Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Reincarnation - Part 1

My personal view of what it is about ourselves we are trying to capture when we think of ourselves as “having souls” will be explicated in Part 2 of this series. For now, let us assume the popular (Judeo-Western) view that every living human body is animated from the time of birth to the time of death by an individual soul, disconnected from other souls in more or less the way the body is disconnected from other bodies.

What about before birth and after death? According to the popular view, individual souls migrate here from another realm, let's call it Zoop, and when the body dies, return to Zoop, sometimes never returning to Earth, but enduring to eternity. Some may think of this eternity as just more time, time filled with very different kinds of experiences perhaps, but still abiding, one-way, flowing time. But in the realm of the spirit there is no time. So in a certain sense it is not true that the soul was formed before the body and will endure after the dissolution of the body, because technically there is no before and after except in Earthly, embodied life.

For those who ascribe to the popular view, and ascribe to some theory of reincarnation, the process would look something like this: Dorp is born in 1900 and lives until 2000. Then he dies, and his soul goes back to Zoop for some non-zero period of time, during which it is determined that this soul must go back to Earth. So the earliest time the soul can come back for a new life is in 2000, the moment after Dorp dies. Of course, the waiting period could be longer. Perhaps he won’t come back until 2050 or 2500.

But if there truly is no time in the spirit-realm then there is no reason why a person can’t be reincarnated at what on Earth would be considered earlier than the time of death. The question is, what if “after” death, Dorp’s soul is reincarnated in 1940 and lives to 2040? In that case, the same soul can be wholly present in two individuals living on Earth at the same time!

If so, then you might have met yourself in another person already. Literally.

Perhaps there is only one soul.

(There are other reasons why the same soul can be multiply embodied, with different consequences, which will require a more subtle notion of the soul, which I will share at some time in the future, if it please God.
I'd also mention in passing that in the Indian notion of reincarnation, there is no Zoop.
More to come on this topic) 

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This post is intended to mutilate the view that there is no such thing as “true” altruism, that however noble our actions are, our true motives are always selfish.

First, the two main versions of this faulty view: The first is that whatever we do for others, we do because we expect something from others in return. The second, more subtle version is that whatever we do, we do because it makes us feel good, and we don’t really do for others, but for this good feeling.

The general refutation will, I hope, lay to rest both forms of the view, but I’ll make this one point regarding the first: Even if we fully expect reciprocal (material or social) reward for what we do for others, there is no reason to think that that is the only, or even the main motive for what we do. When we say someone has “mixed motives”, we mean just that – part of the person’s motive is benevolent, part is selfish. If so, then there are benevolent motives, even if most of the time one is only partially motivated by them.

Now the main argument: Some people get pleasure from doing for others, and some people get pleasure from doing for self. Similarly, one’s conscience can cause one pain in the plight of others, a spring to action, or one can become so dissociated from one’s conscience as not to detect its call and command. One can train oneself, even if one doesn’t have the natural inclination, to take pleasure in the flourishing of others, and to be pained by their distresses (except in certain pathological cases). And if one can, I think you’ll agree, one ought to.

Now both the person who takes pleasure in altruism and the person who takes pleasure in self-indulgence take pleasure in what they do. But they are not equivalent – they are not both selfish. Thus we can distinguish between selfish pleasure, and altruistic pleasure. It is in the definition of the refined character that one take pleasure in the good of others. The naturally altruistic person will have an easier job of it, though will still have to combat the temptation to selfishness from time to time. The naturally selfish person who wishes to refine his or her character must take pains in order to develop this attitude.

In the end it will be worth it for the person, as excessive concern for the self naturally leads to a terribly stifling way of life, and the pleasure that can be taken in altruism is genuine.

Our opponent will then respond: “I am confirmed. I told you that we do everything for pleasure, and therefore even when one acts for others, one really has only one’s self-interest in mind. It may be, as you say, that the pleasure one gets in acting for others is better and deeper than the pleasure one gets in acting for oneself. That just means that if someone is really self-interested, it is in his or her own best interest be concerned for others.”

I have already partially dealt with this point, having argued that people may be willing to experience pain in order to develop a benevolent attitude. But it is still valid to press the case that one does this in calculation that overall this will result in greater personal pleasure, (notwithstanding the fact that many people who make the decision to develop morally often don't think they're doing so for this reason.)

The more profound point is this: Why do people take pleasure in being good to others in the first place? (The neurological explanation is informative, but trivial.) People take pleasure in being good. To feel good is not the same as to feel good about yourself. One feels good about oneself when one does the right thing. This has nothing to do with satisfying one’s libidos or gaining social status, etc. Sometimes, in order to be good, one must forget about oneself and surrender to more important things. A good person can only be happy when he or she does good actions. Paradoxically, then, the confirmation of self sometimes requires an absolution of self. This is hardly the same as mere indulgence in pleasure.

If the pleasure that comes from the recognition of the moral good doesn’t have a different metaphysical source than selfish pleasure, though I think it does, it certainly has a different psychological source.

People judge altruism to be a masked form of self indulgence in order to advance a certain amoral philosophy. But what is often forgotten is that the correct ordering and control of one’s appetites is a crucial part of the development of a moral character. One’s observance of morality is what determines whether a person is good or bad Therefore a morally sensitive person will take pleasure in being good and will feel pain when moral flaw is recognized, and work to regulate one’s attitudes in accordance with one’s principles. The amoral person will not regard the morality of one’s actions as valuable in determining which pleasures are to be prioritized, but only how good they feel.

If one takes pleasure in altruism, then that person deserves our highest respect, and we shouldn't think that our respect is a necessary motivator for that person, or a condition of his or her happiness.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Good = The Will of God?

This is an adaptation and extension of an argument by Plato, in the dialogue Euthyphro.

Let us say, as many do, that the definition of The Good is nothing more and nothing less than the Will of God. That would mean that whatever world God creates would be, by definition, perfectly good. Our world, then, is not the best world God could have created – any world must, by definition, be perfectly good. That means that a world far more miserable than ours, e.g., one where suffering is not justified, one in which there is no prospect of salvation, must be equally good as ours, if God were to decide to create such a world. Equally, for those who believe that all morality requires God as moral arbiter, then whatever morality God decides is objectively moral, even if it were the opposite of justice and morality in our world, even if it would promote dishonesty, selfishness, unjust privelege and liability, etc.

In such a case, though we may be beholden to God and subject to His reward and punishment, there is nothing “good” about the world or about moral behavior as dictated by the command of God. That is to say, though perhaps we would be grateful that God created us at all, we should not be grateful that He created a world for us that is good. Any world God would create is good by definition.

But the faithful believe that not only is God the creator, not only does He write the rules of the game, but that the rules are fair, just, and good.

Conclusion: There is a criterion for what counts as good independent of God and God’s will. Thus, if God is truly good, He is good according to a criterion He does not Himself create.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Can a Computer Be a Composer?

I wrote this a little while ago for school. I lost the footnotes and am too lazy to find them now, but if you ask me for them, I'll go look them up

Can a Computer Be a Composer?
An Essay by David Lampert
Touro College, DMX
April 2007

The composition of music is a mental feat of remarkable intricacy. While it is not overtly obvious, musical composition is a number game. It has been long known, since at least Pythagoras in the second century B.C.E., probably longer, that the essence of the musical scale is the numerical relationships between the degrees of the scale. Theories of melody, harmony, structure, rhythm obviously, all of these components of music can be analyzed as numerical permutations. And no one is better at number permutations than a computer.

Can a computer, then, be a composer?

In 1950, Alan Turing proposed that if a computer can produce a response indistinguishable from a human response, then the computer exhibits humanlike intelligence. If a computer can produce music that is indistinguishable from humanly composed music, according to this diagnostic, then the computer is a composer.

There are no more than three possible ways for causation to occur in the world: By predetermination (natural or otherwise), by randomness, or by free choice. It is debatable whether all three actually exist as causal agencies in the world, and if they do not, which one(s) do(es).

Nature produces sounds: The rolling of the river, the songs of the birds and insects, the rustling of the leaves. These sounds are often beautiful. They are produced and arranged by randomness. Is the forest a composer of music? If the answer is no, which I suspect is the case, then to be a composer is not merely to run a process and end up with beautiful sound.

But computations are not merely random events. Computer programs are forms, and though they do not predict or anticipate the content they will have to process (input from the user, for example), the processes they undergo to deal with the content are predictable. Music is methodical, and for a computer to compose music, it needs a method. However, music cannot be strictly predetermined either, because if so then the same program will always produce the same piece of music, which renders the programmer the composer and not the computer. In all music composition programs, there is a randomization factor, (based on the computer’s clock usually.)

“In 1787 Mozart composed the Musikalisches Wurfelspiel (Musical Dice Game). This composition was a series of precomposed measures arranged in random eight-bar phrases to build the composition. Each throw of a pair of dice represented an individual measure, so after eight throws the first phrase was determined.”

I am compelled to determine that Mozart, the programmer, and not the dice or computer, is the composer of any piece of music composed by this sort of method. First, all the phrases are pre-composed. Thus, they are already composed by the composer before they were fed to the computer. Thus, the computer does not compose them. Second, if the phrases go together musically, they were pre-composed to go together musically. However, a program with a hundred thousand phrases to choose from will have to have rules built in to determine which phrases (parts, chord progressions, key changes, etc.) go together. But might such a program be capable of generating good original music?

At the time of this writing, my opinion is no. A most important factor will be missing.

Another set of music generating programs use “evolutionary methods”, where the computer attempts multiple solutions to musical problems, which are controlled by a selection factor. Suitable solutions are reinforced, made to repeat in subsequent projects, while unsuitable ones are cut. However, who determines which solutions are suitable and which ones aren’t? “The results of the process are supervised by the critic, a vital part of the algorithm controlling the quality of created compositions”

Third, then, and of utmost importance: Computers have no taste. Mozart’s dice game doubtless produced some musical pieces that were better than others. However, which pieces those were were not determined at all by the process that produced them, but by the human listeners. Occasionally, perhaps frequently, a computer program will come up with a good piece of music, but as long as the piece follows the rules of music – nay, as long as the piece follows the rules of the program, the computer will not be able to determine whether it has produced a piece of music worthy of the name.

I have listened to a number of computer composed pieces of music (some are linked to Wikipedia’s article “Algorithmic Composition”). They suck. Many of them are pretty, to be sure. For example, the most common genre of computer composition I have encountered consists of forever-meandering, new agey, structureless soundscapes. But we have determined, as regarding the sounds of nature, that mere prettiness of sound is not sufficient to qualify as music. Random sounds can be pretty, especially to one who is open-minded to it. And, if occasionally such processes do result in compelling musical ideas, that is not to the computer’s credit at all, because the computer cannot distinguish worthy musical ideas from unworthy ones.

Also, to be fair, my listening did not qualify as a Turing test, because I already knew that I was listening to computer generated music. I think I’m open-minded, but I am not immune to bias. Even the most human of them sounded mechanical to me.

It is interesting, however, that the names of the pieces are always listed with the names of the human composers. Interesting, because if the computers are the composers, the humans don’t deserve credit. Perhaps it is egotism on the part of the composers, but I think it is a tacit acknowledgement that whatever technology used as tools, it is the human being alone that composes.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Voting: Meaningless or Downright Wrong

If the election is won by a landslide, then your one vote and all of your friends' 50 votes, are meaningless. Every vote counts? Nice dream, but this is a game of numbers and those kinds of numbers don't make a difference.

The only way your vote has any chance at all to count is if the race is neck to neck. And in that case the vote does NOT REPRESENT WHAT AMERICANS WANT; it means that ALMOST HALF of the nation is getting screwed. In a landslide, where your own vote doesn't count, at least the election as a whole vaguely represents what the people want. If the race is close, then, perhaps your vote does count, but it means that the system is not accomplishing what it set out to do, to represent the American People.

So you have your choice.

"On Election Day, I stayed home. And I did essentially what you did. The only difference is that, when I got finished masturbating, I had a little something to show for it."
-George Carlin

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Does God Really Care About Me?

This essay is a response to the faulty argument that the universe is so vast and the human being so small, his action so inconsequential, that God would not devote much attention to him.

Aristotle argued thus: We explain phenomena by referring to other phenomena. For example, we explain the rain by reference to clouds, the clouds by reference to temperature, temperature by reference to particle movement, and so on. If so, then the explanation has to end somewhere, because if not, either the series of explanations goes in a circle or goes on forever, in either which case we understand nothing. For Aristotle, this somewhere is God. But this God is very different from the God of the Theistic religions.

The word “God”– and it is only a word – has developed connotations consistent with its use. In a Western world with Christianity as the dominant world religion, people think of God (vis. God the Father) as an invisible tough-loving bearded man in the sky. The more philosophically minded tend to think of God as a more abstract kind of being, one unsusceptible to such simple, or perhaps any, description. This abstracting is a depersonalizing of God, and it places Him at a distance from human consciousness and concern. But the Theist, even the philosophical Theist, will insist that in some sense God cares about human beings, their welfare and their behavior.

The atmosphere in which modern science finds its roots, in 16th century Europe, was one deeply entrenched in religious thinking. For the masses, God was the invisible Superman; for the well educated, God was the abstract, incomprehensible super-unity of Maimonides and Aquinas. The Being of God was “known” from philosophy, His Nature “known” by revelation. When the first modern scientists began their work, the assumption was that God certainly exists, and that He is eminently rational. Therefore the universe, the physical world, is rationally constructed, and susceptible to understanding by way of rationality. Though we may never understand God, we might understand something of His “mind” by understanding his creation.

Without the conviction that there is a unitary basis for reality, the task of science would never have gotten started, because if we don't assume that the world is rational, then the quest for rational understanding of the world is a misbegotten one.

Scientists don't typically think they are seeking "God", because they are not seeking the invisible man in the sky. They do typically seek the God of Aristotle, though, even though they call Him by a different name: The “Grand Unified Theory” (GUT). Science, (and the quest for understanding generally) seeks that one principle that is not explained in terms of other principles, and which stands as the ground for all the rest. The reasoning process demands the assumption of a unity on the far end of it. In Big-Bang cosmology, we seek to apprehend to conditions of a world absolutely unified in a superdense chunk of matter, and to extrapolate from those conditions the unfolding of the world to the state we find it today, in all its variety.

But, consistent with the standard position of scientific inquiry today, scientists only consider the physical component of reality. They seek to explain the material conditions and physical
laws of today by understanding a unified material body and its unified physical law. All the physical matter, its configuration and behavior, all is included in the primordial and prime matter. But there is more to reality than materiality alone; at very least there is consciousness. The GUT, which proposes to explain everything, a law which is supposed to contain within it every other law, is not complete until it integrates into itself the ideas of psychology as well.

God is the physical law that contains within It every physical law, indeed, every physical event. But God is also the consciousness that contains within it every consciousness. One pithy way of putting it is, every thought in every mind is also a thought in God's mind

And one of the phenomena of consciousness that must be included in the principle that contains all consciousness is concern for the self. In my first consciousness, I am the most important thing in the world. My survival, my well being, my satisfaction in life, my conscience, these things are very important to me. These same thoughts and feelings - with their same intensity -
are also thought and felt by God.

If the argument stands, I am in God's auspices, the most important person in the world, and so are you and so is everyone else.