Apollo’s War

The voyeur thought often of death,

enthralled as Deathless Ones are.

*

The face that ended a million lives,

deaths senseless and glorious (as all deaths).

*

Mortals dance teetering on the brink of Tartarus,

a slip from the Underworld.

*

Why not kill them,

who live only to die?

*

A gentle shove to watch them fall,

a relief he would never know.

*

Death blisters the heels of life,

but the God of Death does not run the race.

*

No light without dark,

no life without death?

*

He envied the certainty of their fate,

the God of Oracles can not see his own future.

Music – a memento mori for the moment

Here, for your delectation or detestation, is a thing that I think: “Music is the art best suited to the depiction of impermanence.”

Making such a thought public may elicit several responses: “What?”; “Who cares!?”; “That’s because you’re a musician.”; etc. Fair enough. I’m going to start by addressing the last of these questions, then move on to the second, and after that should be well on my way to answering the first.

Yes, I am a (hack) musician. I’ve studied music in some depth and am thus inevitably biased in its favour. But, I protest, I also write and have studied writing. I also draw and paint a little bit, and am fortunate enough to be married to an incredibly talented and prolific painter. Thanks to my wife Genevieve, to live in our house is to be on intimate terms with the process of creating visual art. So much for my claims to authority – I have none and make no claims to any (“the only thing that I know is that I know nothing…” blah blah). That music, of all the arts, most effectively depicts impermanence is just a thing I think. There are reasons that I think this particular thing, however, and I am ready to defend them.

So who cares? Why should anyone care about this seemingly most esoteric of claims? Just what on earth do I mean by “impermanence” anyway? I’m so glad I asked me! Impermanence, it seems to me, is a characteristic of all existent things. It is what the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was drawing attention to with his famous claim that one can never step into the same river twice. The river is in flux. By the time you take your second step it has changed. It doesn’t matter if you immediately follow each step with the next, or avoid stepping into that river again for days, months, or years. The river is never at rest. Moreover, the “you” that does the stepping is never at rest, not even for a moment. Like the river, you are always changing, always in flux.

The importance of understanding the impermanent nature of both ourselves and all components of the environments in which we live is also central to Buddhist philosophy. No doubt some scholars of Buddhist thought will take exception to this claim, but I consider insight into the impermanence, as well as the interdependence, of all things, to be not only fundamental to Buddhist thought, but also primary goals of Buddhist meditation practices. Consider the Four Noble Truths (my paraphrasing):

  1. Life is characterised by dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness).
  2. Dukkha is caused by primal confusion.
  3. There is a cure for primal confusion.
  4. The cure is the Noble Eightfold Path.

If you consider the form of this teaching, the first the Buddha gave after he achieved enlightenment, you’ll see that it’s pretty important to know what “primal confusion” is. After all, the claim is being made that it is the source of suffering! The Buddhist literature is voluminous and there are diverse interpretations of these fundamental teachings, but the gist seems to be that primal confusion is a matter of believing the world has a different nature from that which it in fact has. This is pretty obviously confusion, and it’s “primal” not only because it affects everything, but because it’s innate – we are being told that the default worldview possessed by humans is mistaken at the fundamental level. What mistake are we making? We think that things exist (or have the potential to exist) independently and permanently. Basically, we think it’s possible to isolate things (any things) from their contexts and we think things (immortal souls perhaps?) can last for ever. We are dead wrong about this. In fact, Buddha claims, the nature of existence is that it is interdependent and impermanent – to exist is to exist in a context with other existents, and existence is intrinsically ephemeral. If we can truly understand and internalise these facts about the world, we will allegedly be freed from suffering.

Impermanence is therefore kind of a big deal. A fairly obvious example of just how big a deal it is rears its head when we contemplate our own death. Our existence is impermanent. It is going to end. I take it to be fairly obvious that for most of us this is kind of a bummer. One only has to consider the proliferation of death-denying mythologising throughout history, from immortal souls living forever incorporeally in analogue heaven, to uploaded consciousnesses living forever digitally in digital heaven (is there really any difference?), to see how important this issue is for humans in general. Accepting the inevitability of your own death, not to mention the death of everyone you love, is difficult. But maybe accepting that all existence is impermanent, that death is the price of admission, can help. And acceptance of death really does help us to live better (at least I’ve got this on good authority, I’m still terrified of death most of the time). The goal of Buddha’s teachings is always soteriological – it is aimed at achieving “salvation” (or liberation – moksha). Not salvation in the afterlife, but the cessation (or at least diminishment) of suffering in the here and now. (By the way, I’m not going to talk about Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation in this piece, maybe another time.)

Now, it’s no coincidence that I’m a fan of philosophers and teachers like Heraclitus and Buddha (and their exegetes). I’m an evolutionary biologist and it is also absolutely central to evolutionary thinking that all things are interdependent and impermanent. I want this to be a short piece, so I’m not going to go into details here, but to consider interdependence just think about the concept of an ecosystem. By definition, “systems” are composed of many elements that interact and “work together”. Sometimes, this coalition really does work together to achieve some tangible goal, but not always. The parts of an ecosystem don’t necessarily cooperate, but they do depend upon each other to achieve stability. In fact, the evolutionary “game” is all about achieving stability in the face of the constant flux which characterises, well, everything. Stability can only be achieved through the formation of coalitions (a solitary quark, for example, is extremely unstable), i.e. through interdependence. Stability is only relative, however, ecosystems change and eventually disappear, mountains crumble to the sea (did I steal that from somewhere?) – everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever, all things must pass (insert song lyrics ad nauseum).

If as a musician I am biased towards music, as an evolutionist I am biased towards impermanence. Why is music so good at depicting impermanence? Because music is the most obviously ephemeral art form. More than any other art form, music draws our attention to the passage of time. It’s not the only art form to do this of course (narrative would be another obvious example), it’s just the most direct. Music only exists in the moment of hearing. Sure, you can write a score for a piece of music, but the score is not the music. It is map, not territory. The same is true of a recording – the grooves in a vinyl record, the 0s and 1s in an MP3; these are not music, they are media through which music may be realised….by pressing “play”.

When music is existing, the fact of its passing, its being in time, is impossible (for anyone paying attention) to ignore. Paintings are impermanent too. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is impermanent too (hopefully I’ll see it before one of us expires). But these works of art do not wear their ephemerality on their sleeves. To experience them is not to experience their transience directly. In this, music is unparalleled. It makes impermanence explicit. In so doing, it draws our attention to the constant flux of the present moment. Perhaps we are able to forget or ignore this aspect of music these days because we are so constantly bombarded by recorded music wherever we go. Music is assaulting our ears from every angle as we move through the world (and indeed we’re often using it to block out the world with our earphones), and most of it is thus relegated to the status of background noise. Listening is different from simply hearing. As Igor Stravinsky remarked, “a duck hears also”. When you really listen to music, its flux, its temporality, is undeniable. You are either with it you aren’t. If your attention waivers, you’ve missed it. That part is now gone. If you were trying to listen to one of Anton Webern’s “5 Pieces for Orchestra”, you just missed the whole piece. Perhaps you heard a few plinks and plonks, but had you been listening you might have had one of the most profound experiences available to human consciousness. (Am I overselling Webern? No.)

Okay, what’s important about this? Music makes explicit something that is fundamental to the human experience. We exist in time and all our experiences are transitory. To get the most out of experience, to get the most out of life, we must be paying attention. All experiences are like Webern’s pieces, both in their potential profundity and in their undeniable transience – blink and they are gone forever. This is pretty obvious, right? But have you accepted it? Have you started to conquer primal confusion? I haven’t. Not really. I still want the good times to last forever and I still think the suffering will never end. I often need to be reminded that pleasure and suffering are equally impermanent, and music is one of the best memento moris for the moment.

 

Painting by Genevieve Jackson, used without permission from artist (she’ll forgive me). 

Is consciousness substrate-independent?

Everybody seems to be talking about artificial intelligence. That’s appropriate, I’m sure, because AI is already having a big effect on our lives and its impact is only going to increase. AI researchers and climate scientists are currently vying with each other for the distinction of being members of the field addressing the “most important issue facing humanity today”. My only rejoinder to that is that since all things evolve, all fields of scientific investigation are subsets of evolutionary theory (and that includes physics). Reductionists may put them apples in their pipes and smoke them….so there, nee-nah nee-nah, etc.

Now that we have settled (once and for all) the important question, namely the hierarchy of scientific fields, we can get on to considering whether artificial general intelligences (or superintelligences) are likely to be conscious. Nested insider this question is another – is consciousness solely a property of biological wetware, or is it “substrate-independent”? That is, if we replicate the kind of information processing that goes on in human brains in a computer program, will that computer program be conscious? This is also relevant to the “simulation hypothesis“, which claims that we should consider it more likely that we live inside a simulated universe than that we are the privileged few who inhabit the “real” (original) universe. The simulation argument uses pretty basic statistical reasoning to make this point, but in order to get off the ground it must include “functionalism”, a.k.a. the substrate-independence of consciousness, as one of its premises.

Functionalism is simply the notion that what mental states do is more important than what they are made of. Thus, the argument goes, there is nothing special about wetware and all mental states are realisable in other “substrates” (like computers). The physicist Max Tegmark, in making this kind of argument, has pointed out that we shouldn’t think there’s anything special about “machines made of meat”, because, just like machines made of silicon, they are “fundamentally” composed of up-quarks and down-quarks. The “only” difference between the two is the arrangement of the quarks. Like Tegmark, I am a physicalist monist, so I agree with the factual component of his assertion, but I don’t see it as a strong argument for substrate-independence.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s entirely possible that AGIs will become conscious, I just don’t think the quark argument is particularly relevant. Quite a lot is smuggled into the claim that it’s only the pattern/arrangement of quarks that is different. If we accept that all material things are made of quarks arranged in different patterns, then pattern accounts for rather a lot. If you fully reproduce the pattern of quarks instantiated in a conscious meat machine, you will not only create consciousness, you’ll create meat. So by reducing the “substrate” to quarks, one doesn’t motivate an argument for substrate-independence.

We simply don’t yet know which properties of brains and bodies are important for consciousness. All we know is that consciousness evolves in biological (“meat”) systems as a solution to the design problem of integrating multiple sensory inputs. Some of those sensory inputs are interoceptive – they are not simply the brain’s assimilation of the external world, but also include responses to hormones, blood sugar levels, nociceptors, and the rest. Maybe you don’t need all of that to have consciousness and maybe you do – nobody knows what you can and can’t leave out.

A deep intuition at work behind claims of substrate-independence and functionalism is the belief that we can make “models” of things, typically mathematical/computational models, that actually possess the (salient) properties of the things we are modelling. This is an ancient idea – one name for it is Platonism, but it predates even that venerable Greek. We humans are powerfully motivated to understand things. This is our great evolutionary trump card – the ability to abstract from things to principles so that our knowledge becomes more generalizable and less domain-specific. What an awesome power this is and what an incredible extension of this power the evolution of first verbal, and then mathematical, languages was. I have no desire to trivialise the importance of our ability to model reality in order to understand it better. Heck, consciousness itself is a modelling process. But let’s not get overzealous and confuse map with territory. Maps are a useful guide to territory, but they lack many interesting properties of the things they represent.

In order to know whether consciousness is substrate-independent we’re going to need to know which properties of meat machines are relevant to its emergence. The likelihood seems to be that we are going to create AGI before we fully understand consciousness. Maybe we’ll actually come to a better understanding of consciousness with the aid of AGI, either because it helps us to study conscious meat machines, or because one day it claims to be conscious and we are forced to take its word for it. Personally, I don’t think consciousness is all that mysterious and I’m not a fan of the “hard problem“. Until further notice, however, it seems to be a purely biological phenomenon.

So I guess we’re just going to have to see what happens. Until then, let’s not get too carried away with our assertions of substrate-independence and let’s examine the motivating assumptions behind those assertions. As the philosopher John Searle has pointed out, a computational model of a storm is not wet. If we fully reproduce all the information represented by the arrangement of quarks in a system, we will have recreated that system, not modelled it.

(The painting is Max Ernst’s L’ange du Foyer, I could explain how it’s relevant, but I prefer to let you just enjoy the beautiful art)

A metaphor (throwback Thursday)

This piece – “A Metaphor” – that I wrote a few years ago, closely relates to the themes discussed in our most recent episode (11 – see previous post) of the podcast:

*

We are all in a dark room.

We all have torches.

Torches are tools for seeing.

*

All our torches are fundamentally the same, but they have different batteries.

Batteries are tools for thinking.

Our choice of batteries affects the brightness of our torches.

*

The beams of our torches can be focussed or diffuse.

The more we focus our beam the brighter it becomes.

The brighter the beam, the more clearly we see what we are looking at.

The more clearly we see what we looking at, the less we see everything else.

The more diffuse our beam, the more we see.

The more we see, the less clearly we see it.

*

The room is crowded.

We can’t see beyond the width of our torch beam.

We can’t see anyone else’s torch beam.

We often bump into each other.

Bumping into each other is an unfortunate accident.

*

The room’s darkness is not absolute.

If we switch our torches off our eyes can adjust.

If we let our eyes adjust we can see everything, dimly.

*

Get the best batteries you can.

Vary the width of your beam constantly.

Switch off your torch for a while every single day.

*

What it’s like to be a philosopher

A: I’ve been thinking about your definition of consciousness. You said it was an “affordance-seeking predictive engine”, which really wasn’t very helpful.

B: Sorry…

A: All good, you did say a bunch of other stuff that was interesting…

B: I do try my best.

A: Well, that’s all I ask. Aaaaaaanyway, I was listening to a podcast about consciousness and the host discussed another definition. I’m sure you probably heard before, but it seemed intuitively correct to me, so I’m wondering if you have any comments.

B: Fire away.

A: OK, so they said that consciousness is just “what it’s like to be something”. Like, what it’s like to be me is my consciousness, what it’s like to be….

B: A bat?

A: Yeah, they did use that example. They credited it to some philosopher.

B: Thomas Nagel. But really I think it’s just an extension of Descartes

A: Slow down…

B: Sorry. Nagel wrote a famous and influential essay called “What is it like to be a bat?”. He argued that if it is like something to be something, meaning that something has subjective states, then that something is conscious.

A: Stop saying “something” – what is the relevance of bats?

B: Nagel thought that they were an interesting example because they perceive the world with different senses from us.

A: Ah, like echolocation.

B: Yep – he thought that thinking about the difference between the way a bat perceives a moth with echolocation and the way we do with our eyes would make the difference between the subjective and the objective clear.

A: Right – the moth is objective but our perceptions of it are subjective.

B: That’s the idea. And I agree, it seems intuitive and innocent enough.

A: But?

B: But….well, there are multiple “buts” actually.

A: Are they big?

B: What?

A: Are these big butts? I hope so, I cannot lie…

B: Grow up. Philosophy is serious business.

A: No wonder it’s so tedious. OK OK, go on.

B: It’s not uncommon to hear people that like this definition add that consciousness is also the one thing we can really “Know” (with a capital K, mind you) exists.

A: Actually yeah, that’s exactly what they said….

B: Well it’s part of Nagel’s thesis, which is basically Subjectivism – the only thing we can really know is our own subjective experience. And that is really just a step from Solipsism – “the only thing that exists is my own consciousness”. And this argument about “what it’s like” is also tied up with the idea that consciousness is immaterial, a “mental phenomenon”, that can’t be reduced to a scientific, physical theory. There’s so much philosophical baggage here I hardly know where to start.

A: Well I don’t think all that applies here really, the guy I heard this from is very scientific, he doesn’t even believe in free will….

B: Uh oh, he’s almost certainly a closet dualist in that case. That line of reasoning, even though it might not be explicit, goes something like: “the physical universe is a closed causal system, but our conscious thoughts, or our awareness of them, are clearly mental, thus not physical. We don’t know how the mental could possibly interact with the physical, therefore our thoughts are acausal and we don’t have free will, QED.” A lot of this goes back to Descartes and problems with his thesis.

A: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned him.

B: Well, he has a lot to answer for! Probably his most famous claim, maybe the most famous claim in all of Western Philosophy, is “cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am. I’ve always liked to parody this as “cogito ergo inconditus” – I think, therefore I am confused.

A: Ha. I see that philosophy doesn’t ban humour altogether, it’s just that philosophers aren’t very good at it.

B: Anyway. Descartes’ philosophy was deeply dualistic – he divided the world into “res cogitans”, mental stuff, and “res extensa”, physical stuff. That’s not exactly unique in itself of course because the majority of people in 17th Century Europe were dualists, and he was just formalising that in his own way. There were other options available to him, mind you, there have been many monist philosophers throughout history in both the West and the East, and even Descartes’ correspondent, the Princess….

A: Is this turning into a history lesson or what?

B: Sorry. His claim “cogito ergo sum” was the end result of his experiment with skepticism – he wanted to discover if he had any certain knowledge that he could ground the rest of his philosophy on, and he came up with this Matrix-style thought experiment…

A: Hey cool, the Matrix is cool!

B: Yeah, but not very original…

A: Hold up. You’re telling me Descartes thought about dodging bullets, jumping from building to building and learning martial arts from a computer?

B: No.

A: Soooooo the Matrix is original!

B: My mistake. What Descartes imagined was that there might be an evil demon systematically deceiving his senses. Maybe the world he thought he was perceiving didn’t exist at all, but was just one big deception.

A: That is kinda like the Matrix…

B: And he therefore concluded that the only thing he could really know was that he was perceiving something, but that he couldn’t know what that something really was. So his only certainty was the fact of his consciousness itself. He later decided he was certain that God existed and a bunch of other stuff, but you get the gist.

A: Ah. So what’s wrong with “I think, therefore I am” exactly?

B: Well, we might start by inverting it – “I am, therefore I think”. What Descartes is trying to establish is something fundamental, something given, a foundation from which reasoning can begin. But his choice is arbitrary and egocentric really. He implies that the world is in his head, but he could just as easily have concluded that his head was in the world.

A: Eh?

B: He might have said that the only thing he could be certain of was that there is a world. He might be deceived about that world – maybe it’s just him and the evil demon hanging out in the void and all the rest is illusory, but nonetheless there is a world and he is in it.

A: I’m not convinced that makes much difference.

B: It’s subtle, but it’s like Chaos theory – extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. This very subtle difference in the choice of foundations for a system of philosophy can have a profound impact on the conclusions reached “higher up” the chain of reasoning. Ultimately it’s not surprising Descartes went the way he did because he believed in an immortal soul that was separate from the physical world. He was begging the question – his choice of “foundations” was really constrained by his higher level beliefs from the get go and his exercise in skepticism was purely a technical exhibition.

A: Uh huh. It still makes intuitive sense to me though.

B: Well of course, yeah – it does to most Westerners, which is what I mean by “philosophical baggage”. Our dominant philosophical heritage is dualism, and Descartes himself is a big part of that – his ideas make sense to you because you were raised in a philosophical tradition influenced by his ideas (and the ideas that influenced his ideas).

A: If you say so. I’m not sure you’ve successfully linked this to the “what it’s like” definition yet.

B: That definition comes directly out of this dualist tradition. It is an earlier version of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, the question of why we have any subjective experience at all….

A: That problem sounds hard, let’s deal with one at a time please.

B: It’s the same problem really, but OK, aside from prompting us to do silly things like imagining the subjective experience of a bat from inside the subjective experience of a human (which is allegedly all we can know, remember), the issue is that it privileges subjective experience in the first place. Nagel does a switcheroo when he substitutes “what it’s like to be a bat” for “what a moth is like for a bat”. Like the “hard problem”, this presupposes that there is some core kernel of subjectivity, of consciousness, that is distinct from the contents of consciousness, and this connects with Descartes’ claim that it is this thing, this core kernel, that is the only thing we can be sure of, since can be fooled about any of the contents of consciousness. But the thing is, the claim that there is any consciousness without contents is simply assumed!

A: Hmmmmmmmmm. You seem a bit excited about this.

B: You asked – I don’t like the “what it’s like” definition because it’s the same as the hard problem, which is a pseudo-problem that ultimately derives from a Cartesian split of the world into the mental and the physical. I admit that at the level of the definition itself this might not seem obvious, but I think it can lead to a lot of sloppy thinking further down the line.

A: Well, I like it and I think you philosophers get your knickers in a twist about silly things, which is why people prefer watching cute cat videos on Youtube to studying philosophy……check this one out, for example.

B: Pass.

Rational altruism and selfish selflessness.

A: I saw an interesting lecture on the YouTube recently…

B: You’re watching lectures on there now? I thought you were mostly into cat videos?

A: The cat videos are getting old…… I have this weird desire to learn stuff now.

B: Careful, that can become addictive.

A: Anyway, the guy was saying that altruism isn’t rational, that really just exploiting others and trying to take everything for yourself is rational. He said that’s why we need religious frameworks to make us ethical people and we can’t just rely on rational arguments. Not that we have to actually be religious now, but we wouldn’t have been moral in the first place without religion and our current sense of morality comes from the fact that we live in a society with a religious underpinning. What do you think about that?

B: Well, it’s true we live in a society that has been shaped by religion. That’s true of all human societies. It’s also true that culture provides a framework for our value judgements, including those in the ethical or moral dimension. That’s definitely one of the most important functions of society. However, it’s not true that morals, ethics and altruism began with religion and it’s certainly not true that a superficial “every man for himself” approach to life is the most “rational” approach to take. So, whilst “the YouTube guy” made some good points, his thesis that altruism isn’t rational, which seems like a fundamental claim here, is false.

A: I knew you’d disagree. You disagree with everything.

B: No, I don’t…

A: I rest my case.

B: Ha. What I actually do is I criticise everything – that’s how I learn.

A: Uh huh. Righto then, criticise away.

B: Don’t mind if I do! For starters, we know that plenty of non-human animals can be altruistic, particularly social species. There are plenty of examples amongst mammals, but even social insects can be thought of as altruistic – think of a bee sacrificing itself for the protection of the hive. Bees don’t have religion and neither do monkeys grooming each other, warning each other with alarm calls, or forgoing food rewards, even starving themselves, to prevent other monkeys receiving electric shocks. Altruism is common in pre-linguistic animals….

A: Why?

B: I’m getting there. With the bees it’s fairly simple – it’s kin selection. The only way the genes carried by an infertile worker bee can get passed on, can be replicated, is through the queen. The queen’s fate is the fate of the hive, so the worker will sacrifice itself to safeguard that fate, to increase the chances of its genes being replicated. Maybe this is where altruism, and ultimately morality, begins – ethics and morality are social phenomena and the first social groups were groups of related individuals.

A: Sure, that makes sense, but it goes way beyond that with humans. We don’t just look out for our family members, we sometimes make extraordinary sacrifices for total strangers.

B: We do indeed, and it’s not only humans that display altruistic behaviour towards unrelated individuals. That sort of thing isn’t restricted to mammals either, even animals that seem completely unfeeling to us, like caimans…

A: Hold up, you forget that I’m not a biologist – what’s a caiman?

B: A type of crocodylian.

A: Like an alligator?

B: Close enough. When there are droughts and the wetlands they inhabit start to dry up, caiman mothers will lead their babies on long journeys over land to find any remaining pools of water. Sometimes there are so few pools that caimans converge on them from all over the place and they become crowded. There isn’t space for all the adult caimans, so most of them leave their babies behind to be looked after by just a few surrogate mums, like a crèche…

A: A caiman daycare centre.

B: Exactly. The mums that stay behind look after all the babies, protecting them from predators even though they are unrelated to the majority of them.

A: That seems pretty altruistic.

B: For sure, and it’s equally possible to think of those that leave, braving the drought, as the ones making the sacrifice – they seem to know their babies will be better off if they don’t compete for space with the other mothers. Anyway, it’s common for animals to make some sort of personal sacrifice for the “greater good”. There are heaps of examples amongst birds and mammals – we could spend all day discussing examples. The key thing that unites them though, and that takes things further than kin selection, is something known as “reciprocal altruism”.

A: Like “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”?

B: Pretty much. Right, let’s talk humans – we’re social, and we know that we’re descended from social ancestors. Our closest surviving relatives, the chimps and bonobos, are highly social. So are the majority of primates. In these sorts of social groups reciprocal altruism is common, whether it is manifested in grooming behaviour, babies being raised by multiple group members, political alliances, or whatever. Again, there is a huge number of examples, but let’s stick to humans.

A: Yes, let’s do that – there’s only so long I can resist the urge to check my Twitter feed.

B: Until only 12,000 years or so ago, humans were all hunter-gatherers. Back in those days, groups really had to stick together – group members had to look out for each other. Hunting and gathering are capricious, especially hunting. Some days, some weeks, you just can’t catch a break; every game animal you see is one step ahead of you; your spear finds only air. During these lean times, when the gods of the hunt have turned their backs on you….

A: Now you’re being silly.

B: Not at all. The point is that if you weren’t having any luck hunting, but other members of your group were, then you’d better hope they were feeling well-disposed toward you. If you’d been a jerk, stealing their furs, turning them away from the warmth of your fire, playing your bone flute at all hours of the night, they probably wouldn’t feel like sharing their meat with you. Incidentally, this is probably why polygamy was rare prior to the advent of agriculture – group cohesion had to be maintained by the sharing of resources.

A: Interesting point. Does that suggest that when guys say it’s “only natural” for them to want multiple women that is just a bad excuse for bad behaviour?

B: Um, let’s not go there right now. It does, however, remind me of an important point: ultimately what behaviour counts as ethical and what counts as rational is context-dependent. That context can be pretty broad, like the context of being human, or it can be narrow, depending on what sort of behaviour we’re discussing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what is “natural” – if you’ve agreed to be faithful and you are unfaithful, that is unethical. Being an arsehole might be totally “natural”, but it’s still being an arsehole. Anyway, back to the hunter-gatherers. It’s easy to see that in that context refusing to help your neighbour when they are in need, adopting a superficial “every man for himself” attitude, would not be at all rational. It would be a surefire way of convincing others not to help you when the shoe is on the other foot. So, altruism is perfectly rational in that context.

A: Does that mean you think religion is totally irrelevant?

B: I didn’t say that, but it’s not where morals originate and it’s not something we require because the supposed “purely rational” alternative is being completely immoral. There are other issues with pure rationalism, but that’s for another day. Religions, anyway, are more like descriptions or codifications of morals than ultimate sources of them. They are one way, perhaps the most potent way for much of human history, of providing a framework that can stabilise morality….which is not always a good thing, mind you. Today, partly thanks to religion, but also due to our deep evolutionary history, we live in societies full of ethical and moral norms – checks and balances. Certain kinds of unethical behaviour are severely punished with everything from loss of reputation and ostracism to life-imprisonment or even execution in some places. Again, this is not uniquely human – being unethical can be extremely costly for many social animals, especially amongst primates, none of which have complex language and therefore lack detailed codifications of morality such as religions. In any social system in which there can be punishment for ethical transgression along with rewards for generosity, either direct or indirect, immediate or across longer time periods, altruism is rational.

A: I guess that makes sense. It kinda makes you think about our definition of “altruism” though doesn’t it? I mean, if being altruistic is good for you, it doesn’t really seem like altruism, it seems almost selfish…

B: Exactly. Altruism is selfish. Everyone from Buddha to Ayn Rand knows that.

A: Buddha and Ayn Rand? I don’t see the connection. Ayn Rand is evil.

B: Rand is a victim of her own clever use of language, a bit like Richard Dawkins. Did you know he has claimed he could just as easily have named “The Selfish Gene” “The Altruistic Gene”?

A: No, and I must say this is all deeply counterintuitive – altruism and selfishness are meant to be opposites!

B: Language games are fun, aren’t they? But sometimes being too clever, or perhaps using a buzzword like “selfish” to increase the exposure of your ideas, invites misinterpretation. A big part Dawkins’ book is about reciprocal altruism and how it evolves not really in spite of, but actually because of the “selfishness” of our genes – in evolution, selfishness leads to altruism, secondary to the evolution of sociality. Rand had a similar idea in mind when she claimed that if people really understood what was best for them, thus what was maximally “selfish” behaviour, they would see that it meant doing what was best for those around them as well – maximally selfish behaviour leads to altruism. Why? Because we are social organisms, dependent on those around us in so many ways.

A: Every man for himself equals every man for each other?

B: Yep! A lovely evolutionary paradox. A snake biting its own tail. The ouroborus strikes again.

A: You and your bloody ouroborus, you have snakes on the brain. How does Buddha fit in?

B: Well, compassion for all sentient beings is very central in Buddhism. But it’s made quite clear that this is for soteriological reasons….

A: Sauté-what now?

B: Soteriological. Reasons concerning personal salvation. Meditating on compassion, on universal, unconditional loving kindness, is a core part of the Buddhist path towards enlightenment, towards freedom from suffering. The idea is that we suffer less when we are more compassionate. Interestingly, recent brain-imaging studies suggest that this compassionate meditation, amongst all the various Buddhist mind-training techniques, is the one most strongly associated with the reduction of personal suffering – with happiness, with joy.

A: So being compassionate is selfish.

B: Bingo. It’s the best way to reduce your own suffering. Being maximally compassionate towards others is the best thing you can do for yourself, or so the claim goes – maximal altruism is maximal selfishness. It’s just a matter of really understanding what’s best for yourself.

A: Which is not necessarily easy to know.

B: True, but you can’t use that ignorance to claim that exploiting others is rational. That’s an oxymoron – ignorance cannot be rational, even if sometimes it might be blissful. So, as far as I’m concerned, enlightened selfishness is altruism and that’s as rational as it gets. Make sense?

A: Sorry what? I was distracted…..have you seen what Trump just tweeted?

Talking about free will, part 1

A: I recently read that it’s a scientific fact that we don’t have free will.

B: Yeah, well, don’t believe everything you read.

A: Ha! The author had a response for people like you – belief in free will is so comforting that people will deny all evidence to the contrary.

B: Wow, that really is a knockdown argument……not. The truth to me seems something like the opposite.

A: Huh?

B: Belief in the non-existence of free will is comforting. It’s the ultimate conspiracy theory.

A: How do you figure?

B: Conspiracy theories, no matter what flavour, are essentially the idea that some force or some agent outside of us is controlling our actions or influencing their outcomes. Thus, it’s not “my fault” if my life sucks, it’s because I’m not part of the “in group”. And that can obviously range from being somewhat true to completely ridiculous. In the latter cases it’s just a failure to take responsibility for our own predicament. Sartre called this “bad faith” and he tied it to people’s fear of freedom – to be free is to be forced to accept responsibility for your own life. Anyway, most people who deny the existence of free will do so purely intellectually.

A: What do you mean by that?

B: Their behaviour and pronouncements often reveal the fact that they do believe in free will after all. Kant pretty much got it right when he said that one can’t act “except under the idea of freedom”. What that means is no matter what you think you believe about free will, in order to act you will tacitly accept its existence. Even choosing not to act or choosing not to believe in free will is making a decision – “I choose not to believe that I am free to choose not to believe” – it’s a paradox.

A: Er….

B: Look, I’ll give you some paraphrased examples of the kinds of arguments made by people who publish works claiming that free will doesn’t exist:

People need to know they don’t have free will so they can stop holding other people responsible for their actions!

Give up your illusion of free will and become truly free!

People need to know they are slaves of circumstance….”

To which I might respond, “Why do they need to know that? Will this knowledge affect the choices that they make about how to live their lives?” Do you see how this all seems just a teensy bit paradoxical? Why write a piece about free will at all if we don’t have it? Because you didn’t have a choice but to write it? You mean you have no intentions regarding the influence that this piece might have on other people; you just had no choice in writing it? Maybe you also want to argue you have no choice in believing that your work can influence the actions of others? Hmmmm…..I really want to invoke Ockham at some point here….

A: OK, I get your point.

B: Don’t get me wrong though; there is genuine insight in the idea that surrendering, giving up our attempts to control everything, is a way to achieve greater freedom. Here’s a nice quote on the subject:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

A: I thought you were an atheist…

B: Doesn’t mean I don’t recognise wisdom when I see it. But sure, how about a “secular Buddhist” version then – surrender “the illusion of self” (i.e. that which controls things) and break free from the suffering caused by desire (for things to be other than they are). A wise Buddhist once said something to me, which struck home and has stayed with me ever since:

Happiness is wanting what you have, not getting what you want.

A: That is definitely wise, but I don’t think you’re really getting at the free will issue here are you? The article I read had all sorts of arguments against free will.

B: No doubt, there are many such arguments. A great deal of ink has been spilled over the issue of free will. To dive into the literature on the subject is to enter into a warren of rabbit holes from which one may never return. People have been writing about this for millennia and unfortunately if you really want to get a grip on the subject you are going to have to do a whole lot of reading….

A: Nah, that’s what I have you for!

B: Fair call, I’m always happy to be of service by wading into philosophical quagmires on behalf of the less motivated. The thing is that a lot of the debate is a storm in a teacup, a paper tiger, a naked emperor – a lot of it is just people debating the concepts that have arisen during the debate itself. It’s an ouroborus, a snake biting its own tail.

A: That’s probably enough metaphors.

B: Never! Anyway, Kant’s argument proactively refutes pretty much any argument that comes after it, at least as far as “acting”, doing stuff, is concerned. Nonetheless, the free will debate is absolutely fascinating and engaging with it will involve taking a close look at some fairly major concepts like causation, dualism, and of course evolution. So if you want to go there, you better strap in….or you could just ignore it all and get on with your life.

A: I’m interested….but I have to get to work, so can we continue this later?

B: Absolutely.