Wednesday, 14 March 2012


One of the benefits of having scientific, as opposed to religious heroes is that you are free to disagree, vehemently, with some or most of what your hero believes. Richard Feynman, for instance, was notoriously contemptuous of philosophy. 'Philosophy of Science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.' Is one of the kinder ways he found to express this loathing. But I think he underestimated the need that ordinary scientists have to be told (by philosophers) what they meant when they said... If you think that believers have the same freedom with respect to their heroes, ask yourself when you last heard a priest say 'Yeah, I admire God but I think he's a bit unsound on buggery.' Religious critics of God's alleged views on buggery are reduced to arguing that God did not in fact claim that buggery's just reward is an appointment with the state executioner (Leviticus 20:13).

So the fact that David Deutsch doesn't just look like he ought to be a genius but is in fact a genius does not in the least deter me from thinking he's got a dodgy sense of perspective. Promoting his book The Beginning of Infinity, which I recommend, he performs an entertaining stunt in this lecture, illustrating what it is like to occupy a 'typical' place in the universe. It is of course dark there and cold. Apparently photons are so rarefied out there that a supernova in the nearest galaxy wouldn't register on your retina if you were staring right at it when the light reached you. He concludes that, therefore, living in a brightly lit, warm part of the universe is pretty special. In a couple of skips and a jump he's gone from there to the claim that there are no limits to (suitably augmented) human understanding and that we are at the very beginning of a journey of intellectual discovery that will transform our descendants into gods. David Deutsch is, I think it fair to say, an optimist.

Deutsch's mistake is surely the same as that made by the lottery winner who thinks to himself, 'well fuck me, I'm a millionaire, when yesterday I was a simple toilet cleaner. Makes you think. There must be someone up there looking out for me.' Come off it, David. The odds imply that someone had to win the lottery. That doesn't mean there's anything special about the winner. The physical constants that pertain in our universe imply that most of it is devoid of photons and heat but also that a few bright spots must exist, for a while. Of course David Deutsch exists in one of those bright spots. To be fair, Deutsch is not helping himself to the claim that he was put here, but he is certainly reading much more into the fact of his existence than that mundane event warrants. Douglas Adams' vainglorious puddle would find itself in an unusual alliance with Deutsch and the Pope.

I think that many of the mistakes that our species has made stem from failures of our sense of perspective. For various reasons, I have spent a lot of time recently driving up and down the M5 motorway, which runs roughly north-south through southern England. There are several sections of this road that are, so the signs say, being 'upgraded to managed motorways'. For present purposes it implies that the speed limit in these zones is 50mph and new average speed cameras enforce rigid compliance. As a result of this triumph of technology over liberty, I have noticed that the difference between 49mph and 51mph is really obvious. To the extent that I become impatient with the driver of a car ahead of me in the same lane traveling 1mph slower than the limit. I presume that the reason for this sensitivity is that, despite the fact that until a couple of hundred or so years ago, no human had traveled at these speeds, the mechanisms that enable us to gauge our velocity when walking or running still function at the velocities prevailing on a typical British motorway. Step into an aeroplane, however, and once you are at cruising altitude all sense of speed is lost. Of course you know that you are moving at 500mph but, gazing down at the land below, it just doesn't feel that way.

Or what about the alleged wisdom of 'ancient' civilisations? Whenever some cretin tells me that a certain 'ancient' remedy is a sovereign cure for the common cold I want to tie the fucker down and saw his leg off using ancient surgical techniques. Recorded history extends, at the very most, three millennia into our past. Homo sapiens is about 200, 000 years old (that is, the lineage that led to all extant human beings diverged from other hominids about that long ago). In other words, the most ancient 'wisdom' to which we have access is about 1.5% as old as our species, which is in turn a neophyte on the global biodiversity stage. In comparison with the span if the history of life on earth, our most ancient texts are insignificantly earlier than contemporary texts.

Well, OK, but we are still at the summit of the immense mountain that evolution has scaled to produce us, aren't we? This is the most pernicious of all human conceits. Evolution didn't have us 'in mind' on its long, blind journey from our ancestors. We are precisely - no more and no less - as 'evolved' as every other extant organism on earth. We occupy a position at the terminus of one of millions of spokes on the wheel of life. The bacteria in her small intestine can trace their ancestry exactly as far back as the Queen of England, to the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA).

'You are here' at about 10.30

One of the things I'm trying to learn about at the moment is how my conspecifics have thought about ethics during our very recent (say 3,000 year) history. When you approach the literature on this subject from a more-or-less random direction, as I have done, you quickly realise that there are two camps. According to one camp, humans of all societies are all the same, ethically speaking. Just as you can take a day-old baby from anywhere on earth, place it in a family anywhere else on earth and watch it acquire effortlessly the language of its adoptive parents, this camp says, the same baby will effortlessly acquire the moral mores of the culture in which it is raised. This is because humans posess a 'moral grammar' analogous with the universal grammar that all humans share (see here). What matters, therefore, is how we use the knowledge that our values are as much the product of natural selection as the shape of our noses. The other camp says no, no, no, morality is a cultural construct. Biology has nothing to do with it. Criticism of cannibalism or Nazism is therefore just another form of imperialism and should not be taken seriously.

This second claim makes me so cross that I want to stamp my feet, preferably repeatedly on the heads of the morons who adhere to this view. I defy you to look at the picture above and understand it and remain proud of your status as a human being. We humans are, to all intents and purposes, identical with respect to our values. The difference between Camus and a cannibal is trivial in comparison with the difference between both of them and a chimpanzee. Perspective. It's all about perspective.

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