Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010


Everything that can value, has a value scale. Some people claim to value everything equally (an impossibility with the human architecture, but let's assume they do), and so all values on the scale are the same. I consider that a wrong view to take, because then a human being is no more valuable than an electron. This is the case to the Universe, but only because the Universe doesn't care--it doesn't value. Values are subjective, or products of a mind. Does that mean no value can be morally superior to another? No, as I'll explain in a bit.

On the road of atheism one must pass by the existentialists. Maybe stay for a few meals, chat with the locals, but the journeyman must move on. Existentialists are perhaps more hypocritical than Christians: they believe that since we're all equally worthless to the Universe (true), that nothing we do matters in the end to the Universe (true), that nothing matters (false). If it doesn't matter whether you live or die, why not choose death and save yourself some suffering? You can argue it doesn't matter if you suffer or not, which makes either choice the same, but from a purely emotional feeling, why choose to suffer instead of not suffer? You'd at least save the Universe from calculating "suffering-ness" on you (not that it cares). It just seems logical that if you believe it doesn't matter if you're alive or dead, then you should choose to die and save yourself some trouble. Note I don't want existentialists to all go and kill themselves. I'd rather have them move on the atheist road. But I assert that killing oneself is the logical thing to do if one is existential. I value life over the rational choice, so obviously I'd want them to not literally follow logic off a cliff and pick new beliefs.

Atheists must move past the existentialists. As a budding atheist, you've just crossed one scary river: God doesn't exist and when you die you're annihilated with no hope of return (with present technology (this is a whisper of the river most people miss)). Now you must cross another: the Universe doesn't care if you live or die. But don't stop on the far bank and make camp like the existentialists! Move on. There's a small stream later on that says "Values are subjective, but that doesn't make it wrong to value things, or value things differently, or make all values just as good as other values." I am an entity which has the capability to value, and I value life. This value keeps me from wanting to kill people. Given the choice (which must be made) to kill an ant or kill a human, I'd kill the ant because I value ants less than I value humans. Preferring any outcome to any other is necessary to make a choice. The human brain obviously has preferences, whether you consciously acknowledge them or not, and if you tortured an existentialist I'd bet he wouldn't like it. That concept of liking things, of having preferences, is there in the brain, and is the reason we can have differences in values.

I've recovered the concept of unequal values. I'll now recover the concept of better/worse values.

In olden times, people didn't value the lives of other tribes as much. This is still the case today, but it's not to such an extent. Christians might value Muslims less than other Christians, but we're past the stage of the Crusades. The trend thus far in humanity has been an increasing value of life-in-general. We can see this with Gandhi, we can see this with vegetarians, we can see this with forbidding of torture by some entities; in short, there's a heaping pile of empirical evidence for the trend. Where this trend is, and where this trend is going, I call the good.

Beware of narrow sets! People talk about anti-intellectualism in America, but it's really a relatively new phenomenon and not really widespread. Broaden your data-set to see the trend that respect for intelligence (by intelligent I mean people who try to use their brains to their fullest ability; there's not much fundamentally (on DNA level) different between Einstein and a village idiot) has been going up, not down. You don't even have to go very far to make that assertion: look at high schools over the past 20 years. The rate of nerd-bullying has gone down, and bullying-in-general. (This signifies bullying to be bad as well.) Also look at Bill Gates, richest man on Earth: essentially a geek. Go back hundreds of years and you get a heaping pile of evidence.

So I've rescued right/wrong values as well. And never once did I have to invoke the very complicated issue of God! Note that when analyzing trends it's important to see where you're at, but also where you're going. If the Greeks had really thought this way, they might have noticed "Hey, we're slowly progressing to respecting women more and more and letting them decide things. Let's say the morally good is to let women be equals to men, and strive for that." I look at the trends, and see we're becoming a less-violent society. I choose non-violence as the end, and as the morally good to strive for.

It is with trend-analysis that I criticize certain value standards and point out a better one we should strive for. First, the vegan value system: animals are equally (or more) important than humans. Given a single animal, it has the same or more value as a single human. This stems from valuing animal life and valuing human life, which is good, but the mistake is valuing animal life above human life. (To be fair, the go-kill-yourself-or-change-your-beliefs argument applies to hardcore vegans as well.) Animal life has indeed become more valuable over time, but human life has as well, at least at an equal rate (I'd say a greater rate), and human life has always been generally regarded as higher than animal life. Thus the trend is to value both human and animal lives, but to value human lives more.

Another value system I criticize is the Objectivist one. (I've been picking on Oism lately, huh? Ah well, it's easy and mockery is about the only way one can address it and have fun. This criticism isn't so much mockery though.) Oism holds that the standard of value should be the individual's life. If a billion people are coming at you, wanting to kill you, and you have a button that would kill them first, you should press that button. This stems directly from individualism where you are your own highest value and everyone should respect that about everyone else. Unfortunately, this is broken. Humans have, as far as I know, essentially always believed it good to value their own life. The trend however has been to value other lives as well. The lives of your family, the lives of your tribe, the lives of your city, the lives of your nation, and we're heading to the lives of the world. Hence I assert it's better to value the lives of the world above the life of yourself. If saving one person is like saving a whole world, then saving 100 people is like saving 100 worlds, and saving all of humanity is like saving (at least) a galaxy.

I've said before that math and science progress on a global scale. If someone had killed Einstein, someone else would have discovered General Relativity within a close period of when Einstein released his papers. The differences in human intelligences are minuscule compared to the difference between ant intelligence and human intelligence, our thoughts are the products of ourselves and especially the environment around us, thus someone with a similar enough environment will end up at similar enough results as another person.

So in a horrible scenario, if you had to torture one individual for 50 years vs. having [math]3\uparrow\uparrow\uparrow\uparrow3[/math] (See Knuth's Up-Arrow Notation) people suffer a dust speck in the eye, you torture the individual because that's such a vast number that the tiny amount of suffering caused by a dust speck is multiplied by that vast number and is greater than the suffering of one individual for 50 years. If you have the choice of living forever but killing the rest of humanity vs. dying and having the rest of humanity living forever, you should die because humanity is more important than the individual. Watch out where that fact takes you, though, lest you fall into the evils of communism.

Here's my own value scale. I currently value all plants, animals, and humans. I expect to value smarter-than-human intelligences when they arrive, and it wouldn't surprise me if in a few hundred years I also value bacteria and even atoms. However, I'll stick with my present values for the present. I do not value plants, animals, and humans as equal. One cow != One human. 100 cows != One human. Humans are worth more. Also, one carrot != one lion. I'm an omnivore, but I do value the lives of the animals I must eat. Since the trend of valuing all life is increasing, are we going toward vegetarianism? No.

Not in a vegetarian sense, anyway.

I believe that if we have the technology to refrain from eating meat or vegetables or any living thing, without sacrificing our own desires (craving meat), then it's a good thing to do. There are two main ways that instantly come to mind, and they both involve nanotech (to an extent). The first way is to create all our food a-la Star Trek (self-replicating nanobots stealing energy from various caches and configuring into the desired food structure), the second way is actually two alternatives after mind uploading. Mind uploading doesn't seem to be far off, and when we live on silicon instead of in carbon we can simply get our power from the sun or other resources that aren't harmful (and much more efficient than life forms). I for one would dearly miss the taste of meat, however, and I couldn't even eat anymore to satisfy the desire. So I have two options from here: either stimulate the "Mmm, meat" sector of my uploaded mind to make me believe I just had a fantastic steak dinner, or remove the desire from my mind completely so I no longer crave food. Both choices are okay. (Sadly I can imagine some people stimulating the orgasm sector of their uploaded mind all day... Though there wouldn't be anything inherently wrong with that.)

If we have a slow Singularity, with a transition stage between full-blown mind uploads and just nice nanotech, I can imagine some mushy goop made from nothing ever alive that provides everything the body requires, with optional taste and texture packets to keep those who love meat (or chocolate aut alii) from going insane.

So, I predict value of life will go up. Why do I think humans value life at all? Well, humans tend to appreciate rare and complicated things... The desire for self-preservation probably came first in evolution since those with it had more offspring than those without it, and then those who cared about the family came next since those with it had more offspring who had offspring (as they could help raise the kid for a few years). I'm not an evolutionary psychologist but this seems reasonable as a foundation for caring about others, and life itself. Sure I have to point to cultures for more mountains of evidence that humans indeed value life, but you don't even need the evolutionary psychology stuff to claim the value is there.

I find it amusing that Eastern thinkers caught on to this idea of valuing everything and realizing we're all connected thousands of years ago, and people today still don't understand or accept it. Ah well, it's obvious that's the way the trend is heading. Valuing all life is good, as is valuing higher the more complicated life.

Posted on 2009-11-05 by Jach

Tags: atheism, existentialism, morality


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Jach November 26, 2012 05:18:15 AM As an addendum, I'm pretty sure this post confuses Nihilism with Existentialism when in fact they're distinct. The non-god "camp" across the river of atheism is for Nihilists Only, but there is certainly an overlap, and by exploring the other facets of Existentialism a Nihilist can move beyond.
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