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Why does the world exist, and other dangerous questions for insomniacs
Rick Searle   May 6, 2014   Utopia or Dystopia  

A few weeks back I wrote a post on how the recent discovery of gravitational lensing provided evidence for inflationary models of the Big Bang. These are cosmological models that imply some version of the multiverse, essentially the idea that ours is just one of a series of universes, a tiny bubble, or region, of a much, much larger universe where perhaps even the laws of physics or rationality of mathematics differed from one region to another.

My earlier piece had taken some umbrage with the physicist Lawrence Krauss’ new atheist take on the discovery of gravitational lensing, in the New Yorker. Krauss is a “nothing theorists”, one of a group of physicists who argue that the universe emerged from what in effect was nothing at all, although; unlike other nothing theorists such as Stephen Hawking, Krauss uses his science as a cudgel to beat up on contemporary religion. It was this attack on religion I was interested in, while the deeper issue the issue of a universe arising from nothing, left me shrugging my shoulders as if there was, excuse the pun, nothing of much importance in the assertion.

Perhaps I missed the heart of the issue because I am a nothingist myself, or at the very least, never found the issue of nothingness something worth grappling with.  It’s hard to write this without sounding like a zen koan or making my head hurt, but I didn’t look into the physics or the metaphysics of Krauss’ nothingingist take on gravitational lensing, inflation or anything else, in fact I don’t think I had ever really reflected on the nature of nothing at all.

The problems I had with Krauss’ overall view as seen in his book on the same subject A Universe from Nothing had to do with his understanding of the future and the present not the past.  I felt the book read the future far too pessimistically, missing the fact that just because the universe would end in nothing there was a lot of living to be done from now to the hundreds of billions of years before its heat death. As much as it was a work of popular science, Krauss’ book was mostly an atheist weapon in what I called “The Great God Debate” which, to my lights, was about attacking, or for creationists defending, a version of God as a cosmic engineer that was born no earlier and in conjunction with modern science itself. I felt it was about time we got beyond this conception of God and moved to a newer or even more ancient one.

Above all, A Universe from Nothing, as I saw it, was epistemologically hubristic, using science to make a non-scientific claim over the meaning of existence- that there wasn’t any- which cut off before they even got off the ground so many other interesting avenues of thought. What I hadn’t thought about was the issue of emergence from nothingness itself. Maybe the question of the past, the question of why our universe was here at all, was more important than I thought.

When thinking a question through, I always find a helpful first step to turn to the history of ideas to give me some context. Like much else, the idea that the universe began from nothing is a relatively recent one. The ancients had little notion of nothingness with their creation myths starring not with nothing but most often an eternally existing chaos that some divinity or divinities sculpted into the ordered world we see. You start to get ideas of creation out of nothing- ex nihilo- really only with Augustine in the 5th century, but full credit for the idea of a world that began with nothing would have to wait until Leibniz in the 1600s, who, when he wasn’t dreaming up new cosmologies was off independently inventing calculus at the same time as Newton and designing computers three centuries before any of us had lost a year playing Farmville.

Even when it came to nothingness Leibniz was ahead of his time. Again about three centuries after he had imagined a universe created from nothing the renegade Einstein was just reflecting universally held opinion when he made his biggest “mistake” tweaking his theory of general relativity with what he thought was a bogus cosmological constant so that he could get a universe that he and everyone else believed in- a universe that was eternal and unchanging- uncreated. Not long after Einstein had cooked the books Edwin Hubble discovered the universe was changing with time, moving apart, and not long after the that, evidence mounted that the universe had a beginning in the Big Bang.

With a creation event in the Big Bang cosmologists, philosophers and theologians were forced to confront the existence of a universe emerging from what was potentially nothing running into questions that had lain dormant since Leibniz- how did the universe emerge from nothing? why this particular universe? and ultimately why something rather than nothing at all? Krauss thinks we have solved the first and second questions and finds the third question, in his words, “stupid”.

Strange as it sounds coming out of my mouth, I actually find myself agreeing with Krauss: explanations that the universe emerged from fluctuations in a primordial “quantum foam” – closer to the ancient’s idea of chaos than our version of nothing- along with the idea that we are just one of many universes that follow varied natural laws- some like ours capable of fostering intelligent life- seem sufficient to me.  The third question, however, I find in no sense stupid, and if it’s childlike, it is childlike in the best wondrously curious kind of way. Indeed, the answers to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” might result is some of the most thrilling ideas human beings have come up with yet.

The question of why there is something rather than nothing is brilliantly explored in a book by Jim Holt Why the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. As Holt points out, the problem with nothingists theories like those of Krauss is that they fail to answer  the question as to why the quantum foam or multiple universes churning out their versions of existence are there in the first place. The simplest explanation we have is that “God made it”, and Holt does look at this answer as provided by philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne who answers the obvious question “who made God?” with the traditional answer “God is eternal and not made” which makes one wonder why we can’t just stick with Krauss’ self-generating universe in the first place?

Yet, it’s not only religious persons who think the why question is addressing something fundamental or even that science reveals the question as important even if we are forever barred from completely answering it. As physicist David Deutsch says in Why does the world exist:

 … none of our laws of physics can possibly answer the question of why the multiverse is there…. Laws don’t do that kind of work.

Wheeler used to say, take all the best laws of physics and put those bits on a piece of paper on the floor. Then stand back and look at them and say, “Fly!” They won’t fly they just sit there. Quantum theory may explain why the Big Bang happened, but it can’t answer the question you’re interested in, the question of existence. The very concept of existence is a complex one that needs to be unpacked. And the question Why is there something rather than nothing is a layered one, I expect. Even if you succeeded in answering it at some level, you’d still have the next level to worry about.  (128)

Holt quotes Deutsch from his book The Fabric of Reality “I do not believe that we are now, or shall ever be, close to understanding everything there is”. (129)

Others, philosophers and physicists are trying to answer the “why” question by composing solutions that combine ancient and modern elements. These are the Platonic multiverses of John Leslie and Max Tegmark both of whom, though in different ways, believe in eternally existing “forms”, goodness in the case of Leslie and mathematics in the case of Tegmark, which an infinity of universes express and realize. For the philosopher Leslie:

 … what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything which is worth knowing. (200)

Leslie borrows from Plato the idea that the world appeared out of the sheer ethical requirement for Goodness, that “the form of the Good bestows existence upon the world” (199).

If that leaves you scratching your scientifically skeptical head as much as it does mine, there are actual scientists, in this case the cosmologist Max Tegmark who hold similar Platonic ideas. According to Holt, Tegmark believes that:

 … every consistently desirable mathematical structure exists in a genuine physical sense. Each of these structures constitute a parallel world, and together these parallel worlds make up a mathematical multiverse. 182

Like Leslie, Tegmark looks to Plato’s Eternal Forms:

 The elements of this multiverse do not exist in the same space but exist outside space and time they are “static sculptures” that represent the mathematical structure of the physical laws that govern them.  183

If you like this line of reasoning, Tegmark has a whole book on the subject, Our Mathematical Universe. I am no Platonist and Tegmark is unlikely to convert me, but I am eager to read it. What I find most surprising about the ideas of both Leslie and Tegmark is that they combine two things I did not previously see as capable of being combined ,or even considered outright rival models of the world- an idea of an eternal Platonic world behind existence and the prolific features of multiverse theory in which there are many, perhaps infinite varieties of universes.

The idea that the universe is mind bogglingly prolific in its scale and diversity is the “fecundity” of the philosopher Robert Nozick who until Holt I had only associated with libertarian economics. Anyone who has a vision of a universe so prolific and diverse is okay in my book, though I do wish the late Nozick had been as open to the diversity of human socio-economic systems as he had been to the diversity of universes.

Like the physicist Paul Davies, or even better to my lights the novelists John Updike, both discussed by Holt, I had previously thought the idea of the multiverse was a way to avoid the need for either a creator God or eternally existing laws- although, unlike Davies and Updike and in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor I thought this a good thing. The one problem I had with multiverse theories was the idea of not just a very large or even infinite number of alternative universes but parallel universes where there are other versions of me running around, Holt managed to clear that up for me.

The idea that the universe was splitting every time I chose to eat or not eat a chocolate bar or some such always struck me as silly and also somehow suffocating. Hints that we may live in a parallel universe of this sort are just one of the weird phenomenon that emerge from quantum mechanics, you know, poor Schrodinger’s Cat . Holt points out that this is much different and not connected to the idea of multiple universes that emerge from the cosmological theory of inflation. We simply don’t know if these two ideas have any connection. Whew! I can now let others wrestle with the bizarre world of the quantum and rest comforted that the minutiae of my every decision doesn’t make me responsible for creating a whole other universe.

This returning to Plato seen in Leslie and Tegmark, a philosopher who died, after all,  2,5000 years ago, struck me as both weird and incredibly interesting. Stepping back, it seems to me that it’s not so much that we’re in the middle of some Hegelian dialectic relentlessly moving forward through thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but more involved in a very long conversation that is moving in no particular direction and every so often will loop back upon itself and bring up issues and perspectives we had long left behind.  It’s like a maze where you have to backtrack to the point you made a wrong turn in order to go in the right direction. We can seemingly escape the cosmological dead end created by Christian theology and Leibniz’s idea of creation ex nihilo only by going back to ideas found before we went down that path, to Plato. Though, for my money, I even better prefer another ancient philosopher- Lucretius.

Yet, maybe Plato isn’t back quite far enough. It was the pre-socratics who invented the natural philosophy that eventually became science. There is a kind of playfulness to their ideas all of which could exist side-by-side in dialogue and debate with one another with no clear way for any theory to win. Theories such as Heraclitus: world as flux and fire, or Pythagoras: world as number, or Democritus: world as atoms.

My hope is that we recognize our contemporary versions of these theories for what they are “just-so” stories that we tell about the darkness beyond the edge of scientific knowledge- and the darkness is vast. They are versions of a speculative theology- the possibilism of David Eagleman, which I have written about before and which are harmful only when they become as rigid and inflexible as the old school theology they are meant to replace or falsely claim the kinds of proof from evidence that only science and its experimental verification can afford. We should be playful with them, in the way Plato himself was playful with such stories in the knowledge that while we are in the “cave” we can only find the truth by looking through the darkness at varied angles.

Does Holt think there is a reason the world exists? What is really being asked here is what type of, in the philosopher Derek Parfit’s term “selector” brought existence into being. For Swinburne  the selector was God, for Leslie Goodness, Tegmark mathematics, Nozik fullness, but Holt thinks the selector might have been more simple, indeed, that the selector was simplicity. All the other selectors Holt finds to be circular, ultimately ending up being used to explain themselves. But what if our world is merely the simplest one possible that is also full? Moving from reason alone Holt adopts something like the mid-point between a universe that contained nothing and one that contained an infinite number of universes that are perfectly good adopting a mean he calls  “infinite mediocrity.”

I was not quite convinced by Holt’s conclusion, and was more intrigued by the open-ended and ambiguous quality of his exploration of the question of why there is something rather than nothing than I was his “proof” that our existence could be explained in such a way.

What has often strikes me as deplorable when it comes to theists and atheists alike is their lack of awe at the mysterious majesty of it all. That “God made it” or “it just is” strikes me flat. Whenever I have the peace in a busy world to reflect it is not nothingness that hits me but the awe -That the world is here, that I am here, that you are here, a fact that is a statistical miracle of sorts – a web weaving itself. Holt gave me a whole new way to think about this wonder.

How wonderfully strange that our small and isolated minds leverage cosmic history and reality to reflect the universe back upon itself, that our universe might come into existence and disappear much like we do. On that score, of all the sections in Holt’s beautiful little book it was the most personal section on the death of his mother that taught me the most about nothingness. Reflecting on the memory of being at his mother’s bedside in hospice he writes:

My mother’s breathing was getting shallower. Her eyes remained closed. She still looked peaceful, although every once in a while she made a little gasping noise.

Then I was standing over her, still holding her hand, my mother’s eyes open wide, as if in alarm. It was the first time I had seen them that day. She seemed to be looking at me. She opened her mouth. I saw her tongue twitch two or three times. Was she trying to say something? Within a couple of seconds her breathing stopped.

I leaned down and told her I loved her. Then I went into the hall and said to the nurse. “I think she just died.” (272-273)

The scene struck me as the exact opposite of the joyous experience I had at the birth of my own children and somehow reminded me of a scene from Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play.

 The moment a new-born opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

At the end of the day, for the whole of existence, the question of why there is something rather than nothing may remain forever outside our reach, but we, the dead who have become the living and the living who will become the dead, are certainly intimates with the reality of being and nothingness.

Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.



COMMENTS

Another question we might ask (if we “really* can’t sleep) is what people are really asking when they ask the “why” question. Clearly they are looking for some kind of explanation, but what kind of explanation, and why are they asking it? And yes, that’s me asking a “why” question)?

In a sense, all scientific knowledge is based on asking “why” questions, so I agree that calling it “stupid” to ask why the universe exists is, well, a bit stupid. But of course, developing scientific knowledge is a long way from being people’s only motivation for asking such questions, and whatever the precise motivation they will be looking for an explanation that is emotional satisfying. (And that doesn’t make them stupid either.)

Where such questions perhaps do become “stupid”, though, is when people start looking for explanations that just aren’t there, or would be misleading. Sometimes, it really may be better just not to ask the question.

@Peter:

“Where such questions perhaps do become “stupid”, though, is when people start looking for explanations that just aren’t there, or would be misleading. Sometimes, it really may be better just not to ask the question.”

I think what became really clear to me in reading Holt’s book is that there might be questions science simply can’t answer. We can never know in advance what is outside the reach of science, but such questions exist now and will likely exist in the future. Having discussion around such questions is actually very interesting and I can find absolutely NO reason “it may be better to not ask the question”. The kicker for me, what would make reject an explanation outright, is if it violated the laws of nature as we currently understand them, especially the parts of those laws we are currently quite certain of.

Although, this does not mean that ideas that step out of these laws are wrong > we can’t know that in advance > the view of nature of the pre-socratics was totally unlike any theories around them > but given our level of advancement leaps that reach beyond the principles of science we believe fundamental are more likely to be wrong than right.

I think it’s not only the explanations that can be “wrong” (with the caveats you’ve mentioned) but one’s expectations when asking the question. There’s also an issue of timing. For sure discussions around such questions can be very interesting, but it very much depends on one’s sensitives, with whom one is discussing them, and whether the circumstances make this a good idea. It is possible for such questions to become a distraction from more fruitful and timely pursuits. But I am certainly not saying one should never ask such questions, far from it.

I have read pretty much all the authors you have listed, including Leslie, Holt, Tegmark, Nozick, Parfit, Swinneburne, Davies. As the topic is cosmological, it is also existential to everyone personally, and as a species. I am easy on Krauss for this reason, he came up with a hypothesis on how to go faster than light within our current understanding of physics. For this, I give the man, street credibility. I am surprised that you did not include Hans Moravec and Frank Tipler in your essay. Both deal with the cosmological, as well as the existential. Both deal with the notion of a post mortem existence, and its involvement with information science.

@spud100:

Oh, I really wish I could have been more comprehensive. I hope to write future essays on the topic.

Of the writers you’ve listed, who is your favorite?

@ Rick - you surprise me

There is no such thing as “no thing”? and I’m not just talking of matter and the material - QED

and see also Quantum Electro Dynamics for extra-dimensional proofs?


Q: Assuming the heat death of the Universe, what happens to atoms? OK, then what happens to electrons, are they still electrons “uniformly” distributed so as not to interact with each other ever again and for eternity?


Also, I will mention it on this thread, (am lazy).

If one accepts the remote possibility of Bostrom’s “Simulation Hypothesis”? Then meta-morality may well exist as reality outside of our monkey minds, and attaining this objectivity may well be a test of character deemed worthy and rewarded by such Posthuman(s)? So the God argument is still open?

Not saying I believe this, yet one cannot really disprove this - ever?

Perhaps our perceived separated minds/consciousness/morality really is just confused and a “veil of ignorance” and we really all are just seeds in the pomegranate, such like ALL energy/matter interaction is not dissociated nor disaffected nor in fact, separate from the “whole”?


*giggles*

“So the God argument is still open?”

Yes, the sim hypothesis does kind of do that. Not that it was exactly closed anyway, but the simulation idea makes it perhaps more tangible than the more abstract conceptions of God while being less obviously delusional than the “old man in the sky”-type ones.

The question, I guess, is where that gets us. Suppose the attainment of objectivity is really a test of our moral character. Does this mean I have to start taking Pascal’s wager seriously again? Am I to distort my moral preferences in the service of jumping through some imaginary hoops created by beings for whom we have no direct evidence of their existence, let alone any clue what they are like or what this moral objectivity might look like? How do we know it won"t be the Evil Psychopaths who inherit the earth?

No, I prefer to just go with my moral preferences, and renounce any claim or aspiration to objectivity. I think it’s better that way.

@CygnusX1:

“Q: Assuming the heat death of the Universe, what happens to atoms? OK, then what happens to electrons, are they still electrons “uniformly” distributed so as not to interact with each other ever again and for eternity?”

Up until very recently I had not thought all that much about deeper fields of time that is beyond the beginning of our universe or after its end. When I was younger I had assumed the universe was cyclical- Bang-Contraction-Bang, but there has not proven to be any evidence over the last few decades for this, and for whatever reason I never picked up on what this lack of a clear cyclical mechanism would mean.

What I got from reading Holt was the realization that the idea that something like the Big Bang happened only once was quite parochial. Who knows how many other universes, and with some of them intelligent life have existed before us and will exist after, although the notion of time here is stretched to the breaking point it being part and parcel of the limited cosmic space in which we exist.

Even if our universe died in heat death > why do we assume we are the only one, or that something in our universe is necessary to birth other ones?

“If one accepts the remote possibility of Bostrom’s “Simulation Hypothesis”? Then meta-morality may well exist as reality outside of our monkey minds, and attaining this objectivity may well be a test of character deemed worthy and rewarded by such Posthuman(s)? So the God argument is still open?”

I just can’t get myself to accept the Simulation Hypothesis - and on moral grounds. Why would any competent engineer design a world with so much pain? Historical curiosity would just make “him” sadistic.

http://utopiaordystopia.com/2013/03/17/the-ethics-of-a-simulated-universe/

“Universe recreated in massive computer simulation” (non-functional)

www.theguardian.com/science/2014/may/07/universe-recreated-computer-simulation-model-big-bang


I don’t subscribe to the Simulation Hypothesis myself, but the point is you cannot rule it out? And for the same principles and conclusions I defer to reserve judgment as Agnostic and that I just do not know for sure. Certainly does not stop me being quizzical about nature and the Universe, nor the extremities of Human potential and limitations of imagination.


Regarding morality and intelligent designs - all depends upon one’s “subjective” view of the evils of nature and natural evolution, “being” subjugated by it, or rising above and beyond it? -  Sometimes I can’t help but feel this entire existence is but a test of wits against the “objective” and “natural” evils all around us?

Can’t help but take an Apologist stance that to accept Free will is to accept responsibility and stop blaming Gods or Posthumans, or use our own laziness, fear and incapability to support and disprove existence with aim to soothe our consciences, (just as the flip-side of blind faith in God’s will is just as incapacitating)?

I understand that the US, UK and now France have offered “to do some thing” regarding the abduction of these girls - is it all a test? Who is testing who?

Nigeria: at least 300 killed in latest Boko Haram attack

www.channel4.com/news/nigeria-at-least-300-killed-in-latest-boko-haram-attack


If you seek “objective” morality, then examine the rock, (and also the atoms that comprises it), which aligns itself and does not compete with the forces of nature at all, it does not freely choose, it cannot, is therefore free from emotional and existential stress and “unsatisfactoriness” and is disaffected by inner conflicts? The rock is lifeless and exists in a permanent state of indifference - the only way to really be free from subjective morality?

 

@CygnusX1:

“Regarding morality and intelligent designs - all depends upon one’s “subjective” view of the evils of nature and natural evolution, “being” subjugated by it, or rising above and beyond it? -  Sometimes I can’t help but feel this entire existence is but a test of wits against the “objective” and “natural” evils all around us?”

Respectfully Cygnus, I think this is an easy attitude to take living in an advanced era and in an advanced country. It’s a little harder to take when one looks at the whole of human history where 1/4 of children died before age 5. And is hard to take even now if one is born in certain societies and in certain strata.

You are right in saying that the Simulation Hypothesis is un-falsifiable, but I find no strong evidence that it is true either.
If the SH is true, it would mean for me 1 of 2 things either of which or both together would be true. The first being that the entity running the simulation is amoral or immoral > hence all the suffering. The second being that our whole existence here is an accidental derivative to the simulation itself. A whole different species or type of entity might be running a simulation like the one you cited at The Guardian which is so detailed it calls us into existence in the “cracks”, but we are not the purpose of the simulation nor does the entity running the simulation care for us all that much > perhaps it’s not even aware we are here. 

Without very strong evidence in favor of the SH- I’d lean in the opposite direction on moral grounds or at least to avoid having nightmares about some pimple faced “kid” snuffing us all out because his parents made him shut off his video game. 

I also think Jaron Lanier was on to something when he said “What makes something real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion”. No matter how sophisticated our simulations get they are really just surface approximations. Fully representing the granular level of reality would require the energy and be the equivalent of re-creating that reality. I find it hard to believe we are 0’s and 1’s.

A funny take on this from Andrew Bird:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge_Z15RBMmA

Why is it so implausible that the entity/ies running the sim are, let’s say, “morally challenged”? I’ll admit it’s not a particularly cheering prospect, but I don’t really see why it’s implausible. My gripe with the sim hypothesis is not so much that it is implausible as that it doesn’t really seem to shed any light at all on how I should live my life. In fact no so much a gripe as an observation regarding it’s (lack of) relevance to discussions about ethics.

@ Rick

I am certainly not espousing an easy attitude nor excuses as apologist, I am serious! Sometimes I feel this whole “personal” and subjective existence is not merely challenging, but a test of my own morality and tenacity - cursed with my own subjective visions of “what could be” and observing “what is” - and I don’t see this global society moving forward fast, (morally), hence the links - we can find atrocity and immorality on every news page on the web, every hour of the day.

Perhaps there are others that also view this inner “unsatisfactoriness” with the world?

You surely cannot deny that nature itself is cruel and does contain natural “evils” leading to unnecessary suffering, fatality and causing fatalism? It’s not all Human inflicted is it? And agree that we must struggle, (with morality), to rise above? As Apologist I make no apologies for this viewpoint.

Thus, the Apologist view once again is - if you’re looking for someone to blame, look in the mirror - you have “enough” free will to stand up for what you think and feel is right, to speak out against what you think and feel is wrong with the whole “Human” subjective experience/experiment?

There is no easy attitude on this side of the screen, I assure you. (maybe my Anglican/protestant background is poking through just a little also - it is embedded still).

You didn’t comment on the Rock metaphor, which is what I was getting at in the Kant article with Henry Bowers. Do Rocks suffer? Feel pain?

“I am NOT a Rock, I am NOT an island”…but if I was… la la la


“No matter how sophisticated our simulations get they are really just surface approximations. Fully representing the granular level of reality would require the energy and be the equivalent of re-creating that reality. I find it hard to believe we are 0’s and 1’s.”

I agree, this is why I also see a computation/energy paradox for the resurrection of the entire Universe and it’s past history including resurrection of the long since dead. And yet this statement also concerns running a simulation within a simulation, and thus if we are living in such an imperfect, (and immoral), simulation we would not know of any scenario or any better/different, would you, in swimming about in the only fish tank you have ever known, know any better?

And yes, it is all merely speculation, that I don’t much support as a model of reality either, and yes, what use is it practicably but to ask “why” are we here? Which is perhaps grounded in our own ontological search for morality in existence, and perhaps that is all it is?

Who mentioned the Simulation Hypothesis anyhoo?

“Who am I”? is still more important a question than “why are we here” - because to become enlightened as to “who” I am is to further support my subjective morality, values, well being and with aim to decrease my own suffering, and perhaps lessen the suffering for the entire world, (if we can aspire to think and collaborate collectively that is?) - (Jeeez.. now I’m beginning to sound like a Utilitarian!)

And no, this is not a snipe.. WE ARE ALL UTILITARIANS .. the order I dress myself, the choice of which sock to pull on first, whether to button first and zip my flies after, what to have for breakfast - it is all “evaluated” with “ideally” the most proficient of Utility and efficiency and expediency. Politicians do all of these things also, and travel to work using the most expedient of Utility where they spend the rest of the day “maintaining the status quo” and letting those poorest nations starve and struggle?

NO.. Utilitarianism is not sufficient, we can do better, (now I’m just repeating myself.. again and again and again..)


Roll the Bones - Rush

http://www.lyricsfreak.com/r/rush/roll+the+bones_20119946.html

 

Plea: We can do better? Can’t we? Please tell me, I need to be assured before I rest?

 

The world exists because it contains thinkers able to wonder why the world exists. (I am afraid some Frenchman found this deep truth some centuries before me;-)

@CygnusX1
I think you’re still misunderstanding what utilitarianism is. First of all we do not all evaluate our actions with ideally the most proficient utility and efficiency and expediency. That’s just not how psychology works. We’re just not that rational, or perfectly adapted to our circumstances. Just look out of the window and study people’s driving habits for evidence of this.

More pertinently, what distinguishes utilitarianism from other ethical systems is not just its pragmatism (though clearly that is an essential part of it) but also the end to which all this pragmatism is directed, namely the maximisation of overall well-being. Rick is entirely correct in pointing out that this is not perfectly well defined, and that one might prefer to focus on other things than necessarily maximising overall well-being as a basis for one’s perspective on ethics, but it remains the case that utilitarianism is a deeply altruistic creed, indeed I would suggest the most altruistic creed possible (which is why it works for me as an ethical framework). Deep pragmatism indeed, but pragmatism in the service of deep altruism.

So: can we do better? Than we are currently, certainly, and I understand that you feel very poignantly and painfully the imperfection of the world. Whether we can do better than being good utilitarians is another question. I, in any case, am a long way from being a good utilitarian.

To be clear, as I said in reply to Rick (on the other thread) I am glad not everyone espouses utilitarianism as their ethical system. Utilitarianism isn’t perfect either, and we need diversity and experimentation. But it almost seems as if you are blaming utilitarianism for the fact that the world and the people who inhabit it are imperfect, or somehow see utilitarianism as evidence of this imperfection. Perhaps I am wrong, but I still suspect that your dislike of utilitarianism is based at least in part on a misunderstanding rather than a genuine moral preference, and if I am right then you might perhaps benefit from considering this further.

I think it might perhaps also help us to have better conversations.

Well it’s not so much that I conflate Human imperfection and associate this imperfection with Utilitarianism, but rather see the policies/politics applied globally as insufficient, overly bureaucratic and slow to provide this overall well-being you speak of. Politics not ethics stands as the real obstruction applied with priority of utility and manifest as Utilitarianism we see around us.

The below may clear up my use of focus on efficiency and expediency - ie; pulling on my socks in the most proficient manner/habit helps support my overall contentedness.. and it does, exaggerated and extrapolated as happiness if you wish for sake of example, as I become less happy if something goes amiss with the habitual chore of pulling on socks.

The Utility of maximising Happiness for the majority may sound reasonable, yet my gripes is that mostly we already live in a world governed by imagined Utility and progress is slow, towards slippery slope backwards - especially during bust socioeconomic cycles - the Utility of banks comes first over the suffering of Human beings. This is what I have issues with.


Act and Rule Utilitarianism

We can apply the principle of utility to either PARTICULAR ACTIONS or GENERAL RULES. The former is called “act-utilitarianism” and the latter is called “rule-utilitarianism.”

Act-utilitarianism—The principle of utility is applied directly to each alternative act in a situation of choice. The right act is then defined as the one which brings about the best results (or the least amount of bad results).


Criticisms of this view point to the difficulty of attaining a full knowledge and certainly of the consequences of our actions.

It is possible to justify immoral acts using AU: Suppose you could end a regional war by torturing children whose fathers are enemy soliders, thus revealing the hide outs of the fathers.


Rule-utilitarianism—The principle of utility is used to determine the validity of rules of conduct (moral principles). A rule like promise-keeping is established by looking at the consequences of a world in which people broke promises at will and a world in which promises were binding. Right and wrong are then defined as following or breaking those rules.

Some criticisms of this position point out that if the Rules take into account more and more exceptions, RU collapses into AU.


More genearl criticisms of this view argue that it is possible to generate “unjust rules” according to the principle of utility. For example, slavery in Greece might be right if it led to an overall achievement of cultivated happiness at the expense of some mistreated individuals.

http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/cavalier/80130/part2/sect9.html

 

 

@Giulio:

“The world exists because it contains thinkers able to wonder why the world exists.”

I understand the sentiment, but I am not so sure. Could reality really be so self-congratulatory?

Imagine a universe in which no other creatures with our level and type of intelligence came into existence, and we ourselves died out, but there was still life. As long as there is life the universe would continue to pulse with meaning for the creatures who lived and died in it though they would never be able to articulate the whole. It’s this ability to articulate both the parts and the whole that make us different, but should we confuse the articulation with the meaning?

@Peter:

“My gripe with the sim hypothesis is not so much that it is implausible as that it doesn’t really seem to shed any light at all on how I should live my life.”

Really? This is probably why most people choose religion over science - for the former’s pastoral aspects.

@CygnusX1:

“I am certainly not espousing an easy attitude nor excuses as apologist, I am serious! Sometimes I feel this whole “personal” and subjective existence is not merely challenging, but a test of my own morality and tenacity - cursed with my own subjective visions of “what could be” and observing “what is” - and I don’t see this global society moving forward fast, (morally), hence the links - we can find atrocity and immorality on every news page on the web, every hour of the day.”

I think this has been the impression we have had since we were articulate enough to make such judgments. It is from this tension between the real and the ideal that the utopian imagination emerges.

In my view, many things are much much better for us than our ancestors but we still have a lot of work left to do. Oscar Wilde said it better:

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Perhaps, if we are in a simulation what we are looking for is the perfect program that would set the world straight although given our position we are forced to re-write this program from the inside out.

@Rick
Religion, yes. But the sim hypothesis? Religion does the job precisely because we believe God is good and that provides us with incentive and inspiration to be good ourselves. But then we are lumbered with the problem of evil. Since the sim hypothesis makes no assumptions about the morality of those running the sim (see my above remarks on that subject), I find it difficult to see how it can play that role, at least as originally formulated. Of course we can choose to believe (wishfully?) that they are good, but then we have the problem you raised yourself, with this hypothesis, which indeed is none other than the problem of evil.

Clearly Plato’s “necessary lie” has it’s pros (incentive and inspiration) and cons (the problem of evil, and general lack of evidence).

@CygnusX1
Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

As soon as I came across rule utilitarianism back in the day it was immediately clear to me that it was a necessary upgrade from (the original) act utilitarianism. The first of the two criticisms you cite in this regard isn’t really a criticism; it’s more a note of caution (“be careful not to overdo the exceptions”). The “more general criticism” is of course much more serious, and is basically the same one (in my view) as the trolley metaphor. To what extent do we sacrifice the few in favour of the many. At a purely practical level, the obvious answer to the slavery case is: maybe that was OK for then, but we can do better now.

I think it might also help if we distinguish between utilitarianism-the-moral-philosophy and “utilitarianism” as a way of saying “emphasis on utility”. In some ways the actual word as applied to the moral philosophy is misleading, since while as I stated earlier pragmatism is indeed an essential part of it, the emphasis on well-being is at least as important. Essentially the insight of Bentham and Mill was that rules, laws and cultural norms should be accountable to the principle of utility *in the service of overall well-being*, as opposed to being accepted as God-given or because they favoured the ruling elite. The emphasis on utility was the key innovation at the time, but these days it is indeed the emphasis on altruism and well-being that makes it stand out, while - as you very correctly point out - the “utilitarianism” that we all too often see around us tends to be all about utility and little if at all about promoting overall well-being.

As you say, we become less happy if something goes wrong with the process of putting on our socks, and since no-one else is involved utility is indeed what matters. But if utility means exploiting others for my personal gain, then that ain’t utilitarianism. At least not utilitarianism-the-moral-philosophy.

@Rick
Tipler, for his theory is based on the Standard Model.

@Peter:

“Religion, yes. But the sim hypothesis? Religion does the job precisely because we believe God is good and that provides us with incentive and inspiration to be good ourselves.”

Oh, don’t get me wrong- I think if the sim hypotheses would have any impact it would too often be a negative one- causing those susceptible to devalue the living world. What I was getting at is that I’m surprised by your characterization of religion, you sound like me! I thought for you what counted is that people did not believe in “lies” not this kind of moral orientation religion often provides that I am always harping on about.

@Rick
Maybe you’re rubbing off on me! But seriously, I’ve never really doubted that religion has benefits, and that moral orientation is one of them. It’s just that when we discuss religion on this blog I tend to find myself on the side of those who prefer to emphasise its drawbacks. There are various reasons for this, not all of them particularly good I dare say, but I think one of the better ones is the ire that tends to be expressed in relation to New Atheists (let’s just call them militants shall we?). Also, some who have written on this blog - Instamatic will know which friendly Pastor I have in mind - have tended to internalise some of those “lies” and obfuscations to a degree that may be useful for their pastoral work (better a good if somewhat deluded Christian than a perfectly rational but psychopathic atheist) but hardly seems helpful in the context of the discussions we have here. Religion has served its purpose, but some of us have found other sources of moral orientation, which - for those of us who are ready for them - are frankly superior.

“A secular take on it: morality is what you do when no one is looking. One is moral because one is at least partially convinced it is correct, not from believing God is good and being provided with incentive and inspiration to be good.”

Or simply because one has decided that is how one wants to live, even if there is no “correct” or “incorrect” about it.

@Peter:

“Maybe you’re rubbing off on me! But seriously, I’ve never really doubted that religion has benefits, and that moral orientation is one of them. It’s just that when we discuss religion on this blog I tend to find myself on the side of those who prefer to emphasise its drawbacks. “

Good to know.

“As long as there’s some sort of overarching frameworks involved, it is not considered all too important how the given framework is a jerry-built one.”

I think that’s quite profound. Jerry-built it certainly is: indeed, a little bit of the, a little bit of that. And it’s hardly surprising: like us (we are jerry-built too: think appendicitis and chronic back pain) it is the result of essentially haphazard evolution. We’re back to something like social Darwinism, but without the fallacy that this is something to be welcomed (in which case might would really make right, and the best memes are the ones most likely to survive), merely with the awareness that, for the moment at least, that is now things are.

But indeed much of the rage we see around us, or on Fox News (and probably expressed in the European elections later this month) is a reaction to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies inherent in our current, jerry-built system. Would be good if we could iron some of them out, though of course we must bear in mind that when trying to deal with imperfections one can easily end up making things worse.

“We do make our environment worse, however the human organism can adapt and doesn’t necessarily get worse.”

To be precise, we take our environment further away from Big Bang conditions, or any other relatively improbable (low entropy) state. This is what makes making things better difficult, it’s what makes us keep slip-sliding away. But not only can the human organism adapt and “not necessarily get worse”, that can also apply to the planet as a whole. We just need to figure out better ways to exploit the entropy gap between incoming sunlight and outgoing heat radiation, and other sources of negentropy. And, of course, deal with existential risks - but you already know that.

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