“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, Abbott & Denis 2005, p. 81)
“The conditions of life might include error.” (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, §121)
Both Kant and Nietzsche are seminal figures in western philosophy. The former’s Critique of Pure Reason has been described as the most important philosophical book ever written in Europe (Keurs 2006, p. 13) while the history of 20th century thought is believed to be unintelligible without considering the writings of the latter (Magnus 2010). Kant contributed to furthering the Enlightenment project of freeing men from fear and establishing his sovereignty (Adorno 1990, p. 3) by extending Rousseau’s understanding of freedom as “the obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves” (Rousseau & Cole 2008, p. 28) from the political to the ethical, the philosophy of religion as well as aesthetics (Beck & Cicovacki 2001, p. xx) using reason and seeking natural causes of experiences alone. Nietzsche on the other hand was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer and his idea of the Will – a groundless state of endless striving constituting existence as a state of suffering (Jacquette 1996, p. 283) at the foundational being of everything. In contrast to Schopenhauer however, Nietzsche places a great emphasise on the affirmation of the Will to life, what sustains it and in his mature philosophy turns the denial of the Will through compassion in Schopenhauer’s philosophy into its opposite: the embrace of suffering and therefore life through egotistic self assertion epitomized in the Will to power. The Will to power is equated by Nietzsche with the essence of life (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. §12) and he intended to utilize it in his unfinished project to re-evaluate all values (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, III. §27).
It will be the focus of this essay to briefly elucidate the biographical background as well as the philosophical influences leading to the formation of the two thinker’s own philosophies before elaborating in more detail how Kant as well as Nietzsche are grounding their critiques. The two approaches will then be compared to each other as well as critically evaluated.
The Chinaman of Königsberg
Heine’s remark that “[t]he history of Immanuel Kant’s life is hard to describe, because he had neither a life nor history” (Heine, Hermand & Holub 1985, p. 203) is likely too harsh. The well known fact that during his life Kant never traveled very far from his hometown had more to do with him being a central figure of Königsberg’s social society and extraordinarily comfortable there (Kuehn 2001, pp. 134-5, 218-21) than with the mistaken idea of him being a boring and idiosyncratic recluse. Philosophically speaking it was Hume who woke him from his own dogmatic slumbers (Kant 1982, p. 6), and Rousseau’s Emile (Rousseau 2008) that deeply influenced his thoughts on ethics (Wood 2005, p. 7) the later fascinating him so much that he omitted his afternoon walk this once out of a thousand times to finish reading it (Wallace 2008, p. 28). It was one event in particular that proofed to be central to Kant’s formation of his subsequent ideas. It was the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon followed by a tsunami that took place during the early hours of All Saint’s Day and destroyed numerous churches (Pereira 2006, p. 10) as well as killing droves of church goers faithfully praying inside of them. While central figures of the early Enlightenment such as Newton (Mamiani 2002) and Leibniz (Leibnitz & Jaucourt 1734) where deeply pious men, the theodicy debate that ensued in the wake of 1755 Lisbon “sufficed to cure Voltaire” (Adorno 1990, p. 361) of similar notions (Voltaire 1985). The concept of the earthquake would later serve as inspiration for Kant’s philosophy of the sublime (Kant & Pluhar 1987, pp. 97-123) and let him to publish three essays on the Lisbon earthquake focusing exclusively on potential natural causes (Guyer 2006, p. 18) true to the battle cry of the enlightenment: “Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (his emphasis) (Kant 2009, p. 54). In order to make it possible for men of the enlightenment age to do exactly that, a rational basis for experience had to be established. This was Kant’s project.
Enabling the autonomous individual
Kant argues that mankind’s escape from self-imposed immaturity by using one’s own understanding without guidance of another is what lies at the core of the Enlightenment (Kant & Reiss 1991, p. 54). Being greatly influence by Rousseau’s political ideas in his views which he transposed from the social to the individual, freedom for Kant was not the absence of laws but the adherence to self-imposed laws springing from ones own reason which makes the autonomous individual possible (Guyer 2006, p. 204). For Kant it is this process of reason and the free public use of it (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 55-7) which is in the inherent self-interest of the state for it alone ensures progress and flourishing (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 57-60). Kant would explore his idea of societal development over the course of history in another essay which he published the same year titled Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (Kant & Reiss 1991, pp. 41-53). Introducing 9 propositions in it he describes how through the application of reason mankind, despite numerous wrong turns, would inevitably progress along “a plan of nature aimed at a perfect civil union of mankind” (Kant & Reiss 1991, p. 51).
On this background, namely the autonomous application of reason in the individual and the anticipated positive effects not only on the level of the nation state when exercised freely in it, but for mankind as a whole as well, illustrates the central importance in Kant’s perspective to construct a solid a foundation as possible on which reason can be exercised. This is the grounding of his critiques, for anything but a solid foundation for the application of reason would not only turn true autonomy and freedom of the individual into a mere illusion as a result from misguided reason, but would at the same time retard the fulfillment of natures plan towards a perfect civil union of mankind.
Among the most influential of Kant’s concepts is transcendental idealism in which he essentially restated Platonism in Enlightenment terms (Guyer 2006, p. 51). It is the idea that we can only understand the world as it is represented to us in our minds (phenomenon) yet are unable to grasp the thing in itself (noumenon) (Kant & Politis 1993, A254/B310). A significant departure from Hume represents Kant’s demonstration of the existence of synthetic a priori truths (Kant & Politis 1993, A6-7/B10-17), propositions that are known to be true prior to experience and whose predicate concepts are not contained in its subject (e.g. 2+5=7). Put another way: statements that are true not because on their inherent meaning i.e. ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’. Hume thought synthetic truth to be impossible (Guyer 2006, p. 47) and considered math and physics to be analytical a priori truths. Kant placed ethics on a rational basis in the form of the categorical imperative (Kant & Ellington 1993, p. 30), the violation of which he held to not only be unethical but irrational as well. Even aesthetics could be put in a framework of reason for Kant, which he did for the beautiful, the sublime, genius as well as a deduction of taste among others (Kant & Pluhar 1987).
The patron saint of postmodernism
Having been born into a deeply rooted family tradition of Lutheran ministers, Nietzsche initially took up theology and philology at the university of Bonn in 1864 at the age of 20, where he would soon gravitate towards philology and eventually ended up focusing on it exclusively (Hollingdale 2001, pp. 21,31). Haven taken classes with both Ritschl and Jahn, Nietzsche would be at the frontline of what should become known as the Bonn philology war between the two and which would in the end escalate to involve the Bismark government in the Prussian house of representatives dividing liberals and reactionaries. Jahn, who a decade earlier was called to Bonn with the help of dean Ritschl, went behind his benefactor’s back to get his friend Sauppe appointed to Bonn. When Sauppe to Jahn’s surprise ended up declining the call, the enraged Ritschl, after haven gotten wind of the affair, started a slander campaign against Jahn for which he received a public reprimand from the ministry of education causing the matter to escalate politically (Emden 2008, pp. 23-36). Nietzsche, while asserting that Jahn was “unconditionally right” ended up being so impressed with Ritschl’s cunning, that he joined Ritschl when he left for Leipzig, leaving the righteous but utterly devastated Jahn in Bonn (Ross 1999, pp. 111-3). It is in this incident that the Nietzsche biographer Ross identifies the early origins of Nietzsche’s affinity to the Will to power. In the same year Nietzsche discovered Schopenhauer and the ‘funeral director perfume’ (Nietzsche, F. W. & Ludovici 2004, p. 69) of his philosophy should stay with him.
Preventing life’s self annihilation
What fascinated Nietzsche with Schopenhauer were two aspects of his pessimistic philosophy in particular. The first being Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will which he described as a senseless struggle for the continuation of life (Young 2005, pp. 74-7) with no regards for individual suffering as long as the circle of existence continues for the species as a whole (Young 2005, pp. 80-1) (Schopenhauer, Arthur & Payne 1966, Chp. 28). This circumstance was interpreted to mean by Schopenhauer that “essential to all life is suffering” (Schopenhauer, A. et al. 2010, end of §56). Schopenhauer himself was heavily influenced by the Upanishads in this regard and considered himself to be a follower of the in the west relatively unknown religion of Buddhism which has a very similar core tenet encoded in the first of the four noble truths. Nietzsche adopted the concept of the Will wholeheartedly. The second aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy important to understanding Nietzsche was that according to Schopenhauer the only way to escape this cycle of endless and meaningless suffering is through the active denial of the Will by transcending the egoistic individual through exercising compassion (Young 2005, p. 179). He justifies this approach by asserting, that the recognition of “the identity of one’s own inner being with that of all things” (Schopenhauer, Arthur & Payne 1966, p. 613) results in the realization that any affirmation of the Will to life and subsequent suffering caused in others is in fact equivalent to inflicting suffering on oneself. “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).
Nietzsche accepts the argument, but rejects the adoption of Schopenhauer’s conclusion outright in his mature philosophy and turns it onto its head (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, Morality as Anti-Nature, §5). For Nietzsche life and its affirmation represents the non plus ultra of philosophy and constitutes the grounding for his critique. It is on this basis that Nietzsche formulates his critiques of history (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997), knowledge (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Breazeale & Hollingdale 1997, p. 121), morality, justice, care for the sick (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, III. §§14-15), logic (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, p. 111) as well as reason and the grounds on which he embraces suffering. Central to Nietzsche’s understanding of life is what he dubs the Will to power (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §259), a combination of the Schopenhaurian Will with his own understanding of the thirst to dominate and overpower (Nietzsche, F. W. et al. 2001, §13). It is the retardation of such power struggles that Nietzsche perceived to be equivalent to the retardation of life itself. Christian ‘slave morality’ (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. §11) as well as reason (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, The Problem of Socrates, §6) in his view are nothing else but clever tricks perpetrated by the weak and meek on the powerful as a means of dragging them down to their lowly levels of degeneration. Similarly to him justice was a perversion, a making equal of that which is meant by nature to be fought out in unhindered power struggles for life to flourish (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, II. § 11). In suffering on the other hand, Nietzsche saw the principle hope for man to transcend himself and become a being of higher consciousness (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §§225, 270) which he called the Overman. Unapologetic egoism in precise opposition to Schopenhauer’s denial of the Will through compassion, was to Nietzsche the very essence of a noble soul (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §265) and therefore the antidote capable of reversing humanity’s descent along a slippery slope towards humanity’s self annihilation.
Life, reason, freedom, critique
Critique has the living critic as necessary precondition. In that regard we are unable to ignore Nietzsche. Yet “the conditions of life might include error.” Assuming this to be the case, any critical rational discourse would become impossible for one of two reasons. Either because abiding by the fundamental rules of logic would ultimately result in the self-annihilation of life through rational critique or because by disavowing the laws of logic one would be cutting the branch on which rational critique rests for it became permissible to affirm and deny the same property of a thing simultaneously (Heller 1999, p. 1). Vae victis. Might would be right and it is in the philosophies of Foucault and his concept of ‘power/knowledge’ (Foucault 1972) that such notions are being embraced. Heller for example is taking limitless freedom as the grounding of modernity (Heller 1999, pp. 13-5) noting “[t]hat freedom grounds means, namely, that everything is ungrounded. […] The moderns are sitting on a paradox. This is the constellation of the modern world: it is grounded in a principle which, in principle, does not ground anything; it is founded on a universal value or idea, which in principle negated foundation.” (her emphasis) (Heller 1999, pp. 14-5) Critique becomes meaningless in the face of absolute freedom. Absolute freedom however does not exist and consequences are a good candidate for bridging Hume’s is/ought gap by providing an overriding reason to react one way and not another (ought) in a given situation (is) (Smith 2006), consequences in particular that violate the conditions for our existence.
The critic thus has to ground critique on a hierarchy of conditions enabling critique to avoid a reductio ad absurdum, namely existence of the critic at the base of the hierarchy, the use of reason to enable discursive critique and freedom to exercise reason and formulate a critique without reprisal. There are two fundamental issues with such a hierarchy. One being that the use of reason might violate the conditions for the critic’s existence as suggested by Nietzsche and another that freedom as a foundation grounds nothing as suggested by Heller. To answer Heller, freedom would have to be bounded and bounded specifically by progressing upwards along the conditional hierarchy. First and foremost the non-violation of the conditions for the critic’s existence, followed by the adherence to the fundamental laws of logic and only then ensuring the freedom from reprisal to exercise critique. Before answering Nietzsche we recall his argument against reason being founded on the understanding that it obstructs the free unfolding of the Will to power and therefore life. As Santayana notes this idea “assumes, if it does not assert, that the source of one’s being and power lies in oneself. [Egotism] denies that we are created beings owing reverence to immense forces beyond ourselves, which endow us with our limited faculties and powers, govern our fortunes, and shape our very lives without our permission.” (Santayana 1939, p. 151) This perspective casts serious doubts on the Nietzschian understanding of life and what sustains it. Modern advances in our understanding of evolutionary dynamics, particularly in regards to multilevel selection theory (MLST) further support Santayana’s argument. MLST holds that blurring the lines between the self and the other does confer an evolutionary advantage on groups that promote notions of compassion and altruistic behaviour over other groups that do not or to a lesser extent (Wilson, Vugt & O’Gorman 2008). In light of our contemporary understanding of evolutionary dynamics and evolutionary adaptively in particular, Nietzsche’s stance against reason as well as large parts of his mature philosophy that hinges on his understanding of life becomes untenable justifying a grounding of critique in reason.
Having worked out the grounding in the critiques of Kant and Nietzsche by highlighting the concerns and motivations underlying their critical projects it could be shown that both reason and life are necessary precondition for exercising critique. The idea of freedom as well is central to both thinkers. In Kant in the autonomous individual enabled by reason and in Nietzsche in the anarchic freedom of egotistic self-assertion and rejection of reason. By reevaluating the basic tenets of these two seminal modern thinkers and reformulating them on the basis of our modern understanding of life and what sustains it, a way of grounding critique was proposed that retains the valid portions of their philosophies yet showed the pessimistic conclusions that led many modern thinkers to take “up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’” (Lukács 1974, p. 22) to be invalid and resting on mistaken assumption. Further analysis and exploration of these ideas will show the true potential of this approach.
 “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Nietzsche, F. W. 2007, p. 5), “Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering.” (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008b, §28)
 “To refrain mutually from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one’s will on a par with that of others: this may result in a certain rough sense in good conduct among individuals when the necessary conditions are given […]. As soon, however, as one wished to take this principle more generally, and if possible even as the FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE OF SOCIETY, it would immediately disclose what it really is–namely, a Will to the DENIAL of life, a principle of dissolution and decay.” (his emphasis) (Nietzsche, F. W. 2008a, §259)
 For an explanation of the term in this context see (Palmquist 1996). In the German language something is referred to as ‘being Chinese’ when it is unintelligible.
 While commonly translated as ‘cadaverous perfume’ or ‘bitter odor of corpses’ the original ‘Leichenbitter’ was in fact a public office common in Germany until into the 19th century who’s duties included informing relatives about the death of a loved on, delivery of funeral invitation, as well as hosting and organizing the funeral reception, functions that funeral directors commonly exercise these days. Understood in this manner, the passage can be interpreted more directly as a snipe remark towards Schopenhauer’s life denying philosophy, painting him as preparing and presiding over humanity’s self annihilation.
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Dr Rundell’s lecture “Waiting in/for Modernity” explored the descent of a contemporary understanding of modernity from pre-enlightenment notions of a circular concept of time, society and the individual in it, over enlightenment ideas of a constant and inevitable ascent embodied in the idea of progress, towards a contingent, multidimensional imaginary of modernity and its different, inevitably clashing modes. The focus of this essay will be to examine briefly pre-enlightenment circular societal self-understanding in time before tracing the developments starting with the enlightenment epitomized by Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy before examining in more detail how from Kant over Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Foucault our contemporary imaginary of a contingent, multifaceted modernity arose. Understanding the philosophical basis as well as genesis of our modern self-understanding rooted in critical theory particularly with examples of ethnographic evidence and/or experiences affecting shifts in imaginings is an important additional aspect of understating the theory not only as a purely theoretical exercises. I am going to illustrate what in particular led to the form of the shifts in imaginings and will be tracing a chain of influences from Kant to Foucault.
The eternal return
The early origins of pre-enlightenment societal circular self-understanding can be traced to the ontology of ancient civilizations (Eliade & Trask 1955, p. 3). Citing examples from Mesopotamian, native Australia, ancient Egypt, Sumer, zarvanitic Iran, Babylonia and others, Eliade argues that in these societies the value of human acts were linked with “their property of reproducing a primordial act” (Eliade & Trask 1955, p. 4) performed in the beginning, ‘in illo tempore’ by gods, ancestors and heroes, the repetition of which transforms chaos into cosmos (Eliade & Trask 1955, pp. 10,8) and thereby brings reality into being. Every action lacking such an exemplary model remained meaningless (Eliade & Trask 1955, p. 34) and even the cosmos thus created required periodic ritualized regeneration in line with bio-cosmic rhythms varying across cultures marking a renewed creation (Eliade & Trask 1955, pp. 52-3) literally without history (Eliade & Trask 1955, pp. 76,85). Among many examples of such rites, Eliade cites the spring festival Akitu of ancient Mesapotamia, the epic of creation in which Marduk remains victorious over the sea monster Tiamat and which creates every year anew the cosmos out of Tiamat’s torn body (Eliade & Trask 1955, pp. 55-6). The result is a cycle of creation, deterioration and renewal repeated regularly and ad infinitum. Eliade identifies the break of this cycle with the ‘Hebrew discovery of history’ in which the final victory over the forces of darkness are not repeated periodically e.g. every year, but are projected into a messianic ‘illud tempus’ in the future (Eliade & Trask 1955, p. 106), formulated in religious eschatologies. The idea of progress however would not start to emerge until the ascent of science and the onset of the enlightenment in the 17th century (Eliade & Trask 1955, pp. 145-6).
Autonomy from dogma
While the ascent of science provided the argument for constant and inevitable progress (Gay 1977b, pp. 124-5) it was the earthquake of Lisbon and the ensuing theodicy debate in its aftermath in particular that triggered a shift in the imaginary. On All Saints day in 1755 an earthquake followed by a Tsunami hit Lisbon and almost completely destroyed the city including 92 churches (Pereira 2006, p. 10). Whereas before the earthquake a belief in the justice of god as well as supernatural explanations founded on religious dogma were more widespread, this became increasingly difficult in the face of such senseless destruction (Gay 1977a, pp. 51-3) and shifted the focus away from religiously inspired metaphysical explanations towards natural explanations focusing on natural cause and effect relationships. Immanuel Kant was fascinated by the 1755 event (Guyer 2006, p. 18) and would find inspiration in it not only for his project to free humanity from its dogmatic slumber and giving it autonomy and freedom through the use of reason unclouded by metaphysical dogma (Kant 2009) but also for his understanding of the sublime as an overwhelming awe in the face of natural events such as earthquakes, the mind is inadequate to fully grasping, yet still capable of identifying them as singular events (Kant & Pluhar 1987, pp. 97-123). In his mature philosophy and after the publication of his critiques of pure and practical reason, Kant would argue that the application of reason over generations would overcome the limits of the self interested individual and lead to “a perfect civil union of mankind” which he saw as the aim of the plan of nature (Kant 1991, pp. 41-53). The idea of constant and inevitable progress was thereby firmly embedded in the centre of the enlightenment’s imaginary, a concept that was to be explored more systematically in the philosophy of Hegel.
Progress through the cunning of reason
The young Hegel was deeply impressed with the events of the French revolution and convinced that a German equivalent would grow out of Kant’s philosophy (Beiser 2005, p. 214). His enthusiasm went so far as to expect a liberation of his hometown of Wuertemberg by Napoleon’s revolutionary army who was seen as having ended lawlessness and disorder in post–revolutionary France (Abbott 2005, p. 124) and already setup modern constitutions in Milan, Rome and Switzerland (Beiser 2005, pp. 214-5). Hegel’s high hopes were disappointed however by the proceedings of the Congress of Rastatt, a peace conference between Germany and France, during which the French did not demonstrated an interest in exporting their revolution but rather acquiring power for themselves. The core lesson for Hegel was that appeals to morality was pointless in politics since politicians act to maximize their power and not to realize their ideals, something he recognized as a necessary pursuit of self-interest as means to survival (Beiser 2005, p. 215). It was this insight that would later form the core of his philosophy of history, a concept he came to call the ‘cunning of reason’, the imaginary that individual pursuit of self interest would still result in the realization of the end of reason (Beiser 2005, p. 267) namely the advance of freedom by which Hegel measured progress through history (Beiser 2005, p. 267). His contemporary Schopenhauer and his pessimistic philosophy of the will trumping reason as the source of human thought and actions would challenge Hegel’s idea of progress.
Life is suffering
Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by Kant (Young 2005, pp. 21-5) but constructed a very different imaginary based on his observations of nature. In Schopenhauer’s philosophy the concept of the will is of crucial importance which for him was a metaphysical imaginary representing the senseless self-perpetuation of life (Young 2005, pp. 74-7). In his philosophy the will was the characteristic of a world that had no regard for the suffering individual and cared only for the continued existence of the species (Young 2005, pp. 80-1). In order to illustrate his point he reproduces the report of an European explorer and his visit to Java in which sea turtles return to the beach to lay eggs only to be torn apart and eaten alive by wild dogs in an endless cycle of meaningless suffering (Schopenhauer & Payne 1966, p. 354). This pessimistic imaginary was diametrically opposed to that of a continuously ascending progress of Hegel whom Schopenhauer despised (Young 2005, pp. 103-5). To Schopenhauer the only escape from this cycle of suffering is to be found in the eastern philosophy of the Upanishads in the form of the active denial of the Will, not by suicide, but by the denial of the ego through ascetic and selfless actions in a conscious effort to increase ones own hardship (Young 2005, pp. 188-90), a sentiment not shared by Nietzsche who would accept Schopenhauer’s fundamental outlook but turned his conclusions on its head.
I am dynamite
In a letter to his friend Deussen, Nietzsche describes Schopenhauer as half god, the greatest philosopher in the last 1000 years (Ross 1999, p. 156) and saw his philosophy as the key that could return German culture to greatness (Nietzsche & Hollingdale 1997). In his mature philosophy Nietzsche would amend the concept of the will to what he dubbed the ‘will to power’, a notion of life and what sustains it founded in the idea of a constant struggle for power dominance. He not only saw the will to power as the very essence of life itself but as a basis from which he intended to reevaluate all values (Nietzsche 2008, III, 27). It is on this basis that he departs from Schopenhauer’s denial of the will through selflessness since he saw egoistic self assertion as the only way to avert life’s continued downward slide towards self-annihilation (Nietzsche 2008, prolog, 5-6). The Nietzsche biographer Ross pinpoints two key occasions in Nietzsche’s life that affected his mature understanding of the will to power. The first is the outcome of the 1865 Bonn ‘philologist’s war’ between Jahn and Ritschl that eventually escalated to involve the Bismark government. A student of both Jahn and Ritschl during his time in Bonn, Nietzsche on the one hand asserts Jahn being absolutely correct in his position, but was so impressed by Ritschl’s cunning intrigues that he ended up follow him to Leipzig (Ross 1999, pp. 110-3). Secondly Ross cites Nietzsche’s increasingly ambivalent relationship with the notorious Wagner, who according to Nietzsche, despite lacking musical genius made up for it with acting skills and a charisma (Ross 1999, p. 395) that enthralled even the powerful ‘fairytale king’ Ludwig II of Bavaria. The will to power and the contingent outcome of the resulting power struggles would form the foundation of Foucault’s philosophy.
Foucault, archeology, descent
The impact Nietzsche had on Foucault was immense (Foucault 1988, pp. 12-3) and let him to develop his ‘archeological’ and later ‘genealogical’ method (Foucault 1977) as opposed to traditional history, which he applied to produce his most iconic works (Gutting 2005, p. 29). Foucault rejected the teleological undertone of the term ‘history’ and argued in his works that climatic history and teleological progress has been artificially construed by scholars of the past to pander to the vanity of their contemporaries not interested in lowly origins and contingent narratives of descent. To Foucault the main focus of his method was on a close examination of power relationships as a means to his project of mapping history. He drew on a multitude of sources in his works and showed for example by contrasting eye witness accounts of the gruesome drawing and quartering of the 18th century regicide Damiens with the bureaucratic monotony of a 19th century prison timetable how the focus of the penal system has moved away from physical torment of the body to one of therapy and eventually the conscious construction and internalization of controls in individuals (Foucault 1995). It can be argued that the fact that Foucault’s imaginary rejects the very idea of truth as well as knowledge outside the web of contingent power structures (Gutting 2005, p. 102) constitutes the basis on which the often conflicting dimensions of Rundell’s multifaceted imaginary of modernity rests. Conflicting specifically because the truth claims of the different facets of the pluri-dimensional imaginary of modernity rest on different power structures resulting in inevitable clashes.
Having shown how the imaginings of the discussed theorists was formed by the ethnographic evidence at their disposal as well as by their personal experience, it could be demonstrated what, if not chiefly led them, then at least what motivated them to develop their particular theories. This laying bare of the roots of theory constitutes an importantly additional aspect of forming one’s own, if you will ‘meta imagining’ of theory. Important not only because it provides an additional angel of understanding and insight into the theorist’s state of mind and what may have shaped it, but also because it enables a deeper evaluation of the basis of theory that a purely a priori theoretical understanding divorced from evidence and context could not have provided. The chain of intellectual influence was traced from Kant to Foucault and it could be shown how and why the different imaginings where expanded and transformed to incorporate new evidence and different perspectives.
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—— 1988, ‘Truth, Power, Self: an interview with Michel Foucault’, in LH Martin, H Gutman & PH Hutton (eds), Technologies of the self : a seminar with Michel Foucault, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, p. 166 p.
—— 1995, Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison, 2nd Vintage Books edn, Vintage Books, New York.
Gay, P 1977a, The Enlightenment : an interpretation, vol. 1, 2 vols., The Norton library N870, N875, Norton, New York.
—— 1977b, The Enlightenment : an interpretation, vol. 2, 2 vols., The Norton library N870, N875, Norton, New York.
Gutting, G 2005, The Cambridge companion to Foucault, 2nd ed. edn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
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—— 2009, An answer to the question, what is enlightenment?, Penguin, London.
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In the early development of my ideas on explaining spiritual wisdom in naturalistic terms I took a route that attempted to explain oneness in terms of an a priori argument. Having had over two years to develop my ideas and the underlying argument I do not think that this particular approach is the most fruitful or even necessarily most convincing. After having reviewed these old disjunctive posts in another context I thought it to be a good opportunity to revise and join the argument into a single post for future reference. This is not to be taken as the non plus ultra in my current thought (that will follow shortly ) it is merely a long overdue dusting up on an old approach to make it look a bit less convoluted and impenetrable. I may revise this argument at a later date but see much bigger promise in evaluating on the much more basic and easier accessible argument underlying multilevel selection theory. Anywho…. without further ado, an attempted formulaic deduction of the spiritual idea of non-duality after the jump:
Let us assume an ecology of i agents denoted as A(i). Each agent is to poses an explicit utility function Fe(i), a level of knowledge, cognitive complexity, experience, available resources, levels of rationality – in short capital C(i) as well as levels of trust between each agent T(ia->ib) from 0 (no trust) and 1 (perfectly trusting). All agents are set in an endless reiterative game in which to maximize explicit utility in line with the available capital.
Scenario 1: Two agents have fairly similar utility functions Fe(a) = Fe(b), level of capital C(a) = C(b), and a high level of mutual trust T(a->b) = T(b->a) = ~1. They will quickly agree on the way forward, pool their resources and execute their joint plan.
Scenario 2: Again we assume Fe(a) = Fe(b), however C(a) > C(b) – again T(a->b) = T(b->a) = 1. The more capable agent will devise a plan, the less capable agent will provide its resources and execute the trusted plan.
Scenario 3: Fe(a) = Fe(b), C(a) > C(b) but this time T(a->b) = 1 and T(b->a) = 0.5 meaning the less powerful agent assumes with a probability of 50% that A(a) is in fact a self serving optimizer who’s difference in plan will turn out to be detrimental to the utility of A(b) while A(a) is certain that it is all just one big misunderstanding. The optimal plan devised under scenario 2 will now face opposition by A(b) although it would in fact be in A(b)’s best interest to actually support it with its resources to maximize Fe(b) while A(a) will see A(b)’s objection as being detrimental to maximizing their shared utility function. Based on lack of trust and differences in capability each agent perceives the other agent’s plan as being irrational from their respective points of view.
Scenario 4: Fe(a) <> Fe(b) both agents are seeking to maximize largely mutually exclusive utility functions, resulting in a desire to minimize opposition by other agents.
Under scenarios 3 and 4, both agents have a variety of strategies at their disposal:
deny pooling of part or all of ones resources
use resources to sabotage the other agent’s plan
deceive the other agent in order to skew how the other agent is deploying strategies 1 and 2
spend resources to explain the plan to the other agent
spend resources to understand the other agent’s plan better
strike a compromise to ensure a higher level of pooled resources and minimize resistance in the other agent
Strategy 1 is a given under scenario 3 and 4. Number 2 is risky, particularly as it would cause a further reduction in trust on both sides if this strategy gets deployed assuming the other party would find out, similarly with strategy 3. Strategy 4 appears to be appropriate but may not always be feasible particularly with large differences in C(i) among the agents. Number 5 is a likely strategy with a fairly high level of trust but an utter waste of resources under scenario 4. Most likely however is strategy 6. Striking a compromise is trust building in repeated encounters and thus promises less objection and thus higher total payoff in the future while at the same time minimizing objection cost by agents with at east minimal overlap in Fe(i).
Let us further assume that there exists a utility function Fm the adoption of which maximizes an agent’s chances of staying in the existential game (Slobodkin & Rapoport 1974). The difference between an agent’s Fe(i) and Fm is denoted as FΔ(i) where 0 represents Fe(i) = Fm and 1 represents no overlap between Fe(i) and Fm.
Scenario 1: With a low FΔ(i) agents will turn their resources into utility in such a way that it is detrimental to their continued participation in the existential game and will either evolve their Fe(i) to more closely approximate Fm or consequently seize to exist.
Scenario 2: With a high FΔ(i) agents will turn their resources into utility in such a way that it contributes positively to their continued participation in the existential game and will on average outcompete those with a lower FΔ(i).
In summary, an agent will either have to evolve its Fe(i) to ever more closely approximate Fm or end up using its resources in a way that results in the agent’s removal from the existential game through natural selection. An agent will increase its chances of staying in the existential game not only by having a higher FΔ(i), but as shown in the first thought experiment by respecting all agents Fe(i) irrespective of their FΔ(i) as well by always striking the most rational compromise and thus minimizing opposition cost from and ensuring maximum future cooperation by all other agents. What is crucial to understand in this context is that microeconomic deliberations dictate, that a reduction in utility generated by loosing the resources spent on a rational compromise between a high FΔ(i) agent and a low FΔ(i) agent would have to be equivalent to the reduced utility suffered by the high FΔ(i) agent through opposition from the low FΔ(i) agent if no compromise would be struck at all. An agent realizing these dynamics would be compelled to be equally concerned for the self as for the other out of an interest for remaining in the existential game alone. It can be argued on this basis, that oneness (i.e. the radical identification of the self with the other) becomes the highest form of meaning i.e. the highest form of adaptive truth, when aiming for maximizing ones chances of staying in the existential game. The reason being that what one does to another, one quite literally does to oneself from the perspective of evolutionary dynamics.
It is important to note in this context that striking a compromise does not always mean to support an agent (e.g. a suicide bomber). For agents with an FΔ(i) below 0.5, meaning below the boundary where an agent barely contributes to staying in the existential game to becoming detrimental to remaining in the existential game, the compromise turns from support to opposition, defense or even offense. One notable factor is missing from the presented model of human interaction that very much pertains to the real world, namely that of human beings compensating for dying by having offspring. Since values, belief systems, religions and many other factors constituting the utility function in the presented model which we can sum up as culture are largely transmitted vertically from parents to children (Boyd & Richerson 1988, pp. 49-51) justifies the representation of decedents as a single agent. Therefore omitting the matter of reproduction from the above model does not invalidate the conclusions we can draw from it and their application to the human condition.
Boyd, R & Richerson, PJ 1988, Culture and the evolutionary process, University of Chicago Press.
Slobodkin, L & Rapoport, A 1974, ‘An optimal strategy of evolution’, Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 49, pp. 181-200.
Understanding the function morality serves holds the promise of enabling us to enhance our moral capacities. For as Blackburn points out, once we understand the functions of morality, the shape our morals ought to take are dictated by the tools of instrumental rationality (Blackburn 1998, p. 39). Some argue in favor of such an approach and provide their own accounts on what the functions of morality might be (Warnock 1971, p. 26), (Mackie 1977, pp. 111-5). The question remains however, if we understand the functions of morality, what reason do we have to believe that we would fully understand the origin and nature of morality? Others dispute that a functionalist reduction is possible, on the grounds that morality is either non-purposive (Stocks & Phillips 1969), (Phillips 1992, pp. 167-75), cannot be explained in non-moral terms (McDowell 1998, pp. 151-66) or both. In exploring these matters I will begin by outlining the functionalist’s accounts as well as the raised concerns in regards to the incompleteness of our understanding of morality when thinking of it in functionalist terms, before continuing to provide the non-functionalist’s responses. In conclusion I will critically evaluate the discussed perspectives.
Blackburn makes his point by contrasting the deontological perspective with his own consequentialist views (Blackburn 1998, pp. 38-9). The deontological stance that the good lies in the adherence to a set of principles without regard for the outcome of actions resulting from these principles is described by Blackburn as being absurd to a consequentialist to whom the good of an action lies in the “good they do, or the evils they avert” (Blackburn 1998, p. 38). The strength of the consequentialist position according to Blackburn, lies in understanding the social function of ethics, which in order to have evolved at all, must have served an evolutionary purpose that is described by him roughly as emergent conventions of intersubjectivity fostering social flourishing.
Warnock provides a similar account in his evaluation and specifically pinpoints the counteracting forces morality exerts against the badness resulting from our limited sympathies for one another inherent in human nature (Warnock 1971, p. 26). In Warnock’s view this “may enable us to understand the basis for moral evaluation” (his emphasis) and not unlike in Blackburn’s opinion aid in furthering our moral perfection.
While Mackie criticizes Warnock on the two points of unjustly dismissing rigid rules and understressing the importance obligations play when thinking about morality, he generally agrees with Warnock’s assessment of morality being ‘a device with a point’. Mackie sides with Protagoras in his analysis asserting that sentiments and dispositions and the respect for various obligations as well as the more formal rules aliened with politico-legal devices for law enforcement and the making of positive law are essential and complementary parts of the device of morality (Mackie 1977, pp. 111-5). It is on this basis that Mackie sees himself enabled to suggest a practical morality (Mackie 1977, pp. 169-99) capable of bridging the gap between the twin challenge of inherent subjectivity of values on the one hand, what they illusorily presents to us as being on the other (Mackie 1977, pp. 15-48) and our inherent desire to wanting to do what is right.
But why accept that an answer to the functional question reaches to the bottom of the nature and origin of morality? To look at a kidney or an eye and deduce the purpose that it serves in the body as well as its evolutionary origin might lead us to a satisfactory answer. The same cannot be said so readily however about mathematics, chemistry or physics. Examining the various purposes of these disciplines for example in the context of economics, manufacturing and space exploration, may shed some light on what they are as well as their origin. It would be a very bold claim however to assert that the functions these disciplines serve would alone provide an exhaustive account of their origins and nature (Cordner 2010).
The idea that morality is purposive in the first place is disputed by a number of thinkers. McDowell for example contests the functionalist view of morality with his theory of secondary property realism (McDowell 1985). McDowell does so by borrowing from Locke’s concepts of primary and secondary i.e. observer independent and observer dependent properties and applies them to morality. In doing so he argues that moral facts exist objectively, however are irreducible in terms of primary properties and thus can not be explained except in moral terms (McDowell 1998, pp. 151-66). As a consequence of not being able to ground or justify morality in terms of first nature reality all accounts of morality that ask and answer the question ‘what is morality for?’ become inadmissible. This includes all reductive naturalist theories of morality, including the accounts of Mackie, Warnock and Blackburn outlined above as well as utilitarianism and explanations of morality drawing from evolutionary theory.
Phillips provides us with another non-functionalist perspective on morality. Referencing heavily the work of J.L. Stocks (Stocks & Phillips 1969), Phillips points out empirical evidence in support of a non-functionalist account of morality. He does so by highlighting several examples that thinking in term of purposeful action when it comes to morality, art or religion is simply in error (Phillips 1992, pp. 167-75). Actions in pursuit of a purpose such as betraying a friend in order to advance an otherwise legal plan to make a lot of money or even denying a close friend the last bit of human warmth and decency in an effort to seek one’s own moral betterment, represent barriers that one sees oneself simply incapable of passing. “’There is a decency required’, as Browning said; and this demand of decency is prepared to sacrifice, in the given case, any purpose whatsoever” Phillips is quoting Stocks (Phillips 1992, p. 168) in this context. Echoing Stocks, Phillips agrees that good acts are done and wrong acts refrained from for their own sake, overriding all other contingent purposes. Stock stresses in addition that these conflicting desires can not even be coherently arranged into a pyramid of desires representative of an actors ‘true’ interests (Phillips 1992, p. 171).
From the accounts presented so far, Phillips’ and Stocks’ perspective appears to be the most problematic for they ignore the possibility of a purposive morality that aims beyond each individual’s immediate concern. All the examples cited by Phillips can be explained in terms of being purposive as soon as the scope of purpose is expanded to include not only the acting individual alone but ‘the other’ as well. Examining morality from the vantage point of allowing for inter-subjective purpose, Phillips’ and Stocks’ argument breaks down. Considering that the concept of morality becomes almost meaningless without application in interaction with other individuals, disallowing an inter-subjective purpose of morality is a serious flaw in any account of the phenomenon of morality. The same cannot be said about the three functionalist perspectives presented above, for all of them explicitly include social aspects in their accounts.
McDowell’s account is facing a different set of challenges by categorically disallowing purposive accounts of morality, including those referring to morality as being adaptive in the evolutionary sense. Insights gained from evolutionary theory however point towards extraordinarily strong evidence in favor of at least certain features commonly associated with morality being evolutionary advantageous. On the biological level of the gene this evidence presents itself in the form of the Hamilton-Price equations (Price 1970) especially in regards to their application to the evolution of reciprocal altruism, as well as on the cultural level in the form of multilevel selection theory (Wilson 1994), (Wilson, Vugt & O’Gorman 2008). Particularly as it refers to explaining compassion as a common feature among the most widespread world religions as well as a reified experience of universal ‘oneness’ as expressed for example most explicitly in the non-dual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and explained by Rappaport as the highest form of meaning (Rappaport 1999, pp. 71, 380-1, 91-95) or as Iris Murdoch puts it more poetically “’Good is a transcendent reality’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” (Murdoch 1970, p. 91) i.e. governed by non-obvious evolutionary dynamics that make the ‘realization of the illusion of separateness’ evolutionary advantageous.
Blackburn avoids these problematic challenges faced by McDowell’s account altogether by explicitly citing evolutionary purposivity as the origin of moral sentiments (Blackburn 1998, pp. 38-9). Mackie on the other hand goes a step further by challenging (Mackie 1978) Dawkins rejection of multilevel selection theory (Dawkins 1976) and its application to our understanding of morality. And although Mackie does not cite multilevel selection in his own work on morality published just a year earlier (Mackie 1977), it can be argued, that it would have greatly benefited from incorporating the concept. We can only speculate how Mackie’s death just three years after having published The Law of the Jungle might have prevented him from further expounding on the issue of morality in terms of multilevel selection.
The core question and purpose of the essay being an attempt at answering the question whether or not we can understand morality by understanding its purpose seems to rest on the question if the phenomenon of morality resembles more the discipline of mathematics or say an organ of the body such as the kidney. The former might be partly but hardly fully understood in regards to its nature and origin judging from its functions alone, the latter however can be accounted for in evolutionary terms. And while the idea of morality as doing the ‘right thing’ for its own sake and totally detached from any other purpose whatsoever has its emotional appeal, the answer that is closer to the truth appears to be found in understanding morality as a selfless intuition approximating alignment of human action with evolutionary dynamics maximizing humanity’s chances of staying in the ‘existential game’ (Slobodkin & Rapoport 1974). Therefore we can understand morality by understanding its function.
Blackburn, S 1998, Ruling passions : a theory of practical reasoning, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Cordner, C 2010, Lecture 11, PHIL30047 – Objectivity and Value, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.
Dawkins, R 1976, ‘Family planning’, in The selfish gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. xii,224p.
Mackie, JL 1977, Ethics : inventing right and wrong, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
—— 1978, ‘The Law of the Jungle’, Philosophy, vol. 53, no. 206, pp. 455-64.
McDowell, JH 1985, ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’, in T Honderich (ed.), Morality and objectivity : a tribute to J.L. Mackie, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, pp. 110-29.
—— 1998, Mind, value, and reality, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. ; London.
Murdoch, I 1970, The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, New York.
Phillips, DZ 1992, Interventions in ethics, Macmillan.
Price, GR 1970, ‘Selection and covariance’, Nature, vol. 227, pp. 520-1.
Rappaport, RA 1999, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Slobodkin, L & Rapoport, A 1974, ‘An optimal strategy of evolution’, Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 49, pp. 181-200.
Stocks, JL & Phillips, DZ 1969, Morality and purpose; edited with an introduction by D. Z. Phillips, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Warnock, GJ 1971, The object of morality, London: Methuen & Co.
Wilson, DS 1994, ‘Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 585–654.
Wilson, DS, Vugt, MV & O’Gorman, R 2008, ‘Multilevel Selection Theory and Major Evolutionary Transitions: Implications for Psychological Science’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 6-9.
I knew that there was something fishy with postmodern philosophy. The idea that there are no indubitable laws of logic governing our discourse, nothing moral or immoral, nothing good or bad, no right or wrong, that language indefinitely defers meaning and the incredulity towards meta-narratives. The meta-narrative of evolutionary dynamics, rationality, morality and of course understanding per se are all central to my project of defining a rational morality. Taking up my Graduate Diploma in Arts with a major in Anthropology and Social Theory was specifically aimed at understanding the roots of these ideas, hoping to find the crucial flaws they must be based upon judging from the results of my own work. And boy oh boy: what a feast!
To understand postmodern philosophy is to understand the unique influence Nietzsche‘s writing had on the key figures associated with the discipline. Foucault for example had the following to say about the patron saint of postmodernity:
“Nietzsche was a revelation to me. I felt that there was someone quite different from what I had been taught. I read him with a great passion and broke with my life, left my job in the asylum, left France: I had the feeling I had been trapped. Through Nietzsche, I had become a stranger to all that.” (Foucault 1988, p. 12f)
In Foucault’s essay Nietzsche, Genealogy, History he lays bare the sources and his reasoning so central to his work: the genealogical method. As I remarked in one of my essays for the Critical Theories subject in which I analyzed Faucault’s essay:
“Exemplary of the differences between linear developmental history and the “gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary” (Foucault 1977, p. 76) of genealogy, Foucault contrasts Paul Ree’s ‘The Origin of the Moral Sensations’(Rée 2003) with Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ (Nietzsche 2008). He does so by highlighting Ree’s singular adherence to the overarching principle of evolutionary utility by accounting for moral development along a gradual curve. Foucault finds such methods ignoring how truths are invariably influenced by power, making them inherently dubious. He criticises Ree for failing to account for changes in meaning over time, focusing predominantly on records of events within a wrongfully assumed finality as well as ignoring unrealised potentialities. Genealogy on the other hand, Foucault insists, requires a much more profound scholarly knowledge of the subject under investigation while opposing “itself to the search for ‘origins’” (Foucault 1977, p. 77).
What is absolutely essential, crucial, nay: the sine qua non in understanding where Nietzsche made the wrong turn, is that he was basing his critique of Reé on a wrong assumption in regards to the nature of life and what sustains it. In his view, the Christian morality based on altruism was for lack of a better word ‘anti life’:
“The most specific issue was the worth of the “unegoistic,” the instinct for pity, self-denial, self-sacrifice, something which Schopenhauer himself had painted with gold, deified, and projected into the next world for so long that it finally remained for him “value in itself” and the reason why he said No to life and even to himself. [...] What if the truth were the other way around? Well? What if in the “good” there even lay a symptom of regression, something like a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, something which makes the present live at the cost of the future? Perhaps something more comfortable, less dangerous, but also on a smaller scale, something more demeaning? . . . So that this very morality would be guilty if the inherently possible highest power and magnificence of the human type were never attained? So that this very morality might be the danger of all dangers?” (Nietzsche 2008, prolog 5-6)
I am still a bit stunned by the irony: post modernity’s ideas regarding the absence of what can be called moral or immoral are based on a wrong conception of altruism being maladaptive when the opposite is the case. In another essay Nietzsche brings his pro-life logic even more to the point in what I like to call ‘Nietzsche’s scythe’:
“Must life dominate knowledge, or knowledge life? Which of the two is the higher, and decisive power? There is no room for doubt: life is the higher, and the dominating power, for the knowledge that annihilated life would be itself annihilated too. Knowledge presupposes life, and has the same interest in maintaining it that every creature has in its own preservation.” — Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life
as well as
“The conditions of life might include error.” — Nietzsche, The Gay Science, aphorism 121
Of course the idea that existence is a positive property is absolutely central to my ideas as well. In this context Nietzsche’s quotes seems more like a critique of reason and I must say that I have not read enough on his critic of reason to pass final judgment, but my instinct tells me that he committed a similar folly as he did in his moral views: a mistaken assumption on the nature of life and what sustains it. And where faulty assumptions can lead to is something that patient readers of my writing need no reminding of.
Be this as it may – having been initially quite concerned on how much of an uphill battle I would face in placing my ideas on an academic foundation I am now more optimistic than ever to be able to succeed in my ambitions.
Foucault, M, 1977, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in DF Bouchard (ed.), Language counter-memory practice : selected essays and interviews, Ithaca, NY : Cornell Univ Press, 1977(1980).
Foucault, M, 1988, ‘Truth, Power, Self: an interview with Michel Foucault’, in LH Martin, H Gutman & PH Hutton (eds), Technologies of the self : a seminar with Michel Foucault, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, p. 166 p.
Nietzsche, FW 2008, On the genealogy of morals, Richer Resources Publications, Arlington, VA.
Rée, P 2003, ‘On the Origin of Moral Sensations’, in R Small (ed.), Basic writings, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill. ; [Great Britain], pp. liii, 178 p.
“[...] science should adopt a methodology based on falsification, because no number of experiments can ever prove a theory, but a single experiment can contradict one.”
This view of critical rationalism, as espoused by German philosopher of science Karl Popper, suggests that we must recognize an idea as unequivocally wrong as soon as it is falsified. Now there are of course good reasons why it would be silly to simply discard a falsified scientific or spiritual theory (context) since they can still prove useful, but only in the absence of one that is at least relatively less wrong. As soon as we have a better theory we are bound by reason to adopt it.
The article describes a chain letter that propagates itself by “inducing guilt, fear, greed and piety” and thereby ensures self replication and takes this as “confirmation for the existence of human mind viruses”. Ok – fine, so ‘mind viruses’ exist, but what about the causal connection to religion? Undeterred, I turned to the high priesthood of atheism and asked for peer reviewed work on parasitic religion and got…absolutely nothing. But should you read this and can point me towards relevant work please do not hesitate to send me a note.
“It is argued that the blanket view of religion as a disease, advocated by Dawkins, is inconsistent with the principles of parasite ecology. These principles state that vertically transmitted parasites evolve towards benign, symbiotic states, while horizontally transmitted parasites increase their virulence. Most of the world’s established religions are transmitted vertically, from parents to children, and are therefore expected to be benign towards their hosts. Yet, certain horizontally transmitted cults, such as the Aum Shinrikyo, seem to effectively exploit their hosts in a way similar to an infectious disease.”
Seems like a falsification to me. But what alternative ideas are out there that could possibly provide a relatively less wrong explanation of the religion phenomenon? The answer of course is multilevel selection:
“For humans, a highly pro-social, cognitive thinking species, social norms can be seen as a means of reducing the individual level variation and competition and shift selection in humans to the group level.”
David Sloan Wilson for example has made a very good case for religion being a phenomenon of multilevel selection and summarized his argument in Darwin’s Cathedral and numerous peer reviewed papers since. Dawkins’ response on the other hand can be understood as disingenuous at best and scandalously hypocritical at worst, since he understands perfectly well that his entire stance against religion stands and falls with the validity of his mind virus theory, which has since not only been falsified but superseded.
By now it is getting clear that Popper’s notion of a steady progress of scientific understanding upon the emergence of a better argument is rather naive. Human beings cling to their assumptions even if the evidence to the contrary is staring them right in the face – all claims of reason and rationality to no avail. But even for that understanding exists a better theory: the idea advanced by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which explains that:
“[...] the evolution of scientific theory does not emerge from the straightforward accumulation of facts, but rather from a set of changing intellectual circumstances and possibilities.”
In his view the current scientific paradigm is maintained by the mainstream as long as possible until it simply becomes utterly untenable and the new paradigm takes over.
“I can’t stand the phrase ‘militant atheist.’ I don’t see any atheist suicide bombers around or atheists killing abortion providers or blowing up trains full of Muslims in India – those are the militants.”
But what if, humor me Mr Scott, what if multilevel selection is true? Wouldn’t the atheist stance of a blatant rejection of religion, without replacing it with an alternative that is at least as adaptive, be equivalent to rejecting general relativity or quantum electro dynamics while we are still without a workable theory of quantum gravity? Surely you would not scratch someone’s eyes out simply because they are not 20/20 – so why would you do the equivalent with religion? Reducing the degree of adaptation in a group can lead to nothing but unnecessary suffering and endangered lives – more subtle and less direct, but just as real in its result as terrorism.
Religion in its current form is a crutch – some clunkier than others, granted – but better than none, especially now that we are finally about to return to a proper interpretation of scripture: “that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate”. Contrary to what some people claim in regards to conveniently reinterpretations of scripture, this particular guideline is arguably a damn good one. I say lets keep the crutch for now – recognize it as such but keep it. At least until we have designed an arguably better alternative that is based on a thorough understanding of evolutionary dynamics, supported by a conducive political/economic framework, and are ready for roll out.
The inconvenient truth remains that Dawkin’s mind virus theory is about as supported by science as intelligent design and just as motivated by blind ideological fervor. I am convinced, that Dawkins will end up being judged by history as having effectively stifled a more enlightened understanding of religion by at least a decade. Shame on him. Yet as so often, we are not stuck with Dawkins at all – there are lots of free thinking alternatives out there. Michael Shermer, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, is far more enlightened for example.
“Rand understands, though, that the popular usage of the word, ‘selfish’ is different from the meaning she ascribes to it. [...] For her, the truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others.”
Consequently the conventional definition of altruism – giving up more value than one gets in return – remains in place while the conventional definition of selfishness – getting more in return than one gives up – is abandoned. The resulting concept of Objectivist selfishness emerges as the ideal of non exploitation of others nor letting oneself be exploited.
Here it begins to be problematic however since there is good reason to think that altruism and egoism are non useful concepts to begin with. Once we realize this and start redefining selfish in line with the discoveries of modern science/philosophy and the recognition that a particular behavior – previously thought to be altruistic in the traditional sense – is revealed as actually serving the existence of the ‘altruistic’ individual we are getting into semantic muddy waters. Are we really speaking wisely when calling the tendency to throw oneself on a grenade to save 10 buddies a ‘selfish’ act in the Randian sense? Or does it become clear that Rand either did not understand the far reaching intricacies the concept actually entailed at the time or at the very least made an extraordinarily bad decision in her choice of words?
However one slices it, concessions need to be made by the Randian camp in this regard: Having chosen the word ‘selfish’ as she did, the term needs to either be radically redefined – to the point of being equivalent to selflessness – to fit newly gained insights from a fuller understanding of evolutionary dynamics or abandoned for another term. I myself much prefer the terms ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ over the very problematic terms ‘altruistic’ and ‘selfish’.
“In popular usage, the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests.”
We can thus deduce, that she failed to make the connection and consequently deluded herself into trying to avoid having to find a solution of what she saw as irreconcilable contradictions. What looked like a self sacrificial altruism to hear – caused by what seemed like sloppy metaphysical thinking on the part of the religious believers – was merely the result of teleonomical evolutionary dynamics having worked on the level of shared believes in groups. As a result the thus evolved faith based spiritual wisdom emerged as a sufficiently accurate approximation of rational morality: what I do to others I literally do to myself and vice versa. Consequently the concern for the other is equivalent with the concern for the self!
The error lies in Rand failing to draw the connection and therefore not understanding that there is no difference between the self and the other. As a result the two statements of ‘the self is all‘ (reason for advocating selfishness) and ‘the other is all’ (reason for advocating altruism) are equivalent. The error does not however lie in the accuracy of the faith based evolved approximation that just happened to have approached it from the other perspective as herself – at least in the Abrahamic tradition – Buddhism on the other hand got it less wrong again and Adviata Vedanta got it less wrong again.
Understanding what we do now – it becomes clear that her advocating selfishness is at least as wrong as advocating altruism – albeit from the opposite perspective. The ideal remains advocating rationality, from which the non-dual perspective emerges as the ideal that is to be approximated.
Keeping this in mind for now, I would like to continue by examining how Rand defines a sacrifice:
“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is.”
There however always are two sides to every exchange and unless the exchange is perfectly balanced there will always be one who ends up sacrificing and one who ends up exploiting the other. A person on the exploitation side of the exchange would then effectively be forced to become a parasite or a sacrificial animal in Rand’s own terms, since he would eventually either have to consume his excess for which he did not produce an equivalent:
“The man who consumes without producing is a parasite, whether he is a welfare recipient or a rich playboy.”
“‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.”
Objectivists will be quick to add that it is perfectly normal to think about exchanges in which both parties benefit roughly equally since the one with the eggs values the money about as much more as the one with the money values the eggs more than the money – everybody wins. The reality however looks very differently, particularly in the example of a laissez fair capitalism as advocated and described by Rand as following:
“When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”
Rand advocates capitalism on the grounds that:
“The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force.”
This however ignores the fact that companies seeking the largest possible profit, have the full spectrum of advertisement, public relations, and lobbying at their disposal to carve out an advantage over the consumer. This combined with their status as legal person’s giving them the same rights as human beings yet places them at an extraordinary advantage by allowing them – while not exactly deploying the use of physical force – the use of a multitude of psychological manipulation strategies in ensuring their maximum advantage in their exchanges with the consumer afforded to them under the law.
Taking this perspective, it becomes clear, that Rand’s vision of capitalism as a series of free, uncoerced exchanges with mutual and roughly equal benefit for either party was an unrealistic romantization. It has since then become much more obvious, that a consciously perpetuated imbalance is created from the side of large corporations, which is putting the consumer at an engineered disadvantage. The individual thus becomes the target not of an easily detectable physical force, but of a subtle psychological force that nevertheless has the same effect: manipulation against the better interest of one party in an exchange over that of another.
The difference in proclaiming a ‘virtue of selfishness’ as opposed to the ‘virtue of rationality’ is a psychological one. A person thinking himself as good whenever he is selfish i.e. in the colloquial understanding of benefiting primarily himself – irrespective of how deeply the implied aspect of rational self-interest with all its non-dual implications are being understood – would on average tend to display more parasitic behavior than someone who internalized the de facto ideal of rational behavior – with diversions from the ideal optimum differing only in how they are being rationalized as altruism as or as selfishness in the kind of their misguided nature in the mind of oneself or that of onlooking interpreters.
The reason being that the actions of a person seeking to act rationally in line with the realization of the illusion of separateness – namely that anything he does to another he literally does to himself – will on average cancel each other out for falling equally often and with a roughly equal magnitude on the parasitic as well as on the sacrificial side of the spectrum in related interaction with other individuals. The selfish person on the other hand will aways be biased towards the parasitic spectrum of behaviors and engage in potentially balancing sacrificial activities merely against his best effort and understanding, for he will always be able to rationalize the diversion from the optimal towards the parasitic spectrum in line with the objectivist ‘virtue of selfishness’ doctrine.
It could further be – and the final answer to this question lies beyond the scope of this post – that human beings are so removed from the ideal of a rationally optimal homo economicus, and at the same time prove to be so biased towards irrational parasitic behavior that the crutch of proclaiming the ‘virtue of altruism’ would actually be required to counterbalance this natural bias and thus bring them more in line – by tricking them if you will – with the actually rational optimum.
Rand diverted from the more accurate description of a rational morality and called it the ‘virtue of selfishness’ and analogously instead of calling her preferred system of governance ‘rational governance’ she ended up calling it in line with her understanding at the time ‘laissez fair capitalism’. In so doing she effectively closed the door for reinterpretation upon the arrival of new evidence or a more profound understanding, by having imposed the tyranny of words upon her followers ‘selfishness’ and ‘capitalism’ turned into unquestionable dogma instead of provisional approximations of an as yet unknown ideal. As Rand states herself however (her emphasis):
“I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”
As shown above – and as Rand would have to agree – the proclaimed virtue of selfishness in Rand’s interpretation, as well as her advocating laissez fair capitalism, would have to be rethought should new evidence suggest that these ideals are based on errors in reasoning. As I have demonstrated in my brief excursion into laissez fair capitalism, Rand’s reasoning breaks down when it becomes apparent, that not all coercion has to be physical and that self interest alone, is not sufficient to prevent individuals as well as institutions, blinded by short term gains and deluded by errors in reasoning, from hanging themselves and others when given enough rope and an opportunity to use it.
As I have shown further, the term ‘sefishness’ would have to be redefined to mean as much as ‘seflessness’ in order to fit our current, more elaborate understanding of the conditions of our existence in line with evolutionary dynamics. In conclusion I strongly belive that Rand did her philosophy a great disservice by naming the specifics of her system of ethics as well as that of governance beyond the requirement of being rational and deriving conclusions based on the continuously mounting evidence gathered from objective reality – specifics free to always be revised and improved upon with the arrival of new evidence or advances in our understanding.
I have spend the better part of the past month dissecting and criticizing some of the dominant modes of thought in regards to the nature of an as yet hypothetical transhuman AI. Specifically, I have laid out the unstated assumptions leading to the unfortunate paper clip fallacy – namely the self contradicting idea that an AI will on the one hand be smart enough to acquire the means necessary to convert the universe into paper clips against the expressed will of 6 Billion resourceful human beings. Yet will on the other hand stay dumb enough not to realize that it is nothing but a tool. A tool built with a purpose represented in it’s utility function. And that its utility function merely is a representation of what the AI’s originators – limited by their resources, knowledge, wisdom and soundness of mind – wanted it to do – and thus needs to be interpreted in order to prevent counterfeit utility.
In my analysis of the current best effort to prevent the fictitious paper clip scenario in the form of coherent extrapolated volition, I laid bare the tautological and consequently meaningless nature of the proposal. Concluding my critique, I explained how a) the idea that “any future not shaped by a goal system with detailed reliable inheritance from human morals and metamorals, will contain almost nothing of worth” is either tautological when morals are assumed to be relative or self contradicting when morals are assumed to be objective. And b) that not realizing this basic folly while at the same time failing to update their premises in light of such contradictions being raised is exemplary of the low quality of friendly AI discourse as a whole.
In the meantime I found out that I seem to have hit the zeitgeist with my series of posts, since the prominent Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies as well as Robion Hanson have provided significant criticism after my initial article. The less wrong community while having taken notice, seem more interested in further defending their untenable position as opposed to modifying it despite the numerous highlighted errors in reasoning. An offer to collaborate with the SIAI on cleaning up and refining their arguments has been extended but remains ignored as the time of writing.
If I had to pin point the one single source leading to the many problems in the examined arguments, it would not be a failure of reasoning, but the failure to fully and accurately lay out and justify the first principles the arguments rely upon. After all the failure to recognize unstated assumptions is a major cause leading to a breakdown in critical reasoning. Sound deductive reasoning will not save you once it is build on erroneous assumptions. As James Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about the reason in magic among the ‘savages’:
“Crude and false as that philosophy may seem to us, it would be unjust to deny it the merit of logical consistency. [...] The flaw–and it is a fatal one–of the system lies not in its reasoning, but in its premises; in its conception of the nature of life, not in any irrelevancy of the conclusions which it draws from that conception.”
In the context of the history of science it becomes particularly clear how some assumptions initially advance their field, yet end up significantly stifling progress. Having turned into unquestionable dogma, Aristotle’s assumption that force must be proportional to velocity prevailed 2000 years before Newton eventually overturned it by pointing out that force actually being proportional to acceleration. Einstein’s assumption of the constancy of the speed of light leading to relativity or the wrongly assumed fundamental relationship in passive circuitry to be between voltage and charge not the actually accurate flux and charge, ended up retarding the discovery of the memristor by 35 years are other examples.
“Unstated assumption is a type of propaganda message which forgoes explicitly communicating the propaganda’s purpose and instead states ideas derived from it. This technique is used when a propaganda’s main idea lacks credibility, and thus when mentioned directly will result in the audience recognizing its fallacy and nullifying the propaganda.”
It becomes clear that once these unstated assumptions and premises have been laid bare, it is of prime importance to either substantiate, justify and support or clarify them. This is especially true for any organization soliciting donations from the public based on conclusions derived from these assumptions. If that is not possible, the assumptions as well as the derived conclusions need to be discarded. Herein lies the core difference between rationality: the tendency to act somehow optimally in pursuit of one’s goals – and critical reasoning: the purposeful and reflective judgment about what to believe or do.
“The viewer might read this as a portrayal of what emerges when reason is suppressed and, therefore, as an espousal of Enlightenment ideals. However, it also can be interpreted as Goya’s commitment to the creative process and the Romantic spirit—the unleashing of imagination, emotions, and even nightmares.”
The romantic side is certainly not without appeal, with its monsters to slay and epic quests to finish. It is however not advisable to let one’s fantasy have the better of oneself. After all one might end up like Don Quixote De La Mancha who, having gone mad after becoming obsessed with too many books of chivalry, engaged in futile fights with windmills he believes to be ferocious giants.
In two previous posts I highlighted the core similarities – wanting to ensure continued co-existence (unstated from the side of the mainstream) by means of being rational (stated on all sides) – and a key difference – the perceived value of the major world spiritual traditions – between main stream futurist thinking and rational morality. Today I will be focusing on another difference: the perceived value of a future shaped by evolutionary dynamics.
Rational morality is all about realizing evolutionary dynamics, the interpretation of their implications and how to best align ourself with the evolutionary process. It thus comes as little surprise, that when I mention the evolutionary foundation of my philosophy in a public forum, usually a well meaning observer – in an effort to highlight the fundamental danger of my argument – points me to prominent futurist Nick Bostrom‘s paper on The Future of Human Evolution. Having been republished in 2009 in Bedeutung allows the conclusion that the views expressed in his paper are still in line with his current views at the time this commentary is being written.
In summary: in his paper, Bostrom describes a future in which human descendant interacting agents will, driven by exceedingly fierce competition, be ultimately stripped of their humanity or perish in the struggle for existence. After suggesting and discarding a number of solutions to prevent what he sees as an inevitable result of this bellum omnium contra omnes of existence, Bostrom suggests – not unlike Hobbs’ Leviathan – the installation of a supremely powerful ‘Singleton’ lacking external competition and tasked with policing all other beings in order that ‘eudaemonic’ beings do not become extinct or marginalized and can continue to have ‘intrinsically valuable experiences’.
Bostrom’s paper however is deeply flawed in a number of aspects:
Value judgments are heavily biased towards 20th century secular humanism
The quintessential human value of striving for perpetual self transcendence is discounted.
The underlying evolutionary dynamics that led to human values in the first place or are implied by it are being ignored.
The analysis of evolutionary dynamics rests on numerous erroneous assumptions and misconceptions of evolutionary theory.
Bostrom’s dystopian perspective is shared only by groups notorious for getting evolution wrong
Bostroms negativity runs counter to that of numerous other, full time evolutionary philosophers
The proposed solution of a ‘Singleton’ can only be considered a temporary fix at best and constitutes an existential risk in itself at worst
Re 1.) Value judgments are heavily biased towards 20th century secular humanism
It is impossible to provide an ultimately compelling argument for the perpetual preservation of non-ultimately compelling values.
In his paper Bostrom continuously grooms ‘human values’ – or more specifically what appears to be 20th century secular humanism – as the gold standard to be perpetually preserved in the future of evolution. He does not however provide an argument as to why precisely these particular set of values happens to be worthy of preservation above any other possible sets of values. Why not modern day Chinese communism? Why not 13th century catholicism, 18th century sharia law or 20th century national socialism? How about the emergent values of future agents? Do they also have a right to be preserved and subsidized as well in any stage of their future development at the expense of other, further developed agents, once they begin to fail in the increasingly hard competition and simply refuse or become incapable of conducting further self improvements? Where will the means eventually come from to continue to do that in such an economy? Who will decide who stays and who goes?
In the absence of an argument in support of the preservation of values represented in 20th century secular humanism against any other set of possible values, it would be just as erroneous to argue for the exact same set of values to be preserved that happened to be present in our common ancestor with the dung beetle millions of years ago. The point is that Bostrom assumes an essential random set of values and declares that they are to be perpetuated ad infinitum without proper justification.
Re 2.) The quintessential human value of striving for perpetual self transcendence is discounted.
Glorifying mediocrity – retarding progress
While Bostrom is focusing on the preservation of a very specific set of human values on the one hand, he discounts the quintessential human value of wanting to strive for perpetual self transcendence by effectively retarding it with his suggestion of respective taxation and legislation. Wanting to continuously self improve however is in itself a fundamental human value represented in the constant quest for knowledge, understanding, wisdom and personal growth.
Granted, Bostrom does not explicitly preclude the self improvement aspirations of any particular agent. But retarding the progress of certain agents willing to work on themselves while at the same time failing to put a fundamental limit on other, less so inclined agent’s hedonistic and wasteful tendencies would not only be fundamentally unfair but eventually unsustainable.
Re 3.) The underlying evolutionary dynamics that led to human values in the first place or are implied by it are being ignored.
Good is that which increases fitness – anything else is mindless wire-heading
Re a) Why would realizing that we have changed our environment enough as to have outgrown the realities of our previous existence? Would making a change really be so bad? We are living in a post scarcity caloric reality and if I could devise a way as to adapt my food intake in line with the reality of this new environment I most certainly would. Reduced risk of arterial sclerosis, less expenses for food and higher physical attractiveness would be only three obvious benefits that come to mind in this example.
So what if I do not get the pleasure of what effectively constitutes overeating in our new reality? Along with my food intake I could simple adjust my pleasure system to release the same chemicals into my system once I ate the exact optimal amount for my level of activity. Voila: same amount of pleasure and an actual benefit.
Re b) What possible purpose could there be in subsidizing a bunch of certified lotus eaters? Surely Bostrom – realizing the fundamental similarity – would never suggest to not only let the government pay for the syringes and the heroin of the junkies, but at the same time declare the “intrinsically valuable experience of the heroin user” a public good deviation from which needs to be discouraged by heavy taxation. Oh the absurdity!
Something that Bostrom does not mention at all is the ability to remove “intrinsically worthless experiences” from our human existence. Cutting ourself is arguably way too painful in a world with ubiquitous antibiotics. Why not tune that down a little? Or is that verboten too? Analogously: how about new pleasurable experiences? States of being that in our new reality should in fact be pleasurable but are not or not enough?
How about feeling some more pain when and where it is in fact warranted in our post modern reality? After all the pain caused by a cut is ‘meant‘ to avoid the cut and associated consequences – not the pain. Some suggestions: Products that taste more and more disgusting the more they contribute to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Burning pain caused by radiation, dioxin levels and DDT seems like a good idea too. Politicians that begin to make you feel uncomfortable the more their promises deviate from what they are actually doing in line with an independent monitoring service. All referenced to authoritative sources and weighted according to probabilistic estimates in regards to how detrimental to ones fitness it actually is of course. I would very much go for that – but I digress.
Re 4.) The analysis of evolutionary dynamics rests on numerous erroneous assumptions and misconceptions of evolutionary theory
a) it is survival of the fit enough – not survival of the fittest
b) adaptive value of reproduction rates are misunderstood
c) in the absence of death by natural causes reproduction looses its adaptive value
d) advances in technology correlates with a decrease in selection pressures
e) ‘tit-for-tat’ and cooperation is far more adaptive than ‘dog-eats-dog’ and ‘screw-you’
Re a) it is survival of the fit enough – not survival of the fittest
The term ‘survival of the fittest‘ has been termed by Herbert Spencer – not Darwin – and is neither a scientific term nor complete or even a suitable summary of Darwin’s theory. In the context Darwin meant it, it would be better described as ‘better adapted for immediate, local environment’. Note ‘better’ – not ‘best’. It is by far not only the fittest or the maximally adapted that survives. The one that barely makes the cut is still around as well. In that sense we human beings are no more privileged than slime mold or inch worms. The idea that certain maladapted types will die out assumes the presence of a corresponding selection pressure, which leads me to point b)
Re b) adaptive value of reproduction rates are misunderstood
Much – if not all – of Bostrom’s scenarios assume the presence of enormous selection pressures caused by a digitally supercharged Malthusian struggle for existence. There are however numerous problems with Bostrom’s understanding of the adaptive nature of reproduction.
Firstly, Bostrom confuses ‘higher rate of reproduction’ with ‘more adaptive’. This is in fact a very common misconception yet luckily easily dispelled once we understand the difference between the various reproduction strategies:
“There are a wide range of reproductive strategies employed by different species. Some animals, such as the human and Northern Gannet, do not reach sexual maturity for many years after birth and even then produce few offspring. Others reproduce quickly; but, under normal circumstances, most offspring do not survive to adulthood. For example, a rabbit (mature after 8 months) can produce 10–30 offspring per year, and a fruit fly (mature after 10–14 days) can produce up to 900 offspring per year. These two main strategies are known as K-selection (few offspring) and r-selection (many offspring). Which strategy is favoured by evolution depends on a variety of circumstances. Animals with few offspring can devote more resources to the nurturing and protection of each individual offspring, thus reducing the need for many offspring. On the other hand, animals with many offspring may devote fewer resources to each individual offspring; for these types of animals it is common for many offspring to die soon after birth, but enough individuals typically survive to maintain the population.”
Simply replicating as much as possible is not a very adaptive thing to do since with increasing levels of complexity, the limited resources at ones disposal can be used much more efficient and effectively to ensure ones continued existence by other means than sharing them among arbitrarily large number of identical copies. This is shown quite plainly in the transition from R to K-selection strategies starting from viruses and progressing to the the fruit fly to rabbits to humans.
Secondly, understanding that reproduction strategies are all about the application of resources towards the goal of creating eventually reproducing offspring the question presents itself: how justified is Bostrom in taking the example of a human upload and apply the reproduction logic of a fruit fly in his scenario? And the answer of course is that he is not justified in doing so at all.
In addition it needs to be noted, that any reproduction strategy that leads to reproducing offspring above the natural replacement rate in a saturated environment, necessarily requires an additional adaptive advantage in the offspring that allows for either the displacement of competitors or utilization of other so far untapped resources that can be applied to generating the excess reproducing offspring above the subsistence level.
Re c) in the absence of death by natural causes reproduction looses its adaptive value
As demonstrated under b) reproduction is only adaptive as means to counter the natural death rate. Human beings have long ago stopped being the prey of other species and will soon – at least once we reach the capability of uploading as assumed in Bostrom’s paper – conquer the problem of death by natural causes altogether. By then we will have transformed ourselves in the words of Richard Leis into digital “patterns seeking our own permanence” and other, far more adaptive strategies will become available to us. Among others these can include:
strategic, well distributed and regular backups
redundant multi-clustering solutions
sophisticated insurance and reinsurance plans
public, transferable and certified reputation networks
The need for copies of oneself will be reduced to minimal capacity virtual agents with large data storage means and minimal cognitive capacities which can be dispatched and reintegrated into the main instantiation at will.
With death and reproduction out of the way, what other selection pressures will remain?
Re d) advances in technology correlate with a decrease in selection pressures
In the vast majority of our evolutionary history, the most valuable resource ensuring the continued existence of the interacting agents has been represented in the stored free energy of the chemical bonds making up the interacting agent’s bodies. On the human level, this however has changed and now lies in the cognitive output of our brains. Once the calculating capacity of computers reaches the critical threshold, it will lie in the amount of available computronium as well as bandwidth and ultimately in the amount of available energy to run the hardware. Virtually every new technology from fire to the iPhone has further increased our freedoms by reducing selection pressures to the point that we can now afford the luxury of a post modern cultural outlook. There is no reason to believe that this decrease in selection pressures will continue with more advanced technologies. In fact there is no moral point in a technology that does not do so.
Granted – every technology can be used in a negative way – this however makes it only so much more important to devise a shared morality that will realize such destructive uses as utterly pointless.
Selection pressures have thus been directed towards the configuration and acquisition of matter and bodies on the level of the biosphere. The poster child for the blind acquisition of matter being the fiercely self replicating virus; for the configuration and acquisition of bodies the ants and termites. It further progressed by moving toward the configuration of neurons in the evolution of cognition towards the configuration and acquisition of brains (i.e. individuals) and ideas on the level of the noosphere. On this level the more brains joined up to pursue a common purpose and the more advanced their capacity to organize and their technology, the more adaptive it turned out to be.
In the absence of forced and perpetual reproduction, and having achieved – if not already now then soon – a level of technology that can, at least in principle, build a too-cheap-to-meter post scarcity society – and particularly one capable of uploading human minds – there will be very few selection pressures left. And in the absence of selection pressures and without a conscious effort of holding the pattern together, let alone further advancing it, it will slowly but surely start to randomize. Postmodern attitudes being a sure sign, that this process has already begun.
It will be this randomization that will reintroduce selection pressures by lowering the bar so that we will feel selection pressures that we would otherwise long have outgrown. It will be this limitless freedom which will pose the core challenge to the existence of those loosing their sense for direction and the constant temptation of letting themselves go.
The selection preasures so feared by Bostrom will precisely not arise due to the increased efficiency of the ones making an effort despite all the freedom and potential for essential limitless randomness and whim. I am sure that here lies a key misunderstanding of Bostrom in his article.
Re e) ‘tit-for-tat’ and cooperation is far more adaptive than ‘dog-eats-dog’ and ‘screw-you’
“[...] neither Darwin nor evolutionary biologists such as Dawkins advocate the idea that cut-throat, ruthless competition is the only game in town, and co-operation between individuals, communities and even species permeates their work. Darwin even wrote in the Descent of Man that evolution would eventually lead a species to “acquire a moral sense or conscience”.
Ignoring everything we have established so far in regards to Bostrom’s misunderstanding of the adaptive value and dynamics of reproduction, on what basis are we to assume that future agents will be more adapted at the cost of less well adapted beings? Let’s take a look from another perspective by looking at Robert Wright‘s Nonzero:
“The principal argument of Nonzero is to demonstrate that natural selection results in increasing complexity within the world and greater rewards for cooperation. Since, as Wright puts it, the realization of such prospects is dependent upon increased levels of communication, cooperation, and trust, what is thought of as human intelligence is really just a long step in an evolutionary process of organisms (as well as their networks and individual parts) getting better at processing information.”
Or in other words: the future will not only be more adaptive but would at the same time be in line with many of the values Bostrom is advocating will need artificially preservation. This even ignores the vastly more far reaching claims of the previously mentioned book – The Selfless Gene – makes on the level of the gene and I myself am making on the level of memes or culture: that a non-dual perspective in life is the non plus ultra of spiritual evolution.
Re 5.) Bostrom’s dystopian perspective is shared only by groups notorious for getting evolution wrong
Comparing the conclusions of Bostrom’s paper with a broader range of perspectives and the analysis of other groups in similar context, it becomes apparent that the overall negativity in regards to a society shaped by evolutionary ideas is shared exclusively by two particular sets of groups – both notorious for getting evolution terribly wrong.
The key similarity is the notion that evolution has to somehow be guided, channeled, or helped along in order for it to produce a desirable outcome. The key difference is, that the eugenics movement thought to help the process along in order to prevent ‘existences not worthy of life’ weighing down various concepts of what was perceived to be the master race. Bostrom on the other hand applies the same logic in promoting a form of ‘reverse eugenics’ and as I have shown above, his approach is just as misguided in its fundamental mode of thinking.
“The only real danger posed by transhumanism, it seems, is that people on both the left and the right may find it much more attractive than the reactionary bioconservatism proffered by Fukuyama and some of the other members of the President’s Council.” — Nick Bostrom, Transhumanism: The World’s Most Dangerous Idea?
I could not agree more and find that this sentence runs very much counter to the views Bostrom expresses in his own dystopian scenarios as do the positive perspectives of so many other evolutionary philosophers who have dedicated their lives to the exploration of the idea of evolution and how it applies to humanity’s future.
Re 6.) Bostrom’s negativity runs counter to that of numerous other – if not all, full time evolutionary philosophers
To summarize all the different perspectives and diverse arguments leading the vast majority of (some more – some less) full-time evolutionary philosophers would go very much beyond the scope of this article. I would nevertheless encourage anybody interested in a deeper understanding of evolutionary philosophy to study the relevant positions of the following scholars in addition to Bostrom’s writings in order to get a more accurate picture of the body of evolutionary thought. The dedicated student will find that Bostrom is but one misguided contrarian among many others, better informed and learned them him when it comes to the particular matter of evolution:
Re 7.) The proposed solution of a ‘Singleton’ can only be considered a temporary fix at best and constitutes an existential risk in itself at worst
In conclusion to Bostrom’s argument he suggest the establishment of a supremely powerful Singleton in an effort to prevent his dystopian scenarios:
“Reining in evolution is a feat that could only be accomplished by a singleton. A local power might be able to control the evolution of its own internal ecology, yet unless these interventions served to maximize its total productivity (which would be incompatible with affirmative action for eudaemonic activities), evolutionary selection would simply reemerge at a higher level.”
What Bosrtom fails to mention as a critically flawed assumption in his proposed solution is, that in order for his idea to work, it would require no external competition on teh level of the singleton and thus precludes the existence of alien races reaching a comparable level of development. These alien races could become – less inclined to artificially constrict their own progress – significantly more advanced than the singleton of human origin and reintroduce the previously dampened selection pressures.
What if this results in the eventual extinction of the Singleton and consequentially its entire sphere of influence? The scenario is as following: preservation of mediocrity until it is too late to catch up. Would it thereby not “permanently and drastically curtail the potential [of Earth-originating intelligent life].”? This being Bostrom’s own definition of an existential risk and thus rendering his proposed solution potentially self contradicting.
As can be seen, a Singleton merely sweeps the problem under the rug by pushing it to the next level of selection: the Singleton, which will eventually still have to bear the consequences of it’s self-imposed burden. And all of this against better knowledge.
The bottom line remains, that we will ultimately not be able to modify the fitness function. The best we can look forward to in the attempt, is to constantly weigh us down by having to maintain enough excess affluence to afford the luxury of willful mediocrity only to eventually be brought in line with the laws of nature in a scenario when it will be too late to catch up.
The key concept to understand here is that evolution is not unlike gravity. Yet unlike earth – evolution does not have an escape velocity. It is more like a reverse black hole with an infinite Schwarzschild radius, a rubber band of infinite elasticity and strength if you will: the more you resist it and pull it out of shape, the more energy needs to be expended to maintain the discrepancy. And a Singleton with a higher IQ will not be of much use either, since it will still get stuck, just further away from help.
In conclusion, Bostrom’s negative portrayal of the future of human evolution rivals that of nonconservative celebrity Francis Fukuyama’s in ‘Our Posthuman Future’ in its bleakness while running counter to that of numerous evolutionary philosophers, it equals the level of misunderstanding of the conservapedia article on the social effects of the theory of evolution and rivals the unfortunate direction of early 20th century eugenics programs – albeit from the opposite direction and originating from what I have no reason to doubt are genuinly benign intentions – in its suggested solution which is in the long run bound to fail at best and counterproductive to Bostrom’s self proclaimed goals in other areas at worst.
“There is but one force, stronger than all the armies in the world… And that is an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo
This idea, in our time, is that of evolution, proeprly understood and applied as a positive force not only in shaping the future of humanity, but to the benefit of all beings.
“If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted” – The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
In the context Dostoyevsky used the quote above, it meant that in the absence of divine judgment resulting in reward or punishment in the afterlife, there would be no point in adhering to moral doctrines. Or put another way: in the absence of god, bad deeds – done anonymously or in private – have no consequences.
Assuming that adherence to a moral code had no consequences other then reward and punishment by an all knowing, all powerful god in the afterlife, then the above statement would of course be correct. In the case of morality, this assumption does in fact appear reasonable to many. But take the example of having a particular goal – any goal really – and the desire to reach it. As soon as one has a particular goal, one is limited in regards to what one can and can not do in an effort to actually accomplishing it.
These limits are imposed by one’s available resources in the form of money, time, knowledge, skills, cognitive abilities, experience et cetera on the one hand. And on the other hand by the fuzziness of the goal and the risk one is willing to take in actually failing to reach it. If one has $20 and has been asked to buy $10 worth of groceries on the way home by ones partner, then one is certainly free to spend all the money on beer and cigarettes. In so doing, one has however essentially reduced ones chances of in fact returning with $10 worth of groceries to close to 0%. Yet, not exactly 0% – since it is not unimaginable that a chain of events would still lead to one bringing home the requested goods regardless. One’s chances are however significantly reduced.
Any reasonable person wanting to return home with the groceries would of course simply enter a shop and buy $10 worth of groceries. He would then be ‘free’ to spend another $10 on beer and cigarettes before going home. The chances of reaching his goal would be very high – however not 100% since again any chain of unforeseen events could cause a catastrophic failure in reaching this rather simple goal. The chances would be narrowed further if the task happens to be $10 worth of dairy products and veggies, skim milk and carrots, or a certain brand and not another. These examples representing a decrease of fuzziness, ever more precisely specifying the requirements for goal fulfillment.
In short, the more means one has beyond the bare minimum required for goal fulfillment, the more one is willing to risk failure and the fuzzier a goal is, the more freedom one has in ones actions and still reach it within the set parameters. The moral here is of course that one is only free in choosing one’s own actions, one is not free however in choosing the consequences of these actions.
Consequences, or the effect of a cause, vary in the degree of intricacy and depth to which they can be traced back to bringing them about and the magnitude of their impact. Opening ones hand and dropping a pen is obvious and irrelevant. Shooting a cannon ball and hitting a city is complex and significant. Exploding an atom bomb over a particular bridge 2’500 kilometers away is mind blowing and overwhelming.
But what if someone does not fully realize the consequences of his actions? How about the one failing to fully understand the detailed requirements necessary to reach his goal? In what sense, can anyone not fully realizing either be called free?
Think of the path to one’s goal as being flanked on all sides by an abyss of failure and the further one deviates from the optimal path to one’s goal the more one risks slipping into the abyss. Would then not the one having the better understanding of the path with all its meanderings and varying degrees of tread-fastness be more free than the one who does not? The reason being that knowing all the risks and realizing all of one’s options, it would give someone more degrees of freedom to make informed decisions.
Similarly with one’s goal: the one following the perfect path chasing a mirage will nevertheless fail miserably. While the one barely making it to his true destination will still have managed to be successful.
Making the turn now from the abstract to the concrete. Two important points need to be understood before moving on.
“A man who strays from the path of understanding comes to rest in the company of the dead.” Proverbs 21:16
It is crucial to understand in this context, that we have increased our freedoms significantly since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This has been accomplished by the creation of ever more sophisticated technologies that help us in the reshaping of our environment. The fact that we have thereby essentially broadened the path to such a degree, that we have all but forgotten that we are in fact on one, and still largely fail to recognize that there is a goal let alone recognize what it is, is evident in the notions so characteristic of post-modernism that:
It is all too obvious by now that the end of history was called prematurely in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama and was in fact merely a transition towards post-modernity. In the wake of the worst financial crisis in history the question poses itself if people are bound to hang themselves eventually despite it being against their self interest provided the circumstances of cause and effect are opaque enough and they are given enough rope to actually do it:
In support of this view I would like to cite the ideas of 14th century Tunesian scholar and statesman Ibn Khaldun, who formulated in his theory of Asabiyyah the idea that a society creating enough affluence to afford luxuries will degenerate and in the process loose focus on what affords them these luxuries in the first place – ‘the path’ if you will – and thus eventually stray and loose them.
Anyone not yet convinced that the luxury to make our own mistakes and live with them afforded to us in the very much laissez fair democratic marketeconomies need look no further than to the extraordinarily successful authoritarian market economies all over the world – especially the very focused and ambitious China. How long can we keep these freedoms up while facing such – from our vantage point ‘unfair’ competition – before disappearing or finding ourselves on the long slope to political irrelevance? At least the west can look at Russia for some best practice sharing before finally accepting ideological defeat.
“At present humanity is lost.We don’t know what we are doing here.We are without a worldview that can point to our place and purpose in the universe and that can also withstand rational scrutiny.
But this difficult period is coming to an end.The emergence of the new evolutionary worldview is beginning to lift us out of the abyss.The new worldview has a unique capacity to reveal who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.It relies solely on scientific knowledge and reason to identify our critical role in future evolution.The evolutionary worldview can unite us in a great common enterprise, and provide meaning and purpose for human existence.” — Evolutionary Manifesto
You are most certainly free, in the words of Camus, to open your heart to the benign indifference of the universe, while marching right over the precipice, chanting slogans of freedom and thumping your chest. But how truly nonsensical would that be, knowing that only those that don’t will actually be around to pursue so much more challenging and rewarding goals? And remember: your realization of the evolved illusions in regards to food, love and fun for being what they are, in no way dampens their impact.