Sunday, March 13, 2016


I'm reading a book by Phillip Ball, called: Water, Matrix of Life. If you want to know more about water, it's fascinating and well written. I particularly like this quote of his: “Water is the agent of geological, environmental and global change. It confers fecundity on parched regions, while it's passing turns grasslands into deserts.”

Water does all this and more. But water is incredibly effective at what it does because water is a team player. Apparently there's water on the moon in the form of patches of ice, but it's inert, it doesn't do anything because it lacks the other team players. Let's introduce these other team members.

Water is a compound not an element although the Greeks and the Chinese thought it was one of the “four elements” - Earth, Air, Water and Fire. Let's run with this idea but let's assume that fire can mean all types of energy, especially the Sun. Let's use a bigger name for Air. We'll call it the Atmosphere. Let's say that “Earth” means the planet and not just a hunk of rock. Now let's add a fifth element, and call it “Life”.

Put these five elements together and they will interact spontaneously. And these interactions form the great geophysical systems of the Earth.

The Earth's surface has mountains and basins. It's lowest points are where most of the water is – in the oceans. The Earth's gravitational field is strong enough to hold all the gases: the oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapour that make up the atmosphere.

Think of Earth as a house without a switch because it runs itself. It's roof is the atmosphere. It lets vital energy from the Sun in and gives us a bit of insulation at night. Too much insulation is not good, as we see with the planet Venus, with its surface temperature of 460 *Celsius.

The Earth's got plumbing, heating, ventilation and power, mostly run by one system: the weather. But it's also got backup power from internal heat which causes plate tectonics to reconfigure the seas and continents every hundred million years or so.

It's not like a house that was designed and built, because it repairs itself. Tell me, what house that we have built repairs itself, or has lasted as long as Earth has?

As a plumbing and heating system and power system the weather is partly predictable and partly unpredictable. Sometimes we get too much water sometimes not enough. Sometimes it gets too hot, sometimes it's just right.

The weather operates under the usual physical laws. The Earth's spin causes winds to curve in the direction of rotation making cyclonic wind patterns counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Sun's radiation heats water on Earth's surface and causes water molecules to change from liquid to gas. The water vapour can rise into the atmosphere because it contains heat from the sun.

Weather is partly predictable, we recognize the seasons, but also unpredictable, we don't know what the weather will be like a month from this day. The weather is a self-organizing system. Weather systems can last up to a week and travel thousands of kilometres.

Let's call a system: a group of parts that interact together to form a whole that is separated from the external world by a boundary.

Let's divide the world of systems into three: machines, institutions, and self-organizing systems.

Self organizing systems are systems of parts that interact via simple physical laws. The parts of the Solar system - the sun and the planets, interact by the laws of motion and gravity to form a balanced system that has maintained itself over time.

All machines are mechanical systems designed and built by humans for various goals. A house is a mechanical system that transfers heat and energy from outside and holds it inside. Houses and other machines have switches on them. When the switch is turned on, the machines start to work and when it's turned off they stop working.

What is a self-organizing system? Think of a flock of sandpipers flying low over the water – the precision and coherence of their flight. The flock swoops and glides as a unified whole as if it acts with one mind.

But each bird is acting on its own and the subtle alterations in flight that each bird makes in response to its neighbours creates an emergent unity.

Unlike machines, self-organizing systems are not deterministic. These systems have properties that emerge from the interaction of all the parts that cannot be predicted from the nature of the parts alone.

You cannot predict the weather beyond a week; Human behaviour is both predictable and unpredictable. Weather systems and large-scale human societies exhibit complex behaviour that is the hallmark of self-organizing systems.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Music and Morality

It is said that Pythagoras,  the founder  of an ancient mystery cult, and arguably, the father of both mathematics and music theory, took his own life, out of guilt for discovering irrational numbers.  

Pythagoras had discovered universal truths about music, by first observing that dividing a vibrating string into different proportions yielded the entire series of harmonics for the notes of the diatonic musical scale.  The pitch of a musical note corresponds to an exact mathematical proportion between the length of the string being played and the length of the segment of the string created by touching a node. Thus, touching nodes positioned at various intervals on the string creates pitches that correspond with all the notes of the scale.

Pythagoras had discovered a connection between the quality of experience and the reality of numbers.  The more perfect the actual mathematical proportion of the node to the entire length, the more harmonious and satisfying our experience when the two notes are sounded together.  We call that satisfying relationship - harmony, and the feeling of dissatisfaction - dissonance.

The interesting thing about music is its dynamics.  It gets its power from the way that it plays with our expectations and feelings, building tension and release via elements of tempo, rhythm, dynamic volume,  the degree of dissonance and harmony, and the movement of a tonal centre further or closer to the key signature.  Put in the context of a song, some dissonance is necessary in order to produce tension and make the music more compelling.  

The judgement of quality in musical experience appears to be both due to subjective impressions and to objective reality. Individual musicians who do not adhere to the standards of pitch, tonality, tempo, dynamics, etc., are judged to be bad musicians.  It would seem that there exists something universal about musical standards that leads to  a better quality of music when these standards are closely adhered to.

Music also gives rise to powerful sensations of mood.  Music embodies human nature, in its understanding of life’s goals and hardships. The experience of music is considered so desirable that the most popular musical pieces are constantly being re-created by musical groups.
Musicians re-create songs, producing music by collective adherence to standards. I want to argue that in moral systems there is something similar going on  - the group re-creates society every time it collectively acknowledges and enforces moral standards.  

The issue is this:  we expect others to act morally and not take advantage or abuse their power but we always have to do more than this.
Because, if we do not collectively exclude those who consistently disrespect moral law, they will undermine and ultimately destroy society from within.

Moral standards are ultimately about differentiating people who support the group from people who undermine the group.  People who commit wrongs can be said to fail the moral standards.  They are excluded from the group temporarily, through forms of punishment, or permanently via banning or executing.  In the past, those who refused to  play by the rules were eventually selected out of the gene pool by the rest of the group.

By accepting universal standards for our social conduct we are also implying that there is something objective about reality that leads to some forms of conduct being better and some forms of conduct being worse than others.  But at the same time, there is something irreducibly subjective about morality because it is such a powerful motivator for judgement and action.

In today’s world we take a jaundiced view of “morality”.  People believe in the value of privacy to override almost everything else, and they see religious extremists insisting on strict “moral” codes of conduct as dangerously divisive.  

But notice that moral standards can sometimes trump religious standards.  Priests, cardinals, even popes can be held accountable for moral failings.  

My intuition is that moral systems long pre-dated religion,  but I wouldn’t be surprised if music is also of ancient pedigree, perhaps originating about the same time as morality, because they both have similar structures, but vastly different functions.  

Music, like morality has standards that are exclusive.  Bands can be very picky who they let in to become band members, and this often has to do with the prospect’s ability to reliably adhere to musical standards. Adhering to high standards is what distinguishes a good band from a mediocre band.  Generally speaking, the higher the musical standards that a band or orchestra can achieve, the better the quality of experience supplied to the audience and greater the number of people drawn into their music’s orbit.

Musical scales, melodies, favourite harmonies, and songs can vary from one culture to another, but in every case, musicians have to play in tune, with appropriate instruments, in the same tempo, and the same key as the other musicians.  In order to play music together they must follow the same musical standards.

  The singer who sings off key undermines the song and harms the collective musical experience; and, if she consistently sings off key she can be kicked out of the band.  Both the audience and the musicians together uphold standards of excellence  that pertain to the quality of the musical experience.

Fortunately, there’s lots of room in modern society for musicians of different age, abilities, and tastes to form bands and play music, sometimes in public, sometimes not.  It doesn’t undermine society for this to be the case.

 But we make a mistake if we think that the fact that there are so many different groups and cultures with different rules of conduct - different moralities, if you will, means that there  are no universal moral principles that we all should adhere to.  

Living in groups demands much more from us than playing music in a group.  For one thing, with music we always have the option of not playing music.  Nor do we have to play music with other musicians, nor even to an audience.    But moral choices are always about social situations.  We do not have the option of opting out, unless we leave the group, and this was probably not an option when morality first originated.   

Both music and morality show the importance of cooperation in human conduct.  Music draws in other musicians, singers, dancers, innkeepers, as well as an audience, but morality makes human cooperation possible in the first place.  Music draws people together and its re-creation makes life more meaningful and enjoyable.  Morality is ultimately what makes it possible for people to live together.  That’s what I mean by the “re-creation of society”.



Unity, diversity, coherence, dissonance,  harmony, and universal rules.  All these elements can be loosely conceived as the basis for both music and morality. We can see that dissonance, while sometimes unpleasant, is actually an essential part of the musical experience because of its contribution to musical tension and sense of movement.   

Conflict and disagreement, as unwanted and unpleasant as they can be,  are probably essential in human groups too, as a challenging impetus that leads to better fairer agreements that are more satisfying and sustainable over the long haul.

If all we ever did was just to get along with everyone else we would  never have gotten out of the state of nature.  By having to deal with conflict we got better at living together.  Animals deal with conflicts with dominance hierarchies.  The bigger and stronger animal has more say.  Humans have added a crucial innovation - rules that apply to everyone, backed up by negative consequences that are collectively instituted against rule breakers.  

The thing about rules, which is different from nature, is that rules are not self-organizing.  They are based on prior agreements about how to behave. In nature any “rule” is more automatic, instinctual and genetically wired-in, or, it’s part of a developmental process.

Nature is self-organized in this important sense:  there is no viewpoint that understands the whole.  In self-organized systems, the parts of the system, if they have awareness, only  have awareness of their immediate environment.  There is no consciousness in charge of everything.  

These kinds of systems are ubiquitous in nature.  Think of the organ systems in our own bodies.  Each of our bodies is said to be made up of thirty-seven trillion individual cells, all interacting in multiple organ systems.  None of these individual cells have awareness of what their particular system is doing. We are certainly not aware of the vast majority of things going on with the thirty-seven trillion cells in our own bodies, although  our minds exert control over our actions and our brains exert unconscious control over our body systems.   

Human systems on small scales are not self-organized. The nuclear family is not self-organized.  Marriages break up, parents can abandon or give away their children, or even decide to adopt or not to have children at all.  And, it takes a lot of social learning and social support to produce good parents. As parents, both the mother and father are aware of the family as a whole, of their relationship with each other, of their own roles as well as everyone else’s; they have a  rough idea of the developmental trajectory of their children, and they are aware, on some level, of how their family fits in with their extended families and with other families in the community.

Music is not self-organized.  Musicians have to learn how to play instruments, how to play in key, and according to musical scales, and to remember melody and chord changes.  Conductors and band leaders need to be aware of how all the playing fits together to re-create a piece of music.   Musicians and audiences have all learned  how to  hear a piece of music as a whole, rather than just as a random series of sounds.

In order for a song to be composed, the composer must be able to conceive of the song as a whole, not just the individual parts.  In nature there is no composer, so natural systems tend to be self-organized and the parts only need to be aware of their immediate surroundings. Rules pull us out of the state of nature, by substituting conscious organization for self-organization.

 We see self-organization when the scale of human activity gets so large, that no-one has a handle on it or can predict where it’s going. This is certainly true of business cycles, where economists often cannot predict what will happen next.  It’s instructive to consider that the actors in business cycles, are often tagged as either “bulls” or “bears” because of their herd impulse to buy or sell.

This is also true of language.  Language involves so many speakers, so many words and grammatical rules, that it also is a self-organized system.  No single speaker is aware of all the uses and changes in pronunciation and meaning that are constantly occurring in any language. Nor do we normally have any awareness of a system-wide goal. There is no one who understands the whole thing, not even Noam Chomsky.   There seem to be an infinite number of different goals involved in the use of language, although cooperation and sharing information seems to be the main ones.    

There is very powerful evidence that humans are distinct from all other living things, and that evidence is in our ubiquitous use of rules.  When we agree together to follow rules we are also demonstrating our understanding of and commitment to  system-wide goals.  This is where music and morality meet.

In hindsight, it turns out that irrational numbers got a bad rap.  They are actually quite useful, and they haven’t led to the erosion of mathematics from within, as, I guess, tragically, Pythagoras was so concerned about.  In human society everything depends on adherence to rules and standards.    Both music and morality can only survive if the collectivity has the means and ultimately the will to exclude rule-breakers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

What is a Moral System?

  What is a moral system?    There is actually, very little that’s been said about the concept of moral systems in Philosophy.  And when philosophers do talk about it, what they really mean by a moral system is a system of beliefs and principles, and rules of interpretation. 

A noted exception is the philosopher, Bernard Gert, (1934 - 2011). In his book, Morality, Its Nature and Justification, he specifically talks about the moral system.  According to Gert:

“I use the phrase “moral system” to mean the same as “morality” and regard morality or the moral system as the system people use, often unconsciously, when they are trying to make a morally acceptable choice among several alternative actions or when they make moral judgments about their own actions or those of others…. It is… an essential feature of morality in all of its variations that everyone who is judged by it knows what morality prohibits, requires, encourages and allows.”  

If the reader is at all interested in learning more about the concept of "the moral system" I recommend Gert’s book.  I came to the idea independently of Gert, but see some basic agreement between our two accounts.  The main difference between our two accounts is that mine is more descriptive, and based on biology, whereas Gert’s is more concerned with justification.   A fuller account of Gert’s position compared to my own is not included here but will be forthcoming.
To most other moral  philosophers, the goal of moral philosophy is to generate better moral principles that all people can agree on.  But, why do we need professional philosophers to tell us what is right and what is wrong?  We already know it.  It’s not the principles that are the problem -  we don’t really understand what a moral system is and what it does - that’s the problem.  

In order to understand what a moral system is, we first we need to crack open the idea of “systems”.  By that, I mean just enough of an understanding of the concept to get us started.  The kind of system that philosophers talk about, which are really just collections of principles or strings of hypo-deductive inferences, is not what I  am talking about.  That kind of system doesn’t do anything on it’s own.  

Biological systems do things.  They consume resources and they produce offspring and niches.  They maintain themselves and keep things working.  These systems only have goals, in the sense that they keep themselves going - which is sometimes called, “homeostasis”.  Our bodies are a biological system of approximately thirty-seven trillion cells, that all coordinate together in multiple organ systems to maintain our physical integrity.  

In most biological systems, the parts are not conscious of the whole.  Individual cells of the body are not trying to make the body strong and resilient, they are responding to their immediate environment and all the chemical and hormonal signals that impact them.

In contrast, often times  human participants are conscious of system-wide goals and are trying their best to attain them.  We can consider the Emergency Medical System, or EMS,   and the Criminal Justice System, or CJS, as human systems with overall goals - that of saving lives and serving justice.  

For the purposes of my essay, all we need in order to understand the concept of a system is to focus on the idea that the parts of a system are not as important as the relationship between the parts. Human systems are generally resilient enough to work with missing and interchangeable parts.

In order to see what I mean, we can contrast a system with a machine.  If we take a part out of a machine, the machine  will break down.  If we try and replace the part, a new part must be “machined” to the exact same size and shape in order for it to work.  In contrast, we can call the Toastmasters Organization a system.  Replace the toastmaster in one meeting with a new toastmaster in the next, or an “ah counter” with an new “ah counter”, and the toastmasters meeting goes on, all the same.

To activate a machine, you turn on a switch;  But, how do you activate a system?  It requires both participants and communication between the participants.  How do you activate the toastmasters system?  You show up, and you volunteer to speak.  That’s what activates it,  turning up and choosing to do something.  

There are other systems that we are all familiar with.  The EMS is made up of paramedics, doctors and nurses, ambulances, hospital buildings and emergency departments.  The CJS has its lawyers, judges, juries, courthouses and legislatures.  

Let’s call the moral system, the OMS.  That stands for the “Old Moral System”.   It has been around for a very long time.  What I want to say is that all of us are part of the OMS;  all of us, if we are old enough and of sound mind, know moral principles and can make moral judgements.  And that’s what a moral system is - its all of us. End of story - right?  But, why don’t we see this, why is it not obvious to everyone?

Well, where is the OMS?  Where are the buildings that house the moral system?  Where are the professionals that do moral reasoning or hand down moral judgements?  Does the OMS really exist?  Maybe it does, but it ends up being largely invisible, because of the overlay of all the other social institutions.  

Let’s do what philosophers call a “thought experiment”  Imagine yourself to be a part of the OMS. I want to propose about seven brief scenarios, and what I’m asking  is for you to do two things: First, to note how you inwardly respond to each scenario, and second, to consider which of these scenarios activates the OMS and which does not.    And with each scenario I’m going to put on my philosopher’s hat, and give my own very brief verdict.

The point of this thought experiment is to provide you with some experiential evidence for a what a moral system is, and how it works.

Scenario 1 - I see a body lying on the ground.  “Mister, are you OK?”  I’m not getting a response.   I ask a passer by to  call 911 and tell them that there is an  unconscious person lying on the ground here at the college.  

Did this activate the OMS?  No, it activated the EMS.  

Scenario 2 - My youngest son brought this pie which he intended to share with everyone, and there is no other food to be had.  But  I feel so hungry that I tell everyone gathered that I’ve decided to eat all of the pie myself and I’m not going to share any of it with them.  

 Did this activate the OMS?  Consider that the further back in time  we go, the more likely that starvation was a real and ever-present possibility. In any case, people would be outraged, and it definitely would activate the OMS.  

Scenario 3 -   My eldest son has a nosebleed.   I bring a towel to  put on his lap and a wet compress to put under his nose.  I show him how to pinch the lower part of the bridge of his nose just above the nostrils and tell him that this will stop the bleeding, but he will have to do it for at least five to ten minutes.  

Did this activate the EMS or the OMS?  Neither, but it did activate “The Caring System”. That’s actually an older system than the OMS.  It goes back a two hundred and fifty million years, to the origins of mammals.     

Scenario 4 - OK.  Hold onto your seats, because this room is actually a time machine, and I now am adjusting the controls to take us back four hundred years ago to Elizabethan England.  “I say old chap.  Are you in harm's way?   What’s that you say.  A witch has caused you to bleed through the nose.  Oh-Oh!”  OK now I’m adjusting the controls to take us back to the present...  

Did this activate the OMS? Yes, because four hundred  years ago people believed in witches.  It would have also activated the Criminal Justice System and could have  led to some unfortunate woman being burned at the stake.  This illustrates the dark side of moral systems.  A large part of what they do depends on what everyone believes.  That’s why universal education, and high standards of evidence and scientific knowledge are important.

Scenario 5 -    I see a person lying on the street, unconscious, in a pool of blood.    A witness tells me that a man beat this lady senseless and  ran off with her purse.  Someone has called 911 and the police and ambulance are on their way.    

It appears that we have activated the EMS  and the CJS,  but what was the first system to be activated,  even before those systems?  The OMS  is activated instantly, because this situation is so unambiguously wrong. We will feel it in our bones that it is wrong. My point being, that the OMS is not activated by calling 911, it is activated by our minds - by our feelings and judgements - and it happens much faster than  a phone call.  

Scenario 6 -  I deliver a speech to a mixed audience, unannounced,  in the nude.

I think that there would be quite a few systems that would be activated here, including and especially the OMS.  I would  end up being seen and treated as an outcast in my own community.  

Scenario 7 - I win the international toastmaster’s award for best speech for an inspiring speech about the value of my home community.

 Note that, unlike the previous scenarios, this one is positive. I think that this would activate the OMS because I have done something that puts our community in a good light, and thus, benefits the community and the local toastmasters.

The goal of the EMS is to save lives, the goal of the CJS is to serve justice.  So, what is the goal of the OMS? The goal of any moral system is to protect and maintain the group.  Anything that threatens social peace is dealt with by social sanctions and punishments, and anything that benefits the group is recognized, publically acknowledged, and encouraged. But the emphasis in moral systems is always on preventing or on punishing bads, and less on promoting the good  - for reasons that I will get into.   

The moral system is much older and simpler than any other human  system.  It deals in black and white, with inclusion or exclusion.  It doesn’t do greys.
How does  it work?  Before agriculture was invented people lived as hunter-gatherers.   Let’s say, somebody did something bad. The bad situation or it’s effects were witnessed, the witnesses shared what they saw with the rest of the group.  Then a group discussion ensued, which culminated in a collective judgement.  The wrongdoer was apprehended and temporarily excluded and punished, and then re-admitted to the community.  Or, if the wrong was serious enough or the wrong-doer too recalcitrant, they would be excluded permanently.  

On the other hand, if someone did something commendable, exercising bravery or effort, beyond the call of duty, in a way that benefited the community,  they would be publically acknowledged and rewarded with a higher social status.  

Bads are more important to a moral system than goods, because certain kinds of wrongdoing are greater threats to a group’s survival.  You may or may not have noticed that the majority of scenarios that activated the OMS involved  either violent confrontation or conflicts over food or sex. When conflicts start over any of these three types of  concerns they are much more likely to spread and get worse if they are not checked by collective action. This has a lot to do with our biological origins, this is what morality originally was for - to protect and maintain the group by regulating behaviour in these three areas of concern - sex, violence, and food.   Now, of course, moral systems are much more complex and deal with more areas of concern.

Moral systems work.  They work so well that the vast majority of people would not dare activate them.  And this is largely how they work.  People are powerfully motivated to avoid doing anything that would lead to being excluded and shunned by their group.    How many of you would even think of doing what I did with the pie?

The moral system is so vital that it always forms the background to any viable society.  But, as such it is often taken for granted, so it becomes largely invisible  in our modern society.There are so many different groups in society, all with overlapping jurisdictions and their own systems of rules and values.  It’s hard to separate it all, because everything occurs together. In addition, there are many social institutions that have taken over some of the functions of the moral system.  For instance:  the Criminal Justice System,  and the Mental Health System both have taken over jobs previously, exclusively done by the Moral System.

I find it useful to imagine the Archaeologist’s job of uncovering civilizations.  Say, that on a particular location an ancient city existed for ten thousand years.  When archaeologists dig down, what they uncover is strata - layers of foundations laid on top of each other.  When a house falls down, a new house is built on top of the rubble - over and over again for thousands of years.  And it takes the painstaking job of an  archaeologist to uncover and sift through each and every layer, in order to get to the very bottom, to the original layer.  

The Old Moral System, is that original layer. It is the first human social institution, the one that forms the foundation for all other human institutions. It’s still around, we are all still part of it, and no human society  could  exist without it.