Sunday Thoughts

signpostDespite the title, this post isn’t as strongly related to the previous three as the naming convention suggests. I don’t really have much to say about religious predestination. If anything, my views on spirituality are key to a belief in free will and choice. The religion I was raised in seems (at least to my eye) quite clear that we are allowed to choose our actions.

The connection to those other posts lies in picking up the thread of physical determinism — normally a necessarily atheist point of view — and doing a riff on religion, spirituality and atheism. This is the post I started to write last Sunday when my mind took off in a completely different direction.

This time I’m going to try sticking to the subject!

great debateAnd the subject is atheism versus theism. Also science versus spirituality. And ideas versus beliefs.

These are all topics I find myself debating quite often on various blogs. I’ve written about it a number of times here on this blog.

Today I wanted to try to record some thoughts and opinions that I find myself repeating. That way, in the future, I can just link back to this post.

Atheism as a Religion

I like to tease atheists that their atheism is tantamount to a religion. As with the tree falling in the forest, the key is in the definition. Atheists point to the trappings of religion and frequently use the phrase “system of beliefs” (referring to the organization and dogma of religion). Under such a definition, atheism is clearly not a religion.

Dawkins Scale

I’m not really a fan of Richard Dawkins, but I think his scale is very useful. There are many places to stand on this issue!

But I look beyond the trappings and see more similarities than differences.

Both are a non-factual opinion on the nature of reality. This is a central point. Theists believe in one thing; atheists believe in another (a belief something is not true is still a belief). In a very real sense, the difference is a single letter, the presence of which negates the main idea. One is Yin to the Yang of the other.

Both have a creation story — an explanation of why we’re here. In one view, God created the universe. In the other view, it  was the Big Bang (or one of the scientific alternate theories). In both cases there is a nagging question of what created God or what created the physics that spawned the universe.

[The answer I like: “Turtles, all the way down!”]

turtles all the way downBoth have an account of purpose and meaning. One believes it is intrinsic, that morality is objective, and that doing good matters on some higher level. The other holds that the only purpose and meaning is that which we create, and that there is no “higher level” where any of it matters.

Both tend to think they know the truth and that others should stop being blind and follow the “one true path.” (Compare this to most agnostics who are more prone to sit on the sidelines watching. Not me, of course, but I tend to be an exception to lots of things.)

[I’m reminded, by both theists and atheists, of how fans of sports and actors seek converts and often get antagonistic towards detractors. I’ve seen the same kind of “join the Right Way” mentality from both alcoholics and A.A. members. We humans seem to want others to belong to our chosen club regardless of what that club is. And we often seem threatened by those with a different view.]

Atheism as a Word

I’ve long thought that “atheism” is an unfortunate term. It positions a pretty key personal opinion as a negation or rejection of something. I’ve wondered if some of the opprobrium atheists get isn’t due to their being viewed as “naysayers” or “negative nellies.”


Only about 2.3% of the world’s population identify as “atheist” (plus about 11.9% identify as “non-religious”) so you can see why they might be a little grumpy.

They’re often viewed as not being for anything so much as against something, and no one really likes people like that.

It’s the grumpy old man syndrome.

A better term that expresses a view of being for something is physicalism. (In some ways, a more correct term would be materialism, but that term has negative connotations of “greediness” or other lack of humane values.)

My previous three posts have all been about a physicalist universe and how one consequence of physicalism is that the future may be fixed even if we’re not capable of divining it. (A key difference between physicalism and materialism is that the former allows more for emergent properties.)

Science and Spirituality

There’s no question that science conflicts with the immediacy of God. When’s the last time anyone walked on water or turned it to wine? Miracles like that seem absent in our modern, scientific world.

faith and reason

The trick is to meet at the crossroads. They are not necessarily exclusive.

But I’ve wondered since high school to what extent our minds affect, even create, reality. Is it possible that, as the world becomes more and more scientifically aware, events which clearly violate scientific principles become impossible?

Does our collective unconscious affect what is possible in the world?

That is, I readily admit, a fanciful idea. But if faith is important, then obvious miracles would remove the need for it. If we had clear evidence that God exists, then belief or unbelief ceases to be a matter of choice.

One of my all-time favorite movies, Grand Canyon, has as its sub-theme the idea that, if God worked miracles in our modern scientific society, what might those look like?

Atheists oppose theists, both of which are polar points of view. In reflecting the extreme ends of the belief spectrum, both positions end up being fairly easy to poke holes in. Neither position is factual, at least for now.

Grand CanyonIn fairness, atheists do have on their side that the physical world seems more aligned with their view (which is why physicalism is a better term). However there is much that is still unexplained, and there are things science says we can never understand.

There is a moderate “religious” position, deism, which suggests God created the universe and then stepped back to watch it unfold. Deists don’t believe God acts in day-to-day affairs. An analogy might be the farmer who sows, tends and loves his acres of wheat, but doesn’t concern himself with individual stalks.

There are other spiritual positions that don’t involve an actual God at all. “The Force” (be with you) from Star Wars is an example of such a view. And there is Spinoza‘s (and Einstein’s) impersonal and abstract God of nature and physics.

Such positions are harder to deny in that they tend not to be in opposition with the physical realities of science. And in the case of Spinoza, science and spirituality actually come together!

Ideas and Beliefs


Affleck and Damon as cast-out angels, Jason Lee as Azrael, Salma Hayek as a muse and Alanis Morissette as God!

My favorite Kevin Smith movie, Dogma, features Chris Rock as Rufus, the thirteenth apostle (who was excluded, he says, from The Bible because he’s black). At one point in the film, Rufus does a riff on ideas versus beliefs and how dangerous beliefs can be.

To paraphrase, the worst thing you can do to an idea is to decide it must be “The Truth!” When ideas become beliefs they calcify and become rigid.

Ideas can move mountains, but Beliefs become Causes, and Causes can destroy mountains. Not always, but Causes can be very scary. Obviously a key aspect is the goodness and value of the Belief underlying the Cause. The role of the rational mind is to self-check Causes.

Consider Believing in the Idea of Freedom versus Believing in the Cause of Freedom. The former spawns democracies; the latter spawns wars.

You can replace the word “Freedom” with almost any other idea: Animal Rights, Women’s Rights, Islam or Christianity, Gun Rights or Gun Control, Justin Bieber,…

dog delusion

Cat Cause! Just like dyslexic atheists, they don’t believe there really is a dog.

All of these, as Causes, have created their share of havoc. Just last week Canada was ushered into the world of Causes and the havoc they can create. Religious causes, unfortunately, create the most havoc of all.

Religion is an extremely powerful tool (it makes atomic bombs look like firecrackers). Powerful tools require powerful responsibility (just ask Spiderman).

The tragedy is the mindlessness and irresponsibility often found in religious causes (of course, one finds those things in all sorts of places). One can understand why — at least for some atheists — their position is a reaction to the dark side of religion.

But that overlooks the value religion has had for us. Church organizations routinely do charitable work. The idea of moral values, community and doing good in the world all stem from religious origins.

It’s entirely possible that religion will someday be understood as a necessary foundation of our successful evolution into the societies of today.

It may even be understood as being necessary for society to continue.

Regardless of your beliefs, to again quote Keith Olbermann quoting a former beloved English teacher of his: “Go forth and spread beauty and light.”

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

66 responses to “Sunday Thoughts

  • Hariod Brawn

    A great article W.S., and you balance yourself well on that tightrope of unknowing – surely the only smart place to be. I must apologise for not contributing much in the way of comments of late; the frequency with which you issue your own articles, and depth of them too of course, whilst being appreciated greatly, has left me short of time. And so it is that I hope you can forgive me if I pass the buck on this particular one to the late Chris Hitchens:

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hiya Hariod. Thanks! I have a question: By posting a Hitchens clip, does this mean you vote atheist, or were you posting an example of atheist polarization?

      • Hariod Brawn

        Hiya Wyrd Smythe. I don’t believe in Gods, or in teleological belief systems. I disapprove of pretty much all things ‘spiritual’, and yet I’m what you might call a ‘free-floating Buddhist’ – I like the ethics and the psychology. Hitch was just a wonderful polemicist and someone I greatly admired. I think he performed a useful service in fostering an argument not to have creationism taught in U.S, schools – alongside Dennett, Harris and Dawkins. And yet, the anti-theism that the four of them epitomised seemed not only a little tedious and over-worked to me, but added to the secular/religious polarization which is threatening world peace – such as it is.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        From your blog posts I kinda figured you leaned Buddhist. One of my face-time friends has similar views. He pointed out some time ago that my assertion, “All cultures in the history of humanity have had their Gods,” isn’t quite true with regard to Buddhist cultures. I’ve since changed that assertion to, “All cultures … have had a metaphysics.”

        And I find that fact fascinating. I’ve written before that it means we either are hardwired to invent (a non-existent) god (or metaphysics), or we’re all perceiving some aspect of a (true) metaphysical reality. (What will it mean if we ever meet aliens and discover that they, too, have their gods?)

        I’m also struck by, taken just as a meme, how powerful and persistent the Abrahamic religions have proven to be. It’s an idea that’s lasted over 2000 years (in a world where everything changes) and which has been taken up by 54+% of the world’s population. That’s pretty astonishing.

        Looks like we see Hitchens similarly. He is, indeed, an excellent speaker, and the excesses of “New Atheism” are a good counter-balance to the excesses of religious fundamentalism (I’m deeply opposed to teaching Creationism as “science”). But, yeah, comparing theism to North Korea gets a laugh but isn’t really helpful (or particularly correct). And it illustrates what I meant about atheists framing theism in the worst possible light. (When he started off so moderately with deism, I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ve had him wrong!” But then he got to theism… o_O )

        [Dennett is on my list of people to explore for his work in cognitive science, but I’m still working my way through David Chalmers on that topic.]

      • Hariod Brawn

        Yes, I do lean towards a Buddhistic approach, and for 20 years or more had a very strong connection with a Buddhist monastery. All that while I did 6 or 7 weeks of silent retreat each year, and for the rest of the year meditated 4 hours a day at home – nutty or what? I also have some very close friends who are former Buddhist recluses; though they’re now all hopelessly sinful alcoholics and sex-addicts of course. 😮

        I don’t know how helpful a term ‘metaphysics’ is really. We don’t yet seem to understand physics entirely, and what ‘existence’ means as regards matter – do please tell me if I’ve got that wrong W.S. So I don’t see Buddhist psychology – its classification of conscious states – as being either a reductionism to brain states or as a metaphysics. My own experience leads me to regard awareness as being non-local – perhaps something akin to what’s pointed to in ‘Radical Externalism’. Certainly, any religious cosmology associated with Buddhism is a different matter, but as this isn’t testable or verifiable, I ignore it.

        I found Dan Dennett interesting enough, though leaning exclusively towards a computational understanding perhaps misses a trick or two. I’m inclined to agree with those who tease him about his book ‘Consciousness explained (away)’. The late Zoltan Torey’s book ‘The Crucible of Consciousness’ I found absolutely exhilarating, and if you like a challenge, can definitely recommend it. I’d read a library copy and was so taken with it that I immediately sought to buy my own copy, only to discover it was out of print at Oxford University Press and second hand copies were commanding upwards of $300 online. So, I emailed Zoltan in Australia asking if a reprint was in the pipeline. He replied saying that MIT were doing one shortly but that he’d post me his personal copy (13k miles!) as a gift. When it arrived he’d included a personal message from Dan Dennett who ended up writing the intro for the MIT 2nd. edition. It’s a very great book W.S. in my opinion.

        I like Chalmers too of course, and he seems very open to all sorts of possibilities whereas Dennett has closed down to brain states it seems. If you’re into heavy duty stuff, then check out: If that’s too much, Tononi has a book with lots of pictures but which is still rather expensive unfortunately:

      • Wyrd Smythe

        All good recommendations, thank you! What little of Dennett I’ve explored seems to position him in the Kurzweil Singularity camp, so I’m already forewarned and forearmed. I’m much more aligned with Penrose or Chalmers, although I also wonder about the human “spirit” (for lack of a better term). I think (or hope) that Kurzweil is off his rocker. 😛

        FWIW, I use “metaphysics” in opposition to “physics” meaning a reality that transcends physical reality. I’ve wondered if certain quantum phenomenon might not be a handle on that transcendent reality. (or, obviously, maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part. 🙂 )

        I do like Chalmers. I watched a video of his recently where he floated the (he admits fanciful) idea that consciousness exists in everything. Even sub-atomic particles. His idea is based on equating consciousness with some form of ‘awareness’ (for a very broad definition of ‘aware’) and response to the environment.

        He points out that insects are aware of, and respond to, the environment. So do plants. And within that very broad definition, so do electrons and quarks and photons. Combine that with an MIT paper I read long ago that posited consciousness as “the fifth fundamental force” (electromagnetism, weak, strong, gravity)… well, it’s an interesting idea to chew on.

        [That Biological Bulletin article looks very interesting! Might have to move it to the top of my reading list.]

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Here’s that Chalmers video:

        The idea I mentioned starts at 11:30, but the first part lays out the basics of consciousness very nicely.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That Tononi article was interesting. I was especially struck by the paragraph that begins, “However, if consciousness (i.e., integrated information) exists as a fundamental property, an equally valid view of the universe is this:” And then he goes on to talk about Φ-stars. That’s an interesting view!

        He does seem aligned with Kurzweil in that his theory supports machine consciousness. Building a “brain machine” is really just an engineering task, so one day we will build one (just like in the Penrose book’s Prologue and Epilogue). And we’ll turn it on… And then we’ll see.

        One of my few remaining bucket list items is seeing that happen.

      • Hariod Brawn

        If Kurzweil is saying, in effect, that a computer will be able to compose a work of music of greater beauty than the ‘St. Matthew Passion’, or even ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’ for that matter, then I’ll eat the hat you wrongly imagine that I wear W.S. Roger Penrose is rather more measured of course, and whilst there are way too many equations in ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ for my taste, his thoughts on consciousness generally seem to have such an understated air of plausibility that whether I truly understand them or not, I still warm to them nonetheless.

        I think what you’re saying about Chalmers may be his aligning sympathetically with Tononi’s theory of ‘Phi’, or ‘IIT’: The science of consciousness is still in its incipient stages really, so whatever our inclinations, it’s as well to be guarded and certainly for the likes of dullards such as myself, to remain very firmly on the fence! In the meantime, and as a pragmatist, I focus on how awareness presents to me, and this entails a large amount of clearing away the detritus of thought so as to see behind the scenes so to speak.

        By the way, I wanted to thank you very much for making an appearance at my place; I greatly appreciate it W.S. I am trying to navigate my way to only exchanging with readers who reciprocate, as I simply have far too many subscriptions to manage and a clear-out is in the offing – I’m spending too much time reading blog posts and ignoring the books I’ve always intended reading.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think, my friend Hariod, that if we compared closets we’d find an awful lot of the same hats. The more I “talk” with you, the more I wish we could sit down and jaw over a few pints. We are definitely under the same hat about Kurzweil (which I figured you would be — thankfully it’s a large hat). Atheism and ‘mind as machine’ tend to be congruent beliefs, and I’ve frequently tasked its holders with similar questions. “Why does music move me so?” “Why does a starry sky take my breath away?” “Why do autumn colors stir such joy in my heart?”

        I skipped the most of the math in Penrose’s book, too. 🙂 I do love the Prologue and Epilogue, though. I would so be that little lad.

        I think you’re right about Chalmers and Tononi — it occurred to me after I posted the video link. My ears are near worthless, but I think he mentions his friend “Giulio” at one point. I’ll try to listen more carefully next time.

        Another hat we have in common is the shortage of hours in a day to accomplish all we’d like, particularly with regard to online versus offline. I have a similar policy regarding other blogs. If visits aren’t reciprocated, I tend to fade.

        For some reason I didn’t get an email notification about your new post. I don’t usually use the WP Reader, but I’m having to check in with it sometimes because there are other blogs my settings say I should get email from and don’t. I might try unsubscribing and re-subscribing to see if that helps.

      • Hariod Brawn

        Comments seem out of sync. all of a sudden – responding here to your note of 6.32. p.m. Oct. 27th.

        ‘Building a “brain machine” is really just an engineering task, so one day we will build one’

        I wonder if the quantum effects that are beginning to be established in biology may prove to be the obstacle? Perhaps any “brain machine” will require a biological basis to allow for these effects? If so, does it really then become something more akin to a real brain than a lifeless machine? It all sounds too far-fetched to me.

        Have you seen this?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        (That’s because I replied to your 12:57 comment with the link to the article rather than a later one.)

        That Guardian article was interesting, and it looks like quantum effects might have more effect in the macro world than scientists had imagined. I’d want to know more about the Robins — I noticed the article says they “appear” to use quantum entanglement. The problem is that using entanglement to send information might violate Special Relativity.

        But it got me thinking about how simple everyday things, like how lenses bend light, has a quantum explanation. On the other hand, we struggle to make use of quantum effects in quantum computers. Whether that’s just our current engineering limits becomes an interesting question. Quantum effects in biology could — presumably — be replicated with quantum effects mechanically, so I’m not sure a “brain machine” would necessarily have to be biological. This all remains an engineering problem.

        The most striking to me is the quantum tunneling in proteins. Quantum tunneling (as the article mentions) is what allows stars (like our sun) to work. Without it, they wouldn’t. So on that level, quantum effects are crucial to life. The question would be whether the (apparent) randomness of the quantum world is swamped out at the macro level. There really isn’t anything random (as far as I know) in how proteins (or stars) behave.

        An analogy might be made to how we routinely use quantum effects in the electronics of our devices, but making actual use of quantum behavior in quantum computers has been a very elusive goal.

        And the really open question is how (and if) they affect our consciousness. But it’s certainly very intriguing! That makes two things to keep an eye on in the physics world… The CMS experiment at CERN recently released some results that may — repeat may — be the first real hints of supersymmetry.

        Supersymmetry and quantum biology! New physics is something a lot of people have been wishing for since quarks in the 1960s.

      • Hariod Brawn

        ‘For some reason I didn’t get an email notification about your new post.’

        Then I am doubly humbled and grateful that you thought to seek it out and respond with a note – thank you again W.S.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You’re quite welcome. I’ve found I have to check the Reader to be sure I see new posts from everyone. Yours isn’t the only blog I don’t get emails from. I’ve even failed to get emails regarding comments people make on my own blog. Not sure if the issue is with WordPress, my configuration or my email!

      • Hariod Brawn

        That’s rather troubling. This whole system of personal blogging seems to hinge on an efficient messaging flow. I’m still new to all this but I’ve yet to hear of anyone who chooses the Reader over email notifications as a preference.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think, as people prone to actual, thoughtful conversations, we’re in the minority. Most comments seem to be ‘atta-boys’ or other Twitter-like one-shots. I’ve had drop-by commenters say something to which I asked a question in reply… and never heard from them again.

        I don’t see many blogs — the more science-oriented ones being an exception — that have the lengthy and prolonged discussions I see (and encourage!) here.

        Admittedly, most of the really lengthy ones are mine, but still… :\

      • Hariod Brawn

        Oh, I remember we had this issue a while ago of me complaining about comments appearing out of sync. I think you told me then that there should be a ‘reply’ button visible against each comment but there isn’t. The only ‘reply’ button here appears at the bottom right of your comment made at 11.19 a.m. on the 27th. None of the subsequent comments have any such button. Have I misunderstood?

        I can’t keep up with you on the physics or quantum stuff W.S.; though I read your own observations with interest, and thanks. Still, when you say that ‘quantum effects in biology could — presumably — be replicated with quantum effects mechanically’ then I can’t seem to prevent my eyebrows from raising at the ease with which you suggest as much. However, this is solely an instinctual reaction and not one borne of any knowledge!

        I’ll just round this off with a few thoughts from the delightful and very British Mr. Penrose:

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Each blogger can set the “depth level” of comments — mine is set at three. Once that depth is reached, WP doesn’t show a “Reply” link, as that would imply adding another level. Once that happens, you use the most recent “Reply” link in the sub-thread you’re addressing.

        I set my depth fairly shallow to avoid hyper-skinny comments.

        As the blog author, using the Comments section of the Dashboard, I can reply directly to any comment, but WP still only uses the number of levels I allow. But it will “insert” the reply after the comment (and hence out of order).

        I’ve never tested it, but readers may be able to achieve the same effect using the Notifications Reader and replying directly to a given comment there. I’m not sure if WP would insert the new comment or just stick it at the end of the thread.

        Some times it’s easier to just start a new thread and refer back to the comment you’re replying to. I do that sometimes, especially on blogs that allow deeper reply levels. I like having a bit more elbow room.

        Down at the quantum level, the distinction between “biological” and “mechanical” essentially vanishes. Atoms are just atoms. Biological applies to systems, and — to the extent the universe is just a big machine — systems can be replicated (or simulated, if that’s a better word) by other systems.

        The show-stopper (and my hoped for reality) is if our consciousness is endowed with a “special spark” (call it a “soul”) that transcends physicalism. That would likely mean that our “enchanted loom” (I do love that metaphor) cannot be replicated by any machine, since we (or, perhaps, unless we) are able to similarly endow it with the required spark.

      • Hariod Brawn

        Ah yes, that rings a bell now, and I recall setting those ‘depth levels’ a few months ago on my blog. Thank you so much for your ever-helpful advice, and I must apologise for my laziness in not working this out for myself. And yes, the ‘elbow room’ is indeed good to have when one is stretching ideas out.

        Thanks for cluing me in on how biological and mechanical distinctions become irrelevant at the quantum level. I’ll take your word for that, though think I’ve read suggestions elsewhere that might imply otherwise. I trust you more though, and as I’m not planning on building a quantum brain this weekend, then it’s not critical at the moment.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I would definitely be interested in hearing how something as big as an atom could be considered “biological” — let alone a sub-atomic particle!

      • Hariod Brawn

        I picked up that idea of the possible need for a biological substrate somewhere in an apparently learned discussion about Jim Al-Khalili’s article in The Guardian – can’t remember where. Presumably though Adam, 😉 , your ‘Ultronic’ contraption would comprise many billions of atoms would it not? And each one needs coding, or terminal access to code? I’ve no idea what I’m talking about. . . and at this point, all the readers laughed. Should they have? 😉

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Only if they’re laughing with you. (I’ve always been a bit puzzled by that last part, actually. Who’s to say the audience wasn’t laughing with him and not at him? I’ve always interpreted the parable such that, once the kid points out the reality, the crowd laughs at the king.)

        As for the matter at hand, we routinely create “computer chips” with billions of transistors all wired together, and there’s nothing biological involved. There is also the simple fact that just about any woman on the planet can grow a new brain “machine” in nine months or so. What nature can do, humans can replicate. It’s just an “engineering problem” figuring out how — every new baby proves it’s possible.

        It’s like the difference between breaking the sound barrier and the light barrier. We always knew there were things that went faster than sound (the tip of a cracked whip, for example; that’s where the “crack” comes from). So doing it ourselves was just an engineering problem. In contrast, physics is quite clear that you can’t break the light speed barrier — not even in principle. So accomplishing that requires new physics (assuming it’s even possible). Not an engineering problem!

        The human brain is incredibly complex in terms of its interconnections, but the parts — at least many of them — are fairly well understood. The complexity is a bit of a bugger, but solving it is really just a matter of time. It will really be quite exciting when we finally do build such a device and turn it on… what will we have? A mind? Or just a confused calculator?

      • Hariod Brawn

        Re: other bits

        ‘. . . we routinely create “computer chips” with billions of transistors all wired together, and there’s nothing biological involved.’

        Is feeling integral to consciousness and do computer chips feel?

        ‘What nature can do, humans can replicate. It’s just an engineering problem’

        For my money W.S. you lend way too much credence to our ape brains. We can imagine as much as we like, but making the imaginings a reality is something else. I’m reminded of Donald Fagen’s ironic take on 50’s scientific utopianism – ‘by ’76 we’ll be A.O.K.’

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Is feeling integral to consciousness and do computer chips feel?”

        Depends on what you mean by “feel” … experience qualia? Consciousness is almost synonymous with “to experience qualia.” The ‘something it is like’ to be a bat or a person. Almost. Is it possible to be consciously aware without qualia? Maybe.

        As to whether a computer chip can be aware, let alone experience qualia or have emotions, it remains to be seen. It depends on what’s going on with brain and mind.

        IF mind is nothing more than “something brains do” — either from sheer complexity or from some emergent process that transcends the machinery — THEN replicating a mind just as conscious as ours (if not superior) is just an engineering problem. Birds fly; so do planes. Minds think; so do… something we’ll someday create.

        If reality is strictly physical, then the brain is just a machine, the mind is just something it does, and we can make something that does the same thing. There’s no real reason biology has to be involved.

        One theory is that size is instrumental. You have to pack that much complexity in that small a space for consciousness to arise. I recently read a fairly old SF (1980s) novel that refers to the mind as a “standing wave” of unbelievable complexity. Reminded me a bit of Hofstadter’s “strange loop” idea. Wave length could definitely be related to cavity size.

        I personally hope of a reality that transcends strictly physical, and I also hope mind is endowed with something special that cannot be replicated in a made thing. Those hopes may not pan out, but it’s what I hope and believe.

        You know what’s funny about that video clip? How many of those things came true. Maybe not cruise liners to the moon, but it was surprising how many did. Video phones, home computers, shopping and robots, wi-fi, office automation… quite a long list!

        I used to assert that science would never crack mind-reading or Star Trek style transporters. Both have been demonstrated in principle, so I no longer say that.

    • Hariod Brawn

      Re: The Epilogue.

      Yes, it is ambiguous perhaps. Though I think we agree it’s a warning not to reject the primacy of feeling – the feel of conscious qualia – in any rush to replicate what we might think of, but is in fact not, consciousness. So my interpretation of this apparent ambiguity is that the audience, at the point at which their laughter turns into a roar, have then fully bought into the redundancy of feeling. In saying the audience should not have laughed, the narrator is defending the primacy of feeling in qualia, which I think is a fair enough position, and the one which Adam’s dad attempts to defend by blowing Ultronic up. What purpose do humans have if both they and their feelings are unnecessary? I accept your alternative take as a valid interpretation, though would the audience have been so bold as to have laughed at President Pollo (not ‘king’), and would Pres. Pollo care whether Ultronic feels or does not? Dammit W.S., it’s actually the 580 pages in between the Prologue and the Epilogue that I really have trouble with! o_O

      • Wyrd Smythe

        We do agree on the main thesis. You’re suggesting they are laughing at Adam, because they consider his question irrelevant? That would account for the “shouldn’t have laughed” assertion, and the narration does seem to point to their laughing at him. I guess I hadn’t been willing to think the audience was that dumb. Adam’s point is right on target; how could they disagree?

        You have a sensible interpretation. The problem I have is it ruins the book’s title.

        In the parable, once the kid breaks the spell, the townspeople break their own silence. Everyone knew the Emperor was in his undies. They were just afraid to admit it for fear of being considered ignorant. The moral is: don’t pretend; be the kid.

        This is the curse of an overly analytical mind… it sees too many connections in things. (I suck at multiple-choice tests, because I can always see cases for “any of the above.”) It’s just that, for the book’s title to ring true to me, the audience has to see the undressed Emperor. If they’re laughing because they’ve actually bought into the clothes, that’s a different parable! Per the one implied by the title, they need to be laughing with Adam at the Ultronic. They have to see it as a sham.

        But the final lines, I agree, make it seem like their laughter is towards Adam. It’s like a wrong note in the music of the text to me. [shrug]

        As for the meat, cheese and mustard between those two slices of bread, I’m with ya, pretty heavy slogging. He covers many topics in pretty good detail. I took a couple of runs at it over a period of years before I finally sat down and worked through it. There were parts I skimming or skipped; It’s his main thesis I appreciated. That there are already examples of things that are non-algorithmic, so it’s entirely reasonable to think consciousness isn’t algorithmic. That’s pretty suggestive of a brain-mind dualism.

        And I think I can thank that book for being the first really detailed account I’d read of what entropy is all about. IIRC, he’s one of the authors who talks about how there’s nothing illegal about the physics of unbreaking an egg. Just really, really, really improbable.

  • dianasschwenk

    You know what I like about this post Smitty? It’s written in an unbiased way, so much so that I’m not even sure if you’re a theist, atheist or agnostic! I like the way you differentiate between belief and cause – I will have to chew on that some more.

    Although I am a Christian, there’s room for science in my world – just so you know. ❤
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you, Lady Di. I have sympathies in all camps; at various times in my life I’ve lived in all three camps. After literally decades of exploring the territory, these days I’m Decisively Agnostic with pronounced spiritual and deistic leanings and — due to certain life events — sometimes wondering if the theists aren’t on to something. And there are also times when I find it all very hard to credit.

      About the only thing I’m certain of is that we can’t be certain. Our position is a matter of choice.

      I figured you had room for science… after all, you’re using a computer right now! 😀

  • reocochran

    I like some of your discusson points and also, “Grand Canyon” and “Dogma” movies. Many other movies deal with the theme of Heaven. I like the one with Kyra Sedgwick where there is a bus that picks up and drops off people… The name escapes me for the moment.

    My Grandpa, born in Sweden, was a socialist and an agnostic. I was always surprised, as we filled the family station wagon up, he always would admonish my Dad, “Drive like a Christian!” He had mentioned to me, as a teenager, that to him, those who profess faith, sometimes are too judgmental, while those who were simply living like Christ would have us, were less…. So, he wasn’t really an agnostic, but did not want to declare himself anything. As mentioned on a comment, my Dad put his own scientific spin on creation and always asked members of varied faiths, “How BIG is your God?” Inclusion of what you feel personally, along with the messages you receive along the way, definitely influence you! W.S. I liked the way you blended and summarized in this post. Hard for me to really comment about details, since I think accepting you for you, my friend, is how I would prefer to close this debate!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hearts and Souls is the movie you’re thinking of. Heaven Can Wait (1978 — with Warren Beatty) is another classic ‘angels’ movie — not to be confused with Heaven Can Wait (1943 — with Gene Tierney and Don Ameche). Those are not the same movies!

      It’s confusing because the Beatty movie is a (pretty good) remake of the 1941 Here Comes Mr. Jordon (excellent film). They’re both based on the 1938 play, Heaven Can Wait. The Tierney-Ameche movie is a completely different story based on a completely different play!

      Your grandpa sounds a bit like Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “I know of no one who has done more for humanity than Jesus. In fact, there is nothing wrong with Christianity … The trouble is with you Christians. You do not begin to live up to your own teachings.”

      Ouch. Right on, but ouch.

  • E.D.

    By reading the comments, W.S., I would say you might give up blogging and form a forum for us all to give our views. Nowadays, I find the word press comments, if any, are so much more interesting than any given posted article. Well done here. You have gleamed a few firm friends, something we all need.. 😉 Eve

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, thank you. I miss the old days of USENET which were very conversational. The modern interweb, as you say, is not. I definitely encourage discussion here!

      • E.D.

        Yes, so agree.. 🙂 We blog away, don’t we? but what response is there? Other than Hariod and a few others, it is “dead meat.” lol – Does not bring much joy or companionship to the blogger at large. I have also noticed that most of the blogs are given over to you tubes, photos, or quotes.. I guess each to his own, but imho that is not blogging.. Well, what do I know! lol – Eve

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That’s one interesting thing about the modern world: everyone is a content producer and publisher. The interweb is trivially easy to write to these days: Twitter, Instagram, blogs, Facebook, etc., etc., etc.! To some extent, with that much volume, it’s hard for even the gems to shine out amid the coal dust. The nature of the beast — especially hand-held devices, but also small comment boxes and other restrictions — bias all that content towards brevity.

        There is also a sense of comment (briefly), click [Like], rate it, give it stars, whatever, and move on. The interweb river is fast, wide and deep, the next new thing is just a click away. The focus becomes on “what’s next?”

        I fear we’re losing the ability to think long deep thoughts or have long deep discussions. And that worries me.

    • ~ Sadie ~

      Right 🙂 Sometimes the comments are as thought-provoking, entertaining, enlightening and/or educational as the post!

      • E.D.

        yes, true. however, very few blogs receive comments. Thus, we lose so much of what we might have if we were to comment more. But one has to write something of real interest to provoke a reply – and not all blogs do that.. thanks eve

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Now that would be an interesting study. The popular blogs all gets lots of comments. (Although most such comments are “thumbs up!” compliments that don’t generally start a thread of conversation, just a “thanks!”)

        But I’ve found blogs that get no comments at all. It would be interesting to know what the average blog experiences. I definitely don’t see many blogs with long conversations in the comments. And you’re right, many blogs don’t have material that generates much discussion. (Fortunately, many do!)

        You “guys” are always welcome to come and chat here!

      • E.D.

        thanks. Can you send a list of the blogs you find readable and comment-able! (odd word!) – The reader on W.P. does not always work well. I see few blogs I want to read. Most are just photos or quotes. Or photos with quotes.They are nice but not something I would dwell on.
        thanx Eve

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I don’t follow that many blogs, and many of the ones I do are related to physics or science.

        Headbirths is good (I’m behind in my reading there).

        You might like Lila on Forming the Thread.

        The smart money (I agree the Reader isn’t a good way to explore blogs) might be to Google for topics of interest to you and see what blogs show up. Sample until you find ones to your liking.

      • E.D.

        btw, have you noticed that both FB and W.P. appear to be less used than say, one year ago. – I am beginning to feel that social media has past its hey-day and now people are looking to other ways to socialize. All trends die in the end. Even the great computer will one day morph into something less than it is today.. Without a doubt. ha!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s funny you would say that, because I’ve been noticing exactly the same thing. I’ve had a growing sense that blogging is “over” and being replaced by YouTube and other video sites. An increasing number of bloggers seem to be forsaking the written word for video blogging.

        Which I really don’t care for. It tends to feature someone rambling on in a rather unstructured way that is hugely inefficient at communicating ideas. The spoke word, especially the unprepared spoken word, is one of the worst ways to communicate rich information. (A dialog is a whole different matter — the interactivity changes everything.)

        It’s a growing kind of illiteracy. We speak to computers; they speak to us. Meh. Talk is cheap! XD

      • Hariod Brawn

        What is the ‘trick’ of tempting people to comment I wonder? Perhaps being controversial is one way; I wouldn’t really know, though I do flirt with that at times. I don’t have any interest in social media – unless one counts a blog as such – and it seems to me that absenting that it’s about inculcating a communal spirit of sorts, and doing so with a subject matter that has fairly broad appeal. You W.S., and you Eve, have so much more experience on all this than I do; so if you have any ideas do please let me know. I know WordPress/Automattic have an offshoot that claims to generate traffic through social media marketing, though I don’t want traffic for traffic’s sake; I want genuine discussion.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Unfortunately, genuine discussion seems increasingly rare, Hariod. They do say you should pose questions to your readers, particularly at the end of your post. But from the times I’ve visited your blog, you do seem to get genuine contributions from your readers.

        Maybe it just takes time. I’ve been at this just over three years, and — to be honest — I thought more people would have discovered my blog. I think there’s just so much out there these days that it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. The fantasy or hope is that someone with a large network of like-minded friends stumbles on the blog and introduces all their friends to it. The web is so big that once you reach a kind of critical mass, things can really take off.

        On the other hand there are parts I like about being undiscovered. Lots of readers and commenters take up a lot of time. Popularity is one of those things people crave until they actually achieve it — then it turns out to be a lot less fun than advertised.

  • E.D.

    Also the new format for blog posts, with the introduction of “peep a boo” or words similar, does not help much. I might not be the best writer in the world, but I am not in kindergarten. The problem is the word press formula, it is designed for under 30’s. It is hard to use if you are a touch typist as i am, and why I mess up so often. I just cannot get my head around using boxes, and doing “likes..” – I have a feeling social media may be in danger of declining with the constant changes introduced by s. media “hired’ programmers, who really don’t know how to program. Word Press is quite a mess, as is Facebook. Both of which are jaded.. ha! (You can correct mistakes.) – I am sure I have made some. sorry again. Eve 😉

    • Wyrd Smythe

      So much of the weirdness comes from how the web operates [insert long lecture here]. The mechanism (which took over the world!) imposes major restrictions on what “online” apps can do. Some smart phone apps with dedicated services can go beyond those restrictions, but most web-based stuff is stuck with it.

      That said, it could be a lot better than what it is. To accomplish what they do, most web services push things to the brink, even getting very creative. That requires really good people, and [A] those cost more and [B] there are fewer of them anyway. So, yeah, as you say, a lot of the software we use could be a lot better.

  • Doobster418

    Wow, I don’t know how I missed this post, Wyrd. Very interesting and well written. My favorite part, though, was the picture of the cat reading “The Dog Delusion.” That cracked me up!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I know, right? That’s a great picture! (Presumably the viewer knows Dawkins wrote a famous (notorious) book, The God Delusion.) It doubles down on — and makes visual — the old joke about how insomniac dyslexic atheists lay awake at night wondering if there is a dog.

      I love how the cat is all, “No way!”

  • authorbengarrido

    Hmmm, moral good. What would that look like? 😉

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh! That’s such an open question. Can you elaborate and narrow it down a bit?

      • authorbengarrido

        I’m trying to challenge the idea that morality is anything more than a post-hoc and entirely subjective summation of what has and hasn’t worked. 😉

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, okay. Firstly, we can agree that mores definitely are relative social constructs that evolve. An interesting observation might be that the human race seems to evolve over time generally towards better moral behavior (it seems unlikely slavery will ever again be defined as “okay”). An interesting speculation involves a correlation between advanced intelligence and morality (but that’s another discussion).

        A simple answer might be from Immanuel Kant: It is immoral to treat people like objects.

        A more complex answer grounds itself in the idea that all people are — somehow — equal. A problem comes from the observation that people obviously are not equal. They vary in almost any measure you use: height, weight, coloration, health, (native) intelligence, and so on. So the trick is to find a key view in which they are equal.

        Spiritual people hold we are all “God’s children” or in some other fashion spiritual equals. Non-spiritual people have a harder time finding a basis for equality, but perhaps being conscious, sapient beings could be one such. Smart or dumb, sapient humans are starkly different from the animal kingdom — human consciousness is unique, special.

        Once you decide all humans are equal on some significant account, the “Golden Rule” obtains. You wouldn’t like people screwing with you and yours, so don’t screw with them and theirs.

        How’s that?

      • authorbengarrido

        That’s a good effort and I’m certainly not on a level to try and take on Kant. I’d actually agree with you that society progresses in seemingly moral directions over time. I’d certainly rather live now than 1,000 years ago, for example.

        However, I’d argue our “moral” progress is largely because we DON’T value human lives equally and do, even if only informally, give them money values.

        Take slavery for example I did an economic analysis of trying to run a slavery system today on a Japanese rice farm. Forget the morality, using slaves on a modern farm is a monumental waste of resources – an idol to the gods of opportunity cost. The reason is because the would be slaves, as a consequence of higher GDP and technology, are worth a lot more money to society as free individuals than they are as property. And I also noticed that the moral “evil” of slavery emerged exactly as the waves of climate change and technological development that made slavery economically unviable.

        As for equality, I don’t buy it at all. If society has to choose between rescuing me and Barack Obama, I’m toast. If society has to choose between rescuing me and a poor farmer in Ethiopia, the farmer’s toast.

        Thanks for giving me such fun stuff to think about,

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Hold on. Before we get into this: Are you asserting that the primary reason we, as a society, reject slavery is because of economics?

        Our materialism, our love of money, and our growing scientism, are all — to my and many other eyes — dehumanizing and immoral. Our growth as a moral civilization (slow and painful as it is) arguably fights those tendencies.

        That said, of course there are pragmatic aspects to life. You create a highly artificial example in positing a choice between to individuals whose lives must be weighed. Such examples are meaningless because the answer is forced. (I know for a fact there are those who’d pick you — or anyone — over President Obama (tune into FoxNews for a while). And how do you know I don’t value a guy who knows how to farm more than a blogger? 🙂 )

        From a moral viewpoint, we say all humans have a basic equal value. The ideal is insuring the health and happiness of the President, you, and the farmer. But sometimes life forces ugly choices on us, and then we do the best we can operating from the all humans are equal posture as much as possible.

      • authorbengarrido

        Economics is the primary reason we reject slavery – yes, that’s what I’m saying. In my experience and in my reading of history, humans can and do morally justify anything. The absolute flexibility of morality is why Moses is a hero and not a mass murderer in our eyes, it’s why Hitler inspired tens of millions of Europeans to sacrifice their lives for his vision and it’s why the Egyptians married their sisters. In modern times, it’s why you have very likely never heard of U731 (the victims were not valuable, even if they were numerous and died horribly) but very likely do know all about the Unibomber (whose victims were valuable, even if they were few).

        There’s a reason Jesus/Socrates/Buddha never tried to do away with slavery and, I believe, it’s because that would be the moral equivalent to me trying to get rid of farm equipment today. This is the basis for my contention that morality is essentially ad hoc and, at its best, a shortcut for justifying things that work.

        As for materialism, the love of money and scientism, I think you’ll find them behind a lot of the good things today. The moral good to which you refer, in my view, comes as a consequence of the increasing value of human lives (why we care about 9-11 but don’t care about the Congolese Civil War) and the time with which to optimize the incentive structures of a society to increase its wealth.

        The right to free speech, get rid of the moral aspect, functions as a very effective check against the economic waste of corruption. Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures creates the conditions necessary for vital economic activities like asset accumulation and long term planning.

        I personally find this encouraging because a moral good that serves to make the society more competitive is much more likely to survive than a moral good that requires constant sacrifice.

        My artificial examples, hmm. Let me put it this way, if I die tomorrow, there will likely be a small notice in one or two local papers. Perhaps 80 people will come to my funeral. My family will be sad. In a couple years, I will be almost completely forgotten. If that Somalian farmer dies tomorrow, in such a devalued environment as he lives, it’s very likely he ends up in a shallow grave with nobody outside his immediate family paying attention. If Barack Obama dies tomorrow, everybody, including Fox News, is going to eulogize him for weeks on end. Global politics will shift, billion dollar corporations will fundamentally restructure themselves to deal with the Biden administration.

        This is why the Somalian farmer has basically no protection, I have a police station a couple miles down the road and Barack Obama has 24/7 protection from a cadre of elite bodyguards.

        If this is still too abstract, I’d like you to try an experiment. Let your hair grow out and don’t shave for a couple weeks. Dress yourself for less than $40 dollars, including your shoes. Go outside and go about your normal routine. Tell me, if at the end of that day, you feel like you are anywhere near as valuable as you were before.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        A value system is different from a moral system. A value system can be based on any criteria. Taller basketball players are more valuable than shorter ones. There’s no moral judgement there. And that’s what a moral system is: a method of moral judgement. A moral system attempts to define ought from what is.

        Many of the things you describe can be defined as moral or immoral without regard to economics or the perceived social value of one individual over another. (BTW: in my experience, people who know about what’s going on in Africa care plenty about what’s going on in Africa, and there are people who value the homeless just as much as they’d value you.)

        I have to bring up Immanuel Kant again, because he’s kind of the center of moral philosophy. One thing Kant says is immoral is treating people like objects. On that account, slavery is easily seen as immoral. There is no question of economics. The idea that economics is the main driver behind our attitude about slavery begs some questions:

        1. What about people who defined slavery as immoral at the time? The Civil War — despite other underlying factors — was ostensibly fought to free the slaves.

        2. Do you then agree that, if slavery were highly profitable, society would label it as morally okay?

        3. In the reality suggested by #2, what would your attitude about slavery be? Thumbs up?

        You define as desirable a value system based on materialism, love of money, and scientism, but the very society you describe is this one, and it’s arguably headed full-speed towards its own self-destruction.

        I think you have it backwards. A system based on economics treats people like objects, and in most (philosophical and religious) moral systems, that is by definition immoral behavior.

      • authorbengarrido

        If we define moral systems as the difference between what is and what ought to be, I’m not sure that changes anything.

        The reason being, what a society ought to do, first and foremost, is survive. Without that precondition, nothing else matters, right?

        So, if slavery is a material advantage you would expect the nations that practice slavery to overcome the nations that do not. If this is the case, then yes, I’d be shocked if slavery were not morally okay after this process had finished.

        As for the people who care about Africa and the homeless, they clearly do not care enough to ensure those people’s survival.

        I realize I’m sounding super nihilistic and brutal, but that’s not at all what I’m trying for. What I’m saying is that society must survive before all else. It must be powerful. Thankfully, the best ways to build power in a society are generally pretty good for the people involved.

        Democracy is not the dominant form of government on earth because it’s morally right, but because it is very efficient at punishing waste. Freedom of expression is encouraged (at least a little bit) by all the world’s richest countries because that’s where you get innovation from.

        “Power” in the sense of some dictator cackling alone in his room while stroking a cat and ordering genocides is just about as anti-power as you can get. This “powerful” dictator is actually incentivizing all the people in his society with the means (ie value) to leave and go somewhere without genocide. He is murdering people who could otherwise be making him things. He is shutting down trade, he is crippling his society in just about every way possible and thus dooming his communist/facist paradise to extinction.

        And yeah, compared to anything else our species has accomplished, I rather like what we have now. I think we can improve it by making it more powerful, but treating people like they respond to incentives more strongly than ideals is not a problem in my book.

        Do you prefer something else?

        As for the immorality of treating people like objects, I would say that the privilege of being treated like anything but an object is the product of luxury or – to put it another way, the direct consequence of wealth.

        As someone who grew up pretty well off and then became damn near homeless in his late teens/early twenties, I can tell you with certainty that, at least in my experience, humanity and rights are things you buy.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The survival of society is a required condition, but not a sufficient one. A viable society obviously must do more than merely survive. As a required, but insufficient condition, it’s more part of the is side of things than the ought.

        Re Africa. You’re mistaking caring for being able to do something about it. Two completely different things. You’re also assuming caring and having power means the situation can be fixed. Given as much resource as you need, how would you fix the Congo or Nigeria or the Middle East or Afghanistan or Somalia or Bangladesh or the Ivory Trade or Tiger extinction or sexual slavery or poverty or homelessness or climate change or…

        You see the problem? There are a lot of problems!

        “Democracy is not the dominant form of government on earth because it’s morally right, but because it is very efficient at punishing waste…”

        Democracy is not the dominant form of government period. Only 15% of countries (only 11% of people) live in full democracies. Another 32% of countries (37% people) live in flawed democracies. 53% (51.5% people) of the world’s countries have hybrid or authoritarian regimes.

        We have one of the better democracies, yet we’re horribly bad at punishing waste. Pork on Congressional Bills or the operation of most Federal bureaucracies, for example. Democracy is — in many ways — a horrible system, but it seems to be one of the least worst.

        You didn’t answer my first question. Why did people label slavery as immoral before and during the Civil War? Up until the situation exploded, slavery was profitable. In a big way the war was about losing that profit. But the war happened because a lot of people defined slavery as immoral.

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but you have affirmed my second and third questions? If slavery was viable, you’d be fine with it?

        “Thankfully, the best ways to build power in a society are generally pretty good for the people involved.”

        That’s a good starting point. Firstly, a moral system is about how — and what kinds of — power a society ought to wield. Secondly, a moral system is about what actually is good for the people — how their lives ought to be.

        There is an excellent topical example: torture. On just about any moral account, torture is morally wrong.

        You make an argument that turns on the general welfare of society over the individual. On that account, you shouldn’t disagree with torture. The value obtained from torture is debatable, but if it’s anything at all, then what’s the problem? Only a small number of people are involved, and most of them are “the enemy” anyway. Gain-Risk ratio seems favorable.

        Or take this closer to home. Why not abduct and use some homeless people to perform life-threatening — if not life-ending — medical experiments on them. Such information has the potential to save countless lives. Really zero risk to society there and a huge potential gain. So why not?

        “As someone who grew up pretty well off and then became damn near homeless in his late teens/early twenties, I can tell you with certainty that, at least in my experience, humanity and rights are things you buy.”

        Suppose you were ‘actually,’ rather than “damn near.” Wouldn’t you rather live in a world that valued you just as much as everyone else? The world you describe is horrific! Why should anyone have to buy their humanity or their rights? Do you think that’s a way things ought to be?

      • authorbengarrido

        I forgot to answer part of your slavery question.

        The Civil War was fought over slavery to a great extent. It was also fought between an industrial faction with no use for slaves and an agrarian society with lots of use for slaves. I don’t think it a coincidence that the former found moral problems with slavery while the latter didn’t.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Sorry, no. The North and South depended on each other. The North bought the cotton; the South bought industrial goods. You can’t dodge the fact that people were horrified regarding slavery — it’s in plenty of documents and speeches. That slavery is objectively morally wrong is grounded in moral philosophical analysis.

        What happens with slavery is people find a way to justify or go around what they know to be morally wrong. From Kant to Hemingway exists the assertion that people instinctively know moral right from moral wrong. You can argue the validity of the concept, but you can’t deny it exists.

  • authorbengarrido

    “The survival of society is a required condition, but not a sufficient one. A viable society obviously must do more than merely survive.”

    Why? This is like saying that a house must function as shelter but it’s not a real house until it has a $15,000 chandelier. Of course, there’s nothing saying the house can’t have a chandelier, and maybe it ought to have a chandelier, but I don’t think the lack makes our metaphorical house insufficient.

    “Re Africa. You’re mistaking caring for being able to do something about it. Two completely different things. You’re also assuming caring and having power means the situation can be fixed. Given as much resource as you need, how would you fix the Congo or Nigeria or the Middle East or Afghanistan or Somalia or Bangladesh or the Ivory Trade or Tiger extinction or sexual slavery or poverty or homelessness or climate change or…”
    Given enough money, I could simply fly all these victims out of their predicaments and into a nice suburb. I’ll bet that would take care of 90% of the problems you mention.

    Of course, it would be a lot of money and it would involve making suburbanites slightly less safe and, most important of all, it would damage the sacred rituals and beliefs of suburbia. I’m not being sarcastic about that last part, either. When people do really cruel things, they are almost always defending some inherited bit of identity.

    “Democracy is not the dominant form of government period. Only 15% of countries (only 11% of people) live in full democracies. Another 32% of countries (37% people) live in flawed democracies. 53% (51.5% people) of the world’s countries have hybrid or authoritarian regimes.”

    How much GDP, GDP per capita and military power do those 11% of people enjoy? How about the 47%?

    “We have one of the better democracies, yet we’re horribly bad at punishing waste. Pork on Congressional Bills or the operation of most Federal bureaucracies, for example. Democracy is — in many ways — a horrible system, but it seems to be one of the least worst.”

    Not sure there’s a difference between least worst and best. 😉

    “You make an argument that turns on the general welfare of society over the individual. On that account, you shouldn’t disagree with torture. The value obtained from torture is debatable, but if it’s anything at all, then what’s the problem? Only a small number of people are involved, and most of them are “the enemy” anyway. Gain-Risk ratio seems favorable.
    Or take this closer to home. Why not abduct and use some homeless people to perform life-threatening — if not life-ending — medical experiments on them. Such information has the potential to save countless lives. Really zero risk to society there and a huge potential gain. So why not?”

    Excellent questions, though I should clear up one thing before I answer. I don’t value the society over the individual, I value whatever balance of social and individual makes the group in question best able to survive. If conditions someday reveal that to be a Galt’s Gulch replica, I’d be a Randian. If conditions someday reveal that to be a Marxist Utopia, I’ll be marching against the proletariat.

    As for your main questions, I think I can answer both without appealing to Kantian morality.

    Reasons to avoid torture – 1. Quid pro quo with current and future enemies. 2. It’s bad PR, which affects everything from trade to education. 3. It will make enemies less willing to surrender or flip once they’re captures. 4. It doesn’t work as well as the alternatives.

    Reasons not to experiment on the homeless – 1. Monkeys are cheaper. 2. Homeless people have families, many of which have power. 3. Bad PR on an apocalyptic scale. 4. U731 and others have already shown the limited utility of doing so.

    “Suppose you were ‘actually,’ rather than “damn near.” Wouldn’t you rather live in a world that valued you just as much as everyone else? The world you describe is horrific! Why should anyone have to buy their humanity or their rights? Do you think that’s a way things ought to be?”

    Yeah, it sucked. It was horrific. However, the really horrific part was not the material deprivation, it was the near complete destruction of my social esteem. People treated my like I was stupid. They hid their women folk from me. They let it be known that I was an embarrassment to be seen with. Back when I believed I was owed rights and had equal value with everybody else, this was unbearable.

    Then I discovered that I was, in no real way, of equal value to society. I accepted the fact that as a young, single man with no money, my life was of very nearly zero value.

    Boom, now I have solutions. Instead of wasting time on injustice and oughts and other things that aren’t real, I could put my energy into becoming valuable, becoming a real human being in the eyes of my neighbors. It was like finally taking off a 100 lb backpack after days, it was like finally removing a shoe that’s been eating into your heels.

    Is this how I would ideally make the world? No, but it is how the world works and I’m not sure we can change that.

    “What happens with slavery is people find a way to justify or go around what they know to be morally wrong. From Kant to Hemingway exists the assertion that people instinctively know moral right from moral wrong. You can argue the validity of the concept, but you can’t deny it exists.”

    I strongly question the validity of this concept.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “This is like saying that a house must function as shelter but it’s not a real house until it has a $15,000 chandelier.”

      No, it’s like saying a house needs hot and cold running water, sewer plumbing, heating, windows that close, locks on the doors and other things like that which aren’t required in a mere “shelter.”

      “Given enough money, I could simply fly all these victims out of their predicaments and into a nice suburb. I’ll bet that would take care of 90% of the problems you mention.”

      Africa has over one-billion people. The USA, by contrast, has about 300 million. How many people are you planning to move from Africa? Are you going to build housing for all of them, provide them with income so they can eat and live? And then what? Leave Africa deserted?

      Re democracy as a dominant form of government. So you meant — literally — dominant rather than majority. You’re asserting that might makes right. If I am more powerful it’s okay for me to dominate you?

      “Not sure there’s a difference between least worst and best.”

      Of course there is. “Best” implies ideal properties; “least worst” merely ranks properties by some scale.

      “Reasons to avoid torture…”

      [1] So shooting them: no problem. But torturing them: that will piss them off? [2] Why would it be bad PR, since under your view it’s morally okay. What makes it bad PR? [3] The threat of torture will make them less willing to flip? Why? [4] But you admit it does work, so what’s wrong with it.

      “Reasons not to experiment on the homeless…”

      [1] But they’re not human and therefore not always useful. In medical testing sometimes it makes a difference whether you use male or female humans. [2] So use ones that don’t. [3] Again, under your view it’s moral, so where does the bad PR come from? [4] U731 was a weapons testing torture facility, not a study of potentially life-saving techniques. Not at all the same thing.

      You seem to understand that U731 and torture are horrific in that you admit they’d create “bad PR.” But you seem unable to connect the dots as to why you even have that perception.

      Regarding your time on the street:

      “Yeah, it sucked. It was horrific. However, the really horrific part was not the material deprivation, it was the near complete destruction of my social esteem.”

      Yeah. Exactly. Again you’re not connecting dots that are right in front of you.

      “I strongly question the validity of this concept [of morality].”

      Then you are questioning a body of work (moral philosophy) that goes back to Socrates and which really kicks off about 200 years ago. You’re questioning the philosophical work of Maslow and Kant and Nietzsche and Hume. You’re also questioning the work of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire, Camus, Shakespeare and Moore. (Also Superman! 🙂 )

      To name just a few. If you’re going up against all that, you’d better be well armed.

      • authorbengarrido

        So a house needs luxuries? Whether that’s indoor plumbing or a chandelier, I disagree.

        As for Africa, yes. That would require rich people to care about African lives as much as they care about, say, counter terrorism. I agree, total pipe dream. 😉 Also, I agree that we could never get people to completely abandon a homeland unless forced on pain of death. See my previous comment about people doing awful things because they want to protect a piece of inherited identity.

        Dominant in a literal sense, yes. Whether might makes it right for me to dominate you, I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. Given enough time and large enough groups, might means I will dominate you. This is why you can find Coca Cola and Hollywood movies everywhere but face a shortage of Ladas. It’s why Paris Hilton’s autobiography has more influence on the world than 99.9% of academic papers.

        There’s no common way to rank government forms that isn’t relative. The least worst government, in a relative scale, is identical to the best government. While democracy isn’t perfect, it is a competitive advantage over other known forms, which was the original point.

        Torture and experimenting with the homeless – actually, shooting people is much better than torturing them. I recommend you read Discourses on Livy and the Art of War. As for the rest – perceptions matter. People don’t want to live in places where the government might torture them. This is a problem since the people who can easily move away tend to be the same people who are most useful to society.

        Whether those people are motivated by Kantian morality or not, I can be completely amoral and still not torture prisoners or experiment on the homeless because I want to attract and keep people. This is the same reason we don’t put a gay couple on the dollar bill or Victoria’s Secret models on the Koran – neither thing is “morally wrong” (whatever that means), but they will pointlessly offend people.

        As for the dots, I agree it would be different (I’m not going to say better, because I think the consequences would be awful) if we assumed everybody was of equal value. I am arguing that it also doesn’t matter to any great extent since people do, and always have, treated each other differently based on status. Attempts to avoid different values of human lives have been literally the most violent, destructive things in human history.

        Young men should die before everybody else because they’re easy to replace. Poor people should die before rich people, because they’re easy to replace. People without necessary skills should die before people with necessary skills. Bloggers should die before Barack Obama. Treating the structural beams of a house and the carpet as equally important is a great way to have your house fall down, which is bad for everybody.

        Telling the carpet that they matter as much as the structural beams is, frankly, a form of pointless cruelty. What we should tell the carpet is that “if you succeed, you can someday become a support beams.”

        I am definitely questioning Kant, Shakespeare and Twain. As for Nietzsche – the will to power, the rejection of equality and the rejection of universal morality are pretty central to what I’ve been saying.

        Hume’s sentimentalist ideas, that we base our morality on feelings rather than universal moral principals is pretty close to my idea about morality being post hoc and subjective. It’s one of the areas my idea about post hoc and subjective morality came from, along with Camus’ concept that there is no universal meaning and we make it up as we go.

        And finally, while we like to cluck disapprovingly, the way we actually behave is very similar to what Machiavelli describes in Discourses. He is, like me, completely indifferent to ideas of universal dignitiy/morality/equality on the grounds that they don’t seem to matter very much.

        In other words, I think I’ve got at least some armor.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Okay, well good luck with that.

  • siriusbizinus

    I did find the later discussion in the comments informative as to your position, but before I get to that I wanted to quickly touch on the part of your post dealing with atheism as a religion.

    Overall, I agree that depending upon the use of atheism, it can take on religious connotations. These are things that I am consciously trying to avoid, more for being intellectually disciplined and showing apologists that no, it isn’t a religion.

    However, as to your specific points on how atheism has similarities to religion. The first point is definitional, and so it is akin to saying something like, “The red barn is red.” Yes, it is an opinion on reality, but the term itself is being used to describe the opinion. As to creation, purpose, meaning, and knowing the truth, honest atheists probably should be candid and admit that atheism doesn’t require a belief on any of these things (except rejecting the notion that a deity is responsible).

    Of course, if you picked up on the qualifiers I used, I do have to admit that sometimes it is difficult to separate the atheism from other ideas. Even in some of my posts, I frequently start with atheism and travel to other positions. In my mind, though, I start there sometimes because losing my faith has caused me to look for new grounds to justify a previously held position. Therefore, I can see how sometimes even unconsciously atheism can be seen to hold other beliefs in a system of thought.

    This brings me to nihilism.
    Your exchange with your interlocutor has been informative to your position, but I think I’d like to offer a little more than just a view of nihilism through the lens of economics. I don’t have a philosopher’s view of Nietzsche, but Dan Fincke over at his blog has a great and copious list of materials about it. Some of my thoughts have been informed by his blog.

    Central to Nietzsche’s nihilism is a concept of moral plurality (and I apologize if I’m sounding too simplistic here, but I’m trying to keep it simple enough for me to manage). From the central view that morality is subjective and arbitrary, it follows that morality then can be whatever people want or need it to be. I think this is accurate, because in morality there is that implied necessity that someone must not only have the moral value, but he or she must also follow it at all times.

    If we add social, cultural, and legal norms into the mix, we get a nice mix of different competing values. What is proper, ethical, or moral in one circumstance might not be the same in another. For example, I could say killing is wrong, but I’d be discounting people acting in self-defense. I could say slavery is wrong, but some countries could actively allow it to happen. What use is my morality if I can’t enforce it?

    This doesn’t mean, though, that there are no justifications for morality. Instead, it takes a severely practical look at it. Nihilism takes a look at a moral value and says, “So what? Without being able to get everyone else on board this moral value is useless.” But it does not stop me from telling people this is how things ought to be.

    The bottom line is that I am free to agree that slavery is wrong, and more than just for economic reasons. I could start with the Golden Rule, or I could start with the idea that people cannot be property. Regardless, I must justify this (the pervasive “ought”) with facts (the ever ubiquitous “is”).

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I agree with everything stated throughout your comment!

      Re atheism = religion: It’s just a way to make a point. Atheists often assert that believing the physical world is just the physical world is not a “belief.” On the other hand believing the physical world included a God is a “belief.” While it’s true the former has far better supporting evidence, I don’t see how they aren’t still both beliefs. Neither rise to the level of being facts.

      If atheism isn’t a “belief” and isn’t a “fact” what is it? (And we’re looking for a one-word answer here.) But all that’s just labels and doesn’t really matter. It’s just rhetoric I use to highlight the parallels.

      (What cracks me up about both stripes of gnostics is that some of them use arguments that, with minor word changes, become the same arguments used by the other side. They seem unaware of this; hence the hilarity.)

      Nihilism. Neat! I dabbled in that a bit in my Strongly Atheist days.

      Are you both an existential nihilist (denying teleology) and a moral nihilist (denying objective morals)? I get the impression of both.

      As someone who leans towards the spiritual, obviously I believe in objective morality, but even my atheist side seeks a basis for it. I believe the foundation of any morality is a property under which humans are equal (which, for example, then enables the “Golden Rule”). On a physical account of reality, I posit that human sapience might be special enough to qualify as that property.

      What make such a moral philosophy confounding is the complexity of conflicting requirements you mentioned. I can see that pragmatic approaches are necessary to be effective, but from a philosophical view, I think it’s important to look for what yardsticks we can find.

      As a related aside: Kant. My initial reaction to him amounted to disdain at the abstractness of moral ideas. The funny thing is, over time I found they actually work. (It’s very weird: the more I get into Kant, the more I go, “Whoa! I totally agree!”) Reality sometimes forces you into morally gray areas, but almost always the parts are not gray.

      For example, there are all sorts of places where killing — which remains an immoral act — is necessary to prevent an even worse act. Conversely, it’s harder to justify slavery, because the only moral threat is to the slaves. (And torture may be a threat to both the victims and the practitioners.)

And what do you think?

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