In his review of The Infinite Staircase, Bill Bartlett has done me the honor every author most cherishes—he has read my book thoughtfully and has engaged directly with its claims. He and I don’t see eye to eye on many of these claims, but we both have deep respect for Western philosophy and religion, so I welcome the opportunity to do a kind of Point/Counterpoint with his review. In this context, I am reproducing what he says first and then interspersing my commentary in a different font color. Here goes.
📗 Book Review: The Infinite Staircase
When I first came across The Infinite Staircase, I was intrigued for two reasons: The title suggested that the book was not in the same vein as the author’s previous work and that it would tackle morality from a secular viewpoint. As such the title was extremely well chosen.
The Infinite Staircase is the latest from Geoffrey Moore, who is famous for books such as Crossing the Chasm and Zone to Win, which I quote quite frequently when talking about product management. It is a departure from those books as it deals with the strategy for something larger than products and companies: life itself. It attempts to give a description of the universe and human life in it, and then derive from that a framework for grounding ethics and morality. Moore remarks that the world is becoming less and less religious which is eroding the foundations that fostered ethical behavior. Moore sees the need for a secular foundation in order to regain the stability that society needs and that ethics provides.
I don’t want to quarrel with this representation, but I do think it is a bit one-sided when it comes to my commitment to a secular metaphysics. I am blown away by the magnitude and wonder that the secular story of creation tells. The fact that humanity has been able to develop such a complete and verifiable explanation of how we got from a Big Bang to the present day astounds me. So, I do not want to set it aside when it comes to establishing the grounds for ethical behavior. It is not, in other words, that I am disappointed with religion, although I do take it to task from time to time, but rather that I am unwilling to sideline what I consider to be some of humanity’s best work when it comes to tackling issues of spiritual and moral importance.
Moore’s proposed foundation for ethics is the various sciences which he places on consecutive steps of a staircase. Each stair emerges out of the previous one: it is constrained by the previous stair but not wholly predicted by it. For example, chemistry emerges from physics because physics applies a constraint on what chemical entities can do without being able to predict every behavior that they have. It is a shame that Moore does not explain the concept of emergence and assumes the reader is familiar with it. I myself was skeptical that chemistry emerges from physics and was glad to be able to find a well-researched article on the subject.
I confess to being guilty as charged here. I am in awe of emergence and how it generates complexity, and it certainly deserves a strong foundation. In the bibliography of The Infinite Staircase, I do reference some works on the topic, of which I think John Holland’s Complexity: A Short Introduction is the best one to start with.
Because of emergence, there is no single science that completely describes and predicts everything in the universe. Therefore any unifying theory must contain all of them. In fact, it must contain many other sciences, some of which have not been explored yet. Hence the fact that the staircase is assumed to be infinite in both directions. In spite of this, Moore feels that we have enough of a grasp on the “middle” of the infinite staircase in order to ground ethics.
In fact, Moore focuses on a smaller subset of the staircase he describes by stating that goodness begins with desire. This is surprising given that many points of contention in today’s society have a biological component.
Unfortunately, Moore’s proposed framework for ethics is flawed for several reasons that I would like to discuss.
Deriving an “ought” from an “is”
From the beginning, Moore had his work cut out for him. Many have tried and failed to do what Moore attempts, that is to ground a theory of what ought to be in a theory of what can be. Many philosophers have weighed in on this problem. David Hume is famously credited for suggesting that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. Jean-Paul Sartre, quoting Dostoevsky, affirmed that since God does not exist, anything is justifiable.
the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
— David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
Bill is correct that I do believe you can derive an ought from an is, that this is an important objective for the book, and that it does put me at odds with Messers Hume, Sartre, and Dostoevsky. My claim is that consciousness emerges from desire (this aligns with Hume’s famous comment that reason is in service to, and not the master of, the passions). I take this relationship between desire and consciousness to establish the is. Desire is driving behavior, and we have no choice in that matter. We are compelled to desire. The vehicle we are riding on is irresistibly in motion—all we can do is seek to steer it.
That’s where values come in. They emerge from conscious beings interacting socially with one another, specifically within the context of raising families and interacting with neighbors, something we can see in higher order mammals who nurture their young, discipline their peers, court their mates, and defend their group. All four of these behavioral domains entail oughts, even among pre-linguistic animals, and certainly within human society. These oughts emerge from the prior is. We may see this as mysterious, perhaps, but it is not complicated. We are all acting out strategies for living that seek out what I have termed a Darwinian Mean between desire and values.
Some of the most recent attempts are from Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, collectively known as the Four Horsemen of New Atheism. In particular, Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape, a Ph.D. thesis that was turned into a popular book, where he attempted to ground morality in neuroscience and an evaluation of the mental states of human beings. He posited that moral action is anything that promotes human flourishing as defined by the allegedly factual self-reporting of each person’s well-being. Harris’ work was criticised by both religious and atheist people. Harris called for a competition of essays critiquing the book and the winning essay was posted on his blog. Many critical responses state that Harris never escapes the problem of deriving an “ought” from an “is”.
My claim is that Sam and others fail because they seek to ground values in language when in fact they emerge prior to language. That said, to explore the nature of morality via self-reporting of well being is an interesting idea. Psychological well being could plausibly be a signal of what one might call social homeostasis, in the same way as good health is a signal of biological homeostasis. I believe that the “value of values” is to support social homeostasis, the well being of the group, and that is why they emerged among social animals (and not among asocial ones).
It appears to me that Moore’s work falls into the same chasm. The “turn” in Chapter 6 is jarring. After having extolled the benefits of Transcendental Meditation as providing easily accessible spiritual support, Moore goes on to ground goodness in a series of archetypes found in society: maternal love, paternal love, sibling love and communal friendship. Moore also defines a way of measuring goodness, a sort of set of KPIs: Is Good, Feels Good, Works Good.
It is a bit humbling to have one’s ideas summarized so baldly, but Bill has me exactly right.
These proposals have several problems. First of all, they are not universal, rather they are very culturally specific. Moore may provide evidence that many animal species exhibit these archetypes and a certain level of ethical behavior that is beneficial to the species, but there is nothing that shows that all human cultures across the world do.
Here Bill and I part company. Yes, any given set of values are culturally specific—indeed, they have to be if they are to serve the community that embraces them. But values per se are universal, at least among mammals. Thus, when it comes to maternal values, for example, all mammals nurture their young. That is a universal value. It is not negotiable. There is no viable human culture that does not commit to it. Sadly, there was a famously horrific societal experiment conducted in Romania during the 1950s in which a generation of infants were not nurtured, and the results were predictably catastrophic. The same holds for the other values I cite. They all have different manifestations, but since they are mammalian in origin, and since all humans are mammals, they are universal.
Secondly, Moore’s measure of goodness never manages to distinguish itself from moral relativism.
That is because Moore does not want to distinguish goodness from moral relativism! Moral absolutism, to my mind, causes much more societal damage than moral relativism. This is my biggest beef with religion. I love the values, but I do not support the absolutism. It is a human invention that is designed to confer power onto selected individuals, too many of whom have shown a propensity to abuse that power.
Thirdly, while all of this may be nice, and I would love for more people to aspire to many of the ideals that Moore provides, there is little to no argument as to why anyone must buy into it. There is nothing compelling enough to stop a genocidal maniac and his followers from truly believing that their race is better than others.
I agree with Bill. Nothing I say is compelling enough to stop a genocidal maniac. But there is more to it than that. Implicit in his critique is the idea that a proper morality would supply such an argument, and this is where we really do part company.
The conventional view of morality is that it can be captured in a moral code, and that where that code is authorized, proper moral judgment is based on applying it to the situation at hand. This implies that morality comes from above, a product of applying analytics to metaphysics to determine the right way to act. My position is the exact opposite. I claim that morality comes from below, from our mammalian heritage, and our moral sense is initially non-verbal, only later to be rationalized. In other words, we know the difference between right and wrong not through the application of reason but rather through our intuitive assessment of behavior based on the social norms we were raised with. Bill wants something more definitive than that, and I don’t blame him. I just don’t think it exists. Worse, when people insist on asserting such claims as absolute, they have the capacity to generate genocides of their own, genocides in the name of all that is holy. It is a travesty, to be sure, but it is not an unfamiliar one.
Mortality driving behavior
In fact, Moore seems to undermine his own premise when bringing mortality into the equation.
Mortality, like immortality, sets the ultimate context for ethics. Whereas belief in immortality typically implies an ethic of ultimate obedience, belief in mortality typically aligns with a journey of self-realization.
Mortality is the ultimate statute of limitations on behavior. While this isn’t entirely true, since many people care about the future of the loved ones they will leave behind, I agree with the statement in general. Mortality reduces the consequences of one’s actions and therefore provides less urgency to fully comply with any ethical framework. Mortality does however seem to push people to think about what they will leave behind and to seek self-realization, a potentially selfish pursuit.
Bill and I do not see mortality through the same lens. I do not see it as a statute of limitations on behavior. I see it as the fundamental enabler of our existence. Evolution is based on natural selection which in turn is powered by mortality. Without death, there is no evolution, hence no you, no me, nor anyone or anything else we love.
But set all that aside, and I still will argue that mortality if foundational to our identity. Death makes life precious. It also positions us in relation to an enterprise far greater than ourselves, one that precedes our arrival and will continue on long after we are gone. Our identity is tied to our participation in this enterprise, enabled by the narratives which our culture has transmitted to us. The only question is, how we will enact our participation, and to what end. That is where ethics comes in.
Self-realization is not selfish. Ego-realization is selfish. This is where mindfulness and meditation come in. These practices allow consciousness to experience self as connected to a source of spiritual connection and refreshment, thereby giving the ego the energy and centeredness it needs to act ethically under challenging conditions.
On the other hand, immortality doesn’t necessarily carry with it a moral imperative. In order for that, one must believe in some force that will ensure that all immoral behavior will eventually and inescapably lead to unwanted consequences.
Logically, this makes sense, but I have never heard of an immortality narrative that did not incorporate some form of divine judgment.
Genes and memes
There is not much to say about Moore’s reference to Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes. Meme theory and memetics have been heavily criticised by experts from many different fields. For instance, Dr Luis Benitez-Bribiesca pointed to various differences between genes and memes including the high rate of mutation, the lack of a code script, and instability. For this reason memes cannot account for the observed emergence of common narratives and culture.
Sorry, but I am not willing to cede the field here. My claim is that memes are like genes in the following ways:
- Both encode strategies for living that are communicated across generations, the one biologically, the other socially.
- Both are subject to natural selection, leading to the spread of increasingly successful strategies for living while weeding out the unsuccessful ones.
- Both are also subject to sexual selection, leading to the spread of increasingly appealing strategies for living while weeding out the unattractive ones.
Now, as to the objections raised by Dr. Benitex-Bribiesca, here are my replies:
- There is no clear-cut definition of a meme. I claim that memes are properly defined as strategies for living that inform behaviors and are spread through imitation—something we can see emerging in social animals but made fully manifest with the arrival of language.
- Memes cannot be subjected to rigorous scientific investigation because they are too heterogenous to study in a systematic way. I claim that there are a number of widely disseminated academic disciplines devoted entirely to the study of memes, of which history, philosophy, and literary studies are three.
- The mutation of memes is unconstrained in ways that are so different from genes that the metaphor is not useful. I agree that the mechanisms for transmission are quite different. But both are ultimately selected for or against based on the behavior of the organism enacting the strategy. To be sure, each individual embracing a given strategy will put their individual spin on it—that’s the source of mutation. Some of these mutations will have more success either in propagating (winning the war of sexual selection) or succeeding (winning the war of natural selection)—that’s what leads to the evolution of increasingly complex and inclusive strategies for living, the sciences being a particularly impressive example thereof.
- Memetics is nothing more than pseudoscientific dogma encased in itself. Frankly, this is just name-calling. Still, to be fair, I agree that memetics is not a science, certainly not in the way that genetics is. I believe, however, it is can be useful to describe forces that act on human beings, to develop an understanding of the opportunities and threats they pose, and to propose tactics for capitalizing on the former and defending oneself against the latter.
Given the above, I think it is wrong to say that memes cannot account for the observed emergence of common narratives and culture.
Epigenetics provide a more coherent description of how culture is inherited. Linguistics, complex systems theory and the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari provide better explanations for how narratives propagate and influence culture.
I am not familiar with this body of work, but I expect I would find it congenial. I am not seeking to proselytize memetics per se. I do think they are a useful vehicle for understanding the impact of narratives and analytics on human experience, and I take that to be the reason they generate so much analysis.
Religion fails as a grounds for moral behavior
Peppered throughout the book there are jabs at religion’s alleged shortcomings to provide suitable grounds for ethics.
This is the only comment in this entire dialog that I truly take exception to. I make the point several times throughout The Infinite Staircase that religion is indeed very well suited to authorize ethics and that committing to a religious tradition is a time-tested way to living an ethical life. My issue is that I do not find the metaphysics embedded in religious narratives credible. The story is compelling, but the evidence is missing. On the other hand, I find secular metaphysics to be very credible. Here there is a surprising amount of consensus across a broad range of evidence. The challenge is that secular metaphysics do not authorize ethics anywhere near as clearly or effectively as religion does. That’s why I wrote the book. I hold that the function of ethics is to align human behavior with metaphysics, and I seek to build that connection as best I can.
Most of these arguments use The Great Chain of Being as a strawman. Others are a weak form of the problem of evil that many have countered, including William Lane Craig and Tim Keller. A few are easily pushed aside by exploiting gaping holes in the Staircase. For instance, Moore states that the Staircase removes the need for a God to explain the universe, yet he never proves that God could never be encountered at either end of the Infinite Staircase, nor does he answer the question of why the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc. are the way they are and not something else. This question seems to be swept under the rug of emergentism, which is arguably insufficient. The theory of evolution had this problem for many years, because many traits seemed to have evolved too quickly. The concept of exaptation, the process under which a trait that evolved for one purpose is radically repurposed for another, was the key to solving this problem. Still, this does not solve the problem of why the constants that appear in the laws of physics are so fine-tuned. Small variations in these constants would not have permitted any order to arise in the universe. Many scientists have attempted to solve this, some by positing that our universe is one of many in a multi-verse, each universe a different set of physical laws. Also, while physics describes much of what happened since the Big Bang, it says nothing of what happened before. This was Stephen Hawking’s nemesis. After having shown that the universe started as a singularity, or black hole, he spent a good part of the rest of his life coming up with various theories about what caused the Big Bang without relying on the super-natural.
The paragraph above, to my mind, is unnecessarily belligerent. Removing the need for a God to explain the universe need not be taken as an attack on the validity of religious faith. I would position it instead as exploring the possibility of exploring life from a radically different perspective. I do not think it is possible to prove there is no God—how do you prove a negative? We are better served if we seek to advance the case for whatever positive captures our allegiance.
As for why all the laws are as they are, and why key constants are tuned so precisely to support order to arise in the universe, I support the argument from anthropomorphism that says things have to be as they are or we would not be having this conversation. As for the claim that evolution is flawed because many traits seemed to have evolved too quickly, that implies all innovation must unfold linearly, that course-correcting through exaptation is improbable, that an exponential rate of change is not possible, all assertions that advocate for punctuated equilibrium would take exception to. As for multiverses, I find one universe far more than I can comprehend—I have no interest in taking on more than one. Ditto for what happened before the Big Bang—I don’t even have a placeholder for what caused that, nor do I believe we need one.
In fact, the existence of God and the veracity of the Bible form a very simple and coherent grounding for ethics. Goodness is based on God’s nature revealed by his actions and commands. Every human has fallen short, yet Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection assure the salvation of all who believe. The only thing lacking is incontrovertible proof of the premises.
Despite all the disagreement Bill and I have about metaphysics, I support him in the above paragraph. At the end of the day, the point is not who is right or wrong about the nature of the universe, the point is to live an ethical life. This is no easy task, and we all fall short in one way or another. We need spiritual support to keep on going. Religious faith may lack incontrovertible proof of its premises, but it sure has a heck of a track record, and it would be foolish to repudiate it.
All in all, the first two-thirds of Moore’s book are very interesting but the final third falls short. The construction of the Infinite Staircase is compelling. Apart from the reference to meme theory, there is a trove of information to be dug into. The inclusion of values, culture and narrative in the staircase is an important one. Narrative is a powerful, misunderstood and underused tool for corporate and societal change. John Seely Brown said that “we have moved from the age of enlightenment to the age of entanglement.” The turn towards deriving ethics falls flat. Many of the proposed ideals are commendable but remain wishful thinking and are culturally specific.
As a former academic, I am deeply committed to the marketplace of ideas and the kinds of dialog that make it work. I am honored that Bill has taken my book seriously, and I hope this exchange will be of value to both of our readerships.