Saturday, June 16, 2012

On Dehumanizing Human Beings

Is there such a thing as bad knowledge? Knowledge, of which ignorance would not just be beneficial, but discovery would be actively detrimental. Off the top of my head, certain statements, if true, could seem to fit this claim intuitively. The recipe for smallpox, or nuclear technology.

The answer to this question has some deeper implications. Knowledge, essentially is a documentation of reality. Is it better to live in denial of reality (or at least a part of it) as opposed to a better understanding of the same? This touches the foundation of a worldview committed to reason and science.

If there are truths that are better not discovered, then isn't a commitment to understanding the world fraught with danger? Assuming that these exist, it would be impossible to tell if the next discovery would be one from this forbidden set prior to the discovery itself (or a good idea of it), which could mean that erring on the side of caution and desisting from scientific exploration, would be prudent. These assumptions, if true, render a project of reason meaningless.

Such claims hold water not just among religious believers, but occasionally for some skeptics as well. From personal experience, few religious friends began displaying typical out-group hostility when I began reading scriptures of religions other than the one we collectively subscribed to (or appeared to do so). At some level, such hostility was motivated by a profound distaste for knowledge (here the knowledge of other religious doctrines) and quite expected - religion is quite well known for unabashedly discouraging enquiry.

But among skeptics, as well. The reactions to the knowledge of the illusory nature of Free Will have been quite interesting. Several people feel depressed at the idea that we are fully determined by causality and feel it is a knowledge better off not knowing.

So is there such a thing as bad knowledge? I'd have to say no. Knowledge does not have any intrinsic goodness or badness, it's pretty much what we make of it. Of course, knowledge in the wrong hands is dangerous; the knowledge of the recipe for smallpox should never, ever reach the wrong hands. But there's a distinction in saying that the knowledge is itself bad, and that it can be misused.

To say that knowledge is bad is to say that absolutely nothing good can come from it; that there is no silver lining possible at all. One would be tempted to place recipes for smallpox and blueprints for nuclear weapons into this category, but even the worst, potentially damning knowledge has a silver lining that makes its discovery worthwhile. The most obvious is the imperative that knowledge be discovered by the good hands, so that steps can be taken to prevent or anticipate it getting into the wrong ones.

So a commitment to science and reason automatically implies a readiness for the things ahead in the unknown, knowing that backtracking from knowledge is a no-go. Tough, but that's the attitude that you have to realize is required when going headlong into reality.

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The consequences of an awareness of the illusoriness of Free Will, do not have to be depressing at all; by no means is bad or even slightly bad knowledge, once you've had a chance to digest it and think it through.

The immediate repercussions of this knowledge is a diminution of our ego and the self. Feeling proud of one's own accomplishments does not make exact sense anymore, and it is this that feels depressing. The role of the conscious witness in the mind seems nullified taking into account the larger picture of causality. As the notion of pride withers away, so does shame. The knowledge of the illusion brings us crashing down to reality by holding up a mirror to our own arrogance.

This isn't to say that accomplishments suddenly become meaningless. It's just that taking credit for accomplishments seems false, when aware of causality working away in the background, and the decisive role of luck in doing the things you did, neither of which your conscious witness can be held responsible for. This seems to bring a sharp distinction between the compliments "nice work" and "congratulations". Appreciating the accomplishment is quite different from taking credit for it; and the truth is, you're just as wondrous and clueless, and join anyone else saying "nice work" in appreciating the accomplishment. It's hard to not feel humble.

Another disconcerting notion is the idea of lack of control (a mild form of fatalism). Another reason for the instinctive depression of the awareness is that the future (of our minds) is not in "our control", that it cannot change if we will it; it is set in stone. But this is evidently false, the absence of Free Will does not imply an absence of will, just that it isn't free. It is possible to change your life by causing it to change (by not attempting to account for where you got the idea of changing your life from); your life is just as much subject to cause and effect dynamically as it was before. In fact, it gives a good idea of how to achieve things we want to; formulate causes accordingly to achieve desired effects. My experience of turning vegan is one such example.

The most important consequence though, is empathy. The illusory nature of Free Will coupled with the awareness of the ideas that control the strings of a mind, make the concept of hate meaningless. Even the most rabid religious preacher is, in truth, at the mercy of the poor ideas that use his mind like a virus using a host; a pawn, and a victim - a pitiable condition.

Which brings me to my point: several (mostly religious) people claimed that the awareness of the illusion of Free Will would dehumanize people.

There are 2 ways to dehumanize people - to demonize them, or idolize them.

The awareness destroys both. It brings us to a sanguine level-headedness in viewing other human beings - neither our obsequious glorification nor cruel hatred have any specific vault to deposit into - it is dissolved in the vast expanse of causality and the way things are. The knowledge means that, if we were someone else, atom for atom, nothing would be different. It seems a matter of luck that your conscious witness decided to hook onto your specific body to observe from within, but it doesn't matter anyway to the way things are.

In contrast, religion thrives on both of these - demonizing and idolizing people, forgetting reality all along. It uses Free Will conveniently as a hook to pin inconvenient things like evil and suffering.

Anyway, looks like I've become a "Free Will is an illusion" apologetic... But I had no choice. *shrugs

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