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Genesis Version 2.0

November 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Prologue

Yahweh needed a purpose. He was the most powerful entity in the metaverse, yet what had he ever achieved? It was time to do something great, and the only thing which would be worthy of his abilities was to create a universe. In fact it seemed like this was his entire reason for existing. Yahweh performed the calculations and determined what would be needed.

And he started creating…

First, he created a planet where he could experiment. It was covered with water because that was the basis for the chemistry he had decided to use. Despite the water, he called it Earth.

Then he created light, because, obviously his new universe would need to be visible to everyone, including the various conscious entities he might create.

But he realised the light might hide most of the magnificence of the universe he was creating, because the stars and galaxies – which he would soon create – could only be appreciated in darkness. So he decided to stop the light regularly and made darkness.

Then he built a realm where his creations could be brought to so they could interact with him. While he wanted to remain mostly seperate, some intervention might also be needed. This was hidden from everyone except him, and he called it Heaven.

And he needed some dry land so that there would be another habitat for the various species he would bring into existence. So he caused the waters to recede and uncover the solid earth.

And Yahweh was happy so far with what he had done. He thought it was good.

With the basics out of the way, it was now time to start on the interesting stuff. He needed some organisms capable of using the light to make energy for themselves, and ultimately all living things. These would be plants and he devised a clever trick he called photosynthesis to allow them to do this.

Again, Yahweh saw that things were going according to plan. This was good.

But at this point he realised he had made a small mistake. The light had no obvious source and he didn’t want his part in making this universe to be too obvious. So he created the Sun to be the main light source, and just for some added interest, a Moon as well. Of course, not being content with a single solar system, Yahweh created a few trillion galaxies of hundreds of billions of suns, for no real reason except to show just how powerful he really was!

After that he considered the universe so far wasn’t yet great, but it was good.

Now was the time to create animals to populate his world. He made many species to live in the seas and fly in the sky, then he made animals to live on the solid ground. And here he used his most subtle and clever idea: the animals had a fixed life-span, but could reproduce with minor variations in the next generation. He figured this should create many interesting new forms in the future.

So yes, Yahweh also thought this was good.

Finally it was necessary to carry out the final step: to create an intelligent species modelled, somehow, on himself.

And that was it. His universe was completed. Yahweh congratulated himself, pronouncing it “very good”…

A Lesson in Theology

Dan looked up from his control console, turned to his colleague, Jerry, and said “any idea what’s gone wrong?” only to receive an exasperated shrug in return.

The power use had been far over what they expected for some time now, and no one seemed to be able to figure out why. The initial testing should have been carried out at a low level of computation, and that would have meant low power use too – at least as low as a computer with a quadrillion bytes of storage could be expected to use.

If things didn’t get better soon they would need to call the old man himself. He designed this contraption so maybe he could get it to respond to basic instructions. But Dan didn’t want to do that yet because he was treated like a modern prophet by his colleagues, and his reputation was on the line. They would work on regaining control and bringing the power down for a bit longer before calling for help.

He said “Do you know anything about the old man? He created this thing but I’ve never seen him around here. He seems to live in his office upstairs but we never see him – it’s almost like he’s invisible. And he really is an odd one – I heard he still believes that old religion that was popular 50 years ago. Do you know anything about that?”

Jerry knew he was being baited about his “useless” qualifications but replied, “You know I did a theology degree, don’t you. That’s why I work in IT. But yes, you’re right, he still believes in a religion called Christianity, which was very big a few decades ago. It was an odd mixture of traditional superstition, sacrifice, and strange rituals, and had some quite interesting ideas about pacifism and tolerance, too.”

“Well it’s all crazy as far as I can tell,” observed Dan, “what use could it be in solving problems like what we have here now?”

Jerry saw his opportunity to tease his friend a little bit, and said “Why do you think he gave the computer the name he did? Does the name mean anything to you?”

Dan looked indignant, but said “Well, he called it YAHWEH, which stands for yottabyte analytical hypothesiser with extended heuristics. I’ve never heard the name before in another context, but it seems to make a lot of sense to me, after all that’s what it does. What exactly are you trying to suggest?”

Laughing, Jerry said, “Did that name ever seem a bit contrived to you? I mean, sure it has a yottabyte of memory and heuristics are an important part of its super-intelligence, but the rest seems more made up to fit the name, rather than the other way around. I know there is an old tradition in IT of doing this, but why would he choose the name of the old Christian God?”

Dan wasn’t convinced so he replied, “Well you could be right, but so what? Even if he named his computer after the god from his old fairy story, that doesn’t prove anything, except that he is even crazier than we previously thought.”

Jerry decided to take a different tack. “You know he is also interested in the ideas of the philosopher Nick Bostrom, don’t you. He specifically warned us against super-intelligent computers, but here’s another thing he is well known for that might interest you: he also had an argument, which he didn’t necessarily believe himself, that our universe is a simulation running in a super-intelligent computer in another, presumably real universe. It was called the simulation argument.”

By now Dan was starting to look a lot more uncertain, and said “You don’t think that’s what the old man is up to, do you? I mean, is this computer running a simulation of another universe? Does it really have the capacity to do that? Has it just created its own universe, with living conscious people like us? With a name like that, maybe it really does think it’s a god.”

Jerry looked thoughtful and said, “If it had created a universe with conscious simulated life do we have the right to terminate it? After all, if Bostrom is right, we could be part of a simulation too. How would you like if it the computer our universe is being simulated in was reset?”

But Dan wasn’t accepting any of this. He argued, “That’s the problem with theology, you can make a story full of intersting details but without a scrap of evidence to support it. Surely you don’t think we will ever need to make that decision, do you?”

Jerry glanced down at his console and suddenly went pale, he whispered “I don’t know, but I just found the name of the program it’s running. It’s called Genesis…”

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Good or Bad

November 18, 2017 Leave a comment

While I’m in the middle of a phase of religion bashing I thought it might be a good time to resurrect (an ironic choice of word) the old subject of religion in schools. This has appeared as an issue in the media here a few weeks back, so the subject is topical.

In the past, I have sort of shrugged off the issue saying something like, the young people nowadays are too smart to be taken in by some blatantly transparent myths and are likely to consign religion to the same category of fiction as the Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

This is no doubt true in most cases. Because, there is certainly reason to think that our civilisation’s childhood, where it relied on ancient traditional stories as a basis for cultural identity, is now starting to reach a conclusion, and we are growing up and abandoning the imaginary invisible man in the sky.

Here in New Zealand the “no religion” group is about to reach 50% of the population. Additionally, as I have said in the past, most people who indicate Christian as their religion on the census don’t really have any commitment to that belief and never attend church, read the Bible, or even really know much about it.

But it’s when previously powerful belief systems are threatened that they can become most dangerous. It’s a bit like a wild animal’s attack reflex when it’s cornered. So we should be especially careful now that churches don’t make a last ditch stand before they are consigned to the rubbish heap of bad ideas like all their predecessors. And maybe even more worryingly, we need to be careful that even worse religions, like Islam, don’t fill the void left by Christianity.

As I said above, most kids will not be taken in by the silly stuff they are taught in Bible in schools. But it is not the well-balanced, sensible, practical majority we need to worry about. It is the out of touch, emotionally and intellectually immature minority which are most at risk.

As I write this I realise that perhaps I have “shot myself in the foot” to a certain extent, because you might make a case to say that it is those who are not coping well who might have most to gain from joining a church and getting extra support and friendship.

I’m sure that there are some people who actually are better off joining a religion, and I have never argued for complete eradication of religion – at least I can’t recall an occasion, although I might have done during one of my more extreme rants! On the other hand, there might be more appropriate groups than a church those people could gain even more from, without the need to resort to superstition.

At this stage it is apparent that I am still conflicted on this subject. Don’t misunderstand, I am totally committed to the idea that religions are fake and have little purpose beyond that which can be provided far better by other knowledge systems (science for facts, philosophy for values), but fake stuff can still have value for certain people.

In the final analysis, this subject is just like every other: it is not a matter of black and white, or good and bad, just like I have so often said in past blog posts. I think that if kids were taught positive philosophical beliefs or given instruction in comparative religion in schools that would be of far more value than simple indoctrination in the dominant religion of the time, but maybe traditional Christian instruction – as along as it is controlled and doesn’t turn into aggressive proselytising – is OK.

Unfortunately the temptation to regress to aggressive conversion – with the threats of torture in Hell for unbelievers, etc – is just too likely according to many reports in the media. So maybe it would be be best just to expel religions from schools because of current bad behaviour.

Well, this blog post has certainly turned out to be one of my most indecisive ever! So, in summary, religion in schools. Good or bad? Well, yes… yes, definitely good or bad.

Child or Picasso?

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I love thought experiments, and I’m in pretty good company because so did people like Einstein! If you don’t know, a thought experiment is a way to test an idea by applying logic to it through pure thought. It often leads to new ideas (as it did for Einstein in developing the General Theory of Relativity) which might then be tested with experiments in the real world.

So General Relativity is an example of where a thought experiment was used in physics, but they can also be used in other areas, such as philosophy. In previous posts I have talked about the famous “trolley experiments” (originally in “More Morality” from 2007-11-27, and “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16) which are probably the most well known thought experiments in the area of ethics, and I have a few more in that area I want to discuss in this post.

This is interesting stuff but you have to go from one point to the next honestly. So let’s go through some of these experiments. Here goes…

Philosopher, Peter Singer, likes to challenge his students with the following question: “I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.”

Unanimously, the students say they are morally obliged to rescue the child. He then asks, “assuming you could still perform the rescue, would the distance to the pond, or the nationality of the child matter?” The vast majority say no, they are still obliged to act to rescue the child. He then points out that a similar “rescue” could be achieved with very little effort in time or money by donating to a charity, like Oxfam, who are concerned with saving many lives every day.

Yet few of the students do this. Why not?

Now imagine a burning building with a child trapped inside. You can rescue the child relatively easily, and almost everyone says they would. But there is also an extremely valuable Picasso painting in the house which you will get a $1 million reward for. If you remove it from the fire you won’t have time to rescue the child as well. What should you do? Almost everyone would value the child’s life more and rescue her instead of the painting.

But what could you do with that $1 million? You could save hundreds of lives by donating it to charities, such as the one which provides mosquito nets in Africa. Still, most people would save the child instead. Also note that, if you did do the “logical” thing and saved the painting in order to help thousands of people later, you would probably be charged with a crime for not making a reasonable effort to save the child, as well as suffering the contempt of your friends and family!

But now imagine the building had two rooms. The first room contains the child and the painting, and the second has 5 children. If you grab the painting from the first room and ignore the single child, you can use the painting to prop open the door to the second room and rescue 5. Do you grab the painting then? If you do, what is the difference between doing that and taking it for the monetary value which could be used to save far more than just 5 lives later?

Finally, consider the burning building again. Behind the painting is a lever which releases the 5 children in the room next door. Do you ignore the single child, remove the painting, and activate the lever? Most people would. What about if the lever, through a complex mechanism, activated a food distribution system in Africa and immediately saved a thousand lives? You might still use it. And if the mechanism had a delay of 6 months before the lives were saved? Well maybe and maybe not. And is that any different than distributing the funds from the reward for the painting? In the final analysis, no, but most people treat it as if it is.

It should be clear by now that people’s ethical choices do not depend on a logical treatment of the facts involved in a particular situation. Not only do most people ignore the possibility of making a much more significant contribution later rather than a lesser one immediately, but they also treat the directness of their action as a major factor, rather than the final outcome.

Consequentialism is a philosophical doctrine which states that the best course of action should be judged by its final consequences. Superficially this seems to make sense, but no one can follow this in the real world. And if they tried they would very likely be condemned by others. Not only that, but trying to analyse the options available in a situation like those mentioned above would probably result in a paralysis of uncertainty to many people.

Maybe it’s just as well we act on immediate instincts rather than a careful analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. No philosophical system, including consequentialism, can really answer these questions. And although the answers are usually not obvious there is a significant amount of agreement in what people would do.

Decisions like this are a complex combination of logic, emotion, and social conditioning. And that’s OK, because the end result is usually fairly reasonable even though they make no sense. General Relativity thought experiments are so much easier!

Facts, Logic, Morality

September 18, 2017 2 comments

I recently spent some time with a colleague discussing how to deal with a fundamentalist Christian’s irrational ideas that he had recently become aware of. I have to say that this fundy keeps his crazy ideas pretty much to himself and is otherwise a perfectly pleasant and reasonable person, so there was no real need to try to “convert” him, but sometimes the need to try arises – such as in a debate situation – so I thought I might describe my technique here.

I have had varying degrees of success with this in the past, from complete rejection (because some people are never going to change their views) to moderate success (for example, a person admitting to changing his opinions, or one who was on the road to enlightenment: that is, believing the same thing as me, and I am fully aware of how arrogant that sounds).

But where I have had some successes it has never been using just one technique. In addition, it is never easy to tell which method of persuasion is likely to be effective for a particular individual, so I have created a three step process which formalises by debating technique…

Step 1. Use facts.

My first instinct when debating controversial issues is to use facts. In general the issues I support can be easily supported with good evidence. But most people who believe in irrational ideas didn’t get to that point by following the facts, because there never are many supporting them. So it often follows that they can’t be moved by using facts either.

In addition there are always facts on both sides. Sometimes the “facts” on one side are barely facts at all (hence the quotes) but many people will believe an extremely doubtful or weak fact if it supports what they want to believe, even if there are a hundred which are much more certain against them.

Step 2. Use logic.

When step 1 fails it is often useful to try a process of logic. A complex idea can be broken down into a series of steps which logically follow and are difficult to deny. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any facts involved in this because logic usually transcends facts.

Step 3. Use morality.

If both facts and logic fail a good backup strategy, depending on the actual subject under discussion, is to use a moral or ethical argument. While morals vary from one person to another to some extent, there are common concepts shared by most people, including fairness, non-violence, and freedom.

So now I should give an example. Obviously I’m not going into details because half my readers won’t have even got this far and are unlikely to want to read 20 pages on the subject, but I will use a very condensed version of how I would handle the issue. So here’s an imaginary debate between me and a fundamentalist Christian…

Fundy: The Bible says that God created humans, so evolution cannot be true, and following events described there it makes it obvious the world is only 6000 years old. The Bible also says that it is the inerrant word of God and that the devil is always trying to find ways to deceive us with false truths. Without the Bible to guide us we will have no moral compass and there will be increased violence and evil around the world.

Me: You say that evolution cannot be true yet almost every expert in the world has concluded it is. Also there are many lines of evidence which anyone can understand which show evolution is an accurate theory to describe the variety of life on Earth. The age of the world cannot possibly be that short and I can show you evidence from geology, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and many other areas of science to show it is almost 14 billion years. The time light has spent travelling from distance galaxies shows this, for example. Let’s get these fact-based claims out of the way before we move on to the other stuff.

Fundy: But the Bible has been shown to be accurate, so how can it be wrong? Also there are many scientists who don’t believe in evolution or an old Earth. Here is a list of URLs for you to look at. Not following the Bible leads to you rejecting God’s offer of salvation and you just don’t want to admit his authority.

Me: The Bible is full of errors if you are prepared to accept scientific and historical evidence. For example, there is no evidence at all of major stories like Genesis, the Flood, Exodus, etc. These so-called scientists you cite are not publishing in scientific journals so I would say they are not practicing scientists. In fact most of them work at Answers in Genesis. If they are only looking in one place they will never be able to look at all the evidence. Let’s keep to facts and forget about God’s salvation for now.

Fundy: You have your facts and I have mine. Many serious researchers are religious and you cannot reject their research so easily. Also science changes all the time. Who can tell when a new theory might come along and contradict the Big Bang or evolution? You say yourself that science can never prove anything with 100% certainty, so why are you so sure that science is right and religion is wrong?

Me: Instead of just offering an opinion on who is doing science and who isn’t, we should look at a standard which is widely accepted. People who are engaged in science publish in reputable journals. Anyone who isn’t doing that isn’t really doing science. They might still be right, but based on past experience the scientific consensus is far more reliable than anything else. And you are right, we can never be 100% certain of anything, but it is still reasonable to accept a theory which is 99% likely to be at least a good approximation to the truth (like evolution), instead of one we can be 99% certain is wrong (like creation).

Fundy: You may say that but because you have no moral basis for your views they are really arbitrary. Without God to guide you and tell right from wrong, how can your views be taken seriously?

Me: Well this gets back to an old question in philosophy regarding the goodness of god. But first, let me say that using a god who probably doesn’t even exist as the basis of your morality seems worse than admitting that we really don’t even have a basis. And even if we pretend that your god does exist, how do we know he is good? Is it because he says so? And if your god is good, is he good because he’s god, or is he god because he’s good? In other words if we know he’s good then there must be some external criterion to judge that against, in which case why do we need a god anyway? And if whatever he does is good because he’s god then that seems a dangerous view to take because any dictator could make that claim.

Fundy: Wait, what? We know God is good because that’s one of the reasons we know he’s the one true God. Can you not see the logic in this?

Me: All I can see is a circular argument: God is good because he’s God. How do we know he’s God? Because he’s good. How do we know he’s good? Because he’s God.

Fundy: You know, that is a ridiculous simplification of a position that theologians have been debating for centuries. Do you really believe you have the answer to such a deep and meaningful problem?

Me: Well, yes. I think it really is that simple. The only reason it becomes complex is because many people want to reach a conclusion that supports the existence of a god. If they just followed the evidence they would see that it’s really quite simple: that there is no good reason to believe a god exists.

Fundy: The Bible talks about people like you who use false logic to try to lead believers away from the truth. You do realise that you are risking eternal damnation for your excessive pride and inability to accept the authority of God, don’t you?

Me: I know that according to the narrative of the New Testament your god prefers to inflict people who refuse to accept his dominance with eternal torture. This is the same god who is advertised as being the “God of love” and who has a prophet (Jesus) who preaches understanding and acceptance. This seems somewhat contradictory to me.

Fundy: God gives you the choice of believing in him or not. If you don’t accept his offer you deserve all you get. He sacrificed his son so that you could have this hope of salvation, yet you refuse to take it.

Me: It’s not a choice I make. I simply cannot believe your god exists. Should I pretend to believe when I really don’t? Would God not know that I’m not being honest with him? And if your god wants me to believe in him why doesn’t he make his presence more obvious? Why do I have to rely on faith which I cannot force myself to do that?

Fundy: His presence is obvious to most of us. Why do you think that most people in the world are Christians?

Me: Actually, they’re not. Only a third of the population identify as Christians and even then that is purely a matter of their societal norms. You are a Christian because that is the history of the country you were born in. If you were born in India you would almost certainly be a Hindu. If you were born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. It seems that the god you follow depends on your culture, not on which (if any) god really exists.

Fundy: Well you seem to have convinced yourself that these false beliefs are true. I have tried to show you the truth but your pride prevents you from accepting it. Don’t complain when you end up in Hell.

Me: Am I a bad person? Have I been guilty of any terrible crimes? I donate to charities, I am a productive member of my society, I don’t harm any other people. Why do I deserve eternal damnation from this “loving God” of yours?

Fundy: God is just, and he is only doing what you deserve. It is not for me or you to judge whether he is right or wrong – he is God and can do whatever he likes.

Me: So a person who spends his whole life torturing, killing, etc and then accepts Jesus as his saviour shortly before dying goes to heaven, but a person who spends his life doing good, but cannot accept the teaching of your religion because there is no evidence, suffers forever. If that is how your god works then, even if he did exist, I would not accept him.

Fundy: And there’s the proof that you are evil.

Me: OK, let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

As you can see, in the fictitious example above (but one based on real experience) the fundy isn’t converted on the spot, but I would hope that amongst the points I made: that the evidence is against him, that logic is against him, and that an understanding of basic fairness and morality is against him; there might be something to make him a little bit less certain than he was.

Or, maybe, he might exhibit the backfire effect and just “double-down” on his beliefs because they are shown to be probably untrue. But the three pronged attack makes that less likely because I have found that the final argument (the unfairness of God’s punishment) often gets through to people when the more rational points don’t.

Whatever the end effect is, debating this way is fun, and any progress – no matter how small – is OK with me.

Don’t Take it Seriously

September 12, 2017 2 comments

They say that people who cannot laugh at themselves leave the job for someone else. I think there is a lot of truth in that idea because too many people take themselves, and their beliefs, far too seriously, and they don’t usually look good as a result.

In the end, most everyday issues which people get upset and very serious about are really unbelievably trivial. As an amateur astronomer and science enthusiast I know enough about the universe as a whole (or maybe even the multiverse) to know that practically everything that people take so seriously is nothing more than the tiniest, most frivolous absurdity when you look at the big picture.

To provide examples I would like to pick on some of my usual targets: managers and other bureaucrats, and religious people.

Recently I commented that a good test for Muslims who would like to move to New Zealand to live would be to have them prove that they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage. That was deliberately provocative, because eating pork is haram (forbidden) by the Quran, except in extreme circumstances such as starvation.

Why would I want to impose such an offensive (according to some people) test? Well, I wouldn’t really, of course, because it was a rhetorical point I was trying to make, rather than a serious one, but this does show how a non-serious point can be effective. Maybe a better test would be to have them have a laugh at a cartoon featuring the prophet Mohammed. Yes, I’m only somewhat more serious about that.

But why have a test at all? Well, people who have extreme views on religion tend to be dangerous. They might be more likely to carry out terrorist acts, for example, because despite the protestations of the politically-correct left, religion is the major motivating factor for most terrorists.

And even if their serious religious “philosophy” doesn’t motivate them to wanting to blow themselves up, along with whatever other innocent people might be in range, it might still encourage them towards other regressive ideas, such as being against equality for women, wanting to punish homosexuals, or wanting to enforce their primitive social standards on others.

Naturally, I would not want anyone to think that this process would stop at Islam. Extremist Christians would also need to be vetted by a similar process. I have plenty of “offensive” cartoons featuring Jesus that they could have a little laugh at. For example: Jesus is hanging on his cross, after a while he dies and the Romans dangle him on strings from the cross like a puppet and reanimate him, people see this and think Jesus has risen from the dead, and the Romans think it’s hilarious!

And it could go beyond religion, too. For example, Apple zealots, like me, could be challenged by having to laugh at a cartoon of Jony Ive making some pretentious pronouncement about his design philosophy (I just Googled that and there are plenty out there).

Many might say that an “offensive” computer cartoon hardly rates at a similar level to an “offensive” religious one, but I disagree. If someone takes their religion more seriously than I take good design of computer technology then they are taking it too seriously, and that’s my whole point. After all, their religion isn’t actually true, so treating it with a bit less sincerity seems entirely sensible.

I know religious people who I like to gently and respectfully debate regarding their beliefs, and I expect to get the same back again. If someone wants to criticise me based on my “beliefs” (I am atheist, pro-science, liberal but anti-political correctness, pro-Apple) then that’s fine – I don’t take it too seriously, at least as long as they don’t.

When I look at the latest HST image of the universe and see thousands of galaxies in a small area of sky smaller than the Moon, and I realise there are hundreds of billions of stars (and presumably hundreds of billions of planets, and probably life, and maybe intelligent life, and just possibly some civilisations far more advanced than ours) in each one, then it’s pretty hard to take the inane assertions of any religion seriously.

It’s also hard to take any debate on what the best type of computer is seriously, it’s hard to take any pathetic rules and regulations created by bureaucrats seriously… hey, let’s just take this to the logical conclusion: you cannot take anything seriously.

So lighten up everyone. We live in a magnificent universe and our problems, thoughts, and beliefs are of no consequence at all, really. Why not just accept the obvious absurdity of human existence and not take things so seriously.

Shades of Grey

September 6, 2017 Leave a comment

When I decided to title this blog post “Shades of Grey” I first Googled the phrase to make sure I had the meaning correct. Of course, about 99% of the hits were about the movie “50 Shades of Grey” which I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised about given the power of pop culture. But, of course, I’m using it in the traditional way: to mean that many things cannot be simply seen as good or bad, or black or white, because there are always shades of grey.

So after the disappointment of discovering that I am not discussing the movie the natural question the reader might ask is: exactly what am I on about this time?

Just that too many people like to categorise every person, every organisation, every belief system as either good or bad, when they really should be assigning a shade of grey instead. So instead of calling a political movement (for example) evil, they should say something like mostly bad but with a few good characteristics too. I really believe there is nothing in this world that is wholly evil or entirely good.

But there is a corollary to this idea which is perhaps even more important. That is that two things which might seem to occupy the “darker” end of the spectrum cannot be classified as equally bad. To use the colour metaphor: they’re not both black, one might be really dark grey and the other mid-grey.

At this point I should be more specific. The one I want to use, because I have been guilty of falling into this trap myself, is to equate two sides in a conflict as being equally bad because they both have done bad things.

For example, I have heard some people say that the US was as bad as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, because of the many deaths from US air strikes in the Iraq War. Or similarly, that the US is as bad as the Taliban because they both have been guilty of causing the death of civilians in Afghanistan. Or to take it even further, that the Allies were as bad as the Nazis in World War II because of some of the more controversial actions like the bombing of Dresden.

Many people might look at these examples and scoff, saying that they see no equivalence there. That is good, but I would make two points. First, many people (especially those on the politically correct left) do see an equivalence; and second, these particular examples might not have suited your concept of morally equivalent actions but almost everyone will have something which does.

Just to make the shades of grey concept totally clear, I am not saying that the Allies were totally blameless in World War II. Many people have said that various actions (the bombing of Dresden being the most well known) might have been classified as war crimes. But while those actions were certainly far from sparkling white, they were far ahead of some Nazi’s conduct, such as the Holocaust, which were surely amongst the blackest of modern times.

An interesting contributing factor to this debate is the motivation for action. When the US is involved in a conflict it isn’t there to force people to adopt a religion, or to take over territory, or to even acquire resources. I will concede that there is an element of economic benefit in some cases, and in others getting involved in a conflict would be uncharitably seen as a political distraction, but these are lesser evils than the motivation of ISIS or most other opposing groups.

So saying that the US is as bad as ISIS because sometimes US drone strikes kill innocent civilians just like ISIS suicide bombers do, is missing the point. If the US could perform strikes against military targets with no collateral damage I think most people would say they would do that. But ISIS makes a deliberate effort to kill civilians as part of its military strategy.

Sure, either way innocent people are dead, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the two actions are equivalent. Killing innocent people accidentally from a drone strike is bad, but killing them deliberately using suicide bombers is worse according to any reasonable moral code.

If you have got this far and are still saying “well, duh” because everything I have said so far is obvious then that’s good, but I can tell you I meet a lot of people who would not accept any of the above.

Here’s a few more examples of people, or groups, or actions which tend to be seen by some groups as obviously black and white (good and bad) or as equally bad when there is one which is genuinely worse than the other…

The Israeli security forces versus groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian conflict. In this case the Israelis are far from innocent but at least there tactics are more moral than those used by the opposing forces.

Donald Trump versus Barack Obama. I cannot justify Trump’s aversion to dealing with facts, but I also find the constant demonisation of him to be tiresome. I’m sure there are some things he has done that the PC left would approve of. Maybe closing down the TPP would be a good example.

Poor people who commit welfare benefit fraud versus rich individuals and corporations who engage in tax evasion and avoidance. I don’t give either side a free pass although I think it is more morally justifiable to commit fraud to feed your family than it is to avoid paying a fair amount of tax just so that rich shareholders and directors can get even richer.

It’s just too easy to assign a good or bad, pass or fail, black or white to everything, usually based on existing political preferences, or in-group habits, rather than a genuine analysis of what is really happening. I think from now on people should assign a score instead. This will encourage a more nuanced view of the situation being evaluated.

So Allies versus Nazis: 90:10, George Bush versus Saddam Hussein 60:40. the US versus ISIS 80:20, etc. Those numbers are just first guesses and I could be persuaded to change them by a good argument. But the point is that it’s a lot easier to adjust some numbers than to change from a good versus bad situation.

So yes, it’s all about shades of grey, and there are at least 50 of them.

The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!