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Heretical Ideas Whose Time Has Come, Part One

By Wil Forbis

The ideas
1) There is no way to divine morality
2) Authorship is dead
3) The self is an illusion
4) What the hell is gravity?
5) Life does not exist

Heretical ideas are cool!I've recently started reading a book that I've both anticipated and feared for years: Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." I've anticipated it as it is well regarded as a laymen's introduction to the complex world of physics and related sciences. I've feared it out of the sense that it might be too hard to understand; I may tackle it and realize that the self-advertised greatness of my mind is nothing more than a myth.

I cut my way through Chapter One today. It's essentially a rehash of science history and high school physics. Aristotle postulated a round earth, Newton deduced gravity, Galileo and his ilk argued that the celestial bodies of the night sky did not revolve around the earth, Einstein declared time to not be absolute, that sort of thing. Most of these ideas are accepted today, if not necessarily understood. (I still find relativity theory confusing.) But, as the book makes clear, these ideas were not always accepted by the human populace. Any sleepy eyed high-schooler of today will tell you that the earth is not the center of the universe but for a long time the opposite notion was vigorously believed; even the great Aristotle thought it to be true. Ideas that seem so obvious today did not have easy births; they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world.

Of course, great thinkers are often as wrong as they are right. As Micheal Shermer notes in a recent Scientific American column Alfred Wallace, the often ignored co-discover of natural selection, was "a firm believer in phrenology, spiritualism and psychic phenomena." The book "Brilliant Blunders" collects some of the great mistakes of smart scientists (Einstein among them.)

As a result it's hard to look at the sea of ideas out there today and know which ones will be shown to be correct and which ones will be tomorrow's joke. I present here ideas that I think have enough merit to be considered. I won’t say I agree with the entirety of them, but they have my sympathy.

1) There is no way to divine morality

Might as well start off with a real meatball, eh? I'm well aware the topic of morality is a complex one that has filled philosophical texts for thousands of years. As such, I'm going to have to take some shortcuts to the core of my argument.

First shortcut: I'm presuming there is no God. I realize this is a contentious statement, one that most of humanity disagrees with. My reasons are essentially of the standard atheist variety and can be found all over the web. Either you agree with me here or you don't.

You can then ask, "Why does this matter? Is God necessary for morality?" I think throughout history God (in his various forms) has acted as a moral enforcer. Disobey his tenets and you go to hell or face some punishment. Obey him and you are rewarded. If you believe in God, this carrot and stick acts as a major motivator.

However, secular humanists would argue that humans don't need God for moral behavior. Their reasons for this are lengthy and complex and, frankly, have never made much sense to me. I can't critique them in depth here, but let me tackle a few instances.

Jerry Coyne is a prominent "New Atheist." He recently engaged in a philosophical brouhaha with conservative writer Ross Douthat. They got right into the topic of morality without God. Coyne stated...

Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

I’d argue that Coyne is conflating the terms “intent” with “purpose.” You might reasonably say, “I intend to eat this hamburger,” but it would sound funny to say, “My purpose is to eat this hamburger.” What's the difference between the two words? Well, all language is at its core vague, but there’s a moral aspect to purpose. It’s not just something you intend to do, it’s something you should do. (According to… God, the universe, who knows…?) Coyne is applying the word purpose to activities that have no moral realm (dining, teaching, traveling.) According to that logic a serial killer could comfortably say, “My purpose is to rape and torture these teenage girls for several days in this bunker. Then I’ll have a donut.”

Coyne also argued that altruism---the king of moral behaviors----is obvious.

As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.

In effect, Coyne is answering the question “why be good?” But his response is so lame I suspect it would be laughed out of an entry level philosophy classroom. Why should we help each other? Coyne responds: Because it creates a harmonious society. What’s a harmonious society? It’s a society where people help each other. Thanks, Brainiac.

I do think Coyne is on to something in regards to our ability to "feel" morality. As many have argued, altruistic behavior is in many ways beneficial for individuals and groups. It's not a stretch to presume that altruistic behavior could be "baked into" our DNA in such a way that helping others "feels" good and hurting them "feels" bad. If these behaviors aided a creature's survival then they could be passed along through the process of evolution. (I discussed this idea in greater detail here.)

Another New Atheist, Sam Harris, hints at something similar in this Big Think video when he says (after arguing that we don't need God for morality) that we have "some very serviceable intuitions about what good and evil are." The problem, however, is that feelings and intuitions (programmed into us via evolution or not) are not a logical means from which we can define moral behavior. Most of us would agree that proposing the murder of a 10 week old baby feels wrong, but that doesn't mean it can be logically shown to be so. We can even construct scenarios where killing the baby is the right thing to do for the greater good (say, the baby is the carrier of a deadly disease that cannot be allowed to spread). In such cases, killing the baby might be the right thing to do (according to conventional ethics) but I think we all know that it would still feel awful to carry out the act. From that we must conclude that feelings/intuitions are not a trustworthy source of divining morals. (For more food for thought related to this argument, read the extensive literature on the “trolley problem.”)

What is particularly disturbing about all this is that Coyne and Harris offer quite detailed and devastating critiques of religion (correct ones I believe) but when it comes to offering a prescription for moral behavior in a godless world, they offer circular logical and "intuitions." I feel that no one in recorded history has provided a convincing moral directive---a logically deduced axiom that can be used to define moral behavior. I'm hardly the only person to make these sorts of statements; in the 1970s, Yale law professor Arthur Leff eloquently expressed them in his speech “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.” (For more of my thoughts on Leff go here.)

Again, this is dense, complex debate with tangled roots going in every direction. I can't address every aspect of every viewpoint (or even come close.) But I do think mankind’s prime philosophical challenge of coming years is tackling this issue and (hopefully) coming up with a consistent means by which the state, society and moralists in general can tell people how to behave*.

*Keep in mind, these are not arbitrary arguments. People are sent to prison or killed for their violation of moral norms. Defining these norms in a consistent manner is vital. (As time has progressed we've come to realize that many of the moral crimes of the past were not crimes at all: homosexuality, pagan rituals, criticism of the church.)

2) Authorship is dead

If you're familiar with my writing you know I'm an egotist. And why shouldn't I be? I've written numerous profound articles and composed hours of breathtaking music. I like talking about my accomplishments and making clear that I am the one who accomplished them.

That said, I think the very notion of authorship awareness---of knowing the person behind the product (be it a song, story, movie, article etc.)---is going the way of the dodo. There are many reasons for this but the main cause is the unending advancement of technology.

The ease at which things can be digitized is one cause. The internet is a cornucopia of "free stuff" and it's hard to keep track of who did what. Once you download something it's easy enough to create a "mash up" combining that material with something else. You want to create a video letter to convince your friends to join you on your upcoming trip to Mexico? You hop online and grab some photos of Mexican sights and people, then you grab some Mexican sounding music from a pirate site and mix them together in iMovie. Easy as pie. The authors of the works, of course, are uncredited.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. We are, I believe, rapidly getting to a point when computer software and artificial intelligence will be able to create entertainment products. Software is already writing news articles. David Cope's music software has been knocking out classical music for years. (Pop music is a different challenge, as Cope admits, but it seems doable.) Harold Cohen's software AARON has been creating representational art for quite some time and the computer powered Electric Sheep project is creating some very interesting abstract art. The day of the computer creator is upon us!

I think there's another line of thought that calls into question the very notion of authorship. We are delving ever deeper into studies of human consciousness, especially in relation to creative acts. These studies and the theories they generate lead to disturbing questions about how much credit we can take for our creations. The conventional wisdom is that creative acts are demonstrations of willpower---the noble artist wrestles with word or sound, clay or paint and fashions a product he can sign his name to. But creative processes may be much more haphazard; for myself ideas often seem to come to me out of the blue. If I'm lucky, I recognize their potential and wrestle them into some form that I'm happy with, but their inception remains a mystery. The famous Scottish physicist James Clark Maxwell once captured this sense, stating on his deathbed, “What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.”

So what is that something greater? The religious minded might credit God (indeed, the great composer Brahms felt much of his work was derived via a process of religious meditation that connected him with the highest authority.) I suspect the answer really lies in the awesome complexity of the biological network that is the human brain. It has a mysterious, often subconscious ability to build connections between disparate idea nodes and thus lead to moments of creative insight. It's all quite wonderful, but I have to wonder if, as we pass more and more authorship credit to the nether-regions of our mind, do we not take away the credit from ourselves (as singular, willful beings)?

Authorship as a concept also presumes, incorrectly I believe, that works are created in a vacuum. Consider this music example. It's well known that Stevie Ray Vaughn wrote "Pride and Joy." But did he really? He wrote the lyrics of course, but the chords and "vibe" are very much like many blues songs before it. Why does he get all the credit? In fact most "new" melodies are clearly reminiscent of tunes we've all heard before. And let's turn to movies. "Star Wars" was a great film but it had scenes and dialogue clearly borrowed from the work of Akira Kurasawa. And writing? How many stories are built from the classic narrative described by (but not created by!) author Joseph Campbell as the hero's journey?

My point is not that a work has to be thoroughly original for its author to take credit - I realize that's an impossibility. My point is that almost all creative works are the result of a culture, not one person (or a group of persons). Once you realize this you see that the very notion of authorship is weighted down with ambiguity and complexity. Perhaps so much so that it should be eventually retired.

There is a challenge of course - if we remove notions of authorship (and particularly notions of paid authorship) we significantly de-incentivize the creation process. It will be hard for someone to justify writing a novel or creating a piece of music if it will likely make them no profit AND they won't even get to brag about it. It may well be that human creative production will run dry. Let's hope computers pick up the slack. ;)

That's it for the first part of this article. Come back next issue when I tackle gravity, the notion of the self, and whether life even exists.

Click for Part II

What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - acidlogic@hotmail.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.