Category Archives: Ideas

Thoughts about the world.

What Is the Best Superpower?

smbc-negative-wishes
From SMBC Comics

We often have discussions in our apartment on the most arbitrary topics. One time, we debated the question: What is the best superpower?

Despite the catchy title, this post is not really about the best superpower. Sure, it talks about that a lot, but that’s not the main point. The main point is about how messy a debate can be when the rules and terms are ill-defined.

What Is a Superpower?

From the start, it was unclear what was meant by “superpower.” It was implicitly understood that something completely all-encompassing like omnipotence is invalid because it is too broad, but this wasn’t formally forbidden. The only thing that was formally forbidden was any superpower than entailed having multiple other superpowers, like wishing for more wishes (but it gets fuzzy as to what counts as one superpower and what counts as multiple).

Being a smart-ass, instead of answering with the usual answers like telekinesis or mind control or invisibility or flying, I suggested the power to move subatomic particles. Let’s just call this particle manipulation for short.

From a naturalist perspective, i.e., physics, particle manipulation encompasses most other plausible powers (hold on for what “plausible” means):

  • To move a large object, you just make quadrillions of quadrillions of particles move in the same direction.
  • To start a fire, you make the particles move faster.
  • To create something out of thin air, or to regenerate any injury, you rearrange particles from the air into atoms and molecules to get what you want.
  • To control someone’s mind, you manipulate the neurons directly and make certain connections fire and others not fire.
  • To defuse a world war, you could just vaporize every nuke into air.
  • To become infinitely rich, you could just turn lead, or any other material, into gold, or into dollar bills.

However, my friend who initiated this discussion, and whose own answer was mind control, thought this answer I gave was “implausible” or “unrealistic.” So what is plausible and implausible? What is realistic and unrealistic?

Doesn’t the word “superpower” imply that it is NOT real? Why does moving a nearby object with your mind seem “realistic”? Does it take a lot of mental power or concentration? Are you limited in the number of objects you can control? Do I always write blog posts that have 7 questions in a row?

Much of our intuition of superpowers comes from the film industry (and thus indirectly from the comic book industry). Before getting bogged down with more philosophical questions, let’s appreciate some good old superpower usage in X-Men: First Class!

Observe the amount of concentration required in the first scene, compared to the relative ease in the second.

The second act is arguably more difficult: it requires control of a scattered collection of objects rather than just one, the control is required at far range, and the change in velocity is much greater. It’s hard to say which is more valid or realistic.

What Powers Are Valid?

Because the particle manipulation power was considered too strong, we decided to forbid it and use only well-known superpowers, to avoid some of the questions as to what was considered a superpower. But this clarification did not come at the beginning, it was more of a change of rules halfway in.

Even so, if you look at the comics, some powers are significantly stronger than portrayed in film. It’s still arguable that Jean Grey’s powers, especially as the Phoenix, are valid and are much stronger than most of the ones we talked about later in the discussion. Even so, do we count these powers separately? Are telepathy and telekinesis separate, or are they included together like in Jean’s case?

Magneto, for instance, is mostly known for him namesake, magnetism. But according to science, electricity and magnetism are really the same force, so does control of magnetism also come with control of electricity? According to Wikipedia:

The primary application of his power is control over magnetism and the manipulation of ferrous and nonferrous metal. While the maximum amount of mass he can manipulate at one time is unknown, he has moved large asteroids several times and effortlessly levitated a 30,000 ton nuclear submarine. His powers extend into the subatomic level (insofar as the electromagnetic force is responsible for chemical bonding), allowing him to manipulate chemical structures and rearrange matter, although this is often a strenuous task. He can manipulate a large number of individual objects simultaneously and has assembled complex machinery with his powers. He can also affect non-metallic and non-magnetic objects to a lesser extent and frequently levitates himself and others. He can also generate electromagnetic pulses of great strength and generate and manipulate electromagnetic energy down to photons. He can turn invisible by warping visible light around his body. [...] On occasion he has altered the behavior of gravitational fields around him, which has been suggested as evidence of the existence of a unified field which he can manipulate. He has demonstrated the capacity to produce a wormhole and to safely teleport himself and others via the wormhole.

Thus, from a logical and consistency perspective, I found it difficult to reject the validity of powers such as these. We essentially watered down telekinesis to being able to move objects within X meters and within sight range.

Telekinesis vs Mind Control

Among the remaining, weaker powers, the debate ended up being between telekinesis and mind control. More and more rules were made up on the spot. Once it was established that one power was generally stronger, the other side tried to state some technicality that would limit the power, and thus bring both back to equal levels. At this point, I thought the debate was pointless because we already conceded so many of the better powers, and then kept limiting the remaining powers because of arbitrary, subjective reasons such as being “unrealistic,” which was the main counterpoint. This seems absurd, because you are debating superpowers in the first place—they’re not supposed to be realistic!

It seemed like a debate regarding “What is the highest whole number?” At first we got rid of infinity (omnipotence was not allowed). Getting rid of really strong powers turned into “What is the highest whole number less than 100?” Then when one side says 99, the other side uses a limiting argument basically saying, “The same way numbers over 100 are not allowed, 99 is absurdly high and should not allowed either.” It then becomes “What is the highest whole number less than 99?” And so on.

While there was some semblance to rational debate, it was clear that on the big picture scale, there were essentially no logical points being discussed. It was a matter of imposed fairness. “It’s unfair that your superpower gets to do X and ours does not, so yours is invalid.” But this defeats the purpose of the question in the first place, which was to determine which one was the best. It devolved into the question, “Given that a superpower does not exceed some power level N, what is the best superpower?” Of course, the answer will just be ANY sufficiently good superpower, restricted enough to be at level N. In this case, making up rules on the spot completely defeated the purpose of the question.

Conclusion

There were a bunch of other complications in the debate, but overall it was pretty fruitless. The rules of the debate, namely allowing one to make up rules spontaneously, defeated the purpose of the debate in the first place. It was not completely pointless, however, as it showed the need for setting clear guidelines at the start, and for being consistent.

Spontaneous Decision Making

Decision

This post is about my own decision-making habits. In particular, I don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths. Perhaps an interesting case is from a 2011 post:

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.

This example involved physical paths, but it is true for figurative paths as well. I can’t stand any repetitive task for a long time, including for things that I might like.

Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking:

  • World of Warcraft: 8 (out of 11) classes at level 85+; raided as tank, dps, and heal.
  • Diablo 3: all 5 classes at level 60.
  • Path of Exile: all 6 classes at level 60+.
  • DotA: every hero played (up to a certain version).
  • Starcraft 2: all 3 races to level 30.

In WoW, the game I have definitely spent the most time on, my two main characters when I raided were a Priest (disc/shadow) and Paladin (prot/holy), having all 3 roles covered. Even within one specialization, I switched out strategies all the time: one day I would stack haste, the next day I would stack crit, and so on. Even so, I was usually very indecisive about what to do until the last moment.

My blogging follows a similar pattern. I find it hard to focus on one topic to write about in consecutive posts, and I generally cover whatever topic comes to mind. Yes, I set a schedule of one post per week. However, I usually don’t come up with a topic until the last day. The topic for this post did not arise until yesterday, from the suggestion of a friend (whom we were visiting also as a result of a spontaneous decision).

Being too spontaneous, however, also didn’t work well. In 2011 I decided to blog spontaneously (see the first link). Largely due to indecision, I ended up writing only 33 posts the entire year, 20 of which were written in the first two months. By contrast, in the December of 2010, I wrote 38 posts. The current system of sticking with a posting schedule but not a topic schedule is working much better, as every once in a while it forces me to make a decision and choose some topic to write about. This removes indecision from the equation.

In other news, I have made a fairly important life decision in the past week, regarding what I am going to do after college. This summer I interned at Jane Street, and I liked it so much that I decided to accept a full-time job there for after senior year. I had always thought of going to grad school, so this is a considerable change of “plans” for me. Fortunately, I don’t always stick to the plan.

(Edit: Due to an inordinate amount of spam on this page, the the comments are disabled.)

Pride in Things Out of Your Control

The topic for today is: Can you be proud of something that is out of your control?

I started thinking about this last week, when someone claimed to be proud of belonging to a particular house at Harvard University. This seemed quite reasonable, and perhaps rational, until he admitted the following caveat: the house assignments were entirely random.

In any normal situation I would let this go, but in our internship there is a strong emphasis on thinking rationally, and I was chatting with people I consider to be highly rational. So I raised the issue and we discussed it briefly, but it was not really resolved. I am continuing my thoughts on it here.

Pride in Luck

Imagine a game where you roll a fair 6-sided die. If it lands on a 6, you gain $10; otherwise, you lose $10. The expected value of this game is negative (on average you lose $6 per game), so one would be a fool to play it. But suppose you did play the game once, and it landed a 6, netting you $10.

Can you be proud of rolling a 6?

I would argue that you cannot be proud of rolling the 6, as there is nothing you did that affected the chance of rolling it. (Even further, I would argue that you cannot even be proud of choosing to play the game, as it has negative expectancy with a significant chance of loss.) It is irrational to be proud of something that happened by chance.

Biological and Geographical Luck

Similarly, can you really be proud to be a member of whatever race you belong to? Personally, I would answer no: I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

Because of this way of thought, I have never understood the point of racial clubs and organizations. I won’t speak out about other racial groups in America due to lack of knowledge, but I will say that Chinese organizations I have encountered in the US seem useless, cultish, and indoctrinating, to the point of being as bad as religious organizations. Every Sunday for a while, I had to go to a completely useless, mind-numbingly boring, tradition-ladden “school” which, of course, cost my parents quite some money. But I’ll save that rant for another day.

Elsewhere in geography, many people are proud of football or basketball teams—of the city in which they grew up or are currently living. Unless you specifically moved to some city for the sole purpose of being with its sports team(s), it is irrational to be proud of a local sports team just because you happen to share, by luck, some geographical vicinity.

In a similar way to geographical luck, biological luck defines us all more than it should. Survived some disease? Good for you, you happened to have had certain beneficial genetic mutations and proper health care. Tall? Again, a matching assortment of genes and nutrition. Hair or eye color? Genes. Male or female? Just a difference between XY and XX. It is just nonsensical for someone to be proud of being these.

Pride in History?

American Flag

So now, having established that I am proud to be an American, the question remains as to whether I can be proud of something that happened earlier in its history. After all, I have no control over the events of the American Revolution, just as I have no control over the roll of dice. However, the difference is that the American Revolution and its leaders were not an accident—they were forged from the values of the Enlightenment.

Then what makes it rational to be proud of the Enlightenment? I think the reasons listed above, for why it is justified for me to be proud of being American but not of being Chinese, provide the answer: one can and should be proud of philosophical and cultural values (though not necessarily of the culture in which one was born). Even now, the path of independence and freedom from tyranny is a slow and hard-fought process. Events like the American Revolution, even though they are long into the past, are then indeed something to be proud of. Happy Independence Day!

Edit (7/21/13): I wrote a follow-up.

Talent Is Overrated

“Talent” is a word that is tossed around all too often, whether for top musicians or businessmen, or even just a person who creates popular Youtube videos. The idea of talent is in nearly every case taken for granted. As a young member of a very supportive family and community, I had heard the saying myself many times. But is talent a correct or even useful explanation for high-level performance?

Talent Is Overrated

I recently read a very intriguing book by Geoff Colvin. It was really a lucky buy—I was actually reading through reviews of Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, when the ever-so-omniscient Amazon Recommendations pointed me to a bizarre and blatantly absurd statement: Talent is Overrated.

With a plethora of examples, data, accumulation of research, and forcible writing, Colvin argues convincingly that the source of great performance in just about every field is best explained not by reference to the mysterious force known as talent, but by sheer amount and direction of deliberate practice.

My Personal Experience

First, a line from Colvin (193):

Their parents made them practice, as parents have always done, though it’s interesting to note that in these cases, when push came to shove and parents had to make a direct threat, it frequently played off the student’s intrinsic motivators. So it wasn’t “If you don’t do your piano practice we’ll cancel your allowance,” but rather “we’ll sell the piano.”  Not “If you don’t go to swimming practice you’ll be grounded Saturday night,” but rather “we’ll take you off the team.” If the child truly didn’t care about the piano or swimming, the threats wouldn’t have worked.

I was one of those kids who was, regarding the piano, totally immune to such a threat. As I wrote earlier, I absolutely dreaded playing the piano, and would have loved to see the piano disappear and find a bunch of cash in its place. But what I lacked in interest for the piano I made up for in my interest in chess. From 2003 to 2010, I competed in more than 70 rated chess tournaments. But looking back at the distribution of tournaments, I found that the majority of them occurred between 2003 and 2006, with one resurgence in 2008 [data]. It would be accurate to say that my tournament frequency was very closely correlated to how much time I spent on the game outside of tournaments in practice. As if to confirm Colvin’s thesis, here are my regular and quick rating graphs:

chess-rating-graphs

When the frequency of tournaments, and thus training, increased, my rating climbed. And when the frequency of tournaments and training decreased, my rating stagnated or declined. This seems to support the dedicated practice model argued in Colvin’s book. The performance in a given time period seemed to be determined by the amount of training in the same time period.

But what about compared to others? I am hardly an expert player, but my very first rating  after my first tournament, 1372, was in the 96-97th percentile of scholastic players at the time. By contrast, the current US chess champion Hikaru Nakamura, whose current USCF rating is a whopping 2834, started at a provisional rating of 684, an unimpressive statistic. However, he has played in 439 rated events over a period of 17 years, which is a hell of a lot more effort than I had ever thought about spending on the game. Thus even when you have an “advantage,” such as having a starting rating of 1372 versus 684, thinking of it in terms of talent is useless. If you do not follow it up with the necessary amount of work, the advantage will assuredly disappear.

There is a third point, to truly put the nail in the coffin of the talent model. In a two year span from 2006 to 2008, my rating stopped improving in the 1700s. Excuses aside, I simply didn’t practice the game much. But one thing I think could have happened is what Josh Waitzkin described, from Colvin (197):

The most gifted kids in chess fall apart. They are told that they are winners, and when they inevitably run into a wall, they get stuck and think they must be losers.

I don’t think it takes a gifted kid to run into the wall and get stuck (the 1372 initial rating was actually in part due to luck, as my first few tournaments were counted out of order, and a tournament that I had done really well in was incidentally the first one counted). For those two plateau years, I did feel the way that Waitzkin forewarned. I thought the high initial rating meant something special, i.e. talent, and that the 1700 plateau meant I was doomed. This thought process in terms of talent condemned me mentally to not advance. Even though I was still fairly high rated in my age group, I stopped practicing and reading as much, and as a result did not prepare myself adequately for tournament events. This caused my rating to drop.

How to Be a World-Class Performer

Colvin’s thesis works for far more than just chess. He applies it to the violin, piano, football, players, business, investment, management, art, teamwork, and just about anything, all while citing tremendous amounts of evidence for his claims. For music, the obvious counterexample is Mozart, yet early in the book Colvin disposes of this myth, as well as that of Tiger Woods. Mozart, for instance, had my years of intense, expert training starting at an early age, and Tiger Woods swung his first club at age seven… months, also trained by his father.

Another result of years of deliberate practice is the ability for an expert to see complex patterns that would completely elude an average person. A professional tennis player can return a serve of a ball traveling at a speed so high that a normal human should not even have time to react. Yet they are normal in this sense. But they don’t watch the ball, they watch their opponent’s body movements instead, and know approximately where the serve is going to land (or whether it will fault) before the racket even hits the ball. Similarly, a top stock trader can see signs that the average trader does not even consider to be relevant. A top manager sees the critical signs more so than an average one. And a master chess player can memorize an entire chess position in seconds and reproduce it perfectly, while the average person can recall only five or seven pieces. Most notably, this is not from better general memory, but by extensive training to be familiar with certain positions and patterns, so that they read a position by words instead of letters.

I would most certainly recommend this book to anyone. It breaks the shackle of “talent,” which although is a warm, comforting hope, it is no more than that, a beloved superstition with little evidence, and which discourages so many from even attempting something because they believe they “don’t have talent” or “divine spark” for it. But as it has repeatedly occurred, looking back at the backgrounds of top performers give little or no indication of any talent early on, but rather, what is common to all of them is an immense amount of training and dedicated practice. Perhaps this is the even more fascinating hope, that the world is within reach to everyone.

Are We in a Simulation? A Scientific Test

According to a recent article, scientists are planning a test to determine whether our universe is a computer simulation. This is pretty relevant to my blog as I have discussed this idea a number of times before [1] [2] [3] [4].

Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion

Of course, the must-read paper on this subject is philosopher Nick Bostrom’s article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” The implication, given a couple of premises, is that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. Not only that, but the argument posits that our simulators are themselves extremely likely to be in a simulation, and those simulators are likely too to be in a simulation, etc.

Indeed, how will scientists test for signs of a simulation?

“Currently, computer simulations are decades away from creating even a primitive working model of the universe. In fact, scientists are able to accurately model only a 100 trillionth of a metre, with work to create a model of a full human being still out of reach.”

spiral_galaxy

Even so, there are limitations beyond technical ones that should be considered. If a test does not find any evidence of our being in a simulation, that does not rule out the possibility—in fact, a very well-designed simulation would be very difficult, if not actually impossible, to tell apart from a “reality” to its inhabitants.

Conversely, suppose a test that did find “evidence” that we are in a simulation. How would we judge this evidence? How can we know which way the evidence is supposed to point? After all, even if we find “glitches,” they could turn out to be part of a larger set of natural laws.

As Richard Feynman once thought, suppose we are observing a chess game but are not told what the rules are. After looking at various snapshots of a game, we can piece together some of the rules, and eventually we will learn that a Bishop must stay on the same color when it moves. But one snapshot later, we find that the only Bishop in the game is now on a different colored square. There would be no way of knowing, without looking at many more games, that there is a rule where a Pawn can promote into another piece, such as a Bishop, and that the old Bishop was captured. Without this knowledge, we might have thought that the Bishop changing color was a glitch.

Now back to the article.

“By testing the behaviour of cosmic rays on underlying ‘lattice’ frameworks governing rules of physics that could exist in future models of the universe, the researchers could find patterns that could point to a simulation.”

Many disciplines would have to come together here to prove something fundamentally “wrong” with our universe. It would be the junction point of computer science, physics, philosophy, mathematics, neuroscience, astronomy.

The plan given in the article is a noble one, but I do not expect it to grant any important experimental data soon. Rather, it is the tip of an immense iceberg that will be explored in not years or decades, but millennia to come.

Determinism from the Perspective of the Simulation Argument

It’s been almost two years since I last wrote about Free Will vs Determinism. The argument is the standard one, that since everything in the universe is governed by physical laws, it is completely deterministic. However, because it is not possible to to simulate the entire universe, it is at the same time unpredictable, so we should act as if there is free will.

However, one obstacle stood in the way of that argument: Quantum randomness.

With true randomness, we cannot say that the universe is deterministic. But with the basis that everything is governed by natural laws, it makes equally no sense to assert the existence of free will. Because, if all the same random events occurred the same way, another “run” of the universe would have the exact same result.

Even when you are thinking in your head at this very moment that you have free will, what is really most likely happening is that chemical processes in your brain have led your conscience to make that decision. If the entire universe “restarted” with the exact same sequence of random events, you would make the exact same decision again.

The Simulation Argument.

This is where the argument gets interesting. There is a very scary paper written by philosopher Nick Bostrom called, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” It is scary because the implication, given a couple of premises, is that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. Not only that, but the argument posits that our simulators are themselves extremely likely to be in a simulation, and those simulators are likely too to be in a simulation, etc.

With the near certainty that we are in a simulation, determinism can only become stronger. You have probably heard of things called random number generators. A lot of these work by taking a seed number, and then running it through a specialized function over and over again, resulting in what is known as pseudorandom. These generating sequences that seem random but are completely deterministic, if you know where it started, i.e., the seed number and the algorithm.

This means that, providing our simulation ancestors, the beings who simulated our universe, are using similar ideas of random number generation, all the “random” quantum events we measure in our universe could actually be a completely determined sequence, perhaps by an algorithm so complex that it would be physically impossible to calculate from within this universe.

Of course, this is provided two premises:

  1. We are in a simulation.
  2. Our simulation could use pseudorandom number generation.

Premise 1 is actually very likely, from sheer numbers in the argument. It is Step 2 that is undecidable and for us to choose. If we accept it, this would imply our entire universe, including quantum events, is completely determined. And if we reject it, it would not rule out the possibility of total determinism either.

Possibilities

Given some invented definitions, here are the levels for free will vs determinism in the simulation framework:

  1. Total Free Will: Consciousness is special, i.e. not bound by physical laws. Free will comes from a higher source. (Question: What if this higher source is bound by physical laws in its universe?)
  2. Weak (Random) Free Will: Consciousness is not special, i.e. it is bound by physical laws. However, there are events in the universe that exhibit true randomness, so it is not fully deterministic.
  3. Weak (Random) Determinism: True randomness exists. However, given a specific set of outcomes of random events, the universe runs the same way.
  4. Total Determinism: True randomness does not exist, only pseudorandom exists. Thus, our universe will always run the same way under the same starting conditions.

An Atheist’s View on Morality

This is in response to my previous article, “Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality.” In that article I listed several questions in several situations and asked you, the reader, what you would do in each case. At the end, I promised to explain my own moral principles as well. So, this post is my own view of ethics and morality, from an atheist.

What Is the End Goal?

First of all, what is the goal of morals? To create a better society is a satisfactory explanation to many, but what then? If a nearly perfect society were to exist some time in the future, would morals still matter? My answer is Yes.

I am optimistic in the future of humanity, and I hope there will be a time when humans can peacefully explore the stars, the galaxies, and the universe. When we are at this stage of civilization, we will be long past the petty conflicts that determine morals today.

Thus, a more long term goal is needed. I propose the following primary objective:

  • To preserve life in the universe.

There is no pure logical reason to put this directive above all others. However, if we start with this assertion, that a universe with life is better than a universe with no life, then many moral questions can be answered in a systematic way.

A Moral Hierarchy

It is systematic enough to put morals into a hierarchy:

Levels
6. Preservation of Life
5. Preservation of Intelligent Species
4. Preservation of Diversity of Species
3. Preservation of Well-Being of the Species
2. Preservation of Self
1. The Following of Social Norms/Cultures/Religion/Laws
0. Natural Instinct and Personal Wants

The way to read this is for any action, start at the bottom and see if it fits with the statement at that level. Then an action is morally justified if it fits a given level and to the best of your knowledge, it does not contradict a higher level. On the other hand, an action is morally wrong if it fails to fit the highest level that you are knowledgeable of.

Examples

Perhaps this hierarchy is a bit confusing, so I will give a few examples.

Example 1: You see a dollar bill is on the ground and nobody else is around. Is it right or wrong to take the dollar bill?

  • According to Level 0, you are allowed the action of taking the dollar bill. You go up one level, to Level 1, and the action is still allowed by society. You don’t believe it will affect any of the higher levels. So, the decision to take the bill is morally justified.

Example 2: Someone has $1,000. Is it morally right or wrong to steal the money from this person?

  • The action fits Level 0, but it fails at Level 1, as it is against the law. You do not believe it will affect any higher level. Since Level 1 is the highest relevant level to your knowledge, the action is morally wrong.

Example 3: Thousands of nuclear weapons around the world are about to explode, and the only way to stop them is to extract a certain code from a captured terrorist. However, the terrorist will not speak. Is it morally justified to torture the terrorist?

  • Torture is against social norms and the law, so the action fails at Level 1. But, Level 3 and Level 4 are very relevant, as the large number of nuclear detonations would kill billions, collapse ecosystems, and cause catastrophic changes to the environment. It would not only threaten human civilization (Level 3), but also wipe out many, many species (Level 4). It could even wipe out humans (Level 5). Thus, to preserve Level 3, Level 4, and Level 5, the action is morally justified.

Example 4: An alien species is about to create a super-massive black hole that will devour millions of galaxies and eventually the whole universe. The only way to prevent this is to preemptively wipe out this alien species.

  • Killing the alien species is against the law, so the action fails at Level 1. Even worse, it would kill an entire species, an act of xenocide, so it fails at Level 4. However, it satisfies the highest objective, Level 6, as it prevents a case where all life in the universe could be destroyed. So, wiping out this alien species is morally justified.

Reasoning

The reasoning for each level is as follows:

  • Level 1 overrides Level 0: The society most likely has a better chance to function  with rules than without rules. This gives it a higher chance to advance.
  • Level 2 overrides Level 1: An individual should be allowed to preserve one’s own life regardless of what other people assert, as long as the individual believes the actions necessary do not contradict any of the higher levels. This is because an individual may discover truth that is contradictory to the rest of the society.
  • Level 3 overrides Level 2: It is justified for an individual to sacrifice one’s own life to improve the quality of living for the species. This increases the chance that the society will be able to preserve itself.
  • Level 4 overrides Level 3: It is justified to lower the quality of living of a species to preserve the diversity of life, i.e., the number of species. This way, if some catastrophe wipes out one species, there are a large number of species remaining to preserve life.
  • Level 5 overrides Level 4: An ecosystem has a better chance to survive if the most intelligent and advanced species is alive. For instance, if a massive asteroid is on a collision path with Earth, it will require Space Age technology (achieved only by humans) to preserve life on Earth, so humans are more important to Earth’s ecosystem than any other species.
  • Level 6 overrides Level 5: It is better for a technologically advanced species to sacrifice itself if it allows life to continue in the universe if life would otherwise be destroyed.

The Role of Knowledge

This hierarchy of morality is strange in that the determination of whether an action is morally justified depends partially on the knowledge of the individual.

For example, suppose that someone were brainwashed when they were young by a society or religion, and that he is led by it to an action that contradicts one of the higher levels. On Earth, for instance, it is common for many of the popular religions to contradict Level 2: Preservation of Self, and Level 3: Preservation of Well-Being of the Species. Level 3 is particularly relevant in today’s age, when the understanding gained from stem cell research, particle accelerators, and evolution have the result of giving life on Earth a much higher chance to survive potential global or cosmic catastrophes.

When someone who is brainwashed by a religion commits an act that contradicts Level 2 or 3, then according to this moral system, the person is not to blame—the fault is with the religion, and with the society for allowing that particular religion to be so pervasive.

Who Exactly to Blame?

Imagine a massive asteroid that will crash into Earth in the year 2050.

At the rate of advancement of our current technology, with a few years of advance warning, we as a species will be able to send multiple rockets armed with nuclear weapons to knock the asteroid off course and save not only our lives, but the lives of all species on Earth, and all of Earth’s children. But say religion had been more prominent and had delayed the onset of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution by just 100 years. Then when the asteroid hits, we would only have what we know as 1950 technology, and likely all of humanity, and all life on Earth, could be destroyed. Surely this is not the fault of any person, but the fault of religion.


The corollary to this question is, What if an asteroid had crashed into Earth in the year 1850? There would have been absolutely nothing we humans could have done at that time to stop it. If that were the case, then we could not blame anyone in that time period. Instead, we would blame the Dark Ages, for practically halting the advancement of technology for a thousand years.

Ethics in Religion

If we value life, and if we want life to prosper in the universe, then humanity as a whole needs to adopt a new form of ethics. Maybe not the one above, but it must embrace one that is based on the existence and diversity of life, not based on myths that were invented in an ancient past.

This is why, among religions, a tolerant religion such as Buddhism is better for the future of humanity than an heavily indoctrinated one such as Christianity or Islam. Religions of the latter category only claim to be “tolerant,” but in practice are often not. See Galileo, the Salem witch trials, or the recent anti-free speech protests in the Middle East. These kinds of religions are fundamentally resistant to change. Whereas, truly tolerant religions are always open to change.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.

-Dalai Lama

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

-Dalai Lama

Sure, the less tolerant religions may teach values they consider to be good, but for life to survive, sometimes the rules must adapt. Say a powerful alien species abducts you and gives you two options: (1) to kill a fellow human and the aliens will befriend the human race and help us advance, or (2) to refuse to kill a human but then the aliens will destroy the entire Earth. You could blindly follow “Thou shalt not kill” as in option (2) and let all the millions of species on Earth die, or you could rationalize that the survival of millions of species, including your own, is more valuable than any single individual member of the species, and instead advance life as in option (1).

Some Concluding Remarks

To preserve life and to let it flourish through the stars, and eventually throughout the universe, we must use an ethics system that adapts to the given situation, not one that proclaims to be absolute and forever-lasting.

Some nations, particularly many of those in Europe, have already realized this. When the United States finally realizes this as well—and hopefully before it’s too late—the rest of humanity will follow, and then finally, the human species will be one of progress, discovery, and peace.