Monday, January 26, 2015

182. God as a goal?

In earlier work[i] I defined religion as a connection with something higher than the self.[ii] That can be the other human being, or humanity, instead of God.

Here I consider an alternative, prompted by John Caputo[iii], inspired by Kierkegaard. According to the latter, God is not ontological, does not refer to any thing that exists, but is a deed of faith, and an act of existence. Faith in God entails the recognition that we are never more true to ourselves than when we lack the truth of who we are (Caputo, p. 93).

There is a connection, further back in the history of thought, with the church father Augustine’s notion of the human being ‘on the way’ (homo viator) to God.

Here, religion is a passion for the impossible, for what we reach for but will never reach, and that we call God.

Could this be connected with my thesis of ‘imperfection on the move’?  Could we call the horizon that we strive for, with passion, but will never reach, God?

What pleads for this is the consideration that to engage in the gamble of imperfection on the move we need to believe, to have faith in its value, or its truth, here taken as fidelity to our humanity or human potential. We cannot know this for certain. It is indeed a matter of faith in something beyond us and hidden. Compare this to the Augustinian notion of the hidden God (deus absconditus).

Here we reconnect with the notion of religion as connection, or dedication, to something higher, beyond ourselves.

I proposed that we engage in imperfection on the move to make the best use, according to our imperfect insight, of our talents.

I added that the creative challenge involved is part, perhaps the essence, of a flourishing life, for which we need to accept the suffering that it is likely to entail. Here I approach Nietzsche.

I also added that we need the other to oppose our views and to try and correct our prejudice in what we strive for and how we do it.

However, and here I deviate from established notions of God, the aim of the endeavour is to contribute not to a personal hereafter but to the hereafter of what we leave behind at our death.

So, if I were to call the horizon, forever shifting as we proceed, of the endeavour of imperfection on the move God, it would be far from traditional conceptions of God as an existing thing, a supreme being, let alone a personal being. Not a providential God. No life after death, no heaven. No theodicy; no divine justice. One could, however, pray to this non-existent God, as an expression of doubt, hope or faith that we are doing the right thing, and perhaps as a consolation for the suffering we incur in it.

Would all this still make me an atheist?

[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2012, Beyond humanism: The flourishing of life, self and other, Palgrave-McMillan.
[ii] As according to the (contested) etymology of ‘religion’ as ‘connection’.
[iii] John D. Caputo, 2013, Truth; Philosophy in transition, Penguin.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

181. In the face of terrorism

In the face of present terrorism in the name of the Islam, what should we do?

We should try to understand what entices young muslims to fundamentalist terror. I think there are several reasons. Most fundamentally, perhaps, it is normal for young people to pine for the absolute as a goal in life. I recall that when I was in puberty I decided I did not want to become an adult because adults seemed to me to betray life, in giving in to compromises on ideals, ambition, honesty, strength of character, a sense of purpose, in short on the meaning of life. I prayed to God to be elected to a mission in life in which I could  reach for him without compromise.

Theistic religion, in Christianity and elsewhere, has inspired marvels of beauty, in music, art and architecture, compassion and drives for peace and justice, and has brought solace to countless people. It has also wrought calamities of war and terror.

Western society had its share in religious fundamentalism and terror. Recall the Inquisition, crusades, and the terror that in the 16th century Anabaptists wrought in Munster, Germany, killing thousands, whoever did not conform to their fervour and dogmatism.

Terror has also been inspired outside religion, in ideologies of race and revolution in the name of humanity. As I argued elsewhere in this blog, like theistic religion these ideologies arise from an urge to rise above human fragility and mortality, in a reach for the absolute and dreams of immortality.

Western society liberated itself from religious grip in the Enlightenment, but did not thereby rid itself of the lure of the absolute. Both the Enlightenment and Romanticism gave it a renewed impulse. The first in a striving for absolutism in the true and the good, in rationality and ethics. The second in the romantic dream of transcendence of the self in a larger whole of nation, race or historical necessity. This produced horrors of war, holocaust and colonialism.

On the rebound from those horrors, subsequent development of western society, in capitalist democracies, yielded a flourishing of science together with a loss of magic, anonymity in impersonal systems, excesses of postmodern relativism, and nihilistic despair of the possibility to achieve old certainties. The absolute was shed at the price of nihilism.

Non-western religious societies, as in the Islam, viewed the resulting loss of meaning and values with increasing disdain. Hatred was fuelled by outrage, and perhaps a sense of frustration, against what was seen as western arrogance in claims of economic and cultural superiority, economic imperialism, double standards in the treatment of authoritarian states, and neglect of ethnic and religious minorities and their economic and political perspectives. Conservative Islamic religious authorities saw a chance to divert internal political criticism to hatred of the west and religious zeal and fundamentalism.

Young muslims, enticed to the fervour of the absolute, for fulfilling a higher mission of life, and Nietzschean will to power, perhaps, together with religious indoctrination and a sense of being left behind in economic and political perspectives, were ready for extremism, and started imitating and prodding each other to violence.   

So, what now? The challenge is to acquire or develop a new sense of the meaning of life that is pluralistic and tolerant of different forms. That entails shedding the lure of the absolute, to value difference, and to accept imperfection on the move, as I have argued for in this blog. I plead for a search for transcendence that is horizontal, in the other human being, not vertical, in God, and immanent, in life, not in immortality.  Can we do that, or is the lure of the absolute too strong to subdue or divert?

How far can freedom of expression go while maintaining tolerance? Where is the limit? Note that it is primarily up to the one to be tolerated, not the one who tolerates, to judge whether toleration occurs. If he/she is too sensitive to criticism or satire, that should be a matter of debate, not some foregone conclusion.

If people abandoned the absolute, they would be more open to pluralism, less sensitive to opposition, and might even value it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

180. Economics is not free of values but blind to them

 Economic science claims to be value-free. It does not make choices, it says, but only calculates the economic consequences of choices made in politics. But that calculation is based on theory and methods that derive from a utilitarian ethic, and the choice of an ethic is a choice of values, even if that choice is not deliberate and has been imbibed in the nursing of economists. As a result economics is blind to the values that it tacitly adopts. It does not occur to economists to put them up for debate, and if you do it they don’t know what you are talking about.

Utilitarian ethics looks only at the consequences of acts, in the form of welfare. Intentions and the quality of motives are immaterial. The foundation of this ethics lies with the 18th century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and was introduced into economics by Adam Smith. And then striving for self-interest turned out to be a motor of prosperity.

For Adam Smith self-interest was to be subordinated to collective interest, but in the later development of economics self-interest of the autonomous individual came to reign supreme.

In economics, utility as a consequence of action is considered to be universal and all encompassing. All outcomes can be assembled under a single measure of utility, of which one can next calculate the optimum. Apples and oranges can be added up. Preferences can always be specified for everything, and regimented neatly into a consistent ordering.[i]

Utilitarian ethics stands in contrast to the duty ethics of the philosopher Kant. There, it is quality of motives that matters, regardless of the consequences of acts. The central moral precept is that one must act according to principles that one can rationally want everyone to follow. Lying is bad because you would not want everyone to lie. This is a form of the ancient ‘golden rule’ of ‘Do not do unto others what you do not want done upon yourself’. This is not about self-interest, and the individual is not autonomous.

A third form of ethics, for which I plead, in this blog, is virtue ethics, which goes back to Aristotle. That is about both motives and consequences of actions. ‘Virtue’ sounds moralistic, but it is about values such as sincerity, truthfulness, empathy, reliability, loyalty, responsibility, commitment, willpower, courage, consistency, …

Those values are not necessarily commensurable, not reducible to a single measure, and which values count, and for how much, depends on conditions. In the preceding item in this blog I offered a way of tracing morality in different aspects of actions.
The balancing of disparate values is a task for politics and should not be relegated to economists. The core of that process is debate, not calculation. Civilisation counts

[i] E.g. satisfying the axiom of transitivity: if A is preferred to B and B to C, then A is prefered to C. It has been shown in the economic literature this does not apply when utility has several incommensurable dimensions.

Monday, January 5, 2015

179. Moral robots?

There is talk of robots developing beyond human cognitive capacity. There is fear that they will even come to dominate humans. In particular, the fear is that they will behave like sociopaths, with superior rationality but without human morality, without human values of empathy, compassion, and without practical wisdom of action.

If there is any ground to this fear, it is important to develop moral sense in the design and development of robots. How is that to be done? It requires, I propose, collaboration between engineers, software developers, cognitive and neural scientists, and philosopher
But first, let us consider how robots could equal and surpass human cognition. That would require, among other things, a capability to develop tacit knowledge and associative, creative thought.

In the preceding item of this blog I discussed how cognition might develop in the brain, in neural Darwinism. I see no reason why that could not be emulated in robot brains. In fact, present robots already have been programmed to have an evolutionary learning capacity, where more or less random trials are reinforced or weakened in performance.

How about morality, then? I argued earlier that in humans moral instincts have evolved in a long process of biological evolution, with rival instincts of self-interest and altruism. For robotics to reproduce this, the development of robots, with some selection process in their functioning, would have to be speeded up enormously to match the long evolution of the human brain. Perhaps that can be done. But who defines and sets the selection conditions for survival of conduct? What if those are somehow set to prevent the selection of altruism?

In item 46 of this blog I argued that in human evolution an instinct for altruism might have developed from a benefit in group selection, under certain conditions, and that in-group loyalty probably arose at the price of out-group discrimination. Would this also have to be reproduced in the evolution of robots? And couldn’t humans then be seen as the out-group, suffering all the more from robots?

Alternatively, could robots be programmed to act morally according to the multiple causality of moral action discussed previously? They would then have to be made to adequately perceive situations in a morally relevant way (material cause), to interpret their moral import and match them to moral principles (formal cause), taking into account situational conditions (conditional cause), depending on the agent and its position and role (efficient cause).

Would they also need to take into account their own interests (final cause), such as their own survival or ‘health’, not to self-destruct too easily?

And what moral principles would be programmed, according to what ethical system? Utilitarianism, Kantian duty ethics, or some form of virtue ethics?

Would there be exemplary robots for robots to imitate (exemplary cause)? Or could they learn to imitate their human teachers? Or could humans at some point learn from exemplary robots?

I argued earlier that in the exercise of practical wisdom intersubjective debate is needed, in debatable ethics, between different moral perspectives and assessments of situations, to fine-tune, moderate or revise moral perspectives. Would such debate need to occur between robots and humans, or robots among themselves? Or would robots help in debates between humans?

To sharpen their moral sense and become morally more adept, would it help to let robots read literature (see items 92, 120 of this blog)? Could they produce literature for humans to sharpen their moral sense?