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Friday, September 22, 2017

Moral Theory IV: Serving Oneself

Moral Theory:
I. Intuitionism
II. Authoritarianism
III. God
The Is-Ought Problem
IV. Ethical Egoism
V.  ???
VI. ???

Last time, we argued that objective moral Truth is independent of the existence of God. After learning this, one might come to believe that without a divine source, the only measure of morality left is for people to do what is best for themselves, to spend life pursuing their own goals, interests, and desires. In this view, if helping others does not benefit someone, they have no moral obligation to do so. Basing one’s moral principles on self-interest is called Ethical Egoism.

Ethical Egoism is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, it can inspire people to work hard and put lots of effort into mastering skills, learning, and becoming a better person. The book Atlas Shrugged by the infamous Ethical Egoist Ayn Rand, despite its mind-numbingly shallow characters, has inspired and motivated people to compose beautiful songs, write best-selling novels, or start successful businesses. A few hours after I started reading it, I put it down and cleaned my apartment. There is just something about the call to get up and do something worthwhile that puts fire in people’s veins.

The cover for Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind,
who portrays Ethical Egoism as heroic.
On the other hand, Ethical Egoism has no judgment for those who can screw other people over and get away with it. It would say there is nothing wrong with being a con artist or a thief or a money-grubber if doing so won’t have any negative effect on you or your future. And since competition inevitably favors those who play underhandedly, societies built on Ethical Egoism make it easy for the selfish and devious to rise to the top. Once in power, they rewrite the laws to further benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. It is Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest applied to human wellbeing, and Ethical Egoism only shrugs.

It is a mixed package. The grandness of the life it offers is tempting, but there is a terrifying ugliness to the world it leads to. Our instincts pull us both ways. But we are looking for an objective foundation for morality, so for the moment, we will try to put aside our emotions and see whether Ethical Egoism has a rational foundation.

Ethical Egoism says that we should always aim toward that which would be the most fulfilling to ourselves, or in other words, we should always seek to maximize our own satisfaction. But if we follow that to its logical conclusion, we get a world of Social Darwinism, where the vast majority of people are not satisfied. This does not feel like what morality should be, However, that is not actually a refutation of the theory, but an appeal to intuition, and we have already shown that intuition is not the basis for morality.

One could, in fact, still make a case that Ethical Egoism is the ultimate answer to objective morality. It may be that by everyone doing what is best for themselves, the standard of living is raised for everyone, even though the inequality between the top and the bottom makes it look unfair. However, we can show that is not the case. There is a thought experiment in game theory called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which exposes Ethical Egoism’s fatal flaw. As I explain it, you can follow along in the image below.

Suppose you and someone else are partners in crime. You are caught, and questioned separately. The system is not very just, and you are given an offer: If neither you nor your partner confess, you will both get one year in prison. If you both confess, you will both get three years in prison. If one of you confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will get off free and the other will get four years in prison. You are told that your partner has also received the same offer.

Now you weigh the possibilities. If your partner confesses, you get three years if you confess and four if you don’t. If your partner does not confess, you get one year if you do and none if you don’t. Either way, it is better for you if you confess. If you and your partner are Ethical Egoists, you will both confess and get three years. However, if you and your partner are playing as a team, neither of you will confess, so that you both get one year, which is best overall.

In cases like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Ethical Egoism actually leads to outcomes that are worse for the people making decisions than some more altruistic moral system would. One could argue that the true option that lines up best with one’s self-interest would be to not commit crimes and to try to improve the legal system, but the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a proof of concept; only the logic matters, not the details. Ethical Egoism defeats itself, failing as a candidate for objective morality.

So far in the Moral Theory series, we have looked at the naive ideas of morality that people fall into with no or little thought, and which professional moral philosophers no longer consider worth pursuing. For the final two episodes, we will take on the big guns. We hope that the glimpses they provide us of moral Truth are as inspiring as Ethical Egoism, without the looming specter of Social Darwinism.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Is-Ought Problem

Moral Theory:
I. Intuitionism
II. Authoritarianism
III. God
The Is-Ought Problem
IV. Ethical Egiosm
V.  ???
VI. ???

When searching for an objective basis for morality, we run into a problem big enough to break from our search and devote a whole discussion to it. As we defined at the beginning of the series, a morality is a system that claims that some actions and consequences are inherently better than others, and that we ought to make our choices in accordance with these. When making a case for a way that people should act and a way things should be, it is very difficult to make an argument that is based on facts rather than mere opinions. This was formalized three hundred years ago by philosopher David Hume as the is-ought problem. We have already run into this in this series with the Euthyphro Dilemma, where we found out that even God's opinion is still just an opinion.

To tackle the is-ought problem, we will have to start with factual observations and hope to end up with a standard by which to measure moral systems. First, we observe that moral intuitions exist within us, planted partially by our upbringing and culture and partially by biology. We have two types of moral intuitions: normative moral intuition, the feeling that some actions should be taken and others not; and circumstantial moral intuition, the feeling that some circumstances you or others could be in have more of a rightful claim to existence than other possible circumstances. As we saw in the first part of this series, these intuitions are not sufficient as a basis for objective morality, because they are subjective.

In addition to moral intuitions, we also have a sense of satisfaction, which is a pleasant feeling we get when our actions and others' line up with our normative moral intuitions, and their consequences line up with our circumstantial moral intuitions. There are many different kinds of satisfaction. There is the feeling of rest after a productive day, the feeling of doing something productive, gratefulness for your life situation, many types of happiness and pleasure, and more. The kinds of things that can trigger satisfaction in us are ingrained in us by our DNA, though they vary slightly from person to person. It is worth noting that following our moral intuitions does not always lead us to satisfaction; they are different things. All moral systems are built to generate satisfaction, though each one is different in whose satisfaction matters and what specific types of satisfaction they emphasize.

So far, I have made only observations, "is" statements. Now we are ready to bring in the "ought." Because all moral systems are aimed toward satisfaction, if "ought" is to mean anything, it will raise up actions and systems that generate lots of satisfaction. After all, the moral intuition-satisfaction system is why we have a concept of "ought" in the first place.

We should give this breaking of the is-ought dichotomy a critical look. It gives off vibes of the naturalistic fallacy, the assumption that what is good is good because it is natural. However, what is considered natural is much broader and conceptually fuzzy than the argument that has been made in this discussion. We have specifically targeted the relevant, factual statements about morality, and come to the conclusion that the reason the idea of "ought" exists is because of our moral intuitions and capability of satisfaction. If we were to ask why "ought" should be pointed at satisfaction, it would be taking the concept out of its domain of meaning, like asking why logic is a valid way of thinking. The question ceases to make sense.

Without the concept of satisfaction, no one would have anything to strive toward, and all actions would turn out to be equally meaningless. The possibility of satisfaction exists within us, and therefore we have moral intuitions and develop moral theories. One could still argue that this is not a full answer to the is-ought problem, and that there is no reason that the natural purpose of morality should be the purpose of morality, but it is better than its alternatives, which are mere opinions, which lead to Relativism. Knowing this, from now on in our search for objective morality we will pay special attention to how each theory deals with satisfaction.

Friday, September 8, 2017

More Musings on Consciousness

Recommended Pre-Reading:
Consciousness 1
The Scientific Jigsaw Puzzle

Eighty years ago, there was a puzzle in science. Sometimes atoms broke apart into smaller atoms, releasing even smaller particles and energy. But when all of the remaining energy and momentum was totaled up, some of it was missing. Conservation of energy and momentum are two of the foundational laws of physics, so this was a real problem. To try to solve it, the physicist Wolfgang Pauli proposed that there was another particle, a neutrino, that escaped detection. Decades passed, and then finally someone was able to build a detector to search for these neutrinos, and found them.

The story of the neutrino is one way that things are discovered in science. There is a puzzle with a missing piece, people make suggestions for what that piece might be, and eventually someone finds the answer. Consciousness, however, is a different story. When we look at the human brain, it seems to function completely fine on its own, with just matter and electricity. Human behavior, decision-making, aesthetic taste, and basically everything about us can be understood by our DNA and the electrical signals running through our neurons. Unlike atomic decay with a neutrino-shaped hole, the brain puzzle is complete, and we perplexedly have a consciousness-shaped piece left over.

An extra puzzle piece that we cannot find a place for means something is wrong with the picture as a whole. In order to solve this problem, we have to identify and question our basic assumptions about our paradigm. Examining my own beliefs, I find I have always assumed an idea similar to substance dualism, that consciousness is its own substance, independent from other things. But what if it is simpler than that? What if consciousness is just what matter, or some forms of matter, looks like from the inside? This equivalence would mean that what seems to be its own piece of the puzzle is really just another way of looking at the pieces that are already in place.

At first, this seems preposterous. Rocks don’t have consciousness. Wind doesn’t have consciousness. Statues cannot see or hear. But this is where something like Integrated Information Theory comes in. A conscious experience would be meaningless unless it happens in a system of interconnected elements, each of which affects all of the others. Another way of saying this is that consciousness can only be meaningful if the information in the system is irreducibly complex and under constant change. Think of a brain. It is a vast network of neurons, connected in loops, branches, and highways. When a neuron fires, it pulses against other neurons, some of which are set off in turn. This is part of an unbroken, lifelong chain of cycles and patters. This is integrated information.

Let's do a thought experiment, where we imagine a mind whose only experience is seeing the color black. This mind has no concept of the outside world, no concept of sound, or touch, or space or time. Its entire existence is the perception of the color black. But by having nothing to compare the color black against, it does not even truly experience sight. So even though it experiences a quale, the color black, it is not conscious in the sense that we think of the word. Instead, we might call it proto-conscious.

Now imagine a mind whose subjective experience consists of only a single, unchanging scene, perhaps the equivalent of a photograph of a sunny day at the park. This mind does not think, it does not feel, and it does not get bored. Because it does not analyze the image nor remember having seen it moments before, the mind does not perceive time passing. To it, the entire lifespan of the universe is a single instant. This mind too is only proto-conscious.

The idea of proto-consciousness being everywhere in the universe, even in non-meaningful states devoid of change or organization, seems like something a mystic or spiritualist would claim. Nevertheless, given the information we have, I believe it is a sensible possibility. I am sure you have had the experience of waking up from sleep feeling a strong emotion, as if you were just in the middle of doing something stimulating, but could not remember what you were dreaming. When we are awake, our stream of consciousness is full of thoughts that flit in and out of our awareness. Most of the time we forget them instantly, and it is as if we never thought them in the first place. In other words, we have conscious and semi-conscious experiences that fade from existence and are forever lost to memory. Of course, even these examples require brains full of neurons in order to exist, but even so, is it unreasonable to hypothesize that qualia momentarily pop in and out of existence in matter all over the universe like virtual particles in a vacuum?

I often wonder if computers might have some kind of consciousness. They work completely differently from brains, storing and processing information as static bits instead of unbroken flows like neurons, but considering what we have been talking about so far, I think it is a reasonable question. If they are conscious, is it anything like human consciousness, or is it completely alien, impossible for us to imagine or comprehend? I see no reason why human consciousness should be typical of consciousness in the universe, and that there would not be senses and emotions impossible for human brains to have, or even other types of experiences we cannot imagine.

I don’t know whether mind-matter equivalence is the answer, but if it is, it would answer a lot of questions and eliminate a lot of assumptions. The puzzle would fit together, all its pieces intact, revealing a new edge to build from and explore. Perhaps we could figure out how to build artificial consciousness, or enhance our own to experience things never dreamed of. Perhaps we could learn exactly how conscious animals are, and how best to treat them ethically. A new ocean would be revealed, ready to be explored by science and science fiction.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Profoundness of Equivalence

Toolbelt of Knowledge:

Have you ever had an argument with someone, only to find that you actually agree, but were just using different words? Have you ever memorized a long number in chunks, and then found out that someone else had memorized the number by breaking up the chunks differently? What you have stumbled upon is the principle of equivalence, the fact that something that is true can be thought about in different, yet equally valid ways.

For example, we all have our own ways of representing reality. Some of us think of reality in pictures. Some see everything in terms of words. Others see everything as equations. These are all different, but they are equally valid ways of representing reality. They are equivalent.

Equivalence appears all the time in physics. The most famous example is Einstein's Elevator, a thought experiment that led Einstein to formulate his theory of gravity, General Relativity. Einstein imagined waking up in an elevator, his body floating above the floor as if in space. There would be no way to tell if he was actually in space, or if he was freely falling down the elevator shaft. This showed him that zero-gravity and free-fall are equivalent, which, with some help from math and a few experiments, led to the realization that gravity is not truly a force but a distortion in spacetime.

For a more down-to-earth example, suppose you are holding a brick. We call it a solid object, and think of it as the stuff taking up the space within its boundaries. But we also know it is made of atoms, which are mostly empty space. So is the brick a solid substance, or is it mostly empty space? It is both. “Solid substance” and “mostly empty space of rigidly arranged atoms,” though they seem completely different, are two ways of saying the same thing. Equivalent.

Of course we also have to watch out for false equivalence, when we treat two things as the same when they are really not. Nothing is as simple as it first seems, and figuring out how to tell the difference is part of learning. The glass is half empty, and it is half full.

Being aware of equivalence and learning to identify it can help us make sense of the world and what is happening around us. Sometimes things that seem unrelated or even contradictory are actually the same thing. If we practice finding these connections, we start to see that the world is a lot more understandable than we may have realized.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Legendary Heroes

See also:
Legendary Villains

In each of our minds, we hold an ideal person that we want to be, a standard that we strive for. But none of us is perfect, and none of us measures up to the archetype we set up. Our failures discourage us. But in fiction we can find characters who pass the test, who succeed in embodying these ideals we want to see in ourselves. When we see the struggle and pain they overcome to keep from failing, our hope is renewed and we are inspired to pick ourselves up and try again, ever improving ourselves toward that unattainable standard we strive for. The characters who do this for us we call heroes. Some heroes resonate with us so well that they transcend the stories they come from and become icons of the culture. They become legends, and are known even to those who have never heard their stories.


There is no other way to start a discussion of heroes than the cape-bearing face of heroism himself. With a heart of gold and always putting others before himself, Superman is hand-crafted to be the perfect image of what is good. Not only this, but he has the power to act on his compassion, with his ability to fly, his unlimited strength, his invulnerability, and many lesser-known superpowers. Yet with knowledge as limited as any other man, Superman has to deal with a heavy burden of responsibility. He knows he can save the world, but also that by not knowing enough or losing control for a moment he could become the cause of its destruction. All this combined gives us the closest thing to the hero archetype that humanity has ever put to the page.


Almost Superman's opposite, Batman has no superpowers, just loads of money and technology and a desire for justice. Batman deals with everything dark, from a dark city to a dark costume to enemies who embody the dark parts of humanity. Batman is the yin to Superman’s yang. His lack of powers and the fact that he continually has to face and conquer his own dark side makes Batman more relatable than Superman. His nemesis, the Joker, embodies the monster that Batman is always in danger of slipping into if he gives up for even a moment. His strength in the face of humanity’s ugliest depths and his incredible drive to press on in the face of it all has inspired many a child and adult alike.


Goku is the face—and the hair—that brought Japanese animation to the rest of the world. As far as powers go, he is basically Japanese Superman. However, in place of Superman’s compassion toward humanity and drive to service, Goku values honor above all else. To prove himself the best, Goku will not fight anyone except at their strongest, often risking the lives of his friends, innocent bystanders, and sometimes entire planets to do so. He will also let his friends fight for their lives and get beaten down to the brink of death—and sometimes past it, given that his universe has a few death-reversing loopholes—before interfering, because he wants them to push themselves to their limits and have an honorable defeat. Yet when there truly is no other option, Goku proves himself worthy of the title of hero by showing that he is willing to sacrifice himself to save those he cares about.

The Doctor

A nameless, immortal time-traveler who has a tool that can do almost anything, and who cheats death by generating a new face. He has saved Earth about fifty times in as many years, though he himself has aged thousands. He has even been known to save the entire universe now and then. After twelve personas and a life so long as to boggle the minds of mortals, the Doctor faces existential questions that humans almost never run into, questions that drive his enemies to hatred and nihilism. His greatest weapon: his wit. The Doctor almost never carries a weapon, opting instead to win all of his battles by thinking ahead of his opponent—or guessing, no one can ever be really sure he knows what he is doing. The Doctor is a legend and a myth, a savior and a destroyer, as wise as God and as foolish as a child. He is a hero, an angel, a mentor, a messenger, a destroyer, and the universe’s instrument of fate. A hero, but more than that. He is the Doctor.

This is the end of my list. I am sure there are others. I feel that some heroes from mythology like Beowulf or Hercules or Thor deserve a place among the legends, but I do not know enough about them to do them justice. I also did not mention any run-of-the-mill protagonists, defined by the story following their viewpoint and making us want them to succeed, as the term “hero” is popularly used today. These “heroes” include the likes of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, who are not exactly beacons of wisdom and self-discipline. The ones who made it are those who will be remembered long after their stories have been forgotten, who shine like the mythical figures of the ancient Greeks, half human, half god.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Moral Theory III: Looking to Divinity

Moral Theory:
I. Intuitionism
II. Authoritarianism
III. God
The Is-Ought Problem
IV. Ethical Egoism

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, or the source of morality, 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.