Do we need adjusting or can we deal?

The latest movie I’ve seen is The Adjustment Bureau. Moving past the cliched love story, it circles around the concepts of Determinism and Free Will. The movie is a an interesting adaptation of Philip K. Dick short story infused with suspense and imagination. Let’s start with the line I consider to be defining:

Thompson : We actually tried free will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman empire, we stepped back to see how you’d do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought that maybe we just needed to do a better job with teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you raised hopes, Enlightenment, scientific revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason. Then in nineteen ten, we stepped back. Within fifty years you’d brought us World War One, The Depression, Fascism, The Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuba missile crisis. At that point the decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn’t fix.

Atrack and don’t deviate. They are the helpers of a Chairman (we might assume this is another name for God). So, this rekindles the problem of Free Will vs. Determinism that has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years. On the level of conscience, liberty can be defined as the possibility to choose. The principles used in the movie can basically be found in Leibniz’s doctrine: God predetermined broadly all the actions of the human beings, but leaves them with the choice of little things such as what to wear, what to eat, etc.  He believes that the universe is created by God according to a divine plan and that freedom and determinism are compatible with each other. People have  freedom, but they are  limited by their imperfection and passions.

Using the idea of freedom as spontaneity, Leibniz argues that our reliance on voluntary action by a chain of causes does not exclude a wonderful spontaneity. To exercise one’s free will means to act under one’s own wishes and inclinations, regardless of outside influences. Since the divine order prescribes classes of acts and not particular acts, we is free. However, this freedom of action manifests itself on God’s predetermined territory.

Deviating a little from Leibniz, but in the same area of subject: Did you knew that if people are told that free will doesn’t exist, their brains will follow?

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Machine vs. Afterlife

Well-known scientist Stephen Hawking gave a rather controversial interview recently. Saying that there is no afterlife to look forward to, classifying this as a fairy tale arose a lot of criticism and controversy.

He isn’t the first notable person trying to detach from the conscience of people the image of the luxuriant Eden Garden promised after death. Paradisiacal notions are cross-cultural, often laden with pastoral imagery, and may be cosmological or eschatological or both.

But these words coming from one of the most respected people in history – transmitted by means of a special technology which transforms thoughts in sounds – gave another meaning.

This is the frequent statement of a scientist. He’s not saying “God isn’t real”, he’s only saying there is no need of God to explain the world. This is a scientific allegation, with its foundation back in time: in the theory of Occam’s razor to be specific: We should seek the greatest value of our action. The idea born in the Middle Age asserts that we shouldn’t multiply hypothesis in order to explain a phenomenon.

The same thing is said by Hawking – implying that modern physics doesn’t need a God means it would be an over and above hypothesis in this system of explaining the world.

For most religions, Paradise is the image of a non-spatial, non-temporal, fairy-like place, where only the ones who live their lives accordingly to the moral code of each religion wind up. Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom believes that human beings are cabled to the fear of death and because of this fear they invented philosophy and religion, but also a fairytale terminology.

I think the phantasm of immortality is a mental construct necessary to the human condition which helps them deal more easily with all the bad things that happen and also counter-attacks the fear of death and the relationship between the individual and the world.

However, a scientist who refuses the religious horizon is disqualified. It’s like a scientist that rejects from the start a hypothesis. But what is science if not the disclosure to any hypothesis until the discovery that it can or can not be sustained. On the other part, asked by the interviewer “If this is the situation, what can we do?” he responded :

“We should seek the greatest value of our action.”

And how is this different form any other moral percept of religions?

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To live and let die

A 91-year-old woman is selling suicide kits via Internet, author Sir Terry Pratchett is participating in a BBC Two documentary about assisted suicide. We face the fact that death has become such a mundane thing that requires a paradigm shift – althought it would just be a recursion to the Greeks.

Treasuring life has been a cultural melting pot for many civilizations. Myths of creation are patterns of wisdom, regardless time and place, thought the occurrence of life is inseparable of its evanescent and renewal. The ways we perceive death are cultural constructs that shape within particular social and historical moments.

There is an intense debate on this subject: religiously, it’s prohibit – the right to give or take life belongs only to God. However, others believe that although killing a person is normally wrong, and worse than killing “any other kind of being” (like animals, for example, which are not self-conscious), in the case of persons it is worse to deny voluntary euthanasia than to provide it. To prohibit voluntary euthanasia is to promote less happiness, for it promotes the continued suffering of a self-conscious being who desires to end that suffering but knows that it will continue.

The Greeks called it a good and easy death (eu – good, thanatos– death). We know that in Sparta handicapped children were exposed and left to die, fact which was approved by Aristotle, for reasons of public utility. Plato expanded the practice to seriously ill elderly. Epicurus summed the general trend of thought of the ancient Greeks: We are masters of the pain, masters in their bearing, if they are bearable, and if not, we possess the ability to quit life, in the same way we leave the theater if we do not like.

Although there isn’t any ethics that could tell us for sure that euthanasia is morally good or right, the question which remains is: Are we giving too much weight to individual freedom? What could be next?

The Fukushima 50 – Beyond the call of duty


The ad for the campaign to help JapanThe men and women struggling to avert disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant are becoming the faceless heroes of the worst nuclear industry crisis in Japan’s history. From what I’ve heard last, 3 of them have already died, others have been hospitalized and the rest are still trying to keep the nuclear plant under control. Their deeds can be included in the highly debatable category of supererogation acts.

The concept of supererogation is controversial and cannot be captured by a strict formal definition. The Latin etymology of “supererogation” is paying out more than is due (super-erogare). Supererogatory actions are those actions beyond duty, morally good, but not necessary or required. In other words, supererogatory behavior is fully optional.

Immanuel Kant, in its Foundation of Metaphysics of Morals classifies this actions as being morally imperfect since there is no morally imperative about the hero’s actions. Kantian ethics is based on the idea of moral laws and duty as being the only conceivable expression of moral values ​​in human action. However, he doesn’t think much of sacrifice: he considers that it implies selfishness and vanity, which are not correlated to moral laws, and may even be a violation of the duty itself.

On the other hand, from a utilitarian perspective, Mill assumes that not asking much from people would encourage them to do the right thing and to promote general utility. This may be one way of interpreting the courage of the Fukushima 50 or even the education of the Japanese people: they have been working under the constant threat of radiation sickness, fires and explosions.

Going above and beyond the call of moral duty is what we can call their action – sacrificing their selves for the greater good, for the salvation of a nation. Certainly this example should remain as paradigm of courage and why not, it could revive the discussions on the concept of  “supererogation”.