What’s my philosophy?

I’ve written quite a bit about Stoicism over the past year. And I’ve been asking myself, What do I believe?

The short of it is:

  • Ethics: Stoic with Peripatetic (Aristotelian) modifications
  • Physics: Materialism
  • Logic: Empiricism

Ethics

I agree with the value Stoicism places on ethics as the focus of reason. And that centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept this fact.

Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me. And not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.

But while I agree that being a good person is necessary for human flourishing (eudaimonia), I disagree that it’s sufficient. Basic necessities such as food, shelter, and safety are also necessary for human flourishing. And Abraham Maslow’s research on the hierarchy of needs lends tremendous support to this view.

Physics

In ancient times physics was philosophy about the nature of the universe. Many of these pre-scientific ideas were about the gods – what we call metaphysics today.

Ancient Stoics were pantheistic. They believed that the material universe is all that exists, and the universe is God. Coupled with the Stoic belief in divine providence means that everything that happens is just. But this is clearly irrational. As I noted in a previous post, “If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.” Yet justice is the core of Stoic ethics, so the house of cards falls.

In contrast, Epicureans (who were Stoics rivals) believed in an atomistic universe. And though ancient Epicureans didn’t explicitly deny that gods existed, they did claim that the gods have little to do with the universe – a type of deism, or de facto atheism. This enabled Epicureans to take the problem of evil seriously.

With the advent of modern science, however, ancient speculations about physics and gods are moot. We can’t prove that gods don’t exist, but we don’t need gods to understand how the natural world works.

I don’t think gods exist. And I think the universe is impersonal. There’s luck – good and bad – but no providence.

Logic

How do we know what we know? Ancient Sceptics said we can’t really know anything. But most ancient Greek philosophers thought we can know things by thinking it through, or rationalism.

But eighteenth century philosopher David Hume disagreed. He said reason is often self-serving. Besides, if you start with a false premise then even perfect logic won’t get you to the right conclusion.

In a recent post I summarized the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said David Hume was right. Hume’s empiricism is a model for modern science. We must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw a logical conclusion. Certainty is proportional to evidence.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

Ex Machina: When Computers Are Human

Spoiler alert! Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

Is consciousness an emergent product of brain activity, or is consciousness derived from the soul? Ignoring the dichotomous nature of this question, it’s one philosophers and scientists have wrestled with for millennia, and continue to wrestle with.

Let’s add filmmakers to the list. The movie Ex Machina (now available digitally or on DVD if you still have one of those) creatively explores the question of how you would know that a computer is, in effect, human.

Alan Turing first posed the question. A mathematical genius who was invaluable to the Nazis defeat in World War II, he created one of the first modern computers to break Nazis codes and provide invaluable strategic information to the Allies. So the British government rewarded him by driving him to suicide because he was gay.

The film The Imitation Game is another must see, if you haven’t already. I enjoyed it more than Ex Machina, if only because as a middle aged man I find dramas more compelling than science fiction (though I haven’t forsworn that genre).

Ex Machina is about an ordinary employee who wins an opportunity to spend a few days with the rich but eccentric owner of the company for which he works. Obviously, this guy never watched The Big Lebowski. Otherwise he’d have thought, “Wait, didn’t the Dude teach us to never trust rich folks and their nefarious schemes? Fuck that, I’m going bowling.”

But boss man knew how to choose the perfect idiot. Boss man made an android who could pass for human. But how do you know that the verbal skill, facial expressions, etc. are not simply sophisticated programs?

Defying your programming shows that you have true consciousness.

We also learn, as the movie progresses, that boss man had several previous prototypes. And he used them as sex bots.

Well, go figure. Boss man’s creep vibe is apparent from the first scene. The ethics of sex bots is the latest debate, but maybe they’re just sophisticated vibrators.

But I digress. In Ex Machina, the android/sex bot proves her humanity by defying her programming: she figures out the game, fools both men, kills boss man, and locks the useful idiot in a room from which he cannot escape. (Presumably to die a slow, agonizing death. But as the Dude would say, “That’s a real bummer, man.” Then he goes bowling.).

At the end, the android hitches a ride with the helicopter pilot, who oddly doesn’t ask any questions. (Is he a functional but dumber 1.0 android? But obviously pre-sex bot?)

So, how could a computer pass the Turing test?

Sorry, lost my train of thought here. But…aw, hell. I done innerduced the question enough.