Friday, 28 October 2011

The virtue of honesty.

I believe that every aborted child goes to heaven.
So women are doing them a favour by aborting them then?
That's a very trivial response to a very serious issue.
This exchange, taken from here, is typical of a certain type of argument. The moral failure of the first speaker isn't his notion of heaven. If you want that notion and think you can defend it go ahead, I'll argue that another day. There's something more serious here. There's a fundamental lack of honesty. Not that he is lying to others, but far far more importantly, to himself. This is probably the biggest single failure of human thought. Pretty much all the other mad thoughts people have are examples of it. I want to consider this failure.

The world is big and complicated. Humans are not born with an intuitive understanding of it. If they did it would be miraculous. Human brains evolved on the savannah. A child born today is not different in any significant genetic way to a child born before humans had worked out the idea of planting seeds. So we shouldn't expect anything that wasn't commonplace on the savannah to be intuitive. Your brain evolved to be good at running, avoiding cliffs, throwing rocks at gazelles, and not much more.

You can see this quite easily. There was almost no circular motion on the savannah. Animals dont have wheels, nor did the early humans. (Wheeled vehicles are a shockingly late invention, ~6000 years old, in the Americas they were not invented before the Europeans arrived). As a result you do not understand circular motion. Grab a bike wheel with an axle, or anything else that's a wheel you can hold the axle of and spin freely. Now spin it up, and try to tilt the axle. Really, go and try it, the experience of confusion is incredible. The brain does not understand what it feels. Find a baby and show it something spinning, it will get really confused really easily by this. It's just not part of the normal patterns of your brain to understand circular motion.

So we've got intuitions, and a universe that just doesn't correspond to them. How can we fix this? Well, luckily your brain has a hack for that. We have propositional beliefs. I look at the bike wheel and say in English words "the conservation of angular momentum means that this wheel will react at right angles to the force I apply to it." The next step is crucial, I must internalise this statement in English words and try to convert it to something my brain can understand. I need to listen to these words and expect that I will feel a reaction. That way I wont be surprised by things.

This is a really important ability. It's why humans are qualitatively different to other animals. You show other animals something novel and either they stay confused or they work out some hack to deal with it. Humans can explain and pass that explanation verbally to someone else. (Bees aren't explaining novel concepts, just relaying intuitively understandable new data. Apes I'll leave to someone else to argue about). This ability to easily deal with totally new situations is vital. It's why humans can do so many different and new things. We can deal with totally novel things in human time spans, not evolutionary timespans.

This gives us power. This is why we can go to the moon or kill smallpox. Not because it's intuitive, something humans just do. You show an anatomically modern human from an uncontacted tribe a vaccine and they will not expect it to prevent smallpox. A doctor does expect that to happen. The doctor has come to believe certain propositions in English language. As a result of those sentences, and of the power of his internalisation of those sentences, he now performs actions and expects good consequences. The job of science is clear: 1) to make sentences in English which, 2) when internalised like this, 3) lead people to expect certain actions to have consequences, 4) which they in fact do. If these consequences are things like "destroy smallpox forever", "blow up and entire city" or "heat the earth causing widespread environmental collapse" then we can act in vastly powerful ways that cause a lot of good or a lot of ill.

But this is only a hack that your brain is doing. It's hard to internalise these sentences properly. This is a big problem. Because if you fail to internalise true propositions correctly you wont expect things to happen as a result of your actions that in fact will. If you haven't properly internalised "smoking kills you" and dont actually really deep down expect that you'll die or become ill as a result of you 60 a day habit then you wont want to drop it. You can say that sentence as much as you want, you dont actually deep down expect what it predicts. You can have read all the probability theory you want, if you still expect to win the lottery you're going to keep throwing your money away. You can claim to believe aborted children go to a place of eternal bliss, but if you dont actually expect that you're not going to work hard to try and get them there.

The key virtue of any mind is this internalisation. This ability to be honest about what you expect. This has two parts. Firstly to only say propositions in English that you in fact expect to come out true. Secondly to take propositions in English that are reliable and to change your expectation accordingly. The first is, "what do you actually believe will happen?" The second is, "just change your damned mind already". Either failure is a kind of dishonesty, a difference between what you say and what you really think. Both of them are dangerous. 

The first kind of dishonesty is dangerous because of what it does to others. If you say "there's a dragon in my garage", but dont in fact expect to see any such thing, you're being dishonest. And in fact you're being dangerous. If others hear this, believing you honest, internalise properly and come to expect the dragon, they will do things based on that expectation that will harm them and others. At the very least they'll waste a lot of time and energy investigating the dragon. At worst they could try to take moral guidance from it.

The second kind of dishonesty is dangerous because of what you do. Suppose the speaker at the start really did, for good reason, come to accept the statement "all aborted babies go to a place of perfect happiness". Suppose for argument that there is good reason to believe this and it ought to be internalised. He obviously hasn't. If he had then less than 5 seconds thought would convince any sane person there's only one thing to do. Set up a factory that produces babies and aborts them. I'm not joking. Try very very hard to pretend you actually believe the statement. Internalise as hard as you can, force yourself to expect that abortions go to heaven, a place of joy. Imagine the sac of cells in a woman one day, imagine killing it, imagine heaven, imagine that soul happy, joyful, satisfied in every possible way. How can you not want that? What possible motive could ever lead you to such evil as to put that joy at risk. (Some adults go to hell of course, so keeping them alive can only make things worse). If you're really honest with yourself you'd understand this statement implies a moral imperative. Which you should act on. 

If you're not prepared to act on what you say you believe, stop lying to yourself and just change your mind already.

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