Ethics Beyond Humanism

Von cw


For some time, I have wanted to write a piece about the fundamentals of ethics, in the context of other philosophical questions. As soon as I conceive a structure for it, I think of new ideas that cause me to revise it. So I have decided to go ahead with a short version, planning to expand it later. This first version tries to avoid provoking, as it will be too short to explain any provocations properly.

You may wonder how I dare write on this topic, with no formal training in the area. But my maths studies (e.g. Gödel’s theorem), and my continued interest in such matters Gödel, Escher, Bach together with all things scientific, seem relevant. I recently put the view to a real live university philosopher that science is replacing much of philosophy, and he agreed with me. Really, why I dare, is that when I hear philosophers and theologians on TV, or read what they write, many of them seem stuck in the past. They do not take account of “recent” discoveries. Modern philosophy should start with Darwin! Mankind is a recent event, closely related to other animals. Man’s thinking abilities currently set him apart, but things are moving so fast that this will change within a few hundred years. Still-respected philosophers two hundred years ago took human thought so seriously that when it seemed incompatible with real matter, they were ready to deduce the non-existence of matter!

Unfortunately my knowledge of Darwin is second hand. But I trust Richard Dawkins.

God is a delusion.

(Of course life after death is also a delusion). Professor Dawkins’ book has said it (almost) all on this subject. I shall add minor points later. I saw him in a German TV chat program with 4 Christians. The two theologians missed his points entirely. Heiner Geisler was better but wishy-washy. It was unclear whether he really believes in God (and why), or whether he just thinks it right to pretend. Dawkins himself could have argued better, but the translations he listened to could not have been exactly what was said! Perhaps Geisler was following Kant, who seems to have believed that God was necessary for moral behavior. Did Kant mean this just formally, that “moral” could not be rigorously defined without “God”? If not, he was showing contempt for human nature. People brought up in loving families tend to be nice to each other, (and even to worse people). Belief in God hardly affects this, except for a few exceptional cases. (Unfortunately my knowledge of Kant is second hand).

Do we all live in a Computer Simulation

There is an interesting theory that we all “live” in a computer simulation. The argument goes as follows:-

Assume civilisation continues to develop for a few hundred years; It will surely become possible to simulate a universe that one could not now distinguish from the one we know. “People” will surely be interested in doing that, so we can expect that there will be many such simulations. So logically, it is almost certain that we exist in a simulation rather than directly in the one (?) real universe. Our creator (God?) would then be a programmer, or a team of programmers. Of course, this argument works recursively, so that our creator probably also exists only in a higher level simulation.

You may think me crazy, but I find this argument fairly convincing! However I have a fairly poor opinion of the chances that civilisation will develop so far. I suspect that man will ruin civilisation within the next 200 years. This conflicts with the scientific principle that one should suspect theories that place humans in a special time or place in the universe. But this principle is not very strong regarding time, since there have been lots of special times in the development of our world.

I put “people” in quotes above because the dominant “species” in 1000 years will probably differ more from us than we differ from dogs. Here I put “species” in quotes for reasons explained below.

When will Robots take over?

Süddeutsche Zeitung recently printed an interview with Chess Master David Levy (IM). His recent doctor thesis is a book “Love & Sex with Robots”. I can remember introducing this topic into the chat at parties in the late 60s. I wanted to write a novel about it, but I never got around to it. My work gave me a good insight into the pace of computer progress. David won good sums of money with bets in 1968 and then 1978 that no computer would beat him at chess within 10 years. He did not keep in practice and was lucky not to play a good machine in 1988. Most computer people underestimated the difficulty of playing good chess. Most chess players overestimated the difficulty. David and I got it about right. He worked in Edinburgh with the top European artificial intelligence guru, Prof. Donald Michie, (who was at Bletchley Park in the war). The first bet was with Prof. John McCarthy. When a Stanford chess program lost against one at Moscow University, I wrote to McCarthy suggesting he use my help. He offered me a job there in California. I organised my work permit and visa. But when I tried to resign my job, I was told that my work was important and was persuaded to stay. A chess program seemed slightly frivolous compared with operating system design. I wonder much too often how my life would have gone if I had jumped that way; clearly very differently. Probably I would have been dead by now, but with a Wikipedia entry.

David predicts that marriage to a robot will be possible by 2050. He points out that there are robot brothels in Japan and South-Korea. Also robots provide tender loving care for senile Japanese. I think he sets the date a bit too soon, at least for America and Europe, because I think people (society) will not develop so fast. On the other hand homosexuals were prosecuted and persecuted in Europe when I was a boy (e.g. Alan Turing), and now homosexual marriages are possible. European society has moved a long way in 50 years (less hanging, more female boxing). By 2050, some people will surely have their brains enhanced by embedded chips, if only to cure some forms of blindness and deafness. Genetic manipulation of people will also come by then, despite church opposition. If civilisation does not collapse by 2100, most “intelligent” work will then be done by non-humans. I do not know whether these robots will be controlled by silicon-based computers or by something more like existing brains. Later New Scientist (November 2007) printed a very negative criticism of the book, on the line that David is sex mad. But I can well understand that he wanted the book to sell.

Free-will is an illusion.

Prof. Kanitscheider got it wrong (Spektrum der Wissenschaft, July 2008). Our universe is not deterministic, because the quantum world is not. He thought (thinks?) that our brains are deterministic. But there are millions of radioactive atoms in each brain that decay at random. This must sometimes affect our thoughts, (without considering subtler quantum effects). The multiple universe theory of quantum effects may rescue determinism, but at the cost of an exponentially increasing number of universes, of which we cannot be aware!

But random quantum effects on our brains are not what people mean by free-will. They mean a controlling part of the brain, or aspect of the personality, associated with consciousness. Many people relate this to the soul, and consider that it functions outside the rules of physics. Dawkins’ arguments dispose of the soul in much the same way as with God. Experiments have shown well enough that thoughts occur physically in the brain. And the human brain has developed on the basis of animal brains, even if the rate of development did speed up dramatically. There have been plenty of other sudden changes in the pattern of evolution during the history of the Earth (e.g. when multi-cellular beings arose).

Modern experiments show that we tend to overestimate how much our conscious thoughts are in control. For instance, people were asked to move a finger at a random moment. Afterwards it was shown that the brain became active in moving the finger before the subject thought he decided. But even this is not really relevant regarding free-will. Brain and body determine what is done, according to the rules of physics, including random elements. There is no free-will. That is why I am writing this!

Incidentally, there was recently a theory that free-will was incompatible with quantum theory. The idea that a scientist could choose which of two measurements to make seemed to conflict with physical reality! Sadly (?), a subtle mistake was found in the analysis.

An aside regarding “punishment”

The courts try to punish free-will crimes. But there is no free-will.

Punishment can have various aspects: prevention, correction, deterrence, and revenge. These must be weighed against each other, with some regard for cost-effectiveness. The aspect “it is God’s will” can be ignored.

Prevention seems OK within reason. While a criminal is locked up it is hard for him to continue his crimes. If he is executed, it is even harder.

Correction is even better, if it works. The ideal is to turn the criminal into a useful citizen.

Revenge as such is bad. It just leads to more unhappiness.

Deterrence is the most interesting aspect. My grammar school headmaster (a fundamentalist Anglican) was adamant that it is wrong, because it is “using” one person for the benefit of others. This view seems to fit Germany better than the pragmatic English. For instance, deterrence could be seen as contrary to the German constitution. “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar”. (This sentence seems to me true in the same sense as is “Gott ist untastbar”, but its interpretation by the courts is very strange. It’s lucky that I am not seeking German citizenship, which would require me to agree with it). I see deterrence, like prevention, as OK within reason. Thereby, there are some slightly surprising statistics to take account of. For instance the death sentence, at least in developed countries, does not deter murder. While murdering, people do not think like people usually do. The German/British difference of attitude can be seen in the handling of ransom cases. Britain does not pay ransom, but Germany does. However Germany seems to be moving towards the pragmatic (cold blooded) British attitude to this and to medical treatment of those expected to die soon.

Anyway, modern handling of criminals is moving towards apparent acceptance of the view that free-will is an illusion, while still paying lip service to religious views. I say free-will is an illusion, rather than a delusion, because it is less stupid and more useful than religion.

Cost-effectiveness of punishments should also be considered, but this is probably contrary to the German constitution. This is a possible justification for occasional death penalties. Is it really right to spend on imprisoning a sadistic mass-murderer enough money to feed a village of starving peasants somewhere? Cost-effectiveness gets more attention in USA, where the number of people in jail causes problems like those we have with the number of sick seniors. China and Iran may also be mentioned where they cut costs by executing.

I am a Social Darwinist

Social Darwinism got a bad reputation, because Hitler (as well as some philosophers) warped Darwin’s ideas when extending them as regards social interactions. It seems evident to me that customs, religions, laws, etc. are subject to selection among more or less random variations. Hitler seems to have believed that it was good to hurry this process. He held the (non-Darwin) view that evolution works towards some ideal, (humans being the nearest so far to the ideal). He also had racist views which scientists had briefly toyed with, before they were disproved. How could he be so crazy about blue-eyed blonds, when his hair was dark?

The variations may be consciously produced, or may just happen. Their continued existence is also subject to more or less random influences. Representational democracy has established itself as capable of surviving and spreading for more than 2 millennia. I see this as largely due to success in international conflicts. Endangered democracies tend to have more motivated troops, and also find more allies. This stretches from the Greek defeat of the Persian Empire till World War 2. I have my doubts about the viability of direct democracy (with really heavy use of plebiscites).

The Catholic Church will soon have also lasted over 2000 years. I do not believe this would have happened if it had not distanced itself from the views of Christ, (as found in the New Testament). Loving one’s enemies is a wonderful principle, but may work out badly in practice. On the other hand, too much war also works badly, as Napoleon and Hitler found out.

The (largely unmethodical) scientific method is also a success story. Particularly in war time, science and technology have proved successful. Capitalism may also be a success, but it is too early to be sure. Some regulation is needed, but what? It has gone wrong a few times (Great Depression, Russia in the nineteen-nineties). How will democracy and capitalism cope with energy, climate and population problems?

Religions and other ethical systems are all part of this. It remains to be seen how this will develop. Liberal capitalism seems to have overcome communism, when Russian communism disintegrated. But undemocratic China seems very successful, particularly regarding population control. Different competing systems in the world encourage advance in the same way that competing enterprises are needed by capitalism, but there are not enough “niches”. The shortage of niches tends to produce instability or stagnation.

It is social Darwinism that has produced a surge of evolution of mankind in the last 70,000 years from a few beings living miserably on the verge of extinction. Now we have vast numbers of people, many of whom are contented and educated. Human intelligence is increasing steadily, due to feedback from the social environment, hardly due to genetic developments.

A-priori knowledge

I am reading and rereading a little book about 100 years old “The Problems of Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell. This brilliant mathematician philosopher regards mathematics and the rules of logic as being a-priori, i.e. independent of experience. Of course he sees that these ideas are not yet present in a baby. But even 50 years after “The Origin of the Species”, he did not seem fully to realise that the human brain is the result of evolution, i.e. of experience. He gave 2+2=4 as an example of absolute certainty in any conceivable universe. Another example would be “A = ~ ~ A”. (But Czechs and uneducated British have a strange view of double negatives). The term “a-priori” seems badly chosen. The best first move at GO is near to a corner, (probably a 3,4 point). This seems to fit the definition of “a-priori” too; similarly the chess fact that queen and king can win by force against rook and king (easier to prove than the GO fact).

Anyway we should never be really certain about anything.

Oddly, Russell regards ethics as a-priori, (but as less certain that maths and logic). He gives three examples: happiness is better than misery, knowledge than ignorance, goodwill than hatred. But these are surely too vague to be a-priori. Happiness correlates strongly with certain chemicals in the brain, but should we include cats in this, and perhaps worms? Worms certainly look unhappy when being pecked.

Thomas Gray wrote “If ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”. Consider the case of a loving father whose children are not really his.

Humans stand in the middle, and get in the way (of true ethics).

Up till Darwin, theologians and philosophers had some reason to regard humans as very special, but they still keep doing it. This fits the origins of monotheism, regarding one tribe in one small country as all-important. Later all people with some set of beliefs were the only ones who mattered. Later, belonging to some nation implied that one should fight for king and country. Later still, skin colour or nose shape was all-important. Now Homo-Sapiens is all that matters, although he has hardly existed for a significant time, and seems certain to vanish even more quickly. (Islam and the Catholic Church do not give women full membership of this group). We should be happy that some laws are even better than what Christ gave us. I cannot remember that he said anything about animal rights, or even against sacrifices. The early Church even considered it a sensible concept that the crucifixion could help purge sin!

To get ethics expected to last as long as those of Christ, we should consider possible contact to alien intelligence. We hope that they do not regard themselves as all that matters. Such contact seems not yet to have happened. This is a good reason to expect that civilisation on Earth will destroy itself in the next thousand years.

A more immediate (?) problem concerns new (superior) intelligence developed on Earth. Computer and biological developments make it likely that normal humans will lose their pre-eminence within the next few hundred years, (unless civilisation collapses sooner). I have long thought that I would rather foster a new dominant “species” through my brain power, rather than through mutations in my DNA etc.

Life is knowledge

Bertrand Russell seems to consider knowledge only in terms of humans. But a wolf can recognise its pack leader as well as I can recognise my wife. Clearly both cases are knowledge. A goose knows at birth that foxes are dangerous. This knowledge exists in the egg, even before it is laid. Essentially, life implies knowledge, namely the knowledge needed to survive and reproduce. The knowledge in the brain of a fly is very considerable. It knows how to fly and even how to avoid being swatted. It knows how to find suitable food, how to find a fly from the same species with different sex. The female knows where to lay her eggs. All DNA and RNA found in nature represent knowledge. All this knowledge has arisen through selection and evolution. All conscious knowledge has too.

Knowledge as ethic

It struck me that knowledge as the ultimate good fits rather well the sort of ethic we seem to be stumbling towards. Is it just luck that it looks good for humans? My remaining problem is that there is no general metric. We cannot easily compare the sizes of two pieces of knowledge in order to say which matters more. Information theory says that the knowledge needed to select one from n objects increases as log n, but most knowledge is not like that. It seems to me that if n people know a fact, this is not n times as much knowledge as when only one knows it. Perhaps that is just a chauvinistic preference for human knowledge (which is more individual than that of a virus). Human knowledge differs from that of most living things, in that the DNA/RNA part of it is smaller.

On the plus side, knowledge as ethic generally approves of health, (healthy animals keep their knowledge longer), happiness, (happy people learn better, and people are usually not happy to die), and biodiversity. It obviously does not support activities likely to destroy civilisation. It copes with alien intelligences and with the next dominant Earth species. It copes with the pyramids, which have no knowledge, but are a source of valuable knowledge. Fossils are a particularly valuable source of knowledge. Certain paintings are valuable for understanding the development of human culture, but I would not regard the impressionists as important for knowledge. I would like to regard music as more important.

“Vernunft” and Religion

The Pope recently annoyed some people with the opinion that Catholicism has more “Vernunft” than all other religions. But “Vernunft” has two meanings:-

Believing things that are probably true.

Believing and doing what makes one (long-term) happy.

The second point is open to debate. Christianity is perhaps the religion of repressed people. Faith in heaven serves to make an unpleasant life more bearable. Religious people tend to have more children, which may make them more or less happy. But in the long term, religion may be causing unhappiness. This seems to be true of Islam, in that Islamic countries seem to remain backward and illiberal, (which was not always the case). Catholicism seems to be better in this respect, but not as good as Anglicanism. Best of all is atheism. The founding fathers of USA were rather atheistic. I reach these conclusions by comparing N. and S. America, and comparing England and Scandinavia with some catholic countries in Europe.


When I started to type this, I expected it to be longer.

To bring it to a proper conclusion, here from Shakespeare: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so“. So Hamlet was a better philosopher than Kant or Russell!

I hope to get many comments on this.


Thomas Wyrwich corrected a silly mistake.


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