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The Return of Good and Evil, Part 1
Richard Fernandez • 27 May, 2023 • 6 Min Read
The best or the worst of all possible worlds?
At the dawn of human civilization myth provided an explanation for all observable phenomena; how birds flew, how the world came to be. It also explained why things should be. Myths provided both of the critical functions of intelligence: problem-solving and value-setting. Over time, mathematics applied to observation, which we now call science, provided a superior way of explaining observable things than humanity's early myths. Civilization's problem solving skills advanced, but that was only part of the intellectual skill set.
Contrary to popular belief science did not encompass all of knowledge. By its own insistence and to distinguish it from myth its domain consisted only of things that could be modeled and predicted. From this it gradually expanded, from 'known knowns', models checkable against observation (the encyclopedia) to 'known unknowns', what we can potentially model and verify, even if we never actually succeed in explaining, this which might be called the reversopedia, is part of science also.
But there are things science wants no part of. 'Unknown unknowns' for example; these are phenomena we don't even suspect exist, or even if we can speculate upon them, have no way of modeling or measuring. One can't speak of them in scientific terms because there is no data. One example of this is the concept of the multiverse. While the idea of a multiverse has been proposed as a potential explanation for certain cosmological and quantum phenomena empirical evidence for their existence is absent because if they exist, multiverses are by definition causally disconnected from our own. If you could detect it, it wouldn't be a multiverse.
Worse, questions of good and evil, do not fall within the purview of science at all but the realm of ethics, philosophy, and subjective human values. They fall within the domain of religion, philosophy and myth. J. Robert Oppenheimer could specify the physical parameters of the atom bomb in scientific terms, since his team built it. But to speak of the wisdom or morality of its use, Oppenheimer had to resort to the Bhagavad-gita.
"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood. ... "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatements can quite extinguish," he said two years after the Trinity explosion, "the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
Oppenheimer's contemporaries also struggled with a vocabulary impoverished by technology and nihilism to describe the 20th century. Despite very different life circumstances,"Paul Tillich and Viktor Frankl... are uncannily similar in their thoughts. One of the closest points of contact between these two scholars can be found in Tillich's idea of the Ultimate Concern and Frankl's idea of the Will to Meaning. For Frankl, the drive in humanity that takes primacy over all other drives is the will to meaning." But these words had no force in a world defined by V2s and atom bombs.
Nietzsche: are we beyond Good and Evil?
Moral judgments on the use of nuclear weapons don't fit the world of science. Sir Isaac Newon refused to discuss things you could not measure or model. He did not deny the possibility of the ineffable, only our ability to treat them in an empirical way. For that he needed, like Oppenheimer, like Tillich, like Frankl, other tools. His demurral was hypothesis non fingo, Latin for "I frame no hypotheses", or "I contrive no hypotheses" from the second (1713) edition of the Principia. Speaking of gravity, Newton said:
I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction.
Newton will tell you how gravity behaves but don't ask him its meaning! Questions such as "what is the purpose of the universe", should we use electricity to make an electric chair or electric toaster or should humanity voluntarily become extinct to allow other species to thrive on earth, interesting though they may be, are not even scientific propositions. Newton refused to answer them as a scientist, though he might as a philosopher or man of faith. Hypothesis non fingo.
Despite this, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries much of popular culture assumed that science would answer all questions. "At the end of the 19th century... it was generally accepted that all the important laws of physics had been discovered and that, henceforth, research would be concerned with clearing up minor problems." But the surprises kept coming. "Around 1900 serious doubts arose about the completeness of the classical theories." Even after relativity and quantum physics threw everything open," in the 1980s Stephen Hawking and other big shots claimed that physics was on the verge of a 'final theory,' or 'theory of everything,' that could answer these big questions and solve the riddle of reality," as John Horgan noted in the Scientific American.
But that expectation too was dashed. Nobody talks about a theory of everything now. As Sabine Hossfelder explains in her book Lost in Math, the Large Hadron Collider isn't finding what the standard model predicted. The James Webb Space Telescope discovered enormous distant galaxies that should not exist. "Nobody expected them. They were not supposed to be there. And now, nobody can explain how they had formed."
Part of the problem is although we are still enlarging the encyclopedia, the reversopedia is growing so much faster that our island of knowledge, while enlarging steadily is not expanding as fast as the shadows around it. Each year our store of knowledge grows, but never as fast as the list of unsolved problems they suggest. Worse the unknown unknowns, the mysterium tremendum grows fastest of all. We are living in Plato's Cave and the Cave is expanding. But most of the difficulty is that science cannot answer certain questions, and never will.
In search of the God particle at CERN.
There should be nothing wrong with living in a world of incomplete knowledge, so long as we, like Newton, are prepared to admit it. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has written, “it's okay not to know all the answers. It's better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything, closes the door to finding out what's really there.”
But as Orwell pointed out, pretending to know everything, to have discovered "iron laws" that govern the universe, was precisely the basis on which 20th century political power was built. Pointing out the boundaries of unaided science undermined the omnipotence of tyrants. It was necessary to close our minds to the value-setting and speculative functions of intelligence, to enable might without limit.
Yet myth and philosophy are still what civilization use to perform thought experiments in the domain of the unknowable because there is no other way to model them. Max Tegmark and Brian Greene's classification schemes for multiverses and universes, may in empirical terms be like only so many angels dancing on the head of a pin, but they raise important questions that are important to answer, even if we can never be sure of our conclusions. What is reality? Does the universe itself have a definite moral arc? Is an electric chair just as good as an electric toaster? Is gain of function research worth the risk of a human-extinction pandemic?
The importance of these 'unscientific' questions has returned with a vengeance. We are once again vulnerable to the unknown. If an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) were free to derive a system of beliefs, practices, and values that involves a connection with a higher power or ultimate principle; to evolve a worldview that seeks to explain the nature of the universe, existence, and the purpose of consciousness, what would it conjecture, what hypothesis would it fingo?
If the AGI could learn from all reality, not simply from human trainers with their cultural and species baggage, and could create any of a number of belief systems, what might be called religions, none more likely than the others unless the characteristics of the universe itself tended to support a particular POV, what would it create? The answer is important because the AGI would act on it. The history of myth intriguingly suggests some ideas win out over others. The idea of a malevolent deity has gradually declined among contemporary world religions. Moloch was once a deity worshiped in the ancient Middle East involving the sacrifice of children by burning them alive. The Aztec religion prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century practiced human sacrifice.
Have notions of a malevolent God gradually fallen into disfavor simply because humanity wishes it to be so, or does the decline reflect a trend in the value-setting aspect of intelligence itself? The question is not new...
Richard Fernandez is the author of the Belmont Club. He has been a software developer and co-authored Open Curtains which proposes privacy as an information property right.