Partnership TheYoungSocrates and the Institute of Arts and Ideas: ‘Unnatural Laws’

Scientific constructivism versus scientific realism: do we come up with our laws as a way to impose structure upon reality, or do our laws really capture the fabric of reality? Many of us dare to believe that science, via its rigorous methodology, describes the world as it really is. For suppose it does not. How then is it possible for physical laws to predict what will happen in the world given certain initial conditions to such an extreme level of precision? That would be a coincidence that is almost impossible to imagine.

However, over the course of many centuries, laws have been refuted, and new laws have come into existence. So it seems fair to say that our laws not necessarily give an optimal picture of the world as it is.

An interesting position that deals with this dilemma is structural realism. Structurual realism claims that our scientific laws capture the structure of reality, but not necessarily the objects the theory presumes. An example is Fresnel laws on the reflection of light. Fresnel postulated laws about the reflection of light, and he assumed the existence of an ether – some sort medium through which light moves – for doing so. Years later Maxwell postulated his laws of electromagnetism, which overlap Fresnel’s laws. However, Maxwell got rid of the ether. What we see here is two theories that latch on to the same structure in reality, hence Fresnel’s laws are still correct. But the objects that are being constructed in the process are not necessarily real.

These are all interesting questions, which I could write about for hours. But I give the floor to the Institute of Arts and Ideas with Episode 8 of their series ‘Philosophy For Our Times’: ‘Unnatural Laws’:

Why Economics Should Return to its Roots

Economics explains how people interact within markets to accomplish certain goals. People; not robots. And people are creatures with desires, animalistic urges that guide them into making conscious, but often unconscious, decisions. That sets them apart from robots, which act solely upon formal rules (If A, then B, etc.). But this difference between humans and robots shouldn’t have to be a problem, right? Not if economics takes into account the fact that humans are biological creatures, who (might) have got a free will; an observation which makes their actions undetermined and therefore unable to be captured in terms of laws.

It seems fair to say that we all want to increase our utility – in the broadest sense of the word. But do we always know why we want to increase our utility? Don’t we never ‘just want’ to go out, ‘just want’ to buy a new television, ‘just want’ to go on holiday? Yes we do: it seems that, sometimes, we just happen to want things: we don’t know why, we don’t have explicit motives for our desires. And if we – the people having the desires – don’t even know why we do things, how on earth could economists know, let alone capture these actions in laws? That’s only possible if you make assumptions: very limiting assumptions.

Rational choice theory is a framework used within economics to better understand social and economic behavior by means of formal modeling. But if this sense of understanding – that is possible only through formalizing humans’ behavior – is only possible by treating humans like robots, what then, on a conceptual level, is the difference between economics and artificial intelligence? Besides that the latter really works with robots and the former seems to assume to work with robots? Robots whose actions are fully predictable and explainable by a set of parameters: speed, vision, greediness etc. Or its formal economic counterpart: humans whose actions are manipulable by changing interest rates, government expenditures, taxes and other parameters that are part of the large economic machine we are all a part of. Assuming a mindless creature, following formal rules, makes it possible to capture his intentions in a formal corset. Everything should be dealt with in a formal manner: even uncertainty should be put in mathematical terms. Anything to make sure that we don’t miss out on any of the creature’s shenanigans. Even the ones that are grounded in the deep domains of irrationality.

But maybe it’s time to wake up and ask ourselves the question: have we come to forget what that we’re dealing with humans here? That the economy is not a steam engine, robot or any other mindless entity whose actions are fully explainable – let alone predictable. Have we forgotten that economics is a ‘social’ science, a science dealing with products of the human mind, related more to psychology than to mathematics?

It’s understandable that economics wants to position itself as being a ‘genuine’ science, a science that is able to objectively describe the way the world works. A science that wants to show that it is capable of capturing its findings in laws. But why should economics be dependent upon these kind of formalities in order for it to be a science? Isn’t it time for economics to stop being insecure? To realize that it’s beautiful the way it is. Why does it behave like an 18-year old girl, whining and crying about the girls who she thinks are prettier than her? Stop it economics! You’re pretty: be happy with what you are.

But this leads us to the real question: what is economics? Economics is – much like politics – a system created by the interaction between us human beings. A system that – although less explicitly than politics – is founded on the notion of morality: our ideas about what’s right and wrong. It’s no surprise that figures such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek have been so influential in economics. They understood what economics was really about: economics is in the basis a philosophy of what it means to be a human being, and the fundamental rights that each one of us should have. This ethics is the starting point of their economic systems. And that’s a tradition current economists should try to continue: interweaving morality and money. Keeping an eye on the moral fundamentals underlying markets and coming up with original ideas about how to improve these markets on a moral level. So there’s plenty of work left to do for the genuine economist.

But what do you think?

Violence against Public Servants: Should It be Punished Harder?


Should ambulance personnel receive extra protection from the state?

Ambulance personnel, police officers and firemen: people that, day in and day out, prevent our society from turning into a complete chaos. They support us so that we can live our lives without having to worry about our human rights being infringed upon. But what if these servants themselves become infringed upon their basic human rights? What if they are violated, both mentally and physically? There are governments, including the Dutch one, that have made explicit their intention to punish violence against public servants harder than violence against ‘regular’ (non-public servant) citizens. But, is this decision justified? And, more importantly, why would that be so?

Let’s think about it. You could claim that abusing a public servant is more severe than abusing a regular citizen because, by abusing a public servant, the perpetrator not only violates the rights of the servant but also the rights of the other members of society who are entitled to the services of the servant. After all, attacking the staff of an ambulance not only harms the ambulance workers, but indirectly also the patient that is (supposed to be) treated by these men and women. The same goes for police officers: abusing these men and women not only harms them, but also the citizens waiting to be helped by the police officers. Thus the physical or mental abuse of a public servant not only hurts the servants themselves, but also the citizens who are supposed to be served by the servants. And therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished harder than the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, by abusing a public servant you are infringing upon what might be the controlling or correcting power of the state, which might be a violation in itself. That is, public servants are appointed to guard the laws we have set as a society, including the law condemning violence against other persons. Therefore, by abusing a pubic servant, you are not only attacking a member of our society, but you also resist the authority (ambulance personnel, police etc.) a (democratic) society has decided should safeguard our rights. Hence, abusing public servants is more wrong than abusing a regular citizen, and thus should be punished harder.

One the other hand, a public servant is just as much human as a regular citizen. Therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished equally hard as the abuse of a regular citizen. There is no reason why the live of a public servant would be worth more than the life of a regular citizen, right? Just because he or she fulfils a certain position within our society? Isn’t someone’s profession totally irrelevant when it comes down to our most fundamental rights, including the right not the abused by others? If that would indeed be the case, then there would be no justification for punishing the abuse of a public servant any differently from the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, you could say, the abuse of a public servant is in no way a more severe violation against the state and its controlling power than is the abuse of a regular citizen. That is to say that the violation of another person’s well-being is just as much a violation of a fundamental right as would be the violation of the state’s controlling power, and thus should be punished equally hard. After all: the state’s integrity is no more important than any citizen’s integrity. Hence, attacking the former should be punished equally as attacking the latter.

Personally, I believe that both positions are well defensible. However, I consider the first position to be more reasonable. By taking away another person’s right to be saved or defended by a public servant, more parties seem to be hurt in abusing a public servant than in the abuse of what is ‘only’ a regular citizen. And surely, it might not only be a servants’ duty to assist other people when they are in need; you and I might be just as capable in doing that. This might cast doubt on the idea of granting them an extra form of protection. But that doesn’t change the fact that a public servant is explicitly appointed to fulfil this duty within our society; and that might have to be taken into account.

But what do you think?

Why Economics is No Less Scientific than Physics

‘Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.’ Spoken by Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. This is a rather extreme view, but it is not uncommon among (primarily) natural scientists. It grabs on to an intuition many have, even in the academic philosophy of science community, that physics is the science, and that other disciplines – especially social sciences – are not. But let’s ask ourselves the question: is this true? Does physics have any special access to the truth that – let’s say – economics does not?

Let’s try to answer these questions. First of all, one has to separate the theoretical parts of physics and economics, from their empirical counterparts. Just like there is theoretical physics, there is ‘theoretical economics’ – although the latter is usually denoted by the more encompassing (and therefore misleading) term ‘economics’. Both theoretical fields try to construct logical or mathematical frameworks – possibly modelling the external world – and derive logical implications from accepting certain principles (the ‘laws’ of the framework). The prime difference is that economics takes individuals as its domain of analysis, while physics takes nature.

Now, let’s look at the empirical counterparts of physics and economics. Both experimental physicists and behavioural economists (a subset of the set ‘experimental economists’) do one thing and one thing only: set up hypotheses, gather data, compare the implications of the hypotheses with the data, and either confirm or refute the hypotheses based on their accordance with these implications. Hence the method applied in both experimental fields is the same. So now we have that the methods applied in both the theoretical and the experimental parts of physics and economics – and hence the whole of the two disciplines- are the same.

Now, given that the method applied is the same, how then could economics be any less scientific than physics? It might be true that physics has a longer history, and is – in that sense – more ‘mature’ than economics. But being more mature does not imply being more scientific. After all: many religions are more mature than physics: does that imply that many religions are more scientific than religion? Of course not.

It is then because there are laws in physics but not in economics? Well, it is true that physics has laws, such as the Law of Universal Gravitation, stating the acceleration of an object caused by the force of gravitation. But economics has laws too; the most well-known being the Law of Supply and Demand. One could say that the latter is not really a law, because it is only true ceteris paribus; that is, if all other conditions – besides the supply and demand of a particular good – remain constant. But isn’t this true for physics as well? In order for the Law of Universal Gravitation to hold, one should neglect such frictions as air resistance. So it appears that, whether it is in economics or physics, there are certain conditions one puts forward in order for laws to be experimentally accurate: neglecting air resistance in the case of physics, neglecting other factors – changes in cost of production, technological innovation etc. – in the case of economics. So the two fields do not seem to differ in that respect either.

Hence it is seems that the only difference between physics and economics, is its domain of study. But can the object of study really determine whether some field is more scientific than another? And if so, why would that be? It cannot be because physics’s object is more natural, because there is nothing unnatural about individuals; individuals are part of the world we live in, just like atomic particles, gravity and radioactivity.

Hence, given all of the above, there is does not seem to be any compelling argument for the claim that economics is less scientific than physics. Sorry mister Rutherford.

But what do you think?

Why Euthanasia should be Legal in any Civilized Democracy

It recently came to my attention that euthanasia, the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering, is illegal in the United Kingdom. Being a Dutchman, and the Netherlands being a country in which euthanasia is legal, I was surprised to notice this. But even though I was surprised to read this, I was literally shocked to read that euthanasia is – depending on the circumstances – judged as either manslaughter or murder, and punishable by law up to life imprisonment. Just to put that into perspective: assisted suicide is illegal too, but punishable by up to ‘only’ 14 years.

Being fully aware of the fact that euthanasia is a controversial topic, I want to make a claim in favor of legalizing euthanasia – whether this is in the UK, or in any other democracy. The first argument for this claim might sound dramatic, but I believe it hits the core of the issue. It is the following: no single individual has decided to come into this world. Our parents ‘decided’ to have a child, and there we were. From this it follows that none of us chose to live a life with perpetual (and incurable) pain, which is the life many terminally ill people live. So, having been put on this world without his consent, and not having chosen for the extreme pains he – being a terminally ill person – suffers, it would only be fair for any terminally ill person to be able to ‘opt out’ of life whenever he wants to; in a humane manner that is, thus excluding suicide.

Note that I am talking about the option of euthanasia for terminally ill people only. And this brings me to my second point, which has to do with the position of doctors. Let’s ask ourselves the question: what is the duty of doctors? Is it to cure people? If so, then terminally ill people shouldn’t be treated by a doctor in the first place, since – by definition – terminally people cannot be cured from whatever it is they are suffering from. Hence, given that terminally people are in fact being treated by doctors, there must be another reason the medical community has for treating them; I presume something in the form of ‘easing their pain’.

Now, given that we have a doctor and that he wants to ‘ease the pain’ of the terminally ill, I assume that he wants to do so in the best manner possible; that is, by using the treatment that eases the pain most, keeping in mind any future consequences the treatment might have. But what if a patient has crossed a certain ‘pain threshold’, and the doctor knows which great certainty that the patient cannot be cured from his disease? In this case it seems that not performing euthanasia would be equivalent to prolonging the patient’s suffering, without improving the chance of recovery (and recovery is, by definition, absent for terminally ill people). It is in those cases, and those cases only, that euthanasia seems to be the optimal method for easing the pain, and should therefore be applied by doctors (in case the patient wants to, of course).

It is not that the National Health Service (the ‘NHS’) hasn’t thought about these matters. On the contrary; they have a entire webpage devoted to ‘Arguments for and against euthanasia and assisted suicide’. Although I agree with none of the arguments the NHS gives against euthanasia, there is one that I find particularly wrong, and which they call the ‘alternative argument’. The alternative argument states that ‘there is no reason for a person to suffer because effective end of life treatments are available’. Hence euthanasia should be no option. One of the ‘alternatives’ the NHS puts forward is that ‘all adults have the right to refuse medical treatment, as long as they have sufficient capacity to make a decision’ (which, by the way, in practice has the same effect as euthanasia: the patient will die).

But refusing medical treatment is clearly in no way a valid alternative to euthanasia, for the aims of refusing medical treatment and the aims of euthanasia are profoundly different. While refusing medical treatment is about – clearly – the refusal of medical treatment, euthanasia is about wanting (a form of) medical treatment. Therefore, the fact that there might be another way in which the aim of the former can be accomplished is irrelevant and ineffective from the perspective of pursuing the aim of the latter. Also, the cases to which a refusal of medical treatment might apply are likely to be very different from the ones to which euthanasia is applied.

Car accident
Imagine, for example, a car accident, in which one of the victims is severely injured, and needs acute medical treatment in order not to die. This is an accident, in which no terminally ill people are involved. Refusing medical treatment seems a reasonable option; euthanasia not. Now imagine the life of a cancer patient, who is terminally ill, and who realizes that his suffering will only become worse. Euthanasia seems a reasonable option; refusing medical treatment not.

To end this post with a personal note, I would like to say that I hope that, in this 21st century we are living in, where everyone gets older and older, and prolonging life seems to be the preferred option a priori, irrespective of the specific circumstances, I hope that we can engage in a healthy discussion about a topic so relevant as euthanasia. Of course, many of us are still young and hope not to experience severe illness soon, but looking at the people we love and seeing them suffer unbearably seems to me sufficient reason for not condemning euthanasia straight away.

But what do you think?

Ethics and Mathematics: The Love for Absolute Rules

Ethics is not mathematics. For, unlike mathematics, ethics cannot function solely based on a set of axioms, or ‘absolutely true staring points for reasoning,’ like a + b = b + a. Based on axioms, we can build an entire world  (‘mathematics’) in which we can be sure that, only by following these rules of inference, we will always end up with the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth. Hence it’s understandable that philosophers have thought to themselves: ‘Damn, how cool would it be if we could apply the same trick to ethics; that we, confronted with any action, could decide whether the action would be right or wrong?’ Surely: society has tried to build its very own rule-based system, the system of law. But is this a truly axiomatic system? Are there truly fundamental rights from which the rules of justice can be inferred? Let’s take a look at that.

Immanuel Kant made the distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. These are two ‘kinds of rules’, with the first ‘being applicable to someone dependent upon him having certain ends‘; for example, if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn. Thus we’ve got: desired end (‘knowledge’) + action (‘learning’) = rule. Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, denote ‘an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.’ We can see that there is no desired end present in this kind of rule; only the ‘action = rule‘-part.

But how could a categorical imperative be applied in practice? A belief leading up to a categorical imperative could for example be: Gay marriage is okay. Period. That would imply that, you believe that, irrespective of the conditions present in a particular environment – thus no matter whether there is a republic or democratic regime, whether the economy is going great or not – gay marriage is okay. However, as it stands, it is not yet a categorical imperative, since this claim doesn’t urge you (not) to do something (such as ‘You shall not kill’, which is a categorical imperative). The rightful categorical imperative would be something like (G): ‘You should accept gay marriage.’ This is an unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself

Now: let’s assume that you’re talking to someone who doesn’t agree with (G). Because now it gets interesting, for now you have to make a decision: you either stick to (G) or you reformulate (G) into a hypothetical imperative. The first option is clear: you just say ‘I believe that gay marriage should be allowed always and everywhere. Period.’ Seems fair, right? But what if the person you’re talking to would respond by saying, ‘Okay…so even when citizens would democratically decide that gay marriage is unacceptable?’

Now you have got a problem, for this might be situation in which two of your categorical imperatives are contradictory, such as (G) and (D): ‘Decisions coming about through a democratic process should be accepted.’ Both (G) and (D) are unconditional rules: they should be acted on irrespective of the situation you’re in. But this is clearly impossible, for (G) forces you to accept gay marriage, while (D) forces you to do the opposite.

You could of course say that (G) is merely your belief (you believe that gay marriage should be accepted, not that this particular democratic society should find this too), but then you seem to fall into a form of moral relativism. Given that you don’t want that to happen, you have to decide which one is the true categorical imperative: (G) or (D)? And which one can be turned into ‘merely’ a hypothetical imperative?

You could of course decide to turn (D) into (D.a): ‘Only if you believe that a decision has come about through a democratic process and is a good decision, you should accept the decision.’ Or you could turn (G) into (G.a): ‘Only if the decision has come about through a democratic process, gay marriage should be accepted.’ But is this really how we form our moral judgements? Is (D.a) truly a rule you believe to be ‘fair’? And (G.a): do you truly believe that gay marriage is okay only if it is accepted by society? That is: do you make the moral value of gay marriage dependent upon the norms prevalent within a society? I doubt it.

So we are stuck; stuck into a paradox, a situation in which two absolute rules are contradictory, and the only way out is through turning at least one of them into an unintuitive and seemingly inadequate hypothetical imperative. So what to conclude? We’ve seen that categorical imperatives look powerful; as if they can truly guide our lives for once and for all; no more need to search for conditions that might be relevant to our judgements. But we’ve also seen that when two categorical imperatives are contradictory – that is, when two rules cannot be followed at the same time – changes have to be made: at least one of them has to be turned into a hypothetical imperative. In order to do so, a certain ‘value hierarchy’ is required, based upon which these categorization decisions can be made. Hence it seems that even Kant’s absolute ethics – with its absolute categorical imperatives – seems to be relative: relative to (the value of) other imperatives, that is. Therefore mathematical ethics, as presented above, seems to be impossible.

But what do you think?

Do we Need the Social Sciences?

There is a debate in philosophy of science about the status of “entities” like “churches”. Most of the philosophers agree on the fact that “churches” don’t really exist; that is, don’t really exist apart from the people that are part of a church. Just like a forest cannot exist apart from the trees being part of it. That’s pretty clear, right? The sum is merely a collection of its parts; “1 + 1 is always 2”. This is the ontological part of philosophy; the part of what exists out there in the world, with the position of “ontological individualism” winning the battle.

But there is a problem. Because if “churches” don’t really exist – in the sense I explained above – then they cannot have causal powers. After all, how can you cause something if you don’t exist? That’s impossible, right? But if that is true, a painful question arises: what then about sociology? Or what then about any social science dealing with entities like “churches”?  If these entities can’t cause anything, why then use them in “social laws” like, “If a group has the property of being a church, then its degree of solidarity will be higher than groups that do not have this property”? Then this “law” wouldn’t make sense, right? Unless, of course, it is not a causal relationship being “captured” in this ‘law”, but merely a correlation between the properties of “being a church” and “having a high degree of solidarity”. In this latter interpretation of “law” it can be true that members finding themselves to be “part of a church” have a relatively high degree of solidarity.  But then this would be merely an observation, right? Not a law representing the “causal nature of the universe”, right?

This is difficult issue for philosophers to crack. Since it is appears not to be easy to do without terms like “churches” in “social laws”; that is, if we would claim that “churches” don’t really exist and that the “laws” making use of the term “church” are not really laws, then we would have to come up with an alternative; an alternative posed in terms of individual properties instead of social properties like “being a church”, “being a football game” or “being an argument”. So how are we going to do this? Well, we could come up with a list consisting of all the “individual level properties” belonging to the social level property “being a church”. That list could look something like this: (1) the individuals share a building in which they pray, (2) the individuals believe in the same God…etc. etc. You get it? But then the problem would be that this list can go on forever! How could we ever put this in a law?! That’s impossible, right? And because this is impossible to do, it also becomes impossible, according to certain philosophers, to do away with social properties like “being a church” in social “laws”; after all, they claim, these social terms are needed to make sure that we don’t regress to those kinds of infinitely long lists.

The conclusion of this debate? Social laws are needed. Although churches might be composed of nothing more than individuals; it is conceptually impossible to reduce “social level entities” to “individual level entities”; where the former are used in sciences like sociology and the latter are used in sciences like psychology, neuroscience etc. Another implication of this observation is that it is impossible to do away with the social level sciences – like sociology – by reducing them to individual level sciences – like psychology. Therefore, our efforts to do so have failed miserably……although I seriously doubt the validity of this argument. But that’s something for another article.

But what do you think?

A Game of Tetris: That’s All the World of Chemistry Is

“Let’s see; where can we put this fine little atom? Is there still some space left, there, next to the Oxygen element? No hmm…okay; that means we’re done for now! We’ve made ourselves a water molecule.”

That’s the way the world of chemistry works; it’s nothing more than a big game of Tetris, played either by nature or by members of our own kind. Measuring and thinking; pushing and retracting; we build ourselves the little worlds we want to. Of course, we have to comply with the rules nature set for us. We can’t make a water molecule by adding only one Hydrogen element, but that’s merely a side-note, right? A little side-effect of the Tetris kind of game Nintendo’s part of Mother Nature has build for us. And who knows: maybe, when we enter the next level, a can of new possibilities will open.

Incredible, right? The way in which nature works? As if it is made for us to understand. It almost makes you presume the existence of a creator; the Nintendo God of chemistry; the one who determined the compositions and configurations in which we are allowed to put the elements together. But maybe something different is going on; maybe we have created this game of Tetris for ourselves in our own little minds; just to make sure that “we understand” the world. After all, isn’t it suspicious that electrons are “too small to see”? That they “just can’t seem to be reflected by light”? And that we have to come up will all kinds of mind-boggling constructions, like light being both “waves and particles”, in order to keep up this facade of knowledge?

Don’t be silly. Of course atoms and subatomic particles exist. Why else would they be so useful to us? Why else does nuclear energy provide us with the power it does? Are you saying that, only because we cannot “see” everything we’re talking about, these “undetectable” things don’t exist?

Well, we can’t see God can we? And still we can attribute many effects to this “cause”: it is God who has made us; it is God who determines our fate; and it is God who makes sure that you go to heaven and I go tell. That’s an elaborate and simple explanation, right? It would surely pass Occam’s razor because of the absolutely minimal number of assumptions it makes: only God has to exist and all of our sorrows can be explained. But does this make God real? Or is it merely a “useful” construct?

But let’s not take this route; let’s keep it “scientific”. Science is, after all, true; and religion isn’t, right? Right?! And let’s be honest; the predictability of the “it’s God’s will” argument isn’t that high, right? Our subatomic particle theory can at least, although it is by means of probabilities, give us a clue about what might happen when we start messing around in “our” world.

So, what’s the conclusion of this article? The conclusion is that we will keep on playing Tetris; no matter who set the rules of the game: whether is Mother Nature or ourselves.

But what do you think?

Swearing Bankers: Is That Going to Make any Difference?

Bankers want to make money. And that’s okay, right? Everyone wants to make money. But they should do so in an “ethical” way, right? They shouldn’t screw each and every customers just in order to gain some extra profit. No, they should be nice guys. They should respect the interests of their customers and not – for example – gamble with their savings and pensions. However, it is not always easy to respect the customers’ interests and make money at the same time. Sometimes it is just way easier to go straight for it; to take every (doubtful) opportunity to make money. And – as we have seen with the big crises that have occurred (or are still occurring) – “greed” can have negative effects on society. Governments need to step in with “their” tax money to save the day because, as they say, the banks are “too big too fail“. That is, it its much cheaper for the governments to pay “some” money to prevent the banks from collapsing, than to let the bank collapse.

It seems fair to say that banks keep us in an (economic) stranglehold; we can’t do anything but give into their wishes. They are like our big silly brother that holds the family fortune but likes to live the good life; buy drugs, drinks, smokes etc. So if you don’t watch him closely, the money will be gone (“Aaaaand it’s gone“, South Park, anyone?).

So what are we going to do? Just sit back and hope our silly brother won’t make any mistakes again? Or are we – somehow – trying to force him to act “wisely”, without violating the “rules of the free market”? Well, the first option seems kind of risky; so let’s try the second. What can we do? Well, as the Dutch government is trying, we can let the bankers swear to act nicely (link is in Dutch). Let the bankers put their hands on their hearts and say out loud: “we value our customers and we will do anything to prevent them from being hurt”. Well, isn’t that nice?

It it sure is. But will it work? Well, probably not. Because what will happen to the bankers if they don’t stick to “the oath”? Well, then the bank has to decide whether or not the banker is really capable of doing the “banking” job. Really….are we going to put the banks again in charge of what it means to do a good banking job? Then what has changed (again a Dutch link) compared to the situation before the bankers sworn to act nicely? Well, now the government has at least tried to make the bankers act nicely. Now, if they act evil again, it’s not the government fault anymore, right? They have done everything they could, right?

I think we all see that having bankers swear that they will act nicely will not make any difference. At least not without any legal consequences attached to not acting nicely. But the situation might be even worse than this. It might be that the situation after having the bankers sworn to act nicely is more “unethical” than the situation before. But why is that? Well, imagine a bank complying to the “bankers’ oath”. The bank is all acting “ethically” and respecting its customers. But then, suddenly, the bank goes bankrupt. Why is that? Well, the bank was the only bank really complying to the oath; the bigger and “smarter” banks did what they should do: make money no matter what it takes. So, by stimulating banks to act “ethically“, the government itself is acting unethical: they are promoting “unethical banks” (read: banks not complying to the oath) in continuing their greedy actions by weakening the competition of the “sweet” banks. That’s not really nice, is it?

So what’s the lesson we should learn from this state of affairs? Well, two things: first of all, governments that want to promote ethical behavior have to set firm rules – not just oaths without any legal repercussions – if they want to promote ethical banking behavior. And secondly, how can can we ever except companies – and especially banks – in a capitalistic society to act nicely if this acting nicely goes against their profit making interests? There aren’t charity organizations, are they?

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?

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?