Saturday, March 16, 2013
Moral Molecules & Moral Emotions
Aristotle may have been the most dedicated opponent of reductionism in the history of philosophy. He stoutly attacked the view that form could be reduced to matter or teleological processes to chance. I am with the Philosopher on this sort of thing.
It is interesting to note that Aristotle was nonetheless a bit more materialistic in his analysis than is modern Darwinian biology. Aristotle believed in spontaneous generation. Lacking a robust experimental apparatus, he supposed that life was routinely generated from lifeless matter under special conditions of temperature, moisture, etc. For that to be true, a lot more of the basic information that makes up organic structures would have to be pre-loaded in the material constituents or would be provided by chance than is supposed by modern biology. According to the latter, for most of the history of life, you first have to have a living organism to get another living organism.
I have been reading a very interesting review essay by Iain Dewitt: “Moral Matter”, from the American Interest. Dewitt reviews recent books by Patricia Churchland, Jonathan Haidt, Robert Kurzban, and Michael Gazzaniga. He begins with Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality.
Churchland addresses morality from several perspectives, but her main interest is in the neurobiological foundation of morality. This centers on discussion of oxytocin, a hormone traditionally appreciated for its role in the female reproductive cycle, especially in milk letdown. Beginning in the 1970s, interest grew in this hormone as a regulator of maternal and mate bonding—a love hormone, as it were. In recent years, interest has grown as research has established oxytocin’s role in bonding and its concrete linkages to trusting behavior.
That is the kind of that most disturbs many critics of “scientism.” If there is a molecular basis for morality, does this not indicate the complete victory of materialism over the soul?
Parallel to this neurobiological analysis is a simplification (if not a reduction) of the moral emotions that underwrite cooperation between groups of unrelated individuals.
Churchland describes her project as examining the platform upon which morality is constructed. Her thesis is that the platform is maternal attachment to young. The largest single factor in human brain evolution is our exaggerated juvenile phase, during much of which we are helpless. This surely exerted strong selective pressure for parental behavior, care for kin. Churchland argues this is the forerunner of care for kith and strangers.
Here, the larger set of moral emotions is seen as dependent upon a simpler, more general motive. We can care about strangers because we can extend our attachment to our young beyond the limits of this most basic community.
It occurs to me that there are two very different kinds of analysis going on here. One is the connection between mental states and the molecular constituents of brain states. The other is the connection between less self-interested motives and more self-interested ones. The two types of analysis are not necessarily dependent upon one another and neither necessarily implies reductionism.
Unless there is a ghost in the machine, all states of soul and mind must have a basis in matter. It may well turn out that there are a few key molecules that play a very large role in the neurological processes that are the substratum of changes in consciousness. Those molecules supply part of the information that makes up a soul; however, they supply only part of it. The level of matter is the level of the medium in which the information that makes up the soul is substantiated. This suggests precisely that the soul cannot be reduced to matter.
Whether complex social emotions are indeed refined and enlarged versions of simpler ones is an entirely independent question. If there is indeed a Moral Molecule, as Paul J. Zak argues in the title of his recent book, then the material substratum of emotions is simpler than we might have expected. That tells us nothing about whether or which one emotion is the biological ancestor of another.
Churchland’s thesis that maternal attachment is the “platform upon which morality is constructed” is plausible enough. We can see why it is not reductionist by considering Aristotle’s analysis in the beginning of the Politics. He held that the community of man and woman and the parental community are the most basic human communities. He denies that the more complex communities of clan, village, and the complete political community are only larger versions of the former. The larger associations have their own distinct functions that cannot be reduced to those of the most basic associations and accordingly they require very different kinds of government.
Churchland’s evolutionary account of the social emotions is perfectly compatible with Aristotle’s argument. Evolution indeed works by working on pre-existing biological structures and pathways. It does so by frequently adapting them to new functions. What was once a second set of wings in beetles becomes something very different: a retractable set of armored plates. If what was once a simple mental schema for child care is refined and enlarged to work for partnerships with strangers, the latter is now a new schema with a function that certainly cannot be reduced to the functions of its ancestral schema.
Evolutionary biology is reductionist only in the sense that it allows for an analysis of biological phenomena on the level of chemistry as well as on higher levels. It is anti-reductionist in the sense that it resists reducing the latter to the former.