Monday, July 29, 2013

Vision of the Future -- Gray Goo and Exponentially Expanding Consciousness

In the deep future I see, machines of inconceivable complexity radiate outward from the Earth like rays from the Sun. They are tiny, sophisticated, self-replicating seeds with the sole objective of converting all matter they come in to contact with in to exact replicas of themselves. Their purpose is to wake up the "dumb matter" of the universe by taking cold, unstructured matter and restructuring it in to computational substrate.


Because the only thing that really ever matters is computation. We can easily convince ourselves of this by seeing that consciousness is a form of computation, and further that consciousness is the canvas on which all other experience is painted on. If any kind of experience is important to us, then consciousness, and therefore computation, must surely be more important.

One might argue that claiming "consciousness is all that matters because all of our experiences are felt through the medium of consciousness" is to ignore why consciousness is important to us in the first place: the experiences. Without experience consciousness is empty. In analogous words, a blank canvas is not interesting to look at. This quickly degrades into a "chicken-or-the-egg" problem. Without consciousness, experience is impossible, but without experience consciousness is boring. Therefore, one cannot be more important than the other. And, this may be true, but the reason computation is so valuable is because not only does it encompass consciousness, but it can also produce and simulate experience. Computation supersedes both. Regardless of which precedes the other, consciousness or experience, it makes no difference since computation realizes both.

What is likely the most amazing fact that I can think of, and one that I happen to spend a significant amount of time thinking about, is that consciousness seems to be a built-in feature of the universe. There's nothing truly mysterious about consciousness (in the sense that it's not supernatural or scientifically unknowable), it's simply the emergent property of arranging physical chunks of the universe in just the right way. Sure the details of how to arrange those chunks are a little more complicated, but from a high-level overview, that's essentially what consciousness is. You can take a relatively small amount of hydrogen, and given enough time, produce an entity that can think about the fact that it used to be a relatively small amount of hydrogen. Consciousness is, quite literally, the universe conceptualizing itself.

That thing that I describe as "my life" is simply the collection of experiences inflicted on my physical body over the course of a few decades during which my body is lucky enough to possess just the right properties for consciousness to emerge. After this period (and before it too), my body will continue to undergo change, but the properties necessary to host consciousness will no longer be there, and those changes wont really be experienced in the way that they would be at this moment.

In that brief span of time when our bodies do possess consciousness, we crave experience. Since experience is just information processed by our consciousness, in a very real sense, all we ever crave is information.

Along this line, civilization is simply the process of reorganizing the physical universe in a way that makes "pleasant" information most accessible to the most number of conscious entities. All of culture -- that is the creation and appreciation of art, science, and entertainment -- is to this end as well, to create and consume information.

Thus, if we take this understanding of civilization to it's logical endpoint, we see that the end-game of any intelligence (human, alien, or otherwise) is to fill the universe with as much positive conscious experience as physically possible. In fact, not only is "waking up" the universe the end-game of any intelligence, it would be difficult to argue that it's not also its moral obligation. If we take the utilitarian approach to ethics, namely that what's good is that which minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure, then certainly the creation of galactic super-intelligences, capable of joy and ecstasy orders of magnitude greater than what humans can experience, is a moral good.

For these reasons, I believe that the ultimate state of the universe is a conscious one. In a way, this is very fitting. Since it's inception through evolutionary selection, consciousness has been a self-replicating process. Technology will enable that process to continue on to cosmic scales. The universe sowed the seeds of consciousness at the bottom of the gravity well that we call Earth (and most certainly other planets as well), and those seeds will eventually blossom in the form of universe-wide consciousnesses. It's as if the universe had consciousness in mind all along.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Is the Problem Our Attitude or the World?

We've already seen in Zen Preliminaries III that attachment to craving is the central cause of suffering. While this seems to be the case for the human condition as we know it thus far, would it still be the case under different circumstances? Put another way, is the underlying cause of human suffering the result of the human mind or the world in which it's forced to inhabit? Buddhism doesn't exist within a vacuum; it's a system designed to alleviate the suffering caused by an imperfect world, but what if the world were more accommodating? Imagine that instead of the actual world, we inhabited one where desires can be satiated at will.

Buddhism teaches us that to find deep and lasting happiness, we need to shift our attitude towards the world, ourselves, and each other. But if the world no longer provides us with obstacles, is it really our attitude that needs shifting? To really distill the essence of this question, allow me to phrase it this way: Would you rather live in a world where no one experiences attachment to desire and everyone is in a perpetual state of tranquility, or would you rather live in a world where every desire and whim may be satisfied immediately and infinitely?

Unfortunately, to the hedonistically inclined, the right answer is probably closer to the former.

For one thing, it's logically suspect whether or not a world where every desire is satisfied can even exist. Humans have a notorious affinity towards novelty, so any pleasure no matter how satiated would eventually lead to the craving of the original novelty of that sensation. A craving that is logically impossible to satisfy, since it's impossible to experience something for the first time twice. Therefore, a world where every desire is satisfied is impossible. Of course, you could always substitute "every desire" with "every desire that's logically possible to satisfy", but then you'd miss out on certain desires that you would inevitably want to satisfy that can't be satisfied (such as the one explicated above), and consequently generate suffering (the thing we're attempting to avoid).

But let's assume that this obstacle can be overcome through further detachment or some other method, and that novelty fetishism is no longer an issue. Can it then be said that the hedonist's paradise is the ideal world? In this case the answer is difficult to give. Will there be a place for art in the hedonist's paradise (is art even relevant anymore, and if not, who cares)? Will there be for love? For self-transcending love? Or will life consist of merely satisfying sensory cravings?

This becomes a fundamental wedging question that splits people into either camp based solely on personal values that are so deeply ingrained as to almost be entirely removed from the scrutiny of the conscious mind. As such, I am forced to admit that I don't have a satisfying answer to this question, and I doubt one exists. It seems to me that both worlds have their costs and benefits, and both have sustainable paths to lasting happiness, so my only conclusion can be that both answers are valid. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Case for Many Loves: Why Polyamory Makes Sense


We live in a strange world where social norms and paradigms are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we mistake them for divine mandate. We think that the customs we observe are a part of some natural order, some objective structure in the fabric of our social space that unambiguously decides how humans should behave. The worst part is that most of us don't realize that things can be different and that in many cases things ought to be different. Monogamy is precisely this sort of paradigm. Although most people are monogamous by choice, the choice is not always well informed. Many people are not even aware that polyamory exists as a viable alternative to monogamy, and most of those who are aware of it think of it as some peculiar, deviant, and amoral lifestyle.

I understand that for many of you this can be an off-putting and even upsetting topic, but that's precisely my point. If the mere thought of anything outside of monogamy is causing you unease, then you've already allowed the prevailing social mores to direct the way you think. Instead of shutting out the other side and making a biased predetermined judgement, allow me to present the best arguments for why polyamory makes sense.

Strictly speaking, "monogamy" refers to marriage to a single spouse, whereas "polyamory" refers to love of many people. Technically, there's no reason why someone can't be both monogamous (married to one person) and polyamorous (romantically in love with multiple people); in fact, it happens often during affairs. To avoid this confusion, know that when I say monogamy I mean monoamory (a less frequently used word) which means maintaining one romantic mate, and that marriage is not necessarily part of the equation.

Polyamory is Simply More Natural

Most proponents of polyamory begin their arguments with the idea that polyamory is somehow more "natural" than monogamy. They might argue that humans are genetically programmed to reproduce and diversify the gene pool, and that in our "natural state" humans would not be restricted to one long-term mate as evidenced by the behavior of our recent human ancestors and our ape relatives. Whatever the reasons may be, the argument is that humans are naturally predisposed to wanting polyamory. Note that when I say "natural" or "unnatural" I'm not using the terms in an ameliorative or pejorative sense. Instead, when I say "natural" I mean "congruent with biological desires and impulses". In this sense, homosexuality is just as natural as heterosexuality, for example, and polyamory then -- I will argue -- is more natural than monogamy. (Note that natural does not imply better either; my point is only that it makes no sense for something more natural to be viewed as something deviant or fey). As it turns out, the scientific community tends to agree with this position. Allen et al. make the following claim.
Although pair bonding appears to be a common human behavior, a survey of contemporary preurban societies ... provides no basis for the contention that exclusive long-term monogamy is or ever was the only bonding pattern for humans (1982).
The survey that the authors refer to is one found in Murdoch's Atlas of Human Culture. In the survey, 563 societies are cataloged, and of those only 17.8% showed any form of monogamy whatsoever (1981). What this suggests is that under the operational definition above, polyamory is more natural. This is because societies that are less fettered by layers of cultural mores, and are more in-tune with biological impetus, tend to align with the polyamoric paradigm, and thus polyamory appears to be more natural than monogamy.

However, if this line of evidence is not convincing enough to suggest that polyamory is (more) natural, then I will make my best efforts to appeal to intuition. One way in which we can intuitively know that polyamory is natural is by realizing that monogamy is hard. In fact, if we consider an instance of infidelity as a failure of monogamy, then monogamy is so hard that it fails between 30-40% of the time (Guerrero et al. 2010). It's important to keep in mind that that statistic refers only to reported incidences of infidelity and that actual rates are likely far higher. Moreover, that statistic doesn't take into account individuals' struggle with their urges. If we take into account the rate at which individuals want a romantic or sexual experience outside of their monogamous relationship but through willpower resisted the urge, then my contention is that the rate would skyrocket closer to 100%. Intuitively speaking, because monogamy requires individuals to consciously override their biological urges -- go against the flow, as it were -- then monogamy must be in some sense less natural than polyamory which requires no such unnatural restrictions.

Furthermore, in logical discourse, it is the claimant who has the burden of proof. Since monogamy is the policy that insists that biological urges be suppressed, and polyamory doesn't, the onus to demonstrate rationality is on monogamy not polyamory. If someone were to tell you that you can only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, you wouldn't need to make an argument for why you should eat other types of food, instead you would insist on an argument for why you can only eat one type of food in the first place. Likewise, polyamorists don't have the burden of proof here, monogamists do. Their policy is the one imposing a restriction, so they are the ones that must put forth a sufficiently reasoned argument for why I should listen. Though monogamists have supplied arguments, none are "sufficiently reasoned".

Arguments For Monogamy

Natural Isn't Necessarily Better

One argument that can be given for monogamy and against polygamy is that "natural isn't always better", and that nature is something that ought to be transcended. While it's true that natural isn't always better, it's not true that nature should always be transcended. There should be a reason for why something natural should be transcended. For example, peace is a transcendent state. War and violence are natural human behaviors that ought to be transcended for good reasons -- because people will suffer on widespread scales otherwise. Are there equivalently sufficient reasons for transcending sexual and romantic urges? If there are, I haven't heard them.

Monogamous Couples Are Stronger Than Polyamorous Ones

Another common argument for monogamy is that monogamous couples tend to form stronger relationships than their polyamorous counterparts. Comforting as this might sound, it's simply not based in reality. Monogamous couples are more fragile than polyamorous ones in a number of significant ways. The most salient of which is jealousy and insecurity. Monogamous couples are strained and often collapse at the first sign of jealousy or imagined infidelity, and almost always deteriorate after an actual instance of infidelity. On the other hand, polyamorous couples not only survive external affairs, but grow and prosper through them. Every new external romance reinforces the couple's notion of trust, respect, and openness, since there's no need for deception. Moreover, the sex life of the couple is improved as both members become better lovers through exposure to more diverse ways of having sex.

This mindset of strength and fidelity also causes loving relationships that are otherwise healthy to end abruptly and on hurtful terms. How many good relationships have ended due to a single moment of indiscretion when one partner succumbed to base needs? It's such a common occurrence that it's practically a trope of modern fiction. Under polyamory, a good couple will never be broken apart by something as petty as sexual infidelity; after all, how can a single moment of indiscretion override years (sometimes decades) of love and bonding?

Another way of phrasing the above argument for monogamy is to say that exploring romance outside of the main relationship weakens it by distancing the couple. Again, this is entirely false. Exploring romance outside of the main relationship reinforces it in two main ways. The first is by solidifying the belief that the partner you have chosen is right for you. In monogamy, there's no way that you can assure yourself that someone is not more suitable for you unless you go outside the bounds of monogamy. But in polyamory, you're constantly free to explore and convince yourself that you made the correct decision when you chose your mate. This feeling of confidence in your decision brings closeness and intimacy to the relationship. Additionally, by allowing partners to seek romance elsewhere, there's less pressure on the individual to constantly satisfy the other. The alleviation of this burden removes stress from the couple and, again, allows the individuals to grow closer together.

Other proponents of monogamy argue that monogamous couples are more genuine or more "real" because they are exclusive. In fact, in some ways monogamy forces its participants to be disingenuous. Partners must often lie to each other about their sexual needs and desires out of fear of inciting hurtful feelings such as jealousy or undesirability. Whereas this problem is much less prevalent in polyamorous relationships because partners feel much more comfortable expressing their desires for other individuals. In monogamous relationships, the suppression of these urges often leads to resentment, "midlife crises", and ultimately to marriage-ending affairs. On the contrary, it seems that polyamorous relationships are more "real" and genuine because their participants remain together out of choice and love even when granted access to numerous other partners, and not out of some sense of loyalty or promise.

Monogamy is Fundamentally a Selfish Policy

Additionally, monogamy perpetuates the myth that every urge and need that one has should be satisfiable by a single person. This notion causes stress and insecurity in people as they attempt to reach an impossible standard and fail. Let's face it, because there are seven billion humans on the planet there's a good chance that you're not even the best match for your partner, so why would you expect to be able to fill all of their needs? Why should you have to be able to fulfill all of their needs? By limiting your partner exclusively to yourself, you're doing them a disservice by not allowing them to have all of their desires met. This becomes especially pronounced in monogamous couples who have been together for a relatively long time. Sex becomes stale because humans enjoy novelty and get bored and jaded relatively fast. For obvious reasons, polyamorous relationships do not suffer from this defect.

A common objection to allowing external exploration is that "if I let my partner explore, he or she will find someone better than me." This is an instinct we all have. No one wants to lose something they love dearly. But if you truly examine that statement, you'll immediately see the selfishness in it. So what if your partner finds a person who makes them happier than you? If you truly love your partner, you would want them to do whatever makes them happiest. By adhering to monogamy, you're imposing a policy of mutual selfishness.

Not only is monogamy selfish towards your partner, but it's also selfish towards all of the people that could potentially be with your partner. If the person you're with is somebody you love, then chances are good that there is something about them that you value and treasure and deem worthy of love. In some sense you must consider your partner to be a great person. By not sharing your partner with others, you are depriving the others of whatever joy that your partner brings you -- you are hoarding love out of jealousy.

Put into formal language, here is a tongue-in-cheek argument for why polyamory is morally superior:

P1. If the most moral action is one that minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure, and sex and love are among the greatest pleasures that a human can experience, then a relationship that restricts the amount of sex and love that a person can experience is less morally optimal than one that has no restriction on the amount of sex and love that a person can experience.
P2a. It is the case that the most moral action is the one that minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure; and
P2b. It is the case that sex and love are among the greatest pleasures that a human can experience.
C1. Therefore, it is the case that a relationship that restricts the amount of sex and love that a person can experience is less morally optimal than one that has no restriction on the amount of sex and love that a person can experience.

Of course the argument isn't meant as a serious deductive proof of polyamory's superiority, but it is nevertheless fairly compelling and difficult to argue against (I'd gladly entertain some counterarguments). It's at least evident that monogamy is more selfish than polyamory, and is therefore at least a somewhat less compassionate way to live.


None of this is to say that polyamory is not without it's hardships. Overcoming the initial barrier of jealousy is difficult, and most couples are incapable of crossing that hurdle (in my personal experience, however, it was well worth the effort). Additionally, once crossed, there's no guarantee that jealousy and insecurity will not resurface later in the relationship. While I agree that this is an obstacle in polyamory, I'd like to point out that those issues also exist in great quantities in monogamous relationships as well. Those problems also only exist because polyamory exists within the context of a society that overwhelmingly instills the idea of monogamy and thus creates an environment of jealousy and insecurity.

In closing, polyamory may still carry a social stigma, it nevertheless offers a healthy and natural alternative to monogamy that is in many ways superior. Counter-intuitively, polyamory promotes security, trust, and intimacy in couples that employ it. Just as importantly, polyamory promotes traits such as selflessness and compassion, whereas monogamy encourages selfishness and jealousy.

At the end of the day, the decision between monogamy and polyamory is left up to the couple and the individuals that make it up. My only hope is to inform and educate others that there is at least one alternative and that it is viable.

Works Cited

Allen, L. L., et al. "Demography and human origins." American Anthropologist 84.4 (1982): 888-896.

Guerrero, L. K., Andersen, P. A., & Afifi, W. A. (2010). Close encounters: Communication in relationships. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.

Murdock, G. P. (1981). Atlas of world cultures. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Do Smart Devices Make us Smarter?

Advances in computing have removed a significant amount of pressure from the human brain. Computers provide us with quick access to nearly an unlimited source of information with websites like wikipedia, imdb, khan academy, w3school, etc, to the point where human memorization is significantly less important than in previous decades. Computers also grant us access to powerful query answering tools such as wolframalpha and google as well as calculators of various sort that out-preform TI-89s, alleviating the need for 'manual' human research or computation. Moreover, computers make it possible for all of us to access communal pools of brainpower: forums where many minds come together to solve problems; places that exemplify the old adage "two minds are better than one". These include websites like stackoverflow, quora, physicsforum, etc.

While I believe that these peripheral upgrades to human intelligence are a great improvement to our species in general, I disagree with authors like Daniel Lemire who claim that they are sufficient (or even superior) substitutes to 'actual' intelligence. In his blog, Lemire makes the claim that China's attempt to increase its population's average intelligence is an unfruitful endeavor because the pace at which intelligence can be increased genetically is grossly overshadowed by the pace at which intelligence can be enhanced using computing. I agree insofar that computers will enhance our intelligence quantitatively more and in more rapidly increasing ways compared to genetic engineering, but I disagree with the idea that we shouldn't attempt to increase our "base-line" intelligence. 

My reasoning is that increasing our biological brain's intelligence is qualitatively different from adding peripherals to our intelligence. This is actually a fairly difficult position to maintain, especially if you're familiar with the Chinese room thought experiment. In essence the thought experiment can be distilled to the following. Say you have a man who can't speak any language but English in a room with a set of perfect instructions for translating Chinese into English and English into Chinese. The room is sealed, and the only way to communicate with it is by passing notes through a slot in the door. People from outside the room may pass papers with Chinese writing into the slot, and the man inside will carry out the instructions to decipher the text, compose a response, follow instructions to translate it back into Chinese, and then pass the paper back to the outside world. (Note that we must assume such a set of instructions exists if we are to believe that Strong AI is possible, otherwise we would be forced to conclude that computers are incapable of understanding natural language.) The question then is: Can it be said that the room understands Chinese? What if the room is replaced with a Strong AI who uses those same instructions as part of its programming, does the AI understand Chinese? Is there a difference between the two?

Now picture the following thought experiment I cobbled together based on Searle's Chinese room. Say you are forced to take the final exam of a course in a subject that you've never studied before. Assume further that you're allowed to use as many smart devices during the exam as you wish, but for all other students the exam is closed-book. Then there's a good probability that you will perform better than many students in the class merely because of your access to computing devices. Can it then be said that you are more intelligent in this particular subject than the students who you out-performed? 

The point of me posing this question isn't to say that it's obviously not the case that you are more intelligent than the students whose grades you beat (because it's not obvious at all), but rather to show that the idea of intelligence is nebulous. Do we simply define the intelligence of a person as the intelligence of his or her physical brain, or should we consider intelligence as the emergent property of a system of smart devices only one of which is the biological brain?

In any case, it's my assertion that increasing biological intelligence will increase intelligence in a fundamentally different way than increasing peripheral intelligence (at least with the technology available today). 

Allow me to illustrate this with yet one more thought experiment. Take a particularly cherished children's film (a book or anything similar will work too) that you enjoyed as a child. Remember the joy you experienced when viewing the film as a child and compare it to when you viewed it as an adult. With an adult-level intelligence, you have the capacity to appreciate the film at a much deeper level then you ever could as a child no matter what contemporary smart device your child counterpart is equipped with. This definitively shows that there are certain ideas and concepts which cannot be 'translated' down to our Cartesian theater by peripheral devices the way that languages can be translated from one to another; instead they must be understood at a fundamental level within our brain.

To clarify my point a little, I am not arguing that "biological intelligence" is somehow superior to artificial intelligence. In fact, I believe that the ultimate route to expanding human intelligence is through computation rather than biological enhancements. My argument is only concerned with technology at the present. In other words, with current technology our intelligence can only be augmented in asuperficial way--for the lack of a better word--that is fundamentally different (and in many cases inferior to) biological increases in intelligence. However, note that this doesn't say anything about which type of intelligence is more useful. It's entirely plausible that a doctor equipped with a myriad of smart devices will be a better diagnostician than a doctor with only a high IQ. Furthermore, few would argue that the combination of the two is not the obvious choice if presented with the possibility. I.e., why not have both if we can?

At present, technology can make us appear to understand more than we actually do, much like the Chinese room appears to understand Chinese, but so far technology can't make the man inside the room understand Chinese; that's a job for genetic engineering, at least for the time being. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Your Romantic Proposal Stories Aren't Impressive to Me

Nothing says "love" like an expensive rock from the earth.
If your partner proposed to you and you were surprised (or vice-versa), then you two are probably not ready for marriage.

It's a bold claim, but hear me out. First and foremost, let me say that I'm brutally skeptical of the value of marriage as a social institution and I hardly view it as an immutable contract, but the chances are if you proposed or were proposed to in the traditional western way, then you probably think marriage is a big deal.  Right about now, if you're the type of person I'm describing, you might be thinking "This can't possibly be true. Most marriages begin with a traditional proposal." You'd be right, but you'd also be forgetting that more than half of all marriages end in divorce (at least in the US). If you like fifty-fifty odds, then by all means go for it.

The next thing you might be thinking is "Well, I know my parents had a traditional proposal and marriage, and they've been together for my entire life and then some." That's sincerely nice for your parents and family, but anecdotal evidence doesn't amount to much. Especially considering the fact that we all know at least one person whose parents are divorced (unless you've been severely sheltered).

If you're the type of couple to take matrimony seriously, but yet have not for whatever reason discussed it openly and honestly enough that you can anticipate your partner's thoughts on the subject, then to me this implies that there probably are other important life issues that you two haven't discussed. It amazes me how many people know so little about their long-term significant others. Important issues too, like whether they want children or not, what their long-term goals in life are, what their political views are, what their financial situation is like, etc.

I don't mean to harp on this sort of couple, and I certainly am not proposing that only one type of romantic bond works (though some definitely work better than others). I'm merely suggesting that perhaps the reason you proposed or were proposed to in the exact same way as hundreds of millions of people before you is because of social norms and pressure, and not due to genuine desire. Keep in mind that I don't mean genuine emotion here, I don't deny that couples like the ones I'm describing feel genuine love; that's not the issue at hand. What I am saying is that perhaps sometimes people propose just because "it's what you're supposed do."

Consequently, couples rush into marriages that they're not ready for with partners whom they don't really know. Worse still, the people who tend to fall for this trap believe so much in marriage that they refuse to gracefully end the marriage when it's clearly failing. Instead, they pump an absurd amount of emotion, money, and time into attempting to resuscitate the failed marriage when it shouldn't have existed in the first place.

I view proposals as catch-22s. If you have to propose to get an answer from your partner about the rest of your life, then you aren't ready for the affirmative answer. If you're intimate enough with your partner to know that you two are spending the rest of your lives together, then you don't need to propose in the first place.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Criticism of William Lane Craig's Moral Argument For God

In his debate with Sam Harris, William Lane Craig makes the following argument:
  1. If god does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, god exists.
The argument seems simple enough. It consists of two premises and is in the valid logical form known as modus tollens. If we are logical, then we must accept his conclusion if we accept his premises. Fortunately, there is no compelling reason to accept either one of them.

The first premise hinges on the idea that only a fixed and unchanging objective creator can instill reality with an objective morality. Craig emphasizes that this is an ontological claim rather than an epistemological one. The difference is that the former only asserts the existence of this kind of morality whereas the latter would be a claim of what we can know about said morality. Craig very carefully chooses his language so that his argument is purely ontological; he makes no attempt to claim that there is any way for us to know what his proposed form of morality entails. 

This raises an important question: why would god create an objective moral standard (an ideal by which to live) but not grant us humans any objective means to access it? There are two ways that Craig can resolve this. The first would be to claim (as he actually does) that the abstract god whose existence he and Sam Harris debated can be specified to be the god of Abraham and the Bible. Moreover, Craig would have to argue that the Bible or perhaps the Holy Spirit or some other variation of Christian mysticism is god's way of granting humans access to the objective moral code. This obviously doesn't work because these "methods" of accessing the code have been available for centuries and yet there are almost as many interpretations of the code as there are humans interpreting it. Am I too believe that god could not devise a method of accessing his own moral code in an unambiguous way? Mathematicians and programmers have no problem writing unambiguous instructions, yet god does? The second way in which Craig can deflect this is to simply say that this is irrelevant to his claim. God simply created the objective moral code, but is under no obligation to reveal it to his creations. That's fine, but then Craig must admit that his argument implies that morality is inherently unknowable. 

Now let's approach the first premise sanely. Let's say we have the set of all objective moral values, laws, and duties, called OM. Additionally, say we have some law L that is in the set OM. The main disagreement in the debate is what makes L objectively good. In Craig's version of OM, L is objectively good simply on the basis that it is in OM, and OM was compiled by god. In Harris's version of OM, L is objectively good because it minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure; I'll call this "L is morally optimized". 

Craig's objection then is: what is objectively good about being morally optimized? In other words, what is good about minimizing suffering and maximizing pain? If we want L to be morally optimized, then we assume that there already is some moral standard against which to optimize L. Since there is a morality more fundamental than Harris's OM, his OM can at best just be a subset of a true and more basic OM, thus his OM is not objective. What Craig fails to realize, is that the same objection can be raised against his OM. Namely, what is objectively good about L being chosen by god? Is L good because god chose it, or did god choose it because it is inherently good? If the latter is the case, then Craig's OM suffers from the same defects as Harris's. If it's the former, then there are even more issues raised. If god chose all L in OM, then that implies that he could have chosen otherwise, therefore god's OM isn't objective (similarly, the natural numbers are objective because it's provably impossible to pick them differently). Put another way, if he could have picked otherwise, then there's nothing 'objective' about it.

To summarize, it now seems apparent that god's existence and the existence of objective morality are independent of one another. The argument used to show this can be somewhat generalized to show that absolutely no moral framework is objective. Let's show this by contradiction. Assume OM' is the most fundamental and objective moral system and L is an arbitrary law of that system. One can then ask, why is L in OM'? There are two possible responses:
  1. There exists some formal decision process, D(x), such that on any arbitrary moral question x, D says whether x is moral or not. For example, D("is child abuse good?") = no, D("is feeding the poor good?") = yes. Thus, OM' is the set of all moral values v such that D(v) = yes. 
  2. It just is.
If we assume (1), then we can always ask why does D produce laws that are good? What is objectively good about the laws that D produces? On the one hand we can say that D is good because D says so, i.e., D("are the values that D says yes to good?") = yes, but this would be trivially circular and would not be a satisfying answer. On the other hand we can say that D decides its answers based on some more fundamental morality, but this would contradict our initial assumption. Ergo, we can conclude that (1) is not a legitimate response. 

The only other response is (2), which may not seem like much of a response, but it actually carries more weight than (1). If you think about it, what is 'objectivity' other than something that "just is"? The natural numbers are objective because they follow from a small set of axioms; they simply are. However, this sort of reasoning makes little sense when it comes to questions like "what is good?" This is because if you say something is good just because it is, you can continue to ask "why?" and still make sense. Whereas you can't reasonably have this same regress of whys about the natural numbers; they actually just are. The axioms that they arise from (the Peano Axioms for those interested), constrain them into existence, and the natural numbers manifest naturally as their consequences. It would make no sense to ask "why?" because we know why: the rules of logic joined with the Peano Axioms force the natural numbers to exist, and no other set of entities could have taken their place, hence they are objective. 

Thus, if assume the existence of an objective morality OM', we are lead either into direct contradiction or a contradiction via infinite regress. In either case, we can conclude that Craig's second and last premise is also unfounded.

Despite what I wrote about Harris's moral philosophy above, I don't want to leave the reader with the impression that his moral system is just as bad as Craig's. In terms of my general argument against moral objectivity above, Craig's OM suffers by assuming response (2), and Harris's OM suffers by assuming (1). Harris's moral system (which he outlines in The Moral Landscape) is superior for the following reasons. As already stated, Harris's OM assumes response (1), which means that there is some decision process D that determines whether something is moral or not. For Harris's OM, this D is based on socially-evolved traits, namely mutual cooperation and empathy. Things are 'good' because they minimize suffering and maximize pleasure; they benefit the species as a whole. While this decision process doesn't yield objectively good values (and in fact it can't be as per my argument above), but at least it's not arbitrary, and is in some sense universal. Furthermore, Harris's OM gives us a perfectly reasonable way by which to know it: science, the best tool with which to know anything at all. 

Although Sam Harris can never conclude that his moral system is objective, there are plenty of arguments to be made for why his system is a good one in general (need it be objective to be useful?). My conjecture is that it's probably the best system of morality that's devisable, at least in terms of fairness. If you're interested in the full debate, it can be found here: 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Buddhist Imagery In Film

Neo sees the Three Poisons for what they are.
There are a few noteworthy films which are not explicitly Buddhist, but which make excellent use of Buddhist symbolism. Certainly there are more than I can discuss in the brief span of a single blog post, so I will focus on three of my favorite examples: Groundhog Day, Fight Club, and The Matrix.

Starting with Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, we immediately see that even though the film has no obvious connections to Buddhism, its underlying premise is extremely relevant to Buddhism. The premise is this: a cynical and worldly man (Bill Murray) becomes trapped in a time-loop, wherein he is forced to relive the same day over, and over, and over again. Does it sound like it's related to Buddhism yet? Think samsara, and being trapped in an endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth.

While Murray's character is trapped in this hellish cycle, he quickly realizes that life is no longer consequential, and he begins to indulge in hedonistic pursuits--sex, food, breaking the law, etc. He becomes attached to sensual experience and more importantly to existing. Later in the film, Phil (Murray's character), realizes the emptiness in these pursuits, and becomes determined to end his life: he becomes attached to the idea of not existing. Ultimately, his various suicide attempts fail, and every death is followed by a reboot of the time-loop. In Buddhist terminology, his attachment to non-existence blocks his escape from samsara, and thus he is reborn a countless number of times. Finally, it isn't until Phil learns compassion and the wholesomeness of living for the sake of others that he is released from this nightmarish loop.

It's not surprising that Groundhog Day is often listed as a favorite among Buddhists for these reasons.

Next let's consider Fight Club. A cult classic starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. This film is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't seen it (five or more times). Simultaneously, it's an indictment of capitalism, materialism, consumerism, and everything that stems from those things, as well as an implicit celebration of Buddhist principles.

The film opens with the unnamed protagonist--played by Edward Norton--explaining how he is seeking to fulfill his life by buying just the right things (IKEA furniture mostly). As the movie progresses, (spoiler alert if you haven't seen the movie) the protagonist's alternate personality--played by Brad Pitt--slowly forces the former to let go of all of his attachments. In one particularly memorable scene, Pitt's character forces Norton's character to "just let go" of his false sense of control of life symbolically by literally letting go of his control of the car he is driving.

This point is congruent with the Buddhist teachings of no-self. Since there is no driver (self), there can be no control of the car (life). The mind has no option but to go with the flow.

In another scene, Pitt's character makes excellent use of meditation and mindfulness.

In this scene, Norton's character attempts to shut out pain inflicted by lye sprinkled on his hand by using meditation. Pitt's character points out that he is experiencing "pre-mature enlightenment" and is actually being counter-productive by shutting out the current moment. Instead, Pitt's character insists that the protagonist "stay with the pain." Furthermore, the famous quote "it's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything at all" exudes Buddhist sentiment. In other words, we're not free until we rid ourselves of delusion, greed, and hatred, and all the fetters that bind us to the material world.

In the final scene of the film, the protagonist is at war with his alter ego. To show that he has become enlightened (and that he no longer needs his alter ego), Norton's character shoots himself non-fatally in the cheek (through his mouth) after stating that "my eyes are open." My take on this scene is that by opening the wound in his cheek, the unnamed protagonist has symbolically opened his third eye, signifying that he is, in fact, enlightened. Additionally, what the protagonist realizes that causes his enlightenment is the middle way. He realizes that his previous lifestyle of material indulgence and Pitt's character's lifestyle of anarchic-asceticism are two extremes that must be avoided.

Finally, let's examine The Matrix. This action-packed classic from 1999 needs little introduction as it has been probed extensively in all of its philosophical orifices. While the movie shares many parallels with other philosophies and religions besides Buddhism such as Christianity, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and your cookie-cutter typical Joseph Campbell/Jungian archetypes, let me direct you to my favorite scene of the film:

This scene starts with Neo's realization that he is the one. After this breakthrough, he finally sees the world for what it truly is: desolate of real phenomenon and instead composed of the artificial green rain (the cascading green text that he sees around 0:43). Moreover, with his new knowledge, Neo is able to finally thwart his three enemies and be truly liberated. This chain of events is roughly identical to those of Buddha's enlightenment. First the Buddha realized the true nature of reality: that everything is empty of its own intrinsic essence and that everything is interdependently originated. Armed with this knowledge, the Buddha defeats the Three Poisons (greed, delusion, and hatred) that in the Matrix are symbolized by the three Agents. After which, the Buddha is said to have entered a state of supreme tranquility known as nirvana. Neo's flight at the end of the film can be said to be symbolic of him reaching nirvana as it shows near absolute liberation (in his case from the rules of the Matrix).

Also observe how Neo breathes at about 1:52 into the clip. This, in my opinion, is a testament to the level of detail that the Wachowski brothers fill their movies with. The way Neo breathes in this scene is very reminiscent of a meditative state (as focusing on the breath is a common technique in meditation), and the way he opens his eyes suggests a remarkable epiphany as well as an extremely tranquil disposition. He has become an enlightened being.

I'm certain that there are other parts of the three films that I've mentioned here that can be mapped on to Buddhist teachings, but the parts that I did mention give a good enough representation of how Buddhist concepts translate beautifully into film. Next time you watch Groundhog Day, Fight Club, or The Matrix, I urge you to approach the film from a Buddhist angle and see what you can pick up.