Transcendental Morality

Some anti-physicalists worry that absent a God, or at least absent something more to consciousness than an evolved program, there can be no definition of morality in the world. Some physicalists agree, arguing there is no reason to believe morality exists in the sense of inhering in the universe as an objective property. However, it is possible that morality will be derived from mathematics, and is thus as fixed, absolute, and discoverable as the ultimate laws of physics. In particular, it may be that there is a well-defined strategy for multiple parties to interact that is optimal in a natural sense.

There have been attempts to derive moral principles within game theory, but it has not yet proved possible to treat rigorously two important factors, coalition forming and progress.

The evolution of economic progress, as exemplified in our experiments in evolving artificial economies of computational agents, serves as a motivating example. These programs interacted with a simulated world, and progress was possible as knowledge of how to exploit the physics of that world was discovered and applied. Under such circumstances, all parties can improve their lots over time if they can enforce cooperation. Our experiments as well as several arguments (detailed in What is Thought?) indicated that a very simple, concise, natural law of property rights can lead to rapid progress, that violations of such natural law can lead to undesirable consequences, and moreover that evolution discovered methods (such as posses among humans and suppression of cheaters among genes in meiosis) to enforce such natural law.

The point may be more general. Arguably there is a symmetry-breaking arrow to evolution: over time it is possible to learn better how to exploit the concise underlying structure of the world. Moreover, cooperation furthers such ``progress'', and simple rules apparently exist that promote cooperation. But this renders such rules evolutionarily fitter, and because they are simple, and thus evolvable, they evolve. Evolutionary history has seen the evolution of cooperation at multiple levels, such as the cooperation of genes in chromosomes, the cooperation of cells in bodies, the cooperation of individual creatures in a societies. But quite plausibly the evolved rules promoting progress and cooperation are intrinsic, as well as very simple. One might find very similar solutions if one were able to run the tape again on another planet.

E. O. Wilson wrote ``Centuries of debate on the origin of ethics comes down to this: Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions.'' The former view he calls transcendentalism, the latter empiricism. Transcendentalists hold that ethical precepts are, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, ``self-evident... endowed by [the] Creator". Wilson argues for empiricism, saying that morality follows from epigenetic rules: "ethical codes have arisen by evolution through the interplay of biology and culture". And he claims ``is there a way to ... resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world views? No, unfortunately there is not.''

The two views can however be resolved. The conjecture that there are absolute ethical precepts arising from the nature of the universe is clearly transcendentalist. But such absolute principles would then be reflected in the program of mind just as the nature of physics is reflected in the program of mind. As Wilson argues, evolution has extracted epigenetic rules predisposing human behavior and thought. But if my conjecture is correct, these rules reflect the underlying transcendental nature of the universe.

People's understanding of morality then derives from this conjectured absolute morality, but should not be expected to exactly mirror it for various reasons. The intuitive understanding of morality produced by evolution should not be expected to be a more precise picture of absolute truth, the underlying compact structure of the universe, than was the intuitive understanding of physics. But intuitive physics, of course, mistakes Newton's, Galileo's, Copernicus's and even Archimedes's discoveries. More importantly, evolution may have produced systematic divergences from absolute morality. For example, it may well have been fitter in Darwinian terms to adapt a submissive posture if one's leader is bigger and stronger, as do monkeys, chickens, and dogs. However, it is plausible that absolute morality is more egalitarian. Most importantly, cultural programming seems to have run away with notions of morality. Because cultural programming has worked so rapidly, evolution has not had time to push it toward optimality, and thus a profusion of cultural programming is superimposed on any existing epigenetic rules.

Wigner once marveled at ``The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.'' We live in a world that has a beautiful underlying simplicity. It may be that this simplicity extends into morality as well, and thus that there is a simple natural law of ethics just as there are simple principles underlying physical interactions. Like the laws of physics, this natural law of ethics may yield to mathematical and scientific investigations.

Morality, as well as thought, physics, and mathematics may stem intrinsically from a world that is near optimal in the sense that it possesses simultaneously the simplest possible underlying structure and the richest possible phenomena.

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Eric Baum

Originally written, 2004. Last modified: Mon Jan 5 21:00:16 EST 2009