Monday, July 23, 2012

the lottery of saintliness

It's realistic to note that the typical human life contains horrible details from time to time, if not more frequently. This presents an inevitable puzzle for anyone who believes in supernatural forces which are both benevolent and powerful. Before the culmination of my gradual intellectual anti-conversion, I maintained an uneasy acceptance of several well-known solutions to that puzzle. One partial solution was that the supernatural forces place a high value on human freedom and therefore on the consequent side-effects of that freedom. Hence some of the awful parts of human existence were explicable as the effects of other humans' despicable yet free choices. Rather than causing or preventing awful events, supernatural forces simply permitted humans to do as they wished.

However, from my new vantage point, I've noticed a problem with this solution. I don't mean the obvious injustice of supernatural forces allowing many to suffer for the mistakes of few. I mean the failure of the solution to succeed on its own terms in shifting the blame. It presumes that at the moment when a human selects evil, the sole substantial explanation of that selection cannot be anything other than the selector's freedom. Otherwise, the selector is under influences and by that fact cannot function as an independent and blameworthy shield for the notion of supernatural forces which are both benevolent and powerful.

Examples may be clearer. If the selector has an excessive inborn level of aggression and it influences the selection, then it's partly responsible. Yet once that concession is made, the next question arises: why didn't the benevolent and powerful supernatural forces, which value freedom so highly, intervene to rectify that "external" influence and increase the selector's freedom? Or consider the selector whose culture conditioned him or her to give harsh treatment at every opportunity to everyone in an out-group. Surely this conditioning is an influence on the selection of evil and at the same time is outside of the control of the selector and under the potential control of supernatural forces. Or turn to positive contributors. Suppose that the selector has benefited from the lifelong care and guidance of excellent role models who continually taught appropriate techniques for self-control and coping. Is it fair to credit detrimental influences for reckless selections but not credit advantageous influences for conscientious selections?

In short, regardless of the ultimate degree of freedom of human selectors, the influences on their selections differ greatly. Assuming supernatural forces which don't interfere in these scenarios, the conclusion is that those forces acquiesce in effect to a lottery of saintliness. Some unfortunate humans select good or evil on the basis of tragic factors, while some fortunate humans select good or evil on the basis of lovely factors. Some must build their characters out of straw and some out of brick. In either case the supernatural forces, due to tender adoration of human freedom, tolerate the resulting successes and failures.

Under the watchful benevolence and power of the supernatural forces, the lottery of saintliness confers to Damien personal constraints toward selecting evil and to Victor personal constraints toward selecting good. Damien freely chooses contemptible actions which harm Victor in one way or another. But the faithful believers shall never doubt the benevolence nor the power of supernatural forces for this outcome. Instead they shall shrug; no one said it was a perfect system.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

self-refuting statements: a proud tradition

From the standpoint of logic, some statements are unusual. For instance, a statement could assert its own truth: "I tell the truth." It could be redundant: "The obvious statement is obvious." It could reference itself: "I have seven syllables."

Yet self-refuting statements are the most unusual specimens of all. "I am lying" is the prototype, but unfortunately it is far from alone. In fact, generations of humans have believed in clusters of these.
  • My benevolent god wishes that I kill you.
  • My omnipotent god requires me to defend it.
  • The freedom my god has granted to me is expressed through complete and unquestioning obedience to specific forms of coercion.
  • Sacred statements possess objective Truth because of the opinions of many believers, referred to as 'faith'.
  • Centuries-old moral customs last eternally as long as believers expertly modify the original formulations, in order to integrate the many deep cultural changes which happened since.
  • Centuries-old texts are literally true and readily apparent apart from the sections which are purely metaphorical and infinitely debatable.
  • Divine justice shall come, although that may not occur until after every good believer is already dead.
  • My god is affected by the requests of earnest believers, but it does whatever it wishes regardless.
  • After altering my internal state of mind via various techniques, I eventually sense the external existence of the spiritual realm.
  • The best 'open-minded' way to fairly check for god's existence is to greatly discount contrary signals and greatly magnify agreeable signals, i.e. you must believe in order to see.
  • I construe the truism "absence of proof is not proof of absence" as affirmation of my views alone, despite placing my views in the same logical category as every unobserved "thing", including the irritating gnomes that steal socks on laundry day.
I have no doubt that thoughtful believers have their own thorough responses to the preceding statements. In return they may feel inspired to suggest self-refuting statements to illustrate my beliefs. I'll anticipate a few on their behalf, and then counter each one immediately (blogger's privilege):
  • Transcendent authority doesn't exist, but that doesn't stop me from claiming to know truths better than you. Authority and correctness don't need to be transcendent to be pragmatically useful. Beliefs lie on a continuum of certainty based on the level of verification of the beliefs' implications. Depending on the particular belief, I am simply too unimpressed by the belief itself or its inadequate verification.
  • My skepticism of others' fundamental axioms overlooks the unavoidable necessity of my own. I don't dispute the necessity of minimal axioms. Something must function as the foundation of symbolic thought. However, that doesn't justify an explosion of mostly-unproven assumptions about the universe. Better to have few axioms than many axioms.
  • Like all humans, I opine that some morality is superior to the rest, although my failure to profess transcendence once again presents no plausible basis for me to do so. Ethical principles and guidelines can originate from humanity. So can goals and ideals ("values"). Instead of reference to an ultimate moral standard, I use the full extent of my human capabilities to perceive and balance the various concerns which apply to a dilemma. When asked, I explain my analysis and justifications bit by bit without mentioning any gods whatsoever, because the backing of a god is irrelevant to evaluating the righteousness of my moral judgment. The religious actually agree on this point. During a conflict between differing religions 1 and 2, the proponents of religion 1 certainly don't give any more credence to the conflicting morals of religion 2 due merely to the ("false") god of religion 2...
  • Imperceptible inferences about the supernatural domain are inexcusable, while imperceptible inferences about the natural domain are customary. Inferences differ in validity and probability. To infer the supernatural is to step far beyond the support of known reliable facts. Satisfactory proof needs to be consistent and therefore statistically significant (i.e. not explicable by the slim nonzero chance of rare coincidences). Inferences of supernatural causes fail the criteria, at least in comparison to competing inferences of natural causes. Supernatural causes also have the downsides of extravagant mystery and unpredictability. Placing blame on undetectable mind-organisms, like unidentified designers, raises a torrent of aggravating questions about life-cycle, psychology, habitat, composition...
  • Reason and decision-making have resulted in the inescapable conclusion that 'reason' and 'decision-making' are illusions superimposed on the brain's physics of matter and energy. I suppose, but according to that logic, isn't everything "illusions" superimposed on physics of matter or energy? Surely reason and decision-making can continue to be meaningful if the innards of the two are particles rather than ghostly mind-stuff. In either case, marvelous symbolic computations continue to yield stunning products. Matter can be the executor and storage of the computations, assuming the right configuration: not tiny isolated chunks of it, like hydrogen gas, but vast populations and multitudes of interconnections, like BRAINSSSS.
  • Humans are content with an existence in an unguided universe which contains no god(s) and no afterlife. The flippant rejoinder is that human contentment isn't the aim, truths are; the appropriate reactions to the truths are "left as an exercise" to the seekers. Seriously, my recommendation is to avoid obsession on unchangeable Big Questions. Such obsessions are distractions from what can be enjoyed and controlled: daily life, on planet Earth, in the 21st century. On the other hand, I think it's generally good for a human to create a "purpose" and to acknowledge/accept the danger of inevitable death. For example, motivation for rectifying some of the terrible afflictions on humanity, even on a small scale, isn't contingent on how much it pleases gods.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

personal responsibility through collective suffering

I'm no economist, which explains why I attempted to describe the economy using "deadlocks" and "local minima/maxima". And I suspect that many other commentators aren't economists either, which explains why their preferred analysis also comes from a different domain: morality. Within that frame, economic decisions are moral decisions; decisions in the context of efficient markets result in swift and appropriate moral consequences. Personal responsibility is a synonym for the level of economic success.

Like many perspectives, this one has an unsurprising problem: its implications aren't a perfect fit for all reality. For example, market shifts in the unit price of fossil-based fuel have unavoidable consequences on anyone who has no substitute method of transportation to and from the workplace, yet the sole cause of these shifts isn't their personal decisions. Nor are they personally responsible for drastic adjustments in the market price of their largest assets. Nor are the downsized employees of a company responsible for the new competing product that decimated the company's number of customers. In an actual massive economy, relatively tiny participants might not have meaningful personal responsibility for their current level of economic success. (Although they decide how to adapt to the changes, of course.) Poetically, transactions link the fates of many, whether temporary or ongoing, whether material or contractual.

Hence, while the moralistic interpretation is sometimes accurate and instructive, it also has pragmatic limits. To prescribe grave and unrestricted consequences is to affect the "innocent" as well as the "wrongdoer". To permit a woeful decision to ricochet is to watch escalating damage to the bystanders. It's paradoxical. Market "punishment" can be effectively unjust. The perpetrator might be able to absorb the fall in wealth without much harm but the same loss eliminates the net worth of multiple others.

I agree that personal responsibility is a vital principle for a realistic free market. I agree that an economy without risks is an economy without a brighter future. But I disagree that the entire thing must be left sick whenever a slob sneezes, in order to ensure the slob's maximum pain.