Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anihilism and Open Society

The following argument is a syllogism, proposing that a comprehensive basis for ethical choices can be derived from what we today don't know:

There is so much we don’t yet know. There are such fundamental questions and incomplete answers in physics, cosmology, neuroscience, psychology, etc. Consider the extent to which the scientific discoveries of the last decades were unexpected and that former scientific certainties are now verifiably incorrect. We must reasonably assume that we cannot now know how much we don’t know.

Second, given this evidence of ignorance, it is simply prudent to assume for now that there might be a knowable and actionable higher purpose for humanity. Not because we know there is one, but because we cannot possibly now have enough understanding to definitively presume otherwise. For example if my dog, or an ant, or we ourselves for that matter, can’t fully understand human consciousness, how can we today presume that we so fully understand all possible paradigms of theism as to reasonably assume them all disproven?

And humanity’s purposor(s) certainly need not be omnipotent, omniscient and eternal, like in the sacred texts of old. It/they need only be more sapient than we are currently. Given the level at which new understanding has recently surprised us, who would today consider that such a high standard? And they need not have literally created our higher purpose; they may instead simply add enough to our knowledge that we can understand and supportively act upon its true nature.

If we don’t know how many billions of solar systems there are, how do we have any certainty about the probability of more technologically advanced interstellar travelers? If we can’t explain replicated physics observations without ‘stringing’ multiple universes, how do we have any certainty that we accurately perceive a unitary WYSIWYG world?

Just one example of currently plausible ‘Godless’ more knowledgeable life forms is Nick Bostrom’s Philosophical Quarterly essay ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’, which I resummarize as:

IF human (or ANY other sapient being) technology is capable of eventually creating computer simulations (OR other complex perceptions) which appear to be as real as our current experiences,

And IF there is no PERSISTENT (essentially 100%) obstacle to human (OR other self-aware,
technological) beings surviving until that technology is achieved,

Then EITHER those controlling use of that technology would almost never (essentially nil %)
choose to create such artificial perceptions (WITH the parameters we now perceive),

OR the odds that we are not living in such an artificial perception are infinitely low.

For example, the continuing world we (I?) experience is, in terms of probability, one observation. If sufficiently advanced technological society(s) would choose to create ‘only’ one thousand (such defined) artificial perceptions (i.e. computer simulations), then the probability that we (I?) are NOT now experiencing one of those simulations as our reality is one tenth of one percent.

Furthermore, even if we are the only beings capable of self-awareness anywhere in the Universe, or alternatively if Deism is correct and all other such beings will forever choose to not interfere in our experience under any circumstances, so much is now unknown that we cannot yet know whether there is an actionable higher purpose which we can someday determine alone. It is even possible that such truth may already be known by some people and the rest of us are still unaware, or unconvinced, of what they have already discovered.

Third, If a knowable, actionable higher human purpose is truly plausible, this alone provides the only proper basis for all our choices. For the true (opportunity) cost (to the universe) of our having such a purpose and not finding it, or of unnecessary delay in finding and following it would be, quite literally, beyond our current comprehension. In the event that such a higher purpose doesn’t exist, life is fundamentally meaningless and the incremental cost of having looked for it in vain would be trivial (most likely negative, for reasons beyond the scope of this posting; if unsure, simply ask your mother to explain).

Regardless of the probabilities involved, which I argue are now fundamentally unknowable, the probability-adjusted present value of acquiring, and acting according to, that possible absolute human purpose(s) must exceed the value of any other outcome. This derives only from the presumption that a qualitative difference in the value of a more purposeful live might be infinitely better (not necessarily preferable, as we must assume we don’t currently know the basis for better living, but rather ethically better for humanity OR the Universe). Then simple arithmetic concludes this syllogism, which can be viewed as an expansion of Pascal’s Gambit.

In summary, Anihilism is basing ethical choices from belief that moral nihilism might be inaccurate. This one assumption calls us to specific actions, to aggressively search for, and then seek consensus to act from, the best knowable and actionable basis for human ethics.

The ethical implications of Anihilism, for a Humanist, a traditional Utilitarian, or even a Libertarian, and especially for an Agnostic or a 'Liberal Theist', are identical. Wouldn’t the only prudent choice be those actions which best promote the identification and broad evaluation of possible higher purposes (including search for external purposors)? If correct, this would include education for all who could benefit the search, open inquiry, leisure time for inquiry (antimaterialism), etc. Central to such application would be defense of open society, to preserve the free and open exchange of observations, ideas and questions.

But such an ethical system would not be without controversy. One of the more troubling possible ethical implications regards the issues of eugenics. Another example is issues of personal liberties, such as a perceived liberty to engage in sloth or to waste limited resources on hedonistic pursuits. As any absolutism, proactive anti-nihilism is not a risk-free, cost-free basis for ethical decisions.

But IF these three (bolded above) core assumptions are valid, what other basis for actions could be ethically valid?

Note- This post is a work in progress and your suggestions, questions, concerns are sincerely appreciated. I am intensely interested in feedback regarding both my core argument and ways to improve the clarity of my explanation.

1 comment:

Corey said...

This is such an interesting discussion and one I don't want to sully by my comments. However, I agree, in this, how an we know for certain what we do not know? How can we assume the only options are the ones we currently now have access to? No one 40 years ago could have put forward as viable possibilities much of anything we now take for granted. Hover boards and space cars were all they could come up with - instead we wear some of the most powerful computers on our wrists. Science has given us so much but not nearly as much as it has taken away from itself. How many "scientific truths" have now been completely discarded by that same scientific machine that posited the truth in the first place?
In the spirit of being open, I am one who believes in the "higher purpose" you spoke of in your article. I believe in God who created and sustains but I choose to do so because I see no other viable alternative. When every other possible argument has been eliminated that which remains, however unbelievable, must be the truth.
So I believe that an all powerful God not only created me (humanity) but set in motion from the very beginning a plan to reconcile His own creation, knowing we would soon reject His own existence either because of fear, anger or selfishness. And I believe that plan was the person, Jesus, who even science agrees was a real, historical figure. And if I can't be sure that there is no God or that it is impossible for an all knowing, all powerful being to submit Himself to the limitations of His own creation then I must also be willing to admit that it is possible. And since I wasn't there I must take as fact the eye witness accounts of those who were there - as I do in other areas of my life in regards to ball games, meetings and events I personally was not able to attend. And since I find it fascinating that there is (at least as far as I know) no writings that offer any real proof to belay the facts as laid out by the eyewitness I must take their accounts at face value. Jesus was a real person. He was believed by many to be the Son of God and Savior. Many who believed in Him faced torture and death for that belief and within just a decade or so, were so completely convinced that they compellingly died for that belief. While I don't have life all figured out and don't believe I can force anyone else to believe or to I am convinced that God exists and that He created me for a greater purpose and that He gives me the ability and wisdom and strength to know that purpose and fulfill it. One day He is bound to reveal Himself - I want to be ready for that day.