I’ve Moved

Gone to sample the delights of wordpress.org. Same blog, different name: Perplexicon. Enjoy!


A Theory of Moral Diffusion

Does the morality of society, on the whole, improve? It would be extremely naïve to answer with a straightforward “yes”: the 20th and 21st centuries have seen atrocities that more than match the most reprehensible of history’s offerings. But if we adjust the timescale to one far larger than that of centuries, and imagine instead the whole of human history, present, and future, then does the situation change? Or is humanity doomed, by its very nature, to stay at roughly the same moral level?

Consider, if you will, the following thought experiment. There are two tribes, living close to each other, but oblivious of the other’s existence. The first tribe is close to modern society in ethical terms, in that they consider it immoral to kill, rape, or steal. The second tribe is the complete opposite: they consider cannibalism good, subjugation of women acceptable, and murder an understandable method of solving disputes.

Now suppose that both of these tribes begin to run low on resources, and each think that it would be desirable to expand their territory. The populations of the two tribes, as well as their military powers, are exactly equal. They slowly begin to expand their villages closer and closer to one another. This culminates in a standoff. There is a giant tree stood exactly on the newly drawn border, with an ample supply of apples for their delectation. Exactly one half of the tree hovers over each tribe’s land. Naturally, there is disagreement about who should own the tree, and for a time there is tension between the two tribes. They hold off any military action, however, mainly out of caution. As each tribe learns of the cultures and practices of the other, the tension between them mounts. The first tribe considers it despicable that the other tribe commit murder and cannibalism so readily, while their neighbours consider the fact that they don’t eat each other a sign of immense disrespect to the gods.

Assuming that they never resort to violence, and that the war between them is strictly cold, who wins the standoff?

Well, there is a probable consequence that should be considered first. While each tribe learns of the supposedly bad features of the other’s culture, it will also learn of the good. This means, first, that moral considerations that they may have previously taken for granted will become subject to questioning. Secondly it means that some members of the cannibal tribe who may have had misgivings about cannibalism will become even more uncertain about it; conversely, any equal-and-opposites in the other tribe will also experience the same phenomenon, reversed. Assuming that all people who have misgivings eventually abandon their tribe for the other one, which tribe will end up with the most people?

Clearly, the “good” tribe will. And as the population of the “bad” tribe decreases, more people within it will gradually judge that it is safe to leave, and will do so. Eventually, the tribe will be reduced to a small collective of die-hard tribesmen who, at least in terms of size, carry very little influence. Soon enough, they will die away, and the “good” tribe will have triumphed, along with their moral system. However, this conclusion is only true on the important condition that the freedoms of both thought and expression are allowed in both tribes.

Different moral systems will inevitably come into contact with one another: the only things that can stop this are pure contingencies. These aside, when they do meet, they will have to resolve any tension that arises between them. Either the stronger society (though not moral system) will win if it comes to a war, or they adjust to one another’s presence and a compromise between the two systems, if necessary, is found. The compromise, of course, is hardly ever instantaneous: it can take hundreds of years or more, and essentially involves an osmosis of peoples (the good from the bad tribe go to the good tribe, and vice versa). When the newly formed moral system meets another one, the process will repeat. Eventually, all moral systems within a “world” will have mixed and settled into that world’s moral system. This morality will be better, on average, than the vast majority of moralities that have been in the past. It won’t of necessity be the best morality possible. If that world meets another world, another compromise may be necessary, and so on. Of course, there is no necessity to the amount of worlds. This means that it is unlikely ever to reach perfection, but will merely converge towards it.

When two or more societies are in conflict, all that is needed is that most people of both societies reach a high enough level of thought-freedom, and the people in the morally inferior society will, slowly but surely, change their views to that of the superior. Eventually the inferior system, despite some possibly violent death throes, will wither away. The question arises: do people choose the moral system which is objectively better, or is it merely a choice of convenience? Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive?

Note that the theory ignores contingencies. It’s just the natural progression of morality; it doesn’t take into account the possibility of an alien race conquering us militarily, or a Sarah Palin accidentally nuking the world.

P.S. The existence of terrorism may actually be a sign that world morality is improving. How? Terrorists must confine themselves to small, radicalised groups, constantly hiding for their lives, cowering hypocritically under the protections of good nations-because it has become difficult to hold their views in an “official”, or state capacity. Under my theory, eventually the majority of the terrorist “tribe” will begin to appreciate this protection, and convert accordingly to the ways of their host countries.

A Note on Beauty

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can we even speak of beauty? It must be, at least in part, an objective phenomenon: that is to say, we need an objective understanding of subjectivity. If I find a sunset beautiful, but my friend doesn’t, how can she actually know what I’m talking about if I say “that sunset is beautiful”? She clearly does not have the same qualitative appreciation of it, so that sentence is essentially gibberish to her. The only reason she understands it is that she was at some point taught what the word means. But how is that possible if it is in the eye of the beholder?

On Strangeness

The expression “truth is stranger than fiction”, or at least the overuse of it, is a prime example of lazy thinking. The truth is, truth is only stranger than fiction by virtue of its being true. Reality has an unfair advantage over fiction in this regard. If an outlandish piece of fiction, whose strangeness does not otherwise particularly strike any reader, were to occur in real life, people would still say that truth is stranger than fiction. But if it followed the fiction to the letter, how can it be stranger?

When an extremely strange series of events takes place in reality, a quite natural reaction is to comment that “you couldn’t make it up”. If it is truly strange, it is unlikely that someone would have made it up (simply statistically speaking), but it is certain that someone could have made it up. After all, most strange occurrences are the results of human thought and action, and fiction is no less (in fact even more) the product of these things.

Perhaps, then, we should ask: “what do we mean by strangeness?” It seems certain that this is different for reality than for fiction. Perhaps strangeness is simply the feeling that arises when we perceive that something has gone beyond its “natural bounds”. Reality is bounded by many laws—of physics, of psychology—and so if something appears to go beyond these bounds it will give the feeling of strangeness. But the bounds of fiction are much harder to gauge. Ostensibly they are at the whim of the author, and so can be absolutely anything. There are of course the rules that come from narrative convention, but most readers will be aware of a wide enough variety that nothing in this regard will be surprising, at least not surprising enough to engender the feeling of strangeness.

I would submit that the overriding boundary of fiction is that, for the most part, we just don’t believe it. If fiction can make us believe (however different the nature of this belief is to that of real things), then it creates the feeling of strangeness. Reality is the opposite: if it makes us doubt, if it makes us think that it’s a fiction, then it has become strange.

The Infinite Regress of Illusions

I wrote in a previous post (Does Truth Exist?) that we assume that truth exists in all our speech and thoughts, and that it would be impossible to truly speak or think otherwise: if I think, “truth does not exist,” I really mean, “truly, truth does not exist”—a logical contradiction. No functioning human—or sentient being for that matter—can reasonably live on the opposite assumption.

There is also this: it is impossible to believe that everything is an illusion.  “Everything” here means all that you think you know. In that case, the thought “everything is an illusion” is an illusion, and that thought is an illusion, and so on ad infinitum. An infinite regress of illusions is impossible. A similar problem arises with truth. If everything is true, then the thought “everything is an illusion” is also true. And, as Democritus says of Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all things”, if everything is true, then among truths is the thought that not everything is true. So neither “everything is true” nor “everything is an illusion” are correct.

But it may be objected that saying “everything is an illusion” is not quite the same as saying “nothing is true”. However, presumably the thought “nothing is true” is meant to be true, therefore negating itself. Maybe it depends on what exactly is meant by “nothing is true”. If it is taken to mean that “nothing that I know, apart from this thought, is true” then that seems to be perfectly acceptable; but it is logically impossible to make a generalisation out of it, because that would mean that “it is true that nothing can be known which is true”—again a logical contradiction.

The only weakness I can see in the above is that a distinction needs to be drawn between two kinds of thought: that is, thoughts about the nature and truth of things, and thoughts about the nature and truth of truth. The former might be said to be an epistemic judgement, and the latter a metaepistemic judgement. But is a metaepistemic judgement internal or external? That is, does it concern doubt, or does it concern truth as a thing utterly independent of any observers? If this is a useful distinction to make, it would certainly merit further exploration.

McCain, Obama, and the Experience Battle

Obama’s choice of Joe Biden as his running mate seems, at least in part, to be a concession to McCain. The most immediate justifications for this choice appear to be the most pertinent: Biden was chosen for his extensive foreign policy experience as the three time chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and, on a broader scale, simply for his experience. But on a deeper level, the concession is to the enduring idea of “experience” itself.

This idea has been the overriding theme of the presidential race so far. Hillary Clinton insisted that she had more of it than Obama, though how she would have changed her tack when facing McCain, had she claimed the Democratic presidential nomination, is anybody’s guess. She clearly favours Obama over McCain: assuming this is genuine (and, despite the nature of party politics there is no reason not to think so), this is a tacit acknowledgement that experience is not the be all and end all, and that intellect and ideas are important after all.

McCain insists that he has more experience than Obama, but the question is, how important is experience in and of itself? Obama must have reflected on this pickle himself, and concluded that it wasn’t very much, except as a useful disarming tool; but it would be impolitic of him to express this publicly as he would draw jeers of “elitism” from the hungry media crowds. To take a hypothetical example: imagine an unintelligent person who is born into a privileged family with political connections, which he uses to embark upon a mildly successful political career. During the course of this career, he meets many politicians, engages in many debates, sees what goes on behind the scenes, becomes suitably cynical, and is able to put on a good political mask. By any standard, he would have had a lot of experience. But would this mean anything? He is unintelligent, and therefore gleans very little of substance from all these things. Of course, in this extreme example, experience would be meaningless.

McCain is not this hypothetical example. But he claims to be a man of experience, and a man of substance. It seems to me, that if one truly is a man of substance, one should not keep reminding others that one is a man of experience. It is little more than an insecurity smokescreen. A true man of substance would not have to consciously describe himself as anything, but would let his policies and his actions be the true narrator. It is also a cynical tactic that, far from showing his sincerity, tends actually to show his falsity, and his desperation. Knowing that his experience is a selling point to many Americans, it is a mere word he has to use, an advertising jingle. Therefore it is also an insult to the electorate. Can they not judge for themselves the extent, nature, and importance of his experience without constant reminders?

What’s So Good About Optimism?

Why is it good to be an optimist and bad to be a pessimist? An incurable optimist, as has been observed, really is just insecure about his pessimism. A pessimist, on the other hand, might be said to be a true optimist, since she at least doesn’t cower from the truth, and, accepting it as it is, endeavours to go on strongly despite it. These, no doubt, are sweeping statements, but the point that underlies them is that it is very difficult to tell objectively just how optimistic or pessimistic someone truly is; we have to take them at their word—but the very definitions of the words are so slippery that any self-professing of one’s stance is prone more to self-sophistry than anything approaching truth. To give an example: what makes a suicidal person pessimistic? Are they not in fact optimistic, given that they think suicide is a solution—that is, they actually seek a solution? Surely, if we define the optimist as someone who strives for and expects the best, then the suicidal person must be the most irrational optimist of all. More pessimistic is the one who considers suicide, but decides that it is worthless.

All this implies that the suicidal person gives a certain amount of reasonably logical thought to their decision. This is not always true, but if the act itself occurs in a moment of utter despair, or pure irrationality, then surely we can have neither optimism nor pessimism. In that case, even though we can say that the action itself is not one or the other, the person overall is more likely to be an optimist, since an optimist is more likely to be an idealist, and an idealist is less likely to be able to handle eventualities turning out far from ideal.

On another note, it has occurred to me that if to be an optimist is to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, then a theist, assuming that he believes in heaven and that heaven is a possible world, must be a pessimist, despite his apparent optimism about going to heaven.