Consciousness and qualia are problems that are still unsolved by philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. My way of viewing consciousness and qualia is that consciousness is the process by which our brains organize the world into working models and qualia is the ‘stuff’ that consciousness uses to generate those models. For better or worse, both of these exist due to evolutionary forces. That means they’re fine tuned to a very specific sort of survival, not for any pure understanding of the world or ourselves. In order to understand the limitations of our own minds, we need to know the inner workings of how the world is organized in our minds on a fundamental level. That requires knowing the structure of our minds.
In this post, I am going to write a response/review of Jordan Peteron’s 2017 lecture titled Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God, which is available to watch on Youtube.
Liberalism, defined here in the classical sense of the enlightenment values of civil liberty and economic freedom, not a narrow left-leaning ideology, holds individual freedom above all else. In the U.S. both the left and right, except on the extremes of both, fall into the classical liberalism philosophy. Ideas that could be considered pre-cursors to liberalism began developing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But it was the American Revolution and French Revolution that put liberalism into practice. That means the experiment has been running for a little over two hundred years. Can we draw any conclusions from the results?
I recently watched an episode of the Mind Field series by Vsauce titled “Should I Die?” In it, the host Michael Stevens talks to people from a cryonics firm and a mortician. He ultimately decides that he wants to die. The reasoning seems to be that our finite existence is what gives meaning to our lives. Death, in other words, has a meaning. But what is that meaning?
The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted into other forms of energy – for example, if you slap the wall, the mechanical energy that goes into the slap is converted into the energy needed to produce sound. With Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2 it is easy to see that conservation of energy translates into conservation of matter.
This dictum applies to the physical reality that we inhabit. But what about the individual that experiences this physical reality? What is the mind?
Albert Camus famously said that the most important question in philosophy is whether or not to commit suicide. He posed this problem because he saw humans as inhabiting a hostile, meaningless universe, all the while spending their lives seeking meaning. Thus, human existence is absurd.
Are the mind and body separate substances, or are they one-and-the-same?
Mind-Body Dualism is a philosophical question at least as old as Descartes, and possibly older. Most people tend to have an intuitive sense that they are a mind that has a body – that our mind resides within this physical thing we call a body. What I’m interested in here is whether it is useful to think about the mind and body as separate and what this could mean for humans and society going forward. This article is not meant to be an exhaustive exegesis on the entirety of the mind-body problem or even a summary of every facet. What I will do here is discuss three different ways to conceptualize the mind-body relationship, some practical concerns that arise, and then a theoretical analysis of responses to these practical concerns.
Knowledge is Power
There is an old adage that knowledge is power. People being able to acquire facts and information gives them power over those who wish to control them. This is the cornerstone of first amendment rights in the United States. Preventing the government from having arbitrary power over the people by way of knowledge about the private lives and thoughts of people is the cornerstone of fourth and fifth amendment rights in the United States. Other governments – places like Nazi Germany and those in the Communist bloc – attempted to disempower their people by banning certain books and speech critical of their ideology or governing regime; by controlling people’s right to assembly (ie banning other political parties); by regulating or persecuting certain religions; by controlling and censoring the press; by spying on their people; and by forcing people to testify against themselves through torture and indefinite detention. The Khmer Rouge, for example, feared a knowledgeable populace so much that that would condemn and even kill people who wore glasses because ‘intellectuals’ were considered to be corrupted by modernity.
The point being, knowledge is generally viewed as a good thing in a liberal democracy. It allows us the opportunity to make informed decisions about who governs us and then hold them accountable. But is there knowledge which should not be known? Knowledge that could potentially be harmful if it gets out?
This is an argument as old as time, but a particular instance comes to mind – the Bible. For much of the Church’s history, the Bible was read only by the clergy (and other higher status individuals), who could read Latin. The teachings could then be interpreted by the clergy and taught to their parishioners. This allowed for a single orthodoxy to be run by the Church bureaucracy. In the first 1500 years of Christianity, there was only a single schism in the church (not counting the Western schism, which was more political than theological). However, vernacular translations of the Bible in Greek by Erasmus and in German by the likes of Martin Luther were printed, helping to ignite the protestant reformation, the result being that the Church split into numerous churches. During those early days of the printing press, it was hotly debated whether it would be a good idea to let the people have access to the Bible. There are still those who think it was a bad idea.
A more contemporary source of perhaps forbidden knowledge is the internet. Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other such nonsense aside, the internet is arguably the greatest means of spreading knowledge to come into existence since the printing press. The biggest obstacle one might find in their way online are paywalls and subscription fees, and even those are usually easily bypassed or avoided. But what about information like how to make bombs or 3D printed guns? Sure, most people are probably responsible enough to either not use this information, or even if they do, use it for benign purposes. But if that information is available on the internet, it is available to everyone – even those who would use it for malicious or self-serving purposes. I am not trying to make a political argument for banning these things, but generally a more philosophical argument – would humankind be better off if this information had never become available in the first place? Or is there something intrinsically good about such information being available – ie knowledge is power?
What about hacked or leaked information of a private or personal sort, like pictures of a politician doing something we might find disgusting, like cheating on their spouse or doing drugs? Does our knowledge of this lapse in character or poor judgment outweigh the privacy of the individual perpetrator? What about leaked classified information about government wrongdoing that could damage national security or put agents in the field in danger? This argument is made just about any time information about government wrongdoing is made available to the public, whether it damages national security or endangers field agents or not, which further demonstrates that the government is afraid of people becoming knowledgeable. But what about in cases where public knowledge is demonstrably dangerous, even if the government is in the wrong about something? Where is the crossover point, where the information becoming public knowledge becomes an unacceptable risk?
There is knowledge of a different kind on the internet – pornography. Social conservatives often argue that access to pornography has a deleterious affect on people’s minds and morals. There may be merit to this argument. Pornography can cause addiction, isolation and unrealistic expectations about romantic love. And what about the fact that after a terrifying experience, such as the false alarm about a missile strike in Hawaii, people seem to seek comfort in pornography? So, should pornography be included in the category of knowledge that humankind would be better off without? Or is it part of the knowledge as intrinsic good? Even if we argue that pornography is not harmful, psychologically or sexually, is there an argument for it being good? Or perhaps there is a cutoff point – pictures of naked people alone, or video of people having missionary position sex, is acceptable, but people doing other sex acts is not. Maybe if it’s only shown with people having safe sex – like the proposed condom law that failed in California – then it is acceptable. Once again, I’m not trying to make a political or civil liberties argument one way or the other, but I’m asking, philosophically speaking, would humankind be better off (psychologically, sexually, morally) if pornography didn’t exist, or if only certain types of pornography existed?
Opponents of Political Correctness contend that it is a form of censorship that stifles society from having important conversations. Political Correctness is defined as “…the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” However, Political Correctness is often used as a way of shutting down conversation. For instance, bringing up crime and race, race and intelligence, or that men and women might have differences in preference when it comes to career path choices (as opposed to systemic barriers to entry in certain careers dependent on ones sex or gender identity) are often hot-button issues. I’m not making any claims about the truth of falsity of these topics, but Political Correctness dictates that even bringing them up is taboo. People who bring these issues up will often find themselves on the receiving end of criticism, and sometimes even threats of violence. Opponents of Political Correctness will say that if these subjects aren’t even up for discussion, then there is no way to find whether the claims are true or not, and if true, find the causes of these problems and be able to work out solutions. As a result, the problems will persist and get worse while people continue to pretend that they don’t exist. The truth value of these claims is not based on reason, facts, or evidence, but on how the topics make people feel. Things that are uncomfortable to discuss then become, essentially, forbidden knowledge. Do these subjects belong in that category, or should they be up for discussion?
The issue works the other way, too. There are plenty of people who would prefer not to have LGBT issues taught to children, while proponents of Political Correctness are often in favor of doing this. Whether one believes that sexual preference or gender nonconformity are choices, pathologies, or just part of the spectrum of human experience, they are still phenomena that occur in the real world; they are still impulses that dictate the lifestyle of real people. Refusing to teach people about these issues will not prevent them from being exposed to them, and will only leave people less knowledgeable about real world issues. It is a form of political correctness that attempts to pretend that something isn’t real, which stifles dialogue and does nothing to weigh truth claims about causes, effects, and society based on reason, facts, and evidence, but once again based only on how the topic makes people feel. Thus, not teaching people about the LGBT phenomena is relegating these issues to the realm of forbidden knowledge. Are people better off not knowing about these issues, or is knowledge still power in this case? Does knowledge necessitate acceptance – if a person is taught about LGBT people, will that person necessarily be accepting? Does acceptance necessitate knowledge – can you not accept someone’s lifestyle if you are ignorant of it? And, if this should not be forbidden knowledge, at what age should people be taught about LGBT issues? What is the best way to teach them? And what exactly should be taught, as there are competing theories?
I think probably the place where the most people will accept that some knowledge may be better left unknown is when it comes to the potential end of the world. Nuclear weapons are the first thing that come to mind. During World War II, there was a concerted effort by the United States and Britain to develop atomic weapons. Doing so opened up a Pandora’s box that still affects us to this day – the doomsday clock was just recently reset to 2 minutes to midnight (doomsday). When the Soviet Union tested their own nuclear weapons in 1949, the term Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) soon came into vogue. Would it have been better if humankind had never learned how to develop nuclear weapons in the first place? What about the argument that Mutually Assured Destruction has prevented cataclysmic wars between major powers, as was the case in WWI and WWII before humans split the atom? Does that make knowledge of atomic weapons a net positive for the human race, even if the potential destruction of civilization as we know it as the hair-trigger whims of a few powerful people?
Nowadays, we also have to worry about possibly an even more insidious weapon of mass destruction: biological weapons. What makes this even more dangerous is that they are so cheap and easy to develop (particularly compared to nuclear weapons), a single person could do it in a DIY lab in their garage. It’s so easy a person could develop or release it on accident. Instructions on how to do it could easily be made available online (and probably are in some dark corners of the web). And once the disease is out, it will not distinguish between friend and foe – at the very least, an atomic weapon could potentially be contained to a single geographical location. This, of course, brings up the question of whether it has been a good thing or not that humankind has acquired knowledge about how genetics work – with knowledge of genetic manipulation, it’s not that difficult to make a dangerous pathogen. Our understanding of genetics and genetic manipulation has yielded amazing things for humanity, but if it ultimately spells our downfall, was any of it worthwhile? Or would humans have been better off never knowing?
And now, possibly in the not to distant future, we might have to worry about Artificial Intelligence. As it is often popular to say in AI circles, Artificial Intelligence could be the last thing humankind ever invents. So, does that mean that AI technology should be forbidden knowledge? Is humanity better off not discovering Artificial Intelligence? What if developing AI is the only way we can actually ensure that we don’t wipe ourselves out via other means? Unlike most of what I’ve talked about here, AI is knowledge that we have not yet acquired – it is still theoretically within our power to keep this knowledge forbidden, whereas other things I’ve discussed are already available. It may be that development of AI is inevitable, but it could be that we would have been better off never even considering it.
What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to do good things? Individualism would answer these questions by saying a good person, who does good things, is kind, fair, thoughtful, empathetic, and self-actualized; that they do things to better themselves (ie go to the gym, stay informed, eat right, meditate, and do things that will make them happy). Collectivism would say that a person is good if they belong to a good group and that their thoughts and actions are in alignment with that group and work towards the betterment and actualization of the group and promotion of its ideals over others.
Individualism is politically expressed through capitalism. The benefit of capitalism is that, ideally, each individual is in sole control of their own economic activity, thus the economy is defined by the interactions of individual agents all working toward their own personal good via rational self-interest – one spends one’s money on food, shelter, clothes, medicine, and entertainment for oneself; nobody else forces one into any particular form of economic activity. The problem seems to arise from taking this political philosophy on as a personal ethical philosophy – if it is morally good that I have personal control over my economic activity, then it is also morally good that I have personal control over my ethical activity. This can then descend into hedonism and moral relativism – what is “good” must be what makes me feel good, and who is anyone to say that what is “good” for one person must also be “good” for another?
Collectivism is politically expressed through communism or nationalism – the two use different rhetoric and emphasize different collectives, but are functionally similar. The benefit of collectivism as political philosophy (whether communism or nationalism) is that, ideally, everyone in the group (economic class, in the case of communism, or racial/ethnic group in the case of nationalism) is on equal economic footing – if you are within the preferred group, then there are no winners or losers, and therefore things like greed or envy of other in-group members becomes obsolete, and economic activity is simplified by relieving everyone of economic responsibility, because certain economic privileges become economic “rights” for in-group members. Their are inherent problems in collectivism as political philosophy, but further problems arise when collectivism is taken as an ethical philosophy: you end up with identity politics. In this case, every individual is pre-judged based on whatever group(s) one happens to fall into (racial, gender, class, etc.), and one is expected to adhere to a certain orthodoxy as established by said groups in order to be a “good person” as defined by that orthodoxy. The groups are then confronted by a dilemma: moral relativism vs might-makes-right. By the former, all groups are mutually exclusive, but equally valid, and therefore it is not acceptable to criticize another group by the ethical standards of one’s own, since one group’s ethics is only valid within that group, thus one is wrong to speak out against potentially monstrous beliefs and activities within other groups (ie who is one group to say that female genital mutilation is bad if it is considered “good” by those groups that practice it?). By the latter, universal “goodness” is dependent on which group can conquer, subjugate, or silence the others, thus it is “good” for one’s group to try and conquer, subjugate, or silence other groups deemed not to be “good” before they are able to conquer, subjugate, or silence one’s group (ie shouting down out-group speakers on college campuses or petitioning the government for laws favorable to one’s own group or unfavorable to the out-group).
So, the question is, how is humanity to determine a proper ethical framework? Religion used to attempt to fill this role. However, without a universally agreed upon religion, it will (and has) devolved into collectivism. There is also the issue that modernity has shown that God has taken a lesser role in the universe that once thought, or at least in people’s lives, if God exists at all. Because of the de-emphasis of religion for the formulation of an ethical framework, the above political philosophies have taken that role, and it has led to divisiveness, shallow materialism, and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol use.
Adhering to simple moral prohibitions – don’t lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder – although not perfectly practiced, are generally agreed upon, even if not always for the same reasons. Yet this doesn’t seem to be good enough to create a peaceful world of productive societies, made up of internally supportive and externally tolerant communities, each composed of happy, healthy, self-actualized individuals. How to achieve that is the question ethical philosophers must answer.
Let’s say that someone you knew bought a 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500KR back when they first rolled off the assembly line. They loved this car and took very good care of it. Whenever a part began to go bad, it was immediately replaced before anything could damage the car. They kept this car for the past 50 years. Over that time, 90% of the parts in that car were replaced with new parts. They now want to sell the car to you, and they say that it is an original 1968 – are they telling you the truth? Or is it now a completely different car than the one they bought 50 years ago?
This, of course, is a modern re-telling of the Ship of Theseus. The reason I ask is because this applies to more than just objects, but also ideas. Ideas mutate and evolve over time. Some aspects become obsolete, emphases are changed, new thinking is added, and sometimes ideas are rejected completely. Like switching out the different parts in our muscle car, these changes are due to the emergence of new information and technology, along with the growing and shifting social, political, and philosophical milieu.
And when I say “fighting for” something, I don’t necessarily mean physically fighting for it, but also advocating and arguing in favor of, and being willing to align oneself and take a position for, a particular set of beliefs, ideals, and principles.
Christianity, for example, as it is understood nowadays, is very different from its original conception – so, is it still the same thing that the early followers had in mind when they were persecuted for their beliefs? Is Christianity still the same thing that the Medieval people had in mind when they persecuted others in its name?
What about the United States of America? Certainly the country is very different from the one the founders understood – now slavery is abolished, women have equal rights, our government involves itself in the affairs of every other country. So, when someone says they are fighting for America, what does that really mean?
And, more interestingly, will people in the future think what you believe is worth fighting for now had been worth fighting for at all?
What comes immediately to mind is the Confederacy during the American Civil War. They believed they were fighting for something noble and just, and now most people think their cause anywhere between misguided all the way to despicable. But what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War – would their cause be seen as righteous and just, the way the Union is often portrayed? Which raises the question – will the way the future judges us be based solely on which ideas win out over the others, or will the future be able to judge what we fight for objectively and see an idea, even if it “loses” the fight, as better than one that may have “won” the fight?
It also brings to mind the people fighting during the 30 Years War – many atrocities were committed, thousands killed through warfare, disease, and starvation, ruinous destruction wrought on the people of Europe, and yet nowadays most people don’t even know that this war happened, much less what it was even about. But the people fighting it (or, at least, funding it) thought it worth the catastrophic consequences. Which raises the question – are your ideas worth fighting for is they will simply fall by the wayside in history, forgotten by posterity? What if they only remember what you did for your cause, but not why you did it? How will you be judged?
What about humanities greatest experiment with implementing an idea – Communism in places like China and the Soviet Union? Untold millions suffered and died for this grand experiment, the world being brought to the precipice of thermonuclear annihilation, only to have it all fail. Now that we are in their future, with the Soviet Union in our past, would we deem Stalinist or Maoist Communism to have been worth fighting for? At the time, many people certainly believed in those ideals enough to kill and die for them. Now, it seems, all of that suffering was for nothing.
So how does one know what to fight for now, given that it may be forgotten by posterity, or deemed misguided or even evil? Is it worth killing for a cause that will be judged so harshly by our descendants? Worth dying for? What if the ideas you believe will make the world a better place get put to the test, and it turns out that they make things worse for everyone? And if these questions are paralyzing, what if not fighting for anything is even worse than fighting for the wrong thing?
Is there something worth fighting for?
[Featured image is from Kharkov in the Soviet Union, 1933, during the Holodomor, where estimates of 2 million to 10 million people starved to death due to Communist collectivization policy.]