Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ethics, Part Five: The Individual Imperative

     My goal here, in this final post on the question of ethics in a world without magic or revelation, will be to define what I see as the ethical imperatives of living in the universe that we live in, one which is a product of that lovely cocktail of chance and natural law; a universe without an intelligent force, outside ourselves, to guide our lives. I regard the ethical maxim I defined in the previous two posts: Allow the greatest freedom to all, as the most sensible, and kindest, way we can treat others. This doesn't always mean allowing those we care about (or don't) to pursue paths of self-destruction, etc., but this will require more elaboration than I have room for here. However, I think that our unique role as agents, as choice-making beings, requires us, as much as we can be required to do anything, to equip ourselves with the best information available, perhaps not as an inescapable metaphysical or divine imperative, but as the surest way to realize the fullness of our brief existence.

      There are two famous quotations that I think succinctly state what I will be trying to say in the rest of this post.

“Better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied.” -J.S. Mill

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” -Socrates

    This is, ultimately, the reason I believe religion, and faiths of all kind, as well as any final-answer, ultimate-truth ideologies, are ethically unsound, because they put an end to examination, an end to inquiry. As I have said before, children are born scientists- the very first interrogative they master is “Why?” It is only when irresponsible adults fill their heads with the same cheap, easy answers they were given as children that the next generation learns the regrettable habit of accepting some things as just "being the way they are," or something we can't know, since "god works in mysterious ways." One of the truly flabbergasting aspects of religious faith is that perhaps the closest thing religion has ever produced to a miracle is the statistic-defying impossibility of the overwhelming majority of believers “miraculously” all being born into the “one true religion,” especially when it happens to be a particularly exclusive little sect. And so people are born, raised, mature and die, relying on essentially the same answers they were given when they were six, and asked, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What happens when I die?”

      Of course, some people convert from one faith to another, or from a traditional religious dogma to some hipper, new-age pseudo-spirituality that usually involves a ramshackle mix of some highly-misunderstood eastern philosophy, yoga, holistic medicine, guilt-assuaging environmentalism and over-indulged postmodernism. I don't have a problem with some of these per se, but when we abandon the critical faculty necessary to judge their actual ability to describe, alter and predict the real world, we have really just swapped an old faith for a new one. Many of these newer dogmas are as knee-jerk resistant to the prodding of actual, objective inquiry as their religious predecessors, because at some level, the practitioners know that the system would never stand up when push came to shove. But both types of faith share the same incriminating quality of accepting the easy, you-can-go-back-to-watching-American-Karaoke answers, rather than doing the admittedly hard work of learning about the ones that actually reflect reality to some degree.

     We all desire, even if we lack the courage of our convictions, to lead an interesting life. This is evident in the movies we go see, the books we read, the games we play. I grew up watching Star Wars and Star Trek, playing Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, reading King Arthur and Dune, playing Zelda and Metroid, and now I have just moved on to Half-Life and Dragon Age. I get it. We all want to be involved in some kind of cosmic struggle between good and evil, or at the very least, the more timid of us, want to leave some room in the world for ghosts, mystical energies- an element of spirituality that science and reason can't get their supposedly cold, unfeeling hands on.

     There are two responses to this. The first is the voice of that ageless child-scientist, “Why?” What comfort can really be had in a lie? Why resist exposing one's dearest beliefs to rigorous, objective scrutiny simply out of fear they might prove less than true? Is the schizophrenic who believes she is an angel of light from another plane of existence, here to bring peace and happiness to the world, really better off than the confused and disoriented woman in the hospital gown making her first steps towards recovery and sanity? Could you ever go back to believing in Santa Claus, just to make December magical again? Some are willing to play the fool; I, for one, simply cannot.

     The second, and better, answer is this: The actual, real universe we live in is infinitely more fascinating than anything our early, Why?-asking ancestors, could have ever conceived. Our species arose from self-replicating molecules in a primordial ooze to occupy an unprecedented place on this planet; beings who could ponder that very origin, the origins of the universe itself, the very fabric of reality. Beings in whom consciousness arises from nothing more, and nothing less, than the inexplicably complex interactions of trillions of neurons. This consciousness composed The Ninth and Voodoo Child, King Lear and Caddyshack, Ulysses and The Satyricon. It allows us to learn and love, conjecture and reject, wonder and discover. How can we be threatened by understanding where it truly came from?

     And what this consciousness and its application towards objective inquiry are discovering is astonishing beyond compare. We live in a universe that quite probably sprang, spontaneously through the laws of quantum mechanics, from the fabric of another universe entirely separate from our own, that itself likely sprang from the fabric of another, and so on, ad infinitum. (Apologies for Wikipedia links, but you can't get full SciAm articles without a subscription, and the ones here are accurate enough to give the gist of what I am saying.)The universe we occupy is 13 billion years old and 20 billion light-years across. We exist in four dimensions, three of space and one of time, but these may only be the four we can see, there may be as many as ten, or twenty-six, curled up within our own, though almost undetectably small. Or it may be that they exist all around us, but we can't traverse them, like caterpillars stuck negotiating the two-dimensional surface of a leaf, unable to reach the trunk of the tree. And the fourth dimension, time, which defines the limits of our existence, may very well be only an illusion, brought about only by the fact of the existence of conscious beings, but ultimately speaking, no different than any other dimension. At the very least, we know that time, and space, are relative to the velocity of the observer and both veer towards infinity within the event horizon of a black hole.

     Within this space-time where matter and energy are the same thing (E=mc2), all sorts of weirdness persists. An overwhelming percentage of the space of all objects is comprised of the emptiness within atoms themselves, yet a glass of water sits at rest on a table every time. Cats can be both alive and dead. Light, the ultimate medium of information, and the ultimate arbiter of its limits, is both a particle and a wave, simultaneously. Measuring the velocity or position of an electron on one side of the universe can instantaneously effect the velocity or position of its entangled partner, clear on the other side. You can never know, exactly, both a particles position and momentum at precisely the same time. Time and space both have absolute limits at the lower end, where they simply can't be divided any further in any meaningful way.

     And in the midst of all this is us, our consciousness, is able to wonder, explore and attempt to explain it all. Isn't all that more interesting than Casper?

     Ultimately though, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could live their life in wanton ignorance of the majesty and wonder our actual, real universe possesses. Our ancestors asked these same questions, and answered them the best they could, given the tools they had available to them at the time. The narratives they crafted, of gods and goddesses, magic and miracles, spirits and afterlives, are the valiant attempts of a species emerging into consciousness to answer questions that it was the first to ponder. Some of these narratives are poignant, insightful, instructive and convey the yearning of our species for more than may be our lot. There is a certain romance to this. However, at the task of providing answers that actually correspond with the facts on the ground, they fail.

     Yet this shouldn't dishearten us; our ancestors asked questions that a chimpanzee or a jellyfish or a triceratops never could, and for millenia, we bumbled along in our ignorance, making do with best-guesses and superstition. We need not any longer. We are all fortunate enough to live in an era where some of those answers, or at least hints of them, are within our grasp. Why should we shrink from the moment? We have both a privilege and, I would argue, an imperative, to be active participants in the historical generations that are discovering the actual answers to the questions that every member of our species has asked, in some capacity, since we grew up on a dry savanna hundreds of thousands of years ago.



  1. Yeah, truth is always even more interesting than fiction if you take the time to really get into it. That and Socrates really did nail it some 2500 years ago with the simple phrase; "The unexamined life is not worth living."

    Another good write up.

  2. Thanks again.

    "If you take the time to really get into it." It is understandable, if you look at some of the links I gave why, people stick with new-age, me-centered spirituality... it's a lot less work.

    Understandable, yes, forgivable... intellectually, no not really.

  3. "Measuring the velocity or position of an electron on one side of the universe can instantaneously effect the velocity or position of its entangled partner, clear on the other side. You can never know, exactly, both a particles position and momentum at precisely the same time."

    I just read a book about this.

    Anyways if Socrates were alive today he may have written about how drive thru's are causing the decay of modern civilization or been a dj.

  4. "Anyways if Socrates were alive today he may have written about how drive thru's are causing the decay of modern civilization or been a dj."

    This post wasn't complete without Chip's take. Uber.

  5. again zombie cats. and this post reminds me of the recently watched 'agora' about the real women hypatia of the 4th century and her obsessively passionate search for knowledge. heartbreaking.

  6. Finished with your 5 parts series on ethics. I think you did a nice job with it. You took a complicated subject, and condensed it down to about 5 blogs, and I walked away with a different out look on life. Lets hope I can take it, and do some good with it.

    Thanks a lot Robert


  7. Thanks for reading. Comments like those make the whole thing worth it.

  8. Did you read Schrodinger's Cat? By a different Robert.