Little Truths Matter: Conventions and Absolutes

Philosophy is hard.

Oh, sure, it’s easy to sit back and talk about, “What if it was, like, the Matrix, man, and we were just brains in jars?” It can be fun and it can make us think in new ways. Plenty of armchair philosophizing done in bars by people past their third beer has been quite entertaining.

But really finding truths that actually help us live life, that is so difficult that a lot of people want to pretend to do it instead.

And that’s what I’m talking about today, in fact. “Truth”.

On one level, if I point to the workbench I am writing this article on and say “This workbench is made of particle board and has a black lamp on it”, that’s a pretty unambiguously true statement. No one is likely to quibble too much with it.

But on another level, I actually just offered a statement that is fraught with peril. Nagarjuna, Socrates, the Buddha, Heraclitus, and innumerable other thinkers all considered the difficult question (in various forms) of “Where does one object end and another begins? At what point does a lake become a pond?”

Heraclitus, for example, said that “You never step in the same river twice”. We imagine a “river” as being this permanent thing. But the water that flows in the river is not the same water from every second. In practice, rivers ebb and flow. Their banks rise and fall. They carve out and change the environment. In fact, rivers can even change entirely: We have an entirely incredibly complex system keeping the Mississippi River flowing the same way, and a Christian Science Monitor article by William Sargent in 2011 suggested that it may actually be worth it to let the river change course, even though that would mean that multiple towns would have to be flooded and New Orleans and Baton Rouge would no longer have rivers for trade, because it might also rebuild marsh defenses against storms. The fact that a river is not this permanent thing but this phenomenon constantly being made and remade each second actually has huge implications for our life.

Similarly, Plato (through the voice of Socrates) pointed out that, say, we can talk about this abstract idea of a “triangle” having three sides even though there is in fact no such object. Oh, sure, we can draw an abstraction in two dimensions of such an object, and we might even be able to get the lines we draw so straight that it is close enough as to make no odds. But that right triangle that we draw is just as much a triangle as the isosceles triangle someone else draws. There’s actually an infinite array of possible examples of triangles, and squares.

At what point is an object made of wood (or metal or stone or any other material) that has some number of supports a chair as opposed to a table?

My favorite example: At what point does “my computer” end? Let’s say I have a USB mouse plugged into it. Is that part of the computer? What about if I remove a graphics card and replace it with another one? Is it still the same computer? What if I unplug it from the wall and remove the battery? It doesn’t work, but is it still my computer?

Again, this seems like quibbling, but it actually has implications for our lives. Programmers try to make it so that a program recognizes an entity as “a computer”, but sometimes you change enough of the operating system or enough of the components and it thinks that it isn’t any more. Digital rights management techniques for video games and other software that try to give you a certain number of “installs” often run afoul of this problem: Someone removes a graphics card and suddenly one of those precious times in their life that they can install the software they paid for goes away.

You can’t talk about my computer without talking about the power flowing into it, from the electrical system in my house, which in turn means you have to talk about the power plant making that energy, which in turn means you have to talk about how that power plant was built. That means talking about construction contracts and regulations and zoning requirements and how coal was produced from fossils or uranium was found in the Earth or how waves work to generate electricity.

Carl Sagan communicated in his characteristically poignant way how utterly difficult it is to talk about the universe without talking about every single part of it when he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. Even something as simple as an apple pie had to be forged in the heart of a star. I repeat that quote constantly because it should be a mantra for people who love life.

All of these ideas are part of Buddhism. In Buddhist thought, we discuss “conventional” and “absolutetruth. People of a Taoist persuasion also have to deal with these ideas, as do physicists, post-modernist thinkers like Richard Rorty, and systems thinkers like Fritjof Capra. If you want to do good sociology, you find that there’s just no end to the number of variables that matter. Even if you just want to understand the psychology of one person, you may need to understand the psychology of every one of their family members going back generations, every one of their mentors, every one they ever loved.

Now, you might justly be thinking, “Okay, this is all navel-gazing crap. In the real world, I can probably live my life without worrying about the water in a river being the same. I can just jump in and swim”.

But this all also applies to ethics, to the tough judgment calls we always have to make.
In The Sopranos, there’s a wonderful sequence where Tony is faced with both closed-mindedness and philosophy that really makes your soul hurt. He first sees his pastor claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humanity. Tony loves dinosaurs and knows that this claim is absurd. Tony then discusses with another patient, a scientist, about boxing and tornadoes. After the people watching the boxing match say that life is a boxing fight where “we’re [all] alone in the ring”, the scientist points out, “It’s actually an illusion that those two boxers are separate entities”. The scientist then explains: “think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air, two tornadoes, say. They appear to be two things, right? Two separate things. But they’re not. Tornadoes are just wind, the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate. Everything’s connected”.

The point of this scene is that it’s not just the tornadoes that are connected. It’s good and evil. We imagine two titanic tornadoes beating at each other, one good and one evil. But it’s all just wind. It’s all just interconnected phenomena. We are all connected. And the differences between us are ones of degrees.

The vast majority of people can agree that someone defending themselves with a firearm against an assailant in their own home is behaving reasonably, even if they unfortunately take a life.

What if the assailant is a fifteen year old kid who was going to run the moment a gun was pointed?  What if the assailant is a fifteen year old kid who has a bat and pretends he won’t run, but when push comes to shove, he will? What if it’s not on one’s own home, but on the street? What if the person in question is in a bar fight that he did not start and kills the other combatant? What if the person in question is in a bar fight that he did start, but did not immediately escalate to intense violence, and the other combatant does, and then he kills the other combatant?

Each one of these little degrees matters. Each one of them is an area where we find our bright lines fade, just like how a real bright line that we might put onto asphalt actually ends up being quite fuzzy when we look close even before the weathering effects of entropy make that line fade.

This interconnection between us is why we must forgive. It is why we must embrace an ethic where we do our best to never hurt, never take advantage of each other, never treat each other like empty objects or toys or means to an end. It’s why we can never allow ourselves to boil down another human being to one word like “monster” or “killer” or even “philosopher”. If we let ourselves think that the depth and breadth of any one person can be summed up in a single breath, that interconnection that we all have means the dominos fall and every one of us is lessened.

This whole article has been inspired with a repeated debate I’ve had with my Dad. My Dad is an incredibly intelligent man, and his love of both Buddhism and physics leads him to view the world in a very big and interconnected way.

In high school debate, we used to talk about “bright lines” that let a judge decide how to vote in a round. Dad pointed out today that “There are no bright lines, in debate or anywhere else”.
And he’s right.

But I’ve come to see, even as a Buddhist, that even with all of this worry about what constitutes truth and how abstract and arbitrary our conventions can be, that the truths we find all matter.
See, when we make a bright line like “I’m not ever going to do anything close to cheating on my wife”, we help preserve our soul. Maybe our wife could tolerate us kissing another person.

Maybe we could even potentially get away with having a very close and intimate friend of the sex we’re attracted to. But we will do our utmost, even as complicated as real life gets, to have lines we will not cross.

As we get closer to that line, we can still hurt the people we love. But at least we have limited how far we can go.

I have one belief that I have held through the greatest doubts I have experienced. It has been repeated again and again. It is this: Everything matters. Everything in this reality matters. Every feeling we have, every memory, every fleeting image of the past, every event, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. It all has moral heft and weight.

Now, if I’m thinking philosophically, I could quibble and prevaricate about all sorts of things like “What does it mean to ‘matter’? What about false memories: Should they be given the same standing as valid ones? What does it even mean, really, to say that a memory is ‘false’ or ‘valid’?”

But there is a difference between truth and falsehood. The fact that truth is complicated doesn’t make it so we can make anything up. It actually means we have to be very vigilant about the truths we find. The truths matter more, not less, because they’re so hard won.

The difference between a stream and a river may be arbitrary, but there is no presentation of reality that we can offer where jumping into a stream instantly lights you on fire. There is no presentation of reality that we can reasonably offer where the Nazi regime did not intentionally murder millions of human beings, no matter how much white supremacists might wish it so. The hard reality of the Holocaust, of the brutality of the treatment of Native Americans, of the harms that happen in our real world today because of sexual torture and trauma, of sex slavery and human trafficking… this hard reality exists, and no amount of talking about Bergson over a beer will make it go away.

I say all of this because we so often allow the ideas that we hear about, like the fact that the universe is overwhelmingly empty space or the idea that we could all be brains in jars, push us towards justifying our cynicism or apathy or inaction.

Marx stated erroneously that the purpose of philosophy had been to explain the world. In fact, virtually every philosopher also had plenty of ideas on how to change it. But Marx was right that the point of our philosophies that we embrace should be to change our world.

And no matter how hard it is for us to figure out what “change” means, what “the world is” and even what “better” would be, we have to puzzle through it with an open heart.

Or there may be none of us left to wonder about the water in a river.


Property as Theft: An Introduction

This is another (appropriately edited) response to a Quora question that asked, “In what ways could profit be considered theft”?

My opinion on the issue as regards profit as being theft basically combines Proudhon, Marx, Locke and Pogge.

In actual fact, people can control physical property. If I have a backpack of stuff, then it’s under my control.
“Ownership” is a value statement. It’s an idea that an object isn’t just in my possession but really belongs to me, and someone else having it without my consent or transaction means they don’t really “own” it, just have it.

For certain societies to work, we have to accept that some intangible assets or some assets that are somewhat abstract can be owned. We have to accept that a certain parcel of land can be viewed as belonging to someone, usually through some kind of deed. We have to accept that a factory, and therefore its output, “belongs” to that person. Even ideas can be considered to be “owned”.

Property is therefore a collective agreement. It’s an idea that says, “We’re all going to come up with some maxim that says that the amount of stuff that people get is their own. It shouldn’t be able to be taken away”.

Of course, enforcing that collective agreement requires things like police. So people have to pay some money into the collective chest so that everyone can hopefully keep more.

So when profit, or property of any kind, can be theft is when either that social contract is somehow illegitimate or someone is breaking that social contract.

A mobster and a corporation that is making profit through illegal mechanisms such as dumping share the trait that they have a lot of property, either currency or some other kind of property, can be said to be stealing their profit because they’re violating the social contract of laws under which you can own something.

So too is someone engaging in tax evasion, or welfare fraud, or embezzlement.

These are somewhat obvious points. What’s less obvious and a lot more controversial is the idea that someone making money without breaking the laws could still have no right to it.

Locke, as Pogge has argued, had an implicit justification for inequality. The idea was that society elevates us above a state of nature. If I make 100,000 widgets a year and you make 50,000, but in a state of nature we both make 10,000, that’s a justifiable arrangement.

Of course, Locke’s position is minimalistic, and people like Rawls criticized that idea harshly.

But the point is that you have to be making 10,000 widgets.

The moment you’re making 9,000, then every one of my widgets above 10,000 is theft.

Globally, there are billions facing food inequality, the inability to access water, or the inability to access shelter.

Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath pointed out that people were starving while oranges were rotting. A lot of people in the world could literally do better if they could forage.

That means that every single person in their societies, and arguably every one globally, that has more profit or income or net worth than what they’d get in a state of nature is stealing it.

Considering that these arrangements have been brought about by force, that theft is actually violent theft.

Consider a homeless person who tries to live on a national park. Police and rangers will run him out.

But that person is merely trying to survive the best he can. Society failed to provide for him.

Of course, if that homeless person had a good job and lost it because of some incompetence or mistake, how much blame do they have? How much blame can we put onto the educational system or bad parenting? How much can we put upon labor mismatches and geography? How much blame can we attribute to the lack of mental health infrastructure and services?

These are where these issues get complicated. In a state of nature, if I get eaten by a lion, that’s on me. But if I got pushed into a lion’s den, that’s on someone else.

You’ll also notice that Locke’s assumption implicitly limits property rights too. Locke defended property rights, but why is it that a person who makes billions is entitled to those billions? If there needs to be taxes to, say, pay for the collective welfare, and those taxes will cut their wealth down to size, they’re still doing better than a state of nature.

This idea of the legitimacy of the social contract is what is actually at stake in these concepts. A great example is when we talk about debt enforcement. Plenty of countries in the Third World have what we call debts, but those debts were rung up by dictators propped up from abroad. Why should the population have to pay for the privilege of having been brutalized? The Greek government today has an excellent case for why Germany in particular owes them reparations. It’s a complicated debate, but it centers on the idea that history matters.

I personally argue for a participatory economy as outlined by Michael Albert, which you can learn more about at Introduction – Participatory Economics. While I do not think that such an economy is the only just one, I do not believe that our present economy matches even the minimal standards of justice.

philosophy, religion

Free Will, Science and God

I’m sure I’ll be repeating this theme a number of times over the years, but there’s a problem with the way that humanistic, atheistic, or science-minded people often act.

It’s a specific argument: “Religion is coercive. It explains the universe as being at the whims of a capricious god”.

That’s a fair argument for a lot of faiths. It’s not the imagination of any religious person worthy of the name, though. Imagining a benevolence to the universe doesn’t mean imagining that that benevolence is restrictive and coercive. In fact, it means the opposite.

See, many religions have one exception for the whims of the gods: Free will.

It’s actually one of the cultures we have most closely emulated in the West, the Greeks, that advanced a fatalism that binded the universe, even their gods. The Greeks believed that Fate was a power even Zeus had to bend to. The masters of the sea, the sky, and the afterlife still were controlled by fate.

So too did the Nordic peoples believe that Ragnarok or Gotterdammerung (the death of the gods) was inevitable. Even Thor and Odin would die against their nemeses.

When we’re talking about “God”, what we’re often talking about is the nature of the cosmos. And this is one of those easy areas of overlap between science and religion.

So in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ability of people to choose, to venerate God or not to, to follow their own path that might go against the preferences of the creator, is a crucial piece of doctrine. It’s an important philosophical idea that runs throughout nature.

Of course, it’s scientifically quite likely (and seems in fact almost certain) that there’s more things in the universe that are not deterministic than the human will, derived from the human brain. And it’s even possible that human beings are more deterministic than we’d like to believe.

But the point here is that many scientific understandings are exactly as ideologically coercive as religious ones.

It’s easy for smart people with a mathematical or engineering mindset to think of the world as a nice, clean, neat machine. Everything fits in its place. There’s rules that govern it.

The only problem is that that mentality rarely works well with people.

So both religion and science have the ability to advance a notion of the universe as a whole where the parts don’t matter. Both religion and science can end in the conclusion that people are just machines puttering along, no different from a wind-up toy.

And it’s possible to believe in a God that loves freedom. After all, any good parent wants their child to be free, happy and to grow on their own merits. In fact, a truly great God (and one that would be uncomfortably compassionate for many Christians) would want Its children to exceed and succeed it.

Maybe the biggest problem is when we reduce incredibly complex belief systems to singular ideas. From Newtonian mechanics and the Enlightenment worldview on the side of secularism to the ideas of the Dreamtime or various Christian conceptions of the universe such as the gnostic idea of the universe being a locus of corruption, they’re big paradigms with lots of moving parts.

So maybe we should try to let people have the mix of ideas that work for them instead of pretending that there’s some simple one-to-one correlation between a complicated belief system and simplistic outcomes.

Certainly, let’s embrace the idea that human beings can be greater than the sum of their parts, and try to expand the amount of freedom we have to choose and to create.

philosophy, transhumanism

Roko’s Basilisk and A Better Tomorrow

Roko’s Basilisk is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the futurist movement.

Okay, so we have to explain Roko’s Basilisk now, because it’s some absurd shit.

So Roko, a commentator on transhumanist forums, pointed out that a future transcendental computer intelligence might, under consequentialist understandings of morality, punish those who did not do everything possible to advance its existence.

The reason why the idea became called a basilisk, after the creature whose gaze petrifies or kills, is that other commentators pointed out that even reading the thread would actually worsen the consequences thereof. See, if you read the thread, you’d know that the future intelligence would do that, so you’d have had no excuse to try to advance the intelligence’s existence. At least if you hadn’t read the thread you might be able to advance ignorance of it.

This seriously caused enough people distress that discussion of it has been stopped on many transhumanist forums.

Now, of course, one can dismiss this as XKCD did as being just incredibly silly. And it really is.
But it also shows something about the belief systems of not only many of these people actively participating in these discussions, but a lot of humans who may not be on these forums or even identify as transhumanists but have implicit assumptions.

Our fears reflect our worldviews.

The people who are afraid of the superintelligence punishing them because it uses utilitarian ethics are afraid of a bully.

They imagine a superintelligence that is capable of immense reasoning and helping humanity but not of empathy or forgiveness.

A true superintelligence, assuming it was designed correctly, would have empathy. Love. Compassion.

It would recognize that some people were afraid of it and try to assuage those fears.

It would recognize that some people had different priorities and different beliefs, and respect them. It would recognize that many people didn’t believe that a supercomputer was in fact the means to solve humanity’s problems.

It would recognize that human beings are not pigeons to be given buttons to press or dogs to be chastised. It would recognize that we react to different incentives than those of fear or bribery.

It would recognize that it’s immoral to punish someone who didn’t give proactive effort to a cause.

It wouldn’t just use utilitarian ethics. It would use virtue ethics and deontological ethics. It would think ethically in ways we can’t imagine.

And that’s the problem with transhumanism.

All we can imagine is extending our lifespan, building our intelligence, having those rad Borg cyber-eyes with the laser tracer and cool bionic limbs with grappling hooks.

We routinely don’t imagine having technology that will make us kinder.

We don’t imagine improvements to our brain that, instead of making us smarter and thus more able to hurt others, make us more empathic and ethically conscious so that we hurt others less.

We don’t imagine improvements that would let us better manage the bursts of anger that leads us to say cruel things, the myopia of closed-minded worldviews that let us tolerate hurting each other.

We do imagine computers that think like armchair intellectuals rather than loving beings.

I have no problem with the idea of artificial intelligence. I have no problem with enhancing humanity and fixing the environment using nanotechnology, cybernetics and genetic technology. There are ethical issues that we will have to navigate, and some schemes that will have to be rejected for any number of reasons.
But if we today can’t imagine a truly better world, our technology won’t do it for us.

One thing that the Roko’s Basilisk people have right is this: Roko’s Basilisk is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because the kind of people who believe in it will make a computer that fulfills it.