Sunday, November 30, 2014

Did God create the "evil"?

First, "evil" doesn't truly exist.  It is not a force in the universe.  It is a valuation of behavior and phenomena.  In the absence of subjective experience that valuation does not exist.  It may also be that a subjective concept of fairness cannot exist in the absence of social drives.  (I suspect this is true but I'm not prepared to make such a claim in absolute terms.  Comments are welcomed.)  As a result, what we perceive as 'wrong-doing' wouldn't be perceived as wrong without social instincts or culturally learned social norms (which stem from social instincts).  If somehow we managed to be social creatures in a world where harm were not possible we probably couldn't conceive of wrong-doing or evil as no action could result in consequences worse than lost opportunity.  Evil is merely a shorthand for behavior and phenomena that offend our desires for fairness and freedom from harm.

Second, in a theological god model, we need to separately consider (a) the creation of a world which allows evil (harm and unfairness) from (b) other actions by that god that we might perceive as unfair or harmful.
a.  Should we hold the god accountable for harm that results from creation of a harm-enabled environment?  For example, if someone were to put broken glass in a playpen and also put a baby in the playpen can we blame them for the cuts the baby will almost inevitably receive?  It may seem a straw man argument in that the baby lacks awareness necessary for alleged free will, but (1) real babies are really harmed in our real world and (2)  and even as aware adults our awareness is never complete; thus we are susceptible to harm we can't be adequately aware of.
b.  Additionally, a theological god is 'at work' in people's lives.  And if in our material world wherein we cooperate and compete for resources, is it possible for such a god to tip the scales in any one person's favor without tipping in a less favorable way for other people?  There may be exceptions but generally the answer is: no.  If we are to assume God had a hand in David's victory over Goliath it shouldn't be hard to see that from Goliath's perspective (and that of the Philistines) God's intervention was evil (unfair and harmful).  Who created that evil?
Third, let's not overlook natural evil.  I think we can generally agree that animals are capable of experiencing pain.  (They have nervous systems.  If they didn't they would suffer the same consequences as congenital analgesia patients.)  Most animals die painfully... to predation, disease, trauma.  Natural disasters produce massive concentrations of suffering to humans and other animals.  And, "Most accidents happen in the home."  Were we placed in a world created for us yet is obviously out to get us?  It might be argued that harm has benefits.  And it's somewhat true, in a tautological way.  When we get hurt we learn to value freedom from harm.  But if the world weren't harmful we wouldn't need this lesson.

Fourth, did the god create the animals?  With varying degrees of denial of a natural bio-genesis and evolution we have to consider where these animals came from? 
(from: God's Parasites )

Fifth, does (or will) evil 'exist' in Heaven?  If not then how can all the reasons evil is necessary on Earth suddenly become unnecessary in that change of venue? There are arguments (rationalizations actually) for why we might 'need' to experience a temporary world of suffering before we experience an eternal world without suffering.  But these postulates really don't hold water, especially considering the vast range in both duration and quality of life we experience.  How long does a baby, child or young adult need to live before they've met the heavenly prerequisite?  How much must they suffer first?  The whole concept of this life being a necessary evil as a stepping stone to a perfect afterlife is intellectually bankrupt.  And if it is true that good is not possible without the presence or potential for bad, it doesn't bode well for the ultimate good of Heaven.  (I half expect someone to claim that the "bad" of Hell allows for the "good" of Heaven, or some special case pleading for Heaven/God.  Feel free to preemptively counter one of these claims in comments.)

The argument that the possibility of evil is necessary for the existence of freewill is largely meaningless unless you can make a decent case for the existence of freewill.  Arguments that are made for the existence of freewill are unconvincing on an objective level.  Arguments that freewill is in illusion are increasingly consistent with demonstrable facts as science continues to improve our understanding of neurophysiology.  It would be irresponsible of me to claim this matter has been resolved.  But as our knowledge increases, the presupposition of freewill unravels.

Some believe that good vs. evil is about picking sides, choosing to be on the side of good.  In the sense that behavior that is 'good' is behavior that is beneficial to something (perhaps humanity or some part of it) and behavior that is 'evil' is harmful to something (perhaps humanity, perhaps a fly that has just had it's wings removed) you're either acting in our (humanity's) favor or against it.  (I would argue that even in the example of torturing flies, humanity is harmed even if it's only morally, philosophically or on some academic level.)  But no one is going 'pick a side' and strive to do 'evil' at every possible opportunity.  Likewise, those who consciously choose to pick the good side are going to make choices along the way that will do more harm than good, knowingly or otherwise.  Sure, you can pick a side, but it's merely an abstract and unrealizable ideal.  It might be better to realize that as humanity, and life in general, are going to outlast you, your greater responsibility is to them, rather than yourself.

Did God create the "evil"?  If a god can take any credit for the creation of this world and the good things that exist in it, then it must also be accountable for the world it created and the evil things in it.  Just as we would hold accountable any human creator that knowingly unleashes harm into the world.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Freewill, The illusion of

For every choice, there are perceived factuals which are weighed by the chooser. Counter-factuals could alter the choice, depending on the nature of the counter-factuals. The previous experience and current psychological state (including desires) of the chooser are beyond their choice. Fatuals that are not perceived do not weigh into the choice. There is a choice that is made but under a given set of perceived factuals and psychological state the chooser could not choose differently. "I could if I wanted to." But you don't want to. That would be a different psychological state.

For every choice I've ever made I can imagine circumstances which would have caused me to choose differently. Feeling how I felt, wanting what I wanted and knowing what I knew I could not have chosen differently. If there had been a different feeling, desire or understanding then the choice made would have been subject to those influences.

There are times when I don't know why I make the choices I do. But the spontaneous or capricious nature of the choice doesn't make my choice less deterministic. If anything these mysterious choices suggest that feeling and desire are capable of operating with minimal influence from an understanding of the circumstances.

When I do something random this does not suggest that I am exercising free will, rather I'm responding to (usually) ineffable stimuli. When I do something deliberate I am reacting to better identified, better considered stimuli. In all cases I am beholden to environmental, physiological and psychological influences.

Each feeling, desire and perception of circumstances is another bit of coercion steering me (and any of us) to a resulting choice. There may be no outside agent twisting our arm, the choices we make may be our own, but it is a mistake to think that for a given set of circumstances we are able to make more than one choice.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


What is Morality and where does it come from?

It’s usually best to begin by defining confusable terms.  In this case I’m using “morality” and “morals” to simply refer that part of us that seeks to act fairly, kindly or altruistically.  It is the innate desire to do right.  We may have rules, laws, social conventions and other codified ethics.  But the feeling, the underlying motive, the meta-ethic is “morality.”  This definition may seem to be inconsistent with traditional usage.  By this definition many activities traditionally identified as immoral seem to be dismissed or perhaps still are immoral but for different reasons.

In order for an entity to be a moral agent it must have subjective experience and empathy. 

The subjective experience is a matter of environmental factors generating preferences in us.  Things that tend to damage us tend to feel uncomfortable or painful.  Things that tend to increase our safety, survival and reproduction tend to feel comfortable or good.  Without this subjective experience it would be difficult to justify any claim of one thing or state being better than another.  We would still have considerations of practicality.  For instance we might realize it is better to keep both arms than to lose one.  Or we might consider it is better to be alive than dead.  But without subjectivity in our experience we would not develop spontaneous preferences.  Without our own subjective experience it would be difficult to appreciate the subjective experience of others.

As biological organisms we have needs and constraints and as a result: drives.  Food, water and breathable air cover our most basic individual needs.  Since we are mortal, we as a species need to reproduce as well.  We require an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold with a fairly narrow ideal temperature range.  We can refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy for an extend list of less basic needs.  But the required resources available to satisfy these needs (and/or our ability to gather them) are limited.  We typically find ourselves in competition with each other and other organisms for the resources to satisfy our needs.

We have the ability and tendency to recognize, anticipate and appreciate the subjective experience of others.  It’s difficult to say whether (or to what degree) this empathy is genetic versus cultural (nature vs. nurture.)  The physiology of mirror neurons supports genetics but I wouldn’t expect that to be the whole story.  Additionally we are social creatures.  There are many species of social creatures all of whom have little or no culture.  Whether empathy gave rise to our social drives or our social drives gave rise to our empathy is subject to speculation.  (“Empathy gave rise” is far more plausible.)  But in humans social drive and empathy don’t seem to scale in one-to-one correlation.

Subjectivity and empathy make us moral agents: entities capable of recognizing, anticipating and appreciating the subjective experience of other subjective entities, even where that capacity is not reciprocal. For instance we would be able to appreciate the suffering of a komodo dragon but we should not expect it to appreciate our suffering.  The dragon is not a moral agent.  What about a baboon or gorilla?  These are creatures that appear to appreciate the subjective states in others of their own kind, at least of their own group.  If they attacked a human they would probably have a fair understanding of the suffering their human victim would experience.  But would they care, or rather could they care?  The answer seems to rely on previous interaction, on established relationships and on the situation at hand.  Moral agency in non-human primates appears to be present but stifled.

Group identity will strongly influence behavior in social creatures.  Our devotion to our many social circles varies.  Family tends to generate the strongest devotion but shared experience and ideology can create strong psychological bonds as well.  We find ourselves grouped with friends, neighbors, co-workers, civic groups, political groups, people with shared interests (environment, sports team, music genre/artists…), religious groups and others.  Our devotion to the people and groups we identify with can be based on familiarity.  But often we find ourselves devoted to an ideal, a cultural concept, which in turn reinforces our devotion to the related group and individuals.

From an evolutionary standpoint the power of cultural influences may seem difficult to reconcile.  But ceremonies and rituals almost certainly predated language and served to reinforce group cohesion. Behaviors that originally would have augmented kin selection and nepotism have long since become just as effective at dissolving family cohesion.  I make this claim in regards to potential rather than likelihood or necessity.  Families may share ideological beliefs or hold conflicting ideologies with varying degrees of dedication.  In the early millennia of cultural development it’s unlikely that there was any diversity.  So evolutionarily, the strength of cultural identity on group cohesion is not surprising. 

In considering the origins of morality we should remember that there are many social species aside from humans.  Schools, hives, prides, packs, herds and troops should make it immediately obvious that intelligence and culture are not prerequisites to cooperation.  Social instinct has appeased natural selection in many species. 

We tend to value individuals in our groups that contribute more resources to the group.  Conversely, individuals that contribute less are generally devalued.  And individuals who cheat jeopardize their perceived status as a member of the group through a waning of trust.  Our moral agency (subjective experience combined with empathy) gives us perception of whether interactions are generous or stingy, fair or unfair, kind or unkind, caring or callous, and generally good or bad.  We appreciate the experience of the individual in a way we think of as rights.  We appreciate our relationships and place in a group in a way we think of as roles and responsibilities. 

We need to execute some measure of selfishness to survive.  But given our limited ability to gather necessary (and otherwise desirable) resources as lone individuals, we also need some measure of selflessness, manifesting as cooperation.  The underlying drives for each are instilled by biology.  Like most biological systems the way things work, the ‘rules,’ tend to resemble self-balancing conditional algorithms rather than linear instructions.  We seek equity for ourselves and others.  We deplore inequity at our expense and also when others suffer unfairness.  The more closely we identify with others (an innate recognition of in-group status) the more sharply we recognize and care about their suffering and well-being.

As cognitive social animals we share information: culture.  But cultural information is highly subject to being incomplete, misleading or wrong (by degrees varying form not quite right yet functional to completely contrary to demonstrable factual reality.)  And yet what we learn from experience and from shared information influences how we perceive new experience and information.  We are entirely capable of doing the wrong thing while thinking we are doing the right thing based on existing beliefs.  Ideologies are particularly culpable but simple misunderstandings lead us astray as well.  We develop beliefs which bias us when considering new information which is added to our beliefs in cycles that allows us to convince ourselves of just about anything.

As a result the idea of Objectivism (philosophical morality theory) doesn’t quite make sense because it is based on subjective experience.  Relativism doesn’t quite work because there are some very basic, fundamental commonalities to the subjective experience, many of which can be misinformed by cultural beliefs hijacking our perception.  Emotivism doesn’t work for several reasons: we are always working with incomplete information, morality is a social issue as much as (if not more than) a personal issue and again mistaken beliefs can, perhaps must, skew our perception.

Tribalism presents another skew on morality.  Our empathy for others and disdain of injustice are stronger and consequently more motivating in-group, toward people we identify with, than for “those other ones” (out-group).  Us and them, worse us versus them, undermines our ability and willingness to support “them.”  Ideologies, proximity, appearance, etc. create counter-productive us and them barriers.

If there is any hope of anything resembling an objective morality it will be accessible only by a willingness and ability to consider our beliefs skeptically and strip away dubious opinions in order to find a balancing mechanism that supports individual rights and social responsibility based on common human subjective experience, empathy and a lust for fairness.