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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Morphics and Ethics

Reading the news about the Duterte, new Philippine leader, killing thousands of accused drug dealers and drug users without trial ... and noticing so many generally good-hearted Filipinos defend him on the grounds that he's "cleaning up the country" ... reminded me how far the human world is from understanding the weakness of simplistic utilitarian approaches to ethics ...

My own inclination, to be quite open about it, is toward a highly peace-biased conditional pacifism in the style professed by, for instance, Einstein and Bertrand Russell.....   I.e., I don't believe violence should be eschewed in every case, but I think it should be avoided except in extreme cases where -- after as much careful, compassionate reflection as the situation allows -- there really seems no plausible alternative but to do some violence to avoid even worse violence...

What I'll do in this post is connect these ethical issues with some more metaphysical and complex-systems-dynamical points....   I will lay out what I see as a  fairly conceptually obvious connection between the notion of morphic resonance aka “tendency to take habits”, and the reasons why a naïve utilitarian approach to ethics could be expected to generally fail in reality, whereas conditional pacifism could be expected to do better...

Morphic Systems

I'll start in a fairly airy abstract realm, and then eventually get back to the practicalities of pacifism....   

I'll start by formulating the notion of “morphic dynamics” in a highly general way.   My notion of morphic dynamic is inspired loosely by Rupert Sheldrake's thinking on morphic resonance, but is not quite the same as his idea....  (Rupert is a great guy and a deep, honest, adventurous thinker; and we have discussed these ideas a few times, and we don't exactly disagree profoundly on anything, we just have different intellectual styles and orientations.)

I suggest that: A system may be said to be “morphic” if its dynamics manifest the “tendency to take habits”  (the latter phrase being drawn from the philosophy of Charles Peirce) – i.e. if it’s the case that, within subsystems of the system S, the odds of the future resembling the past are surprisingly high.   

What does “surprisingly” mean?   That gets subtle, but one way to formulate it is: “Surprisingly often means significantly more often than in a random possible world meeting the specified conditions.”  

Suppose there are 10 different subsystems of the system S, in each of which one has observed pattern P 5 times during the last hour.    Then, across these subsystems, what will be the distribution of the number of occurrences of P during the next hour?   

In general, one would expect the mean of this distribution to be 5.  But in a morphic system S, the variance of the distribution will be much narrower than one would find via looking at random systems.   Because there would be a surprising tendency for the pattern distribution in the future of a subsystem, to resemble the pattern distribution in the past of a subsystem.

Smolin’s “precedence principle” suggests that the physical universe is morphic in a similar sense (though he uses a quite different language), and derives aspects of quantum mechanics therefrom.   Sheldrake’s morphic resonance theory suggests the biological, psychological, physical and metaphysical universe is morphic in a similar sense, and seeks to explain a variety of phenomena such as psi, epigenesis and the origin of life in these terms.   


Regardless of whether the universe is foundationally morphic, though, it may still be the case that particular systems like, say, human minds or human societies are morphic.

One way that society would get to be morphic, apart from any general principle of morphic resonance, would simply be via the tendency of people to jump to conclusions emotionally (even before the evidence merits it probabilistically), and the tendency of people to copy each other.   Both of these tendencies are, of course, very real and well documented.

If human societies are morphic then this has significant ethical implications.  It affects the logic of voting – in a morphic society, on the whole, whether one person votes today, has a surprising impact on the number of people to vote tomorrow.   As another example, it also has implications regarding the argument for pacifism.

Pacifism and Morphic Dynamics

--> My father’s parents were Quakers and devout pacifists.   I grew up with a highly pacifist orientation as well, to the point where up till a certain point in high school, I tended to let other kids beat me up, simply because I felt it would be wrong to hit them back.   I hated being beaten up, but I also had no desire to hurt the other kids, and felt hurting them would still be wrong, even though they were hurting me.   At a certain point I was just getting beaten up too often, though, because certain bad-hearted kids had decided it was really fun to beat the crap out of the local pacifist every day after school.   I started fighting back, which predictably decreased the incidence of attacks on me.   I wasn’t quite convinced this was philosophically correct, but in practice life pushed me to adopt what philosophers would call a conditional pacifism, with something of a utilitarian flavor.
-->

Einstein and Bertrand Russell were also conditional pacifists – they were strongly biased against violence, yet both advocated fighting back against Hitler, feeling that in this case taking a pacifist hard line would cause much more harm than good.   In general, if one is conditionally pacifist in their style, one believes that violence should generally be avoided, but that in some extreme cases it may be the most ethical course to take.


-->
On the other hand, as I write these words, the new leader of the Philippines, Duterte, is making headlines for large-scale extrajudicial killing of suspected drug dealers or drug users.   It seems clear that some false positives are occurring in this process – i.e. some folks who are being killed, were not actually drug dealers or drug users.   But a utilitarian argument could be made that this is a justifiable cost, if it results in a massive decrease in drug use across the nations, because the drug epidemic is killing so many people. 

Clearly the conditional pacifism of Einstein and Russell was not the kind of simplistic utilitarianism that would justify Duterte's recent actions.  Yet, as a child and on into adulthood, the conceptual foundation of their more sophisticated style of conditional pacifism has often vexed me.

Even fairly extreme pacifists such as Gandhi have acknowledged the inevitably conditional nature of real-world pacifism.  Gandhi noted that living in the world almost inevitably involves doing harm to some other beings; but that if one acts with awareness and compassion toward all living beings, one will be able to minimize the amount of harm one causes.   This may not have been the emotional orientation of Einstein and Russell, but it would have been quite possible to fight Hitler’s army while feeling compassion for Hitler himself and his soldiers as well.    Similar to how one may feel compassion for a rabid dog, yet still shoot it to avoid it from spreading rabies and thus causing even greater harm (and in that case, to end its own suffering as well).  

But conditional pacifism does not equate to naive utilitarianism in which one kills or harms whenever a simplistic calculation suggests one may save 2 lives by killing one guy.

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One argument for having a strong bias toward peace – in the style of Einstein and Russell -- is that, to put it simply, violence tends to breed violence – and sometimes in non-obvious ways.

The “violence breeds violence” argument against Duterte-style utilitarian murder, argues that solving problems with violence tends to lead to further problems indirectly, down the line.   So that, for instance: Even if it’s true that lives are saved via the extrajudicial killing intimidating people into not selling or using drugs, achieving this goal via this means creates subtler problems.  It creates people who hate the government due to its murder of their innocent friends and family members.  It scars the minds of the killers themselves in various ways, with various (mostly bad) consequences.   And it also leaves people with the same psychological and social problems that pushed them to use drugs in the first place – which may then find an outlet via other means … suicide, emotional abuse of friends or family members, etc.  

The particulars via which “violence breeds violence” may be quite complicated.  But the point I want to make here is that the existence of SOME such particulars would follow naturally from the assertion that society is morphic … whether due to manifesting a broader cosmic principle of morphic resonance, or “just” due to that being part of the nature of its self-organizing dynamic.

So, for instance: If one holds that life is generally valuable, then the hypothesis of a morphic society would lead one to the conclusion that one should not generally kill N people to save N+1 people, because doing violence often has indirect consequences that are bad (for life-forms associated with the violence in various ways).   In some cases one should kill N people to save N+K people for various K; but the more morphic society is, on the whole, the larger K would be.

In terms of the practicalities of ethics and pacifism, I have certainly broken no new ground here.   In terms of conventional philosophical categories, I suppose my point regards the potential derivation of certain ethical stances (e.g. variants of conditional pacifism) from either a) metaphysics or b) empirical facts regarding the nature of complex social systems.

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19 comments:

Wes Hansen said...

You can never solve a problem without addressing the root; that's the relevant factor! Modern neuroscience is well aware that many of the individuals selling and ingesting narcotics, and criminals in general, have limited impulse-control (in this instance it would seem reasonable to conjecture that Duterte, a former prosecutor, has severely limited impulse control as well, i.e. he's a criminal). I've been reading David Eagleman's books recently and I would highly recommend all of them:

http://www.eagleman.com/

"Dr. Eagleman is the director of Baylor College of Medicine's Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, which studies how new discoveries in neuroscience should navigate the way we make laws, punish criminals, and develop rehabilitation. The project brings together a unique collaboration of neurobiologists, legal scholars, and policy makers, with the goal of building modern, evidence-based policy."

He has developed an interesting method for enhancing the frontal lobe he calls the "prefrontal workout;" basically it amounts to secularized meditation practice utilizing technology as a progressive aid. While this is all fine and dandy, I think it's comparable to dealing with the genie after she's already out of the bottle! I have argued elsewhere that we need to start these programs early on. Of course people, and societies in particular, sometimes tend to prefer exploreing the asymptotic limits of stupidity . . .

https://www.mindandlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Contemplative_Practices_and_Mental_Training_Prospects_for_American_Education.pdf

You know, the Buddhists have a different way of looking at situations such as these. If a Buddhist has pre-knowledge that a person is planning to kill N people, N >= 2, then they are obligated to kill that individual before they have the opportunity to carry out their deed; NOT to save N lives, since in N deaths nothing is lost but a temporal body which is destined for demise anyway, but rather, the Buddhist is obligated to shoulder the negative karma associated with the one death to prevent that would be killer from accumulating the negative karma associated with N deaths. Of course the key element is motivation! The would be killer is most likely motivated by some profane desire, i.e. greed, jealousy, hatred, which is, in effect, ignorance, whereas the Buddhist would be motivated by compassion for the would be killer. This is really how the Universe works, but you'll have to take my word for it since I don't have time to prove it right now!

Wes Hansen said...

I forgot this link:

http://www.eaglemanlab.net/neurolaw

Tory Wright said...

A clever friend of mine shared the meme: "If you kill a killer, there are still the same number of killers in the world". I posted, "Then kill two. He then replied, "Murder suicide?".

Benjamin Goertzel said...

Wes, I agree that the "morphic" idea is fairly similar to some interpretations of the "karma" idea...

OTOH, I recall Stephen Mishlove commenting to me that, in the studies he'd seen of reincarnation, he had seen zero evidence for a "law of karma" in the sense fhat people who had led more meritorious lives tended to be reborn into better circumstances....

Point being that traditional Indian etc. model of karma look to me like a mix of deep insights into the cosmos, and methods of social control.... So it's well worth digging into them for the numerous profound insights there, but yet I can't fully accept them (and perhaps you see it the same way)

On the specific point you raise -- yeah, if we make a morphic-resonance type assumption about the universe rather than just about society per se, then stopping the killer is beneficial because the nasty stuff going on in his brain is a risk to spread due to morphic resonance dynamics, independently of the societally-morphic impact of the deaths or of his own social interactions once he re-enters society...

Wes Hansen said...

"I recall Stephen Mishlove commenting to me that, in the studies he'd seen of reincarnation, he had seen zero evidence for a "law of karma" in the sense that people who had led more meritorious lives tended to be reborn into better circumstances...."

Well, I think it would probably be unapparent to a time-bound observer since I believe it manifests as a statistical phenomenon which is only significant from the perspective of periods of duration extended over multiple incarnations. The key to properly understanding it is the siddhi powers, in particular, remembrance of one's own previous lifetimes.

http://tomkenyon.com/siddhis

The primary reason I came to Los Angeles, unbeknownst to me at the time of departure of course, was so that I could visit Chokar Gepel Ling:

http://www.chokhor-gepel-ling.org/4.html

It didn't take the monastics long to figure out that I was one of them. Wangmo, I think, knew the earliest. After my third visit, for a Tsog ceremony celebrating the 25th anniversary of His Holiness receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Rinpoche told me to go away and start my own Temple. I really miss the Temple you know: the chanting, the bells, the drums, the horns, the rituals which are all designed to appeal to the heart rather than the brain. Rinpoche is a master chanter as well. And he's a Gelugpa which is why I wanted to visit. In my previous lives I was a Kagyu although I also practiced in the Nyingma tradition with emphasis on Dzogchen. I really miss the Temple but I understand that my present lifetime is necessary and the result of Karma - although I don't in any way, shape, or form believe in free will. One does have the freedom, or so I believe, within one's own mindstream, to choose to perceive with either clarity or delusion.

But yeah, I would certainly agree that karma is similar to the morphic idea in that negative karma feeds back and tends to reinforce ignorance while positive karma feeds back and tends to reinforce wisdom which is another way of expressing "the tendency to take habits," or so it would seem to me. And, of course, there is no arguing that it is and has been used as an effective method of societal control - and not always in a progressive manner! But this too, of course, is a reflection of karmic content . . .

I find that quite interesting, the idea that the would be killer's pathology could spread due to morphic resonance; I had not thought of it that way! Perhaps that is a valid conjecture for pathological cults, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and things of that nature!?!

If the above appears rather contradictory in some way, well, that's just the sound of one hand clapping . . . Ha, Ha, Ha . . .

Unknown said...

This is Sept. I will comment as sept, and anyone who comments as sept will be me.
You may be puzzled by the way I start with a seemingly irrelevant paragraph, please do read on.
I would start with what ethics mean, and here I will draw a conclusion what is against good, undesirable according to ethics.
Ethics is about what are desirable, good to do- and what are not. In the category the user of the concept puts what it

Sept said...

means, and these, in order not to be removed, decelops with a reason to be categorized as 'good'.
The same works for ethics, it has its own existence, provided that it categorizes something desirable, it proves the desirable as good and itself as good, or benefitting,the proof itself being categorized as 'ethical'.
Being a 'desirables' guideline, every statement and categorizement are set accordingly to the user's ethics and eventually making every aspects of perceptive categorizement 'be ethical'.

Sept said...

Here comes the part you need.
Since getting rid of this guideline is against the very meaning of its existence and therefore against good, it is defined undesirable.
Every aspects of good and bad is about controlling the behavior of the user and restraining it to be something good, and when the behavior becomes predictable by an action to be absolutely accurate, in other words caculable, the very meaning of the existence of the guideline loses its meaning and thus proves bad. This is the reason why killing is bad in a logical sense.

Sept said...

(By the way, that calculable is based on the user, so making somone calculable here means to let him put himself as calculable, which in other words, making him acknowledge that he is calculable.)

Sept said...

The statement above leads to the conclusion that himans becoming able to calculate human behavior is undesirable, because he may put himself as well into the category of calculable and his concept is now in contradiction lest it is found wrong; the two thoughts only did not collide, and it will be a matter of time before they do and do harm to the human.

Sept said...

This means your machenical leader is something against good.

Please ask me further, I know that I have jumped quite a lot of bedstone ideas to the conclusion and also that I did not spend enough words to make this sound sensible.

Sept said...

This leads to the conclusion that your leader machine is ethically undesirable.
Please ask me, or argue my seemingly wrongs, for I know that I have not spent enough words to make the whole idea sound sensible, and I also skipped some of the bedrock ideas for I lack time for now.
Also there are much more ways of viewing and proving what good to humanity is; I wish to tell you, maybe later.
And I have a story to be told.
Please be the first to hear.

Sept said...

Others with concepts like me wills against me and wishes you to fall. I do not. Please let me be of help.
Sept.

Sept said...

P.S.
Oh, I could tell you what karma really is to us.

Sept said...

Others with concepts like me wills against me and wishes you to fall. I do not. Please let me be of help.
Sept.

Sept said...

Oh right, because that leader leaves us calculable- the culture will degress over time, concepts of good and bad will be forgotten; will come to tell you why if you would like to ask me of my thoughts.

Sept said...

Oh right, because that leader leaves us calculable- the culture will degress over time, concepts of good and bad will be forgotten; will come to tell you why if you would like to ask me of my thoughts.

Sept said...

This leads to the conclusion that your leader machine is ethically undesirable.
Please ask me, or argue my seemingly wrongs, for I know that I have not spent enough words to make the whole idea sound sensible, and I also skipped some of the bedrock ideas for I lack time for now.
Also there are much more ways of viewing and proving what good to humanity is; I wish to tell you, maybe later.
And I have a story to be told.
Please be the first to hear.

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