Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #114. Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

© Chris Port, March 2011

(Marty is gazing in awe at Dr Horquine’s whiteboard. It is filled with dense equations. Dr Horquine approaches, frowning, as if to say “Yes?”).

MARTY: (To himself). Oh gosh. Oh gosh that’s good. Brilliant... Wrong, but brilliant.

DR HORQUINE: (Irritably). Wrong? What’s wrong?

MARTY: (Pointing to a symbol). Here. There’s an error in the third stage. You’re almost there. (He grabs a marker pen, rubs out a symbol with a squeaky finger, then slashes in a correction). There. That should put you back on track.

DR HORQUINE: (Glares at the correction as if it was a shit stain on his sofa, then peers at it, then gazes in awe at it. He turns to Marty, uncertain now). Who are you?

MARTY: Now that’s a good question. I wish I knew. I did. But I think I’m having some kind of breakdown. Well, either me or the universe. I don’t know who I am anymore. I was hoping you might be able to help?

DR HORQUINE: (Glancing back at the equation). I’m sorry. I’m a bio-physicist, not a psychiatrist. I can refer you to one of my colleagues if you like?

MARTY: Thank you. But it’s your expert opinion I’m after. Would it be correct to say that you don’t believe in God?

DR HORQUINE: Yes. That’s correct.

MARTY: Can you say precisely what it is you don’t believe in?

DR HORQUINE: No. That’s not the way it works. You’re asking me to describe something that doesn’t exist.

MARTY: Thank you. That’s what I thought.

(Marty turns to leave).

DR HORQUINE: Wait a moment. Is that it? Is that all you wanted to ask?

MARTY: Yes. You see, I wasn’t sure if I was right. To be honest, I’m still a little uncertain. But isn’t everything, eh?

DR HORQUINE: Perhaps you should talk to a theologian?

MARTY: Oh I have. They can’t describe what God is either. But they’re very certain that they believe in him. Perhaps description is the key? (He turns to go, then turns back). Doctor, you surprise me.

DR HORQUINE: Oh? How so?

MARTY: You’re a profound atheist. To you, religion is insanity. Why point me in the direction of madmen?

DR HORQUINE: (Smiling gently). I thought you might be able to help them.

MARTY: (Smiling back). God moves in mysterious ways. Doctor, could I ask a favour?

DR HORQUINE: You can certainly ask.

MARTY: If you ever come up with a Grand Unified Theory, try to include an equation for humour. Nothing warps the universe like a good sense of humour.

DR HORQUINE: I’ll do my best. A pleasure to meet you, Mr…?

MARTY: Gull. Marty Gull.

(They shake hands).

DR HORQUINE: Until we meet again, Mr Gull.

MARTY: We won’t. Unless you’re very wrong. Goodbye Doctor.

(He grins at the whiteboard and leaves).


  1. On the 'redefinition' of God...


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  3. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)