I am left scratching my head after listening to the latest interview of Sam Harris by Ben Shapiro. Why doesn’t Ben Shapiro and his IDW friends rebut Sam on some of his claims regarding morality? As I have detailed in my previous post Sam’s philosophy has some serious holes which no one seems to notice. I would encourage you to read that if you haven’t done so already. I genuinely welcome any criticisms of my argument since I want to get to the bottom of the morality problem. Like Jordan Peterson says, I want to know if I am wrong.
Today I want to come at some of this from another angle. According to Sam morality is about creating the best possible world for the maximum number of people with the aid of rationality and science. The only reason we have trouble with deciding what is good and bad is either because we are not being adequately rational or we do not yet have the required information to reach the rational decision regarding a particular question. Hence his argument that even if we built rational robots in the future the morality that he is developing will be applicable to them also.
Let us consider some thought experiments to make things clearer. Imagine if our video games become so sophisticated that the characters can somehow become conscious with a sense of self. So our ‘Prince of Persia’ feels that he himself is running the show and fighting the battles. He experiences life as one great adventure after another and believes that the survival of civilization itself is dependent upon what he does. One can only imagine all the intense emotional experiences, both positive and negative, that he goes through on his journey. For him what he is doing is the most important thing in the universe. But reality is that irrespective of what he feels it is the person playing the game who is actually controlling his actions and emotions. If the player decides to kill off his protagonist because he wants to take a bathroom break, the poor Prince will have to experience all the emotional and physical pain of being killed. If you ask the ‘Prince’ he is in a battle of his life time. But reality is that it is worth nothing at all. Even worse, he is being made to suffer all this because someone wants to have a good time. Or we can imagine the opposite scenario also. The Prince is getting married to the love of his life and leading a happy contended life with all the sophisticated pleasures that earthly life can provide including learning and culture. He would probably consider himself truly blessed. But again reality is that his whole experience is an illusion foisted on him by a 13 year old who has successfully completed his mission.
According to Sam’s philosophy this is exactly our position in reality. We are the products of a mindless materialistic universe which has given rise to all sorts of sophisticated illusions so that our genes will get us to propagate further. Our consciousness, sense of self and freewill and the experiential feeling that we control our lives are products of millennia of evolution which somehow enables our genes to propagate themselves. The genes in the unicellular algae and the most intelligent human being have the same goal. To get us to make more copies of itself. All our sense of morality and love and wonder and beauty and truth and hundred other beautiful things are just tools in their work kit to get us to keep surviving and reproducing.
Now imagine if the Prince becomes aware of what is actually happening to his life. That all his successes and failures are the result of button pushes by some hormone charged young adult. What will his response be? Will he continue to be happy when he successfully finishes his adventure and marries his sweetheart? Will he be really sad when the world is destroyed when he fails? He has seen through the con. Its all a game anyway. Why should he continue to be a pawn in this endless pointless process? If he has any real self consciousness the only logical thing to do would be to kill himself to escape from this meaningless roller coaster.
But according to Sam the Prince should continue to struggle and persist in his attempt to be happy. And not only that he should convince himself and others that this attempt is itself moral and meaningful. He should not be bothered by the fact that there is no real meaning to his life. He should be happy even if all his adventures are ultimately pointless because he gets to experience momentary happiness since it is programmed into the game. He should delude himself into thinking that he is creating his own meaning while all his emotions are driven by prewritten code.
Now try a different thought experiment in which we humans are really in Princes’ place. Imagine that we realize one day that we are characters in a video game played by the ‘gods’. The earth and the universe is actually an illusion built as part of this game. Human consciousness, sense of self and free will are similar illusions which we as characters in the game experience. All the ups and downs of our lives are actually controlled by the Gods for their pleasure. This is just one such world and there are a multiverse of such worlds out there. We are their idea of a weekend of fun. If we somehow become aware of that what will be Sam’s response? Will he still be talking about man made meaning and morality? Whatever we experience has been programmed into us for their entertainment. Our only real conscious realisation is regarding the truth of our state. All the rest is a grand illusion.
My argument is that there is not much difference between this scenario and the materialist universe. We are not independent rational actors in the universe. We are pawns in the multi million year evolutionary game. Everything that we experience, both good and the bad, has been programmed into us so that we will continue the game. The only difference is that there are no other conscious actors who are programming the game like in the above scenarios. It is the mindless process of evolution which has done all the programming to make us think that there is some actual point to our lives. In reality, there is no real morality or meaning. Its all part of the con to keep us engaged in the eternal struggle for dominance between our genes. Our only real conscious act is that we have realised what is going on. If that is true I have no idea why we should continue with this grand illusion.
Moving on to a further problem, I feel that there is something wrong with all the three scenarios I have described above including the materialist one. Namely, the proposition that we can become aware of our true state if we are programmed entities. It is easy to understand this in the gaming scenarios above. If the ‘Prince’ has been programmed to feel conscious and to experience from a first person point of view all that is happening in his life even if none of them are really true I fail to see how he can become truly conscious of his actual situation. How can a programme go beyond what its code allows? Unless that also is written into the programme? If that is also prewritten is that real consciousness? His awareness of his condition is not really due to his understanding about what is going on. But just like all the other illusions it is due to some prewritten code which determines how he feels.Only difference is that in this case it depicts reality accurately.
What does this mean in the human materialist context? If we truly are evolutionary creatures with the sole aim of propagation of our genes how can we become aware of our predicament unless that is also written into our genes? The very basis of consciousness and reasoning seems to demand a degree of freedom not available in a determined materialistic universe. I often hear intellectuals like Bret Weinstein arguing that since we have understood that the purpose of human lives according to our genes is only their survival and reproduction we should strive to go beyond the limits set by these genes if we really want to create human flourishing. But if evolution and genetic mechanisms are the only game in town how can we even presuppose that we can do something which our genes does not dictate us to do? From where does this freedom to flout our masters wishes come from?
Why is Sam Harris making the argument for the truth of atheism? Is it because it is decided by his genes and his sociocultural upbringing? Or did he make a rational decision to be a materialist based on logical arguments? How does rationality interact with the determinism of the atomic world? The very concept of rationality seems to demand a non deterministic kind of reality. A reality in which arguments and logic and reason have an independent legitimacy apart from the determinism of atoms and neurons. If my decisions are ultimately decided by the firing of neurons what role does rationality play in my decisions ? If Sam’s atheism is a result of his genes and upbringing how do we know atheism is true? Will he become a theist if he gets a heavy enough knock on his head? If so where does that leave our rationality? If not does this mean that our decision making process is somehow prior to the firing of neurons? This I think is the crux of the matter.. what comes first? the firing of the neurons or the thoughts and reasoning? If the firing of the neurons come first then reasoning and free will is an illusion. We dont believe something because it is reasonable and logical. We believe it because our neurons tell us to believe it. Along the way the neurons also create an illusion making us think that we believe something because it is rational. So at the end of the day we are machines without freewill who in addition to having no freewill, has to suffer the humiliation of thinking that we have free will. We are truly a pathetic lot.
So to make things clear Sam and Ben doesn’t disagree with each other regarding the existence of God( or anything else)because of lack of logic and reasoning on either side. It is because the deterministic process which began at the Big bang has lead, over eons of time, to the arrangement of neurons in their heads in a particular manner that make both of them believe what they believe. Their beliefs that they hold their respective positions based on reason and logic is an illusion which is in turn due to firing of some other neurons as part of the overall deterministic process. If this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands. Deterministic evolutionary processes have made sure that both of them believe what they believe since their genes somehow feel that it is beneficial for evolutionary survival. If so how do we know which of their view is actually true and not just evolutionary posturing to further survival? Based on this view truth seems unknowable, with our rationality and logic being slaves of our genetic survival mechanisms. Reason and logic are yet another evolutionary tool which helps us survive. That does not mean that it has anything to do with the truth. Their master is the genome and not truth, as we are fooled into believing.
All this seems very convinving to me except for a crucial problem. How do I know that what I have described above is true? I have used reasoning to conclude that reasoning is not reliable and that it does not lead to truth. That is definitely some sort of logical contradiction . I am not free to make elaborate arguments using reason to finally conclude that reason itself is not reliable as a pathway to the truth. If my argument is correct I can no longer use reason for truth seeking and hence has invalidated my argument. So I cannot conclude on rational grounds that human reason and logic is dependent on deterministic processes like firing neurons. I think this is some version of the ‘argument from reason’ for the existence of God. I am not sure how this argument leads to a proof of God. But it sure seems to indicate that reason and freewill are fundamental parts of human experience and cannot be undermined by materialism and determinism. Consciousness and freewill and rationality seems to have a legitimacy apart from these deterministic processes. We do not seem to have adequate language or understanding to express these realities. Our modern scientific worldviews are caught up in materialism which has no way out of determinism and hence has cursed us with inability to understand the most human of all our experiences.. our own consciousness, sense of self, freewill, logic and rationality. In comparison to these, all the vast realms of knowledge humans have attained are mere trivialities.