The following conversation between Tom Stoppard and David Sloan Wilson took place in the London office of Yale University Press on Tuesday, April 14, 2015.
Wilson’s book Does Altruism Exist: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others had just been published by YUP and Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem was playing at London’s National Theater. Stoppard’s play dealt with altruism and he had consulted Wilson’s work, including a draft copy of Does Altruism Exist?, during his own writing process. The idea of getting them together was pitched to the British newspaper The Guardian, who offered the assignment to its feature writer Stuart Jeffries.
The conversation lasted 90 minutes, providing more material than Jeffries was able to use. TVOL is therefore pleased to provide the full transcript, along with an article by Wilson titled “Tom Stoppard’s Hard Problems” that reflects upon his experience.
Stoppard begins the conversation by recounting how he met Wilson.
Tom: David and the philosopher Elliott Sober are the co-authors of a book called “Unto Others”, which is about altruism. When I was reading up altruism, this was the most useful book I came across. So I wrote to you, didn’t I?
David: First of all you wrote to Elliott but I quickly jumped aboard because I die to interact with folks like you.
Tom: I wrote to Elliott first because he was the philosophy half of the act, which was where I was interested, more than in the biology. So that is quite a good cue into a conversation – that a book called “Does Altruism Exist?” would have once interested mostly people who were interested in ethics and moral philosophy, but now the book will be picked up more by people interested in biology, zoology and altruism as an observable fact in nature.
David: In fact it was in the Natural History section of Foyle’s bookshop here in London.
Tom: I think I wrote to Elliott first because I’m essentially old fashioned and I think “Does Altruism Exist?” is a really exciting question if it’s asking about consciously motivated acts of altruism, and essentially by Homo sapiens. I had a good time with the book and I hope it sells a shedload – but it’s not mainly about that. The book has very interesting examples taken from the behaviour of anything from bacteria to primates. I think a lot of people would be quite surprised on dipping into the book to discover that although the book’s answer to its own title is “yes”, actually it’s a yes which derives from the behaviour of functionally organised groups and organisms. And the more-out-of-date kind of person, will conclude you should have answered no, because the kind of altruism which many people are thinking about doesn’t really derive from the mathematics of group-level functional organisation.
David: I would say in my defense that what interests you the most, which is consciously motivated altruism, needs to be understood against a certain background. My book provides that background and also takes some steps towards consciously motivated altruism per se. But to bring in your play, which is what brought us together, then for me it represents the same question. In your play consciousness and altruism are thoroughly intertwined.
Tom: Yes, I think altruism is unintelligible without consciousness in the way I’m using the word.
David: And is consciousness unintelligible without altruism?
Tom: I think you can have consciousness without altruism, indeed with malevolence. But you cannot have either without consciousness. You can have good or bad outcomes, but they don’t seem to be part of what many people out there think of as altruism, or egoism. People like me, I mean. And I’m glad to see that this is a trade book for the general public. I wonder how far the general public have managed to catch up with you in 2015.
Can I just add another thing? There’s a certain self-certainty in the book. I’ve never come across the word postresolution before – I don’t think it’s even hyphenated, it’s such a word that it’s one word! – and looking back over my shoulder I can see postresolution moments from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein – just to name Mount Everest moments – until the post-postresolution. Classical physics was postresolution until quantum mechanics, and so on. And actually the last time the term postresoluton crossed my mind, though it wasn’t actually termed as that, the last time I was aware of this self-certainty, that we’ve cracked it, was with Richard Dawkins.
David: I knew you were going to say that!
Tom: That was the last time I got the whiff of this degree of certainty – in “The Selfish Gene”, which you and your colleagues are now overturning or subverting, which is quite interesting. It’s not a value judgment. It’s a really intriguing glimpse of how science has always worked. On each of these stations, these way stations where you change the horses, I think everybody’s felt “we’ve cracked it, it’s done, it’s done and dusted and let’s now do something else.” And I’m not sure whether that can ever prove to be the case. And finally in the case of consciousness, which is bigger than the case of altruism, it may be that the nature of our brains doesn’t offer us the template or notation which we would need ever to understand consciousness, and that may be true of the little bridge – whatever it is – between particle physics and classical physics. There’s a guy called Colin McGinn [British philosopher of mind], isn’t there, who believes something like that. That seems quite a strong idea. It’s treated with contempt – I’m sure it’s affectionate contempt – by Daniel Dennett who says ‘Well, this is such a cop out’. But for me Dennett is also doing something which as a mere civilian I find unsatisfactory, he is expressing a kind of irritation with this little unsolved problem – “We haven’t got it yet, but we will. It might take 50 years -”
David: That’s a big theme in your play.
Tom: “ – so let’s just move on. We know it’s right. We haven’t managed to figure out why it’s right, but it is right and proving it is just a hang up, an unnecessary delay to mess with it and fuss with it and get obsessed with it. There are other things we can move on to.” I like Richard Feynman’s attitude, you know – “You can’t move on. If your experiment is telling you that entropy works in reverse then there’s probably something wrong in your experiment.”
Stuart: So do you recognise yourself as this over-confident scientist?
David: I got called out on this in the New York Review of Books [by H. Allen Orr in the 3/19/2015 issue] and it’s very interesting to be compared to Dawkins in this respect. I need to spend a little time on this. I have to explain why I appear to have hubris in some respects while fully endorsing the need for humility in science, as I think that as all scientists should. I did an interview a couple of weeks ago with Richard Lewontin, a giant in evolutionary science who co-authored a paper with Stephen Jay Gould called the “Spandrels of San Marco [and the Panglossian Paradigm]”, about how evolution is not just about adaptation. This is a classic paper. At the very start of the interview I say that he is being too modest about his role and he replies ‘ You can’t be too modest’. And I say ‘That’s right. Humility is not just a religious virtue. It’s a secular virtue and a scientific virtue.’
So how does that equate with the assertiveness in my book? I say that I offer a postresolution account of altruism and I’m also very assertive that it matters, that we need to know about this to make the world a better place. This is not just angels dancing on the heads of pins. This is not just an Ivory Tower exercise. We need to know about this in political and social discourse. One of the things your play is doing is introducing these scientific ideas [to a larger public], causing them to spill out of the ivory tower – as well they should, so that people who are not playing with them are going to start to. That’s a part of your play. And that’s an important thing. And it’s not happening enough. So I can get passionate about that and it’s not hubris. It’s something that badly needs to be done.
Tom: Well, I think that’s well said, because the chapters in your book which deal with real people in real places, and broad social experiments, they’re really interesting and they’re to do with what you say, which is making the world a better place.
David: There are two legacies I’m battling against. My assertiveness is kind of a battle mode. One is the legacy of social Darwinism. We have this history where if you say “evolution”, people hear “genocide, Hitler, no support for the poor ”
Tom: Ayn Rand
David: Ayn Rand, who is someone I’ve made a special study of. Basically, “the moral justification of social inequality” is what people associate with evolution. That history, by the way, when you dive in and do the humble scholarly job, is completely different from the received wisdom. It’s not the case that Darwin’s theory opened a Pandora’s Box of toxic policies; it’s not even remotely the case. Social Darwinism always referred to the concept of laissez faire, which dates back to Malthus and people like Herbert Spencer. Darwin himself and many other people who tried to render what his theory meant for the human condition, were all about cooperation. But all of this gets lost and turned into a caricature – like a patriotic history that has to be replaced by a more scholarly account. So one of my challenges in all my work – this book is just the tip of the iceberg on that – is that evolutionary theory needs to play the same role for human affairs that it plays in the biological sciences–intellectually and practically. Just as a biologist uses the same toolkit to study all aspects of all species, it’s possible to have the same toolkit to study all aspects of humanity. We need to think about human diversity in the same way we think of biological diversity.
I’m passionate about that because such a large shift is required. If my passion comes across as hubris, then let it! We’ve gone many decades with this barrier. That’s why the material in your play is so new for a theatre going public, who will be encountering many of these ideas for the first time. There has been a wall between this theory that has already proven itself for the rest of life and what we think about our own species. That wall has to come down. That makes me passionate and the reviewer for the New York Review of Books [H. Allen Orr] is like ‘Oh my God! What is he doing?’ The shyness in my own colleagues, my evolutionary biology colleagues–they get sweaty palms at the mere prospect of taking evolutionary theory and applying it to improve the human condition. So there’s a real challenge – that’s my goal and part of what’s expressed in my book.
Tom: Could you just for my benefit relate cultural evolution and biological evolution for me? I’ll tell you why I’m asking. Very often when one’s talking to someone who’s brainy in the way you are and occupied roughly in the way you’re occupied, the person unconsciously falls into talking as if they have bypassed their own brain. You write about cultural evolution and genetic evolution as being equal partners in the process, but culture doesn’t bypass the physics and chemistry of the brain. That, as far as I’m aware, is the given – that the brain is the station where every railway line passes through and goes wherever. I think I’m going to be forced to do the thing I don’t want to do which is to quote my own play but I’ll do it anyway because I can’t think of another way to put it. There’s an exchange in the play where there’s a young woman who believes X and a man who believes Y, and the man asks her why she’s afraid to make her own values instead of wanting them underwritten by a “supreme being”, and she says to him something like, ‘What is the difference between a supreme being and being programmed by your biology?’ He replies ‘Freedom. I can override the programming.’ And she says: ‘Who can? Who is the you outside your brain? Where?’ And I still do not understand how you escape that loop. Perhaps you’d like to talk about that.
David: Yes. Indeed I do. Obviously these are big questions that we’re trying to compress into a small interview. I’d like to expand that to discuss what your play represents for me, plus some other things. I want to get those other things on the table. One is – and it feeds directly into why I am so assertive and confident about saying some things are a done deal, to return to that theme. It’s true that nothing is for sure in science. What seems most certain can be overturned. At the same time, there are some things that are unlikely to be overturned. We’re unlikely to change our minds about the fact that continents drift, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and so on. There is something that deserves to be called progress in science and there is something that deserves to be called a fact– even knowing that some things that we take to be facts will turn out not to be so. One of these things I think can be resolved concerns whether altruism and morality can be explained at face value from an evolutionary perspective. You have a quote at the beginning of your play where Spike, a kind of representative of the scientific worldview, says ‘Above all don’t use the word good as though it meant something in evolutionary science’. I’m here to say that we actually can, that what we conventionally call altruism and morality can have a face value explanation from an evolutionary perspective. For years, when I gave talks on this subject, I would ask the audience to describe for me the morally perfect individual. It was boring because every time I got the same list. I did it with a lay audience, I did it with philosophers–and if I did it with either one of you what would be on the list for the morally perfect individual would be the brave, the loyal, the giving – you’d give me the same list. Then of course their evil twin would be dishonesty, murder, theft and so on. It’s just in your face that that the moral individual is doing stuff for others and their group as a whole—it’s all that interests them. If you try to imagine the interior of that, what’s going on in their head that causes them to act that way, there would be some corresponding motive. The reason that they act morally is because they want to be moral at the psychological level.
The evolutionary challenge is to explain how that person–both in exterior terms of what they do and interior terms of how they think about it–can somehow evolve by a Darwinian process, how that person or that being can be a product of evolution. If we can provide an explanation, we don’t have to permute that person into a selfish individual. The person remains altruistic and moral; we have just explained how they evolve. That’s what it means to explain altruism and morality at face value from an evolutionary perspective.
Now beginning with Darwin there was an explanation along those lines and it was called group selection. Darwin said that although moral qualities do not benefit the individual compared to other members of his own tribe, it is also true that a tribe consisting of such individuals will survive compared to other tribes. Yes, I’m aware that this explanation elevates the problem of immorality up to the level of between-group interactions, but nevertheless it does provide an explanation for within-group morality.
There is your explanation. It’s very simple. It’s not like quantum physics or anything like that. Anyone can get their head around it. But something happened in the 1960s that caused the evolutionary community with great certainty–the kind of hubris that is now being attributed to me–to conclude that although this is the way that altruism could evolve in principle–so they were not objecting to the logic of this explanation–it was just their empirical conclusion that this force, this evolutionary force for altruism, is always so weak that we don’t get the evolution of those altruistic behaviours. What we see, what looks like altruism, has to be explained another way.
What I claim has happened, with a few notable exceptions, is that the entire evolutionary community, or at least the evolutionary community that thinks hard enough about the subject to be published in peer-reviewed journals, has concluded that the consensus that was formed in the sixties was false, that we need to change our minds about it. The whole world needs to know that the face value definition of altruism and morality can be understood from an evolutionary perspective. It is the case that behaviours evolve [for the good of the group], despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. That’s a done deal.
We can say that continents drift and altruism evolves. That’s my postresolution account.
Stuart: But we aren’t even at the postresolution stage. There’s a sentence at the end of your book that for politicians today evolution is a word to be avoided precisely because we conceive of evolution in terms of the selfish gene.
David: From the very beginning evolution seemed to provide a fine explanation for selfishness and a poor explanation for altruism. Now we can show–and I think this is a watershed change–that we can explain altruism without changing its name. We can explain altruism as a social strategy that succeeds in some circumstances and not others. That’s why we see good and evil in the human world and the biological world. That which humans associate with good and evil we see both in nature and of course in human life. We have an explanation and the resources to design social environments that stack the deck in favour of altruism, or morality, or basically groups that work well. That is the claim and I think, a few exceptions notwithstanding, when you look at the people who are thinking about this seriously enough to publish in peer-review journals—let me expand upon this. The peer review process is highly flawed. In fact you have to worry about science as a truth-finding process. There’s all kinds of stuff that makes it into peer-review journals that shouldn’t and ends up being overturned. I’m not romantic about science, but publishing in peer-review journals is some kind of litmus test, it seems to me. If you’re not publishing in a peer-review journal or if you’re not otherwise doing your homework and consulting that literature, then you’re not at the table.
So if you look at the people who are at the table on this topic, then I think I can document widespread acceptance that this face value explanation is not wrong. There is something called equivalence, that we can think about it another way…
Tom: Hang on to that thought!
David: OK, and I haven’t even gotten to your earlier point that we need to return to [cultural evolution].
Tom: It just seemed that you’ve laid down the boundaries within which this discussion exists. And a lot of your passion is passion about disagreements between different scientists and researchers and people who’ve written about altruism and evolution. Everything’s contained by the assumption that the thing we’re talking about can only be behavioural, psychological mechanisms of some kind and the rest is commentary. But you know that you’re in a strange minority. Do we owe anything other than a kind of condescension to these millions of ignorant innocents who believe that their moral intuitions are not being fed to them in a mechanistic way, but are coming from some other dimension? I have to be angel’s advocate for a moment, putting aside what I believe and don’t believe. There are people, who are not uneducated but sometimes highly educated, and have academic positions at least as senior as yours – I mean there may not be many of them but there are people out there who believe in God, and we all understand that the word is a symbolism for aspects of consciousness and life in general that, intuitively one feels, are not covered by the kind of textbooks written on the subject of consciousness, however deep those textbooks go. I understand this quite painfully
I’m not a person who’s had any kind of “revelation” and yet I’m just not satisfied with your account of things. I’m deeply unsatisfied by your colonising the apportioning of value, the existence of moral value. I understand as well as you do that this is a difficult argument to sustain because our social history is the history of shifts in moral orthodoxy – different places at different times had very different ideas of what good and bad meant. That’s not it as far as I’m concerned. It’s very hard to explain what “it” is. The nearest I can get to it is: the question one has to ask about good and bad and right and wrong is, why is the comparison between the two in order? Why are we even bothering to label things as good and bad? Where’s that coming from? I would say that your exposition covers pretty much everything in a satisfactory but technical way. You really aren’t someone who entertains any doubts in this very complicated area and I can see why you don’t because you’ve been there and you’re good at explaining technically what you’ve found. And yet all that leaves out the idea of altruism as it obtains among homo sapiens, which is at odds with your just bringing out the same explanation as you bring out for an organism on a much lower level, a marine organism, say –
David: Or a brain worm, which is one of the examples in your play!
Tom: Indeed, or the brain worm. [To Stuart] I found the example of the brain worm in one of his books, so serve him right! Clearly there’s a world of parasites or indeed zoology, and then, on an upper level, of sociobiology, there is a world of mechanisms and causes and effects, but we appear to be able to stand outside it and assign value to different manifestations of it. And from what is being written and said from your end of it, our assignments of value are coming out of our skulls. So it’s like a mobius strip. You think you’ve made some moral progress and you find you’re back where you started like in some bad dream. You can’t get away from your point of departure. But most of us, mostly non-scientists, would like to get away from it. I’m sure the word transcend or the noun transcendence must be impolite in the sciences –
David: Not true, but keep going
Tom: I think it would be surprising if most people thought their behavior, particularly when it comes to self-sacrifice for the benefit or advantage of another person, derived from how we have evolved physiologically in response to our environment. And when I said, could you relate cultural evolution to biological evolution that’s where I think there’s a fudge or a missing rung. I don’t understand what you mean, because your starting point is that there is no you and me outside our brains.
Tom: We can get back to that maybe.
David: That would be part of my response. First of all this is a great conversation because there’s tension in it, there’s substantive disagreement and at the same time without being totalising. I think in the play Hilary confronts all of this, this whole scientific account, and finds it so deeply wanting that at the end, she just leaves, she’s out the door and on her way to New York City to become a philosopher. And your philosopher in New York City is Thomas Nagel in terms of who you learn from.
Tom: I wouldn’t presume!
David: I think it’s interesting that you began this conversation by saying how this book earlier would be picked up by a philosopher and now is going to be picked up by an evolutionist. If you go back to the philosophers you have a long and distinguished tradition–which continues to the day so it’s not an extinct tradition– of thinking about these issues. The tradition of dualism is one in which there is something other than the physical realm, not everything can be collapsed into that physical realm. Hilary is the dualist of the play – tell me if I’m wrong – and at the end of the play nothing has persuaded her, in fact everything has reaffirmed her opinion that there is dualism and that everything worth wanting is in the mind part, not the body part, and now in search of dualism she is leaving the Krohl Institute and is on her way to New York to become a philosopher.
Tom: That’s true. You’ve somewhat overstated her sense of dualism. What I would say is that she goes around challenging monism and nobody has done a good job of converting her.
David: That’s right
Tom: Her dualism is like the fall-out of her skepticism about monism.
David: To me there’s a watershed decision to make. Yes, the current scientific worldview is deeply unsatisfying. Why? One, it seems to deny the existence of altruism and morality at face value. Two, it seems to say that consciousness can be reduced physical causes – that’s deeply unsatisfying. And three, if by altruism we mean the kind of instinctive things that brainworms and bees do, that’s not what interests us. We’re interested in some human form of altruism that we might call consciously motivated. So that’s what’s deeply unsatisfying and I agree that for anyone to survey the scientific landscape, that’s the message they would get. You’re not wrong about that. The watershed question is that if we want to go in search of these things that are lacking, do we search inside the orbit of science, which includes evolution, or do we go outside the orbit and search somewhere else? Hilary, I think, decides that she needs to go outside the orbit of science, away from brains, genes, and evolution, in order to find these things that are so valuable to her. I think personally that these things, which are valuable and seem to be lacking from the scientific landscape, can be found inside the orbit of science and evolution.
The reason it’s a watershed decision is because whatever fork of the road you take [please forgive the mixed metaphor!] will take you in different directions. I’m going to remain within the orbit of science and evolution. I actually think I’ve got some promising leads and I’m excited about those. I acknowledge that there’s another fork in the road. Let a thousand flowers bloom when it comes to studying dualism. If you want to enquire into the nature of mind in some way that is separate from body, then be my guest. I’m not being dismissive about that. But because I have taken this fork in the road, then my own thinking is going to be in the boundaries I have set. You said that I have erected certain boundaries for myself and indeed I have. I’m going to see if I can explain these things within those boundaries. It brings a certain discipline to what I can and cannot include in my toolkit. For anyone who takes the other fork in the road, I hope we can still talk to each other. That would be important because they’ll be using a different toolkit.
The way to proceed with the kind of dualism associated with the mind-body problem from an evolutionary perspective—I actually checked with Elliott Sober, my lifetime philosophy pal, about this a while ago in the context of your play—is to map the mind-body problem onto the distinction in evolutionary theory between proximate and ultimate causation. That’s probably a foreign distinction to many people outside of science. Again, that’s one reason why I get so passionate that this should become part of everyday dialogue, so that when we make the distinction people will know what it means–so that it becomes part of the common vocabulary, for heaven’s sake!
The quickest way to get the proximate-ultimate discussion across is with my clay example. Imagine that you visit a studio where people make sculptures out of clay. There are all these beautiful sculptures. Ask yourself the question ‘What’s interesting to say about these sculptures?’ The answer will have very little to do with clay. Clay is a very malleable substance. You can make many things out of clay and to say that you can explain everything about a sculpture knowing only the properties of clay would be idiotic. As a matter of fact you know almost nothing about the sculptures by talking about the properties of clay. What you need to talk about is the shaping influence of the artist in this case. And so when we turn to…
Tom: It’s a rather confusing metaphor, because what there is to say about the beautiful sculptures as you call them is that there’s nothing beautiful about them until they’re interpreted by human minds. They’re just lumps of clay. So I felt you were stealing a march in your argument by pre-investing them with an intrinsic aesthetic value. I think that aesthetic values seem to have the same problem philosophically as moral values. So all I think you’ve done is push the real question further down the road and there it is again. It’s like Mr Reagan “There you go again!” I have a lot of conversations with biologists and philosophers and if I ever try to engage them on behalf of Hilary, years and years before Hilary even existed, I keep getting back to “there you go again”. It seems to me that there’s a mindset I can’t get around somehow, and what I mean by mindset is that the premise is reintroduced as a conclusion. When you get to the conclusion it doesn’t work unless it’s also the premise.
David: I don’t think it’s narrowly tautological. If I were to play back what you’ve just said, I would call it methodological naturalism. That’s a philosophical term that basically says “I’m going to restrict myself to a certain type of explanation. It will have to be consistent with the laws of physics and so on. Methodological naturalism goes back a long way. There’s a great biography of Darwin by Janet Browne that recounts the time when Darwin was a young man trying to be a medical student. In the late 1700s and early 1800s there were all kinds of vitalist explanations that the way to explain the human body was by a divine spark. We would call this a creationist explanation today, but it was legitimate back then and there was nothing dumb about it. Gradually it became more and more clear that the human body was a machine, purely a mechanistic process, so a decision was made – and again it was one of these watershed decisions, one of these fork in the road decisions–that scientific explanations would be limited to natural laws. Even religiously devout people made this decision, including the Anglican priest William Whewell, who wrote in 1833: “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” This passage was quoted by Darwin on the title page of Origin of Species, but it was written when he was a medical student and it meant “the only way we’re going to make progress with the study of medicine is to assume that the body is a machine.”
Now, was that ever proven? No, but it was a utilitarian strategic decision that in this way lies productive inquiry and in that way lies less productive inquiry. When you say ‘There you go again,’ it might mean that I’m remaining within the boundary of methodological naturalism. Indeed, whenever I confront something new I am going to remain within those boundaries. There I go again, but it’s not tautological.
With respect to cultural evolution, the idea that culture is an evolutionary process, that there is something that we can call a meaning system and that a culture would make no sense exempt in reference to a meaning system, here I go again. I’m going to say that it can be explained–or at least it’s profitable to go in that direction–when we think about cultural change as an evolutionary process.
We can look at a meaning system and analyse it as a kind of organism with a physiology. Everything you say about it will have a mechanistic basis. But to say that’s the entire explanation is like saying we can explain all sculptures entirely in terms of clay. There’s a whole world represented by the concept of ultimate causation that is not explained by the other entire world that we call proximate causation. When you explain things in terms of proximate causation, their physical basis, you haven’t even started to explain that same object from the standpoint of ultimate causation. Therefore the hunger that Hilary feels when she goes to the Krohl Institute, with all the papers in Nature and all of the money and everything that’s being devoted to this reductionistic enterprise…There’s a moment in the play where she challenges Spike to explain consciousness and he grabs her finger and pushes it into a candle flame. When she withdraws it in pain, he says that’s consciousness for you. Bing—Bing–Bing–the signal went to the brain and came back out and that’s all there is to consciousness. That is like saying that proximate explanation is the only explanation.
Tom: She rejects that with contempt and asks him to do the same thing for sorrow.
David: Right. But I would say that if you were to provide an account of sorrow from an ultimate causation perspective, it wouldn’t even mention the physical material and wouldn’t need to.
Tom: Why wouldn’t you?
David: Why wouldn’t you need to get back to the physical material? It’s all coming from the physical material.
Tom: To me, that sounds like self-contradiction.
David: I was at a bar a couple of days ago and there was an awesome sculpture of a woman leaning against the bar. She was made out of corrugated cardboard that had been cleverly stacked up into a 3D image. When you looked at it horizontally you could see the holes through the cardboard slices. Returning to the clay sculpture metaphor, if you can implement the same artistic vision with a number of different physical media, there’s a sense in which you can ignore the physical media.
And so there’s the real dualism, I think. You can find a satisfying version of dualism inside the orbit of evolutionary theory, through the concept of proximate and ultimate causation. I emailed Elliott and asked if anyone has taken this direction with the mind-body problem. Elliott emailed back and said no, philosophers who are thinking about the mind-body problem have not taken that direction. That’s a new direction for inquiry. That’s what it means, I think, to try to explain some of these hard problems inside the orbit of methodological naturalism—a more appropriate term than evolutionary theory.
Tom: It’s interesting that to save the appearances – that is, altruism as a real moral value – you’ve promoted culture into a metaphysic. I’m thinking of your distinction between proximate and ultimate causation as in clay and sculpture. You’re aware that sculptures don’t make themselves. You’re not comfortable with the idea that their ultimate causation is genetic evolution, so you come up with cultural evolution. You don’t want your thesis to throw overboard things that are very much part of your life, emotional responses to moral or aesthetic questions, but – I guess – in a thinned-out sort of way “cultural evolution” is still correlated with brain activity. But I think the reason we’re talking about this at all is that for most people that doesn’t do justice to the way we shape our lives, that is, in accordance with some fascinating mechanism, with a mechanism which at its biological level is practical, and this is why I asked you about using a word like transcendence. When all the sums are done and all the knots and bows are neatly tied … I’m suddenly reminded of that Roy Campbell poem – you know – “where’s the bloody horse?’
[Quick break for verse:You praise the firm restraint with which they write –
I’m with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right.
But where’s the bloody horse?
Campbell – On Some South African Novelists)
There’s a discontinuity that shows up at various points in the sciences. I mentioned the discontinuity between classical physics and quantum physics. There’s a moment of discontinuity in what you’re talking about at the moment, where form – brain activity – becomes content, and that is our mystery, it’s what makes us human. Human beings of course are animals, but are we just very very sophisticated animals or does being human mean something beyond biology, and if it seems to, is that something only our illusion, our conceit?
Science looks fair to solve the technical mysteries one by one. We don’t know how long it will take but let’s say they are soluble. And when they are solved the question is, what is the meaning of that, does it have any meaning? We either assign meaning to this staggering array of facts, saying the facts are the meaning, that’s all it is, there’s nothing else, or alternatively we propose that meaning is a kind of illusion which somehow we’ve persuaded ourselves we need, but we don’t need it, we just live our lives the same way. I don’t really think we would. I think a lot of our altruism, which we all exhibit really, happens on a one-to-one level, with family for example. I think a lot of what you write about altruism amounts to statements about cooperation rather than altruism, but I do think we have a genuine altruism around the family table, I’ve always thought this – “There isn’t enough food to go round but you must have the last piece of it” “No you have it, I want you to have it”. You’re impassioned about making the world a better place in your town and ultimately in the planet and you’re going to do it by manipulating the environment so that the environment produces objectively better social behaviour. That’s admirable but in the truest kind of way it misses out altruism completely. Altruism is what you do for somebody you love, and you don’t love good order and sociality in the same sense that you love your family. In biology and sociobiology, we’re talking about something else and very often conversations between artists and scientists suffer from a shortfall of vocabulary. I think that from the very beginning we were in danger of entering a conversation where we needed two words for altruism. We needed an extra word so we wouldn’t end up appearing to discuss altruism in different contexts where we were actually talking about cooperation. I’m not left with a nice contoured map of where we’ve been but I am left with a sense that an idealist in improving the planet will have to start around his table and try to make the values which work for that work for the neighbours, and when that’s sorted to try to make it work for the village and so on, it needs everybody to drop this pebble so that the ripples finally cover the entire lake. That’s something I can understand
David: Do you think that’s absent from my book? The final chapter of my book is titled “Planetary Altruism” and in my mind makes that point.
Tom: I’m agreeing that in your book you’re going out to achieve the same thing, but actually beginning in society by changing the environment, by benign social engineering – as I said an hour ago it’s a really interesting part of your book, but engineered altruism doesn’t touch the mystery of the altruism I’m talking about.
David: Let me take a turn – we do want to get back to the moral philosopher that you invented many years ago [a character in one of Tom’s earlier plays]. In my book I say that there are two concepts of altruism. We need to define altruism in terms of action and in terms of thought and feelings. Both deserve equal time. If it seems that I spent more time on altruism defined in terms of actions – that would be the co-operation part –and not enough time on altruism in terms of thoughts and feelings, perhaps that’s true. The book is intended to be a portal to a larger literature. It was mandated to be a short book, so I had 150 pages to play with. But I can affirm that both deserve equal time. When we think about altruism in terms of thoughts and feelings, there is a very interesting case for human uniqueness grounded in an evolutionary perspective. So for a question such as ‘are we just like the brainworms and the birds and the bees, or is there anything that sets us apart from the rest of nature?’, strangely enough the answer to that question can be yes–although I never use the word unique; I use the word distinctive because I’m very happy to see its roots in other species. I’m not one of those people who wants to show that humans are unique in every way. But what’s so distinctive is our capacity for open-ended cultural evolution and that includes this idea of meaning systems.
The study of religion from an evolutionary perspective has a lot to say about this. The New Atheists are a sideshow. The serious scholarly study of religion from an evolutionary perspective has been in progress for about 15 years, since the turn of the century. But what’s interesting is that coming from the other side you have people who are religious and spiritual and are also meeting in the middle. This includes among other things his Holiness the Dalai Lama–one of his most recent books is called Beyond Religion–and what he is saying is that we need to express our spirituality and our meaning systems in a way that’s compatible with modern science because all our previous expressions of spirituality, whether it’s Buddhism or Christianity or any of these, have become outdated. They’re hard to work with because they involve such suspensions of belief. Is there any way that we can work with religions, taking away what is important and consistent with modern science, which still has the value that we associate with religion and spirituality? There’s a lot of people–not just a few–who think this is possible and that you can have your cake and eat it too with respect to materialism and something worth wanting in terms of spirituality. I’m going to be involved in a whole conference in my city – because this is the sort of conversation I try to start locally –on Inter-spirituality.
Tom: What is spirituality for you?
David: This of course is the kind of question you have to ask and –I want to budget our remaining time–it’s going to be one of those conversations where you’re at the fork in a road and you need to explain it in terms of methodological naturalism or some other way. I actually have a chapter in one of my books, The Neighborhood Project, titled “Body and Soul”. The body part is the cooperation part, but what’s the soul part? In that chapter I quote a webpage for Alcoholics Anonymous, which says that for some people spirituality is just a feel-good thing; they say they’re spiritual but it doesn’t translate into action. That’s not a form of spirituality worth wanting. Spirituality worth wanting is a form of discipline, the commitment to practice certain actions. Being spiritual leads to expansive actions, actions that aren’t self-defeating. Of course, the whole problem for alcoholics is that they behave in ways that are self-defeating. Another thing that AA tells you is that the root of alcoholism is selfishness – that sounds strange but read the AA manual and that’s what they tell you; that people are stage managing all the time and trying to manipulate others for their own benefit. Even when they try to manipulate others for the good of everyone, because they’re manipulative you get crossed wires and stuff like that and it all goes to hell. What you need to do, if you are an alcoholic, is acknowledge a higher power—it doesn’t matter which one. Then you have to cultivate a certain attitude that will lead you out of your alcoholism, and spirituality is a form of discipline that you practice. I like that form of spirituality and, frankly, if encounter spiritualities that don’t make any difference in terms of how people act, I regard them as forms of spirituality not worth wanting. I don’t know why you would want a form of spirituality that did not result in an action of any sort. I want a form of spirituality that results in benevolent action. A strong spiritual meaning system that leads to benevolent action might not look utilitarian. Again and again we come up against that – people hate to think of their actions as utilitarian; they don’t think of it that way, they don’t like to think of it that way. One of the major points of my book is that altruism defined in terms of thoughts and feelings has a complex relationship to altruism defined in terms of action. Take the good person who we admire in every respect and definitely would accord them the title of altruist based what they do, and look inside their head –if you could get a hundred of these folks and look inside their heads you might find 38 different ways that they think and feel about it.
Tom: Thought and feelings being proximate?
David: In each case the thoughts and feelings are fundamentally connected to what they do. If you were to take away their value system, they’d just go slack. But there’s more than one of these value systems. If you said there’s only one way to be altruistic,–you must think this way, if you’re like Kant and you think it has to be a categorical imperative; if you’re merely nice to others because it feels good, that doesn’t count; or if you’re altruistic because you want to go to heaven, that doesn’t count because it’s not pure enough—that’s erroneous. In my book I say that this is like someone who owes you money offering to pay by cash or check. You might have a mild preference for one payment method but your main concern is to be paid. We need to judge meaning systems in terms of what they do.
Tom: It doesn’t matter how and why you’re good, the point is to be good?
David: Exactly. In the BBC interview yesterday I was paired with a young man [William MacAskill] who was making his whole career out of this point. Don’t be too picky about motives. The reason that I want to know what motivates you is because I want to know how you’re going to behave in the future or in another context. That’s a good reason to care about motives. But if I decide that your motives are such that you’re going to be a reliable social partner, it’s at that moment I should stop caring about your motives or at least I should accept you as a trustworthy social partner. That’s what people do in real life when they get together for some common enterprise – they want to know just enough to know if you’re going to be staying at the table. That’s why I get along with religious folks– they know I’m an atheist but they don’t care and they also don’t care about each others’ beliefs. One friend of mine who both studies Judaism and is a very observant Jew said: ‘Whenever I go to synagogue, I don’t care what the other people think about a higher power. We don’t even talk about that. The important thing is to be there.’ That’s not exactly true because there is this genuine connection – the thoughts and feelings are not superfluous. They’re what, in a causal, mechanistic, physical sense, causes the individual to behave as they do. This is why some people cannot accept evolution, because if they did it would be interfering too much with their meaning system. Other religious folks have no problem. This is where thoughts and feelings are central in a mechanistic sense, but there is a many-to-one relationship. There are many ways to skin a cat, and there’s many way to motivate a given …
Tom: People like to feel they’re responsible for the thoughts and feelings that they have. If these have merit it’s because the particular person feels that he has the moral autonomy to make those judgments. Although it’s clear that all kinds of values alter as the environment changes – for environment we mean social organisation – it’s also striking that some values haven’t changed from Homer and the Bible to us. There’s a matrix which underlies the social behaviour that doesn’t change as centuries go by.
David: This is where going beyond genetic evolution and thinking of cultural evolution – culture as an evolutionary process–comes in. I have an interview with Eva Jablonka on this topic titled “Beyond Genetic Evolution”. The image that accompanies the article is a little boy making a tower out of blocks–but the boy is also made out of blocks. This is basically social constructivism, which during its history has regarded itself as outside the orbit of evolution. Over here–genetics, evolution, biology. Over there–open-ended culture and learning. When we bring social constructivism inside the orbit of evolutionary theory we come to a very important set of concepts that evolutionists are talking about with phrases such as niche construction and gene-culture co-evolution, where cultural evolution leads the way and genetic evolution follows. This I think provides some of what you regard as lacking in science. Once again, it’s not as if you got current appearances wrong. I acknowledge that the scientific landscape has looked inhospitable for solving the hard problems. The current question is, if we are going to find answers to the hard problems, will it be within the orbit of methodological naturalism (which for me is a much better term than evolution because it includes evolution plus more) or whether we have to go outside that orbit and find it some place else. Good luck if you want to go in that direction. Don’t lose touch. Don’t be a stranger. But this is the path I’m going to take and if you regard that as limiting, or totalizing, or tautological, or a ‘There you go again’ kind of a thing, then OK there I go again – I’m going to remain in that orbit and we’ll see how it works.
Tom: What we’re talking about, and you clearly don’t suffer from it even potentially, is a sense of incompleteness in the explanation. There’s an explanation, it hangs together, it makes sense, there’s no smoke and mirrors in it, it’s scientific – all those things. Why does it feel incomplete? How does one put one’s finger on the sense of something missing, lacking? And you could say, “This is just coming out of your self-view, this is coming out of the idea you would like to have of yourself, but alas that’s all you are. Settle for that.” There is hardly a scientist who is different from you in saying, “What is your problem? This is not merely complete, but beautiful both as an intellectual construct and as a physical construct – it has a grandeur beyond anything any artist has ever created.”
David: What does?
Tom: I’m quoting a representative scientist – that picture you have drawn is not only complete but it’s astounding and satisfying and a kind of triumph of the human intellect so far…
David: There’s a ‘but’ coming. There has to be.
Tom: Would you buy “however”?
Tom: There isn’t really a however, but with value judgments, especially judgments of moral value, for them to be as it were self sufficient and absolute, in some way one wants them to break out of this orbit you’re talking about. Otherwise, as she says in the play “We’re just correcting our own homework.” For this to have the meaning I was talking about, there must be some truly objective criteria of how we should behave towards one another. How do we know this is wrong when we are wrong, in the wrong? What is going on when we say to you, “You’ll get away with it but you know that that was wrong?” And when you try to connect this with its roots, speaking for myself, I don’t go the way of brain science. Who does? Even you – do you actually …
David: No I don’t. In my own language, I don’t go on the path of proximate causation.
Tom: I’m saying this for the third time in different ways, but there’s a discontinuity between your intellect and your imagination.
David: No – I think I’ll make my closing statement and then we’re done. I think science is incomplete because it only tells you the facts of the matter and in that sense it’s devoid of value. Therefore if we want to make a meaning system that is respectful of science, and I think we do, then what we need is to be explicit about our values. Here are the facts, here are the values, and here’s what we need to do based on our facts consulted by our values. If you don’t work on the values piece, the facts do nothing for you. At the same time, you don’t want to mix facts and values – every meaning system in the past has been a conflation of facts and values. We need a separation of facts and values, I think, more than ever before in the meaning system of the future. But you do need values and the values are in a sense independent of the facts.
You used the word “grandeur” and that takes me back to the final paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species in which he says “there is grandeur in this view of life”. The name of the Evolution Institute’s online magazine that I preside over is This View of Life. What did Darwin mean by that? I think that there is a faith component but there is also a component that is not based on faith. What Darwin had was a simple set of ideas that had amazing explanatory scope. He could see – of course it would take a long time to play itself out – but just knowing the theory he could see that it might explain the fossil record, the contrivances of animals, the geographical distribution of species. He could have a very strong intuition of that which you wouldn’t call faith –instead it would be a very informed hunch. And he definitely included humans – the thing that’s remarkable about Darwin is that he definitely wanted to include humans within that orbit. So that’s when he talked about religion, culture, sympathy, and so on. It was very important for him to include humans within that orbit and that’s why he became so dismayed when Alfred Russell Wallace became a spiritualist. He wept — he wrote ‘Ehue! Ehue! Ehue!’ in print.
How interesting is that – basically the same conversation between us was playing itself out in Darwin’s day. What happened is that evolutionary theory became largely confined to the biological sciences—the whole idea of including humans within that orbit, like Sleeping Beauty, took a nap for a century. Only now, in the last few decades, are we restarting the project of including humans in that orbit.
I think there’s the same combination of faith and non-faith in that project that I described for Darwin. We suddenly have this whole realm of things to study – all things human from an evolutionary perspective. Like Darwin, we can see the explanatory potential everywhere. We haven’t proven it but it’s not entirely faith. It’s a strong hunch that we could explain all these human-related things from an evolutionary perspective. But then there is a faith component also, because if we have this many solid leads then that’s exciting enough. I don’t know why we’d look for Plan B when Plan A is working so well for us. Bascially that explains the faith component – and I’m very happy to call it a faith component. There’s enough explanatory potential that shows excellent signs of success, so I’m not tempted to be like Alfred Russell Wallace in saying there’s something about humanity that’s not to be explained in that framework.
Stuart: What does spirituality mean to you?
Tom: Spirituality is not a word I would use for this. I don’t think of myself as being particularly spiritual. I’m quite hard-headed in fact, but I have a sense of, with great respect, science having a long honourable history of self certainty which needs modulating continually and I’m just very very curious about the unknown. I’m very curious about what we don’t yet know and I sure as hell don’t believe that there’s no such territory to come. There is a tendency to hubris in science as an enterprise, a tendency to triumphalism. If you like, why the hell not? – it makes remarkable progress in God knows how many fields. But I’ve got a sense that one’s temperament masquerades as one’s intellect most of the time, or operates one’s intellect, and I don’t exclude myself from that. I put a value on humility which then colours my judgment when it comes to other people’s intellectual construction. Even so, I think there’s more to come, maybe sooner than we think, and I don’t believe it’s more of the same.
Published On: May 2, 2015