August 28, 2011
Just recently the new semester began and I found myself in a physics course. Shortly after going over his syllabus, my professor had a short talk about science and religion. Basically he said that science deals with things that can be objectively observed and tested; everything else is religion. As I was on my way home, I wondered if there were any beliefs in my head which he would consider religious in nature. To my surprise, I found that my entire motivation and reason for living is rooted in “religious” beliefs. I suppose I should explain.
I was tempted to go up to him after the lecture and ask him, “Would it be religious of me to believe that you’re conscious, as I am?” I’d be curious to hear how he’d respond, and I may just go up to him and ask him that very question. It’s been bugging me. Here’s why. There is no objective test I can perform which will tell me whether or not you’re conscious. I can believe you’re conscious, and if I’m really curious, I may well even open up your skull and examine your brain. But even so, I will not be able to observe your personal subjective consciousness, no matter how hard I try. Even if I monitored all the electrical activity in your brain, I still wouldn’t know if you’re conscious or not. There’s no possible way to observe it. It’s a complex emergent property based on neural activity, or well, so I believe. I believe it exists by a leap of faith.
The thought that I may be living amongst a mob of zombies is a very depressing thought. I don’t think I could be happy thinking that all of you are just a bunch of complicated robots. I could never enter an intimate relationship or friendship with any of you. I’d want to slap you on the side of the head and say, “There’s nothing in there! How can you say you understand? That you care? That you’re happy? That you’re sad? You’re not alive!”
I thought about ethics. If I’m to live in this scientific way, and only believe things that can be observed and tested, I’m not allowed to believe you all are conscious. That’s a pretty big problem considering it’s what all my morality is based on. I try to the best of my ability to avoid harming other sentient beings. I believe you’re having a conscious experience just as I am, and I try (though I’m not always successful), to help make your day a little easier, and also not cause you unnecessary pain and suffering. But if you all are not alive like I am, I’m not going to treat you the same way I do now.
If you all are zombies, there’s no reason for me to go out of my way to help you if you’re in need. The poor? Who cares, they’re not even alive. Fight for universal healthcare? For women’s rights? Why? That’d be like playing that online game, Second Life, and fighting for healthcare rights for the 3D avatars. There’s no point in that. I would treat you guys humanely only because I wouldn’t want you to turn on me and cause me suffering. In all other cases, I’d try to stay out of your way. I’d feel no guilt in using you. I’d feel no guilt if I caused you pain or misery. I wouldn’t even feel guilt if I took out a gun and blew your brains out. You wouldn’t be conscious, so who cares? It’s like playing in some sort of advanced virtual reality simulation. My goal at that point is to maximize my happiness and fun while trying to minimize pain. There’s no other moral imperatives. I’d argue that there is no morality in such a world.
Considering I’m around physicists and other scientists, I notice them saying things which don’t make much sense. When I was signing up for classes for my second semester, I remember my adviser saying, “You’ll probably do alright.” The keyword to notice there is “probably”. What sort of probability theory was that based on? I’d be curious to hear how such a thing can be calculated. The professor doesn’t even know me. I notice that my Dad never talks that way. He’s a pastor and in that same situation he would have said, “You’ll do fine. Just work hard and you can do it.” He has faith in people and believes it’s up to them as to how they’ll perform. But that can be dangerous too, considering it sometimes blames people for things which aren’t always their fault. If a person is thrown into a class they’re not ready for, and then fails the course, it’s not their fault – their adviser failed to properly direct them. But it’s interesting to watch the scientist’s attempt to remain in this non-partisan position, acting like, “We can’t be certain how you may end up, but I have reason to believe that if you take this course, there’s a 95 out of 100 chance that you’ll get an A. But don’t ahead of yourself, I can never know for certain.” We as a society have never solved this problem. We struggle with personal responsibility, and who to place the blame on when something goes wrong. Are the poor always responsible for their lot in life? Do the rich deserve all the good fortune that has come their way? More generally we can frame the problem this way: if people have free will, there’s no way of saying what a person can or will do. Ultimately they’re completely unpredictable and their course in life is up to them. If we believe people are predictable, the only way we can predict their future actions is by confining them to their past, which isn’t a great plan either. We know people aren’t random, but they also oftentimes break the chains of our expectations. It’s quite a difficult problem and I know I don’t like people telling me who I can or can’t be.
For most people in the world, here is how I treat them: I believe they’re the best judges as to how to live their lives. I believe in freedom. I also like to apply faith. To use a baseball analogy, I’ve always had a belief that you should keep pitching to someone as long as they’re willing to swing. Let them have a chance. Even if they’ve always struck out, and never applied themselves, give them another shot. They deserve that much, no matter who they are, or their past history. If they’re willing to step up to the plate again, don’t judge them. Respect them and pitch the ball again.
I’ve never been much of the lovey-dovey type, but I love people in my own sort of way. I’m not the type to hold you, or cry with you, and I’m not very good at consoling, but when everyone else on the baseball field makes fun of you, and tells you you won’t amount to anything, I won’t be in their number. And when everyone else gets tired of pitching to you, I’ll slide on my cap, walk to the mound, and work with you until you can hit the ball. I’ll throw you slow underhands until you get used to it, and I’ll show you how to hold the bat. I won’t judge you, yet then again, I’m not one to praise unless I see real improvement and effort. You don’t have to impress me with your first try. I’ve never believed in “geniuses”. I believe in second, third, and fourth chances. Tenth chances. One hundred chances. I feel that’s what respect is. I’ll be honest with you, believe in you, and help you until you get it right. As long as you respect my time, I’ll respect yours. If I see that you really want something in life, and I can help you get there, I’ll take time out of my schedule to help.
On another note, if you’re a zombie, I’m not going to pitch you the ball unless I enjoy doing so. If you’re zombies, I’m the only judge that matters. If you get in my way, and I have the power to move you, I’ll take any recourse that is convenient and necessary.
I don’t believe in living solely for others, or in being some sort of grand sacrifice for humanity, but I do I believe that we all owe our fellow human beings something. Not everything, but something. My life hasn’t been spectacular by any means, but what good things I’ve had I owe to the people of my community, my family, my country, and our world. Is this a religious belief? If so, I’m a very religious person.
Consciousness is what really matters in this universe. Otherwise it’s just a big pile of dead stuff, dark and empty. I worry that people work so hard to avoid the poisons of conventional religion that they end up throwing out the good things as well. I guess growing up in a Christian home, I take certain ways of thinking for granted. My family never would say, “You’ll probably be ok.” When I heard that I just thought, “That’s just weird.” There needs to be love, faith, and thankfulness when dealing with each other. Science may be able to show us which behaviors are most conducive to making people happy, but a lot of moral behavior requires effort on our part, and without faith in others, and a sacred belief that conscious suffering should be avoided at all costs, we have no reason to care, and caring is what really matters.