever they did. Moreover, assuming one rises to prominence does not mean they are going to enjoy their fame after they have died. I might also add that becoming a historical figure will only last as long as the species or the Earth is around. The only practical solution to overcoming death then is to get our genes into the next generation, and hope that our decedents pass the genes on, so on and so forth. This becomes our starting point in answering the question, “How should I (or we) live?” [Assuming one doesn’t want to have children, one can still examine the question from the ‘genetic’ point of view since our biology commands us in other ways.]

If it seems like the next logical thing to say once we’ve accepted the desire to get our genes into the next generation is that we should do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal, one is oversimplifying the situation. [While we are trying to have Genetic Philosophy give us simple answers, we mustn’t oversimplify.] If we thought clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her back to our home was the best way to get our genes into the next generation, we have to accept all the risks that go along with such behavior. The biggest problem is that we’d have to accept that violence may be done to us in competing for a mate which goes against our primary instincts to survive. Second, our offspring would be locked in a never-ending battle over resources which would reduce their chances of getting their genes (and ours) passed on. Collectively, we do not want that and how (Western) societies are set up reflects this.

Western society, as it has evolved (so to speak) appears to have unconsciously adopted genetic philosophy and created societies geared towards equality for all because that appears to offer everyone the best chance of accomplishing the goal of producing offspring. Certainly racial tensions and a tribal mindset still exist, but such base desires are really a manifestation of resource competitions. If recognized for what they are, racism and tribalism can become something of a vestigial appendix of the human mind. (I hope, anyway.) The problem entering the equation comes in when we do not consciously considered how our biology inclines us to act. Naturally, ancient Scandinavians and ancient Polynesians are going to differ wildly in their behaviors and values as the environment each evolved in has had a dramatic effect on their biology, and hence, also each one’s behavior and values.

So, when asking a question such as “How should I (or we) live?” should be answered every step of the way in accordance with our biological needs and desires. Or, supposing we don’t want a child for some reason undoubtedly based upon our biology, how our biology affects us. For example, I know that if I allow the slow driver in front of me to anger me, that raises the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in my bloodstream and elevated levels of cortisol in my bloodstream is damaging to my body over time. Being aware of my biology helps me become aware of my situation and allows me to take a moment to analyze the situation. That sure sounds deceptively simple but it is not: If I know the biological cost of anger, I might be inclined to find ways of managing my emotions so as to avoid anger.

Any good philosopher should have or be thinking of objections to my so-called Genetic Philosophy by now. For example, one might ask: Could Genetic Philosophy be used to enslave people, say, women? My answer would be, it shouldn’t, for two reasons. First, as a species we should seek genetic variety because this helps prevent a species from being wiped out by a single disease. Second, at least in part, genetic variety leads to a differing of cultures which may be a potential source of alternate or competing ideas when trying to problem-solve. Having different genders and cultures allows for different ideas, and a diversity of ideas is necessary for long-term survival. As you can see, a simple question with a simple answer (that I may have oversimplified).

I believe that Genetic Philosophy, as I like to call it, has the potential to solve ages old debates such as whether abortion or capital punishment should be permissible, how should I (or we) live, what the meaning of life is, and – due to the nature of doing philosophy from a genetic point of view – whether or not it is okay to be irrational. My hopes for Genetic Philosophy may be misplaced as I have yet to thorough test a single issue just mentioned using this new paradigm. But, I will get around to it as soon as my genes will allow.

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