Archives for posts with tag: Wait what about ethics?

Of course, the only reasonable way to measure science would be scientifically; that is to say, objectively. So how do we measure science scientifically? Well, by subtracting all value, science could only be measured quantitatively. We know x about the universe, we know how to do y, and we know how z happens, and we add those up and that is the measure of science. Science is really just a series of notches on humanity’s belt. Unfortunately for science, even this measure is flawed because scientific data tends to be paradigmatic and something we learned today could very well be considered false tomorrow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as recognizing science’s fallibility is often celebrate by the scientifically minded, but since valuing fallibility is a value, it can’t be taken into account by our measure of science and must be discarded. The scientific measure of science ends up being mostly disappointing.

Luckily, we don’t measure science scientifically. I don’t think many people would equate the invention of the printing press with the invention of the slinky, as a quantitative approach would mandate. Collectively, we tend to value the spread of information more than we do the warped physics of spirals and staircases. We value penicillin because we happen to enjoy being alive. We value the observation of space because we tend to be a very curious species about the universe surrounding us. We value sliced bread because doing the slicing ourselves is always just such a mess. We aren’t looking for the cure for cancer because we think it would be a neat little factoid, we are looking for a cure for cancer because we value not dying from cancer. Obviously each person’s values will be different and people will value some scientific discoveries higher than others, that is just the subjective nature of individuality. In the end though, we measure science by our cultural values, and then somewhat ironically celebrate science for abstaining from participating in those same cultural values. So it’s a curiosity to me that we tend to ignore the measure of the process with which we measure everything else.

Today we live in something that I heard one time and loved: the Christian hangover. What this means is that Christianity in the West was kind of a big deal right up until God died, and then we mostly forgot about it. However, parts of it carried on and we’re using a bit of the hair of the dog to tide us over. What this means for our value system is that the old Christian values still remain without any of the God backing them up. We still consider murder and stealing bad, for example, but the reason nobody questions why is because we still assume the absolutist nature of morality that is associated with Christian belief, even though the ‘why’ is gone.

So why is murdering somebody a bad thing? Maybe people get as far as that we shouldn’t harm others, but then you have to ask further questions like, what constitutes harm? and WHY shouldn’t we harm others? Do we adopt the social contract model where I won’t harm you so you don’t harm me? Do we consider this self-interested approach a valid basis for morality?

Unfortunately, by not asking these questions, or by tacitly ignoring those who do, our baser nature has seeped into our cultural values and infected them. We celebrate greed and selfishness by declaring the ultimate goal of individuals in society to be succeeding financially at any cost. We’re taught not to go into the arts, but into something that will get us a job. To compete with our peers rather than cooperate with them. Our science reflects these values and most scientific development centres around product enhancement and resource extraction, or ultimately just something to eventually sell. We sacrifice our passions so that we can live according to values begotten by an amnesia of how we got to this point in the first place.

I don’t mean to suggest that during the Christian era there was a mightier moral fibre, but that there was a guideline (created by a grassroots organization, mind you) against which things could be effectively measured. Today, with that guideline gone, we’ve essentially allowed the dominant power group to define the new set of guidelines against which everything is to be measured. Unfortunately, we are too blinded by our scientific mindset which alienates moral questioning with its dismissal of values to efficiently retaliate for a more effective cultural value system.

I don’t plan on proselytizing my own value system to replace the current one (in this blog, anyway), I merely want to illuminate what I perceive to be a fatal flaw in the scientific worldview: namely its avoidance of values and the consequences that follow from that.

Some people think that a meaningless universe is inherently depressing. That a world without value or purpose is a void, is empty, and that emptiness seeps into all aspects of our being and tarnishes it black with despair. Nihilism is alleged to be the only reasonable belief system within an empty universe, and this frightens people. We all feel that there is meaning, and if that meaning is based on nothing, then it becomes invalid.

But let us look at a purposed universe. If the universe has to start at point Alpha, and must end at point Omega, then all the events between those two points necessarily must be predetermined because everything must culminate at this final position. If we are driving towards a particular end, then we would have no choice but to head towards it. We would be interchangeable cogs; our own value would be nothing, and the only possible meaning would lie in the path, not those who follow it.

If we are free, however, and we can either choose to follow the purposed path or ignore it, then that would be like “choosing” what 2 + 2 might equal. The answer could only ever be 4, and we end up not actually choosing at all.

If we are free to choose to the point where the Omega becomes fluid, then this universal purpose becomes invalid. Think of a screwdriver. If a screwdriver is only ever used to, I dunno, stab people in the eyeballs or something, and is never actually used to screw things, can we genuinely say its purpose to screw is imbued within it? Is it a screwdriver, or is it a stabby tool? By every single perspective, it would be a stabby tool, because that is the purpose that we have prescribed to it. Its created purpose would be irrelevant.

Any universe, if it has a beginning with a predetermined set of events that would lead a causal chain towards an inevitable end, saps any meaning from the individual and places it onto that chain. I know I was using Biblical terms to show the issues with God’s Plan, but this works with material determinism as well. At least with God there’s a semblance of hope and goodness in it. The common consensus is that entropy is the Omega of the material universe, and if our purpose lies solely in our path, then our purpose as material beings can only be death.

If there is no inherent meaning, however, then we are free. Some might argue that birth and death would be our Alpha and our Omega, and that freedom within these two illustrates that freedom can be possible within a purposed universe. However, death is not our ultimate Omega. Jean-Paul Sartre says, “It has often been said that we are in the situation of a condemned man among other condemned men who is ignorant of the day of his execution but who sees each day that his fellow prisoners are being executed. This is not wholly exact. We ought rather to compare ourselves to a man condemned to death who is bravely preparing himself for the ultimate penalty, who is doing everything possible to make a good showing on the scaffold, and who meanwhile is carried off by a flu epidemic.” Death, though inevitable, is unpredictable and just as contingent as everything else, thus making it impossible to be our purpose.

Because we are free, we choose our meaning every moment of every day. We constantly assign value, and our purpose comes from our decisions in the face of the contingencies of the purposeless universe. We are not an infinitesimal part of some “great plan”, we are the greatness. I would argue that the purposed universe is the empty one, because we as individuals become insignificant. In a meaningless one, we have the only significance.

The reason we fear the purposeless universe isn’t because we believe it leads to nihilism. It’s because it means we are responsible. In a universe with meaning, we are without obligation, without fear, because we know that what we do must be a part of what necessarily must happen. If we are free, then everything we do we are responsible for. Responsibility holds the greatest weight. One choice removes all other possible choices forever, and we can’t not choose.

It is, of course, impossible to prove or disprove fatalism. The jury is also still out on whether or not quantum theory has fully disproved material determinism. Just because a meaningless universe sounds better, doesn’t make it the truth.

I’m going to give two examples that personally make me lean more towards meaninglessness over meaning. I volunteer at a recovery house for drug addicts, and some guys get better, but most don’t. Sometimes the guys in the house get along, and sometimes they don’t. To me, if someone is trying to make a better life for themself, and they get placed in a house with someone else who they just can’t fundamentally get along with, and are forced to live next to this person 24/7, the likelihood of that person relapsing shoots up to almost 100%. Well, both of them, really. That something so trivial as the timing one is placed into a home for healing can make or break someone’s life, quite literally, is absurd. But it happens.

The other example is love. That there is someone out there that is perfectly compatible with you actually is quite likely. The law of averages says that someone within the entirety of the human race would have to have optimum compatibility with you. And that person would even necessarily have to be culturally compatible with you to the point of at least putting your location and timelines pretty close together. But pretty close together is relatively speaking compared to the entirety of the human race. Living on the west coast of Canada, my optimized ideal match could very well be in England, or Australia, or could just be being born right now. The likelihood of us ever meeting is almost non-existent. But let’s add the stipulation that this is a person that I will actually come across. There must be, throughout my life, the most optimized match for me. It won’t be as strong a match, but it will be stronger than anyone else I meet. But how many people do I actually engage with that I meet? Maybe I just see her on the bus, and we’re both wearing headphones. Or we just pass in the street. Now let’s add the further stipulation that of all the people that I engage with at least to the point where a relationship might become possible, there has to be an optimum match of those. But what if she’s just getting out of a relationship and is unable to commit? Or the opportunity passes because it is not recognized? Or I’m in a relationship and it’s fine enough that I am disinclined to leave it? We’ve already added so many stipulations that we’ve eliminated most of our optimal matches, and even when we’ve made it the easiest it can be to spend all of our days with this watered down “love of our life”, there are still many factors contributing to even that not coming to pass. Let’s be nice and say that you do meet this person and fall in love and spend the rest of your days together. What if you meet this person in the hospital bed next to you as you lay dying in your final days?

Dostoevsky has similar views on a universe with purpose. He looks at the suffering of children, and goes through many examples of horrific events involving the death and massacre of innocents. An army general letting loose his hunting dogs on a child; a child being locked in a Russian outhouse overnight, etc. He suggests that if the purpose of a universe is an ultimate harmony and bliss, why must it be paid for by the suffering of children? “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I would protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Dostoevsky looks at the world, and rejects any purpose that necessarily requires the atrocity that he sees. That the universe might work in mysterious ways is another position Dostoevsky rejects: “I must have retribution, or I will destroy myself. And not retribution in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.” What value has justice if it’s obscured and postponed to the point of irrelevancy?

Yes, it is possible that this this world of seemingly pointless horror does have a point to it. A point that removes freedom and responsibility from those who participate in it. It is equally possible that there isn’t, and to me that seems the more sensible, and uplifting option. Unless all the meaning you’ve created for yourself disappears through contingencies outside of your control, and there is no permanent meaning outside yourself that you can cling to, that will always be there waiting for you, THEN I guess it could be a little depressing. But more meaning can always be created, and despair is not an excuse to not search for more. Just as misery can be pointless, so too can joy. Ever find ten bucks laying on the sidewalk?

Reality can be boiled down to a simple equation: perception + experience. What we receive via our senses is interpreted by the knowledge we have gained by our experiences, and this outcome is what we call reality.

If, for example, I existed during the era of the Roman Empire, I would perceive the sun arcing across the sky, and the experiences of my upbringing would inform me that it was Apollo in his chariot. If I had never experienced anything to tell me differently, then that is how I would view reality. It’s not that I’m dumb or wrong, it’s that my reality is shaped by the things I have learned and by the things that I see (touch, taste, etc.) I wouldn’t believe Apollo was the sun if I never saw the sun nor felt its warmth in the first place, after all.

There is also the weight of the perception versus the weight of the experiences. Copernicus, to stick with the sun analogy, would have grown up under the pretense of a geocentric universe. However, his observations towards the stars overcame his learned experiences, and perception won out, creating the very first experience of a heliocentric universe.

The only reason we look on the Roman version of me as ridiculous for believing that the sun is the god Apollo is because our species has the collective experience of the Copernican revolution. It is shared in our media, literature, dialogues concerning the universe, etc. and so our experiences regarding the reality of the sun are quite weighty.

For example, if today I saw the sun blip from one part of the sky to another, seemingly teleporting across the horizon, the weight of my experiences would override my perception. I would assume I had fallen asleep, and woken up at a different time of day, or that it was a trick of the light that caused me to misperceive the solar blip. I would interpret these perceptions, and therefore reality, in such a way that would make sense with regard to the experiences I had accumulated over my lifetime. I would discount my perceptions as false, and carry on as if they had never happened, leaving reality unaltered.

However, if new experiences availed themselves to me, for example if I learned that others than myself had seen the blip, if it made the newspapers the next day, scientists were exclaiming bafflement, etc. then the weight of my original perception would increase and reality would shift to accommodate these new experiences.

One might argue that this subjective reality works only on an individual scale, and when joined into a collective, such as through peer-reviewing, or replicability, this would give a glimpse into a more objective reality. However, I would disagree and say that a collection of subjects is still subjective. The addition of new perceptions and a greater amount of experiences still falls within my original definition.

New ideas are frequently met with derision and ridicule because of that very same collective agreement of experiences among a society that dictate what we call reality. Copernicus and Galileo were keenly aware of that distrust of new versions of reality, even though today we dismiss those who condemned them as ignorant. Was it because the Church was afraid of losing its tenuous monopoly on the truth, or was it for the same reasons that today we would mock and scorn someone who adamantly claimed that leprechauns existed? Even potentially lock them up in the loony bin? Is it because there necessarily cannot be leprechauns, or is it because humanity has never had a weighty enough experience of leprechauns in order to accept them into our collective reality?

Even if you disagree with me, and believe that not only is there some kind of ultimate, objective reality, but human beings can access it (outside of our sensory perceptions and our experiences, (?)somehow(?)) then that is only because the experiences in your life have given such weight to that “objective” view of reality that your perception of my ideas does not hold up against them.