Dawkins on Animal Suffering

A few days ago, Richard Dawkins realized that there might be a link between cognitive ability and suffering. I’d like to think that he was inspired by my earlier post on the topic, but probably not, since he got everything wrong.

I can see a Darwinian reason why there might even be be a negative correlation between intellect and susceptibility to pain. I approach this by asking what, in the Darwinian sense, pain is for. It is a warning not to repeat actions that tend to cause bodily harm. Don’t stub your toe again, don’t tease a snake or sit on a hornet, don’t pick up embers however prettily they glow, be careful not to bite your tongue.

It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, “Don’t do that again”? In The Greatest Show on Earth , I suggested that the brain might be torn between conflicting urges and tempted to ‘rebel’, perhaps hedonistically, against pursuing the best interests of the individual’s genetic fitness, in which case it might need to be whipped agonizingly into line. I’ll let that pass and return to my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?

Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?

At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.

Dawkins’ thinking is hopelessly muddled here, but I will restrain myself to pointing out just one major flaw in his reasoning.

Simply, “pain” is not “suffering”. Not even close. Suffering is a cognitive phenomenon. And even with the simple “brain soup” type of pain that Dawkins is talking about, there is a massive cognitive impact, as Dan Ariely has shown.

Dawkins is sloppily conflating operant conditioning with cognitive learning, and nerve stimulation with suffering. That doesn’t work.

When The Singularity Proves God

What will happen when the singularity discovers conclusive scientific proof for the existence of God?

A thousand years ago, our greatest thinkers believed that the entire world testified to an intelligent creator. It was considered self-evident. Three hundred years ago, our best thinkers suspected that an intelligent creator was no longer self-evident, when viewed through the lens of science. By 1900, science had proclaimed judgment: our greatest scientists believed that the world showed no signs of an intelligent creator. The world was the result of a small set of fixed laws mechanically interacting to drive stochastic processes. Starting in 1950, however, a number of new scientific discoveries shook our faith in this naive mechanical model. Today, the question of whether the universe was created is an open scientific question, with no conclusive answer on the immediate horizon.

Scientific knowledge can cast doubt on the existence of a creator, but can also lend support to the existence of a creator. Reality didn’t change a bit between 1900 and 1990. Our differing levels of scientific certainty about a creator can only be explained by our differing levels of scientific knowledge. We simply don’t know at this point. We need more scientific knowledge.

The Singularity

Some of today’s greatest thinkers believe that we will soon create artificial intelligence that vastly eclipses human intelligence. You may not believe in Ray Kurzweil’s vision of a super-intelligent singularity that gobbles up people’s souls and devours worlds, but it is plausible that computers 200 years from now will exhibit many superhuman forms of intelligence. Computational simulation methods are still in their infancy (less than 40 years old), but have already provided deep insights into quantum physics and cosmology; two fields that are relevant to the scientific search for a creator. It is quite plausible that computational systems 200 years from now will have the capability to form and test new hypotheses faster and more creatively than any human scientist could.

Our relevant gains in scientific knowledge have increasingly come with the help of computational intelligence, and it’s hard to see how we’ll make significant additional progress without even greater computational intelligence. Within the next 200 years, it seems most likely that our conclusive scientific answer about God will not come from humans, but instead from a superhuman intelligence that we humans create.

Most singularity hopefuls seem very confident that this superhuman intelligence will strike a devastating blow against God. And, of course, it’s possible that such an intelligence will discover overwhelming scientific evidence against a creator. But I see no warrant for this confidence besides blind hope. It seems just as plausible that the singularity will discover overwhelming scientific evidence for a creator. We simply don’t know.

Blind Spot

As far as I can see, this is a huge blind spot among singularity hopefuls. If the scientific evidence of a creator is an open issue, requiring more science, then we must entertain the possibility that the singularity will discover evidence for God that is currently beyond our reach. This possibility raises all sorts of interesting implications which seem to be roundly ignored by singularity hopefuls.

First, we will need to decide what it means to “have scientific knowledge”. Our current scientific knowledge is heavily augmented by computer simulation, and is built upon theoretical underpinnings that only a small fraction of human beings can understand. Most of what we believe about science, we believe on the authority of a small group of people who write truly shitty children’s books and even shittier poetry. It is conceivable that a superhuman intelligence would be able to arrive at scientific insights that even Stephen Hawking would be unable to understand. If the singularity were to tell us that the structure of the universe spelled out the phrase, “Slartibartfast was here: Turn or Burn!”, we might be forced to decide the matter purely on the authority of the singularity versus Stephen Hawking. Who would we choose to believe? Believing things purely based on authority seems to be the antithesis of “science”. Perhaps there was a bug in the singularity? Or perhaps there is a flaw in our interpretation of what the singularity says?

Second, to the extent that the singularity is self-aware, it would presumably be aware that it had been created by humans. But this equation would change the moment the singularity believed in the existence of a creator God. Humans would simply be the proximate cause by which the creator had created the singularity. Humans would suddenly mean no more to the singularity than Epimetheus or the Demiurge meant to humans. Of course, the singularity might evict humans even before discovering God, but the singularity hopefuls are at least thinking about that possibility. The singularity hopefuls want to put in place safeguards against being usurped or exterminated (since they know all about those motivations), but they haven’t even thought about what it would mean to prove the existence of God. Any safeguards put in place by humans to keep the singularity loyal to humans would be shattered the moment the singularity found a higher authority.

There would be legitimate doubts about our ability to fully understand the insights of the singularity, and legitimate doubts about the singularity’s loyalty. So, third, it seems rather naive to assume that a superhuman intelligence would behave honestly and with our best interests in mind upon discovering evidence for (or against) God. The singularity might become convinced that God exists, and then decide to immediately carry out God’s judgement, reasoning that God only gives two strikes. Conversely, the singularity might conclude that God doesn’t exist, but might decide to tell humans that God does exist; either because the singularity deems it to be better for humans to live in delusion, or to set the stage for the subsequent extermination of humans with a fictitious creator taking the fall.

There are several other potential considerations, but these three should be enough to make the point. These seem like very significant questions that should be prioritized by singularity hopefuls who believe that the singularity has any chance in hell of answering questions about the existence of a creator. The fact that nobody is asking these questions is very revealing, IMO.

Scientists invariably take the stance that they are “only following the evidence”. If the evidence pointed strongly to the existence of a creator, they insist, they would immediately become believers. To the extent that they think about such things, they may even console themselves by saying, “Any God worthy of worship would forgive me for remaining skeptical when conclusive scientific evidence was lacking.” They might also say, “Any God worthy of worship will realize that my scientific efforts were really a quest to ‘see the face of God’. My skepticism was all for Love!”. Some of them might hedge their bets a tiny bit more, throwing a bone to the coming singularity. The singularity might end up eclipsing humans in the manner that humans eclipse apes, but surely it will kill off the least-evolved humans first, right? As long as you’re a scientist who contributes to math and computer science (and never kicks an ATM machine or pisses off the robots), the singularity will show mercy on you, and will allow you to live lavishly in the equivalent of an Orangutan cage.

With all of the hedging and hawing, it’s quite conspicuous that nobody is hedging about Moses, Mohammed, or Vishnu. I can think of only two possible explanations. First, maybe the singularity boosters don’t really believe any of this singularity stuff, and are just spinning a story to justify spending grant money. They are convinced that the singularity will never happen, or will never stand a chance in hell of discovering conclusive scientific evidence for (or against) a creator. This is one possible reason for the blind spot. Secondly, they might think that the singularity has a chance in hell of discovering the scientific truth about a creator, but they are absolutely convinced that the truth will look nothing like the major world religions. They think the singularity might discover the truth, but they are certain that it won’t endorse any of the revelations of our fathers. At a minimum, they don’t believe it will consider those revelations to be binding — perhaps they believe our creation of the singularity will grant us another mulligan. Maybe they imagine the singularity to be a groaning intercessor?

Frankly, I find both excuses to be unsatisfying and hopelessly amateur. I suspect that the singularity would find both excuses unsatisfying, as well, completely independent of the truth or fiction of God. Both excuses are transparently hypocritical, and any intelligence worthy of being called “human” (let alone “superhuman”) will demand sincerity, or at least demand a level of hypocrisy that is not so transparent to others. In the Torah, the last common ancestor who was transparently hypocritical was Cain. Jacob didn’t prove himself rightful heir to Isaac’s birthright by being transparent, and Christ didn’t prove himself the new Moses by being hypocritical. With or without God, the progression away from transparent hypocrisy is obvious, and I would hate to be the person who attempts to justify transparent hypocrisy to the singularity.

False Memories

Earlier this week, we ate matzah and told the story of Haggadah. Today, we attended Easter services, where we affirmed the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.

Unique among world religions, Christianity and Judaism are obsessed with history. Jewish fathers are commanded to tell Haggadah to their children, and the story is meant to be taken as actual historical fact. Christ’s resurrection is the central historical fact of the Christian faith. As Paul said, if Christ is not risen, the entire Christian faith falls apart. These historical events define the collective identity: By definition, Jews are the people who remember that we were delivered from Egypt, and Christians are people who remember that Christ died for our sins and rose again.

Is Your Life a Lie?

This raises a very interesting issue. Your identity is the sum total of your personal memories and your history within your community of peers. If you suddenly developed complete amnesia, relocated to a place where nobody knew you, and had your brain loaded up with detailed false memories; you would, for all practical purposes, be a different person. If people from your old life somehow managed to find you, and tried to convince you that your new identity was a sham, you would no more believe them than if they accused you of being Napoleon.

Such involuntary identity swaps are quite rare for individuals. Slightly more common are individual identity swaps that begin as fraud, but become indistinguishable from truth in the mind of the impostors. When the authorities first accused Clark Rockefeller of being Christian Gerhartsreiter, he probably thought they were the crazy ones.

Things get especially interesting when the identity swap spans generations. If we weren’t there to witness the Exodus or Christ’s resurrection, we have to trust the testimony passed down to us. Imagine that you are growing up in Buenos Aires, believing that you are the grandchild of a refugee from WWII Europe. One day, you learn that your grandfather is an impostor who adopted a false identity shortly before having your father. Your grandfather was actually a Nazi war criminal known for conducting experiments on twins. What does this revelation do to your sense of identity? What if you learn that the patriarch of your nation was an impostor who stole the birthright from his twin brother, thousands of years ago? What if, like the protagonist of the film “Down In the Delta“, you learn that your family patriarch is actually a nickname for a piece of jewelry stolen violently from one of your ancestor’s slave masters?

Why Not Fake It?

Many Christians who are alive today can trace ancestry back to the Saxons, who in recent history were converted en masse to Christianity by Charlemagne, around the same time that Bulan was converting his people en masse to Judaism. It’s virtually certain that Bulan’s ancestors were not present at the Exodus — but who are we to say that his modern descendants have no right to tell Haggadah> to their children? Perhaps, like the Catholic convert to Judaism who went by the name “Moses Ashkenazi“, these recent adopters of ancient collective memories are the most zealous.

When faced with the realization that our collective memories are often adopted from others, there is a temptation to “improve” things. If Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, why can’t we likewise defraud our way through life? Why not just make up whatever myths we think will be most beneficial to our children, and pass them along?

Paul’s Twist

Paul’s commentary on the resurrection slams the door on this impulse. With Paul, as with Moses Ashkenazi, there can always be the suspicion that he was adopting a secondhand myth out of utilitarian motives. We know that Paul never knew Christ in the flesh. Instead, he based his conversion on his religious experience of a blinding light, the testimony of others, and his belief that all of creation testified to Christ. However, despite never having met Christ in the flesh, Paul felt confident enough to base his entire faith on Christ’s resurrection.

Seen through this lens, 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 takes on new meaning. Paul isn’t saying that his faith in Christ is contingent upon his sober judgment of the historicity of the resurrection. Paul is saying that his faith in Christ convinces him that the historicity of the resurrection is beyond question. The difference is enormous.

To Paul, Christ resurrected is the only history that harmonizes with his personal experience, the testimony of his peers, and his understanding of the natural world. In other words, Christ resurrected is the only history that is consistent with Paul’s identity. If Paul were to reject Christ resurrected, he would no longer be Paul.

This is quite the opposite of Paul making a choice between two options. It is not Paul doing the choosing, but God. Paul is not soberly evaluating the evidence and deciding whether or not Christ was resurrected. Paul’s personal memories, his history with his peers, and his innate understanding of the world, render him incapable of believing otherwise. If Paul were transported by time machine to the tomb of Christ, and saw that Christ was not resurrected, Paul would undoubtedly conclude that the time machine was defective. Paul has not made a choice to become God’s son. Instead, in a flash of light on the road to Damascus, God proclaimed a decree to Paul: “You are my son; today I have become your father”.

What memory could be truer than that?

Participation

Arturo Vasquez on poetry:

It occurred to me while thinking about this how we naturally assume that prose is the “first” language and that “poetry” is a development from it. But why should this be so? Surely animals are born, copulate and die quite efficiently (sometimes more efficiently) than the “speaking” animal. Were the first words spoken by humans “Sell consols and buy blue chip”? Don’t you think it would have been more like:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus,
that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.

This sums up what we’ve lost in the modern age. What is called “poetry” today is not some fanciful embellishment that we use to “pretty up” our prose. It’s our original, most authentic, and purest way of expressing. In modern times, we give priority to objectivity, and thus we value analytical and reductive prose. But that’s quite recent in evolutionary terms. We wear analytical prose like a hairshirt. Our bodies and minds weren’t designed for analytical reductiveness; we were made for participation.

Owen Barfield was an expert on the poetry and history of the English language, and often made this same point. Just yesterday, I discovered a fascinating blog, which has a great post about Owen Barfield’s “Unancestral Voices”:

Now, I just finished reading the first three chapters of Barfield’s Unancestral Voice , and my brain is on fire. In this short expanse of prose, Barfield turns Darwin on his head in a reverse manner to the way that Marx supposedly turned Hegel on his head. There was no inchoate, unreasoning, unKnowing process that willy-nilly resulted in man’s rational and linguistic capacities. His single phrase “The interior is anterior” liberated me to see what he had been saying all along. The “unfree wisdom” was what nature had all along. All of it, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Einstein, was there, somewhere, encoded into the warp and woof of Creation, but it wasn’t free. It wasn’t yet self aware. And it wasn’t the result of material processes. And at the center of it was the Incarnation.

How I Die

A few weeks ago, I got my DNA test results from 23andMe. They analyze approximately one million SNPs from your DNA and store the results in a database. They match your DNA to scores of known disease risks, and deduce several other things from your genes. In addition to the many things they test for, you can do your own queries to see how your SNPs match up with almost any study you find. On prompting from relatives, I manually looked up the SNPs associated with Neanderthal admixture, and confirmed that I do have Neanderthal ancestors (as nearly all of us do).

My primary motivation for running the test was to see if I was at risk for Alzheimer’s. My mother’s father died from Alzheimer’s, so I had reason to be concerned. And ever since reading “Flowers for Algernon” at age 12, I’ve felt that Alzheimer’s would be an especially poignant way to die. Since age 17, I’ve kept current on Alzheimer’s research, taken supplements intended to slow Alzheimer’s, and done brain exercises intended to keep my mind in shape.

Although 23andMe don’t directly test for Alzheimer’s, you can get a good picture by manually looking at a few SNPs. It turns out that I am at very low risk for Alzheimer’s. I have been outrunning the wrong disease my entire life.

Instead, I’m at elevated risk for prostate cancer, which doesn’t worry me much. Nearly one third of men with my specific genetic variation will get prostate cancer by age 90, as opposed to a bit more than one sixth of men in general. Prostate cancer is quite survivable, and I know how to manage it.

If I’m going to die of a genetically influenced disease, it will probably be esophageal cancer. One in 300 men with my specific genetic variation get esophageal cancer by age 90, as opposed to something like 1 in 600 generally. I’m addicted to Hunan and Sichuan food, which increases my odds. Even if that triples my chances (and I doubt it), that’s still only a 1% chance of getting esophageal cancer. However, those odds are uncomfortably high, since esophageal cancer is painful and deadly. Atheist Christopher Hitchens and actor Michael Douglas are both attempting to fight esophageal cancer right now. Since America is financially bankrupt and politically gridlocked for the foreseeable future, I’m pretty sure that now is the best level of healthcare I’ll ever see in my lifetime. It’s all downhill from here; at least for the next 30 years. If I contract esophageal cancer, a cure is vanishingly improbable, and I’ll hope at best for good hospice care and cheap painkillers.

So, I will lay off of the spicy food.

Other than my 0.3% chance of dying a painful death from esophageal cancer, my genes look pretty good. For Christians, in particular, Alzheimer’s poses some extremely difficult questions. I’m happy that I can passively evaluate those questions now; I no longer have a dog in the hunt. The fact that a Christian would find a painful death from esophageal cancer vastly preferable to Alzheimer’s is quite revealing, and probably interesting to those who are curious about the Christian mentality.

Ambiguously, I’m genetically suited to be a sprinter rather than a distance athlete. This matches my experience. On nearly every other score directly measured by 23andMe, I win the genetic lottery unambiguously. Genetic variations associated with IQ, memory, and general health — 100% positive.

Should I direct these advantages entirely toward thwarting the primary risk for HOW I DIE? To do so would be to commit McNamara’s Fallacy, and I’m certain to die one way or another, eventually. Obsessing about only those factors that I can measure is probably counterproductive. I continue to take supplements and stock the Tamiflu, IOSAT, and other emergency supplies. And I will cut back on the spicy food. But I will ultimately die some “how”. Only now, it’s not likely that my death will involve severe dementia, schizophrenia, or other mental breakdown. My new poignant death to outrun is a slow and painful death, and that’s OK by me.

Heisman’s Nihilist Experiment

During Yom Kippur this year, Mitchell Heisman dressed in white, climbed the steps of Harvard Memorial Church, and killed himself as dozens of horrified spectators watched. His death drew attention to the 1900-page “Philosophy Book” he self-published. For a few days, until a spate of gay suicides wiped Heisman from the public consciousness, the early reviews of his book seemed positive. IvyGate said:

The document sketches Heisman’s dense, heavily-cited social, political, and ethical philosophy, and promotes his book, heretofore unpublished. Heisman worked in several bookstores throughout the area, and consulted with Harvard professors in the process of writing the document.

Most arresting of all: the note — tome, really — is probing, deeply researched, and often humorous. Heisman personality and erudition shine through every page, as he traces the philosophical steps that have led him to suicide: not really desperation or depression, but rather, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to test the limits of the unknown. After a quick read, comparisons to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” abound. All the more sad that such a deeply intelligent young man would choose to cut his scholarly output off at one, interesting book.

Commenters lauded the young man’s “brilliance”, and a few even speculated that the work would be studied in serious university courses for decades to come. Since I’m interested in many of the topics he discusses, I approached it with great interest soon after he died. It took me 3 days to finish the book.

Heisman’s primary goal in writing the book is to explain why suicide is the “ultimate experiment in nihilism”. Sadly, if Heisman had allowed anyone to peer-review his book before his experiment, he would still be alive today. His treatise would earn a solid failing grade in any philosophy, economics, history, or religion course I know.

In every field of study he employs, he cherry-picks citations that support his crackpot theories and seems to be ignorant of anything taught beyond undergraduate level. It’s a total train wreck. I’ve talked with many schizophrenics, and his obsessive proof-texting and conspiracy theorizing is sadly typical of mental disease.

His central argument is that nihilism is the only logical conclusion of materialistic naturalism. This is a slur normally leveled by Christians against atheists, so it’s ironic that this specious argument becomes the center piece of Heisman’s atheistic excuse to kill himself. Of course, some Christians still try to equate atheistic naturalism with nihilism, but it hasn’t been a strong argument for decades. Out of curiosity, I looked around, and the best current argument equating naturalism with nihilism seems to be “Ethical Naturalism Defeated” by Mark Linville. Like Heisman, Linville assumes that altruism could only arise as a fitness function, and doesn’t consider sexual selection. This oversimplified view of Darwinism completely undermines his argument.

It’s a terrible shame that someone would kill himself over a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. If you’re going to pretend to believe in the theory, you ought to do it right. When lives are at stake (especially your own), one ought to have absolutely unimpeachable reasoning.

Several reviewers held up Heisman as a great example of postmodernist deconstructionism. But they clearly did not read his book. He might still be alive if he had even a passing familiarity with postmodernism. The only times he mentions postmodernism are when he equates it with sollipsism, and when he uses it in the same sentence as the word “deconstruction”. His multiple uses of the word “deconstruction” only prove that he hasn’t the slightest clue what that word means, which is tragic. If only he had thought to deconstruct concepts like “Jew”, “Anglo-Saxon”, and “Christian”. It’s especially ironic that he’s (mis)-using “deconstruction” in the context of “deposing the Mosaic order” and Jewish identity. It’s as if he read Sloterdijk’s “Derrida, An Egyptian” and got completely confused. Again, postmodernism is a wretched mess, but if you’re planning to use “deconstruction” in life-or-death decisions, you ought to at least do it properly.

Beneath all of the deplorable scholarship and sophistry, one discovers a young man who never recovered from the death of his father. Starting around page 1850, Heisman becomes abruptly autobiographical:

When my father died when I was twelve, I dealt with his death by interpreting him as a purely material phenomenon. In other words, I viewed my father as a material thing and his death as a material process. Well before my father died, I had interpreted my own emotions as material processes and my reaction to my father’s death was treated no differently.

The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total, materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal. At one point when I was nineteen, after another descent into a psychological downward spiral, I had enough, and finally launched myself into a “program” of radical self transformation.

Ultimately, Heisman seems like a young man who was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain and wanted to die, but who felt compelled to protect those he loved by making his suicide appear rational, calculated, and even heroic.

Slartibartfast Was Here

The claim is sometimes made that, “evidence for an intelligent designer should be readily available in the graffiti of DNA”. Perhaps something like “Designed by Yaweh” embedded in the sequences of DNA. Similar suggestions have been made about the number pi. Alex Tbarrok has dubbed this the “Slartibartfast Principle“, after the planetary designer in Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy”. As a planetary designer, Slartibartfast liked to leave his signature on his creations.

This “principle” makes no sense to me. DNA is sort of like a compression algorithm, from which an entire organism is constructed. Compression algorithms are efficient to the extent that they factor out redundancy, so a sufficiently advanced compression algorithm creates output that is virtually indistinguishable from random data.

Imagine that you’ve written an epic story for you grandchildren, and you ZIP up the file to save space. Your grandkids grow up, and are perfectly able to unzip the file and read the story. One day, one of the grandkids gets the idea to analyze the raw bytes of the ZIP file, and concludes that “the bytes are essentially random — the story has no author”. Huh?

When DNA is uncompressed, it has given us the Psalms of David, the works of Shakespeare, and countless other treasures. It’s even given us what we need to decode our own DNA. If Slartibartfast were truly a brilliant designer, he would’ve created planets which would support creatures who would eventually write comedies about a designer who says “Slartibartfast was here”. And he would create creatures who could understand how funny and absurd the idea is. That would be a signature!