why it's sometimes OK to kill your children

Is it bad to kill your children? Absolutely not! (Relatively, perhaps!) The Carthaginians, for example, every now and again would sacrifice the odd child to the god Moloch. They thought it was a good thing to do, a noble and sacred act, in some circumstances. It's hard to define good and bad in absolute terms, but the Afghan bandit, Abdel Khader Khan, makes a pretty good stab at it.

According to Khader -- the character in Gregory David Roberts' novel, Shantaram -- physicists believe the universe is moving toward greater complexity, referred to as the "tendency toward complexity". Khader defines "bad"/"wrong"/"evil" as anything that opposes the tendency toward complexity, and "good"/"right" as anything that furthers or enhances the tendency*.

What I like about Khader's definition is that it's clear and unambiguous, with minimal scope for subjectivity or opinion. But the problem is that the universe is NOT moving towards greater complexity. In fact, it's moving towards greater simplicity, as expressed in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. [Despite this problem, Khader's definition can be rescued and rehabilitated (more on that later). For now, back to the Second Law.]

Simplifying the technical jargon, under the Second Law the universe is moving towards greater and greater disorder (entropy/randomness):

Entropy is the thermodynamic property toward equilibrium / average / homogenization / dissipation...(Wikipedia)
One of the implications of the Second Law is "the heat death of the universe":
...in which the universe has diminished to a state of no thermodynamic free energy and therefore can no longer sustain motion or life. (Wikipedia)
Other scenarios of the fate of the universe also point to greater simplicity, not complexity. If the universe keeps expanding, for example, ultimately there'd be so much empty space between the galaxies and stars that you'd be hard-pressed to find any matter at all, even if you were a god.

Under the Second Law, Khader's definition is dead, but ironically, under the same law it can be resurrected, thanks to all the anti-Second-Law engines in the universe.

Every living thing is an anti-Second-Law engine. Every creature, every organism is an island of order in the ocean of disorder that is the universe. Living things create and maintain order as they go about the business of life. But there's a price to pay. To maintain themselves in good order and avoid death, living creatures need energy (among other things). And we all get energy from the environment. Plants get it from the sun. Herbivores get it by eating plants. Carnivores get it by eating other herbivores and carnivores.

The point is that living things maintain themselves (in good order) by sucking in order/energy from outside themselves. So, discarding Khader's definition but retaining his methodology enables us to define "good" as anything that optimises the overall (universe-wide) smooth running of anti-Second-Law engines, and "bad" as anything that fails to optimise the overall (universe-wide) smooth running of anti-Second-Law engines.

In other words, a thing is "good" if it promotes or enhances life, "bad" if it destroys or constrains life.

The definition includes "optimise" and "universe-wide" to cater to those situations involving choices only between "bad" options, eg when the killing of one person enables thousands to live.

And lastly, some terminological sleight-of-hand that integrates Khader's definition within a pantheistic framework: if we define Life as "ordered complexity" then the "good" is that which maximises ordered complexity across the entire universe, and the "bad" is that which minimises ordered complexity across the entire universe.

In those terms, existence is "better" than non-existence because there can be no ordered complexity if nothing existed at all.So "isness" is by definition "good", and the fact that there is a universe at all is a very encouraging sign!

*eg page 550, published by Abacus in 2004, reprinted 2012.


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mgeorge said...

Just as society including law and religion is is ambiguous on sex, it is ambiguous on killing. Children are "sacrificed" all the time due to "evil eye", being witches, to bring wealth, etc. If you have the political clout, you get away with wiping out entire towns or regions. You have a choice of napalm and other "herbicides", white phosphorus, germ warfare, "sanctions". Depleted uranium is good for long-term results.

On the home front, the possibilities are only limited by imagination: fake and tainted food, polluted workplaces and environments, fake medical treatments, etc. Fake responses to a major disaster (as in New Orleans) will lead to large projects in urban development later. As in war, all this makes you and your important friends richer. The return on capital is much higher than in war or colonialism. Every "terrorist incident" is a bonanza. The porno-scanners at airports supposedly spotting bombs will produce rich rewards in cancer patients in the medium term (according to Dr. David Brenner, Head of Centre for Radiological Research, Columbia U, c. 2011).

Are we in the expansion or contraction phase of the Big Bang? There was an opinon long ago that we would not be able to say. If string theory supercedes Big Bang, has the latter been officially laid to rest? Do we need to worry about running out of matter if it keep popping out of "empty" space?

masterymistery said...

mgeorge, not to mention 'detox' programmes, the idealised body images on TV that lead young people to eating disorders, the fact that tobacco and alcohol are 'legal' while 'marijuana/hemp' is not, and more...

On the physics front, I believe that string theory is becoming less and less fashionable due to the fact that it can never be subject to empirical experiment. The maths is beautiful, elegant, and explains a lot. But alas, it's not clear how it could ever be tested, which would seem to put it on the same footing as religion.

An offshoot / related model, M-theory, featuring membranes instead of strings, is believed to show more promise but is subject to the same weakness (above) as string theory.

The so-called "Standard Model" is back in favour, enjoying a bit of a renaissance, particularly since the discovery of the Higgs particle.

In terms of the Standard Model, incorporating the Big Bang, we're still expanding. I believe though that it is now believed to have been established that the scenario in which the Universe keeps expanding forever is not possible, and that the expansion will ultimately slow, then stop. At which point, there remain two scenarios: "terminal stoppage" (my term) and contraction.

I like the contraction scenario because it could lead to a "heartbeat-of-the-cosmos" scenario in which the universe cycles through an infinite number of stages of expansion/contraction. Or the respiration of the universe. These ideas appeal to the pantheist in me.

As far as the matter question goes, the short answer is that there's no problem about running out of matter, because it doesn't really exist in the first place!

In any (and every) case, if literally everything (via the big bang) can pop into existence out of nothing, then it would seem relatively easier/more believable that smaller pieces of matter can do the same thing.

In fact, Fred Hoyle's "Steady State theory" --- that at one stage was deemed a viable alternative to big bang theory, (no longer) -- is based on that exact premise: that matter keeps popping up out of nowhere to maintain the expansion of the universe.

But the more we look at matter, the less we understand it. There's the issue that most of the universe consists of stuff we can't see or know anything about (dark matter and dark energy). But put that to one side.

That energy and matter are the same thing but in different forms is now believed to be a fact. Matter is pretty insubstantial! But the harder you look at energy, the more it becomes clear that it too is insubstantial. One idea is that Energy is nothing more than Information.

Moving right along, it's believed that at the heart of everything is quantum stochasticity: that everything is an assemblage of probability waves.

And then there's the idea that consciousness actually has a lot to do with Reality. So perhaps we'll never run out of matter, because if it starts getting in short supply, we'll simply create some more!

The central role of the Observer in creating that which is observed, is a well-established feature of REality at quantum level. The act of observing is said to "collapse the wave function" --- ie to actualise one outcome out of the cloud of quantum possibilities that surround every thing and every event.

So if matter is energy, and energy is information, and information is knowledge, then Consciousness would seem to be the "final arbiter", that doesn't so much create reality, as choose one reality out of an infinite number of possibilities. And by choosing, "actualises" one possibility, ie makes it real.

Disclaimer: the above is my limited understanding of a very complex set of ideas. And I'm probably getting a lot of it horribly wrong.

Thanks for your comments: inspired in me the extended fugue on matter and energy!

masterymistery said...

mgeorge, and one other thing: It strikes me that when it is said that something comes into being out of nothing, that what is actually being said is that:

"something comes into being out of a place that we can't identify, we don't know where it is or how to get there, and we don't know what's in it." Which would mean that "it" is not really "nothing", but rather that "it" is only nothing to us.

cheesemeister (too lazy to log in) said...

While I can't abide killing children, I can certainly abide not having them in the first place. Those who decry birth control as being "against God's wishes" are fucking idiots. This isn't the same planet it was when those old testament books were written.
You might find the paragraph in this post interesting. It discusses why I think that fictional characters are "real" in a sense. The rest of the post is kind of a rant.

masterymistery said...

Hi cheesemeister, I went and read the post: what you have to say about "fictional characters" I think is extremely insightful. The issue of what is or what is not a Person is an issue that's been on my mind for years: it's highly illuminating to ponder these things!

Thanks for your comment, Cheers, MM.