Monthly Archives: March 2017

A Rich Ecosystem of Virtues

The Big PictureSean Carroll’s phrase, “a rich ecosystem of virtues and lives well lived,” which I mentioned two posts ago, has been in my head lately and I’d like to share more of what he had to say on the subject.

He starts with the maxim from Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Be excellent to each other. That’s one kind of virtue–how we treat each other. As Carroll says, you could do worse as a starting point for moral philosophy.

But the similar-sounding maxim, Make the world a more excellent place, also sounds good.

What’s the difference? Making the world more excellent is more of a big-picture view, less focused on individual relationships. You may have to be less than excellent to a few people along the way to creating a better world. For example, conservatives take this view when they say that in order to encourage individual responsibility (surely something we want in the world), the government may have to stop providing free health insurance. Liberals emphasize being excellent to each other by providing the insurance.

A third take is in the maxim, Be excellent. This is more about your motives: did you act “on the basis of virtues such as courage, responsibility, and wisdom”? Most of us believe that good intentions are not enough, but we also admire people who show great courage, even if it is in the service of the wrong cause.

Each maxim sounds good, but they can lead in very different directions. Sean Carroll says that we need people who emphasize all three types of excellence, and probably other types, too. When they are in conflict, the tug-and-pull of debate makes us stronger and better.

Just as a biological ecosystem is healthy when diverse species inhabit it and will die out if reduced to just one species, our ecosystem of virtues is healthiest when we have people who advocate a variety of perspectives.

Our World in Data

Although it has been said that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics,” surely the real danger lies in having too few statistics, not too many. The more you know, the more likely you are to get closer to the truth.

With that in mind, I want to recommend a fabulous website: Our World In Data (https://OurWorldInData.org). You’ll find in-depth, data-driven articles on many social and political issues. Most of the data are in graphs, many of them animated, so you can just look at the pictures if you choose.

For example, here’s one that shows the income-inequality situation in many leading countries before and after redistributive tax policies are accounted for. The orange bar marks the Gini coefficient before redistribution and the blue bar after. A bar farther to the right indicates more income inequality, not necessarily more income. I know the graph is hard to read here. Click on it to jump to the article and then scroll down a little to see the graph.

You can see at a glance that incomes in the United States are a little more unequal than most countries’ before taxes, but our minimal redistribution leaves us among the most unequal after taxes. On the other hand, Ireland starts out the most unequal, but its policies put Ireland in the middle of the pack after taxes.

Inequality

I hope you enjoy Our World in Data. It’s a very enlightening site.

Not Ready for Ten Commandments? How About Ten Considerations?

Perhaps God engraved the Ten Commandments with his finger on stone tablets because he knew they would become the touchstone of morality in the western world. (Come to think of it, is that where the word touchstone comes from?) Even Christopher Hitchens, no fan of the biblical ten, connected to them when he produced his own ten.

The Big PictureSean Carroll’s book, The Big Picture, is an exposition of what he calls poetic naturalism. He has this to say about the Ten Commandments (page 420).

A good poetic naturalist will resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them fish for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something that we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve caught them.

It makes sense, then, to put aside the concept of “commandments” and instead propose Ten Considerations

Here are his Ten Considerations with excerpts from his few paragraphs about each.

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Our Dystopian Future as Immortals

Zoltan IstvanZoltan Istvan was my favorite presidential candidate in 2016. He toured the country in a bus modeled to look like a coffin, with the message that death is a curable disease.

And it’s not just people on the fringe who are involved in the anti-aging cause. There is a sister company of Google called Calico whose goal is “tackling aging.”

Ray Kurzweil, inventor, senior engineer at Google and holder of 21 honorary doctorates, has written a book called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. At age 69, he expects technology to improve enough in his lifetime that he will live forever. (In the meantime, he takes extremely good care of himself!)

But hold on a second. While we’re waiting for Istvan, Calico, and Kurzweil succeed, let’s take a moment to ponder the possible dystopian consequences.

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Laplace’s Demon Meets Quantum Mechanics

In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace published A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. He said that given complete knowledge of the present, one could perfectly predict the future:

LaplaceWe may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough … nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Makes sense, right? If atoms are nothing more than tiny billiard balls bouncing around then, in principle, our lives are as predictable and determined as the activity on a pool table.

A century later, along came quantum mechanics, which showed that the activity of the universe at the smallest scales is probabilistic. Laplace’s Demon (as the all-knowing intellect in the quotation above has come to be known) can’t be so sure after all!

What a relief! There is wiggle room for free will after all! By inserting the lever of our wills at this fulcrum of indeterminacy, we can move the world.

Or, as argued in books such as Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, God can influence what happens without violating the laws of physics.

Except that’s not how it works. Both of these views misunderstand what the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is.

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Does Physics Leave Room for the Supernatural?

The Big PictureEven if you don’t believe in God in the traditional sense, you might be open to supernatural phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP), ghosts, or the ability of a spirit world to influence what happens in the familiar world of our senses. I like to think I’m open to such things; how can we possibly claim to know that our everyday experience is all there is?

Sean Carroll, in his book The Big Picture, has me opening up to the idea that maybe I should not be so open.

His argument is simple:

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