First Principles


If we wish to build a system of thought on a Bedrock of Unassailable First Principles, we must be sure our first principles are really unassailable, else we are building in the air, and nothing we conclude has the desired claim of absolute correctness. Even Descartes's famous assertion is immediately found wanting, filled as it is with unwarranted assumptions about actor and action (cogito), cause and effect (ergo, which even Descartes himself quickly realized was unwarranted), and self and being (sum). That leaves all children waking up, as we all do, in the dark, with only one really Unassailable First Principle: the Simple Fact of Perception, undifferentiated raw Experience. All the rest, including all that follows, is speculation.

The Simple Fact of Experience is already an amazing thing though. It involves what quantum physics calls "collapsing the wave function". It calls into being all that can be considered, and given the simple fact of hearing, for example, we can ask ourselves "What hears?". When we have answered that first question, perhaps we may have a place to stand, and a system of thought that can lay claim to being right. Until then, let us examine a few of the dramatic ways in which we are wrong.

What is Belief?

All speculation is not equal. My first (relatively) arbitrary act will be to introduce a continuum of Trueness, an ordering of assertions along a dimension that reflects their qualities as models of The Way The Universe Actually Is. Notice that in so doing, I've introduced by implication a large set of other concepts. We are now miles from first principles, plunged into the secondary, and it only gets worse from here. Is this ordering itself speculative? Yes. When we say "the quality of a model", we are actually talking about simultaneously maximizing two variables, completeness and precision, and all our values for those variables are estimates, estimates produced by children stumbling around in the dark, bumping into things (and each other). A belief is a model to which someone has assigned a high position on the Continuum of Trueness.

How do we arrive at these estimates of model quality? Remember, we so far have no bedrock upon which to build. We need to construct these estimates in the air. We can only decide how probable something is by locating it in relation to other things that are themselves probabilistic estimates.

Let's trace the trajectory of typical models and beliefs back to their origins in earliest childhood.

As individual organisms, we all wake up in the dark.

Imagine a typical child waking up in the dark (I'll make him a boy to avoid saying "s/he", or "they" in the singular, and to avoid accusations of sexism should I end up insulting him). His first perceptions are probably dim, filled with confusion, fear and discomfort. Notice that word "probably". From this point forward, in the interest of conciseness, I will forgo the use of numerous "probably's" and "approximately's" where they are, strictly speaking, called for. If you find a statement that appears to be absolute, assume the appropriate modifier. Our child awakes completely unqualified to make clear rational judgments about the world. Given how little he knows, is he responsible for his actions? Yes, he is automatically responsible in that he cannot escape the consequences of his judgments, good or bad. If he decides at some point, for example, to assign sovereignty over his future judgment to some person, group, or system, it is he who has made that decision, and he who will suffer the consequences. Given how rudimentary he is at this early stage, he can be forgiven for immediately making that decision, for assigning a large portion of that sovereignty to certain adults, who, after all, are feeding him and seem to know vastly more than he. This, however, is already a dangerous thing. It is the pipe through which flows a torrent of unexamined myth and hearsay. If he does not withhold some portion of his sovereignty, if he does not struggle to return to a clear understanding of how little he knows, his life will be empty fantasy at best, and evil delusion at worst.

The first and most important method for evaluating a model, especially a model that has become a belief that our child finds himself holding without knowing why, is to ask "What is my basis for this? How did I come to believe it in the first place?", and if the answer is "Aunt Ellie told me", he should probably examine how Aunt Ellie came to believe it, and then assign it a position on the continuum consistent with Ellie's position and everything else he is able to discover about the belief and its provenance. Ideas with poor provenance belong at the low end of the continuum. I have no problem with the possibility that the Universe is replete with undiscovered mysteries, that people might be able to introspect into communication with the Creator of the Universe, that the world might be filled with purely noumenal (or even magically numinous) beings dedicated to assisting all manner of undertakings, but of every belief we should question whence it came, how it traveled, and the various probabilities with which it is involved. Most beliefs do not merit the high position they have been assigned. Most beliefs are unexamined hearsay.

Here is a theory (let's call it Theory 1) with lots of impressive provenance.

Theory 1

The Perceiver—What Hears—is the same as Knowledge of Right and Wrong, and is also, perhaps, the Creator of the Universe.

To the degree that Theory 1 is true, all living beings know, inherently, what is right, and therefore to the degree that evil exists, living beings must be alienated from their inherent nature or must act against what they know to be right. I suspect that the former contributes significantly more to the existence of evil than the latter, and the argument can be made that acting against what one knows to be right bespeaks an alienation from that knowing, so the former probably subsumes the latter. To the degree that Theory 1 is true we might be discovering a place to stand, but to the degree that one can be alienated from that place we still find ourselves floating in the air. On the basis of this relativity, I introduce a second continuum, one for the states and actions of living beings: the Continuum of Innocence, an open interval that runs from Absolutely Blameless to Absolutely Evil.

Belief Cults

A mother murdered all her children because a voice in her head advised her to do so. Was that voice, claiming to be the Creator of the Universe, a psychotic delusion?

There is a character, in some books I have read, named Abraham. Was the voice in Abraham's head, claiming to be the Creator of the Universe and ordering him to kill his son, a psychotic delusion?

Some advice: if you are planning to kill your children because of some voice in your head, suspect that the voice in your head is a psychotic delusion.

Belief cults hold that The One Great Good is not to question a set of beliefs. They usually have at their center a book that is the same class of object as a chain letter, internet worm, or computer virus. Belief cults propagate by infecting the highest aspirations of humankind—to be good and to know the truth—and by poisoning the wells of refutation. Certain simple practices have been found to contribute to clarity and general well-being: not drinking alcohol, for instance, being kind and generous, limiting one's desires, singing, breathing deeply, having a daily schedule. If you perform some of these practices, you will realize beneficial results. If you want to start a belief cult, recommend some of these practices to your victims, and when they realize the first benefits, attach your payload: tell them that the benefits are the result of their faith in your message. Tell them:

"If you BELIEVE, all will be given to you." --here wax rhapsodic about all the fabulous rewards that will attend upon their ceasing to question anything you say.

"If you DOUBT, unimaginable torture, terror and eternal agony will be visited upon you." --go wild here; have fun.

Chant these two central themes in a thousand different ways; free associate; be poetic; use parables; tell stories; have the stories' protagonists reap their respective fruits again and again. Most people don't realize you're telling them the same story over and over if you change the surface trappings just a little bit. Remind them again and again that the consequences are forever.

I have some questions for the belief cults:

Why does the Creator of the Universe hate, above all things, an open mind, a mind that assumes as little as possible?

Why does the Creator of the Universe hate the child who struggles to return to a clear understanding of how little he knows?

Why does the Creator of the Universe hate those who let their actions be guided by natural feeling, by their own inherent knowledge of right and wrong, by their only unbreakable connection to the Universe itself?

Why does the Creator of This Whole Great Giant Universe hate all but those who idolize some babbling rambling book (to the exclusion of similar books) on a tiny insignificant planet? For some indications of just how giant This Whole Great Giant Universe is, see some pictures from the Hubble. Notice particularly the proliferation of dim dust-obscured red-shifted stars.

Theory 2

Any voice in your head, or in your prophet's head, that craves your unquestioning faith above all else, is not the Creator of the Universe. It is not the Archangel Gabriel. It is a psychotic delusion.

A Chaos of Evil

Belief cults teach their followers that only their faith in the teachings of the cult prevents the world from falling into a Chaos of Evil. Fascists insist that only manifold laws governing every aspect of existence, and an enormous apparatus of coercion, prevent the world from falling into a Chaos of Evil. To prevent this Chaos of Evil, belief cultists and Fascists are willing to go to any length, to commit any atrocity. They become so ensnared in the fight, so attached to their beliefs about causes and effects, so alienated from their inherent knowledge of what is right, that they fail to notice that they have created a Chaos of Evil. Do you think Hitler thought he was evil? Or do you think, as I do, that he probably awoke each day thinking It's a tough job, but someone has to do it; someone must Fight the Good Fight, must do what Needs to be Done, must Make the Hard Decisions; someone must Help Evolution Along (as if Evolution were a fumbling craftsman, trying—and failing—to achieve something clearly understandable to Hitler and Nietzsche and other would-be eugenicists); someone must manage the masses and the gene pool toward A Beautiful Tomorrow?

Theory 3

The end never justifies the means.