Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Difference Between the Moral and the Legal

Left to right: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Buddha, Confucius, Averroes

It’s especially important to differentiate morality and law, inasmuch as discussion of the moral and legal often conflate. On the one hand, the two differ since we believe some legal acts to be immoral, and some laws to be unjust. And even if the law didn’t  prohibit murder, stealing, and the like, we would probably still consider them wrong. This suggests that the two aren’t co-extensive. On the other hand, the two are connected because the law embodies many moral precepts. Legal prohibitions incorporate most of our ordinary moral rules such as those against lying, killing, cheating, raping, and stealing. This suggests there is some connection between the moral and the legal.

Though it’s possible to have morality without law, or law without morality, the two usually go together. Therefore, we suggest that law codifies morality. In other words, the law formulates the culture’s morality into legal codes. Again, not every legal code refers to a moral issue, but most laws do have some moral significance. Though a connection between the moral and legal exists, they clearly aren’t the same things.

While a thing’s illegality may give us a reason not to do the thing, this is a prudential rather than moral reason. In other words, if we are afraid to steal because we might get caught, then we fear punishment, not immorality. Nevertheless, we might offer moral reasons to abide by the law. We could say that we owe it to the state to abide by their laws and that civil disobedience undermines both the moral fabric and our tacit agreement with the state. This was essentially Socrates’ argument against escaping from Athens before his impending execution. But in general, legal arguments aren’t applicable to ethical discussion. Ethicists generally discuss morality, not legality, as will we.

Review of Phil Torres’, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 25, 2016.)

The basic theme of Phil Torres’ new book, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse, is that powerful new technologies threaten the survival of the entire human species. Moreover, belief in religious eschatologies, or end-times narratives, greatly exacerbate the problem. These superstitious, faith-based beliefs greatly increase the probability that our species will either annihilate itself, or fail to anticipate various existential threats because, as technology becomes more powerful, the ability of religious fanatics to realize some of their apocalyptic visions increases. Our predicament then is that “neoteric technologies and archaic belief systems are colliding with potentially catastrophic consequences.” (18)

Now religious believers have been crying that the “end is near” for a long time. Most biblical scholars see Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet, and throughout history many Christians have forecast that the end of the world was imminent. Eschatological beliefs play a large role in Islam as well, and many Muslims believe that Madhi will descend from heaven along with Jesus to usher in the end of the world. While such beliefs are silly, they are not irrelevant. When false beliefs influence us, they also can harm us.

Such considerations lead Torres to differentiate between religious and secular eschatology. Faith and revelation provide the epistemological foundation for supernatural eschatology, while reason, observation and evidence underlie the epistemological foundation of worries about natural threats. It follows then that rational persons should take the latter threats seriously, but not the former. We should worry that asteroids, pathogens, nuclear war, artificial intelligence and the like may destroy, but not worry that Jesus or Allah will. But again believers in religious eschatologies are dangerous, especially if they utilize advanced technologies to usher in their view of the apocalypse.

Yet, despite the real possibility that we will destroy ourselves, Torres argues that we typically underestimate existential risks. We have survived thus far, we reason, so we’ll probably continue to do so. But this is mistaken. For all we know many intelligent civilizations didn’t survive the disruptions caused by their advancing technologies, and superstitious religious apocalyptic visions. How we respond to this tension between secular and religious eschatologies will determine in large part whether we survive and flourish, or go extinct.

Such considerations lead Torres to claim: “This makes the topic of existential risks quite possibly the most important that one could study … everything we care about in the world, in this great experiment called civilization, depends on us preventing an existential catastrophe.” (26) Our descendants might live forever, traverse the universe, and become godlike. Or the universe might expand forever as cold, dark, and lifeless. Given these stakes, the study of existential risks is urgent, especially when you consider there are no second chances when it comes to existential catastrophe. What then are these naturalistic threats to our survival? Torres discusses them in turn.

Some are omnipresent, like the nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Their use could cause nuclear winter and the starvation, disease, or extinction that might follow. Pandemics caused by viruses and bacteria pose another threat, as does bio-terror unleashed by deranged individuals or groups, as well as the simple errors caused by the application of biotechnology. Molecular manufacturing may bring abundance, but may be used for nefarious purposes too. Moreover, out of control nanobots could conceivably destroy the biosphere. Superintelligence is also a danger, as unfriendly, indifferent or even friendly AI might destroy us, either accidentally or on purpose. Furthermore, given that there is a chance that we now live in a simulation, it is possible that we will simply be turned off.

Our interaction with nature may imperil us too. More than 50% of vertebrates have gone extinct in the last fifty years, and we may also be on the verge of a catastrophic collapse of the ecosystem which leaves the planet uninhabitable. In addition, global warming poses an existential threat, as do supervolcanoes, comets and asteroids.

One of the most interesting threats comes from what Torres calls monsters. These are risks caused by things that we cannot currently conceptualize. So there are unintended consequences of what we do, or do not do, and there are natural phenomena that endanger us of which we are unaware. If we do survive for another hundred years, we will probably look back on the present time and realize there were extinction scenarios that we didn’t even think of. But even if we avoid extinction for eons of time, the universe itself seems destined for oblivion, unless our progeny can somehow stop such universal forces.

Torres turns next to the way that religious beliefs about the future negatively affect prudent actions in the present. The most prominent examples are Christian dispensationalist and Islamic eschatologies. Dispensationalism, a set of Evangelical Christian beliefs about the future, demands, for example, that the United States defend Israel unconditionally. It also dictates that Christians be generally antagonistic toward Palestinians and other Arabs. Islamic eschatologies also influence both people and governments while clashing with Christian eschatologies. The problem is that these superstitious religious eschatologies both increase violence between groups now, as well as the probability of a secular apocalypse in the near future.

The perils posed by belief in religious eschatologies are difficult to overstate. Rather than believing that maximizing happiness is the point of life, as secularist tend to do, the religious tend to believe that doing some God’s will is the purpose of life. (Naturally they believe that they have access to the divine mind with their own small ape-like brains!)The problem is that religious beliefs are extraordinarily influential in people’s lives. And consider that by 2050 about 60% of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim.

What do the religious believe about the fate of the universe? More than 40% of Americans believe  that Jesus will probably or definitely return during their lifetime—almost 60% of Evangelical Christians of Americans believe this—while more than 60% of American Evangelicals believe in the Rapture. Moreover, many influential American politicians hold such beliefs. (To take one example, consider how religious conservatives in the American government feel compelled to deny global climate change.) In addition, almost half of all Muslims believe the return of Mahdi will occur during their lifetimes, and nearly the same amount expect to be alive to see Jesus return. Remember again that billions of people are either Christians or Muslims. So even if only a small percentage of them are fanatics determined to inflict catastrophic harm, there would still be millions of such people. And they would be armed with advanced technologies.

Given these many hazards we now face, are there good reasons to believe we can survive? While noted thinkers Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer are optimistic about the future based on past moral progress, Torres is less sanguine. The number of extinction scenarios has increased as our technology has advanced, so inferences from the past about our future survival aren’t helpful. This leads Torres to reject what he calls the “bottleneck hypothesis,” the idea that if we can squeeze through our current situation we’ll be fine. Instead he accepts the “parallel growth hypothesis,” the notion that future technologies will bring about so many new ways to annihilate ourselves that our extinction is practically certain.

Still, despite his misgivings, Torres offers multiple ways we might increase the chances of surviving. The most promising demands that we evolve into a posthuman species. In other words, to have descendants at all humans as we know them must go extinct. And, as Torres notes, this evolutionary transition will have to happen soon before we annihilate ourselves.

Other methods to increase our survivability include: 1) creating superintelligence; 2) colonizing space; 3) staggering technological development; 4)improving education, especially by teaching the critical thinking skills that undermine religious belief; 5) defeating the anti-intellectualism that closes minds; 6) better utilizing female minds; 7) supporting organizations that focus on existential risks; 8) reducing your environmental impact; 9) getting overpopulation under control; and 10) full-fledge revolt if all else fails.

There is little to find fault with in Torres’ analysis. The only thing I might say is that, while I agree that religion is generally as harmful as it is untrue, the secular apocalypse can arrive independent of any belief in a religious eschatology. We might use nuclear or chemical weapons to kill each other because we are greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, or territorial; we might release pathogens or artificial intelligence that inadvertently annihilate us all; or asteroids or supervolcanoes could destroy us because we aren’t intelligent enough to stop them. Even without religious belief, any of this could happen.

So consideration of biological, psychological, social, cultural and economic factors are also important in understanding how we might avoid oblivion. Torres would no doubt agree. But his proposed solution for avoiding the apocalypse—reason, observation, and science over faith, revelation, and religion—works best against the threat posed to our survival by religious beliefs. However, it is less clear how this suggestion helps us avoid the challenges that ensue from human biology and psychology. Even if we augment our intelligence or even become omniscient, this would not be sufficient to assure our survival. I think we would also need to augment our moral faculties to enhance our chances of survival. So becoming posthuman—putting an end to human nature before it puts an end to us—gives us the best chance of their being any future for consciousness. However such recommendations obviously come with their own risks.

In conclusion let me say that Torres’ book is one of the most important ones recently published. It offers a fascinating study of the many real threats to our existence, provides multiple insights as to how we might avoid extinction, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Perhaps what strikes me most about Torres’ book is how deeply it expresses his concern for the fate of conscious life, as well as his awareness of how tenuous consciousness is in the vast immensity of time and space. The author obviously loves life, and hates to see ignorance and superstition imperil it. He implores us to remember how the little light of consciousness that brightens this planet can be quickly extinguished—and that we will only be saved by reason and science. This is Torres’ central message, which he states most eloquently in his stirring conclusion:

While science, philosophy, art, culture, music, literature, poetry, fashion, sports, and all the other objects of civilization make life worth living, avoiding an existential catastrophe makes it possible. This makes eschatology, with its two interacting branches, the most important subject that one could study. Without an understanding of what the risks are before us, without an understanding of how the clash of eschatologies has shaped the course of world history, we will be impotent to defend against the threat of (self-)annihilation … Our situation has always been precarious, but it’s never been as precarious as it is today. If we want our children to have the opportunity of living the Good Life, or even existing at all, it’s essential that we learn to favor evidence over faith, observation over revelation, and science over religion as we venture into a dangerously wonderful future. (249)

The Value of Philosophy

(This article was reprinted in “Church and State,” May 2018)

What is the value of philosophy? To this question, we propose some possible answers. First, it’s natural to wonder, to be inquisitive. Children are marvelous philosophers who never tire of asking questions. However, you may reply that we have no duty to do what’s natural, or that you don’t find it natural to philosophize. Second, philosophizing is pleasurable. We find joy asking questions and considering possibilities. Perhaps that is why Plato called philosophizing “that dear delight.” Nonetheless, you might counter that it doesn’t suit your tastes. Third, we appeal to philosophy’s usefulness. Any kind of knowledge is potentially useful, and if philosophy engenders a bit of knowledge and wisdom, then it’s worthwhile. Nevertheless, you may not value wisdom or knowledge unless it engenders material reward.

Finally, we might argue that philosophical (critical) thinking protects us against unsupported ideology, unjustified authority, unfounded beliefs, baseless propaganda, and questionable cultural values. These forces may manipulate us if we don’t understand them, and can’t think critically about them. This doesn’t require a rejection of cultural values, only a reflection on them. Otherwise, they aren’t our values, ideas, or beliefs—we have accepted them second-hand. To this you might respond that reflection is laborious, that ignorance is bliss, and that trust in authority and tradition maintain culture.

So you can reasonably reject all of our arguments. In the absence of definitive arguments then, individuals must decide for themselves whether philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit. We all decide whether the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, wealth, fame, pleasure or anything else is worth the effort. In the end, to value philosophy we must believe that reflection, wonder, questioning, and contemplation enrich human life; we must believe with Socrates that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” And I believe that.

Questions about the value of philosophy also intertwine with issues concerning education in general. What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical skills? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered the techniques necessary to practice their profession. Is that sufficient to being a good nurse or physician? Most of us would say no. One also need traits like insight, compassion, and communication skills, things we may learn from philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, history—subjects that teach about life and people—or we might learn such things from our family and friends. This suggests that real education is more than technical training.

To better understand this point ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, and learn the valuable lesson that nothing worthwhile is attained without effort.  And through this process, our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to be happy and wise. True education transforms our minds. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, put it this way:

The [person] who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of [their] age or [their] nation, and from convictions which have grown up in [their] mind without the cooperation or consent of [their] deliberate reason. To such a [person] the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy…. removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt…

Finally, consider the view of the great twentieth-century historian and philosopher Will Durant, who in the preface to Pleasures of Philosophy said this about the purpose of philosophy:

Philosophy will not fatten our purses…For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office, and yet all the while remain ignorantly naïve, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire, and blindly miserable?

Our culture is superficial today, and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanisms and poor in purposes … We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we don’t know and haven’t thought, where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge, which has made us drunk with our power. And we shall not be saved without wisdom.

I can’t provide a knockdown argument for philosophy’s value if we measure value only in terms of wealth. If that’s all matters to you then the life of the mind will be irrelevant. But if what’s really valuable are things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, friendship, wisdom, and love … then I’m glad I fell in love with philosophy almost fifty years ago.

What is the Difference Between Philosophy, Science, and Religion?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 25, 2016.)

In order to more clearly conceptualize Western philosophy’s territory, let’s consider it in relation to two other powerful cultural forces with which it’s intertwined: religion and science. We may (roughly) characterize the contrast between philosophy and religion as follows: philosophy relies on reason, evidence, and experience for its truths; religion depends on faith, authority, grace and revelation for truth. Of course, any philosophical position probably contains some element of faith, inasmuch as reasoning rarely gives conclusive proof; and religious beliefs often contain some rational support, since few religious persons rely completely on faith.

The problem of the demarcation between the two is made more difficult by the fact that different philosophies and religions—and philosophers and religious persons within similar traditions—place dissimilar emphasis on the role of rational argument. For example, Eastern religions traditionally place less emphasis on the role of rational arguments than do Western religions, and in the east philosophy and religion are virtually indistinguishable. In addition, individuals in a given tradition differ in the emphasis they place on the relative importance of reason and faith. So the difference between philosophy and religion is one of emphasis and degree. Still, we reiterate what we said above: religion is that part of the human experience whose beliefs and practices rely significantly on faith, grace, authority, or revelation. Philosophy gives little, if any, place to these parts of human experience. While religion generally stresses faith and trust, philosophy honors reason and doubt.

Distinguishing philosophy from science is equally difficult because many of the questions vital to philosophers—like the cause and origin of the universe or a conception of human nature—increasingly have been taken over by cosmologists, astrophysicists, and biologists. Perhaps methodology best distinguishes the two, since philosophy relies on argument and analysis rather than empirical observation and experiment. In this way, philosophy resembles theoretical mathematics more than the natural sciences. Still, philosophers utilize evidence derived from the sciences to reformulate their theories.

Remember also that, until the nineteenth century, virtually every prominent philosopher in the history of western civilization was either a scientist or mathematician. In general, we contend that science explores areas where a generally accepted body of information and methodology directs research involved with unanswered scientific questions. Philosophers explore philosophical questions without a generally accepted body of information

Philosophical analysis also ponders the future relationship between these domains. Since the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, science has increasingly expropriated territory once the exclusive province of both philosophy and religion. Will the relentless march of science continue to fill the gaps in human knowledge, leaving less room for the poetic, the mystical, the religious, and the philosophical? Will religion and philosophy be archaic, antiquated, obsolete, and outdated? Or will there always be questions of meaning and purposes that can never be grasped by science? Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, elucidated the relationship between these three domains like this: “All definite knowledge … belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a no man’s land, exposed to attack from both sides; this no man’s land is philosophy.”

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study

(Note – I wrote about this study previously here.)

The longest running study of human development by Harvard researchers confirms that satisfying personal relationships are the key to human happiness. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise

Robert Waldinger, who heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times in the last few months. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships.

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is how we find real happiness.

All of this reminds me of Sartre’s dictum that “hell is other people.” While this can sometimes be true, as a general pronouncement it is surely false. We are social animals and through engagement with others we encounter one of the very few things that gives our lives meaning.

Finally, there was a book published about the study in 2012 by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant about which I wrote previously.

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study