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Dealing in Absolutes - Blind Faith and Blantant Disbelief


(Darian) #1

I am creating this topic for two reasons:

  1. I want to get to know the people on here, and their relationship with doubt, disbelief, and faith towards new technologies and progress.
  2. I want to share a personal story and present my thoughts on it as I way to give some more insight on both who I am, as a person, and how I stand to doubt, disbelief, and faith

Defining the terms

Before we start, let me just define the term faith and disbelief in this context, since they’re pretty ambiguous terms. Faith and disbelief, in this context, should be the sum of your doubts and trust in a certain thing. If the trust you place in a certain thing outweighs the doubts you have, then you have faith in the said thing; On the contrary, if your doubts outweigh your trust, then you end up with what I’ll refer to as disbelief.

Handpicked Trust

As some of you know, I am a student at CODE Berlin. Diving into a university project like that demands that you place a lot of trust in the people - staff and students alike -, the future of the project, and the industry as a whole. Being willing to muster the amount of trust required for this isn’t easy, to begin with. Personally, I’ve struggled a fair bit before committing to this path, and I wager that the other students did so, too(, although I don’t know this for certain).

This leads me to the start of my little story. I was getting to know my fellow students and dove into a conversation with one of them in particular. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call him ‘Larry’. While talking about himself, he shared that he has an NFC implant. Of course, I found this interesting, thought about getting one myself with the only barrier to this being the price and lack of things I’d like to do with it. However, this showed me that he was willing to try out technologies like that for himself.

Out of this reason, I decided to share the site Transhuman Party Germany with him, with a remark basically saying (paraphrasing): “Since you adopt new technologies easily, you may be interested looking at a party that shares some of those interests.”

His reply to this was “Haha. Looks funny. Not something I’d vote for.” And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, I was surprised to see a lack of insight to his opinion on this topic. The conversation went its course and eventually, we’d start talking about the Asgardia project.

A Space Odyssey

For those of you who don’t know: The Asgardia Project is a ‘space nation’ conceptualized by Dr. Igor Ashurbeyli. It aims to allow access to outer space free from the control of existing nations. They want to apply for UN recognition in 2018 and thus far count 300,000 citizens all over the globe. There are, of course, no plans of moving these 300,000 people to outer space. If I am not mistaken, Dr. Ashurbeyli - as well as the constitution of Asgardia - stated that the type of nation Asgardia aims to be isn’t an ‘earth nation’ but a ‘space nation’, thus allowing their citizens to be both a citizen of an earth nation and this said space nation.

Before moving on with the story, I wanted to quickly outline my thoughts on this project: It is very ambitious. I personally doubt the UN will recognize Asgardia in 2018, although time may prove me wrong. I don’t think it’s a lost cause, per se, but I think that the international requirements of founding a nation which doesn’t have physical territory are quite hard to fulfill; And even if they do own the land, things can be quite tricky - as Taiwan shows. But ultimately nations are only agreed on concepts, and it may be possible to get Asgardia ‘off the ground’ so to speak.

As you may notice in the prior paragraph, I avoided using absolute statements. This is what this post is ultimately about. Saying unchangeable things like “Asgardia will never be a nation” is something I’d personally try to avoid.

My conversation with Larry, to return to my anecdote, progressed to talking about Asgardia’s plans to build embassies around the globe, effectively giving the nation actual grounds to commit to their business, just like any other embassy.

Larry shot this down with a comment-less, absolute “This will never happen.” While the apparent differences between an absolute statement and an adaptable one are quite slim, the implications of these statements aren’t.

Never, Of Course, Law of Nature

I do hope I am not heading into uncomfortable territory here, but I think absolute statements can pose threats to rational thought, science, and progress.
Saying “someone will fix global warming” frees us from any responsibility for it.
Saying “the system is broken” may paralyze our efforts to try to fix it.
Claiming “Greed/Hunger/Poverty is ultimately a law of nature” may keep people from trying to fix it.

Of course, these last three arguments were pretty straw-man-esque, so let me fetch you a real world example.

Slavery may be a fitting example of people using absolutes to justify both inhumane actions and inaction. Whether it was justified religiously, by saying that it was Gods Will that some people are slaves, referring to biology and claiming that some humans were just born slaves and are physical and biological inferior, or arguing that slavery is actually good for slaves; all these statements were absolute. They were treated as facts by those who uttered them and by the majority of contemporary people at that time. Heck, the argument “Slavery would be too hard to abolish” was used as well - something you’d see someone say about gun control nowadays. (Sources: [[1]]
(http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/slavery/ethics/justifications.shtml), [2])

Slavery isn’t comparable to people using absolutes. And I am not comparing them as equal. I only aimed to show the same sort of logic powering prior unjust and cruel practices. The same logic that secured monarchy or the power of the church and religion for most of history. Of course, these same absolute arguments were also used for smaller, maybe insignificant things, like marriage, crime, and whatnot.

Now, if you want to visualize this, you can look at faith and disbelief as if they make up a spectrum. These absolute statements place themselves on one of the extremes: blind faith or blatant disbelief. “It is Gods will” would be an example of the former, while “X would be too hard to abolish” would be an example of the latter. Both are quite dogmatic.

Et tu, Brute?

Seeing Larry use this line of logic made me think: Do I use absolute statements in a lot of discussions? Am I a hypocrite about them? Are absolutes the easy way out of uneasy questions? Do they, when they are unfounded and not-provable, harm more than they help?

And what about you? Do you use them callously? How would we foster a discussion culture that avoids these absolute statements? How do we incentivize an ‘ask-more-question’ culture in general?

(Also while I would also like some reviews of the style of this post and of my argument. I know it isn’t perfect, and I am not really used to writing longer posts, so I would very much like to improve on my style as a whole.)


(Michael Hrenka) #2

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thinking in absolutes can be a very harmful thing, especially if you want to be rational. Have you known about the Less Wrong rationality community? Anyway, I believe that anything that isn’t logically impossible, is possible. The important question is however, what we should hope for. Let’s start with what I hope for. For me, the perhaps most crucial thread in this forum for me is the following:

Uncertainty as basis

Uncertainty is that which I cannot longer deny having an overwhelming impact in all areas of life. I wish to have a clear orientation, but in the absense of a clear basis, I have only uncertainty to build upon, so that’s what I have done since I’ve written that post. My hope is that we can deal with our most foundational uncertainties in a satisfying way. Perhaps we will become able to resolve our uncertainties about what true value is. This hope is expressed in my current world building project Canonical Coherence:

A lack of visions?

I fear that we live in a time that is characterized by the absence of strong positive visions about the future. The Technological Singularity does seem to be a positive vision, but actually it’s a placeholder for a vision, because it’s so undefined, or even undefinable, as some see it. I believe in the value of diversity, so a pluralistic world that can satisfy the preferences of a large number of sentient beings is the only valid “utopia” that I can wish for. The fractal society is the form of a desirable future for me. Yet, it’s still not very clear how that can work out in the best way possible. Is it even desirable to overcome all the problems that we current suffer from, or are those problems necessary elements of a fulfilled life for some? Imposing our idealized values or visions on others or even ourselves might be a severe mistake. Better to remain open until we are wise enough to know what we are actually doing.

Hope in progress

For myself I hope to become closer to my ideal self, even though I know that my ideal self is a construct that can shift as my ideas and values shift. That’s ok. We figure things out as we grow. And this grows often entails the death of our old selves. We really aren’t the same persons that we have been even a few years ago. We are dynamic (hi)stories, not static bundles of preferences and ideas. I’d like to be more energetic and extroverted, have a better memory, and become a better leader. I tried bringing people from different communities together in this forum, but I feel that I have failed more than I have succeeded, due to my personal shortcomings. Well, I believe that I can become better. What validates this hope is the fact that I’ve recovered pretty nicely from a little understood disease that’s effectively considered incurable (but what does that mean nowadays anyway).

Knowledge

I believe that knowledge is the most valuable thing we have, since knowledge allows us to solve problems that we couldn’t solve otherwise. If there is any progress at all, it lies in the collection of ever more useful knowledge. It’s the most crucial form of wealth there is. As long as our collective knowledge increases, we are on the right path. The worst thing that can happen, is that we become content with what we know already. Contentment is the enemy of progress.

Transhumanism

I have been active in the transhumanist community for over 10 years. My fear is that it’s not much more than a commentary on our progress as civilization anyway. A commentary that doesn’t actually change anything. What we need to do is to solve big problems. Whether people do that in the name of transhumanism, rationality, common sense, or selfish reasons is secondary, as long as the problems really get solved. Perhaps transhumanism can inspire people to solve problems we’ve considered unsolvable so far. Maybe that’s the true value of transhumanism.