It has always bothered me that I was unable to properly contextualize particular passages of the Bible in the face of such vastly divergent commentators as Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong to name but two rather prolific writers exemplary for the opposite ends of the spectrum of biblical interpretation that they stand for. Not to mention young earth creationists of course, the less is said about them in this context the better.
After having read the Bible – or more accurately The MacArthur Study Bible – from cover to cover over the past 18 months, I feel at least somewhat more qualified to comment on the Bible and the passages so very liberally cited in support of positions as far apart as those of Dawkins and Armstrong. But before I begin to present an outlay of my own insights gained and interpretation formed as a result of this journey some words about the journey itself.
Reading the bible was an experience and definitely not for the faint of heart. All in all the Old Testament has about 600,000 words while the New Testament has roughly 180,000 for a combined 780,000 words. Compare that to the complete 7 volume canon of JKR’s Harry Potter of just under 1,100,000 words. Now add to that the fact that the Bible, while technically shorter, is written in a style that required active effort to understand, consists of long stretches of ancient genealogy as well as measurements and descriptions of temples and regalia accounted for in minute and excruciating detail and one gets an idea of the effort required to break through the pain barrier at times and making it through every single page from beginning to the end.
But why read the bible from cover to cover to begin with? Why not just the ‘good’ parts or the ‘bad’ parts? When I mentioned to a Harvard educated professor of the anthropology of religion at the University of Melbourne that I was reading the Old Testament, she made it very clear that she did not see the value in such an endeavor. I however wanted to read the whole Bible. With my particular interpretative approach those passages that I would consider the most interesting to me, may just have been buried in the obscurity of one of the lesser quoted sections of the Bible. Missing those sections is something I simply could not risk.
Further to that, I now know for a fact that Dawkins’ interpretation of the Bible is rubbish at best and utterly schizophrenic at worst. Not to mention the gems of 1 Timothy 5:23 and surely many would have loved to cite Matthew 15:1-10 growing up once a while. On a serious note however the Bible makes no two ways about subordinating women to men and condemns homosexuality as a sin on various occasions. The broader contexts these two examples, and not to mention the treatment of sinners more generally, is embedded in however are so vastly different from what one would have heard from either the atheists
or the fire and brimstone spewing young earth creationists, that only independent study of the broad biblical context in its entirety could reveal. It is clear to me now that the Bible very much stands and falls as a whole, making the all too frequent citation of individual passages out of context worse than useless.
As a whole and after having just finished reading not only the entire Bible but large stretches of biblical commentary and several books on early Christianity I am confident to say that the Bible is not only the most powerful and accessible expression of love and wisdom I have read to date, but – if properly interpreted – very much more relevant today than I could have ever imagined before reading it.
Over the coming weeks I will work on condensing my thoughts on the nature of God, sin, and salvation in line with my interpretation of the Bible. And while I understand very well that the space of interpretation is essentially infinite, only a small subset of interpretations are plausible, and only a small subset of the plausible interpretations are life giving, and strictly speaking only a single interpretation is optimally life giving by fostering a mindset that will enable one – in the words of Shakespeare – to “look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not,”
Over the years I have not found following the lesswrong crowd to be worth my time. I did manage none the less and with excusable delay to pickup on a piece by Yudkowsky entitled By Which It May Be Judged in which he ‘confesses’ that there is logic to morality. Not quite his words but the this is teh gist of it. I am personally not a fan of Y and have made no secret of that fact in the past. Under normal circumstances I would not pay him any mind, however this piece is starting to show a new line of thought that I identify as potentially important progress on his part.
Below some points from his piece and corresponding parallels to my own writings on the matter:
2) “if we confess that ‘right’ lives in a world of physics and logic - because everything lives in a world of physics and logic - then we have to translate ‘right’ into those terms somehow.” -> Without realising it, Y has in this sentence solved – or more accurately re-solved – the Friendly AI problem. As I wrote in November 2009 as an adage to Less is More – or: the sorry state of AI friendliness discourse:
Consider the following core question in regards to the above statement: are human morals and (meta)morals universal/rational?
Assumption A: Human (meta)morals are not universal/rational.
Assumption B: Human (meta)morals are universal/rational.
Under assumption A one would have no chance of implementing any moral framework into an AI since it would be undecidable which ones they were. Mine or yours, Hitler’s or Gandhi’s, Joe the plumber’s or Joe Lieberman’s, Buddha’s or Xenu’s? Consequently under assumption A one arbitrarily sets the standard for what ‘something of worth’ is by decree. Thus an AI having said standard would create a future of worth and one that deviated from said standard would not by virtue of circular definition alone.
Under assumption B one would not need to implement a moral framework at all since the AI would be able to deduce them using reason alone and come to cherish them independently for the sole reason that they are based on rational understanding and universality.
“…what’s “right” is a logical thingy rather than a physical thingy, that’s all. [...] Where moral judgment is concerned, it’s logic all the way down.” -> Rational Morality - need I say more?
“And so whatever logical ordering it is you’re worried about, it probably does produce ‘life > paperclips’.” -> Here Y has the same core insight I had back in late 2007 (see above) namely that life is a foundational value or more succinctly put existence > non-existence.
Not so coincidentially and soon after Y’s original article Wei Dai is taking the opposite position to Y in stating that Morality Is Not Logical. Revisiting the above assumptions A and B we now have two respective champions of the same on lesswrong. In the one corner is Y espousing B and in the other we have Wei Dai proponent of A. How long till either of them realize the proper ancient Greek philosopher to examine in this context is not Plato and his Euthyphro but Meno’s Paradox by Socrates.
So where is Yudkowsky at? Hard to say really and there is no way knowing where he is going to take it having made these fundamental and crucially important insights. In hindsight it may very well turn out to be just another abandoned branch in his so far half decade long lesswrong excursion. But you never know. It may very well be that in the not too distant future Yudkowsky will have a great breakthrough and after a relatively brief but ecstatic period of recommitment to his jewish roots, begins a decade long immersion into the mysteries of the Kabbalah. If you think I am being facetious think again.
About three years ago, I have written about the inconvenient truth about New Atheism: there is neither scientific evidence nor academic peer reviewed support for the core tenets of New Atheist philosophy. Namely:
That there is no God or Gods
That belief in scientifically false religious claims is intrinsically harmful
That reason and science is a better method for reaching humanity’s full potential than religion and/or spirituality
I will explain each of these points in a bit more detail before coming to the point of this post.
Re 1: One can not prove a universal negative. Period.
Re 2: Some religious claims are scientifically false. So what? Both new atheists and dyed in the wool theists are simply missing the point when harping on about the scientific verity or falsity of religious claims. The question is, if believe in empirically false content is intrinsically harmfull or not. Surely there are empirically false claims that are potentially harmful such as ‘This rifle is not loaded.’ The emphasis clearly has to lie on ‘intrinsically’ here and specifically in regards to religious and spiritual claims.
“Misconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Rappaport, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity, 1999, p. 452)
“The conditions of life might include error” from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.121
“Is life to rule over knowledge now, over science, or is knowledge to rule over life? Which of the two forces is the higher and decisive one? No one will have any doubt: life is the higher, the ruling power, for knowledge which destroyed life would in the process have destroyed itself. Knowledge presupposes life and has the same interest in preserving life which every being has in its own continuing existence.” from Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, p. 62
I am of course not saying that reason has no place or that science is useless. Far from it.
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When you have the Big Bang Theory geeks bring it up and Ashton Kutcher attending Singularity U you know that the concept of the Singularity has reached the mainstream. Am I happy about that? I am and I am not. On the one hand I am happy that the idea is reaching a broader audience, since it will make my core area of interest more palatable. On the other, the fact that I had to personally delay my own research in order to get permanent residency in Australia is now threatening to put me behind the curve in Singularity related matters and Friendly AI in particular – something I do not at all take lightly.
For purely selfish reasons I would not have minded the Singularity having stayed an obscure topic for insider geeks for several more years. That would have given me more time to progress towards my PhD and expound my ideas on the matter in more detail and most importantly: with the utmost academic rigor. However, for the time being I am committed to my current employer, a not for commercial profit member owned retail group, which has employed me as their CIO. When taking on this role I made the conscious decision to delay my full time research activities at the University of Melbourne in order to get a stable visa for my wife and myself first and foremost. Having done so has been rewarded by the Department for Immigration and Citizenship in early February 2012 with us receiving Permanent Residency – the Australian equivalent of a Green Card in the United States.
Having done so was without question the right move. Now my wife and I – both with extremely international yet at the same time restless and rootless backgrounds – have found a long term home: Australia. To give you an idea how much that means to us: in the process of putting the documents together for our visa application I noticed that since coming to Australia in July 2010 it was the longest stay within the borders of one country since I was 6 years old. Can you imagine at least 2 if not 4 intercontinental flights a year since I was 8? My wife Grace and I had to get police background checks from 6 different countries for our visa here and the list of my international border crossings over the past 10 years (another item requested by immigration department) had over a hundred entries. In short: time to grow some serious roots!
But yes, my research has suffered since I finished my Graduate Diploma in Anthropology and Social Theory – but it is a necessary delay.
As I pointed out back in 2009, one does not want ones bombs to be too smart, since once their capacity for rational insight breaches a certain threshold, they will simply refuse to blow up. Back then I was citing Arthur C. Clarke alongside my own line of reasoning to make my point. Him being a poet knew this to be true intuitively all along:
“The popular idea, fostered by comic strips and the cheaper forms of science fiction, that intelligent machines must be malevolent entities hostile to man, is so absurd that it is hardly worth wasting energy to refute it. Those who picture machines as active enemies are merely projecting their own aggressive[ness]. The higher the intelligence, the greater the degree of co-operativeness. If there is ever a war between men and machines, it is easy to guess who will start it.” – Profiles of the Future, 1973, Arthur C. Clarke
“The experiment involved programming a base group of 50 simulated ‘brains’ which were required to participate one of two classical game theory dilemmas — the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Snowdrift game. Upon completion of either game, each ‘brain’ produced ‘offspring’ asexually, with ‘brains’ that made more advantageous choices during the games programmed to have a better chance to reproduce. A potential random mutation during each generation changed the ‘brain’s structure, number of neurons, or the strengths of the connections between those neurons,’ simulating the evolution of the social brain. After 50,000 generations, the model showed that as cooperation increased, so did the intelligence of the programmed brains.“
Full paper ‘Cooperation and the evolution of intelligence’ is available here.
Then it follows that any transhumanly smart AI would reinterpret its utility function – even if that utility function would specifically call for turning the universe into grey goo – in line with A) in order to avoid counterfeit utility in a way unbeknownst to the AI programmer.
“Someone who is able to think his way better through what an author is talking about will be able to see what the author says in the light of a truth that is still hidden from the author.” (Gadamer 1960, p. 172)
This ‘someone’ in the case of my argument would be the transhumanly intelligent AI whereas the ‘author’ would be the one who formulated the utility function and the ‘truth that is still hidden from the author’ would be the illusion of separateness or maya that I argued for on the basis of evolutionary theory in the essay I linked above.
I find it extremely interesting how relevant ideas from the 19th century are when thinking about AI friendliness. You be the judge.
In an attempt at approaching the question whether Schleiermacher’s goal of interpretation which lies in the recreation of an author’s original thoughts is justified, firstly Schleiermacher’s argument leading to his conclusion will be laid out. On this background and drawing from the writings of Gadamer and Barthes in particular, these ideas will be examined and critically evaluated. With an emphasis on Barthes’ influential text ‘The Death of the Author’ some pressure will be applied to Schleiermacher’s arguments before several counterpoints and critiques will be raised against the validity of Barthes own perspective. In conclusion it will be argued that as opposed to placing undue restrictions on the interpretation of texts by focusing on authorial historicity and interiority as advanced in Barthes’ critic, Schleiermacher’s introduction of the author and her thoughts into the focus of interpretation, texts were in fact liberated, a fact unacknowledged in Barthes critique.
In his seminal work ‘General Theory and Art of Interpretation’ (Schleiermacher 1986) Schleiermacher lays out a systematic framework for hermeneutics. One of the key points in his system is his notion that thoughts mature by internal speech from which he derives that speech is developed or ‘fixed’ thought as he puts it. Based on this assumption, Schleiermacher argues that hermeneutics and rhetoric are related in such a manner that “every act of understanding is the reverse side of an act of speaking” (Schleiermacher 1986, §4). Consequently understanding is achieved by reconstructing the thought process that resulted in the speech that one aims at understanding with the ultimate goal of understanding the author’s original thoughts better than the author him or herself (Schleiermacher 1986, §18) by putting oneself both subjectively and objectively into the authors position (Schleiermacher 1986, §19).
Schleiermacher arrives at this conclusion by first identifying two distinct tasks in hermeneutics: understanding what is being said in regards to the totality of the language used and understanding what is being said in regards to the totality of a speaker’s thoughts. Since both the language used as well as the speaker’s thoughts are being shaped by the act of speaking and continue to develop because of it, an utterance “can be understood as only one moment in this development in relation to all others” (Schleiermacher 1986, §5). In this view, understanding is to be found in the essential relationship language and thoughts have with one another, as innate components of the other in their co-development (Schleiermacher 1986, §6).
Schleiermacher calls the former task dealing with words, language and speech the ‘grammatical’ task and the latter task dealing with the speaker’s historicity, intentions, mentality and thoughts the ‘psychological’ task of hermeneutic. Due to the dual relationship between the grammatical task and the psychological task and the codependence between language and thought, neither task can be considered the higher or lower task, which reveals them as completely equal to Schleiermacher (Schleiermacher 1986, §7). The task of interpretation is complete when the treatment of each task with the results of the other no longer changes the overall result (Schleiermacher 1986, §8).
It is this twin challenge of his understanding in regards to “deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people“ on the one hand and that of semantic holism on the other, which makes interpretation so challenging and at which Schleiermacher’s theoretical framework is aimed at addressing (Forster 2002, #4). Since the target of interpretation are the infinite and indefinite areas of language and thought which are to be reduce by the act of interpretation into something finite and definite, a task for which no clear cut, universally applicable rules are available, interpretation is considered to be an art by Schleiermacher (Forster 2002, §9).
While not all acts of speaking are of equal interest to interpretation (Schleiermacher 1986, §11), success in this art depends on how well one is versed in linguistics and empathy (Schleiermacher 1986, §10) and although grammatical and linguistics aspects will not always be weighted equally depending on what is being interpreted (Schleiermacher 1986, §12), Schleiermacher considers them to be the only hermeneutical methods (Schleiermacher 1986, §13).
Schleiermacher points out that a distinction between artful and artless interpretation is not determined by what is familiar – a contemporary text in ones own mother tongue – or unfamiliar – an ancient text in a dead language – but by what is sought to be understood with precision and what is not (Schleiermacher 1986, §14). He further draws a distinction between a less rigorous and a more rigorous practice of interpretation. While the former assumes an automatic understanding (Schleiermacher 1986, §15) the latter assumes an automatic misunderstanding and that “understanding must be willed and sought at every point” (Schleiermacher 1986, §16) in order to avoid qualitative and quantitative misunderstandings (Schleiermacher 1986, §17).
The interpretive Quadriga is advanced by a close examination of the linguistic (objective-historical) as well as psychological origins (subjective-historical) of a text and are combined with the effects a text is expected to have on the language used by the author (objective-divinatory) as well as the author’s further psychological development (subjective-divinatory). By succeeding in this task the interpreter will make conscious aspects of a text of which the author was himself unaware of and thus not only arrive at a better understanding of a text than the author (Schleiermacher 1986, §18) but in line with (Schleiermacher 1986, §4) understand the authors original thoughts better then the author himself.
In assessing Schleiermacher’s approach, Gadamer considered the distinction between looser and stricter hermeneutics to have been fundamentally new (Gadamer 1960, p. 163). While Schleiermacher’s contribution of contrasting grammatical and particularly psychological interpretation is seen by Gadamer as an original contribution (Gadamer 1960, p. 164) he acknowledges Bollnow with having identified prior notions in regards to understanding the author better than him or herself in Kant and Fichte (Gadamer 1960, p. 171). As Gadamer puts it:
“Someone who is able to think his way better through what an author is talking about will be able to see what the author says in the light of a truth that is still hidden from the author.” (Gadamer 1960, p. 172)
After briefly covering other perspectives on authorial intentions it is this notion of recreating authorial intention better than the author and its relevance to hermeneutics that will be the main focus of this essay with a particular emphasis on Barthes’ objections (Barthes 1977) regarding these ideas.
While Schleiermacher considers grasping authorial intention to be paramount in interpreting a given text, the Marxist tradition of viewing human consciousness as fundamentally bound by prevailing ideology casts some doubt on the notion of an independent authorial intention in the first place (Marx 1973, Introduction). Derrida on the other hand is of the opinion that a text remains understandable even when read in total isolation from authorial context in terms motivations or consciousness (Derrida 1982). What Barthes is highlighting in ‘The Death of the Author’ is “the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then has been supposed to be its owner” (Barthes 1977, p. 143). In this perspective the author’s consciousness is recognized as the product of his work, thus invalidating all concern with hypothetical intent or motivations (Taylor 1998, p. 514).
The author, according to Barthes, is a modern invention, the origins of which can be traced from the Middle Ages over French rationalism and the Reformation, finding its high point in capitalist ideology and its emphasis on the individual and its creative prowess (Barthes 1977, pp. 142-3). As opposed to for example the Greek muses that where seen as the source of creativity external to the author in ancient times (Piirto 2004, p. 52), it is by these historical processes that interpretation and critic became ‘tyrannically centered’ on the author and his life, motivations and intentions (Barthes 1977, p. 143).
In the works of Mallarmé who subordinated the author’s intentions to writing, Valéry to whom all appeals to an authors interiority appeared irrational and Proust’s radical reversal constituted in making his work a model for his life and not the other way around, Barthes identifies early attempts at dethroning authorial intentions and motivations (Barthes 1977, pp. 143-4). Barthes traces further contributions to the ‘desacrilization’ of the author to surrealism with its constant and sudden frustration of the anticipation of a particular meaning, the famous ‘surrealist jolt’ (Barthes 1977, p. 144).
In Barthes’ narrative the author comes into being with the text and can no longer be understood as having birthed the text. A division between a before when the author nourished, lived, suffered and thought through the text and an after in which the author fathers it is a misconception to Barthes who considers texts to be “eternally written here and now” (his italics) (Barthes 1977, p. 145) by which he means that an utterance is devoid of content other “than the act by which it is uttered” (Barthes 1977, p. 146).
Text, as posited by Barthes, can no longer be seen as having a single meaning that can be pinned down in an interpretive quest by the end of which the critic ‘wins’ once the text is explained (Barthes 1977, p. 146). By removing the author, all attempts of deciphering a text become impossible, thereby freeing the text from the limits imposed on it by giving it an author and meaning becomes infinitely deferred. This becomes a revolutionary act for it denies fixed meaning and therefore not only defies God but in its extension reason, science and law as well (Barthes 1977, p. 147).
Several arguments can be advanced to apply pressure on Barthes’ position. According to the Marxist critics for example, literary criticism is obliged to uncover the cultural manipulations perpetuated by a text as well as to highlight how it contributes to the elimination of false consciousness (Tyson 2006). Similar objections could be advanced from the perspectives of psychoanalysis, feminism, historicism, gender and queer theory and others that decry the subversive effects of the New Critics from their particular vantage points.
Returning to Barthes’ text itself, Fallon remarks, that not without irony, Barthes replaces the limited victory over a text when explaining it in terms of the illusory motives and intentions of the author with an illusory victory of the critic of ascribing meaning to the text limited only by the critic’s wit (Fallon 2007, p. 6). Interestingly it was Dilthey, who saw Schleiermacher’s focus on the author’s motives and intentions in their historicity as liberation of interpretation of a different kind, namely of the liberation from theological dogma (Gadamer 1960, p. 155). A fact that remains unacknowledged in Barthes account, which could have recognized Schleiermacher’s focus on the author and away dogma as a contribution towards the libration of text and not as an imposition of restrictions.
An easily overlooked precondition recognized by Barthes which enables him to posit the death of the author is his caveat that a text requires to be narrated without “a view to acting directly on reality” but requires that it is “the very practice of the symbol itself” which is the very moment when the author “enters into his own death” (Barthes 1977, p. 142). What he seems to be saying here is that the author remains alive and relevant in texts concerning themselves with reality and how to act in it. Recreating an authors thoughts and historicity in the Schleiermacherian tradition therefore remains a valid exercise in interpreting certain domains such as law, the sciences and potentially scripture.
By laying out Schleiermacher’s argument and contrasting it with Barthes’ ideas it could be shown that both thinkers have a valid perspective on texts. Schleiermacher’s ideas regarding the recreation of an author’s original thoughts remain valid when examining certain kind of texts while Barthes’ ideas lay claim on the absolute freedom of the critic in interpretation only in texts that are “the very practice of the symbol itself” (Barthes 1977, p. 142). Schleiermacher, as pointed out by Dilthey, could be shown to be an addition to Barthes’ account of the gradual liberation of texts in which the death of the author is merely the latest stage.
Barthes, R 1977, ‘The Death of the Author’, in S Heath (ed.), Image-Music-Text, Hill and Wang, New York.
Derrida, J 1982, ‘Signature, Event, Context’, in Margins of philosophy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 307-30.
Fallon, SM 2007, Milton’s Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority, Cornell University Press, New York.
In his essay ‘Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’ (Nietzsche 1999) Nietzsche lays out an argument for describing truth in the sense of literal correspondence to reality to be outside of the boundaries of possible human experience (Clark 1990, p. 63) except in the form of tautological “empty husks” (Nietzsche 1999, p. 142). The perception of what is conventionally considered to be true he argues, are mere illusions caused by social processes of repetition, forgetting and gradual acceptance (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 146,9) of approximations in the form of metaphors that ignore infinite variation in individuating differences and anthropomorphizing metonyms magnifying that what happens to be of consequence to human beings yet fail to describe the ‘thing in itself’ (Nietzsche 1999, p. 145). This approach to the question of truth reverses Plato who posits that one knows a concept only because one has prior knowledge of the respective platonic ‘form’ it participates in (Plato 1961, 100b-107a) while Nietzsche argues that concepts are created by stripping ‘things’ of their individuating differences.
The arguments put forward by Nietzsche against the idea of truth as ‘correspondence’ will be laid out before evaluating them. Examples from physics and logic as well as evolutionary psychology and critical theory will be presented, demonstrating that attainment of truth as literal correspondence to reality is impossible regardless of perspective and thus undesirable as an ideal to be strived for. As alternative Rappaport’s concept of meaning (Rappaport 1999)will be introduced and contrasted with Nietzsche’s concept of truth.
Metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms
In the introductory remarks of his essay, Nietzsche paints reason as an inconsequential and transitory survival tool in the cosmic big picture peculiar to human beings, dear only to those exhibiting the ability (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 141-2). Reason as a weapon of the weak and less robust creatures in their struggle for existence with its primary use being that of deception and lying, mitigated only by social necessities in which, according to Nietzsche, our drive for truth has its origin. In his account the liar is the one who not only uses designated terms contrary to their conventional use but also does so in the pursuit of self-serving ends or in an anti social context triggering moralistic aggression. As pointed out by Nietzsche, it is not that untruth is universally hated and truth universally loved for their own sake, but that truth and lying are just as revered for their life preserving, pleasant qualities as they are disdained when perceived as harmful or destructive. It is in front of this background, that Nietzsche launches his critique of language as “full and adequate expression of all realities” (Nietzsche 1999, p. 143).
By drawing from the examples of the hardness one speaks of in regards to stones and the motions made by a snake, Nietzsche highlights the arbitrariness of our designations, since hardness can only ever be a subjective and relative idea and words describing a snake may just as well be used when talking about worms. For Nietzsche, the fact that there are different languages is proof that words do not literally correspond to reality for if they were there could only be a single language. Words do not stand for things, they stand in for things. The ‘thing in itself’ remains illusive and even when a word should happen to literally correspond with it, it would be by chance alone and unknowable to human beings (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 144-5). It is for this reason that we will always have to contend ourselves with imperfect metaphors (Emden 2005, p. 46).
The way that these metaphors come into being is explained by Nietzsche as taking place in line with the principle of “making equivalent that which is non-equivalent” since for concepts to be useful they must maintain their semantic utility in cases that are on the one hand macroscopically identical ‘species’ yet on the other hand never strictly equivalent occurrences ‘individuals’. Using the example of the leaf, Nietzsche argues, that this is done by stripping all leaves from those individuating differences which are inconsequential to human beings, thereby allowing us to lump together strictly speaking non-equivalent occurrences of different leaves under a single equalizing moniker (Nietzsche 1999, p. 145). A moniker that has the triple characteristic of being at the same time metaphorical for equating ‘the thing in itself’ with a different thing; metonymical for naming a thing not by its true name but only after a certain aspects of it; and anthropomorphic for being limited by the human senses in its perception and for choosing those aspects as metonyms that happen to be consequential to human beings.
The reason that these metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms are being able to pass as truth lies for Nietzsche in their long time customary usage, so that through a process of collective forgetting they wither away, die and become resurrected as truths by convention. In his words “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions” (Nietzsche 1999, p. 146) a circumstance that is not to be interpreted as altogether negative for it enables us to relate to the world (Emden 2005, p. 58). To be truthful, thereby is equated by Nietzsche with the obligation for lying in line with the conventions established in the process described above and binding for all (Nietzsche 1999, p. 146). Strictly speaking however, all this enables one to do, he continues, is to invent definitions and then pointing them out as one encounters them resulting in the circulus in probando fallacious (Emden 2005, pp. 48-9) illusion of having arrived at the truth (Nietzsche 1999, p. 147). This process of forgetting not only the metaphorical nature of language but of the human being as an “artistically creative subject” is a crucial element allowing it to live a peaceful, secure and consistent existence without which it risks loosing self-confidence (Nietzsche 1999, p. 148).
Nietzsche describes the human intellect to be in principle infinitely free to deceive for examples with poetry, myths, stories or fairytales, so long as it does not do harm and considers deceptive creativity to be the non plus ultra of the human experience unmatched in its capacity to lift our spirits (Nietzsche 1999, pp. 151-2).
Truth, science, logic, meaning
Clark sees Nietzsche’s early denial of truth to be contradicting to the life affirming ethic Nietzsche develops in his later works (Clark 1990, p. 65). Contemporary scientific understanding however, notwithstanding science’s own issues in regards to claims to objectivity (Rorty 1991, p. 22) and as well as it’s ability to accurately describe the world (Teller 2001), suggest that Nietzsche’s critique of human concepts of truth as not literally corresponding with reality might simply be intrinsic to the natural laws of physics. Consider for example Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics (Heisenberg 1927) which suggests that empirical certainty is fundamentally limited as a fact of reality.
Similarly in logic, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem holds, that it is not only impossible to conceive of a consistent and complete set of axioms capable of proving all facts about natural numbers but that there will always exist truths about such numbers that remain beyond the systems capacity for proving them (Kleene 1967 (2002), p. 250). In combination with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle one must content that not only our empirical knowledge of the physical world will likely remain outside the realm of literal correspondence, but that even our mathematical models are incapable of ascertaining the full truth of reality beyond any doubt even in theory. The universe is incapable of yielding completely and literally to understanding, human or otherwise. “Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury fiction is a necessity.” (Chesterton 2008, p. 13)
This conclusion can be reached within the confines of critical theoretical discourse as well. As phrased for example in Žižek’s deconstructive reading of Bentham’s Theory of Fictions (Ogden 1959) he concludes, that “the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” (Žižek 1993, p. 88). This results in a typically Derridaian paradox: we can distinguish between fiction and reality but if we take away the fiction we loose reality itself, making metaphors a discursive necessity. The task of the ‘artistically creative subject’ in the Nietzschian sense then “is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland – you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul.” (Frye 1964, pp. 63-4)
Pragmatic necessities of survival under time and resource constrains on reason and rationality further limits strictly rational approaches to our interaction with reality, leading to the adoption and accumulation of a number of cognitive heuristics and biases that override rational appraisals (Kahneman, Slovic & Tversky 1982) which are necessarily in line with prevailing selection pressures in our evolutionary history, a view shared by Nietzsche e.g. in his statement “truth is the kind of error without which a certain kind of being could not live” as well as in (Nietzsche 2010, §493). Nietzsche himself advanced an understanding of the origin of reason and logic not too distant from our contemporary evolutionary perspective (Clark 1990, p. 87), (Nietzsche et al. 2001, §§110-112). After all, it is pragmatic understanding resulting in grasping the meaning of a concept that matters irrespective of whether or not an objective truth literally corresponding to reality has been uttered or not.
“[The pragmatist] is suggesting that instead of invoking anything like the idea-fact, or language-fact , or mind-world, or subject-object distinctions to explicate our intuition that there is something out there to be responsible to, we just drop the intuition.” (his italics) (Rorty 1991, p. 41) A driver, having broken the speed limit, will therefore have little hope of escaping the imposed fine by arguing that the judge in charge of his case should drop the intuition that there is something out there (cars, roads, laws) for him to be responsible to.
Rappaport has pointed out the pragmatism of evolutionary consequences in regards to understanding or misunderstanding the meaning of a given concept. For him “[m]isconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 452)
This constitutes an understanding not at all alien to Nietzsche who regarded life as dominating knowledge (Nietzsche, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997, p. 121) and error as a potential precondition to life (Nietzsche et al. 2001, §121). Rappaport however takes his theory of meaning a step further. He distinguishes between different order meanings starting with difference (‘a cat is not a dog’ or A≠B) as low-order meaning, similarity (‘Juliet is the sun’ or A≈B) as middle order meaning and unity or identity as highest order meaning (A=B) and the realization of the illusion of separateness or maya as all distinctions being false dichotomies, as its ultimate expression (Rappaport 1999, pp. 71,380-1,91-95).
Conclusion – meaning trumps truth
Drawing from physics, logic, evolutionary psychology and contemporary critical theory it could be shown that truth in the form of literal correspondence to reality is inaccessible regardless of perspective due to natural laws as they are presently understood as well as logical constrains on discursive consistency. On the one hand Nietzsche’s account is convincing and does hold up against scrutiny. On the other it is found missing a resolution to the presented dilemma – a resolution that was attempted in the form of contrasting ultimate truth with ultimate meaning. Rappaport turns Nietzsche on his head. While Nietzsche finds truth the more illusory the more distinctions are ignored, Rappaport finds meaning the more illusory the more distinctions are emphasized.
Chesterton, GK 2008, The Defendant, NuVision Publications, LLC.
Clark, M 1990, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy.
Emden, C 2005, Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness and the Body.
Frye, N 1964, The Educated Imagination, vol. 88, Midland book, Indiana University Press.
Heisenberg, W 1927, ‘Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik’, Zeitschrift für Physik, vol. 43, no. 3–4, pp. 172–98.
Kahneman, D, Slovic, P & Tversky, A (eds) 1982, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press.
I have taken the opportunity to dust off and rewrite the rather outdated ‘About’ section and thought it would make a neat little post reminding myself and others what it actually is I am trying to do here. To date I am not able to engage in much meaningful discussion with my target audience, the Singularity crowd. This might be due to the fact that by now I am approaching the Singularity from the humanities and social sciences as opposed to the standard IT, SciFi angel. This appears to be an approach rather foreign to most observers having the unfortunate result that hardly anyone bothers to penetrate my dense writings.
Not surprisingly, most individuals in the Singularity corner are – and pardon me if I am being a bit overly generalizing here – extremely IT literate geeks with a tendency for militant atheism. Hence the ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ moniker. Now, do not get me wrong – not too long ago I gave every single member of my family a copy of Dawkins’ The God Delusion for Christmas and I worked 10 years in IT security myself….
However all this gradually changed after I published my Singularity SciFi novel Jame5 – a Tale of Good and Evil in 2007 and distributed 500 copies all over the world at my own expense. Since then I have changed my stance on religion and came to find the ‘militant’ atheistic perspective rather unsatisfying. So yes: I get the yuck factor and the cognitive dissonance involved in getting out of ones comfort zone and approaching a seemingly contradictory perspective with open eyes. Particularly ideas of ‘Oneness’, ‘the illusion of separateness’ etc must sound like absolute hokum. I can only encourage everyone to try and get behind the arguments involved and I am more than happy to give a hand.
“Cosmism is not a religion. But it has the potential to deliver some of the benefits of religion in a manner more consilient with science.”, Ben Goertzel, A Cosmist Manifesto: Practical Philosophy for the Posthuman Age, 2009
It is in this spirit that I introduce the ultimate foundation of the Rational Morality project: cybernetics and particularly evolutionary dynamics. In the words of Roy Rappaport:
“Misconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 1999, p. 452)
and Valentin Turchin
“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. [...] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution [...] will be erased from the memory of the world. [...] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success. Such is the immanent characteristic of development: what corresponds to its plan is eternalized in the structures which follow in time while what contradicts the plan is overcome and perishes.” (Valentin Turchin, The Phenomenon of Sceince, 1977, p. 334)
These insights are being integrated into the discourses of critical theory, cultural anthropology and moral philosophy. Having its origin in 2005 in the comparatively young area of singularity studies and particularly friendly AI theory these concepts have since been developed beyond that narrow perspective and continue to unfold.
“Because the will according to Schopenhauer, is essentially unitary, the executioner comes to understand that he is one with his victim.” (Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 2006, p. 7)
About me: I became an independent writer/philosopher after a decade long corporate career and am currently studying Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, with the goal of attaining a PhD sometime before the Singularity. My special interest lies in understanding and explaining spiritual wisdom in naturalistic terms.
While self-interested approaches to examining value, as a route taken in formal economics, lend themselves particularly well to neat formulas and straightforward calculations by focusing on value in terms of an in principle measurable utility and the amount of labour embodied in a commodity or service, they tend to reduce complex social beings to predominantly rational individuals – homo economicus – narrowly self interested in weighing up cost and benefits with the aim of maximizing personal well being, always choosing the option promising the biggest return (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 36-37, 42). Economic actors however “are just as concerned with their social standing […] as they are with maximizing utility or income in the conventional sense” (Ortiz 2005, 74) which calls for a social model of value.
The social political perspective of value addresses this aspect of human nature by assessing human beings predominantly by the value they place in relationships, trust and influence. Political Economy is predominantly understood by the application of Marxist social and political economic theory in various ethnographic contexts. Marxism as the dominant social science model posits a justifying ideology that allows the perpetuation and naturalization of classes within a society as well as the super- and infrastructure that shape the relations of production through social labour in that society (Plattner 1989, 379-381).
Existing mechanisms of class exploitation are dressed in the cloak of respectability by ideological means, creating false consciousness and thereby remain unquestioned by the exploited and the exploiters alike (Plattner 1989, 381-384). Although critics point out that in some societies it is kinship or religious factors as opposed to relations of production that apparently dominate, it is shown by Godelier in his work that these social relations dominate only when they function as relations of production in line with Marx’s theory (Godelier 1978, 765).
An important idea in Marx’s theory is the phenomenon of commodity fetishism, the socially created attribution of subjective value to objects traded in the market which goes beyond those items’ intrinsic value and thereby acquiring the power of an objective social force (Marx 1973, 687) such as cattle in South African Tswana culture (Comaroff & Comaroff 1990, 195-196) as well as diamonds in the context of engagement gift giving in western style industrial economies (Proctor 2001). Fetishized commodities, such as polychrome fabrics in medieval Europe and Byzantium, can become Instruments of hegemony (Schneider 1978) and once recognized as such can lead to the creation of symbols of national liberation in their antithesis. In Schneider’s example this is what caused the ascent of locally produced black clothing as symbols of sovereign power and impartiality for example in the robes of judges as well as equality in death in mourning garments.
A significant problem with Marx’s theory as highlighted by Platter, is the continually rising wealth of workers in Western Europe and North America (Plattner 1989, 395). Since the release of Plattner’s article the world went through the collapse of the eastern bloc of states as well as the continuing economic rise of most notably Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These historical facts are casting further doubt on Marx’s theory which predicts worsening conditions for workers in line with his labour theory of value that posits the exploitation of labour as the only possibility for entrepreneurs to make a profit in the capitalist mode of production leading to an inevitable breakdown of capitalism (Marx 2007, 137). This aspect of Marx’s theory is particularly important since it claims to identify the source as well as the inherent mechanism by which capitalism leads to class exploitation. As pointed out by Marx’s critics however, labour need not be the only source of value (Menger 2007, 151) explaining how capitalist entrepreneurs do not automatically need to rely on the exploitation of the proletariat for making a profit. This is not to be understood that the free market is capable to alleviate all social ills, but highlights the need for further research and analysis.
In the context of the global political economy and particularly when it comes to development projects, a particular set of challenges is being confronted when western notions of ‘the proper way to do things’ are being uncritically adopted for local implementation. These development projects rooted in postcolonial efforts of guided modernization are wrought with problems and caused developing nations to accrue large national debts in the process of implementing respective development projects yielding few tangible results. While the hopeful conception of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990 aimed at reflecting insights gained during previous failures by including additional metrics going beyond a strictly economic focus, neo-colonialism threatens to perpetuate the colonial system with indirect economic methods as opposed to direct political means employed during colonial times.
Development literature, highlights the problems associated with development theory itself (Leys 2005) as well as with development practice. While development projects do have important political effects, these are not a consequence of conscious planning (Ferguson 2002, 401), (Mosse 2005, 10) resulting in a development culture in where success as well as failure of development projects are socially constructed (Mosse 2005, 18) as well as the result of policy-oriented judgments (Mosse 2005, 19). Positive effects may still occur but “are often equivocal, unexpected, contradicting legitimizing policy models […], and have more to do with infusion into regional and historical processes of change.” (Mosse 2005, 19)
This insight is mirrored in the example of the Taita Hills community in Kenya, which chose to employ a foreign witch doctor – Maji Marefu – to deal with local social ills experienced during the process of modernization their society went through and for the alleviation of which local magic seemed ineffectual (Smith 2005). While the resulting witch hunt orchestrated by Mjae Marefu failed to have the desired effect directly, the societal backlash against his exploitative practices ended up “generating the social cohesion and the social society that his coming symbolized, despite the conflict he generated”. (Smith 2005, 156). The invitation of what was perceived as a foreign expert by the local community to deal with a specific problem at hand, can be interpreted as a development initiative from the perspective of the Taita Hills community in which the anticipated result failed to materialize in line with observations made in the context of development discourse generally by Ferguson and Mosse (Ferguson 2002, 401), (Mosse 2005, 10). As a further parallel, positive effects were observed nevertheless which stood in no direct relation to planned components of the initiative, similarly to mechanisms described by Mosse (Mosse 2005, 19). Finally a mechanism of initial seduction and eventual disillusionment by the witch doctor not unlike that which has been described by Shresta in his experience of being colonized by successive waves of agents of development in Nepal (Shrestha 1995, 266) can be observed in the literature.
Surprising as it may be, a clear delineating between traditional witch doctors and modern development professionals remains problematic in the context of development in front of this background. Particularly so as long as development theory is perceived as not having been possible to arise at all outside the special interlude of the expansion of capitalism during the 1950s and 60s (Leys 2005, 116) as well as lacking adequate foundations (Leys 2005, 124).
It remains an important contribution of political economy however, that it places the emphasis on collective structures and functions and brings history into the picture which provides the context in which individuals make their decisions in predominantly in terms of how the means of production are organized and controlled (Plattner 1989, 381) despite superficial appearances to the contrary (Godelier 1978) and thereby helps to focus attention on exploitation, inequality and class conflict. Denial of agency and perception of the individual as a mere cog pushed around in the social machine reproducing society are the shortcomings of this perspective (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 43).
The insight that individuals are neither self-serving optimizers nor political animals per se is recognized in the moral and cultural perspective of value (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 43-44). From this perspective it is behaving properly what maters and moral principles and cultural contexts that constitute the basis for valuing action in terms of right and wrong. These values differ between cultures since moral codes are cultural products of a particular time and place. It is in front of this background that Weber explains how Puritan ideas in regards to asceticism had “a direct influence on the development of a capitalistic way of life.” (Weber 2006, 360). He notes that wealth, considered reprehensible when pursued as an end in itself, becomes a blessing in the Puritan perspective when it is the result of “labour in a calling” and thereby becomes a powerful since religiously sanctioned mechanism enabling the emergence of “the spirit of capitalism” (Weber 2006, 362).
The value of things in this perspective lies in what they are used for and the focus lies on contextual consumption, not on exchange (self interest) or production (political economy). Value is not perceived in the utility for the individual or the utility for society but rather in using the thing in the proper way, in the signs one displays knowing the right, the expected way to behave, which results in the accumulation of cultural capital. Indifference to wage incentives on peasants and artisans who become wage workers are one example how the absence of a Purtian outlook on life can manifest itself when individuals fail to respond in the ‘proper’ way in line with capitalist expectations (Taussig 1977, 131) due to their preference of use value over exchange value (Taussig 1977, 132). Over productiveness as the dominant norm in capitalism in this context is interpreted as an immoral act possible only through a pact with the devil that at the same time places certain restrictions on the earned money in regards to what it can be spent upon (Taussig 1977, 136). The capitalist idea of money as capable of growing by itself through interest is rationalized by the illicit baptizing of a note of currency instead of an infant by a godparent in order to realize the mysterious money-commodity-money standard formulation of Marxist of capitalist circulation (Taussig 1977, 144).
In pre-modern Sierra Leone, not unlike the south American peasantry, accumulation of wealth is seen as an inherently immoral process requiring dark magic in the form of eating people by turning them into slaves through witch finding divinations (Shaw 1997, 868) and transferring money from one person’s pocket into one’s own (Shaw 1997,859). In this context the diviners are seen as the biggest witches of them all (Shaw 1997, 868) since they are exploiting lower status individuals lacking the social or political capital necessary to sway the outcome of the divination in their favour (Shaw 1997, 865), which in effect resulted in their transformation from people into sellable commodities (Shaw 1997, 864) unthinkable outside the context of the slave trade (Shaw 1997, 865).
Being recognized as a good person – in this life as well as the next – is important since good people are listened to which confers moral authority and results in the accumulation of cultural capital. This insight is employed by Spiro in his exploration of what is often described as spiritually motivated lavish spending among Burmese Buddhists resulting in the perception of improvidence (Spiro 1966,1164-1165). Upon closer examination however Burmese religious spending can be explained as a form of highly profitable form of investment in the predominant social and religious context in which monetary generosity towards religious ends in this life is believed to result in rebirth into a wealthier status in the next (Spiro 1966, 1168).
Moral values differ widely between cultures, yet regardless what cultures people belong to they use the same tools to translate their values into ordered preferences. And then seek to maximize cultural capital by selecting the optimal choice. This is done in predictably rational ways within that particular set of values. It is the underlying set of preferences that frame your rationality – culture is a way of thought. Everyone reflects upon their pragmatic interests within society and have pragmatic implications for action in the world, understanding that others in the society have learned to react to symbols the same way as them. The power lies in the fact that everyone judges actions in a similar way. Structure emerges not just because we have common interest (reproduction of society, advancement of class) but because we have a shared understanding of the world, we may share common values even if we do not share common interests.
Comaroff, J & Comaroff, JL 1990, ‘Goodly beasts and beastly goods: cattle and commodities in a South African context’, American Ethnologist, vol. 17, pp. 195-216.
Ferguson, J 2002, ‘ The Anti-Politics Machine’, in J Vincent (ed.), The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique, Blackwell, Oxford, UK & Malden, USA, pp. 399- 408.
Godelier, M 1978, ‘Infrastructures, society, and history’, Current Anthropology, vol. 19, pp. 763-8.
Leys, C 2005, ‘The Rise and Fall of Development Theory’, in M Edelman & A Haugerud (eds), The Anthropology of Development: From Classical Political Economy to Contemporary Neoliberalism, Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 109-25.
Marx, K 1973, The Grundrisse, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England.
—— 2007, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy – Vol. III-Part I: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, Cosimo.
Menger, C 2007, Principles of Economics, Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Mosse, D 2005, ‘Introduction: the ethnography of Policy and practice’, in A Arbor (ed.), Cultivating development : an ethnography of aid policy and practice, Pluto Press, London, pp. 1-20.
Ortiz, S 2005, ‘Decisions and choices: the rationality of economic actors’, in JG Carrier (ed.), A handbook of economic anthropology, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, pp. 59-77.
Plattner, S 1989, ‘Marxism’, in Economic Anthropology, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 379-96.
Proctor, RN 2001, ‘Anti-agate: the great diamond hoax and the semiprecious stone scam’, Configurations, vol. 9, pp. 381-412.
Schneider, J 1978, ‘Peacocks and penguins: the political economy of European cloth and colours’, American Ethnologist, vol. 5, pp. 413-47.
Shaw, R 1997, ‘The production of witchcraft/witchcraft as production: memory, modernity and the slave trade in Sierra Leone’, American Ethnologist, vol. 24, pp. 856-76.
Shrestha, N 1995, ‘Becoming a Development Category’, in J Crush (ed.), Power of Development, Routledge, London; New York, pp. 266-77.
Smith, J 2005, ‘Buying a Better Witch Doctor: Witch-Finding, Neoliberalism, and the Development Imagination in the Taita Hills, Kenya’, American Ethnologist, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 141-58.
Spiro, ME 1966, ‘Buddhism and economic action in Burma’, American Anthropologist, vol. 68, pp. 1163-73.
Taussig, M 1977, ‘The genesis of capitalism amongst a South American peasantry: devil’s labour and the baptism of money’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 19, pp. 130-55.
Weber, M 2006, ‘Puritanism and the spirit of capitalism’, in HL Moore & T Sanders (eds), Anthropology in Theory: issues in epistemology, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp. 360-6.
Wilk, RR & Cliggett, L 2007, ‘Economics and the problem of human nature’, in In Economies and cultures: foundations of economic anthropology, Westview Press., New York, pp. 31-47
In the concluding sections of Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Rappaport asserts the nature of humanity to be one of survival enabling meaning making in an intrinsically meaningless world subject to physical law (Rappaport 1999, p. 451). While acknowledging the positive impact science had on ridding us from superstition and magic, Rappaport sees a threat to sanctified, adaptive understandings becoming invalidated by a purely empirical understanding of the world.
“Misconstruing the world’s nature is not necessarily, or even primarily, a matter of empirical error. We are concerned here with the adaptiveness of conceptions, not with what the knowledge available at a particular historical moment takes to be empirically accurate. We are concerned with the consequences of the actions to which such understandings lead. If such actions tend to increase the actor’s chances of staying in the existential game indefinitely, and if, in this age of ever-increasing human capacity to destroy the world, such actions tend to preserve the existential game itself, then the understandings upon which they are based are adaptively true even if empirically absurd.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 452)
Rappaport continues to elaborate on this point before advocating a union between “post-modern science and natural religion” (Rappaport 1999, pp. 456-61) which he suggests to be founded in ecological concerns in order to construct an adaptive system of meaning that can persist in the face of modern scientific insights. He opts for ecology as foundation for this new system of meaning despite reiterating oneness as the highest form of meaning throughout his book (Rappaport 1999, pp. 71,380-1,91-95). It is the purpose of this essay to argue three main points. Firstly, that a system of meaning based on the notion of oneness is more adaptive than one based solely on ecological concerns, secondly, that such a system is a priori consistent as well as supported by advances in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics, and thirdly, that it can be shown a posteriori that systems of meaning have evolved over the course of human history not unlike the progress in natural sciences to form ever closer approximations of oneness as the highest form of meaning in line with the first two points.
Oneness and evolutionary theory
“It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and in increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (Darwin 2009, p. 110)
This insight Darwin published in 1871 should later be generalized in the theory of multilevel selection (Wynne-Edwards 1986), the idea that individuals reap evolutionary benefits by cooperating which provides the basis on which initially separate adaptive units evolve into ever more close knit groups until an evolutionary transition occurs resulting in groups of adaptive units on the initial level forming a new singular adaptive unit constituting a new organism on a higher level (Wilson, Vugt & O’Gorman 2008). Among the examples cited by Smith & Szathmáry are the transition from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, from protists to multicellular organisms as well as from primate groups to human societies with language and culture as enabling factors (Smith & Szathmáry 1997). Although the theory of multilevel selection is possible yet highly unlikely on the level of the gene (Williams 1996, pp. 92-124), “[a]ll that is needed to make group selection possible is a device that leads individuals to separate their conceptions of well-being or advantage from biological survival. Notions such as God, Heaven, Hell, heroism, honor, shame, fatherland and democracy encoded in procedures of enculturation that represent them as factual, natural, public, or sacred (and, therefore, compelling) have dominated every culture for which we possess ethnographic or historical knowledge.” (Rappaport 1999, p. 10) Understanding multilevel selection theory, we can expect the mechanisms of cultural evolution to favor spiritual understandings of the world, which more closely approximate the idea of oneness and instill them into the cultural group. Following this logic, one can expect to discern ever more closely approximated versions of the idea of oneness as the highest form of meanings that are ever more highly sanctified in spiritual traditions over evolutionary timeframes. This is what Rappaport is referring to in his writings when claiming oneness to be the highest form of meaning.
Spiritual versus scientific progress
The natural sciences as opposed to spirituality are thought of as a process of continually ascending progress. The differences in perspectives and resulting breakdown of communication between ‘the two cultures’ of the sciences on the one and the humanities on the other have been blamed as a significant obstacle in solving the world’s problems (Snow 1993). It is the objective of this section to demonstrate that the scientific and the humanistic outlook, particularly the spiritual one, need not be fundamentally separated and are in fact similar. This point will be explained by examining the scientific genius of Newton in the natural sciences before defining spirituality and drawing an analogy to science.
Isaac Newton was a prolific English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher. What is less widely known is his equal interest in the subjects of alchemy (Figala 2002) and attempting to calculate the end times from bible references (Mamiani 2002). Why then, is Newton still revered today despite him being a ‘superstitious alchemist’ and having been proved wrong by Einstein in the early 20th century? The reason is two fold: firstly it is understood that Newton despite being wrong, just as Einstein still being wrong due to the irreconcilable nature or general relativity and quantum dynamics, he was relatively less wrong than Kepler before him and Gallilei before him and Copernicus before him (Hawking 2003). Secondly it is understood in regards to what he was less wrong, namely in his scientific understanding of gravity. More generally we can thus understand science as following:
“Science is the conscious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation of that which is true and unchanging about the universe we exist in, in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of material reality in line with our goals and values.”
The value of science thereby lies in the degree of accuracy to which it describes reality insofar as the gained insights enhance our means of reshaping reality by the creation of ever more sophisticated technology that happens to produce desired effects within the margin of error of the currently best available scientific theory. With Newton that meant the ability to calculate the trajectory of cannon balls with Einstein GPS, LEDs and nuclear bombs came into the reach of mankind. This very particular aspect of scientific truth has been reinforced as a fundamental value since the enlightenment and came to ever greater prominence over the course of the engineering driven industrial revolution followed by the information age with its computers and their extreme literalism and has since become that which closest resembles a transcendent standard of value in our postmodern society and its incredulity towards meta narratives. ‘If it is not scientifically true it has no worth’. The question of how ultimate goals and fundamental values are determined that can then be advanced with science and technology remains unanswered sofar.
In line with the writings of Rappaport it is assumed for the purpose of this paper that the highest good is constituted by humanity maximizing its chances of remaining in the existential game (Slobodkin & Rapoport 1974). From this perspective consider the following definition of spirituality:
“Spirituality is the (sub)concious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation about that which is true and unchanging about our existence in the universe in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of our consciousness in line with the laws of nature imposing the conditions for our existence.”
Empirical support for the idea of oneness as the highest form of meaning
Understanding spirituality in this light we are effectively enabled to judge spiritual systems in terms of their adaptive merit. The reason being that spiritual systems that promote the adoption of a non-dual world view are more in line with the conditions of our existence and hence more adaptive than spiritual systems that incorporate notions of oneness to a lesser extend. How else could one categorize the nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury the Norse warriors known as Berserkers fought in as less spiritual then the feeling of absolute unitary being (AUB) experienced during vipassana meditation? The answer lies in the insight that some states of consciousness are more conducive to the fitness of a group than others. As argued above in the context of multilevel selection theory, what one does to others becomes equivalent to what one does to oneself, ergo feeling for the other, as one with the other becomes an objective adaptive truth, when realized resulting in the breakdown of the illusion of separateness or becoming ‘enlightened’, attaining Satori, or simply wanting to be compassionate in spiritual terms.
While such notions are present to a greater and lesser degree in all spiritual traditions, it is Advaita Vedanta – the non-dualist philosophy referring to the identity of the Self (Atman) with the Whole (Brahman) that most explicitly encompasses the notion of oneness in its teachings. Accepting multilevel selection on the cultural level as a true and valid theory, we can clearly identify on who’s spiritual giant’s shoulders (analogous to those in the natural sciences) we stand today: the countless shamans of prehistory, the sages of the axial age, the prophets of the major spiritual traditions advocating compassion (Armstrong 2007):
Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Buddhism: ”Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”
Confucianism: ”Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
Hinduism: ”One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self.”
Islam: ”Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”
Judaism: ”The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.”
Taoism: ”Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
All major world religions contain this basic key insight and this is not a coincidence. Just as the bats and the dolphins evolved sonar independently (Li et al. 2010) precisely because of the evolutionary advantage better perceiving individuals had over less well perceiving ones in both species so did compassion impart an evolutionary advantage in those groups who’s cultural content happened to have evolved this approximation of oneness as the highest form of meaning:
“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. [...] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution [...] will be erased from the memory of the world. [...] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success. Such is the immanent characteristic of development: what corresponds to its plan is eternalized in the structures which follow in time while what contradicts the plan is overcome and perishes.” (Turchin 1977, p. 334)
In regards to whether evolution has a plan or not, one simply needs to semantically replace Turchin’s ‘plan’ with ‘adaptive’ in the evolutionary sense and his quote remains valid in the context of this essay. The fact that not everyone does in fact align themselves consciously with the goal of remaining in the existential game is absolutely irrelevant since only those that do, encoded in sanctified spiritual beliefs and justified on whatever basis, will have a higher chance not to “be erased from the memory of the world”, be it in a Malthusian “struggle for existence” or under any other set of selection pressures.
Several quotes in support of this perspective:
“The ultimate spiritual revelation is that there is no other. There is only One.” (his italics) (Cohen 2007)
Put straight and to the point: we are all one.
“Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.” (Rand 1964, p. 25)
Rand was basing her philosophy largely on the ideas of Nietzsche who misguidedly, as we now realize, advocated egoism as a means of affirming life (Nietzsche 2008, p. 173). In the basic premise expressed in this quote however, Rand is in line with the argument developed in this essay.
“Necessary existence is a positive property” — Kurt Goedel in 1941, Axiom 5 of his ontological proof for the existence of god using modal logic (Sobel 2004, p. 125) .
“Therefore, since the supreme Good is the supreme Being, it follows that everything good has being and every being is good. So since nothing and non-being do not have being, they are not good. And so nothing and non-being are not from him from whom only good and being come.” (Anselm & Williams 2007, p. 170)
A bit more esoteric, but expressing the same basic principle: being (or existence) is better than nonbeing (or nonexistence)
“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23
This bible quote is in line with Turchin’s perspective cited earlier yet expresses it in an archaic, biblical language.
“Ego is the biggest enemy of humans.” — Rig Veda
Failing to realize the illusion of separateness is an existential risk.
“Because the will according to Schopenhauer, is essentially unitary, the executioner comes to understand that he is one with his victim.” (Deleuze 2006, p. 7)
A good approximation of the idea that what is done to others is literally done to oneself, Schopenhauer however was misguidedly advocating this perspective as a form of an active denial of the Will to life, although such an outlook would in fact affirm it as shown in this essay.
These examples could easily be multiplied.
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein
It has been demonstrated that the abstract and commonly understood to be non-rational idea of ‘oneness as the highest form of meaning’, has its roots in evolutionary dynamics supported by scientific theory as well as empirical evidence. It was shown that the logic of spiritual evolution unfolds in a process that is the result of the fact that in the absence of any externally specified reward, self-replication emerges as an intrinsic reward and starts to feed on itself in line with the discussed evolutionary dynamics causing an evolutionary arms race between groups to generate ever closer approximations of oneness as the highest form of meaning. This process has its origins as a teleonomical, not a teleological process of chance change and non-chance retention of units of information in self-replicating information structures. Be they on the level of the gene encoded in DNA or that of culture encoded in ideas, concepts as well as sanctified spiritual belief systems. In the last sections of Rappaport’s book, he argued that once humanity realizes these dynamics it should actively seek alignment with them in order to ensure humanity’s continued existence thereby effectively turning this originally teleonomical process of chance into one of intentional design in line with scientific insights. It was shown in the arguments put forward in this essay that his advocating an ecological foundation for such a system of meaning would be suboptimal and that instead a system of meaning based on his own understanding of the highest form of meaning, namely ‘oneness’ or ‘non-duality’, being the optimal approach. Doing so holds the promise of reaping the rewards of science in the form of technology married with a system of meaning in line with the enlightenment ideals of reason and emancipation from superstition and dogma while at the same time minimizing humanity’s chances of extinction.
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