Fred Reed on physics, morality and death

A case of a libertarian saying really stupid things. Fortunately not in an academic environment where they might be taken seriously.

According to Fred Reed:

The second paradox is that of morality. It is clear that a physical system, the only kind we believe to exist, cannot be either moral or immoral. A fire does not burn up a kindergarten full of children from malignity. It burns as it has to. And since we are physical systems as much as the fire is, we are no more moral or immoral than it is.

Morality is a paradox only if you do not know how it works and spontaneously emerges. I guess it is clear to him “that a physical system, the only kind we believe to exist, cannot be either moral or immoral” probably because he has a limited intelligence and he writes about topics which he does not understand. It turns out that some physical systems can be moral or immoral: those living systems with a complex cognitive and emotional apparatus that includes a moral psychology (moral sentiments); they are physical systems (not ghostly immaterial supernatural spirits), but they are a special kind of physical system (evolved autopoietic autonomous agents). Humans are physical systems as the fire, but they have properties that distinguish them from the fire.

Reed makes the common mistake of using an example or instance (a fire) of a member of class (physical systems) that does not have some property (morality) and then wrongly infer that all other members of that class cannot have that property, probably because he does not know about physics, biology, evolution, cognition and morality and how to connect them.

His criticism of evolutionary psychology is specially clumsy:

… The problem here is that evolutionary psychologists, decent people, do not believe what they profess. If I stoned a homosexual to death, as at times in the past has been thought proper, they would be horrified. I could reply, “Why? Your moral objection is merely a prejudice local to this time and place and has no absolute validity. In evolutionary terms the resources consumed by gays would be better spent on having children and passing our society’s genes.”

He pretends to read the minds of other people and know whether they believe or not what they profess: he is that deep.

In order to understand moral psychology (one of the things evolutionary psychology studies) you need to see it as subjective (judgments made by someone) and relative (depending on circumstances and culture); moral philosophy is a different issue, it being the attempt to rationalize those judgments with some objective or at least intersubjective (shared) criteria.

Gays do not only consume resources: they can be good cooperators in families and groups and reproduce and pass on their genes: stoning them is not an adaptive behavior; but it can be an honest costly signal of hatred and intolerance.

Regarding death:

… Finally, there is the question of death. This is very carefully ignored in the sciences. Biology treats death as merely the cessation of certain reactions. But biologists also die. Do we really believe that nothing comes after death? How do we know? If we admit that we do not know, then there is the possibility of all manner of things in heaven and earth beyond our ken and of uncertain effect on our world. Scientists will pooh-pooh this (all the way to the grave ….).

Death is not very carefully ignored in the sciences: it is the cessation of life and it is pretty well understood; there is no careful conspiracy to ignore death. The fact that biologists also die does not imply that their knowledge of life and death is incorrect. Yes, nothing comes after death: it is the end of existence, and there is no heaven or hell even if you feel better thinking that death is not the end (you are deceiving yourself). You know all this when you learn about biology and psychology, and it is really not very difficult.


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