First posted 4 Aug 2004. Reading now, I know how influenced German philosophy, including Nietzsche's, was by eastern thinking. Now familiar with those influences, I can see them wrapped in Nietzsche's strained metaphors. Nietzsche ended up losing himself in his metaphorical labyrinth, not keeping enough contact with society and the real world to anchor him between his metaphysical flights. He saw and articulated the dangers of modernity, but his alternative was insufficiently stable for either Nazi Germany (whose leaders hijacked his words) or himself.
Nietzsche calls on us to be the poets of our own lives. Given his love of music and his belief that music brings us closer than anything else can to the raw experience of Being, perhaps the better metaphor is that we should be the composers as well as players of our own lives. Regardless - creativity is at the centre of Nietzsche's programme. He applied this to himself as well, seeing philosophy not as a field for discovering truths but for creating them.
Nietzsche didn't need to argue that objective truths don't exist, although at least sometimes he did make just such statements. He could just as well point out that, irrespective of their existence, these truths are ultimately inaccessible to us. The epistemological argument could still allow him to reduce practical truth to a battle of forces. A person defines his moral truths (albeit while being acted upon by social, cultural and individual forces around him) and then sets out to live by them. In so living, he brings his 'truths' into contact with those of others around him. Either by demonstration, persuasion, trickery or force, some truths emerge as dominant in the rich mix of human interaction.
Nietzsche has no time for democracy per se in this process, holding no great respect for the mass of humanity. The great souls will emerge from the fray and set the light by which others live. The greatest of these souls are the artists, who through music and metaphor exert the most powerful influence on the game. They set (or more often tear down) the boundaries in which the contest of life takes place. For the most part, Nietzsche believes they are - and should be - completely unconstrained in this creative act. Nietzsche held what might be called an aesthetic worldview, believing that mankind's existence was justified only by the accomplishments of its most gifted members and that nothing should limit their creative powers.
This all sounds a bit scary for the great collection of us humble enough to recognise that we are not among the earth's true shakers and movers, but Nietzsche assumed that the great men would act nobly. This mustn't be confused with any sense that the supermen would respect the common men. Nor did it guarantee that a few people didn't get squashed along the way. Nietzsche saw war as a great tool of Dionysian creative destruction that shook mankind from its slumber and re-stirred the creative forces. In his more balanced moments, he did admit that these Dionysian forces did need to be balanced somewhat by the more structured, ordered Apollonian ones - a sort of hot and cold bicameral system that could be applied to the individual psychologically but also to the world in cultural and social terms.
This all sounds a bit extreme, but we do have to keep in mind what Nietzsche saw it as an inoculation against. Nietzsche believed two things, and he believed that these things were becoming increasingly clear to people in general. First, there was no God. God had not created man but vice versa. The fact that science and scepticism were undermining faith in the numinous made him worry that mankind would be left adrift, anchor-less. Second, he subscribed to determinism in its strongest sense. At heart, none of us could choose to do other than we do. Our actions were driven not by a cause-free agent but rather by the currents and eddies of a continuous flux of forces - the Will to Power. As science increasingly demonstrated our place as part of the natural world and its causal flow, the common man would descend into nihilism - a submission to the view that nothing mattered.
Only humanity's strongest (who, in Nietzsche's view, transcended humanity to become a new type of being) could overcome this undertow and provide a new framework in which others could operate healthily. Doing so required not only casting off the shores of Christian false comfort and braving the tumultuous waters, but also choosing a new shore - legislating a new code, creating a new order. One had to embrace the knowledge of Being's flux and destiny's necessity. One had to walk mockingly on the edge of the abyss.
And of course, Nietzsche realised that he too operated within the flow of determinism. What he wrote, he wrote by necessity. Whether others were influenced by him, followed him rather than descending into nihilism, was also a matter of necessity. He, like the rest of us, was a vehicle for (or a current in) the ever flowing Heraclitean flux of existence. He embraced this as what he was and charged onto the field of battle with passion and steel.
The challenge Nietzsche saw and sought to meet posed a difficult dilemma. How do we simultaneously accept that our actions are fully determined and yet plunge into and through life with vigour and relish? We adopt the perspective of the creative front of a wave of action (for Nietzsche, more strictly, Will to Power), that defines itself, and then imposes that definition on the world. We 'become who we are.' One need accept no boundaries in the application of this creative force, save one.
This boundary is an internal one only, one imposed by the perpetual realisation that what one does this once will be relived over and over again forever. Nietzsche believed, not just metaphorically but metaphysically (in keeping with some scientific hypotheses of the day) that time recycled without end. His doctrine of the Eternal Return served notice to all that one must act such that one wills that act to repeat in perpetuity. When considered deeply, this brings very great weight indeed to moral decision making. Yet the weight does not lean toward any particular desired corner.
We can call Nietzsche to account for a certain lack of clarity in his writing, certainly when that writing is held to the standards of modern analytical philosophy. Nietzsche's answer would be a simple one - that the greatest truths are not discovered through reasoned clarity but rather brought into being by creative genius. Metaphor (our closest verbal approximation to music) is the tool of true philosophers. We can also disagree with his metaphysical commitments to a Will to Power and the Eternal Return. In my view, though, these were only one step too far. While rejecting the idea of the Will to Power, I subscribe to the view that reality is a continuous flux. As for the doctrine of the Eternal return, I prefer to view it instead that what happens now echoes in eternity - it is 'captured' in the great eternal camera reel that plays through one frame at a time. Anyway, these are also just metaphysical speculations themselves!
What I appreciate about Nietzsche's message is that while we are part of the deterministic flow of nature, we cannot possibly know what our destiny is, so we must think and act such as to create that destiny for ourselves but also for all that surrounds us, bringing ourselves to bear on the world. My choices and actions define me, yet I (not as a cause-free agent but as the sum of all that has come together in me at this moment) compose the song that is my life - this short special time during which all that is me assumes a living, sentient, conscious form.
Sitting down to a meal was not exactly a relaxing experience as a first year student at West Point. Plebes, as the academy referred to its freshmen, could not talk to one another and had to request permission to speak with anyone else. With this gag order in effect, they needed to perform a number of duties for the table.
Each table sat 10 people. These places were assigned, with the same colleagues sitting together for 3-4 weeks before new table assignments were made. There were four year groups at West Point, and each was represented roughly equally at each rectangular table. So, the top 2-3 seats were for the Firsties (seniors), the next ones for the Cows (juniors), then the Yearlings (sophomores) and finally, at the foot of the table, the Plebes.
The mess hall had waiting staff to bring food and drink to the table, where it was always served 'family style' in serving dishes to be doled out to each person's plate by the table occupants. The plebes' duties were separate from and complementary to the waiters' tasks.
Whenever new table assignments came out, each table's Plebes would have to confer in one of their rooms to divvy up information gathering tasks. They would then each go off to their assigned upper-classmen's rooms to request and record information about each person's beverage and dessert preferences for meals:
- The beverage preference could be as simple as, ' I always want water with ice.' But it could take on considerably greater complexity, as in, 'I'll always have the drink for the meal if it is a fruit drink, and in those cases I will have it with 2 whole ice-cubes - not bits. If the drink is iced tea, I'll have water, with no ice, unless it's at dinner, in which case I'll have the iced tea with 3 whole ice cubes. Never give me a chipped glass, or you'll be sorry you were ever born.'
-Similarly, the dessert preference could range from, 'I'll always have it,' to 'I'll always have cake, unless it has coconut in it. I'll never have pie unless it's apple. If the dessert is a tart, ask me at the table. If you forget, I'll kill you.' You get the picture.
So, among the things a waiter drops off at the table are a pitcher of drink, a bucket of ice and an uncut dessert. The plebes at the table had to serve all of the drinks and cut the dessert before turning to their own meals. Doesn't sound too tough, but there were a couple of complicating factors.
First, the plebes had to have all of the preferences memorised. No notes were allowed at the table. Given all of the other information plebes had to have committed to memory - the three menus for the day, a paraphrasing of every article from the front page and lead sports page of the the day's New York Times, the number of days until various important events in the year's schedule (the Navy football game, Christmas break, Spring break, graduation, etc.) and a small catalog of West Point and Army trivia - the brain became a bit cluttered. And let's not forget that the poor fella might have a calculus or electrical engineering mid-term test immediately after lunch!
Second, the dessert needed to be cut into the correct number of exactly equal pieces and needed to be presented to the 'table commandant' for inspection. Most desserts were circular. The centre of the cuts needed to be at the geometric centre of the dessert, or there was trouble. The cuts needed to be clean, so the plebe doing the cutting would literally wipe off the knife and dip it in water before each new cut. And as I said, the pieces needed to be exactly equal. If all of this was done correctly, but the dessert had the wrong number of pieces (based on incorrect memory of the dessert preferences for the upperclassmen) there was still hell to pay.
Now, a slight cheat was allowed for cutting equal sized pieces. Each plebe was allowed (read required) to bring a template to the meal. This template could not touch the dessert, but could be balanced on crumbs of bread that the Plebe set on the dessert. The template usually had a hole in the centre, to help place it correctly on the dessert. It also had (according to the rigour and comprehensiveness of the plebe's approach) colour-coded notches for a six-piece cut vs. a seven-, eight-, nine- or ten-piece cut. Beads of sweat would form on the forehead as the operation was performed and the plebe awaited the table commandant's judgement after inspecting it.
Let's say it all went fine. Whewww! Now the plebes can eat. They have some catching up to do, as everyone else has been eating happily while these duties were being performed. But they can't catch up very quickly. A plebe can only take so big a mouthful. If asked a question by an upperclassman during the meal, he must be able to respond after no more than three chews and one swallow. We did become adept at handling bigger and bigger loads within the required parameters, and it makes me wonder whether my throat actually expanded at university.
The bite-size limit was superimposed with an effective bite frequency limit as well. The plebe had to cut a bite European style, put the knife down and switch the fork to the right hand, put the bite in his mouth with the fork and place the fork back onto his plate before he was allowed to start chewing. He could not pick up his knife and fork again until he had swallowed the previous bite.
Given all of this, you can guess why 'boodle boxes,' the parcels of food mailed from home for consumption in one's room at night while studying, were so crucial to our lives. Having gone in as a skinny lad, I somehow managed to put on 15 pounds during the first year, even operating in this regime. You can believe I was very happy when my plebe year ended and I could hand over the table duties and other baggage of plebe life to the next class of unfortunates.
The eight summer weeks before my first academic year at West Point were pretty tough. They were designed to be. This cadet basic training, called Beast Barracks, existed (as far as I can tell) to do two things. First it steeped incoming freshmen, called Plebes, in the history, culture and mentality of the West Point and, to a lesser extent, of the Army. Second, it weeded out those whose applications to join were based on an incorrect perception of what West Point was like or whose acceptance was based on an overestimation of their ability to meet the Academy's demands - particularly its psychological (as opposed to intellectual) ones. This second objective called for Beast to be an exaggeration or even caricature of the balance of the West Point experience.
Much was made of the need to be physically fit, and I quite enjoyed the group runs in formation. This was mainly because we all had to sing out 'cadence calls' and run in step with them. This appealed to my love of music and rhythm, helped regulate my breathing and generally took my mind off the fact that most of my body hurt quite badly! Push-ups and sit-ups were also staples of the daily regime, as were assault courses, bayonet drills and team sports.
I was a very skinny lad, and it was easy for people to underestimate my ability to 'hang' with the physical demands. I remember my squad leader - an upperclassman who was our equivalent to a drill sergeant - preparing us for a volleyball match against another squad: 'Smith, you play up front and look for opportunities to spike. Jones, play back center to dig out the tough serves. Johnson......' You get the picture. When he got to me, he just said, 'Fraley, uh, don't hurt yourself.' Luckily, my skin was thicker then than it is now, so I took no great offense. I did, however, redouble my efforts (waking up with muscle cramp most nights from my exertions) to ensure I held my own in the physical fitness tests.
We also had to bring ourselves to much higher standards of personal appearance than the standard college freshman. Our shirts always needed to be tucked in so tightly that they fit snugly to our bodies, with no loose fabric. This was called a 'dress-off', and being caught with a poor one meant getting into trouble. Our shoes and boots needed to be stereotypically shiny as well. Beyond that, the instructions for exactly what to wear for a given activity were complex and subtle. Should I wear my utility belt with suspenders or without? Do I carry a canteen on the belt? One or two? Normal brown t-shirt under camouflage jacket, or a white 'PT' one? Soft cap or helmet?
We were drilled on the importance of properly securing and maintaining our weapons - in this case old M-14 rifles with the firing pins removed. Leave it out of reach, get into big trouble. Get caught with a dusty one, get into big trouble. Lose it (and believe it or not, some did), get into BIG trouble.
You may have picked up by now that there were lots of ways to get into trouble. The fundamental characteristic of the entire 8 weeks was to learn that you could never get everything right. There was always something you could be caught short on. We were all yelled at constantly, made to feel we were on the verge of expulsion, lower than dog dirt. We were only permitted 4 responses when asked a question: 1) Yes Sir (or Ma'am), 2) No Sir, 3) No excuse, Sir, and 4) Sir, I do not understand. Not much wiggle room for getting out of trouble. The summer taught us how to handle overload. It taught us life was not fair. It made us question what the hell we were thinking when we signed up for this!
Yet the richness of West Point's traditions, the physical impressiveness of the place, and the quality of the people we saw around us made us stay. Many wrote home expressing a wish to drop out. I personally proposed an alternative career in the clergy! Seeing the statues of memorials to alumni - Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jack Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower among them - made one feel a part of something big, something worth striving for. The imposing granite buildings, seemingly carved into the hillside over the Hudson River, echoed the reputation that the Academy's alumni had for dependability in the most difficult of times. Even if we said the summer sucked day-to-day, we saw it as a right of passage into something worthy of our efforts.
At the end of Beast Barracks we celebrated during a long weekend for which many of our parents made the trip. We could see them during the day, show them around, brag to them of all we'd done. It was great to see my family, but when they left, I cried my eyes out. I knew that I had a long and tough few months as a Plebe (still sub-human) in the autumn academic term before seeing them again for Thanksgiving.
I've just finished reading The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. I won't undertake a general review of the book, but I can enthusiastically recommend it.
Instead, I want to concentrate on one specific point Capra discusses in the Afterward of his Second Edition. (The book was originally published in 1975, and the second edition was released seven years later.) Capra discusses the ramifications of the empirical results from tests of John Bell's inequality.
As a staunch proponent of a deterministic, local, realist interpretation of quantum mechanics in an earlier day, I had come across Bell's Inequality before. I even wrote about it, which you can verify at the link above. I'm not going to recap that whole post here, so you may want to visit it before continuing. Capra helped me realise that I hadn't really got it, though.
Bell set out a testable relationship that must hold if sub-atomic reality is both local and deterministic. Tests have been conducted, and the results are conclusive: quantum reality must be either non-local, non-deterministic or both.
Einstein believed to his core that reality must be both local and deterministic. I paraphrase his words on each point:
For reality to be local means that no force or action can act with a speed faster than the speed of light. My pushing a button while standing on the sun and immediately changing the channel on my TV would violate this, since it takes light seven minutes to traverse that distance.
For reality to be deterministic means that every effect has a cause. Taken to its logical conclusion, the notion is embodied in the clockwork universe. If one knew all the initial conditions at the 'start of time' and all of the 'laws' that the universe followed as it evolved from one moment to the next, then one could know all that would happen for all time.
We use probabilities in everyday life (for instance, at the roulette wheel) because either our understanding of all the (local) forces at work or the exactness with which we can measure initial conditions is insufficient to calculate outcomes exactly. Quantum mechanics raises the possibility that even with perfect understanding and measurement, we still could not accurately predict concrete sub-atomic events.
I was particularly exercised by the issue of determinism, so when I read about outcomes from tests of Bell's Inequality, I focused on that element of the interpretation. I admitted, sadly, that not every effect has a cause. I need not have done so, had I paused to think sufficiently about the second condition. It could be that tests failed the inequality because the causes were non-local. I could, in theory, have held on to determinism by accepting spooky action at a distance.
But in a way, admitting non-locality undermines predictability just as much as inherent non-determinism does, because an observer cannot know and therefore account for forces at great remoteness in the universe that are impacting what he sees. Even if he had appropriate sensors throughout the cosmos, they could not transmit their data to him any faster than the speed of light. Meanwhile, the spooky action at a distance will have had immediate effect.
As it happens, today, I believe that reality is not determined, local or objective. Most interpretations of quantum mechanics agree, but my angle is primarily from the philosophical viewpoint rather than the scientific. A worldview consistent with eastern wisdom traditions sees reality as an undivided whole, so the confirmation of non-locality is no surprise.
In a way, you can think of it as rotating causality 90 degrees in space-time. Instead of explaining a current event by appealing to causes that preceded it, you sometimes have to explain it in terms of state of everything else right now. Sometimes, the best that we can do is say that something is the way it is because everything is the way it is. Any one 'thing' is like a puzzle piece, which, in order to fit into the overall puzzle, can have one and only one shape - the shape of the 'hole' left when every other piece is in place. There are limits to reductionism, and we have touched them. At least some truths are irreducible.
Of course, this philosophical sleight of hand doesn't help with predicting the future. We just have to accept that, as we push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe, sometimes the best we can do is approximate or confine our answers to a range rather than a point. There are limits to our knowledge and the control we can exercise with it.
First posted 10 Nov 2003. Pretty much agree with these Doug-made proposals for ground-rules to a man-made ethics.
I sat down to hash out an ethical framework, arrogantly thinking I could generate a coherent set of thoughts on the subject. Having realised that I need to put a lot more thought into anything approaching what I might call my ethical system (and realising that I haven't posted anything in several days) I decided to share the sketchy notes I've come up with so far:
First posted 31 Oct 2003. I definitely still think there is infinite diversity out there, including many versions of 'me'. I tend now to think of it more as the existence of every possible experience from every possible perspective.
See Scientific American: Parallel Universes [ COSMOLOGY ]; Not just a staple of science fiction, other universes are a direct implication of cosmological observations
Buckle in, 'cause this one's a helluva ride - a real head spinner. You can read the whole article via the link above, but I'm dying to try to summarise it, to see how much of it I 'get'. The gist is that our universe is just part of a multiverse, or actually a part of four tiers of multiverses, with the result being that (based on simple probabilities) an infinite number of you's and me's are 'out there' living through every permutation of our lives. I hope only a few of the me's out there are suffering from my cold at the moment.
Our Hubble Space
The article starts by defining our universe as our visible universe. Since light travels at 300 million metres per second, and since the Big Bang happened about 14 billion years ago, our visible universe (or Hubble space) is a spherical space with a radius of about 10^26 metres. (The article says 4x10^25). This visible universe's radius grows (by definition) by one light year (roughly 10^16 metres) each year, and the light we see emanating from the edge of our Hubble space was emitted at the beginning of time.
Level 1 Multiverse = The Universe
The first level of multiverse, then, is the collection of Hubble spaces. This is what I have always considered and shall continue to call The Universe. If we assume (as current observations suggest) that the overall universe is infinite and that matter is roughly evenly spread throughout it, then there are an infinite number of these Hubble spaces, all with the same physical laws as ours. Now, pick one of those other Hubble spaces. What is the probability that the interaction of fundamental particles and forces over the lifetime of that space just happen to produce another you? Surely unbelievably small. But is it zero? It seems irrational to assume that the probability of another you in any other given Hubble space is absolutely zero, since you have already appeared once, after all. Let's say the chance is one in a gazillion, with a gazillion being the biggest number imaginable. Then there must be another you out there, because any non-zero probability, no matter how small, when applied to an infinite number of cases, will be realised.
Saying that there must be other you's living through every possible permutation of your life is just a special case. We could simply say that anything that is possible (i.e. has non-zero probability) exists. So, somewhere out there is a you with 9 fingers, a you with a squeaky voice, a you who didn't propose to your wife, a you who likes Abba songs, a you who only carries 20p pieces in his pockets. There is you who slept late on your 19th birthday, not to mention a you whose life is exactly the same as yours in this Hubble space. Now you see just how infinite infinity is!
Level 2 Multiverse = The Multiverse
There are a couple of ways to think of a level 2 multiverse, which I will call just The Multiverse. At heart, The Multiverse (i.e. Level 2) is a collection of an infinite number of Universes (i.e. Level 1s), each of which can have very different physical 'constants'. We can think of these Universes as bubbles of non-stretching space within the eternally inflationary Multiverse. Alternatively, we can view The Multiverse as a cycle of continuous birth and destruction of Universes, perhaps with black holes as the agents of mutation and birth. From either angle, we could never communicate between Universes (or gain information about another one), because they are either moving apart from one another at faster than the speed of light or only 'touch' at singularities, through which no information can pass. Still, the existence of The Multiverse would explain the otherwise tricky and highly improbable fine tuning of our own Universe. If ours is just one of an infinite number, then it is no longer surprising that so many specific variables (density fluctuation, relative weights of elements, etc) have values just right for allowing life to emerge and evolve. As regards the multi-me's and multi-you's, if the infinite size of our Universe guaranteed that they were out there, then the existence of The Multiverse, containing an infinite number of Universes, really cements it!
Level 3 Multiverse = Many Worlds (from quantum mechanics)
A level 3 multiverse is another name for the infinite collection of worlds in the 'Many Worlds' interpretation of quantum mechanics. Each quantum event causes a split between worlds, with one proceeding along possible route 1 and the other along possible route 2. Each of those 'worlds' contains an entire Multiverse (i.e. Level 2). Since there are an infinite number of quantum events, there are an infinite number of such splits and an infinite number of worlds, one for each thread that winds its way forward through one 'choice' after another. I (as in this specific Doug in this specific level 1 and 2) only have access to, only experience one of those threads. The other me's see only their specific threads. But all threads exist.
The me's in different Hubble spaces live separate but parallel lives in a different part of space-time. The different me's within the many worlds (Level 3) are not separated from me in spatial terms but in dimensional terms within the overall wave function for the Level 3 multiverse. You can think of these worlds as being perpendicular worlds, as opposed to parallel ones. Jointly, they require an infinite number of dimensions, which the 'Hilbert Space' of the wave function has. Ouch, that hurts my head.
Anyway, the existence of this level depends on whether the wave function's evolution through time is unitary (no, I don't know what that means), which is as yet uncertain but is consistent with observations and wider theory. In one sense, it doesn't matter, because if physics is unitary, then Level 3 adds nothing that doesn't already exist in Levels 1 and 2. No more possibilities are generated, just additional copies of ones that already exist.
Level 4 Multiverse = All possible mathematical structures (or, a bridge too far)
Just a few words on a final, highest level multiverse. The wave function of quantum theory and level 3 multiverse is a mathematical structure, and most physicists today see the universe as fundamentally mathematical. Why not, then, allow for an infinite number of level 3 multiverses corresponding to any imaginable set of (mathematical) laws? Fine with me, but you'll need to check with all the other multi-me's individually.
First posted 31 Oct 2003. I seem to have forgotten one of the most obvious sources - of moral behaviour if not morality itself - fear of sanction / punishment. My sense remains that right and wrong, like good and bad, are man-made and therefore only 'natural' in the sense that man is part of nature.
I said in Right and wrong that right and wrong do not exist anywhere outside of human minds, that they are created by us and grounded in a number of bases: 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others. Let me go into a bit more detail on these bases.
Knowledge of our own mortality
Although I think we need to realise much more clearly that we are animals, more like our other two, four, six, eight and thousand legged friends than we would like to admit, I'll focus for a bit on one important way in which I think we differ from them: we are able to contemplate our own death. This brings a new dimension to our life, an overlay to the strong survival instinct that we share with non-human animals. We can conceptualise a world carrying on after we are gone. We puzzle and wonder at what happens to us after earthly death. We construct elaborate plans and form long-term expectations for how to get the most of our time. In some ways, this gets in the way of just plain living. But it also makes us realise (a cognitive operation only we have) what death brings an end to.
Empathy for others
We can also empathise with the feelings of others. I'm not sure to what extent other animals share this ability, but when it is combined in us with the point above, it becomes quite powerful as an emotional barrier to taking the lives of those we are close enough with to share empathetic bonds. Empathy also makes us want to help others avoid pain (other things being equal). But empathy, unfortunately, resembles gravity in that its strength diminishes rapidly with distance. The 'further' another is from us, in terms of geography, relationship or similarity of appearance or belief, the less empathetically we feel towards them.
We tend to feel the plight of a starving child in our street more than one in Africa. We care more for members of our family than we do others. The same holds, albeit less strongly, for citizens of our country or members of our church. We empathise less with those who espouse views with which we disagree strongly. Even as regards animals, we cannot bring ourselves to kill a fluffy warm rabbit, but we squash spiders and insects without a second thought.
Call me on this if I am wrong. I don't want to ascribe to mankind that which I feel myself. As a matter of fact, that has been one of the main problems with using empathy as a foundation for ethical behaviour, as some have tried. These well-meaning, kind, generous writers assumed that everyone was as nice as they were and said, 'Can't we all just get along?' I don't want to assume that everyone is as much a bastard as I am (but I have a hard time avoiding it). This is not to say that I or others do not care for people far away or unlike us. I'm just claiming that empathy is not universal in its strength.
Generalising from our own interests to those of others (Universalisation)
Can't we appeal to our reason, as that which most separates us from other animals, as a foundation for ethics? Kant thought so, that pure reason could show us how to behave. I don't see this as possible, mainly because I see reason as morally inert. It could tell us how to best achieve a certain end, but morality largely concerns settling on what those ends should be. Reason can give a map to the objective, but it can't pick the objective on its own. But that doesn't mean we can't put it to good use.
We know that we have fundamental interests in life. Many involve keeping others, including governments, from interfering with our lives - by killing us, hurting us, stealing from us, or telling us what we can and can't think and do. Some require positive action from others - like giving us food or medical help when we can't gain access to them ourselves. If these interests are legitimate for us, then they must also be legitimate for others who, let's face it, are pretty much like us in most important aspects. We can generalise from our own interests to those of others, thereby providing a basis for respecting their needs.
Too bad, though, that our reason is at least as good at finding differences as it is at finding similarities. Having identified the differences between ourselves and others, we are then all too good at using them as justification for different moral standing, different treatment, different rights. This shows unsurprising intellectual parallels with the emotion of empathy mentioned above. 'He doesn't even pay taxes. Why should my hard-earned money go to supporting him?'
Seeing the non-zero-sum game
One reason for us to subscribe to laws that restrict our behaviour is that we see we are better off under the protection of those laws than we would be in the freer but more dangerous world that would exist without them. We pay taxes because they give us public goods and services that might not be provided under a pure profit motive. We accept income redistribution because it reduces the plight of a group of people who might otherwise feel left behind by 'the sytem' and turn to crime to get by. We lock ourselves into contracts because those legal documents provide a framework for cooperation, without which neither we nor our partners could achieve the goals toward which we strive. Perhaps I would not be reaching too far if I said that we behave ethically, at least in part, because we expect it to increase the likelihood that others will behave ethically toward us.
This works most of the time for most people. But like empathy and universalisation, it is not foolproof. The fly in the ointment is that not everyone plays by the rules. It pays to cheat if you can do so without getting caught. A fair chunk of our most advanced evolution is explained by an 'arms race' among brains (and the genes that build them) that could cheat in seemingly reciprocal altruistic exchanges and brains (often in the same head!) that could detect and punish cheaters. This may go a long way toward explaining our sense of moral outrage, our heightened senses of perception in situations with moral overtones, and our big brains in general. It also provides the most compelling justification for punishment, which has nothing to do with exacting revenge on or attempting to rehabilitate the cheater who has been caught and everything to do with publicly demonstrating what happens to cheaters so as to deter others from trying it themselves. While detection and punishment can maintain a degree of trust in the integrity of 'the system', they are imperfect. Hence cheaters are still plentiful today.
Since none of these human answers provides an air-tight ethical system, a guarantee that people will behave 'well' toward one another, leaders have often turned to manipulation. One of the simplest ways has been to piggyback on some other basic human needs (largely tied to the recognition of our own mortality mentioned above) via religion. I say piggyback because I believe that religious belief would flourish irrespective of its value to church and government leaders as an ultimate grounding for ethics and law. People want to know where they are from, how they fit into the big picture, where they will go when they die on Earth.
But what an opportunity it gave to the powerful! 'Do this.' 'Why?' 'Because God, your maker, your father, your ultimate judge and jury, says so!' Can't afford enough policemen to keep a watch on all the potential cheats and subversives? Hire God! He's watching all the time. His punishment is not confined to earthly dimensions - it is infinite and eternal! You can't beat that. Am I saying that all leaders who cite God are acting manipulatively? No. Do I suspect most? Yes.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying manipulation is 100% bad. For instance, if without it we would have an anarchic society with no foundations, then it might be justified. Because I don't believe in any non-human basis for morality and because I don't think everyone will ever agree to a given ethical code, I do see governments (to the extent that they are representative, and there is much we can do, even in Western democracies, to improve that) as the ultimate underwriters of right and wrong. Over time, we can hopefully see greater cooperation and convergence among state governments - and ideally (but I'm a pessimist) fusion of them into a world governing body.
Wait, I need to be careful here. I see individuals, not governments as the true creators of right and wrong. If an individual disagrees vehemently with a law under which he lives, he should 1) do everything he can to convince his countrymen and his government to change that law and, if necessary 2) act according to his conscience in disobeying that law. However, if (1) fails and an individual moves on to (2), then that person needs to accept the punishment meted out to him (by a representative government via the due process of law).
I have moved from a discussion of ethics and morality into one about law and civil disobedience. That is a direct result of my beliefs that we are the creators, definers of right and wrong and that there is no possible pure, irreducible and irrefutable ethical system. We have to work with the best we have.
Originally posted 14 Mar 2005. I'm not aware that anything has changed on this front, but I have to admit that I've not kept a close eye on it.
The big questions
Is there a reality independent of subjective observation? Is the universe deterministic in a 'clockwork' sense, or is it irreducibly random at heart? Are the world's interactions local (unable to propagate at a speed greater than that of light, per Einstein), or is there 'spooky action at a distance'?
After Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (EPR) put forward their paper arguing that quantum theory was as yet incomplete, these questions were central to physics. Einstein believed that our world is both real (in that its states have real values independent of observation) and local. EPR attempted to use a reductio ad absurdum argument by pointing out strange non-local effects implied within Neils Bohr's interpretation of quantum theory and claiming that this proved the incompleteness of the theory. Bohr seized on some loose language in the EPR paper to issue a forceful rebuttal. Einstein and Bohr's ensuing debate never reached a resolution, but the world (and certainly the mainstream physics community) eventually adopted Bohr's view. Why?
An accidental killing
In 1963, a gifted physicist named John S. Bell developed a mathematical proof of a testable inequality that must hold in a real,local and deterministic world. The predictions of existing quantum theory violated the inequality, so either quantum theory was wrong or the world was not a local deterministic one. Bell was himself in the Einstein camp and hoped that experimental evidence would settle the debate in favour of local realism. They did not. All experimental measurements have violated Bell's inequalities, vindicating Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation and seemingly proclaiming the death of locality. (Science is more willing to sacrifice locality than realism / determinism).
Bell's derivation of the testable inequality has been hailed as one of the greatest feats of modern physics, yet it is relatively easy to understand. First, let's do it without worrying about the actual physics.
Pick three characteristics that an object might have, and call them A, B and C (although they could be something like red, round and soft). Now, imagine that you observe a large number of these objects to see which ones have which characteristics. Some objects might have all three characteristics; some might have only one; some might have combinations of two.
Before going further, let's develop a shorthand notation. To indicate that an object has a characteristic, we write a '+' after the characteristic's name (like A+). To say that an object does not have a characteristic, we write a '-' after the characteristic's name (like B-). So, an object that has characteristics A and C but lacks characteristic B would be described as (A+, B-, C+).
One thing that is definitely true is that in a large set of these objects, the number that are (A+, B-) plus the number that are (B+, C-) is greater than or equal to the number that are (A+, C-), or:
Number (A+, B-) + Number (B+, C-) >= Number (A+, C-)
There is a proof of this at the bottom of this post, but if you're willing to accept it for now, let's move on to apply it more specifically to the EPR question.
Application to quantum world
The objects we're now going to observe are electrons, and we're going to observe them in pairs, for reasons that become clearer in a minute. Electrons, like other subatomic particles, have a property called spin (which we'll measure as equalling either 1 or -1), and the A, B and C we're going to observe are the spin measurements at three different angles in the same plane.
These pairs of electrons will be emitted by a special source that sends them in opposite directions to one another. The special source also ensures that their spins 'add' to zero. For example, if the right electron (R) has a spin of 1 at a given angle, then the left one (L) necessarily has a spin of -1 at that angle. The weird thing - and the thing that upset Einstein - is that according to quantum theory, between the time that the electron pair is emitted and the time at which some measurement is made, they constitute a single system that can be modelled by a single quantum state function. These electrons can travel very far from one another in this state. However, whenever one is measured, both it and its paired electron drop into a concrete state, IMMEDIATELY, not matter how distant they are from one another. And knowing the spin of the measured one allows you to know the spin of the distant one. This seems to violate the spirit of Einstein's relativity principle, which states that nothing can travel at speeds greater than that of light. This whole experiment is designed to test whether one electron does in fact impact the other in a non-local way.
Next, we have to consider the measuring devices, one for R and one for L. Let's say that the right device measures each R's spin at an orientation that we'll call zero (0). The left one is a bit more fancy; it will measure each L's spin at one of two angles - one that makes an angle of size x with 0, or another that makes an angle of size z with 0. The left device can't measure any one L's spin at BOTH the x and z angles, because the first measurement will decouple the relationship that that particular L has with its R twin.
Now, as long as one assumes, as Bell did, that the world is a realistic and local one, then one can substitute the following quantum state measurements into our simpler non-quantum one as follows:
For A+, substitute R(1) - meaning that the right device measures the R electron of a given pair as having spin of 1.
For B-, substitute Lx(-1) - meaning that the left device measures the L electron of a given pair as having spin of -1 at angle x.
For B+, substitute Lx(1)
For C-, substitute Lz(-1) - meaning that the left device measures the L electron of a given pair as having a spin of -1 at angle z.
From this, we can express Bell's Inequality as:
Number [R(1), Lx(-1)] + Number [Lx(1), Lz(-1)] >= Number [R(1), Lz(-1)]
Because quantum theory implies different correlations among the electron pairs at the various angles of measurement, its predictions violate this inequality. Remember that Bell's only assumptions were of realism and locality. This implies that quantum theory is incompatible with at least one of these two assumptions.
Devices like those I've described do exist, and the experiment has been run many times. In every case, the experimental results have violated Bell's Inequality, thereby supporting quantum theory and driving a stake through the heart of locality (and some say realism). But have we (and more importantly generations of the world's top physicists) missed something?
The final word?
This remained the final word until 1995, when a meteorologist named Tim Palmer used the understanding from his physics PhD as well as his deep knowledge of non-linear dynamics from meteorology to show that, in addition to the assumptions of realism and locality, there is an implicit assumption about counterfactual definiteness embedded in Bell's proof and that that assumption may well not hold. It in effect calls into doubt the legitimacy of steps 1., 3. and 6 in the proof below. Look out for my upcoming post on Tim Palmer's work for more detail about his efforts to re-ground quantum theory in a deterministic and discrete non-linear dynamics.
Proof of Bell's Theorem (using 'N' for 'Number')
1. N (A+, B-) = N (A+, B-,C+) + N (A+, B-, C-); since an object must have the characteristic C or not have it.
2. So N (A+, B-) >= N (A+, B-, C-); since N (A+, B-, C+) cannot be smaller than zero.
3. N (B+, C-) = N (A+, B+, C-) + N (A-, B+, C-); similar reasoning to step 1.
4. So N (B+, C-) >= N (A+, B+, C-); similar reasoning to step 2.
5. So N (A+, B-) + N (B+, C-) >= N (A+, B-, C-) + N (A+, B+, C-); adding inequalities 2. and 4. together
6. But N (A+, B-, C-) + N (A+, B+, C-) = N (A+, C-); similar reasoning to steps 1. and 3.
7. So N (A+, B-) + N (B+, C-) >= N (A+, C-); which completes the proof
I didn't bask for long in the glow of high-school graduation. Within a few weeks, I reported (voluntarily!) to the US Military Academy at West Point, where I would spend the next four years getting a degree and earning a commission in the Army. And this while several of my friends enjoyed a summer before heading off to a life that I could only assume was like the fraternity existence in 'Animal House'.
The first year (called 'Plebe Year') at West Point is always quite a tough one, and 1984/85 was no exception. We couldn't talk, except in the classroom or our own room, unless we were instructed to do so by an upperclassman. We had to ask permission to ask a question - inefficient, I know. We had to walk at a ridiculously rapid rate, with our eyes straight ahead and our elbows locked. When in the barracks (military equivalent to 'dorms'), we had to walk right up against the inner wall of the hallway to be out of the way of the upperclassmen.
The academic load was quite heavy, with 50% greater credits per term than at normal universities. In addition, we had to memorise volumes of data that had nothing to do with our studies. Examples included: the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for the day, the number of days until Army played Navy in football, the number of days until graduation for that year's senior class, the number of lights in one of the halls, the number of gallons in the reservoir, a special definition of leather, the proper response to the question, "How's the cow?" There were endless others, with the intent probably to make the task impossible and then see how we handled it. We also had to be conversant in every article from the front page and main sports page of the NY Times - our only contact with the outside world.
We picked up and delivered the upperclassmen's mail, newpapers and laundry. We counted down the final 10 minutes for them before every formation. We presented ourselves early for every formation to have our appearance and knowledge subjected to rigorous scrutiny. We took mandatory lessons, with graded bouts, in boxing.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Before moving into that relaxed existence in the academic year, we had to endure 'Beast Barracks' - basic training - for 2-1/2 months in our first summer. This was, I imagine, much like the basic training of new privates in the Army, but always with a special twist owing to the particular traditions of the Academy.
My parents drove me to West Point on that first day and attended a briefing with me in the football stadium. At the end of the briefing, parents were packed off to worry and fret about how their little babies were doing, and their little babies were thrown into the crucible. Amid constant shouting and confusion, I was shown to my room, where I had about six nanoseconds to change from my scumbag civilian clothes into my uniform. In a daze, I saw a small black bottle on my desk, sat down, turned it over to examine it, and unscrewed the cap.
Out poured the ink intended for my stamp pad, with which I was meant to mark all my clothes. In this case, I marked them rather differently than I was meant to, as the ink splattered over my white shirt and grey trousers. No time to change - screaming in hallway suggested I needed to move rapidly back out into the big world of training and hazing.
You won't be surprised to hear that I became something of a focus for the upperclassmen for the next few hours, especially for those most keen to hone their abuse and humiliation techniques for the upcoming weeks. The bookies that day wouldn't have given me good odds for making it through the evening's parade for the parents, let alone through Plebe year or the four-year course. I'll tell you now that I did, and I'll look forward to sharing a few more stories in posts to come.
First posted 26 Oct 2003. Much of this reasoning still holds for me today. The original, though, had a sniping, accusatory, condescending tone toward religion, which I've toned down even for re-posting. As a matter of fact, Mark's "...love thy neighbour as thyself." is probably the core of my ethical beliefs these days, turbocharged by seeing that your neighbour IS yourself (but that will take a bit more explaining).
There is no ethical dimension to the universe per se. Nothing, intrinsically, is right or wrong, good or evil. Everything just is. Along with any other self-conscious beings that exist out there, we humans define right and wrong, and it is all too obvious that we disagree among ourselves on many of the finer points. We must simultaneously accept that there is no irreducible moral formula and commit to continuing a pluralistic ethical dialog.
Nearly all of us have a righteous element literally bred into us, and our social conventions reinforce this. This combination of factors means we can hardly help believing that what we (each of us) defines as right is right not by virtue of our definition but as a universal fact, which we simply recognise rather than create. Nonetheless, the right and the wrong are human children, born of a combination of mental ancestors - 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others.
In one sense, our search for universal ethical truths is good. I would like to think that humanity can agree to at least a broad set of principles that all individuals should be held to in their actions and interactions. In this sense, a 'universal' system is probably attainable, although its granularity is limited.
But there is another sense of 'universal' that I don't like at all. For a great part of our history as humans, many have appealed to fixed, closed, non-debatable rules, dictated by an almighty power whom they see as the foundation, the underwriting of morality. I'll write more on religion some other time, but for now I'll just say that I find it dangerous to ascribe to a higher power (who just happens to look like you and believe the things that your culture brought you up to believe) the regulatory minutiae that should govern the world.
Since I see it as a human institution, I fear that the church often has reason number (5) at the heart of its teachings and persecutions. Let's not seek to anchor right and wrong in a universal god or any other thing outside ourselves. I'm not sure, given the world we experience, how it could exist 'out there', and if it did, I don't think that I would trust anyone else in the role of seer and interpreter of the universal truth.
In the past several centuries, many more clever than me have searched diligently for a watertight secular system of ethics, usually basing it in number (3) above, or perhaps in number (2) by way ascribing to all the feelings that they themselves have. I can't pretend to have a simple, univariate, exceptionless system, but I do think that recognising the list above might help us in our moral discourse with one another. Of course, the truth is that we will continue to come up with different detailed answers. It is equally true that we will all need to be on the lookout for those who dress up number (5) in the finery of the previous four.
But perhaps we can establish and build on a core set of principles. Candidates are all around us. Often the biggest obstacle is the 'insider-outsider' syndrome. National laws (most likely those in liberal democracies) set up quite good frameworks for how citizens should deal with one another. They all too often fail to apply the same principles to those outsiders struggling remotely, unknown and unfelt.
I've done little more than put a marker in the ground here - attempting to slay the dragon of superhuman morality with a couple quick thrusts and suggesting the real drivers behind our conceptions of right and wrong. In another post, sometime soon, I'll put forward my (hardly original) view that ethical choices should be based on their predicted consequences and that the real task before us is to move to an inclusive conception of well-being with which to measure those consequences.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.