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Ethics, and morality.

What is "right?" What is "wrong?" These are questions that have plagued a lot of people, and are often used as a strong justification for the existence of absolute morality, and as a consequence, absolute knowledge. After a long time of work and study, I've settled on an epistemological system for evaluating truth and morality that works pretty well for me, for now. I'm going to talk about some of my ideas related to this. This may be a bit stream-of-consciousness-y and not necessarily the best organized thoughts. But I wanted to write it down anyways. Usually in preparation for a subsequent essay that is more focused, coherent, and correct.

Growing up, I struggled with understanding the distinction between fact and fiction. Between reality and non-reality. A recent study apparently shows a correlation between early exposure to religion and having this difficulty. For significant parts of my life, I thought "truth" was just what we made up that "felt" good. I thought that you could determine right from wrong through some vague "innate" feeling of what was and was not good.

I have come to realize that that experience was one of arrogance and a touch of cultural imperialism. Learning about the wide varieties of people and cultures and religions in the world has made me realize that "truth" and "morality" are concepts highly disagreed upon by people. Obvious at the "coarse" level of whole cultures and religions, it is also evident in individual interactions. Individual people disagree on the fundamentals of what is right and wrong... What is true and false.

The biggest lie my parents ever told me was that people can and should just use "common sense" to apprehend the reality of the world and understand what was and was not right.

Whether there is absolute truth and morality or not is a question that is difficult to answer. But I know of no method by which to determine if a given set of ethical rules or facts about the universe are “absolutely true and moral” that can be understood. Any absolute reality is not directly apprehensible… We are limited to our own senses and experiences, and thus, must discuss the interpretation of those senses and experiences, and figure out what does and does not make sense based on them.

There is some confusion that I often see in the subjects of knowledge that might help shed light on some of these subjects. Some people will say that "1 + 1 = 2" is absolutely true, and one of the few things you can know for sure, and thus shows that people can definitively apprehend absolute truth. That's great, but it also shows a categorical error of judgement. 1 + 1 = 2 is only true because we've defined it to be such. Logic and mathematics are systems we have created for describing and analyzing reality, not real things in and of themselves. Independent of the meanings we have created for them, "1 + 1 = 2" is a meaningless arrangement of characters. Even the underlying meaning is questionable. The concept of 1 needs the concept of unity. Of organizing a certain section of reality into a single, unified piece that can be independently discussed. But this is again descriptive. The unity of a single ant ignores the millions of cells that make up that ant, the millions of bacteria that live in and on its body, and the thousands of other ants to which it's existence is linked. Unity is a useful fiction that we use to enable ourselves to talk about reality. It is not reality itself.

This is, in fact, one of the core failures people have to understand much of the world. Language, logic, mathematics, and all of these things are ALL symbolic systems for describing reality and manipulating reality. Even scientific models we have of the universe are all symbolic of reality and not reality themselves. Words mean nothing in and of themselves, except as the meanings we agree upon.

None of this is to say that these things are useless. Quite the opposite. Being able to create a language to talk about reality enables us to communicate effectively and coordinate predictions of the future, as well as gain insights into previously unknown behaviors of systems. It's incredibly powerful. But the word "cow" is never the cow itself. It is always a pointer to a shared concept.

So let's get back to the idea of absolute truth and morality. These are really two very distinct concepts. In many religious circles, they are considered to be connected. There are some things that are "just wrong" and some things that are "just right" and these things can be easily differentiated through an appeal to "common sense" or "logic." This belief is problematic, to say the least. Morality deals with a system of beliefs about what is and is not appropriate behavior. "Truth" as it is traditionally understood deals with what is and is not in reality. But as far as I know, there is no concept of "appropriate behavior" embedded into reality. There is no test that can determine whether something is "ethical" or not. Ethics are not "real" in the same sense that cows are real.

Why? Because just like language, logic, and mathematics, ethics are something that we create. It is a system with base values and axioms that we appeal to. We can't do a test to determine if something is ethical without first *defining* what it means for something to be ethical. There are no fundamental ethics in the universe. It is something we create, ourselves.

When we approach questions of "what is right?" "What is wrong?" we have to do so by appealing to common values between people. "It is wrong to kill people without good reason" is a common value. But what are good reasons? What are bad reasons? We discuss and figure out what we agree upon, and from there, we construct metrics and systems by which we are able to discuss concepts of "right and wrong."

Ethics exist because we define them into existence. Any discussion of what is and is not ethical must involve an evaluation of shared values, and agree upon the fundamental structure upon which that discussion must take place. The only things that are true in reality or whether or not particular behaviors fit a particular set of ethics. We can test that something fits within our pre-defined system. Whether a set of ethical beliefs fit with our core values. Whether our ethics are self-consistent. But we cannot test whether some core value is valid. That's just something we decide to agree on together.

So let's move onto to absolute truth. We can't know we have it, if we do. We really don't even know if it is there. So what *do* we know?

The answer is that we have information. Evidence that we collect. Through the power of our brains, we can identify patterns in the information we have, construct models for what we think might be happening, and predict future events that may occur.

What do I know? For absolute sure? Nothing. But I can gain confidence in my models and predictions. We can accumulate data about our surroundings and experiences, and produce effective predictions. When those predictions correlate with those of others, we can get increased confidence in our predictions. Why? It *seems* like there are definite patterns in reality that hold steady over time, with a high degree of probability, and we can identify these patterns and predict them. But who knows. Maybe we're all brains in a vat or something.

Let's talk about that. But first, a digression over to mathematics. Consider an 2 dimensional plane containing a number of points. It's a fascinating truth of mathematics that you can create literally an *infinite* number of lines that could go through those points. Given the set of points you've received, which line is the real one? Without reference to a system generating those data points, there is no actual "real line" to find. They are all valid.

In the real world, the experiences we have are points in this space. We are looking for a pattern in the data, to try to predict what data will come next. We could literally come up with an infinite number of explanations for any given set of experiences. God is directly manipulating my neurons. I'm a brain in a vat. I'm a computer simulation. God created the universe whole hog 2 seconds ago. All of these explanations are consistent and valid explanations for the reality that I perceive and experience around me. Which is real?

I submit that that question is pointless to ask. The better question is: "Which explanation is most useful?" Specifically, which explanation coheres to the data we have most closely, and provides testable predictions for the future? The data set [(1,1),(2,2),(3,3)] may have an infinite number of lines upon which those three data points may lie, but the simplest, most useful explanation that introduces the fewest additional terms is simply the line equation y=x.

This is Occam's Razor. While there are an infinite number of explanations for any given set of data, the explanation that is the most useful is the one that introduces the fewest additional variables. That creates the *simplest* equation, with the *fewest* terms. In short, it is the simplest model that appears to describe the data we have.

Absolute knowledge and truth is yet another fiction that we use to comfort ourselves and convince ourselves that we are right about the world. All we have are beliefs. All we have are points of data, and predictive models that we are constantly updating and re-evaluating. We have shared systems for describing our experiences and models through language, logic, and mathematics. We construct systems for pre/pro-scribing behavior on the basis of values we have agreed to share.

Do I know this to be true? No. But it seems to match the data that I have. :)


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Oct. 10th, 2014 08:28 am (UTC)
If I have one apple, and I gain another apple, then I have two apples. Mathematics is not some abstract thing divorced from real life - it is an isomorphic model of certain aspects of it.

Sure, sure, define "an apple" - except that if you've ever bought groceries, you know that humans are completely capable of handling buying 1 OR 2 apples, and pricing them accordingly.

A complex philosophy, by contrast, need not be isomorphic to reality: The fact that I cannot define the unity of the apple, nor comprehensively prove 1+1=2 in Peano Arithmetic, does not negate the very simple ability for me to buy 1 OR 2 apples, to bake a cake to a recipe, or anything else.

"All of these explanations are consistent and valid explanations for the reality that I perceive and experience around me. Which is real?"

Learning about Bayesian Reasoning helped me so much with this one. It's still asking the question "what is more useful?", but it's a pretty good system for *answering* that question systematically :)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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