Thursday, April 25, 2013

Would our extinction be so bad?

It's bad enough that we have to contemplate our own mortality and that of those we love and care for, but our understanding of our state of affairs is forcing us to contemplate the reality that species don't last either.
Humans, being a species, are not immune, so it's certain that at some point down the line there will no longer be anything recognizably homo sapiens sapiens.

The first thought we tend to have about this eventuality is that it's a disaster, and I'll agree that if were talking about (geologically) sudden extirpation of our kind, say by asteroid, it's pretty easy to put it on the VERY-BAD-NOT-GOOD side of the ledger.  But say that in, oh, maybe 400,000 years the earth no longer hosts a single human being, would that be a bad thing?  What should we feel about such an eventuality?

It could depend on how the disappearance came about.  Would my australopithecene great-to-the-Nth grandfather lament the differences between Lucy and my daughter Claire?  Should we see ourselves as  their triumph through the ages or the record of their eventual downfall?  If we view it as triumph, than if we are simply displaced by a new branch of evolutionary descendants, we should see it as surviving. After all, we already know our descendants are going to be a little different, if they eventually become a lot different, how bad would that be?

On the other hand suppose our ecological niche slowly disappeared and our numbers dwindled down to zero. Or a virus evolved that impaired our ability to reproduce with the same result.  Would that be so awful?  If so, why?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Skepticism vs. Absolute Freedom of Thought

Is there an irreconcilable conflict between absolute freedom of thought and skepticism?
If we define skepticism as the insistence that all truth claims must be vetted through reason, evidence, and otherwise sound epistemology, then were imposing strong restrictions on our true belief.  If absolute freedom of thought implies zero duty to concede anything to anyone; if there are no restrictions on true belief under absolute freedom of thought, whence the necessary restrictions of skepticism?

A skeptic provides a priori the standards, benchmarks, and requirements by which they are willing to be convinced.  This represents a partial abdication of their absolute freedom in favor of saying, "rather than merely believing whatever appeals to me,  I will follow the data and the logic to it's best conclusion independent of what I expect or want."   A skeptic has obligations.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why are you safe from me?

There will be a lot of talk about security and prevention over the next few months.  As you listen and take part in these conversations, I would have you keep this in the back of your mind.

We walk past each other daily, most of us as strangers. We rarely notice just how simple and easy it would be to inflict grievous harm on our fellows.  Something heavy in the hand, an earnest well-aimed blow, and just like that, a human being is killed or maimed by our hand.  Add some other tools and the right knowledge and it becomes even easier to do--to even more people, but such tools and knowledge are not necessary, and in any case they're not difficult to obtain.

The idea that all our security apparatus, and police, and weapons, and retributive justice do the bulk of prevention of such behavior is a fantasy.  They have some effect out on the margins for sure, but their effect pales compared to what really prevents this kind of violence.  Desire.

Like almost everyone I know, I have never crushed anyone's skull, or set someone on fire, or poisoned them, or blown them to bits with explosives. The reason seems to me very simple. I've never really wanted to do so.  Sure I've been angry, and like anyone my mind has indulged abstract notions of doing harm to someone for some real or imagined grievance. Fortunately this has never risen to the level of my taking action.  If (forbid it) my mind works into a state of truly wanting to make such things happen, and I keep this reasonably to myself so that no one knows how dangerous I have suddenly become, what's to stop me?  For all practical purposes, nothing.

Maybe you're feeling a little creepy wondering just how much time I spend contemplating whether to commit one of these gruesome acts.  Very little, per se, let me assure you.  It's just that we have been mired in a long public conversation about security from national to personal for years, and that conversation is usually framed in terms of "What protects me from others?".  I imagined a partial answer was available by casting myself as the potential threat and instead asking "What protects others from me?"  The grim musings are a part of this thought experiment.

It seems obvious that what protects others from me, is, well, me.  I am the chief impediment, or more properly my lack of desire to do harm is.  This is marginally augmented by the social protections and sanctions of society and it's laws, as well as the threat to me if my intended victim has a chance to act in their own defense, but only marginally.

So while the issue of public and private security is revisited in the context of the Boston Marathon bombings, keep in mind that security flows not from its apparatus, but the cultivation of trust, loyalty to strangers, and above all our mutually learning not to want the destruction of other human beings.