toxic thought waste site

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Friday, December 07, 2007

A revelation.

So I had a revelation the other day. And what's weird is that it's about something I've long believed. It's just that I've never really been satisfied with the belief. It's something that I knew the rational, scientific response for but for some reason it felt slightly dishonest or at least dodgy. But now I find much to my surprise both how much I didn't like my old understanding (I was in a little bit of denial about it) and how clear my new understanding is. In fact my head's been spinning a little because of this even though I don't *know* anything I didn't already. Its sort of like going from using calculus equations and getting the right answers to actually understanding calculus and using the equations to get the right answer. And knowing you are right without needing to check the answer key. And being confident if you spot an error in the given answer key.

Anyway, here's the deal. It has to do with whether morality is truly selfishness in disguise. Discussions of morality from an evolutionary perspective often come down to the fact that our genes are selfish. And we are all the product of evolution, a relentlessly uncaring, and merciless process. Therefore, the reasoning goes, when I do something nice I'm *really* doing it for fundamentally selfish reasons.

Now the response to this (a la Dawkins and friends) is that just because our genes are selfish doesn't mean that I am selfish. That answer has never once felt right to me. It might have had some intellectual satisfaction but it has never really sunk into my bones as obviously and fundamentally true. It always felt like saying that sure this house is made of bricks but the house itself is not a brick. Sure that's true but there are sure a lot of bricks around and it's hard not to think of bricks when looking at the house. And if I want to understand the house I need to understand bricks. So it feels dishonest to pretend that brick houses aren't fundamentally about bricks.

To be more visceral (and disgusting): if I made some jewelry for someone out of dog shit and they complained that I just gave them dog shit I could say that they were focusing on the wrong level since that was merely the building material and they were making a fundamental error regarding levels of abstraction. I'd feel pretty disingenuous about that reply. I guess in this case in particular there is a leak between levels of abstraction. A very disgusting leak.

So what was my magical mystical insight? I'm not sure exactly how it happened but I have finally disassociated the uncaring, selfish process of evolution from the result of that product. It's as if someone told me that sausage was made in steel machines with all sorts of sharp knife blades and I had originally thought that sausage must taste like steel and have knives in it. Then I matured and realized that that of course wasn't true but still had a fear of sausage in almost a superstitious contagion sort of way. That there is still something ineffably steel-like and sharp about sausage. And today I find that it's just obvious that while there might be other valid reasons to not eat sausage, attributing steel flavor and inherent knives to the sausage is just pure silliness. A non sequitur.

I don't know why this insight has landed on me, it just did and it feels like a revelation, and frankly a relief. Undoubtedly a combination of reading overcomingbias.com and chat's with various christian apologists over the last year making me rethink some of my beliefs and the reasons for these beliefs.

Here's an admittedly absurd example that gives the flavor of how I think of things now.

Imagine an evil genius who was hell bent on killing someone. As it happens they are an expert at creating robots that like to hug. (Yes, I really do think like this, why do you ask?). Anyhoo, he only knows how to make (genuinely loving) hug-bots, but the hug-bots aren't (very) intelligent so he can easily make them killing machines by increasing the strength of their hugs and making them suffocate their target or by releasing a huge number of hug-bots at once and achieving essentially the same thing with a herd. Now, from the hug-bot's perspective they are still creatures of pure love but because of their context they are achieving the evil genius's goal. If the hug-bot interacts with someone who is much stronger than the originally intended victim then they will seem completely loving. The hug recipient might even ask how a loving hug-bot could associated with a homicidal evil genius at all. It doesn't make sense. But it does make perfect sense if you happen to have seen the big picture and understand the history of the situation. (And you accept the existence of evil geniuses that use hug-bots to achieve their nefarious ends...).

Just because sausage is made in a steel machine filled with knives doesn't mean there is anything steel-like or knife-like about sausage. The maker and the makee don't necessarily share properties. The agents/processes on one level don't necessarily reflect how things work on another level. Hofstadter's "Aunt Hill" didn't like ants and that's not even remotely contradictory; it just seems that way from how our intuition works sometimes.

Like I said I've known this in my brain for a long time but now I know it in my heart. And the truly funny part is that I don't expect it will change how I live my life at all (probably). It will just feel slightly different. Maybe.

Anyway, sharing time is done now.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Stew said...

A very interesting read. But I'm a bear of little brain and there's something I still haven't grasped at the end of it.

Does the response "just because our genes are selfish doesn't mean that I am selfish" now feel righ to you? Is that one of the results of your revelation?

Sat Dec 08, 02:53:00 AM  
Blogger evtujo said...

Yes.

Sat Dec 08, 05:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Learn to love the sausage.
Long live sausage.
Congratulations on your revelation.

Thu Dec 20, 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger evtujo said...

You're the wurst.

Mon Dec 24, 07:01:00 AM  

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