Tag Archives: humanity

A Thought Experiment to Determine the Relative Worth of Different Species

Imagine that either all humans died tomorrow or some other nonhuman species died tomorrow. From God’s perspective, what is a more tragic loss? If the nonhuman species is worms or mosquitoes it seems clear that the death of all humans would be a more tragic loss. This gets tricky when you run the thought experiment on higher mammals like dolphins and chimpanzees. But I think that my own intuitions tell me that the loss of humans would be the most tragic. Now, imagine that either all humans died or all nonhuman species died. Ignoring things like ecological stability, what is more tragic?  Again, my intuitions tell me that it will always be more tragic if all humans die.

Why do I think this? Well, I think it has something to do with the loss of cumulative culture. If we stopped tending to our libraries or our computer databases, all that information would eventually crumble into the Earth. The thought of it is just so tragic to me. I think it’s so tragic because of a massive loss of potential. Humans have only been seriously cumulating culture for the last 50,000 years. Philosophy has been around for several thousand years. Modern science has been around for several hundred years. Computers for less than a century. The internet for a few decades. All these cultural changes have resulted in massive changes in human understanding. But where will humans be in the year 3500 CE? or 10,000 CE? Or 1,000,000 CE? If we manage to keep from killing ourselves from nuclear war or being killed by things like massive meteoroids or super volcanoes or climate change, the possibilities for cumulative culture are mind-boggling to think about. And if Steven Pinker is right about the thesis that modern civilization as social control leads to reduced violence, then I have great hope for our species. Sure, it is still a fucked up world by any means. No theodicy has ever convinced me. But at the same time, I see so much potential for our species. The sudden loss of a potential for cumulative culture a million years old leaves me sad. For this reason I greatly support the space program, as I would like to see our species ultimately leave our birth planet and spread throughout the stars, preserving our cultural heritage for as long as we can. That’s a beautiful vision to me.

I imagine that some people might think that the very attempt to “determine the relative worth of different species” is a fool’s errand, because it will only result in humans exercising their human bias. Of course a human would have intuitions that the loss of humanity would be more tragic. If a lion could ask the same question, it would have its own bias. But that’s the thing: only we can ask the question, or ask any question really. But why does this bestow worth? What’s so special about cumulative culture? For one, it’s rarity. We are the only species with a cumulative culture that has been ratcheting up for thousands of years. But also it just strikes me that when the tools of such culture allow for the invention of things like philosophy and science, there is a kind of intrinsic worth to one part of the universe having the ability to self-reflect on the rest of the universe. We are the universe getting to know itself through itself. Maybe this whole thought experiment is hopeless because of these biases. But I like to think that if God existed She would agree with me.

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Thoughts on qualia and phenomenology

It seems to me that the only way qualia can emerge as a legitimate philosophical question is for there to be an assumption of dualism. For qualia to make sense conceptually, there needs to be a subject, as apart from the world, experiencing the incoming flux of sensory data. This seems obvious since the whole idea of qualia sprung out of the phenomenology of subjects looking out upon the world, with a particular first-person perspective.

In the same vein, even the notion of intentionality, the directedness of mental life towards objects, depends upon the subject being distinct from the object. Without this metaphysical gap, there could be no epistemological intuition guiding our inherited supposition of dualism between subject and object. Spelled out in such plain terms, one might feel this is a strawman, but nevertheless, the metaphysical implications of such language are clear.

But, hear me out, if the fundamental division between self and world rests merely on a philosophical assumption, why should we not explore the implications of an alternative ontological framework? Historically, this alternative has been called “being-in-the-world.” I won’t go into the details right now, but I think I’ve discussed it elsewhere several times. Nevertheless, important for my purposes here, the human being is still capable of separating himself from the world, despite his fundamental orientation of ontological familiarity, through the use of conscious thought – which is representational. The ontology of thoughts seems clear: subject and object. According to the Heideggerian perspective, the ontology of people is not so clear cut.

So, with this alternative ontological framework of being-in-the-world in mind, what sense can we still make out of the notion of qualia? There is an experience of the world. We can strip this experience of its existential import through deliberation. We can think to ourselves about our own experience and contemplate what it is like to see the world. In such deliberation, we might think of ourselves as a separate – mental – entity that stands alone in the world of objects and people. After such contemplation, we might try our hand at constructing an ontology that includes ourselves as separate mental entities, and the world of objects that we reach out to through intentional consciousness. We would be basing our ontology, supposedly, on the phenomenology of experience – gathered through our very own cognitive contemplation upon experience as philosophers.

The mistake here would be to take this contemplation-driven ontology and immediately claim, “This is it! This is the way things are!” From a Heideggerian perspective, one could just as well claim from the start that there is no ontological wedge between subject and object, saying that instead, subject and object are replaced by being-in-the-world. If you fail to do this, and instead press on with a dualistic ontology, the language of phenomenology results in a subject intentionally directed towards an external world, which impinges its sensory data upon our minds, giving us the famous first-person experience of “qualia.”

By challenging the ontological assumptions implicit in this representationalist perspective, we can dismantle the philosophical scaffolding which supports the very notion of qualia, and subsequently, all of the derivative non-sense which has swollen contemporary philosophical journals.

Perhaps, if we are interested in spelling out the ontology of our total personality, and not just the conceptual web of belief in our heads, we should attempt to do phenomenology from a non-Cartesian perspective. After all, why should we expect an analysis of cognition, as distinct from a phenomenological understanding of absorbed coping, to reveal to us an ontology that gives due justice to the total phenomenon of our embodied, enacted situation?


Filed under Philosophy, Random

Atheism and Faith, part II

In my last post I sketched out an existential perspective in which an atheist could take spiritual comfort in, without losing his anti-supernaturalistic principles. This vision of man, as embodied and existentially engaged in the environment, is one which has resonated with many modern and contemporary philosophers, philosophers who struck out to enrich the human vocabulary in such a way as to re-orient the human mind towards his or her own experience. It is the anti-optimistic and anti-pessimistic spirit to these writings which paints the human experience in richer colors, infusing their language with a curious and highly relevant mix of metaphorical expressions of that which matters to us: our own finitude, anxiety, and the absence or presence of God.

As an atheist and has a naturalist, I do not feel the “sensus divinitas” of Calvin and the reform epistemologists. To feel otherwise, would be to beg the question against naturalism and the naturalistic interpretation of divine phenomenology. I say this because such a subjective argumentation for the presence of God in man’s heart is the only escape from the rationalistic perspective, a perspective which rules out the proposition “God exists” as meaningless. What is left is a shell of experience, filled with meaning for those surrounded by Christian imagery and symbolization, but empty for those of us who reject the divinity surrounding such religiosity. For us, it is impossible to have faith in the propositions of God’s existence, for our rationality compels us to reject metaphysical speculation in the same way that we reject Zeus, Ra, and the Invisible Pink Unicorn. We see Christian belief in terms of psychology and irrationality, despite the attempts of Christian theologians to present their system of beliefs in terms of “rational epistemic rights” and other philosophical cop-outs. For atheists, it isn’t the rational coherence of a system which compels us to believe in it, it is the truth which drives our search for knowledge and understanding.

Some would say this is a faith in science and a faith in the finite, yet hungry, man as man. But this is not my faith. My faith cannot be described in terms of a single propositional object, such as “science.” No, this will not do at all, for my faith is an ultimate concern with my own being, my life as lived through a physical body in a physical environment. I am nothing but the motion of matter and yet I am more than this, because I have an experience, an experience which is rich phenomenologically. Through this experience I have understoodd the essential importance of existence, as a human, as a philosopher, an atheist, a friend, and a lover. I live my life with a dynamic faith which places my ultimate concern in the hands of the present moment, a moment which jumps through time and space, compelling me forward towards my death.

Such a perspective might sound morbid for the Christian who has visions of heaven, but my bliss will be in the silence of non-being, satisfied with a life well lived. This faith of mine is rooted in physicality, in the reality of my own being, situated and embodied. It doesn’t require knowledge, it only requires existence, which is the essence of man.

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