Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Basics of Evolutionism

I have proposed a new moral framework: evolutionism. The framework is founded on the Basic Imperative, act such as to maximize the survival chance of our distant descendants. The Basic Imperative is foundational, universal and self-evident for any conscious social being. Why do I say self-evident? Because without existence, there is nothing that can hold any other value. Life cannot have meaning without life itself. Living cannot be "good" without being alive. So though we can argue about our ultimate "purpose" we cannot argue about the necessity to exist as beings capable of deliberating about such "purpose" for such "purpose" to have meaning. This is where I think any moral framework must start, with the necessity for some kind of procedures that increase the likelihood of the continued existence of some form of conscious being.

The framework assumes certain basic evolutionary ideas but should not be confused with "genetic" evolution. I consider the theory of evolution to have 3 basic ideas:

  1. Cooperation: A combination of entities can form a whole through their given relationships.
  2. Variability: The possibility of changing the relationships between such entities.
  3. Selection: Persistence and increased occurrence of select variations against a specific background.

I also assume that any cooperation alters and forms a new background against which evolution then again takes place. That is, every cooperation can be treated as a new form of entity capable of forming relationships with the other cooperating entities. Such higher level cooperation is subject to the same variability and natural selection occurring inside the lower level entities. I call this encapsulation. Evolution is, so to say, layered. The success of lower encapsulations depends on the success of higher encapsulations and vice versa.

For example, if a human has a genetic condition that predisposes them to cancer, outside influences are more likely to cause that human's cells to form malignant tumors. But proactive behavior by the human due to knowledge about such genetic predisposition, such as choice of diet and frequent medical checkups, can cause the externals to have minimal impact. The genetic condition is therefore not a cause of increased occurrence to cancers. The cooperative efficiency of the cells suppress tendencies that would otherwise dictate their faith.

Once we abstract evolution to entities and relationships against a background, it seems obvious to me that evolution occurs at all levels of decomposition. Social organizations are as equally subjected to the process of selection as are biological organisms and genetic sequences. For an organization to survive (to continue to be alive), it must efficiently deal with the realities of the environment in which it exists. It must operate with success in the context of that which surrounds it. This aught not to be controversial. This to me seems self evident.

I see morality as a disposition to be in the service of something greater than oneself. Being a social organism implies the necessity for morality. Because in order to be social we must accept that we do not act by ourselves and for ourselves. And if we do not act independently, we must have procedures by which we operate in conjunction with one another. Without such procedures we would not be acting together but fully autonomously. We would not be social beings. Being social means requiring a protocol for our behavior. Such protocols is what we call a moral codex. This should not imply that a certain degree of autonomy is not required for effective cooperation. Effective cooperation depends on an individual unit's capacity to independently make decisions beneficial to the whole. I have already previously explored the required balance between local and central control. I will return to it in the context of evolutionism at some point.

The Basic Imperative does not tells us exactly what to do in any given situation. It simply informs us what our most basic intent should be with reference to the system of which we are a part. It applies to any situation but offers only the vaguest of advice. It would seem that a moral framework should offer more concrete suggestions, perhaps even commandments. However, if a moral codex dictates what should be done in any given situation, it would be tantamount to saying consciousness can be codified into very specific rules. I think that a moral codex can at best provide good guidelines for making the right decisions.

The framework also has to be flexible enough to change such guidelines depending on newly acquired knowledge about the realities of existence. We must, so to say, be capable of abrogating our "rules". Essentially, evolutionism itself must be evolutionary and take into account the three basics of evolution: cooperation, variability, selection. But in order to fulfill the Basic Imperative we cannot leave its evolution to blind chance. Consciousness, the ability to rationally deliberate and be aware of possibilities, is itself a consequence of a deeper (biological) evolution. In some sense, our consciousness has made evolution "sighted". We can, through an empirical process, improve evolutions "guesses". We can reduce the chance of our own extinction through improved heuristics with better "vision" into the future.

The basics of the framework do seem to imply certain fundamental necessities beyond the Basic Imperative. I will attempt to explore these requirements over time.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Compatibilism: Voluntary Trepanning, Anyone?

I see only two ways out of a belief in an omnipotent God that can will things into existence just like that, with...hmmmm...the snap of a divine neuron?

  1. Postulate eternal unbreakable laws
  2. Abandon the idea of ex nihilo nihil fit
    (out of nothing comes nothing)

If you choose 1 but not also 2, then you must abandon Free Will.

And I reject any nonsense about Free Will proposed by so called compatiblists. Did I just remove your favorite chess move? Tough luck! Nonsense is nonsense. If you're interested in political polemics feel free to move your pieces striagonally. What is striagonally? Don't ask me, ask a compatibilist. Striagonality is as mysterious to me as voluntary trepanning.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Want to live? Be ready to die...

On January 13, 2007, my very good friend Alexey Pilipenko died of an enlarged heart muscle. He was only 44 years old. It was the first time I was truly confronted with irreversible loss. Our mental synergy, and I don't know how else to put it than using the word synergy, had been so deep that we had even ventured to form a company together. Our friendship was not always smooth. What friendship is? We did not always agree. Our friendship was, in part, based on a rigorous and heartfelt honesty.

He was one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever met. I occasionally accused him, only half in jest, of having a God Complex. But his timidness thankfully tempered his spirit. I am grateful to be one of the few who had the honor of being subjected to his ruthless but predominantly kindly delivered critique.

It was not the first time someone close to me had died. My grandfather had passed away when I was 19. But it was the first time a peer so close had suddenly vanished. I have always had only a few very close friends at any given time. Alexey was, without any doubt, one of the closest.

Recently, I found myself yet again confronted with the inevitable possibility of our death at any given moment. This time I was confronted with my own mortality. What eventually emerged after that confrontation, while contemplating evolutionism, was a realization that in order to live we must be prepared to die.

When my good friend Jonathan Graves of Corbu heard about my realization through the grape vine, he of course pointed me to a musical rendition expressing something similar: the song War on War by Wilco. And music is so much better than mere words and images at synchronizing our understanding of something with an emotional component.

God's (In)Excellence?

Alvin Plantinga has proposed that a being is maximally excellent if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good. I would almost have to agree, except, what in goodness name is omnipotence? Unlimited power, right? A being that can do anything it chooses. That's interesting. So what does excellence have to do with it? Surely excellence is a quality where you excel at something. You can do something very, very, very well.

If you can do it maximally well, you can do it without any problems at all. I couldn't help but examine what that means. Without any problems. If you will it, it will be. Right there, right then. Unusual. Magical one might say. Miraculous. At close scrutiny, examination of maximal excellence lead me into absurdity, reinforcing yet again my strong agnosticism. Time came to mind. Time, that unidirectional and irreversible principle of being. Surely an omnipotent being is in full and complete control of time.

Would it not be that a maximally excellent being is one who can do everything at the same time? That is to say, for a maximally excellent being, the existence of time aught to be irrelevant. Surely, if I can complete a test in 1 second without any errors, I will be considered more excellent than someone who takes a whole day. Now if I can complete it in 0 seconds, I must certainly be maximally excellent. You cannot get any better than that.

So if God is maximally excellent, then God will have completed all things without ever having done anything, since nothing can be done in no time. If nothing can be done in no time, then how did God do anything? Put differently, if everything is done at the same time, including its final destruction, which must be considered part of the task at hand (i.e. the doing of everything), it's as if nothing was ever done.

But if God is maximally excellent than surely God did something. Because if I do nothing that is required of me in my test in a whole day, then I will surely have failed the test. Unless, of course, I am given an infinite amount of time to complete the test. But if it takes me infinite time to complete the test, how can I be said to be excellent?

Hence God cannot be maximally excellent if God is maximally excellent.

You can replace maximally excellent with an other such combination of adjectives and nouns. Perfectly skilled, most awesome doer, whatever you want. Anything that implies a maximality of great workmanship. It makes no difference. Why would God act in time at all unless God is constrained to work in time? And if God is constrained in time, then God is not unlimited. So I'm left to ask, what other limits does God have? Of course, you could say that all this is not a test, nothing is required of God. But that leaves me wondering what the difference is between God and the principle of indeterminate existence.

Platinga's definition of maximal excellence contains itself a constraint on that which God does. Goodness is required. This, by inference, is Plantinga's creative test for God. Not having read his whole oeuvre, I don't exactly know what Plantinga means by good. But since its an axiom of his modal ontological proof, it aught to be clear prima facie. So let me rephrase it in an attempt to understand it. I think good can be thought of that which is to be desired. But what is ultimately to be desired? Can only an omnipotent being know? Is this omnipotent being bound, again, by some terms of goodness?

Again, time, comes to mind. It can rephrased in an age old question. Why would God act in time, if time implies a transition from what is not desired? With other words, time implies suffering. Why not instantaneously create that which is desired, the good? Plantinga has a response for this. His argument essentially boils down to that there are certain worlds God cannot create, one of them is a world of free agents where the agents are not fallible. Since a world with free agents is better than a world with no agents, God is forced to create a world that contains evil. Again, I'm left asking what other constraints are imposed on this supposed omnipotent yet omnibenevolent being?

So Plantinga concedes that God is constrained. Is this what we are doing when we perform empirical tests, discovering the laws imposed on God? That is, we are discovering God's Constraints. So is there a being greater than God, one that includes both God and God's Constraints? Or is this what God is? God's Constraints and the randomly creative impulse that initially makes anything but ultimately only certain things possible within such constraints? Is God evolution and its prerequisites for variability and selection? Are we part of the process of determining goodness?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bloodlust & the Death of Osama bin Laden

Watching the crowds chant "USA, USA" outside the White house on this evening of May 1, 2011, the word bloodlust comes to mind. It would seem that the crowds are mostly young. Some of them can have been no more than 8 when the Twin Towers fell. I'm sure they might have been traumatized in some indirect way. Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma. But somehow I'm left feeling like their emotions are not the result of deep hurt.

Perhaps some saw the Pentagon struck by a civilian aircraft. Or perhaps there are some New Yorkers there who were present on that fateful day of September 11, 2001. Did they live in Brooklyn under the plume of drifting debris? Did they smell the horror for several weeks, like a continuous electrical fire one would have thought came from one's own basement? Maybe some in that chanting crowd had loved ones who perished in the collapsing skyscrapers. But somehow I'm doubtful. Their bloodlust just seems too full of bravado.

No one should shed a single tear for Osama bin Laden. The man brought upon himself his own death by coordinating gruesome acts against humanity. Yet I do feel saddened by those chanting crowds. Images of Robert-Fran├žois Damiens' quartering come to my mind. Perhaps their behavior is not as explicitly monstrous as those who came to witness the quartering, such as Casanova's acquaintance Count Tiretta de Trevisa. But celebrating someones death so exuberantly, however awful a person they were, seems wrong.

I can see celebrating the end of war. With ecstasy we welcome peace and bid farewell to atrocities. But the death of Osama bin Laden does not seem like the end of anything. I suspect all we have witnessed today is the creation of another Che Guevara, a martyr of a wrong-headed cause.