Wright on Purpose, Directionality, and Moral Progress

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The last of three discussions with Robert Wright on his lecture series at Union Theological Seminary. This time we address questions regarding higher purpose, whether evolution has a “direction,” and moral progress.

The dialogue originally aired on June 29, 2016, on MeaningofLife.TV, part of the BloggingHeads.TV network.

8 thoughts on “Wright on Purpose, Directionality, and Moral Progress

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  1. I think it might be confusing to say a dog knows good and bad as opposed to something like dog knows this is something to eat, this is something to roll around in, this is something to growl at, etc.

  2. I like these conversations, but it seems almost an exercise in punching ghosts. Having listened to all this, I’m still not certain about what Wright is asserting (at most, I think I have a clearer picture of what he’s NOT asserting). Perhaps I am being unfair to Wright here, but my impression is that he’s throwing out a lot of deepities (in Dennett’s meaning): seemingly profound statements that are either trivial or meaningless, depending on one’s perspective.

  3. Maybe Synred can correct me here, but if Bob is trying to make some kind of case for there being a fundamental ‘directionality’ at play in the world would not entropy be the place or level to make that case. Sean Carroll attempts to make the case for entropy being the reason we only experience time one direction. Entropy however is also described as moving states from order to disorder so that would work against Bob’s thesis. We see pockets of complexity because complex (far from equilibrium, low entropy) configurations (like human beings) tend to be better at receiving and dissipating energy creating more entropy in the process.

    Of course perceiving an arrow of time still requires the frame of a conscious subject, but it is the most basic level of directionality I can think of. This might be relevant to the discussion since there is no moral aspect to the direction of time. Also it is not so clear to me that biological entities move from simple to complex. Examples abound where the opposite happens, and often one entity ( like the bacteria that became mitochondria ) becomes simpler, losing functions, and in a sense autonomy as it becomes part of a larger system. In the case of mitchondria this may have been the event that led to multi-cellularity.

    In any event I agree with Dan that any argument for moral directionality would be independent of any phenomena that precede consciousness. I also agree that we don’t know enough about consciousness to make absolute claims about what is intrinsic to the world. Therefore I would differ somewhat from Dan to abstain from making claims that the world is empty of meaning, but I certainly don’t think there is or even could be evidence of meaning intrinsic to the world independent of conscious thought.

  4. The invoking of not understanding the nature of consciousness really is the key point. Having read up on philosophy and the research into consciousness, my one observation is that academic scholars simply are not technical enough or neerdy enough or geeky enough to grasp the nature of a system like the brain the runs at a certain technical level. By technical I mean there is a lot of timing involved which makes brains work at their most basic function which is sensorimotor.

    Most fundamental point about consciousness is that the word is a philosophical word that has no biological purpose. Brains which are really complex systems of organs were not evolved for consciousness but rather to perceive the physical environment which includes the physical ‘eventfulness’ which we perceive as time. Subtleties like this are what redefine the debate and clear out a lot of the cluttered arguments like zombies, epiphenomenalism, pansychism etc.

  5. Hi Dan, this was more productive for me than the previous piece. I like how sections of his project were identified and their separate natures and usefulness examined.

    I think he should ditch the whole purpose angle. Even if I were to agree with the probability argument of our level of consciousness being likely (which is debatable), what we might put that to does not seem clear at all, or open to some probabilistic argument.

    If anything it seems more likely to me that our capacities will result in all sorts of different meanings and purposes being explored and lived, not closure to one single meaning or purpose. Even if we were to grant that some level of accepting others (less tribalism) occurs, what other meaning or purpose do we seem to be closing in on?

    And as you know I am also dubious on the idea moral progress is occurring, or can occur. You guys didn’t get to the global brain thing, but as soon as we hit life in space that sort of thing is gone. Relativity assures that is a practical impossibility, without some seriously odd modifications to how humans live.

  6. Fascinating and enjoyable discussion that needs careful thought so for now I will only give my initial impressions. Unlike last time I think Wright clearly had the better of the argument but he missed a very telling reply to DanK. The amusing part was that Wright claimed that his audience had shown considerable aversion to his stance which DanK discounted. He then promptly opposed Wright’s argument in a somewhat heated way which served to confirm Wright’s claim. Very amusing. On a procedural note, Wright’s image was sharp and well lit while DanK’s image was unsharp and badly lit. That was a great pity and I think we need more attention to production details.

  7. Part of our moral progress is the capacity to serve one another at all times. That statement is not meant for the human species alone, yet for all species. Simply my viewpoint. For survival, all living things have a natural capacity in function to act in favor of the other, to help provide and sustain products and bi-products which are beneficial to all. Give that some thought. It seems that through the ages, man has chosen to bring directionality in a sense from harnessing resources of other species of living things for our benefit. I suppose from a various perspectives in the academic and research communities, this could be both moral and immoral. Of course, having studied some philosophy in college, which does not make me a philosopher, it is also my understanding that to define these two in such circumstances is dependent on the premise and if it truly fits the desired result of benefitting all species. Either way, such things are progress. Ex. Harnessing water in a natural setting for the benefit of creating energy is a good thing. Yet, if it is not handled with the benefits of conservation to protect everything from important plant life, algae, and other animal species, then it could be considered immoral (unethical or unprincipled) Providing honey for the market is source which comes from bees. Honey production in a highly polluted area is less likely because pollution reduces floral scent molecules in plants. Therefore, bees have a hard time finding the sources needed to start their process. If a bee keeper provides a cleaner environment, this choice to provide is ethical and responsible on the bee keepers half and the bees can do more than just the job of providing a food source for humans.
    Thanks for your time.
    Andy L. Westbrook

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