Good guys are allowed to hate bad guys?

Humans clearly have an automatic tendency to think in terms of good guys and bad guys. Old news, really. What I want to talk about is how insidious it is.

Let’s look at an absurdly black and white example first. Some games — such as the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and a computer game I almost played at one point called RetroMUD — have a system where characters are officially classified as good, evil, or neither. (This is often called character alignment.) This kind of thing doesn’t need to be all black and white, but it often is. In the extreme versions, it goes like this: while it’s heinous for an evil creature to attack a good one, a good creature attacking an evil creature is doing a good deed even if the evil creature was just sitting there. After all, if the evil creature ever did something, it would be evil things. Because it’s evil. Often this applies to entire species or “races” of creatures. I mentioned RetroMUD because if I recall correctly the documentation said that to maintain a good alignment for your player character over time it was necessary to keep killing evil creatures — combining total naïveté with the bean-counting mechanics of a computer game to absurd results.

Okay, so how is any of this subtle? The subtlety is in how much our brain manages to fool us assuming something just like that even after we have reached the point where we would recognise it as absurd spelled out loud. Continue reading


Selfish memes: How the natural selection of memes is bad for us

Genes and memes

The term meme seems to be mostly used nowadays to refer to repeated internet jokes. They are memes also, but the meaning is broader than that. The term was originally introduced by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene to denote the unit of cultural evolution, analogous to genes in biological evolution. A meme is any kind of piece of information that spreads between people —  a tune, a belief, a story, a value judgement, a news story, etc. A culture is made up of a huge number of memes. Memes are analogous to genes in that they spread, mutate and are subject to selection pressures, so that a catchy tune is more “fit” in the evolutionary sense than one that isn’t catchy.

If I’m saying memes are “selfish”, we’ll first have to explain what Dawkins meant by saying that genes are. Continue reading

Why philosophy is both more and less “naïve” than science

The basic idea of philosophy is to examine those things that are normally taken for granted. This should make it the most critical approach — critical meaning just that, to really consider what the right answer is rather than just accepting something without looking into it, as they say, uncritically. Yet, those using empirical sciences to answer some question can often say with reason that the question should be solved empirically, not by mere philosophical speculation. Suddenly, it is philosophy that is too naïve and not critical enough. How can it be so?

Continue reading

Why you will live forever if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true (but possibly in pain) (PS. not really)

This isn’t serious. It’s making assumptions I wouldn’t make seriously, and I’m no quantum physicist anyway so I don’t know how correct my physics are even given that. Still, I thought this was interesting.

Suppose the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, and every time a random quantum event happens that could have happened many ways, all of those ways do happen and each gets its own universe. The universe splits into many all the time. Some people who should know (better) believe this.

Suppose you are a human in a universe in such a multiverse. That you will die one day is overwhelmingly likely, so that the way we usually think about it is that it’s inevitable. Quantum events are not deterministic, so that they could only happen one way, but they are statistical, so that immensely large groups of them such as we always see in practice (since they happen to elementary particles so tiny that everything is made up of a huge number of them) always happen the same way in practice. Eggs can break, increasing entropy, but they don’t jump back together again, even though technically there’s no absolute law against it. Similarly, people die under certain circumstances as their bodies break down, but they don’t do the reverse by having their bodies suddenly jump back into good shape due to a lot of random quantum events all happening to aid that.

However, we have the infinite number of worlds. If every possibility happens in some universe, then we can expect that everything will happen in some portion of the universes. At first, this doesn’t seem to help: it will still be in a tiny minority of the universes, so we’re always going to end up in one where it didn’t happen.

However, what if we’re talking about the universes in which you die versus those in which you don’t die? Then you will only continue to exist in those in which you live. Continue reading