06 October 2010

What is bad?

A local television ministry has the following statement in their commercial:
if its good its god, if its bad its the devil.

Putting aside the question of whether such deities exist, instead we need to focus on the ambiguity of the words good and bad. Neither word has an absolute meaning. Each person, pending we have free will, makes constant determinations as to what they believe is good and bad. Sartre was fond of making the argument that without god man creates himself. I make a much looser assertion.

A perfect example is food. Say you think prime rib is good. To a vegan, prime rib is bad. It is both good and bad, ambiguous.

To a catholic, god is good and the devil is bad. To a satanist the devil is good and god is bad.

What about murder? Murder is the willful taking of life. Can murder be a good thing or is it always bad? A poor analogy would be the war argument, that soldiers willingly murder people, but they don't. They follow orders. Taking ones own life is murder and therefore bad. But its not. In certain cultures committing suicide is respected and therefore good.

And if god exists, then god takes our lives willfully, being the supreme arbitrator of life and death. So to rewrite the statement of the television ministry:

If its good it might be god or the devil, and if its bad it might be god or the devil

10 June 2010

The truth question

Nietzsche once wrote that "Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies."  And of course the begged question is what is truth then? How does one define it and validate it. Can that even happen? Do we kill truth be the simple process of definition?

From convictions truth becomes irrelevant. Convictions force truth to be what it wants it to be. In religion, conviction would make a deity truth. The quest then would be to cast off convictions to know truth. But how does one do that? How does one even have any idea what convictions are?

If we believe in something, then it is a conviction. Worse still, "all things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth." In the Dark Ages, the Church determined what was truth through its immense power. It silenced Copernicus and Galileo. It burned those who questioned their autonomy. So the question of truth gets murkier as we try to de-wed ourselves of the influence of religion.

Left stark and bare, we can only assume that Nietzsche is saying truth is. Or I suppose more correctly, truth was. It is a thing that can't be defined but has one true definition. Its like the Mohist saying that no matter where you look at a stream, you are seeing the beginning, middle, and end all at once. It is the beginning the flows from where you look, the middle of the entire stream, and the end of where it came from. It is truth.

Truth can never flow from definition or conviction. Truth is what exists and it must be something that can never have a definition. Truth just is.

19 April 2010

A question of time

It was Augustine of Hippo who declared that time exists in the created, and that god exists beyond the created, for god was not created. This notion goes against all human-established/observed laws of nature. But since these laws were written by man does it necessitate that they are actually true? Could our observance of these laws be nothing more than an intentional illusion, or a weakness of mind? Is time not necessarily linear, or engendered with multiple facets?

For god to exist beyond time it is apparently necessary to support Augustine's view.  If actions require time, and god acts beyond time, then time itself must have a variable that allows for actions without time. It would require time to exist in a sort of multi-dimensional way, in that for humans time is linear, for supernatural beings such as a god time could be non-linear or multi-linear. As there have been interesting findings in the field of non-linear dynamics, it can not be omitted that time as we know it, may not be as it is.

Are humans of sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of nature? It is quite feasible that our arrogance prevents us from exploring/considering that what we “know” is in error. Our knowledge of nature is based on our experience and observations, and is limited to human-centric views. Perhaps dolphins perceive the laws of nature as something entirely different than the laws that we do. Does this lend itself to supporting that god could exist then? No. But it does allow for the possibility, as we do not have definitive answers to the universe. Physics may unlock many mysteries, but with each one unlocked, there are millions more that remain locked. The Anasazi are the only known people who were Moon worshippers. This seeming anomaly points squarely at the limitations of our understandings of physics and of nature. What knowledge did they possess, knowledge that we do not have now?

While it may seem impossible for a god to exist beyond time, we must have a concrete definition of time, one that is unchallengeable for us to make that claim a law. As we do not understand what gravity is, though we clearly experience it, we understand time as we know it. But time could be something entirely different from what we “know”. And as such, a being may exist beyond time as we know it, and that we may exist in a pocket of time that is just a facet of true time.

26 February 2010


A key component to religion is personal survival after bodily death; that our "soul goes somewhere". One could view religion as a risk/reward situation, in which, the risks of living a "good" life, avoiding the temptations of "badness", are rewarded with an eternal afterlife. The pious gain an eternity of goodness, and the evil an eternity of suffering in the common view. The neutral? Hard to say. As morality can be attributed, at least in part, to religious principles, what would be the point of being moral, of being good, if there was no afterlife? Is it even plausible to consider that religion could survive the extinction of an afterlife, that once we die, we die for all time?

With the prevalence of religions ascribing a continuation of life beyond the grave, one could assume that no religion could "survive" without allowing for a continuance of life. The very concept of an afterlife plays upon the apparent human vanity of needing to believe that something lies beyond our comprehension, beyond simple mortality. It is akin to gamblers spending their money on the "sure thing", hoping that eventually it will pay off.

It seems impossible that a religion could be viable if it did not offer something for its worshippers that did not entail supernaturality. The struggle would be to convince people that while this is the only life that they will ever know, that once their mortal life is over, nothing comes after. As such this religion must find a compelling argument that it is in this existence that a person can find a kind of salvation that has meaning. And this is where the religion without an afterlife must find a way to counter the warning of Shelley's Ozymandias.

This religion, call it Nowism, must be founded on the belief that it is in this mortal life a person must strive to become the purity of its god. Since there is no afterlife to segregate the pious from the non, reward and suffering must manifest itself in the now, and be a direct reflection of the individual. If a person lives his/her life poorly, evilly, then the person will find naught but evil returning and plaguing his/herself.

Nowism has many examples as tools to convince people of its possibility. One could argue that the vanity, the covetness, of people have brought great suffering to the world. Global warming, wars, genocide, and crime in general, are indicators of evil wrought by one's own hands. Nin attributes it to maleness and passivity of women. It is not the role of god to end these violations, but squarely in the hands of the followers. If they were to examine their lives, as Socrates urged, they would know that they have not lived in piety, but in irreverence, and as such, the forces of the universe have repaid them with the penalties of their actions.

Instead of offering salvation at some later time, Nowism could offer salvation every day with every action. At the same time it would offer damnation at every action as well. Nowism would border closely to the Sartreian maxim of man, in the absence of god, creating himself. But man creating himself would not be to establish morality from situation to situation, but through reflection of end results. If killing a bad person would save a community from evil, then is it the moral thing to do? Hegel has made the point that the punishment of the criminal must not be determined as though he were a "harmful animal" that must be made harmless.
Since that is so, punishment is regarded as containing the criminal's right and hence by being punished he is honoured as a rational being. He does not receive this due of honour unless the concept and measure of his punishment are derived from his own act. Still less does he receive it if he is treated either as a harmful animal who has to be made harmless, or with a view to deterring and reforming him. (Philosophy of Right, §100).
It puts the emphasis for actions squarely in the hands of the individual.

And an interesting possibility for Nowism is that a god of some sort would not be necessary. In this regard it would more closely approximate the Eastern religions which weigh a person's life by their actions. What would be missing from Nowism though would be reincarnation. It would be an escape from Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence. A person would have but one shot at living a pious life, to generate as much good as possible. Since humanity seems to need something beyond the grave, Nowism could emphasize the reward of eternal recognition, much the way that Gandhi is venerated. There is no proof that Gandhi lives in some supernatural world, but memory of his actions and of him are quite alive still.

As interesting as Nowism would be, it would most likely fall by the wayside, would lose out to the religions that offer something more beyond this life. Nowism would face an uphill battle to win converts from the self-obsessed, from those that an afterlife must exist for. It is because of this that a religion without an afterlife is not viable. It offers mankind nothing more than is available now. And yet, Nowism appears to be a more plausible answer to the question of life.

Sartreian Freedom

As an atheist, Sartre denied that man is born with certain values, that man is born with universal ethics. As such, man must define freedom through his own actions. Freedom, in a classical definition, is to be without restraint. Sartre attempted to expand that definition by asserting that man was a prisoner of his own freedom, and that freedom was the only source of values. In short, man decides his values as he discovers his freedom.

As such, it matters not what side of a battle man sides with, so long as man acts with "good faith", chooses the good of an action. Man, being his own source of freedom, establishes his own values. To deny introspection, to not choose to act for the good, leaves man in anxiety and acting in "bad faith". Man must not act as others act, in a universal good, because that would remove introspection, would render the decision bad.

Being born without a hierarchal system of values, man continually builds his own. As such, man is able to destroy the hierarchy with each choice and establish a new one. Man, realizing that he is the source of values, the fount of freedom, will only choose to adhere to his freedom. Man then, with a god removed, is his own judge. Sartre was emphasizing that freedom is subjective, in that, man and man alone is capable of understanding his own freedom.

Sartre believed that most men hide from their freedom, in denial of it, and adopt the deterministic values of society and/or theology. Attribution to external sources is utter denial of inherent freedom. Things influence things, but man, as an actor, is not a thing. Man is responsible for himself. To act differently makes man inauthentic, and man renounces his humanity.

To further extend freedom, no man has rights, as rights are external things. Rights are determinism. A ruler has the right to rule because the citizens deny their freedom in a Nietzscheian slave-morality as they accept passively the values set before them. Rights have no ability to guide one's action, to determine conduct. Man, being aware of his freedom, creates his own values, his own hierarchies. As such, even a revolutionary, one who battles for the freedom of all, denies his own freedom, as a revolution carries its own values and rules of conduct, ethics.

Sartre has established that man being free determines his own values, and as such, those values are mercurial, changing with each situation. A man who must choose between family and country can not rely on established values, but must determine his own action. Man must act for the good. How each man determines the good is man's freedom. Freedom then is an active form, is not in stasis. Man who resists freedom is in a continual form of anxiety, as he must determine to act for the good, to create his own values with each situation.

15 January 2010

Dennett and Game Theory: Voodoo Mathematics?

Dennett's use of game theory (Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks) as either an explanation or a support for adaptationism is curious. Game theory in evolutionary study seeks to understand the mathematics behind the moves taken by an organism (rational or bounded rationality) to explain why some organisms survive while others do not. Dennett surely has given himself to this mode of explanation, and
ascribes also to defection over cooperation. While he makes allowances for instances where mutual cooperation is the norm, he weighs heavily on the side of defection. It is in this instance where the curiosity comes. Can mutual defection explain an organism's continued existence?

A basic idea of game theory is that when a player is given two choices, to defect or to
cooperate, the most rational choice is made, based on a payoff matrix. In a perfect world, the player will choose the optimal path, mutual cooperation. But since the game is played against other rational players, the optimal is not always the best choice, but the suboptimal one. Anticipation of the moves of the other player enter into the decision-making process. At the human level this involves emotional guesswork and greed, and a learning curve of the opponent's most-likely move. In short, the Prisoner's Dilemma.

A player knowing that mutual cooperation is the optimal choice will not always make
that choice. This is because his opponent may choose to defect, and the resultant would be for the player that chose to cooperate, would have a great loss. It is this knowledge that leads to the suboptimal decision to mutually defect. The players acknowledge that there will be a minor loss on both parts, but neither player will achieve advantage over the other. Stasis at the suboptimal is the norm, whether it is the Evolutionary Stable Strategy or the Nash Equilibrium.

Dennett uses a quote by Dawkins (254) to illustrate his stance on game theory, in that,
an organism “seeks” to dominate its population. This domination is the suboptimal mutual defection of the Prisoner's Dilemma. The organism allows for a minor loss by selecting defection, while taking the chance that its “opponent” will choose to cooperate, thereby enhancing the payoff for the organism that defects. This is akin to the nuclear arms race. The US and the Soviet Union stockpiled weapons, thousands more than necessary, to reach a state of potential mutual obliteration. Both sides chose mutual defection as their strategy, with the side-hope that their opponent would eventually make the choice of cooperation at the wrong moment.

Dennett allows for mutual cooperation, under the correct circumstances. One must
assume that by this he means an abundance of resources, or a period of stasis, one which would not give an organism a large payoff if it chose to defect. Of course, this is then game theory working at the optimal level. But since both Dennett and Dawkins adhere to organisms needing to dominate their population, the optimal level is most-likely a short-lived state (dozens, hundreds of generations?). This is what Dennett refers to as “evolutionary unenforceable” states (256). In short, Dennett believes that unselfish states, mutual cooperation, “must be designed (256)”. It is here that Dennett swings the optimal state, mutual cooperation, into the field of aberration.

Dennett goes further to state that cooperation is exceedingly rare in nature. The trees
grow tall because they are “selfish”, and as such, organisms benefit from this selfishness. Without tall trees, selfish trees, “beautiful forests...could not exist (256)”. Dennett acknowledges that this is a damning view of evolution. It is not because it is loathsome, but because it equates all organisms to selfish desires, conscious or not. In general, if an organism can succeed by taking an advantage over another organism, it will. Mutual defection is the norm, not the exception.

This state is beautifully illustrated in Hofstadter's Wolf Dilemma (Hofstadter, D.R.
(1985) Metamagical Themas: Questing for the essence of mind and pattern, New York: Basic Books, Inc.). Basically it is a modified Prisoner's Dilemma, but with a much larger payoff for mutual cooperation. Hofstadter invited twenty friends to submit their rational choice, one without emotional baggage, to him. The payoffs were skewed towards mutual cooperation. In short, if everyone chose mutual cooperation, they would receive a larger payoff ($57) than if they all chose mutual defection ($19). Dennett himself participated in this experiment and chose mutual cooperation. His choice was the minority choice. At the end, 70% of the participants chose to defect.

So it seems that defection is a kind of ingrained rationality. The question must be
raised though, that if selfishness is a norm, is this not anthropomorphising organisms? Can we equate a human emotion to the selection process of a gene? While it is a stretch, there does not seem to be any other explanation as to why mutual defection appears to be the rule. Selfishness appears to be a genetic predilection.

Gould has brought about the idea of hidden constraints, ones that seemingly effect game theory, and in his view it seems, invalidates game theory as it applies to adaptation (257). Dennett makes the point that adaptationists already allow for hidden constraints. A hidden constraint is one that limits the choices of an organism, with or without conscious knowledge of the constraint. Dennett makes the case of a butterfly that is perfectly camouflaged on the forest floor (260). The butterfly dominates other butterflies because of its coloration advantage. But as Dennett points out, if the forest floor were to change, the butterfly would either adapt or not, and if it does not “it will find some other adaptation in its limited kit of available moves or it will soon disappear (260)”. This is a hidden constraint and not necessarily counter to game theoretic approach.

Here is where Dennett ties hidden constraints to game theory, and brings it all into the
adaptationist's fold: hidden constraints allow for all possible “habitable” moves, and as such, falls within the realm of game theory. Selfish intent is only constrained by what is possible. In a sense, this is not a constraint at all. How could anything choose to move in an impossible way? And even if it could somehow make the impossible possible, could it survive? Would an organism that exists in an oxygen breathing world benefit from being able to breathe nitrogen? Surely it would be a mutant and if it lost it's ability to breathe oxygen, it would become extinct.

In the end, Dennett has done a remarkable job at tying game theory to adaptationist
evolutionary theory. While his ideas are not without their detractors, he seems to have built what can not be successfully assailed. Selfishness, whether conscious or unconscious, are merely gears in the machine of design. It is the “intent” of organisms to take advantage of all possible habitable moves, within the constraints of possibility, to adapt. It is an either/or position. Either an organism adapts, or it does not. If it does not, it will tend towards extinction, it will be the player that chooses to cooperate in a field of defectors.