Natural philosophers and pre-modern proto-scientists often pondered esoteric metaphysical questions with almost no significance for the practical problems of their age. Questions like where is my mind?; do I have a soul?; what is knowledge? and am I a person? may seem amusing at best and a ludicrous, childish waste of time at worst. For the philosophically ambitious minority, these questions and paradoxes are exciting to ponder, but, at the end of the day, we all still go about our earthly affairs, making our mundane decisions: chicken soup or Caesar salad; grey shirt with white shoes or white shirt with grey shoes; Windows or Mac; dog or cat; Star Trek or Star Wars. A satisfying answer to the mind-body problem is not something most of us put on our holiday wish lists.
Rather, we want to know which political candidate to support, which political position to support, what and whom to care about, how to make ourselves and those we care about happy, how to live, why live, and so forth. One day, we may go to bed at night and judge the value of the day by how much closer we have got to the right answer on abortion, say, or immigration policy. We may even be able to solve these issues systematically, without debate, with reference to a common set of values that exclude no one.
As unlikely and fictional as this may seem, modern science and philosophy are quickly approaching this goal. For instance, cognitive neuroscience and the behavioral sciences have been undermining the legitimacy of our criminal justice system. As our understanding of the mechanistic processes of the brain deepens, we recognize that more of our behavior than we previously thought is determined by factors beyond our control—mental disorders; illnesses, lesions or trauma; our environment; our genes; whether our parents were smokers or abusive or absent when we were young; whether we were born prematurely; whether we were born in Pyongyang or Damascus or London or Chicago; and many other circumstantial factors, none of which we signed up for. We may no longer find a man with a severe cognitive disorder, who commits a crime, guilty: it wasn’t him, we may argue, it was his damaged prefrontal cortex, and his childhood trauma, and this particular gene variant that predisposes him to violence. The more knowledge we obtain about the biological roots of crime, the less room there is for personal moral responsibility. As we understand more and more of these brain processes, we ought to convict fewer and fewer criminals—in fact, we might well call them victims of circumstance instead.
Insights from evolutionary psychology and brain science shed light on how our moral intuitions came to be, how we developed notions of justice and personal identity, how we acquired capacities for such things as abstraction, internal contradictions, sentience, cooperation, empathy, compassion, guilt, shame, embarrassment, sadness, depression, euphoria, pride, envy, spite, schadenfreude, forgiveness, altruism, love, hate, revenge and competition. Armed with this information, we might ask ourselves are these the kinds of values we should have in our society, these intuitions we just happen to have evolved, which allowed us to cooperate in the African savannah, or is there some other set of principles and dispositions we should acquire, which would be more suitable in our current environment?
Whereas, previously, philosophy did not have a permanent seat at the practical table—except for, perhaps mathematics and applied ethics—we now can use scientific data to fuel a moral philosophy, a philosophy of personal identity and existence (ontology) and a philosophy of truth (epistemology) to steer our lives in the right direction, resolve moral disagreements, make compromises and find semi-satisfying solutions to our impossible global tragedy of the commons. Science and philosophy have become like a virtual reality headset. Science, the headset itself, is the meat and potatoes of the whole shebang, the hardware and the AA batteries of the operation, fuelling the system. Philosophy constitutes the virtual worlds, the software, with various programmable presets: a world of moral issues (for solving ethical quandaries and questions of how to act, live, be happy, etc.); a world full of questions of identity and existence; a world of law, politics and justice, etc.
Take the issue of abortion. This presents a quandary as to who can harm whom, when a person begins to feel pain, who has which rights (and when), and what the societal effects of one’s stance on the matter are. Pro-lifers argue that a fetus becomes a person at the moment of conception and that it is, therefore, wrong to kill her anytime thereafter. Murder outweighs all other implications, they say, including the rights of women in unforeseen circumstances, or the subsequent effects of outlawing abortion on women and their potential children. Pro-choicers argue that embryonic development is a process, and that the fetus becomes a person when he starts to develop consciousness and pain receptors, a process which does not happen overnight. By this logic, the rights of women and the societal implications of outlawing abortion (that women will seek abortions by illegal, dangerous means) outweigh the moral considerations of killing a fetus.
Both positions have their flaws. This particular issue is tough because the answer to this question may not satisfy everyone nor might it be, in any objective sense, true. Nonetheless, despite widespread disagreement between the two camps, there is still a general consensus among moderates on both sides that it is not necessarily objectively wrong to abort a fetus a few days after conception, and that it is almost certainly wrong to abort a fetus in the latter stages of the third trimester. If this is merely a factual disagreement about when one becomes a person, and when that person can feel pain, then we might be able to arrive at an answer as to what would work best for our society, through a serious philosophical debate powered by the most recent biomedical research.
But, when moral issues become politically and culturally entrenched, we have a strong incentive not to want to be wrong, for various social reasons that are evolutionarily ancient—and therefore hard to combat. Our aim ceases to be truth or correspondence to reality—instead, we want to pledge allegiance to our particular in-group. Most political issues are currently trapped in the black hole of a fierce human social experiment, in which extreme loyalty is the intense gravity causing us to collapse in on ourselves. Consider that you can usually predict someone’s political stances on a wide range of issues with accuracy, if you simply know which party she supports. This should not be the case.
We should embrace wrongness—we should be proud of reforming our beliefs and proportioning them to the evidence available. We should bask in our ignorance and seek out any chance to obtain truer—rather than more satisfying or favorable—beliefs. As Michel de Montaigne writes, “If, like the truth, falsehood had only one face, we should know better where we are, for we should then take the opposite of what a liar said to be the truth. But the opposite of a truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.”
This should be cause for optimism. It’s a great first step to recognize that one’s opponent is not motivated by intense malice. Afterwards, you should attempt to comprehend and appreciate the logic of his argument and then identify what is agreed upon, find a common currency of values, and point out premises that you find flawed or inconsistent. Not to prove that you are right and he is wrong, but in the service of a mutual agreement to tackle pain and suffering, problems of cooperation and coercion, inequality and liberty, compassion and the quality of our experiences in general.
This is how we should decide whom and what to vote for, what and whom to value and how to live. How we decide to tackle abortion, euthanasia, environmental degradation and global warming; our obligations to the deceased and the not-yet-born; animal rights; robots and artificial intelligence; consciousness; the criminal justice system; immigration; the First and Second Amendments; cultural and national differences; and the obligation to forge a viable, compassionate global community are all at stake here. As are the fundamental questions: how do I live; why do I live; what do I want; what should I want?
This is how science and philosophy can give meaning to a godless, meaningless universe. This is how we discover who we are—if that question even has an answer. Only a coherent, practical ethical philosophy, powered by the latest science, can hope to resolve these issues. However, until we amend the function our beliefs serve, and recognize the function they ought to serve instead, we will continue to chase our tails in our tribalistic antics.