Friday, February 23, 2007

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Pondering why there is something rather than nothing begins when we use language to make assumptions. This line of reasoning assumes there is such a concept as “nothing” and that this can apply to reality external to the mind. “Why” denotes a purpose, and purpose is often a result of conscious thought. “Why” is a human question that has limited application beyond earthly affairs.

Everything in the universe can be represented as information. These bits of information react with each other, forming complex patterns of matter and energy. Taken as a whole, the universe can be thought of as a giant computer (beware the analogy). The brain as a computer is vastly inferior to the processing capacity of the entire universe, which means that while the universe can be known by us, not all of it can be known at once. Likewise, this universal computer cannot know all of itself. What it processes we are discovering now, even as we are elements of it. To know what it processes is to know how it processes is to know why it processes.

We are fond of manipulating and controlling our surroundings and assume that if we run our lives in such a way, then perhaps there is a great conductor who in turn operates everything. We look to higher and more complex entities as being possible explanations or sources of action for what occurs around us. Very rarely do we consider that there is no great conductor, or even supposing there were, that it would not know anything beyond what it was immediately doing (as in the giant computer analogy). To seek answers in more complex forms may be overlooking the simpler forms as the source of complexity.

String theory suggests the four dimensions of the universe we experience are complimented by a sixth dimensional universe (amongst perhaps more dimensions – depending on who you ask, anywhere from 11 to 26). What we know of this (our) universe tells us very little about how these higher dimensions operate. Our concepts of beginning and end, cause and effect, existence and non-existence may not apply in these dimensions. How the information in these alternate dimensions is processed may explain how (and thus why) this four-dimensional universe operates. If the universe (all dimensions of it) operates in a perpetual cycle, or is infinite and eternal, then the something/nothing question may be invalid the way it was phrased. Existence cannot be compared to non-existence because the latter may only ‘exist’ as a concept in the minds of humans.


Saturday, February 17, 2007


Mad as a Fish and I have been conversing in the comments section of "Socialism Defined". Fish has offered a few questions that the very few readers that visit this blog may like to help answer. He starts with a little story: [Note: Most of the formating is my doing.]

  • An 'anarchist' friend and me were having a drink (about a year ago, when I was still working the 9-5) and we moved on to the inevitable 'why do we bother with work?' convo.

  • "It's all in the mind you know." He said, as if I hadn't heard it before. "The State. You don't have to go to work tomorrow - we could all just up sticks and stop - and that would be the end of that. People don't realise their own power."
  • To which I responded, "Yes, but I am, unfortunately, living under a capitalist system of labour organisation - which means that in order to achieve my goals I have to engage with it - Would you suggest that I simply stop the pursuit of what I desire?"
  • "Ah!" He said, as if pulling off some particular coup. "But then most of what you desire is measured by the private property you can purchase with your earnings! Property is theft, man."
  • So I reach for his glass, "You won't mind if I take your pint then."
  • "Get off - that's mine!"

He continues:

  • Property is theft - moron. It's not that I condone private property as an institution - it's just that it is UTTERLY pervasive as an idea, and has been since it was begun by enclosure acts in the 1600's. Removing such a deeply entrenched idea takes time - this is why I think Anarchism - at least in practice (if not theory) - is a little juvenile.

And then asks:

Would like to hear your thoughts on Anarchism - as it's actually quite a new idea to me. I know 'without state' does not nessecarily mean 'without order' - it's just that,
  1. given the six billion people we have on this merry little dirtball, can there be any other means of realistic mass cooperation than the state?
  2. Would you advocate the 'small social units' approach instead?
  3. And wouldn't that in turn lead to cultural and technological stagnation?
  4. Is that a bad thing?

My responses:

1) Yes. Of course, this has to start from some common definitions. "State" can have a good or bad connotation. I like to separate the "good" state from the "bad" state by denoting the former as the "public trust" (schools, transportation, hospitals, fire and accountable police DP, etc) and the bad state as "The State" or "Big Brother" (corporate welfare, military- and prison- industrial complexes, goon police). The public trust serves any and all - all benefit from it, and all must pay for it. We each have a stake in the education of our children; the health and well-being of our neighbours, family, and coworkers; the movement of goods and raw materials, etc. Whereas with "The State", very few benefit from corporate welfare and the creation of mechanisms of oppression like prisons and detention centers. I cannot accept that we must allow "The State" to exist alongside the public trust. They both feed from the same teat.

2) Yes, I would advocate such an approach. Herbert Simon talks a bit about this and other economic topics. A good article can be found on wikipedia: Also, if we look at biology, we see that in many cases this is how organisms do it. Our cells organise themselves into productive units that perform some specific task. They don't require the brain to perform every little operation. Humans in large groups are less efficient than humans in smaller groups. There is a part of the brain that largely dictates how many people we can have in our "I remember/know you!" storage. Tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures are known to split when they grow beyond that number. Military units are also organised into 150 or less men. I almost talked about this kind of stuff in a previous post:

3) Not necessarily. Computers, books, the internet, etc will break down borders and boundaries. The fact that we can come together on blogs and discuss these things, being half a world away from each other, suggests we have a wonderful opportunity to stitch the world together.

4) Cultural and technological stagnation are not to be desired. Culture is as much a means of expression as it is a way to adapt to changing conditions. Technology will become increasingly necessary as our society grows and becomes more complex. I couldn't imagine our modern economy operating without digital computers. The extra paper waste and time less well spent crunching numbers and charts out by hand would make it nearly impossible.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Does Ignorance Lead to Immoral Acts?

(This question is a paraphrasing of the one posited in Plato's Protagoras dialogue.)

Ignorance of pleasure and pain (particularly that of others) is often the root cause of wrong or immoral deeds.

Pleasure and pain can be combined to mean consequences, as those consequences which yield either of these are those that concern us. Humans base most of their actions on how well that action avoids pain and finds pleasure. Very often it is not the ignorance of the well being of the person, but of the need to apply it to others. That is, we are acutely aware of how we enjoy pleasure and abhor pain; when it comes to how we treat others, however, we very often do not employ empathy to adequately judge the morality of our actions.

Simulations like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Stag Hunt suggest that focusing only on our own benefit may be less effective than cooperating with others. Humans are social animals, and require empathy to work together. By using empathy and applying the lessons of game theory, evolution has built tools into our brains that help us see actions that can be done for both individual benefit and group benefit. These two outcomes need not be mutually exclusive. Powerful tools like these are most likely the source of such ideas as “karma” and “reward in the afterlife”. Cooperating in the wild and then in civilization has allowed humans to advance. Ignoring this behavioral utility very often reduces pleasurable outcomes and may be detrimental to society.

Concrete examples of harmful ignorance include a lack of understanding of cumulative effects. If one person dumps their trash into the river, it probably won’t do too much harm. If a whole city dumps its trash in the river, it probably will do some harm. Drops in a bucket do add up. Each person feels that the consequences of their actions don’t amount to any great harm. Each can easily ignore the miniscule effect they have individually. The responsibility of the sum total of the effects is spread thinly amongst the people. Another example is excluding the ripple effects of an action. When a factory in the US moves oversees, the workers are often given the pink slip and left to fend for themselves. The community as a whole feels the loss, but not those who have a stake in the moving of the factory. In this case, only one side of the equation was considered, intentionally or not. This ignorance of the harmful effects our actions have on others, willful or not, is frequently the cause of immoral deeds.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Individualism champions the freedom of personal choice and the personal responsibility that entails. One must make decisions and be responsible for the consequences, good or bad.

Collectivism is the lack of personal choice. The group decides what should be done, thus spreading responsibility around. No single person can be blamed, but neither can any one person be recognized.

Managerialism is based on the understanding that humans are inherently lazy and irresponsible. Therefore, they need someone else to tell them what to do and to be responsible for them.

Workplace democracy is the recognition that humans prefer to make their own choices, and are more satisfied and work harder when given the opportunity to be responsible.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Disobeying Unjust Laws*

Question: Which sorts of laws, if any, may one justly disobey? If one does disobey a law, must one do so openly?

A law may be justly disobeyed, even publicly, under certain warranting circumstances.

Only those laws that prevent harm to society should be invoked to violate the rights of the individual. It may also be considered that self-inflicted harm, to the extent that it would be detrimental to society if an individual hurt himself or herself, is a valid reason to suspend rights. Such curbing of rights serves to increase our happiness and liberty by guiding society away from destructive ends. On the other hand, a law that violates another’s rights which does not have such permission and is not for this stated purpose can be broken justly, and, if it pertains to the expression or manifestation of freedom, it may be as much a matter of justice as it is preservation of liberty to do so in public display. However, it is entirely possible to make a point by intentionally and knowingly breaking the law privately, and merely admitting as much in public.

Deviant behaviour can be defined as that which goes against accepted social mores. It is as much the role of society as it is the individual in determining the limits of behaviour of the individual. Social mores are relevant only in the time period and common cultural attitudes of the society and therefore can be ignored (publicly or privately).

Our rights as humans grant us authority over a wider range of activity, including deviant behaviour, than our accepted social mores. Individual choices and actions take precedent over social mores and laws but not over the rights of others. When the expression of freedom curtails that of another individual, it is no longer a right. Some social mores and laws can certainly violate the rights of humans and in such cases disobeying them would be a demonstration of liberty more so than a show of defiance. It should not be treated as if the law is false and deserves to be broken, but that it simply did not exist and apply at all in the first place.

*I will probably be filling this blog with these Plato essays as I write them.