Monday, September 15, 2008

Ethical Navigation

What if we could equate morality with optimal behavior? Could our ethics be successfully rooted in a full understanding of our true circumstances?

As a source of guidance, the natural world has largely been a disappointment. Nature seems to encourage survival and reproduction, but beyond that, little seems particularly called for. We’d like a clear and unambiguous understanding of our situation, but how should we interpret the many troubling and confounding elements in Nature? For example, killing and death seem more than just acceptable. It’s not surprising then that despite years of study we haven’t agreed on one, overarching view of our collective plight.

But true circumstances are never accurately discerned, and seldom even roughly approximated, without carefully examining all possible developments and relationships out to the limits of our perception and ability. Not surprisingly we often get it wrong as any experienced military commander can attest to.

For a serious survey we need as wide and deep a perspective as possible. That proverb about the loss of a nail and how it caused the loss of a kingdom is a good precautionary tale about the pitfalls of limited views. Or to use a less martial example, if you were in the middle of a high stakes poker tournament and winning, it might seem you were acting in your best interests to continue playing. But if that game were on the Titanic, you would do considerably better quitting the tournament and getting near a working lifeboat. You’d know what to do if you had an all-encompassing perspective, in this case, a wide-angle overhead view of the ship and the trouble it was heading into.

Historically, two approaches have competed to give us the Big Picture. Both have promised to reveal our true circumstances, and both have been accused of unsatisfactory results. Either 1) we slowly knit our observations together with brilliant theories to form a logical and comprehensive understanding of ourselves and everything else, or 2) we rely on our intuition and sensibilities to lead us to the truth like some magic divining rod. As many reading this might agree, our more successful efforts have all been under the aegis of approach number 1, most often referred to by its most productive institution, Science. Approach number 2, however, has the greater emotional impact and ease of access, and consequently, the more widespread following. (Philosophy straddles both approaches, and has its admirers, but its better offerings are usually well out of reach.)

Let’s briefly compare these two camps.

Scientists struggle to incorporate what they think they’ve just learned into what they believe they already know. They are well aware of the limitations inherent in their instruments, including their personal weaknesses. And they habitually look for inconsistencies, contradictions, illogic and other errors in their work. Their professional standards require they enlist the help of their colleagues in spotting errors.

On the other hand, the far less rigorous alternative approach to divining reality alluded to, is not often troubled by the odd inconsistency. It’s most popular institution, Religion, offers findings taken from a metaphysical ‘reality’ supposedly beyond the reach of our instruments and sometimes our credulity. And though it may be true that many of us would never have thought about ethics without some religious training, the older our society gets, the more strained our institutions become trying to maintain Religion’s dubious authority.

Science is the thinking man’s choice because it demands proof. Its facts and insights have been teased out of an empirical record. And that record is composed of carefully obtained observational, and often experimental, evidence of phenomena that can, in one way or another, be measured. And it’s important to emphasize that last point: anything that cannot be measured (God would qualify for many people) cannot be properly incorporated into Science. Science’s big breakthrough idea was to quantify its observations and thereby make mathematics applicable. This brought much needed discipline to our thinking because mathematics is rooted in, and only responsive to, logic, our favored term for correct thinking. Mathematics maintains its connection with logic even when it’s been developed into something as unwieldy and multifaceted as statistics.

Religion, on the other hand, is the champion of the unscientific, myth-friendly, emotional approach. (Our emotions, in essence, are how our bodies register what matters through feelings.) It’s a product of our inner lives though it often pretends it isn’t. The Arts and Humanities, influential institutions in most cultures, also utilize an emotional approach, but they seldom dare promulgate a recognizable philosophy, or contradict the scientific canon. Music, for example, one of my favorite artistic media, is able to instill pleasurable sensations and stir deeply felt emotions, and I can’t imagine going long without it. But stimulating my imagination and admiration produces inspiration, not guidance. No real information will ever fall out of any rendition of Beethoven’s works.

Whenever an artistic institution is scrutinized, including and especially Religion, it usually avoids harsh criticism. A full on critique never seems quite appropriate because it’s taken for granted that ‘people of faith’ aren’t interested in proof or evidence. According to reputation, they are not even particularly interested in results. I recently overheard their credo expressed as: “God doesn’t respond to need. He only responds to faith.” It’s not surprising then that the faithful are unimpressed with most intellectual accomplishments other than the ability to quote scripture. If they carry the same lack of concern about evidence into the jury box and voting booth, how should we treat them?

But the more important question is, Is it reasonable to belittle people seeking answers through faith when we would admit many important questions are outside the domain of Science? Science has little to say about questions such as, Why are we here? and, What are we meant to do with our lives? Should we dismiss the fact that many people are far less capable of using logic than they are their intuition?

Perhaps when kept on a personal level, there’s little, or at least limited, harm done. But it’s quite another matter for the faithful to come to the public forum claiming direct communication from God, refusing to join in the hard work of forging good policy. Too often they can only see the issues in terms of what their religion dictates. But invoking the authority of an absent and evidently imaginary entity is barely acceptable on the preschool playground. It can greatly diminish the level of discourse in a town meeting or on an op-ed page.

Improvable notions should at least not contradict what is already known. For example, if you believe in the Bible, you need to explain the lack of communication between us and our Creator. Are we being given the mother of all silent treatments? Any normally astute person would consider abandoning their faith. But Religionists would rather suspend their disbelief as if temporarily incapable of distrust. John F. Kennedy said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” The fact is there is something self-defeating and maybe even masochistic about not adhering to reasonable standards of proof. If we are to honor the lower standards of the faithful, then why not accept Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s fables too?

Though believing in ancient, foundational religious events is touted as making life more livable for millions, their prominence should raise red flags for anyone wishing to avoid charlatans and con artists. As Voltaire once warned, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” Without directly relevant physical evidence, Science is bound to place events such as the Resurrection and the Parting of the Red Sea in the same category as flying saucers and the Greek myths. These well-known Biblical stories are clearly meant to illustrate and enhance the message. But as long as some present them as historical fact, they are likely to further mislead the gullible.

But we Americans operate under one particularly relevant cultural norm, at least amongst ourselves, and that’s that no one should dictate another’s conscience in regard to their closely held spiritual convictions. It’s the corollary to our highly prized and occasionally dangerous, Right to Pursue Happiness. As far as we’re concerned, you have every right to embrace faith’s comforts. Though we probably shouldn’t include revisions to the historical record, it’s tolerated for some reason. Unfortunately, there are aspects of daily life that require a bit of faith from everyone.

For example, we may be of the same species, but we are also quite separate and disconnected entities. There is only indirect, circumstantial evidence that you have a mind at all, much less that your mind is similar to my own. I nevertheless have faith that you do, and I assume you reciprocate. (You might think this a silly example but those working on Artificial Intelligence know it all too well. We are profoundly ignorant about what a mind is.)

The evidence supports the contention that you experience much the same needs, wants, and pleasures that I do, and react in much the same way to daily irritations. But I can’t experience, or see, or read your mind directly, despite our technologists and their impressive brain scanning instruments.

It’s an important issue because without determining whether we possess the same kind of mind, most of our interpersonal behavior becomes difficult to manage or judge, let alone optimize. What if you were secretly capable of reading my mind, for example? Or what if you were somehow incapable of recognizing truth? Our ethical problems with animals are an aspect of the same set of issues but across an even greater chasm.

The way we separately experience reality has numerous negative consequences. For example, those who claim to have had a direct communication from the Almighty can do so with impunity as there is no peeking into their mind for verification. In such cases it’s been no good demanding a face to face audience ourselves. It could be we’re unworthy, but by Occam’s Razor[1] I would rather conclude no such communication was ever made.

It can quickly deteriorate into a matter of trust, and trust is often a product of faith. Rachel Carson said, “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” A good story stirs our emotions. But when a story is cut from whole cloth, the trust is broken and with it all faith the next ploy won’t be baited with a lie. It’s not mere truth we seek; it’s an informed unambiguous choice from Free Will and the opportunity to apply our best judgment.

Self-delusion is like a desert mirage for the faithful. We all need to act from verifiable facts until we no longer can. Admittedly that could come about rather quickly, but why rely on anything as insubstantial as a feeling? It would be like steering a ship by celestial navigation and having to cope with both an overcast and a restless crew.

It’s easy to see the attraction of a Creator watching over us from Heaven. As Freud noted, it’s what most of us experience as children, i.e., our much more powerful parents watching over us, taking care of us, and even promising us rewards for good behavior. We all feel the existential pain of having lost or outgrown that.

I may reject the idea of a Creator but I don’t doubt we are unaware of something extremely important, something explanatory that continues to elude us. Certainly when it comes to reality in general, the scientific world is nowhere near explaining it all. No matter how they may strut and posture, whenever the big questions loom, they are unable to rise above their inductive analyses.[2] It’s not clear the data is even obtainable, or that some variation of an incompleteness theorem[3] won’t forever thwart our attempts. Nevertheless, they far out perform the televangelist who merely claims regular contact with a Creator who apparently tells him little of the how or why.

Given our tenuous hold on reality it would seem advisable to exhaust the natural possibilities before exploring what lies beyond, assuming we can eventually access it reliably. But we can’t do that without being aware of the difference between myth and reality, or between wishful thinking and careful observation.

What would be a brief review of our present circumstances, and what principles of right action can be inferred from that overview?

There isn’t much philosophy to be found between the quantum and cosmological extremes of our physical world. At both ends there’s something of a fade into ambiguity, i.e., at the extremes some laws appear to no longer apply. Still, you could say that if there is a message, it’s that we are not being coddled. We have had a hard time of it. We’ve struggled for many of our comforts over many generations, fighting predators for the best caves, for example, and learned the hard way to live within nature’s available niches. We’re lucky to have succeeded so spectacularly.

And considering our stellar environs we’re even luckier to have had the opportunity to grow strong. Our planet is reasonably hospitable. But, despite its being a veritable Garden of Eden, interstellar space, including that expanse in which our solar system resides, is generally quite hostile to life[4]. It’s so challenging, in fact, that the chances we might escape this planet for a better one seem pretty infinitesimal.

The distances between planetary systems are inordinately prohibitive, currently requiring that multiple generations be committed to any transit. This is upsetting to anyone who grew up thinking we would eventually consider space no more an obstacle than our oceans were to our ancestors. But the distances involved are so enormous they suggest a Devil’s Island sort of confinement, and even possible mistreatment or at least apparent misfortune on a catastrophic scale.

We are like children abandoned from infancy. That in itself is sufficient to constitute a poor upbringing. But we’ve endured millennia of no visible direction or guidance as well. And when you add the particularly chilling fact that the very fabric of our material existence is constantly giving way to the unavoidable deconstruction we call Entropy (the constant tendency toward ever increasing disorder) our circumstances seem unbearably dark.

This Basic Law of the Universe, assuming the universe is finite[5], requires that everything must eventually be equalized in terms of energy, making movement, and therefore life, impossible. All differences in potential are predicted to dissipate like the heat out of our morning coffee or the tension out of our windup toys.

It appears our distance from other planetary systems, the universe’s uninhibited hostility, and finally, Entropy, are all calculated to deprive us of a peaceful destiny in the extremely long term.

We have a strong desire to persevere, but we are marginalized in terms of information though we’re doing our best to alleviate that. Except for our plant and animal friends, we seem utterly alone out here and completely disconnected from what is probably our now distant origins.

And so, we tend to fill our back story with tales of a Creator, no doubt in part because of that basic tenet of biology, life comes from life. We can believe our predicament could be something we got ourselves into. But the Garden of Eden story had its foreign precedents, and the truth is, it’s far more in line with the evidence, though much harder to imagine, that no being directed or influenced our development, or is involved in our present confinement.

All we really have to suggest some sort of prehistoric intervention is our so far inexplicably self-directed nature that we share with other living things, that and a few odd aspects of our physical reality. Some point to our outlier intelligence as a sign of a benevolent intercession, but I’ve no doubt we wouldn’t seem quite so exceptional if we hadn’t killed off our immediate competitors.

Admittedly, the crux of the problem is that it is very, very difficult to accept that we may be a complete accident. It would make us the most motherless of motherless children, and perhaps worse, with no inherent purpose or meaningful history. And so we’re probably lucky we are virtually imprisoned here. It allows us the opportunity and disposition to wonder more broadly about our present state.

The possibilities which include powerful predecessors especially are so numerous it could take millennia to narrow them down. For example, we could be an abandoned species, somehow found unfit or still awaiting approval. We feel mostly guiltless, but it may be our supposed Creator who deserves to be free of us. (We do have a lot of nasty habits.) He might be wary of us. After all, we’ve long feared what our robots might become. That theme has been a persistent one in sci-fi movies from ‘Metropolis’ to the Terminator series to ‘I, Robot’. Perhaps we’ve been gifted with more power than we realize by an all too vulnerable entity that is no more ‘divine’ than ourselves.

We can’t even dismiss the possibility that we are being kept out of harm’s way and that the isolation is for our own good, though it’s hard to understand why we wouldn’t be told.

But then we don’t know much beyond the broad outlines anyway. We’ve discovered most of the physical laws that govern phenomena, but they only tell us what will happen. We need plausible theories that tell us why things happen. That means continuing to find patterns in the data, not wallowing in visions borne of wishful thinking or worse.

We fervently want to know our true place in the universe. There may be one optimal destination, but there’s no reason to think that would require we all take the same path. There’s usually more than one way to get to a mountain top, after all.

And so we continue trying to read between the lines, but it’s not easy for creatures at our level of reading comprehension. It helps that there’s nothing otherworldly asking us to think, or do, one thing or another in an implicit sense, with very few exceptions. One of those exceptions has recently achieved general acceptance to the relief of many. It’s based on the fact that we are clearly the only species on this planet capable of discerning a threat or opportunity, for that matter, to Earth‘s life as a whole.

If life is precious and to be cherished, and we generally believe it is, we must act to protect all life on this planet whenever feasible. We are completely dependent on its web, and in a lot of ways it’s our family. We need the Earth and its biosphere as much as we do the Sun, for the air we breathe, the food we eat (even its digestion), the medicines we take, the water we drink, and so much more. It’s possible we’re not even separable from Earth.

If we make up this biosphere’s ‘executive’ functions, could we ever justify abandoning it? Can the head justifiably leave the body? Some people clearly think it can, and must, in personal terms. (I’m thinking of what some people plan to do to their bodies through bionics[6] and cryogenics[7].) However, what exactly are we without all our parts? Can we, for example, exist as a disembodied consciousness? Not surprisingly, we often reserve that particular ability to our purported Creator.

Our cosmic isolation is hurtful, but at least, as noted, no one is making demands of us. No one’s communicating with us through anything we’d recognize as a language. We wonder why, and, though we may believe there’s no one to communicate with, we all feel uneasy about giving up on the alternative.

Therefore, let’s indulge in one of our more fanciful explanations. Let’s imagine we are being watched from afar as a newly emerged species, but not by some divine entity, but just some very advanced one. Considering the disruptive enormity of a full blown divine appearance, a visit from highly advanced aliens seems almost preferable.

Let’s start by reviewing some of those intriguing physical aspects mentioned earlier.

Consider how odd it is that our moon is just the right distance and size to eclipse the Sun. The moon, which has been drifting away for eons, has only just covered the Sun in solar eclipses during our specie’s ascendancy and not before. It’s almost as if it was timed that way, as if something wanted to leave its calling card while simultaneously, 1) stopping the Earth from tumbling, and 2) providing us with a handy night light. Our beautiful moon also functions as a nightly reminder of the danger of collisions with very fast moving objects such as some comets and asteroids. Its presence seems less the stuff of chance than an object of art.

And there are other suspected low-probability events or attributes such as our Goldilocks distance from the Sun, our highly protective magnetic field, the just right size of our planet, the just right size and stability of our Sun, and most recently, the delicate conditions that brought about our life friendly solar system. The loss of any of these preconditions might have meant disaster for our species. True, all it might prove is that life only comes about under these improbable conditions, and therefore, we shouldn’t be too surprised that they’re here in combination. But even if true, we’re still justified in considering this an unusually misleading set of starting points.

Our study of the stars indicates that there should be many much older systems than ours, so that there’s at least the possibility of being observed from afar. And if some of the most incisive science fiction has it right, they’re watching in order to assess our true character in a context where we are not being cued to behave in one manner or another. That’s our standard protocol for any serious psychological study as well. And that might even explain our willingness to watch others work out their fictional and even, real problems on TV. Perhaps we’ve inherited our taste for it, or somehow taken it from the hidden reality. Their objective might very well be to assure the next addition to the greater cosmic community is a positive one.

Perhaps those who aren’t so judged are never told they’ve failed. What would be the point? We are perfectly free to demonstrate our true nature. We never really felt ourselves the object of prying eyes until recently. This ‘insignificant dust mote’ is quite large enough a playing field to reveal our true selves with indisputable clarity.

Character is best brought forward with difficult choices. And when I say ‘character’ I mean someone’s ability to do the right thing despite the personal pain or cost. Some examples of difficult choices include: Just how managed a civil society do we need in order to produce the worldly stewardship called for? Or, under what circumstances may we deny our fellow man his wants in order to achieve the common good? But if it were me, I’d be looking at the subject’s foreign policies in particular. I suspect they would prove the most relevant under these supposed circumstances. After all, these could be the really foreign relations we’re contemplating.

I would narrow it down to two defining, and quite opposite, approaches to social relations. (They are reminiscent of the concepts of Yin and Yang. Or, you might think Conservatives versus Progressives.) We are either anti-social pirates at heart, and prone to proceed from violent tendencies and greed. (And someone’s little daughter runs a higher risk of one day being raped and murdered.) Or we are caregivers and law abiders, and given to promoting cooperation and an ideal of social justice. (And someone’s son will be shown compassion, even after being paralyzed in a foolish accident.) In the first instance, we’re something cancerous and deadly, in the second, something nurturing and benign.

Neither option denies us the ability to execute our newly acknowledged duties as global stewards though I would think caregivers have the edge. On the other hand, the natural world requires death to function properly. Death even seems more in tune with the universe in some respects than its opposite, birth. After all, isn’t death by Entropy our ultimate fate? We kill when we eat, and our entire ecology is based on cycles of death and rebirth. Wouldn’t a people with the soul of a pirate be best suited for a world of continuous and endless destruction?

Either way we need to find guiding principles and live by them. There are real benefits to living by one’s principles, though some think principles are for those who lack the courage to live without them. (Actually some people live quite wantonly with negative principles.) A good case could be made that principles are Nature’s Way. Have you ever seen the laws of physics applied selectively, for example?

Let’s assume our imagined watchers are looking to spot our principles too and that they value positive, affirming principles. A world where everyone behaves well, and we all care about each other, and greed and disrespect is held to account, and the laws apply equally to everyone, and the weak are protected from the powerful, and we’re even careful to leave resources for future generations, seems to me a world where ethical behavior has less to do with commandments and more to do with optimizing one’s ‘inner’ psychological state. We could accomplish that by making intelligent choices, maintaining good interpersonal relationships, and exercising a highly-developed sense of justice. And we needn’t all do it the same way.

Consider that Nature implicitly suggests we not focus on one solution. Nature uses the shotgun approach, i.e., hit the future with multiple capacities and tendencies as insurance against the most deadly but unpredictable events. That’s why there are so many species and varieties within species. And if a program of negative eugenics[8] seems advisable as conservatives often advocate under their breath, then what better criteria than repressing those who are keeping us from raising all boats? Surely, a field of flowers is superior to a solitary patch assuming that field can sustain them.

Let’s sketch out some basic ethics.

It seems mutual benefit is a goal worthy of being our organizing principle. My reading of the oft quoted Gospels always seemed to enjoin that idea with a special aversion for violence. True, many prefer the comforts of an unbridled pursuit of personal privilege and advantage. But isn’t mutual benefit at the core of our highly touted commerce? We can get stymied when I benefit much more than you, but even then, some hard cases consider that the real soul of commerce and value it as the real engine of our economy.

But survival and procreation are still more important than wealth, and for a species as interdependent as us, a better goal would be, help as many people live a worthwhile and valuable life as you can. No other statistic is as likely to grant us the stability and cooperation we need. We’re far more accustomed to looking out for ourselves and our immediate family, but we can understand and be of great use to non-family members too, far more than we usually acknowledge.

And considering how Religion does no more than enlighten us as to our circumstances such that we can avoid consequences like the ‘Fires of Hell’, if morality can be thought of as optimal behavior, then changing our ethics with the changing circumstances would seem acceptable. The idea is to meet our collective potential after finding that optimum, even if it’s moving. Consider, for example, how our notions of morality might change if we knew we weren’t the only intelligent creatures in the universe. Next to proof of an afterlife, or discovering how to avoid death, finding ‘we are not alone’ would yield the most dramatic change to our circumstances.

If we were to receive an extra-terrestrial general delivery message, the sender would necessarily be much more technologically advanced than us, as our own capabilities are quite limited. In fact, these ‘others’ may have long ago evolved as far above us in capabilities as we are above chickens. Then, assuming they were as dismissive of animal rights as we’ve been, our options would probably be quite limited, perhaps as limited as those we normally grant livestock. How could we rightfully protest given our own behavior? Could we manage to live a life of integrity and fulfillment anyway, or would we descend, as a species, into a death spiral of despondency and despair? Could our futures depend on our ability to adapt like dogs and cats have adapted to us?

If our vaunted intellect were up to the task, perhaps we could devise an ethical system capable of dealing with these events before these or similar ones actually happen. Certainly our current mainstream religions aren’t much help. Exactly how divinely inspired could our mainstream religions be?

The purported accumulated evidence suggests we are alone. And, if true, that means the progenitors of those strange aliens we’ve always pictured were out there, are right here with us in those countries we care so little about, waiting to some day populate the galaxy. We need only watch them develop, and then disperse out to the stars, in their own good time. No doubt any superiority they may exhibit will be completely invisible to us.

So how should we behave if we are the seed of life for the entire galaxy? And that’s a serious possibility despite our dismal prospects for dispersal. That is no trivial question. Just how precious would our most annoying neighbors become under those circumstances? And what does that say about our future prospects? We have yet to come to high levels of mutual respect amongst our various nations. But the chasms separating our myriad points of view would likely grow even starker out amongst the stars.

Meanwhile, though we are still quite separate islands of consciousness, we are constantly coming closer to one another through our continuously improving communication technologies and our increasingly tighter living situations. Couple those with how we are being strongly encouraged to consider the Earth our only viable home for the foreseeable future, and perhaps we should acknowledge that we are being pushed in an unexpected, though not entirely unwelcome, direction: toward each other.

It could be that our relationships and, in particular, our bonding are the end-all and be-all many generations of gentlewomen have claimed they are. The principle that we should be good to each other is hard to refute. The alternative is to let loose with our greed to claw our way to the top of society’s pyramid where all good things move up to us and away from the multitudes.

Could we eventually overcome our fears and give up our anti-social ways and forsake our militarism? It could all depend on whether we are alone in the universe or not, because regardless of first impressions, there is always the possibility that other intelligent beings are secretly as hostile and as prone to violence as we are. That could easily instill enough insecurity in us to fuel a million years of continued defense over-spending.

So, which do you prefer to be the case?

We are not alone, and we study war forever, being too afraid to trudge on without being fully armed.

Or, we are alone, and we have a chance to give up war forever, because, in our different shades and varieties, we are the only real threat? (Not that we’re likely to take advantage of that opportunity, as there are many who would gladly subjugate the rest of humanity if it meant more wealth and privilege for themselves.)

There is this middle position: we are not alone, but ‘they’ are going to keep us in the dark about it, as a coming out gift, until absolutely necessary.

But feel free to dream up your own best guess about our cosmic reality. I offer one below that does not jostle the facts already on the table.

People think our predecessors are, or were, incredibly powerful. Imagine placing a moon as described. My only problem with the idea of predecessors is an almost complete lack of even possible evidence. Still, my intuition makes it hard for me to completely reject the idea that some conscious entity had a hand in our placement here, and so I embrace a partial explanation that’s an amalgam of what we know and what I feel.

I feel we are here to accomplish one major task, namely, to work out a way to get along with each other, as many of us as possible, while still living lives that we can value. I favor this objective in part because of the results of past competitions. There are chronic problems with the ‘last man standing’ scenario as far as the humanity of the man likely to succeed. But also, it just doesn’t seem reasonable to me that we are meant to eliminate each other in a winner takes all bloodbath or its analog. Why make us so dependent then?

To help us focus we will be protected from distractions until we solve, or show we are incapable of answering, that single question. That’s why we haven’t been contacted. That’s why leaving this solar system is not an option. That’s why the pressure is constantly building for us to find a solution. Each year we become more and more crowded on an increasingly resource depleted planet. It’s all to force us to calculate an answer. How can we achieve fulfilling lives while allowing other’s their own?

I see humanity as a giant, living, single-purpose computer and our price of admission into the Greater Reality is our solving this one problem. I even feel encouraged when I realize the solution is in our best interests even without otherworld involvement. We could create a durable ethical system from learning to accommodate others so that we all benefit. I can believe a good solution would have universal appeal for all beings of Free Will.

Unfortunately, we Americans have always cherished our freedoms, including the right not to have to care about the other guy. (Who would seriously expect us to play nice when we’ve got bombs coming out of our ears?) And so I think we’ll reject this task, even if it ruins the chances for humanity in general, and many would gladly work for a better status quo than our hegemony.

It’s not that we’re alone in wishing other people would just disappear. Many wish that for us. And some people do seem hopelessly wrong-headed. But a Hobbesian pirate’s creed turned hegemonic foreign policy is not likely an acceptable answer. We may be under the influence of the most virulent self-delusion there is: The idea that we will be absolved of responsibility if we give license to our leaders to act violently on our behalf.

Other cultures will handle this situation far more respectfully. Wise old Confucius contemplated a similar quandary and apparently chose to write something directed at the faithful of his day.

“If you don’t know how to serve men, why worry about serving God?”


1 The idea that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one
2 In induction things inferred are not logically necessary.
3 The idea that we will necessarily always be left with one thing we will have to take on faith
4 No oxygen, no air pressure, excessive radiation, too hot or too cold, etc.
5 Actually, this discussion is a little dated, but, in brief, if the universe is infinite Entropy may not apply
6 Replacing parts of the body with electro-mechanical substitutes
7 Freezing the body, or just the head, in the hopes of eventual revival
8 For example, discouraging or even preventing those deemed ‘unworthy’ from having children