Antinatalism and the Right to be Thrown Into this World

A fair trade is always based on a sense of mutual consent: you want something + I want something = let’s trade. That’s fair, right? The participants can deliberately weigh the pro’s and con’s of the trade and decide – based upon this information – whether to take part in the exchange or not. That’s a choice: the choice between doing and not doing something.

How different is it for the ‘choice‘ to be born? Well, there isn’t really much of a choice there, is there? No-one has asked you: ‘Hey Peter. You want to be born?’ You don’t have this choice; you don’t have a right to decide for yourself if you want to be thrown onto this earth. No-one has asked you whether you want to experience the suffering – and the joy – that you do. No-one. You are born. Period.

There is a philosophical position called ‘antinatalism‘ that assigns a negative value to birth. This makes it different from all the ‘christian’ doctrines that praise birth to be a miraculous phenomenon; a true gift from above. There are different arguments in favor of antinatalism. One – put forward by Schopenhauer – is that live is always filled with more pain than pleasure; therefore a living person would have always been better of if he wouldn’t have been born at all. After all, Schopenhauer claims,

A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.

Other arguments for antinatalism point to the lack of autonomy or freedom of choice involved in the ‘decision’ to be born. See it as a trade in which, no matter what your preferences might be, the deal will always take place. Peter Wessel Zapffe – a Norwegian philosopher – said about this,

In accordance with my conception of life, I have chosen not to bring children into the world. A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation.

This decision – the choice whether or not to bring children into the world – is of course a choice you have to make for yourself: do you find it okay to throw a person into this world without ever knowing – or being able to know – whether or not this person wants to be thrown into this world? It you do, you are likely to be a natalist: someone who puts a positive value on human reproduction. And if most people on this world would be natalists, there are some problems we will inevitably run into. And these problems are getting closer and closer.

I am talking of course about the ever increasing world population. In 2011 the 7th billion person was added to our world’s population. It is expected that in 2050 this number will have increased to 11 billion and – given that the fertility rate keeps constant (an average of 2.5 children per women) – the 27 (!) billion will be reached in 2100. It seems save to say that these numbers are going to pose some problems. Events like a Malthusian catastrophe – a situation in which the increase in food production can’t keep up with the increase in the world population – might happen if we don’t do something. Darwin and his survival of the fittest-doctrine seem – if we continue like this – to become ever more apparent in this world of ours.

But let’s keep the ‘logistical’ problems aside, and focus ourselves solely on the (philosophical) issues attached to (anti)natalism. All these issues culminate into one question: is it okay for anyone to throw creatures like him- or herself into the world, without having their approval? Whenever we engage in other kinds of decisions – like the trading of collector cards – we firmly believe that mutual consent is a prerequisite for ethical conduct. So why don’t we apply this same principle to child birth? Surely: we might want children; we might want to reproduce ourselves because we find children cute or we find that this is the most reasonable thing to do. But what about the children’s self-determination? Shouldn’t we pay any attention to that? Or are we just so self-centered and so egocentric that we don’t even care about throwing other people into a world without even knowing – or caring – whether this is what they would have wanted to happen? It’s obviously impossible to ask children whether they would like to be born before them being born, but why would we – based upon that knowledge – decide to do – instead of not to do – it?

What do you think?

Why Are there Only Men and Women?

Have you ever heard of the New Mexico whiptail? Probably not. Well, the New Mexico whiptail is the only animal species – that I know – whose members all have the same gender: all New Mexico whiptails are female. There is no need for mating with male New Mexico whiptails in order for the females to lay eggs, which is a good thing since there are no male New Mexico whiptails. This made me wonder: why are there so few species having only one gender? Why do we human beings, and so many other animals, need two ‘versions’ of our species in order to prevent ourselves from extinction? Why not three or four? Is this number utterly random? Or might there be some reason behind it?

Before thinking about this question, I saw absolutely no reason for there to be this dichotomy of men and women ruling the animal kingdom. I always thought to myself, ‘Why can’t there just be one “type” of human – which we could then simply call “human” – that, just like the whiptails, gives birth every now and then, without requiring any “intervention” of a different sex? What would be wrong with that?’

Maybe it’s inadequate to ask whether it is ‘right or wrong’ for there to be both men and women. Nature, after all, doesn’t seem to care much about being morally right or wrong. Why else would it give AIDS to babies, who have done absolutely no harm to this world of ours? It is more likely that – assuming there is a reason explanation – there is a biological explanation for there the widespread division between men and women.

So let’s see: what could be nature’s ‘purpose’ in making two types of human? How could that ever be beneficial for so many animal species – including our own? Well, the distinction could be nothing more than a very fundamental evolutionary developed instance of Adam Smith‘s idea of division of labor. A division that appeared to be working so well that nature extinguished almost all species not conforming to this division. However, for this evolutionary explanation to be true, it would have to be the case that men and women together should be able to achieve more than only men or only women could ever do. Let’s take a look at that.

One could claim that a division of labor in which the woman carries the baby and the man gathers food (for the woman, the baby and himself) could benefit the reproduction chances of both the woman and the man. Because think about it: chasing swine while being pregnant does not seem to be very convenient. In this case, having the woman at home – safely warming herself at the fire – and having the man out hunting – not having to worry about endangering the life of his unborn child – could be a set-up benefiting both parties.

Another explanation could be that the existence of both men and women provides both parties with some sort of purpose in life: the purpose to form little groups, called ‘families’, thereby creating structure into – what otherwise might have been – chaos in the animal kingdom, or an utterly meaningless life; a structure that would make every creature better of. Because, again, think about it: what would the world be like in case there was only one type of purposeless creature wandering around? Wouldn’t that lead to an utterly unstructured and – therefore – unsafe environment? The families that provide the confines in which each one of us can life relatively safe have fallen away.

If that would indeed be the case, it might have been evolutionary beneficial for our species to ‘develop’ the distinction between men and women; simply in order to program the species members with a goal: to create that save little world they can call ‘my family’.

However, none of these explanations explains why there are only two sexes; maybe humanity would be even more organized – and even better off – if there were three, four or even more sexes. So why only two? Well, maybe nature ‘decided’ to go for only two because creating more than two might have complicated things a little too much. Now it’s at least clear what everyone has got to do: find a man or a woman, make a family, and live happily ever after.

But what do you think?

To Kill or Not to Kill, That’s the Question

Imagine the following situation: you are walking your morning walk along the primary school in your neighborhood. You walk past the playground, where children are playing until the bell rings and school starts. And then suddenly, out of the blue, a man enters the playground: he is wearing a machine gun. A loaded machine gun, to be exact. He aims his gun at one the children and yells: ‘The children of today will be the corpses of tomorrow. This is God’s revenge for the tormenting betrayal of the West.’ And while he is pointing his gun at a little girl, you recognize that he has dropped his handgun. You pick up the handgun, and see that it is loaded. In the corner of your eye, you see a child peeing its paints, while sounds of crying and terror fill your ears. You aim the gun at the man and think to yourself: Shall I kill him? Or not?

Because what should you do? There are two competing philosophical positions that might assist you in making this decision. But before knowing which position to choose, you should answer to following question: should you strive to maximize the overall level of ‘happiness’, irrespective of the act you have to undertake (killing someone in this case), or should you stick to absolute moral values, regardless of what the immediate consequences of doing so might be? This is the decision between utilitarianism and absolute ethics.

Utilitarianism claims that all actions that increase the overall level of good in the world, the level of good caused by an action minus the level of suffering caused by this is action, is a good action. You can see what, according to this view, you should do in the example: kill that guy. After all, the suffering he will cause the children is (presumably) much more than the suffering he will incur by being killed. It’s a tradeoff: one human life versus many more. Nothing more, and nothing less.

However, is this how we usually perform moral actions? By just checking whether our actions will maximize the overall level of good? That’s not what we usually associate with acting morally, right? You help your friend because you feel like you want to help him, not because it increases the overall level of utility, do you? Or are we indeed nothing more than walking and talking calculators; adding and subtracting gains and losses in a split second? And if so, how can we be sure about the number we include in our calculation? Imagine that the guy in our example isn’t intending to kill any child. We might assume that he is going to kill children, but are sure about that? He might have just been drunk and confused, but not planning to do any physical harm. So in this case we wouldn’t increase the of overall level of utility by killing him, right? My point is: you don’t know what the consequences of someone’s actions will be, until you have have witnessed them. So how are you going to take this into account?

The competing view is derived from Kant’s moral philosophy, in which the notion of the Categorical Imperative plays a crucial role. According to this Categorical Imperative, you should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can and, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. This law has nothing to do with increasing the overall level of good in the world; you should ask yourself what the world would look like if everyone would perform the action that you were considering to do (like killing someone), and you would have to check whether this is a world you could live and whether this is a world you want to live in. If your action doesn’t meet these requirements, it’s an immoral action and you shouldn’t perform it.

So, what if we would apply the Categorical Imperative to our case of the (potential) child murderer? What if everyone of us would kill someone who they expect is going to kill people? Would that be a world we could and want to live in? Well, it might not be a world we want to live in. After all, as we’ve just seen, we don’t know for sure whether the man will indeed kill the children; and if would be a little harsh to kill someone because of our inadequate projections, would it? But, more importantly, acting according to the aforementioned maxim (“kill someone who you expect is going to kill people”) doesn’t seem to b a world we could live in. After all, if you are planning on killing someone, the man with the gun in this example, you should be killed also, right? But who’s going to do that? And shouldn’t that person be killed either? An infinite regress will result. So you see: it is impossible to make this law into a universal law; a law that everyone of us should (always) stick to.

Ethics is not so easy. So, what do you think?

Elections and the Duty to be Genuine

Voting: the only legitimate manner in a democratic society for distributing power. The question is: how do we want to distribute this power? Do we want liberals in charge and hope for the government to back off? Or would we rather see our state becoming more social; helping those that have been unfortunate? In this relatively long article, I want to make claim in favor of being anti-social, or at least not being disingenuously social. But why would that be a good thing? In order to see that, we first have to understand a little about free markets and prices.

Maybe you have heard the name of Friedrich Hayek. He was one of the, if the not the most, prominent economists of the 20th century. Hayek was a leading figure in the battle for free markets. He condemned intervention by the government in the market, and he condemned central planning by the government even more. By “central planning” I am referring to the state deciding where its resources should be allocated to. The reason Hayek objected against central planning was as follows: Hayek believed that the economy was incredibly complex; that there is an infinite amount of interests that have to be dealt with. And, Hayek said, it is impossible for a state to get to know all the interests and all of the individual preferences of its citizens. That is, it is impossible for a state to know that John likes shoes and that he is prepared to pay a lot money in order to buy some, and that Susan absolutely hates shoes and doesn’t want to pay any money in order to buy some.

The only manner, according to Hayek, by which to get a clear insight into the tremendous complexity of people’s preferences is through the market. Or, to be more specific, through the price that comes about in the market. Only by taking a look at the price that comes about through totally unhindered supply and demand, we would be able to come to grips with the (possibly) conflicting preferences of society’s members. And it is not just that the market informs us about the value of goods: it also regulates buyers’ and sellers’ behaviors.

You can see why central planning doesn’t provide this opportunity to extract all the relevant information from its citizens: there is no price mechanism that can take care of the interplay of individual preferences, and make sure that goods (or services) are distributed in a fair manner. Thus, it is only when the state starts messing around, when it takes control of the market process, that the only source of tremendously valuable information get’s ruined.

I want to take a look at Hayek’s explanation of the price as being the most perfect indicator of the individual preferences of the members of society. That, through the market mechanism, each member of society can obtain all the information (s)he needs in order to make a reasonable decision. Thus, and I am sorry if I am repeating myself, if every member of society would act according to his or her set of desires, the market would take care of the rest; the prices will come about in such a manner that everyone’s interests are taken care of. This is the closest we would be capable of getting to know all the relevant information required to allocate resources perfectly.

Now, let’s imagine that we would apply Hayek’s free market idea to the election process in a democratic society. The process in which the citizens of a state decide who they want that represents them in parliament. We could interpret the number of votes a party receives to be equal to the notion of price in a free market, and the parties people vote for to be an expression of their individual preferences. But this is not “just” an expression of their individual preferences; it is the most complete expression attainable. Parliament is, given that all of society’s members act in line with their true beliefs about how society should be, a direct representation of the preferences of society. And it this representation that could have never been attained by even slightly deviating from a fully genuine voting system. The only difference between an economy and politics seems that, instead of the price, the resulting equilibrium is the distribution of seats in parliament.

So, what are the implications of this observation? First of all, a rather obvious implication is that dictatorial regimes can impossibly posses all the relevant information in order to distribute its resources (the seats in parliament and thus, indirectly, the state’s money) in perfect harmony with the complexity of the preferences of the state’s members. Another, less obvious, implication is that each member of society should be completely genuine in expressing his or her individual preferences in the election process. That is, we should not vote according to the preferences of our mother or daughter, or not even because of our “empathy” with the sick, unless this empathy is genuinely meant by the voting person. If not, the ideal of a perfect representation of society has become unattainable.

Thus, the moral of this story is, don’t be disingenuous in expressing your vote. Don’t vote for a party if you don’t genuinely consider this to be the best possible option. Don’t vote for a party because society finds this the “most decent thing to do”. Because it is only by being fully genuine about what you believe to be right or wrong that all individual preferences can be listened to and processed in the market mechanism called election.

But what do you think?

The Mind: What Are You?

What are you? Are you the body I am talking to? The collection of cells sitting in front of your computer, clustering for long enough in order for it to be given its own identity? Or are you something else? Are you the something that lies within your body? A something that is far less tangible or even intangible? Is the real you some kind of spirit? We feel like we are more than just a collection of cells, right? But can there actually be something like a spirit inside our bodies? I mean: how would this intangible spirit ever be able to control our bodily – and thus physical – motions? How can something intangible make something tangible move? Let’s take a look at that.

It’s a quest that is underway for hundreds of years now: the quest to find the true nature of the mind, the key to who we are. And by the mind I am not (only) referring to human intelligence, since the search for explaining intelligence is for the biggest part about totally different questions. These are questions like: what is intelligence? Does our intelligence lie – as a group of people called “the cognitivists” proclaim – in our ability to observe distinct symbols, transform these symbols into symbolic structures and extract meaning from these symbolic structures? Or resides our intelligence – as “the connectionists” claim – within the connections between the neurons in our brains, which makes intelligence a inherently distributed property?

These are interesting questions but none of them touch upon the most important issue: what exactly is the mind? Because it is in this mind of ours that the answer to who we are might be found. Our minds do not merely contain our ability to be intelligent. After all, computers might be considered to be intelligent as well; intelligent in the sense of being capable of detecting and manipulating symbolic structures. The mind seems to go further than this. The mind is about what, assuming that there is something like that, makes us different from inanimate objects. It questions the very nature of our existence. It questions what it is that makes you you and me me. It is about what makes you different from a tree or a mobile telephone. Besides the fact that we believe that we are different from a tree or a mobile telephone of course.

However, isn’t it just this ability of ours to reflect upon who we are and what we do that is what we consider to be our mind? The mind as some kind of power to reflect upon our animalistic urges and being capable of intervening if considered to be necessary? Maybe, but this still doesn’t seem to be much of an answer to the question of what our mind actually is. It merely describes in what manner our minds might differ from our animalistic urges.

Maybe we should take a look at how the mind might have come into existence. Let’s see what would happen if we would follow the biological route: it might be that, at some point in time while a fetus is in the womb of its mother, some kind of complexity threshold in the fetus’ brain is reached that triggers an ever recurring neural signal; some kind of signal that can – at least partially – be directed by an “autonomous” entity: the mind. But this observation immediately raises many new questions. Let’s say, for example, that we would indeed be able to control in some sense the neural activities within our brain; that we would be able to steer our neurons, and thereby our bodies that are connected to the neurons by strings of nerves. Then the question that comes to mind is: where does this autonomy of our minds lie? It must be somewhere inside of the neural activities, right? But then: where did these neural activities come from, given that they are “different” from the non-autonomous or non-mind like brain activities? And if these special neural activities driving our “free will”, or that part of our human brains that is responsible for our seemingly autonomous actions, need to be present in order for the brain to be able to send out its “free will” signals, then what is pushing these signals? New neurons again?

I haven’t found a satisfying answer yet. Therefore I ask you: what do you think? Do you think that there is some kind of spirit inside of us that is fundamentally separated from our human bodies, in the dualistic sense that Descartes proclaimed? Or do you think that the human mind is nothing more than a byproduct of our neural activities, because of which it is fully intertwined with our physical existence? And if the latter would be the case, how come that we seem to be able to control this physical existence of ours, without having some kind of autonomous spirit responsible for this? And if the first would be the case, how would it be possible for an intangible spirit to make a connection with the tangible life we, because of our bodies, are living? How is the connection made between these two seemingly incompatible worlds? That is philosophy, and that is interesting.

Note: if you have found this article interesting, you might also enjoy this one.

Does The Truth Exist?

What is it that we humans beings truly know? About what are we absolutely certain? And will it ever be possible to know everything? And, if so, how could we know that have come to know everything? These are fascinating but difficult questions and trying to answer them all at once is very likely to lead to little result and a firm headache. Therefore we will just pick one of them, and that is: does the truth exist?

We always see the world through our own eyes. Even when we are trying – like I am doing right now – to develop a meta-perspective upon how we as a species should think about ourselves, we will never be able to become fully detached from our own inherently limited points of view within which all of our beliefs reside. And it is because of this inability of ours to transcend ourselves that coming to know how things “truly” are seems to be an impossible task. That is: impossible for us human beings. If we would be Gods, it might have been a different story.

But what now? What if we cannot ever touch upon “the truth as it truly is”? Well, we could of course fall back upon Cartesian skepticism with its beautiful credo of: “I can doubt everything but the fact that it is me who is doubting.” It is in this one little sentence that Descartes describes what it to be human. It is also in this one little sentence that Descartes has lain down the fundamentals of what might be the single most admirable human trait: the trait of humbleness. A trait that is rooted in our fundamental and inescapable ignorance. A trait that fosters respect for each other’s (different) ideas about the way the world works. We are all the same in our ignorance; so don’t take your own ideas too seriously. But given that there is nothing we cannot doubt – expect the fact that it is us who are doubting – what are the implications of this observation with regard to our quest for the “truth”?

Let’s see. The human quest for knowledge – or the “truth” – is the most praiseworthy and impossible journey we have ever embarked on. But even though the residence of “truth” might be impossible to find, we still have no reason to stop our efforts for obtaining this holy grail of knowledge. I even dare to say that it is a great good that we simple human beings will never come to touch upon “the truth as it really is”. Since, it is for as long as there is no single “truth” pressing down upon our human souls that we will be able to create our own truths. But that seems kind of vague, right? What does it mean to “create our own truths”? And isn’t that idea contradictory to the core meaning of the notion of “truth”?

It seems fair to assume that each and every person on this planet of ours has got a certain set of beliefs about the way the world works and the way the world should work. And although none of us will ever come to know whether our beliefs are true in the absolute sense of the word, we still consider ourselves to have reasons for believing our beliefs to be true. And it is just because of these reasons that we consider our beliefs to be true. The reasons act as the foundation on top of which our beliefs hold true. And it is throughout the course of our lives that you and I are likely to have developed different sets of beliefs about the world we are living in. You might believe that people are essentially good, while I might believe that they are essentially bad. In other words: both of us have – throughout our lives – developed a grounding consisting of reasons because of which we have come to believe what we consider to be true. This explains why someone always has to come up with “reasons” in order to convince another person of the truthfulness of ideas. Since it is only because of these reasons that beliefs come to be true. Without these reasons the other person would literally have no reason to believe your idea to be true.

This observation shows that “truthfulness” is a dynamic property. One year you might consider a certain idea to be true, while the following year you might consider this same idea to be false (think about you believing in Santa Claus while you were a kid). That is to say that, by experiencing changes in your reasons for believing something, you simply cannot help but changing your ideas as well.

Therefore the relevant question becomes: how do we come to believe what we believe? I personally think that there is a huge amount of arbitrariness playing a role in this. I mean: we haven’t decided to be born in the country in which we actually have been born, did we? But – assuming that you live in the Western World – how do you think that your view on the world would have been if you would have been born in – let’s say – Africa? How would your view on the world have been if you would not have been educated in the manner that you are? How would your view on the world have been if you as a child had to work 80 hours per week in order for your family to be able to survive?

I want to ask you the following question, and it is a very important one: given that you would indeed have been born in Africa and given that you would have developed a set of beliefs that is different from the one you are having today, would this make the beliefs you would have had if you would have been born in Africa any less true than the ones you are having today? I do not think so. And that is where the arbitrariness of our notions of the “truth” comes in.

What I have tried to show in this article is that our beliefs are not true simply because we believe them to be true. It would indeed have been very satisfying to know that our beliefs about the the way the world works are the ones that are true and that the beliefs of others are just plain nonsense. But the truth of the matter is that in the end, everything comes down to faith. Whether it is – as can be read in a latter article of mine – within the realm of science or religion, it does not matter. The last step – the step of faith – always has to be taken by yourself, and it is that step that makes your beliefs come to be true.

Don’t you believe this is fascinating? The idea that everything – all the things we consider to be true and all the things that we consider to be false – is just a matter of believing? And that this is all we will ever know? I most certainly do. Believe me.

We Are the Masters of Time

I am sure you know the feeling: you have been focused at completing a task – let’s say studying – and then, when you look up from your desk and take a look at your watch, you see that a couple of hours have passed. A couple of hours! It feels like you have just started. But, when you take a closer look at the situation, you come to realize that it is not just that time seemed to go faster while you were deeply involved in the activity: it is more like the entire notion of time did not exist at all.

While you are 100 percent focused on doing something – whatever this ‘something’ might be – nothing outside of that something seems to exist. No outer world, no expectations, no time. Not even you. Only the world of the something ‘you’ are immersed in seems to exist. But what are the implications of observing this momentarily ‘non-existence of time’ for our common perception of time?

Let’s start by picking an activity in which your consciousness is put outside of the scope of time: sleeping. When you wake up from a good night of sleep, you have no idea – given that you did not look at the clock – how long you have actually slept. A period of time that in reality might have spanned a couple of hours might feel like it spanned only a couple of minutes. An even more extreme example would be a comatose patient: patients who awake from a coma usually have no clue how long they have actually been in the coma.

But it is not only while you are sleeping that time seems to play tricks on us. Also in our daily lives we are constantly bothered by its remarkable properties. For think about it: how slow does time go when you are waiting for your dentist, and he is already ten minutes late? Ten minutes can feel like eternity, right? But what if you are hanging out with your friends, laughing and having a good time, but you know that you have to leave in ten minutes? Then ten minutes might feel like a second. And you know who also pointed out this weird feature of time? The same man that shocked the world with his theory of relativity: mister Albert Einstein. This is what he had to say about our experience of time:

When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.

Although our experience of time – and even time itself – might be relative, there is one aspect that remains constant throughout all frames: the seemingly uni-directionality of time. For it seems like time is always going forward, to the future. But even though nature pushes us forward in time, we can decide where in time we want to be: do you want to be in ‘the now’, or would you rather dive into your past or dream about the future? It is your consciousness that determines where in time you are situated mentally. It is pretty much like the movie The Matrix: your body stays put on planet earth, while your mind lives a life on its own. What this observation shows is that time does not equal the hands on the clock. Our perception of time is not always moving in fixed units in a fixed direction. The fact that we have invented the notion of time because it is convenient within our daily lives does not prevent us from experiencing time in any form we want.

But of course: we cannot live our lives totally detached from the ordinary – constantly forward moving – property of time. After all, our human bodies are earthly constructs and will break down after a quite predictable period of time. However, within the fixed time frame we have been offered, the unit of time is variable: within this fixed time frame a minute does not have to feel like a minute and a couple of hours can feel like a couple of seconds. Within this fixed time frame we are the masters of time.

What is your notion of time?

How to Interpret the Notion of Chance?

We all think we’re familiar with the notion of ‘chance‘. But are we really? And if so, what are the consequences we should attach to our interpretation of chance? For instance, are chances purely descriptive in nature – in the sense that they refer only to past events – or do they have a predictive power that might be based upon some kind of underlying ‘natural’ force producing the structured data? And why would it even matter how to interpret chance? Let’s take a look behind the curtains of a probabilistic interpretation of chance, right into its philosophical dimensions.

On average, 12,3 per 100.000 inhabitants of the USA get killed in a traffic accident. Also, 45 percent of Canadian men are expected to develop some form of cancer at some point in their lives. So, what do you think about these data? First of all: does the fact that 12.3 out of 100.000 inhabits get killed in traffic tell you anything about the likelihood that you are going to be killed in traffic? I guess not. It is merely a descriptive notion invented to condense a large amount of data into an easy to read figure. It says nothing about your future, or anyone’s future for that matter. After all: you will either die in traffic or you will not, and you will either get cancer or you will not. At this point in your life you are absolutely clueless which way it will turn out to be. For all you know, it might be a 50-50 kind of situation.

Although this interpretation of chance might feel counter-intuitive, it seems a more reasonable position to take than believing you are expected to die in traffic with a probability of 12,3/100.000. You are after all a unique person and you don’t have 100.000 ways to go. You either go one way, or the other. It is only by adding huge amounts of data together that scientists can come to compressed figures (like chances), thereby describing what has happened in the past. But description does not equal prediction, and totality does not equal uniqueness.

What are the implications of this manner of looking at chance for our interpretation of science? What about the inferences scientists make based upon data, like the one about cancer I mentioned above? Are they making unjustified claims by posing that 45 percent of men are expected to die of cancer? I believe this might indeed be the case. In case scientists want to be fully justified in getting at their conclusions, they should do away with any claims regarding the likelihood of any event happening in the future. That seems to be the only manner for staying true for 100 percent to the data available.

But watch it: this is not to say that the scientific enterprise has lost its value. Science can still be the vehicle best-suited for gathering huge amounts of data about the world, and for presenting these data in such a way that we are able to get a decent glimpse of what is going on in the world around us. And that is where – I believe – the value of science resides: in the provision of data in an easy to understand manner. Not in the making of predictions, or inferences of any kind, as many scientists might happen to believe: just the presentation of data, a job which is difficult enough in itself.

You could say that I am not justified in make this claim. You could back up your argument by saying that a difference should be made between the case of ’45 percent of men are expected to get some form of cancer’ and ‘one specific man has a 45 percent chance of getting cancer’. Where the latter might be untrue, because of the fact that one will either get cancer or not, the former might be more justified. That is because it divides a group into units that will either get cancer or not. However, although this might be true to a certain extent, it still seems to be an unjustified manner to make predictions about the way the world will turn out to be. After all, considering 100 men to be the unit of selection is only to replace the level of the individual with the level of a group. On an even higher level of abstraction, one could consider the 100 men to be one unit, which subsequently would make the conclusions reached unjustified again.

Also, when choosing to make predictions on the level of the group, why does one choose the higher- instead instead of the lower level? Why wouldn’t it be okay to say that, instead of human beings, cells are the true units that either get cancer or not? That’s only a difference in the level of analysis, right?

So, next time you read somewhere that 99 of the 100 people fail in achieving something, interpret this for what it is: a description of what has happened in the past that can inform you in making the decision about what you should do right now. So don’t interpret this as meaning that you only have a one percent chance of being able to achieve a certain goal, because that would be a totally unjustified inference to make: an inference that goes way beyond what the data can support. And don’t consider a scientific fact to be a prediction about the future. Consider it for what it is: a useful description of the past, but no legitimate claim about the future.

But what do you think?

Why Are We Here?

It’s time to take a look at what might be the most mysterious question we human beings have to face: why are we here? When you start thinking about it, you immediately seem to stumble upon a wide variety of different – yet equally unsatisfying – answers. It doesn’t matter from what angle you approach the issue: you won’t be able to crack it. However, despite this seemingly discouraging answer, it doesn’t harm to give a go, right? Nah, probably not.

There are many different views about why we are here on this earth of ours. One “branch” of human thinking considers religion to be the foundation upon which the answer to this fundamental question is built. And although I am not a religious person, I cannot call it inconceivable to feel the urge to base your faith upon a higher power. I even dare to say that it is a natural human inclination to try to grasp the world we are living in to the fullest extent possible. And for that matter, religion seems to be a great tool for avoiding the madness of feeling powerless; for avoiding the feeling that we will never come to understand what we are doing here on this earth of ours. But more about religion in another article.

Since religion is not the only “option” available. There also is a completely different branch of human thinking that – through the centuries – has gathered many adherents. A branch to which the “enlightened” Western civilization adheres; a branch of human reasoning that says farewell to each and every inch of uncertainty; the branch that encompasses true reason and intelligence. I am talking of course about science. And if you caught me talking in a slightly cynical manner about the nobleness of our scientific enterprise, you are right. I don’t necessarily agree with the mindset of “let’s take a look at the facts” in order to end an argument. That is, a mindset of giving science the monopoly on the production of facts. Since how true are the facts if we do not call them facts anymore? If we just consider them to be products of human thinking and creativity?

But let’s take a closer look at the endeavors of religion on the one hand and science on the other. In what way do the two fundamentally differ from each other? Do they even differ from each other? Isn’t it true that both of them proclaim to know what is true and what is not? Isn’t it true that both parties believe that the manner in which they believe – whether it is adhering to the word of God or Allah, or gathering data and coming to conclusions – is not only the only way in which the truth will come to us, but is also the only morally right way to do it? “How can people ignore the word of God? Don’t they see that this is the way to act?” Or, “Why believe in the word of God when it is so obvious that the only truth there is can be obtained through the scientific enterprise? Science is after all the paragon of human reason.”

It seems to be – as it is with a lot of matters in life – very much dependent upon the paradigm you live in what your notion of truth or right and wrong might be. What is the neighborhood you grew up in? What are the ideas you have been taught at school? What do your friends and family belief? All these components determine the way you look at the world and the way you interpret the information you obtain from your external environment.

But what if you aren’t satisfied with the solutions brought forth by religion or science? What is you do not feel at ease about both of these proclaimed approximations of the way the world works?

Let me tell you a story. A few months ago, I was visiting a guest lecture from a Stanford University Professor at the university I am studying. The professor seemed to be a very knowledgeable man who spoke about topics like dark matter, very small particles, general relativity and other notions I hardly knew – and know – anything about. Although I did not fully understand everything he said, I could see that he was very passionate about – as he said – “coming closer and closer to discovering the true origins of our solar system”. His team at the University of Stanford had – by making use of satellites – been able to measure the activities in our solar system as they happened “within seconds after The Big Bang”.

At the end of the lecture, there was an opportunity for asking the professor some questions. When no-one seemed to make an effort to ask the professor a question, I decided to give it a go. Although I did not know anything about neutrinos or matters of those sorts, I knew what I wanted to ask:

“Sir, can you please tell me what happened before The Big Bang?”

Of course the professor didn’t know. After all, how could he? No-one knows. But it seemed to be the appropriate question to put everything into perspective. To show that there will always be a step further. That there will always be another cause for what we consider to be the beginning. But don’t get me wrong. I certainly do not believe that we should stop our quests in search for the ultimate foundations of knowledge. Both science and religion are great goods for our society. Besides all the economies being propelled by scientific discoveries and consequently the wealth we live in, science and religion provide us with food for thought. They allow us to dream about what might be. They give us purpose. What more could we wish for?

I am curious about what you guys think: can we know why we are here?

Happiness and Ignorance or Appreciation and Wisdom?

As John Stuart Mill said in his Utilitarianism,

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

The question that immediately comes to mind after reading this quotation is: Is this true? Is wisdom truly worth more than satisfaction? Would someone truly rather be happy and ignorant than face the absurdity and meaningless of life, and thereby touching upon – what might – be the ‘true’ nature of our existence? In other words: a happy fool or an enlightened absurdist, what to choose?

You can look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to be wiped from this earth within – at most – a few decades,’ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here, and I’ll probably never figure it out’ or ‘Does what I am about to do today contribute anything to the course of humanity?’ Each of these questions seems to come from a very reasonable reflection on life. Philosophy, being the human quest for wisdom, should not turn walk away from questions like these, even though they might turn out to be unanswerable or depressing. Philosophy is not a quest that should be focused on creating finished products, like carpentry or painting. Philosophy, like any attempt to obtain ‘the truth’, is a never-ending activity, whose value resides within calming down our feelings of despair. It might be comparable to drugs, but instead of deciding not to face the absurdity of life by lowering one’s state of consciousness, one tries to convince one’s consciousness that there must be a road to certainty; a road that one, in blinding naivety, hopes to stumble upon. This is the life of the absurdist.

But there is another way to live. You could look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’ve got to hurry up, I’ve got to be at work at 8 o’clock,’ ‘I still have to tell John that he has to cook dinner tonight, since I will be home late’ and ‘Oh it’s Tuesday! That means that there will be soccer on television tonight!’ You could force yourself to try and turn off the existential, reflective part of your mind and commit to living the robotic or auto-pilot-like life. You could try to become immersed in the rat-race called life to such an extent that all of your thinking power is required just for sticking to your rat-race-like planning. There is no time for reflection; all your time is needed for action. Life consists of the ever recurring 9 to 5 cycles stringed together by knots of transient and superficial moments of happiness. This is the life of the fool.

The advantage of being a happy fool is that one, in contrast to the absurdist, is able to experience happiness, no matter how superficial this might be. The fool is able to get lost in the dopamine-flow triggered by the utterly irrelevant phenomena he finds interesting or amusing. He turns his back towards the absurdity of life; he lives his life the ‘normal’ way: the way (almost) everyone lives it. Moreover, it is the manner in which any animal on earth lives its life. And that’s exactly where the sadness kicks in. Since, we could ask ourselves, how ‘human’ is a life that doesn’t differ in any fundamental sense of the life of a pig? A life that is lived on cruise-control, only taken control of when our biological urges seem incapable of doing the job, when humans seem equal to mice? And even though we – in contrast to the mice – have the thinking power to live a different life at our disposal, we rather let our animal brains control our bodies: no thinking means good thinking.

And this is where the Socrates comes in. Although the Socrates realizes that he might not have chosen the hedonistic path to happiness, it is the outer part – the ‘human’ part – of his brain that gets freed from the shackles of social and biological conditioning; he takes control of his life. Happiness gets bypassed, and fulfillment is being striven for. And it is by accepting the inability of his mind to ever find the path to certainty that he enters a vicious circle that starts and ends with absurdity: the highest state of enlightenment attainable for the human mind. It is only in the absurdist spheres of consciousness that happiness can be judged for what it really is: an empty goal created to prolong the dominance of the animalistic parts of our brains.

Should we see it as our duty to enlighten ourselves, to reach the level of consciousness we can reach; a level that is filled with reflection on the absurdity of life? Or should we succumb under the temptation of hedonism, give up the analytic an logic reflection on ‘this thing called life’, and long for bursts of momentary happiness? What is the human way to live?

What do you think?

There is No Life without Death

What would life be like without death? Would there even be such a thing as ‘life’ without death? And why do we die? What’s the purpose of it? Is there even a purpose of it? Is there some kind of masochistic creator who likes to hurt us? And if so, wouldn’t making people die contradict its notion of creating? Or maybe even the creator became confused about the notions of life and death, and in the end decided just to go with it? Whatever the explanation is, death remains a mysterious, yet inescapable, destination we all share.

Let’s see: what causes us to die? Well, death might just come about because of a flaw in our biological make-up; an unintended by-product of the designer of humanity. It might only be due to physical decay that our bodies will – eventually – perish. Death is just another obstacle to overcome in our human struggle with nature, a struggle that we will inevitably come to win. Within a couple of decades from now, people will be able to change their cancerous limbs for platinum replicas. Plastic surgery will be outdated; instead of getting a face-lift at the age of 55, people will get an entirely new face. That’s how we will fight nature. We know after all from history that humans are prepared to do anything in order for them to stay alive; even if their opponent is Mother Nature herself.

Thoughts of death scare us. We long for certainty, for beliefs upon which we can build the rest of our lives. However, all of our intellectual powers fall short of explaining what will happen after we have exhaled our final breath. But although we will never be able to know it, we simply cannot live with the idea that we are destined to enter an unknown world for an unknown amount of time (given that there even would be such a thing as ‘time’ in ‘the afterlife’). And there are many stories we came up with to lighten our sense of despair about death. The issue of death is the prime reason so many religions have come into existence. After all, the idea of a cozy afterlife doesn’t really seem something to worry about, right? But even non-religious people have tried to come up with ‘reasonable’ positions within this debate. Atheists proclaim that no deity exists, which is just claiming the opposite of what religious people do. And even agnostics, although their position might seem more ‘humble’ than the atheists’, find themselves to be justified in making a judgement about the afterlife by saying that ‘we cannot decide whether or not a deity exists’; thereby assuming that, although none of the others are capable of doing so, they can close this debate in a reasonable manner.

Yeah right….Well, let’s look at the counterpart of death: life. Because what would life be like without death? The obvious answer would be: there would be nothing left to call ‘life’, since life can only exist in conjunction with death. But let’s approach this issue from another angle; an experiential angle. Given that we would be immortal, which might be something different than being either dead or alive, how would we then come to value our ‘lives’? Would we still be able to appreciate the beauty of things? Would we even be capable of experiencing emotions in any sense? After all: how happy or sad would we feel if we would come to experience an event that we had experienced an infinite number of times already? Wouldn’t that downgrade the relative value of each moment of – let’s say – sadness? How sad would it for example be to experience your son dying, given that you are destined to experience countless instances of this ‘drama’ again? Or how joyful would it be to experience your son attending his first day of school, given that you’ve experienced this a thousand times already?

There is no life without death; and that not only goes for life in the biological sense of the word, but just as much in the emotional or experiential sense. The notion of value would be non-existent if we wouldn’t face death. Hence we can say that death is a beautiful invention of life. So let’s be grateful for its existence.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published at Shaun Rosenberg’s self improvement and motivation blog.

How Free Is our Free Will?

Materialism – which is the dominant (philosophical) position held within the sciences – claims that the only entities that exist are matter and energy. This implies that there is no place for supernatural powers – or any other “powers” besides those of matter and energy. And since these are two “natural” components, they should in principle be able to be captured in terms of natural laws. But how could natural laws – that are capable of fully predicting the trajectory of natural phenomena given that certain initial conditions are known – ever be able to capture the free will of us human beings? Isn’t free will by definition something that is unable to be caught in terms of rigid laws? But, if that would be true, wouldn’t that imply that free will is something “unnatural” – something different from both matter and energy? In order to get an answer to this question, we should start by looking at what the “options” for bringing about our sense of free will are; starting out with the purely materialistic ones:

The first “option” is that our free will is something we human beings are “simply” born with. In other words, our free will has come about through nature. In other words: somewhere in our genetic structure is encoded our ability to act “autonomously”. However, given that our free will would be programmed by strings of DNA, wouldn’t follow from this that every part of what we consider to be our free will has in fact been codified – and thus determined – by nature? And wouldn’t this result in all of our actions – although they might seem to come about through free will – in fact being determined by nature? And given that this would be the case, would this imply that our future behaviors are already encapsulated somewhere within our genetic code? That our lives could be fully predicted if only we would know what situations we would come to be faced with in our future lives?

However, in order for us to be able to respond, we need something to respond to. And you could (reasonably) say that this “something” could be our environment, and that our environment is part of nature as well, and thus, in principle, fully predictable by means of natural laws. After all, if all the information for what it means to be a human being can be captured in terms of DNA,  why wouldn’t this also be possible for the rest of nature? And if this would indeed be possible, wouldn’t this mean that, by taking together (1) our predetermined genetic structures and (2) the environmental predetermined structures, our free will would be fully predictable, determined and – therefore – nonexistent?

You might believe that this story is incomplete; that there’s some “entity” missing. Materialism holds that – next to matter (which we’ve looked at above) –  everything that is is energy. That would imply that, given that we’ve just established that it is unlikely for our “freely” free will to be encoded in our materialistic genetic structure, energy must be the factor responsible for our “free will”. However, once again, we have to face the question of how it would be possible for us to control this energy given that our control wouldn’t be fully scripted and captured by our biological make-up. That is, how can energy be encapsulated within our material bodies in such a way that it would be able to non-deterministically steer our minds and bodies? And how did this seemingly “magical spark” come about?

Maybe we should set aside our current scientific lexicon and look for other, yet unknown, explanations of free-will. What about our free will being a consequence of a not-yet discovered particle? A particle that is so fundamental to the existence of our consciousness that the discovery of it would shed light on all sorts of deeply philosophical questions like: what is the mind? What is the connection between subjects and objects? Is there a mind-independent world? And if so, what would this world look like?

Or we might turn to a new mixture of natural forces and particles we already know exist, like electromagnetism. Or maybe there is some kind of parallel universe in which our consciousness resides. A universe that is fundamentally detached from our material bodies but that, via some yet inexplicable connection, is able to influence our bodily behaviors. The latter option seems to come very close to religion and its claim that there is a deity that has blessed our bodies with an immortal soul that might pass on to the afterlife whenever our bodies turn to dust.

One thing is for sure: we better come up with a damn good explanation, or else the idea of free will might turn out to be nothing more than a fairytale; an illusion that, although we are under the impression that we are in control of our lives, reduces us to nothing more than puppets. But, in case the latter would be true, would knowing this make our lives different in any way from the lives we’re living today? Wouldn’t we still feel like we are in charge of our lives, even if we’d know we aren’t? These are interesting questions longing for an answer.

What do you think?