Mike Hosken's

"Hinges and Loops"

CHAPTER ELEVEN

SUMMARY and POSTSCRIPT

  1. Authority of Intuition
  2. Posterity
  3. Pro-Posterity
  4. Anti-Posterity
  5. Coherence and Intuition
Well that's about it really. But as the various ideas are rather spread about it could be worth while to gather them all together into a single perspective.
  • I think we can definitely say that universal definite knowledge is never available. But that seems horribly like a self-referencing negative paradox, and Chapter Three had seemed to indicate that no such proposition can be significant. Perhaps we ought to play safe: I think we can pretty definitely say that universal definite knowledge is never available.
  • But I think we can definitely say that a universal definite morality is never available.
  • The next best alternative is for each thinking person to build up his or her own coherent structures as best s/he can. This can mean accepting some new ideas even when to do so involves some pruning or rearrangement of the current structures. The criterion for acceptance is hoskence - the requirement that the new element qualify under one or more of these:
    • Fits nicely onto the existing structure of knowledge or code of ethics, even if only after some surgery.
    • Develops in a direction not previously considered, and not conflicting with any other part of the structure.
    • Directly or indirectly improves the beauty, simplicity or coherent strength of the edifice.
  • In assessing the strength of the structure those two disciplines of pure thought, logic and mathematics, are probably the most potent objective criteria. It is therefore worrying that we found a conflict between the two in Chapter Two.
  • Sense data have to be screened for hoskence rather than be accepted automatically at face value. And life is too short to build significant structures single-handedly. The testimony of others, including supernatural authorities, must be accepted or rejected on the basis of subjective probability and reliability values.
  • Beware of thought traps. Beware particularly of thinking of properties as "things": don't turn adjectives into nouns without logical justification.
  • Indeed, some accepted "things" may actually be properties. A melody may be, or may be a property of, a pattern of dots on a CD. A photon may be (just?) a wave of probabilities. A mind may be a pattern of neurones: almost certainly intelligence must be a pattern of electro-chemical opportunity.

§11.1 Authority of Intuition

Intuition featured on many pages, in many arguments. But there were two very distinct and contrasted contexts:
  • In the early Chapters on our knowledge of the world there were many explorations which reached counter-intuitive conclusions. Intuition seemed to be an old fuddy-duddy with limited horizons, needing to be jerked out of a complacent inertia.
  • But then when it came to questions of morality that same untutored intuition was crowned king - or at least made Director General - of decision-making despite the uninspiring CV. That seems counter-intuitive!
But it is questionable whether treating intuition as a single faculty is justified. Rather do we each of us enjoy different degrees of mathematical intuition, of scientific intuition, artistic intuition, moral intuition - perhaps spiritual intuition. So it does not follow that a mathematical duffer is necessarily equally limited on matters of arts and morals. Contrariwise, it may well be that we each enjoy varied levels of intuition: it may be the mathematical genius who is morally inept.

But that still says nothing to strengthen the objective authority of my moral intuition or yours, let alone that of the mathematical genius. Our intuitions' shortcomings when it came to quantum mechanics may be pure whimsy for most of us, but moral matters matter! We all long for an objective authority to confirm and back up our verdicts, or to which we might refer when puzzled.

Prayerful solutions may well be available to Buddhists, Jews and other spiritual conformists: they seek external authorisation instead of relying on internal intuition. Outcomes derived from divine consultation can be as idiosyncratic as the spectrum of world religions allows: one need look no further than the history of the Crusades, or indeed of slavery, even cannibalism. The rest of us are free to query verdicts derived from such sources but we necessarily lack any substitute - any alternative, let alone superior, authority. Left to themselves, our intuitions are probably even less unanimous. Are we back then with our cynic's definition of intuition from Chapter Nine? "The murky residue of an average upbringing and an inefficient education bent and twisted by a lifetime (thus far) of prejudices." If so - hard luck! There is no way of changing the basic facts. Each of us has to live our life guided by our own personal intuitions.

§11.2 Posterity

I suppose it could be said that what we have been doing so far has been not so much philosophising as trying to see how we might authoritatively philosophise. Now at last we have the opportunity to get down to the perennial problems that have intrigued thinkers since time immemorial - existence, purpose, our place in the universe, cause and effect, creation, personal identity, consciousness, and so on.
"On the beach, at night alone ...
"I think a thought of the clef of the universes
"And of the future."
Walt Whitman.
But the traditional grounds of philosophy have been pretty well tilled over the centuries. We might perhaps more interestingly follow Whitman and think of the future. Simply then as a sort of optional extra attached to the end of the main text I hope it may be possible to stimulate further interest by posing one deceptively simple philosophical question:

What is our present duty to posterity?

Needless to say, you will not find that I have provided an answer at the end of the Chapter.

We concluded that coherent morality was largely a matter of attitude, as if fostering the right attitude would solve problems of one sort and another. But when it comes to cases we are in immediate difficulty.
  • It was Christ who pointed us to the importance of attitude. We generalised from the particular case of His directive to "Love thy neighbour". Unfortunately (unless biblical scholars can correct me) He left no indication as to whether or not unconceived generations yet to come were to be included as "neighbours".
  • There are vast social problems in today's world - African famines, inner city violence, the continued existence of huge communities to whom the Good News has yet to be carried. Who needs - indeed, who can spare the time - to start worrying about the dim and distant future?
  • Anyone who knows the meaning of the term "exponential growth" must be terrified by thoughts of the future. If we take the current world population growth as having a doubling time of 30 years then if living standards are to be maintained EVERYTHING that mankind has invested in homes, buildings, businesses, roads, sewers, farmland - EVERYTHING will have to be done again from scratch in the next thirty years. And in the thirty years after that EVERYTHING will have to be done again AND AGAIN. In the lifetime of anyone born today the entire capital investment of the world will have to be quadrupled. Since that simply isn't possible, and since the results of failure are bound to be human deprivation and degradation, bitter feuds, wars, pain and premature deaths, it is this very question of the future which should be occupying everyone's attention - to the exclusion of such petty concerns as national squabbles let alone religious wars and party politics.
  • Despite being aware of the mathematics, the Roman Catholic Church considers that the need for dogmatic purity overrides humanitarian considerations. Received wisdom regards eggs and sperms as images of their Creator: only He may decide on their individual waste or development so artificial birth control would be sinful. The welfare of souls must not be allowed to succumb to the predictions of the statistician.
  • Most other western governments are beginning to take the view that posterity starts now - that the future begins with the present and continues through their term of office and beyond to terms hopefully to come. So global resource depletion, environmental pollution including global warming, and indeed the population problem are just starting to surface as politically significant matters.
Enough of our review! What is your attitude to the problem? I certainly hope it is one of concern. And I take it we can agree that there is no person nor organisation to whom we might turn for an authoritative or otherwise compelling verdict on the matter of our present duty to posterity. We shall have to make up our own minds: in the end, intuition must rule. But before we submit the topic to that supreme court we had better at least sketch out briefs for counsel on both sides.

§11.3 Pro-Posterity

I don't know what your family status is, but I am a grandfather. My grandchildren are actual people who have certain rights. And one of those rights is, I believe, that they too should have the opportunity to become grandparents - grandparents of potential grandparents and so on without limit. So quite apart from any vague generalisations I have a direct personal interest in posterity. By extension, the same should apply to everyone now living since I would not want to claim any special privilege for myself and my family.

There are problems of course. There are the practical matters of energy supplies, carbon dioxide emissions and the like. It would be nice to leave posterity at least a goodly chunk of tropical rainforest and a varied range of other natural ecosystems both on land and in the seas. There would seem to be two possible approaches to dealing with potential conflicts between ourselves and our environment.
  • We have not, so far at least, sought to maintain that you or I have any right to unrestrained grandparenthood. Technically I suppose one could argue that genes from both parents go into every next generation: so our own particular genes would be preserved even if the population halved at each generation. Posterity's best interest may well be best served by population control - either voluntary or imposed, whichever may prove effective.
  • We don't have to assume that posterity will wish to live in just the same manner as we now do. In fact that is a very improbable scenario. Advances in technology, changes in attitudes, and various environmental pressures are bound to alter lifestyles. Looking nowadays at the viewpoint of the past, it would have been a somewhat fruitless exercise to worry unduly about stabling requirements and manurial problems had something like New York city been thought about during the era of horse-drawn transport. Perhaps carbon dioxide is similarly just a temporary embarrassment of our own time. So it would seem that many aspects of science and technology need to be fostered.
    • We need to gain a fuller understanding of the biosphere so that we can see what liberties we can and cannot take with it.
    • We must, fairly quickly, sort out alternatives for those resources that are setting limits on lifestyle. This has always happened in the past and may be presumed to be capable of further extension, to some degree at least.
  • There is also a sort of hybrid consideration between the population-number problem and the technology problem. It concerns the sheer numerical over-stretching of natural resources. It is extremely unlikely that the last pair of herring will ever be fished out of the North Sea. But over-fishing in the past has been greater than the natural rate of regeneration so that the plenty of a century ago has been reduced to uneconomic abandonment. This is the sort of case that illustrates interrelatedness. In this and similar cases -
    • We need to know how the natural system works.
    • We need technology to monitor the system throughout any period of exploitation.
    • We need technologies to provide us with other options such as perhaps fish farming and even cultured unicellular alternative foods - bio-engineered proteins and the like.

§11.4 Anti-Posterity

We ought really to ask further questions about numbers. In particular, posterity isn't just the next sixty years: posterity is for ever and ever Amen. So the number of individual people we are concerned with in thinking about posterity is infinite. It doesn't matter whether they are an ever-expanding population or simply a residue from a self-poisoning ecosystem: if any humans continue through infinite time then the total numbers too are infinite.

Now we know that the world's resources are finite. The supplies of fossil fuel may be huge. The reserves of metals are known to be vast, in some cases at least. The capacity of the seas and the atmosphere to cope with waste products may be almost unimaginable. But all are finite and even recycling can never be one hundred percent effective. So finite goods are in the long term available to an infinite number of people. If it is to be a case of fair shares for all then every individual's ration works out at "something" divided by "infinity" which simply comes to zero. Your fair share, my fair share, any one person's fair share is Nothing. But it would be totally impractical, perhaps even totally illogical, to conclude that I have no rights to the world's resources at all - and neither do my grandchildren or their grandchildren, or yours! In short, an ethical principle of fair shares for posterity is simply not on.

In any case, a figment of my imagination can't have rights. We might argue about the rights of animals, even of trees and scenery. But it would seem wrong to say that rights exist for things that don't exist.

§11.5 Coherence and Intuition

So there we are. There are a few of the relevant arguments. It is by no means the whole story: books are being written on the topic of which this is but a taster. I hope that taste illustrates the fact that a coherent body of knowledge, an insightful intuition and a justifiable attitude all need some background research.

Asserting that knowledge and morals are subjective certainly does not downgrade them or imply that any old uncaring snap judgement will do. Quite to the contrary, knowledge and ethics are seen to be matters of personal responsibility. We can't just look these things up in some encyclopaedia or almanac: it is very rare that we can gain specific guidance on novel problems from the revealed books of our religion.

So now the problems of posterity and our present duty to people yet unconceived must pass to you and to me for our subjective assessments. Perhaps you had already been considering them. Or perhaps you may not have thought of over-fishing and turning up the central heating as moral issues at all.

But it would certainly be a mistake to regard philosophy as some self-contained and isolated body of academic endeavour. Almost our every act has moral implications needing judgements based on the best available knowledge.

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Please contact
Mike, circa 2003.

Mike Hosken

at [email protected]
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