The pros and cons of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a branch of moral philosophy according to which the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in maximising some measure of “utility” summed over all sentient beings. “Utility” can mean different things such as pleasure, satisfaction of preferences or even knowledge, but the basic idea is that, ultimately, there is just one criterion for determining the moral worth of an action, and that this must involve consideration for the action’s consequences.

Utilitarianism emerged in England in the 18th and 19h centuries, initially as a basis for getting rid of useless or corrupt laws and social practices. The idea that the actions are not good or bad in themselves, but that their moral worth depends on their consequences, was a novel one at the time, and had a profound influence on the formulation of policy.

Utilitarianism has its detractors, however. The idea that you can compare the happiness of two distinct persons such that they can be “added together” to form a total is highly controversial, and it has also been pointed out that one can never foresee all the consequences of an action. Some complain that utilitarianism downplays the importance of intention, while others worry that it could be used as a justification for slavery, genocide and other breaches of human rights.

My own position is that, while there are obvious problems, the basic concept has an important role to play in helping to forge consensus on what kind of future we actually want, and on the measures required to get us there. It’s not necessarily “utilitarianism vs the rest”: we can draw inspiration from various ethical principles. But as the philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out, in a dispute between reasoning beings you need a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole. And in that context it seems difficult to beat “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” as an overarching principle.

But what do you think? Is utilitarianism a helpful idea or not?

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About Peter Wicks

International consultant. I bring clarity to complex and confusing situations and identify the most promising solutions.
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59 Responses to The pros and cons of utilitarianism

  1. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Despite my admiration for Bentham’s and J.S. Mill’s enlightened thought for their times, Utilitarianism or its consequentialistic cousin is an anathema to personal freedom. It’s the old “Ends Justify the Means” canard which continues to get us into places like Iraq and Afghanistan to ostensibly create a better environment for their citizens. (I see you are from Belgium – Flemish or Walloon? So I won’t lay the Bush/Obama fiasco at your door.)

    By whose lights is good & bad defined? Who is to decide what is better or constitutes the greatest good in the NOW for others? All ideas are subjective, created in each of our minds. Who are we to decide other’s fates? The only just way to increase utility is through non-violent action via persuasion by the power of ideas and words. Every subjective ill and good started with an idea and only ideas can spur the actions to alter their values. I do not bow to consensus unless I happen to agree with the majority opinion. I believe we are all responsible for whatever circumstances befall us due to decisions we have taken (or failed to take – which is also a decision) that led us to those events. In that context there are no victims other than we who victimize ourselves and there is no greater good than the interpersonal actions we affect with each other.

    Peace,

    Burt

  2. peterwicks says:

    Thanks so much Burt for being the first to leave a comment!

    I definitely agree with you about all ideas being subjective, at least moral ones. Deciding right from wrong is not a matter of “truth” in my opinion, it’s a matter of choice. I also believe that personal freedom is a crucial principle that needs to underpin much if not all of our mechanisms for organising society. But there are constraints of course: I guess you’re not suggesting we should respect the personal freedom of a serial killer. Put it this way: an application of utilitarianism that didn’t respect personal freedom in general (i.e. with the above caveat) would not, in my view, lead to genuine well-being even at the societal level, and therefore would not be a valid form of utilitarianism. “Ends justify the means” can be abused, of course – or simply misapplied – but that doesn’t in itself make the principle wrong. Personally I find it difficult to see how one could intervene effectively in human affairs if one was never prepared to “do evil that good may result”.

    I live in Belgium but am not Belgian – I’m a British expat working at the European Commission.

    Anyway thanks again – hope you keep coming back! And do let me know if you have any suggestions for further posts, ways to improve the site etc…

  3. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for your response –

    all ideas being subjective, at least moral ones.

    ALL ideas are subjective not only morality – each idea is created in some person’s mind and formulated according to that person’s subjective belief system.

    Deciding right from wrong is not a matter of “truth” in my opinion, it’s a matter of choice

    Absent a universal morality, right and wrong only have a subjective meaning and in my opinion most actions are value neutral and it is we who charge them as positive and negative. The choice of course is ours to transgress or obey proscriptions. I personally break no laws with which I agree and obey no laws with which I disagree unless there is a high probability of being caught transgressing. After many years of pondering, I have come to believe that TRUTH, is also subjective and it is a consensus’ imprimatur that imbues the “truth” with weight. Truth, in my final analysis is whatever someone believes to be true. It is possible to change one’s beliefs about what is true by persuasion, education, and evidence but if a person still believes in that which others deem to be untrue, there can be no falsification and as long as that person’s actions do not harm others, the truth is moot.

    personal freedom is a crucial principle that needs to underpin much if not all of our mechanisms for organising society. But there are constraints of course: I guess you’re not suggesting we should respect the personal freedom of a serial killer.

    As I don’t believe in victims, neither the serial killer’s clients nor the serial killer is a victim in whatever drama they find themselves. I am not suggesting that society should ignore the heinous commissions of a serial killer, if the killer manifests a scenario in which he is in a drama with authorities then he is not a victim but a participant and will have to deal with whatever plays out. I do not advocate capital punishment for any actions but have no problems with separating the killer from those who would be harmed.

    “Ends justify the means” can be abused, of course – or simply misapplied but that doesn’t in itself make the principle wrong. Personally I find it difficult to see how one could intervene effectively in human affairs if one was never prepared to “do evil that good may result”.

    History is replete with abuses and misapplications of that saw. The principle is open ended stating any ends justify any means. I believe any means that are less than ideal or at least don’t transgress universal morality will not generate ideal or even acceptable ends.

    It is difficult to intervene ideally in human affairs. If one is prepared to “do evil that good may result” then one will be unlikely to take the time, expend the energy or imagination required to bring about an ideal or acceptable solution. BTW “evil” is defined by one’s worldview and only exists in the mind of the believer(s)

    Wow – the European Commission – I’m impressed – I imagine your working environs colors your worldview regarding the wealth of societal issues for your consideration.

    I am a software engineer and so tend to see everything in binary terms.

    Peace,

    Burt

  4. peterwicks says:

    Thanks again Burt.

    I have some difficulty – well no let’s correct that: HUGE difficulty – with calling the victims of serial killers “clients”. A client, for me, is someone who freely chooses to accept (buy) a service from someone else. We’re not talking cannibalism-with-consent (as per the case a few years ago in Germany) in the case of serial killers, we’re talking coercion.

    I agree that ideas are, in the first place, always subjective, but for me there is a fundamental difference between empirical statements, i.e. statements about what is, or what will be likely consequence of one’s actions, and normative statements, i.e. statements about what should be. We do not choose whether the earth is round or flat, and we do not choose (at least not entirely) the consequences of our actions. We can choose how we want to live our lives, and what to value, including what to tolerate and what not to tolerate in the behaviour of others. It’s in this context that I see moral ideas as more subjective: they exist in the Platonic realm, and are essential as a compass to guide our behaviour, but they don’t (unlike empirical ideas) seem to correspond to anything in the physical world.

    I take your point about “ends justifying the means” making us less likely to make the effort to think of better alternatives. For me this is an example of the wider dichotomy between seeking perfection and settling for what appears to be realistic. Here I think it’s good to distinguish between the short term (just choose the least bad among the obviously available options) and the long term (give full vent to your perfectionism, dare to be utopian).

    Peace to you too! (and love, joy, and well-being…)
    Peter

  5. dor says:

    Very interesting.
    The lens for my response is the lens of emerging technologies, so it is perhaps not suprising that I would seek both/and rather than either/or.
    We should seek to do the greatest good for the greatest number, but there need also be some absolutes that perhaps should not be violated.
    To “do evil that good may result” is a terrifying prospect. We have taken for granted in warfare for example that it must be so. But as the technologies get stronger, more destructive, can we still afford to buy into that thinking?
    First, I dislike the word evil, very loaded;reprehensible, instead, maybe?
    Second, though, does it not depend upon what we mean by that?
    So the absolutes might include ways we treat groups of people. (e.g. agreeing that, for example, genocide is an absolute wrong that should not be committed).
    Then, subjective or relativistic application as an overlay (e.g. introducing some transgenic species into the wild might be permissible, even if that action encroaches upon some native species, because to do so might increase the food supply).
    The ultimate goal should be “greatest good for greatest number”, but the rights of both individuals and groups of individuals must somehow also be weighed and taken into the equation.

  6. peterwicks says:

    Hi dor,

    Yes, that corresponds very closely to my way of thinking. In technical terms what you’ve described would be called “rule utilitarianism”. We can’t do a cost-benefit calculation every time we want to make a decision, so in practice we need rules, and these will include things like taboos against genocide (even in the context of war), severe limitations on when it is legitimate to take human life, and indeed concepts like democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, and protection of minorities.

    I agree that the destructive capabilities of technology (even today, let alone in the future) make it all the more urgent to transcend our old ways of thinking and resolving conflicts. We survived the cold war, but will we survive the next few decades? As a species, probably yes, but with our civilisation and standard of living intact? Very doubtful. But “where there’s life there’s hope”, and the game is not yet lost. If we can survive the next few decades, and also start to tackle the low-frequency high-impact risks like meteorites and super volcanoes, then we potentially have a truly amazing future ahead of us.

    • dor says:

      Yes, “rule utilitarianism”, that’s my vote.
      As for living through the next few decades, people have always believed we were on the verge of destruction. I wonder if it is a kind of ego-projection to think that our time in history is somehow special.
      What is at risk (imho) is Western dominance. There are huge swaths of populations that have been left out of the industrial revolution and the increases in quality of life that came with it. John Cobb Jr. talked about the rise of “economism” in the years following WWII where because of the factors that were left out of value equations (e.g. environment, social structures, etc.) the pursuit of wealth began to trump other values.
      We have an opportunity now to adjust some of those valuation equations. The road to peace comes from opening the doors, not building better blockades.
      What I see as sometimes happening is for very complex systems to be reduced to fairly simple causations (e.g. freakonomics). AI offers the hope of being able to deal with greater levels of complexity and to apply cultural lens to test solutions (thanks for helping me know that, by the way). Without such a lens, they carry the potential of being skewed toward the mindsets of the programmers.
      In the U.S., we also tend to think of solutions that need to be scalable without necessarily taking other factors into account. It may be, for example, that different energy solutions are needed for different populations: solar for Native American populations to allow minimal distruption of their way of life, different solutions for more urban populations where energy can be thought of in a different kind of scale.
      So, the utilitarian rules may need to apply specific filters as well. Democracy and free speech may not be the best solution in all cases. But there needs to be a prioritization as part of the rule-making so that the exceptions don’t in any way jeopardize the whole.

  7. peterwicks says:

    Very much agree dor. At the same time I think there ARE reasons to fear civilisational collapse, and it’s not like it would be the first time in history that it’s happened (read Jared Diamond on the subject for example). For me the four most likely “horsemen of the apocalypse” in the medium term are: environmental change (incl but not limited to global warming), emerging diseases, geopolitical risk (basically war), and “technology shock”: technology poses risks as well as opportunities. These threats need to be taken seriously imo. (Not that we should see them as separate of course: they are interlinked.)

    I’d be careful with the “democracy and free speech may not be the best solution in all cases”. I think you can make a strong case that not all societies are ready for it, but I tend to follow Fukuyama in saying that these concepts correspond to the genuine desires of human beings, and are therefore basically universal.

    PS I really must get round to reading “freakonomics” one of these days!

  8. dor says:

    yes, I agree there are a number of existential risks. Jared Diamond looked at specific civilizations and I guess that’s what I’m trying to express — the “end of the world” has happened many times throughout history for different populations, both human-initiated (examples outlined in Collapse) and natural (e.g. the Black Death).
    Will those collapses be all of humanity or specific populations?
    In terms of free speech and democracy, please don’t misunderstand. I very much want to live in that world. But there are some cultures where peace and happiness (important to have both) are maintained by alternate systems such as native decision-making where the leadership roles may rotate rather than being fixed (as an alternate to democracy). The alternate to free speech is as you pointed out on IEET, for security purposes. So, the stressing is on limited exceptions, not widespread ones.
    But yes, I am not advocating systems of government that oppress large parts of their population, choosing peace over democracy. Sorry for the misunderstanding. My bad.

  9. peterwicks says:

    You’re welcome dor. I guess what’s different now compared with the cases Diamond studies is that we now, much more than ever before, have a global civilisation. So, arguably, if it goes down, we all go down with it. Also: bear in mind that for the civilisations in question, let’s say the Easter Islanders for example, that WAS there world. For me the interesting questions are how we steer our way through the current bottleneck (Lester Brown’s terminology if I’m not mistaken?) with our civilisation intact, what kind of future we want to aim for thereafter, and how we deal with the low-frequency high-impact risks.

  10. Burt says:

    Peter,

    The clients (I would have labeled them “victims” if I believed in victimhood) are actually participants in the drama (their interpersonal action with the killer) and they freely chose to be located in roughly the same time-space coordinates as did the killer. Because each now is subjunctive until it is fixed and becomes the “past” from the current now vantage, the “victim” is free to attempt to fight, flee, or dissuade the killer from his putative path. In my belief system the “victims” are not coerced but enter into the drama for their own purposes. I realize that most would believe that “no one” would choose to enter into such a drama but my belief system demands it.

    As you note, ideas are always subjective – the problem with “in the first place” is that it is the only frame of reference available in one’s first person point of view (FPOV). The empirical and normative (is & ought) are all FPOV constructs and entirely subjective as opposed to absolute. That realization was what impelled me to seek a universal morality (as posted in ieet.) We need some normative absolute as an anchor by which we may gauge our actions. We do choose whether to believe the earth is a sphere or flat and we do choose our actions and the concomitant consequences are equally our creations. We choose everything in our experience (again by my lights.) As I said before morality only exists by definition and each of us are the definers. The physical world only exists as our mental construct and requires translation by our consciousness to be apprehended.

    The settling for less than ideal ends & means just because something seems realistically achievable, is an excuse to act regardless of the consequences.

    Just a quick synopsis of the way physical reality is obliged to operate. There are 3 main possibilities along with varying proportional combinations of those 3:

    1) God / Gods are in control of the Universe and our actions. Events are foreseen and approved.

    2) Nothing is in control, events occur at random.

    3) Each of us is in control. We create the events we experience.

    I choose to believe that #3 is the ideal option. One can take credit for one’s successes and the responsibility of one’s failures – no luck needed. It also follows that unfairness is obviated as all are responsible for their experiences. Perhaps the greatest benefits of #3 is that it obviates FEAR as one doesn’t need to fear a capricious god or fear one is at the mercy of an indifferent (random) universe. One only needs to rely on one’s intentions and if they are in harmony with oneself, nature and all the other entities with whom we share our superpositional existence we need not FEAR (we have met the enemy and he is us – Walt Kelly.) The universe and one’s reaction to it is all a function of one’s conscious interaction with one’s creations. Trust yourself and believe you are the author of your experience and ALL will be well.

  11. peterwicks says:

    Thanks again Burt – it’s an interesting point of view, albeit one I profoundly disagree with. I’d be interested in other reactions to it. Might add more myself later.
    Peter

  12. peterwicks says:

    In fact perhaps I’ll add something already now. You say that we choose everything in our experience, including our beliefs. I certainly agree that we choose our beliefs. So my question is: why have you chosen this particular belief system? What does it do for you?

  13. Burt says:

    Peter,

    I have examined multiple conventional (those held by more than a few) belief systems – mainly major religions, philosophies, physics, biology and other scientific beliefs and over the years and each has positive, negative, and contradictory aspects. I have tried to winnow the positive aspects, account for the contradictions and come up with a system that approached a kind of ideal which I have termed “Universal Morality”. I also wondered why each belief system had many adherents when they were in many cases diametrically opposed to each other. I concluded that people believe in these systems because those belief systems make sense to them and seem to work in their lives. It doesn’t matter if someone believes as they do because their parents or “tribe”, teacher or spiritual guide does, or is an autodidact, each is free to change their beliefs (as scientists often do) when they no longer make sense or are not efficacious and supplant them with new or refined beliefs.

    Why are many people attracted to Scientology, organized religions, or cults? It is because they are seeking answers to fundamental reality’s questions and the organized systems provide them and the seekers believe the majority of those answers are compatible with their current beliefs or more logical than their current system of logic. How is it possible that ALL belief systems appear to work and appear to be valid for each believer? That is because each believer observes reality with a confirmation bias towards that which reinforces his beliefs and discounts or ignores that which contravenes those beliefs. In this manner one chooses what to believe and as one believes, so will one create experiences that comport with those beliefs. When anomalies appear that contradict one’s beliefs and one is interested in accounting for the “new evidence”, one is obliged to analyze it and rationalize it so that it fits into one’s worldview as a core belief, tentative belief or it is discarded. Many ignore the anomaly or rely on their faith in their belief system to dispense with the issue and are not interested in examining the ramifications of their beliefs vis-à-vis discrepancies. Beliefs are subjective truths to all believers, however most people believe that the majority of their “truths” is objective. A human cannot directly apprehend the physical universe. All external sensory input needs to be converted to energy patterns that the person’s consciousness translates via the brain into symbols that are filtered via the belief system into what passes for reality – entirely subjective. What appear to be objective “truths” are only consensus opinions (except for tautological truths which are true by virtue of definition).

    If one were to design a system that would be the same as our physical reality and be fair and balanced to all that exists in the reality, the only system that I have been able to come up with is that every last thing is responsible for whatever happens in its reality. If one believes that physical reality works in this manner, all events are neutral in the larger sense and it is only one’s perception that charges them. This is true whether one believes it or not (There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so – Hamlet).

    I believe I (and everyone else – including all animate and inanimate entities) am responsible for everything in our experience and that when desirable or undesirable events and dramas take place that I have created them for my edification. If my situation is to my liking, I continue to operate as I have been and if it’s not then I change my approach and see it as an opportunity to examine why I created the event that seemed to be less than ideal. That way I have no one but myself to blame for my putative missteps and can take credit for whatever successes occur. Without such a belief it’s either God’s will or random good/bad luck – either way one cannot take the credit for their fortunes or lack thereof.

    This frees one to truly live free of FEAR and able to empathize with other’s tribulations without getting maudlin or emotionally stressed. If each entity chooses the circumstances of its birth and which fundamental challenges it will use to progress in physical reality, then circumstances which seem undesirable now become a vehicle for the individual to explore physical existence. Birth defects, mental challenges, genetic issues, or diseased initial conditions are the framework an entity uses as a springboard for development along the lines it has chosen. Some entities choose manifest as aids to help other entities and remain physical for a brief period in terms of those with whom it interacted. Others stay longer. Entities enter into dramas with each other to develop their consciousnesses in a sort of value added way but is always free to change the circumstances in any drama until the subjunctive is fixed. One needn’t treat secondary information as primary reality – it isn’t real, it’s hearsay and has nothing to do with oneself except as one creates it to be. Primary information is that which is happening to you in your immediate sphere of influence, i.e, you in your immediate surroundings, all else is secondary and has no reality except for those whose primary information it is.

    One of the benefits of this belief system is that it explains many phenomena that are not readily explained.

    The placebo effect – belief or the desire to believe that a sugar pill is efficacious works miracles.

    Faith healing – belief in the power of the healer – (modern and primitive medicine derives a huge benefit from this effect) not that there aren’t chemicals, techniques and entities energies that help to balance certain conditions, but it is the person’s beliefs and choices that actually stimulate the body to heal itself. An entity that no longer wishes to remain in physical reality will find a way to leave despite the best efforts of others and one who isn’t ready to leave will remain no matter how dire the circumstances appear ( these are often attributed to miracles but are a natural consequence of this belief system.)

    The bottom line as to why I choose to believe that each of us is totally responsible for manifesting our own reality is that it works for me just like the aforementioned belief systems work for others. I haven’t experienced serious problems in my life either personally or in my immediate family since adopting this way of thinking and do not expect to. The common thread in all belief systems is belief so the meta belief system is simply personal reality is as one believes it to be.

    I cannot convey my entire belief system in a blog post and there are many other fundamental root assumptions that are required to account for the diversity of entities and phenomena in physical reality but as one lives as nearly as is possible to the tenets of Universal Morality, one’s life may present challenges, however overcoming them will not be insurmountable or even particularly difficult unless one chooses to learn “the hard way”.

    If there are conclusions that anyone has a problem understanding, I’ll do my best to clarify.

    Peace to ALL,

    Burt

  14. Burt says:

    Here are the tenets of UNIVERSAL MORALITY:

    1) RESPECT and Honor ALL Life/Nature.

    EVERYTHING in the universe has meaning, purpose, and an innate right to exist.

    2) EMPATHIZE with Other Entities in ALL Transactions.

    Consider the effect of your actions vis-à-vis others from their point of view, metaphorically walking in their shoes. Don’t take advantage of people via trickery or superior intellect. This is the root of the Golden Rule – no vengeful tit for tat.

    3) Do Not KILL More than is Needed for Physical Sustenance.

    The deprivation of life and/or resources for gluttony is less than ideal.

    4) Do Not Commit Violence on Yourself or Others, Life, or the Environment.

    Violence is a result of FEAR and inappropriate aggression, fostered by a sense of powerlessness to attain one’s desires by peaceful means. Violence is perpetrated by those who are afraid, incompetent, ignorant or impatient and NEVER justified.

    5) Do Not Attempt to Attain an IDEAL by Violating ANY of the Above Propositions.

    The “All of the above” Meta-rule – IDEAL ENDS NEVER JUSTIFY LESS THAN IDEAL MEANS.

  15. peterwicks says:

    Burt,

    Many many thanks for setting out your belief system here so comprehensively. There’s a lot there that I agree with and a lot that I find compelling.

    Let’s start with one of the things I agree with: that a human cannot directly apprehend the physical universe. The brain indeed filters the huge amount of external sensory input and converts it into mental objects – let’s indeed call them “symbols” – and our prior beliefs most certainly influence this process.

    However I don’t quite agree that it is (primarily) our *consciousness* that performs this task, nor that our resulting experiences are therefore “entirely subjective”. Firstly, our filtering mechanisms are primarily *un*conscious, whether learned or innate. Secondly, for me the term “entirely subjective” seems to imply that they don’t depend at all on the actual external data coming in, whereas clearly they do.

    Suppose, for example, that you’re walking back from work, at roughly the same time and taking the same route that you always do, and you get mugged. Happened to a friend of mine recently. What really happened there? It’s a bit of a moot point to what extent she really “chose” to take that route at that particular time on that particular day: given that this was such an ingrained habit, it probably didn’t require any kind of conscious decision-making. But let’s say for the sake of argument that she chose to do so. Until the event occurred, it’s fairly clear that there was nothing in her mental landscape that corresponded to the idea that she would be mugged. OK we know there’s a risk, but we assume it’s a small one, particularly if we’ve been taking the same route for years without anything happening. In the mean time the muggers were lying in wait, and by the time the relevant external sensory input became available to her it was too late to prevent the event from occurring. Basically she did what we would all do in that circumstances – lost money and valuable documents, but happily emerged unscathed physically. Once again I would dispute that she entirely “chose” even how she reacted, since she was almost certainly acting on largely unconscious reflexes. (I read once that the process of conscious perception takes about two seconds, clearly far too long to intervene effectively in this kind of situation. Essentially you become consciously aware of what is happening, including how you have reacted, *after* the event.) She certainly did not choose to be mugged–and would be more than a little annoyed at the idea that she did.

    So rather than saying that what appear to be objective “truths” are only consensus opinions, I would rather say that what appear to be objective “truths” are the result of this largely unconscious process of filtering information. They are indeed subjective – but not “entirely”, if this means they do not depend at all on the information processed – and they are most definitely influenced by hearsay, i.e. beliefs that we have acquired by listening to others talking (or reading what they have written), but this is not the only way in which we form beliefs. To explain the placebo effect and faith healing (which I regard as an example of the placebo effect in action), one needs to believe in the power of belief to influence one’s experience; one does not need to believe that one’s experience is *only* the result of one’s belief. Some people who really want to live die; others who would prefer to be dead (but are unwilling to commit suicide) live on. The desire to live is only one of many factors that determine whether we do, in practice, live or die.

    Perhaps I can usefully illustrate this further by reflecting on how I have come to hold the above opinions. Certainly I have been influenced greatly by reading books (one that springs to mind is The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio), which I indeed chose to read, but the way in which I absorved (and filtered) the information I read there was influenced by my education, my prior experience of life, and my innate mechanisms for processing information (including what Pinker calls the “language instinct”). I certainly agree that confirmation bias is a reality – so having formed these beliefs I will have tended to process information in a way that confirms them – but once again it cannot be the whole story otherwise we would never change our beliefs. Indeed, one of the reasons why scientists often change their beliefs is precisely that their respect for the scientific method helps to compensate for this tendency.

    Moving on now to fear, I’m deeply sceptical as to how possible it is to truly live free of fear. Fear is a response that we have inherited from reptiles, and it is a basic part of the way we perceive and react to threats. And because the process of filtering information and “deciding” whether or not there is a threat is largely unconscious (it often takes far less than two seconds), it’s not something we can (in general) directly choose. If you really want to live free of fear, then probably the best way to go about it is to use meditation to enhance your conscious awareness of your emotional states, so that you instinctively notice when you are afraid and can take compensatory measures. Telling yourself that you have chosen the experience of being afraid and deciding to “unchoose” it can certainly be helpful, but there are also other ways. Either way, it basically comes down to controlling what you focus on – not least because that is something that you *can* choose.

    Burt I think I’ll leave it there for now – not least because the battery on this computer is getting low, not something I’ve really chosen but I can at least choose how to respond to the situation! I’ll just close by saying that, while I don’t believe we entirely choose the reality that we experience, I do believe that we can choose, if we try hard enough, what we value. Once again there’s a lot that I like about the set of rules that you’ve chosen to call “Universal Morality”, but I would not fully subscribe to the fourth and fifth points, and the above account of my beliefs regarding choice, belief and experience provides part (though not all) of the explanation. I also think that in addition to respect, empathy and non-violence we should also value some of the things that add zest to life: excitement, joy, and love (which is about more than just empathy).

    Best wishes,
    Peter

  16. Burt says:

    Let’s start with one of the things I agree with: that a human cannot directly apprehend the physical universe. The brain indeed filters the huge amount of external sensory input and converts it into mental objects – let’s indeed call them “symbols” – and our prior beliefs most certainly influence this process.
    However I don’t quite agree that it is (primarily) our *consciousness* that performs this task, nor that our resulting experiences are therefore “entirely subjective”. Firstly, our filtering mechanisms are primarily *un*conscious, whether learned or innate. Secondly, for me the term “entirely subjective” seems to imply that they don’t depend at all on the actual external data coming in, whereas clearly they do.

    Peter,
    I’ve bolded your responses for convenience so that they may be easily referred to along with my responses.

    Consciousness is one of those words which has many meanings – when I say our consciousness translates patterns into symbols, I mean the consciousness that exists independent of physical reality which is a personality gestalt, the consciousness that creates our bodies and brain and everything lese in our experience. Consciousness, in my belief system, is not epiphenomenal or emergent but the fundamental component of all matter and energy: Matter = Energy = Consciousness and they are interchangeable i.e, I subscribe to a panpsychist worldview. The filtering mechanisms are indeed mostly unconscious to our “waking” personalities meaning that we don’t usually examine why we believe as we do we just accept the data uncritically. We create ALL the external data coming in to our senses in the simplest way by transcription/translation but our ever aware consciousness (along with the portion of our personality focused in physical reality) has actually created the external data that is perceived (translated) for our daily experience. This will be a fundamental issue in our different belief systems. I don’t believe in external data – I believe all data is internally generated and appears to be external.

    Suppose, for example, that you’re walking back from work, at roughly the same time and taking the same route that you always do, and you get mugged. Happened to a friend of mine recently. What really happened there? It’s a bit of a moot point to what extent she really “chose” to take that route at that particular time on that particular day: given that this was such an ingrained habit, it probably didn’t require any kind of conscious decision-making. But let’s say for the sake of argument that she chose to do so. Until the event occurred, it’s fairly clear that there was nothing in her mental landscape that corresponded to the idea that she would be mugged. OK we know there’s a risk, but we assume it’s a small one, particularly if we’ve been taking the same route for years without anything happening. In the mean time the muggers were lying in wait, and by the time the relevant external sensory input became available to her it was too late to prevent the event from occurring. Basically she did what we would all do in that circumstances – lost money and valuable documents, but happily emerged unscathed physically. Once again I would dispute that she entirely “chose” even how she reacted, since she was almost certainly acting on largely unconscious reflexes. (I read once that the process of conscious perception takes about two seconds, clearly far too long to intervene effectively in this kind of situation. Essentially you become consciously aware of what is happening, including how you have reacted, *after* the event.) She certainly did not choose to be mugged–and would be more than a little annoyed at the idea that she did.

    This part is always tough for “victims” who categorically deny that they had anything to do with the drama in which they found themselves. This is quite reasonable because their belief system does not allow that they would willingly choose such horrible (by their estimation) events (who would?) Ask the “victims” of violent crimes e.g., rape, corporal abuse, even murder (although it’s a little hard to question a murder “victim”) and they almost always would deny in no uncertain terms (and take a stance of high dudgeon at the suggestion) their part in the drama. Events are always cooperative for an entity’s edification or in the case of death to serve as their final statement by choosing the manner of exiting physical reality. Choosing mundane action is seldom a conscious event as you note – it’s many times habituated. Many times one may get a feeling or a sense that their routine needs to be altered and act accordingly perhaps avoiding a situation that would have been probable had the person’s psyche not intervened. One cannot know what unpleasant lessons have been avoided simply by following intuitions. The only thing that can be gleaned from less than ideal dramas or dramas that are neutral or enjoyable is that one is either in need of a correction to their approach to life or things are going swimmingly. Your friend elected to take the mugger’s route whether by rote or conscious choice. To your way of thinking it was “fairly clear” there was nothing in her mind concerning the mugging prior to the event, however that is your interpretation filtered through your belief system, meaning “if one had the idea one would be mugged one would obviously take steps to avoid it.” If one had corrected the circumstances by which the “mugging lesson” was designed by one’s personality to edify oneself, the event would not have occurred. Once a subjunctive event becomes joined in one’s reality now then one has to play out the drama in whatever way one can, reasoning, screaming, fighting back, appeals to the perpetrators conscience, or giving them what they want. I think when confronted by such a situation, one’s best approach would be to offer the mugger whatever of value they wanted and say that you understand that they need the items more than you and give them freely as a gift so they don’t have to cause themselves more problems at this time. Unconscious reflexes are not generally thought out in real time but they reflect the overall worldview of the person in question. Conscious perception is a red herring – it is almost always perceived after the fact and despite the “fact” that she did not “consciously” choose to participate in the event, she created this event for her own purposes. Now I wouldn’t tell a person who had experienced a traumatic event, “it’s your fault, you chose it. Now deal with the whys and wherefores in your psyche that caused it to become fixed in your now.” I would offer condolences and try to make the person feel that it sometimes bad things happen to good people. People in general are not ready to take responsibility for undesirable circumstances in their life and are likely encounter similar negative (in their opinion) events until the causes are understood and addressed.

    So rather than saying that what appear to be objective “truths” are only consensus opinions, I would rather say that what appear to be objective “truths” are the result of this largely unconscious process of filtering information. They are indeed subjective – but not “entirely”, if this means they do not depend at all on the information processed – and they are most definitely influenced by hearsay, i.e. beliefs that we have acquired by listening to others talking (or reading what they have written), but this is not the only way in which we form beliefs. To explain the placebo effect and faith healing (which I regard as an example of the placebo effect in action), one needs to believe in the power of belief to influence one’s experience; one does not need to believe that one’s experience is *only* the result of one’s belief. Some people who really want to live die; others who would prefer to be dead (but are unwilling to commit suicide) live on. The desire to live is only one of many factors that determine whether we do, in practice, live or die.

    Again there are no objective truths; the truth is what one believes it to be. One may adduce any number of “proofs” as to why what they believe constitutes a truth but if the person to be convinced doesn’t believe it after the exercise and doesn’t accept those arguments, it is true for the consensus, but not that individual. The information processed doesn’t exist outside of one’s beliefs; it is the belief-processed information that exists for each of us subjectively. We form beliefs from experience and drawing conclusions as to whether they make sense in light of our current beliefs and how well they comport with them. If they don’t comport, then if one isn’t inclined to examine the belief which is common unless they are in a questioning frame of mind, it is usually rejected out of hand and not accepted as having veracity or value. The Placebo effect works even if one doesn’t “consciously” believe in the power of belief (as a matter of fact belief in the power of belief to affect one’s reality makes it less efficacious – believing it’s the medicine, doctor or god works far better.) Again those who really wanted to live, and die in spite of their protestations, didn’t “really” want to live – it isn’t that simple and we don’t really know anyone’s personal motivations except ourselves and that is often through a glass darkly. The will to live is the largest factor that decides one’s reality whether to live or die – those who have lost the will to live, don’t linger long and those who have the will, defy the odds.

    Perhaps I can usefully illustrate this further by reflecting on how I have come to hold the above opinions. Certainly I have been influenced greatly by reading books (one that springs to mind is The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio), which I indeed chose to read, but the way in which I absorved (and filtered) the information I read there was influenced by my education, my prior experience of life, and my innate mechanisms for processing information (including what Pinker calls the “language instinct”). I certainly agree that confirmation bias is a reality – so having formed these beliefs I will have tended to process information in a way that confirms them – but once again it cannot be the whole story otherwise we would never change our beliefs. Indeed, one of the reasons why scientists often change their beliefs is precisely that their respect for the scientific method helps to compensate for this tendency.

    Obviously our previous experiences (all internal and subjective) color our impressions of novel perception (information) and we tend to hold staid beliefs as they have been reinforced during our life experience. Obviously we change our beliefs when shown a superior belief, once we have sussed it out to the point where one sees it is counter productive or “wrong” to belief the supplanted belief but I know many people that would rather cling to familiar comfortable beliefs even as they say “I know you’re right but I’m still going to believe the way I do” Usually their applecart would be too upset with that change and to their mind it really doesn’t make enough of a difference to shake up their worldview. Scientists are some of the worst “confirmation” biased minds around, not all scientists, but I believe the majority is in thrall to what they already believe.

    Moving on now to fear, I’m deeply sceptical as to how possible it is to truly live free of fear. Fear is a response that we have inherited from reptiles, and it is a basic part of the way we perceive and react to threats. And because the process of filtering information and “deciding” whether or not there is a threat is largely unconscious (it often takes far less than two seconds), it’s not something we can (in general) directly choose. If you really want to live free of fear, then probably the best way to go about it is to use meditation to enhance your conscious awareness of your emotional states, so that you instinctively notice when you are afraid and can take compensatory measures. Telling yourself that you have chosen the experience of being afraid and deciding to “unchoose” it can certainly be helpful, but there are also other ways. Either way, it basically comes down to controlling what you focus on – not least because that is something that you *can* choose.

    Fear is not reptilian and we are not descended from reptiles – the Modern Synthesis and common descent is a “just so story” and the evidence for it is contradictory, a priori and very thin. FEAR is learned behavior and an easily reinforced and exploited emotion. There are no threats per se except the perception of such in the dramas in which we engage. If you are afraid, in my belief system, you only need to be afraid of yourself. I agree focus is key – if one focuses on things which one fears, then sure as anything one will make unconscious choices that will lead to the fearful events. The best way to avoid being fearful is to believe you are safe – religions exploit the safety issue by convincing the faithful if they obey the strictures and proscriptions and don’t transgress, God will reward them with a safe, happy, fulfilled life.

    Burt I think I’ll leave it there for now – not least because the battery on this computer is getting low, not something I’ve really chosen but I can at least choose how to respond to the situation! I’ll just close by saying that, while I don’t believe we entirely choose the reality that we experience, I do believe that we can choose, if we try hard enough, what we value. Once again there’s a lot that I like about the set of rules that you’ve chosen to call “Universal Morality”, but I would not fully subscribe to the fourth and fifth points, and the above account of my beliefs regarding choice, belief and experience provides part (though not all) of the explanation. I also think that in addition to respect, empathy and non-violence we should also value some of the things that add zest to life: excitement, joy, and love (which is about more than just empathy).

    The 5th point was what prompted me to comment on your Utilitarianism post, and the 4th merely eschews violence in all respects which in my opinion may be expeditious but never justified. Where is it justified except self-defense and if you are responsible for the event then it isn’t justified. Excitement, joy, and love are all important to the human psyche but are not moral issues and that is why they are not mentioned in Universal Morality. I’ll close by asking you to imagine how things would be if everyone believed in and practiced Universal Morality and everyone believed they were responsible for everything (good and bad) in their reality? Don’t you think humanity would be in a more ideal position?

    Peace to ALL,

    Burt

  17. peterwicks says:

    Thanks again Burt.

    I don’t see any obvious logical consistency in the theory that all data is internally generated. However this looks a lot to me like solipsism: the idea that only your own mind actually exists. After all we perceive *each other* through our senses; if instead all data is internally generated, then surely we are but figments of each others’ imagination. Indeed, of all data is internally generated then it’s not immediately clear to me what your tenets of Universal Morality could even mean: for example, how can you respect someone/something if you have (i.e. give yourself) no reason for believing in their existence as an entity in a real, external, physical world, with whom we can connect via our external senses?

    Another difficulty I have with your position is that if we truly choose what we experience, then surely we should be able to choose *anything*. After all, if there are any limitations at all on our choice, then (according to your theory) presumably we have also chosen those limitations, in which case they do not really exist: we can simply unchoose them. If that is the case then I must be doing something wrong, because my experience of life is definitely less than ideal. That is to say, I have a set of ideas (“ideals”) about how I want to live my life that does not appear to be entirely possible in the short term. For example, if I really had the choice, I would not age physically as I get older. I would enjoy perfect health, and entirely supportive relationships. Believing that I really did have such a choice and that for some reason I wasn’t making it would create a lot of cognitive dissonance for me; by contrast, believing that I am constrained by external reality gives me the peace of mind to “do my best” in the short term, while setting ambitious goals in the long term. This strikes me as a somewhat more practical philosophy.

    I’ll close by addressing your question about what would happen if everyone practised your Universal Morality. On the whole I think the world would indeed be a (from my perspective) better place than it is now, at least for a short time. (By the way, according to your philosophy have you not chosen this not to be the case currently?) But such a culture would completely lack resilience in the face of any (non-ideal) situations where difficult (“non-ideal”) decisions had to be made. These situations could be exogenous (external events requiring the few to make sacrifices for the many), or endogenous (perhaps a small minority of people rebelling against the Universal Morality). You might perhaps say that in your ideal world the few would, voluntarily, sacrificing themselves for the many where this is necessary (although presumably this shouldn’t happen from your perspective), but in the case where a few people rebel, and no-one is willing to stand up to them (because it would entail violence or other mom-ideal action), the rebels will simply take over. It seems to me that a utilitarian philosophy allows us to build in the “anti-cheat” mechanisms that prevent this kind of thing from happening. 

  18. Burt says:

    Peter,

    I am often accused of being a solipsist and I suppose I may be by some definition, however the distinction is that while for me everything exists in my mind, I believe that this is true for everyone else as well. For me the Peter Wicks that I create in my mind is wholly my invention – it bears little resemblance (it’s a mere mockup – not fleshed out – only a superficial impression) to the Peter Wicks that you and your family and friends know, but I don’t deny your or anyone else’s independent existence, and that’s why I don’t consider myself a solipsist. You are a figment of everyone’s (including yourself) imagination who has any inkling of your existence. I don’t deny other entities’ personal existence, I believe we coexist in sort of a quantum superposition and each of us collapses our local waveform as we experience (create) events and dramas. I don’t create “your” Peter’s creations but I do create the creations of “my” Peter. I believe physical reality is the sum/product of all entities (from the smallest unit of consciousness all animate and inanimate entities) who exist in it and we each choose which aspects to actualize into personal events.

    if we truly choose what we experience, then surely we should be able to choose *anything*. After all, if there are any limitations at all on our choice, then (according to your theory) presumably we have also chosen those limitations, in which case they do not really exist: we can simply unchoose them.

    We truly do choose our experiences whether we realize it or not, however for most of us many choices are made unconsciously (by our consciousness but not so as we are totally or even partially consciously aware of our choices). You can choose *anything* that is possible within physical laws, (there are root assumptions such as the laws of physics that exist in physical reality so that physical beings can operate within it in a semblance of order) but unless you believe your choice is possible and alter your beliefs that limit the possibilities and invest sufficient energy toward the goal, the actualization may remain stubbornly out of your immediate reality. Choice is simple – one makes choices by choosing action or inaction – limitations to creating one’s desired outcomes are caused by one’s beliefs.

    This is the sticky part: We rarely actually know what we believe – for example:

    I want to be wealthy and I think that this is desirable. Actually subconsciously I believe that money is corrupting, (maybe I can’t handle fortune at this juncture) think it is undesirable for people to amass wealth beyond their needs, and think that the disparity between rich and poor is terrible. This unconscious belief thwarts my efforts to become wealthy.

    I want to have good health and believe if I choose to eat properly, exercise, am hygienic, get vaccinated and have regular checkups I’ll be healthy. Unconsciously I’m afraid that disease is rampant and I have to guard against it at all times and doubt the body’s internal defenses will be adequate and despite all my precautions, I get sick which bears out my true beliefs.

    If that is the case then I must be doing something wrong, because my experience of life is definitely less than ideal. That is to say, I have a set of ideas (“ideals”) about how I want to live my life that does not appear to be entirely possible in the short term. For example, if I really had the choice, I would not age physically as I get older. I would enjoy perfect health, and entirely supportive relationships.

    You say you have these ideas that you wish to affect in your life that don’t appear to be possible. You actually believe it isn’t possible so it will be much more difficult for you to create the reality in which your ideas will come to fruition. Aging for some is not a problem, especially if one believes that it isn’t those who believe they will enjoy good health, physical aging is not an issue but an adventure, however one’s adventures in physical reality aren’t meant to last forever, and the “3 score and 10” has been extended by many who believe they will live longer than that. If all your relationships were supportive, then you’d likely be bored surrounded by yes men. We seek out and create relationships that will help us in many ways – some loving, some challenging, some vexing, some maddening – we by our beliefs and concomitant actions decide the ways these relationships and their dramas affect our reality to further our edification.

    Believing that I really did have such a choice and that for some reason I wasn’t making it would create a lot of cognitive dissonance for me; by contrast, believing that I am constrained by external reality gives me the peace of mind to “do my best” in the short term, while setting ambitious goals in the long term. This strikes me as a somewhat more practical philosophy.

    The cognitive dissonance comes from your beliefs and how you react to them. I believe I have such choices and it creates no dissonance if they appear not to manifest, more like acceptance that I am not choosing the correct path or methodology in my pursuits and will take steps to further my goals. Belief in constraints manifests constraints and the peace of mind and practical philosophy comes from pessimism (one sees less than ideal events occur and believes that this is the way of the world and when one is right – one has peace of mind.) You (my you) appear pessimistic about many things judging from what I’ve read from your IEET and this blog posts and you feel that based on your experiences that this philosophy (pessimism) is justified. You might say: “I figured this (fill in the blank) would occur, and I was right!” The problem with pessimism is that in order to be right about whatever less than ideal prediction one has projected, one gets the undesirable event. I.e., one has to lose in order to win. This pessimism coupled with fear has made insurance companies the richest businesses in the world. “You know it’s just a question of when, not if “X” happens, so pay us up front and when it happens (i.e., you lose) we’ll pay you or your beneficiaries.” Optimism OTOH creates a situation that when optimists win they can say “Great, I thought this might happen” and if it doesn’t happen then they can say “Maybe next time” but they don’t worry about not having created the event. Again this is “my you” that I create and not a personal judgment of your reality, “your you” will vary, (it definitely will.)

    I’ll close by addressing your question about what would happen if everyone practised your Universal Morality. On the whole I think the world would indeed be a (from my perspective) better place than it is now, at least for a short time. (By the way, according to your philosophy have you not chosen this not to be the case currently?)

    The world is a perfect place from my POV, everyone gets what they create – my life is not perfect but I seldom have difficult circumstances and events. My dramatic life is fairly peaceful as that is the way I wish it to be. The biofeedback of the events in my life are the yardstick I use to judge whether this philosophy works – I am a living experiment.

    But such a culture would completely lack resilience in the face of any (non-ideal) situations where difficult (“non-ideal”) decisions had to be made. These situations could be exogenous (external events requiring the few to make sacrifices for the many), or endogenous (perhaps a small minority of people rebelling against the Universal Morality).

    Non-ideal situations would be few and far between if everyone practiced UM and believed that they were responsible for everything in their reality. There wouldn’t be exogenous events and no one would require the few to sacrifice for the many (utilitarianism rears its ugly head) and difficult decisions are made difficult by the mind of the decider. Those who rebel do so because they believe there is a better way or the antidisestablishmentarians (I seldom get a chance to use that word) create the drama with the rebels as a foil to test their philosophy.

    You might perhaps say that in your ideal world the few would, voluntarily, sacrificing themselves for the many where this is necessary (although presumably this shouldn’t happen from your perspective), but in the case where a few people rebel, and no-one is willing to stand up to them (because it would entail violence or other mom-ideal action), the rebels will simply take over. It seems to me that a utilitarian philosophy allows us to build in the “anti-cheat” mechanisms that prevent this kind of thing from happening.

    In my world, first of all (you are correct – this wouldn’t happen and if it did I would play out the drama in whatever way seemed ideal) there is never a need to sacrifice oneself for anything. If you choose to die to save a child for example, that is your willing choice and no sacrifice. FEAR that a small group will “take over” the many and not be resisted due to a non-violence stance is a theme throughout history (Tibet for instance – but many weren’t non-violent) but the subjugated chose the case for their own ends (in their personal realities) as an example of man’s inhumanity to others so that we avoid involvement in the conditions that make such dramas occur. In any case unless it’s happening to you directly, it only has as much power as you invest in it mentally or physically if you choose to insinuate yourself into the fray.

    No one can cheat another without the other’s cooperation. Cooperation is the model for physical reality and without the cooperation of elementary particles, consciousness, and everything else, physical reality would disintegrate. Utilitarianism is the model for action (what is best for those in the short term and who is to decide whether a short term solution is really the best over the long haul?) in a random, indifferent universe and I for one do not inhabit such a bleak, take whatever pleasure you can eke out, environs.

    Peace – NO FEAR

    Burt

  19. peterwicks says:

    The implications of quantum theory for understanding the nature of our experiences are indeed intriguing. One of my strongest influences in this context has been Julian Barbour’s The End of Time. Barbour takes a stationary approach according to which all possible configurations of the universe exist in superposition, but the structure of the space of possible configurations (which he calls the “omnium”) is such that we perceive a unique “past”, basically a pathway from the configuration we are experiencing back to the Big Bang, while there are multiple “futures” branching away from the Big Bang. It’s just one interpretation, but one that I found quite compelling when I read it and has strongly influenced the way I understand my interaction with my environment.

    One implication of this model is that with every second that goes by futures that were previously available to us become unavailable, and with this in mind I tend to see decision-making as an attempt to keep open the more desirable ones while closing off the less desirable ones. Another implication, however, is that when we observe wavefunction collapse in quantum experiments what we are actually doing is looking at a record of the past (each configuration of the universe for which the wavefunction amplitude is non-neglible contains records of the “past”, as defined above, such as our memories or the state of a measuring device) and becoming aware of a branch-point in the omnium. For example, suppose we make a measurement obliging an electron to choose to have gone through slit A or slit B, and we find it has gone through slit A. What’s actually happened is that there is a branch-point in the omnium corresponding to the passage of the electron through the slits, and we happen to be sitting just downstream of that branch-point, on the branch where the electron has chosen slit A.

    You will no doubt have noticed that I’m using the words “choose” and “chosen” anthropomorphically here. I’m not literally suggesting that the electron “chooses” these things, but rather trying to illustrate how I understand Barbour’s (unconventional) interpretation of quantum theory. On this interpretation there is no wavefunction collapse as such, but a series of branch-points in the omnium which we perceive when we take quantum measurements.

    Now according to this model my current self – the living organism that is sitting typing these words – is part of an actual physical reality, an actual configuration of the physical universe (actually a series of configurations since this is of course taking place over a finite period of “time”). To put this more precisely, by the time I’ve finished this comment and posted it I will be part of a configuration of the universe just downstream of one of a multitude of branches corresponding to the different comments that were possible at the time I started writing it. You will also be part of that configuration (over distance there are ambiguities that arise from the collision of quantum theory and general relativity, but I’ll regard that as a technicality for the moment). By “you” I am again referring to the actual physical, living organism that I believe I am addressing with this comment. In addition to this, there is also my mental image of you, which is basically some kind of structure in my brain, and for that matter there is my mental image of my mental image of you, which is more-or-less part of my self-consciousness. This seems to correspond quite closely with, while being subtly different from, the comments you’ve made about the different “Peter Wicks”es that exist. At a more general level: yes I have a mental model of physical reality, which of course is a different (far simpler) thing than the physical reality itself, but rather than being my “creation” I rather see it as an integral part of that physical reality. I am part of the physical universe, not something separate from it.

    Now regarding choice and belief, I certainly agree that we have many beliefs of which we are not really aware, that is to say there are aspects of our model of reality – and also of our values (such as “wealth is desirable”), which I see as something different from our model of reality – that influence our behaviour but which we haven’t become aware of at the conscious level, and which often cause us to fail to meet our objectives. But I also believe there are real physical constraints, aspects of the physical universe of which we are a part that we have not chosen in any meaningful sense, but which simply “are”. That is not to say that we will not at some time in the future be able to change some of those physical constraints, or that my Barbour-inspired interpretation of quantum theory is a fully accurate description of (timeless) reality (in the end it’s just a simple model), but the “right-here-right-now” that I am currently experiencing is only to a limited extent the result of past choices that I have made, whether consciously or unconsciously. In particular I do not hold myself responsible for anything that happened before I was born: and I believe that these things really happened (even if my beliefs about them are not wholly accurate), they are not “just” a figment of my imagination.

    With regard to pessimism/optimism, I saw a tweet from the World Future Society recently that I very much liked: “Ridiculing idealism is short-sighted, but idealism untested by pessimism is misleading.” I agree that pessimism – like many beliefs – can be self-fulfilling, and this should of course be avoided. But you seem to be implying that ALL beliefs are self-fulfilling, and this does not correspond to my experience.

    To illustrate this it might be helpful to consider the experience of a top performer: think of your favourite artist, sportsmen, musician or businessman. Someone who has achieved obvious tangible success and overcome considerable obstacles to get it. Let’s take Obama winning the 2008 election. (Btw despite the criticisms I’m still very happy to be living downstream of that particular branch-point!) Clearly he had a vision of what he wanted, and a sense of destiny. He believed enough (in the both the possibility and the desirability of success) to channel sufficient resources (both his own efforts and those of his supporters) to pull it off. But I’m sure he also believed in the possibility of failure, and that this also helped him to win. The reason for this was that it allowed him to channel not only his optimism and enthusiasm, but also precisely his fear. Fear can be a wonderfully powerful motivator, and when appropriately channelled it can help you achieve your goals. Without it we die. (Imagine crossing the road without any sense of or even capacity for fear.)

    In fact I don’t believe I have a serious cognitive bias towards pessimism. Obviously I have cognitive biases – we all do – but I believe that my innate mathematical and logical abilities, my scientific training and my natural curiosity (itself driven partly, though thankfully not wholly, by fear) has left me with a highly sophisticated and largely accurate model of reality. I’ll agree that this brings with it the risk that, by being so focused on (external) reality and less focused on (the internal reality of) what one actually wants, we fail to experience life to the full, but once you understand the power and self-fulfilling nature of many beliefs, and learn simple techniques to help you channel your emotions in line with your values, realism starts to work in your favour. That at least has been my experience, and I’m profoundly grateful for those moments in my past where I have sometimes chosen, sometimes simply stumbled across, usually a combination of the two, information that has brought this particular aspect of reality to my attention.

    But this assumption – that I don’t have a serious cognitive bias towards pessimism – is one that is definitely worth questioning. For example I’m intrigued by the impression you’ve gleaned from my IEET posts. One of the most beautiful equations from my perspective is the one that says that the information content of an event is proportional to the logarithm of the reciprocal of the probability of that event occurring. In plain English: the more surprising an event, the more information it contains. To the extent that your comment about my IEET posts surprised me, it is therefore informative, and therefore very helpful! It provides evidence (albeit based on a sample size of one) that I am portraying an image of myself that is more pessimistic than my self-image, which is important in relation to my life goals, and which also provides a good reason to question my assumption that I am not (unrealistically or unhelpfully) pessimistic.

    I guess my fundamental objection to your line of argumentation is that it seems to be going *too far* in emphasising the self-fulfilling nature of our beliefs. From my perspective, beliefs are *to some extent* self-fulfilling, and some are more self-fulfilling than others. Beliefs about the past cannot be self-fulfilling, since we have no influence over the past. Beliefs about the future can be, but it depends on the capacity of the believer to influence the outcome, and this is not solely a function of the intensity of one’s belief and desire. In general, beliefs about the long term are more self-fulfilling than beliefs about the short term, because there are so many more possibilities among which to choose, but short-term beliefs can also be self-fulfilling: for example, “I’m going to order a pizza this evening” is to a very large extent self-fulfilling, while predictions about the outcome of a sports event one is watching on TV are not self-fulfilling at all.

    That being said, I start to understand better and sympathise more with your objection to utilitarianism (already the word is somehow bleak), in the sense that it arguably over-emphasises the need to make “hard choices” and may therefore discourage us from aiming for perfection. What I love about utilitarianism, on the other hand, is its emphasis on maximising overall happiness, and the implicit assumption that we should use science to do this. What has perhaps given it a bad reputation is that for most of its history, utilitarianism has been applied without our modern understanding of psychology, including the power of our beliefs, and this has led to perverse outcomes.

  20. peterwicks says:

    Burt just a quick addendum on “supportive relationships”. I definitely don’t mean by this being surrounded by yes-men (and women). One of the ways I am channelling my emotions currently is to insist on getting the feedback I need from others in order to align my actions with my values. I am neither superhuman nor an island, and I have a natural tendency towards gearing my actions to meeting the immediate expectations of others. So I really need them to give me the right kind of feedback. But that doesn’t mean “supporting” me with whatever I happen to be trying to do at anyone time. On the contrary, I need people to challenge me and encourage me to change some of my behavioural habits. But I also need them to do so on the basis of a clear understanding and acceptance of my values. This is what I mean by “supportive relationships”.

  21. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for the Barbour synopsis, I read his End of Time interview and it agrees with my POV in many aspects but while by your lights I go “too far” in my philosophy by my lights he doesn’t go far enough. I’ll be interested in seeing where his philosophy leads going forward (in time). I think one has to push to the limits of ideas. If an idea can’t stand up to a polemical case then it’s of limited value.

    Barbour takes a stationary approach according to which all possible configurations of the universe exist in superposition, but the structure of the space of possible configurations (which he calls the “omnium”) is such that we perceive a unique “past”, basically a pathway from the configuration we are experiencing back to the Big Bang, while there are multiple “futures” branching away from the Big Bang.

    The reason we perceive a unique past is that our consciousness keeps track of our experiences as each wave function collapses and generates our NOW out of superposition. There are infinite possible pasts that were infinite possible futures before our consciousness fixed the mainline probability and there are Hugh Everett’s many worlds into which we have branched that become the past from the NOW and those probable paths while largely inaccessible by from physicality still have their own realities with us playing out dramas in alternate realities. These realities may be accessible from dream/meditation states and may provide insight as to the nature of our officially recognized reality. BTW if you want to read an interesting work, check out Eric Lerner’s The Big Bang Never Happened

    For example, suppose we make a measurement obliging an electron to choose to have gone through slit A or slit B, and we find it has gone through slit A. What’s actually happened is that there is a branch-point in the omnium corresponding to the passage of the electron through the slits, and we happen to be sitting just downstream of that branch-point, on the branch where the electron has chosen slit A.

    I would say that we choose that our electron (its choices were its business) went through slot A and interfered with itself due to the possibility that it could have gone through slit B and we choose the interpretation of the event via our measurement of our electron in this case demonstrating its wave nature rather than particle. It’s our collapsing of the wave function that chooses how we acknowledge the event.

    To put this more precisely, by the time I’ve finished this comment and posted it I will be part of a configuration of the universe just downstream of one of a multitude of branches corresponding to the different comments that were possible at the time I started writing it. You will also be part of that configuration… By “you” I am again referring to the actual physical, living organism that I believe I am addressing with this comment. In addition to this, there is also my mental image of you, which is basically some kind of structure in my brain, and for that matter there is my mental image of my mental image of you, which is more-or-less part of my self-consciousness. This seems to correspond quite closely with, while being subtly different from, the comments you’ve made about the different “Peter Wicks”es that exist. At a more general level: yes I have a mental model of physical reality, which of course is a different (far simpler) thing than the physical reality itself, but rather than being my “creation” I rather see it as an integral part of that physical reality. I am part of the physical universe, not something separate from it.

    Yes, if the universe were external to us. The term “downstream” implies a flow, in this case of time which for convenience and the sake of keeping events in order is OK as an analogy. In my sense of things we do pick and choose, consciously and unconsciously the events we experience but the actual physical being I believe to be “Peter” to me is only my mental image of you and even if we were to meet physically, we would still be products of each other and ourselves. The mental model of physical reality is all that we can apprehend while we are physical and from our standpoint there are 2 universes in superposition which are both mental constructs (creations) despite their seeming solidity. Each of our models is a pattern of energy transmitted and received by our individual consciousnesses. Again the universe is not separate from us, it is we.

    But I also believe there are real physical constraints, aspects of the physical universe of which we are a part that we have not chosen in any meaningful sense, but which simply “are”…but the “right-here-right-now” that I am currently experiencing is only to a limited extent the result of past choices that I have made, whether consciously or unconsciously. In particular I do not hold myself responsible for anything that happened before I was born: and I believe that these things really happened (even if my beliefs about them are not wholly accurate), they are not “just” a figment of my imagination.

    This is a fundamental difference in our beliefs. As I stated above I believe the universe is internal to each of us and the physical constraint aspects are also internal. We agree as physical entities that certain constraints (such as physical laws) will apply to our existence in physical reality so that we can operate meaningfully within that context to learn how to manipulate our experiences for personal growth. Your NOW is a result of your conscious and unconscious choices/actions by what I interpret as your belief system (admittedly an interpretation with scant data) how could one argue otherwise unless one believes in determinism and that one has no free will. I would say each of our NOWs is a product of all possibilities chosen and unchosen (all possibilities exist at once in the timeless NOW) and the past can be altered by our perception of the events as ALL time is one.

    You are responsible for things that happened before you were born (you chose your parents before you were born) in the sense that you form your reality by drawing on the “history” to the extent that you believe it is real. It’s actually wholly a figment of your imagination. It’s hearsay and has no bearing on anything unless you choose to admit it into your worldview as a “fact” and operate based on that secondary information as though it were primary information. It only really happened to those for whom it was primary – even those whose primary experience was real to them during the event it isn’t real to others for whom it is hearsay. We may accept the “facts” on faith as we do for all secondary events (hearsay) and this doesn’t generally cause problems unless we operate on that faith and our faith was misplaced.

    With regard to pessimism/optimism, I saw a tweet from the World Future Society recently that I very much liked: “Ridiculing idealism is short-sighted, but idealism untested by pessimism is misleading.” I agree that pessimism – like many beliefs – can be self-fulfilling, and this should of course be avoided. But you seem to be implying that ALL beliefs are self-fulfilling, and this does not correspond to my experience.

    All beliefs that were fulfilled were fulfilled by the fufillers – this is a tautology – I do believe that all beliefs about reality are potentially fulfillable – otherwise we wouldn’t be inclined to hold them.

    Let’s take Obama winning the 2008 election. (Btw despite the criticisms I’m still very happy to be living downstream of that particular branch-point!) Clearly he had a vision of what he wanted, and a sense of destiny. He believed enough (in the both the possibility and the desirability of success) to channel sufficient resources (both his own efforts and those of his supporters) to pull it off. But I’m sure he also believed in the possibility of failure, and that this also helped him to win. The reason for this was that it allowed him to channel not only his optimism and enthusiasm, but also precisely his fear. Fear can be a wonderfully powerful motivator, and when appropriately channeled it can help you achieve your goals. Without it we die. (Imagine crossing the road without any sense of or even capacity for fear.)

    I agree that Obama is the lesser of 2 evils when given a choice between Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin. I am not at all pleased with Obama’s (he’s obviously “my” Obama as well – just because he’s IMO more ideal than G.W. Bush, I still consider him to be Bush Light in his actions – (as a resident of Belgium where beer is a way of life, you should be aware that in the USA, Busch Light is a poor imitation of a beverage known as beer – however it’s now owned by Belgium’s inBev) choices and take his less than ideal actions as examples as how not to behave. I initially was for Hillary (I was most politically aligned with Kucinich but he didn’t have the proverbial snowball’s chance.) He (Obama) and we believed in the possibility of success (obviously there were 2 main choices and one of them would likely win) you and I chose to exist in the mass reality in which Obama is president. There are other versions of reality in which McCain is president. He (Obama) may have believed in the possibility of failure (but that belief was obviously above the Shannon Limit) and it may well have propelled him to apply a greater effort out of fear of losing, but “our” Obama believed in winning more than his fear of losing. It’s the mass psyche of the USA that creates the ambivalence in our policies. The Republicans/Conservatives are in the thrall of fear. Fear of losing their possessions, fear of paying too much tax, fear of immigrants, neighbors, and liberals; fear of losing of their way of life, status quo etc. Democrats/Liberals/Progressives while fearful as well, seek to change the status quo for the benefit of themselves and society. Conservatives have never instituted a positive change unless it was to roll back policies with unintended negative consequences. ALL social progression has been accomplished by liberal/progressive legislation.

    Fear is a powerful motivator and it is IMO the single most negative motivating factor of humans, (love being the most positive motivating factor) but even if channeled appropriately (utilitarianism again) it is not ideal, merely a potentially undesirable outcome averted. Fear may be viewed in an evolutionary sense as a survival tool (fight or flight) but I do not subscribe to the Modern Synthesis, common descent or Darwin’s dangerous idea. Fear clouds rational thought and many times results in our meeting exactly that which we are afraid. Fear is not necessary to survival (it mostly results in less than ideal action), however knowledge of the consequences of our actions is. If we don’t learn a lesson from what we consider to be a negative drama and understand its ramifications, we will react to a similar situation out of blind fear which may be efficacious in the short run but is hardly ideal. We take care crossing the road not out of fear that we may be hurt or killed, but due to the belief that one has the potential of being in a drama with a vehicle travelling faster than its driver’s ability to react and miss our physical being. We are cautious to ensure the chances of our first person demonstration of the Pauli Exclusion Principle are slim to none.

    In fact I don’t believe I have a serious cognitive bias towards pessimism. Obviously I have cognitive biases – we all do – but I believe that my innate mathematical and logical abilities, my scientific training and my natural curiosity (itself driven partly, though thankfully not wholly, by fear) has left me with a highly sophisticated and largely accurate model of reality. I’ll agree that this brings with it the risk that, by being so focused on (external) reality and less focused on (the internal reality of) what one actually wants, we fail to experience life to the full, but once you understand the power and self-fulfilling nature of many beliefs, and learn simple techniques to help you channel your emotions in line with your values, realism starts to work in your favour. That at least has been my experience, and I’m profoundly grateful for those moments in my past where I have sometimes chosen, sometimes simply stumbled across, usually a combination of the two, information that has brought this particular aspect of reality to my attention.

    Examples from above:

    In response to Dor:

    We survived the cold war, but will we survive the next few decades? As a species, probably yes, but with our civilisation and standard of living intact? Very doubtful. But “where there’s life there’s hope”, and the game is not yet lost. If we can survive the next few decades, and also start to tackle the low-frequency high-impact risks like meteorites and super volcanoes, then we potentially have a truly amazing future ahead of us.

    At the same time I think there ARE reasons to fear civilisational collapse, and it’s not like it would be the first time in history that it’s happened (read Jared Diamond on the subject for example). For me the four most likely “horsemen of the apocalypse” in the medium term are: environmental change (incl but not limited to global warming), emerging diseases, geopolitical risk (basically war), and “technology shock”: technology poses risks as well as opportunities. These threats need to be taken seriously imo. (Not that we should see them as separate of course: they are interlinked.)
    I guess what’s different now compared with the cases Diamond studies is that we now, much more than ever before, have a global civilisation. So, arguably, if it goes down, we all go down with it. Also: bear in mind that for the civilisations in question, let’s say the Easter Islanders for example, that WAS there world. For me the interesting questions are how we steer our way through the current bottleneck (Lester Brown’s terminology if I’m not mistaken?) with our civilisation intact, what kind of future we want to aim for thereafter, and how we deal with the low-frequency high-impact risks.

    These seem to be fairly pessimistic statements to me. BTW: I withdraw my observation that your IEET comments are pessimistic, I read all of your comments accessible from its current homepage and while they were (quelle surprise!) utilitarian in nature, the pessimism was not as apparent as above so I apologize for a hasty and unfair generalization. I should have joined in the recent conversations at IEET but I have to winnow my commenting due to time constraints. There are some interesting ideas among its denizens.

    Many times maths and logic are impediments to apprehending the nature of reality. There are as many systems of logic as there are systems of belief and some allow for non-materialistic reality and others don’t and maths are tautological. I would expect you to believe you have created highly sophisticated and largely accurate model of reality, I believe the same of myself, unless one believes that one is imbued with “Socratic” wisdom (he only knows that he doesn’t know) we all pretty much believe we have an accurate model of reality. (This is particularly true of naïve realists – which you may or may not be – I formed the impression that “my” Peter is less a naïve realist than many but there is the tendency toward realism.) The nature of realism is what we create it to be as is the “truth”. The reason things appear to be working in your favor is that you believe that they are – it proves itself. Your stumblings are authored by you exactly for the reason you find them meaningful. As I have repeatedly stated, I believe that internal and external reality are the same thing and it is focus that is the key to understanding either.

    But this assumption – that I don’t have a serious cognitive bias towards pessimism – is one that is definitely worth questioning. For example I’m intrigued by the impression you’ve gleaned from my IEET posts. One of the most beautiful equations from my perspective is the one that says that the information content of an event is proportional to the logarithm of the reciprocal of the probability of that event occurring.

    Again mea culpa – although if I went deeply enough into past posts perhaps there are latent lurking pessimistic paw prints percolating. I am aware of information theory from my Digital Communication studies (I worked in the Cell Phone industry) Claude Shannon was a modern genius. So apparently the mistaken observation anent your pessimism contains no or only a slight bit of information and not so helpful information as your responses to dor.

    I guess my fundamental objection to your line of argumentation is that it seems to be going *too far* in emphasising the self-fulfilling nature of our beliefs. From my perspective, beliefs are *to some extent* self-fulfilling, and some are more self-fulfilling than others. Beliefs about the past cannot be self-fulfilling, since we have no influence over the past. Beliefs about the future can be, but it depends on the capacity of the believer to influence the outcome, and this is not solely a function of the intensity of one’s belief and desire. In general, beliefs about the long term are more self-fulfilling than beliefs about the short term, because there are so many more possibilities among which to choose, but short-term beliefs can also be self-fulfilling: for example, “I’m going to order a pizza this evening” is to a very large extent self-fulfilling, while predictions about the outcome of a sports event one is watching on TV are not self-fulfilling at all.

    If one wants to quantify what one believes, all that is necessary is to look at one’s reality. Beliefs color the only reality one can apprehend on the simplest level (internal) and on the complex (external) level – (they’re the same) create one’s physical experiences. Beliefs can change the past; the event is extant in one’s history (memory – which is created freshly every time one remembers) and how we think of the event changes its nature and reality. Beliefs about the future cause us to choose the paths of actualization from probabilities in the set of myriad possibilities. Intensity and desire affect the likelihood that one will actualize the desired reality. Sporting events despite the seeming lack of control as to the outcome are no exception. One chooses to experience the reality that one creates – win or lose. There are realities that other’s create with the opposite result as well as close and lopsided scores. Each person’s mass reality (consensus) will agree with whatever outcome has been “observed” by that person. I don’t care for the term self-fulfilling beliefs as the beliefs themselves are not the author of what gets fulfilled, our consciousness is, based on what we actually believe, contrary to what we believe we believe.

    That being said, I start to understand better and sympathise more with your objection to utilitarianism (already the word is somehow bleak), in the sense that it arguably over-emphasises the need to make “hard choices” and may therefore discourage us from aiming for perfection. What I love about utilitarianism, on the other hand, is its emphasis on maximising overall happiness, and the implicit assumption that we should use science to do this. What has perhaps given it a bad reputation is that for most of its history, utilitarianism has been applied without our modern understanding of psychology, including the power of our beliefs, and this has led to perverse outcomes.

    The major problem with utilitarianism is that the “greatest good” is not absolutely quantifiable (it’s opinion) and happiness is relative and relatively hard to define (like pornography – one thinks one knows it when one sees it – a pointed example of how one creates reality). Science for all its successes and quality of life enhancements is not monolithic and its discoveries while neutral in themselves can be used for all manner of positive or negative outcomes depending on each of us. Scientists are human beings who run the gamut of intentions from ideal to ill. They are especially prone to funding concerns and confirmation bias and I would not wish for them to make the “hard choices” for the rest of us. Hitler thought he was maximizing human potential eugenically, most megalomaniacs believe they are maximizing the good (for themselves and by extension everyone else who agrees with them – the ends justify any and all means.) It sounds noble and it’s tempting to foist “goodness and rightness” on the ignorant masses for their own good but it is inappropriate to interfere forcibly or violently in another’s reality – the fact that they chose to be part of the drama notwithstanding. As to modern psychology IMO it’s bunk in the absolute sense. Some are helped by analysis and it’s because they have created the foil to help them to observe themselves in relation to their creations.

    Peace,

    Burt

  22. Burt says:

    One of the ways I am channelling my emotions currently is to insist on getting the feedback I need from others in order to align my actions with my values. I am neither superhuman nor an island, and I have a natural tendency towards gearing my actions to meeting the immediate expectations of others. So I really need them to give me the right kind of feedback. But that doesn’t mean “supporting” me with whatever I happen to be trying to do at anyone time. On the contrary, I need people to challenge me and encourage me to change some of my behavioural habits. But I also need them to do so on the basis of a clear understanding and acceptance of my values. This is what I mean by “supportive relationships”.

    Peter,

    If one gets feedback from persons that one’s actions are not in line with what those persons perceive are one’s values, it is helpful and we create those mirrors to point out to ourselves that we may not be acting in an ideal manner. Depending upon the values of the feeders back this may or not be the case – one need’s a grounded sense of one’s own values to judge whether or not one is on the right path. Your natural bent in meeting other’s expectations of you may be an area to examine. Psychologically this could point to early childhood dramas that involved reward for pleasing elders (probably bunk – but it’s a possibility.) It’s always edifying to be challenged as to our belief systems and maybe we will make changes to our behaviors based on philosophical dialogs. I don’t know that those with a clear understanding and acceptance of your values would be the best parties for constructive feedback – these are what I termed yes-men (I usually try to write in a gender neutral PC manner but sometimes it just is too awkward and self conscious. By man and its masculine pronouns – I mean humans and by “you”, I mean “one” unless in the context it’s actually you personally – but I generally try not to be personal.) If I am personal it’s to my “you” and hope your “you” will not be offended.

    Peace,

    Burt

  23. peterwicks says:

    Burt,

    I’ll make a fairly quick response this time, for now at least. Again your responses seem to be generally logically consistent, and indeed to reflect a “highly sophisticated and largely accurate view of reality”. The fundamental difference between us, as you correctly point out, concerns whether there are “real”, i.e. external, physical constraints, or whether indeed “the universe is internal to each of us and the physical constraint aspects are also internal”.

    If there is a logical inconsistency though it is in your attempts to distinguish this belief from solipsism, since these seem to lead you to accept that there is a “me” separate from your model of me, and yet without an external physical universe it’s not clear to me how your “me” and my “me” – or indeed your “you” and my “you” – relate to each other. If your “me” is entirely a creation of your own mind, then that would seem to imply that I (that is to say my “me”) can have no influence over “your” me, or indeed “your” anything else. Because I believe in an external physical universe it makes sense for me to believe also that the various comments I have made here (and at IEET) have influenced the physical “you” as it (sorry to use the impersonal pronoun but I want to emphasise your *physical* nature here) has evolved over the recent past, and in so doing they have also influence your “you” (that is to say your mental model of yourself) and my “you” (my mental model of you). Without an external physical universe, it’s not clear to me how this process works.

    Peter

  24. Burt says:

    Peter,

    The fundamental difference between us, as you correctly point out, concerns whether there are “real”, i.e. external, physical constraints, or whether indeed “the universe is internal to each of us and the physical constraint aspects are also internal”.

    I must have been unclear on my terminology. For each of us (entities) there are real, external, physical constraints. They are “real” products of our minds, which appear to be external (projected by our minds), and for all intents and purposes the real and external objects/phenomena are subject to the constraints of physical laws – it would be very difficult to operate in physical reality were this not the case. The universe is both internal to us and external by our projections, the physical constraints obtain in our external projections but our internal i.e., our mental/spiritual (meaning psyche) is unfettered by physical constraint.

    If there is a logical inconsistency though it is in your attempts to distinguish this belief from solipsism, since these seem to lead you to accept that there is a “me” separate from your model of me, and yet without an external physical universe it’s not clear to me how your “me” and my “me” – or indeed your “you” and my “you” – relate to each other. If your “me” is entirely a creation of your own mind, then that would seem to imply that I (that is to say my “me”) can have no influence over “your” me, or indeed “your” anything else.

    There is your you separate from my model and everyone else’s model of you (those who are aware of your existence). There is my external universe in which my you resides and your and others external universes in which you reside. The sum of all our external, physical universes exist in superposition (that is they all appear to occupy the same space) and in each of our now points reality becomes focused. We relate to each other in superposition as well. What ever your you says or does of which I’m aware adds to my model of you and is my responsibility as my you is my creation and vice versa. Your you influences me in the creation of my you and the reverse so actually it is ourselves that influence each other – as I said before, I am responsible for my you, but not your you and you are responsible for your me but not my me. You can’t directly influence my anything else, only your anything else, as I am responsible for my all as you are for your all.

    Because I believe in an external physical universe it makes sense for me to believe also that the various comments I have made here (and at IEET) have influenced the physical “you” as it (sorry to use the impersonal pronoun but I want to emphasise your *physical* nature here) has evolved over the recent past, and in so doing they have also influence your “you” (that is to say your mental model of yourself) and my “you” (my mental model of you). Without an external physical universe, it’s not clear to me how this process works.

    I also believe in an external physical universe (mine superimposed with everyone else’s) I just believe we all create our universes en masse and the comments that you (my you) have made of which I’m aware have influenced my physical self – again the physical self is a “real” projection of our consciousness and how I react to those comments is my responsibility.

    I can easily “forget” that your you is not my you and by convention I operate superficially and interact with others for the most part as a naive realist – it is only with philosophical conversations and web comments that I deconstruct the “camouflage” of physical reality much as the same as the Hindu concept of Maya. As nearly as possible I conduct my life, work and interpersonal relationships according to my philosophy. So far I have seen no ill effects and it is quite liberating and is a good antidote to depression and getting bogged down in the mundane “horror” that one can tap into if one dwells on man’s inhumanity to man or the natural and manmade disasters that one could bemoan. That is not to say that if one is inclined or brings challenges into one’s personal reality, one can deal with it as one can best manage using my code of universal morality as a guide. That is what I consider the true role of utilitarianism, dealing with one’s reality as best as one can without violating the tenets of universal morality. The more one practices this lifestyle, the fewer problems one encounters in one’s daily experience.

    I admit that some of my terminology might be a bit awkward but you seem to grasp the nub without much problem.

    Peace,

    Burt

  25. peterwicks says:

    Thanks Burt, that’s quite interesting – I’m definitely getting a better idea of how you see the interactions between people operating in practice. It’s not only that we have different mental models of the physical universe, it’s that we *create* our physical universes, essentially (if I’ve understood correctly) as a kind of quantum measurement/observation, which then influences and is influenced by the physical universes created by others (does that include animals by the way?). I’m a long way from being fully convinced, but I can see how you could find this a workable model.

    Your point about interacting with others for the most part as a naïve realist resonates strongly with my own relationship with the Barbour model: most of the time I use the various tenses in the English language much like everyone else, and only when it’s necessary to be more precise do I start talking about the omnium and branching filaments in phase space! I do however like to emphasise that we have many futures, and not just one (even if “still to be determined”), and also that with every second that goes by futures that were previously available to us become unavailable, which I then take as encouragement to ensure that the decisions I make (including the non-decisions) are such as to close off the less desirable ones and keep open the more desirable ones.

    That is what I consider the true role of utilitarianism, dealing with one’s reality as best as one can without violating the tenets of universal morality.

    Indeed let’s bring the debate back to moral philosphy! This idea of *responsibility* is of course a crucial one, and one difference that does seem to remain between us is that I do *not* consider myself to be responsible for events that I did not influence, and could not reasonably have been expected to influence (such as those that occurred before I was born).

    Let’s take the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as an example. According to your model, if I’ve understood it correctly, this is a version of the past that I have chosen (as has my “you”), and am therefore responsible for it. But what does that mean in practice? Can I *change* this, so that it doesn’t happen? Similarly, what does it mean in practice to say that I am responsible for the laws of physics that I have created in order to be able to operate in physical reality. Can I change them? I tend to work on the assumption that I can’t, and as I noted in an earlier comment this gives me peace of mind, for if I seriously thought that I could then I would feel a need to try and do so. It would be fun, for example, to be able to walk through walls, and I remain sane in part because I have chosen to accept that this is impossible – not because I have chosen it to be so, but because it *is* so (at least within the constraints of current technology) – so I am not tempted to keep propelling myself against walls. I’d be interested to know how this works for you: are you ever tempted to try to *change* the unpalatable aspects of your universe, including the physical constraints that make this difficult or impossible. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to click our fingers and then observe everyone living in peace and harmony? If we indeed choose our universes, why can’t we do this?

    Given that I choose to believe in a model of reality that *limits* my choice, and therefore my responsibility, I see the role of utilitarianism – and indeed of moral philosophy – rather as being to deal with one’s reality as best one can *in such a way that it maximises overall well-being within the contraints that we believe exist (but have not chosen)*. This requires us to follow certain rules – or tenets – but also to be ready to revise them with utilitarian principles in mind, which is to say against our assessment of their conduciveness to bring about the greatest good, as we choose to define it, in view of what we believe about current physical constraints. And this is where I have a problem with total commitment to non-violence: because I don’t believe that it is possible, in the short term, to entirely eliminate violence, I believe that sometimes it is necessary to commit it for the greater good. Otherwise you jsut get trampled on by those with less scruples. For example, on balance I have a positive outlook with regard to Western intervention in Libya.

    Regarding depression by the way, I find meditation helps a lot. Focus on your breathing (deep and slow), and observe the various manifestations of that depression: physical discomfort, associated mental images, negative thoughts etc. Accept them for what they are. You did not choose them, you can’t necessarily make them go away just by wanting them to, but you can disassociate your conscious (observing) self from them, seeing them as “things going on in your mind/body” rather than fully associating (I believe the psychological term is “fusing”) with them. Then figure out where you may be out of touch with your values (not because this has necessarily caused the depression, but because it’s a good way to ensure you’re living the life you want to lead, which generally makes you happier in the long run) and set some appropriate goals to correct this. Or just get on with what you were doing before…

    Peace and best wishes,
    Peter

  26. Burt says:

    Peter,

    It’s not only that we have different mental models of the physical universe, it’s that we *create* our physical universes, essentially (if I’ve understood correctly) as a kind of quantum measurement/observation, which then influences and is influenced by the physical universes created by others (does that include animals by the way?)

    It’s not quite that way, we create our physical (and mental) realities as a series of omnipresent NOWs (I suppose that’s the omnium) in which time appears to flow via quantum observation by all consciousnesses that are manifested in physical reality. We (all of physical reality – including animals, plants and what would be commonly termed “non-living matter”) influence ourselves as we create our universe – there are no other’s universes to influence us – the other’s universes are contained in our personal reality. It isn’t like some feedback loop between entities reinforcing or reimagining each other’s realities. We are together in superposition and individual at measurement.

    I do however like to emphasise that we have many futures, and not just one (even if “still to be determined”), and also that with every second that goes by futures that were previously available to us become unavailable, which I then take as encouragement to ensure that the decisions I make (including the non-decisions) are such as to close off the less desirable ones and keep open the more desirable ones.

    This is a language problem with temporal issues. ALL futures are NOW, ALL pasts are NOW, and there are no seconds to tick off closing previously available futures. There are an infinite number of futures from which to choose and pasts that appear to have branched off in the Many Worlds Interpretation are accessible via your psyche (from the naïve realistic stance, the past is in your head as memories and the future is in your head in dreams – only the now is concrete.) nothing is closed it’s all open.

    one difference that does seem to remain between us is that I do *not* consider myself to be responsible for events that I did not influence, and could not reasonably have been expected to influence (such as those that occurred before I was born).

    Those events that you (you applies to one – I’m only being personal for variety) did not influence are part of your psyche’s (and everyone else’s who exist in this NOW) overall root assumptions. These “historical” contexts form a framework, if you will, in which you chose (past tense for communication – but present tense works as well) to experience physical reality in the time/space coordinates (the NOW points) that you currently inhabit. These are not events in the sense that you mean – they are hearsay and have nothing to do with your NOW except as you use your interpretation of them (beliefs about which of the many histories (stories) you choose focus on) for “lesson fodder”. Those events are only “real” to those who were part of the drama and are examples and perhaps cautionary tales in your reality but they are made up largely of whole cloth from your beliefs about the 2nd hand events.

    Let’s take the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as an example. According to your model, if I’ve understood it correctly, this is a version of the past that I have chosen (as has my “you”), and am therefore responsible for it. But what does that mean in practice? Can I *change* this, so that it doesn’t happen? Similarly, what does it mean in practice to say that I am responsible for the laws of physics that I have created in order to be able to operate in physical reality. Can I change them? I tend to work on the assumption that I can’t, and as I noted in an earlier comment this gives me peace of mind, for if I seriously thought that I could then I would feel a need to try and do so.

    As I said above we are responsible for the historical framework in which we have chosen to exist. You have chosen to live in a reality that includes the stories of the unleashing of atomic forces on a human populace. If one goes to ground zero there will be physical evidence to support the stories but that evidence is created by ourselves to be consistent with our beliefs. One can only change one’s beliefs about the event and its relevance to one’s NOW. For example one may have chosen a framework in which the horrors of nuclear conflagration are a given to pique oneself to ensure that one resists supporting nuclear conflict and possibly even its heat generating potential due to the problems that accompany its use.

    The laws of physics are also a part of the framework we have chosen and as such the only changes available are to “laws” which upon closer examination weren’t inviolable as such but the laws which are integral to the framework are intrinsically unchangeable from our vantage. Einstein was able to change the inviolability of Newtonian physics by Relativity, and occasionally violations of the laws of parity are observed so laws may be refined or dispensed as was phlogiston or the luminiferous aether.

    It would be fun, for example, to be able to walk through walls, and I remain sane in part because I have chosen to accept that this is impossible – not because I have chosen it to be so, but because it *is* so (at least within the constraints of current technology) – so I am not tempted to keep propelling myself against walls. I’d be interested to know how this works for you: are you ever tempted to try to *change* the unpalatable aspects of your universe, including the physical constraints that make this difficult or impossible. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to click our fingers and then observe everyone living in peace and harmony? If we indeed choose our universes, why can’t we do this?

    What makes you think sanity (again sanity is like truth – decided by consensus in a Gaussian distribution) is a function of accepting the impossibility of anything? You have chosen that whatever is impossible, and chosen the technological constraints that currently obtain. In any case propelling oneself against walls may result in traversing through the wall depending upon its composition (I’m aware that you mean passing through as if you were an electromagnetic wave) and it’s unlikely to occur in this NOW. We simply don’t believe it can be – however teleportation is being seriously entertained in some circles and theoretically we and the wall are simply patterns of energy (bound light) composed of primarily empty space so it may be possible under certain circumstances.

    I change the unpalatable aspects of my reality by changing my understanding of the nature of the aspect and my viewpoint. Our universes are perfect creations of ourselves and our beliefs and needs. Difficult physical constraints we create as challenges, impossible (if they truly are in physical reality) constraints are impossible for our own reasons. It might be nice if everyone lived in peace and harmony but that is one of the reasons we chose to exist in this framework, when our consciousness has matured to the point of being able to create “the best of all possible universes” in physical reality there would be little need to experience physical reality except perhaps to guide other consciousnesses toward the ideal.

    Given that I choose to believe in a model of reality that *limits* my choice, and therefore my responsibility, I see the role of utilitarianism – and indeed of moral philosophy – rather as being to deal with one’s reality as best one can *in such a way that it maximises overall well-being within the contraints that we believe exist (but have not chosen)*. This requires us to follow certain rules – or tenets – but also to be ready to revise them with utilitarian principles in mind, which is to say against our assessment of their conduciveness to bring about the greatest good, as we choose to define it, in view of what we believe about current physical constraints. And this is where I have a problem with total commitment to non-violence: because I don’t believe that it is possible, in the short term, to entirely eliminate violence, I believe that sometimes it is necessary to commit it for the greater good. Otherwise you jsut get trampled on by those with less scruples. For example, on balance I have a positive outlook with regard to Western intervention in Libya.

    Living ones life in a way that maximizes overall wellbeing within constraints (such as physical laws and I would add universal morality) is fine and desirable, whether you believe you have chosen those constraints (as I do in universal morality) or not. I don’t believe that one can have a meaningful morality without choosing a set of constraints that gives one a choice as whether to obey or disobey those pre/proscriptions. One can argue as to constraints that exist sans selection but they are immaterial to morality.

    Revising ones tenets for the principle of affecting the “greatest good” is subject to what criterion one or a majority chooses (many times guesses – replete with unintended consequences) what revision or temporary suspension of those tenets will accomplish the desired outcome – the end justifies the means (the tyranny of the majority was an anathema to Utilitarian J.S. Mill who believed that codification of certain principles was necessary to protect the individual – sort of anti-utilitarian to me).

    You say as we choose to define it within the physical limits (I presume you are not talking about physics here) but there’s the rub, definition. One, several or the majority may believe something is for the greater good but is it? What tenets are to be abrogated? If a lynch mob feels it is for the greater good to hang a person so he will not recidivate and threaten society does that make it right, I get the feeling from your position that if one replaced the term “lynch mob” with “society” or “state” that it would be morally acceptable.

    The belief that it is impossible to commit to total non-violence is a major limiting belief. You seem to believe that killing innocent (collateral damage) citizens along with other less than innocent types (military, government, despotic etc.) in order to foist another system of belief on those who would maintain the status quo – repressive and brutal though it may be is OK as long as the putative greater good (other’s definitions) is served. I believe that neither is acceptable, the principle of non-violence has freed India (perhaps not for the better), Tunisia, and Egypt (those outcomes remain to be seen) where most expected a bloodbath. Canada didn’t fight to leave Britain and they are doing pretty well – I wouldn’t want to live there but worse places exist. Zimbabwe did and they aren’t doing as well.

    Libya is a mess to be sure but are you willing to personally contribute to Khadafy’s ouster? What if a bunch of Scotsmen were peacefully protesting at 10 Downing St. to overthrow their own Cameron (I belong to the Clan Cameron) and claim the Sassenach territory for their own to restore the Stuart throne and refused to disperse and were violently dealt with? The rabble regroups and starts attacking Manchester, then presses on to London – the European Commission asks the UN/Obama to intervene and setup a no fly zone to protect the Scots from the power mad British who are mowing down the ill-equipped Scotsmen. I think David Cameron would take exception to such a scenario much as Muammar would – not that I condone his behavior or morality.

    The greater good is in the fist of the foister – I said above that Hitler believed that he (and his minions and the majority) was acting for the greater good. Some of the religious right believes that killing abortionists to save innocent fetuses is for the greater good. Militant Islamists believe that killing the infidels by blowing them selves up is for the greater good. On whose moral authority and imperative is the greater good defined?

    If a principle is not capable of withstanding extremes, it is not a strong principle and I don’t bend to convenient principles if possible – I am human and err but always try to maintain my beliefs vis-à-vis universal principles.

    As to depression – I seldom get depressed anymore as I accept that conditions that appear to be negative are in the higher sense for my own edification and feedback as to where work needs to be done.

    I have to go – sorry for the rant, personal observations, and moralizing. Moral Philosophy is a favorite topic and I sometimes get carried away.

    Peace,

    Burt

  27. peterwicks says:

    Hi Burt,

    Just a very quick response for now.

    When I contemplate the future, as I do a lot these days, my general impression is that there are some things I can influence or even control, while there are other things that are effectively beyond my control. I also find this common-sense notion extremely useful since it helps me to focus my efforts on those aspects of reality that I have the best chance of actually influencing to my advantage. I’m kind of wondering whether you also make this distinction in practice, and if so how this fits into your overall theory.

    Best wishes,
    Peter

  28. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Of course there are many things we can influence and appear to control or actually control (I maintain that it’s ALL within our mental control (conscious and unconscious) save violations of physical laws and the initial conditions we chose for our framework) and there are things that would require the expenditure of too much energy and effort to bring under direct control (for example it is far easier to allow lenses to correct our vision than work on strengthening our eye muscles and it’s easier to allow a Doctor to hypnotize us than overcome dis-ease). We pick and choose that which we believe we have a favorable cost/benefit (effort not monetary but pecuniary expenditures can be fungible with energy/effort.) The things which one believes are beyond one’s control are by my definition but those things for the most part are illusory abstractions and only become real when we make them real by our interest and actions (focus).

    Sensibly one must make peace with those things i.e., treat them neutrally by considering them in light of their true nature vis-à-vis one’s overall purpose and the ways those things are allowed (by us) to impinge on our primary reality. Indeed one may arrange one’s affairs so that those things (largely fears or unpleasant circumstances – real (primary information) or imagined (secondary information) beyond one’s control remain in the abstract. Depending upon our current beliefs, we may be more or less successful at creating or not actualizing the dramas that involve the scenarios beyond our immediate control. It makes no sense to tilt at windmills when one has a minimal chance for success, especially when it is not in one’s bailiwick unless one wishes to make a statement so others may follow.

    I believe that living our lives in a universally moral manner is the best way to accomplish our desires and our lives provide an example to others of the benefits of that practice. I see nothing untoward in your above paragraph; it seems a quite sensible way to approach daily experience albeit naively realistic. I live my philosophy to the best of my ability and it has worked quite well by my accounts – it isn’t for those who are loath to take responsibility for all the dramas in their lives and those who subscribe to a naïve realistic philosophy (I admit without a good deal of introspection and observation naïve realism appeals to those with a “common-sensual” penchant. It is sometimes difficult to balance the idea that one has no one but oneself to blame for less than ideal events – it is so ingrained from birth to believe we are victims of circumstances beyond our control. On the other hand one can take full credit for successes and not go through life as luck’s pawn and a “victim of circumstances”.

    Peace,

    Burt

  29. peterwicks says:

    Thanks Burt. I note that you’re making a distinction between “physical laws and the [other?] initial conditions we chose for our framework” and events that don’t appear to violate those laws/conditions. I’m interested in your comment that “the things which one believes are beyond one’s control are by my definition” – this is not quite what I had previously understood – and at the same time I agree at least that the significance of such events depends to a large extent on “our interest and actions (focus)”.

    This being the case it seems to me that the most immediate practical effect of your philosophy (except obviously on what you say/write about it) concerns your adherence to the tenets of what you call “universal morality”. Whether this is the best way to accomplish our desires or not depends, of course, on what those desires are. In my language I would call those tenets your values, and I certainly respect you for adhering to them to the best of your ability. Living in accordance with one’s own values is indeed a good example for others to follow, not least because it provides an empirical test for any assumptions you or others may be making about what happens when we do so.

    Might add more later,
    Peter

  30. peterwicks says:

    One further comment Burt. I don’t think it’s a choice between “taking full credit for successes” or “going through life as luck’s pawn”. One can also distinguish between one’s own role in bring about results (both desirable and undesirable) and the role of others and/or circumstances that were outside one’s control. Of course it’s often not that clear-cut: often things happen that *could* have been foreseen and prevented, but for one reason or another we didn’t (e.g. because we were focusing on other things). We didn’t choose them, but we could in some cases be reasonably considered as being partly responsible them. (This is of course the basis for legal concepts such as negligence.)

    In fact I’m not really interested in “taking credit for successes”. I’m interested in creating a better world, i.e. in aiming for those futures that correspond to the kind of world I would like to live in. In order to do this, we need first to imagine such futures, then develop and implement a strategy, and then monitor progress, adapting our strategy as necessary and taking care to manage our risks. I firmly believe that the pathways from the present to the best futures generally pass through such moments, and this belief is based on my own experience and that of countless others. For sure you can have good or bad luck, but the surest way to get what you want is to follow this approach. And if you do succeed then you *will* feel good about it: you don’t need to believe that you chose everything that happened to you, or that luck played no role.

  31. Burt says:

    Peter,

    I’m interested in your comment that “the things which one believes are beyond one’s control are by my definition” – this is not quite what I had previously understood – and at the same time I agree at least that the significance of such events depends to a large extent on “our interest and actions (focus)”.

    In my definition, if one believes that something is beyond one’s control, then that limiting belief will render it de facto beyond control whether it actually is or not. I believe it’s all a creation of our consciousness, we just don’t realize (or accept in some cases) that it’s our creation and we seem to be powerless to control certain aspects of our reality and also we as the physically focused portion of our larger (for lack of a better term) non-physical consciousnesses are required to manipulate within our chosen framework. It’s also similar to the No True Scotsman fallacy (being of Scottish heritage I like to reference it often). If one believes truly that one cannot control something and then manages to control that thing, one must have not “truly” believed in the lack of control or vice versa.

    We entities are meaning makers (signifiers) and we do imbue the significance of events on which we focus with weight via our emotions, beliefs, and interest.
    This being the case it seems to me that the most immediate practical effect of your philosophy (except obviously on what you say/write about it) concerns your adherence to the tenets of what you call “universal morality”. Whether this is the best way to accomplish our desires or not depends, of course, on what those desires are. In my language I would call those tenets your values, and I certainly respect you for adhering to them to the best of your ability.

    The tenets of Universal Morality is a core set of my values but I consider it to be an idealistic set of values against which other values are to be compared. One may find it difficult to adhere to those principles but in principle I believe that they are morally inviolable (utilitarianism by its nature is liable to violate those rules and that is why I find it unpalatable). My moral philosophy is based upon Universal Morality but my ontological and epistemological philosophy is based on investigating the nature of reality and consciousness.

    I trust my intentions, intuitions and effort to accomplish my desires, and UM acts as a governor (device not manipulator) to those ends often delaying gratification and proscribing convenient methodologies.

    I don’t think it’s a choice between “taking full credit for successes” or “going through life as luck’s pawn”. One can also distinguish between one’s own role in bringing about results (both desirable and undesirable) and the role of others and/or circumstances that were outside one’s control. Of course it’s often not that clear-cut: often things happen that *could* have been foreseen and prevented, but for one reason or another we didn’t (e.g. because we were focusing on other things). We didn’t choose them, but we could in some cases be reasonably considered as being partly responsible them. (This is of course the basis for legal concepts such as negligence.)

    Yes, one can distinguish one’s role anent results but I maintain that without taking responsibility for one’s primary actions and the choices made and eschewed that resulted in the ends, one is shirking. Circumstances (again save the framework) are the results of our choices or failure to choose alternatives and may seem to be beyond one’s control but it’s the way one collapses the quantum wave function that creates the circumstantial results. As you note, things are gelled by failure to act or improper action. I assert that we did choose them consciously or unconsciously – it’s the definition of reasonability that is the sticking point. BTW as I believe that there are NO victims there is no need to bring the negligence tort concept into the picture.

    In fact I’m not really interested in “taking credit for successes”. I’m interested in creating a better world, i.e. in aiming for those futures that correspond to the kind of world I would like to live in. In order to do this, we need first to imagine such futures, then develop and implement a strategy, and then monitor progress, adapting our strategy as necessary and taking care to manage our risks. I firmly believe that the pathways from the present to the best futures generally pass through such moments, and this belief is based on my own experience and that of countless others. For sure you can have good or bad luck, but the surest way to get what you want is to follow this approach. And if you do succeed then you *will* feel good about it: you don’t need to believe that you chose everything that happened to you, or that luck played no role.

    I too am not interested in “credit for success”; I’m interested in “credit for ALL events”. I am also interested in creating a better world and imagining a future in which everyone adheres to UM at the least. I maintain that due to my belief that each is responsible for everything we already live in a “perfect” world NOW and it is up to us to create our personal reality such that our experience mirrors our best selves. I don’t recognize “good or bad” luck or “risk”, success is measured by living one’s life in such a way as to maximize one’s potential for a peaceful and fulfilling existence in whatever NOW we exist. Without believing that one is responsible for one’s experiences then it’s all luck whether one makes one’s own luck or was a victim of happenstance.

    Peace,

    Burt

  32. peterwicks says:

    Yes, one can distinguish one’s role anent results but I maintain that without taking responsibility for one’s primary actions and the choices made and eschewed that resulted in the ends, one is shirking.

    I certainly agree with that: as you say later, it is with regard to the definition of “reasonableness”, i.e. what we can “reasonably be considered” responsible for, that we differ.

    I maintain that due to my belief that each is responsible for everything we already live in a “perfect” world NOW and it is up to us to create our personal reality such that our experience mirrors our best selves.

    Hmmmm…I’ve come across this kind of thinking before and there’s a lot a like about it. My concern though is that it looks a bit too much to me like denial of reality, including our own feelings about it. I certainly *do* agree that it is we who imbue the significance of events on which we focus with weight via our emotions, beliefs, and interest. But surely by setting the bar high with your “universal morality” you are ruling out the possibility of regarding current reality as “perfect” and being logically consistent. After all, the reality that we observe today is that not everybody respects these tenets, not even close. In this context I think my main concern with your position is that it seems to be leading you to an unrealistic assessment of the likely consequences of your actions, and in particular of your adherence to what you call “universal morality”. As I noted yesterday, this at least has the advantage of providing a real-world, empirical test (I’m fully convinced that you’re making an honest effort to put your principles into practice), but in a more general sense I believe that such ideas have a potential to distract us from making the hard choices we need to actually bring about a better world.

    Once again, I might add more this evening.
    Peter

  33. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Reasonability is in the mind of the reasoner – it is the same as truth, sanity, or opinion. We could perhaps come to a consensus as to what positions could be considered reasonable by demonstrating our “logic” but each of us has our own “reasons” for believing as we do. I would say you are reasonable to believe that one should strive to “engineer” the greatest good for the greatest number because you subscribe to utilitarian theory. I’m reasonable to believe I am responsible for everything because I subscribe to the theory that reality is created by each of us. These are both tautologies, so reasonableness is a personal opinion.

    I’ve come across this kind of thinking before and there’s a lot a like about it. My concern though is that it looks a bit too much to me like denial of reality, including our own feelings about it.

    I hope you meant “I” and not “a” and that you do like a lot of the aspects of this line of reasoning. How can one deny reality when reality is what one believes it is? We deny our feelings when we believe that they are in error or that their expression will lead to a disadvantage when judged unfavorably by others.

    But surely by setting the bar high with your “universal morality” you are ruling out the possibility of regarding current reality as “perfect” and being logically consistent. After all, the reality that we observe today is that not everybody respects these tenets, not even close.

    Universal Morality is an ideal to which I aspire and would encourage others to adopt those ideals as well; it shouldn’t be conflated with taking responsibility for our actions. Humans are not perfect (which is why we choose to focus our consciousness in physical reality – to refine our less than ideal aspects so that they become closer to the ideal much in the way Buddhists strive for Nirvana through attaining Buddha Nature.) Each of our current realities is “perfect” in that we are the authors of our experience and those who are not respecting the tenets of UM must deal with the results of their creation. Those less-than-ideal examples of the human condition are my creations from my vantage point and my observation of them is a datum that reinforces my belief that I shouldn’t behave like them. None is so bad that they cannot serve as an example to others of how not to behave. The reality that one observes depends upon how one looks at it.

    In this context I think my main concern with your position is that it seems to be leading you to an unrealistic assessment of the likely consequences of your actions, and in particular of your adherence to what you call “universal morality”.

    The consequences of my actions are assessed in the outcomes of my choices and the results I achieve in my life. I have noticed no ill effects from trying to adhere closely to the tenets of UM with the exception that it is difficult (more inconvenient) sometimes to live one’s life and still conduct one’s behavior to comport with the tenets. I am not perfect in that respect but I don’t beat myself up if I transgress; I just resolve to do better in future. This is the purpose of guilt in our psyches, to remind us not to do whatever caused the guilty feelings in the future.

    As I noted yesterday, this at least has the advantage of providing a real-world, empirical test (I’m fully convinced that you’re making an honest effort to put your principles into practice), but in a more general sense I believe that such ideas have a potential to distract us from making the hard choices we need to actually bring about a better world.

    You are correct; these ideas do have the potential to affect our decisions to make hard choices. That is its beauty, the hard choices are mirrors that show we are not approaching these problems in an ideal way. There are no insoluble challenges that can’t be engineered in a manner that obeys universal morality if one adapts one’s outlook to see the best possibilities even in dire circumstances. Our job is to be our best selves and the problems will be less significant in our lives. Others have to do as they will and accept the consequences of their circumstances for the lessons and edification they afford.

    Peace,

    Burt

  34. peterwicks says:

    I hope you meant “I” and not “a” and that you do like a lot of the aspects of this line of reasoning.

    Yes indeed! Sorry for the typo.

    How can one deny reality when reality is what one believes it is? We deny our feelings when we believe that they are in error or that their expression will lead to a disadvantage when judged unfavorably by others.

    On the first question: I don’t believe that reality is what one believes it is, so my concern is consistent with my own belief system and use of language. I agree that if you choose to believe that reality is what one believes it is then the concept of “denying” reality becomes meaningless. By “deny our feelings” I basically mean to have false beliefs about them, which again doesn’t make sense if you believe that reality is what you believe it is.

    By contrast, according to my own belief system and use of language it doesn’t make sense to talk about feelings being “in error”. I don’t regard feelings as “right” or “wrong”, in fact I prefer to use those words for truth-apt (factual) statements or with regard to adherence/non-adherence to some agreed value system (e.g. an ethical framework, or getting the moves right in karate). There’s a difference between accepting one’s feelings and expressing them; whether the latter leads to a disadvantage (with regard to one’s values, which may or may not involve the judgement of others) depends on *how* one expresses them.

    None is so bad that they cannot serve as an example to others of how not to behave.

    Almost but not quite. Strictly speaking, the “not so bad” person needs to leave a trace such that others can perceive his/her behaviour and take it as an example of how not to behave. If for example ì go to a wilderness area, gratuitously torture an animal, and then come home, that would (imo) be bad, but probably no other human would ever find out it had happened.

    There are no insoluble challenges that can’t be engineered in a manner that obeys universal morality if one adapts one’s outlook to see the best possibilities even in dire circumstances.

    This sentence is to my mind crucial in the context of determining whether you serve the common good by promoting your ideas or not, so it’s worth scrutinising in some depth. First of all I want to delete the word “insoluble”, in the sense that I think you are defining “insoluble” as “not amenable to being engineered in a manner that obeys universal morality if one adapts one’s outlook to see the best possibilities even in dire circumstances”, and what you are really saying is that insoluble (in this sense) challenges do not exist. From my perspective it’s an enticing idea, and in many respects an inspiring and helpful one. I certainly do agree that many challenges that *seem* insoluble in this sense turn out not to be, and the idea that all challenges are soluble can help motivate us to solve them. The down side, of course, is that we might fail to take timely (albeit “non-ideal”) action because we are convinced that there “must be a better way” and are desperately trying to figure out what it might be. In other words, that we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. From that perspective, *even* if we accept your statement we might still consider that the likelihood of solving the challenge and acting appropriately in time is too small. In policy circles we call this phenomenon “analysis paralysis”.

    Our job is to be our best selves and the problems will be less significant in our lives. Others have to do as they will and accept the consequences of their circumstances for the lessons and edification they afford.

    While I don’t believe that reality is something we can entirely choose, I *do* believe that it is up to us to decide what our “job” is. I like the idea that our job is to be our best selves, but clearly we have different ideas as to what that means. I think we both subscribe to the idea that the important thing is to focus on acting in line with our own values; we just have different values. By the way, your commitment to your “five tenets of universal morality” is entirely compatible with my *belief* system, and vice versa: I could also belief as you do that we choose our reality, and still decide to choose a reality where sometimes it’s better not to comply with those tenets. So we differ both in relation to our beliefs about reality and in relation to our values, but the two are not necessarily connected.

    Whether being our best selves leads problems to become less significant in our lives depends I think on what kind of problems you are talking about and what you mean by significant. I definitely believe that focusing on acting in line with one’s own values tends to lead to serenity and a sense of satisfaction, however if one’s values involve doing good in the world it also tends to make one more aware of other people’s problems and to empathise more with their suffering.

    Others have to do as they will and accept the consequences of their circumstances for the lessons and edification they afford.
    Again not quite: others don’t “have” to do anything: they *will* do as they will, tautologically, and they may or may not choose to accept the consequences of their circumstances for the lessons and edification they afford. I agree that on the whole it’s good if they do, but I also want to see them taking practical, determined action to create a better world. Regrettably, in the non-ideal world we currently live in that sometimes means hurting people.

  35. Burt says:

    Peter,

    I don’t believe that reality is what one believes it is, so my concern is consistent with my own belief system and use of language… By “deny our feelings” I basically mean to have false beliefs about them, which again doesn’t make sense if you believe that reality is what you believe it is.

    If reality isn’t what one believes it is, then what is it? In your belief system and use of language, it must be what you believe it to be. Who other than the weight of consensus can state otherwise and what gives consensus an imprimatur to foist its definition of reality on others? When I say that one may deny one’s feelings if they believe they are in error, I am not suggesting that feelings are right or wrong, I agree with your definitions of right and wrong. I deny the validity of my feelings when they don’t comport with my philosophy e.g., I feel anger (sometimes – it’s getting less so) if I am driving and someone cuts in front of me causing me to have to brake in order to avoid a collision. Most would say that I would be justified in feeling angry as I was driving responsibly and the other driver was less than responsible and may have caused problems. I believe that I attracted the reckless driver and that my momentary anger while less than ideal was a warning to me to be more attentive and less complacent. My anger then is transmuted from being focused upon the “tort” that I perceived was perpetrated by the other driver into an object lesson that will help me avoid such situations in future. I imagine that a utilitarian approach would be to report his license plate to the authorities to attempt to create a “safer” environment for the majority of other drivers. I wouldn’t consider doing that (insinuating my intentions directly into another’s reality when the collision was averted) and would have no regrets (even if the same unsafe driver caused an accident in which a friend or family member was injured or killed.)

    There’s a difference between accepting one’s feelings and expressing them; whether the latter leads to a disadvantage (with regard to one’s values, which may or may not involve the judgment of others) depends on *how* one expresses them.

    I agree that the manner in which one expresses one’s feelings is paramount; it’s the basis of tact, politics and in extreme cases, survival. Accepting one’s feelings is a function of one’s worldview. What one believes are acceptable emotions are allowed expression and those that are not are denied, such as the canard that “men don’t cry” is often denied and forced into stoicism. Diplomats and politicians are better at recasting or weasel wording their actual feelings so that the recipient of the expressed sentiments believe that their ideas comport with their own. I contend that a person’s self image is formed (by oneself) by perception (perception is defacto reality – but prolly not in your belief system) which is a projected (in the psychological sense) creation by that person, cobbled from the opinions of peers, parents, teachers, and society as how one’s values fits with the “some agreed value system” you mentioned. If the fit is perceived to be askew, then the emotions are likely to be squelched and unexpressed and one’s self and the status quo is maintained.

    Almost but not quite. Strictly speaking, the “not so bad” person needs to leave a trace such that others can perceive his/her behaviour and take it as an example of how not to behave. If for example ì go to a wilderness area, gratuitously torture an animal, and then come home, that would (imo) be bad, but probably no other human would ever find out it had happened.

    I agree, in order to serve as an example to others the, the example must be adduced. However in my belief system as deplorable as your example is, the “bad” actor and the animal co-created the event and perhaps the animal might engender enough empathy in the actor to cause a re-evaluation of his actions.

    On a personal note, I used to be a hunter and fisherman and was raised to only kill for food. I shot a deer and after tracking it for a ways, found it dead in a brook. I had some sort of epiphany and felt terrible that I had killed the animal, but dressed it (through tears) and dragged it out of the woods and took it home for my family to eat. I had killed a lot of small game such as rabbits, grouse and squirrels over the years and had either managed to quash those heretofore empathetic feelings, or had not evolved sufficiently into my current beliefs to notice. I never hunted again after that day and fishing took a similar path a couple of years later. (I don’t know why but perhaps it was a cold vs. warm blooded consideration.) Anyway the same feelings have persisted to the point that I only kill blood sucking insects when my consciousness has failed to keep them from biting me (but I don’t have many occasions in that regard either.)

    While your example is a violation of UM and by those mores less than ideal, it is still between the dramatis personae and has only to do with them. If you were involved which I seriously doubt, then you would have to deal with whatever feelings and consequences transpired. If one failed to learn the lesson (that torturing a creature is less than ideal) and “got away with it” then one would likely repeat the actions and sooner or later find oneself afoul of others and pay whatever price the drama and players exacted. Also I believe that these mutually created dramas serve as examples to edify the perpetrator (usurper, torturer, or murderer) as to the inappropriateness of his actions – the animal (or other human) cooperates with the aggressor to that end (as well as for their own ends – no pun intended.)

    I want to delete the word “insoluble”, in the sense that I think you are defining “insoluble” as “not amenable to being engineered in a manner that obeys universal morality if one adapts one’s outlook to see the best possibilities even in dire circumstances”, and what you are really saying is that insoluble (in this sense) challenges do not exist.

    I am amenable to your emendation and should have prepended “apparently” to the insoluble phrase. I do mean (as you surmised) that challenges (just to be clear – ethical or moral challenges not those within the framework – [initial physical conditions]) which appear insoluble (or not amenable) to me do not exist per se. The solutions anent UM may not be acceptable to a utilitarian or to one embroiled in the drama but there always is a way to avoid transgressing UM.

    The down side, of course, is that we might fail to take timely (albeit “non-ideal”) action because we are convinced that there “must be a better way” and are desperately trying to figure out what it might be. In other words, that we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. From that perspective, *even* if we accept your statement we might still consider that the likelihood of solving the challenge and acting appropriately in time is too small. In policy circles we call this phenomenon “analysis paralysis”.

    Failure to take “timely” action is again the province of the actors. If an action is taken which is contrary to UM then it is a violation. Failure to derive a solution that better suits UM is not a failure to act, it is a failure to decide an appropriate action. The perfect is not the enemy of the good, the “perfect” is an ideal and the “good” is again in the mind if the do-gooder(s). Acting in a way that contravenes our basic moral tenets (in my case UM) is rationalized as “it’s the best we could manage under the circumstances” under utilitarianism but is still an excuse and less than ideal. Although if one’s moral tenets are informed by utilitarianism then one would probably conclude that their “good” is “good enough” and feel some level of satisfaction.

    “History” (the collective hearsay framework) is replete with examples of acting in timely manners for putative “good” reasons that had disastrous consequences for many and neutral consequences for others and perhaps desirable consequences for some. There are just as many examples of failure to act that had the same results as acting supposedly for the good. Who is to decide which is the “correct” choice? It is we, individually and en masse (the masses with whom we decide to ally our intentions.) It is one thing to personally invest one’s effort directly in an action then one has a primary stake in the drama whether ideally or less so. It is quite another to involve others (such as congress or the president committing “blood and treasure” – Bush’s neocon babble – to a cause) ultimately it is the participants realities, however when the “decider” decides to act by delegating proxies to achieve the supposed “good”, it compounds the consequences many fold. In my philosophy, analysis paralysis is preferable to leaping before looking and because it’s secondary reality (abstract – unless one insinuates oneself into it) the effects are nugatory.

    While I don’t believe that reality is something we can entirely choose, I *do* believe that it is up to us to decide what our “job” is. I like the idea that our job is to be our best selves, but clearly we have different ideas as to what that means. I think we both subscribe to the idea that the important thing is to focus on acting in line with our own values; we just have different values. By the way, your commitment to your “five tenets of universal morality” is entirely compatible with my *belief* system, and vice versa: I could also belief as you do that we choose our reality, and still decide to choose a reality where sometimes it’s better not to comply with those tenets. So we differ both in relation to our beliefs about reality and in relation to our values, but the two are not necessarily connected.

    When I say reality is created by choices (beliefs) I don’t mean it is done via conscious choices alone. Some choices are conscious and some are unconscious and some are realized by rote (habit). One’s best self (as you note) is to act in accordance with our values and that is the crux. Absent a set of inviolate principles, values are relative to what ever one believes and concomitantly anyone who lives within that value system is by definition “being their best self”.

    We do have different values. Utilitarianism seems a noble value especially if one believes that we live in an indifferent milieu, at the mercy of happenstance with the illusion that our actions are warranted because we believe that there is an invisible balance that we can tip in the favor of the many at the expense of the few. If I believed that, I could probably be persuaded that it is just a numbers game and killing/disadvantaging a few to save/benefit more (irrespective of individuality) is the best we can achieve but I would hate to be in the minority (J.S. Mill was at odds with this aspect of utilitarianism and warned that the individual must be free from the tyranny of the majority. He also had some other less savory ideas as well.)

    I agree that our beliefs and values are different from each other’s and that’s fine. Would you be willing to sacrifice yourself and family if you were convinced that the sacrifice would result in a greater benefit for mankind? If so then you’d be living up to your values but I don’t believe (obviously) that such action is ideal and while it may appear noble to those with similar values, I would say it is a less than ideal use of one’s raison d’être focused in physicality. I believe that one’s values and beliefs about reality are inextricably linked, it is our beliefs anent reality that inform our values.

    Whether being our best selves leads problems to become less significant in our lives depends I think on what kind of problems you are talking about and what you mean by significant. I definitely believe that focusing on acting in line with one’s own values tends to lead to serenity and a sense of satisfaction, however if one’s values involve doing good in the world it also tends to make one more aware of other people’s problems and to empathise more with their suffering.

    Being one’s best self to me means to behave in a way that is consistent with ideals that reflect those promulgated by those throughout human history who are regarded as illuminati (many of whom held contradictory beliefs but I mean those beliefs that are generally regarded as enlightened.) The distillation of their ideas is the origin of UM. The problems are the daily challenges that entities face and their significance is loosely correlated with the amount of effort it takes to surmount or neutralize their ramifications. Acting in line with one’s less than ideal values may provide a temporary modicum of serenity and satisfaction but such results are not sustainable in the long run.

    Doing good is its own reward and while empathy allows us to imagine being in other’s shoes and appreciate the reality they have created, they are still the primary party in their experience and if they are able to evoke empathy in others so that a mitigation transpires, that is also their creation. If I create someone who impinges upon my primary reality and I can be of assistance, I use the opportunity if I can to help. I usually send a monetary token to global disaster relief efforts as a projection for the well being of those whose primary reality is involved in the drama. It doesn’t matter if it pays for a non-profit bureaucrat’s cocktail; it is the intention that is the salient issue.

    Again not quite: others don’t “have” to do anything: they *will* do as they will, tautologically, and they may or may not choose to accept the consequences of their circumstances for the lessons and edification they afford. I agree that on the whole it’s good if they do, but I also want to see them taking practical, determined action to create a better world. Regrettably, in the non-ideal world we currently live in that sometimes means hurting people.

    I will reword the statement: Others have acted as they have and react to whatever consequences they create as a result of those actions. Whether they consciously accept the ramifications as lessons or not (most do not believe they are the author of the consequences and fail to appreciate the lesson) they still must confront them by discovering their source, ignoring, or rationalizing them away. As I above and one of our framework’s illuminati noted 400 years ago: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

    Why is it important for others to be determined to act to create a better world? If they behave according to UM and live an exemplary existence is it not enough – if not then why not? We create a better world through espousing the ideal and living in an ideal manner. It’s only a non-ideal world to those who believe it is (which is self-fulfilling) and hurting people is only going to further reinforce that belief. In the final analysis it all returns to beliefs and our reasons for believing as we do. If you do not like your experience, change your beliefs. It’s as simple as that. If you really believe that it is necessary to cause others harm to further your idea of the “good” then that is your belief – I can only appeal to the countless historical examples that demonstrate the inadvisability of such actions. I prefer a belief system in which ALL is ultimately neutral and penultimately my personal responsibility.

    Peace,

    Burt

  36. peterwicks says:

    Burt,

    Thanks again for this very comprehensive response. I certainly agree that our beliefs about reality inform and (in practice) shape our values.

    I believe that reality is something other than I believe it to be primarily in the sense that it is vastly more complex than any beliefs I can have about it. There is vastly more about reality that I don’t know (both the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns”) than there is that I do know, and it is overwhelmingly probable that some of the beliefs I have about it are false. By keeping “reality” and “my beliefs about reality” as distinct concepts in my mind I am able to continuously enlarge and update my knowledge of reality. If on the other hand I believed them to be one and the same thing I would be logically unable to do this without undermining this belief, for in order to update one’s beliefs one has to believe one was previously wrong, or at
    least had a more limited view. For example: before reading your post I didn’t know you used to hunt and fish, and yet (according to my belief system) this was already part of my external reality. It just wasn’t part of my beliefs about reality.

    A word about protection of minorities: I am convinced that this can be very well justified within a (rule) utilitarian framework. Having decided that we should act in such a way as to maximize the overall good, we then need to decide on rules designed to help us do this, and basically protection of minorities can be regarded as such a rule. Protection of minorities has it’s limits of course: if the majority decides that smoking in public buildings is not acceptable, then the smokers have to go elsewhere to smoke. But core individual rights need to be respected, again for perfectly good utilitarian reasons, and provided that they are there is also good reason to allow clearly identifiable minorities collective protection from the “tyranny of the majority”. (The limited recognition by English courts of Shariah law with regard to the Muslim minority there can be regarded as an example of this, albeit a controversial one about which I have considerable misgivings.)

    In a similar vein I also think it’s possible to justify putting the interests of one’s family / friends / loved ones first, even if a naive utilitarian calculus would suggest otherwise. This comes back to the issue of close, supportive relationships: the naive utilitarian who sacrifices his loved ones for a supposed greater good is effectively setting a terrible example for others to follow, as everyone starts wondering whether they also should betray their loved one’s in this way, and whether their loved ones would do the same. Suspicion, guilt and insecurity ensues.

    Indeed, your warnings regarding the lessons of history can also be reasonably re-interpreted as an attack on naive utilitarianism rather than a refutation of the underlying idea. Basically what you are saying is that departures from UM tend to have harmful or at best neutral results anyway, in which case the utilitarian (if he/she agrees with this premise, which I don’t entirely but that’s not relevant for my current point) will simply say, “Well then we don’t have an argument: let’s adopt UM as a rule.” The only caveat would be that we should remain attentive to any evidence that this is not actually the case, and willing to change the rule as necessary, something that you obviously won’t want to do if UM is for you more fundamental than any (other) concept of “the greater good”.

    I do think it matters if your donation ends up paying for a non-profit bureaucrat’s cocktail, or some more clear-cut example of the money going astray. (The rights and wrongs of bureaucratic cocktails is a whole other subject we could get into!) If you *knew* this was going to happen, you wouldn’t make the donation, right? So intention is only “the salient issue” to the extent that it is based on a reasonable expectation that at least some of the money will actually go where you intend it to go. Otherwise it’s just wilful blindness.

    I’m somewhat intrigued that you see UM as having been distilled from ideas “promulgated by those though out human history who are regarded as illuminati”, i.e. whose beliefs are “generally regarded as enlightened”. This seems reminiscent of the “weight of consensus” whose authority you have questioned regard to reality. While we should indeed seek inspiration from the sayings of others, both past and present, it’s important to keep an independent perspective – as you say, “our beliefs and values are different from each other’s and that’s fine”, and this also serves as good guidance for our stance towards the sayings of “illuminati” (or indeed friends, colleagues, family and online debating partners!).

    That being the case, it is clear that in practice we are influenced by what we’ve read or been told, and in this context it’s probably important to recognize that the concept of the “common good” is one that has taken on a personal importance for me, for reasons that are doubtless to some extent contingent. This, along with my scepticism that UM always leads to the best results, is the basic reason why it’s not enough for me that people just practise UM, and why I also want them to take practical, determined action to create a better world. Changing my beliefs about reality will not make reality conform to those beliefs: there will still be poverty, sickness, violence and suffering. Believing that these things are neutral and/or my personal responsibility will not make them go away. My hope is that, practical, determined action eventually will.

    Best wishes,
    Peter

  37. Burt says:

    Peter,

    I believe that reality is something other than I believe it to be primarily in the sense that it is vastly more complex than any beliefs I can have about it. There is vastly more about reality that I don’t know (both the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns”) than there is that I do know, and it is overwhelmingly probable that some of the beliefs I have about it are false.

    There are two realties that are subsumed in the label, “reality”. Indeed reality at large (physical & non-physical) is more complex (infinitely so) than your beliefs about its nature and unknowns simply because from the vantage point of we entities ensconced in physical reality, the infinite non-physical reality is beyond our ken (akin to the God knowledge concept – organized religion’s projections of its nature notwithstanding). One’s personal reality (also physical & non-physical) on the other hand is is knowable and it’s comprised of one’s experience (physical although mentally created) and one’s beliefs about that experience (non-physical). Due to the condition that anything other than tautologies is necessarily subjective, one’s beliefs are one’s truths. So if you believe that some of your beliefs anent reality are likely false then that is true (i.e., your belief that you harbor false beliefs is true.)

    It is an illusion that your personal reality and your beliefs about reality are separate; your expanding knowledge about reality is your expanding knowledge of yourself. You describe the very ways our beliefs are refined or supplanted – beliefs that make more sense to us replace the former (it’s immaterial whether or not they are consensually more apt, for you they are for the nonce until replaced or discarded). In my belief system, the bit of information that Burt used to kill animals was not part of your external reality until you included that idea in your “Burt mockup”. Your Burt didn’t exist in your reality until he posted at IEET. In reality, external reality is internally generated – we just agree by convention that there is an external physical reality but it’s all patterns of energy created by electrical impulses in our consciousness.

    But core individual rights need to be respected, again for perfectly good utilitarian reasons, and provided that they are there is also good reason to allow clearly identifiable minorities collective protection from the “tyranny of the majority”.

    It’s the majority’s opinion of good, good reasons, and greatest good that will result in the tyranny. What is a clearly identifiable minority? I’d say each individual is. If an individual who is not transgressing UM is afoul of some of the utilitarian “rules”, what moral imperative (except by the majority’s definition and the authority of their tyranny) exists for others to interfere with his freedom? Sharia law does not comport with UM (or most humanistic conventions) and is born of extreme fear. I agree that one (instinctively) is “justified in putting the interests of one’s family / friends / loved ones first” after all those are the ones in which one has invested the most psychic and physical energy. Betrayal is a personal decision (not a utilitarian calculus) and one will play out whatever drama ensues. (When it comes to ensuage, I prefer hilarity.)

    The only caveat would be that we should remain attentive to any evidence that this is not actually the case, and willing to change the rule as necessary, something that you obviously won’t want to do if UM is for you more fundamental than any (other) concept of “the greater good”.

    Transgressions of UM are to be expected from humans, changing the rules to mitigate a transgression are not necessary. UM is an idealistic moral code. If everyone obeyed its tenets, there would be no needs must. If we fall short of its goals we will do better with practice.

    I do think it matters if your donation ends up paying for a non-profit bureaucrat’s cocktail, or some more clear-cut example of the money going astray. (The rights and wrongs of bureaucratic cocktails is a whole other subject we could get into!) If you *knew* this was going to happen, you wouldn’t make the donation, right? So intention is only “the salient issue” to the extent that it is based on a reasonable expectation that at least some of the money will actually go where you intend it to go. Otherwise it’s just wilful blindness.

    Obviously my intention is for my donation to reach those who are in need and I wouldn’t give $ to the bureaucrat directly. I assume the money/goods will help someone but short of my travelling to the affected area, I must rely on a reputable organization (I usually use the Red Cross) to use the money however it sees fit. I am aware that the upper echelons of many large charities draw huge (at least compared to mine) salaries and that my contribution is diluted by their perquisites but the main benefit is to me. I benefit from my intention to help and I am willfully myopic toward the less savory aspects of organized charities. I prefer to give directly to those whom I want to help but sometimes it isn’t practical. If I create a drama (of which I’m aware) that includes other’s less than ideal usage of my donation then I may be more particular about to whom I donate but once donated the gift is subject to the vagaries of my dramatic creation and I’m left with the benefit of my intention.

    I’m somewhat intrigued that you see UM as having been distilled from ideas “promulgated by those though out human history who are regarded as illuminati”, i.e. whose beliefs are “generally regarded as enlightened”. This seems reminiscent of the “weight of consensus” whose authority you have questioned regard to reality. While we should indeed seek inspiration from the sayings of others, both past and present, it’s important to keep an independent perspective – as you say, “our beliefs and values are different from each other’s and that’s fine”, and this also serves as good guidance for our stance towards the sayings of “illuminati” (or indeed friends, colleagues, family and online debating partners!).

    In this case consensus is I, as UM is my distillation. I meant to convey that I didn’t invent the ideas that comprise UM, they were already espoused by those who some regard as “enlightened” (I suppose the label “enlightened” could be regarded as a fallacious appeal to authority but the ideas stand on their own irrespective of their origin). Again these ideas aren’t mine, I only subscribe to the components in my collation and the original authors being non-contemporaneous, in many respects contradictory in other areas of their philosophies and prolly unaware of each other to a large degree don’t constitute a consensus in the way I mean consensus. Inspiration is an internal response to recognition of ideas on a psychic level. It can come from actual experience, vicariously, or in dreams. Often it merely comports with our worldview but many times our worldview is altered when an idea piques our imagination and we sense that it fits our sensibilities better than our previous beliefs (like the siren’s song of utilitarianism – I couldn’t resist obviously).

    That being the case, it is clear that in practice we are influenced by what we’ve read or been told, and in this context it’s probably important to recognize that the concept of the “common good” is one that has taken on a personal importance for me, for reasons that are doubtless to some extent contingent. This, along with my scepticism that UM always leads to the best results, is the basic reason why it’s not enough for me that people just practise UM, and why I also want them to take practical, determined action to create a better world. Changing my beliefs about reality will not make reality conform to those beliefs: there will still be poverty, sickness, violence and suffering. Believing that these things are neutral and/or my personal responsibility will not make them go away. My hope is that, practical, determined action eventually will.

    Yes we are influenced by information that edifies, mirrors or augments our beliefs. You believe in utilitarianism so the “common good” is endemic to your belief system. I maintain that the “common good” is a slippery and subjective (in the general sense as opposed to beliefs that objectivity is possible) and that despite one’s best efforts, one will invariably run into unintended consequences and we cannot know definitively what is for the common good except in the simplest circumstances. As I said before if everyone practiced UM there would not be violence and poverty would be one’s choice.

    Sickness and suffering are also individual choices but I don’t expect you to subscribe to that belief. Sickness is a tool that we use for various and sundry reasons personally and also to exercise empathetic response to others who are ill. Suffering on account of our choices is a biofeedback mechanism to alert us that our psyche is out of balance and we need to change our methodologies in our approach to life in physical reality.

    The better world at large will arise from people acting better, changing your beliefs about reality will make your reality conform to your beliefs. There will always be poverty, sickness, violence and suffering somewhere in the world as they are part of the human condition and therein serve a purpose for one’s psychic growth. They are neutral in your reality unless they are affecting your primary reality. They are abstract until you make them concrete; they will never go away in the abstract because they are tools that are useful in the basic framework for humans’ psyche’s advancement but they are only real to the extent you realize them. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to better ourselves toward ideal behavior or attempt to mitigate less than ideal situations for others we are able to assist. These are foils we create in order to learn how to exist in harmony with all other entities not only human beings.

    As I have said above, given an accidental, random universe “red in tooth and claw”, utilitarianism seems to be a good compromise between the individual good and mass good. I don’t believe in accidents or victims and if one, let’s stipulate that it is a totally innocent (in the common parlance) person, their possessions, or family’s wellbeing is to be sacrificed for the greater good of the many then I could not support the conclusion. Only the moral calculus by definition can justify those means to an end. It’s no different from the Aztecs or others sacrificing a few to appease their gods for the good of their society they were obeying utilitarian principles to the best of their worldview.

    It’s all well and good when you are among the many but woe betides they who are the few. Most western democratic countries have attempted to craft rule based utilitarianistic laws in their legal systems and constitutionally protect those who have conflicting values. This is as close to your utopian ideals as we are likely to get with the current state of humanity’s collective psyches. If physicality were utopian then there would be no purpose to it. Imagine a utopia – everyone is happy, productive and well off. Where are the challenges that allow us to grow in their meeting? What is the meaning of life in physical reality? To be born, procreate, live a hedonistic existence and die? It all seems futile and dull and largely purposeless.

    I don’t seem to be able to convince you that utilitarianism is no way to run the world and that each consensus has to find its own path to the ideal while protecting those who peacefully disagree but I have enjoyed this exchange and hope to have others in future. You should post other topics in your blog maybe “The rights and wrongs of bureaucratic cocktails” that you referenced above.

    Peace to ALL,

    Burt

  38. peterwicks says:

    Thanks Burt.

    I take your point about two “realities”: “reality at large” and one’s personal reality.in fact I would say that there is one “reality at large” and many personal realities, since there are many persons. I also believe that our personal realities are themselves part of the overall “reality at large”. My beliefs about reality are indeed part of my personal reality, and are therefore part of reality at large. They can resonate more or less well with external (to me) aspects of that overall reality.

    According to your belief system, you have chosen not to be able to convince me (so far) that “utilitarianism is no way to run the world”. I’d be interested to read your ideas about why you think you’ve made that choice. From my perspective this is not something you chose: you chose to try, but you didn’t choose to fail.

    Thanks for your suggestion to post other topics on this blog. I too have enjoyed this exchange and hope to have others in the future. If you have other suggestions/requests for topics they would be most welcome. “Bureaucratic cocktails” seems like a somewhat dreary subject 🙂

  39. peterwicks says:

    One further comment Burt. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to suggest that the “common good” is endemic to my belief system *because* I believe in utilitarianism. In fact I’m even a bit reticent about the phrase “I believe in utilitarianism”. I believe it is a useful concept, and it’s true that it pervades my thinking on ethical issues. But ultimately it’s a choice whether you want to draw inspiration from the idea or not.

    As for my commitment to the concept of the “common good”, I think this basically comes from my Anglican upbringing. Again it’s not really endemic to my *belief* system, it’s rather endemic to my values. I think if anything the causality is the other way round: I like utilitarianism because the concept of the *common good* features so strongly in my values.

    I want to build and maintain loving relationships, and I believe that this requires me to be decisive and courageous, as well as empathetic and kind. I believe that what people want, or at least what we *think* we want, and what we need are two different things, and that it’s necessary to strike a balance between giving others what they say they want and giving them what we think they need. In general I want others to behave the same way towards me. I won’t always agree with what they think I need, and I may resent their efforts to give it to me, but I will respect them for trying nonetheless. I think it’s important to foster a small number of close relationships, but at the same time it’s important to keep in mind the well-being of the wider community, and I’m also determined to ensure that my professional activities correspond to the common good as I see it. This is basically the inspiration for my interest in the future of humanity.

  40. Burt says:

    Peter,

    You could say there is one reality at large just as there is one multiverse, it’s semantics. There are as many personal realities as persons and they are part of the larger physical and non-physical reality as you note, but our personal reality is the overarching reality at least on this plane.

    The Peter I create as well as other people that are comprised of my various idea constructions are not puppets nor are the masses; I do not control them. If I believe that I do, that would mean that I am a solipsist but I merely respond to mockups of my impressions as we all do with ours. You control your you and I react to my you that is informed by your you. In my personal reality my Peter could be an object lesson for me to refine or renew my powers of persuasion or a lesson for me to remember that my beliefs are not for everyone (almost no one wants to take responsibility for everything in their reality – I have a wife and 1 child who believe as I (my 2 others don’t buy it but they largely accept UM) and some acquaintances who go farther than most but won’t go all the way and there are some who profess to believe as I and I take them at their word) but mostly people don’t examine their lives closely or contemplate the nature of reality beyond naïve realism. Consequently I must return to the idea (which is a projection of my beliefs) that those who are ready to understand will and until then won’t, despite my efforts to that end.

    Moral philosophy is one of my interests and while I may not convince anyone by my arguments vis-à-vis morality, they cannot (so far) adduce positions that contravene mine without resorting to definitions such as “the good of one is outweighed by the good of the many” as a precept. I’m sure that if we were to have a chinwag face to face we would come to more satisfying resolutions to each of our positions. As to my choice to try to convince you, so far I have failed in that effort but I accept the result and perhaps you may come around I believe your (and my) you have great potential in that regard.

    As to suggestions, only you know what piques your interest – I find that I am usually 180 degrees from the mainstream on most concepts. I have noticed that if one assumes that the opposite of conventional wisdom and most opinions is the case, one is closer to the real nature of the beast. I’ll be happy to respond to any philosophical ideas you may post but you prolly can surmise my position but one never knows, do one.

    In fact I’m even a bit reticent about the phrase “I believe in utilitarianism”. I believe it is a useful concept, and it’s true that it pervades my thinking on ethical issues. But ultimately it’s a choice whether you want to draw inspiration from the idea or not.

    If you are a cafeteria utilitarian then maybe there’s hope. Anglican dogma (Catholic Lite) notwithstanding (I was raised Protestant and it took years to overcome its negative aspects and truth be told I’m not sure that I’ve dispensed entirely with its insidious influence – which is why I would not allow my children to be exposed to formal religious inculcation) one’s values are a function of one’s belief system and they are inextricable. I have nothing against the common good per se, my problem is only with the definition of “good” and the favoring of the many at the expense of the individual.

    I want to build and maintain loving relationships, and I believe that this requires me to be decisive and courageous, as well as empathetic and kind. I believe that what people want, or at least what we *think* we want, and what we need are two different things

    I agree with that statement – I would just add that many do not know what they need beyond basic sustenance (and there are many beliefs as to what constitutes sustenance – I would include clothing and shelter as I live in New England) and what people want is the motivating factor that informs their actions. I’m not sure that giving people what we think they need (who are we to insinuate our projections into other’s realities as long as they are not contravening UM) or want is the answer. I would say that everyone should have the opportunity to acquire what they desire and I believe we all choose to create our reality for our own purposes (ultimately we choose our circumstances and operate within that framework)

    I won’t always agree with what they think I need, and I may resent their efforts to give it to me, but I will respect them for trying nonetheless. I think it’s important to foster a small number of close relationships, but at the same time it’s important to keep in mind the well-being of the wider community, and I’m also determined to ensure that my professional activities correspond to the common good as I see it. This is basically the inspiration for my interest in the future of humanity.

    I believe I will create what I need and if someone or society facilitates that creation so much the better. If their efforts on my or humanity’s behalf comport with my beliefs then I will accept the boon gratefully (but I take the credit for creating that situation) and if I don’t agree with their position, I reject it. As I stated above: “I personally break no laws with which I agree and obey no laws with which I disagree”. I believe in close relationships and I create the ones I foster. If one adheres to the tenets of UM then the example of ones existence contributes to the well-being of the community at large. All my activities, professional and private, correspond to the common good as I see it and I’m not worried about the future of humanity, I don’t believe that I would create cataclysms in my personal reality and humanity comprises the rich bed of opportunities to improve ourselves and each other.

    Anent your question at IEET on Osama’s demise: I indeed chose to align myself with the mass reality in which this drama played out. I’m not too keen to advance my true belief system at IEET as I don’t want to be considered a “nutter” which would likely cause my opinions to be dismissed out of hand. I hope to convince people to consider other ethical ideas and UM and I’m aware that those with a certain mindset don’t appreciate my ideas. Bin Laden’s murder and the gunning down of an unarmed man with no chance to surrender is definitely murder despite the revisionism and excuses and I’m disgusted with my metonymic residence’s response as you read. This choice provides me with fodder to consider how I choose to represent the USA and the opportunity to try to convince others of the immoral nature of these types of acts. I don’t control the mass reality only play out its dramas to the best of my ability for self-improvement.

    Peace,

    Burt

  41. peterwicks says:

    Moral philosophy is one of my interests and while I may not convince anyone by my arguments vis-à-vis morality, they cannot (so far) adduce positions that contravene mine without resorting to definitions such as “the good of one is outweighed by the good of the many” as a precept.

    I think this is largely going to be true, and certainly it is fundamental to utilitarianism, even though as I’ve noted above there are (in my view) excellent utilitarian arguments to protect minorities and individual rights. One exception might be where coercion is required in what you think might be someone’s best interests. For example would you amputate someone’s arm in order to prevent the gangrene spreading, if you knew (i.e. believed and had good reason to believe) it was the only option but the person concerned was begging you not to?

    In my personal reality my Peter could be an object lesson for me to refine or renew my powers of persuasion or a lesson for me to remember that my beliefs are not for everyone

    I’m interested that you don’t even seem to consider the possibility that your beliefs may be wrong and/or in need of refinement. I’m certainly not saying that one should go round the whole time thinking one’s beliefs might be wrong: there is a time for doubt, but also a time for faith and acting on the basis of one’s existing beliefs. But one of mine is that it is good to be willing to question ALL one’s beliefs. You could, for example, imagine for a moment that the statement “The good of the many can, in some instances, outweigh the good of the one” is actually true. How does it feel? What kind of thoughts does it provoke? I generally find I learn a lot from this type of exercise: I generally still end up disagreeing with the statement, but it does seem to help to refine my own thinking.

    Peace,
    Peter

    PS Don’t be scared of being considered a “nutter”. The important thing is to be clear with one’s own beliefs: what others think of you as a result is, for me at least, a distinctly secondary consideration… (particularly since we are blessed to live in free countries where no-one’s actually going to stick us in jail!).

  42. Burt says:

    Peter,

    One exception might be where coercion is required in what you think might be someone’s best interests. For example would you amputate someone’s arm in order to prevent the gangrene spreading, if you knew (i.e. believed and had good reason to believe) it was the only option but the person concerned was begging you not to?

    Coercion, other than the power of persuasion using words or employing others who hold more emotional sway with the coerced, is beyond the pale in my worldview. If I believed some action were truly in someone’s best interests I might lie to that person in order to attempt to convince him to accede to the action. That would contravene UM slightly but ultimately it is the person’s choice to act on the faulty information or not. We sometimes do this with our children for expedience but I believe it is less than ideal and can be avoided with creative methods.

    I would attempt to convince someone by logical argument to allow me to cut off his gangrenous arm and failing that I would abide by his wishes but the example is hypothetical and I would hope to avoid creating situations that are less tenable than I would desire to be the case. If possible I would get him medical help and defer to those whose interests are in that field.

    I’m interested that you don’t even seem to consider the possibility that your beliefs may be wrong and/or in need of refinement… You could, for example, imagine for a moment that the statement “The good of the many can, in some instances, outweigh the good of the one” is actually true. How does it feel? What kind of thoughts does it provoke?

    I have refined my beliefs for approximately 35 years and distilled them to the points I currently hold. There is always the possibility that they are wrong but I’m betting my life that they’re correct. Thus far I have been blessed (by my autotheistic self) and haven’t created any dire circumstances that would require major revision to my beliefs. These beliefs are only capable of hurting myself (by extension my family and friends if I meet disastrous circumstances – but that is their choice to be hurt). As I stated above none has adduced contravention to my positions. They cannot be proved or disproved (as can very little in the final analysis) but until I am convinced that they are ill serving my way of life I will continue to behave in accordance with those beliefs. (This is true of all of us but some are more stubborn and require more evidence than others to appreciate the responsibilities of their actions or errors of their ways.)

    PS Don’t be scared of being considered a “nutter”. The important thing is to be clear with one’s own beliefs: what others think of you as a result is, for me at least, a distinctly secondary consideration… (particularly since we are blessed to live in free countries where no-one’s actually going to stick us in jail!).

    I was briefly concerned when you addressed me directly at IEET but since have thrown caution to the winds and started to include squibs of my beliefs in my IEET posts (as you have seen). Now that you’ve invited all and sundry to peruse our scribblings at the Future of Humanity I can no longer to pretend to be a naïve realist with a slightly different POV.

    Regarding “free” countries: Yes if we toe the line and do not create circumstances that run afoul of some of the philosophically draconian (perhaps well intended but perhaps not) laws that may be enforced if we create those conditions. How about holocaust deniers in Belgium or other European countries? Hate speech? Racist epithets? Simon Ledger was arrested when someone was walking by while he was busking the song “Kung-fu Fighting” and was offended. These are only a infinitesimal sample of PC run amok. We are only as free as the circumstances we create which is why I’m not in thrall to fear of such occurrences but the principle (conceived in FEAR) is an anathema and totally wrong in my opinion.

    Peace,

    Burt

  43. peterwicks says:

    Burt,

    I sense some resentment regarding my decision to invite others to study the dialogue we’ve been having here. Of course this is an open forum, and even if I’ve made little effort so far to drive much traffic here I am working on the assumption that people posting comments here are happy for those comments to be viewed by anyone.

    Regarding “PC run amok”, yes I agree that there are limitations of free speech (some justified in my view: I don’t believe that people should be allowed to promulgate obvious lies that are deliberately provocative and likely to lead to violence or oppression) and in some cases bad decisions are taken. The “kung fu” example is clearly absurd, I can only hope that the person in question didn’t suffer serious harm or curtailment of freedom. At the same time it’s important to draw a contrast between the *considerable* freedom that we enjoy in North America and Europe with the suffocating restrictions imposed on many people around the world.

  44. Burt says:

    Peter,

    No resentment – of course I’m happy to have anyone read our exchange. I was being facetious (because my tone and body language are not available to those on line sometimes meaning is misconstrued since your senses created that sense from my tongue-in-cheeky blurb) and was only concerned that my heretofore innocuous and hopefully informative comments at IEET would not be tainted with my more radical POV. I realize that I was being foolish and perhaps paranoid; delusions of grandeur that my words would edify anyone who already didn’t have a similar worldview; after all who cares? I’m not very active in the blogosphere (what with only an after hours work computer at my disposal and a 55 mile homeward commute) and I have barely offered my worldview or cosmology for general consumption on the web and as I mentioned above I’m better at explaining my views verbally than I am in writing point/counterpoint over a protracted period.

    I don’t believe that people should be allowed to promulgate obvious lies that are deliberately provocative and likely to lead to violence or oppression

    I believe anyone should be allowed to say or print anything (sticks & stones etc.) with only the repercussions those views engender – not curtailed by the STATE – if one suffers at the hands of another for words then the state has an interest in protecting the free speech rights of the author – no one should be deprived of liberty for an opinion no matter how odious and however stated. If one creates circumstances in which the words inflame other’s emotions to the point of first person violence then it becomes a drama that one must reconcile and accept the consequences. The violence is the responsibility of the active participant who chose to take physical umbrage out on the passive one as I tried to elucidate at IEET recently. I would support as peaceful sanctions as possible against the violent parties and would hope they would eventually see the errors of their ways and choose non-violent means to settle their grievances.

    Obviously there are many who are not evolved emotionally to a sufficient degree to eschew violence (Obama for one) and we share physical reality with them (the main reason they are here is to overcome those tendencies) so it behooves one to cater his words to one’s audience or suffer the ramifications but the state should protect free speech. BTW if the lies are obvious who is to blame for believing them?

    Yes, freedom is relative. They who are the most restrictive are those who are the most fearful.

    Peace,

    Burt

  45. peterwicks says:

    Thanks Burt, I’m glad you weren’t upset.

    They who are the most restrictive are those who are the most fearful.

    Interesting claim. As you know, from my POV fear is a rather fundamental part of the human condition, but it’s clear that some are more prone to it than others. Nevertheless I’m not sure that the correlation between fear and a desire to restrict the behaviour of others is as total as your sentence implies. For some the latter may be an aesthetic issue, and/or have more to do with anger and disgust than fear per se. For others it may be a function of the ideas they were brought up with. Conversely, I believe it’s possible to be highly fearful and yet not experience any particular desire to control others’ behaviour. Indeed, I think it’s possible (and not even particularly uncommon) to be scared of trying to control or restrict the behaviour of others.

    In one of my earlier comments on how to minimize fear I suggested meditation. Since then I’ve been paying quite a lot of attention to the extent to which I allow myself to be motivated and/or demotivated by fear. One conclusion I’ve come to in the process is that if we are allowing this to happen then it is a sign that we are not fully in touch with our values. I guess this is something you would basically agree with. Nevertheless I’m not willing to see fear as the “enemy” in quite the way you seem to. In fact, to some extent I see it as something to be embraced. Another way to avoid fear is to create a very safe and stable routine for oneself, but the danger with that is that one misses out on a lot of life’s pleasures.

    Perhaps in conclusion we should rephrase FDR: there is nothing to fear, NOT EVEN fear itself.

    Peace,
    Peter

  46. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Fear and its opposite, love are the 2 most powerful emotions in the human psyche. Every seemingly negative behavior and be traced to fear and positive behavior traced to love.

    I agree that fear is fundamental, in fact I would say that fear is at the root of almost all less than ideal behavior. If one wishes to restrict another’s actions due to aesthetics (I find the diphthongmatic spelling of aesthetics more aesthetically pleasing to the eye than esthetics) then one needs to examine why one would need to codify a proscription that forcibly spurns the “de gustibus non est disputandum” dictum rather than ignoring the offensive (to them) behavior or removing oneself from it. Anger at behaviors that offend one’s sensibilities (excluding those which contravene UM) are all due to fear – anger at what or whoever we have created to provoke a fear response.

    If one is brought up with ideas that engender fear (such as racial or religious prejudice) then they were raised in an environment of fear. One may embrace fear (such as extreme activity enthusiasts) in order to feel more alive and if one attempts to create the “safe” and stable routine from the fear of fear, that is the warning message of FDR’s famous quote.

    I’ll list some of the common concepts that are fear based, starting with the 7 deadly sins:

    Greed – fear that one can not acquire enough wealth despite sufficiency or fear that someone will take what one has away.

    Wrath – fear that one has been gravely wronged.

    Sloth – fear that one’s efforts are not worth the trouble.

    Pride – fear that one won’t the get external approval he believes he deserves.

    Lust – fear that one won’t get what one desires.

    Envy – fear that one is not as fortunate as another.

    Gluttony – fear that one won’t acquire enough sustenance.

    Utilitarianism – fear that the good of the many will be sacrificed for the benefit of the few.

    Most of the institutions in modern society exist due to fear. We fear our wealth is vulnerable so we lock it in banks and lock our doors. We buy insurance because we fear that bad events will happen so we pay indulgences that we might win when we lose. We amass armies because we fear that we will have our countries usurped by others. We gravitate toward religion because we fear that without moral guidance we will risk pissing off God or that we will not be rewarded with eternal life or be regarded as less upright. We inoculate ourselves because we don’t trust our body’s ability to maintain health and are afraid illness will be thrust upon us if we don’t take steps to prevent it. We are prejudiced out of fear against those who think, look or act beyond our norm. The reason many people are anti homosexuality is that they fear they may have homosexual leanings – our psyches are composed of both male and female aspects so that we may empathize regardless of gender. The law exists because we fear our fellow humans (this is rooted in self fear). In alternate realities human beings were sacrificed out of fear that the gods would mete out punishment if the gods were not given tributes of value. Cain reputedly killed Abel out of fear that Abel’s meat was more pleasing to God than his produce. Most of human history and its trappings can be attributed to the impetus of fear and love. If one analyzes his own or someone’s less than ideal behaviors, it is easy to see that the behavior is rooted in fear.

    Those who insist on control are afraid of losing it. You appear to believe that fear is a survival mechanism and it may be before one is cognizant of the laws of physics and reasons that things function as they do. Once one has the knowledge to understand the ramifications of living in physical reality one need not fear and indeed fear is what causes most of the events that we would term negative. I stated earlier that there are 3 choices as to how reality is obliged to behave (4 if one combines parts of the 3): God is in control, no one is in control, or that each of us is in control – there is no other possibility. I choose to believe that each of us controls our experience so to again paraphrase FDR: We have nothing to fear but ourselves – conquer the fear of self and fear will no longer be a motivator and love will reign supreme. I admit that I am still working on squelching the fear that I will not create my best self at all times and that I am vain enough to still care how I am created by others and fear that my ideas will be misconstrued (as Hank P. did), but that is why I’m still in physical reality to work on understanding its nature and to exist harmoniously with all. It’s a living empiricism and thus far I’m satisfied.

    This is not as coherent as I’d like due to time constraints but I wanted to fulfill my promise. If you haven’t guessed my utopian ideal yet (I still bet you have a good idea as to its content), I’ll try to post something next week.

    Peace,

    Burt

  47. peterwicks says:

    Thanks Burt.

    I don’t agree that fear and love are opposites. The opposite of fear is basically the absence of fear. (It’s not even courage, because to be truly courageous you have to be afraid: courage is doing what you believe you should be doing despite the fact that you are scared. If you’re not scared it’s not really courage in my view.) The opposite of love, at least in my vocabulary, is hatred.

    This being the case, I also don’t agree that if we conquer the fear of self, and thus eliminate fear as a motivator, that love will necessarily “reign supreme”. One way to eliminate fear is of course to kill yourself, but of course that would not make love reign supreme. It strikes me as a more promising strategy to nurture a loving attitude (e.g. through loving-kindness meditation) than to focus on eliminating fear itself, despite the pervasive role that fear indeed plays in motivating “less than ideal behaviour”.

    I can’t resist adding another item to your list of “common concepts that are fear based”, namely “opposition to utilitarianism: fear that the good of the few will be sacrificed for the sake of the benefit of the many”.

    I’m curious to know more about how you are striving to squelch the fear that you will not create your best self at all times. My experience of life so far tells me that whenever one sets oneself a clear goal, one will inevitably develop a fear of failure in relation to that goal. The way I understand this working is that commitment to a goal alters the way our brains process information, and in particular what we perceive as an opportunity and what we perceive as a threat. This is something that happens primarily unconciously, and when we do perceive a threat the fear response is triggered.

    A particular problem with UM, if your goal is to abolish fear, is that it is so demanding that there will always be a danger that you will fall short, so threats are essentially everywhere. What I think you are probably experiencing is that you have so trained yourself to avoid such dangers that you no longer fear them to a significant extent: they no longer present genuine threats to you. The expression “water off a duck’s back” springs to mind. In which case I guess I’ve answered my own question: your strategy for squelching fear is to continue training yourself to practise UM, spotting any deviations (for example the brief concern you felt when I “outed” you on IEET) and drawing appropriate conclusions.

    My goal, as you know, is not to practise UM, even though there’s a lot I like about it. My goal is to try to define, in common with others, and then help create, a utopic future, hence my recent post on the subject. Indeed I can guess (indeed you’ve already told me, haven’t you?) your utopian ideal: it’s a world where everyone practises UM. But there are many ways to achieve this: we can, for example, practise UM in small communities or in large, buzzing metropolises. Any preference?

    Peter

  48. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Love is the only emotion that is stronger than fear. Hatred is negative love, it’s the same emotion but inverted – if one hates someone it’s because they love their idealized version (the version one created) of that person who fell far short of their (the hater’s) ideals. I don’t put much stock in fMRI neurobiology but neurobio investigators report that Love and Hate activate the exact same regions of the brain.

    I also don’t agree that if we conquer the fear of self, and thus eliminate fear as a motivator, that love will necessarily “reign supreme”.

    If fear is gone, love may not engage someone – there are many who are acquainted with the concept or have their own particular idea about what love is.

    One way to eliminate fear is of course to kill yourself,

    To be or not to be…perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub – for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    must give us pause – evidently Hamlet thought otherwise.

    I can’t resist adding another item to your list of “common concepts that are fear based”, namely “opposition to utilitarianism: fear that the good of the few will be sacrificed for the sake of the benefit of the many”.

    It’s not fear except in the abstract – it’s been tried and found wanting – doing “a little” killing or usurping so that many benefit is immoral, less than ideal, and unenlightened. Those who create utilitarianistic events do so for their own purposes to learn lessons just as those who espouse it do.

    There is always a niggling doubt or second guessing that goes with taking decisions. I am human and many times don’t live up to UM or what I would term my best self. It is a goal to be as good as I can be but it is only a target and one falls short of the bull’s-eye from time to time. Threats are always learning opportunities but threats seldom present if one is balanced. The fear response is muted if one is not in need of a major correction.

    UM is not what abolishes fear and it is not particularly demanding – it may not come naturally to most but with practice it’s fairly simple except when expediency (utilitarianism) rears it’s head. I haven’t trained myself to avoid danger, I live what many would consider a profligate and reckless life – it’s that I believe that I won’t create a traumatic situation unless I need to and I haven’t lately and that is what frees me from fear.

    BTW: You haven’t surmised my utopian vision yet. Care to try again? UM is a credo and a set of ideals that if followed I believe the followers will be model citizens of the world. Its admonitions and proscriptions are guidelines of ideal behavior and until one has an awareness of how each of us is interrelated and how we affect each other and our environment it will perhaps seem to be unrealistic and superfluous. Some might find it “Dangerous” I will be on vacation until Thursday and will try to lay out the fallacy of utopia when I return.

    Peace,

    Burt

  49. peterwicks says:

    Thanks Burt.

    Now I’m getting curious about your “profligate and reckless” lifestyle! 🙂

    I wonder why you don’t put much stock in fMRI neurobiology. In any case I found your comments about love and hatred fascinating: it rings true to me (and I DO put much stock in fMRI neurobiology: nothing like a bit of empirical evidence).

    Don’t you think Shakespeare’s Hamlet was just expressing our natural fear of death, which of course has its roots in evolutionary psychology (we wouldn’t be here if our ancestors had been jumping off cliffs right, left and centre).

    I think we’re saying similar things, perhaps using different language, when discussing your practical experience with UM. Indeed it doesn’t abolish fear, but the more you train yourself to follow its precepts, and the more emotionally invested you become in doing so, the more your experience of fear becomes correlated with the extent to which you find yourself in need of “major correction”. By the way, what is your motivation for leading a “profligate and reckless life”. Is that part of your effort to obey UM, or do you have some other motivation? The kind of “dangers” I was referring to were of course temptations to stay from UM, not dangers in the sense of “you might get hurt” (though the two are of course likely to go together).

    OK here’s another attempt to surmise your stance on utopia. Since we create our own reality, there is really no need to pay attention to causal relationships in the (imagined) external world. There is no time, there is no future. Utopia is an ideal state of affairs – but I would still guess that everyone is practising UM, no? – and the ONLY way to move towards such a ideal is to practise it, directly. The utilitarian/utopian fallacy is then the belief that we can actually “steer” our way towards our vision of a “better world” by understanding causal relationships in the external world and acting, sometimes in non-ideal ways, in such a way as to bring about those visions.

    And perhaps you’re right: perhaps I’m just addicted to violence (I killed a moth the other day) and the pursuit of future-oriented goals. It’s kind of fun, though…

  50. Burt says:

    Peter,

    I didn’t say I had a profligate and reckless lifestyle, I said many would say that I do, I consider my lifestyle a mirror of my beliefs. Again it has nothing to do with UM which is just an idealistic set of values. It is because I believe that I am responsible for everything in my reality and I have confidence that I would not create undesirable circumstances unless I am in need of a psychic adjustment. Others would not behave as I do primarily out of fear.

    fMRI is only good for determining blood flow in activated portions of the brain. Any inferences by the interpreters of the data are guesses at best and totally mistaken at worst. There is extremely little empiricism in beyond spotting centers of activity.
    Hamlet AFAIK was afraid of the after death experience, not death itself. Evolution as described in the Modern Synthesis is nothing more than a “just so story” (as is creationism). If one wishes to see confirmation bias in the extreme, look no farther than Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, or for that matter prolly 98% of biologists.

    I’m not afraid of transgressing UM – I usually feel that I have not acted in a way consistent with my best self but it’s a good teaching opportunity for myself and the others involved.

    Again UM has nothing to do with utopia – it’s a moral baseline against which other pretenses to morality are relative.
    I doubt that you are addicted to violence, killing moths rather than capture and release is just an example of expediency and where did I opine that you were addicted to violence? You are not opposed to violence to be sure (more’s the pity) but I have an idea that my Peter will one day see the futility of violence to end violence.

    I’m sorry; you’ll have to wait for the Utopic reveal.

    Peace,

    Burt

  51. peterwicks says:

    Thanks Burt.

    I take your point about fMRI: this kind of thing needs to be treated with a great deal of caution. On the other hand, weak empirical evidence is better than no evidence at all, and I think this comment also applies to your assertion that evolution, as described in what you call the “modern synthesis”, is nothing more than a “just so story”, with the apparent implication that it is thus to be regarded on the same footing as creationism. I don’t think that Dawkins et al are displaying extreme confirmation bias: I think they are mainly just angry. There is a difference between accepting that whatever I think may be wrong, and claiming that evidence is irrelevant. I’m not saying that the latter is what you are doing, but I do have the impression that you have such a strong emotional attachment to (certain of) your beliefs that it is difficult to see what kind of “evidence” or information would actually cause you to change your mind. The same cannot, in my opinion, be said for Dawkins et al.

    On the futility of violence to end violence: I think you realise that it is only in a very limited sense that I believe that one should be prepared to use violence to end violence. History is replete with examples of this idea being taken too far, and/or being used to justify deeds that in hindsight appear to most people to have had negative consequences. What I am not willing to do, however, is to ditch the idea altogether. I believe it is important to imagine both utopian and dystopian futures, and take steps to avoid the latter. Sometimes that involves violence.

  52. Burt says:

    Peter,

    Weak empirical evidence is just that – weak and they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – imagine a society armed with fMRI data to prosecute “thought crimes”.

    Regarding evolution – it is on the same “just so” footing as creationism – there is no empirical evidence for either explanation. There are only 2.5 explanations as to the diversity of life currently en vogue – Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design (which is creationism in sheep’s clothing) and scientists choose the sciency story because it makes sense to them – it’s believable if one doesn’t examine the details too closely (and it’s scientific suicide to question the dogma) even though there is only a priori evidence for anything other than microevolution which is properly described as adaptation by mutation and genetic drift. Trillions of generations of e. coli and none has evolved into anything beyond chemical resistant e. coli. There are no examples of any intermediate forms from bacteria to humans – in fact if evolution operates as purported, it would highly improbable that intermediates could survive long enough to find other similarly “evolved” organisms with which to mate and pass on the beneficial mutations.

    If TOE were as advertized there should be a continuum of speciation from bacteria to humans with many examples of in-between stages observed regularly with at least some fossils of transitioning creatures over the 4 billion years but they have never been found. I haven’t got an answer for the diversity we see today other than conscious manifestation.

    I did an off the cuff calculation after hearing that 99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct.

    Current estimates of extant species: 2-100 million = 1%
    Estimates of all species ever living: 2 Million=1% so 100%=200 Million species, 100 Million = 1% 100% =9.9 Billion species.

    So the estimates of all species ever = 200 Million at the low end to 9.9 Billion at the high end

    Age of the Earth 4.5 Billion Years, Life estimated to have begun at 3.5 Billion years.

    To achieve the low estimate 1.1 new species had to manifest every 25 years from the beginning to now.

    To achieve the high estimate 2.2 new species had to manifest every year from the beginning to now.

    I find this statistically improbable especially as there have been 5 great extinctions with another on the way and most extant species needed to create themselves anew each time and almost NO new species has been observed to have emerged or is currently emerging.

    The new atheists are as dogmatic about their beliefs as are the creationists and just as misguided, if they are angry, then it is due to being afraid that their house of cards will come tumbling down. The only evidence that they would accept as contravening is finding a fossil in strata that was deemed too old for that particular fossil – then they say it’s an anomaly and discount its importance. They have “faith” that given eons all things change and become more complex, after all, look at us. This is akin to the old chestnut that 1oo monkeys randomly typing for eternity will produce the entire works of Shakespeare (as well as all human literary endeavors) verbatim at some point. Time is non-existent – history began when you were born and it will end when you die, everything beyond your primary reality is imaginary.

    My emotional attachment to my beliefs not withstanding, I am open to “actual” evidence of any kind that contravenes or refines my stances. Much evidence adduced is fallacious and bears rigorous questioning. As I have stated before the only challenge so far to this belief system is for someone to say: “I don’t believe it” which is hardly adequate to chuck it. I’m betting my existence on the principle that everyone is responsible for everything in their experience but would love to change my mind by being presented with a more compelling narrative.

    What I am not willing to do, however, is to ditch the idea altogether. I believe it is important to imagine both utopian and dystopian futures, and take steps to avoid the latter. Sometimes that involves violence.

    As long as one person believes that a little violence will achieve a lot of peace, that person will never know peace. Utopia and dystopia are not in the future, they are in your mind now. There is only your personal dystopia and utopia and what you focus upon is what you will experience.

    Peace,

    Burt

  53. Peter Wicks says:

    Thanks Burt. Not quite sure what to make of your refutation of evolution. I’ve heard such refutations before, but I’ve never taken them very seriously. I don’t think Dawkins et al are angry because they think their house of cards is about to fall. They may be angry for all sorts of reasons, and I agree that from a psychological point of view it has much in common with that of any fundamentalist who hates it when people disagree with their treasured theories, but I still have the impression that evidence is on their side, otherwise I wouldn’t believe those same theories myself.

    I’ll agree with you on one point: whatever you choose to believe, it is a choice, and one that therefore requires faith. Whether it’s faith in the idea that we’ve had eons in which to evolve, or faith in the idea that time is nonexistent, it’s in any case faith.

    Over the course of the next few days I intend to consider what kind of “evidence” would cause me to seriously doubt the theory of evolution; I encourage you also to consider what would for you constitute “actual” evidence that would cause you to question your own beliefs. This does not have to amount to a compelling narrative (I’m taking it as given that you don’t find the theory of evolution compelling): it could just be an anomaly serious enough to make you think, “Hang on, there must be something wrong with my theory.” I think anyone who claims to be open-minded must be prepared to engage in this kind of imaginative exercise (which is why I’ve set myself the same challenge with regard to evolution).

  54. Marn says:

    Jeepers,

    I can’t believe you guys write 1000’s of words in your own time mindblowing. interesting though, i’m researching for a debate on pro utilitarianism, struggling a tad.

    • Burt says:

      Marn,

      If you need to take the pro Utilitarian side in the debate, I’m sure Peter would be able to acquaint you with his rationale (which he defends doggedly and cogently – as you can see) and point you to the more compelling views of J.S. Mill and J. Bentham (whom I pointed out in my first comment as being enlightened for their time – a time in which apparently they believed there were only less than ideal means to achieve their desired ends – ironically their written words are the ideal means to their ends even though those words exhort the disenfranchising of the few in favor of the many – which is a strictly democratic, majority rule idea. Mill was in fear (rightfully) of the Tyranny of the Majority and sought to mitigate the effect with a rules based (namby-pamby as one could break the rules if it would justify the means). In its American incarnation the rules were intended to be enforced by the Constitution (also with a means to override the rules by amendment) to obviate (in theory) the Tyranny of the Majority with the SCOTUS to be the rules referee (we can see how that has worked over the years). So we see in principle that with the exception of a few autocrats, the world basically runs on utilitarian precepts as defined by those in power. The rules based utilitarianism of the western democracies is probably as close to a stable quasi-equitable system of government as most human beings can accept but that doesn’t make it ideal and as you also can see I reject it as immoral in principle.

      Peace,

      Burt

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