Posts Tagged Philosophy

The Relativity of Wrong

Earlier today I stumbled across a blog that explicitly stated that it had proof for the existence of souls. You don’t really have to look far on the internet to find similar claims, YouTube for instance is full of videos claiming a variety of extraordinary claims, but such claims require extraordinary evidence and they never, ever do.

The thing that made me particularly irate about this soul blog was that it portrayed a long argument that went something like this

“You are starving and poor. You meet a horrible millionaire (no one likes him and he likes no one, he wouldn’t lift a finger to save his own mother)…”

The argument goes on for a while outlining (in a long winded way) that this bad millionaire isn’t evil he just contributes nothing to society and no one would be sad to see him dead. The crux of the argument is “would you kill and rob him if there were no legal consequences and you forgot what you did an hour later (leaving you guilt free). No one would ever find any evidence of it”. The blogger goes on to claim that every one he ever asked would say they would not kill the man. The conclusion from this is what I had a problem with, the blogger concluded that because of this we can rationally conclude that humans have souls and that these souls represent a shared moral compass. This is absolutely wrong.

Now I hope that by the end of this you will realise that I’m not making the claim that there is definitively no such thing as a soul, rather I am making the claim because this person has provided no evidence for his assertion. Firstly he has not shown that every single human has the same response but secondly (and far more importantly) he ignores all other explanations and jumps straight to the idea of a soul.

If we have an observation i.e. all humans presented with this argument have the same response we then seek an explanation. We never assume one however, we list all the logical explanations and then go on to look for evidence for them. The explanation with the strongest evidence is the correct one. This may seem a bit odd because using this method we can arrive at a conclusion that is factually incorrect (perhaps there really are souls but we lack the means to detect them and therefore come to the wrong conclusion). But an answer is rarely wrong simply because it is objectively incorrect, arguably in most walks of life we can never know if something is absolutely right. Answers are wrong if our working out is flawed.

Why is this right to do? If we do not accept the answer with the strongest evidence then we are free to accept any answer. Why stop at souls? Perhaps the reason everybody gave the same answer is because all humans have invisible mind controlling slugs in their brains or because we are all possessed by millionaire worshipping space ghosts. Both of these answers have as much evidence as souls. But even if there was no evidence for any explanation, if we had absolutely no natural explanation for why people all choose the same answer then the answer is unknown! We shouldn’t be afraid to state that things are an unknown, we should embrace it because it gives our knowledge room to grow. Simply slapping a supernatural explanation is a route to intellectual suicide,

“Why do people behave in moral ways? = Souls”

“What makes humans sentient? = Magic”

“Where did life come from? = Ghost party trick gone wrong”

When we forsake the unknown for an answer that has no evidence we are simply performing a lazy exercise to trick ourselves into feeling more knowledgeable than we really are. Replacing the unknown with a supernatural answer just pushes the problem one step back,

“Why do people behave in moral ways? = Souls” should then lead to “Why do souls make people behave in moral ways?”

We’ve simply replaced one question with another, worse than that we’ve replaced a good question with a bad one (bad because it relies on an unproven assumption).

The title of this post refers to a letter written by Isaac Asimov to the Skeptical Enquirer magazine in 1989. You can read it yourself here but the basic message is that not all wrong answers are equally wrong. In ancient times people may have believed the Earth to be flat, this is because to the best of their measurements the curvature of the Earth was zero. If someone had made the claim that the Earth was spheroid back then they would have had no evidence and thus would have arrived at the correct answer but for the wrong reasons. As measurements were done people surmised the Earth to be a sphere. This is wrong as well (its an oblate spheroid) but to the best of their knowledge it was the right answer. Both answers are technically wrong but the first is more wrong than the last, each time the answer gets closer and closer to the truth.

This matters because whilst being correct is nice having a method by which to decide what is right is far better. It is no use to anyone to simply say something that has no evidence, even if we find out later that it is correct the method that they used to come to that conclusion is useless. We cannot use it to determine anything else, however if we take what is right to be that which we have the strongest evidence for then we can accomplish a great deal. Indeed our civilisation has been built on the back of this idea, we take the answer with the best evidence and use it to great effect. Later through a continual beating of study this answer may be shown to have an anomaly and from that one loose thread the entire edifice of that theory can be pulled apart and made anew. This is what allows us to march onwards, not slapping the supernatural on everything, not cherry picking evidence to support our superstitions but accepting that which has strong evidence and using it to better our lives.

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Who am I, who are you and who the hell is the guy I was?


We all use it, we all have a name and we all identify ourselves by some means. The question of “who am I” is multifaceted. Am “I” the meaty object standing in front of you? Am “I” the emergent property of a squidgy organ in the head of that meaty object? Am “I” the sum of all of the perceptions of me?

We tend to use all three (with an emphasis on the first two) but I propose that we can’t really pinpoint what is “us”. I’ve always been really fascinated with identity, practically it’s very useful. You can call me Ryan and point to somebody else and call them Brian and we would know who you were talking about, the interesting thing for me is that you can point to a picture I have from five years ago and call that “Ryan”. You could do it to a ten year old picture; you could even do it to a picture of my mother holding a baby that’s just been named “Ryan”. Therein lies the dilemma for me, I accept that “I” am this body in front of you (a body whose physical functions result in the expression of a mind) but am “I” the boy in those pictures?

To show why this is an issue I’m going to borrow an old question in philosophy called the Ship of Theseus (I may not relay the story faithfully but the premise is the same). Theseus goes off sailing in his ship; his ship is made from a set number of wooden components. Over time these wooden parts rot one by one. Every time they rot they are removed and replaced with a new peace made from fresh wood. Let’s posit that there are one thousand parts that make up the ship and by the time he comes home every component of the ship has had to have been replaced. In other words there is no part of that ship that was technically there the day the ship left. The big question is “is it still the same ship?”

Repaired piece by piece is this still Theseus's ship?

This is a hard question. Often the first response is that it isn’t the exact same ship, that the act of replacing bits of it over time has made the ship different. I have another version of this thought experiment, what happens if every time a wooden component is replaced it is replaced with a completely different part? Imagine a ship made from one thousand wooden planks and every time they rot they are replaced with metal, when the sail tears and the mast rots they are replaced with a propeller and when the navigator drinks too much and falls overboard he’s replaced with GPS. Is that the same ship? In this example I imagine most people would say it is not and there are justifiable reasons for believing that. But this is more than just a fun thought game.

Every second of every day we are dying, tens of thousands of cells die and are recycled or shed from our skin (a lot of house dust is dead skin). This is no big problem because we replace all these dying parts. We do this by eating food, digesting it and using it to rebuild parts of us. Over a large enough span of time all things in our body are replaced, cells die and are replaced and importantly every component in those cells are replaced too. I’ve heard various numbers of how long this takes but it doesn’t really matter exactly how long it is merely that at some point in your life there are no atoms in your body that were there at the start of your life. This is the Ship of Theseus acting in real life and it’s a very interesting thing to think about, the body that people identified as “Ryan” at the beginning of this identity has nothing left in the body that is now identified as “Ryan”.

This phenomenon applies to our personality too, over time we develop new behaviours and loose old ones to the point where if we were to place Ryan at ten years next to Ryan at twenty years next to Ryan at one hundred years and you will struggle to see that they used to be the same person. Am I really the same “Ryan” if I share no matter nor mind with this past Ryan? Are we not strangers? And am I accountable for this strangers actions? The point I am trying to press is what is “I”?

An Evil Genius stealing your atoms, one by one

Lastly there is one more thought experiment I would like to propose; imagine there are three identical hotel rooms next to each other (left, middle and right). You go to bed in the middle room and at some point in the night some Evil Genius sneaks in and freezes your body. Then he or she takes you apart atom by atom. They start by taking one atom from the bottom of your foot and take it from the middle room to the room on the left. In this identical room they place this atom in the corresponding place in the bed that it was in the middle room. This Evil Genius then does this again but this time places the second atom in the room on the right. This act continues with you being dismantled atom by atom with each atom going to the left or the right room until finally there are no atoms left in the middle room and exactly 50% in both the left and right. Where there is a gap between atoms in the left room there is an atom to be found in the right room and vice versa. As one last act the Evil Genius fills in the gaps of both these two bodies with atoms from stock and warms both bodies up before fleeing the scene.

As the alarm clock goes off in both rooms the two bodies wake up and stumble out of the room only to see another them down the corridor. Which one is you?

I’ve asked a lot of questions here and not provided any answers but I hope they are all questions that have got you thinking.

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