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Friday, August 18, 2017

Moral Theory III: Looking to Divinity

Moral Theory:

Last time in the Moral Theory series, I talked about Authoritarianism and its pitfalls and dangers. But the big problems with authoritarianism all stem from the fallibility or deviousness of the authority we give our trust to. What if we could find an authority that we could be certain was perfect, all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful? This is the center of the monotheistic religions, an authority called God who knows all, is infallible, and is the essence of moral perfection.

Up until now, I have used the word “morality” vaguely, using it to describe our sense that some actions are good and some bad, and the good actions are preferable over the bad ones. However, to go any further we are going to need a more precise definition. From now on, when I say morality, I mean a system by which to determine how good or bad a choice or action is. Objective morality, or moral Truth, if it exists, is a morality derived from observation and reason that applies to everybody, and overrules personal morality if they come into conflict. Subjective morality or personal morality is a morality held by a single person or a group of people. It is possible for a morality to be subjective even if everyone in the universe agrees on it. Relativism is what happens if there is no objective morality, only subjective moralities, whether manifest or potential, for which there is no way to say one is better than another.

The common belief about God and morality is that God is the only possible grounding for objective morality. I believe morality is objectively grounded elsewhere, as we will see by the end of this series, but today we shall examine whether the existence of God is in fact a possible source for moral Truth at all.

If God is the source of objective morality, then how are they linked? The answer is not as simple as it might seem. There is a classic dialogue going back to Plato called the Euthyphro Dilemma. The story goes that the philosopher Socrates asked the priest Euthyphro what it means to be morally good. The priest replied that to be good is to follow the will of God (well, the gods, but the dialogue works just as well for a single God). The idea that morality comes from following the will of God is called Divine Command Theory. Socrates then asked if God wills actions because they are good, or if the actions are good because God wills them. At first glance this might seem like two ways to state the same thing, but the difference is critically important. If God wills actions because they are good, then God is following a moral Truth grounded outside of himself, which we should be able to figure out and understand for ourselves. If actions are good merely because God wills them, then who is to say that God is actually good? What reason do we have to follow him, other than the fact that he is the strongest? God’s will, in that case, is just another subjective morality. Thus, Divine Command Theory fails to link God and morality together.

There is an alternative to Divine Command Theory, which attempts to solve the Euthyphro Dilemma. It is the theory of Divine Attributes. It argues that moral actions are good not because God commands them, but because God embodies them in his character. We should love because God is loving. We should respect because God is respectful. We should speak the truth because God is truthful.

But this runs into a new problem. Which attributes of God count as moral attributes? Should we seek to gain ultimate power because God is all-powerful? Should we seek to gain authority over others because God has authority over us? Should we become arbiters of life and death because God is an arbiter of life and death? In order to know which characteristics of God we should emulate and which belong to God alone, we must already have knowledge of moral Truth by which to differentiate them.

And, though it has been obscured, the Euthyphro Dilemma still applies. The same arguments that applied to God’s will can be applied to God’s character. If God had a different character, would morality be different? If so, why should we say that God’s nature is good? Morality would then be relative. Or is there some principle that makes it impossible for God’s character to be different? If so, wouldn’t that principle be the ultimate grounding of moral Truth, rather than God’s character, which is forced to conform to it?

Both Divine Command Theory and Divine Attributes Theory fail to provide grounding for objective morality. Both fall prey to the Euthyphro Dilemma, and Divine Attributes Theory adds the question of which of God’s personal qualities count as moral attributes to be emulated and which do not. So we see that the existence of God does not affect whether or not there is moral Truth. If morality would be relative without the existence of God, it would also be relative with the existence of God. Simply being completely wise, infinitely powerful, etc. does not make one’s opinion objective, nor does it make one’s personal qualities an objective standard of moral perfection. If moral Truth exists, we must search for it elsewhere, and we will start on that next time.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Recommended Pre-Reading:
The Limit of Philosophy

The Sheikah symbol from the Legend of Zelda. It represents, among other things, truth forgotten by history.
At my undergraduate college, I took a course titled “What is Truth?” The class compared the methods of science, social science, and the humanities for obtaining knowledge. As you can probably guess, I liked the class a lot. However, as the weeks went on, the discourse seemed to be steering toward a conclusion so absurd I could hardly believe it was happening: Truth does not exist. As soon as I recognized this, I struck to the heart of the matter. “The statement, ‘there is no Truth,’” I said, “cannot be true. Therefore Truth must exist.” A few of my classmates accused me of cheating, and we spent the rest of the period arguing.

On one level, the argument against Truth is not entirely without justification. People have been peddling ideas that are unjustified or proven false, as truth for as long as the concept has been around. When people are shown the cracks in the ideas they once believed, the natural reaction is to question the rest of their beliefs, and wonder if their reasons for believing them true are actually valid. Their questioning takes them to the fact that logic cannot prove itself, and they throw up their hands in defeat and say that Truth simply does not exist.

But this line of reasoning fails to see the difference between Truth and knowledge. Truth, as they search for it, is something foundational, beyond question, and from which absolutely certain knowledge can be built. But they are mistaken. To demonstrate, I propose a revolutionary concept: Truth-in-itself, the grand essence of reality, which is what it is, and exists independently of knowledge or perception. Truth-in-itself is unconditional. It depends on nothing. it simply is. Whenever I speak of Truth with a capital T, this is what I mean. Small-t truth I use whenever I speak of things I am certain of beyond reasonable doubt, or in the logical-mathematical sense of the word.

If Truth exists, then, what is it? Well I’m sorry, but I cannot tell you. To explain why, I will use an analogy. In the Bible, the second Commandment that God gave Moses was “Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol.” One of the popular interpretations of this is that if the Israelites made a symbol to represent God, they would end up worshipping the symbol, forgetting the God it was supposed to represent. Religious doctrines, ideologies, scientific paradigms, beliefs about the world and human nature—these are all Truth idols. When we worship our beliefs, taking their truth for granted, we forget that real Truth transcends all knowledge.

So are we then cursed to wander the Earth in search of something that cannot be found, never being any wiser or more knowledgeable than a newborn baby? Well it is not so simplistic. Though we may never come to know the whole Truth with absolute certainty, we can be confident that on average, the search in itself brings us ever closer. Yes, we sometimes take wrong turns, but if we are always examining what we think we know, we will find ourselves on the right track again before long.

Before I finish this topic, I’d like to bring up a problem I have seen people fall into. I call it the trap of second belief. Most of us live the beginning section of our lives believing what we do without reason, simply because we always have. When we examine our natural beliefs, we are struck by the holes and blinds spots in it. Stunned by learning that we have been ignorant our whole lives, we turn to what we have always seen as its opposite. We feel a great weight lift off our shoulders, and say, “I once was blind but now I see.” The reality is, though we may in fact see a little better, we are still mostly blind. This new belief, though we came to it with a measure of critical thinking instead of mere instinct and habit, is nonetheless still an idol. If we are wise we will see that throwing off our old, blind belief was not the end of our Truth-seeking journey, but the beginning.

The Truth is out there. We may never find it, and if we do we can never be justifiably certain, but it is there. Anyone who takes a belief as true and closes their mind to other possibilities, even if they arrived at their conclusion by rejecting a false belief, has substituted Truth for an idol. Anyone who gives up and says Truth does not exist is lost. To really serve Truth, we must always admit to the possibility that we are wrong and leave the door open to be persuaded by a good argument. The search for Truth is never-ending, but it is ever-satisfying.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Wisdom of Skepticism

Toolbelt of Knowledge:

We find ourselves in a confusing and chaotic world, full of lights, colors, sounds, and forces pushing us this way and that. In order to find the comfort that comes when things make sense to us, we want to figure out why things appear the way they do. When we look to others and ask our questions, we get a multitude of answers, some of which are contradictory, and some of which seem more reasonable than others, though when pressed we may not be able to explain why. It may be tempting to go with whatever feels the most true when we hear it, but feeling true is not the same as being true. If we really want to search for truth, whatever it turns out to be, the first step is to recognize that anyone might be wrong, including ourselves. Therefore, when someone claims to know something, we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we have good reason to believe what they are saying. Waiting to believe until an idea has been tested is an example of skepticism.

Skepticism is the mindset of putting beliefs, claims, and knowledge to the test. As humans, we are not perfect. There is always the possibility that we don’t know everything about a topic, or that we have assumptions we are not aware of, or we have made logical errors in our thinking. If we really want to believe what is as close to truth as possible, we should be skeptical of everything, even things we have believed and known for our entire lives. Not even the beliefs that we consider part of our identity, like social, rational, or religious beliefs, should be allowed a free pass. This can be frightening. After all, we may find that our most fundamental beliefs, upon which we have built our worldview and all of the rest of our knowledge, might be based on nothing better than the fear of not knowing what the real answers could be.

Many people, not understanding what skepticism means, use the word as a rationalization for disbelief. No science denier wants to be called a denier. They would rather be called skeptics. But a devotion to disagreement is no more skepticism than devotion to agreement. To be truly skeptical, you must always have your mind open to being changed if presented with a good enough argument.

Of course, we should be skeptical about science. After all, that is how science gets done. Scientists are always testing their ideas, looking for the things that don’t fit right, and then pushing and pulling on them until something breaks. When an idea with the strength to overcome every rigorous test that can be thrown at it finally meets something it cannot handle, it is cause for celebration among the scientific community. Skepticism is what keeps science thriving. No one is more skeptical about, in the true sense of the word, about science than the scientists.

We live in a culture where agreement is linked with politeness, and changing our minds is linked with deviousness. If we hold back on belief when someone tells us something, they might feel like we don’t trust them. If what they are telling us is something they hold as part of their identity, like a religious or political belief, they may feel like we are attacking them personally. When we change our minds about things, which happens a lot for skeptical thinkers, society does not see it as growing as a person, but as being wishy-washy and lacking conviction. And if we are being honest, the scope of the dark parts of reality that we will have to say “I don’t know” about can be frightening to the point of existential crisis. But this is the price we must pay in search of truth, and in return we will find the greater sense of personal security that comes with being clear and honest with ourselves about the level of certainty we have for what we know.

The ability to hold back belief, to question, to examine ideas for consistency and whether they fit into the puzzle of reality, and to always keep in mind the possibility of being wrong, is a skill that everyone should want to practice. Reality is always bigger than we know, and the only way to get a larger view of it is to allow our imperfect constructions of it to fall down when the cracks appear, so that we may build new, more accurate constructions in their place. To do that, we must always be turning the things we hear over and examining them from all sides, including everything you read on this blog. Some of the things I say are pretty weird, I know. But with skepticism as your tool, you can look at every idea that comes your way with a critical eye and separate the mud from the gold.

Friday, July 28, 2017

What is the Darwinian Model?

Recommended Pre-Reading:
The Power of the Algorithm

The word “Darwinian” automatically brings thoughts of Evolution, molecules coming together which turn into fish, which turn into amphibians, which turn into dinosaurs and mammals, which turn into people. But this is only the result of evolutionary theory when applied to life within the context of the scientific puzzle. The theory itself is based on a mathematical model about self-replicating information. As with all science, understanding the model is key to understanding the theory. This discussion will be a little more technical than usual, but it will be worth it, because although the Darwinian model is so widely misunderstood, it is relevant in so many philosophical and scientific discussions across the board.

Let us start off by putting life and all that baggage aside, and stripping the model down to its basic abstract concepts. We start off with two elements: a population of self-replicating objects, and an environment in which they exist and do their stuff. The objects are completely based on information that they hold within themselves. This information determines how they look, the way they work internally, and how they react to the environment.

If the objects all replicate themselves exactly, nothing interesting happens. But let's look at what happens when we throw in some variation. Perhaps when they replicate they take pieces of their information and splice it together with another of their kind's information, making something new. Variation causes each generation to be different from what came before, and each individual to be unique.

Now we have a bunch of objects, all that look and behave slightly differently from each other. What is going to happen? Well, depending on the environment, some of the objects are going to survive and replicate better than others. The environmental factors that affect this are called selection pressures. As a result, the looks and behaviors that are detrimental to replication in the environment are going to become scarce, perhaps until they are erased, and the looks and behaviors that make it easier to replicate are going to spread over the whole population. This process is called natural selection.

If natural selection were the whole story, the population would lose information over time, and eventually degenerate to the point where it has only the most basic skeleton of what it needs to survive within its environment. When this happens, there can be no more variation, and every object in the population will be exactly the same. But if we add randomness to the variation, either from copying errors or changes in the information before replication, the system flourishes anew. Random variations in the information of replicating objects are called mutations.

Once a mutation enters the information pool, it behaves according to natural selection, just like any other piece of information. If it is beneficial to replication, it spreads into the population. If not, it disappears. There is nothing special about a mutation after it has occurred; it is just another piece of information at that point. Mutations keep the pool of information fresh with options, so that the population can continue to adapt better to the environment, or readapt if the environment changes.

The union of these two concepts, natural selection and mutation, is Darwinian Evolution. A population of self-replicating, information-based objects, reproducing their information with small random variations, in an environment that causes some traits to be better at replicating than others, leading to information diversity and increasing complexity. There are many parameters that can be tweaked, including changing or adding environments, the methods of replication, the rate and severity of mutations, and many others.

So that is the theory. Does it work? Well, it is an algorithm, which means it is not too hard to test if you know how to program. You can create a bunch of self-replicating virtual objects and a virtual environment to put selection pressures on them, and run it and see what happens. Experiments like this show that the Darwinian model works exactly as predicted.

Okay, Darwinian Evolution works. Does this model apply to life? To find out, we have to ask whether life has all the required features to fit the model. Can life be understood as populations of information-based, self-replicating objects? Yes. The replication, we call reproduction. The information is in life’s DNA, a collection of molecules in every living cell. The information in DNA is in the form of nucleotides (C, G, A, or T), which make up the ladder rungs in the picture we are all familiar with. A single strand of DNA has enough information to fill entire libraries. Does DNA mutate? Yes. DNA mutations can be caused by all kinds of things, and can be as minor as a single different nucleotide, as major as tearing the DNA apart, or anything in between. Does life exist in one or more environments that exert pressure on it and lead to natural selection? Of course. Darwinian Evolution does indeed apply to life, and mountains of evidence from fossil studies to DNA studies to adaptation studies to lab experiments on microbes confirm it.

Darwinian Evolution of life is the theoretical foundation of biology and psychology, the cornerstone upon which everything in the disciplines is built and without which nothing would make sense. But the same model also applies to all kinds of systems, including ideas, cultural values, popular trends, businesses, and computer programs. Even if you never study biology, the Darwinian model is a powerful tool of understanding, and well worth the time and effort to learn.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Moral Theory II: Trust and Obey

Moral Theory:

Last time we looked at how the default starting point for moral principles is the conscience, and how, although there is overlap, each person’s conscience is unique. This time, we are going to look at another default starting point, deference to authority. Many times the first thing someone does when they see the failures of the individual conscience is to look for someone wise, with better moral intuition than their own, to instruct them in how to live. There is a responsibility that comes with freedom, responsibility of thought. One has to think for oneself and find the answers through reason. This can, understandably, be frightening, which can drive many to give up their freedom and follow someone else's dictates. This view of morality is called authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism can also be imposed upon people in childhood by an environment of strict rules. These rules might be imposed by parents, a church, or an extortionist corporation or government agency, or more subtly as pressure to conform to the norms of the community. In this way, instead of coming to authoritarianism from a place of intuitionism, a person starts directly at authoritarianism.

Giving yourself completely to an authority can paradoxically feel tremendously freeing. After all, you do not have to go through the trouble and uncertainty that comes from making your own decisions. Working for a cause bigger than yourself, especially if you make a leap of faith because you do not fully understand it, can give you a great drive and sense of purpose. Authoritarianism can be tempting to those who see it from without, and intoxicating to those participating from within.

But authoritarianism has a dark side, and it is deep and filthy. Despite the fact that authorities come in all flavors, the most ardent followers of any of them will believe that they have discovered the one moral truth, and that their rules of right and wrong are absolute, for them, for you, and for everyone over all time. We find among those enthralled with this mentality followers of the worst of causes, from Nazis to Stalinists to Crusaders and Jihadists. Having given their moral judgment wholly to their dear leaders, those people, who may have begun with healthy consciences, participated in the worst of evils.

Of course, authoritarians are only as good or bad as the leaders they follow. Authoritarianism fails to answer the bigger question of morality's objective source, merely deferring it to someone who is assumed to have greater mental ability and better tuned intuitions. When questioned why they hold their moral principles, an authoritarian might say, “I cannot explain it, but I know it is true.” To me, this is a sign of hollow beliefs, devoid of any rational foundation.

Sometimes, those who begin authoritarian come to see the problems with it, and convert to intuitionists, just like those who see intuitionism's problems may try to compensate by giving themselves to authority. However, as we will see soon, there are other options. In the next entry of the Moral Theory series, we will explore one particular case of authoritarianism that attempts to get around its problems, and after that, we will begin to look at basic principles and try to construct an objective moral theory from the ground up, which will rely neither on authority nor intuition.

Friday, July 14, 2017

When Will There be Another Einstein?

A hundred years ago, everything we thought we knew about space and time was turned upside down. Albert Einstein proposed the Special and General theories of Relativity, which described how space and time rotate when something moves close to the speed of light, and how spacetime gets bent and warped by gravity. He also contributed plenty to all kinds of sub-disciplines of physics. Einstein is the iconic genius, instantly recognizable in photographs by his wild cloud of wispy white hair. For someone who made such a visible mark on scientific history, it is natural for us to wonder when someone else like him will come around.

But we have to recognize that extreme intelligence does not automatically lead to paradigm-changing theories. Einstein was in the right place at the right time; all the pieces of the puzzle were in place, and the world of physics was ready to hear what he had to say. After his theories hit the journals, the specific problems he had been worked on were solved. Difficult as it is to turn the world upside down, it is much harder to turn the world upside down again. There simply was not enough information to solve the problems that were left, and the technology to run the necessary experiments was not ready.

So when we ask when the next Einstein will appear, we may just have to look a little harder to find them. Plenty of progress has been made in modern physics since Einstein’s time, some of which has had a comparable level of impact on the theoretical frontier as Einstein’s work. Here are some of the people I know of who might qualify as the next Einstein, some of whom are still alive today.

Leonard Susskind

While pondering the connection between the electromagnetic force and the nuclear forces, Susskind discovered the equations he was working with described the vibrations of strings. These strings, if real, are as small compared to a proton as protons are compared to human beings. He found that this “String Theory” not only explained the electromagnetic force and nuclear forces, but gravity as well. It is a true Theory of Everything. String Theory has never been tested, but it has become incredibly popular among theoretical physicists.
Susskind also had a series of arguments and public debates against Stephen Hawking about what happens when matter falls into a black hole—and he won. He has also made other contributions to theoretical physics.

John von Neumann (NOY-man)

A true polymath. Von Neumann’s name pops up all over the place in physics, mathematics, computer science, and statistics. Among science fiction fans, he is best known for the von Neumann probe, a theoretical model for a robot that can create copies of itself from raw resources. They are often depicted as scourges of the galaxy, but could also be used for peaceful and safe exploration. Von Neumann’s contributions to science have played a significant role in making it the monolith it is in the 21st century.

Stephen Hawking

A theoretical astrophysicist who made a name for himself by his groundbreaking work on black holes, and doing it with a terrible handicap: he cannot move! He has been wheelchair-ridden for most of his life by ALS. He cannot hold a pen or chalk, nor type on a keyboard. He interfaces with his computer by twitching his cheek, and by doing this he writes mathematically intensive papers, books for a general audience, and he participates in high-level intellectual conversations regarding the future of earth, humanity, and technology. Hawking is a living testament to the power of technology and perseverance in the face of extreme challenge.

And these are only a few. Einstein himself was not the only genius of his own time. There were a group of people who pioneered modern physics, and there has been a strong community ever since. Both in science and outside of academia as well, many men and women with Einstein-level intelligence live and have lived. The theoretical frontier keeps moving, poetry gets written, songs get composed, and new and better ways of doing everyday things get discovered. When will there be another Einstein? We have never been without Einsteins. The next great paradigm shift of physics will happen when enough data has been collected, all the puzzle pieces are in place, and the scientific community is ready.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Moral Theory I: Intuition and the Conscience

Moral Theory:

Up until now, I have written about looking at things from different perspectives and trying to figure out descriptions of what they are and what they do. We humans are curious, always trying to understand the world and predict future possibilities from our understanding. Yet there is another dimension I have barely touched on, the idea of should. We prefer some actions and outcomes to others. We believe there are a collection of ways of life that all people should follow, and we call the actions that are in accordance with these ways of life, as well as their consequences and things that encourage these actions, good. And the entire system, we call morality.

As the atom opens the world of physics to chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and beyond, so a study of morality opens wide the space for discussions about humanity, politics, religion, and philosophy. To really get to the meat of these topics, we first need a solid intellectual grounding in the many colors and facets of morality. That is why I am starting this series, which will take us through the landscape of ideas and establish my own views so that you may understand where I am coming from.

In my second year of college, my class had a discussion. I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember raising my hand and saying something that I believed was so obvious that it did not need to be said, “what is wrong is wrong.” Everyone turned to look at me with strange expressions, and the professor said, “that is a bold statement. Can you back it up?” I was taken aback. I had believed it was logically trivial, the law of identity, that a thing is itself. The possibility that anyone could disagree had not even entered my mind.

So what did I miss? Well, I had a subconscious assumption that right and wrong are basic elements of reality, that actions are simply right or wrong, and that is the end of the story. I did not realize that there was more, that nuance, context, and circumstance change the game.

This was an example of the most common and naive theory of morality, Intuitionism. It is naive because it is what people follow before the philosophical question of morality enters their awareness. Intuitionism is the idea that morality is common sense. Everybody knows it, and simply has to pay attention to their conscience to live a good life and get along with others.

At first glance, there seem to be moral truths that are commonly accepted and understood the world over, like murder. But if you look closer, you will find that we have different ideas on what murder is. Does it count if it is self-defense, military action, abortion, honor killing, suicide, or capital punishment? It seems we don’t agree on the morality of killing after all, but only the semantic statement that the word for “killing that is wrong” should be “murder.”

Ask a random person if some action is right or wrong. For example, drinking alcohol. Some people will say it is good, and some people will say it is bad. But if you ask them why, you may find something intriguing: that they will either fumble around for an explanation they have never bothered to search for before, look at you as if you are stupid for not knowing, or even suspect that you are trying to corrupt vulnerable minds just by asking the question. Few will have made the effort to come to their view by starting from deeper principles.

The fact is, if we look at the way people act and the things they believe, we will see that everyone has different intuitions regarding morality. Should government support go to those who have gambled their lives away? Do men and women have specific roles to play in the household, or should people be free from gender-based constraints? Different people’s consciences tell them different things. Intuitionism as a moral theory leads directly to Relativism, the idea that morality has no objective basis, but depends only on the feelings of the person making a decision.

In light of this, we might be tempted to look down on Intuitionism. But in the heat of the moment when we don’t have time to weigh all the consequences in accordance with rational principles, we are all Intuitionists. If we want to be principled, then we must examine morality from a philosophical perspective in the times when our heads are clear, in order to train our intuition for the moments of decision. To find such a moral theory, we need to ground it in something outside of ourselves, which does not change and is universal to all of humanity. This is what the rest of this series is going to be about.