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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part III)

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In the first two posts that I wrote in this series (part I and part II) concerning some concepts and themes mentioned in Dostoyevksy’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about moral realism and how it pertains to theism and atheism (and the character Ivan’s own views), and I also talked about moral responsibility and free will to some degree (and how this related to the interplay between Ivan and Smerdyakov).  In this post, I’m going to look at the concept of moral conscience and intuition, and how they apply to Ivan’s perspective and his experiencing an ongoing hallucination of a demonic apparition.  This demonic apparition only begins to haunt Ivan after hearing that his influence on his brother Smerdyakov led him to murder their father Fyodor.  The demon continues to torment Ivan until just before his other brother Alyosha informs him that Smerdyakov has committed suicide.  Then I’ll conclude with some discussion on the concept of moral desert (justice).

It seems pretty clear that the demonic apparition that appears to Ivan is a psychosomatic hallucination brought about as a manifestation of Ivan’s overwhelming guilt for what his brother has done, since he feels that he bears at least some of the responsibility for his brothers actions.  We learn earlier in the story that Zosima, a wise elder living at a monastery who acts as a mentor and teacher to Alyosha, had explained to Ivan that everyone bears at least some responsibility for the actions of everyone around them because human causality is so heavily intertwined with one person’s actions having a number of complicated effects on the actions of everyone else.  Despite Ivan’s strong initial reservations against this line of reasoning, he seems to have finally accepted that Zosima was right — hence him suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of realizing this.

Obviously Ivan’s moral conscience seems to be driving this turn of events and this is the case whether or not Ivan explicitly believes that morality is real.  And so we can see that despite Ivan’s moral skepticism, his moral intuitions and/or his newly accepted moral dispositions as per Zosima, have led him to his current state of despair.  Similarly, Ivan’s views on the problem of evil — whereby the vast amount of suffering in the world either refutes the existence of God, or shows that this God (if he does exist) must be a moral monster — betray even more of Ivan’s moral views with respect to how he wants the world to be.  His wanting the world to have less suffering in it, along with his wishing that his brother had not committed murder (let alone as a result of his influence on his brother), illustrates a number of moral “oughts” that Ivan subscribes to.  And whether they’re simply based on his moral intuitions or also rational moral reflection, they illustrate the deeply rooted psychological aspects of morality that are an inescapable facet of the human condition.

This situation also helps to explain some of the underlying motivations behind my own reversion back toward some form of moral realism, after becoming an atheist myself, initially catalyzed by my own moral intuitions and then later solidified and justified by rational moral reflection on objective facts pertaining to human psychology and other factors.  Now it should be said that moral intuitions on their own are only a generally useful heuristic as they are often misguiding (and incorrect) which is why it is imperative that they are checked by a rational assessment of the facts at hand.  But, nevertheless, they help to illustrate how good and evil can be said to be real (in at least some sense), even to someone like Ivan that doesn’t think they have an objective foundation.  They may not be conceptions of good and evil as described in many religions, with supernatural baggage attached, but they are real nonetheless.

Another interesting point worth noting is in regard to Zosima’s discussion about mutual moral responsibility.  While I already discussed moral responsibility in the last post along with its relation to free will, there’s something rather paradoxical about Dostoyevsky’s reasoning as expressed through Zosima that I found quite interesting.  Zosima talks about how love and forgiveness are necessary because everyone’s actions are intertwined with everyone else’s and therefore everyone bears some responsibility for the sins of others.  This idea of shared responsibility is abhorrent to those in the story that doubt God and the Christian religion (such as Ivan), who only want to be responsible for their own actions, but the complex intertwined causal chain that Zosima speaks of is the same causal chain that many determinists invoke to explain our lack of libertarian free will and how we can’t be held responsible in a causa sui manner for our actions.

Thus, if someone dies and there is in fact an afterlife, by Zosima’s own reasoning that person should not be judged as an individual solely responsible for their actions either.  That person should instead receive unconditional love and forgiveness and be redeemed rather than punished.  But this idea is anathema to standard Christian theology where one is supposed to be judged and given eternal paradise or eternal torment (with vastly disproportionate consequences given the finite degree of one’s actions).  It’s no surprise that Zosima isn’t looked upon as a model clergyman by some of his fellow monks in the monastery because his emphatic preaching about love and forgiveness undermines the typical heavy-handed judgemental aspects of God within Christianity.  But in any case, if God exists and understood that people were products of their genes and their environment which is causally interconnected with everyone else’s (i.e. libertarian free will is logically impossible), then a loving God would grant everyone forgiveness after death and grant them eternal paradise based on that understanding.  And oddly enough, this also undermines Ivan’s own reasoning that good and evil can only exist with an afterlife that undergoes judgement, because forgiveness and eternal paradise should be granted to everyone in the afterlife (by a truly loving God) if Zosima’s reasoning was taken to it’s logical conclusions.  So not only does Zosima’s reasoning seem to undermine the justification for unequal treatment of souls in the afterlife, but it also undermines the Christian conception of free will to boot (which is logically impossible regardless of Zosima’s reasoning).

And this brings me to the concept of moral desert.  In some ways I agree with Zosima, at least in the sense that love (or more specifically compassion) and forgiveness are extremely important in proper moral reasoning. And once one realizes the logical impossibility of libertarian free will, this should only encourage one’s use of love and forgiveness in the sense that people should never be trying to punish a wrongdoer (or hope for their punishment) for the sake of retributive justice or vengeance.  Rather, people should only punish (or hope that one is punished) as much as is necessary to compensate the victim as best as the circumstances allow and (more importantly) to rehabilitate the wrongdoer by reprogramming them through behavioral conditioning.  Anything above and beyond this is excessive, malicious, and immoral.  Similarly, a loving God (if one existed) would never punish anyone in the afterlife beyond what is needed to rehabilitate them (and it would seem that no punishment at all should really be needed if this God had the power to accomplish these feats on immaterial souls using magic), and if this God had no magic to accomplish this, then at the very least, it would still mean that there should never by any eternal punishments, since punishing someone forever (let alone torturing them forever), not only illustrates that there is no goal to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, but also that this God is beyond psychopathic and malevolent.  Again, think of Zosima’s reasoning as it applies here.

Looking back at the story with Smerdyakov, why does the demonic apparition disappear from Ivan right around the time that he learns that Smerdyakov killed himself?  It could be because Ivan thinks that Smerdyakov has gotten what he deserved, and that he’s no longer roaming free (so to speak) after his heinous act of murder.  And it could also be because Ivan seemed sure at that point that he would confess to the murder (or at least motivating Smerdyakov to do it).  But if either of these notions are true, then once again Ivan has betrayed yet another moral disposition of his, that murder is morally wrong.  It may also imply that Ivan, deep down, may in fact believe in an afterlife, and that Smerdyakov will now be judged for his actions.

It no doubt feels good to a lot of people when they see someone that has wronged another, getting punished for their bad deeds.  The feeling of justice and even vengeance can be so emotionally powerful, especially if the wrongdoer took the life of someone that you or someone else loved very much.  It’s a common feeling to want that criminal to suffer, perhaps to rot in jail until they die, perhaps to be tortured, or what-have-you.  And these intuitions illustrate why so many religious beliefs surrounding judgment in the afterlife share many of these common elements.  People invented these religious beliefs (whether unconsciously or not) because it makes them feel better about wrongdoers that may otherwise die without having been judged for their actions.  After all, when is justice going to be served?  It is also a motivating factor for a lot of people to keep their behaviors in check (as per Ivan’s rationale regarding an afterlife requirement in order for good and evil to be meaningful to people).  Even though I don’t think that this particular motivation is necessary (and therefore Ivan’s argument is incorrect) — due to other motivating forces such as the level of fulfillment and personal self-worth in one’s life, gained through living a life of moral virtue, or the lack thereof by those that fail to live virtuously — it is still a motivation that exists with many people and strongly intersects with the concept of moral desert.  Due to its pervasiveness in our intuitions and how we perceive other human beings and its importance in moral theory in general, people should spend a lot more time critically reflecting on this concept.

In the next part of this post series, I’m going to talk about the conflict between faith and doubt, perhaps the most ubiquitous theme found in The Brothers Karamazov, and how it ties all of these other concepts together.

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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part II)

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In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.

On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

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So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Another relevant topic I’ve written about in several previous posts is the concept of free will.  This is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.

Conclusion

In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.

The Properties of God: Much Ado About Nothing

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Having previously written about various Arguments for God’s Existence, including some of the inherent flaws and problems with those arguments, and having analyzed some of the purported attributes of God as most often defined by theists, I decided to reiterate some of the previous points I’ve mentioned and also expand further on the topic. Specifically, I’d like to further analyze the most common definitions and properties of God as claimed by theists.  God is often defined by theists as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent being that is also uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial among other attributes.  God is also defined by many as some form of disembodied mind possessing free will.  Since this list of terms is perhaps the most common I’ve seen over the years within theological circles, I’ll simply focus on these terms to analyze within this post.

Omniscience, Omnipotence, Changelessness, and Free Will

The property of omniscience is perhaps the single most significant property within this list because if it is taken to be true, it inevitably leads to the logical impossibility of some of the other attributes in this list.  For instance, if God’s knowledge includes complete knowledge of the future, then God is unable to change that future.  That is, whatever future that God would be aware of must happen exactly as it does, and God would not have the ability to change such a fate (otherwise this God would have failed to know the future without error).  This leads to the logical impossibility of God possessing both omniscience and omnipotence, as God loses the ability to enact any kind of change whatsoever that isn’t already pre-ordained or known by this God in advance.  God would not only know the future of all events occurring within the universe (presumably mediated by the very laws of physics that this God would have created) thus eliminating any possible free will for all of humanity, but this God would also know the future of all his other actions, thoughts, intentions, etc., and thus God wouldn’t be able to have free will either.  One can try to preserve the theological property of omnipotence or free will by denying that of omniscience (by limiting God’s knowledge of the future in some way).  However, even if this God didn’t have the ability to know the future with 100% certainty as implied with omniscience, the absence of omniscience wouldn’t negate the possibility that this God may still have no choice or ability to act any other way (even if this God doesn’t know ahead of time what those actions will be).

Even if we accepted that God doesn’t have omniscience, and if we also ignored the possibility that God may still lack free will or omnipotence even in the absence of that omniscient foreknowledge, one must still explain how a definitively changeless being could ever instantiate any kind of change at all, let alone to create the entire universe, space, and time (which is dependent on change).  Is it even logically possible for a changeless being to instantiate change?  That is, could a being possessing a de facto property such as changelessness simultaneously possess a modal property or capability of change?  Even if it were logically possible, there doesn’t appear to be any way at all for the modal property to ever be self-instantiated by a de facto changeless being.

An outside causal force may be able to instantiate the change in the previously changeless being, but I see no way that this could be accomplished by the changeless being itself.  One may try to resolve this dilemma by positing that one aspect or component of the changeless state of God was the constant or changeless intention to eventually cause a change at some future time x (e.g. to eventually create the universe), but this attempted resolution carries with it the problem of contradicting the supposed theological property of timelessness, since there can’t be some future moment for any change to occur in any kind of timeless scenario.  This would suggest that some kind of temporal delay is occurring until the change is eventually realized, which is logically incoherent in a timeless scenario.  Thus, I see no reason or logical argument to support the claim that a de facto property of changelessness could ever co-exist with a modal property or capability of self-causing any kind of change, and thus a timeless or changeless being would be causally effete thereby negating the property of omnipotence.

Omnibenevolence

One major problem that I see regarding the property of omnibenevolence, is that the term itself isn’t well-defined.  Sure, one can easily grasp the basic concept of being all-loving or all-good, but exactly what standard is one using to define goodness, or love, since these are not objectively defined concepts?  Another way of describing this problem, within the context of Divine Command Theory, is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma (from one of Plato’s dialogues), where one must ask: Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say something is good because of some other quality it has?  If the standard of goodness comes from God (i.e. “it’s good because God says so”), then it is entirely arbitrary and this would also mean that the definition of omnibenevolence is circular and therefore invalid.  If the standard of goodness comes from some other cause or being, then that means that goodness is dependent on something other than God and this would also undermine the idea that God is uncaused or beginningless, since the property of God’s benevolence (even if omnibenevolent) would have been dependent on something other than God.  Beyond these problems it would also undermine the idea of God being omnipotent since God wouldn’t have the power to self-instantiate this standard of goodness.

Another problem with positing that God is omnibenevolent, is the oft mentioned Problem of Evil, which ultimately refers to the problem of how to reconcile the supposed existence and omnibenevolence of God with all of the suffering that exists in the world.  If God was truly omnibenevolent, then how can one explain the existence of any “evil or suffering at all?  If God doesn’t have the ability to create a universe without any suffering, then this is another argument against God’s omnipotence.  If God does have the ability to do this but doesn’t, then this is an argument against God’s omnibenevolence, assuming that the elimination of all suffering is in accord with the standard of goodness, as one would expect.

Some philosophers have attempted to form various theodicies or defenses to reconcile the Problem of Evil with the idea of an omnipotent and/or omnibenevolent God, but they are ultimately unsuccessful.  For example, some attempts to resolve this problem involve asserting that good simply can’t logically exist without evil, implying that they are relative to and thus dependent on one another, which basically reasserts the old adage “you can’t have the sour without the sweet”.  The problem with this argument is that, if taken further, it would also imply that an omnibenevolent being (as God is often defined as) is also logically dependent on the existence of an equal but opposite omnimalevolent being, or at the very least, that it is dependent on the property of omnimalevolence.  This would mean that if God is indeed omnibenevolent, then this property of God is logically dependent on the existence of omnimalevolence, and this is another argument showing that God is not uncaused or beginningless, because this particular property of God wouldn’t even be a possibility without the existence of something that is definitively not a part of God (by definition).

Beyond all of these problems mentioned thus far, there seem to be at least several possible solutions that God (if omnibenevolent and all-powerful) could employ to eliminate suffering, and if these possibilities exist, the fact that none of them have been implemented argues against God being omnibenevolent.  For example, why couldn’t God simply feed our brains (even if just a brain in a vat) with a sensory input of nothing but pleasurable experiences?  Even if pleasure was dependent on some kind of contrast with less pleasurable experiences in the past (or if we would unavoidably become desensitized to a particular level of pleasure), God could simply amplify the magnitude of pleasurable sensory inputs with each subsequent moment of time indefinitely, thus producing an experience of nothing but constant and equally potent pleasure.

Moreover, if the God that most theists propose truly exists, and some kind of heaven or eternal paradise is within God’s capabilities (filled with a bunch of disembodied minds or souls), then there’s no rational reason why God couldn’t simply create all of us in heaven from the very beginning of our existence.  This is basically the case already with many miscarried or aborted fetuses (if theists assume that fetuses have souls and go to heaven immediately after their death), since many of these fetuses aren’t even alive long enough to have developed a brain with any level of consciousness or ability to experience any suffering at all.  Thus, they would represent a perfect example of individuals that only experience an eternity of pleasure completely void of any kind of suffering.  One would think if this is already a reality for some individuals, God should have the power to make it the case for all people, so nobody has to suffer at all.  This is of course if God couldn’t simply create all humans in heaven from the very beginning and skip the creation of the physical universe altogether.  If God lacks this ability, it is yet another argument against this God being omnipotent.  In addition to this, if it were the case that any conscious being created by God is ever destined to any kind of eternal torture (i.e. some version of “hell”), due to no chance of forgiveness after death, this would be perhaps the strongest argument against this God being omnibenevolent.  So as we can see, if eternal paradise and/or eternal damnation are actually real places created/mediated by God, then their very existence argues against God’s omnibenevolence and/or God’s omnipotence since we’re not all created in heaven from the very beginning of our existence, and/or since there are people destined to suffer for eternity.

Another attempt to resolve this Problem of Evil is the argument that humans wouldn’t be able to have free will without the existence of “evil” or suffering.  However, this makes absolutely no sense for a number of reasons.  For one, as mentioned previously, classical free will (i.e. the ability to have chosen to behave differently, given the same initial conditions, less randomness) is already impossible based on the laws of physics and our level of causal closure, and this is the case whether our physical laws are fundamentally deterministic or random.  So this attempted resolution is a desperate objection at best, because it also requires us to assume that we’re constantly violating the laws of physics and causal closure in order to be causa sui, or self-caused intentional agents.  So we’d have to grant one absurdity in order to explain away another which doesn’t solve the dilemma at all, but rather just replaces one dilemma with another.

Finally, if “heaven” or some form of eternal paradise is still a possible product of God’s power, then the free will argument is irrelevant in any case.  After all, presumably we wouldn’t have free will in heaven either, for if we did have free will to rebel or cause “evil” or suffering in heaven, this would contradict the very idea of what heaven is supposed to be (since it is defined as an eternal and perfect paradise without any “evil” or suffering at all).  If one argues that it is still possible to have free will in a heaven that is guaranteed to be void of evil or suffering, then this simply shows that suffering isn’t necessary in order to have free will, and thus the free will argument to the Problem of Evil still fails.  If we didn’t have free will in heaven (which would seem to be logically necessary in order for heaven to exist as defined), then we can see that infinite or maximal “goodness” or eternal paradise is indeed possible even in the absence of any free will, which would thus negate the free will argument to the Problem of Evil (even if we granted the absurdity that classical free will was possible).  So no matter how you look at it, the property of omnibenevolence appears to be ill-defined or circular and is thus meaningless and/or it is incompatible with some of the other purported theological properties used to define God (i.e. uncaused, beginningless, omnipotent, etc.).

Omnipresence

If God was omnipresent, one would think that we would be able to universally and undeniably detect the presence of God, and yet the exact opposite is the case.  In fact, God appears to be completely invisible and entirely undetectable.  In cases where there are theists that claim to have actually experienced or detected the presence of God in some way, it is always in a way that can’t be validated or confirmed by any physical evidence whatsoever.  Science has demonstrated time and time again that when people experience phenomena that do not correlate with reality, i.e., phenomena that do not occur outside of their minds and thus that can’t be independently verified with physical evidence, they are the result of perceptual illusions and other strictly mental phenomena (whether they are full blown hallucinations, delusions, mis-attributed emotional experiences, etc.).  In general though, the basic trend exemplified by theists is that whenever they have an experience that is seemingly unexplainable, they attribute it to being an act of God.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely weak position to take (and increasingly weak as history has amply shown) simply because this “God of the gaps” mentality has been demonstrably proven to be fallacious and unreliable as science has continued to explain more and more previously unexplainable phenomena that were once attributed to one god or another.  So in Bayesian terms, the prior probability that some unexplainable phenomenon is the result of some kind of God is infinitesimally small, and that probability has only decreased over time and will only continue to decrease over time as scientific progress continues to falsify supernatural explanations and attributions by replacing them with natural ones.

So unless we are talking about some kind of Pantheism (where God is basically defined as being equivalent to the universe itself), then we have theists claiming that God is everywhere when this God in fact appears to be nowhere at all.  The simple fact that nobody has been able to demonstrate or verify the existence of God with any physical evidence whatsoever, is a strong argument against the omnipresence of God (if not an argument against the very existence of God).  Ultimately, the theological property of omnipresence is a meaningless term if this type of presence is one that is completely undetectable and unfalsifiable, which would make sense regarding a being that doesn’t possess any properties of space, time, or material, but unfortunately it also means that this term doesn’t adhere to any reasonable convention of what it means to be present, and it also means that the property of omnipresence is incompatible with the properties of being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.  If the type of omnipresence is that which is claimed to be experienced by theists from time to time, experiences that have been shown to be strictly mental with no correlation to the external world, then this is actually nothing more than a limited type of presence (and one that is strictly mental), and one likely resulting from mis-attributed emotions combined with various inherent human cognitive biases.

Abstract Objects, Disembodied Minds & God

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve discovered regarding these theological properties pertains to the subset of properties that specifically describe God to be uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial (which I’ll now abbreviate as simply UBTCSI).  These terms have also been formulated by theists in various arguments for the existence of God (such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument), with theists trying to argue that the origin of the universe must have been brought about by a cause having this particular set of properties.  What I find most interesting is that contemporary philosophers of ontology have ascribed this set of terms to certain abstract objects such as numbers and properties.  It is also notable that these properties seem to result by way of negation, that is, by removing all (or nearly all) aspects of our perceived reality.

The fact that these terms are used to describe the properties of abstract objects in general, which are almost universally agreed to be causally effete, actually supports the idea that God is nothing more than an abstract object.  Even if abstract objects have some kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, they have still been shown to be causally effete.  If abstract objects do not have any kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, then they are actually the product of brains which possess the converse of the UBTCSI properties, that is, they are the product of brains which possess the properties of being caused and thus having a beginning, as well as the properties of time, change, space, and material.

If abstract objects are nothing more than constructs of the brain, then we may expect that the minds that produce these abstract objects would have similar properties ascribed to them as well.  Sure enough, many philosophers have indeed also used the aforementioned UBTCSI properties to describe a mind.  So, if it is true that abstract objects as well as the minds they appear to be dependent on are ultimately products of the physical brain (with the latter being well-nigh proven at this point), then ultimately they are both produced from that which possesses the naturalistic properties of causality, beginning, time, change, space, material, etc., thus arguably challenging the claim that either abstracta or minds can be defined properly with the UBTCSI properties.

Many theists have taken advantage of the aforementioned “ontology of mind” and posited that God is some kind of disembodied mind, thus presumably adhering to these same UBTCSI properties, yet with the addition of several more properties that were mentioned earlier (i.e. omnipotence, omniscience, etc.).  However, one major problem with this tactic is that the term, disembodied mind, is simply an ad hoc conceptualization, and one that doesn’t make much if any sense at all when thought about more critically.  After all, if the only minds that we’re aware of are those demonstrably produced from the underlying machinery of physical brains, then what exactly would a disembodied mind entail anyway?  What would it be composed of if not physical materials (and thus those which lie in space)?  How would it function at all if the only minds we know of involve an underlying machinery of constantly changing neuronal configurations which subsequently cause the mental experience that we call a mind?  How can this mind think at all, when thinking is itself a temporal process, known to speed up or slow down depending on various physical variables (e.g. neurotransmitter concentrations, temperature, Relativistic effects, etc.)?

These questions illustrate the fact that the only concept of a mind that makes any sense at all is that which involves the properties of causality, time, change, space, and material, because minds result from particular physical processes involving a very complex configuration of physical materials.  That is, minds appear to be necessarily complex in terms of their physical structure (i.e. brains), and so trying to conceive of a mind that doesn’t have any physical parts at all, let alone a complex arrangement of said parts, is simply absurd (let alone a mind that can function without time, change, space, etc.).  At best, we are left with an ad hoc, unintelligible combination of properties without any underlying machinery or mechanism.

So the fact that there exist strong arguments and evidence in support of abstract objects being nothing more than products of the mind, and the fact that minds in general are demonstrably the product of physical brains and their underlying complex neuronal configurations, illustrates that the only things in our universe that philosophers have ascribed these UBTCSI properties to (minds and abstract objects) are in fact more accurately described by the converse of those very properties.  It would then logically follow that God, claimed to possess the very same properties, is most likely to be nothing more than a causally effete abstract object — a mere mentally simulated model produced by our physical brains.  This entails that the remaining properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence, which are themselves abstract objects, are ultimately ascribed to yet another causally effete abstract object.

Much Ado About Nothing

As we can see, the properties commonly ascribed to God suggest that this God as described is:

1) Ill-defined since some of the properties are ultimately meaningless or circular, and

2) Logically impossible since some of the properties contradict one another, and

3) Likely to be a causally effete construct of the mind.

So overall, the theist’s strenuous endeavors in arguing over what the properties of their purported God must be, has ultimately been much ado about nothing at all.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

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Previously, I’ve written briefly about some of the cosmological arguments for God.  I’d like to expand on this topic, and I’ll begin doing so in this post by analyzing the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), since it is arguably the most well known version of the argument, which can be described with the following syllogism:

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause;

(2) The universe began to exist;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

The conclusion of this argument is often expanded by theists to suggest that the cause must be supernaturally transcendent, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and perhaps most importantly, this cause must itself be uncaused, in order to avoid the causal infinite regress implied by the KCA’s first premise.

Unfortunately this argument fails for a number of reasons.  The first thing that needs to be clarified is the definitions of terms used in these premises.  What is meant by “everything”, or “begins to exist”?  “Everything” in this context does imply that there are more than one of these things, which means that we are referring to a set of things, indeed the set of all things in this case.  The set of all things implied here apparently refers to all matter and energy in the universe, specifically the configuration of any subset of all matter and/or energy.  Then we have the second element in the first premise, “begins to exist”, which would thus refer to when the configuration of some set of matter and/or energy changes to a new configuration.  So we could rewrite the first premise as “any configuration of matter and/or energy that exists at time T and which didn’t exist at the time immediately prior to time T (which we could call T’), was a result of some cause”.  If we want to specify how “immediately prior” T’ is to T, we could use the smallest unit of time that carries any meaning per the laws of physics which would be the Planck time (roughly 10^-43 seconds), which is the time it takes the fastest entity in the universe (light) to traverse the shortest distance in the universe (the Planck length).

Does Everything Have a Cause?

Now that we’ve more clearly defined what is meant by the first premise, we can address whether or not that premise is sound.  It seems perfectly reasonable based on the nature of causality that we currently understand that there is indeed some cause that drives the changes in the configurations of sets of matter and energy that we observe in the universe, most especially in the everyday world that we observe.  On a most fundamental physical level, we would typically say that the cause of these configuration changes is described as the laws of physics.  Particles and waves all behave as they do, very predictably changing from one form into another based on these physical laws or consistent patterns that we’ve discovered.  However, depending on the interpretation of quantum mechanics used, there may be acausal quantum processes happening, for example, as virtual particle/anti-particle pairs pop into existence without any apparent deterministic path.  That is, unless there are non-local hidden variables that we are unaware of which guide/cause these events, there don’t appear to be any deterministic or causal driving forces behind certain quantum phenomena.  At best, the science is inconclusive as to whether all phenomena have causes, and thus one can’t claim certainty to the first premise of the KCA.  Unless we find a way to determine that quantum mechanics is entirely deterministic, we simply don’t know that matter and energy are fundamentally causally connected as are objects that we observe at much larger scales.

The bottom line here is that quantum indeterminism carries with it the possibility of acausality until proven otherwise, thus undermining premise one of the KCA with the empirical evidence found within the field of quantum physics.  As such, it is entirely plausible that if the apparent quantum acausal processes are fundamental to our physical world, the universe itself may have arisen from said acausal processes, thus undermining premise two as well as the conclusion of the KCA.  We can’t conclude that this is the case, but it is entirely possible and is in fact plausible given the peculiar quantum phenomena we’ve observed thus far.

As for the second premise, if we apply our clarified definition of “began to exist” introduced in the first premise to the second, then “the universe began to exist” would mean more specifically that “there was once a time (T’) when the universe didn’t exist and then at time T, the universe did exist.”  This is the most obviously problematic premise, at least according to the evidence we’ve found within cosmology.  The Big Bang Theory as most people are familiar with, which is the prevailing cosmological model for the earliest known moment of the universe, implies that spacetime itself had it’s earliest moment roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and continued to expand and transform over 13.8 billion years until reaching the state that we see it in today.  Many theists try to use this as evidence for the universe being created by God.  However, since time itself was non-existent prior to the Big Bang, it is not sensible to speak of any creation event happening prior to this moment, since there was no time for such an event to happen within.  This presents a big problem for the second premise in the KCA, because in order for the universe to “begin to exist”, it is implied that there was a time prior in which it didn’t exist, and this goes against the Big Bang model in which time never existed prior to that point.

Is Simultaneous Causation Tenable?

One way that theologians and some philosophers have attempted to circumvent this problem is to invoke the concept of simultaneous causation, that is, that (at least some) causes and effects can happen simultaneously.  Thus, if the cause of the universe happened at the same time as the effect (the Big Bang), then the cause of the universe (possibly “creation”) did happen in time, and thus the problem is said to be circumvented.

The concept of simultaneous causation has been proposed for some time by philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant and others since.  However, there are a few problems with simultaneous causation that I’ll point out briefly.  For one, there don’t appear to be any actual examples in our universe of simultaneous causation occurring.  Kant did propose what he believed to be a couple examples of simultaneous causation to support the idea.  One example he gave was a scenario where the effect of a heated room supposedly occurs simultaneously with a fire in a fireplace that caused it.  Unfortunately, this example fails, because it actually takes time for thermal energy to make its way from the fire in the fireplace to any air molecules in the room (even those that are closest to the fire).  As combustion is occurring and oxygen is combining with hydrocarbon fuels in the wood to produce carbon dioxide and a lot of heat, that heat takes time to propagate.  As the carbon dioxide is being formed, and the molecule is assuming an energetically favorable state, there is still a lag between this event and any heat given off to nearby molecules in the room.  In fact, no physical processes can occur faster than the speed of light by the principles of Relativity, so this refutes any other example analogous to this one.  The fastest way a fire can propagate heat is through radiation (as opposed to conduction or convection), and we know that the propagation of radiation is limited by the speed of light.  Even pulling a solid object causes it to stretch (at least temporarily) so the end of the object farthest away from where it is being pulled will actually remain at rest for a short time while the other end of the object is first pulled in a particular direction.  It isn’t until a short time lag, that the rest of the object “catches up” with the end being pulled, so even with mechanical processes involving solid materials, we never see instantaneous speeds of causal interactions.

Another example Kant gave was one in which a lead ball lies on a cushion and simultaneously causes the effect of an indentation or “hollow” in the cushion.  Again, in order for the ball to cause a dent in the cushion in the first place it had to be moved into the cushion which took some finite amount of time.  Likewise with the previous example, Relativity prevents any simultaneous causation of this sort.  We can see this by noting that at the molecular level, as the electron orbitals from the lead ball approach those of the cushion, the change in the strength of the electric field between the electron orbitals of the two objects can’t travel faster than the speed of light, and thus as the ball moves toward the cushion and eventually “touches” it, the increased strength of the repulsion takes some amount of time to be realized.

One last example I’ve seen given by defenders of simultaneous causation is that of a man sitting down, thus forming a lap.  That is, as the man sits down, and his knees bend, a lap is created in the process, and we’re told that the man sitting down is the cause and the formation of the lap is the simultaneous effect.  Unfortunately, this example also fails because the man sitting down and the lap being formed are really nothing more than two different descriptions of the same event.  One could say that the man formed a lap, or one could say that the man sat down.  Clearly the intentions behind the man were most likely to sit down rather than to form a lap, but nevertheless forming a lap was incidental in the process of sitting down.  Both are describing different aspects of the same event, and thus there aren’t two distinct causal relatum in this example.  In the previous examples mentioned (the fire and heated room or ball denting a cushion), if there are states described that occur simultaneously even after taking Relativity into account, they can likewise be shown to be merely two different aspects or descriptions of the same event.  Even if we could grant that simultaneous causation were possible (which so far, we haven’t seen any defensible examples in the real world), how can we assign causal priority to determine which was the cause and which was the effect?  In terms of the KCA, one could ask, if the cause (C) of the universe occurred at the same time as the effect (E) or existence of the universe, how could one determine if C caused E rather than the other way around?  One has to employ circular argumentation in order to do so, by invoking other metaphysical assumptions in the terms that are being defined which simply begs the question.

Set Theory & Causal Relations

Another problem with the second premise of the KCA is that even if we ignore the cosmological models that refute it, and even ignore the problematic concept of simultaneous causation altogether, there is an implicit assumption that the causal properties of the “things” in the universe also apply to the universe as a whole.  This is fallacious because one can’t assume that the properties of members of a set or system necessarily apply to the system or entire set as a whole.  Much work has been done within set theory to show that this is the case, and thus while some properties of the members or subsets of a system can apply to the whole system, not all properties necessarily do (in fact some properties applying to both members of a set and to the set as a whole can lead to logical contradictions or paradoxes).  One of the properties that is being misapplied here involves the concept of “things” in general.  If we try to consider the universe as a “thing” we can see how this is problematic by noting that we seem to define and conceptualize “things” with causal properties as entities or objects that are located in time and space (that’s an ontology that I think is pretty basic and universal).  However, the universe as a whole is the entirety of space and time (i.e. spacetime), and thus the universe as a whole contains all space and time, and thus can’t itself (as a whole) be located in space or time.

Since the universe appears to be composed of all the things we know about, one might say that the universe is located within “nothing” at all, if that’s at all intelligible to think of.  Either way, the universe as a whole doesn’t appear to be located in time or space, and thus it isn’t located anywhere at all.  Thus, it technically isn’t a “thing” at all, or at the very least, it is not a thing that has any causal properties of its own, since it isn’t located in time or space in order to have causal relations with other things.  Even if one insists on calling it a thing, despite the problems listed here, we are still left with the problem that we can’t assume that causal principles found within the universe apply to the universe as a whole.  So for a number of reasons, premise two of the KCA fails.  Since both premises fail for a number of reasons, the conclusion no longer follows.  So even if the universe does in fact have a cause, in some way unknown to us, the KCA doesn’t successfully support such a claim with its premises.

Is the Kalam Circular?

Yet another problem that Dan Barker and others have pointed out involves the language used in the first premise of the KCA.  The clause, “everything that begins to exist”, implies that reality can be divided into two sets: items that begin to exist (BE) and items that do not begin to exist (NBE).  In order for the KCA to work in arguing for God’s existence, the NBE set can’t be empty.  Even more importantly, it must accommodate more than one item to avoid simply being a synonym for God, for if God is the only object or item within NBE, then the premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” is equivalent to “everything except God has a cause”.  This simply puts God into the definition of the premise of the argument that is supposed to be used to prove God’s existence, and thus would simply beg the question.  It should be noted that just because the NBE set must accommodate more than one possible item, this doesn’t entail that the NBE set must contain more than one item.  This specific problem with the KCA could be resolved if one could first show that there are multiple possible NBE candidates, followed by showing that of the multiple possible candidates within NBE, only one candidate is valid, and finally by showing that this candidate is in fact some personal creator, i.e., God.  If it can’t be shown that NBE can accommodate more than one item, then the argument is circular.  Moreover, if the only candidate for NBE is God, then the second premise “The universe began to exist” simply reduces to “The universe is not God”, which simply assumes what the argument is trying to prove.  Thus if the NBE set is simply synonymous with God, then the Kalam can be reduced to:

(1) Everything except God has a cause;

(2) The universe is not God;

Therefore,

(3) The universe has a cause.

As we can see, this syllogism is perfectly logical (though the conclusion only follows if the premises are true which is open to debate), but this syllogism is entirely useless as an argument for God’s existence.  Furthermore, regarding the NBE set, one must ask, where do theists obtain the idea that this NBE set exists?  That is, by what observations and/or arguments is the possibility of beginningless objects justified?  We don’t find any such observations in science, although it is certainly possible that the universe itself never began (we just don’t have observations to support this, at least, not at this time) and the concept of a “beginningless universe” is in fact entirely consistent with many eternal cosmological models that have been proposed, in which case the KCA would still be invalidated by refuting premise two in yet another way.  Other than the universe itself potentially being an NBE (which is plausible, though not empirically demonstrated as of yet), there don’t appear to be any other possible NBEs, and there don’t appear to be any observations and/or arguments to justify proposing that any NBEs exist at all (other than perhaps the universe itself, which would be consistent with the law of conservation of mass and energy and/or the Quantum Eternity Theorem).

The KCA Fails

As we can see, the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails for a number of reasons, and thus is unsuccessful in arguing for the existence of God.  Thus, even though it may very well be the case that some god exists and did in fact create the universe, the KCA fails to support such a claim.

Here’s an excellent debate between the cosmologist Sean Carroll and the Christian apologist William Lane Craig which illustrates some of the problems with the KCA, specifically in terms of evidence found within cosmology (or lack thereof).  It goes without saying that Carroll won the debate by far, though he could certainly have raised more points in his rebuttals than he did.  Nevertheless, it was entertaining and a nice civil debate with good points presented on both sides.  Here’s another link to Carroll’s post debate reflections on his blog.

Religious Paradigms in the Wake of Science

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Albert Einstein once said “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” From my perspective, I see the latter as most certainly true as science is the only way we’ve been able to gain a falsifiable world view of our universe. As for the former, it seems that Einstein was mainly pointing out how religion has largely precipitated from the human aspiration to ascertain truth, and without that drive for truth, science would be ineffective. That also sounds reasonable, as early on and throughout most of human history, religion was more or less the dominant world view used to provide many explanations for the unknown. Many if not most of these explanations were supernatural and the world view in general was also highly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, perhaps due to its highly subjective basis and the failure to see that subjectivity bias as a fundamental problem (even if it sometimes produces more intuitive explanations). For a more in depth analysis of religion, I recommend you read one of my previous posts.

As people stumbled upon science, realizing that the same empirical and causally-based methodologies used to tackle everyday problems could actually be applied to the investigation of all phenomena, it has been slowly but surely replacing the religious world views with a more objective perspective as the human quests for truth, understanding, and predictive power are perpetuated. In the hopes of maintaining many of the old religious world views, there has no doubt been an enormous amount of religious opposition to science. It’s certainly not difficult to see why so many different religious proponents oppose science. After all, the pragmatic knowledge and explanatory power derived from science has replaced the hundreds of different gods and supernatural explanations proposed over the centuries, and it has also been taking power away from the priests and clergy whose authority throughout history has been based on the presumed existence of those gods and supernatural processes. Above and beyond the fact that science has been eliminating the “gods of the gaps” one by one, science has also been refuting some primary and often necessary assumptions within certain religions. Overall, it seems that the religious world views are slowly fading away in the wake of science. Let’s examine a few…

Human Origins

There is a strong belief held by many religious proponents that human beings along with all other species were created by a deity in their present form. Science has shown us no evidence of any deities, but it has shown us a plethora of evidence within evolutionary biology (among other disciplines) which shows that human beings, like all other life forms on Earth, have indeed evolved from a common ancestor thus forming the diversity of life we see today. Furthermore, we are seeing many different species continue to evolve (including human beings). Despite the scientific consensus that evolution is a fact, there are a large number of people that ignore the evidence in order to preserve their creation origin myths as well as to preserve many other parts of their old world view. While this ignorance may be seen as inconsequential to some (people are entitled to their own beliefs after all), it definitely becomes problematic when it enters and poisons the educational and political spheres of society where reason and intellect are needed most.

Some people have actually gone so far as to try and add Creationism as a complement to the Theory of Evolution currently being taught within the science curriculum of various public schools, despite the fact that the creationist’s claims aren’t supported by any scientific evidence, and thus should remain in the academic realms of cultural studies, religious studies, and mythology. To make matters worse, many religious proponents have also tried to use pseudo-scientific arguments to disprove evolution (although to no avail). Some have even resorted to using the intellectually dishonest (or merely ignorant) argument claiming that “evolution is just a theory”, not realizing that the meaning of the word “theory” within science is quite different from the common everyday usage. Whereas the common everyday usage of the word “theory” is meant to imply a “hypothesis”, the scientific usage implies an explanation with a factual basis that is generally supported by most if not all of the scientific community within the relevant fields. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is no different and thus would also be considered as “just a theory”, but we know for a fact that some force which we call “gravity” does indeed exist, and this force also produces measurable temporal dilation, as well as the non-Euclidean or curved space effects predicted by the theory. While some of the details of these theories may remain under contention, and while the theories may be incomplete in one way or another, the main crux of these scientific theories are widely accepted as scientific facts.

These kinds of arguments and tactics have far less precedent, for in the past, religious claims were largely supported by religious authority and intuition alone and didn’t require falsifiable scientific support. As science has continued to gain more influence and followers through its explanatory power, and as more educated people begin to participate in these kinds of public discourses, the necessity of scientifically grounded arguments has grown substantially. So it isn’t all that surprising to see many of the people with religious-based world views try and find scientific arguments to support their case, although it is obviously hypocritical and inconsistent when the same people undermine science when it no longer supports their position. The crucial difference worth noting here is that science is ultimately about trying to find an explanatory and descriptive model that fits the data best, whereas those trying to prove religious beliefs to be true are effectively cherry-picking data to fit a presupposed model. That is, science is always willing to scrap a poor model for a better one that has more explanatory and predictive power as more and more data is collected, whereas religion clings to one model and one model only no matter how poorly it fits the ever increasing amount of data and despite it’s usual lack of explanatory and predictive power.

Teleological Evolution of Humans

Evolutionary theists believe that evolution is factual, but some of them also believe that evolution has had a specific purpose or end-goal in mind determined by a deity, namely to produce human beings (another example of religious anthropocentrism).  In a few of these religious accounts, it has been suggested that once humans evolved from other life forms, they were given a soul and have been participating in some kind of an ongoing religious narrative.  Some have claimed that humans evolved to worship some god(s), to prepare for an apocalypse, to prepare for the afterlife, and other similar stories.  The main point here is that within these types of religious claims, the human species is purportedly the final speciation goal of evolution, and as a result, humans are thought to be the most remarkable, most intellectually capable, and most important species that will ever exist.

In terms of the scientific credibility of such claims, none of the claims are falsifiable except perhaps one — that humans are the end-all be-all for evolution and speciation, or to put it another way, that humans (or another species for that matter) will not evolve further (let alone evolve to produce a species that is more remarkable or one with more intelligent capabilities than homo sapiens).  We can already see that the assumption that humans will no longer evolve is patently false by noticing some relatively recent evolutionary changes to human beings, including the otherwise unnecessary ability for some human adults to digest lactose (this mutation became favorable after the recent development of agriculture and dairy farming several thousand years ago), the existence of specific disease resistances (and their genetic markers) within certain ethnic populations, and other gene pool changes due to genetic drift.

Perhaps more importantly, with the recent development of genetic engineering, we are beginning to consciously and directly guide our own evolution at the molecular level (and the evolution of other species).  As this technology develops further, we are likely to change extremely quickly into a completely different species, and one with more advanced capabilities engineered into the genome. Interestingly enough, there hasn’t been any evidence for the teleological evolution of any species until relatively recently, but it is human beings that are teleologically driving it through both artificial and, what I call, “engineered” selection.

Free Will

If science has shown us anything, it has shown us that there is a causal structure that exists in the world around us in which events that occur are ultimately caused by prior events. If this weren’t the case, then we could never successfully apply the scientific method, let alone live our daily lives with any predictable order or structure. Fortunately, because of the causal (and potentially deterministic) nature of our universe, we’ve been able to successfully formulate hypotheses, test them, and use the results to make further testable predictions.  Regarding free will, there is no known way for humans (or any other entity or object for that matter) to circumvent this causality without their actions being causa sui which would not only undermine the process of rational thought (which depends on causal thought processes), but would also go against every bit of scientific evidence we have obtained thus far.

Even if the randomness proposed within quantum mechanics were ontologically the case (which we’ll likely never know), we all know that randomness can’t produce freely willed actions either, since there have to be non-random conscious intentions and thought processes behind any deliberate action.  So whether the universe is ontologically deterministic or indeterministic (i.e. random), classical free will is logically incompatible with either possibility. Obviously this presents a serious problem to those religious views which assume that humans do in fact possess free will. Concepts such as moral responsibility, human fate in some proposed afterlife, karma, etc., lose their luster when free will is taken out of the equation since this would imply that any spiritual fate supposed isn’t something we can actually change or control anyway, and thus any implemented punishment or reward is ultimately futile.

Despite the fact that we don’t have free will, we all live with the illusion of free will since we don’t directly experience the prior causes to our thoughts and subsequent actions, and thus we truly feel that we self-cause those thoughts and actions.  In the grand scheme of things, even without any free will, we can see that our societal approach of implementing laws, crime deterrence measures, and any punishment-reward system for that matter, isn’t based on the assumption that we can freely choose our behaviors so much as they are based on their efficacy to maximize safety, productivity, as well as what society deems to be acceptable behavior.  It’s efficacy is accomplished primarily through the physical constraint measures put into place as well as the pragmatic application of psychological conditioning principles.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether or not we could have chosen to behave differently unless one is trying to maintain certain metaphysical presuppositions, such as those proposed in many religions. However, our recognition that free will doesn’t exist can certainly affect how we approach problems in society. As a result of science demonstrating that we lack free will through the discovery of causal constraints such as genes, the body’s internal environment, and the body’s external physical environment (including that which causes the psychological conditioning of the brain), we’re definitely becoming more able to address the actual root causes of many problematic behaviors. In doing so, rather than wasting resources and erroneously blaming an individual for not “choosing” to behave differently (as in many religions), we can appropriately view every individual as an innocent amalgam of genetic and environmental information (regardless of their behavior) and then take more effective measures to improve their behavior by attempting to change any problematic genes and environmental factors.

Struggle for Morality

One of the most pressing issues regarding the human condition is the constant struggle to behave in ways that society deems to be moral. Many religions have their own ideas about what is considered to be moral behavior and they often claim that their particular morals are ordained by a god or some form of divine authority. It is also common that morality and immorality play an important role within various religious narratives.  For example, within the Abrahamic religions, if a person commits what the religion deems to be immoral acts, that is, if they “sin”, and this person does not repent or have their sins absolved, they are destined to eternal damnation.  Within Christianity, “sin” is considered an inevitable act passed down from generation to generation ever since the supposed “fall of man” which, as the story goes, began with a first descendent, named Adam.  This concept of seeing humans as inherent sinners is sometimes referred to as “original sin”.

As was mentioned in the previous section, humans’ lack of free will suggests that humans ultimately have no control over whether they “sin” or not.  Behavior is determined by prior causes such as a person’s genes and the psychological conditioning they’ve undergone throughout their lives.  Evolutionary biologists have also shown that the reasons for humans behaving in ways that society or various religions deem immoral is because of selfish genes as well as an ongoing conflict between biological instincts and societal conventions and expectations.

The strategy that genes tend to implement through their respective phenotypes (including behavior) tend to perpetuate those genes through means of self-preservation, reproductive success, and subsequent child-rearing success.  Additionally, because of the incredible speed of cultural evolution and ever-changing social conventions, humans may find difficulties adhering to particular conventions due to their biological evolution lagging behind that cultural evolution. To give some examples, if people kill others or steal, it is likely (or was likely long ago) to increase one’s chances of survival or increase one’s chances of successful mating by gaining power, property, and social status.  Infidelity could also be seen as a result of being sexually attracted to others because they may provide better genes for new offspring or simply provide more offspring.  Also, if humans are naturally more of a polygamous primate, it would make sense that monogamy, even if the current societal convention, would be difficult to maintain. Thus, there are many possible reasons for why humans behave the way they do, and science has been continuing to enlighten us with these reasons as we gain more information from evolutionary biology and psychology (among other disciplines).

As for the religious claim that humans will always be immoral, a few things must be made clear. For one, morality is largely determined by society, and so what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another. Despite the claim by some religious proponents that religions provide some kind of objective foundation for ethics and morals, we can see that different religions often proclaim different morals, thus it is clear that no such objectivity exists. Science and reason on the other hand do provide a nice resource for answering moral questions by showing us in detail the consequences of our actions (such that we can better determine how we ought to behave), by providing us with a clearer picture of how the world really is so that our moral goals aren’t based on false pretenses, and by providing us with increasingly better ways to achieve those moral goals.

As we continue to evolve as humans or into another species entirely, our innate feelings or instincts about what is moral or immoral will likely continue to change (as will our behavior) since anything that is innate has a biological basis. Most importantly, as we continue to consciously guide our own species’ evolution through genetic engineering, we will have the power to shape human nature into anything we desire. In other words, we aren’t necessarily trapped in a struggle for morality as many religions claim, for we are going to have greater and greater abilities to change our instinctual behavior such that we are naturally inclined to behave in any way that society desires. The key point here is that, as opposed to some religious views which assume that mankind is forever doomed to immoral behavior, science is providing a way out of this supposed predicament.

Final Thoughts

It’s not at all surprising to see certain religious groups highly opposed to science, for there are countless ways that science has been threatening to their world view. Even the fear of death which has likely attracted people to religions for the promise of eternal life is being addressed by science as advances in genetic engineering, medicine, and artificial intelligence work toward increasing life expectancy potentially to the theoretical upper limit (i.e. for as long as the universe is able to support life, given the Second Law of Thermodynamics, etc.).

One striking parallel between many religious claims and the actual efficacy of science is that science truly appears to be providing the ultimate salvation of our species (and whatever species we will become). However, it is being accomplished by taking the ever increasing knowledge acquired over time and addressing every problem we face within the human condition, one by one. While religion has played an important role in history, most notably, in the human quest for truth — it seems clear to me that history has indeed also shown us that the more we accept and use science to learn about the universe, the better chance we have to achieve our goals as our species continually evolves.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

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At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?