Category Archives: Philosophy

The Stranger on the Train (unedited)

A short, short story that I’m working on for class. It’s all rambly, and I’m going to need to make some cuts, but I figured I’d share it before I make any changes. Enjoy.

The Stranger on the Train

I thought that I had seen your face among the flashing windows and parallel lines, lines headed in the same direction, lines that would never meet even when they had arrived – perhaps I have not seen you but merely a hopeful illusion cast by searching eyes. Even so, the traces of life that seem to crowd around me hint that you have been here. Black, not quite-circles checker the dimpled, caution yellow platform edge. I know they paint the platform that color to protect passengers from the train, but I can’t help the feeling that it’s to protect the passengers from themselves, a not-so-subtle reminder that stepping any further might be a bad idea. The black dots suggest that the reminder had been largely ignored.

These dots patterning the platform had once belonged to restless mouths, rows of teeth gnashing the fruity or minty or cinnamon life from thin strips of dry rubber, only to cast them away to become the problems of other men. These dots had all once had their own color, artificially dyed to resemble something that might taste like whatever it was they were supposed to taste like. But they had long endured the journeys of a million pairs of feet, a million characters forcing their stories on the hapless substance which had all but forgotten its own color. The dirt had collected; the blackness had become permanent; time had left a visible sign of its passing.

I walk next to a million people and yet our parallel lines will never cross. I can walk behind, in front, above, under, and even diagonal of them and yet our lines will never cross. Shoes can only be worn by one pair of feet at a time. I can know the feel of sole against sole, the lightness of one’s weight against the unyielding earth, but I can know all of these things without knowing the feeling of shoes on feet that are not my own. They say “step into my shoes,” but I know that to step into your shoes is to step out of mine, and in my becoming of you there is the unbecoming of me, all that is left, you, The Stranger.

I sit next to the walls that people build around themselves: a newspaper, held full-spread; a pair of headphones, played full-volume; a phone, tapped full-speed. I myself am wall-less, but I know that even without them, there is unbreakable glass separating all of us. Eyes are glass lenses, barriers that harvest the world of light to bring to the feast of experience. But the truth is that the food remains on the other side, and the fear is that we may never know its taste from within these glass walls. So we gather food from within and prepare feasts of our own, waiting, hoping that this meal will be shared. We are destined to eat alone – the newspapers and headphones and phones are signs of our resignation to this fact.

Aboard the train, ghosts had taken up residence in every corner that one could occupy. You had come and gone, leaving only vague clues of your sojourn. I want to reach out and feel the ethereal, the overlapping of existence, but the feeling can be nowhere but in the glass walls of mind. You pass into me as a memory of a life that I know only through its traces, the visible signs of your having been there. It is through these signs that your feet leave their prints on my mind, dents decorating the forgetful snow, fast disappearing in the sheets that continue to lay themselves over your passing.

The train plows through the thick morning air, molecules desperately clinging to the night’s repose before the sun comes to set them to work again. I am writing, my eyes fogged from having seen the full cycle of night, when you suddenly speak to me through a mouth sitting across the aisle. You ask about my writing. I ask about your life. We are exchanging the recipes of our lonely meals, the only way we can ever hope to share the taste of our existences. We hope others will enjoy its flavor.

The face you are wearing now had once been beautiful, but here too time had left signs of its passing, other lives had left their traces, and what was left was nothing but fatigue. Perhaps, if the hour were different, this face would have other things to show, but right now it is at its most naked. To an observing eye, the distance of strangers can sometimes reveal more truth than the closeness of lovers. Perhaps it always does.

In another time one would have had to pay close attention to see the signs of destination’s approach, but the world of the human is much smaller than it was yesterday – it takes a seemingly endless stream of electronic banners, automated announcements, conductor declarations, station signs, and perhaps even a personal phone alert system to precipitate people back into the larger world at hand. You look out the window and perhaps spot a familiar tree and begin to gather your things before the assault begins. You say it is your stop, but I already know: just as a tree can be a signal to something greater, so too can a certain grasp of hand, or a certain motion of legs. We exchange our goodbyes, knowing full well that we will never see the other’s face again. There is an easiness in the parting of strangers, no sorrow nor trepidation, just faring well. This face is gone without a second glance and you, The Stranger, are again faceless.

The sun rises in another place, its impending arrival in my own signaled by the gentle gradation of the distant sky’s color. Scraggly trees in their winter repose slide over the rainbow background, their quickness against the seeming fixture of sky suggestive of the relativity of time, of space, of every concept that a human could imagine. The deep blue is the death of night, the smoldering red is the birth of day, but they are both of them the children of light, different only in a certain motion of waves. Yet even in their similarity is the inevitability of identity’s solitude: blue cannot know what it is to be red, for in its becoming of red is the unbecoming of blue. Here, as in all things that are not ourselves, is The Stranger. Our lovers and mothers and sisters and brothers are as separate to us as any other. They are all of them The Stranger, and they vary only in their strangeness.

The Stranger is a reminder of the spiteful truth that it is but a wistful lie to believe that you are not alone.


Essays for Class: Justified Belief

I haven’t posted anything in quite a long time, so I figured I’d start by sharing an essay that I wrote for my Topics in Language and Mind class. It’s about the distinction between beliefs formed through perception and beliefs formed through reason. The argument is simple: the distinction essentially amounts to a difference in the immediacy of the formation of propositions.


Immediately vs Mediately Justified Belief

Propositions about the external world enter into the mind through two seemingly distinctive processes: perception and reflection. Propositions that are acquired through perceptual experience seem to become available to the mind simply through the enjoyment of sensual experience while propositions acquired through reason are based upon inferences made about perceptual experiences. This view, that there is a distinctiveness between those propositions formed through perceptual experience and those formed through reason, is similar to the dogmatic position defended by James Pryor, who claims that what this distinctiveness essentially amounts to is a difference in immediacy. His claim is essentially that propositions based on reason are mediated or justified by other beliefs while propositions based on perceptual experience undergo no such process of cognitive justification. Admittedly, the explanation of the distinctiveness of propositions formed through perceptual experience that I am about to purport is a stronger, more restrictive version of Pryor’s argument. I believe that Pryor’s sense of immediacy is not strict enough to explain the distinctiveness of propositions formed through perceptual experience, perhaps because he lends too much to the notion of “background beliefs”.

That these two modes of proposition formation are distinct is not entirely obvious, nor is it altogether clear as to what this distinctiveness consists in. Take, for example, the propositions formed while having a certain color experience. One can entertain many sorts of justified beliefs about a color experience, many of which seem to occur spontaneously. For instance, the perception of a certain wavelength of light might lead someone to entertain the justified belief that what she is perceiving is the color red, a belief which seems to be justified immediately, without the aid of any complex thought process. This belief would certainly by justified in virtue of her enjoying a perceptual experience of that specific wavelength: if the wavelength of light were different, she would not have the proper justification for believing that color to be red for she would be enjoying a different color experience altogether. But is this justified belief, that she is perceiving the color red, really an immediately justified belief? It seems the case that such a proposition could be entertained by the mind without any significant cognitive processing of the visual experience. Yet the subject’s ability to demonstratively distinguish this color experience as the color ‘red’ seems to rest upon another belief, specifically, the belief that this type of color experience is called ‘red’. She needn’t even have to state her belief in order for a cognitive process to become involved: she need merely make the mental distinction that the color experience she is enjoying is a token example of a specific type of color experience in order for the processes of reason to become involved.

If we accept that such a seemingly spontaneously justified belief is not immediately justified by perception and does indeed rest upon the justification of other beliefs, what then counts as an immediately justified belief? In other words, what is a proposition formed strictly through the processes of perception? To see what sorts of beliefs can be immediately justified by perceptual experience, consider the beliefs that might be entertained by a baby or small child. A young child that has not yet learned to speak of or recognize colors does not distinguish color experiences as having continued existences and perceives only the color mosaic immediately presented to him through perception. What propositions might be justified in this case? These sorts of propositions must be evident only in virtue of the specific perceptual experience being entertained. For instance, while the child might not be able to distinguish what a certain color experience is, the child will be able to distinguish between different color experiences that occur within the same color mosaic. The perception of two distinct color experiences occurs simply in virtue of the fact that there are two different wavelengths of light causing distinct color experiences, thus causing an immediately justified belief that there are two color experiences currently being entertained. This case is not limited to children: all people that have perceptual faculties that are able to create distinct color experiences upon the perception of different wavelengths of light are able to enjoy such immediately justified beliefs. In the case of vision, a subject is only immediately justified (as opposed to mediately justified) in believing propositions that occur in virtue of what is presented to the mind via the visual faculties. More generally, immediately justified beliefs are propositions about the world that occur merely as a result of the phenomenal character of perception. It should be stated here spatial character is part of the phenomenal character of perceptual experience, therefore allowing us to be justified in believing that things are located in the space around us where we perceive them to be located.

If we accept this argument, that beliefs formed through perception are distinct from beliefs formed through reason in their immediacy, is it necessarily the case that beliefs cannot have any effect on beliefs formed through perception? It seems obvious that beliefs can certainly affect the mediately justified beliefs of reason – there is a sense of redundancy in this statement. But it is not entirely clear that beliefs can have no affect on the immediately justified beliefs of perception. One might ask, if part of the definition of an immediately justified belief is that none of one’s justification for believing this belief can rest upon other beliefs, then how would it be possible for beliefs to have an effect on immediately justified beliefs without turning them into mediately justified beliefs? One reply to this is that if beliefs could have an effect upon the phenomenal character of perception, then beliefs could plausibly have an effect on  immediately justified beliefs. If this were possible, regardless of whether the immediate/mediate distinction holds, then the distinctiveness that separates perception and reasoning as sources of justification might be in some sense threatened in virtue of the fact that beliefs formed through reason and reflection would then be allowed to affect both immediately and mediately justified beliefs. For a more detailed understanding of why this might be the case, I turn now to an argument made by Paul Chruchland in favor of cognitive penetration.


Cognitive Penetration

Jerry Fodor puts forward the notion that the structure and design of the human body causes the perceptual senses to be encapsulated in such a way that they are isolated from each other and from higher forms of cognition. Churchland, on the other hand, is for the notion of cognitive penetration, claiming that entertaining certain beliefs or perspectives on the world can cause the senses to perceive the world differently. He cites other sorts of illusions in which it is actually possible to change one’s perspective to actually perceive something entirely different, such as the illusion of the image of a young girl can be turned into the image of an old woman by consciously shifting the focus of the eyes. He also cites the ability for a trained musician to distinguish subtle differences in sound that an untrained ear might not be able to pick up on.

The first of these examples, the shifting of one image into another, does not seem to me to be a case of cognitive penetration into the senses: while the object or focus of the visual experience changes, the phenomenal character is essentially no different in one image than it is in another. This case is like seeing a pattern in an image that you hadn’t seen before – the color and spatial character of the experience doesn’t change, your mind merely distinguishes a new object upon which to draw its focus. The latter example of the trained musician is perhaps more interesting for this paper. The notion that one is able to distinguish between sounds that were previously indistinguishable through the training of the mind might be considered a more powerful case for cognitive penetration. One might argue that the phenomenal character of the sound does not actually change (i.e. the sound that is perceived has not changed) and that it is now just a matter of paying closer attention to the phenomenal character of your experience. Yet there is a sense in which the phenomenal character does actually change in that the belief and training actually causes the perception of an entirely new set of sounds that were previously not perceived.

To see how this sort of penetration might affect my argument that beliefs do not have affects upon immediately justified beliefs, consider two painters, a master and an apprentice. The master painter has a highly developed sense of color from years of experience, able to distinguish between shades of color which are caused by wavelengths of light only a couple of nanometers apart. The apprentice painter, on the other hand, is unable to distinguish colors to this degree. When presented with a certain panel of color which demonstrates only the slightest gradation of color, the painters will seem to actually enjoy entirely distinct perceptual experiences: the apprentice will see only one shade while the master will see many. Both are immediately justified in their beliefs because both entertain their propositions merely as a result of their perceptions. Belief did not have a mediate effect on the difference in their perception in the sense that the justification of their propositions did not rest on other propositions. Thus it seems the case that the senses can in fact be penetrated by cognitive processes, and immediately justified beliefs can also be affected by belief.

Yet I do not believe that this necessarily undermines my or Pryor’s argument. Pryor claims that immediately justified beliefs are not autonomous in the sense that there are background beliefs which do have effects upon immediately justified beliefs. The beliefs that allow one to distinguish perceptual experiences from each other are a part of these background beliefs. The training that the master undergoes does not provide justification in the way that higher order conscious beliefs do for mediately justified beliefs – there is a sense in which this training must cause a change in the unconscious beliefs that work in the background of perception before they can truly be said to have an effect on the phenomenal character of experience. Thus the distinction that I made between perceptual and reason based justification remains: perceptual justification of propositions is done immediately while reasoned justification of propositions is done mediately in such a way that it rests upon other beliefs and propositions.


Posted by on May 24, 2012 in Learning, Philosophy, Writing


Ethics and Biology: Selecting Morality Part 2

…A continuation of Selecting Morality Part 1

Ethical Evolution: Rulers, Religions, and Reason

The moral rules that define ethics today did not emerge at any one moment in history; they are the result of the natural selection of behaviors created by societies which continued to adapt in such a way as to control selfishness within the population. These societies were selected over other, less altruistic societies, which could not move past the Cycle of Strife and therefore never developed the complex societal and ethical structures needed for technological and cultural development. For example, the leisure time needed to innovate technologically and culturally could not have been achieved if everyone was forced to grow and obtain their own food, and a class of farmers could not have formed or been sustained if not for the ethical principles which guide fair and equal trade (there would be no incentive to being a farmer if the farmer led a far worse existence than all other members of the society). The control of selfishness and the promotion of altruistic values is key to maintaining the stable growth of technologies, cultures, and populations.

1) Rulers

There is an extremely basic altruistic and ethical principle that was meant to control selfishness: fairness. Men exchange goods and services with one another, provided that the other holds up his end of the bargain. Societies that could maintain this fairness grew because it allowed for specialization, innovation, and increased efficiency. Societies that could not keep selfishness in check remained within the Cycle of Strife, hurting and killing each other to obtain what they want. Many primitive societies were caught in the Cycle of Strife until they could organize themselves under a ruler, someone who would ensure that all men received their just reward and who would punish those who selfishly disobeyed the rules decided upon by the leader and the society.

This is a primal way of establishing order within a society; this sort of behavior can be observed in societies of organisms less complex than humans. The rule of the leader is primarily enforced by physical force; people obeyed and respected the leader due to some physical sway he held over the people; he was either himself physically powerful, or had a contingent of men ready to enforce his rule. This sort of society was subject to the Cycle of Strife so long as it had leaders that were either themselves too selfish or too weak to control the selfishness of others, eventually dying or being overthrown to start the cycle anew. If the society managed to progress and expand past this point, presumably the population would grow quite a bit, and the spread of selfishness would be more difficult to control.

2) Religions

While the threat of punishment is certainly quite the deterrent, selfish behavior cannot always be so easily monitored or controlled, and the task only gets more difficult as the population grows. Altruism and selfishness are innate personal traits and can only truly be controlled by the individual; punishment from other members – including the leader – is something that can be avoided. The regulation of selfishness needs to begin inside the individual; the individual must have some reason to want to be altruistic and not to be selfish beyond physical force. The easiest and most efficient way to do this with many people is through belief.

Nothing is more personal or powerful than belief.  By making members of a society believe in some higher power, embodied either by the leader or by some unseen force, the members come to fear and revere this power as something unknown and unpredictable, something that can reward or punish their actions even when those actions go unobserved and unnoticed by other members of the society. The notion of judgement in the afterlife, of punishment or reward for one’s actions in life, is certainly a powerful force because it causes people to regulate their own actions of their own volition. In truth there isn’t much difference between the ruler stage and the religion stage; the religion stage merely promotes the concept of “ruler” and the ruler’s punishment and reward to a level more universal and powerful than any man can occupy. This is where the first standardized notions of good and evil come from: religion is a standardized belief system meant to promote better cooperation and less selfishness among a large group of people.

This stage of a society remains within the Cycle of Strife so long as people continue to argue about this unseen, Godly force; disagreement about the specifics of what constitutes “good” and what constitutes “evil” go on and on until some agreed upon notion of good and evil is arrived at. The reason that disagreement about this concept can hold up the progress of a society is because behind the notions of “good and evil” are the notions of how men should treat other men: essentially there is a masked debate about the ethical principles which should guide society  forward. When such a concept is agreed upon, the society enjoys a period of increased cooperation and decreased strife, and therefore the society enjoys a state of increased fitness and growth. (see my series of posts on Standardization for more details as to why I believe this)

3) Reason

The next stage of ethical evolution is the formation of a higher or enlightened way of looking at the world: reason. With the overall increase of fitness (an increased standard of living) afforded by technological innovation and cultural progress (i.e. ethical evolution), there emerges a class of people who can devote their lives to the pursuit of academic enlightenment. These academics look at the world objectively and empirically, dissecting both the physical world (science) and the world of men (philosophy) so that it can be better understood. What emerges from the latter is an understanding of the principles of justice, fairness, and equality quite apart from religion. It is an image of altruism and selfishness that can be arrived at without having to believe in anything beyond the physical world, through the work and toil of reason alone, a concrete notion of ethics is born.

Reason is the next stage of ethical evolution that must supplant religion as the core of the understanding behind good and evil (altruism and selfishness). Society at the religious stage will always be caught up in the Cycle of Strife if it cannot come to agree upon a standardized notion of good and evil. And because the beliefs of men can vary so deeply and profoundly, it doesn’t seem the case that humans will ever move past it. For society to have increased fitness, it must have better cooperation and less selfishness among its people – this is what I have been arguing all along. The only way to do that is to find some way to agree.

The world is now occupied by many people of many different religions, all fighting to decide whose beliefs are the right ones. Just as religion became a standardized belief system to unite people under one flag of good and evil, thereby increasing altruism and decreasing selfishness, reason is a banner that all men can be united under because it is in the power of all men, regardless of personal belief, to reason. What reason offers is a understanding of good and evil, of altruism and selfishness, that all men can arrive at independently of their personal beliefs: they must simply see that there is a more universal perspective that supersedes the perspective of any one man.


Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Ethics and Biology, Philosophy, Writing


Ethics and Biology: Selecting Morality Part 1

In the previous post on Ethics and Biology, I was making the claim that ethics is the general term for human behaviors adapted to regulate selfishness and promote altruism within a society. These behaviors help to increase the chances of survival and the level of success that a society experiences. As societies enter into competition with one another, the society that demonstrates the best ability to hem selfishness eventually wins out; when resources are not extremely limited, selfishness and the struggle between individuals for resources and power are at the heart of all society-internal conflicts, conflicts that result only to the detriment of the society’s fitness.

Yet the ethics of today was not immediately born from this need to control selfishness. Morality is an ever growing compendium of behaviors adapted for this purpose, a collection of the behaviors and beliefs that have been handed down by successful societies that were selected for via the principles of natural selection (more specifically, group selection). Societies that could not find ways to control the spread of selfishness (the result of the “subversion from within” principle) suffered one of two fates: either they could not grow and were eventually absorbed by more successful societies, or they suffered some collapse of internal structure due to the struggle between many individuals, leading to societal reversion (stagnation or depopulation) rather than progression (population growth).


Before I Go On: What’s at Stake

There is something that I haven’t really talked about that fuels my desire to write about this topic, and it is something beyond mere fancy. The purpose of my talking about Ethics and Biology is to justify ethics through reason and empiricism; by grounding ethics in the more universal languages of reason and empiricism, we come to realize that there is an important reason for us to be ethical and moral people, one that goes beyond any one person’s individual happiness. I’ve talked about how ethics is a collection of behaviors and ideologies that is selected for through the principles of natural selection; societies experience success through the cooperation of individuals and the control of selfishness. What I’ve come to realize is that ethics and morality aren’t for individuals in the sense that living an ethical and moral life guarantees you happiness in this life or the next. Morality is not for the fitness of men, is is for the fitness of mankind. What’s really at stake is here is more than just the lives of individuals; it’s the life of the human race that we now hold so precariously in our hands.

Ethics and morality are not principles that give happiness and fitness to you or to me – they are principles that give happiness and fitness to all of us. We should not want to be ethical and moral because of fear of punishment or in hope of reward in this life or the next. We should be ethical and moral because of fear for the happiness of future peoples – our future selves as well as our children and their children. The faster we escape from the illusions of punishment and reward from without and learn about the punishments and rewards that come from within, from our minds, the faster we can propel society forward into the future.

So, without further interruption, allow me to paint my picture of the evolution of ethics, and why good and evil are notions more universal and scientific than anyone cares to believe.


The Cycle of Strife

In the last post I mentioned that for every society of organisms, the opposing forces of group selection and individual selection create a sort of equilibrium between the amount of selfish members and the amount of altruistic members. By the “subversion from within” principle, the amount of selfish members (who enjoy an increased fitness) has a tendency to increase over generations, increasing the ratio of selfish members to altruistic members slowly over several generations. Some philosophers think that, because of this tendency towards selfishness, altruistic tendencies aren’t likely to have evolved in this manner; the eventual result of this process, according to them, would be the complete elimination of the altruistic behavior over time.

I don’t necessarily think that this is plausible; if there was a time in which a society of organisms was enjoying the benefits provided by the work of the altruistic members, then the behavior could never be completely eradicated from the society because such an event would have profound negative impacts on the fitness of every single member of the society, even the selfish ones. Before the complete eradication of altruistic behavior is even possible, the effectiveness of the benefits provided by the altruistic members will have decreased below a critical level, when the benefits are not enough to support the habits of the selfish members. What this means is that the society will regress, entering into a state of “collapse.” This can cause either the conversion of selfish members into altruistic members, cutting or stemming off the regression, or, if the regression continues unhindered, a significant drop in the fitness of the group as a whole, which entails a drop in the growth and success of the population until the population actually starts to experience negative growth.

Regardless of what happens, the society will eventually return to a state of equilibrium, when the effectiveness of the altruistic behavior is again just enough to support the habits of the selfish. This prompts the return of individual selection, eventually leading the society back to regression. This cycle of equilibrium, spread of selfishness, and regression is what I call the Cycle of Strife; unchecked competition between organisms within the society leads eventually and inexorably to the regression of the society back to an equilibrium, the staging point for the competition to begin anew. The only way to avoid this cycle is for the altruistic behavior  to evolve such that it is able to provide for more members at the same cost to the individual, or for more members to become altruistic. Technological and cultural progress, respectively, are examples of these two phenomenon. While many people have written great works about the first (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is one great example), I would like to focus on how cultural progress, has beneficial effects on the fitness of groups, especially through the effects of ethics on regulating selfishness.

Continued in Selecting Morality Part 2….


Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Ethics and Biology, Philosophy, Writing


Idiocy or Art: Brad Neely

If you only see the childish drawings and the ridiculousness of what is said, you’ve missed out on a lot of hidden wisdom, insight, and genius. Also it’s pretty funny.


Thinking about the future from a present perspective.


Baby Cakes and his misguided wisdom.


An uncannily accurate account of the actual biblical story.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Funny, Idiocy or Art?


Ethics and Biology: Biological Altruism

Evolutionary ethics is an attempt to ground morality in terms of biology, thereby eliminating the notion that the ideas of good and evil were handed down and dictated to humans by some God or other supreme being. Oddly enough, anyone who has read my views on God should realize that such an attempt, to ground morality in biology, is actually how my “God” would do just that: evolutionary ethics is an attempt to show that the universe and the natural flow of cause and effect within the universe, or what we call science, gives birth naturally to the notions of good and evil. This task is certainly no easy feat, and to date no one has come up with a good way to reconcile what philosophers call the “is-ought” problem: how do we ground the “ought,” the subjective notion that we “should” follow moral rules rather than that we “must” follow them, in terms of the “is,” the objectivity of hard scientific fact? I have a few ideas that I want to explore as to how we might be able to accomplish this, and my methods primarily revolve around redefining the traditional notions of morality, good, and evil.


Biological Altruism

Altruism in the biological world is defined as any behavior that benefits other organisms at a cost to the altruistic organism. At the price of the organism’s own fitness, the altruistic organism works to increase the fitness of other organisms; either by putting one’s own life at risk, expending energy, or sharing one’s own resources, an altruistic organism puts forth some effort that decreases its own chances to survive and prosper while simultaneously doing the opposite for another. It is a phenomenon that is seen throughout the animal kingdom, particularly among social animals (e.g. ants, monkeys, birds), yet it is, at first sight, in contradiction to the very notion of natural selection. The main principle of natural selection is that the strongest, most fit organisms survive and prosper over weaker, less fit organisms. In this sense altruism is detrimental to an individual organism as it decreases its fitness; if the general principle of natural selection is applied, altruistic behavior has a tendency to be selected against. In contrast, a selfish organism, one that benefits from the efforts of the altruistic organism yet itself accrues no costs, has a much higher fitness than the altruistic organism, and therefore would be selected for.

The proposed answer to this conundrum, that altruism isn’t likely to have evolved due to the fact that altruism is selected against while selfishness is select for, is to view natural selection as operating on groups rather than individuals. A group of organisms as a whole benefits from the altruism of individuals and therefore enjoys an increased fitness. Natural selection then works to select for groups of organisms rather than individual ones: groups with more altruistic individuals are selected over groups which are less altruistic. This theory, that altruism evolved due to the selection of groups rather than individuals, is called group selection.

The main stumbling block of group selection is what is called “subversion from within,” the notion that even a single selfish organism will upset the balance of an altruistic population. By profiting from the work of other members of the population, the selfish organism has a higher chance to survive and pass on both its own genes and its selfish tendencies to future generations. The eventual and natural result after many generations of increased fitness for selfish individuals is that altruism is selected against and eliminated within a population. Thus it seems that altruism is unlikely to survive within a society, or at least that the eventual result will be a large population of selfish individuals profiting from the altruism of just a few members.


Striking a Balance

I don’t necessarily agree with the notion that altruism isn’t likely to have evolved due to the principle of “subversion from within”: while the principle certainly makes sense, I don’t think that it indicates that altruism is not likely to evolve in a population, rather I believe that the principle merely indicates that the number of altruistic individuals within a group of social organisms tends to a minimum.  Group selection and individual selection are both at work within societies of organisms, but they have competing effects. Group selection selects for groups with higher levels of altruism (because a more altruistic group has an overall higher fitness) while individual selection selects for populations with higher levels of selfishness.

Societies of autonomous animals (as opposed to hive minded animals like ants or bees) will always have at least a few selfish individuals. Selfishness within a society has a tendency to grow by the “subversion from within” principle, causing a decrease in altruistic benefits and therefore in the fitness of the group. Yet the force of group selection limits the amount that selfishness can spread throughout a single group; the decrease in altruism comes with an equal decrease in the group’s overall fitness because the work of the altruistic members is less and less effective and cannot support the habits of the selfish members. An equilibrium is eventually established in which the altruistic benefits are just enough to support a certain number of selfish individuals: any less and group selection will begin to select for the group by choosing altruist members over selfish members.

An altruistic group of organisms will always succeed over a group that is less altruistic, provided that the conditions of the environment are not so extreme that individuals are always selected for over groups (as is the case when resources are extremely limited). If the environment is at least stable enough to support the equilibrium between altruism and selfishness, that is, that the environment doesn’t cause members of the society to enter into immediate life-or-death competitions with one another over food (think of two mice fighting over the only piece of cheese for miles), more altruistic groups will always be selected for simply because they have a higher probability to succeed over less altruistic groups. So, provided that the environment has enough resources to provide for all groups equally, how can one group succeed over another? If we say that a group is more likely to succeed if it has higher levels of altruism than the others, then group selection will choose whichever group has a higher ratio of altruistic members to selfish members.


Ethics: An Evolutionary Milestone

Among competing groups of the same altruistic species, how does one group succeed over another? In other words, what makes one more likely to survive and prosper when compared to the other? My above argumentation seems to point to the notion that whatever group maintains a higher ratio of altruistic members to selfish members will have higher fitness. But how does one society, subject to the same environmental challenges and therefore to a similar equilibrium of altruism and selfishness as the other, maintain higher levels of altruism? Presumably the thing that makes the difference, when external conditions are the same, is located internally, within the society itself. There must be a mechanism by which one society actively reduces or controls the amount of selfishness within the population. If other societies have a tendency to slowly decline into selfishness over generations by the “subversion from within” principle, then the society that will eventually win out is the one which finds a way to regulate the spread of selfishness. More broadly, the society that has the best, most effective way of regulating selfishness has an higher overall fitness and therefore a higher chance to succeed.

The idea that I want to espouse is that in humans, ethics is the general term for behaviors adapted for this very purpose: to root out selfishness and promote altruism. If we recast the the ethical notions of good and evil in biological terms, we can designate “good” as any action that is altruistic or promotes altruism, and “bad” as any action that is selfish or promotes selfishness. One can see a direct analogy to utilitarianism as defined by John Stuart Mill; rather than the morality of an one’s actions being judged upon the total amount of pleasure created minus the total amount of pain created, we can judge morality based upon the total amount of altruism minus the total amount of selfishness that one’s actions generate in both oneself and in others.

For now, though, I will leave a more extensive discussion of how good and evil can be defined in this way for another post.


Online References:

S.E. Bromberg: The Evolution of Ethics

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Biological Altruism

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Evolutionary Ethics

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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Ethics and Biology, Philosophy, Writing


Sodom and Gomorrah

I just suddenly remembered this video. Prepare to be educated.

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Posted by on March 29, 2012 in Funny, Idiocy or Art?