Purpose

Perhaps the most fundamental question that we all must ask ourselves is: why am I here? What is my purpose in life? The answer to this question from a religious person’s perspective is usually to worship God and live life in accordance with religious teachings. However, a secular person does not have as clear an answer.

More generally, a religious person and a secular person have different answers to the question: what is the purpose of life (in an objective sense)? The Abrahamic religions teach that God created humans with a purpose, and thus, there is a reason why we exist. Once again, that fundamental purpose – to the religious person – is to serve God and live a life aligned with God’s wishes.

However, a secular person does not believe that such an objective purpose exists. To a completely secular person, who does not believe in an Abrahamic God, life has no objective purpose. All life, and human beings included, is a product of evolution by natural selection, which has no direction, goals, or intentions. From this perspective, it is more or less an accident that humans exist, and there is no reason for our existence. We were not created by a being with an intention for us, or a purpose to give us. Therefore, there is nothing that we should do with our lives, as there is no purpose for it.

And yet, most secular people are not satisfied with this conclusion. They often say, yes, there may be no objective purpose to life, but they can choose their own purpose in life, and create their own meaning. However, this is where the thinking of some secular people begins to contradict itself. Modern science has made it quite clear that choice is an illusion. Even if the semantic conception of “free will” is still debated, I think most secular people can agree that human beings are ultimately physical beings, and our thoughts, feelings, and actions are determined by electro-chemical processes and physical laws. Understanding this leads one to understand that any choice that “you” make is an action made not by an independent “you,” but by the many particles and chemicals that make you up.

Therefore, it is meaningless to say that “you” can choose your own purpose in life or create your own meaning. We, as physical systems, do not really choose things. A machine does not make choices, or at least it is not ultimately responsible for its choices. Like a machine, we simply act according to how physical law determines we will act. And thus, a person does not choose his own purpose in life. What he decides to do with his life, and the things he finds purpose and meaning in, are determined for him.

I think this realization allows for an interesting perspective. On the one hand, it can lead to a sense of nihilism. “Not only is there no objective purpose to life, but I am not even in control of my own life.” However, at the same time, this understanding can allow for a much greater sense of connection with the rest of the world outside of oneself. It allows you to realize that you are part of a larger system – you are part of something bigger than yourself. You are not separate from the rest of the world because there actually is no independent “you” to begin with. “You” are a collection of many atoms and particles, no different from any other thing in the universe – no more, no less.

Moreover, one cannot help but notice that while not everyone has a strong sense of purpose generally, most people are usually driven and determined to accomplish some goals in their lives. Recognizing that these purposes are not freely chosen, one can reasonably speculate that perhaps there is some kind of objective purpose after all. We are living our lives according to the deterministic laws of nature. Whatever is responsible for setting the universe in motion is responsible for any purpose in our lives, and all of the choices, decisions, and actions that we make.

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The Purpose of Government

Contemporary political debate is primarily about the role of government in society and how government should be used. But more fundamentally, the debate is about the purpose of government: what is it good for? Is it a legitimate institution? Should it even exist at all?

In our democratic society, government is the only institution that is seen as legitimate in its compulsion of behavior by the potential use of force. This sense of legitimacy derives from the fact that the laws and policies that government enforces are determined by lawmakers who are elected by the people. The lawmakers are elected by majorities, and so the laws they create – in theory – reflect the will of the majority of the people. However, by this same token, in a democracy, the interests of minorities may not be represented, or worse, minorities (of all types – racial, sexual, religious, political, and economic) may be persecuted or exploited. It is true that in our American system of government, the Constitution protects the rights of minorities from the whims of majority opinion, but even those rights can be taken away by a large enough and passionate majority through the constitutional amendment process. And of course, rights that minorities would like may not have been enshrined in the Constitution in the first place.

Thus, there is a risk that such an institution, with this much power and the potential to coerce minorities, may not be seen as legitimate by all. But even if government does not have full legitimacy, it may be necessary. However, in order to be necessary, government must provide services that the people desire and that only it can provide, or that it can provide most effectively and efficiently. This is because if any other non-coercive institution can provide the same services more effectively, it is more just for that institution to provide them than government.

Perhaps the most basic service that government provides is ensuring public safety and order. Government provides this service through police, courts, and prisons. Could public safety be protected without these things? Without police and the threat of imprisonment, what prevents someone from taking your property or harming you for their benefit? Yes, we could all arm ourselves with weapons and try to defend ourselves, but this just leads to a state of chaotic anarchy and perpetual violence. By granting the government with police power, we deter crime and help maintain order.

However, could public safety be provided by an institution other than government? The most viable alternative institution that may be able to provide this service, and potentially all of the services that government currently provides, is the market. If the market is capable of providing these services more efficiently than government, it should be the preferred provider of them. Unlike government, the market – in theory – is based on voluntary transactions and associations. In addition, the market usually allows for the most efficient allocation of resources, and distribution of goods and services. The interesting irony about the market, however, is that it may not be able to exist without government. Government’s coercive power is necessary to prevent fraud and property theft, enforce contracts, and settle disputes through the legal system. This is perhaps another argument for the necessity of government.

So how would the market provide a good like public safety? One idea is through competing private security firms to which individuals and firms can subscribe for protection. The firms would also investigate “crimes” against their clients and attempt to collect stolen property. In this world, there would also be private arbitrators who would act as judges to hear accusations and settle disputes.

With respect to the private security firms, this scenario creates an uneven and unequal patchwork of protection, in which the most security will go to the most affluent, and the least (or no) protection will go to those with few resources. On the other hand, a centralized police force that government can provide allows for equal protection and justice regardless of resources. A centralized police force is also more efficient in that it benefits from economies of scale, which are lost with many competing private firms. One can argue that policing is a natural monopoly, and it is most efficient for the monopoly provider in this case to be government.

In addition, there are problems with private judges. A private judge would have an incentive to side with whomever paid her more – justice would go to the highest bidder. One might argue that a private judge would have an incentive to be honest and not take bribes because she would lose clients if she had a reputation for being venal. However, this assumes perfect information. How would potential clients know if the judge is corrupt? There would be no government to regulate them or mandate transparency. In our current system of justice, a judge is not paid by the parties to the case she is deciding, but rather she is paid by the public, which makes judges more impartial and objective. Moreover, there are harsh penalties for judicial corruption and abuse of power, which again is based on the government’s potential use of force. The market cannot offer as strong penalties against corruption and fraud.

So it seems that government is necessary to provide public safety most effectively and efficiently. What are other services that it may be necessary for government to provide? I believe there are three categories: 1) regulation of markets, 2) provision of public goods, and 3) providing a social safety net.

Markets may require regulation due to inefficiencies known in economics as market failures. For example, production may impose externalities, such as pollution, which are external costs that are placed on third parties who are not involved in a market transaction between a producer and consumer. In a market with an externality, the producer has no incentive to reduce production even though it is imposing costs on third parties. In the case of pollution, these costs are environmental damage and health costs. Government can correct this market failure through regulation, by taxing the production or mandating its reduction. The market by itself cannot solve externalities – which is why they are called a “market failure.”

Markets may also fail to provide certain goods and services that people desire. In economics, such goods are called “public goods.” Public goods are goods that a producer cannot exclude everyone from using, and for which my consumption of that good does not take away from your consumption of that good. One example is national defense. If national defense were provided by the market, what incentive does an individual have to financially contribute to national defense if he thinks that others will pay for it, but he knows he can still benefit from the protection? Then, those that have contributed towards it will take notice of the free riders and realize they are being chumps; they might as well not pay for national defense either and benefit from it too. Eventually, an insufficient number of people will pay for national defense, causing the market to unravel, and resulting in national defense being unprovided. Government can solve this problem by making contributions for public goods like national defense mandatory. These mandatory contributions are otherwise known as taxes.

Lastly, another service that modern governments provide is the social safety net. Government collects taxes in order to provide public assistance to those who lack resources. In effect, it redistributes resources from those who pay taxes to the poor, elderly, disabled, and sick. Often, this takes the form of social insurance, where those who pay taxes also receive benefits when an adverse event happens to them – they become unemployed, disabled or sick, or cannot work due to old age. Social insurance may be more efficient than private insurance from the market for these types of events because of market failures, such as externalities and asymmetric information.

However, social insurance is quite different from other social safety net programs, in which you do not necessarily have to pay taxes to receive benefits. These programs are more commonly known in the United States as “welfare.” But is it just for government to provide welfare? If people agree for their taxes to be used to provide public assistance to the poor, then there is no ethical problem with welfare. However, it is problematic if someone does not consent to their money being given to someone else. One might argue that it is also unjust for government to force you to pay taxes to fund an activity, which you may consider immoral, such as a war. I would agree, this is also problematic, which is again why there is a risk to empowering such an institution with the ability to compel behavior with the potential use of force.

In the end, despite its coercive potential, we as a society may still want government – we may need government. Government may be the most effective and efficient tool we have to protect public safety and health, to ensure that markets work most efficiently, and to provide goods and services that the market cannot provide. That is the purpose of government.

The Paradox of Consciousness

One of the most puzzling aspects of consciousness is that subjectively, we know it exists and is real, but logical reasoning and scientific analysis can lead us to conclude that it does not exist. In my previous post, I provided a general overview of the mystery of consciousness, but in this post I want to focus on the paradox that results when we try to reconcile what our subjective experience leads us to believe about consciousness with what a scientific, physicalist understanding of the world implies about consciousness.

I want to clarify what I mean by consciousness. I define it as an internal, subjective experience. Moreover, I believe an integral aspect of consciousness is that it consists of a representation or model of the external world that seems to exist inside your head. As you read this post, you are most likely looking at a computer. But is what you see when you look at the computer exactly how it appears in reality? Do you know how your computer looks from a completely objective, third-person point of view?

I argue that the answer is no; you only know how the computer looks as a representation in your consciousness. Consider the perspectives of animals that do not see in the spectrum of visible light. When a mosquito, which has infrared vision, looks at your computer, it sees something very different than what you see. Is what you see the most accurate version of how the computer actually appears in reality? No, what you see is merely one model image of the computer inside your head. The mosquito sees a different representation. Neither you or the mosquito knows what the computer actually looks like in reality.

But if your consciousness represents the external world, where exactly do these representative images exist? If you reflect on your experience, it seems your consciousness is centered somewhere inside your head, behind your eyes. However, the only thing inside your head is your brain. We find no representations or models or images of the external world inside the brain. We observe no consciousness – no mind or self – existing in the head.

As a result, from an objective perspective, we seem forced to conclude that consciousness does not exist. There actually is no mind, no representations of reality, because these things cannot be observed or measured. From a scientific, physicalist standpoint, all that exists is matter and physical things. The brain exists, as do all of the neurons and electro-chemical processes that produce your behaviors and actions. But a mind – and the representation of the computer that we discussed earlier – cannot really exist.

But can you honestly believe that your mind does not exist? To hold such a belief seems incoherent. Your mind – your consciousness – seems like the only thing you can know for sure exists. As stated before, can you really know what the external reality actually looks like – or actually is? All you know is what is represented to you in consciousness.

Thus, we have our paradox. Logical reasoning leads us to conclude that consciousness does not exist, or at the very least, should not exist. And yet, our subjective experience tells us consciousness most certainly is real. The person who unravels this riddle will surely be deserving of a Nobel Prize, if not the recognition as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world.

Consciousness

Like what Richard Feynman may have once said about quantum mechanics: if you think you understand consciousness, you don’t understand consciousness. Consciousness is baffling and that is primarily because it is difficult to reconcile our personal conscious experience with a physical, materialist understanding of the world.

What is consciousness? There is no single, authoritative definition, but I will define it as an internal subjective experience. If you have consciousness, there is something that it is like to be you, i.e. you have sensations, feelings, and thoughts that you experience subjectively. Thomas Nagel framed the issue in this way in his seminal article, “What is it like to be a bat?” Consciousness is an inherently private phenomenon, and there doesn’t seem to be any way for anyone else to verify your consciousness beyond any doubt. There are of course indicators that suggest you are conscious, but no one can know for sure if you are having an internal experience – no one can know exactly what it is like to be you.

Why does consciousness seem to be incompatible with a physicalist understanding of the world? This is because if you were to look inside someone’s head and analyze her brain, all you would find are neurons and the chemicals and electrical signals they use to communicate with each other. There is no central place in the brain where a person’s subjective, first person perspective exists. You would find no evidence of a mind, you would find no representation of the external world, and you would find no qualia (the phenomenal aspects of consciousness). If you could not find these things – the things that make up our subjective experience – how could you say they actually exist?

And yet, at the same time, it is impossible to deny that these things exist! They are the only things we know for sure exist. Consider the “brain in a vat” thought experiment, which states that you are actually just a brain in a vat hooked up to an elaborate computer program that tricks you into thinking you are experiencing the outside world. The entire external world could be an illusion. Or you could be experiencing a dream. The only thing you know for sure exists, and that you can’t deny, is your own consciousness.

While you can’t deny your own consciousness, it is conceivable to deny the consciousness of others. Everyone else in the world might be a philosophical zombie, or a being that looks and acts like they are conscious, but there is actually no subjective experience on the inside. I don’t think philosophical zombies are likely because I believe that consciousness is generated by the brain, and since other people have brains more or less similar to my own, they most likely have consciousness, as well.

I should mention that there are strong arguments that the brain generates consciousness. We know that specific mental states and cognitive processes are linked to specific regions of the brain. If you damage certain parts of the brain, specific aspects of consciousness and personality change. And of course, if the brain fails, consciousness goes away completely.

What about animals – do they have consciousness? It is important to know because if they have consciousness, they can suffer and experience pain. Thus, knowing if they do informs how we as humans treat them. I think it is very likely that animals with larger brains have consciousness. Apes, dogs, cats, elephants, and dolphins all exhibit behaviors that suggest consciousness. But as you move towards animals with smaller and smaller brains, they seem to be less conscious. The question then becomes, where along the spectrum does consciousness vanish completely? And it probably does at some point. I doubt anyone would argue that some insects, jellyfish, and microscopic animals have internal subjective experiences.

But this raises an interesting question – at which point in the evolutionary process did consciousness arise? When did a living organism first experience qualia? How does inanimate matter reach a point where it is able to have a subjective experience? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I hope that science will one day find them.

I think we will learn more about consciousness as we develop more advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. At some point, it seems very likely that we will create machines that are more intelligent than humans. Will they have consciousness? Or will they be philosophical zombies? It seems likely that if we were able to replicate in robots the same cognitive processes that take place in the brain, then those robots would be conscious. If and when that happens, our confidence that they are conscious would be as strong as our confidence that other humans are conscious.

Finally, some have argued that consciousness is some kind of illusion. The world would make a lot more sense if we didn’t have consciousness and we were all philosophical zombies. But if consciousness is an illusion, it is an unshakable illusion, and it is the very essence of our lived experience.

Free Will

The question of whether we have free will has important implications for our daily lives. It informs whether we control our thoughts and actions. The answer to this question shapes how we think about responsibility – can we be blamed for our wrongdoings, or can we take credit for our achievements? It also has implications for our conceptions of purpose and meaning in our lives.

First, what do I mean by free will? I think how we define it matters because a lot of the philosophical debate around this issue is semantic, and I feel like there would be a lot more agreement if we were clearer about our terms. By free will, I mean your ability to make choices that are unconstrained, and they are yours alone; you are ultimately responsible for your choices. In order to have free will, there has to be a “you” – a self – that has agency, control, and independence. If you have free will, you are the author of your thoughts and actions.

But what does science say about this? Does it allow for this kind of freedom? To answer this question, let’s examine what science tells us causes our thoughts and actions. Based on our current understanding of neuroscience, the mind is the product of the brain. All of our thoughts, emotions, and actions are the result of electro-chemical interactions between neurons in the brain. If our actions and thoughts are determined by the mechanical workings of neurons and electro-chemical processes in the brain, then it is ultimately the laws of physics that determine our behavior. Thus, in this sense, we are automata – essentially biological machines.

And as most of us can agree, machines don’t have free will. A machine’s actions are caused by a prior physical event, which in turn was caused by a prior event, in an unbroken chain of cause and effect going back in time. This concept is known as determinism, and I posit that every event in the universe is bound by it. I will grant that science is not certain whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or indeterministic (apparently determinism seems to break down at the quantum level), but most things at the macroscopic level are clearly deterministic. The planets, comets, and stars all move deterministically, and their motions can be predicted precisely. Continental drift and other geological phenomena are deterministic systems. Similarly, living organisms, including human beings, are physical beings that are determined by physical laws. In principle, if one had enough information, human behavior would be completely predictable – as predictable as how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun.

Even though it seems like we have a self – that there is an “I” that is experiencing the world and making choices and decisions, science tells us this is an illusion. Our thoughts and actions are caused by neuronal activity, which in turn is caused by chemical and physical processes. Thus, free will is an illusion, and your behavior is not freely chosen by “you” – it is determined by the laws of physics.

What implications does this understanding have for our lives? First, it challenges how many of us think about responsibility. Can we really take credit for achievements or be blamed for wrongdoing if those actions were ultimately caused by physical processes? We do not choose how our brains work, or for that matter, our genes or environment. I think this insight should give us more compassion for those who make mistakes, and humility when we accomplish things.

This understanding about free will has another implication for our lives. Many people often say that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want their actions to have purpose and meaning. Somewhat paradoxically, I believe my conception of free will instills even more significance and meaning in my actions than a more traditional view of free will would. I believe that because my actions are caused by the laws of nature, they do not belong to me; they belong to the universe. That is, what I do in my life is the universe itself acting through me. In this sense, my purposes, goals, and desires are the purposes, goals, and desires of the universe. Our actions are part of a larger system – a grand play – that was set in motion from the Big Bang until now. We may have to give up on the idea that we have free will, but we can take solace in the understanding that our lives are part of a much, much bigger story.

Welcome!

Welcome to “Thinking Deeply.” This blog will explore fundamental philosophical, moral, and political questions. My goal is to get readers to question their assumptions, and critically evaluate their beliefs and values. I also readily admit that I have my own set of values, and in my politics-related posts, I will advance my opinions, but I will also explain why I have them. As I will elaborate on in a later post, I believe people of good conscience can legitimately disagree about politics because they simply have fundamentally different values.

Although I don’t have a formal background in philosophy, I have always been interested in the big questions. I enjoy reading about and watching videos on philosophy, politics, public policy, economics, psychology, cognitive science, and social science generally. I consider myself an earnest seeker of the truth, who values facts, evidence, reason and logic.

As this blog will focus on fundamental ideas, I may not write too many posts (there are only so many fundamental ideas), but some topics may require multiple posts in order to fully explore them. Many of these topics are quite multifaceted. Some future topics that I am already planning to write on include morality, free will, consciousness, politics and values, libertarianism, and socialism.

I am excited to write blog posts on these issues, and I hope you will enjoy reading them!