Sunday, November 23, 2008


I don't like rumors much. They are rarely true and tend to negatively distort perspectives. But, sometimes a person needs to talk a bit. So, here's a place where hopefully no one knows where I'm from and where I can be vague and I never have to listen to someone pestering for more details.

So, someone on campus recently went missing and was later found dead. The circumstances were very strange and seemed like either an accidental killing or suicide. Or a Darwin Award-quality accident by him, but that seems the least plausible.

I was thinking about suicide, trying to figure out what I think of it.

First of all, it's sad. It's also confusing. I mean, I've thought about it, but something held me back. A few thing. Most immediate is just plain fear. What's over there? Death is something that no one knows, except maybe those who are already there. I guess I'm afraid of what I don't know.

I also thought about the people who were left. I sometimes had malicious thoughts, wanting to hurt people, but there's something that just seemed too cruel. No matter how exact or detailed a note is, unless a person lives in a cave, there's always someone left asking "was it something I did? Didn't do? Is this my fault?" That's something I just could not leave behind, that doubt and worry and potential self-hatred. I mean, isn't one of the suicidal thoughts "this world is better off without me", so wouldn't suicide make the world worse off without them?

It takes a kind of selfishness to kill oneself (assuming it's not a sacrifice for the good of others like jumping on a grenade or whatever). It leaves behind so much pain. What could they be feeling that makes it worth so much pain? Perhaps it's so much pain that they don't even think of it. They just want it to end.

I can't remember where I heard it, but somewhere it was said that when people commit suicide and fail, they have a powerful urge to live. I think that's the body, the unrestricted instinct kicking in. Even when the mind gives up, the body refuses to die without a fight.

I wonder what they think at the very end. Relief? Fear? Anger? Regret?

It makes me think of Maslow's hierarchy. All the physical survival stuff: air, then water and food, come before anything else. I assume blood retention falls somewhere in there. After that you can start worrying about things like social ties and happiness. But it all gets jumbled with people. Religion redefines some terms. People who die for such reasons have a spiritual food, which can be more important than anything else. Social rejection? That's the wrong order. But maybe this can teach something.

Maybe life needs to be worth living to live it. I like that idea actually. It doesn't work well in practice. People can't see very far when they're emotional. Happy people see the world has happy and good and why should it ever end? Sad people, the opposite, but with the unending part. Unending pain. Only death could provide any relief, so why not hasten it? They're wrong though. Life can be reclaimed. It's so hard to see that from such a low state. Besides, it's not likely to help a crumbling person to say that they're wrong about their entire perspective.

I wish we could just say "you're wrong about life and that's the happiest thing you will ever hear."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The old runaway cable car

The basic plot is this: you're operating a cable car and the brakes fail while going downhill. There is a fork coming up and you can pick to switch to the other line or stay on your current. On your current track are three people who will be hit. On the other is one person. To clear up the inevitable questions: you have no other options except to hit three people or switch and hit one person. They are as generic as people go, so you aren't picking between friends/family and strangers or another race or anything like that. Oh right, and anyone you hit will die.

At first glance it's pretty simple: it's a matter of two evils, one greater, one lesser. Killing one person is less bad than killing three people. In other words: switch to the other track.

But let's look at it some other ways.

For the person on the other track, he is in no danger. His life is safe. Fate rolled the dice and put him on the safe track. From his perspective, switching to hit him is a great injustice. It's as if he dodged a bullet, breathed a sigh of relief, and then it ricocheted into his skull.

For the people on your track, their lives are already gone. What can they say? Kill him instead, we are more people, we are more important, let him die, not us! That seems rather selfish. Imagine further that there is only one person there. He'll still want you to switch tracks, even without the justification of numbers.

Jumping back, let's look at you again. Your choice can be rephrased as killing three through inaction or killing one through action. You choose to kill one or do nothing to save three. Now which sounds worse? Do we attack the people outside the burning build because they don't rush in again to pull out others? In general we're surprisingly tolerant of inaction. But action, that's a big deal, especially when it involves death. Think of historical examples of people who have killed others for a greater good. Stalin is an excellent example, having millions killed to protect the State. Yet despite what he would call great action, we call him a monster. Hitler killed millions of Jews and other 'undesirables' in order to save the German race from being polluted. He too, is a monster.

While a quick check of numbers shows that it makes sense to switch the car to kill one rather than three, from a larger perspective it looks like a horrible thing to do. Society attacks those that kill for the greater good but is merciful to those who do nothing and let fate run its course. Powerful men have switched the cable cars in their nations and become monsters.

Personally, I'd switch the track, but I'd still feel horrible.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Efficiency is a tool, not an end

A class I started recently brought up the idea of the endless pursuit of efficiency. Chase it chase it, make everything efficient and everything is better. Don't ask why we make things efficient, just make it more efficient. Supposedly this was an influence on the Nazis, explaining a little bit why they were so focused on the efficiency of their killing without asking why they were killing.

They had tunnel vision. They were efficient at killing, but the effects of the killing were not efficient. Despite their glorification of science and technology, progress, they were nothing higher than another generation of religious zealots, blinding by their beliefs. They ultimately destroyed themselves with this. Setting aside moral reasons for a moment, killing or driving out all the Jews, especially German Jews, was incredibly stupid. It may have lost the war for them. But that isn't my point.

Efficiency is what? I see it as a streamlining of a process in order to reduce consumption of energy while creating the same output. This can be seen as a mathematical equation, so feel free to multiply (don't ask about division, they're the same thing) or add (ditto for subtraction). You can create more for the same energy if you want or less but with way way less energy.

Ultimately efficiency is a fight with entropy. What is entropy? Think of it as a decay which cannot be stopped, barely even slowed, and never reversed. This is in the overall universe, so there's nothing much preventing local reductions in entropy. Ultimately entropy will increase to the point where there is no longer order, or even disorder, instead there's just not much of anything. Rather depressing, isn't it? Efficiency is a fight with this, and it cannot win, so taking the side of efficiency is rather silly.

What is more efficient than what we do now? For one it would be more efficient to surgically remove the emotion centers of our brains. They cause all sorts of inefficiencies such as crying and wars. Going further, remove taste buds, in fact most senses can go. They waste a lot of energy and only hasten the demise of the universe. Animals are pretty bad too

Monday, August 11, 2008

Evolution Everything

Evolution needs to stop being taught as the origin of life. It needs to stop being taught as a new theory to explain species. That is not what it is. It's a part of something bigger and much more significant. I propose a new law of the universe, a very simple, very obvious one, yet something that no one seems to explicitly state or realize the importance of.

Those things which survive and/or in some manner replicate at a rate which at least exceeds the rate at which they are destroyed, will continue to exist. More simply: things that exist and continue to exist will continue to exist. Like I said, obvious. This is important though, it affects all sorts of areas of research and discovery. An example might help.

Why do so many people seem to need to convince you of their ideas and spread them? Ask the reverse; why are there so few people who keep their thoughts to themselves and never try to spread their ideas? Most obviously, it's a matter of counting, you don't notice the quiet ones, only the loud ones. But it's also in the ideas themselves. Ideas have pieces to them, one piece includes what to do with the idea. An idea which tells you to never say it again will die when you do. Ideas which tell you to convince others, even if the conversion rate is poor, will last longer, spread more, than ideas which isolate themselves.

Alternatively, look at the concept of a nation. It exists outside of the individual, it doesn't depend on their existence, if it did, people could not die for a nation or else it would cease to exist. They are something bigger, more general, and they also tend to kill their own people. Why does something so destructive exist? Nations are powerful, they make people act against their own self-interests, in favor of the nation, allowing a nation to be far more powerful in conflict than a social system which favors the individual. If nations were nicer, they would be weaker, and other forms of organization might be more prominent. But nations are what they are, they survive and even reproduce, so they continue to exist.

In light of this, the evolution of species isn't such a startling idea. It's not a dramatic break from religious theories. It's simply a continuation of a fundamental law of the universe. Why not argue about magnetism and what keeps children's artwork on refrigerators?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What's so bad about being selfish?

Imagine an entirely selfish morality. Do not think of selfish as a child not sharing toys or a shoplifter. Instead think of it as looking out for oneself above all else, but with the sense to look down the road. A reasonable system of rules can be created from this.

Start with this question: Would I want this to happen to me? Think of it as a variation of Jesus' command to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

I would not want to be murdered, so I do not murder. If we all do this, then no one gets murdered and we all benefit. Collectively we can set up laws and punishments to discourage murder. Do the same for stealing. From selfish motivations we can acheive a greater good.

Here's the catch: This system is based partially on the fear that we will be subject to the same things we do to others. Imagine everything as a competition. If you will never lose then winner takes all is a pretty nice system for you. But none human is unbeatable, everyone loses eventually, and that's when we see the need for rules which protect against total loss. A murderous world might be good for someone that always wins, but everyone loses eventually, so we want to set standards so that defeat is not death.

With rational, selfish people, a safer, more prosperous world could be created. As individuals become too dangerous the masses would recognize the threat and deal with it. There would be balance, no one would be allowed to become significantly more powerful than another since this would threaten each individual.

There are two major threats to this system. One is the formation of sub-sets of the population which choose to act more closely with each other, against the greater population. Normally these could be recognized and dealt with, but if the threat was not noticed in time, it could lead to excessively powerful groups and the individuals within, destroying the balance. At this point the will of a few could be imposed on everyone.

The other threat is God. According to Christian thought he is all-powerful. This means that he does not need to fear being on the losing end, he will never lose. He can make any rule he wants, do anything he wants, and there is no balance at all. If he was entirely benevolent there isn't too much to fear, but the slightest ill will would be devastating for the target. The Old Testament is filled with stories of what happens when an all-powerful ruler of everything is unhappy.