The Simulation Situation

There are smart people who think we’re probably living in a simulation. They question whether we’re flesh and blood creatures inhabiting a physical universe. Instead, we’re mental constructs “living” inside an incredibly sophisticated computer program. Our reality is someone else’s virtual reality.

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker summarizes the logic:

The argument, actually debated at length at the American Museum of Natural History just last year, is that the odds are overwhelming that ours is a simulated universe. The argument is elegant. Since the advance of intelligence seems like the one constant among living things—and since living things are far likelier than not to be spread around the universe—then one of the things that smart living things will do is make simulations of other universes in which to run experiments….

Since there will be only one “real” universe, and countless simulated ones, the odds that we are living in one of the simulations instead of the one actual reality are overwhelming. If intelligent life exists, then we are surely likely to be living in one of its Matrices. As Clara Moskowitz, writing in Scientific American, no less, explains succinctly, “A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.”

Mr. Gopnik somewhat jokingly suggests that recent events, in particular, an evil buffoon becoming President, a startling turnaround in the Super Bowl, a dumb mistake at the Oscars, are evidence that someone “up there” is messing with us (“Let’s do this crazy thing and see what happens!”). 

In response, Jesse Singal of New York Magazine argues that recent events seem so bizarre because recent history has been relatively calm:

…part of what’s going on here is that over the last few decades, the world has gotten so much less weird — in mostly good ways — that it’s now easier to highlight and harp upon what are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor weirdness flare-ups….

We pay more attention to the Patriots coming back from 28–3 in an impossibly short span of time because we’re less distracted by the U.S. trying to napalm its way out of an inconceivably stupid jungle quagmire. We gawk at the Oscar craziness and dwell on it because it stands out in a saner world than many of our parents and grandparents inhabited. Hell, it’s too early to say, but in the long run, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, maybe even [Donald Drump] — God or superintelligent alien simulators willing — will end up getting a mere footnote, rather than a chapter, in the Book of Weirdness humanity continues writing every moment of every day.

I think Mr. Singal is correct, of course. As some have noted, the Oscar thing was bound to happen (it had already happened once before, in 1964 to Sammy Davis Jr.); sports teams occasionally overcome big deficits, especially when the other team helps; and the Electoral College could have done what the Founders intended and elected a normal person (although I have to admit that, as naturally-occurring events in any possible world go, Drump in the White House is hard to accept).

The idea that we are constructs in some kind of vast computer program isn’t the same as what was depicted in the Matrix movies. In the Matrix, we were good, old-fashioned human beings being manipulated into thinking we were somewhere else. In the simulation hypothesis, we’re software that thinks it’s human. But once you start to imagine possibilities like these, it’s hard to conclude we’re one vs. the other. Would it be easier to create virtual beings who think they’re organisms like us or to trick organisms like us into thinking we’re somewhere else? 

That’s one of the problems I have with the idea of the big simulation. It’s the same problem I have with the idea that our minds could be uploaded onto a computer. In theory, a program could execute the same thoughts that you or I have. For example, it could reach the same conclusions we would if presented with the same evidence. But could a program have the same feelings, the same conscious experience, we have when we touch, hear or see? Maybe so, but it’s hard for me to understand how a program could possibly do that. Would the software include components that made the software believe it was conscious when it really wasn’t? Could the evil demon have tricked Descartes into think he was conscious when he really wasn’t?

Of course, there are other problems with the simulation hypothesis besides my personal lack of imagination. Nobody knows how common life is. How often, for example, do chemical components form single-cell organisms? How often does single-cell life make the transition to multi-cellular life? Assuming complex organisms develop, how often do they form stable societies? And how much technological progress do stable societies make before they destroy themselves or hit some other bump in the cosmic road? We know there are lots of stars in the universe, and now it looks like there are lots of planets too, but beyond that it’s all speculation.

It’s also questionable whether advanced civilizations would decide to run such simulations even if they could. Why assume that beings that advanced would care about creating a world like ours? Wouldn’t they have better things to do?

More than a few philosophers and physicists think there are other universes in addition to ours, maybe even an infinite number of them. In one or more of those many universes, every possibility is real. So maybe the universe we experience is a vast simulation. On the other hand, maybe it’s a simulation being run for an audience of one. How do I know that the simulation I’m witnessing is simulating something for anyone else? It would certainly be simpler to simulate a universe for a single “person” (me) as opposed to billions of them (all of you). At any rate, I’m sure I’m here. Are you?

And Another Thing (Not About Politics for the Most Part)

What follows may be the least important of the 522 posts I’ve written since beginning this blog. That’s saying a lot, I know, but here it is anyway:

One thing I learned from years of studying philosophy is the distinction between naming, mentioning or referring to a word and using it. One half of that distinction should be perfectly clear. We all use words when we write or speak them. For example, I used either nine or ten words in that last sentence, depending on how you want to count the word I used twice.

Brief tangent: If the same word is used twice in a sentence, should it be counted twice since it appears twice or should it be counted once, since it’s the same word both times? The answer to that question has to do with another distinction (the one between token and type). That distinction isn’t the subject of this post, however, so let’s keep going. 

As I was saying, it’s clear that we all know how to use a word. But how do you name it? It’s very simple, actually: you put quotation marks around it. For example, in order to refer to or mention the word “cat”, I put quotation marks around the three letters that spell it. Doing so allows me to ask you, for example, whether you can spell “cat”. If I asked you to spell the word cat, without the quotation marks, it wouldn’t mean the same thing at all. (The best I can figure is that it would mean to relieve the cat that’s good with words by taking its place.)

People, of course, have names like “Peter” and “Susan”. See how I just gave you the names of those fictional people by using quotation marks? In effect, I gave you the names of their names. If I’d said Peter knows Susan, I’d have simply used their names. I’m sure you get the idea.

My next point: We can also name, mention or refer to a sentence. How? Again, simply by putting quotation marks around it. For example, “This is a sentence” is a sentence. In that last sentence, I referred to the sentence “This is a sentence” in the same way I referred to the word “cat” above.

Okay, I’m now getting close to the point I wanted to make when I began this post several hours ago. When I was in school, I was taught a certain way to use quotation marks. It’s a rule that appears in a list Google presented when I asked their search engine how to use quotation marks correctly:

Rule 4. Periods and commas ALWAYS go inside quotation marks.

The sign said, “Walk.” Then it said, “Don’t Walk,” then, “Walk,” all within thirty seconds.
He yelled, “Hurry up.”

If you follow this rule, you’ll write things like this:

I can spell “cat.” 

Instead of:

I can spell “cat”.

But the name of the word “cat” isn’t “cat.”. So what’s that period doing inside the quotation marks instead of being at the end of the sentence where it obviously belongs?

Likewise, if you follow Rule 4, you’ll write sentences like this:

This is a sentence: “This is a sentence.”

Instead of:

This is a sentence: “This is a sentence”.

Putting the period inside the quotation marks would be okay if you wanted to emphasize how declarative sentences are supposed to end with a period, but if that’s what you were doing, you’d need another period outside the quotation marks to mark the end of the whole sentence, like this:

This is a sentence: “This is a sentence.”.

Now take a look at the next rule in the list:

Rule 5a. The placement of question marks with quotation marks follows logic. If a question is within the quoted material, a question mark should be placed inside the quotation marks.

She asked, “Will you still be my friend?”

The question Will you still be my friend? is part of the quotation.

But wait a second. We’re supposed to follow logic with respect to question marks, but not when it comes to periods? What this apparently means is that the question below should be written this way:

Can you spell “cat”?

Not this way:

Can you spell “cat?”

Which makes sense, because “cat?” is not a good way to refer to the word “cat”, in the same way “cat.” isn’t a good way either.

Sometimes you have an idea and wonder why you’ve never heard that idea before. Why hasn’t someone else concluded that Rule 4 is dumb? Why are we all taught to use logic when using quotation marks with question marks but not with periods? Was there a problem with typesetting many years ago that gave rise to Rule 4? Was it a solution to a perceived problem or simply someone like Ben Franklin or Noah Webster who had a few too many and thought Rule 4 would be a good idea? 

I decided somewhere along the line that I would ignore Rule 4 on this blog and in my other written communications. So far nobody has complained or, so far as I know, even noticed. 

But imagine my surprise and relief when I found this today at the website of Capital Community College of Hartford, Connecticut: 

Here is one simple rule to remember:

In the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic. 

In the United Kingdom, Canada, and islands under the influence of British education, punctuation around quotation marks is more apt to follow logic. In American style, then, you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost’s “Design.” But in England you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost’s “Design”.

Capital Community even offer an explanation of sorts for this discrepancy:

There are peculiar typographical reasons why the period and comma go inside the quotation mark in the United States. The following explanation comes from [a link that no longer works]: “In the days when printing used raised bits of metal, “.” and “,” were the most delicate, and were in danger of damage … if they had a [double quote] on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always using ‘.”‘ and ‘,”‘ rather than ‘”.’ and ‘”,’, regardless of logic.”

This seems to be an argument to return to something more logical, but there is little impetus to do so within the United States.

That last sentence sums up the situation perfectly. There is little impetus to be more logical here in the United States. It’s not the entire English-speaking world that’s doing it wrong, it’s just us. And we’ll keep doing it wrong because, well, most of our Constitution is more than 200 years old and much of it is out-of-date. Why shouldn’t our punctuation be old and out-of-date too?

So, here we are. I’ve explained the situation and assured you that I’m committed to breaking Rule 4 at every opportunity. I call on the rest of America to do the same. Sometimes we have to stand up for what’s right, even if it means risking reprisals from illogical, conservative elements among us.

But, I know, I know, you probably think you’ve wasted the past several minutes reading this post. Maybe you’d rather have been reading about Trump and Congress and France and Baton Rouge.

Or maybe in retrospect it was good to get away from that for a bit? If you’ve missed it, here’s a long article about Trump’s even longer history of lies and exaggerations. The reporter says it’s hard to find a project Trump worked on that didn’t involve dishonesty or misinformation of some sort. I couldn’t stand to read the whole thing, but maybe you can. (By the way, there’s a poll out that says a majority of registered voters think Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Hillary Clinton. Amazing. This is what years of propaganda and intense ideology will do.)

And in case you want to submit a question to one of the speakers at the Republican Convention, which starts tomorrow, there’s a form you can fill out here. Posing as a fictitious reporter, I asked to interview a member of the Trump family on the topic: “Is Donald Trump a psychopath or merely a dangerous con man?” Still waiting for a reply.

Ignoring the Next Six Months – Day Three

Before I blocked the Huffington Post, I saw that they were adding a few words at the end of certain stories:

Editor’s note:  Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

The Huffington organization probably feels bad about giving him so much free publicity. (Note: I had to outsmart my browser in order to copy the text above, but I did it in a good cause.)

Then this morning I followed a link to a Washington Post article with the headline “Few Stand in Trump’s Way as He Piles Up the Four-Pinocchio Whoppers”. The gist of the article is that most TV interviewers allow Trump to tell the same blatant lies over and over again, even though it’s clear to everyone – maybe even to Trump and his stream of consciousness – that he’s a huckster whose sales pitch involves telling people what they want to hear (“I tell you, this 1989 Fiat is one of the most reliable cars ever made!”).

The fact-checkers at the Post are so disgusted that they put together a list of his greatest hits. Unfortunately, they haven’t updated the list since March and it’s too long to fit on one page. But even though they demand that TV hosts have a list of Trump’s worst lies available for quick reference, it isn’t clear at all that many journalists will do their job and repeatedly challenge Trump before moving on to the next question.

I think the only solution is to cut off Trump’s microphone. Don’t let him appear on Meet the Press or Face the Nation. Don’t transmit his remarks on the nightly news. Don’t publicize his outbursts in newspapers or on the radio or on websites that purport to cover the news. Lunatics don’t have a right to be heard. Neither do proven liars. That’s not what the First Amendment guarantees.

Of course, it’s standard practice to present the views of Republicans or Democrats running for President, even candidates who tell more than their share of lies. But it’s also standard practice for major-party candidates to demonstrate at least some respect for the truth. (Is it surprising or predictable that someone who is a master of telling certain voters what they want to hear has a reputation among those voters for “telling it like it is”?)

What about the argument that the best way to counter lies and other falsehoods is to subject them to free and open discussion? There’s truth in that and voters do need to know what an important candidates believe and what they promise to do. That’s why journalists should make clear who Trump is, what he’s done in his life and what he promises to do as President. 

But journalists shouldn’t repeat his lies unless it’s to immediately challenge them. And they shouldn’t give him free, unfiltered access to their microphones.

Lastly, it might be said that making it more difficult for Trump to communicate with the electorate would be a bad precedent. Doesn’t that mean future candidates will be similarly affected? Certainly, it would be a precedent, but it would be a good one. It might make it less likely that our democracy will be threatened one day by an even worse demagogue than the one we’ve got now.

What Should Sleeping Beauty Say, Logically Speaking? (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I described the so-called “Sleeping Beauty Problem”. Mathematicians and philosophers have been debating this problem for the past 15 years (most recently in response to an article at the Quanta Magazine site). What should Sleeping Beauty say when she wakes up on Monday or Tuesday and is asked the following question about a coin flip that happened on Sunday: “What are the odds that the coin we flipped on Sunday came up heads?”.

To review: Sleeping Beauty doesn’t know what day it is when she wakes up or whether she’s already woken up during the experiment. But she is told that if the coin flip on Sunday came up heads, she’s only being awakened on Monday. If, however, the coin came up tails, she’s being awakened on both Monday and Tuesday. “Halfers” think the odds that the coin came up heads is 1/2. “Thirders” think the answer is 1/3.

Here’s the answer Pradeep Mutalik, the author of the Quanta article, gave in response to a whole lot of comments:

This is the crux of the idea: that there are two propositions in the Sleeping Beauty problem:

1) the probability of heads when the fair coin is tossed, which is obviously 1/2. This is the proposition modeled by halfers.
2) the probability of heads encountered later, which thanks to the experimental conditions that are asymmetric between heads and tails, is 1/3. This is the proposition modeled by thirders.

… the same problem statement can mean tossed if understood one way and encountered if interpreted another way.

Once you accept that there are two valid interpretations, the solution of the Sleeping Beauty problem can be expressed in one sentence:

A fair coin is tossed: The probability of it landing heads when tossed is ½; the probability of Sleeping Beauty encountering heads later, thanks to the asymmetric experimental conditions, is 1/3.

And that, in a nutshell, is all there is to it.

Mr. Mutalik also added this note in response to my own comment on his article, in which I came out in support of the 1/3 answer:

As in my reply to Rich, your answer is correct for the heads “encountered” probability. The heads “tossed” probability is, and remains ½ until SB learns the actual result of the coin toss.

The point of all this is to show that there is no incompatibility in the thirder and halfer arguments. The same person can simultaneously be both a halfer and a thirder.

As a new supporter of the thirder position, I’m not convinced by Mr. Mutalik’s response. As I wrote in the previous post, it’s clear that the odds of getting heads or tails when a coin is flipped are always 1/2 heads and 1/2 tails. That’s how coin flips work (putting aside the extremely rare occasions when they land on their edge and don’t fall either way). 

But the question presented to Sleeping Beauty is: “What are the odds that the coin flip came up heads?” Since she knows how the experiment is being conducted when she’s asked this question, shouldn’t she conclude that the odds are 1/3, not 1/2? After all, she knows that a coin that came up tails means this could be either Monday or Tuesday. If it came up heads, it can only be Monday. So the odds that the coin came up tails is twice as likely as the odds that it came up heads (i.e., 2/3 vs. 1/3).

It seems to me that asking Sleeping Beauty to ignore the information she’s been given about the experiment is asking her to give an answer she knows is incorrect. What a question means depends on its context. If the context in this case were simply: “Please explain how coin flips work. In particular, what are the odds that a fair, properly-executed coin flip will come up heads instead of tails, such as the coin flip we executed on Sunday?” In that context, the correct answer is obviously 1/2. Everybody should be a halfer when asked how coin flips work.

But that isn’t the context in which Sleeping Beauty is being asked to give an answer. She’s not being asked to explain how coin flips work in general. She understands that she’s involved in a bizarre, possibly unethical (the memory-destroying drug!) experiment and that the question she’s being asked is part of that experiment. She’s being asked what the odds are given her current situation. That’s why I think it’s more reasonable for Sleeping Beauty to be a thirder than a halfer. She should answer “1/3”. It’s twice as likely that the coin came up tails!

Whether she should be allowed to go back to sleep after giving the correct answer, so that she can later be awakened by a handsome young prince, or whether she should receive appropriate medical care and reacquire a normal sleeping pattern, is an ethical question, not a logical one, and beyond the scope of this post.

What Should Sleeping Beauty Say, Logically Speaking?

Imagine that Sleeping Beauty agrees to take part in an experiment. First, she’s going to be given a special memory-loss drug that will make her forget what day it is. Then she’ll go to sleep. While she’s asleep, the people running the experiment will flip a coin. If the coin comes up heads, they’ll wake her up on Monday and ask her a question. If it comes up tails, they’ll wake her up on Monday, ask her the same question, give her the drug, let her fall asleep again, and then wake her up on Tuesday, asking the same question as before.

Because of the drug, however, she won’t know what day it is when she wakes up. Furthermore, she won’t know whether this is the first or second time she’s woken up. Each day will be a brand new experience for her. But each time Sleeping Beauty wakes up during the experiment, she’s told about the coin flip and the rule that says heads will mean she will wake up on Monday, and tails will mean she will wake up Monday and Tuesday. 

Now here’s the problem: Each time Sleeping Beauty wakes up and is told the rules of the experiment, she’s asked this question: “What are the odds that the coin flip came up heads?” That is, what are the odds that the coin came up heads and this is Monday (as opposed to tails and this is either Monday or Tuesday)? What should Sleeping Beauty say?

I came across this problem at the Quanta Magazine site yesterday. You may be surprised to learn that experts have been arguing about its solution for years:

The famous Sleeping Beauty problem has polarized communities of mathematicians — probability theorists, decision theorists and philosophers — for over 15 years…. This simple mathematical problem has generated an unusually heated debate. The entrenched arguments between those who answer “one-half” (the camp called “halfers”) and those who say “one-third” (the “thirders”) put political debates to shame… Halfers and thirders tend to remain firmly rooted in their view of the Sleeping Beauty problem. Both camps can certainly do the math, so what makes them butt heads in vain? Is the problem underspecified? Is it ambiguous?

So, should Sleeping Beauty say there is a 1/2 chance that the coin came up heads, since there’s always a 1/2 chance that coin flips come up heads and a 1/2 chance that they come up tails? Should Sleeping Beauty be a halfer?

Or should she be a thirder and say there is only a 1/3 chance it was heads? After all, if it’s Monday, she was awakened because the coin came up heads or tails. If it’s Tuesday, she’s awake because the coin came up tails. That means it’s twice as likely she’s awake because the coin came up tails. There’s a 2/3 chance the coin came up tails and a 1/3 chance it came up heads. It sounds like Sleeping Beauty should be a thirder.

But not so fast! There was only that one coin flip on Sunday and we all know that coins have a 1/2 chance of coming up heads! Maybe she should be a halfer?

The Quanta article is fairly long and delves into why halfers and thirders give the answers they do, as well as why they often resist changing their minds. The comments that follow the article are even longer and include mathematical formulas. I didn’t read all the comments, and I’ve never studied probability, but I left my own comment anyway:

I wasn’t a halfer or a thirder before reading the article. Now I’m a committed thirder.

If you were to simply ask Sleeping Beauty whether a fair coin toss came up heads, she should say the odds were 1/2. Without any other information, that’s the rational answer. But you’re asking what odds Sleeping Beauty should assign, given the additional information she’s been given about the experiment. Since today could be either Monday or Tuesday (as far as she knows), it’s more likely that the coin came up tails. The fully-informed, rational answer she should give is 1/3.

So I think Sleeping Beauty should say this each morning: “Given how coin flips work, the odds are 1/2 that heads came up. But given how coin flips work and given what you’ve told me about this peculiar experiment, the odds are only 1/3 that heads came up. I can easily flip back and forth between the halfer and thirder positions, but why should I ignore the additional information you’ve given me? Taking into account what I  know about the experiment, I must conclude that the odds are 1/3 that heads came up. If that makes me a thirder, so be it. Now where’s my prince?”

But she shouldn’t take my word for it. She should make up her own mind.

The author of the article, Pradeep Mutalik, responded to my comment and everyone else’s last night. I’ll post his response tomorrow in case you haven’t already rushed to the Quanta site to read it.

Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Part 2

Roy Scranton’s “We’re Doomed. Now What?” begins with a different premise than Charlie Hueneman’s “Everything Is Meaningless – But That’s Okay” (which I went on about two weeks ago). Scranton thinks that global warming, escalating violence or a combination of the two will one day put our species out of its misery:

Today, as every hour brings new alarms of war and climate disaster, we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God, after all, while we must come to terms with the death of our world….

We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point….The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.

It’s fair to say that without a major technological breakthrough on one hand or the collapse of the carbon-based global economy on the other, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase. That could have horrific consequences. A “runaway” greenhouse effect may have given Venus its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide and average surface temperature of 842 degrees.

Scranton implies that we’re doomed because four common responses to the global warming crisis are seriously misguided. He says “denialists” deny the problem exists, “accelerationists” think more technology is the answer, “incrementalists” favor the kind of modest changes already being made, and “activists” argue that “we have to fight, even though we’re sure to lose”. He thinks “we respond according to our prejudices”.

He then calls attention to what could be thought of as a fifth type of response, except that it’s closer to no response at all. Scranton thinks nihilism “defines our current moment”. Too many of us believe that “if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway”. What he apparently has in mind is the point of view sometimes referred to as “existential nihilism”. That’s the idea that life, whether individual lives or human life as a whole, lacks meaning, purpose or value.

What evidence is there for this increasing nihilism? Scranton mentions four television programs (I’ve watched two of them – they’re very good). Maybe more convincingly, he says “you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred”. There is also the advance of “scientific materialism”, which has been undermining religious beliefs since at least the 17th century.

But war, sectarianism and racial hatred aren’t examples of nihilism. Nobody goes to war because they think everything is meaningless. People don’t divide into sects because they lack purpose. Racists value some people more than others for no good reason. That’s stupid, but not nihilistic. Science conflicts with some religious doctrine, but people who take science seriously aren’t generally amoral. So, putting aside the issue of nihilism for the moment, what does Scranton say we should do?

Oddly, by the end of the article, Scranton has declared himself to be a kind of “activist”. He believes some of us will survive global warming. Our species isn’t due for extinction. Therefore:

…it’s up to us … to secure the future of the human species. We can’t do it by clinging to the progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism. We can’t do it by trying to control the future. We need to learn to let our current civilization die, to accept our mortality and practice humility. We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint.

In other words, we need to find meaning in taking care of the planet, not in the all the stuff we can get from burning carbon. We can’t wait for the global carbon-based economy to collapse. If we want to keep the planet habitable for human beings (a few of us anyway) and other living things, we need to immediately cut back our use of fossil fuels.

I’m sure Scranton would like to explain how we can accomplish this. How will it come to pass that so many people will change their way of looking at the world, of valuing what oil and coal do for us? Global warming isn’t such an obviously imminent crisis that the powerful or the mass of humanity will quickly reorient their thinking. It’s not as if a planet-destroying asteroid is heading our way. Nor are we in danger of running out of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. There are billions of tons of the stuff just waiting to be extracted.

But all that Scranton offers as a way forward is to cite Nietzsche. The German philosopher set forth a position known as “perspectivism”. It’s not exactly clear what he meant by that (clarity wasn’t one of his strengths), but the general idea is that we each have our own perspective on the world; none of our perspectives give us access to the world as it really is; so the best we can do is view the world from as many points of view as possible. Adopting more and more perspectives can get us closer to the truth, even though we can never attain absolute, completely objective, non-perspectival truth about anything at all.

At least that’s how Scranton interprets Nietzsche. Life may be meaningless. The planet is probably doomed. But human beings have a tremendous capacity to find meaning in all kinds of situations. We need to use that capacity to view the planet’s future from as many perspectives as possible, human and non-human:

We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes and polar bear eyes…

If we can manage that, difficult as it may be, we may be able to stop the Earth from becoming another Venus.

Perhaps you agree about adopting new perspectives, but I think it’s highly unlikely that the world’s leaders or the mass of humanity will ever stop finding most of life’s meaning in the here and now, based on their own particular points of view. Denialists will continue denying there’s a problem. Technologists will continue looking for technological solutions. Incrementalists will advocate or settle for incremental change. Activists like Scranton will propose new ways of finding meaning, while nihilists won’t think it matters what happens.

My own view is that the human race may get lucky but probably won’t. We should, however, still make intense efforts to stop burning so much carbon, while making life as decent as possible for those of us who are already here, including the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and everything that travels or grows upon the earth (except maybe mosquitoes and poison ivy). We have to balance the near future in which life is hard for so many and the more distant future in which life may not be possible at all. We will probably fail, but it’s the right thing to do.

Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing

Since reading a couple of articles that deal with the subject, I’ve been meaning (intending) to write about the meaning (significance) of life.

Back in October, Charlie Hueneman, a philosophy professor at Utah State, posted “Everything Is Meaningless – But That’s Okay”. Then, in December, Roy Scranton, a writer working on his Ph.D. in English, delivered “We’re Doomed. Now What?”. Hueneman and Scranton both start out negative and end up positive. That happens a lot on this topic.

Hueneman begins by describing supposedly meaningless activities, ones that “have no point to them – nothing is achieved, no purpose can be fathomed, and the work we dedicate to them is entirely wasted”. If meaningful activities are the opposite, he says, they have a point. They’re done for reasons.

He then asks the same question about our lives as a whole. Do our lives have a point? Instead of offering an answer, however, he quickly moves to the whole universe. Does the universe have a point?

I don’t think this is a fruitful way to think about the meaning of life. We shouldn’t expect the meaning of particular activities like brushing our teeth to be the same kind of meaning that could attach to a person’s entire life. Why would a person’s life, something that consists of lots of actions but also many, many experiences, most of which have no purpose and aren’t intentionally acquired, be meaningful in the same way as an individual action?

It’s even more questionable to expect the universe to have a meaning in the sense of having a purpose. Hueneman mentions entropy: maybe the universe’s purpose is to wind down and even out. But it’s one thing to say that what happens in the universe tends to go in one direction and another to say that it all happens for a reason. So Hueneman concludes that “all existence is meaningless”. Nothing, not even brushing our teeth, has a point (despite what your dentist says).

To the objection that “we create our own meaning, with the ends we set and the decisions we make”, Hueneman replies that we can’t create meaning. We can merely pretend that our actions are meaningful. Why can we merely pretend? Because we could decide that any activity at all is meaningful, even those that seem obviously meaningless. Furthermore, since all of our actions will come to nothing in the end (when the sun explodes, for example), there is no point to any of our actions now.

None of Huenman’s points are convincing, but even if they were, that wouldn’t be a problem, since he goes on to explain why he thinks living in a meaningless universe is okay. It’s okay because we have the ability to enjoy or find value in pointless activities, even if we understand that they’re pointless. Everything we do is ultimately pointless, but it can still be worth doing:

The distinction I’m invoking is this. A pursuit is made meaningful in virtue of being part of some larger purpose or end that exists apart from us. But a pursuit or activity or achievement can be pleasurable or valuable by meeting some condition set by us – either deliberately (as in staged contests), or simply by us being the sort of beings we are. We generally are the sort of beings who like having fun, seeing beautiful things, and helping one another. And that’s why we value these things – regardless of the fact that they are ultimately meaningless.

What Hueneman has done here is to offer a questionable definition of “meaningful” and then use that questionable definition to declare everything meaningless. Given his definition, only things that serve a higher purpose apart from us are meaningful. But not to worry, since we can find enjoyment and value in life anyway.

It  would have made more sense for Hueneman to admit up front that we find meaning in all kinds of things, whether or not they serve a higher purpose. We don’t pretend to find them meaningful; we actually do. Some activities and experiences are meaningful for us because they’re enjoyable (or painful) or we think they’re valuable or because they serve our purposes or someone else’s. There is no need to confuse the issue by worrying about whether the universe has a purpose, whatever that could possibly be. If you find something meaningful, it’s meaningful for you, whether that something is your teeth, your life, the history of the universe or stories about heaven and hell.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that whatever a person finds meaningful has significance or substance beyond what that person thinks or feels. There are those among us who think the movements and positions of the planets are extremely meaningful. I, for example, was born on a certain day sixty-odd years ago, so I and millions of others should understand that today (actually yesterday) might be hectic. Nevertheless, we should remember not to hurt anyone “who has walked a small distance” with us. We should also use our excellent sense of humor to “bridge the gap” between us and our “superiors” (which will be difficult for me, since I retired several years ago). Astrologists and their fans who really believe in astrology find meaning where more down-to-earth people don’t. Unfortunately, the meaning they find doesn’t correspond to reality in terms of allowing them to make good predictions or devise helpful explanations, but they do find astrology meaningful.

In conclusion, it’s hard to say whether we find meaning or create it. We don’t usually pretend to find it (although there are ministers who have lost their faith, various politicians and hucksters, and those of us who want to protect somebody’s feelings). If we create meaning, most of us don’t consciously create it. If anyone ever has, it’s probably the people who originally made up stories like the ones about Mount Olympus, Shiva and the burning bush; or Plato and Aristotle when they explained the world in terms of ideal forms or final causes. Most of us use the tools we have (our desires, our experiences, our biology) to find meaning where we can. Sometimes we find it. Sometimes we don’t.

Next time I’ll get to that other article, the one that says we’re all doomed but we should take meaningful action anyway.