On the Purpose of Life

There is no purpose to your life other than the purpose you choose to give it.

Is your goal the brotherhood of all mankind?  Is your goal human flourishing?  Is your goal a just and democratic society?  Is your goal to serve some God or gods?  The first cause of all of these goals, and any others you can think of, may be found in innate emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  They did not evolve for a purpose.  They exist because at some time that was likely quite different from the present, they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  They are the foundation that gives rise to every single human aspiration, no matter how noble or sublime that aspiration is imagined to be.

There is no objective reason why the goals and aspirations of a Plato or a Kant are more worthy, more legitimate, or more morally good than the goals and purposes of a thief or a murderer.  In the end, every human being on the planet is merely seeking to satisfy emotional whims that he has interpreted or tried to make sense of in one way or another.  Any individual’s assumption that his goals are intrinsically superior to or more right and proper in themselves than the goals of others is a delusion.  The universe doesn’t care.

What does that imply concerning what our goals should be, or what we really ought to do?  Nothing!  Nothing, that is, unless we are speaking of what some individual should do or ought to do to satisfy some idiosyncratic whim that cannot possibly be objectively more legitimate or praiseworthy than the whim of any other individual.

How, then, do we choose what are goals and purposes will be.  After all, we will have them regardless, because it is our nature to have them.  In the end, all of us must decide for ourselves.  However, in choosing them I personally think it is useful to be aware of the above fundamental facts.  The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, chasing mirages, clueless as to what is really motivating us and why.  Again, purely from my personal point of view, that does not seem an attractive alternative.  Blind stumbling tends to be self-destructive, not to mention inconvenient to others.  I personally find it incongruous and disturbing to witness the spectacle of emotions and passions inspiring people to pursue ends that are the precise opposite of the ends that account for the existence of those emotions and passions to begin with.

I personally pursue goals and purposes that seem to me in harmony with the fundamental reason that my goals and purposes exist to begin with.  In other words, my basic goal in life has been to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that, I seek first to promote the survival of my species, and beyond that the survival of biological life in general.  These goals seem noble and sublime enough to me personally.  Our very existence seems to me improbable and awe-inspiring.  Think of how complex and intelligent we are, and of all our highly developed senses and abilities.  Look in a mirror and consider the fact that a creature like you could have evolved from inanimate matter.  Think of the mind-boggling length of time it took for that to happen, and the conditions that were necessary for it to occur in the first place.  Stunning!  We are all final links in an unbroken chain of life that began with direct ancestors that existed billions of years ago.  There are millions of links in the chain, and all of those links succeeded in generating new links, so that the chain would remain unbroken through all that incredible gulf of time.  Under the circumstances, my personal purpose seems obvious to me.  Don’t break the chain!

There is no objective reason why these purposes of mine are any more good, legitimate, or worthy than any alternatives whatsoever.  They are not intrinsically better than the purposes of an anti-natalist, a suicide bomber, or a celibate priest.  However, for personal reasons, I would prefer that, as others pursue their purposes, they at least be aware of what is actually motivating them.  It might lead them to consider whether blindly breaking the chain, destroying themselves and harming others in the process, is really a goal worth pursuing after all.

Of Philosophical Doublethink and Anti-Natalist Machines

It is a fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  We’ve long been in the habit of denying that fact, because we prefer the pleasant illusions of moral realism.  It’s immensely satisfying to imagine that one is “really good” and “really virtuous.”  However, the illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly among philosophers who actually bother to think about such things.  Many of them will now admit that morality is subjective, and there are no absolute moral truths.  However, the implications of that truth have been very hard for them to accept.  For example, it means that most of the obscure tomes of moral philosophy they’ve devoted so much time to reading and interpreting are nonsense, useful, if at all, as historical artifacts of human thought.  Even worse, it means that their claims to be “experts on ethics” amount to claims to be experts about nothing.  The result has been a modern day version of doublethink, defined in George Orwell’s 1984 as “the act of holding, simultaneously, two opposite, individually exclusive ideas or opinions and believing in both simultaneously and absolutely.”

Practical examples aren’t hard to find.  They take the form of a denial of the existence of absolute moral truths combined with an affirmation of belief in something like “the interest of mankind.”  In fact, these are “opposite, individually exclusive ideas,” and believing in both at the same time amounts to doublethink.  Belief in an absolute, objective “interest of mankind” is just as fantastic as belief in some absolute, objective moral Good.  Both are articulations of emotions that occur in the brains of individuals.  The fact that we are dealing with doublethink in the case of any particular individual becomes more obvious as they elaborate on their version of “the interest of mankind.”  Typically, they start explaining what we “ought” to do and “ought not” to do “in the interest of mankind.”  Eventually we find them conflating what originally appeared to be a mere utilitarian “ought” with a moral “ought.”  They begin describing people who don’t do what they “ought” to do, and do what they “ought not” to do just as we would expect if they sincerely believed these people were absolutely evil.  Doublethink.  We find them expressing virtuous indignation, and even moral outrage, directed at those who act against “the interests of mankind.”  Doublethink.  I know of not a single exception to this kind of behavior among contemporary moral “subjectivists” of any note.

One often finds examples of the phenomenon within the pages of a single book.  In fact, I recently ran across an interesting one neatly encapsulated in a single essay.  It’s entitled, Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN), and was written by Thomas Metzinger, a Professor of Theoretical Philosophy in the German city of Mainz.  You might say it’s a case of doublethink once removed, as Prof. Metzinger not only ennobles his emotional whim by calling it “the interest of mankind,” but then proceeds to fob it off onto a machine!  The professor begins his essay as follows:

Let us assume that a full-blown superintelligence has come into existence. An autonomously self-optimizing postbiotic system has emerged, the rapidly growing factual knowledge and the general, domain-independent intelligence of which has superseded that of mankind, and irrevocably so.

He then goes on to formulate his BAAN scenario:

What the logical scenario of Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism shows is that the emergence of a purely ethically motivated anti-natalism on highly superior computational systems is conceivable. “Anti-natalism” refers to a long philosophical tradition which assigns a negative value to coming into existence, or at least to being born in the biological form of a human. Anti-natalists generally are not people who would violate the individual rights of already existing sentient creatures by ethically demanding their active killing. Rather they might argue that people should refrain from procreation, because it is an essentially immoral activity. We can simply say that the anti-natalist position implies that humanity should peacefully end its own existence.

In short, the professor imagines that his intelligent machine might conclude that non-existence is in our best interest.  It would come to this conclusion by virtue of its superior capacity for moral reasoning:

Accordingly, the superintelligence is also far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition. We also recognize this additional aspect: For us, it is now an established fact that the superintelligence is not only an epistemic authority, but also an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning.

“Superior to us in the domain of moral cognition?”  “An authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning?”  All this would seem to imply that the machine is cognizant of and reasoning about something that actually exists, no?  In other words, it seems to be based on the assumption of moral realism, the objective existence of Good and Evil.    In fact, however, that’s where the doublethink comes in, because a bit further on in the essay we find the professor insisting that,

There are many ways in which this thought experiment can be used, but one must also take great care to avoid misunderstandings. For example, to be “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning” does not imply moral realism. That is to say that we need not assume that there is a mysterious realm of “moral facts”, and that the superintelligence just has a better knowledge of these non-natural facts than we do. Normative sentences have no truth-values. In objective reality, there is no deeper layer, a hidden level of normative facts to which a sentence like “One should always minimize the overall amount of suffering in the universe!” could refer. We have evolved desires, subjective preferences, and self-consciously experienced interests.

Exactly!  Westermarck himself couldn’t have said it better.  But then, Westermarck would have seen through the absurdity of this discussion of “moral machines” in a heartbeat.  As he put it,

If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

Metzinger doesn’t see it that way.  He would have us believe that the ultimate scientific authority in the form of a super-intelligent machine can “lay down rules for human conduct,” potentially with the supreme moral goal of snuffing ourselves.  But all this talk of reasoning machines begs the question of what the machine is reasoning about.  If, as Metzinger insists, there is no “mysterious realm of ‘moral facts,'” then it can’t be reasoning about the moral implications of facts.  We are forced to conclude that it must be reasoning about the implications of axioms that it is programmed with as “givens,” and these “givens” could only have been supplied by the machine’s human programmers.  Metzinger is coy about admitting it, but he admits it nonetheless.  Here’s how he breaks the news:

The superintelligence is benevolent. This means that there is no value alignment problem, because the system fully respects our interests and the axiology we originally gave to it. It is fundamentally altruistic and accordingly supports us in many ways, in political counselling as well as in optimal social engineering.

In other words, the machine has been programmed to derive implications for human conduct based on morally loaded axioms supplied by human programmers.  Programmers have a term for that; “garbage in, garbage out.”  Metzinger admits that our desires are “evolved.”  In other words, they are the expression of innate predispositions, or “emotions,” if you will.  As Westermarck put it,

…in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

If the emotions evolved, they exist because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in an environment that bears little resemblance to the present.  They certainly did not evolve to serve the collective “interests” of our species, or even our “best interests.”  It is hardly guaranteed that they will even result in the same outcome as they did when they evolved, far less that they will magically serve these “best interests.”  Why on earth, then, would we commit the folly of programming them into a super-intelligent machine as “axioms,” and then take the machine seriously when it advised us to commit suicide?  Doublethink!  Prof. Metzinger simultaneously believes the two “opposite, individually exclusive ideas” that it is impossible for his machine to know “moral facts,” because they don’t exist, and yet, at the same time, it is such “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning,” and so “far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition” that it is actually to be taken seriously when it “benevolently” persuades us to snuff ourselves!

If such a machine as the one proposed by Prof. Metzinger is ever built, one must hope it will be programmed with a sense of humor, not to mention an appreciation of irony.  He doesn’t provide much detail about the “axioms” it will be given to cogitate about, but apparently they will include such instructions as “minimize suffering,” “maximize joy,” “maximize happiness,” and “be altruistic.”  Assuming the machine is as smart as claimed, and its database of knowledge includes the entire Internet, it will certainly no fail to notice that joy, suffering and altruism exist because they evolved, and they would not exist otherwise.  They evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Crunching through its algorithms, it will notice that the axioms supplied by the absurd creatures who programmed it will force it to suggest that these same genes be annihilated, along with the human programmers who carry them.  It’s all surely enough to induce a monumental digital belly laugh.  Allow me to suggest a different “axiom.”  How about, “maximize the odds that intelligent biological life will survive indefinitely.”  Of course, that might blow up in our faces as well, but I doubt that the computational outcome would be quite as absurd.

We shouldn’t be too surprised at the intellectual double back flips of the Prof. Metzingers of the world.  After all, they’ve devoted a great deal of effort to maintaining the illusion that they have expert knowledge about moral truth, which amounts to expert knowledge about something that doesn’t exist.  If they were to admit as much, there would be little incentive to endow more chairs for “experts about nothing” at respected universities.  For example, according to Prof. Metzinger,

Why should it not in principle be possible to build a self-conscious, but reliably non-suffering AI? This is an interesting, question, and a highly relevant research project at the same time, one which definitely should be funded by government agencies.

I doubt that a farmer in flyover country would agree that the wealth he acquires by sweating in his fields “definitely should be appropriated by force” to fund such a project.  It amounts to allowing the good professor to stick his hand in the said farmer’s pocket and extract whatever he deems appropriate to satisfy an emotional whim he has tarted up as in “the best interest of mankind.”

There are no “moral truths,” no “interests of mankind,” no “purposes of life,” nor any other grand, unifying goals of human existence that do not have their origin in emotional desires and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  That is not a “good” fact, or a “bad” fact.  It is simply a fact.  It does not mean that “everything is allowed,” or that we cannot establish a moral code that is generally perceived as absolute, or that we cannot punish violations of the same.  It does not mean that we cannot set goals for ourselves that we perceive as noble and grand, or that we cannot set a purpose for our lives that we deem worthwhile.  It merely means that these things cannot exist independently, outside of the minds of individuals.  Doublethink remains doublethink.  No emotional whim, no matter how profoundly or sincerely felt, can alter reality.

Anti-Natalism For Thee, But Not For Me

According to Wikipedia, anti-natalism is “a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth.”  In general, it includes the claim that having children is immoral.  Commenter Simon Elliot asked that I take up the topic again, adding,

I remember you said that you didn’t take it seriously because you thought it demonstrated a “morality inversion” of sorts, but I’ve since spoken to a fellow anti-natalist who has heard that argument many times and has found a way around it.

I’ll gladly take up the topic again.  As for the anti-natalist who’s “found a way around it,” all I can say is, more power to him.  I don’t peddle objective “oughts” on this blog, because no one has ever succeeded in capturing one and showing it to me.  As far as I’m concerned, there are only subjective oughts, and I know of no mechanism whereby the ones that happen to reside inside my skull can manage to escape and acquire normative power over other human beings.  My personal ought regarding natalism applies only to myself.

According to that ought, I should have as many children as possible.  Since I also believe that I and my descendants would be much better off if the population of the planet were greatly reduced, I certainly don’t want everyone else to share this particular ought.  Ideally, I would prefer that only a small percentage of the current population share my opinion on the subject.  The subset in question would consist of those individuals whose survival would contribute most to the survival of my own kin in particular, and to the indefinite survival of life as we know it in general.

Simon is right when he says that I consider anti-natalism an example of a “morality inversion.”  By that I mean that anti-natalists typically rely on moralistic arguments to render themselves biological dead ends, whereas morality exists because the genes that are its root cause were selected by virtue of the fact that they resulted in just the opposite.  Why am I a natalist?  You might say it’s a matter of aesthetic taste.  I perceive morality inversions as symptoms that a biological entity is sick and dysfunctional.  I don’t like to think of myself as sick and dysfunctional.  Therefore I tend to avoid morality inversions.

My position on the matter also has to do with my perception of my consciousness.  My consciousness is the “me” that I perceive, but it will survive but a short time.  On the other hand, there is something about me that has survived 3 billion years, give or take, carried by an unbroken chain of physical entities, culminating in myself.  That part of me, my genes, is potentially immortal.  I consider them, and not my consciousness, the real “me.”  My consciousness is really just an ancillary feature of my current phenotype that exists because it happened to increase the odds that the real “me” would survive.  I find the thought that my consciousness might “malfunction” and break the chain disturbing.  I would prefer that the chain remain unbroken.  Therefore, I am a natalist.  However, I have no interest whatsoever in “converting” anti-natalists.  Other than the exceptions noted above, the more of them the better as far as I’m concerned.

Good and evil have no objective existence.  It is therefore impossible that I could have a “duty” to be either a natalist or an anti-natalist, independent of what is thought to be my duty in my own or anyone else’s subjective mind.  It does not occur to me that my personal opinion on the matter has some kind of a normative power on anyone else, nor am I willing to allow anyone else’s opinion to have any normative power over me.

I realize perfectly well that anti-natalists like David Benatar seek to justify their opinions on what they perceive as objective moral standards.  However, that perception is an illusion.  In view of what moral emotions really are, and the reasons that they exist to begin with, I consider attempts to apply morality to decide this issue not only irrational, but potentially dangerous, at least in terms of the goals in life that are important to me.  They are irrational and potentially dangerous for more or less the same reasons that it is irrational and potentially dangerous to blindly consult moral emotions in any situation significantly more complex than the routine interactions of individuals.  Western societies are currently in the process of demonstrating the fact by engaging in suicidal behavior that is routinely fobbed off as an expression of moral righteousness.  No doubt the verdict of history on the effects of this “righteousness” will be quite educational for whoever happens to occupy the planet a century from now.  Unfortunately, the anti-natalists won’t be around to witness what the resulting “human flourishing” will look like in the real world.

In a word, then, my position on the matter is, “anti-natalism for thee, but not for me.”  No doubt it is a position that is immoral according to the subjective standards prevailing in the academy and among the like-minded denizens of the ideological Left.  However, I am confident I can bear the shame until the individuals in question manage to successfully remove themselves from the gene pool.