You want me to sit on WHAT???

Imagine that the motor car as we know it had never been invented – suppose we’d developed electrical technology long before the internal combustion engine.

Now suppose someone came up to you and proposed the following: “I want you to go and sit in the back of that metal box and lock yourself in. Under your seat is a bomb made from twelve gallons of liquid petroleum. Petroleum is extremely explosive and there’s ample there to turn you into cinders. A bit of static electricity from wearing synthetic clothes is more than enough to ignite it, but for your comfort and convenience we’ve also routed it close to a very hot pipe and carry it via easily chafed tubes to the front, where we deliberately expose it to 15,000 volts of electric sparks. Ok? How do you feel about that?”

From that perspective the motor car doesn’t seem nearly so benign or reasonable, does it? In these days of consumer protection, can you seriously imagine such a thing being made legal? And yet we not only accept it as normal but we casually pack our children inside one and hurtle at closing speeds of 120mph, a few inches from some random stranger doing the same thing.

But it’s just what you do, isn’t it?

Belief in gods is just like this, as far as I can see. It was once the only explanation we had, and it seemed eminently reasonable at the time.

We humans were faced with, and perhaps uniquely able to examine, all sorts of major scientific puzzles about the world around us: How did it come to be? How did such complexity arise? Why am I able to speculate on all this in a way that a rock doesn’t seem able to do? What’s it all for? Why am I somewhat like other creatures and yet apparently so different? Why is it all so damn painful?

These were excellent questions, and led to a series of excellent answers. Like all scientific theories, these proposed answers have been subjected to challenges and gradually adjusted in the light of new information. First it wasn’t at all obvious that trees and maybe even rivers don’t have a first-person experience of life in the way that we do, so animism was an early scientific theory that sought to explain growth and movement and purpose in terms of some animating influence, and hence the theory of spirits was born.

Later, analogies with the contemporaneous development of social order in humans led to the notion that events in the non-human world were also orchestrated by intelligences. The apparently erratic and cruel nature of life’s events was perhaps best explained in terms of power struggles and the emotional personalities of invisible beings – a pretty good reflection of what humanity was itself going through at the time. An extremely elaborate and sophisticated set of sub-theories were developed within this paradigm and such polytheism worked very well for thousands of years.

Eventually, some quite logical inferences brought a group of researchers to the conclusion that such a society of gods must have a leader, and that their particular favorite god was the best candidate. This theory worked so well (although not for very scientific reasons) that it eventually led to the theory that all these other gods weren’t really gods at all – just angels, or devils, or false gods that should be denied. Moreover, since the whole of existence must surely have had a single-point beginning, it was clearly this deity, the All-Father, who created it. Nothing so complex could conceivably have created itself, so this made a lot of sense. Just like Newtonian Mechanics before Einstein came along, a massive body of literature was developed around it and the theory looked pretty secure.

I’m grossly over-simplifying this progression of scientific theories, I know. I simply can’t do them justice in a few paragraphs and I have a  specific point to get on to. But I hope you can accept that animism, to theism, to monotheism is a rational, thoughtful, scholarly progression of explanations of the world and our place in it, drawn from careful observations and then refined, both gradually and via distinct paradigm shifts, through the use of logical challenges to the predictions it made. Apart from the difficulty of performing actual experiments on such matters until recently, this process of philosophical enquiry is essentially science. Religion is science. Or at least it was until it started insisting upon blind faith.

At every stage in the process, some people refused to go along with the flow. Either they didn’t believe the new evidence, they didn’t hear about it at all, or they had too much invested in the previous paradigm. There are still animists. There are still polytheists. Even amongst a single line of monotheists there are three distinct schools of thought, each focused around a particular moment in the history of its development – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s hard to let go of a conceptual framework that has infiltrated one’s entire life.

You may have noticed that I’ve missed out a stage in this progression of philosophical ideas. Beginning around five hundred years ago, a series of observations that were entirely consistent in spirit to all the others that led to them began to cast serious doubt on some of the basic tenets. That, too, is far too big a tale for a paragraph, but whilst Bronze-age people had developed a highly sophisticated understanding of the motions of planets that seemed to confirm the need for divine control, medieval scholars were able to show that this complex set of requirements became massively simpler and more mechanical if we let go of the notion that our planet is at the center of the universe. Such an hypothesis was very persuasive but it called into question some deeply held assumptions about the existing theory, which by this time was rather heavily built upon the notion that humans (or at least some tribes of humans) were special, and all this complex theological machinery really required us to play center-stage. It didn’t go down well. (Apparently nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.)

Much, much more has happened since then. The new theory of planetary motion led to a rapidly growing understanding of how a wide variety of things that we’d formerly assumed could only happen if an intelligence caused them to happen, can actually be better explained in terms of quite simple regularities, which we call physical laws. The accumulating evidence about the age of the Earth and how its rocks have formed failed to square with some assumptions in the older cosmology about how it had been created. And in the 19th Century a couple of very methodical and painstaking studies seriously began to erode the assumption that the world is too complex to have arisen without someone to create it. This was a bit of a shock, but it did at least help us to deal with some very longstanding philosophical difficulties with the existing theory, such as “if the complexity of the universe can only be explained by intelligent design, the same argument must apply to the even more complex designer, so who or what created him?”

To cut a very long story short, a massive, MASSIVE amount of evidence has accumulated in the past five hundred years that required another paradigm shift in our cosmology. The explanations we had before – of spirits, of warring otherworldy beings, of an all-creating all-father – no longer fit the facts. These changes were at first incremental and capable of being absorbed by modifications to the existing theory, but eventually a Kuhnian paradigm shift became necessary to account for what is now known. Like all honest science, the theory had to be abandoned and replaced.

But like all other paradigm shifts in the history of our collective attempt to understand our world, not everyone feels in a position to let go of the old world view. The same reasons apply now as ever: some are ignorant of these new developments; some understand them but genuinely don’t believe them (although this time I think that’s a very small minority, if anyone at all); and some have too much invested in the old ways to change.

Unfortunately, some of this latter group are determined to pull the wool over people’s eyes and deny this accumulated evidence, either for personal gain or to protect their own insecurities. Others are somehow able to engage in doublethink and believe two mutually contradictory ideas at the same time. But the majority, I suggest, are simply too used to it to see the problem.

We think nothing of sitting our children on top of a bomb and driving them to school, because that’s what we’ve always done. The technology arose in rougher times, when such things didn’t seem so unreasonable. But I submit that, if the idea were proposed for the very first time today, we’d find it utterly ludicrous. We’d say it was a monstrous suggestion that would lead to thousands of deaths every year. And we’d be right.

I further suggest that, if history had been different and we hadn’t passed through these (at the time entirely reasonable) stages in our scientific explanation of the world, and someone came up to you today and suggested for the very first time that the universe was put together by an alien intelligence, that there was a heaven and a hell, that you were born sinful and doomed to hell unless you could convince this deity that you believed in him, and all the rest, you’d be rather more likely to believe that it makes sense to sit on a bomb and throw sparks at it.

By the way, should any of you wonder why I write posts about religion in a blog about artificial life, there is a reason: My work is about answering the very same questions that led to these stages in our religious/scientific development. Many of the things that in prior theories required supernatural agency – souls, consciousness, a vital spark, are nowadays amenable to examination. By trying to create life in the laboratory, especially somewhat abstract forms of life, as opposed to fairly slavish copies (see, for instance, Craig Venter’s lab’s work), I hope to gain more insight into what it means to be living, conscious, spiritual entities. I’m just continuing the work started by our stone age ancestors.

Discuss. I know you will 🙂


To Be Happy

A few weeks ago I said that those of us who don’t believe in the supernatural really need to get our act together and discuss our own moral philosophy, given that we don’t have one handed down to us on tablets of stone. We are often charged by “believers” as being immoral or amoral, as if the only alternative to Christian or any other religious doctrine is bestial anarchy. So today I thought I’d air my own moral philosophy for your examination. It’s very simple to state and very hard to implement, and it goes like this:

Each of us should strive to create the most happiness, for the most ‘people’, for the longest time.

That’s it. No detailed list of commandments; no Heaven or Hell as incentives; no advice as to how to go about it, even. But there are several things I need to explain:

First, it’s a variant on something that the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once said, and hence is a form of Utilitarianism. Someone very close to me once described this as “a bleak philosophy”, and maybe she’s right, although at the time she was the innocent victim of my best attempt to stick to it, so it’s not easy to tell. However, just because Bentham and I had a similar idea this doesn’t mean I believe everything Bentham believed. For one thing I don’t think that you can quantify happiness (or pleasure), as he attempted to do, and create definitive rules about it; for another I have absolutely no plans to have myself embalmed and stuck in a glass case.

Perhaps the most important difference from Bentham is that I’ve added “for the longest time” to the end, because without this it is an incitement to Hedonism. He did include this in his “Felicific Calculus” but I think it needs emphasising. In Bentham’s time, global warming, the loss of natural resources to human-induced entropy, and the threat to humanity caused by weapons whose force exceeds our competence, were not recognised issues. But now we can see that we have often given ourselves happiness at the expense of those yet to be born. This is not a good thing. Obviously we can’t account for the consequences of our actions millions of years into the future. Also, our own happiness today is a vital part of future generations’ happiness – if we don’t thrive and prosper then they may not even come to exist, or they may not get a good and enlightened head start in life. Nevertheless, “party, party, party!” is not a good basis for a moral philosophy. In general, there are always more people yet to be born than are existing today, and so future generations must count very highly in our choices.

Notice also that I’ve put “people” in quotes. This is because I don’t know who counts as a person. It’s clearly nonsense to presume that personhood extends evenly thoughout the human species but nowhere beyond. For one thing we don’t even know how to define the human species as it stands today (let alone in the past and future). It seems equally nonsensical to me to go to the other extreme and include all living systems in the category of personhood, for much the same reasons. A bacterium can “experience pain and pleasure”, in the sense that some things that happen to it provide a threat or advantage to its survival, and hence alter its behaviour. But I think few of us would suggest that a bacterium can be happy or unhappy in the sense we mean it for ourselves. To be happy, it seems to me you need to be conscious. Not all living things are conscious. But we don’t know what consciousness is, or which creatures have it. This is why neuroscience, psychology, comparative anatomy, artificial intelligence and artificial life are such important subjects. We need to work this out.

Happiness is also different from pleasure, and pleasure is not always the same as survivability. So why happiness? It seems such a nebulous and selfish beast. But it’s what you want, isn’t it? You want to be happy. You don’t want to be unhappy. I’m the same. I can’t imagine anyone who wants anything different. Some people may say that they want to be unhappy, but in that case the opportunity and right to be miserable is what makes them happy, almost by definition. And happiness is relative. There are millions of poor people, living life on the edge, who nevertheless are happy. There are many rich people, who have all that money can buy, who are desperately unhappy. We should feel as sorry for them as anyone else who is unhappy. We should feel as pleased for the happy poor as we do for the happy rich. Happpiness is what we all want. Wealth, security, comfort and peace are more likely to make us happy, but those aren’t the ultimate goal. Happiness is a strange and ill-defined concept, but it’s overwhelmingly important for the conscious mind. If we aren’t happy then we are suffering, and it seems to me that suffering is self-evidently bad.

But the most important thing about this “most happiness” philosophy is that we simply don’t know how to adhere to it, and almost certainly never will. Even if I knew for sure which organisms can experience happiness, there’s no way I can be confident about which actions will maximise that happiness. You can’t (as Bentham attempted to) measure happiness, and you can’t be certain how any action you take will pan out. Sometimes we do our utmost to make everyone happy and end up making them miserable, because things pan out in a different way than we could have foreseen. But the point is, we should TRY to foresee. It should guide our actions and intentions. And we should be judged according to our intentions and efforts – there’s a big difference between misery caused by malice and misery caused by an honest mistake.

This is where my form of utilitarianism is radically different from, say, the Ten Commandments (it’s far more similar to the “Do as you would be done by” Christian moral principle that I wrote about a few weeks ago). Moral codes like those in the Old Testament and Koran tell people exactly what they should do under specific circumstances. They are definitive. Jews even know for sure when it is “wrong” to turn on a light switch. Sometimes it takes some deep and meaningful discussion to figure out the details but they can rely on clerics to debate stuff like that (and anyway they can usually find a Gentile to switch it on for them). Moral CODES like this are very comforting: you know what you’re supposed to do and you don’t have to think too hard about it. But such codes are also ludicrous. They are absurd. They are often very counterproductive. What we need is not codes but moral PRINCIPLES.

Everyone should know by now how stupid it is to follow the letter of the law and flout its spirit. But detailed laws actually encourage people to act that way. It was a good compromise in the days before education, but now many of us have no such excuse. No codified law can possibly account for every circumstance, and often the letter of the law has the opposite effect to its spirit. The European Union is stuffed full of attempts to codify detailed exceptions to laws that clearly don’t always make sense. And the more exceptions the lawmakers include, the more loopholes and absurdities they actually create.

Sometimes this has only silly consequences. If people really want to adhere to anachronistic rules about eating pork, even after the advent of refrigeration and food hygeine standards, then that’s up to them. But sometimes it’s very, very dangerous. Many young men are killing themselves and innocent bystanders every day because they believe they’re adhering to religious law. Whole wars have been fought because one society’s little rituals don’t agree with someone else’s. Strict adherence to laws, regardless of logic or compassion is what puts the “dog” in “dogma”. It is what gives people excuses to do harm while claiming to do good. It is a dirty, shameful COP-OUT on the part of ordinary people.

The advantage of my approach is that I don’t have a clue how to implement it. I can’t look down a list to find my answers. I don’t have the comfort of pointing at a rule to excuse myself for making a mistake and causing unwarranted grief. I have to think very hard all the time, to work out to the best of my ability what I should do to make the most people happiest, because sometimes that involves deliberately making myself or other people unhappy. It makes it clear to me that every decision I take has consequences, and so, for that matter, do the times when I fail to take a decision. It puts the onus on me to think, instead of acting like an automaton.

But it’s a guide. It’s a goal. It’s something to measure my progress by. And the sheer lack of definitive rules means that I have to be constantly aware that sometimes what seems on first glance to be the right thing to do can actually be the worst thing. It keeps me on my toes and reminds me that the responsibility is all mine and I can’t pass it off onto someone else. I think that’s a good thing. I think that makes me MORE moral than someone who just does what he’s told.

And finally it really screws up some of our cosy little assumptions, and that’s a good thing too. Many jurisdictions, for instance, punish a drunk driver who kills someone by a long prison sentence, but a drunk driver who doesn’t kill someone just gets a fine. How is the latter any less guilty than the former? He just got away with it, that’s all. One caused more unhappiness than the other, but both had the same intentions; the same disregard of other people’s feelings. Surely the punishment should be identical in either case? But what? It’s issues like these that require us all to think a great deal harder about culpability and morality than we currently do, because we’re so used to being able to palm the problem off onto someone else.

Who is more guilty in this example: Person A has been abused by her husband for years, sees him hit their child and later that night stabs him to death as he sleeps. Person B fails to indicate when changing lanes on a freeway, causing an accident that may or may not kill someone. I’d suggest that the second person is more guilty than the first, because the cost to oneself, in terms of happiness, of habitually lifting one finger to indicate is ridiculously trivial compared to the potential cost to others of not doing so, whereas the first person had to go through moral torture to make that decision and carry it out. So how should we punish them? It’s not obvious, is it? Introduce the death penalty for failure to use your indicators?

The more we have to think for ourselves instead of relying on someone else (especially someone living in a completely different kind of society, thousands of years ago), the more we are likely to end up making ourselves and everyone else happy. Even if we’re not so clever as the expert moral philosopher. The important thing is our intention – the intention to make people happy is called kindness and kindness is something we can all understand and recognise. Sometimes we’ll get it horribly wrong despite our best efforts – to my shame I know that I have – but the important thing is to try. Morality is about being responsible, not hiding behind religious dogma.