26 February 2006

Living the moment

living the moment

There is an element of fatalism or determinism implied in this imperative. What we usually mean by this is that we should enjoy life now and not to be too preoccupied with the future. Sometimes also interpreted as, “take life as it comes”. In other words, the future will take care of itself, in the meantime, make the most of the present.

If we have a quick look around us we will notice that there are two main groups in society who are in a good position to take life as it comes and live the moment. The first group are the very seriously rich, who can afford not to think about the morrow; and the second group are the very poor who cannot afford to think about anything. The rest of society has bought big into the future, so they have an invested interest in the future. But more about the future later.

The way we use this imperative usually goes something like this. We find ourselves in a difficult situation, maybe a bad job situation, a love affair that never was or one that never got anywhere. Sometimes is it is more serious than these things, maybe a broken family, a serious violation of one’s rights or the worst of them all, a health problem. Whatever the problem, we find ourselves having to cope with life. Living the moment or usually, live the moment, is the advice we are given as a means to stop worrying about the future and maybe be a bit happier than of late.

With this background we can immediately see that what looks like a strategy for a philosophy of life ( i.e. some form of guiding principle, but not connected with philosophical analysis), is in reality a form of coping with a particular form of pain. Worrying about the future or being concerned about the past is a form of pain which we cannot just take a pill to make it go away. Let us say that we are not happy in our job, this, by default, causes stress, anxiety and maybe even depression. In other words, we are exposed to a form of psychological pain which, as I say, is not cured by simply taking a pill or a drug. Although it is pain, it is the sort of pain related to life and not disease. Maybe we can stretch our imagination a bit and think of this imperative as a sort of linguistic pain killer.

A very curious thing about this is that we recognize that some pain can be managed by the way we perceive the world. In fact, not only how we passively perceive the world, but how we intentionally want the world to be seen. Some might say that this is evidence to suggest that not all pain is physical pain. After all, if we can manage this pain without taking some chemical, be it paracetamol, alcohol or whatever, then it must be something other than physical pain. After all, this kind of pain is nothing like a bad toothache. Of course, today we know enough to realise that both the body and the brain are capable of activating certain pain feelings and produce chemicals or create chemical reactions to manage certain pains or other physiological stimulations. So just because it does not look physical it does not mean it isn’t.

In fact, this is the interesting and curious aspect of this imperative. The possibility, and in some cases the ability, to initiate a physical reaction in our brain by using language. We try to convince someone to live the moment; maybe by not thinking too much about the future or the past, maybe to take things easy, maybe to show them and explain to them the importance of enjoying the simple things life and so on and so forth. What we are hoping is that our words, or the information we are conveying with our words, will bring about the desired physical and mental changes in the people we are concerned about. Maybe they might start feeling happy, smile more, be more cheerful with friends, feel less sad, whatever. But this has been happening since the dawn of time: religions, friends, gurus, psychologists, self help authors, parents, grandparents and many more people have been there to help others cope with life type of problems. All these people use words to try to convince us to change our behaviour or at least our thinking. The essence of this is that information in the form of language can cause physical reactions in the form of changed behaviours or feelings.

Of course, in real life we expect to be told to live the moment, by friends or partners. Others might not use this exact language, but this is what they mean. A member of the clergy might tell us to trust in God about the future; a psychologist might try to put in perspective past events in our life. Whatever the words might be, the aim is the same: survive the present. People use language to help us change our ways that might help us solve or maybe cope with our problems.

It is of course a serious drawback that it is us who have to apply the imperative of living the moment. Nobody can apply the imperative for us in the same way they can apply heart surgery to fix a problematic heart. The second serious drawback is that, although we might change our outlook in life, it does not mean our problems have vanished. A nasty boss is still a nasty boss, a broken love affair is still a broken love affair, a serious disease is still a serious disease. How we see the world does not change how the world is. However, how we see the world can determine how we interpret the world.

At some point in the history of hominoids, our ancestors stopped being hunter gatherers and started cultivating the land and domesticate animals. We might say that human beings stopped being professional tourists and finally decided to settle down and take up gainful employment. There are still some of us, even today, who might have this roaming gene in them. Some might spend years roaming the continents then one day something happens to our gene an we settle down in some interesting and comfortable place; usually settling down as English teachers or radical artists. Of course, the idea of settling down and establishing fixed roots is not new in nature and living creatures. Trees do it literally, ants are well organised into colonies and of course, bacteria live happily for years in our stomach. Although in nature we find this idea of settling down, it is not exactly the most common strategy for living creatures.

What is important for us is that at some point in time, our ancestors decided to change from hunter gatherers to cultivators. Of course, when I say, 'decided' I don’t mean that one day someone was contemplating the Milky Way in the middle of the night and suddenly said to themselves, “yesterday was the last time I chased that buffalo for miles; next time I catch myself a buffalo, I’m going to enclose it in a pen and make sure it stays there until the next family barbecue.” On the other hand, this idea is not as strange as it sounds. How, many times has someone got up in the middle of the night an decided there and then to change jobs?

Although we are not concerned with the technical details on the ground it does matter how the change was done. If our ancestors relied on the “brilliant idea in the middle of the night” way of doing things, then surely they would have been prone to haphazard development. This is not to say that some events do not give us the impression of happening out of the blue, but how many brilliant ideas can one have in a night? Secondly, even brilliant ideas have to be connected in some way to what happened in the past. It is more likely, though, that things evolved and developed over time from a hunter gather role to cultivator role. The move to cultivator must have seemed like a natural course of action. But surely that change must have been brought about by need and experience, not to mention opportunity?

The importance of this is that our ancestors adapted their progress to solve problems. It is not that they evolved to be better hunter gatherers, like most other animals, but evolved from hunter gatherers to something completely different. Conceptually different, which is why this is all very relevant to philosophy.

The reason why cultivation is conceptually different from hunting or gathering is that one's source of food is available when one wants to eat it and not when one manages to catch food. What this means is that we have changed the environment to meet our needs and not use our environment to meet our needs. Sure, the change from hunting to cultivating might have been the result of environmental pressures, but we’re interested with conceptual change and evolution. To use some old terminology from philosophy of science, what our ancestors did was to have a complete paradigm shift.

But this change also had an effect in the way we see our selves and our self consciousness. The first effect this change had on us is that, as I say, we think of changing the environment to meet our needs and not the other way round. So when we develop and progress we improve our selves to change the environment and not to change ourselves to fit better in the environment. One might object that when we train in a particular skill or add to our qualifications we are in deed developing ourselves and changing ourselves to fit better in our environment. I disagree.

When we train or retrain we are really improving our selves to change our environment. If one is a book keeper or even a physician one does not try to get more qualifications to be a better booker or a better physician for one's employer. One trains more so that one can advance in the finance department or move to a better hospital; i.e. change one's environment. So when we wake up in the middle of the night, we’re not saying we want to be better at what I do, but I want to be in a better environment. I want to change the environment around me, and not be better in the environment I’m in. Of course, we might not go through this exact mental process, but that is what we are doing. Compare our approach to that of say lions. They might have evolved to run faster, or to survive with irregular supply of food, but they didn’t go into dairy farming. They are now just better runners, that’s all.

Furthermore, the change also implied that our ancestors saw time in a different way. We don't see time in terms of some biological clock or diary, but as a trigger to activate plans and planning. We no longer think in terms of, if it’s September we must be flying south, but if it is September we must start working on our marketing plans for next year. What we do today is usually the consequence of what we planned in the past, and not because we fit in some big wheel. I writing this essay because last Sunday we agreed to discuss in a week’s time the imperative, living the moment, and not because I woke us this morning and felt the urge to write something about living the moment. Preparation and planning is something that is basic to cultivation. This is an important difference we have from hunter gatherers. They might devise a strategy to kill the next mammoth, but they did not plan the rearing of mammoths.

We also seem to give experience and learning a great deal of importance. We learn and use experience as individuals and as a group. And we use these qualities to solve problems in a better way and to plan better. I submit that a direct consequence of this is that sometimes we find completely new solutions to old problems and of course discover new ways of satisfying needs which did not exist in the past. A fundamental philosophical feature of experience and learning is that through them we link the past with the present and the future. Our learning and our experience, furthermore, put time and our environment in a context. And of course, the consequences of experience and learning is that we have developed technology and science to help us solve some of the problems we face in life.

This transition, however, did not solve all the problems. The first of these problems is risk. Life is no less riskier now than say ten thousand years ago, nor less riskier to us than to other primates. The type of risk might be different and the consequences might be different, but nevertheless risky. Maybe twenty thousand years ago the risk might have been being killed by a tiger, today the risk might be being killed in a traffic pile up. An aspect of risk is that with hunting one is dependant on finding pray, stalking it and then consume it before it deteriorates or gets stolen. With husbandry, one faces the risk of theft, conflict for land, disease and natural disaster due to local conditions. And then their is the inherent risk with investment. One's investment might turn out to be a dud. The most we can do with risk is to understand it and manage it; maybe this is an other reason why we are ahead of other living creatures.

Furthermore, neither hunting nor cultivation do away with hierarchy. Under both systems we depend on leaders and authority. The purpose for these is more or less the same, to act coherently in our common pursuit and of course to protect the group from others who might want to harm the group. Of course, we cannot compare systems, especially since we have stopped one system and the new one has advanced a great deal. Unfortunately, the same hierarchy and authority that was developed to mange the new cultivator system also gave us such systems as slavery, dictatorships and class culture.

In a way, the individual is more dependent on the group under the new system then before. As hunters, the individual could leave one's hunting group, the same way some animals do, and become self-sufficient. But under the cultivation system one needs to belong to a group either because of the dependence on division of labour, collective obligations that arise from personal investment in the project, or simply scarcity of means of survival. In anyway, nature itself made sure that the individual does not stay too independent and away from a group. Reproduction requires the concept of a group to survive; even if it is just for a few days as in the case of some birds or animals.

Another thing we have to take into account is that cultivation is more tool intensive and needs a whole new infrastructure to support the group. For the new project our ancestors needed, pens for animals, houses, shelters, roads, transport for heavy materials, management of water, axes to cut wood, knives, sickles and so on. The positive side is that we need to develop our thinking prowess more than our muscle power. Eventually, brawn will become less important and brain dominating everything. One of the most advanced tool we have developed as a consequence is of course language. Without a sophisticated communications process we cannot exchange complex ideas. And if our ancestors couldn’t share complex ideas the new cultivation project would have failed.

I want to argue that “living the moment” is more than just an act of empathy between friends and partners. It is even more than just a strategy to deal with the morrow. It is probably an instinct that has stayed with us from the origin of the species. Look at it this way. Living the moment was the guiding force when our ancestors where hunter gatherers. They had to no choice but to think and follow the imperative “live the moment”. However, for whatever reason, be it the lack of enemies or the change in circumstances, they had to change their strategy to survive. If anything, though, the new strategy became, “live for the future” instead of “living the moment.” In fact, live for the future has become such an important guiding force that it is the basis of religions, governments, corporations, families and us individuals.

Could it be that “living the moment,” is therefore an appeal to some primeval instinct that has survived the test of time, but whose function and origin has been lost in the mist of time? After all, if we live the moment we are intentionally blocking everything about the future. Something which hunter gatherers probably had to do on a daily basis. Incidentally, when we travel as tourists we also tend to forget the future. Maybe, after all, we can teach modern homo sapien some old tricks.

Take care,


19 February 2006



Imagine there is a religion, let's call it R. And this religion has a deity which we can call D. Now, D has a number of attributes, in fact an infinite number of attributes, which we can label A1, A2, A3.....Ainf. Some of these attributes are that D, is unique, is infinitely good, wise, generous, caring, loving, that D created us, and that D can help us with our needs.

Imagine also that there are a group of people, P1 P2,....P+n, with n being an arbitrary large number. Some of the attributes of P are that they have limited knowledge, intelligence, limited capacity to meet their needs, limited means of acquiring knowledge, the bulk of information is obtained through sense perception and they feel pain.

Now, some members of P claim to represent D or to have a direct access to D. In most cases an average P would know about D through one of these special members of society; let's call them M for messengers of the Deity. M's are responsible for our knowledge that D created us, that D can care for us and so on. An important fact to take into account is that a person in this society does not have direct access to this deity.

Knowledge about D is based on faith and not on the standards usually applied to knowledge within this society. Furthermore, various messengers have decreed that belief in D is mandatory, that D has set out a number of laws for society to follow and that only the messengers have been trusted to convey and interpret these laws. Some of these laws say that members of the society have to worship D and thank D for giving them life. Members of the society have to pray to D when they need something, for example good health. Finally, there are no objective tests that can be applied to verify the truth or veracity of what the messengers say.

Given the supposed limited capacity of the average member of society to acquire knowledge about D and the lack of direct access to their deity, a number of systems of communication have been evolved to convey the idea of D. The main systems of representation are the following. The most direct form is of course other members being appointed as representatives of D, i.e. the messengers themselves. An other system is that of writing the teachings of supposed teachings of D in some form of book or document. The third system is to paint an image representing D. Usually in the context of some event, for example, a painting representing D creating the first person on Earth. The fourth system is to represent the figure of D in stone, or clay or whatever. This last system is the closest we have to a representation of D in solid form, but for our purposes I will included with images.

Most people with a normal capacity to classify and distinguish entities would recognize that a painting representing D is not D themselves. A photo of our pet gerbil is not the same as our gerbil. However, there are those who, for some unknown reason, do believe that a painting of D is D. So, if I carry a photo of my pet gerbil with me, I'd be carrying my gerbil with me. Believing that a painting of D is D is what idolatry is all about. And as a consequence if we believe this we would be believing that it is the painting that created us and that is responsible for our well being. So, when we thank D for creating us and to help us with our needs we would be thanking a painting. Hence idolatry. An irrelevant side issue might be whether idolatry can also be practiced against the messengers as much as against the deity. Reason seems to suggest that there cannot be idolatry against the messengers on the grounds that a messenger is not the same as the deity. Furthermore, by the same standards set by R, there is no one more important than D.

Coming down back to Earth, what can we make of this?

The way human beings have developed means that sight is the most important means we have to acquire information. This does not mean that the other senses do not convey information, only that sight is the most efficient. By efficient I mean something like a good ratio between the amount of information conveyed, say per second or minute, and maybe the stability of the information over time. Thus, reading is more efficient than listening. Of course, other senses convey specialised information which sight cannot convey. So it's not that we use only sight to convey information, but that sight is the most efficient for us.

To demonstrate this we use written language today to convey the bulk of our knowledge and information. Of course, a lot of information is available today through recordings, radio, podcasting and even meetings. Television and cinema mix both images and sound to convey information. And even the written word is used very often with images. Paintings, drawings, sketches, cartoons and photos employ only sight to convey information. However, the written word is sometimes regarded by many to be a pictorial form of our concepts, information and knowledge. There is nothing absurd in saying that written language is a drawing of our thoughts, ideas, information, knowledge and concepts. For example, the hieroglyph is a form of early pictorial writing. A painting of a sunset and a description of a sunset are the same thing using different media. If we accept this position we must also accept the realistic possibility that books and images are logically equivalent. At least as far as paintings and books are sight based media to convey information.

If we choose to ban images and statues of D, because they might lead to idolatry, shouldn't we also ban writing about D on the same ground? Let's take a simple example: what's the difference between: ;-) and 'winking-smiley'? Both the pictogram and the words convey the same idea. Admittedly, we might use the pictogram in a different context from the words, but at the basic level they mean the same. Maybe a crude way of showing that pictures and words are the same, but, nevertheless, it makes the point.

There is, however, one basic difference between the images and writing. If we take a single character to mean a single piece of information than the pictogram is more efficient at conveying the concept we want to transmit. The pictogram takes three pieces of information against fourteen pieces of information to convey the basic idea. It is not our job to decide whether pictures are more efficient than words to convey messages, however, certain messages do seem to be conveyed much better as an image. Think of the emergency signs in a building, traffic signs or the latest fashions. This has an immediate implication for our topic, images can be very powerful, as we all know. It is, therefore, not unreasonable for a religion to want to control images.

However, other messages are much better conveyed in writing. Expressing our thoughts and feelings are better expressed in writing. Philosophy is a very good candidate for writing, but maybe not architecture. Of course, architecture also uses a different type of media i.e. mathematical formulae. Accounts of events over time are also better explained in writing than as a static image. However, those who ban images of D have to explain why they allow writings about D; if they do of course. Since both images and writing are capable of conveying idolatry information.

One of the probable reason why images and artefacts might lead to idolatry is because it is very difficult to depict metaphysical thoughts and ideas as images. How can we depict a deity we have never seen? Wouldn't it be more natural to depict a deity that was familiar to us? As
Descartes pointed out, it is very difficult to imagine something which we don't have experience of. So when we do try to depict a creature from out of this world we still end up with a creature that might look strange, but in reality is not that strange. A unicorn is no more that the idea of a straight horn attached to a white horse. It is quite reasonable to suppose that any attempt to depict a deity would end up with something quite ridiculous which at the very least can be a distraction from the real message of the religion.

Take one of the most infamous examples of idolatry in history: the golden calf made by the Jews in the desert. What's easier to identify with: a calf that represents food and energy or a deity, which you've never seen, that makes you walk an empty desert without any food or water? Isn't this the basis of the challenge idolatry represent to a religion? The easy way is not necessary the best way out. Believing that a painting is miraculous is much easier to comprehend than the idea of some abstract being no one can see, touch or speak to.

In the real world, religions deal with idolatry in many different ways. Some tolerate certain images but not others; some religions prescribe the images they allow and of course some religions do not allow images of any form or subject. However, we are really concerned with those religions that take idolatry to extremes.

However, why should we have this strong sense of a religion or a deity in us, in the first place? Before looking at religion, I'd like to look at a principle that seems to dominate our life. There is a tendency or propensity to assume that because something is good than we should or ought to do it. In and of itself, this is not a serious problem. It becomes a serious when we make the mistake of thinking that a necessary condition is a sufficient condition. In other words, that something is good for us becomes something we are obliged or even forced to do.

That we ought to do what is good for us goes without saying. In fact, I would say that this was a necessary condition in our life. But a necessary condition does not imply sufficient condition. Let's take a simple example. Most people would agree that drinking milk is good for one's health. However, there are those of us who are allergic to milk and have to be careful how we consume this product. Even still, it's amazing how many times one has to explain to people that one is allergic to milk. The reason why this happens is because people assume that because milk is good for us then every one should drink it. It does not occur to these people that some might be allergic to milk. Some apply the same fallacy to religion or belief in a deity; just because a deity is good or a religion is good then we must believe in them and follow them.

But we can take a different approach. Whatever our beliefs are or irrespective of whether there is such a being as a deity, it has been demonstrated that religion is very often good for health. Needless to say that this claim is backed up by relevant medical studies; see the essay for the meeting "The necessity of Faith". This does not mean that medical science is fallible, but certainly more objective than what we have had so far. Nor does it mean that because following a religion can have benefits that can be objectively proven, it is necessarily the best option, that things will not change over time, that other solutions are not as good or better and so on.

Religions have also been a useful source of moral standards and even group identity. So given this positive effect of religion, we can further argue that we get the sense of religion and a deity from the fact that we derive some benefit from religion. It could very well be that we have this sense of a deity not because we were created by such a deity, but because believing in a deity is beneficial. So, instead of a deity creating us, we created our particular deity because this makes us better. Purely on an evolutionary argument, if religions did not convey some benefit to our survival they wouldn't have lasted the test of time. That some religions have died out or that some are dying out is evidence for this evolutionary principle. But how can we explain a religion or a belief in a deity from being good for us to being forced to believe in such a deity?

I would argue that for a religion to be good for one, one has to believe that it is good. Knowledge implies, at least, the belief that something is the case. This is not the same as taking some drug, which has a chemical effect independent of our beliefs. For example, other things being equal (OTBE), paracetamol reduces certain sensations of pain irrespective of what my beliefs about paracetamol are; don't forget the OTBE. On the other hand, if we don't believe that a religion is good for us, then we are unlikely to do those things that could have a positive causal effect on us. And usually, if we believe that something is not doing us any good or we're not deriving any benefit, there is a chance that we stop doing it. Of course, in real life there are a number of complex reasons why we stop doing something; not being good for us or not giving us any benefit are just some of the reasons.

Hence, any member of the group that rejects the group's particular religion or deity, would be a direct threat to that religion. In other words, if no one believes in our religion then we cannot benefit from that religion. It is of course legitimate to adopt an absolute position with this argument; i.e. arguing that a single person will not make much difference is not allowed. In any event, the benefit from religion accrues more from group dynamics and not because of our particular beliefs.

I submit that it is not the belief per se that is the cause of the benefit, but that the belief is held in the context of a religion. For example, belief in a deity makes us feel good because the group's approves of our behaviour, not to mention the deity themselves. The group tells us that if we believe in D then good things may happen to us. Thus our beliefs become centre point to a religion and coercion is also an efficient means of controlling behaviour. Hence the need to force belief.

Seeing religion in this context, makes sense to condemn idolatry. Idolatry is a direct challenge to the survival of the religion that brings benefits to the group. Earlier I said that one of the things we expect from a religion and belief in a deity is to have some of our needs catered for. For example, it is very common to pray for the restoration of one's health when sick. We are all familiar with some of the activities that religion can help people with: charity, education and networking. The moral question, however, is this; does condemnation of idolatry also apply to people who do not belong to the group?

It is unlikely that this question can have a justifiable Yes answer under all possible circumstances. These are some of the basic circumstances when it is not justifiable to hold others to one's idolatry norms: 1) we are not a member of a given (religious) group, so we do not owe a duty to that group, 2) we derive no benefit from a given (religious) group, 3) the norms of the other group are in conflict with our prescribed duties resulting from membership to our (religious) group. I think that items 1 and 2 are quite straight forward. The third point is more complex. Mainly, do we have a duty not to put ourselves in a situation were we expect a conflict of interest to arise?

Let's say our employer forbids the payment of bribes to prospective clients. Do we have a duty not to approach prospective clients who expect to be bribed? Applying this example to the subject of idolatry, do we have a duty not to associate with a group that might have idolatry practices by our religious norms? The issue then becomes, not whether non group members have a duty to follow our norms, but whether we have a duty not to associate with people who's practices violate our norms.

We normally associate idolatry with religion. I have even discussed the theme of this essay in the context of religion. Are we justified in doing so? Let's take another look at the definition of idolatry. Believing that something is the case by replacing the truth by a falsehood. For example, replacing a deity by a painting. Can we extend this idea to apply beyond the scope of religion?

It is ironic that the most eligible example we can find today is the attempt to replace scientific reasoning by religious belief; i.e. the attempt to introduce intelligent design or creationism as a doctrine of science. The irony is of course that in the history of religious belief it took scientific reasoning and objective criteria to demonstrate that a religion does have some real benefits. Or as they say, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Take care


12 February 2006

Good and Evil?

Good and Evil?

Good and evil are an old story in philosophy. Many a candle
has been burnt in the dead of night trying to make sense of
these concepts. And many a tree has been pulped to print the
results of these late nights. Now, at this stage of the
proceedings one is usually expected to ask the questions,
what is good? And, what is evil? My hesitation, if not
apprehension, at asking such questions might be justified
this time.

If I put the words, Winston Churchill, in my favourite image
search engine I expect to find a series of pictures,
cartoons or caricature of a male person of a certain stature
or looks. Most of these images would look quite similar to
the eye, even when they are line drawings or brush strokes
of painting. If, on the other hand, I were to enter the
words, David old testament, I except to get a equally long
series of pictures, but as you know non of them would be of
the person the old testament or other holy books speak
about. This is not surprising, since no one has actually
done a painting of the real David. In reality, we don't know
what David looked like, period. So the question, what did
David look like? Does not make sense. Of course, we assume
he must have had looks of some sort.

But there is a second important point to make about
searching for David. You would have noticed that I included
old testament in my search for David, whereas I only entered
Winston Churchill for my first search. David did not have a
surname in the way we name people these days so we need to
limit our search otherwise we'd end up with a lot of Davids
in our results. So, the question, who is Winston Churchill?
is not the same as, who is David? I suggest that we end up
with a similar problem when we ask questions like, what is
evil? and what is good? We would be starting from the false
assumption that good and evil are somehow similar or
complementary opposites and that they have the same meaning

By virtue of discussing good with evil we are limiting
ourselves to a certain type of good. We are limiting good to
mean moral approval; a moral type of good. For example, we
are not talking about the same good when we say something
like, "...this piece of cake is very good." Because it just
does not make sense to say, ".this piece of cake is very
evil." However, this trick does not work with 'evil'. We
cannot just associate some other word with the word 'evil'
and we determine the meaning of the word 'evil'. For
example, we cannot join "agreeable" with evil and thereby
determine the meaning of evil. Quite ironic really, because
we would like to think that good is not determined, but a
expression of freedom.

Why should there be this specificity with the word evil? Why
should it be so specific in meaning and in a way
deterministic to the word good? For our purpose, we are
interested in the use and meaning of words even though
meaning does change over time. I will come back to this
theme later on. It should not be a surprise that the word
evil is such a specific word. If we use the word evil to
refer to something, one thing we would be saying is that the
thing in question is very serious and requires our immediate
attention. It's a sort of, drop everything and listen to
what I have to say, kind of word. Whereas good is a come and
share the fun sort of word. The point is that there is no
ambiguity with the word evil; the meaning is clear and a
course of action may even be prescribed. Think of the fire
brigade when they receive an emergency call; they know
exactly what to do. They don't sit around asking for second
confirmation, the nature of the fire, whether to take a fire
hose or an extinguisher.you get the idea. The word evil has
the same effect on us.

To confirm that this is more or less the case, people, as
individuals or as a society, demand or take immediate action
if something is considered evil. Think of the reaction we
have when a serial killer is on the lose. It is such a
serious event that in some cases the highest authorities
have to be employed to reassure the population that
everything is being done to catch the criminal. On the other
hand, we don't get this sort of short notice mobilisation
when something good happens. We don't get the frenzied press
conferences every time somebody gets a decent job, for
example. Or, not unless there are some public relations
points to be had by the powers that be.

The reason why people would be distressed if there is a
serial killer on the lose is, of course, fear. Which
probably explains the urgency and the focus of the word
evil. We can assume from this point onwards that the fear we
are talking about is the one associated with self
preservation. This might also explain why the word evil
tends to have a single meaning. Since the word has a fixed
and determined meaning when we use it, no additional
information is usually added to its meaning (see information
theory, Shannon). This is efficient because we are left with
no doubt about the meaning, but it does not give us new
information. If we said of a person that they were evil, we
know what to do and certainly how to feel, but necessarily
why. On the negative side of the equation, the fact that the
word evil does not come with added information it becomes
very easy to manipulate. Since we tend to take the meaning
of evil at face value, it is very vulnerable to abuse.

Comparing this with good, good gives us more information
about the situation we are considering; or rather good needs
to come with a context. If I say, "she is a good person,"
this means nothing to us, so we need to be more specific.
Let's say we make this more specific, "she's a good wife to
her husband and a good mother to her children." Now we know
what good means here and what kind of person we are talking
about. But, she is evil, is enough for our emotions to go on
full alert. As I mentioned above, nobody kicks up a fuss
when something good happens.

How do we apply or use the words, good and evil? As already
mentioned, we use these words within the province of
morality and then to describe the most serious or the most
important events within the ambit of that moral system. This
also suggests that the use of these words is relative to the
moral system we happen to operate in. Whilst we may accept
the a priori features of these words, as described above for
example, we cannot say the same about use. One of the
reasons is of course that, hard as we try, moral systems do
not seem to be universal.

The strongest evidence we have that shows that ethical
systems are not universal is the structure of religions and
legal systems throughout the world. These two systems are
supposed to be the ultimate in ethical systems. What
interest us is that religions profess to be concerned with
the good and legal systems with justice. What is regarded as
good or just by one system can be in direct conflict with
what an other system holds to be good or evil. For example,
some legal jurisdictions allow the death penalty while
others do not. How do we account for this discrepancy? Some
religions are tolerant of certain behaviours while others
are not. For example, some religions allow a man to be
married to two women at the same time, whereas others do not
approve of this practice. How can the same thing mean one
way under one system and other way under another system?

This difference suggests that what passes as morality is
nothing more than personal opinions. In other words, it is
not that certain acts are evil or good, but that what is
good or evil is what we approve of. Some would see this
position as contrary to our held beliefs, if not subversive,
to the fact that morality is objective. If we deny
objectivity or universality how can we account for the
authority of say a deity or the concept of justice? If good
and evil are just things we approve of then there is no
scope for a deity or the blind application of the law. A lot
depends of course on what we mean by "we." Do we mean "we"
as individuals or "we" as a society?

Can we, somehow, account for the belief of objectivity and
universality of good and evil. The first test we can apply
is whether actions and facts are good or evil in and of
themselves. It has already been conclusively argued that
there isn't an ingredient which we add to something to make
it good or evil. Good and evil are not things that live in
actions or facts, so to speak. To use an analogy, a home
made pie does not have a piece of our home in it; a pork pie
should have pieces of pork in it, though. So, by just
looking at the facts themselves we will never find the good
or evil gene; good and evil do not make ideal laboratory

But just because good and evil are not some ingredient we
add to actions or facts, it does not follow that certain
actions are not always good or evil. Lets take murder for
example. Few would argue that murder is not evil. But this
seems to suggest that we go around our lives having to
decide whether we should kill some of the people around us.
As if we are always having to restrain ourselves from
killing someone. This is ridiculous of course. So, if we
don't go around contemplating whether to kill someone or
not, why should we have to be told not to kill? Maybe it is
something we inherited from the past. Maybe it makes more
sense to say, do not put yourself in a position where you
might have to kill someone. Not exactly English prose, but
maybe clear instructions. Could it be that the way we
describe the world somehow determines how we use good and
evil? A classical example of how language can influence the
way we see the world is the terrorist/freedom fighter

Of course, 'murder is evil' is a value judgement, whereas,
'putting one's self in certain situations that can lead to
killing someone,' is a matter of fact; a probability to be
precise. This seems to lead to the question, when is a fact
a fact and when is it a value judgment? Being able to
distinguish value judgements from facts is one thing we can
do to understand good and evil. It is not surprising that
people who want to manipulate our beliefs usually revert to
emotive language to blur the difference. As I have shown
above, evil and good are very emotive language. The
terrorist/freedom fighter distinctions is one case in point.
For example, we can describe a suicide bomber as an evil act
against innocent people or we can describe the same event as
the most sophisticated intelligent bomb ever created by
human beings.

It seems that, by rejecting both the objectivity option of
good and evil and the personal point of view option we are
left with nothing. By not accepting both options we seem to
have painted ourselves into a corner. Of course, if we are
able to use language in a more neutral way we might be able
to look at facts and actions as they are and not as we see
them from our point of view. Having a common language can
take us a long way to having a common morality. At the very
least, having a common language means that we all have
personal access to information, thus reducing the risk of
contamination (white noise) or abuse (slanted meaning).

One of the most serious challenges to good and evil, is of
course reality. Our ability to know what reality is and to
understand reality directly affects our value judgments.
Sometimes this is not easy at all, but can be done. Going
back to the David and Churchill search, there are limits to
what is physically possible to know. In this example, we are
limited by historical facts. Of course archaeology and
analysis of historical texts can fill some gaps, but not all
the gaps. We certainly don't know what Churchill would have
made of today's policies on terrorism. He is not alive to
ask him. Furthermore, the fact that value judgments cannot
be subjected to laboratory testing implies that we are very
limited to what can be regarded as reality. Incidentally,
this very same point is the biggest challenge to some of the
world religions today. People are constantly having to
imagine what the founding fathers of a religion might have
said about today's problems. Curiously, this reality about
reality issue is also found in science, but this has nothing
to do with value judgements!

Our ability to learn and discover new knowledge about the
world around us, is another source of changing the use and
abuse of good and evil. In fact, knowledge is the most
serious challenge for good and evil. Scientific knowledge
most often comes into direct conflict with long held
beliefs. For example, the use of contraceptives as an
effective means to control some diseases comes into direct
conflict with Christian dogma about procreation. Of course,
it is this ability to improve and ass to our knowledge that
changes the meaning and the use of good and evil over time.

Any discussion on good and evil must also address the two
most practical questions we can find in ethics. 1) If
something is good (or evil) does this mean that we always
have to do it (or not do it)? 2) If something is good (or
evil) does this mean that we can impose (or not impose) it
on others? Should we always tell the truth; should we always
keep a promise? This is the nature of the first question.
Although the first question is not easy to answer,
pragmatism can help solve a number of awkward situations

The second question is more serious, and I don't think that
pragmatism can even help here. There are instances when not
telling the truth might be necessary. We are all familiar
with the dilemma of telling the secret police if someone was
hiding in the next door flat. But how can we justify telling
someone to do something we think is right? Of course, I am
not thinking here of telling one's children to eat their
greens or to finish their homework. I mean more like
imposing our political or religious values or even our
peculiar sense of justice. Even if somehow we can show that
our political system, or whatever system it might happen to
be, is the best there is, what right do we have to impose it
on others? Of course, the word, impose, is itself emotive;
would it make any difference if, for example, we used the
word, persuade? The difference if of course in meaning.
Impose, implies force and probably against the will of those
affected, whereas persuade implies argument and dialogues.

Usually, the most persuasive arguments are the ones
supported by objective verifiable facts. But there is hardly
anything objective about good and evil. And dialogue
requires the use of a language; preferably a universal
natural language which we don't have. If this is the
situation with good and evil, I wonder what the bees and the
squirrels think of all this.

Take care


05 February 2006

What makes a being human?

What makes a being human?

The problem with the theory of evolution is that it lacks
emotional persuasion. In no uncertain words, we are asked to
imagine an ape morphing into a human being. It is not that
the human brain cannot cope with this kind of imagination,
but in this case the jump is too big and too personal.

As a consequence, we tend to feel more comfortable with
simpler ideas such as creationism or intelligent design.
Conceptually, being created by some super being is much
easier to understand than the option of waiting over many
thousands of years for things to happened and to change.
Never mind that the evidence for evolution has always been
there. Children inheriting their parents' traits, some of
which can even be seen in the grandparents. A sickly child
dying before the age of two and so on. There are still many
people who do not buy into evolution, even if some of them
should know better. One of the implications of this position
is that we assume that somehow humans are different from the
rest of life forms on Earth. Our idea of ourselves on Earth
is that we have some privileged status or even VIP status
when compared to other life forms.

Does being different a criteria for being better? And even
more relevant, does being evolutionary successful mean
better than other life forms? Of course, success and better
are relative terms and value judgements. Successful compared
to what, to the dodo or successful compared to bacteria? And
how does evolutionary success mean better? Better at what?
And what makes my value judgements better than yours?

Of course, our achievements as a species are different from
other forms of life. But are our cities better than the
structures of some insects? The sophistication of a termite
nest is no less impressive than a coliseum or a pyramid. And
when it comes to interior environment, termite hill are even
more intelligent than the glass boxes that keep sprouting up
in cities; their air conditioning works perfectly.

Does this mean that from the biological point of view human
beings are no different from other living creatures? As far
as I know, no one has yet reported the discovery of a Life
gene. What I mean by this is that there isn't a "something"
that is added to a system that makes it come alive. If human
beings are to be conceptually different from other
biological life forms, then surely what gives us life must
also be conceptually different from other life forms. Of
course, to date, this conceptual difference has not been
discovered, probably because there is no conceptual
difference between human life form and other biological life
forms to be discovered.

However, there is one important biological difference
between human beings and other creatures and that is the
brain. No doubt, the human brain has given us the successful
edge in evolution. Of course, some will argue that the brain
of some animals is as complex as ours, if not more.
Moreover, identifying the human brain as the one thing that
makes us different from other creatures might be arbitrary
if not fortuitous. This is a valid objection, but as we know
the human brain just does not have any competition.

Other creatures might have advanced brains for what they do,
but not necessarily the most advanced for what can be done.
For example, we do not see other creatures developing their
"technology" nor their survival skills to improve their
living conditions. Probably, termites have not changed the
way they build their cathedral mounds for the past few
millennia. Lions have not developed cattle farming, nor have
gorillas gone into market gardening. The point is not that
these creatures do not need to go into farming, but that a
long time ago humans were competing with these creatures for
the same resources.

For our purposes, just because we can identify the brain as
the organ that gave us the edge over other creatures, it
does not mean that we need to go on and examine the brain
itself. However, we can assume that what passes as human
activity (and not behaviour) is the direct result of the way
the human brain developed. I want to argue that the "human"
element of human beings depends on human activity rather
than behaviour.

Human activity needs to be distinguished from human
behaviour in order to give meaning to our question. This
distinction is a long standing debate in philosophy, but
what we need here is to find that extra ingredient that
makes a human behaviour into a human act. Let's take an
example. Many creatures in the animal kingdom build shelters
and dwellings. However, few, in fact none, go on to build
theatres, cathedrals or even monuments. Fewer still would
employ interior designers or hang chic art on walls. If you
like, an act is the hallmark of being human, understanding
act will help us understand the human element.

Of course, building theatres is just another way of
expressing biological superiority and even, maybe, an
ability to survive. Besides the aesthetic and functional
values of a theatre or a cathedral one can also point out
that such constructions are wasteful in material, labour and
financial resources. But the kind of waste that is offensive
is not the one that seems to be required by the second law
of thermo dynamics, but rather the extravagance beyond
reasonable proportions.

Yes, a concert hall might cost a lot of money and materials,
but such structures also involve value judgements. These
judgements, as you would have guessed, do not only involve
utilitarian values, but also moral judgements. Building a
theatre instead of a hospital or a block of flats is also a
moral judgement. Termites and bees do not need to make moral
judgments when building their nests. What interests us here
is not whether building flats is a better moral judgement,
but that we can act from the basis of a moral judgement.
Building a palace, as evidence of one's wealth and grandeur,
is no less a moral judgement than building a school as
evidence of one's altruism and charity. And although there
is evidence that some animals do have moral type behaviour I
submit that this is not the norm. So, acting on the basis of
a moral judgement is a powerful distinction between humans
and animals.

Do animals have a sense of freedom? Having a sense of
freedom is very important for human beings. We feel we are
free or can be free in many aspects of our lives:
economically, physically, intellectually, emotionally and
morally. As individuals we strive to be free and of course
have a longing for freedom when we're not free. There is no
reason to suppose that animals, or at least some animals, do
not have this sense of freedom. A brief visit to a zoo will
remove any doubt we might have as to whether animals have a
sense of freedom.

Could it be that we derive this freedom from the fact that
we and most biological creatures also live in a society?
Even those who do lead a quasi solitary life, such as the
fox, also need the social structure of a society. For
example, to find a mate and to look after the cubs. Could it
be that this sense of freedom arises from the constraints of
living in a society or is it the case that we suppress our
feelings of freedom in order to enjoy the advantages of
living in a society? Which came first, the sense of freedom
or the suffocation of a society? That we link freedom with
ethical systems suggests that we use freedom, unlike other
creatures, not only for movement but also for self
fulfilment. For us being free to worship or to have
political opinions is as important as being free to roam the

There are many similarities between the social structures of
biological creatures and human beings. Division of labour is
a common feature we find between certain animal societies
and human societies. The advantages that accrue from
division of labour are beyond the reaches of a single
individual to achieve. And even when we do not see any
perceptible division of labour, there are advantages to be
gained from group formation. Herds of animals survive in the
wild by grouping together against predators. Of course,
there is always a price to pay. The first, as I pointed out
earlier, is that the individual has to give up some, if not
all, the sense of freedom. But there is an even more serious
consequence of group structure.

Although the individual has a lot to gain from living in a
group, one thing that seems to be out of the individual's
control is survival within the group. The survival of the
group becomes paramount even at the cost of the individual.
We have all seen the scramble of the migrating wildebeest
trying to cross the Grumeti River. In that mad scramble many
of the wildebeest end up dead through injury, drowning or
most probably as lunch for one of the Nile crocodiles.

When we look at those films we cannot help wondering why the
wildebeest don't find a better spot to cross the river? Or
even, why don't they do the crossing in a more orderly
manner? However, such ideas are irrelevant in this case
since the wildebeest do not have the capacity to think in
the way we think and strategies. For them, crossing the
river at that point is the strategy; that's what they have
always done since eternity and will continue to do so until
we make them extinct. But as far as we are concerned now,
what matters is that this is an example where the survival
of the individual comes second to the survival of the group.
But survival of the group is not an alien concept in human
society. The ultimate proof of this is the institution of
military defence. Soldiers are asked to give up their lives
in order to protect their society.

However, the difference between human societies and animal
groups, is that we find certain human societies that give a
lot of importance to the well being of the individual. Of
course, the ways and means of achieving this individual
protection can be quite rudimentary, if not unfair. The test
here has nothing to do with protecting the young or keeping
intruders away from the group. The test here is the kind of
help we give to those adults who cannot look after
themselves. I am thinking of hospitals, social security,
unemployment benefits, retraining opportunities and of
course charity work. Once again, what matters here is that
we have this idea of helping others when they need help and
not the nature or substance of that help. The reasons why
certain societies have these backup institutions maybe
complex and probably not that relevant here anyway. What is
curious is that not all societies have these backup
institutions to help those in need. In fact, why aren't all
human societies equally developed to help those in need?

Another common factor we find between animal and human
societies is a strong hierarchal structure, with leaders
having to fight their way to the top, sometimes even
literally. And this is the defining parameter between the
two groups. The way leaders are selected in the animal
kingdom is usually through aggression and physical strength.
Sometimes, survival of the fittest does mean that, the one
who is still on their feet gets to walk away. Of course,
this form of choosing leaders is also present in human
societies. Bullies, thugs, dictators and corrupt people can
still be found leading societies today. On the other hand, a
number of societies have developed elaborate systems to
choose leaders which take the sting away from brute force.
Needless to say that these more civilised systems are not
perfect, but at least they make a better effort at being
fair. For example, today leadership contests rely on stacks
of money rather than muscle power. Elections have probably
replaced the frenzy of the cheering crowd when the
prospective leaders are sparking steel. So why can't all
leaders put themselves forward to be elected in a more
civilised manner?

There is this theme that keep recurring between animal life
and human life. Both systems may have the same traits, for
example, leadership selection, yet somehow the human trait
developed, in many cases, from brute force survival to,
let's say, brute intellectual force survival! Once, leaders
were selected by winning a sward fight, but now we use
complex election systems. And these system requires
intellectual prowess to first think about them and then put
them into action. What is of concern to us is a second
recurring theme, but this time it is within the human group

Both animal societies and human societies seem to depart
from a common point, for example the use of physical force
to win a leadership contest. The animal society makes no
changes to its structure, but the human society moves on to
develop maybe fairer and more intellectually valid ways. The
second concern, is that fair and equitable systems are not
found throughout all societies. Somehow, the development of
human society becomes fragmented and development, or
progress, takes a very unstructured pattern. In other words,
there is no coherence in the development of human societies
or rather within human society.

Of course, some of this incongruity is the result of
geographical differences. But then again, even animals, such
as ants, have the ability to adapt to geographical
differences. However, this does not explain the huge
discrepancy in the development and progress between
different human societies. An other argument that can be put
forward is that some societies suppress and exploit others
to the point where they cannot progress. Yes, but few
societies have not been oppressed or suppressed at some
point in their history. Hence, geography and oppression
cannot be the only reasons for the discrepancies between

We need to go back to the distinction between an act and a
behaviour maybe to understand the discrepancies I identifies
above. To begin with, this distinction introduces the ideas
of intention and instinct. It is true that the superiority
of human beings was sold for a long time on the supposed
fact that humans act from intention whilst animals behave
from instinct. Humans, of course, sometimes also behave from
instinct. If we didn't, we'd have no chance of making it to
the end of the week. For example, reacting to on coming
traffic, noticing someone from our peripheral sight,
reacting to very hot food and so on and so forth.

The argument, therefore, is not whether it's instinct or
intention, but when is it intention? When is an act the
result of an intention and not a matter of instinct? This is
a big question not only for philosophy, but also for medical
science, psychology, jurisprudence and even society in
general. Of course, what activates intentions are
information, beliefs, knowledge, experience, value
judgements, desires, wishes and needs. What is interesting
is that in many cases when we act, we do so because it
conforms to some general plan we have for ourselves. There
are few instances when we are forced to think about
survival, these usually involve serious adverse conditions,
or evolutionary progress.

Beliefs, knowledge, information and experience are vital and
important for human beings. We seem to need these
commodities not only to survive, but also to enrich our
lives and experiences. Moreover, we use our knowledge and
capacity to learn from experience to plan for the future.
Sure, other creatures have a concept of planning for the
future, but mainly from season to season and not for a life
time or the group itself. Knowledge and the acquisition of
knowledge is what makes human beings different from other
creatures. Knowledge, for example, helps us with long term

Could it therefore be that the discrepancies we have between
societies is not just due to geography or oppression, but
precisely due to limited access to global knowledge and
experiences. If I am not aware that the wheel has been
invented or have access to the wheel, my mobility will only
improve when I happen to discover this invention for myself,
but that can take a long time if at all. Could it be that
without this universal access to knowledge and information
universal social progress won't happen coherently? We know
that is probably the case, because at this very minute there
are societies who are busy making sure that their members do
not have access to universal knowledge and information.

Although knowledge is clearly what gives us the edge over
other creatures, I would argue that the ability to ask
questions is the key to our distinction from other
creatures. Asking questions is at the core of what makes a
being human. Think about it, when was the last time a lion
asked you for directions to the supermarket?

Take care