Victor's Six (Tentative) Theses
It has been some time since I really spoke to you. I hope you are doing well, and the same goes for your site and magazine.
I spent much of my time on philosophy the last weeks, specifically on meta-ethics and Nietzsche, though not necessarily together. This has led me to a number of theses concerning the world, which I would like to share with you. Please tell me what you think of them, they are open to criticism.
I will make a few assumptions to clear the way. I think none of them will be particularly controversial, at least not between us. Firstly, I will take the nonexistence of God for granted. Secondly, I will use a purely materialistic view of the Universe: there is no spirit, no soul, consciousness is something that arises from (or maybe more accurately is) the state of our physical brain.
Thesis 1: The traditional concept of the ego is false.
It is a general, almost unconscious, assumption that man has an ego; that there is something that thinks, that wills, that is the core of one's being. This assumption led to the invention of the soul, but it something that is also present with most materialists. In fact, most Enlightenment philosophy bases itself on the concept of individuals as rational ego's. However, this concept is clearly false. There is no core, no inner being, who thinks. There is activity in a brain; hence there are thoughts. But to say that something 'thinks' is a grave error, for it assumes some consciousness beyond the thoughts, that somehow has an influence upon those thoughts. But this deeper consciousness is indefensible in a materialistic world view. (I do not say it is defensible in a non-materialistic one, but I have no wish to explore that further.) So much of our language is simply confusing; when we say "I think so and so", we actually mean "The state of the brain that produces this sentence can be interpreted as this and that thought." Of course this is an inefficient way of speech, but it clearly shows us that any 'I' beyond the immediate state of the brain is simply an illusion.
What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it destroys the one and single evident truth of Descartes! "Cogito, ergo sum", he said, but the 'cogito' part is but an assumption, and one that is probably false. But there is more. For one thing, for an Enlightened philosopher it might seem obvious that an individual cannot believe both A and not A. But there is nothing that stops the brain from exhibiting two patters, one of which can be interpreted as A, and one of which can be interpreted as not A! The individual is not logical.
Thesis 2: Our world has a necessary maximum complexity.
The world as we perceive it is necessarily wholly contained in our brain. Any part of the true world that is not contained in our brain is not perceived by us; this much seems evident. Our brains are finite, they have but a finite complexity. This too is almost a truism. But from this it immediately follows that the world as we perceive it can have but a maximum complexity, and one that is necessary equal to, or below, the complexity of our brain! Now it is perfectly clear that the Universe is more complex than our brain (as our brain is a part of it, and only a small part) but it might well be that the Universe is far more complex than the information containing part of our brain, even on a small scale. It is well possible that our brains are quite incapable of understanding even the barest backbone of the true world. The assumption that man can find out the truth about the Universe is just that: an assumption. Science, no matter how well done, can never go beyond the fundamental limit imposed on our understanding by our brain. (Religion, of course, cannot even hope to approach that limit.)
Suppose for a moment that the world is vastly more complex than we perceive it; this would seem to be a quite reasonable supposition. In that case all knowledge about the Universe we can have is only an approximation of certain parts of the truth. And it is not logically necessary (indeed it might be quite unlikely) that those things we can know are in fact all connected! The very foundation for the search for a Theory of Everything is but a highly doubtful assumption, namely that all our knowledge is connected. It seems far more likely that we have but glimpses of the truth, glimpses in those directions that are most fundamental to our survival.
This is not meant to belittle human reason and understanding. Nay, that is a vast and beautiful thing. And it is necessarily vast, for the thoughts of all thinkers are necessarily more complicated than the thoughts of the individual, and thus are necessarily greater than what he can comprehend. But it might just be possible (if it is not in fact very probable) that many parts on reality are necessarily unknowable to us.
Thesis 3: There is no objective morality
What is an objective morality? It is a morality that states that some things are good and some are evil, regardless of the judgement of any conscious beings. This viewpoint is the standard point of view: who does not feel that killing innocent people is objectively wrong? But when we look at it, there is no way in which we can justify this belief. What do we have? Facts. No fact contains the words 'right' or 'wrong'. Hence no proposition containing 'right' or 'wrong' can follow from the facts. This point of view is also defended in, for instance, "An Atheist's Values".
But this effectively renders any attempt to establish an objective morality futile. For my moral statements do not follow from facts, and hence I cannot use reason to prove them. At some point must I make one or more value judgements: I must say 'This is good' or 'This is evil'. Or, which is an equivalent procedure, I mus specify a goal to be attained; in that case my judgements must be read: "A is good, if you want to reach goal G", or "B is bad, if you want to reach goal G". But in no way can the fundamental value judgements or the fundamental goals be 'proven'. Hence there is no objective morality.
Thesis 4: Moral judgements are promises of actions
So morality necessarily stems from goals we are free to choose. What then does it mean to condemn someone for something we see as immoral? It cannot mean we think he has done something that is objectively evil; at most he can have done something which is evil in our personal morality. So what does our condemnation mean? What does it mean when we say "It is evil to kill innocent people"? I think that in fact it means nothing more or less than: "If anyone kills an innocent person, I will hate him for it." And in the same way does "It is good to feed the hungry" mean: "If anyone feeds the hungry, I will love him for it." Moral judgements are promises: If you do X, my attitude towards you will shift in direction Y. We do not describe objective values, we do not describe our taste: we describe consequences.
To act morally, then, is to a) act according to our own goals (for instance, ensuring the happiness of mankind, finding the truth, etc.) and b) act according to our own moral judgements (to hate those who we deem evil and love those who we deem good). You cannot be passively moral! Also, see here a striking difference between my moral theory and the Christian one: a Christian claims to love even the evil ones; I claim that if you love the evil ones, you either do not see them as evil, or do not act morally.
Thesis 5: The highest morality is creative
What does this mean? First of all, one has to create a morality, by choosing goals. Accepting that of others unthinkingly is irrational. Secondly, in order to be moral one has to act on one's goals: morality cannot be passive, it must be active. Thirdly, in order to behave morally towards moral judgements, one must be able of strong emotions of love and hate, and the will and courage to act on them. Fourthly, in order to achieve ones goals one must possess knowledge, reason and wisdom. Fifthly, in creating and acting thus, one creates and acts as an individual.
Though it does not necessarily follow, the following values are at least implied by my moral ideas: creativity, activity, emotions, knowledge, reason, wisdom, willpower, courage and individualism. It seems that a 'high' morality must be creative, and must contain the values given here. A morality that does away with some of them is at least in some respect deficient: its adherents cannot act as morally as those who do accept these values I gave, for in rejecting them one rejects at least some of the means by which to be moral.
Therefore we should take the above values and try to build a rational morality around them.
Thesis 6: The future will be thus
[Take this somewhat less seriously than the rest.] We have heard theists proclaim the end of Mankind often enough -- now let me do the same. I think the events I will describe are unavoidable, that they will take place in the future; and probably the near future too.
Mankind has access to better and better techniques of genetic engineering. It seems unavoidable (which is not meant in any negatively moral sense) that one day we will be able to make human beings; in fact, improve human beings. It seems only logical to assume that, within the near future, we will be able to create beings more intelligent and wise than we are, by means of genetic engineering. When this is possible, this will happen. No-one has ever stopped the use of knowledge, and it seems to asume no-one ever will. So, there will come into existence a population of beings who are more intelligent and more wise than we. It seems unavoidable that after a time (but I do not claim to know how long), these beings will take power. They can take it, hence at one time they will. Then, whatever their attitude towards Man, the end of Mankind will have begun. As inferior beings, mankind will gradually make place for these higher beings, who most probably will be succeeded by even more successfully engineered beings who are even wiser and more intelligent. In the end, Man will be no more. Instead of Man, there will be... well, why not call it Overman, the übermensch? A race of beings more capable of finding reality, more capable of intelligence and wisdom, maybe more capable of strong emotions... a race that is higher than Man, whose most inferior individuals still can laugh about the foolishness of Man! There is a good chance that Man will bring about His own destruction this way!
It is almost the Garden of Eden: knowledge brings about the Fall of Man. But then again, how different it is from that tale! Whereas the shallow Bible morality speaks about Man becoming more inferior (though some might claim that our present state is in fact more desirable than that in Eden), in this story, this prophecy, something much higher and more beautiful than man takes its place! It is Eden reversed! Through knowledge, Man destroys himself, and in the destroying creates something above it. Ah, it may not be scientific to let the imagination run this way, but let me have my kind of faith. :)
Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains.
-- Marcus Aurelius
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