Objectives for existence

This page is an attempt to develop a discussion of my view for how the world should be. The aim of this is to form the basis upon which rational decisions about what I should do can be made.

It is hoped that by formally recording and updating this discussion I can develop a more comprehensive underlying philosophy and ultimately achieve greater good.

The ultimate question upon everything needs to be based is 'what is the purpose of life?'. By assigning a universal purpose, decisions can be made to help ensure that the objective is achieved.

Before making a decision on this, it is worth comparing some existing schemes for making such decisions. Many theistic religions imply that the purpose of life is to serve one or more gods. These religions then supply documents describing what the god(s) in question claim people should do to serve them, and proceed to set up rules. However, I have not seen any evidence to accept that any of these religions are true, and instead, it is likely many of these religions were initially created by the ruling class (or those wanting to enter the ruling class) in order to control the people and achieve some other underlying objective. The rules created may reflect the ambitions of the ruler, which may have been rooted upon good intentions, but they may also be dated or based on incorrect premises, and so are not really very useful for my purposes.

Another thing to discuss is the motivation for most existing human behaviours. The genes and memes (i.e. copied social behaviours) controlling human behaviour today exist because they can replicate and never became extinct. This means that behaviours which successfully preserve themselves across generations continue to exist today, while those which cause themselves to become extinct do not exist (or are not very common) today. It is clearly obvious that some behaviours, such as greediness and self-interest, have strong potential to preserve themselves. Other behaviours, such as aggression (including going to war, murdering competing members of the same gender and so on), may also increase their own chance of survival, as long as the behaviour does not put the aggressor at risk, or reduce the gene pool so far that the genes / memes causing the aggression cannot spread. Conspicuous consumption is another example, where individuals are deliberately wasteful to show potential partners that they are good enough that they have resources to waste (peacock feathers are an example of this, but so is, say, buying expensive jewellery or flashy cars which aren't strictly needed). At the same time, even behaviours like designing complex systems to protect public interest are also sometimes beneficial if the gene / meme is widely spread, because most of the public has the gene / meme, and it is therefore protecting its own survival at the community level, over other communities.

Despite the fact that evolution got us to where we are now, and means that humans have the intelligence to carry out discussions like this one, I am not in any way bound to choose an objective such as the survival of my own genes - even if this is what much of the population is doing already. That said, if I chose a criterion which was too diametrically opposed to its own survival, then desire to work on that criterion would disappear and therefore no one would work towards it in the future. Humanity has developed structures such as justice systems which help protect most such views, and so it is still possible that a criterion which suggests against, say, using violence, would not be selected against any more strongly than a criterion which would have survived in a more lawless society.

This means that the criteria I can choose are fairly constrained, but there are still many options. Ideas like preserving as much biodiversity as possible sound appealing at first. However, the consequences of this would probably be as follows: humans are the greatest threat to biodiversity, and therefore we should try to eliminate the species (a small sacrifice of the total biodiversity) to remove this threat. As such, the reader will be glad to know that this particular objective does not appeal to me.

There is another objective, however, which seems to make much more sense: to maximise the creation and preservation of freely developed knowledge (including science, art, and 'culture') now and indefinitely into the future. This is a little vague - how is creation of knowledge traded off with preservation? How is the creation of knowledge now traded off against the creation of knowledge in the future? How do we measure how freely knowledge was generated, and how does this trade off against the other factors? I won't address these questions here, but I will assume that there are reasonable answers to the question, and that we are not talking extremes such as developing all knowledge in the next few years, and then only preserving it from then on.

A little bit of thought about the knowledge objective brings up a number of corollaries and strategies which appear to match existing human behaviours - the idea that ideas should be preserved will, in fact, preserve itself, and so it is not surprising that behaviours resulting from this exist today. It may be that this discussion is doing little except formally raising this behaviour above other human behaviours such as aggression.

For example, in order to support free ideas, it is important that people have freedom of self-determination and freedom of speech. These ideas are already highly enshrined in existing human societies. Concepts such as the sanctity of life arise for a similar reason, because people are a lot more free to experiment with knowledge without it being modulated by human behaviours such as fear in societies where such concepts exist; and this also preserves human biodiversity.

It is worth noting that my objective does not mention humans specifically. Given that I don't believe in souls, spirits, or anything of that nature due to lack of evidence, it is reasonable to say that all living things are a collection of chemical molecules which are able to reproduce, and are the way they are today because they were not eliminated. As such, there is nothing that humans cannot do that some form of synthetic life, such as an advanced artificial intelligence / robot, could theoretically do, and so, in the eyes of the knowledge objective, knowledge created and preserved by humans is no more special than those created by any other sufficiently free and intelligent system. At present, however, human designed systems are not yet complex or intelligent enough to be considered to have 'free will' in the sense that humans do, and are rather limited purpose systems. However, one day we may co-exist alongside such human-created intelligent systems. Whether or not these systems need rights depends on whether, like humans, they modulate their creative outputs when under threat that these rights will be violated, or if they can be created so that fear and aggression responses do not occur, and they would, for example, continue to produce outputs critical of a ruler even if the ruler threatened to destroy any being which produced such outputs. It is worth noting, however, that even in free and democratic human societies, fear of loss of liberties is sometimes beneficial, because it means that society can decide on laws, and fear of punishment can be used to ensure compliance. It therefore may be better for any robots which reach the level of freeness that humans have to be programmed with a fear response, and to be given rights like people are. Diversity is good from the perspective of continued knowledge development, so in such a society it would be best for humans and robots to coexist, rather than to, say, replace all humans with robots.

Also worth discussing is the other living things on the planet. Human beings are inherently reliant on the environment and the other species found there for their survival, and humans are also the beings most capable of knowledge development and preservation, and so it seems to follow immediately that we should avoid catastrophic damage to the natural environment. There can also be an argument that all or most species will be useful for scientific and artistic purposes now or in the future, and so efforts should be made to ensure that human activities do not extinct species or significantly reduce biodiversity.

Animal (non-human) rights are also worth discussing under this framework. Animals do not generally create knowledge to the same extent as humans do, and to the extent that they do communicate and develop traditions, this is unlikely to be affected by knowledge that they had rights. This raises the question of whether, for example, we should avoid inflicting suffering in them. Pain is really only a result of neurological pathways in the brain lighting up, and these neurological pathways consist of electrical signals being passed along neurons, which are basically just bags of chemical molecules. As such, there is nothing inherently bad about pain (and nothing inherently good about pleasure), it is just that they have evolved so that pain pathways are triggered when, say, damage occurs to the body, and the brain is wired to avoid behaviours that may lead to pain. In humans, stopping people from inflicting pain in others is important, because otherwise people will modulate their creative output to avoid the pain, and therefore will stop producing free knowledge. In animals, however, this argument is harder to apply. There are still several arguments for laws against inflicting pain in animals, especially the animals which are most similar to people. Animals which are going to be used for any purpose by humans, or which humans will come into contact with, may become aggressive if they are mistreated by people, and this fear of animal attack could modulate human knowledge output. Similarly, humans can develop a strong bond with animals, and can feel human emotions like empathy for animals. If humans are aware that animals (especially those similar to them) are being mistreated, this undermines the confidence that they have that they will not be mistreated, and modulates their knowledge output. Likewise, for humans, mistreating animals (especially those similar to humans) may help them overcome any reluctance to mistreat humans, with adverse results for the knowledge objective. These considerations need, of course, to be balanced against the benefit that animal research may have in boosting quality of life (and hence knowledge output) for humans, and in creating scientific or artistic output.

I have been told, when discussing this with people who are not pursuing scientific or artistic careers, that my objective makes them feel unimportant. This raises another issue - the value of human output other than knowledge. The human race cannot dedicate all of its time and effort to creating knowledge, and still survive. We need food, shelter, and services to support knowledge development, and we can better achieve our objectives with support for the system in the form of medicine (to improve the stability of life and the will to participate in knowledge development), engineering (to build infrastructure to support human survival and knowledge output), law, politics, and economics (to help ensure stability of life, ensure freedoms, and incentivise people who may be acting out of self-interest to also act in the interests of the knowledge objective - that is, to set things up so that by acting in one's own self-interest is also acting in the interests of the knowledge objective).

Up until now, this discussion has mainly validated the existing direction in which humanity is moving, but part of my motivation for writing this up is to identify where we are going wrong, and set things up for later discussion on how this could be fixed.

One of the major issues at present is the risk human beings are posing to the environment. The root of this problem is really the growing human population, even though we are now past the sustainable carrying population of the earth. One estimate says that, when adjustments are made for the productivity of land in different countries, the New Zealand ecological footprint is 8.35 hectare per person. The world population is at present 6.6 billion people. This means that for everyone in the world the world to live to the level of one New Zealander, it would take 55 billion hectares of land. The problem is that the world only has 14.84 billion hectares of land - in other words we would need at least 3.7 earths. To make things worse, we are living beyond our means - we are taking energy and carbon stores which formed over millions of years, and burning big proportions of this over a hundred years or so. We have been able to sustain the high human population by burning this oil / gas, but we won't be able to continue like this forever, because, firstly, these reserves are getting depleted, and secondly, by burning these reserves, we are dumping a lot of more carbon into the atmosphere, and therefore causing global warming and ultimately changing the environment (and the eco-systems it supports) and decreasing the land area on earth further. At the same time, we are also polluting natural resources like rivers and oceans, the air, and land, at a greater rate than we are cleaning them up - this is also unsustainable. This risk to the environment will start to catch up with us and compromise our ability to produce knowledge outputs.

The solution is two-pronged. Firstly, we must reduce the amount of harm to the environment that each individual does to a sustainable level. However, this is not very useful if the population is just going to grow so the total harm to the environment becomes unsustainable. Ultimately, the human population cannot support exponential growth indefinitely - we have supported it for quite some time by living unsustainably, but this is starting to catch up with us, and eventually we will have to either artificially control our population, or let natural selection take its course, and have the death rate converge with the birth rate due to higher deaths due to pollution, starvation, preventable health issues and so on. To maximise the total knowledge output, I suspect the former situation would be slightly better - if people have to struggle too hard to survive, then they are likely to revert to aggression and self-interest type behaviours instead of knowledge output. Also, if people now live at the expense of the future generation, then the future population will not necessarily be any higher, it is just that there will be differences in the state of the environment. This does suggest some measures to control the human population should be taken. The problem with these measures is that they may also affect the freedom of scientific and artistic outputs, especially if someone (say the government) decides on how reproductively successful individuals are to be. This may be less of an issue of everyone is held to the exact same laws, and so there are no conditions placed on reproduction, merely on how much of it may occur.

Another major problem in current society is that the current global politico-economical system is not entirely aligned to the idea of optimising knowledge development and preservation. As I mentioned earlier, a system of economics should divide up resources in such a way that it is in individual's self-interest to do their bit towards knowledge development. However, the current system has several cases where this doesn't really happen at present.

  • Exploitative behaviours are strongly encouraged. To get the largest chunk of the resources, individuals are encouraged to sell products or services at the highest possible price, even when the price is much higher than costs, to pay employees the least possible, to spend the least possible on preserving the environment, to take as much as possible from any shared or public resources, to harm competitors as much as possible, to mislead consumers to the maximum extent possible about how good the product is, and even to lobby the government to pass allow them to be even more exploitative.
  • There is an inherent bias in bargaining ability and the ability to get public mindshare towards those with existing power, such as large companies acting employers, compared to private individuals. This is often exploited to restrict the freedom of employees, and to help maximise the income of those owning the company. Therefore, self-interest and resource grabbing takes priority over knowledge development.
  • Concepts such as the patent and copyright system, which were initially created in an attempt to further knowledge development and propagation, actually often work in quite the opposite direction. There are two problems. Firstly, the length of copyrights and patents seem to actually be increasing, when they are too long already. As developments get increasingly complex, due to technological advancements such as the availability of computers, they combine a lot more concepts. So it is no longer a case where one piece of innovation is equal to one product, or one copyrighted document. Instead, people want to mix and match. The current system disincentivises people from using other's recent ideas. One solution would be to have a flat patent fee for the commercial exploitation of patented ideas (say 10% total, no matter how many patents are used). Instead, people would declare what patents were used, and the 10% would be distributed based on this. There have also been proposals for alternatives to the copyright system for artistic works, where the public votes to decide who gets the funding, and people can freely work on these. I think it is also important that not-for-profit exploitation of copyrighted and patented work should not be disincentivised - although there could be a fixed pool of tax money to reward those who patent or copyright ideas which are subsequently used for not-for-profit purposes.
  • There are significant inequities in the distribution of resource around the world, with people in some countries being much worse off, and the richest in many countries are only getting richer. Part of the problem is that having resource allows one to exploit others to gain more resource. This is a difficult problem to solve, but it means that the poor will find it hard to focus on anything other than their own survival, and so knowledge development will suffer. The economic system should be designed so that no matter how much resource a person has, if they do more good, they will get more resources. However, this doesn't mean there has to be a linear response. Everyone should get enough resource to at least survive, no matter what. As they do more good, they get more resource, but with diminishing returns. So for example, if someone harms the environment, they might get $15,000 per annum, which is enough to survive through a very hard life. If they do nothing, they get $20,000, which is just enough to survive, with very little luxury. If they do a standard 40 week which provides a big contribution towards the objective, they might get $40,000. Now lets say they are very rich and put all their resource into good projects. Then they could get up to, say $60,000. But they would have to put ever increasing amounts of resource in as they approach $60,000, and under no circumstances could they exceed this. This would mean there was always an incentive to do more good, but the rich wouldn't be able to compromise the ability of everyone to reach a basic level. Progressively higher taxation rates for those with higher incomes is an approximation of this approach, if implemented properly.
  • Freedom of self-determination, freedom of speech, and other important freedoms are currently limited by law, or by religious beliefs, in many places around the world, for various reasons.
  • Artistic and scientific development is often not well funded.