Struggling with Meaninglessness

searching meaning in meaninglessness

Morality, Free Will and Innateness

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For the moment, I will not write anything about our psychological glitch just yet. I feel that there’s a need to address something more important regarding philosophy of morality. I suggest that you read this essay properly and connect all my arguments wisely.

On Free Will

In this TED video, Spencer Wells mentioned that the Neanderthal (human species’ cousin who have already gone extinct) which lives around 60,000 years ago did not evolve much compared with the ancient primates ancestors which lived a million years ago. He referred to this as a ‘long cultural stasis’ due to the lack of revolution in the tools used – these two groups basically were using similar tools over million years! In other words, the intelligence of these primates did not evolve much during these periods.

Now here, I will want to pose two simple questions –

1. Why did the primates which lived approximately one million years ago till 60,000 years ago did not make any significant progress in terms of intellectual advancement?  This should be an interesting question considering human has made such rapid progress and growth over the past 6,000 years alone.

2.  If human had remained stagnant during those years, how did human evolve out of this stagnancy? Then this lead to another question – how did human being discover advanced intellectual techniques such as writing and drawing?

Let’s answer the first question first. Contrary to popular beliefs, intelligence and knowledge is not progressive which increases over time. It’s just like cockroaches which already exist since the dinosaur era – they do not evolve to be more intelligent or creative over these years, perhaps more adaptability, but nothing more. (We need to first throw away the idea that human being is special and gifted with intelligence since the start of the age. We are actually just an animal just like the others to begin with.)

So, how did we evolve out of the stagnancy? Something drastic must have happened during 60,000 which drives a massive Evolution in primates.

Around 50,000 – 60,000 years ago, Spencer Wells remarked of an hypothesis that an extreme weather condition may have driven the primates species close to extinction. There were perhaps around 2,000 of them left. Naturally, this triggered an extreme natural selection where the not-so-intelligent primates will die of not knowing what to do while the smarter ones survived perhaps because they get to invent some tools to withstand the harsh weather condition or they found a way to not to die. After this grueling period, naturally, the surviving ‘intelligent’ gene will propagate to the entire species and remain dominant.

From that onwards, our genetics had gone off on a tangent to a totally new direction. Basically, our intelligence keep evolving to be better and better  in an accelerated evolution.

5,800 years ago, a gene called ASPM undergone an accelerated evolution (after the divergence of human and chimpanzees), causing the rapidly exploding brain size of our ancestors. (Notice that primates and chimpanzees do not have a wide forehead like human being do. Therefore, it is widely believe that our forehead is the area of higher intelligence, hence the superstitious beliefs that the wider forehead you have, the more intelligent you are.). This ASPM variant arose coincident with the spread of agricultural, cities and the first record of written language.

I suppose this discovery is extremely important in bringing up a new dimension of outlook in human intelligence. The first human being who discovered writing did not discover it by sheer learning or some form of discovery. It was his genes which allow him to understand the concept and importance of writing – a higher level of thinking, a higher level of technique.

So ultimately, what’s the point of me bringing up this history of humanity? It’s to point out to you that, to some extent, you have no free will. Because if you bother to dwell into this ‘essence’ or ‘gist’ and then spread it wide in your mind, you will realize a number of so called conventional wisdom are pretty obsolete. Many people always carry a similar delusion with them wherever they go, which is – I can learn this and I can learn that. I can learn to become as great as him, I can learn to become a genius. If you think you can, you can!

It seems to me, the genes have a better say than your own little will.

On intellectual Capacity

Consider this scenario – If I show my cat or dog on how to browse the Internet, do you think my pets will be able to pick up this skill? I know I can keep doing it in front of them for millennia, but I’m sure animals will never understand it.  Why? Because non-human animals do not have such capacity to understand what we are doing. (Same goes when you show arts or drawings to animals). However, if I show a computer or Internet to the people who lives in tribes, village or rural areas, who have minimal exposure to technology, will they eventually understand what Internet is all about? The answer is yes, as proven by Sugata Mitra who discovered that rural Indian people, especially children, taught themselves to understand Internet and English, all by themselves. How could they do it? Because as a human being, they have the ‘capacity’ to understand language and technology even when they have never encountered it before.

All of us, including the animals, are born with a set of genes which already determined from the start the extent of our intellectual capacity. Dogs will not understand art, because it requires higher intelligence which exist outside of its genetic code.

What about geniuses like Einstein? We know that Einstein is a born genius, but nevertheless, he does not have a God-like super intelligence or else he would have solved every single world mystery. And that shows one thing – he is super intelligent, but not great by universal standards and that means, there’s a limit of how intelligent he can be, hence, a capacity. Let me illustrate the capacity below.


We are all born with a certain extent of capacity. The factor which will fill in the level we are at is depending on the environment around us. A typical urban dweller may score an above average intelligence if he has a good quality education, growing up in the right environment or mixing with right people. Perhaps he will be a dumb boy because he lives in an environment which do not appreciate or encourage intelligence. But he will never be able to break the limit to become a genius, unless his genes allow him to be.

Hypothetically speaking, what if Einstein is born in a tribal village in Africa? Will he still exist to be a genius or will he become part of the village idiots? Chances are, he will remain to be a village idiot simply because he is surrounded by only village idiots. Maybe not. Perhaps he could be philosophical thinker, due to extreme curiosity, and question the tribe’s conventional wisdom. Perhaps, he will be the only one who could think out of the box within the tribal community and proceed to revolutionize the entire village. Perhaps, he will just remain a nobody’s village idiot.

The point here is Einstein may become great in this tribal village, or he may not, depending on various circumstances. But he certainly has the tendency or potential to be great because he has the capacity which allow him to achieve it.

So, if you want to go as high or be as great as possible, perhaps somebody like Roger Federer in tennis, the pre-requisite condition is not to train/practice as hard like he does. Rather, you need to have the similar ‘gift’ or the ‘capacity’ that he has. Same goes for other areas whether its sports, arts , music, science, entrepreneurship, etc.

Everyone can achieve a certain level of goodness, but to be great you need to have this gifted capacity.

On Morality

So, in this last part of the essay, I will like to ask a big question – If there’s no free will in Intelligence, in the sense we are bound by the limited capacity to a certain extent, then is there free will in Morality?

Contrary to popular beliefs, human being do not act or make decisions by using rationality, rather we often use our emotions to make decisions (no matter how rational you think you are).

“The brain is like a good lawyer: give any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer,  the human brain wants victory, not truth; and like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than virtue.” – Robert Wright

Due to this very same condition, human being are often unconsciously ‘confused’ in the realm of abstract moral values – Why is it morally bad to steal things from your good friends but it is morally good to steal things from, let’s say the rich and greedy landlord (just like Robin Hood did). Thinking rationally, isn’t stealing an immoral act regardless of the circumstances? But no, as mentioned, human being think with emotions first, hence, there’s a tendency for us to subjectively label things as ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’. “Robin Hood is our hero because he robbed the greedy landlords and gave us back our hard-earned money!”

Very emotionally comforting and emotionally ‘justified’ but not at all rational, no?

To know why we behave in such a way, we first need to understand that human being, just like other primates, are social animals. (Different kind of animals live in different ways for the purpose of survival. There are animals which live in colony, some animals are solitude and some live in packs. )

When a group of animals live in a social environment, the most important element is always reciprocity – a relation of mutual dependence. Take back cheating and stealing as an example. Why do we think cheaters are immoral? Because cheaters invest less, but receive equal or more benefits.  And if cheaters are not detected, caught and punished, they will outcompete the non-cheaters and dominate the social community. If cheaters dominate the society, the reciprocity system will crumble. And that’s the end of the purpose of living in social groups.

Hence, looking from evolutionary psychology point of view, disliking the act of cheating is a very innate ability within all of us. But hey, if we inherently dislike the act of cheating, then why do we still tell lies? As I have mentioned, human do not engage in rational thinking but an emotional one. We do not like to be cheated or lied, but it doesn’t mean we will not cheat or lie to the others. Very paradoxical but it is the way how our mind is wired. (This behaviour is actually related to my post Self Deception – Cooking Facts and it will take me one full post to explain how they are linked.)

Plus, if we act rationally all the time within the social construct, chances are we will abandon our parents (too old and tedious to take care off) or partner (looking for a more beautiful and younger partner) or perhaps working with the enemy (may offers more benefits) which is extremely counter-beneficial to the society. Therefore, emotions is essential to glue us within a culture.

I have lost the link to the source, but in one research, it shows that even 1-2 years old children understand the concept of unfairness. How can you teach that unless it is somehow hardwired in our brain, I wonder.

Lastly, let’s again ask a very hypothetical question – Could Hitler have made a choice of not becoming an evil tyrant? Could he chose to be a good guy? Or was he already destined to be an evil dictator?

I will not want to draw any conclusions on this but to leave it up to you to judge. If you need some hints, I hope the little passage below will be able to help you.

But the real wrong turn came later, at the point where someone said, "Hey, how do you know that superintelligence will be moral?  Intelligence has nothing to do with being a good person, you know – that’s what we call wisdom, young prodigy."

And lo, it seemed obvious to the young Eliezer, that this was mere denial.  Certainly, his own painstakingly constructed code of ethics had been put together using his intelligence and resting on his intelligence as a base.  Any fool could see that intelligence had a great deal to do with ethics, morality, and wisdom; just try explaining the Prisoner’s Dilemma to a chimpanzee, right?

Surely, then, superintelligence would necessarily imply supermorality.

(Eliezer Yudkowsky)


Written by elan85

September 16, 2008 at 7:26 am

Posted in Philosophy

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