Ethics and Despair

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 9, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

despair

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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I would like to look at things that seem to cause some people a lot of despair.

There are things that, simply by contemplating or ‘dwelling’ on them, tend to cause extreme anxiety.

Among these are the fact that we are going to die, or that the universe itself will come to an end in which all humans and all human descendants – all beings that have or even could have an awareness of our existence – will cease to exist.

These include the worry that your life has no purpose – or that the only way that a life can have purpose is if it is spent in the service of a god, and there is no god.

The pain of facing these possibilities is what causes some people to turn to religion – and for some people to put up such walls to protect their religious beliefs that they grasp at the most absurd and ridiculous claims. It is because, if that person were to let go of those beliefs, the pain and anxiety of the universe as it really is would be unendurable.

Desirism draws a distinction between fixed desires and malleable desires – recognizing of course that this is more of a matter of degree than a matter of kind. All desires are malleable in a sense because agents have the option of taking their own life, which alters every remaining desire out of existence.

Anyway, the question to face her is: Where do these anxiety-producing desires come from?

Perhaps we evolved these dispositions somehow, but I do not see a good argument for it. Consider your family pet – your household cat or dog or goldfish. Evolution has provided him or her with certain aversions to physical pain – and has associated physical pain with that which tends to thwart genetic replication. It has given the animal a hunger and a thirst – and a preference for some tastes more than others.

It has given many animals a desire for sex, and a desire to behave in ways towards one’s own offspring that tend to help to ensure that the offspring grows up to have its own offspring, or to act in ways that promote the offspring of kin.

However, we do not see in animals any force that would cause the animal to foresee, let alone regret, his own death – or a time when it will no longer be of this planet. Nor is there any force causing dogs and cats the regret of the loss of their own species, or the end of the universe itself. They do not have an overwhelming need to serve a divine purpose – though they do have a desire for certain types of company which, when properly cultivated, makes their lives easier than they would have otherwise been.

They may have ridden piggy-back style on any of the changes that distinguished us from animals in our evolutionary past. A cerebral cortex that can have an awareness of its own death or the extinction of its species might also come with an overwhelming aversion to these things.

The changes that made it possible for us to better understand the world around us were changes that make our brains malleable in certain ways. We can form beliefs that other creatures cannot form – beliefs that allow us to write computer programs, discover the nature of diseases and how to prevent them, and realize that our existence as individuals – and probably, as a species – are finite.

The same changes that allow us to have malleable beliefs would suggest that it gave us malleable desires. This includes a capacity to learn to feel despair at the thought of our own death, or the end of anything that remembers the civilization in which we live.

These anxiety-causing aversions, likewise, are probably learned. We have been taught, by those who came before us, to fear our own death, to fear the death of the tribe, and to suffer extreme anxiety at the thought that one is not serving a higher purpose – that one is not serving God.

That which was learned can be unlearned. Or, at least, there is little or no reason to pass on to a next generation those severe anxiety-causing desires that were foisted on us and the generations that came before us.

Or, actually, there is little GOOD reason.

There are some social parasites who have reason to promote the belief that a life that is not devoted to the service of God is not worth living. We need to look at this aversion in the context of the fact that there is no God. No person has ever actually served a God because there has never been a God for any person to serve.

The people who tell us to serve God also tend to insist on telling us that they are God’s chosen messenger on Earth. “You serve God by doing what I say. You serve God by giving money to His church and by granting His messengers on Earth social and political power, and by denying these things to their enemies and opponents.”

Of course, rather than serving God, those who fall for this line are actually put to work serving God’s messenger.

A mosquito will inject an anti-coagulant into a victim’s bloodstream in order to draw the blood out more easily. The messenger parasite injects an aversion to a life not serving God as a way to make it easier to appropriate the will and the actions of the victim to his or her own purpose. That is the function – the purpose – of these learned emotions: to inject the host with beliefs and desires that then make it easier for the parasite to feed off of them.

Almost certainly, they are not doing this intentionally – not with this as a deliberate conspiratorial end. But then mosquitoes do not have a deliberate conspiratorial end in mind when they inject blood thinners into their host. Rather than being the effects of deliberate plots and schemes, it is simply a fact of evolution that belief systems that first prepares its host with a sense of despair over things that cannot be avoided, and offers to treat that despair with a set of false beliefs that state that such a state can be avoided, survives and propagates through the generations.

The despair that people feel at such thoughts is real. Nothing in here denies the real pain that some feel at the thought that their own life, or the end of all who know about and remember the human race, may end. However, it denies the necessity of these sentiments and the suffering that it causes. It offers a reason for their very real existence, but it is not a reason that has merit. The reason is to make it easy for people to manipulate others into serving their interests, providing those who plant these seeds of despair with political and social power, gifts, and obedience.

“Serve me,” is a command that is too often difficult to pull off. “Serve God, and I am the voice of God,” has historically seemed to work much better.

The seeds of despair provide the hosts with another set of incentives for others to devote lives that they think are spent in service to God, instead spent in the service to those who claim to speak for God.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur February 9, 2010 at 6:39 am

Among these are the fact that … the universe itself will come to an end in which all humans and all human descendants – all beings that have or even could have an awareness of our existence – will cease to exist.

I’m so not worried about this. It took industrial civilization a few centuries to get to the moon – why wouldn’t a few billion years be enough to fix such a teensy little problem as the predicted end of the universe? Especially considering that there is a huge amount we don’t know about physics and cosmology and the current theories about the fate of the universe are just a few decades old. Call me in a billion years and if this is still an unsolved problem at that point, then I’ll consider feeling bummed about it.

“Serve me,” is a command that is too often difficult to pull off. “Serve God, and I am the voice of God,” has historically seemed to work much better.

Meh. Aren’t there just as many Genghis Khan types as there are Mohammad types? Submitting your will to a powerful person is a natural – and often rewarding – thing to do. He doesn’t have to be a prophet.

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Justfinethanks February 9, 2010 at 7:57 am

Haukur: It took industrial civilization a few centuries to get to the moon – why wouldn’t a few billion years be enough to fix such a teensy little problem as the predicted end of the universe?

The heat death isn’t a problem that can be solved with technology. The moon landing harnessed the laws of physics, with attempting to “solve” the heat death you are fighting against the laws of physics. I really don’t see how that is feasible even in the wildest of sci fi writers’ imaginations.

You’re right, however, that we still don’t know a lot about cosmology and physics. While the heat death is the best explanation according to our current knowledge, new areas of research, like Loom Quantum Cosmology, bring up the possibility that firstly “before the big bang” isn’t as absurd as we thought a generation ago, and secondly that the universe will end in a “big bounce” instead of a heat death. It’s using new advances in physics to revive the cyclical universe idea.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20026861.500-did-our-cosmos-exist-before-the-big-bang.html?full=true

Of course, the Large Hadron Collider won’t be fired up at full power until 2013, so we might have to wait until after then to get a clearer picture.

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Charles February 9, 2010 at 8:42 am

If someone can find a way to generate power from dark energy, then all you need to is construct a planet-sized object and launch it with enough velocity to escape the gravitational pull of a mega black hole.

Good luck with that.

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Haukur February 9, 2010 at 9:46 am

Justfinethanks: The heat death isn’t a problem that can be solved with technology. The moon landing harnessed the laws of physics, with attempting to “solve” the heat death you are fighting against the laws of physics. I really don’t see how that is feasible even in the wildest of sci fi writers’ imaginations.

Like I said, call me in a billion years. If, at that point, you tell me “20th century physicists were right, there’s still no way we can think of to get around the heat death of the universe” then I’ll start worrying about this.

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Lorkas February 9, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Haukur: Meh. Aren’t there just as many Genghis Khan types as there are Mohammad types?

Perhaps a bad example, since Ghengis Khan was said to be of divine birth and he believed his empire to be divine in nature. The same is true for many other famously strong leaders in history, like Alexander the Great (and his dad), nearly all of the Caesars, Guan Yu, and I hear this is probably what happened with Odin and Frigg as well.

Sure there are examples of leaders who didn’t assert any kind of divine support, but I think that the statement made in the OP (“serve God, and I’m his prophet” works better in general than “serve me”) is probably justified based on the pattern of leaders throughout history. Even today, most [religious] people seem to be more likely to listen to their own religious leaders than they are to listen to scientists or politicians.

(the qualifier in brackets isn’t meant as a put-down to religious people–it just points out that nonreligious people don’t have religious leaders to listen to in the stead of politicians and scientists)

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Rhys February 9, 2010 at 4:38 pm

To reverse the heat death would mean we have to figure out a way to reverse the entropy of the universe. This seems to me a sticky situation, since many theoretical physicists and philosophers of time have said that the reason time is asymmetric (only moves forward) is because entropy only proceeds in a positive direction. Time may be inextricably bootstrapped to the laws of entropy, meaning that trying to reverse it would be a useless pursuit. However, if the maximum amount of entropy allowed in the universe is infinite, then we may be able to exploit that to sustain ourselves.

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Lorkas February 9, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Rhys: This seems to me a sticky situation, since many theoretical physicists and philosophers of time have said that the reason time is asymmetric (only moves forward) is because entropy only proceeds in a positive direction.

That’s only true in a closed system. Chemical reactions occur all the time that decrease entropy in one area by increasing it in another area. So, we could theoretically save our universe from heat death if we found a way to create another “universe” to accept the entropy increase from our universe.

Also, the increase of entropy is governed by probability, not certainty. This means that even in a closed system, it’s possible (though inconceivably unlikely) that entropy could decrease on its own. The concession of this possibility means that the laws of physics might permit some kind of technology that decreases entropy without increasing entropy elsewhere.

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Haukur February 10, 2010 at 1:58 am

Lorkas: Perhaps a bad example, since Ghengis Khan was said to be of divine birth and he believed his empire to be divine in nature.

No, that doesn’t make it a bad example. A leader of divine origin is still saying “Serve me” which was supposed to be some sort of sticking point. Someone saying “Serve me, I am of divine origin” is saying something quite different from the Mohammadian “Serve God, and I am the voice of God”. A prophet is different from a divine leader. Of course leaders will claim the Mandate of Heaven or just straightforwardly say that they are gods but that’s another thing entirely. A prophet can appear to be humble, which is what I think AF was getting at, but a living god can’t very well do that.

And on the heat death stuff – we don’t really know what the ultimate fate of the universe will be or whether it’s possible to get around it. It’s way, way, premature to worry about it.

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TH February 10, 2010 at 8:18 am

Nothing in here denies the real pain that some feel at the thought that their own life, or the end of all who know about and remember the human race, may end. However, it denies the necessity of these sentiments and the suffering that it causes. It offers a reason for their very real existence, but it is not a reason that has merit.

Humans have an innate desire to control their environment and their destiny, and death is the ultimate loss of control. Further, humans have an innate appreciation of unique complexity and beauty, life being the best example; and death is the destruction of uniqueness and beauty. Finally, humans value relationships with other humans, and death destroys those relationships.

These are three forms of desires that are thwarted by death and I don’t see that they are easily malleable, nor that despair can be easily averted.

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Will Dwinnell February 24, 2010 at 3:57 am

““Serve me,” is a command that is too often difficult to pull off. “Serve God, and I am the voice of God,” has historically seemed to work much better.

The seeds of despair provide the hosts with another set of incentives for others to devote lives that they think are spent in service to God, instead spent in the service to those who claim to speak for God.”

Yes, this scenario has certainly played out many times. The number of such occurrences, of course, goes up dramatically when the “God” part may be filled in by anything else. For instance:

“Serve the nation, and I am the voice of the nation”
“Serve our family, and I am the voice of our family”
“Serve freedom, and I am the voice of freedom”

Whether people serving those who represent God also, coincidentally serve God, is a separate question. But the idea of “borrowing” imperative from an external ideal is clearly not limited to the religious (or would-be religious).

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