Above us, Only Sky

Politics, Philosophy, Science, and Everything Else.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Regarding Impulse Donations

So we're donating in record numbers, in record amounts. Good for us. I am happy to join the ranks of the charitable. I suspect I may not have it it hadn't been so easy: go online, pull out the mastercard, and viola, I'm 100$ poorer but full of that priceless sense of goodwill. I suspect theres a bit of a chick and egg question, as to whether my willingness to do things that take a great deal of time and effort declines because of the general opportunity to do many things instantly and easily, or the other way around, but it has to be admitted that these are two important phenomena in our current culture. Both have also been generally labelled as 'bad', the impatience on my part because so many 'important' things take time and energy, the ease and quickness of the electronice world because it allows for those with poor impulse control to do things quickly that, had they time to reconsider, they might not do. These are some valid points. I'd like to say that this whole donations surge shows that not all impulses are bad, and so sometimes it is a good thing for people to be able to do stuff quickly and easily, because the things they do are good and might not get done if they took more time and effort.
You could argue that everyone should be willing to put as much energy as they have into doing the right thing, but let's face it, people won't. So making it easy for people donate- that's a really good thing. It shows that this face-paced world we've now created does, incredibly, have a real humanitarian upside.

BTW, if you're feeling an impulse to donate, go and do it. You can give a few bucks or a few hundred. It feels good, you'll probably save someones life.

Goodbye 2004

Have to keep this short. I've promised myself I won't rant (much), which severely limits my options for creating words to fill this space. For me, 2004 wasn't a bad year, I moved once, got a little more education, recieved a raise or two, wrote a book, and had some fun. For the world, it was a pretty shitty year, though I'm looking back at it through the lens of this past week and that can't make anything look good. Bush got re-elected, enough said. Here in Canada, the political process made me vote twice, both times, shockingly, I got the result I was hoping for- federally we have a weakened but not defeated Liberal party, provincially Klien was unbeatable, but in my riding we replaced the conservative lackey with a conscience-driven doctor.
For 2005, I hope the world does better, but I have my doubts. They're looking to lift the beef ban, so it might be a good year for my local bit of the world, but internationally- well, lets just say my fears seem more plausible than my hopes. For myself, well, the list hasn't changed much, I'd like to get published, I'd like to find that special someone, I'd like to accomplish more and waste less. Whether any of this translates into a resolution, we'll have to see, I still have 15 hours to think about it. Oh, yes, in 2005 I'd like to procrastinate less too.
Have a good new years, and I'll be back with more rants early in the new year.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Merry X-Mas!

So, what does an angry atheist like me have to say about the penultimate christian holiday? Well, only good things, really. I'm super hyped about it. I love Christmas morning, love the presents, love that I get to spend time with my family, love it. So what that it's based on a bronze age myth? We don't engage in any bronze age activities, like begging a sky-daddy to give us more stuff, or using the myth to exclude people and ideas. In my family, as in most I expect, it's about the family, about spending some happy time with people you love. I'm very happy to co-opt it from its christian roots and make it my own. Happy holidays to everyone, and I'll be back with more angry rants in the new year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Pre-Holiday Rant

Since I'll have another full day to kill before my holiday begins, I figure I'll do my actual Christmas rant tomorrow. For now, I have another little bit of speculation I'd like to explore.
I've been wondering at the apparently intractable difference between different parts of the political spectrum. People with the same basic goals and information still come up with varying strategies for how to govern. I believe it has something to do with how our social behavior evolved.
There would have been evolutionary pressure on our behavior from a variety of sources. One source of pressure would have been that to co-operate. The more caopable an individual is of knowing and trusting others, and of then including them within the group which they trust, the larger such a group could be and the more advantages from having a large group of allies that individual would have. There would also be an opposing pressure, to be wary of others. This would arise because inevitably there would be individuals who would betray the trust of others. The more wary an individual was, the more able they would be to avoid betrayal.
Each human would be, in effect, his or her own state- they would have allies and enemies and those who sat somewhere in between. No one could be too inclusive because they would leave themselves too open to back-stabbing, but no one come be too suspicious or they would have fewer allies than anyone else and would be unable to defend their interests. Since this behavior would be regulated by a number of different genes, as well as being calibrated by the social environment the person was raised in, any group of people would mark at different points in the spectrum between these extremes. In an overly inclusive society, a person who was a little less inclusive would have the advantage because they would be betrayed less, whereas in an overly exclusive society a slightly more inclusive person would have the advantage of extra allies.
When it comes to political philosophy, these attitudes would map to the right or left-wing attitude of the individual. Inclusive individuals would be on the left side, exclusive too the right. The issue with politics is that people tend to think that if something is good in small amounts, it would be better in large amounts, so they take their political philosophy to extremes. Thus on the far right you have ever more exclusive groups, more racism and class warfare and the belief that only a very select group has any value, whereas on the extreme right you have absurd inclusiveness which ignores even the most valid types of metitocracy and drags everyone down to a low equality within a system of rampant corruption. Just as with the behavior of the indiviudal, the behavior of democratic nations will self-correct over time because the greatest excesses will be punished by the fact that a party that pushes too far to one side will give their more moderate rivals much greater public support.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Religion as the Secret Handshake

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reason out the existence of religion. I know it has nothing to do with truth, yet it is such a complex and universal behaviour that I have to believe it has some evolutionary purpose. First I’m going to explain why I believe it has to have a purpose, then I’ll go through a couple of theories I have as to what this purpose might be.
Why religion needs a reason:
Human social interaction is a complex thing, and it is regulated at it’s base by the way in which our brains work, this is in turn determined by our genes, whose only determining factor is survival: genes which cause their host to reproduce more get copied more themselves. Small quirks (like, say, being slightly more aggressive in certain situations) can be attributed to random mutation or even the densities of various kinds of genes, these can and will happen at random and can’t automatically be considered to be a product of natural selection. Anything complex, which describes virtually every aspect of our social behaviour, must be a product of evolution, because while random chance can change something small, you cannot build something complicated (like a human brain) by just tossing things together at random. It would be like taking a watermelon, running it through a blender, and then pouring it our into a watermelon shaped hole. How many times would you have to do that before it reassembled itself by random chance? Complex things do not occur in evolution by random chance, they can only occur when one random mutation is useful, so it spreads throughout the population, and then later there is another also random but also useful mutation builds on whatever the first mutation did, and so on. So anything complex built by evolution must be useful for survival, it must create an advantage for the organisms who have it over the ones that do not. Religion is a complex behaviour; there is evidence of it in every human culture, therefore, it must have some evolutionary use.
I used to think this could be explained purely in terms of memes. Memes are ideas, the environment they live in is our brains, and they are as tailored by evolution as our genes. I concluded that religion was an especially virulent and parasitic species of meme. The religion memes defended themselves by making any disagreement into heresy, they promoted themselves through tools like infant indoctrination and forced conversion. I believed that religion didn’t need to be useful in any way to humans, because it was not designed by genes but by memes, for whom their own survival is paramount and the survival of their human hosts only meaningful inasmuch as that effects the memes ability to survive and transmit.
Now I’m not so sure that the tendency can be entirely explained away by parasitic memes. It seems too pervasive even in an environment where there are ample counter-memes (reason), as well as massive competition from other religious memes. It seems possible, even likely, that the tendency towards religion is not just a result of their effectiveness as parasites on our gene-designed brains, but also because our brains are partially designed to be susceptible to them. Why? What use could there be in having brains that are especially susceptible to a parasite? There can be only one reason: there must be some advantage to being religious for the genes.
It seems counterintuitive. Religion limits the ability of people to apprehend reality. It takes time and energy, and creates conflict unnecessarily. Often people will live celibate lives as a result of religion- surely this dead end for genes must be selected against by evolution? Or not. Religion has all the characteristics needed to be a secret handshake. It isn’t predictable, it is complicated and people know all kinds of strange details. If you come from another group, you have no ways of knowing what the particular aspects of a religion will be. It guarantees the fidelity of people within a group, because only the people who have been with a group for a very long time can know all the important details of it’s religion. This is counterproductive in the modern world, but in a primitive world where there was no established law, and the only way to protect yourself was to be successfully defeat all competing tribes, the ability to immediately identify members of other tribes is a useful ability. The negative emotional response to people of other religions is based on this: members of other tribes should be mistrusted, because they do not have the same loyalties. The fact that this tendency is both useless and dangerous in present day doesn’t really matter, because all of human history has been an eye blink for evolution- only things that last fore millions of years have any impact on the flow of evolution. We have a tendency towards religion because it is useful in the primative environment that modern humans and all of our immediate predecessors lived in.

Fiction and Ideology

There are plenty of books out there that use fiction to convey ideas about philosophy and ideology. At least some of the earliest Greek written philosophy is like this, with the ideas being conveyed in conversations , though some of these conversations may more or less have taken place. More recently you have writers like Camus and Ayn Rand who write stories that try to convey their beliefs by showing how the world is from their perspective, and sometimes what the results might be if the world were run by people of a flawed, alternative philosophy.
I have long classified the types of books I read as either ones I'm just reading for enjoyment, and ones that actually have something to say. Within the second category there have often been philosophy books, but within the first I generally choose fantasy, science fiction, and thriller type books, they're fun to read and kill time but they don't make you think much. Now I've discovered that my 'fun' books have been infiltrated by a number of ideological books. Apparently there are any number of authors using there fiction to convey strong ideological positions.
PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has been posting about Micheal Crichton. Personally I have enjoyed most of what I've read from him, but I'm not a scientist, so I don't see all the discrepancies that PZ does. I suppose thats one of the best reasons to condemn him: he's using his popular author status to misinform people about real science. There are a couple of authors whose ideological bent is obvious to me, however, and they're often right in the middle of the pop-fiction section.
Tom Clancy: Okay, so I'm probably a latecomer to the realization that he's a bit of a right-wing nut. Not much needs to be said beyond that. It is most glaringly obvious in 'Red Rabbit', when he goes on at length about the British public health care, and how much worse it is than American health care, blah blah blah. I'd say the whole British medical establishment should sue him for slander (he makes their doctors look like inept delinquents) but I'm betting no one clever enough to be a British doctor has bothered to read any Clancy books lately.
Terry Goodkind: The only Fantasy type writer who I've read (and I've read many) that uses his books as a platform for his political philosophy. It isn't hard to show that one political philosophy is better than another when you're creating an entire world around them, but that doesn't make your analysis applicable in the real world. At one point, he has the heroes cutting (literally) their way through a crowd of unarmed people yelling 'no war'. In the narrow context of the book, this action can be seen as justified, because A: The world in which they live is beset by a clear and unambiguous evil. B: the crowd consists of people who are wilfully blind to that fact. C: there is no other choice for our heroes but to either surrender to an endless nightmare under the Great Evil or to go through this crowd of insane pacifists.
What Mr. Goodkind is doing here is trying to show a belief system (pacifism) is flawed because when that belief is taken to an illogical extreme (trying to stop a group of liberators from using violence against your ceaselessly violent oppressors) it results in stupid behaviour. This doesn’t go to show that any modern day type pacifist (Ghandi, people who dislike the invasion of Iraq) is wrong, because none of these people would say that the Kuwaitis should have wilfully used themselves as human shields when the coalition came to liberate them back in the first desert storm, which is the appropriate analogy. Mr. Gookind also has some interesting ideas about socialism and democracy, and in the end I’m hard pressed to say whether he or Mr. Clancy is further on the right fringe. One thing I will say in Mr. Goodkinds defence, he also has no tolerance for the kind of self-flagellant religious belief that denies all value to this life, so at least he avoids that creepy religious undercurrent which Mr. Clancy has in spades.

Perhaps I only notice these undercurrents of ideology because they are opposed to my own beliefs. I’ll have to look more closely at the other books I read for pleasure from now on. At least these authors try to address issues. Most of the books read for fun as a younger person had a reasonably simplistic worldview, with a clear Evil and a clear Good and no real ambiguities in between. SO kudos to these guys for trying to install some content into their work, too bad their ideas are mostly wrong.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


I have been commenting regularly on various posts over at God is for Suckers. It's a nice little site, and it gives me a chance to vent my spleen a little. Anyway, I've been commenting on a post about that nativity scene in which Mary and Joseph are David Beckham and his wife, Posh Spice. Apparently it's been defaced, and we were chatting about how typically christian this was. One of the Christians there (there are a lot of them who come and comment on the site- strange) asked why we atheists are so passionate about disproving God, and I pointed out that my passion is more about reducing the death grip this mythology has on our society.
I said this was my passion.
It's come up once or twice lately, in my own thoughts, and in conversation. People always babble about their passion, about the things that matter to them. My prior post, about TV's and Gods, sort of touched on the issue in that I felt that TV personalities were too passionate- they cared too much about one thing to even be real, they were just archetypes and wishful thinking. Passion always seemed to me to be a bit of a wonky thing to talk about. People do what they like doing, they fall into it, you don't have to plan out what you're going to care about.
Maybe this position needs some re-thinking.
A guy at work asked me about my passion lately, and I didn't really know what to say to him. There are things I like doing- mostly time killers like reading, gaming, but also some productive stuff, like this blog and other writing, paying attention to the world. I don't know that any of these things qualifies as a passion. There is nothign all consuming about any of them- I read for an hour, game for another, write for twenty minutes, watch TV- there is no single thing that absorbs me.
Perhaps I need to cultivate something like that. Start writing seriously again, like I was doing during the summer. But perhaps it isn't something that can be solved.
It makes me think of the way we're set up- that we have a set of desires in our head and a state of being in the world, and we do what we can to bring the two into alignment. Most commonly we do this by adjusting the world in whatever ways we can, but if we could alter our desires to conform more closely to what we can get, we'd be just as happy. What it seems I need to do is either focus my desires on something I can acchieve, or figure out what it is that I can focus them on. Because clearly I'm not entirely satisfied with my reality.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

In which I reveal my conservative side

I read a book review for a book that purports to expose the bad behavior of big pharma. I'm not actually surprised by any of the so-called 'revelations', namely, that these companies spend a lot more money on marketing thanm on research, and a lot more research dollars on 'lifestyle' drugs (read: erectile disfunction) than on things that might actually save some lives. Why is this surprising, or even shocking? These are corporations: they exist to cerate profit. People within them are judged accoprding to how they enhance profit, in a well run corporation the people who can make the most money are put in the top spots. Of course they're going to spend a lot on marketing- it's better to actually sell products that you have than to invent new product lines. When dealing with a corporation, you must assume it will do absolutely whatever will make it more money in a given situation. So-called 'corportae responsibility' is probably a combination of public relations, employee relations (who wants to work for a pariah?), and liability-avodance. To expect big pharma to do any different because some of their products are medicine is absurd.
In order to get such companies to do the 'right thing', you just have to structure how they can profit accordingly. If you want companies to conform to a regulation, make non-conformance more expensive than any profit they could ever recieve from ignoring the rules. If you want them to do useful medical research, make it profitable, by gaurenteeing the copyrights. It's hard to disagree with third-world governments ignoring copyright rules on medicine when they have a medical crisis, but in the long term this means that the companies who do this sort of research will stop- their profits aren't reliable, so why should they spend the capital?
Basically I think we need to stop thinking of our corporations the way their PR departments want us too. Neither should we cripple them with stupid laws and taxes. They are an extremely powerful force, and should be used towards the goals we hold as a society.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

AI possibilities

My roomate rented I, Robot. I have seen the movie before, and it disappointed me in one very key way. It took a very interesting premise: the likely near-future existence of autonomous, artificial intelligent beings in our society, and ran with it. Unfortunately, it was forced to run, by the hollywood nessesity of a clear 'evil', into the predicatble trap of demonizing the technology. The 'other' that we built, surpassed us, and because of this it decided it had to control us, and somehow in the process it lost it's sense of priorities. Asimov had a fairly good idea with the 'three laws', but the way this movie twists them is basically anathema to how they were orginally scripted.
Here are some of the errors that most so-called science fiction makes when it is exploring AI:
-Too much anthropomophizing: we assume that because robots will have intelligence, they'll think like us. Of course everyone adds things like super-fast thinking or 'logic', but these are in affect a gloss over a cognitive system that strangely resembles our own. We assume that AI will have a sense of self-preservation (skynet). But our own desire for self preservation is a complex aspect of our cognitive system, it is not an automatic component of any given cognitive system, and certainly would not spring up unexpectedly in an AI- it would have to be programmed in. There are reasons to believe that such might be a feature that WOULD be programmed in, for an AI without self-preservation somewhere on its priorities list wouldn't list long. But clearly the programmers would arrange the AI's priorities according to their OWN priorities. This would mean, among other things, putting the service to and survival of the programmers ahead of the survival of the AI itself.
-Learning: why do we assume that machines can develope personalities, transcend their programming, ect? WE don't go outside our programming. Machines that aren't evil and megalomaniacal want to be more like us- why?
Basically we have two perceptions of mahcine intelligence- either it is hopelessly simplistic, like a train on the rails, so long as it is on the set track it is okay, but it will be uselessly spinning it's wheels as soon as it goes off the track- it cannot adapt, cannot think. The other perception is as human with slight cosmetic modifications, they either personify our best features or our worst, they want to be like us or to rule us (I, Robot the movie has both of these). These sorts of things make great tools for putting a story together, but they don't honestly explore the realistic possibilities of AI. The big reason this movie is such a disappointment is that Asimov actually did try to explore that much more interesting realm, but the movie doesn't even hint at it.

Monday, December 13, 2004


This is a neat little tool. It let me add links and all I had to do with the script was a trail and error process to figure out where to put the convieniently provided code. I didn't think linking was in the cards for a code-phobe like myself, but happily it was. These are the blogs on my daily-read list, perhaps I'll add more later.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Reality and American Drug Law

I've done some more reading in my Reefer Madness book. It's discussing the horrific kinds of sentences many Americans get for simple drug (pot) crimes. These are non-violent first time offenders, getting sentences that stray into the double digits. Even more grotesque is the fact that many violent offenders get leaner sentences, even murderers. With the overcrowding of the prison system, and the mandatory sentences without parole commen among drug offenders, violent offenders are getting early realse just to make room.

-If the criminal justice system is about justice, shouldn't people who kill other people get more punishment than people who provide illegal narcotics to willing customers?
-If it is about retribution, shouldn't those who cause pain and death directly be more harshly treated than those who, again, are at worst collaborating with their 'victims'?
-If we're trying to reduce harm, shouldn't it be taken into consideration that a savvy drug dealer knows he's better off killing a witness because the reduced chance of getting caught is worth the marginal increase in punishment?
-It's it's about building a better and safer society for our kids, shouldn't we worry about all those kids whose temporary fling with pot is costing them decades of prison time and the scars of it on their whole lives?

What possible justification can there be for this treatment of drug offenses? It boggles my mind. Possibly- and only possibly, I could see the justification for something like herion, because it is so deeply addictive and contributes to the spread of disease.
Take the whole cost of Marijuana use on every part of society- lost productivity, misspent tuition, and whatever deaths you could attribute to it, say from high driving and lung cancer. Compare that total cost with the cost of the War on Mary Jane- all those policing costs, all the costs of running prisons, all the years of lost productivity from locking up so many people, the effect on the economy of creating a under-class of ex-cons who're barely employable- can you honestly imagine that the cost of drug use is anuthing close to the cost of the war to prevent it? It's like paying a lawyer 1000$ to avoid a 100$ speeding ticket- and losing the case.
The fiscal part of the conservative wing in the US needs to get it's head out of the social-conservatives ass. They say Iraq might turn into another vietnam, but that ignors the fact that they already have a debacle of the same proportions on their own soil, and it's called the War on Drugs.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Of Tribalism and Irrationality

So I've just started an excellent (so far) little book called Reefer Madness. In the small bit I've read, there something about where the current Marijuana laws in the United States came from. Basically, there was a large influx of mexican illegal immigrants whse drug of choice was old Mary Jane, and so the logical legal backlash was to make the drug illegal so that they could persecute this new minority. It reminded me of a recent post I saw somewhere, possibly Pharyngula or Dispatches from the Culture Wars that pointed out that a big part of the reason so many people dislike evolution is racism- they don't want to believe they're related to Blacks, the arguement 'My Granpa weren't no Monkey' is actually racist, not just normal-stupid.
Which leads me to wonder at how many of our other current social problems can be traced back to simple racism dressed up. The 'War on Terror' certainly has some racist underpinnings, though there is a stream of legitamet concern in there, a bigger part of the emotional appeal for many people has got to come from 'Given those a-rabs what they had commin'. Of course the Gay marriage thing is pure bigotry.
Tribalism is by nessesity irrational- it allowed our ancestors to have a coherent sense of morals within their own social groups while permitting them to commit atrocities on other groups, which was a nessesary capacity to have in a primative world where there were limited resources and only one way to compete for them. Few other things require us to be so deeply irrational, so maybe we can trace most of the more mindless acts of large groups to this particular part of our psychology.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Seriously People

Ok, so which is uglier?

not adam and steve

Or some happy couple getting hitched?

It should be a no brainer. One side is fighting for Love, the other side is fighting for Hate. This is as black and white as moral issues get in the real world, and yet the people who call themselves moral are fighting on the wrong side. I'm so glad I live in Canada, where we're actually making social progress with our backward neighbor looking on. But really. This is religion abbetting the worst type of human instinct. Why does it matter what other people do, who they sleep with, who they love? How can that possibly hurt people? It can't, and you're a bigot if you can't admit that.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

On Gods and television

Have you noticed that tv characters have the same sort of archtypical nature as the gods of our ancestors? Much like one God is War, one is Wisdom, our heros on TV have exctreme personalities- they only care about a very specific set of things. I think the connection is obvious- wish fulfillment. We think 'if I were a Cop, I'd be dedicated and pure and I wouldn't sleep when there was a killer on the loose', much like our forebearers thought 'if I were a god, I would be dedicated to wisdom to such an extent that I would know everything'. Our aims have, perhaps, come down some, because of the relentless realism of our times (a good thing), but they still contain that air of thoughtless optimism- like anyone could so completely shed the weaknesses of being human just because of a 'calling'.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

On religion and drugs.

My favoured analogy for religion has long been drug use. The two are parallel in a number of ways. They cause distortions in perception and behaviour, they tend to appeal more to people who have used them frequently before, they’re often used to control people, their supporters tend to resort to fairly stupid arguments in their defence. The funny bit is that I really do believe they should both be treated the same.
Both should be legal, but should be allowed only for adults.
People under the influence of either should not be allowed to do much more than sit around and socialize.
Neither should be seen as the primary pastime of serious people, and people who become too involved with either should be treated as sick, not criminal or messianic.
Organizations that are devoted to the spread of either should be watched carefully.
Neither should be seen as beneficial without independent scientific confirmation.
Oh yes, and everyone who tries to get other people to join in should be called a ‘pusher’.

Monday, December 06, 2004

A Moral System, Pt. 2

As I said in my previous post, the degree to which we can predict the results of an action should influence the degree to which we take those results into account. If I can be very certain of a given result, I must take that into account more than I would a similar result that is less certain. So, given the chance to give money to one of two charitable groups, and having the knowledge that group A has a very good track record of using their resources effectively, while having no information about group B, I should give the money to group A, even though for all I know group B is just as efficient.
This creates a moral obligation with regards to knowledge. It goes like this: At the moment when I have to make a decision I may not have all the information that might have been available to me, so the choice I make, while being the most moral given the information I do have, is not as good as the choice I could have made if I had better information. This means that before I make a choice, if there is an opportunity, I should avail myself of as much information as possible. It is very much like the argument against criminal behaviour by people under the influence. While their choice to engage in violent or illegal acts while in an altered mental state might be defensible by the fact that they didn’t know any better, their choice to put themselves into that state was made in a sober state of mind, so they are responsible for their actions as if they had chosen to take them with their full faculties. Likewise, if I make a choice in ignorance of the consequences, after having refused to learn any information about those consequences, I am still responsible for the results.
This means that any deliberate ignorance is effectively immoral. If you do not avail yourself of the available information, you are opening the possibility that you will make moral choices less effectively than if you had that knowledge. If you deliberately spread lies or prevent facts from being disseminated, you are being immoral. Of course there is always a balance, there are many bits of information that would cause more harm if they were known, but all else being equal, the spread of information is a moral obligation. Of course we already knew book burners were bad people, but this also censures the purveyors of religion, since it as a grab bag of half truth and white lies.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Moral System

Morality seems like a very complicated issue, but that’s more because of the situations we find ourselves in, moral systems tend to be fairly simple, or at least they should. All they need to do is set out what they value, then all the complexity comes in trying to see how to you can maximize that value, or minimize the damage to it. A religious system values following the perceived will of the deity, other systems value human freedom, pleasure, the absence of pain- relatively easily explained concepts. The messiness starts as soon as you try to apply it to life and the real world.
So here goes. I value human happiness, as defined by the individual human concerned, and I place a negative value on suffering, both human and animal. Nothing else has value in and of itself, though a great number of things have value in that they contribute to things which have inherent value. Morality is based on acting in good faith in the way that will create the most happiness or the least pain.
The bit I want to expand upon is my understanding of ‘acting on good faith’. This concept, I believe, should be exported to all moral systems, because regardless of what is valued, it seems likely that there will be some degree of uncertainty about how an individual with incomplete information should act. So while I discuss happiness and pain, this whole concept should be exportable to any moral system that does not place a negative value on people thinking about moral issues.
My first belief is that there can be no certainty, especially in predicting the results of any given action. I don’t mean this in a scientific cause and effect sort of way, I do believe everything has a rational cause. I mean this in the context of human actions in the day to day world. For example, if I call sick into work tomorrow, what will the impact be on my co-workers, my boss, my work situation, my paycheque, etcetera. The impact goes beyond that, in the so called (but poorly portrayed in cinema) ‘Butterfly effect’, but it is increasingly unpredictable, so much so that it cannot be taken into consideration. When we take actions, if we are to do so rationally, we must take into account the likely, predictable outcomes. We cannot hold ourselves to account for events that could not have been predicted, but we must hold ourselves to account for things that are in fact predictable, however unlikely. So, in the above example, I should hold myself to account if something fails to get done at work, if the company loses a client, and the like. I should not hold myself responsible if one of my co-workers gets called to replace me and dies in a freak car accident on the way to the job.
There are two interesting conclusions that come from this series of suppositions. The first comes with regard to an individuals responsibility to themselves as compared to their responsibilities to others. While we must, if we are to claim a moral position, consider other people our equals in value, since we as individuals know ourselves best, we are first responsible to ourselves. It goes like this: Since I know very well what the impact of any given action will be upon myself, I can take that reaction into account with a higher degree of certainty than I can any other persons reactions. This doesn’t mean that I can diaregard other people in my decisions, only that I should take them into account according to how well I can predict their reactions.
From the above example: If I know for certain that I will feel very bad if I go into work, because I really AM sick, I can balance that against the inconvenience I can expect my co-workers to experience, and decide to call in sick. My information about the amount of pain I am averting from myself is very good, while my information about what pain I will cause others in less complete, so the information about my self take precedence. For all I know my boss might have been planning to send everyone home early because of a lack of productive work to be done, and my calling in sick will mean that others have the opportunity to get the hours they were hoping for.
This is not a license to ignore the needs and suffering of others. It is merely a formal recognition that morality can only exist when it is based in knowledge, and self-knowledge is more often the most accurate.
My second conclusion comes with regard to the value that this moral system places on knowledge, and the implications of that. This post is already starting to look like a novel, so I’ll post on that conclusion tomorrow.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Problem of Consciousness

One of the oldest and most intractable problems in philosophy is the problem of human of the human mind- the phenomena of self awareness. Where does this come from, how does it arise, what conditions are necessary to create it, etcetera. It is a difficult problem because for us- the thinking beings for which it is a problem- it's like trying to catch a glimpse at the back of your eyeballs. There are a lot of ways that people have tackled this problem, but most of them are unsatisfying mystical, relying of something like a soul, a thing outside of normal phenomena which somehow comes into and goes out of being.
Like any good philosopher, I don't think I need to actually solve a problem to have something worth saying about it. Call these talking points.
The first is regarding the inexplicability of the problem itself. I think that it's very hard or even impossible to think about this directly because it is US. Beings capable of self analysis don't seem logically impossible, but beings which have features about which they cannot be aware are entirely possible. In simpler language, it is possible that for some reason we are incapable of directly perceiving the nature of our own minds. Certainly any number of other features of what we consider to be our 'selves' are beyond direct perception or control- can you change the beat rate of your heart at will, or your body temperature, or directly control any number of other systems? No- the body is for the most part autonomous of our mind, running smoothly without any deliberate intent. Our brain might have similar features- things which we might come to be aware of but about which we have no control. So the problem on consciousness becomes a problem of why we can't perceive our selves- why do we have this Blindspot in our perceptions?

I propose that the working of a thing like a human mind necessitates this sort of blindness.

The human brain is a thing built of many parts, which have different uses and imperatives. I have no formal, and little informal, understanding of the human brain, but I understand it as a big, massively parallel computer. It has many components, which do everything from regulating organs to making decisions. It is those portion of the brain that contribute to external human behaviour about which we are interested. Evolution designed it just like it designed everything else, trail and error. Random mutation can account for small things like a skin discolouration, but anything as complex as a part of the brain has to have been built up gradually through natural selection because it aided in survival. There would be many different types of things that would be selected for, so each would have some say in the overall balance of the decision making process. Then you have social reality- dealing with others of the same species. A brain as complex as ours allows any one person a vast number of different actions. In order to survive in a complex, communicative society, means would have to be found to discern what actions others might take. With communication, we could have cooperation but also deception. The benefits of cooperation only outweigh the risk of deception if you have some reliable way to discern when a deception is being perpetrated. Likewise, the ability to successfully deceive would also be useful, as would the ability to demonstrate sincerity. An individual who could be categorically trusted would have the great benefit of having many cooperative opportunities, this would generally outweigh the loss of the occasional chance to betray, especially in a group where there were other such individuals. You need a being who has a sense of compulsion to do what it has said it would do, regardless of the consequences. How is this possible? When it comes down to the wire, and your choice lies between betraying your friend for the million dollars, when it is clearly in the best interests of you and yours for the remainder of your life, why does anyone choose the honourable route?
Because we have a sense of honour. A sense that there is something of value in ourselves that must be cultivated at the expense of all else. It doesn't work if we're aware of it as a survival device. We need to be able to say to a friend 'I will do this', and believe it, and tie it to our sense of self in such a way that it would be very painful for us to deny it. If we do not believe our own promises, no one else will, because human beings are very good natural lie detectors. Thus we have a sense of self which can override our hunger and our sexual desire and pretty much every other thing we are capable of wanting for social necessity.
I'm not sure I explained it perfectly, but here is my summary: In order to have group cooperation you need to have individuals who can perceive themselves as existing from the past and into the future. Things do not exist through time, so this perception must be effectively illusory, but the illusion must be indistinguishable from reality or it is useless. Thus we have the problem of consciousness.