Posts Tagged philosophy
An artist’s hyperrealistic impression of Franc EZ Co-Pounder 1.0.7
BEIJING, China—The drummer of Fleshgod Apocalypse, Italy’s foremost symphonic tech-death squad, passed the Turing test yesterday, dispelling longtime rumors about its humanity.
Franc EZ Co-Pounder 1.0.7, affectionately known as “♩ Pounder” to its bandmates, accomplished the historic feat at an Internet café during a tour stop in China’s capital. An annual World of Warcraft (WoW) mega-raiding session, sources confirmed, was happening at the café then.
The test, named after British computer scientist Alan Turing, is a text-based question-and-answer game that investigates whether humans can detect if they are conversing with machines or fellow humans.
A machine passes this test if, 70% of the time, it appears human to its human conversation partner after five minutes of written communication between the two. The test does not gauge the machine’s ability to correctly answer questions — only how closely its answers resemble those that a human might produce.
And Co-Pounder 1.0.7 delivered.
From 7:58 to 8:03 a.m. Pacific time yesterday, the 32-year-old convinced 137 of 196 WoW gamers in the café that it is human, defeating some 109 other competing artificial intelligence (AI) systems at the scene, including Goldfarmbot01, Goldfarmbot02, Jinnongfu108, Caishenye88 and mathematics undergraduate Fu Xundong from the National University of Mongolia.
Co-Pounder 1.0.7’s stunning display of humanity unfolded over five minutes of simultaneous private-chatting with every present WoW gamer, China’s state television broadcaster CCTV reported.
Eyewitnesses said that it “whispered” lasagna recipes in traditional Chinese to every human player at the climax of a fourth-stage Legion Invasion when the raid boss unleashed a Flame Fissure. Reportedly, all human players were distracted by the unsolicited culinary wall-of-text, and perished in flames.
As a result, Co-Pounder 1.0.7 was barraged with a torrent of vitriol and, most importantly, questions from the angry players. (Questions are crucial to the Turing test.) It then replied in Morse code to elicit more questions, and continued the rest of every conversation by doing its best impression of Paganini in Sanskrit and accented Maltese.
When Chinese players who interacted with Co-Pounder 1.0.7 were debriefed after the test concluded, they expressed surprise at the identity of their in-game murderer.
“Provoking a response with Taiwan’s written language, and then replying in various foreign languages was very convincing, very human,” said Huo Bumie, a player who fell to the Flame Fissure.
“I did not suspect at all that the stranger who chatted with me is Fleshgod Apocalypse’s drummer. Laowai machines are really as smart as they come! I will ask my politician dad to smuggle in one for me.”
Although Co-Pounder 1.0.7’s achievement is one for the books, close friend and bassist Paolo Rossi—who presided over the test as judge—remarked that its source code “was not originally written with heavy-duty online chatting in mind.”
Tweaking its source code to enable heavy-duty online chatting only came after Co-Pounder 1.0.7—through Rossi’s Google Glass—read derogatory YouTube comments about its octopus-android parentage on uploads of “Thru Our Scars”.
Offended by how many people suspect its humanity based on scant information and wild speculation, Co-Pounder 1.0.7 indignantly insisted that Rossi modify its source code “right [there] and [then]” so that it could “prove these insolent 60-BPM-loving plebeians wrong once and for all.”
Once the deed was done, Co-Pounder 1.0.7 leveraged the café’s free Wi-Fi to hack into New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) servers and manipulate penny stocks. It made a killing of approximately $2.7 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported.
It then installed itself on Rossi’s assigned computer in the café, bought a hacked WoW account from 58.com (China’s Craigslist), logged into the popular online videogame, and the rest is history.
While AI enthusiasts, philosophers, computer scientists, robot rights activists, and Fleshgod Apocalypse fans celebrate Co-Pounder 1.0.7’s passing of the Turing test, however, at least one expert was nonchalant about the drummer’s triumph.
Dr. Michael “Mick” Kenney, a leading UK authority in robotic gastroenterology and experimental paraphilosophy, noted that Co-Pounder 1.0.7’s passing of the Turing test does not mean much in the face of Turing’s original philosophical question: “Can machines think?”
“That question, which Alan Turing pondered and quickly circumvented in his landmark paper, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, is the crux of the creating-true-AI puzzle,” Dr. Kenney told BBC News. “Passing the Turing test does not directly answer it at all. Rather than reveal the ghost in the machine, Co-Pounder 1.0.7’s accomplishment simply revealed some people’s failure to recognize an incredibly well-programmed imitator of humans for what it is.”
He warned that satisfactorily answering Turing’s original question “necessarily involves pinning down what ‘think’ means, which opens a can of worms.”
“Let’s say thinking involves self-awareness,” Dr. Kenney continued, “then before I wonder if Co-Pounder 1.0.7 is aware of itself as a drumming thing, I better wonder if people around me are aware of themselves as thinking things.
“I have never been inside anyone’s mind but my own, after all, so who’s to say that my fellow humans are not biological automata?”
In a move that has left many industry insiders scratching their heads, the remaining members of the band Judas Priest have left the band and joined a Judas Priest cover band called Nightcrawler. The band, whose members have agreed to step aside and instead handle Judas Priest’s touring responsibilities, have been a staple of the greater Villa Rica, Georgia metal scene for the past fifteen years. Rob Halford and the boys plan on taking over Nightcrawlers’ regular Sunday night gig at Joe Don’s House of Beer as well as occasionally traveling to Macon and Atlanta for gigs.
This began as another satire article, but I’m afraid it will not make it. Instead, I believe the philosophical dimensions of this story are far more interesting. Who are Judas Priest? A collection of specific musicians who play a certain number of songs they have written in the past. Maybe. Think of Priest like your body. If your body doesn’t have all of its limbs it is still your body. If Al Atkins or Rob Halford or KK Downing leave the band, they are still technically Judas Priest, as we have seen. While many fans would argue that the band changed greatly when Ripper Owens was the singer, you can’t really argue they weren’t Judas Priest. After all, they put out two albums under the name Judas Priest. You can go look on my mantle; they are filed under “J”.
Under what circumstances is Judas Priest not Judas Priest or, even more interestingly, under what circumstances would you no longer be you? Lets say all the members of Judas Priest left and another group of musicians came in and played the same songs, would that still be Priest? The band Yes has transitioned through new scores of new members at every instrument and they still are known as Yes (although their was some legal wrangling to determine whether that was true).
Similarly, if all of your limbs were removed, then all of your organs except for the brain, you’d still be you, right? In fact, no one would have a kidney removed and say “I’m no longer me anymore”. You might not even need stop at the brain. Take away the parts that control motor function and coordination and you are still you. Really, what you are is that small section of the brain that contains memories and the idea of who you are. You may argue that there is a soul, but until you show me one with a tag on it saying “Exhibit A”, I cannot enter it as evidence.
Back to our Judas Priest problem. If Judas Priest left, but became a Judas Priest cover band, I’d have a difficult time figuring out who the real Priest is, but I’d probably eventually settle on the idea that the band playing that the members of Judas Priest joined was the real Priest. After all, the audience might identify with the name Priest, but most people derive the identity of the band from their memories of what the band was and meant. The meaning is not solely attached to the name, but the collection of memories that follow the band and some of the identifying, tangible characteristics. However, if all the members left and started a mariachi band, that would not be Judas Priest. They need to be playing the same songs, doing the same stage show, etc. in order to still qualify as the real Priest. Some form of the identity must be the same.
Here’s where it gets tricky. If Judas Priest’s members didn’t leave the band and kept the name, but chose to all of a sudden play mariachi songs and change their stage show, they would still be Priest, just not if they left and did the same thing. Just like if you changed careers or got remarried or became a professional baseball player, you’d still be considered you. So, the name Judas Priest does have value in terms of an identity marker for fans, but it is not the only characteristic that makes up identity and, as we will see, it is not always necessary.
If your brain were pulled out and put into another body, let’s say Lemmy’s body, I believe the person who had Lemmy’s body would be you. Therefore, while people would call you Lemmy, you would still be you, just in Lemmy’s body. As noted philosopher Shelley Kagan once said when presented with a similar problem “follow the brain”. However, here’s where identity gets messy, most people would find it difficult to believe you if you were walking around in Lemmy’s body claiming to be you unless they knew about this brain transplant. They’d believe you were Lemmy, even if you knew things Lemmy couldn’t possibly know about you.
It is safe to claim that what you perceive to be you is far different than what others perceive to be you. Your internal identity does not match the identity the world has for you. Let’s say that for years, all the members of the band were gone and replaced with lookalikes. Unless you had some knowledge of this, you’d assume you were watching Judas Priest when you saw them in concert. In our example, however, the audience was made aware of the shift, so the identity of the band would stay with Halford and the guys. Had they not been and had the cover band from Villa Rica been convincing lookalikes, people would have been none the wiser.
The point is, we think we know what a band is, based on our memories and recollections, but really we only know our created image of the band. The difference between the internal perceptions of the band and the external ideas are miles apart. Our image of the band has some similarities to the views of others and a few similarities to how the band views itself, but for the most part there is no common relationship except for a few markers here and there.
This is also the great problem of personal identity. How are we meant to function in a world where we see ourselves as one thing, but the world sees us as something else? Sure, there are some meeting points, but overall we have no clue how they see us. We are left to play a perpetual guessing game where we will never find the answer.
Who are Judas Priest? I’m not really sure. I know I have my version, you have yours and they have theirs. The places where we meet are certainly Judas Priest, but the places where we don’t are also Judas Priest. We know enough to know and agree that the band that left Judas Priest in our story is Judas Priest, but we lack enough evidence to understand what Judas Priest is in its totality.
We filter Judas Priest through our own minds and have an image completely exclusive to us. Judas Priest is our Judas Priest, a Judas Priest of the mind. We are forever stuck trying to reconcile that image with the image of those around us and failing miserably at the task. Such is the lot of humans when searching for truth. Stuck looking at one tiny, infinitesimal section of the map while trying desperately to figure out where everything is.
“Death is not the worst that can happen to men.” -Plato
There aren’t many things that scare me. I’ve been around a time or two and have seen some awful things. Sure, I’m afraid of death, just like everyone else. But, I think I’ve made my peace with it. There are things far worse than death out there. When I wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, filled with pure panic, it’s not death that’s staring back at me. It is something far more hideous. It is the number four.
You’ve seen a thousand fours in your life. They are everywhere. Four noble truths, four great elements, four horseman of the apocalypse, four letter words, the number four Bobby Orr, the list goes on and on. What they are used for is not important. It is what those fours ARE that is lurking behind every door, just behind the shadows, just out of reach. It is what those fours ARE that is haunting me. No matter how hard I try I cannot escape.
Because, you see, there are plenty of uses for the number four, but there is only truly one four. It is indivisible, it is unstoppable, it is perfect, it is irreducible and it is after me. I try to tell people what’s going on, but they don’t believe me. I explained my predicament friend the other day about my problem and he laughed. He drew the number four on a piece of paper and ripped it up. “Now you’re safe,” he chuckled.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Fool! He doesn’t understand. It’s not some absurd, half-witted drawing of the number four that strikes fear into my heart. I’m not scared of what can be done with four; I am utterly terrified of what it is. The perfect platonic form of four. Four in all its grotesque fourness. The ideal four. The world is filled with four imitators, trying to fake fournesss, trying to be useful, trying to help us count all of the pointless presences around us. But, I have SEEN four. The real one. The root of all fourness. And, worse, it knows I have seen it.
Oh platonic four, if I could take back that one time my eyes shot open in the middle of the night and I saw you hovering above my bed, I would. Everything was fine before that night. I wandered through this odd fantasy world of illusion that we call life with full belief in the forms that surrounded me. Then, I saw you and was forever changed. I had seen a lifetime of fours, but never any as perfect as this one. In that moment, I understood all other fours to be impostors. They did not have your straightness, they did not have your smoothness, they could not measure up.
What my eyes witnessed forever corrupted my being. At first, I looked for the perfect four everywhere. I needed to see it once more. I needed to know it and be connected with its truth. I wanted to be by its side. I wanted it to show me that there was more to this life than incompleteness and wandering. I longed for one more fleeting glimpse of its timeless perfection.
A horrible thing began to dawn on me. What if I wasn’t meant to see it? What if my accidental encounter had doomed me? What if the perfect four was looking for me with the same fury that I searched for it? All at once, I knew. I began to sense its presence everywhere I went. It was stalking me. Waiting for me to let my guard down. Hunting me.
I was at the supermarket looking at the oranges and suddenly; I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It was hiding behind the walnuts and almonds. Waiting to consume me whole. It sensed my glance and began to move towards me. I dropped my grocery basket and ran out of the store screaming. I didn’t stop until I got to my car. Which was the right key? There it was dashing across the parking lot like a rabid dog. No one saw it but me. It raced towards me. Finally, I pushed the key into the lock, got in the car and sped away.
I have been hiding from it ever since. Held up in a dingy motel room passing my final hours. I have this lingering sense that it knows where I am and is toying with me. Enjoying my suffering. Laughing at me. I went through a day or two thinking I could destroy it. I repeated 3 plus 1 equals 5 for hours on end. I figured if I denied the truth of its inevitability I could make it go away. However, my mind is no match for the perfection of its form. A mere string of thoughts could not slow its terrible, astonishing inertia for even a second.
I prepared for my final showdown with four. I would wait for it. I would catch it by surprise and break it into a million pieces. I would hit it with a hammer. Shoot it with a gun. Cut it up with a chainsaw. Melt it with a blowtorch. Something. Anything.
All resistance is absurd. I know this. Four is indestructible. It has no parts. It is endless and deathless. It wasn’t created and cannot be destroyed. It was here before we were and will be here forever after. If I dropped a million nuclear bombs on the world the number four sustain as much as a dent. It is beyond law, beyond meaning, beyond understanding. Unstoppable.
I feel its presence getting closer now. Through the trees. Into the parking lot. Past the couple putting luggage in their trunk. Up the back stairs. Past the ice machine. Outside the door. Inside the door. Across the room from me. Next to me. Inside of me. Finally….
This is the sixth in a series of articles analyzing the lyrics from the 1993 Carcass album “Heartwork”.
This Mortal Coil
Tearing down the walls
Breaching frontiers, unlocking the gates
To a new world disorder
A fresh balance of terror, the equilibrium of hate/
All flesh entwined, in the equality of pain
Archaic nescience unleashed
Entrenched, a bitter legacy
Tempered in mental scars
All flesh entwined in mortal equality
Tangled mortal coil
Twisted and warped
Tangled mortal coil
“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding. During the mechanical ages, we extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace….Any extension, whether of skin, hand or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.”
If we are not here in the traditional sense, then where are we? If our world has transformed from one of fragmented nations to a global village, what does that mean for us, the humans that inhabit such a world? Today’s human is locked into a nearly constant struggle for identity, attempting to at once be an individualized autonomous self and an interconnected part of an ever-shrinking world. We are engaged in a process of knocking down many of the walls that for generations have kept us separate. In this moment of great potential, one is left to wonder whether we will seize the opportunity for global embrace or build a new set of seemingly insurmountable walls. This question is the echo of our footstep as we wander headlong into the new frontier.
If the self is no longer locked in its corporeal shell and has, indeed, reached through the boundaries of the body and into the never-ending stratosphere, what does that really mean for us? After all, I look at myself in the mirror and am still contained in a structure remarkably similar to that once inhabited by my ancestors. Yet, my mind and spirit reach out beyond the fleshy walls of the Self and live an all-at-once, timeless existence in the technological superstructure that is fast becoming our world. Or, more precisely, what does it mean that these ideas are flowing out of my mind, through, my fingers, through the ethers, into your brain almost simultaneously and yet I’ve barely moved? It is not as simple as thinking things have changed from one form to another. Rather, it is significant to understand that we are both individualized fragmented bodies and the all of the universe. We are currently living in an age where we are consistently faced with being two things that seemingly cannot inhabit the same space. How can a thing be finite and infinite at the same time? More importantly for our purposes, how does a being reconcile the contradictions and stresses that arise from living in multiple realities in the same moment?
There is no easy answer for this. The lyrics to this song are a reflection of the pain one might believe itself to feel when coming to terms with a question of this size and scope. The quest for identity under such bizarre conditions could well lead someone to a feeling of being enraged and overwhelmed. It’s not hard to imagine the “archaic nescience unleashed” to be the hand of the Self reaching back through time clutching at any answer that spares us the uncertainty of not being able to fully comprehend the world. The coil on which Shakespeare so eloquently described us as living upon does not, upon first glance, seem built for multi-dimensional travel. The connection of seven billion spines seems to be an inexplicable tangle from which we can never escape, but is it?
Maybe trying to find an answer is the larger problem we face. If we believe in the need for a solution, we must also believe in the existence of the problem. Maybe all there is to do is to call the thing what it is. The world offers us an impossible contradiction. Even in the confusion created by this idea, we are still given the power to say, “Yes, both are true in this moment.” Is it impossible? Yes. But so too are the bizarre terms of our existence. There is no rational context under which we can properly understand what it means to be alive. In stopping the search and accepting an answer that defies all we think we know, we might well be able to begin understanding a question whose vastness reaches beyond eternity and whose minuteness is less than the size of one atom of our physical body.
Globalization, on some level, is a metaphorical magnification of the quest for spiritual identity faced by all humans. It is the human condition writ large in a way that can be directly observed by anyone willing to ponder the meaning of the Self. It broadcasts the eloquence of our contradiction in a way that is both tangible and boundless. While our immediate reaction to the question may be fear, it also offers a sublime opportunity for self-awareness. This form of awareness may feel like a curse at times, but it is a gift of the highest order. It is nothing less than a window into the deepest recesses of our communal soul.
It has often been said that you can learn a lot from listening to a child talk. People tend to mean that you can learn a great deal about the beautiful simplicity of life and the importance of innocence. These are valuable lessons, but certainly not the only things children can teach you. What I have found from listening to my children is that they have an amazing understanding of how political communication works. It’s not that I am one of those parents who think their children are so smart they can handle molecular biology in the first grade, but my two year old and four year old have given me remarkable examples of arguments that are popular in the realm of American political discourse. Carter could have gotten a third term with some of the things my kids say in passing.
Fallacy of Extension or The Strawman Argument
My 2-year-old daughter looked at me yesterday and announced, “It’s not night daddy, it’s the morning.” She was certainly correct, it was 10 o’clock in the AM and the sun was shining brightly. The intriguing part about her statement was that I had never said anything about it being nighttime. She had ascribed to me a position that was both irrational and, more importantly, not mine. She had used this to make her own case for the fact it was daytime. Somewhere, Roger Ailes was smiling. This argument is the backbone of much of the political debate that goes on today.
In the “non-toddler world” it works like this. I accuse you of saying something you have never said and do not believe and then make my case in opposition to the illogical premise that now belongs to you. You look like a lunatic and I look like my argument is not only correct, but a common sense response to the weird stuff that you have said at another time (even though you never said it!) Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech is the most famous example. The man was accused of misusing 18 thousand dollars and ended up making an argument over how his political enemies were asking him to give a dog back that his children really loved. No one had said anything about the dog except him. Even my two-year-old couldn’t pull that off with a straight face.
Misdirection or The Old Red Herring
This one is common among children when the subject of bedtime comes up. My four-year-old son has this down to a science. He is a naturally curious boy, but this curiosity comes in spades right around the time he’s looking to stall the natural forces of parenthood.
Me: “It’s bedtime.”
Son: “Why do the leaves fall off of trees?”
Me: “Let’s talk about it tomorrow, it’s bedtime.”
Son: “Where do the stars come from?”
Me: “We can talk about that first thing tomorrow, it’s time to go to sleep.”
Son: “Why do people sleep?”
Politicians often use this one when they get in trouble. The same sort of change the subject magic can be seen at many a press conference. Here’s a made up example that should look familiar to anyone who spends more than a half hour a month watching the news.
Reporter #1: “Is it true that you took illegal contributions from the law firm of Screwed, Over and Often?”
Politician: “The question of what makes a contribution illegal is an important one. Political contributions have been the bedrock of our great political system. Without them, many great Americans wouldn’t have had the chance to become President. Lincoln took contributions from great Americans like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents. He took a stand against the evils of slavery.”
My son hit me with this one yesterday and nearly ruined what was left of my barely usable brain.
Me: We’ll be here for 18 more days.
Son: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11…uhm. Daddy, it can’t be 18, 18 isn’t a number.
Basically, he was saying that if he doesn’t know what it is then it simply can’t be true. In politics, there are many bizarre variations on this hustle. The most surreal is the use of the absence of something to prove its existence. Future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren ran this one out back in the early 1940s to justify some of the post-Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment in California “I take the view that this lack (of enemy subversive activity in the west coast) is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. It convinces me more than perhaps any other factor that the sabotage we are to get, the Fifth Column activities are to get, are timed just like Pearl Harbor… I believe we are just being lulled into a false sense of security.”
If you observe children enough, you’ll see all sorts of interesting political communication going on. The argument from personal charm is another standard. “I’m cute and harmless, therefore, even though I have a chunk of my brothers hair in my hands, I couldn’t possibly have done that bad thing you are thinking I did.” This explains much of the political career of Ronald Reagan. The argument ad infinitum is a common tool used when politicians repeat the same expressions thousands of times to try to cement them in the minds of voters. When your 4-year-old asks you for the six thousandth time for the Thomas the Train Misty Island Rescue Set, understand that they are exhibiting traits that may one day allow them to lead this great nation.
If you are interested in more of the great strategies used to obfuscate truth and contribute to the further cheapening of language, check out this link…http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html
Posted by Keith Spillett in Articles I Probably Shouldn't Have Bothered Writing, Existential Rambings, Health Tips for An Early Death, Pointyheaded Highbrow Stuff on March 6, 2011
This thing that I think that I am, sometimes, I am not. Looking at an X-Ray of my right foot has twisted my mind into knots for the past few weeks. It’s not that they found anything that disturbing. My doctor discovered a bone spur, which I was pretty sure that I had. No surprise there. I am having surgery tomorrow. Again, not a surprise. The thing that got in my head was the X-ray itself. If I am what’s in that picture…what am i?
There was this picture of the bones in my foot staring at me. The doctor was pointing to things and saying a bunch of words, but I was transfixed on the picture. There I am? There I AM! There I am?!?!?!? This picture is of the inside of me. Underneath all of this skin and blood are a set of bones. These bones have been with me all of my life. They were at my high school graduation, they were there when I got married, they attended the births of my two beautiful children, they have seen me laugh, they have seen me cry, they have been there when I thought I was alone. I couldn’t process it. These bones are actually me!
The me that I think I am is the thing that experiences the world consciously. I am aware of feelings and ideas. I make plans and I remember experiences. I see, I smell, I touch, I taste, I hear. I have no problem associating these things with me. Then, there are these bones. They are in me, they are part of me, but I can’t believe that they are me. This picture wasn’t some random x-ray they keep in the back and show everybody. These were my bones! Seeing them really sucked the magic out of everything. I tend to think of myself as more than the sum of my parts, but maybe I am nothing more than my parts. Maybe, I am just bones and skin and blood with a few organs floating around.
There are parts of myself I have never seen. I don’t know what my hip bone looks like. I don’t know what my liver looks like. My heart, my brain, my lungs…all highly valuable parts, but I couldn’t tell mine from my neighbors. The me that I know seems so special, so unique. My memories seem so important, as if they are part of some great mystery that I have a lifetime to solve. My thoughts, my ideas, my identity all seem to be pieces in the great “who am I?” puzzle. They all conspire to make me believe that I am an enigmatic character whose mythology is terribly important. And then, there is this picture of the inside of my foot. It is not special. It is not unique. It is simply mineralized osseous tissue housed in a pile of skin that is called “foot”. There are somewhere in the range of 14 billion of them and they all pretty much look and act the same. Sure, there are minor subtleties and nuances, but for the most part, what is the difference?
My foot does not find itself unique. It pushes against surfaces over and over throughout a day. It works, it rests. It does not feel loneliness or claustrophobia if it is trapped in a shoe for too long. It does not become jealous that I am favoring my other foot. It does not make plans to meet with my spleen for coffee. It does not become romantically involved with my esophagus. It does not ponder the mysteries of the universe and wonder what will happen to it when it dies. It is material and material has no time for enchantment. It simply is. When it ceases to work, it will waste away along with the rest of this thing that is me.
There is a part of me that cannot imagine that this is possible. There must be something else, there must be something more. I am more than that picture. I am not just bones. I am not just flesh. I am something mystical. I am more than those parts. I am more than words on a page saying “healthy, well-developed 35 year old male suffering from Hallux rigidus“. Right? Right?!?!?!
Maybe this identity of mine that I find so fascinating is just a bunch of electrical impulses. Maybe we are just piles of material walking around among other piles of material, thinking that thoughts and memories and ideas make us more. These self-important piles of material spend much of their time avoiding damage so that they can one day be part of creating new piles of material. And on and on with no direction, no meaning and no end. Thousands of them are created each day and thousands disintegrate. It does not matter…it is only matter.
I was asked this question recently during a discussion about morality with a friend of mine. I do not believe that there is an objective meaning to life and this was his way of countering my argument. At first, I didn’t really take the question seriously and I laughed it off as a weird reductio ad absurdum argument meant to link my lack of belief to the worst possible outcomes. It is not the first time I have been asked this question in this context and I began to wonder why I felt the question was ridiculous. For the purposes of this article, I really don’t want to debate my feelings on objective meaning. It is a much larger topic that I feel deserves considerably more explanation than I am ready to give. However, I feel there is a basic misunderstanding in this question that is worth addressing on it’s own.
The questions strikes me as a silly one because I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. I am not clear about how Proposition A (There is no meaning in life) leads one to Proposition B (I should go around killing people). The argument makes about as much sense as saying “If you don’t believe there is any ice cream, why don’t you just go around killing people?” Why does the lack of basic meaning imply that people would commit violent acts towards one another? Where is the causal link between violence and the lack of meaning? Proposition A is a stand alone idea. It doesn’t lead to anything. It simply is.
The implication at the center of this idea is that the only thing that keeps human beings from running around causing severe harm to one another is the belief that there is some reason for everything. The deeper idea in the point my friend made was that without meaning, humans are nothing more than bloodthirsty animals that will do whatever they want, whenever they want. This is an extremely Hobbsean conception of what people are. I have a hard time believing that humans without meaning would find nothing better to do with their time then kill other humans. This view of humans, when held up to the light, seems quite vacant of truth. There are many secular humanists, atheists and nihilists who live their lives not believing in objective meaning without causing significant harm to others around them. Violence is something used by people of many different belief systems. There have been Christian murderers, Muslim murderers, Atheist murderers and so on.
I think part of the problem with the question is the assumption of direct correlation between belief and action. A person’s beliefs may help to define their actions, but we are never sure how. A person may believe strongly in a universe with objective meaning and choose to manifest that belief in the form of violence against people who think differently (The Spanish Inquisition is a good example of this) or they may choose to take that belief and manifest it in the form of non-violent protest (Martin Luther King would be a good representative of this). I don’t think we know what drove these people to act as they did. There is often an assumption that humans are basically machines. If you input this belief into the machine a specific set of actions will be waiting on the other end of the conveyor belt. The truth is that we have no idea what believing in certain things leads to. We know that we believe them, that’s all.
A good lens to see this question through is David Hume’s Problem of Induction argument. Hume argued that we can never convincingly prove that A will lead to B. We may assume that every time we flip the light switch on the room will light up, but on some occasions (power outages, blown fuses, unexplained failure) the room will not become illuminated. We may think that if a person has a certain set of values and beliefs they will turn out a certain way, but there are nearly limitless examples throughout history of times when that hasn’t happened. There is no such thing as a sure thing. We never know in advance how a set of beliefs is going to effect a person’s actions. We cannot accurately predict the future thus we never know what believing in certain things is going to lead to.
There is a troubling dynamic in this answer for those who are raising children. If we can’t convincingly know what the beliefs we are teaching our children are going to lead to, how are we supposed to raise them? My wife and I are currently raising two young children, so this question is a very serious one for me. As a parent, one of the most difficult realities that you are faced with is the understanding that you may do a great job teaching your children to love and respect the people around them and they still may turn out to be humans who take actions that appear angry, violent and anti-social. Humans are filled with complexities are impossible to completely understand. We can read the all of the “right” books, make the “correct” sacrifices and do what we think are the right things and we are still given no assurances. All we as parents can do is love our children no matter who they become. I don’t want my children to learn right and wrong, I want them to learn that we live in a world that has extreme shades of grey. I want them to learn to cause as little harm to others as possible (be it real harm or perceived harm). We do what we can and we hope for the best whatever that may be.