Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.
The moment has arrived. Weve invoked the laws of thermodynamics, probability and the law of large numbers; we can now state the Universal Law of Life. We define a utility function for all living systems:
max E([Î± – Î±c]@t | F@t-1)
E is expected value. Î± is alpha, the equation for which I gave in Part 2. Î±c, or alpha critical, is a direct analogue to wealthc in Part 5. If you’ve ever played pickup sticks or Jenga, you know there comes a point in the game where removing one more piece causes the whole structure to come tumbling down. So it is for any Eustace. At some point the disruptive forces overwhelm the stabilizing forces and all falls down. This is alpha critical, and when you go below it it’s game over.
F is the filtration, and F@t-1 represents all of the information available to Eustace as of t – 1. t is the current time index.
You will note that this is almost identical to the wealth maximization equation given in Part 5. We have simply substituted one desirable, objective, measurable term, alpha, for another, wealth. In Alphabet City or on Alpha Centauri, living systems configured to maximize this function will have the greatest likelihood of survival. Bacteria, people, and as-yet undiscovered life forms on Rigel 6 all play the same game.
To maximize its sustainability, Eustace must be:
- alphatropic: can generate alpha from available free energy. Living organisms are alphatropic at every scale. They are all composed of a cell or cells that are highly coordinated, down to the organelles. The thermodynamic choreography of the simplest virus, in alpha terms, is vastly more elaborate than that of the most sophisticated machined devices. (This is an experimentally verifiable proposition, and alpha theory ought to be subject to verification.)
- alphametric: calibrates “appropriate” responses to fluctuations in alpha. (I will come to what “appropriate” means in a moment.) In complex systems many things can go wrong — by wrong I mean alphadystropic. If a temperature gauge gives an erroneous reading in an HVAC system, the system runs inefficiently and is more prone to failure. Any extraneous complexity that does not increase alpha has a thermodynamic cost that weighs against it. Alpha theory in no way states that living systems a priori know the best path. It states that alpha and survivability are directly correlated.
- alphaphilic: can recognize and respond to sources of alpha. A simple bacterium may use chemotaxis to follow a maltose gradient. Human brains are considerably more complex and agile. Our ability to aggregate data through practice, to learn, allows us to model a new task so well that eventually we may perform it subconsciously. Think back to your first trip to work and how carefully you traced your route. Soon after there were probably days when you didnt even remember the journey. Information from a new experience was collected, and eventually, the process was normalized. We accumulate countless Poisson rules and normalize them throughout our lives. As our model grows, new information that fits cleanly within it is easier to digest than information that challenges or contradicts it. (Alpha theory explains, for example, resistance to alpha theory.)
Poisson strategies or “Poisson rules” are mnemonics, guesses, estimates; these will inevitably lead to error. Poisson rules that are adapted to the filtration will be better than wild guesses. The term itself is merely a convenience. It in no way implies that all randomness fits into neat categories but rather emphasizes the challenges of discontinuous random processes.
There are often many routes to get from here to there. Where is there? The destination is always maximal alpha given available free energy. To choose this ideal path, Eustace would need to know every possible conformation of energy. Since this is impossible in practice, Eustace must follow the best path based on his alpha model. Let’s call this alpha quantity Î±* (alpha star). We can now introduce an error term, Îµ (epsilon).
Îµ = |Î± – Î±*|
Incomplete or incorrect information increases Eustace’s epsilon; more correct or accurate information decreases it. “Appropriate” action is based on a low-epsilon model. All Eustaces act to maximize alpha star: they succeed insofar as alpha star maps to alpha.
This is an extravagant claim, which I may as well put extravagantly: Alpha star defines behavior, and alpha defines ethics, for all life that adheres to the laws of thermodynamics. Moral action turns out to be objective after all. All physiological intuitions have been rigorously excluded — no “consciousness,” no “self,” no “volition,” and certainly no “soul.” Objective measure and logical definition alone are the criteria for the validity of alpha. There is, to be sure, nothing intuitively unreasonable in the derivation; but the criterion for mathematical acceptability is logical self-consistency rather than simply reasonableness of conception. PoincarÃ© said that had mathematicians been left in the prey of abstract logic, they would have never gone beyond number theory and geometry. It is nature, in our case thermodynamics, that opens mathematics as a tool for understanding the world.
Alpha proposes a bridge that links the chemistry and physics of individual molecules to macromolecules to primitive organisms all the way through to higher forms of life. Researchers and philosophers can look at the same questions they always have, but with a rigorous basis of reference. To indulge in another computer analogy, when I program in a high-level language I ultimately generate binary output, long strings of zeros and ones. The computer cares only about this binary output. Alpha is the binary output of living systems.
The reader will discover that alpha can reconstitute the mechanisms that prevailed in forming the first large molecules — the molecules known to be the repositories of genetic information in every living cell throughout history. In 1965 the work of Jacob, Monod, and Gros demonstrated the role of messenger ribonucleic acids in carrying information stored in deoxyribonucleic acid that is the basis of protein synthesis. Then American biologists Tom Cech and Sidney Altman earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989 for showing that RNA molecules possess properties that were not originally noticed: they can reorganize themselves without any outside intervention.
All of this complexity stems from the recursive application of a simple phenomenon. Alpha’s story has never changed and, so long as the laws of thermodynamics continue to hold, it never will. But recursive simplicity can get awfully complicated, as anyone who’s ever looked at a fractal can tell you. Remember that t and t – 1 in the maximization function change constantly; it’s a fresh Bernoulli trial all the time. Human beings calculate first-order consequences pretty well, second-order consequences notoriously badly, and the third order is like the third bottle of wine: all bets are off. This is why we need alpha models, and why we can maximize only alpha star, not alpha itself. Alpha is not a truth machine. It is one step in the process of abstracting the real fundamentals from all the irrelevant encumbrances in which intuition tangles us. There is a lot of moral advice to be derived from alpha theory, which I will get around to offering, but for now: Look at your alpha model. (Objectivists will recognize this as another form of “check your premises.”)
But for those of you who want some cash value right away — and I can’t blame you — the definition of life falls out immediately from alpha theory. Alpha is a dimensionless unit. Living systems, even primitive ones, have an immensely higher such number than machines. Life is a number. (We don’t know its value of course, but this could be determined experimentally.) Erwin SchrÃ¶dinger, in his vastly overrated book What Is Life?, worried this question for nearly 100 pages without answering it. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, claimed that the meaning of life is 42. He got a hell of a lot closer than SchrÃ¶dinger.
In the next few posts, well subsume Darwin into a much more comprehensive theory and we’ll consolidate — or as E.O. Wilson would say, consiliate — the noble sciences into a unified field in a way that might even make Aristotle proud.
I’m going to print all of your old posts and go oer the equations again, along with this one, while I’m vacationing in the mountains.
I look forward to it. Thanks for the car ride consideration.
I had a feeling that this was where you were headed, but nevertheless this is bold and mindblowing stuff. At this point I can’t seem to find fault anywhere, but I’ll let Bill, Bourbaki and Jim have at it before I totally get on board though.
One pedantic thing, though: it’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I think you got confused with Life, the Universe and Everything). Adams fanboy here, couldn’t let that pass.
Corrected, Matt, and thanks.
I don’t mean to needle you with this question but could you better explain how the laws of thermodynamics applies to your thinking. You say that all is bound by its laws. Can you be more specific. I am really interested. I know the general idea behind it but I’d liked to hear your take on it. Maybe others could offer their views.
Well David, I’ve done my best to be specific, but I’ve posted a summary of the theory, sans formulae, which may help. Look it over and if you still have questions I’ll be happy to try to answer them.
I think Ive got it, Aaron, so your explanation must be pretty clear, with and without formulas, but my growing concerns now are twofold.
First, you seem to think that your theory excludes the existence of agency or volition. (It cannot without self-contradiciton, of course.) You, as a person, seem to associate volition with religion. There are no grounds for that at all. There is no refutation of the concept of agency here, just an assertion against it and a troubling admission that it is not always possible to completely remove it from our language. I, for one, have NO problem omitting it entirely, except when discussing people, where I do find it utterly impossible to do without. It, of course, is "anthropocentric," but that’s o.k. if the only claimed agents are humans. (When, of course, it is required. And, calling it "anthropocentric" sort-of admits that it does, in some sense, apply to humans, at least, no?)
Indeed, I suspect that you already appreciate that you have put forward an account of a kind of non-conscious "teleology" for what has traditionally been considered the non-teleological, and even a physical account for what has been the traditionally teleological. (I really dig this kind of approach, so long as it isn’t crude reductionism.)
In fact, it seems to me that the increasing self-regulation, or self-consciousness, or control of consciousness, plainly observed as we gradually move from bacteria to humans, is something that alpha might be able to actually explain. Whaddya think?
Don’t run away from it — explain it — as you might actually be able to do now!!)
Which leads me to the second problem that I sense emerging here: reductionism. The major limitations of physics over the years have been self-imposed, the straight-jacket of physical reductionism, to put it bluntly.
The "objective" is not merely the physical. The theory of evolution, for instance, was OBJECTIVE, even without alpha, or even DNA. Physics’ explanations do not explain "away." Properly understood, they explain a fundamental aspect of the full, rich, even sometimes the non-physical and relational, character of the whole thing. For example, the assertion, "life is a number" is true only in the most limited sense. It is the purest nonsense outside of a VERY limited context of explanation.
My emotions may be exainable with alpha, but I sure don’t need alpha to know them, and OBJECTIVELY; same with my values; same with, well, every other complex thing, from the weather to nutrition to politics to art. The physicist who says that the table before me is NOT a solid table at all, but a complex cloud of electrons is the one missing out on real dimensions of truth, not the guy who understands that the electron cloud has created the very solid table actually before me.
Every time someone discovers something in physics, why is it that they always need to contend that, at last, we have reached the Nirvana consisting of the ultimate metaphysical reduction to number? It’s just blather.
At last an application! A definition of life, no less. The calculations are beyond me, but I would certainly like to see what alpha-star is in the following three cases:
An air conditioner
An answer to the question, "Is a virus alive?" would be an enormous advance.
Mr. Aaron’s Father,
If the derivation is clean, then these experimental results could be pure gold. But we’re talking philosophy here so we need to keep our hands clean.
Let’s consider cellular respiration in living organism:
citric acid cycle
In living systems, such cycles are coupled to other highly coordinated pathways that in turn carry out tasks including synthesis, repair and replication. These pathways are by no means flawless but the organization of living systems is conducted to the smallest scale to this end.
An air conditioner is a collection of machined parts. The coordination stops at the scale of these parts. And when our machines get small, say microprocessors, they become extremely rigid and brittle.
Is a virus alive?
Alpha is a numerical scale. It offers both ordinality and cardinality where none existed. For any Eustace to display the features that we associate with life, he’ll need to travel up this scale. At present, we have no experimental data to know whether this scale is a smooth gradient or punctuated by inflection points.
The answer lies in the graph of that data and where a virus falls on it compared to other points of reference.
But that sounds like a lot of work very little of which could be conducted from a sidewalk cafe.
Jim: It would be nice if you stuck to the arguments I make instead of the arguments you are afraid I will make or think I might be about to make. Alpha, I repeat, is the binary output of living systems. It’s level 0 while we are accustomed to deal with these matters at level 8 or so. I would no more foresake discussing tables as solid objects because they can be conceived as electron clouds than I would foresake discussing hashtables and classes because they can be conceived as strings of ones and zeros. Incidentally, I have never known a physicist to deny that solid matter is solid.
However, there is a level 0, we know what it is, and we can measure it, theoretically. This is more than we knew last month. Just as I compile my programs down to byte code, so we can "compile" our ordinary normative concepts down to alpha.
Eschewing "agent language" isn’t quite as easy as you think; depends on the subject. Language is a social creation of human beings, and we are hard-wired for teleology, for better or worse. Try giving an account of evolution without it. Darwin, Gould, and Dawkins all use teleological terms liberally (with appropriate disclaimers). E.O. Wilson, as materialist a man as you will ever hope to find, can’t discuss even ants without them.
I don’t know where you got the impression that I was attempting to "refute agency," but it certainly wasn’t from anything I wrote. Alpha theory is, so far, resolutely agnostic on agency, consciousness, and volition. (I have a pretty good idea how to define consciousness in alpha terms, but until I can demonstrate it rigorously I’d rather leave it off the table.) For now I claim only that a considerable amount of behavior, even human behavior, can be accounted for without introducing any of these concepts. You ask for a "non-conscious teleology"; no thanks. I would rather not retreat to the days of rocks falling because of their "affinity" for the ground. All scientific progress has been in the opposite direction.
Sorry, Aaron, no can do. You must account for volition whether you want to or not, whether its already accounted for in your theory or not. I import it over by sheer necessity. If choice is an illusion, then you are wasting everyones time if you hope to give them normative advice of any kind. Aristotle was right on the money when he said that any and all ethics presupposes the truth of volition and cannot exist without it.
Also, teleology and volition, while intimately related, are two different things. True agency talk, the language of conscious-choice, applies only to people (or some other conceptual consciousness out there.) Teleology, i.e., goal-directedness, is obviously inescapable in any discussion of biology, including ants. I am never compelled to imply that ants individually choose, but I am compelled to say that they pursue goalsthey do. I am compelled to say that people consciously choosethey do. This is no linguistic problem at all for meever. Please provide us but a single example of such verbal difficulty, and Ill be happy to sort it out for you in seconds
A moral theory cannot be ‘agency-neutral’ or agnostic about free will. That’s my point.
No, its not part of your theory, but have you not implied that agency-talk is practically a superstition, a by-product of linguistic history?
Dont resent the request for philosophical qualification, Aaron. Thats always a big mistake. You are the one claiming that this is philosophy, not physics. If so, we need more than a numerical definition of life. Otherwise, its fallacious reductionism. Its the numerical answer that needs qualification; its the theorys responsibility.
I get to import any facts over that might be uncomfortable for you and your theory, sorry, dude. In addition, I was hoping that you would see some hopeful possibility in my suggestion that your theory might actually account for agency (or the illusion of agency?) This would serve your theory no end of good, dont you think? Or maybe you are just doing physics after all, and not ethics of any kind. Even physics can give us all kinds of normative advice, to engineers, for instance.
That you might also be able to provide help on this issue was a suggestion, try it or not, as you choose, but please dont resent the fellow who brings it up.
By the way, what is your personal position (notice thats how I put before) on the following questions:
Do humans possess free will?
Is this an essential part of normative thinking?
P.S. I will let my determinist friends know that they are "hard-wired" to think and talk otherwise. It’ll come as big shock to them!
I’m gonna have to call several Occam’s Razor violations here. We do not need any of these slippery concepts if we simply think about the problem in the following way:
1. An organism reconfigures itself in response to input.
2. This new configuration either promotes its sustainability or not.
3. How do we tell?
These are the questions I’m trying to answer. They have not been answered yet, and they are worth answering. They can be answered without any reference to consciousness, or volition, or good and evil and right and wrong for that matter. Let’s follow Nietzsche for a bit and stop talking about that stuff. Let’s just think in terms of sickness and health.
The mask has slipped, and Aaron has finally exposed himself to my satisfaction!! He IS a crude reductionist. No, he is never tempted to say that the solid table isn’t really a solid table (which, incidentally, has been said many, many times as a demonstration of the senses’ invalidity), but he is the direct analogue of thoise folks and a crude reductionist. Volition is an illusion, just as the table was allegedly only a cloud of electrons.
Can’t you hear yourself, Aaron? ‘[These questions] can be answered without any reference to consciousness [even YOURS or mine?!?!], or volition [ditto], or good and evil and right and wrong for that matter.’ No, they cannot. Don’t tell me, ‘consciousness-talk’ is ‘hard-wired,’ too.
It’s true most questions can be answered without reference to the concepts of good and evil, but certainly no ethical ones can be. You can’t destroy the subject and then claim to be the master of it. Whatever you hope to be doing, this is not ethics. I am also now convinced beyond all doubt that this isn’t even philosophy. It’s (at best) physics.
Most organisms do not ‘reconfigure themselves’ at all. (I’d like to see a single example of that.) At best, mutation reconfigures their offspring into something else or a change in the environment reconditions their behavior. Now, humans DO reconfigure themselves, quite literally, just as you are attempting to reconfigure our understanding of things. Ignoring this distinction (or, worse, smearing these two radically different realities into the same thing) will only confuse the matter further; it ignores the difference between true agents and others, for instance.
Human intelligence is natural selection sped-up: instead of waiting for the organism to turn white in a snowy environment, humans can change/design/invent clothes, heaters, housing, even themselves, in less than a single generation. Polar bears can’t do that. WE, on the other hand, really do. That’s the difference agency makes!
My previous questions stand.
1. Three cheers for RNA!! Cats and dogs, and bacteria, sorry, you don’t fit. Interesting biological model, though… Even RNA’s self-adaptation lacks any purpose, intelligence or choice in the process, of course. (Does RNA even have an illusion of choice, Aaron?) Intelligence is HOW we humans can purposely ‘reconfigure’ ourselves, and this difference to RNA in the nature of the ‘reconfiguring’ is significant. Will your normative advice, whatever it is, be of any assistance to RNA? Sit down and have a good heart-to-heart with some RNA and do tell me if its harder to convince than me! You still refuse to answer this very point: how do you deal with the necessary premise of all ethics, namely, volition? If choice is not recognized in your theory, do you expect me to take any ‘advice’ from you? Just how would I do that?
2. Physics is inferred from observation. Thermodynamics is no more certain than the observations that went into its discovery and validation. Physical theories are the less certain, if anything is, not my observations of solid tables and consciousness and choice. The more of these observations that are accounted for and explained, the better, the more complete the theory. Observation, as one of my earlier detractors put it, has PRIMACY. Put it this way: if Occam properly razors off volition in your theory, then too bad for your (sadly self-limited) theory. You will be missing something big. Occam cannot razor off any part of reality, though.
This is not to say that your theory cant have some use or application, just a self-limited one, discussing only one slice of the pie. Philosophy talks about the whole pie. I don’t give a damn about turf-wars, just about keeping the whole of reality in mind in a single integration.
3. Ethics never needed to wait for a mathematical derivation to be known to be objective, any more than evolution by natural selection did. Ethics turning out to be ‘objective’ on basis of math, reveals a rationalism of the worst kind, Aaron. Consciousness and volition won’t become any more ‘objective’ when you figure out what their alpha math is, either. (Ancient Pythagoreans thought ‘love’ was 5, I believe, perhaps, that’s a good place for you to start.) It’s up to theories to explain and conform to them, not vice versa. For the sake of your theory, I hope that an explanation of these things can really be done…
Oh yes, you found me out. Reduced to a reductionist at last, and a lucky thing too: otherwise you might have to learn a little probability and physics and deal with the actual arguments instead of imputing positions to me that I have not stated and don’t, in fact, hold. It was a narrow escape.
We might begin with some biochemistry. The claim that only human beings can reconfigure themselves is astonishing, particularly in light of the link I provided in this very post to Cech’s and Altman’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for showing that RNA molecules can do exactly that.
I ask the unbiased reader to examine the question (#3) in my last comment and ask himself why, to answer it, I am obliged to explain, define, or even introduce consciousness or volition. Now obviously I trust that when I write I will be understood a trust that is rapidly eroding. But does this mean that I am somehow dragging my own or my reader’s consciousness into the argument on that account? That any time I conduct an argument in language I have to explain consciousness beforehand? Be serious.
You want to conduct a turf war and arrogate to yourself the terms ethics and philosophy? Be my guest. You want to call what I’m doing physics, or praxeology, or basket-weaving? OK by me. All I want to know is: Is the maximization function valid or isn’t it? If not, then where is the error? And if there’s no error, then what’s all the fuss about?
Valliant[quote]:”Physics is inferred from observation. Thermodynamics is no more certain than the observations that went into its discovery and validation. Physical theories are the less certain, if anything is, not my observations of solid tables and consciousness and choice. The more of these observations that are accounted for and explained, the better, the more complete the theory. Observation, as one of my earlier detractors put it, has PRIMACY.”Valliant[endquote]
First you state:
Valliant[quote]"…physical theories are the less certain, if anything is, not my observations of solid tables but the more of these observations that are accounted for the better.”Valliant[endquote]
What do you think these physical theories are if not the strictly confirmed and defined observations of phenomena many, many times over, and many times corroborated? If, incidentally, your "observations" lead you to conclude something different than what these theories conclude, odds are you are wrong. You may not be and by all means attempt to prove what you claim to be as true as such using the same tools as everyone else. If you are right and can prove it by the tools upon which we have all agreed (rules of inference, the scientific method, CPPD, etc..) then lo and behold we have something new.
But in the face of not having this, indeed having only your claim that your senses are superior to physical theories were they to be in contradiction, how can we conceivably accept that you can draw more robust conclusions about the universe than we "physical theorists"? All you have as evidence is appeal to the most privileged of knowledge – your experience of the world By your own standards physical theory is to be believed over your experiential evidence, if the truth of your statement becomes more firmly supported by repeated observation.
Unless you are proposing that the physical world *exists* as you perceive it in which case let me step aside to make room for your ego *and* your misconceptions. In other words, if physical theories *did* prove that tables were not solid objects (and let me re-emphasize what Aaron wrote – I too have never met the physicist that has or would make this claim, altho I know plenty of philosophers that would defend it) and *your* observation, *your* experience of the world said otherwise, that they were solid – you are wrong.
Valliant[quote]"Ethics never needed to wait for a mathematical derivation to be known to be ‘objective,’"Valliant[endquote]
Nor has it ever succeeded in trying to give an objective basis for any of its theories. To date, there are *no* successful ethical theories that do not ultimately resort to intuition or the brute assertion of unsubstantial (and unsubstantiable) first principles. Alpha proposes to do this to give the objective ethic.
But this is, mystifyingly, unsavory to you:
Valliant[quote]“Ethics ‘turning out’ to be ‘objective’ on basis of math, reveals a rationalism of the worst kind”Valliant[endquote]
Every ethical theory that has been taken seriously, in fact I’ll go so far as to say that every ethical theory tries to have an objective basis. The difference between alpha and every other theory so far is that alpha succeeds, if we are to apply it ethics, which we have been promised.
Every other theory ultimately falls under the weight of weird and untrue (or empty) metaphysics, see Kant, religion; appeal to special knowledge, see religion again; an untrue understanding of the universe *as it is*, etc. But every one of them has attempted to be objective, hence they are able to be, in theory, prescriptive. Without the objectivity, there is no basis for claiming an ethical system is prescriptive because by definition it will then be subjective (either a or b, not a therefore b – it is either objective or subjective, it is not objective therefore it is subjective) and therefore of no use. Unless your ethics has no prescriptive power, in which case you have misunderstood the term. Or perhaps you think that the subjective experience is a good basis for prescribing actins to others?
Alpha falls right out of axioms with which no one has a problem (and certainly no one here as no one has disputed the premises) and everyone is willing to regard as true, excepting those mentioned way back when: those who question whether the world even exists or if math is true. To these people I leave those with the stomach to indulge such nonsense.
Alpha is objective. And if this can lead to an ethical system that is objective, then despite your distaste for the notion I fail to see how you cannot accept unless you don’t accept one of the premises (and if you don’t accept say the Second Law the world would very much like to see your proof as to why it should not be accepted).
But no one has disputed the premises effectively; i.e. no one has disagreed they are true and if they have had a problem with them they have failed to offer a true, valid counterargument here. Or you do not accept that these premises lead to the proffered conclusion. That conclusion to date is above and if it does not fall right out of the axioms, I should also like to see how, other than the exhortation that we cannot do away with volition.
What is being investigated is put very simply in 3 numbered points in Aaron’s above post. Do you have any problem with this and do you agree that alpha can accomplish this measurement? If so, then you can see that there is no need at this point to introduce consciousness or volition. Argue all the arguments that you think Aaron will make or not, so far this is what we are talking about.
Now if you are wondering *how* these things may be applied to an ethical issue, then please put your issue forward and let us see how alpha fares. Until then, talk of consciousness and volition is the new noise used to fill the gap left when everyone realized that the premises and axioms were unassailable. It is at least an attempt to attack the conclusions but by introducing more to the solution than is needed. Claim that volition and consciousness are necessary if you must, but while you do so can you show us where it is needed in Aaron’s 3-point summation?
I don’t understand why you attempt to define systems (including living ones) as alpha-maximizing, and not fitness-maximizing. Certainly one could imagine a more-fit system that doesn’t maximize alpha. It seems to me that the epsilon value attempts to correct this fact, but that seems like an arbitrary step to take, since fitness can’t be recast in terms of alpha, which was originally defined in terms of entropy and enthalpy. Although I realize that alpha is unitless, it seems like you use this fact with too much liberty when you assert that fitness can be reworked into a number and thrown into the model. Since fitness (or, rather, behaviour / ethics) doesn’t exactly lead itself to being numerically defined, I don’t see how it could be added to the model as an "objective" measure.
Furthermore, it seems like your model leaves out the possibility of highly-complex (alpha-maximizing) systems which are prone to Poisson events. Since being disaster-prone doesn’t fit into a measure of alpha, we could say that there are systems with high alphas that are terribly unfit. Perhaps I don’t understand your Universal Law of Life function properly, since it seems to say that alpha will be maximized in the present… obviously, future values of alpha are important as well for the viability of any system. Are these future values somehow accounted for in the measure of present alphas?
I don’t understand why you attempt to define systems (including living ones) as alpha-maximizing, and not fitness-maximizing.
How would you measure fitness?
Certainly one could imagine a more-fit system that doesn’t maximize alpha.
You have two systems, A and B. What makes A more "fit" than B.
Please provide an example of this imagined system. If it’s "fit", it should possess "survivability". Alpha is a measurable index of its survivability.
It seems to me that the epsilon value attempts to correct this fact, but that seems like an arbitrary step to take, since fitness can’t be recast in terms of alpha, which was originally defined in terms of entropy and enthalpy.
Careful. The aim is to maximize the utility function. All living systems do not actually achieve this. That would require full knowledge of all available free energy sources and optimal strategies to process each source.
There is nothing arbitrary about epsilon. There is a strict thermodynamic maximum for any available quantity of free energy, dG. The difference between this theoretical max and that achieved by any dynamic system is epsilon.
Although I realize that alpha is unitless, it seems like you use this fact with too much liberty when you assert that fitness can be reworked into a number and thrown into the model. Since fitness (or, rather, behaviour / ethics) doesn’t exactly lead itself to being numerically defined, I don’t see how it could be added to the model as an "objective" measure.
Fitness as you’ve used it so far is a rather arbitrary term. Please provide a rigorous explanation of fitness and how it deviates from alpha.
Also, please point out where alpha is applied with too much liberty. A counterexample would be most helpful.
Furthermore, it seems like your model leaves out the possibility of highly-complex (alpha-maximizing) systems which are prone to Poisson events.
Complexity for complexity’s sake is not alphatropic. The system you describe would have reduced survivability.
Since being disaster-prone doesn’t fit into a measure of alpha, we could say that there are systems with high alphas that are terribly unfit.
Sure. A disaster prone complex has low survivability. It would dissipate quickly. It would have low alpha.
Perhaps I don’t understand your Universal Law of Life function properly, since it seems to say that alpha will be maximized in the present…
It says that the best configuration an alpha complex can achieve is one adapted to all the information available in the filtration.
obviously, future values of alpha are important as well for the viability of any system. Are these future values somehow accounted for in the measure of present alphas?
Yes. This was addressed in the discussion about continuous/discrete randomness and strong/weak solutions. Some things about the future can be known with a high degree of certainty. In the Bernoulli betting game, having $100 meant that it would take at least 100 rounds to lose.
You are going to have to offer some clear examples of your objections. Apologies but so far, they are too vague to address directly.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll discover that the quantitative properties of alpha are intimately related to the qualitative properties of fitness.
I feel as misunderstood by you as Aaron does by me!
If I had a distaste for alpha, I doubt that I would have suggested that other important (and necessary) features of ethics be explained by it.
What I object to is the strange reluctance by Aaron to even approach the subjects I mentioned. We can’t give normative advice to ants (teleological though they be), nor to molecules (even RNA, as un-teleological as they are), but we can do so for human beings. This appears to me to be a crucial difference (between "agents" and others) that is a necessary prerequisite to any and all ethical thinking. It cannot be evaded, either. Moral judgment requires that I distinguish between those actions which a person could have chosen otherwise and those for which he could NOT have. One must recognize those areas which can, under current circumstances, be "reconfigured" and those which currently cannot be (at least by me now.) Any failure to recognize volition will render the entire "ethics" quite dubious. This is not optional and not something that Occam, Aaron, or anyone else can razor off of ethics.
And, no, ethics HAS been demonstrated to be objective by previous ethical thinkers, and all without math.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll discover that the quantitative properties of alpha are intimately related to the qualitative properties of fitness.
I suppose so. If alpha simply represents both a measure of internal efficiency and the system’s ability to cope with the outside world in the optimal manner, I guess there’s little to object to.
And so maybe I’ll communicate another point that seems strange to me. It seems that a system which could be "frozen" and boxed away for eternity would have a higher alpha than it would otherwise. If I preserve my dead dog, does that mean its alpha is higher than it was when it’s alive, and hence it has a higher survivability? That would certainly seem strange.
It doesn’t seem like alpha addresses the role of system reproduction, either. There’s certainly more to fitness as we know it than survivability – one must be able to reproduce as well. How does this theory address this issue?
Careful. The derivation of alpha is spread over Part 2 through Part 6. Each Part is layered onto the previous Part and none of the pieces can be excluded.
If I preserve my dead dog, does that mean its alpha is higher than it was when it’s alive, and hence it has a higher survivability? That would certainly seem strange.
This is an excellent question. First, alpha is a ratio of flux. That ratio needs to be above a threshold called alpha critical (a_c).
Something that is dead will not be above a_c. But what about something in suspended animation?
Believe it or not, alpha accommodates this case. Watch for an upcoming post that will address this case along with several other edge cases. Hint: L’Hopital’s Rule.
It doesn’t seem like alpha addresses the role of system reproduction, either. There’s certainly more to fitness as we know it than survivability – one must be able to reproduce as well. How does this theory address this issue?
Alpha is very abstract. It focuses only on quantitative measurement and commensurability of consequences. Again, if you look back over the posts you’ll notice that there were no restrictions on the size of "Eustace". A Eustace that reproduces increases alpha and diversifies its fitness in terms of location and perhaps configuration (via recombination). It’s just another method to increase the utility function.
It seems that you are concerned that some applications or prescriptive consequences have not been addressed. The idea develops from theory to application in iterative steps.
Specific application will become apparent as more and more layers are added to the abstract foundations of the idea. By opening up each and every single step of the derivation, you may interject an objection of where it went wrong. But this method of careful derivation does mean that some of the higher level applications to philosophy will have to wait until tools have been iteratively assembled to address them.
Are you saying that alpha can’t address issues of interest (please explain why) or that it hasn’t addressed them yet?
As I have suggested already, I think that alpha actually might (still just a might) be able to handle the very issues that I have raised. I am impressed enough (so far) that I am beginning to suspect that (whatever its ultimate merits) even such an attempt to do so will be insightful. (My own math consultant is still working me through–what is for me–some very difficult stuff here. But I may get there some day…) Whatever the math, a Eustace’s ability to do ethics itself, i.e., the intelligence and will that that presupposes, seems to me to be a seminal event in the history of alpha ‘reconfiguration,’ enormously accelerating this capacity to ‘reconfigure.’ (Just a guess, so far.)
But whether or not this can be made sense of in the terms of the theory presented, these are still critical issues for ANY ethical theory, or ANY practical application of it, to handle.
One other issue: the danger of reductionism. I see a red object. By telling me the reason why I see it as red, even breaking it down to the mathematics of the very photons involved, does not render my perceptions any more ‘objective,’ it tells me why they were always ‘objective.’ Any derivations made here, even perfectly successful ones, won’t let us say that ethics ‘turns out’ to be objective–ethics (as such) will have simply been proven to have been ‘objective’ all along. (Specific prescriptions may have been wrong, others red-hot close, at least, but the subject of ethics, as was stated, will be simply verified from a new angle.) Anything else is pure reductionism and ‘rationalism’ (in the Objectivist sense of the word.) The subject of ethics arises ONLY because we possess intelligence and will–we are ethical beings and have been so as long as we have been beings of intellect and choice. Exactly that long, in fact, and because we possess intellect and will–Aaron’s theory, right or wrong, being just another eloquent demonstration of this.)
As an atheist and lover of science, I am convinced that SOME physical explanation for agency and teleology (being plainly observed facts) exists. As Aaron is really proving, it is the physics that has been lacking, not the ethics. I am willing to wait and see Aaron’s ethics give advice–and see if it actually conforms to what I objectively know about ethics. (Aaron cannot derive and deduce me into murder and dishonesty, no matter what his math shows!)
I don’t believe in ‘vital forces,’ or any of the other mystical ideas Aaron rightly rejects, but I also still believe ethics to be ‘objective’ without any math, simply by using clear concepts. I believe that ‘agency’ (or volition) is one of these very real, natural and plainly observable facts that, in some form, is indispensable. I do not demand or expect the theory to account for everything, from every perspective, but if it has a claim to the title of ‘philosophy’ (to be, for example, a workable ethics), it must address some important facts and issues, like those I have raised.
(I also don’t imagine that the average person will be able or willing to do complex math to figure out how to live a good life, but this is a comparatively small matter, especially given Aaron’s lucidity with plain English.)
Again, I am willing to be patient in a patient cause.
Whatever the math, a Eustace’s ability to do ethics itself, i.e., the intelligence and will that that presupposes, seems to me to be a seminal event in the history of alpha ‘reconfiguration,’ enormously accelerating this capacity to ‘reconfigure.’
You are absolutely correct on this point. This agility greatly improves our ability to adapt.
One other issue: the danger of reductionism.
This not a danger of reductionism. This is a danger of bad scholarship and poor reasoning. That is why the entire derivation has been openly laid out before you along with references. That you are taking the time and energy to learn the math so that you may refute or accept the theory properly is good scholarship.
I don’t believe in ‘vital forces,’ or any of the other mystical ideas Aaron rightly rejects, but I also still believe ethics to be ‘objective’ without any math […]
So no supernatural–we are dealing with the physical. Surely the possibility of adding ordinality and cardinality is desirable?
"In physical science the first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it. I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be."
— William Thomson (Lord Kelvin)
I agree with Lord Kelvin in the context of the kind of science that he worked in, but not other things. Math is not needed to create more than "meagre" knowledge. (I wonder how we even got to math, then? Indeed, math-reduction is "meagre" knowledge, unless it can be translated into words.)
And, when concepts at least as clear and certain as "table" and "chair," are called "slippery," e.g. consciousness, teleology, and volition, and it is suggested, "Don’t worry, they will ‘turn out’ to be objective when we find the math, just like ethics ‘turns out’ to be," then we may just have entered the realm of "bad scholarship and poor reasoning," if we do not exercise the utmost care.
It’s curious that I sense that none of my ethical positions, e.g., on murder and honesty, are on the block here, but only whether a physical account of them can be provided, i.e., it’s physics, not ethics, that may find a new application.
You are asserting things that no one has claimed. No one here has called a chair "slippery".
And, surely, no engineer versed in Newtonian mechanics would tell Barry Bonds to calculate the velocity and trajectory of a ball using the laws of motion. None of Barry Bond’s positions on how to hit a fastball would be "on the table". But Barry would (likely) be unable to take his knowledge and apply it to an airfoil to produce an airplane.
Qualitative knowledge can be highly effective but there are severe limitations: it is very difficult to integrate and generalize without becoming brittle and dogmatic.
Indeed, math-reduction is "meagre" knowledge, unless it can be translated into words.
Words are too easily misunderstood. This series of posts is an excellent example. Notice how throughout the derivation in Parts 1-6, all debate stemmed from words and their interpretation.
No one quarrelled over Gibbs, Boltzmann, Bernoulli, Gauss, or Poisson.
Everyone argued over Aristotle, Mill, Rand and Nietzche.
Either as individuals or groups, humans piece together strategies as best they can. Each of us has our own closely-held views but to date, there has been no consensus on any single ethical theory.
After six posts, we’ve established a very general term. And we established it openly and quantitatively. The underlying principles are general enough to apply seamlessly from puddle to protozoan to person.
I am not aware of any other commensurable system built on both an empirically corroborative and logically consistent foundation. Of course, an error may be discovered and the entire enterprise will come tumbling down. However, if the derivation proves to be sound, it will be a new capability that extends it beyond other systems.
It HAS been claimed that consciousness, teleology and volition are ‘slippery’ concepts. I used ‘chair’ precisely because no one has (or would) say that it was ‘slippery.’ Get it?
Math provides a quantitative precision that words cannot. Agreed. But words are not so ‘brittle’ as you think, and there is nothing so ‘dogmatic’ as the absolute precision of math. But it is concepts that create the foundation for math, not vice versa.
Attaining a ‘consensus’ about ethical foundations is not required for my own certainty. If this theory turns out to be right, I’ll wager that you and Aaron will be the first to be certain of its truth, even before it achieves consensus recognition!
There are reasons why consensus has been achieved in the physical sciences but not in philosophy, and it has little to do with the certainty of the subject. Things like religion come along and trump any scientific method at all. People think that something other reason can occasionally be employed in this area, while they would never say the same about physics or chemistry. When it comes to metaphysics, the absurd skepticism and subjectivism of Hume and Kant and others has ‘made room’ for religion in these matters, don’t you know? Words and metaphysics are not to blame, but overt irrationality about the methodology itself. There has never been any earthly reason to believe in Christian ethics (or its secular variants). And, as Rand observed, that’s just it, no ‘earthly’ reason can be given. But it still forms the unquestioned absolute in the field. If you think for five seconds that providing a mathematical ethics consistent with the laws of thermodynamics is going to change this reality, I fear that you are sadly mistaken. The problem has never been the inadequacy of a rational alternative to mystical metaphysics and ethics, but the irrational commitment to mystical solutions in these matters–and the pseudo-scientific justifications that have been provided to justify such a commitment.
Remarkable. You’re bitching about Hume and Kant ruining the party with absurd skepticism while complaining that 2 + 2 = 4 is dogma in the same post.
And I’m sure this makes sense. Objectively. To you.
I’m beginning to understand the adolescent appeal of Rand and why people so often say that they’ve outgrown it. It appears to offer canned confidence where perhaps there was none.
Quick, easy, and absurd answers in storybook form with unilateral fanaticism that is indistinguishable from solipsism. It indulges narrow-gauged intellectual impatience that let’s one confidently assert absurdities about how physicists see the world in gossamer and why women should be attracted to breasts. You mention pseudo-scientific justification but your posts are nothing but pseudo-scientific.
I can see the deeply emotional appeal.
Can alpha theory offer this even if it proves to be true?
But then again, we didn’t set out looking for another opiate, did we? Your math tutor is an excellent start.
The pathos of your idiocy is heartbreaking. You cannot grasp the slightest irony, ever, can you? It was against your complaints of "dogmatism" that I was reacting–the "dogma" of math is just fine with this metaphysical absolutist.
If you would ever take only 1% of the effort to honestly understand me that I am making here, rather than making embarrassingly ill-informed and utterly gratuitous attacks on Rand (why?) and me, you might have time to address the points that I make. Alas, you NEVER do!
Consciousness is no less obvious, clear and certain than chair. Aaron says that hes almost got the alpha math worked out for this slippery concept. Like ethics, I suspect that he will declare that this concept "turns out" to be "objective," too. THIS is reductionism.
Now, go figure this outno math neededand you might actually learn a something about the science of philosophy. But, I fear, true dogma has corroded YOUR mind too badly, and I doubt that you possess the open mind required to think outside of your sadly narrow and rigid little box, whatever its precise quantitative dimensions.
[Valliant quote] Consciousness is no less obvious, clear and certain than chair. Aaron says that hes almost got the alpha math worked out for this slippery concept. Like ethics, I suspect that he will declare that this concept "turns out" to be "objective," too. THIS is reductionism." [Valliant endquote]
I don’t understand what your problem seems to be, so I am afraid I too must not address your point as I cannot seem to find one.
Suppose that Aaron did work out an objective explantion of consciousness (note that this has not been offered yet, but that does not seem to stop anyone from arguing about it or bringing it up), and it was demonstrated with "alpha math". So what?
Why would this be a problem, it would simply confirm the primacy of alpha. Unless of course Aaron derived such a construction falsely in which case we will be free to point out how he has done so. But you seem to be objecting to the very notion that such a thing is possible. Or do I completely misunderstand you?
I would see such an explanation (hysterical charges of "Reductionsim!" notwithstanding) as neither problematic nor unexpected. But if I did, then I would set out to see if it was wrong in the same fashion that it had been provided to me and if I found one I would post my counterproof. I would not just ranckle at the notion and declare my distaste for the proposition counterargument.
[Valliant quote] "The problem has never been the inadequacy of a rational alternative to mystical metaphysics and ethics, but the irrational commitment to mystical solutions in these matters–and the pseudo-scientific justifications that have been provided to justify such a commitment." [Valliant endquote]
If "pseudo-science has been used to prop up these fixtures of the ethical debate then I am surprised there is not more rejoicing at the opportunity to construct an ethic that does not rely on such weak ground but is rather firmly planted in *actual* science. That alpha does so seems to me would be regarded as a great boon.
[valliant quote] "Attaining a ‘consensus’ about ethical foundations is not required for my own certainty." [Valliant endquote]
Agreed, it is certainly a good thing that right and wrong and the facts of the matter are not determined by public opinion or perception. However if one disagrees with the the popular opinon and intends to (a) either offer alternatives or b) not adhere to the public moral out of principle, one is then beholden to explain why. All the better if that explanation can be provided with rigor, transparency and appeal only to wholly aggreeable axioms – again as alpha does. Failure to have this as reason for bucking the "consensus" makes one either a relativist or without ethics altogether; more is needed for an argument about what is good and right than "I think it is and I don’t need consensus to know it". That is dogmatism defined.
[Valliant quote] "The problem has never been the inadequacy of a rational alternative to mystical metaphysics and ethics," [Valliant endquote]
I disagree. This has been a huge problem and even the ehtical systems that evade the pitfalls of mysticism still fail when one finally arrives at their first principles.
Up until alpha these have been prinicples that are either baldly and brutely asserted as holding and we must accept them or they are ultimately appeals to intuition or they are asserted vaguely and usually without any rigor in their derivation, if derived they even be or they are platitudes. I can take neither comfort nor prescription from a system devised thusly.
Alpha not only derives from the first principles nakedly but the first principles themselves are indisputable. Again, if anyone wants to dispute the axioms or how they were used, I and no doubt Aaron, Bourbaki and the rest of the world await with eager ear (if you’ve got that counterargument to algebra or thermodynamics we’d all love to see it). To date, no such objections have been submitted.
*No* other ethical system to date has offered this degree of transparency, incontrovertible first prinicples, a totally transparent derivation of the conclusion and a proof that is completely public (i.e the tools used to derive the conclusions are available to everyone, everywhere and require no costume, incense or particular experience to use). If there is another system that does this, as you have now claimed twice that there is, I should very much like to hear what it is, tho I have my suspicions what you will offer. Nevertheless, what is the ethic that is as objective and transparent and as rigorously defined as one that can be seen coming from alpha?
I will asume that you have not followed my previous comments very closely, so I will recapitulate:
The concept of consciousness is a necessary part of the epistemic foundation for the math, the physics, and the still more basic knowledge that this entire theory presupposes in order to get off of the ground. Such a concept cannot be regarded as uncertain or non-objective without casting the entire theory into an identical doubt. This kind of concept is what consitutes a philosophical axiom since all subsequent knowledge must assume its truth. Also, it is a concept derived from each and every instance of direct perception, so, in this sense, it is more fundamental and inescapable even than "table" and "chair." Scientists can provide a great deal of important subsequent information about it, e.g., as possibly here, why consciousness will or must arise in nature, given the laws of physics and probability, or, how does the brain generate this internal experience of the world, etc. These are important questions. But none the answers to these questions can have any bearing on the original objectivity of the concept of consciousness. (I used the previous example of the sense-perception of color. The discovery of photons and their wave-lengths did not make eye-sight any more or less "objective." Indeed, the objectivity of eye-sight was a presupposition of the discovery of photons.)
Alpha may incredibly and enormously increase our understanding of ethics (still just a "may), but this will not mean, as Aaron has asserted, that ethics "turns out" to be "objective," either. Like all the other instances of fallacious scientific reductionism, this is science as religion, a kind of Primary-Secondary Quality distinction that is without merit. It gets the epistemological order of things backwards. This is something I have fretted about from the outset, and an on-going problem here, in my view.
Science does not "explain away," it simply explains. Consciousness is not the squirting and jiggling, the chemical and electric activity, of my brain–it is my internal experience of the world–and it did not need to wait for brain science to be known to be "objective" or "real." Ethics is something I know a lot about already, and quite objectively, e.g., I know that it is wrong to murder. This is as objective as the theory of natural selection was, even before the discovery of the molecules involved. Understanding the physics of ethics, if you will, will not change the wrong-ness of murder, or render something else true in ethics, or ethics itself, any more "objective." Etc., etc., etc., etc…
I do believe that an "alpha explanation" for ethics may help a great in the debate over the objectivity of ethics, but it will not be decisive. The "lack of a consensus" was not the result of thinking that murder to be a good thing, or any debate over this point, or even any supposed uncertainties about this fact. It was about the nature of ethical thinking and foundations AS SUCH that was the problem. Whatever its merits, the religious ethicist will stare at Aaron’s brilliant derivations unmoved. I’ll wager the farm on that one…
Please forgive the multiple lapses in the writing above.
While its foundations are much debated, there really IS some consensus as to certain, narrowly framed policy-issues on ethics, like the aforementioned case of murder. As a criminal attorney, I am well acquainted with this fact. I myself cannot dispute much in the standard criminal codes of our time (i do dispute a considerable chunk of it, too, though.) But my metaetics is as far removed from the standard religious one as you could imagine. I am often startled at the amount of good sense that even quasi-mystics have discovered over the centuries, and for good, clear reasons. So, the original claim that previous ethical thinking is all worthless is, well, worthless, and the more recent claim that no consensus exists in the area is also overstated.
Of course, I do not regard consensus as necessary to certainty, but I suspect that many of Aaron’s policy-conclusions will echo the good work already done in the science of ethics. If he does not, then I will really have profound doubts about alpha, not the previously established truths of ethics.
On the other hand, the religious will tell us that what the ancient Greeks thought so important–happiness, survival, health, etc.–that so influenced Nietzsche and Rand–has little to do with real ethics. If one is trying to obey God, please God, or get into heaven, then why should one consider alpha at all? Why is my health even a value?
Why should I care about earthly success, in science or in ethics, including the "tools" being suggested here? Why is science and technology a value to such a thoroughly mystical soul? He may consider death a wonderful thing–the great escape to bliss, the promised virgins, the goal!
Of course, if this theory is correct, then it WILL have an enormous bearing on ethics, but how does alpha respond to the fully mystical position?
Isn’t this a pre-alpha consideration, i.e., philosophy?
"The concept of consciousness is a necessary part of the epistemic foundation for the math, the physics…"
When you close your eyes and plug your ears, does the universe go away? Don’t go all Kantian on us now, Jim!
Yes, I’m being facetious. I’m sure you accept that the laws of physics, insofar as they are true, would exist whether anyone percieved them or not. And as for math, it’s simply a language we use to express how things work. Again, the things that these mathematical expressions describe, insofar as they are true, would exist whether we did or not. So how exactly do you square the above quoted statement with belief in objective reality independent of observation?
The axiomatic status of consciousness is an entirely different question from the existence of a world independent of consciousness. Consciousness is axiomatic: I know nothing about the world except in, by, and through a state of consciousness. It is inescapable and a premise of all subsequent knowledge. But there is something equally axiomatic, existence. Indeed, existence is still more basic, since consciousness is an inherently relational state, i.e., it is always consciousness OF something. The day a child grasps that the world does not go away when he closes his eyes, is the day he grasps the Primacy of Existence. But the idea of consciousness is equally inescapable and foundational.
As far as I know, nobody is disputing that what we call "consciousness" exists. What is up for grabs is what this "consciousness" is and how it works (hint: complex systems with feedback loops which create reflexivity within the system). My perceptions are undoubtably real, but they remain wholly subjective (i.e. my sense-perceptions are real, but nobody else can experience them). What scientific approaches like alpha theory can do is pus things like consciousness and ethics onto inter-subjectively testable (or "objective" if we prefer) footing by providing a measuring device for them. But by no means does anything Aaron has said up to now require consciousness/volition to exist in order to be true.
Eustaces like ants don’t worry about ethics and we cannot give them moral advice.
Ethics, as a subject, only arises because of our kind of consciousness, a consciousness that operates volitionally. Without volition or choice, giving advice is equally absurd and senseless.
When morally evaluating a person’s behavior, we must know his or her context of knowledge (another state of consciousness). Could the person have chosen differently? Was it an autonomic or involuntary act? Did the person "know better"?
The actor’s very state of mind, his intent, is vital in criminal law and any other moral evaluation: if there was no "intent", then it will do no good to punish the actor. It cannot dissuade or discourage his conduct, or even set the scales of justice to even–if, that is, it was unintentional.
Reducing consciousness out of the picture evicts one from the realm of ethics.
I’m going to follow Aaron here in saying that if you don’t like calling this "ethics" then feel free not to. I think we would do better to adopt a more game-theory-esque term like "strategies", which carries a lot less scholastic baggage. Ants follow strategies. So to humans. In discussing these strategies, "agency" need not even enter the picture. Beings like us with complex brains that allow us the reflexivity to abstractly consider and be aware of our choices just makes us better equipped than ants.
Ants dtermine, make and follow no "strategies." THIS is anthropomorphism of the worst kind.
This is the very nonsense that obliterates the distinction between moral agents and others. Ants don’t do ethics at all. Sit down and tell them to change their mode of action. Would you say, "Bad ant! You should have followed my advice," when it doesn’t? Agency IS this little capacity. As Aristotle said, ethics is only possible to beings with choice. Ethical judgment and evaluation is possible only with consciousness and volition. An ant is stuck with the range of alternatives it is given. We are not. We can choose otherwise. We can "know better." We are ethical beings only because we are agents.
"Ants dtermine, make and follow no "strategies." THIS is anthropomorphism of the worst kind."
Sigh. So what, all these evolutionary biologists are just talking out of their asses when they speak of reproductive strategies and the like? You might want to let them know, I’m sure they’ll update their vocabulary to suit you.
Look Jim, call it whatever you want to call it, but everything from RNA to ants to apes and humans act in certain ways, and differing courses of action yield positive (alphatropic) or negative (alphadistropic) results. This is what everyone is talking about while you’re busy thwacking everyone for using the word "ethics". Aaron, Bourbaki and myself are more than happy to abandon the word if it gets you to think outside the Aristotlean box.
"As Aristotle said, ethics is only possible to beings with choice. Ethical judgment and evaluation is possible only with consciousness and volition."
Aristotle lived over 2000 years ago and new absolutely nothing about evolutionary biology, neuroscience, thermodynamics, or probability. He made the best of what he did know, but it’s time to let him rest in peace. You’re clinging to a bunch of very old epistemological constructs that have served us pretty well up to now, but we’ve since discovered that reality is a little more nuanced than that.
"An ant is stuck with the range of alternatives it is given. We are not."
Come again? How am I not "stuck with the alternatives" I’m given? I have far more alternatives than an ant, and far greater ability to deal with these alternatives, but I still can’t go outside the range I’m "given". I can’t "choose" to lift up a car (my options limited by my muscles and such), and I can’t "choose" to go to Harvard (my options limited by their tuition fees and entrance requirements).
Evolution is not a conscious process. "Strategies" are made by consciousnesses for consciousnesses.
Evolution’s "strategies" are so only by analogy. If those biologists mean something else, then, yes, they are most definitely talking out of their asses. Such terms are employed to capture the teleological element of all biological process and activities, including evolution. But the word "strategies" applies in a different way to humans, even under your thinking, right? Or is this big fact something we can ignore…in ethics?!
The relationship bewteen volition and evaluation has little to do with physics. It makes no sense to criticize, blame, praise, admire, hate, or even to attempt to advise a being with no choice, like an ant. On the other hand, I can blame you for doing something wrong or stupid. You could have done otherwise.
Choice does not mean that I can violate the laws of physics, though, and my choices are obviously limited. But, using my intellect, choosing to make that effort, is what expands my options. I still can ignore my better judgment and mess-up, but it is the effort of thought that gives me more choices than ants have.
And, unlike an ant, it makes me an ethical being.
"Evolution’s "strategies" are so only by analogy."
Well, that’s the sense of the word I’m using when I say "strategies". In this sense, courses of action are called strategies whether they’re conscious or not.
"But the word "strategies" applies in a different way to humans, even under your thinking, right?"
Not qualitatively. Like I’ve said, we’re able to compute/analyze our strategies with greater complexity than any other lifeforms on this planet, but I see it as a difference of degree rather than kind. There’s no physical barrier with "volitional" beings on one side and "non-volitional" beings on the other. It’s more of a slide-ruler. Which of course brings us back to alpha…
"It makes no sense to criticize, blame, praise, admire, hate, or even to attempt to advise a being with no choice, like an ant."
This is only true because the ant wouldn’t even understand us. But with higher-level organisms like mice for example, we can "teach" them things in very crude ways, train them to navigate mazes or to not touch the piece of cheese on the lefthand side of the cage lest they get a little electrical shock. This is just a very crude form of learning; with humans it’s just a matter of greater complexity.
"I still can ignore my better judgment and mess-up, but it is the effort of thought that gives me more choices than ants have."
I think your opposable thumbs and size help a lot too. This is the whole point: your thought comes from your brain, which runs according to the same phsyics as everything else. I am unable to do parabolic geometry in my head and unable to jump over my house, and both stem from physical limitations.
And, in physics, that’s all we need. In ethics, we need all that voltional stuff. Or no dice. That’s why alpha is inadequate qua ethics (at least so far.)
Gentleman, having followed this thread through the maze I have to ask Messrs. Haspel, Bourbaki, CT and McIntosh to at least hesitate every time they use a concept like "teach," "strategy," "choose,""ethics," etc. While I know Aaron protested that it is difficult to talk about teleology in nature without resorting to the lexicon of agency, it is still absolutely inappropriate and inevitably creates the queasy impression of mysticism smuggled in the back door by way of reductionism. And, Jimmy, stop using irony, it’s confusing your opponents.
The basic idea, from what I understand, is, to paraphrase Charles Darwin, that all things are either better or worse equiped to exist, whether animate or inanimate. Put bowl of marbles in a box of corn flakes and shake: the marbles will make it, the cornflakes will not. Those characteristics that bestow an entity with endurance, are selected for because those characteristics bestow endurance on entities. It is a near-tautology begging for a formulaic expression. So be it, and have at it; it can only lead to good.
BUT, "ethics," like so many other concepts bandied about here, applies to one kind of entity — agency — period. When I notice someone using a concept like "teaching" with rats (instead of the obvious "training" or "conditioning") I wonder if there is not an overeager reductionism going on — and why shouldn’t I? Any and all evolutionary scientists worth their salt from Darwin to Dawkins go to GREAT PAINS to explain what they DO NOT MEAN when they use these concepts in relation to evolution, or avoid using such terms altogether. It’s not enough to make a disclaimer, and then go ahead and violate the spirit of the disclaimer repeatedly to smuggle in the very thing disclaimed.
I’ve heard a couple rejoinders to Valliant that say something like "If you really are hung up on that terminology" or "if you are so bummed by the use of the concept ethics then perhaps we can switch to different terminology." (I am paraphrasing, for the literal-minded.) IF??? Avoiding that confusion should be the theorists’ first concern, not anyone else’s.
Mr. Valliant has reminded everyone of the axiomatic nature of consciousness and existence; they can’t be questioned without using consciousness and existence to refute them; in other words, they can’t be refuted without refuting the refutation. That should be plain and simple enough, regardless of how "adolescent" Rand’s clarity on this may be. And before I consider anything to be more "mature" I would need to see someone prove that my consciousness doesn’t exist — oops, that’s a contradiction. Oh yeah, they’re AXIOMS. The very act of proving they don’t exist requires their existence.
The fact remains that human beings can set goals quite outside alpha. Altruism comes to mind. If "storing up your treasures" here on Earth is a sin, then being crucified is the ultimate moral ideal. No math equation is going to persuade. In fact, I can envision a true Kantian using the equation in reverse to determine all action that should be avoided — a sort of sliderule for determining the most altruistic course of action available.
Dawkins would point out that such a meme will wipe itself out if applied consistently. Inconsistency has been the savior of such memes, however. Perhaps Aaron’s theory can solve that problem, too, and provide a roadmap to ruin for such memes that would speed up societal evolution. (Irony)
But the fact remains that there is a bright line between human consciousness and its free agency and the rest of life on earth and the earth itself. I buy completely that all life (apart from us) is subject to the same laws as regard inanimate objects in terms of their endurance or their failure to endure. RNA, DNA, bacteria, right on up to blue whales all reorganize matter in such a way as to improve their endurance.
But we are different, and the difference is not insignificant, or indeed, a matter of degree. It is a fundamental difference and if that’s not going to be addressed, then there really isn’t any "if" about it that I can see: this is not a system of ethics but a formulaic description of the mechanism by which teleology operates in nature. It actually demystifies that teleology by demonstrating an inevitable principle at work. And that is great and useful in explaining the evolution of matter up to but not including human behavior. We’re different, and not because we are outside nature or because we are mystical creatures but because we have free agency, which is in a class by itself. To pull us back into a predictive model is the real mysticism, a reductionism that elevates the theory to the state of primacy.
It reminds me of the movie "Human Nature" in which scientist Tim Robbins presses on with his dissatisfying efforts to teach table manners to mice; they just don’t get it. Philosophy is of no use to entities that do not possess free will. If that divide isn’t accounted for, this theory has the potential to take a theory that applies to every non-human entity and apply it to humans, with the same frustrating (and absurd) results.
Peanut gallery signing off…
Show me the bright line, smartass. Go ahead, point out where the magic happens that means the rules that apply to everything else don’t apply to us. I really would like to know.
The bright line is the line you wrote. Nothing else can write that line except human beings.
Mice or monkeys couldn’t even spell it, let alone write it.
We have a conceptual faculty. It does not exist on a continuum. No animals have even partially conceptual faculties. Only we do.
Bright enough for ya?
There was a first time (of course) that a conceptual (human) consciousness emerged. It emerged first as a potential, but as soon as someone exploited that potential to actually conceptualize, it was born. That should not be too difficult to understand, right?
What I find mystifying is the idea that there is a continuum. What evidence is there for such an assertion? I have never witnessed a conceptual faculty in any creature other than human beings. And now I’m a mystic believing in magic or something? Dude! Look around, man. What do you see that I don’t see?
There certainly exists a sharp and bright line between beings with art, scientific studies of other animal species, theories of physics, senses of humor that grasp irony and satire, trips to the moon, libraries full of books, metaphysical abstractions, debates over these very refined subjects, mathematics requiring symbolic expression … tell me when to stop … and every other species or entity of which we are aware. There is obviously something qualitatively different about such a consciousness. A difference that must be recognized. This does not mean that conceptual consciousness is not a refinement–clearly a radical one–a further development, along a certain path, and, in this sense, part of a continuum.
I think Peikoff described the difference between non-human (perceptual) consciousness and human (conceptual) consciousness as akin to the difference between addition & subtraction and algebra.
Something on that order.