Category Archives: Inspiration

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.

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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When “Judge Not” Is Not Enough

Many of us try to live by this simple verse in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1):

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

Sound advice, right? Yes, but last night I learned that sometimes we need to do better than that. We need to make a judgment and speak up.

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Eulogy for a Humanist

The difference between life and non-life is so slight, isn’t it? Even now, as our friend reclines in this casket, he is barely distinguishable from a week ago when he was merely sleeping. He looks so similar to the irrepressible, playful man we all love that I half-expect him to wink at me during this speech when he thinks nobody is looking.

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How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness – Part 3

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip across the country. Back then, I was firmly in the evangelical Christian camp. They were not, so we had some lively discussions.

During one of them, my grandfather asked what credentials one of my sources had earned. “Where had he gone to college? How about graduate school?”

“What does that matter?” I thought. “What’s important is whether his arguments are sound.”

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In 10 Years, Nobody Will Be Able to Lie (Part 1)

Within 10 years, nobody will be able to lie. Or more precisely, all lies will be detected instantly, so people will stop lying. Can you imagine how that will change society!?

But hold on a second! How is this going to happen?

Think about it: the technology is all here. We’re only waiting for someone to put the following pieces together.

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Dare to Make an Empty Map

1459 Map of the World

Have you ever seen an ancient map? Many of them showed the edge of the Earth, sea monsters, or coastlines that were more imaginary than real. Others, such as the one above, claimed to show the whole world but showed only Europe, Asia and Africa.

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