January 6, 2014
I’m buried in snow and everything’s closed. It’s the coldest outside that it’s ever been throughout my entire lifetime. Bundled up and tired of studying, I decided to watch a movie – Ugetsu Monogatari, an older classic. You can watch it yourself if you want. I’ll embed the movie.
Two peasants dream of escaping their lives of poverty as farmers. One hopes to become a general of the samurai, riding on his horse in prestige from village to village. The other longs for riches selling his pottery, which he does on the side.
After a little success selling clay pots, both of them feel their dreams are right around the corner. Miyagi can finally afford samurai armor and Genjuro buys his wife a beautiful kimono. They risk their lives doing reckless and dangerous things, all in pursuit of their vain ambitions. In the end, Genjuro loses his wife and Miyagi leaves his wife in destitution as a prostitute. Both of them do achieve their dreams, but at a great cost to everything else they value – a Pyrrhic victory that was nowhere near the cost they had to pay.
Ambition can warp a man’s mind. Greed used to be considered a vice, but nowadays it’s the spirit of the age. You’re “dreaming big”.
You can spend your whole life dreaming of all the things you want. It might be status, being recognized by your peers, money and possessions, romantic fantasies, or whatever. Everybody wants the same things. We want to be loved, to belong, for our lives to have purpose and meaning, to be healthy, and to be happy. To fulfill those desires, we all so often go about it the wrong way.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself thinking about ambition a lot. It so often leaves people miserable. There’s so much suffering and discontent. When I’m in physics classes, I’m always hearing over and over, “Nobel prize. Nobel prize. Nobel prize.” I see the other students around me light up, dreaming of being the next Einstein, walking up on that stage, accepting that little medal. “Do your best research while you’re young so that if it takes time to confirm your theories, you can get the prize when you’re old!”
I was reading about a man who was working on string theory in the early years, and he was working on the mathematics in his attic, looking over the paper he was about to submit. He dreamed he was going to be the next rockstar physicist, and he’d be on the late night talk show circuit, and people would all fawn over him. “How did you come up with this brilliant theory?” Well, he published his paper and nobody cared, and that led him to drinking and severe depression. You know, all of that is unnecessary.
Is that what we’re after? No. We have a world filled with lonely, disconnected people. They feel that they have little to offer and that their lives have never meant anything. They hope these outward symbols will validate their existence. I oftentimes feel it’s a symptom of our culture’s over-emphasis on individualism. What we want is acceptance and the feeling that we belong and have contributed something valuable. Considering how rare it is for someone to make a contribution like that, for everyone else to feel worthless, or even worse, envious, seems ridiculous.
Getting up on a stage and accepting a medal from a bunch of people you don’t know, while a crowd of strangers applaud isn’t going to make you feel fulfilled. It’s no different than Miyagi riding on that horse while his regiment of samurai soldiers followed behind. He was the village idiot and he wanted to show his wife he was capable of more. That’s how so many people are. They feel worthless and not accepted. They don’t belong or feel that they matter, so they find themselves caught up in these dreams, but the dreams aren’t the answer.
I know a man who is a fantastic guitar player and all he dreams about is making it to the big time. At times, he’s put his wife and children through hell, pursuing his ambitions. He’ll quit a job just to go play a concert, or burn bridges behind him at the slightest opportunity to get into the music business. He complains and is miserable in every job he works. All you hear from him is, “One day…” His wife and kids suffer as there’s no security in their lives.
I could tell you countless stories of the same situation, totally different people. I’ve met old men who spend all their retirement money on online multi-level marketing schemes, running up huge credit card debts while living in poverty, even though they have a good retirement paychecks, all in the pursuit of wealth. “I want a leave something behind for my grandkids.” Is it really about the grandkids? I know others in all sorts of weird investment schemes, dreaming of making their millions so they can buy that dream home.
I even had ambitions of all sorts in myself when I was younger. There’s been this strong desire to accomplish something with my life. It had always been there. That feeling that I’m destined for “more”. But years back I started self-examining myself. I wondered what that feeling was and where it was coming from.
I came to some conclusions. Assume the goal or desire you’re working on now never amounts to anything. If you can’t say you were happy to have done it all, then don’t do it. If you’re not happy now, you’re not going to be happy later either, no matter what you achieve. My physics pursuits are the first time I’ve ever done that. After I finished a business project, I said, “Ok. If money was no option, and I had all the time in the world, what would I spend my time doing?” I concluded I would study different things and physics would be a primary focus. Then I thought, hmm, physics research would be the thing I would want to be most involved in. So, off I’ve went.
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple, and yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
– Alan Watts
I found myself listening to philosophers like Alan Watts because I knew I was missing something really important. Part of life is accepting that you’re not going to have it all. This universe is notorious for resisting a person’s desires. I don’t want to be the man who makes his wife and family miserable because some exotic dream never came true. Always complaining. Always miserable. Never content where I am. Always mad at something or somebody. I don’t want to be a person who places more value on empty status symbols than the people I love and care about. I don’t want to be a person who never has time for the people important in my life, always too busy pursing some dream.
I hope to become a person who is happy and enjoys life in imperfect circumstances. I want to be a person who is always improving and getting better. I want to be willing to share my time with others, even though there are lots of things I want to do. I’m not going to live with hatred or contempt for others around me. I’m going to love and feel connected, even if they’re very different from me. I’m not going to isolate myself from this world.
People are going to say stupid things I dislike and disagree with and I’m not going to let it get to me. One of my heroes is the ancient Greek king Pericles. I was reading about him the other day in a book dedicated to ancient Greek and Romans who inspired the founding fathers of America.
“Pericles was the kind of man who was equally comfortable discussing the finer points of poetry and charging into battle. A man of immovable dignity, Pericles once ignored the taunts of a heckler for an entire day while conducting business in the agora. The heckler even followed Pericles home at the end of the day, still spouting insults. By then it was dark, so Pericles dispatched a servant with a torch to lead the man home.”
Remember, Pericles was king and this is the ancient world. Most every other ruler would have had the man’s head chopped off, but not Pericles. He was ruler of Greece in its golden age. His primary focus was to promote the arts and literature in Athens in hopes to make it the cultural center of the world. He also set up their system of populist democracy.
As crazy as the world is, I’m going to sit right in the center of it and be the best influence I can be. I’m going to teach people science, how to reason, and talk about important social issues that need to be addressed. And when mobs of ignorant people heckle me, I’ll be like Pericles. That’s my new years resolution. I’ve tried to make many of these changes in my life before, but I’ll keep at it.
January 5, 2014
Over the years, I’ve often talked about how technology is displacing workers and reshaping the way we interact with one another. I mentioned a new movie which comes on January 10th, Her, where people are all immersed in conversations with their computers and no longer interact with each other. While our technological advances are bringing a lot of benefits, they’re also leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
The Guardian recently featured an article on Japan’s plummeting birth rate. I found it fascinating. In the modern world, conventional families and relationships are being phased out. People are glued to these glowing screens, replacing real physical relationships with social media and other ways of communicating online. As MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle put it, we’re spending our time alone together.
The online world is a unique place. Isaac Asimov envisioned the internet as a world where every child or adult could investigate his or her passions, connecting with people with similar interests, and growing in knowledge. To some extent, people can do that online, but they typically don’t. In Japan and all around the world, there are rapidly growing numbers of young men and women who are unable to secure a career for themselves. With no job prospects, these people instead use the online world as form of escape and immerse themselves in vivid fantasies and become shut-ins or geeks. Not all are this way, but it is really common.
How people use their free time online is just interesting. My university recently published a study about how students use their time online, and they mostly just watch random Youtube videos in an entirely unproductive manner. They spend hours staring blankly at a glowing screen where cats fly through the sky pooping out rainbows to loud techno music. It’s totally bizarre. I wonder what Isaac Asimov would’ve thought?
When people are given lots of free time online, nobody could’ve predicted what people would actually use the internet for. In reality, people spend countless hours viewing and making silly gif animations of people falling over on the ice and busting their head while a big text message “FAIL” appears. They take pictures of cute cats alongside a messages “I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER?” Or they take a picture of a voluptuous woman and simply write BOOBS in a large font.
Recently I read an article on Arts and Letters Daily lamenting how Wikipedia has extensive articles on each and every Pokemon character, pornstar, and niche television show, but so many important scientific and philosophic issues have nothing. I was surprised the author didn’t understand why that is.
What type of person is going to spend countless hours compiling a massive Pokemon database for free? The same exact person who would pride themselves in knowing miscellaneous trivia about Star Trek or pornstars — the shut-in geeks. That’s their way of leaving something to the world. I think we can all be a little geeky, but they’re…unique.
I used to think I was strange, but I’m fairly normal. As the article I linked to points out, the true nerds shirk any and all physical contact. You touch them and they flinch while gritting their teeth. The counselor who was interviewed actually deals with them and tries to help. For example, they have strange sexual preferences. Some of them can’t get aroused unless women dress up in these robotic power-ranger like outfits and do kinky things.
Poor women. Is this the future of love? You get the short end of the stick, for sure. As the world economy spirals, the only way to attract a man is to cosplay as a skimpily dressed robot-demon-vampire woman with tenatacle arms holding large swords, which you use to tickle his anus as you whisper all the naughty things you’re going to do to him later. Otherwise he’s not interested.
They must’ve spent years masturbating to some strange content. I don’t think we fully understand all the effects of the hyper-stimulation of internet pornography. People watch videos of cumshot compilations where the most extreme moments of intercourse flash in rapid succession, featuring the most beautiful women, from the best visual angles, all during climax. No normal woman could ever stimulate a man in that way.
There are weird things going through people’s heads when it comes to sex, especially in women. Forces I don’t understand are at work, and I don’t think it’s just porn. Greg and I have had conversations about this, but we’ve never identified the source. Huge numbers of men and women all over the world are becoming disgusted by sex. I have no idea why.
For example, a 2011 survey by the Japan Family Planning Association found that 45% of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” That’s almost half of all young women. That blew me away. If you go to Japanese schools and universities all over their country, one out of every two women find sex repulsive. One out of four men feel the same way. What in the world!? That’s not normal. There must be something broken in their culture, and I think similar forces are at work all over the world, but I’m not sure.
Besides economic considerations, I find myself wondering if is related to all this garbage in music videos, advertising, and reality TV, where women are treated as sex objects who can only succeed if they’re an airheaded bimbo with a nice body and big hair. There’s all this body shaming. I speculate that it’s finally reaching a tipping point in women and men who are just rejecting all of it outright. Combine that with all the science coming out, treating us as evolutionary animals, portraying men as shallow sex machines who always want to cheat, and women who are just as bad, and none of us want anything to do with one another anymore. There’s no trust. And now that things are getting hard, who wants people like that at your side? You don’t need real people. Social media and the online world offers a constant connection with all your friends. You’re never alone.
This isn’t just the youngest generation though. It applies to most everyone in their mid-30s or below. There’s increasing numbers of men and women in that age group who have never dated at all, and show no interest in ever dating. In Japan, one-third of people under 30 have never dated at all. In the 18-34 age bracket, 61% percent of unmarried men and 49% of unmarried women were not pursuing a romantic relationship of any kind. It’s like they don’t believe love exists, or maybe they’ve never seen it?
I should discuss the economic considerations before ending this. The modern world is especially tough on women. We’ve all constructed a society in which both the husband and the wife have to work to make ends meet. The problem is, many women have trouble advancing in their career if they’re married because employers worry that they’ll eventually end up pregnant. Once a woman’s pregnant, nobody wants to deal with the inflexible hours that may entail. Children are treated as a huge burden, and so married women have a really hard time getting promoted. They’re better off being single.
Fearing these sorts of things, people are moving away from typical relationships and going toward hook-ups and other forms of easy gratification. Online porn is booming. Others are finding themselves in unusual relationship circumstances, such as having online or virtual-reality girlfriends.
It’s interesting that all over the modern world, our culture has created a mine-field that people struggle to navigate. For example, in Japan, there’s this stereotype that married working women are “devil wives.” So, 70% of them quit their jobs after getting married. That’s fine and good, but then their husbands can’t earn enough money to be the sole bread-winner for the family. No matter what they do, they just can’t win. Then they go to the cinema and see films portraying corrupt working women, with the implied message, “Do you want to end up like them?”
So what do you end up with? Women choose to pursue a successful career and never marry or have kids. They hang out with their girlfriends, go shopping, eat out, and travel. As for sex, they have casual hookups and one night stands. They have affairs with people in their office. That sort of thing. Men are similar. But as I said, good jobs are getting harder to come by, and we’re ending up with a large class of dead-beats. Those guys have even less success in love. Some of them aren’t lazy — they’ll work, but these corporations don’t pay a living wage, even though they earn record profits.
People crave human warmth, but a combination of social and economic circumstances make typical relationships extremely difficult. Hence we have a falling birthrate and a weird sort of digital love replacing the old style intimacy which we’ve always had.
Everyone is glued to their smartphones and social media websites. Some may think they’re a replacement for the old-style friendships and relationships, but I’d disagree. That whole digital world has so many problems, and I don’t even know where to get started. I probably shouldn’t because I’d get too far off topic. In short, people obsess over how they appear to others, so there’s no real intimacy. It’s not about getting to know each other. Most people actually fear you getting close to them. They’re scared to show weakness, the real details of their lives, or their real opinions . Why? The online world is unforgiving. People are nasty. Do you ever go to websites and read the comments? We’re all compared to impossibly high standards, and we have to constantly appear to be this super-kind, wonderful, charming, funny, never depressed, happy person, and it makes everyone neurotic. Social media is a mess.
Real friendship and love is a private affair. That’s where you share your deepest thoughts on things without fear of being judged by the mob. Privacy is important.
All of this has left Japan’s leaders worried. Their population just keeps plummeting. I have a strong feeling that this is going to happen all over the world. A combination of a messed up cultural values toward love and relationships, a corrupt economy, technology displacing people’s ability to earn a living wage, and many other factors are leading to madness. This is all so complicated to research though. It’d take years to get to the bottom of it, and I’m mostly spending my time studying physics these days.
Are half the young women I meet that way as well? Do they find sex and men in general disgusting? Why? How did they get that weird picture in their heads? The only way to know is to get out there and ask lots of people, with carefully conducted surveys, probing their minds. I’ll never know just sitting here from my study thinking about it.
What I do know is we live in a strange time.
January 3, 2014
There’s a new movie coming out which I think you all might find interesting. It’s about a lonely man in the future who buys a new computer which is equipped with a sophisticated human-like AI. As time goes on, they become best friends and fall in love in a very unique way.
I’ve said before that I imagine when I’m old, this is the way our computers will be. They won’t just be for calculating numbers in spreadsheets, surfing the web, or playing video games — they’ll vividly interact and talk with us. In this movie, he carries “her” around with a phone, and they become really close.
But will we carry these AI beings around in hand-held gadgets? I doubt it. That’s too clunky. We’ll either wear glasses with augmented reality or we’ll have special implants in our brains which allow computers to project images into our mind. In that situation, the AI could project a “form” into your field of vision and interact with you in that way. Outside of a sense of touch, they’d be very real.
Nanotechnology is going to lead to some really neat technology. Take brain-computer interfaces. Gamers are already pushing for that sort of thing. Right now we have things like the Oculus VR googles, but eventually neural implants will lead us to fully immersive virtual reality.
I don’t know if I could fall in “love” with a computer, but I like the idea of wise AI beings helping us throughout our lives. I’d love to have them explain to me all the details of how the banking system works, or the nature of political reforms, or the latest research in any subject area. We’d all have access to a super brilliant friend who is there to teach us anything we wonder about. It could create vivid physics simulations for me, slowly pointing out the meaning of each equation, each lesson personalized just for me. A dedicated research partner and friend. That would be wonderful!
These sorts of films give scientists like me a vision. I was looking on the wall of my university the other day, and there were all these posters asking for bright students to come work on different forms of technology. One poster was specifically about medical nanotechnology. With one phone call, I’d soon be working with technology which interfaces the brain, or possibly brain-scanners.
I want to hear people’s reactions to this film. Would you want a computer which could interact with you in that way? Would you want an emotional connection with your computer? Young people need to see films like this and think, “I can make my computer do things like that.” Do it! Make it a reality! Research AI and the human mind. Make the world a more magical and interesting place to live in.
It’s worth noting that Alan Turing thought we’d have human-like computers by the year 2000. The story of AI is long journey of high hopes and dismal failures. While we’re always making progress, there does seem to be a “complexity brake” of sorts happening at the moment. Our minds are very sophisticated instruments. The way we process the environment, reason, and store information in our brains is a wonder to think about. It won’t be a walk in the park to make human-level AI, but with all the research effort going into it these days with Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others, I’m placing my bets that we’ll achieve AI with human-level intelligence in my lifetime.
I saw an article in a business journal not long ago, saying we live in a Jetsons world. So much that was science-fiction fifty years ago is a reality today. And why is that? Those young kids grew up watching cartoons and movies and thought, “Wow, I want to build that!” and they did. It starts in someone’s imagination and then we build it.
Physicists often watch sci-fi shows like Star Trek and wonder, “Could we build a warp engine by bending space-time?” Those questions are so popular they end up in our physics textbooks on general relativity. They’re great thought experiments.
We see shows like Stargate SG1 and we think about whether or not we could build worm-holes. Or we see Dr. Who and his almost magical Tardis, and we find ourselves asking what space and time are, and whether or not we could build a gigantic space within a smaller space in that way.
In many ways, those sorts of ideas motivate me to research physics at its deepest levels. I think of the long-term term, and I daydream a lot. I wonder how I could change the world or build something really interesting. Do you?
December 31, 2013
My post on morality and ethics from the other day isn’t as clear as I would have liked it to be, so I wanted to say a little more to clarify some of my arguments.
Many years ago I wrote a post arguing a consequentialist position entitled The Negative Sides of Altruism. I basically argued that love without knowledge is empty and troublesome. At the time, I felt that whether altruism is a good or bad thing depends on the person practicing it. I still largely agree with that old post, but I would now add some much needed corrections.
In my latest post, I talked a lot about love and caring, adding an emotional element to my views on morality and ethics. The key point I was making is that in real-word situations, understanding people and where they’re coming from is everything. Human beings are very emotional creatures and you’ll never understand them well if you can’t get a grip on their “angle”. Their perspective. How they see things.
We begin in a state of ignorance toward the world and its problems. We don’t understand ourselves. We understand others even less. Our attention and time is limited, so the core question is to ask yourself is — what do I care about? Who do I care about? Why do I care about these things over other things? Why do these other people care about the things they care about?
To take the time to study different issues and positions, reading books, listening to lectures, attending events, it’s a lot of work and is a large sacrifice on the part of the individual. History books are really thick and take years to read. Most of us have a lot going on in our lives. We have families, work, community events. We don’t have time to be fully informed on every single issue.
This is where purpose, passion and love come in. I mentioned that people have three main responses to the world:
1) Living happy and content with the way things are. Or,
2) They try to change it into what they want it to be. If they can’t do that, they,
3) Insulate themselves from things they don’t like. And if they don’t have the resources to achieve that, they,
4) Flee into fantasy and their imagination.
Morality is about how we live together, trying to be as happy as we can, sharing what we do like, and dealing with all the things we often don’t like, together. That’s insanely complex. I really could care less about technical definitions of philosophers labeling things “right” and “wrong”.
How people go about trying to change the world is a big issue. Some try to create companies and change the world through innovation. Some try to alleviate suffering by helping the sick and poor. Others fight for reforms in issues which carry personal significance to them and their life.
People are always trying to gain control of society’s resources. Some need these resources to make important changes, but others are only hoping they can insulate themselves from life’s struggle as much as possible. They hope to build themselves a private paradise and ignore the suffering and misery of the world. That’s important to understand because the people who do that cause the most misery in the world.
The worst forms of evil are rooted in a delusional rejection of reality. Tyrants, terrorists and cult leaders all dream of overthrowing the social order to build their pet utopia, rarely caring who dies in the process. Greed is rooted in a rejection of reality. It’s fear of an unpredictable future combined with unfulfilled desires. The more fear in their heart, the more greed. They come to feel if they just have enough money, they can buy their way out of every problem that may come their way.
Unfulfilled desires very often leads to neurotic personalities.
We suffer as human beings. We’re pitiful, stupid, weak creatures. We find it all demeaning, and it is. Being a human is demeaning. The randomness of it all. At any time we can come down with an incurable disease and die. It takes forever to get from point A to point B. We’re so often separated from the people we love. Our lives are dictated to us by Kafkaesque forces far beyond our control. Finding love is difficult and doesn’t always work out. Having to take care of our bodies is a pain in the rear, whether it be exercising, eating right, brushing our teeth, showering, and all that. Most jobs are so boring and unfulfilling, and it takes a bazillion years of work and schooling to get into the jobs worth having. Even when we do painstakingly learn things, we forget it all so quickly. Just on and on.
Human existence is strange. We live in a world of conditional happiness and conditional love. We have all these choices of who we could be and what we could do with our life. What we want is to be loved and happy, but only some doors lead to that and we have no strategy guide. If we choose the wrong doors, we may end up in misery, poverty, and loneliness. It doesn’t take very many mistakes before it can all cave in on us. We don’t want to be free. As Jean-Paul Satre said, we’re condemned to be free.
Consciousness seems almost divine, yet we live in these meat-bags which are fragile. Sometimes I entertain the idea that the goal of a good society should be to make happiness and love as unconditional and widespread as possible, but I’m undecided. The Brave New World scenario Alexey and I have been discussing is basically doing that through social and technological changes.
I often mention spirituality on my blog, but I don’t mean religion. I’m talking about people who don’t run from this suffering of life. Somehow they find peace within the storm and they don’t become neurotic and immoral. They remain kind in an unkind world. They are loving in an unloving world. They give in a world which tries to hoard. They build when everyone else is tearing down. They’re different.
Some sort of transformation process happens in the deeply spiritual person, where building and contributing to a beautiful world means more to them than even their own life, as crazy as that sounds. But what should be more important than your own life? What if this is your only life you’ll ever live?
The tyrant raises armies to go quell a social protest and these odd-balls come out of the wood-works and stand in front of the incoming tanks.
They light themselves on fire in peaceful protest to the mistreatment of their fellow brothers and sisters. They refuse to move even when armies aim guns at them.
What is it about these people? They’re the total opposite of the lone gun-mans who go shooting innocent people in schools or public squares. They’re the total opposite of cult leaders or tyrants. They’re not running from or insulating themselves from the world and all its suffering. They jump in to help and do whatever they can, even if it costs them dearly. They’re normal, everyday people who will give their lives for others. They always stand for love, connection, and a deeper sense of community and brotherhood.
They seem to realize some deeper aspect of reality and do not fear death in the same way as a normal person. Their faith is not a rationalization to avoid fearing death. It’s much more profound.
Albert Einstein once said that science without religion is lame, but religion without science is blind. That sums all of this up succinctly. Spirituality without knowledge is empty. Just like in my post on altruism, it has no substance. But when you can combine spirituality and knowledge through science, then you can build a beautiful world. They need each other. Science without spirituality leads to things like atomic bombs, manipulation in advertising and politics, and mass surveillance spread throughout the society.
December 29, 2013
Alexey emailed me a few days ago asking me some questions, one them being, “Are you deontologist, consequentialist, of some other morality, or unsettled?”
First I’ll explain what these terms mean to anyone who may be unfamiliar to them.
In deontological ethics, moral actions are judged on whether they conform to strict rules. It’s concerned with duty and what that entails. It also heavily focuses on a person’s intentions, not necessarily on the outcome.
Consequentialist ethics judges moral actions by the result. Duty is viewed as a social construct and consequentialists could care less about what you intended to happen. They don’t care about your motives. What matters is the effects your actions bring about in the world.
This is not an easy question. In short, in my early twenties, I would say I was a consequentialist. Now I’m some mixture of the two. I don’t even know where to begin with a topic this complex.
In crude forms, deontological ethics is well suited to people with simple minds. I’m not saying moral philosophers like Kant are crude or simple. More on that in a bit. What I’m saying is that very few people in this world think deeply about their lives and how everything comes together. The world is really complex. It’s better for the wisest members of society to lay down a set of social rules and constructs for the masses, which they should be taught in school, not religiously, but held in high regard.
Take Aristotle for instance. He argued that children should be told romanticized stories about their civilization so that they value all that’s been built and laid out for them by previous generations. In the U.S., the founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin are idolized and we have all these cute little stories about how heroic and wise they were. It makes people proud to be an American when they otherwise wouldn’t be.
I’ve seen people reformed by converting to a religion. It totally transforms their lives. They’re told to obey the commandments in their holy book, such as providing for their children, loving their wife or husband, to contribute to the community, to stay sober, and all sorts of good family values. A lot of that stuff is really good, and people would be wise to listen to the wise advice in ancient texts.
There’s all kinds of lessons. The Bible for example is filled with all kinds of stories and proverbs telling people not to expect results over-night. There will be parables about a farmer who plants his seed (his or dream), to carefully watch over it, to pull weeds, to water it, and if they’re faithful, they will one day reap the harvest. That’s a beautiful life lesson and it’s all put so simply. Or how about lessons of forgiveness? To love enemies? To take care of the sick and widows? All sorts of good stuff is in there.
Take the head guy from Duck Dynasty for example. There’s been all this news lately about him, so he’s worth talking about. He was a drunkard who had all kinds of problems. He was the kind of guy who couldn’t hold down a job. He’d come home drunk and cause problems for everyone. Then he found Jesus and it changed his life. I have no doubt he’s a better man than he once was. And now that he’s found what he feels to be the truth and the light, he’s passionate about spreading the Gospel, because after all, look what it did for him.
Speaking pragmatically, I can’t picture a simple redneck being much of a consequentialist. You lay out all the different moral philosophies, look at their effects throughout history, and by careful study and analysis, try to figure out the cause and effect relationships between different ways of thinking. It’s not realistic to expect that of average people. They don’t have the time, energy, or motivation. Those kinds of people inauthentically absorb their culture, rarely thinking about it all.
A clever young man like you will think about the world around him, carefully analyze it all, and find what’s good and bad around him. The average man needs culture. Culture is like the default software running in people’s minds. If it’s filled with viruses and malware, society disintegrates. Common culture is not created for the best and brightest.
Things like religion are powerful social tools. They have their good and bad points. Religion can take simple people and make them believe that rather wise principles are actually the word of God, and that they’re a part of an eternal kingdom, and if they’ll do their best, God will reward them with infinite bliss in eternity. Their lives are given meaning. It’s amazing how it does all of that.
And what are the bad points? You get stuck with old outdated ideas that need reformed. People cling to that old holy book, which was never the word of a deity, and they won’t let you change it. Different religions disagree and have no way to reconcile themselves, so they end up warring and killing each other. Things like that. In modern times, we fight to get gay rights because so many people believe God thinks being gay is a sin.
I long ago concluded that we have two problems: stupidity and the human condition. Stupid people will do stupid things, and left to their own devices, they will cause so much trouble. They have to have some decent culture which gives them good role models to look up to, values, beliefs, and all of that, to keep them productive and from killing themselves and others in stupid conflicts. On the other side we have the human condition. The wiser you become, you look out onto the world and see what we are: an ape creature which evolved through a cruel, violent process of natural selection. What’s the point of it all? There’s so much suffering, and is there a reason for why we’re even alive? Is there any purpose? Any meaning?
I’ve seen you’ve already stepped out of the common mold, like the people who left to the islands in Brave New World. People like us are in a much more difficult boat. Our biggest problem is one of finding and creating meaning in a cruel and dare I say pointless world. We know we’re going to die. Our loved ones are going to die. And even if we didn’t die, the entire universe is going to fizzle away eventually. What’s all this about? How you approach that question is everything.
We have no deities. No crutches to lean on. Just ourselves. Just this world. Just this life. Is there more to all of this? Maybe, but we don’t claim to know. We look for evidence and we seek the truth as best as a human can understand it. The world doesn’t easily lend itself to human understanding, but what else do we have?
Let’s say you sit and think about society and the world, and you think of much better ways for everyone to live. Alexey’s way. If we just reformed our culture, we’d be way better off. Ok. You have all your rules and wonderful ways of doing things. How are you planning to get everyone else to do any of it?
Even the simplest reforms take generations to implement. It’s a slow grind. We’ve been fighting for gay rights for ages. It wasn’t until just recently that women were even treated as human beings. And let’s not even get started with racism.
Knowing what to do is only half of it. Even if you know what needs to happen, what needs to be reformed, what needs to be changed, why should you care? What if this is your only life? All you have. Why spend it fighting for gay rights, or the fair treatment of blacks, or equal rights for women in the middle east? Why fight for government programs to help the poor? In my case, I’m not gay, I’m not black, and I’m not a woman. My career prospects are fine. Why should I care?
That question is everything. Why should you care? Personally, I don’t think you’ll ever find some intellectual reason to care. I have some important points to make about intellectual reasoning.
The ultimate determinant of behavior is love. That sounds cheesy, but I’ve spent a long time thinking about this. Let me give you a simple example to begin with.
Say the child of a loving mother is caught doing something bad. What happens? At first the mother refuses to believe it. My son, do that? Never. And if the evidence is presented and it’s undeniable that her little angel did something wrong, even then the mother presses that the child be forgiven, that things will be different next time, and so on. That’s what happens when love is around. There’s forgiveness, patience, and a tendency to outstretch your arm to protect and help the person in trouble.
Kant was a man full of love. Take his categorical imperative. It’s all about empathy and consideration for the other person. He treats everyone as divine, an end in and of themselves. We’re to take our actions so seriously, we should act in a way which we would always want others to follow as well. The golden rule. I love Kant.
But reasoning isn’t the root of morality. Love is. If you don’t love people, you don’t care what happens to them. Without love, people quickly look for reasons why helping their fellow man is a waste of time. Even harmful. They’ll see a problem in society and almost immediately throw up their hands and say, “Nothing can be done.” In reality, they don’t care. Instead of just admitting this, we more often than not engage in these intellectual “shows”, where people search for reasons to justify what is really just an emotion of love or indifference toward the suffering or joys of their fellow men.
These shows are elaborate, but most of the time we’re just blowing hot air. There’s a group who cares and a group who doesn’t, and we battle to win the minds of those somewhere in the middle. Am I painting things a little too black and white? Maybe, but I think I’m getting at the general issue at hand.
I’ve met really selfish people and they’re always full of excuses why helping others is the wrong thing to do. When they pose arguments to me, I don’t even bother arguing with them anymore. I know they don’t care, and there’s nothing I can say or do to make them care.
That’s not to say I won’t argue with a conservative. Fiscally conservative economics and free markets have powerful arguments to back them up. I totally respect that. I mostly believe in them myself, though capitalism has a lot of problems. But when I talk to a person and learn that deep down, they don’t actually care about the poor, the helpless, the less fortunate, and so on. That they don’t care about finding a way to improve the human condition. I know I’m wasting time.
Just listen to the types of things people say. One time I was with a man who had recently found some extreme libertarian literature and he told me, “I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for.” And what was he looking for, exactly? Is that the sort of thing a person says when they’re impartially searching for the truth? No. In the search for truth, you let it reveal itself to you as it is. You don’t have preconceived notions of what the truth is before you go into something. So what was going on? What’d he found was a complex set of philosophical arguments to justify why it’s ok that he shouldn’t care for anyone other than himself. I didn’t bother arguing with him. It would’ve been a waste of time.
To have any sense of duty there has to be some reason why you care about those laws. Kant’s categorical imperative is rooted in love. He loved people. He sat and thought all day long how to alleviate suffering and help the people around him. He thought about war and peace. He wondered what knowledge was and how it could be taught and communicated to others. He thought about beauty, God, and the meaning of our lives. He was an incredible man.
The first step in changing the world is caring about something. You may care about others, rooted in a sense of empathy. It may be rooted in your own desires and ambitions. I think moral philosophy is secondary. The real key is understanding what people are after. Their angle. Where are they coming from?
There’s all sorts of reasons why people care about the things they fight for. Maybe they were raped and it was so traumatizing, just the thought of it happening to someone else makes them so mad that that anger spills over into an impetus to fight for that issue. They’ll stand on the streets with a sign, fighting for strict punishments to those who rape women, and so on.
The economist Robert Reich was picked on as a small child and just hates bullying. He sees the rich and powerful bullying others and fights for the small guy, because he was the small guy in school.
So how does this all work out in practice? With the Duck Dynasty guy, he’ll stand with the Bible because of what it did for him and his life. That’s the underlying root of his passion for it. He thinks of his family and how much it helped him. He thinks of how ashamed he is of his past life. He feels the love and connection with his family that he didn’t have before, and that love is what leads him to hold that Bible in the air and say, “This is the truth.”
Someone like Dr. Reich will actively search for arguments which support and protect the weak. His real motivation is to help those people. He’ll jump out in front of a bus if it’ll save the weak and the poor from harm.
What is “truth” in the moral sphere? It’s about what you love and care about. That’s what you fight for. What you stand for.
There is an intimate connection between deontological and consequentialist ethics. They’re not separate things. Some inner passion drives people to view different rules and laws as essential. That’s the underlying foundation. And people search for arguments which justify whatever that passion is. It’s all highly emotional. They want to convince other people that their passion is important.
This is all really complicated, but hopefully this helps shed some light on my views on the matter. What we ultimately get into is the psychology of how logic and emotion are related in the brain. There’s three reactions to dealing with the world — you try to change it, you try to isolate yourself from it, or you flee it in imagination and fantasy.
All the arguments I’ve been discussing so far are dealing with changing the world. Two things happen when you don’t care about the world. If you have the resources, you try to isolate yourself from it and build your own private world. If you don’t have the resources, you flee into fantasy and imagination.
A rich man like Bill Gates uses his resources to try to improve the world. He gives it all away. Other rich people would just isolate themselves and not care what happens to the rest of the world. That’s how many petty dictators and tyrants have lived. This is all rooted in how you view the world and what you care about. If you know someone’s passion, you can know exactly what they’d do if they were given wealth and resources. Without knowing them intimately though, that underlying motivation and passion is hidden from us.