You are standing at a fork in a trolley track, your hand on the lever that can cause the trolley to go one direction or the other. A trolley is coming toward you. If you do not pull the lever, it will go down the fork where five children are on the track. They will surely be killed. (They are tied up, or facing the wrong direction and deaf, or what have you.) If you do pull the lever, their lives will be saved, but your own child, who is immobile on the other fork, will be killed. What is the ethical thing to do?
This is possibly the earliest in a famous series of ethical dilemmas known as trolley problems.
The fun begins when we vary the scenario to tease out people’s moral intuitions. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson posed the most famous version:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? [quoted in Wikipedia]
Zoltan 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.
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:
We 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.
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.”
Why do we think something is beautiful?
Imagine looking at a canvas painted solely in your favorite color. For me, that would be orange. I might think, “That is a really beautiful orange. There’s something complex in it — some depth.”
But even though the painting was 100% my favorite color, I’d probably like some other colors nearby as well, right? I once saw this installation, titled 24 Colors — for Blinky at the Dia:Beacon museum.
If you’re just joining my story, here’s a quick catch-up. Once upon a time, I was an evangelical Christian. Although I was not a die-hard creationist, I considered creationists to be “my team” and evolutionists to be the godless “other team.” I trusted creationists because they were fellow Christians, and conservative ones at that. A decision my wife and I had to make forced me to investigate the creation/evolution issue more closely.
I hope the last few posts have given you a window into why I was appalled at how dishonest the creationist arguments turned out to have been. Now I’d like to give just a glimpse into the sort of arguments that I discovered on the side of evolution.
Most remarkable was the way completely independent lines of evidence all pointed to the same conclusion. This graph is an example. It’s from the book that opened my eyes to the power of the evolutionary explanation for life, Scientists Confront Creationism.
I’ll walk you through it, and then I’ll say why I found it so compelling.
Last time, we saw how we can miss the truth when we think we know what’s in other people’s heads — when we play Amateur Psychologist. Not to pick on David Sereda, but in the same video he also serves as a foil for this post’s Truth-Loving Test for Amateur Scientists:
A truth-loving amateur scientist has a keen nose for baloney from other amateur scientists.
If you’re just joining the discussion, it’s about the video below that “proves” UFOs were out in space with the shuttle Columbia.