Thursday, December 22, 2011

My thoughts on Ayn Rand, Consciousness, Capitalism & Universal Rights

A subtitle for this post is: "How Consciousness & Capitalism fit into the Philosophy of Growing Life."

I previously wrote a tribute to Benjamin Franklin, and I'm in process of writing a tribute to Andrew Carnegie. (There are plenty of other people who deserve a tribute in my blog, such as James Watt, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, & the Wright Brothers, but I decided to start with Benjamin Franklin because I sincerely believe that no one person better exemplifies the philosophy of life that I'm trying to communicate in this blog than Benjamin Franklin.)

But before I focus on all of these other people, I wanted to write about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of rational individualism because she raises some interesting points about the nature of consciousness and what actions are moral in a world with conscious observers. And the reason that I'm taking the time to look at Ayn Rand's philosophy (before paying tribute to Andrew Carnegie) is that she would have some criticisms of some of my statements, such as "The goal of life is to expand life" or "The purpose of a power plant is to generate more power plants, and as quickly as possible."

The reason that I'm bringing Ayn Rand into the discussion here is that my philosophy of life (that the goal of life is to expand) would appear to her, as well as to other people, to be dehumanizing and lacking in moral agents. For example, if the goal of life is simply to grow life, then it shouldn't matter if that life is human, bacterial, fungal or vegetable. It might appear to some people that my philosophy of life is dehumanizing because it makes no differentiation between conscious forms of life and non-conscious forms of life. [In part, this lack of differentiation is due to the fact that I don't see things as black and white. I believe that consciousness comes in a continuous spectrum, with bacteria at the non-conscious side of the spectrum and humans at the conscious side of the spectrum.]

For Ayn Rand, consciousness is an axiom, a starting point, for all of the rest of her philosophy. And while I think that it's an important assumption to make in any philosophy of life, the question is:  are we forced into a philosophy of rational individualism just because we start with the assumption that humans are conscious?
   I don't think that we are forced into such a philosophy because, while consciousness is wonderful, fascinating, and still quite enigmatic, it is nevertheless a physical/chemical/biological phenomena. For example, consciousness goes away when you drink too much or when you are given certain anesthetics. While we know a lot of about consciousness, such as how to turn it on or off, we have no physical model of consciousness (even though Douglas Hofstadter has done a lot to equate consciousness with self-reference.) Because the nature of consciousness is still quite unexplainable, it is crucial to err on the side of caution whenever we make laws or take actions that involve the killing of conscious beings. (This includes non-human conscious species, such as dolphins and many of the great apes.)
So, I'd like to summarize what I think are the key ingredients of what it means to be a conscious-being in order to demonstrate that we are not forced into a philosophy of rational individualism just just because we believe that humans are conscious. In other words, we are not forced into a philosophy which states that "The goal of a human life is to maximize the happiness of the individual." My main problem with Ayn Rand's philosophy is that it seems to lead to the idea that the goal of life is to maximize one's happiness, i.e. one's utility. For example, I have yet to find a single law of physics or even a "law" of biology that has anything to do with happiness or pleasure, and so I'm always very skeptical of any philosophy of life that states that the goal of life is to maximize happiness (either individual happiness or collective happiness.)

Key Ingredients to Any Viable Philosophy of Conscious Life
1) Humans are biological creatures. As such, you have aspects that make you an individual and we have aspects that make us a group. Or a purposely strange way of putting this is the following: I am not an individual and we are not a collective.

2) Human beings are the most advanced of any of the biological creatures on Earth with respect to our ability to form groups, and human beings are the most advanced species because of our capability to think, to calculate, to predict, to analyze, to scrutinize, and to communicate. But we are not the most advanced in terms of generation of work. In this sense, we currently trail behind the bacteria of the planet.

3) The conscious mind is something that deserves rights: these rights include the freedom of speech, the freedom of movement, the freedom to chose a job, a spouse, hobbies, etc... provided that these hobbies or choices do not destroy the freedoms of other conscious beings.

4) The conscious mind deserves rights, but the consciousness mind is not an end in of itself. The conscious mind is an outcome of life's underlying attempt to grow. Now that conscious minds have blossomed in certain animal species, we can recognize that only conscious life has the capability of expanding life to other planets (any time soon.) The goal of life is to expand, and it is only by the work of conscious humans that life has any chance of replicating on places like the Moon or Mars (even if the self-replicating life-forms on these planets are non-human, i.e. humans will have to design and program the first self-replicating solar robots.)

5) While the conscious mind can create good things, the conscious mind itself is neither good nor evil. Likewise, human happiness in of itself is neither good nor evil. Human happiness can be good sometimes and bad at other times. What is "good" must be based on reality, i.e. we must judge good and evil based on the effects of actions in the real world. Those actions that cause life to grow are "good," and those actions that causes life to shrink are
"bad."
This is measurable, and not subjective. You can measure this by adding together all of the work generated by life forms (or by the eventual generation of entropy), and calculate whether the amount of work is increasing or decreasing (which will lead eventually to an increase or decrease in the rate of entropy generation.) Cutting down a tree to make a baseball bat probably doesn't cause life to grow. Cutting down a few trees to make a house might or might not cause life to grow; it depends on a) are the trees replaced? and b) does the shelter allow life forms to live, and to think of and plan for ways of expanding life into areas like deserts? But cutting down a few trees to drill a natural gas well and to build a gas natural turbine power plant probably will cause life to grow.

6) Freedom of the conscious mind means that, everywhere, humans should have the right to life, the right to make personal choices, the right of political freedom, the right to own property, and the freedom of speech. A human does not have rights against other people. (i.e. there is no such thing as a right to free health care because this means a right to force people to work for other people without pay.) For a full list of rights, check out the following website on Universal Rights. Note that I agree with all of the rights except #22 (the right to social security...depending on what they mean by social security), #24 (right to limited working hours and paid holidays), and #25 (the right to free food, free clothing, free housing, free medical care, free social services, and the right to money in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.) Just because I object to these rights, doesn't mean that I don't think that some of them are good and beneficial to society. It's just that there's no way to have a right to free health care without forcing people to be doctors. What if nobody wants to be a doctor, who is going to force people to become doctors and work for other people for free? It is not a right if you force other people to work for you for free. This is incompatible with the other rights, such as the right of an individual to make a choice on his/her occupation.

7) What might be deemed to be good at first (because it initially caused life to grow), might later in the future be deemed to be bad (because later on it caused life to shrink.) Does this mean that 'the good' is relative or subjective? Yes and No. What is good can be quantified and it's certaintly not relative (Note: unlike length and time, the entropy of a system is not a relative variable, i.e. an observer in a moving-reference frame will measure the same entropy as an observer in the reference frame of the system being studied.) But as I stated earlier, it's impossible to predict the consequences of an action, so it's impossible to state that any action really is good or evil. We can only say that an action (such as shooting an innocent person) is likely to cause life to shrink, rather than grow, and because of this, we should enforce laws against killing in order to prevent actions that will likely cause life to shrink.

So, after reading these key ingredients to any viable philosophy of life, one should be left with some nagging questions that we will not be able to answer:

Where do we draw the line between conscious life forms and unconscious life forms?
What is the best way to grow life? Should we implement a philosophy of individualism, altruism, or some mixture of the two? Can we maintain a growing global society if everybody believes in a philosophy of maximizing their own personal happiness?

From a physics point of view, there is no answer to these questions because there is no way to solve for the future outcome of any action of consequence, i.e. there's no way to prove that implementing a philosophy of individualism (such as capitalism) can grow life faster than a philosophy of collectivism (such as communism.) But just because we can't appeal to any laws of physics to help calculate what is the best way of growing life, we can use history to help us predict what might happen in the future.
And this means that we need to have debates about what is the best course of action for growing life both here on Earth and on other planets. Calm and rational discussion.

One problem I have with Ayn Rand is that she was very argumentative and dogmatic.
Here's an video example of her argumentative style...you can find many others on the web.

While Ayn Rand was completely dogmatic, some of her fellow individualists, such as Milton Friedman, were able to partially fake a willingness to listen to people on other sides of the capitalism/socialism debate. Below is a video on capitalism by Milton Friedman, who followed and expanded upon Ayn Rand's philosophy of individualism. If you have more time, I suggest watching Milton Friedman's entire series "Freed to Choose."



If you watch the second half of any of the video series, you'll see that there seems to be a debate between Milton Friedman and other people (economists, labor union reps, and politicians.) The problem is that Friedman is often confrontational with people with whom he disagrees. And I personally think that it's silly to be that confrontation when there's no way to prove mathematically that capitalism is better than socialism, or vice versa.

While this set of videos is one of the best ways of learning about capitalism, the problem is that the form of capitalism discussed in these videos rests on a moral foundation (utility) that can't be quantified. This form of capitalism rests on the idea that individuals should maximize their personal happiness, and that they should be free to chose whatever makes them happy.

I do not believe in such a moral foundation because, as mentioned earlier, I have seen no evidence that the laws of physics, chemistry or biology say anything about human happiness. My current disrespect for the form of economics that is taught in most universities stems from the fact that there is a complete disregard for the first or second law of thermodynamics in most textbooks on economics. In fact, I can't recall a single equation in any of my college economic textbooks that is in anyway related to the second law of thermodynamics. Unfortunately, our current study of economics, and hence our current understanding of capitalism, rests on a bed of sand: maximizing utility. So, debate right now between Keysenians & Monetarists or between Capitalists & Socialists is silly because these economic theories are lacking any grounding in reality, such as the laws of physics, thermodynamics or biology. [Though, with that having been said, I still think that it's important to learn most of what's taught in a course in economics, such as supply/demand, inflation/deflation, and monetary policy. The problems with how we currently teach economics are a) energy/work is not taught as the fundamental driving force for the economy, b) spending money on drugs is treated equally with spending money on power plants, as long as it gives us the same "happiness", and c) we could simplify teaching monetary policy and international currency exchange if all of the major nations moved to an energy-backed currency (i.e. a currency that maintains a constant price for the generation of work. The problem with current textbooks on economics is that the equations rely on the idea of maximizing utility, even though maximizing happiness is not the goal of life.]

I do not believe that the goal of life is for each individual to maximize their own happiness. I think that this is like reading Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" without having first read "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." Adam Smith, unlike Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman, recognizes that we are not purely selfish beings; we care a lot about other people and what other people think about us. We sometimes sacrifice our needs for the needs or wants of others. And we are not stupid or brainwashed because we care what other people think about us or because we freely sacrifice ourselves for other people.

I think that Adam Smith understands things better than Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand or Ron Paul. In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," Adam Smith understands that the goal of life is not simply to maximize human happiness. As biological creatures, there is part of us that realizes that the goal of life is for life (in general) to expand. This means balancing competing wants and demands.

For example, here's a thought exercise:     I may want to use the $200,000 I recently saved so that I can ride on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, but I also recognize that I could donate that money to a charity that gives medicine to people in developing countries. Another possibility is that I could use that money to go back to school, or I could use the money to invest in my kid's college education.

How should I make the decision on how to spend the $200,000?

Followers of Ayn Rand (or perhaps Milton Friedman) would suggest that I should spend the money on something that makes me happy. As long as it makes it happy and as long as it doesn't harm anybody else, then it doesn't matter what I spend that money on.

This is of course an absurd philosophy to hold because it fails to understand what is the purpose of life (not just human life, but life in general.)

What I should be doing is estimating the rate of return on work invested of each of the options available to me? And then, I should chose that option that achieves the highest rate of return on investment. But I realize that this is an impossible task because it's impossible to calculate the rate of return on work invested for every possible option available. There are trillions of different ways to spend $200,000. So, how should I actually make the decision?

I think that this is an open question. I have no way predicting the future outcome of all of the options available to me. But I can calculate an estimate of the rate of return on investment for a couple of possible options. For example, I can use my conscious mind and perhaps a few history textbooks to narrow down the field. (Why can't I calculate the rate of return of all trillion or so options? Becuase the act of calculating the rate of return on investment consumes exergy...so if I were to try to calculate the rate of return of every possible project, then I would consume all of the exergy available to me, and hence, I would end up generating a negative rate of return on investment.)

A conscious mind is required to make some of the tough choices on how to grow society, and perhaps because of this, we should respect and value all conscious life-forms. And also, I believe that it should be individuals that are making the choice on how to spend their post-tax income, not some collective. But just because it's an individual making the choice on how to spend the money they earn, this doesn't mean that the individual should be maximizing their individual happiness. As a society, we should reward those people who chose to grow society (such as investing in power plants with large, positive values of IRR), and we should disincentive those people who chose to spend their money on waste/luxuries, and we should punish those people who chose to shrink society (such as by killing conscious lifeforms.)

In summary, my goal with this post has been to highlight the main differences between my philosophy of life and Ayn Rand's philosophy of individualism. While I respect Ayn Rand as person and philosopher and while I think that her philosophy was and is crucial in placing consciousness back into our philosophical systems, I think that we need to go beyond the limitations of her philosophy. We can already start to see the problems inherent in adopting a philosophy of individualism: individuals who pursue their own happiness don't always cause society to grow, and in fact, many of the things that make us happy are quite destructive and lead to large negative rates of return on work invested. We shouldn't put the cart before the horse. If we aim for short-term happiness over growth, we are likely to get neither happiness or growth. But if we aim for growth, we might get both growth and long-term happiness.

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