Ethics and Information


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Table of Contents


This is not yet a coherent essay, though I hope it will be someday; instead, it can be considered as a draft, made of not-so-well-related chapters and a collection of notes. I'm trying to publish it in "bazaar" style: release often (well, as often as I write it), release early, so as to get a probably few readers, hopefully some feedback, and maybe contributors or even co-authors. If you want to be warned of modifications, tell me.

Document History

I have long intended to write a major essay "On Relevance", in the field of Cybernethics, the study of the connections between ethics and information. The idea has cristallized back in 1995 when I realized there was probably no existing book explaining the scientific spirit as I understand it; but its origin may be traced further back when I became interested in this spirit.

On 1998-08-10, subsequently to a heated discussion with a cousin, at last begun to write a few words on the topic of openmindedness, which I afterwards decided could be made the first chapter of the long-ruminated essay. Or maybe I should rather keep things in a collection of short, well-separated, essays? Hum. We'll see. Anyway, also wrote a sketch of chapters: induction, commitment, cost of acquisition, authority, meta-information, relevance, freedom of information,

On 1998-09-04, undertook a second chapter, on science, which didn't fit the previous partial plan; not even sure how it fits in the whole essay. Added draft notes about the four pilars of formal reasoning, and reality. Bibliography begun; it's hard to track back references to books and articles where I take my ideas from, since it goes a long time back in time; plus the place I got my ideas from may not have been the original (or best, or whatever) public expression (much less private invention) of these ideas.

On 1998-09-08, drafted "On the limits of Science" (adding a note in "On Science" about tradition with or without scientific backing), "On Subjectivity" (with implications on personal freedom of conscience, and a note on religious traditions). Also tried to find a general plan for the essay.

On 1998-09-16, wrote a first draft of the opening chapter "On the Quest for Truth". Also received interesting e-mails from Boris Borcic, who has me refine the concept of shareable knowledge in the scientific tradition, and discuss some phenomena that bias scientific research.

On 1998-10-23, having enough with all the load of superstitious irrational non-sense said about freedom in general, and free will in particular, from religious people and philosophers alike, including all the judeo-christiano-muslim brainwash, all the socialist propaganda, and even many buddhists explanations, I decided to help dissipate the deep misunderstanding of the notion of freedom, which I haven't yet seen explicitly described according to my views (though I think these should be pretty standard among lots of honest people with scientific interests). I thus introduced a new Part on the Knowable Universe, where I discuss those subjects, put in context.

On 1998-10-27, I complete the first chapter, detaching lots of elements into a new chapter On Relativity. I move into the text of each chapter a sketch of the important ideas that I envision to develop in it. Done chapters on Skeptic Materialism, Determinism, and the Nature of Freedom; begun a chapter on the Timeliness of Information; put in the chapter on Quotienting a note about the structure of ideas being that of language-expressible objects up to isomorphism.

I fear that apart from a few chapters, this essay is still in the state of a really messy draft. Help ordering those ideas would be appreciated!

Part I - On Truth

On the Quest for Truth

Since ancient times, man has always asked such questions as "do gods exist?", "what is good, what is bad? how can I know?", "should I stay or should I go?", or "what shall we have for lunch today?"; and he's been looking for answers, he's been looking for the TruthTM. Such is his perpetual quest, in all matters, be them metaphysical, ethical, practical, trivial, or else. These questions are not gratuitous; at least they are not generally meant to be. One seldom wonders about such questions as "what's the color of my neighbour's grandmother's doctor's socks?" one usually asks questions whose answers, or lack thereof, will influence one's behavior in the surrounding physical and social world. Basing action, both in the short run and in the long run, upon an elaborate persistent knowledge structure, thinking and making plans before to act, these are what distinguishes higher-level lifeforms from lower-level ones, and what bestows man his physical superiority upon the rest of the world.

As human beings, we make mental models of the world from the information we gather so as to be able to react in ways more adapted to our goals, whatever these goals be. Actually, all life forms use internal models of the world so as to adapt their behaviour: sometimes very crude simple models, sometimes very sophisticated models, but always partial models, for the world, being much bigger than we are (it contains us, after all!) requires more information to faithfully represent than we can ever remember and take into account. Our mental models are certainly not the whole of the way we intern information about the world; the human body reacts to its outer environment in lots of physiological ways, most of which are still mysteries even today; even the way our minds build their representations of the world is mostly a mystery, and the part which we can observe and act upon either externally, or by our limited capability of reflective introspection, is but the tip of the iceberg. Still, this visible part of mental process, the one accessible to communication and reasoning, plays a crucial part in our lives, for it is the one that allows us humans to learn from each other, negociate with each other, and build not just societies, but civilizations.

Truth, in this light, appears as an hypothetical ideal state of perfect knowledge of the objective world that surrounds us. Like all ideals, it needs not be effectively realizable; it merely needs be possible to get ever nearer to it, near enough to take appropriate actions depending on answers to questions we ask. Even though no possible state of our minds can possibly embody a complete or exact truth, "Truth" still indicates a direction in which to strive. The very concept of "Truth", if it does not necessarily directly reveal anything deep about the structure of an objective Universe, most likely reveals something deep about the structure of our minds, or at least the structure by which our minds can analyze themselves; hence it is an essential concept to understand how we may interact with the Universe, as far as we can know.

Sketching the elementary theory of the information that we gather about the Universe, how we acquire it, how we accept or reject it, how it evolves, and last but not least, how we base our actions on it, that is, growing a reflective conscience of the way we interact with the rest of the Universe, exploring the inter-relationship between Ethics and Information, such is the goal of this essay.

On Relativity

Of course, we've learnt a lot from the many mistakes of others (curiously, we learn too little from our own mistakes) during our lifetime, and by studying history, and history of sciences in particular that "Truth" is often vastly overrated, and should be reckonned as a relative and limited concept: on the one hand, what a lot of people, even bright people, believe to be true for a long time, backed with lots of arguments, might eventually end up being considered grossly approximate ("the earth is flat", classical physics), plain wrong ("exposure to radioactivity makes you healthier", marxist economy), or even ridiculously meaningless (astrology and most superstitions); and most questions, even "important" ones, will remain forever unanswered ("what would have happened should X have done Y instead of Z?", "where did I put this pen?"). [even the brightest people make mistakes]

Some claim that there is one absolute truth, and they know it; they are endoctrinated; when they think they know it all, they are fanatics. ....

The opposite trap, into which many people fall, often with a paradoxical absolute conviction of the above type, is Relativism. Relativity is not relativism. .... Truth is not less real because it is relative, on the contrary. Absoluteness is not a requirement. The proof is that since if it were a requirement, since it isn't possible to achieve, nothing would be possible at all. Relativism is the assertion that nothing is truer than anything else, since nothing is absolutely true. Relativism is but the negation of reason under the guise of a respectable philosophy; it leaves to sheer force and ignorant whim the whole process of opinion making and decision taking. ....

Much like the concepts of Space and Time are made nearer to reality by following the relativistic model rather than the classical model, the concept of Truth wins, and doesn't lose, at being made relative. People who claim that since there is no absolute truth, all statements are equally valid, are deeply misguided or misguiding; should they live honestly live by this principle, they'd become nihilists; but most of the time, this claim is dishonestly used to negate sound arguments, and denying any kind of (opposite) intelligence, so as to justify the unjustifiable, leaving brute force as the only remaining argument.

[ See unicity of 1-types in some non-trivial first-order logical structures, such as the first-order theories of order on rational numbers or on relative integers: even though all elements have the same logical structure, they are all different from the others, some being much greater than others; in other words, the internal structure of any element cannot help in comparing it to any other; but elements are not isolated, and you may actually compare them anyway, by considering their external structure, their interrelations with each other and with the external world. ]

..... Absolute Truth may be an intuitive concept, that matches very well most everyday life purposes, all the more in tight communities where survival relies on habits, and little resources are available for controversy. ..... However, let's be humble in front of the universe that surrounds us, let's just not believe that the models we make are the universe itself. There may well be an "absolute" truth, but we have no way to acquire it for sure, so for all practical purposes, it is as if there were none, and we must learn to live without one. ..... We do not need an absolute truth, what we need is some relative truth, some information, suitable to let us decide our behavior, we need information that be relevant to our actions.

On Open-Mindedness

In the summer of 1998, a cousin of mine, with whom I strongly disagreed on religious and ethical matters, told me I was narrow-minded. Now, did I ask her, what is open-mindedness? Is it in any way compatible with having any significantly "strong" opinions, particularly opinions opposing to hers? Should someone open-minded have to always agree with her? Or have to only have weak opinions not suited to any decision-making, if at all? Assuming she be not narrow-minded enough herself to claim that all open-minded people would have to agree with her, would it be required for open-minded people to be without opinion, without taste, without moral commitment? My cousin chose to stop the discussion, so unless she reads this article, she won't know what I think open-mindedness is.

To me, open-mindedness cannot and does not reside in absence of opinions and commitment, since opinions and commitment are necessary to thought and life themselves. As G.K. Chesteron put it: "Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." Openmindedness is not about not having opinions; it is about the process by which we acquire or modify opinions. Being open-minded is a matter of taking into account existing arguments for and against one's opinion, of not refusing to learn new arguments, and even seeking them when in doubt. It's remembering these arguments, evaluating how they are or not consistent with one's opinions, and being ready to modify one's opinions to comply with valid objections that may be brought by such arguments.

Remembering arguments and counter-arguments also means that they should not be taken in consideration everytime they are repeated, but only once, the first time they are heard about; their relevance in the opinion-making process may thereupon be affected by other arguments, but not by the repeated utterance of same argument. Repetition does not make an opinion truer or an argument more valid; at best, it may make that opinion or argument better known or better understood, assuming it was unknown or misunderstood. Thus, it is an error to believe that someone is not open-minded just because one's opinion wasn't moved at all by your argument the first time you propose it: indeed, one may already have heard about the same argument as yours from someone else before, and duly rejected it.

Open-mindedness is a matter of being ready to drop one's prejudices (a priori opinions) in favor of postjudices (a posteriori opinions). Of course, one cannot ever know "all" the arguments concerning any particular topic, so any opinion is forcibly a prejudice, as compared as what it could be with more information; however, it needs not be a complete prejudice either, and might as well try to integrate as much of known arguments as possible, and be open to more arguments. All in all, the question is not and cannot be about being prejudiced or not; it is about acknowledging one's prejudices as such, that is, about remembering which arguments were or were not taken into account while making any particular opinion, and being ready to move on to a different opinion, if some valid counter-argument whatsoever is found. Open-mindedness is thus in the process of making and modifying one's opinion, and not in the opinion themselves or their strength (which is a meta-opinion).

Open-mindedness in this regard is but the scientific spirit as applied to the whole generalized field of knowledge: open-mindedness is rational thinking. Or rather, it could be said, Science is but rational thinking as applied to some domain where it fits particularly well, with visible, shared, positive results.

On Science

If the scientific spirit is applicable to the whole of a man's learning experience, why is all knowledge not scientifical? It isn't, because scientifical knowledge is by definition shared knowledge. Science is a special process to build a shared base of knowledge. This process has its costs, and its constraints. Not all knowledge is shared; not all knowledged is shareable; not all knowledge is even communicable.

So it be possible to add some information to the common knowledge base (and similarly to remove or modify information), this information must be communicated, and some relevant arguments must be communicated to justify it, too. Conversely, so it be useful to add information to the common knowledge base, this information must itself be relevant, such as to positively influence further common action. And whatever be the criterion for relevance used above, it must be one that is commonly acknowledged by those who share the knowledge base.

During this process of building shared knowledge, reason and the scientific spirit in general, are used as compressors, as economy-makers (and from a dynamical/historical point of view, that's precisely the justification of their having successfully survived and overcome competition through natural selection): they are protocols that help select, transform, reorganize, and use information, in a way that optimizes results with respect to the amount of resources involved. To reuse the thermodynamical metaphor developed by Henry Baker about Garbage Collection in computer memory managers, Reason acts as a cooling device, which reduces the entropy (and energy) in one's internal information repository, drops information that is now useless noise, and reclaims resources that may be reused for new knowledge manipulations.

There can be information sharing without the scientific spirit. Actually, there is. Persistent information sharing per se is called tradition. Science is only a particular way to build traditions. But as far as traditions go, Science is what allows them to evolve best to be fit to their purpose (whichever it is) when it is knowable. Traditions without science is like cooking without a refrigerator: most data rots before it gets a chance to be used.

On Tradition

.... instead of being restricted to mere "technical" matters. Any bound between "technical" and "non-technical" matters is arbitrary and conventional anyway; this doesn't make such bound forcibly useless, just that it cannot cluster the utility of the scientific spirit. .... I find it a shame that pupils, in french schools at least, and my cousins in particular, do never learn the scientific spirit, which is the essence of science and the single achievement that earnt the western world global domination, and the single most important intellectual preparation they need to face the complexity of an ever faster evolving world, but only (a forcibly tinier and tinier part of) its offsprings, knowledge and technology. Science is a process, Knowledge and Technology are but the byproduct of its historical trail, of its past successes and failures, just like slime is the byproduct of a snail as it moves forward. .... [To Do: Reuse data from e-mails with Boris Borcic]

On the Limits of Science

..... it is inevitable that some knowledge be unshared; actually, most knowledge is not shared, and hence cannot participate in science or any kind of tradition. Science only covers a small part of human knowledge, though its general advance is instrumental in the advent of much unshared knowledge. Moreover, considering that individual human life doesn't last long as compared to the duration of civilization, and that unscientifical traditions are not a very reliable medium for preserving knowledge, since they have a high rate of information disparition, decay, transformation, or repolarization (i.e. over time, transmitted knowledge disappears, is made obsolete, is altered, or even made the negation of its original meaning), scientifical knowledge is the only way to augment the total amount of knowledge possessed by mankind, either directly (scientifical knowledge being knowledge), or indirectly (scientifical knowledge being means to acquire knowledge in general).

Note that "science" here is to be taken in its most general acception of shared knowledge, tested by skeptic experience; it needn't be cutting-edge science, and most of it would be usually assimilated to "common sense" or "cultural background". Again, science is not characterized by its spectacular abstraction, but by its being a process of conceptualizing, hypothetizing, and testing. For example, propositions like "fire hurts"; "cooked meat is better"; "feces are unhealthy and should be kept away, but may be used as natural fertilizer"; "drinking alcohol shouldn't be abused"; as well as information such as the recipe to successfully prepare spaghetti a la bolognese, or knowing how to handle small wounds, are all to be considered as scientifical, since they were acquired and are conserved in accordance with the scientifical spirit. Conversely, there are some theological speculations which are no doubt more spectacularly abstract than high-end science will ever be, but which will nevertheless be specious theories by scientifical standards, since they haven't been tested and often can't be possibly tested. The fact that scientifical research now has a reputation of spectactular abstraction shows only one thing (besides the taste of the media for the spectacular), namely that science has advanced to a point where it has already found quite a lot of what can be known without getting complex and abstract (though by no means everything), and that topics of scientifical interest have moved on to fields that are further from everyday knowledge, which was permitted by the scientifical method.

On Objectivity

On Objectivity vs Subjectivity: it is said that most of the mass of the universe is unseen. Similarly, most of the mass of human knowledge is unseen, too. Each bit of it is to ever be held by one human or a few humans, and not perpetuate. And most of a man's knowledge is unshared. Which is why is it wrong to judge another man's opinions only by commonly shared, scientifical knowledge, or even by intimately shared information, or worst, by the mass of private information behind one's own subjective opinion.

Because knowledge is an inherently distributed phenomenon (well, totalitarian systems somehow try to centralize it a lot, but considering the limitations of commonly shareable knowledge, it's a terrible waste of human resources), there will always be a lot of space for personal experience and resulting subjectivity. Hence, to optimize global human processing of information, personal opinions in general should be respected, in whatever matters they be. People should be free to think what they will.

Note on religion: However, this does not mean that there are no arguments against superstition and religious traditions: for their basis is not in personal experience (unless in rare, utterly respectful, or sometimes blatantly pathological, mystical cases -- it is possible that theses cases were not so rare in primitive civilization that practised collective mystical transe), but in spreading through parasitic memes and fallacious arguments. Such parasites alter or even deny the meaning of the mystical communion of man with nature, upon which they feed; not only can they be fought, they must be fought.

That is, people should not be bothered for what they think; but the way they communicate is already actions; and actions may have (or not) to be countered and fought. Ideas are not good or bad; often their validity is very context dependent. However, arguments may be good (relevant) or bad (irrelevant), and valued or despised as such, in a way mostly independent from the context.

.... conclusion: there is no possibly reachable objectivity beyond the union of all possible intersubjectivities (and actually, beyond the projective(?) limit of intersubjectivities). Hence, ....

Part II - On the Scientific Method

On Formal Reasoning

formal reasoning in abstract formal systems: the four pilars (== deduction; induction; reification; quotienting). Scientific thinking in concrete real systems: applying formal reasoning to a world of inherently incomplete information; deduction (==applying formal reasoning); induction (==modern thinking thru); reification (==conceptualizing relativity); quotienting (==focusing on meaning). [Give some short explanations and pointers (???) to more].

On Deduction

not about income tax forms, but about logical reasoning. Deductive Proofs as chains from a point to another; the chain is only as solid as its weakest link. [Now, when a chain is broken, its parts may be reused, and some broken links may be replaced; some may be redundantly placed in advance, to strengthen the chain]. Tautologies. Even to explore them, we need energy, and storing information. Ultimately, to say more than tautologies, we need make hypotheses.

On Induction

about induction in formal mathematical systems: given a structure all of whose objects can be built from a given set of constructors from simpler objects, properties that are preserved by all given constructors hold for all objects in the structure. Give examples with natural integers, lists, etc.

about induction in informal systems: we cannot ever know for sure that all the possibilities have been covered, that the actual structure at hand can be inductively defined by any given set of constructors. as with deduction, we must make hypotheses, only these are now "higher-order" hypotheses. Deductive reasoning with induction principles is not the same as inductive reasoning.

Happily, we have a criterion as to what hypotheses to make: the "simplest" one, as popularized by Occam's Razor, and as formalized by Kolmogorov's Complexity: given an existing knowledge base of facts, and a new fact that arises, choose whichever explanation of that fact minimizes the resources necessary to store the augmented knowledge base. [This minimization condition directly accounts as an evolutionary principle]

Actually, we should refine that into not only facts, but their explicit interexplanations, too; for Kolmogorov Complexity not being computable, we cannot have the scientific method rely upon using it constructively; however, we may rely on dynamically simplifying whole-world explanations, which is a computable process for which Kolmogorov Complexity gives a lower bounding limit.

On Reification

Reification is giving names to concept, so as to be able to manipulate them. It's making the relevant explicit, broadening our abilities to adapt.

[Give examples involving reifying time, refying the whole space-time continuum.]

On Quotienting

Quotienting (other possible word: "absorption"?) is forgetting details judged irrelevant or unobservable, and considering only the resulting structure of relevant and observable facts in a substratum. It's making the irrelevant implicit.

Examples: relative integers as quotient of pairs of natural integers of "same difference"; rational numbers as quotient of pairs of relative integers (the second of which is non-zero) of "same ratio"; real numbers as quotient of Cauchy sequences of rational numbers of "same limit"; etc. The notions of "difference", "ratio", "limit" are actually defined a posteriori as emerging from the structural operation of quotienting.

Considering the world up to isomorphism. The simplest non-trivial class of isomorphism is renaming.

Peter Lax reportedly reported this nice story about An English mathematician whose name was lost being was asked by his very religious colleague: "Do you believe in one God?", and replying "Yes, up to isomorphism!".

Next, beware that isomorphisms introduce a (constant) cost in terms of complexity; thus, everyone will choose whichever way of seeing things suits his habits best; the cost of the isomorphism will thus show during communication; people who engage in rational discussion must understand this cost, and work towards reduce it by accepting common conventions.

An extreme case to which to apply quotienting. See the way we translate among languages: words don't intrinsically refer to a same absolute idea; instead, it is by examining the relationships of words each with the other, and each with the external world, that we may match words each with the other; the actual "ideas" are not attached to particular words of any particular language, but to that structure of relationships between words, up to a renaming of words, up to a change in the grammar of the language, up to a translation to any another language in which to express them; that is, the structure of ideas is a quotient structure. This holds even when humans talk to each other for the internal "language" in which human brains encode ideas varies from individual to individual (and even from an individual to a further self, since "he" is not the same as "he" will be a few seconds or a few years later). [See below about the timeliness of information]

On Reality

Note that adapting formal reasoning applies to the field of mathematics, and doesn't apply as such to the real world: there is a quantum duality between reality and understandability, so that there is a limit to the combined reality and understandability of a phenomenon; the more you can understand it, the less it can be considered as real; the more real it is, the less it can be understood; happily this doesn't show for classical phenomenon (because we are part of the world, and global as well as local information is conserved and/or decreasing, any information that is communicated to us from the rest of the world implies that at least as much information disappeared from the world). Still, in a way, the only real world that our mind can grasp at all, is the part that is understandable; that which can't be understood, which can't be spoken, well, we may consider is the "noise" of the universe. We might want to quotient reality by equivalence up to noiseful events; however, reality is such that if any noiseful event is admitted, then the resulting quotient is trivial, for we have no absolute knowledge that allows us to formally distinguish between two realities; so we must quotient by equivalence up to "small enough" noiseful events, and our criterion for smallness of such events has to be an a priori hypothesis that makes the resulting structure not fully real.

Part IV - On Knowledge Management

On Knowledge

We saw above that an essential part of the scientific method for understanding the world, induction, was heavily dependent on the existing basis of "knowledge", facts accepted as being true.

There are theorems according to which people gathering information about the same world in mutually "fair" ways will eventually agree on any general subject; these theorems somehow explain Science. Now, there are subjects for which no satisfying notion of fairness is possible: for instance, because observation of certains facts can only be done once, by few witnesses who can't always be trusted; or because that observation costs too much, and isn't worth it (at least, so we expect), because there are so many observations, that we don't know which to focus upon and try to integrate with other data into the knowledge base; because we don't know for sure which part of the base can be simplified by some explanation; etc. Our problematics is thus to understand how to manage this knowledge base; how to choose how to expand

fortune: "My opinions may have changed, but not the fact that I am right". Our knowledge base needs not be increasing, without ever questioning its own content; it needs not be even consistent.

On Commitment

On the necessity of commitment. On the choice of knowledge to eliminate when faced with contradictory deductions. On the difficulty of this problem in presence of unreliable reflective knowledge.

"Life is made of commitment. Neutrality is a myth, unless towards the irrelevant. Don't hide your responsibilities under that carpet."

On Research

On the cost of researching and more generally acquiring the information necessary to have better opinions.

On Authority

Acknowledging someone else's authority on matters where the other one could base the other one's opinion on more material than oneself, yet on material that does not contradict oneself's axioms.

On Meta-Information

On the role of meta-information in the research and evaluation of other people's opinions.

"(Meta)Ignorance is not being able to distinguish hype from information."

On Relevance

On relevance as the criterion to judge the expected impact on decision-making of information potentially acquired considering an existing knowledge base.

As a remark directly applying to our initial problem, a question is relevant in as much as it has answers, and that these answers allow to correct one's behavior for the better, given some notion of "better".

Part V - On the Knowable Universe

On Knowability

knowability: not all imaginable "information" is worldly accessible; but only actually mediately or immediately accessible information may lead to useful feedback action.

On the Timeliness of Information

Impermanency: the buddhist concept according to which nothing is permanent, but everything is ephemeral; Platonic idealism: the concept according to which any knowledge must refer to an immutable abstract idea. Both the impermanency and the platonic idealism start from valid, relevant remarks, but fail by asserting that they are some "absolute truth", instead of circumscribing the domain of relevance of these remarks. The apparent contradiction can be levied if we stop thinking in terms of absolute eternity, but consider the finite life of phenomenons as a relevant. An incoming signal brings useful information in as much as it can lead to some reaction, in as much as it indicates that something won't have moved between the moment the signal was sent, and the moment the reaction will effect.

Jean Fourastié remarked that it was the heterogeneity of time that resulted in information being available along the timeline: there are phenomenons that happen with some frequency, yet these phenomenons don't happen with the same frequency, they don't follow the same time scale; this heterogeneity of time is what allows phenomena to be distinguished from each other, to be compared to each other, it is it that permits the more frequent yet longer-lived phenomena to serve as references to measure other phenomena. [Todo: check what Fourastié wrote exactly].

There is information in spatial physical systems when there is some heterogeneity in it; this information may be passed as messages along the timeline only when there is a heterogeneity of the timeline among systems. [Actually, we should be considering subsystems in the space-time continuum, shouldn't we?]

On Skeptic Materialism

Everything we do and say thereby denotes a commitment into the existence of Reality, and we may without hesitation postulate the presence of an underlying objective Universe, with an absolute truth, in which things "really" are, "really" happen. However, of this Universe, we may only know what our senses can tell us. As far as relevant information goes, the universe in which "we", as individual sentient beings, live is the intersubjective universe of what we may know.

If we take this point of view to its natural conclusion, we obtain hard skeptic materialism, whereby only what's "effectively" observable exists at all. it can be put in parallel with the intuitionist school in formal logic, that considers only what's "effectively" provable to be true at all. Both stem from the same skeptic approach to knowledge. They oppose classical materialism and classical logic respectively, that readily admit the existence of some "absolute" material (resp. logical) substratum, in which things exist or don't (resp. are true or false). Nevertheless, these skeptic and unquestioning approaches to knowledge are both mostly interpretable one in the other, and lead to the same behavior with respect to basic (resp. "ground") observations and actions. The skeptic and classical ways may thus be considered as two different point of views on the same thing, using identical vocabularies with different meanings to describe different aspects of the same observable world.

Certainly, the hard skeptic materialistic approach is no more "absolutely true" than other approaches; but it is a as rational point on view on the world as another, since it provides the very same information on the physical world and how to behave in it as any other one. The fact that it be equivalently expressive as other approaches as far as thinking about possible worldly actions go might give us some insight as to what is or isn't relevant in other approaches.

On Determinism

As far as we can observe the universe, there will always be both deterministic and non-deterministic explanations of it, that are logically equivalent to each other, so we may at our convenience consider the universe as deterministic or non-deterministic. Indeed, no amount of behavioral observation can distinguish a non-deterministic choice from revelation of a hidden deterministic variable. More generally, it is an intrinsic property of our being inside the universe that prevents us from knowing anything about its "nature" relatively to an outside "metauniverse". Perhaps some "god" inhabiting that meta-universe would know the "truth" about determinism or lack thereof, but such is a completely untestable statement to us, hence not a statement subject to objective knowledge. And even an "answer" to such a question would only push back the original problem without solving it: will that metauniverse itself be deterministic or not? A rational mind, interested only in questions leading to observable predictions (and hence possible refutations), may not waste time in such questions without hope of possible answer: since we don't get to know the answer, we shouldn't get to care about the question; it is utterly irrelevant, meaningless, and so is any line of reasoning based on it.

Again, the important thing to remember is that there is no objectively meaningful "absolute" truth or determinism, but only truth relative to a given model, or determinism relative to a given knowledge base. Hence, the interesting question is about what we may know, and whether our actual or potential knowledge will or would suffice to determine the past or future behavior of such or such phenomenon; such determination would then constitute an additional knowledge we could add to our base and that we may use to enhance our behavior with respect to our goals. Now, there are indeed bounds on our knowledge, due to our being ourselves parts of this universe: we only have access to the reflective knowledge of the universe, the part of information that parts of the universe may acquire about the universe by observing it from the inside! Thus, we may conclude that our knowledge will never be enough to faithfully determine any remotely complete behavior of any part of the universe with more than very limited reliability. Even worse, all the "laws of nature" that we may hypothetize may only be based on concepts limited by our knowledge. It might even be possible to interpret the intrinsic non-determinism of quantum physics as paradigmatic of internal models of a world that only has access to a limited reflective knowledge of itself (but then, it would require someone with a deeper combined understanding of logics and physics than I have to say if such an approach leads to anything interesting, or if I'm just delusioning myself).

On the Nature of Freedom

Many people fail to understand how freedom will can be compatible with a rational, materialistic approach to life, whereby conscience would be an epiphenomenon of physical interactions. Often, they tie this problem to that of there being or not determinism in the way we think and act; or they require the introduction of a "special" notion of conscience (or soul) to justify free will.

First note that if we define matter as the constituents behind what is physically immediately or mediately observable, and laws of nature as whatever is knowable of the material systems, then by definition, every observable phenomenon, including conscience as far as we can know it, is an epiphenomenon of physical interactions (that is, the conceptual result of quotienting the structure of physical interactions by a high-level enough set of observers). By definition, any observable phenomenon will be compatible with it, and since we can somehow observe free will, this free will must be compatible. An additional notion of conscience wouldn't quite bring anything interesting; actually, either this notion would be associated with no possible observation, and would be completely irrelevant, or it would be subject to observation, and would ipso facto be as material as any other physical phenomenon, and as subject to rational study and description. The need for a new special notion, or lack thereof, would depend on such a concept bringing or not any simplification to the overall state of science, which does not remotely seem to be the case for a special notion of conscience, since epiphenomena (that may be usefully considered at for the study of many different physical observations) suffice to explain all that there currently is to explain about conscience.

Now, even such a notion of conscience would only push back the original ontological problem (if any) of compatibility of freedom with the laws of nature, without solving it, since by extending the material notion of body to the old notion of body+soul we get just the same problem. It's just like saying that "God created the universe", which doesn't solve the ontological question of existence of the universe since we may now ask how God came into existence. To get deeper insight on how free will doesn't contradict materialism, we thus have to narrow down the meaning of "free", and the limits of laws of nature. Again, the question becomes not whether free will is compatible with an knowledge of an "absolute truth" or nature, its laws, its state, but whether it is compatible with the laws of nature as known, and as knowable. That is, the question is to give an informational interpretation of "freedom".

Freedom is easily explained as a concept relative to a given knowledge base. Some parameter has freedom in as much as the knowledge base does not contain enough information to determine the value of this parameter. That someone be free with respect to us means that we cannot know what he will decide. Certainly, if we knew the state of matter inside his mind, we might deduce from it what he thinks; but we don't, so we can't, and that one is free with respect to us. A god might base its judgement and its actions on its grand godly knowledge; a human can only base his judgement on his actions on his petty human knowledge. Personal ethics as well as social organization of human beings can only be based on such human knowledge. Maybe god's laws are made from godly knowledge, human laws have to be done from mere human knowledge. Maybe the actions of some people "are" predestinated, for some "absolute" meaning of the verb "to be"; however we do not and cannot know that to be true, and we cannot know the predestined future until it happens, so we must act according to our sole knowledge, of which this predestination isn't part. Maybe predestination cancels human freedom and responsibility with respect to some god; it doesn't cancel human freedom and responsibility with respect to other human beings, with respect to ourselves. Maybe some deed or crime was predetermined, and from an absolute knowledge requires no reward or punishment; but we have no such knowledge, and from what we know, this deed or crime does deserve some due, that we ought to give; and from the same absolute knowledge, it will be predetermined that we so do. Again and again, arguments based on absolute knowledge are irrelevant as far as human action is concerned, and may always be turned in either way of any objective dilemma.

We are free and responsible with respect to ourselves in as much as we are (mostly) ignorant of ourselves, of our own future behavior; the intrinsic limits of any reflective introspection (as established by Cantor's diagonal argument) imply that we will always be thus free. We are free and responsible with respect to other human beings, by the very fact that we are distinct individuals, each endowed with one's own will, with one's own internal state, one's own information acquisition and processing mechanisms, one's own possibilities of action. In all cases, Responsibility comes automatically together with Liberty.

Part VI - On Ethics

On Goals and Means

"There cannot be Ethics without Models of possible behaviors, and Imagination to explore them."

We build models of the universe to correctly influence our behavior for the best; But these models in turn influence our very goals. So we may consider the dynamics of models together with that of people, and how some patterns of thought emerge from the chaos. Life forms (in the broadest meaning of the term) are agents internal to the world, and getting some feedback by observing it from the inside, in the general form of "information".


On Cybernetics

Cybernetics is the general science of information exchanging systems. Quant à la "répartition des responsabilités", je pense que tu commets une erreur, qui est de croire que les responsabilités s'additionnent et se subdivisent. Ton argument pourrait être aussi appliqué pour la WWII: les généraux français auraient pu mieux préparer la France; les politiciens auraient pu prévenir la catastrophe; les nazis ne seraient donc pas responsables de toutes leurs victimes? Eh bien si! et cela sans pardonner aucunement les responsables français: le fait que la somme des responsabilités dépasse (et largement) la somme des événements est l'indice de l'interaction entre les personnes et leurs décisions; les sommes ne correspondent que pour des personnes isolées les unes des autres. Le fait que untel soit responsable de tel événement (i.e. qu'étant donné SON information et SES moyens, il avait moyen de prendre une décision influençant grandement ledit événement), n'empêche pas que d'autres personnes soient aussi chacunes responsables du même événement, puisque la responsabilité va se déplacer avec le point de vue de chacun.

On Evolution

Relate the dynamics of ethics not only to immediate individual effects, but to long-term whole-society effects. e.g. "evolution competitively selects cooperative behavior".

« As far as natural selection applies to the human world, we don't ever get to "let nature decide", because we ARE part of that nature that decides. Hence, any claim to "let the nature decide" is just a fallacy to promote one point of view against others, or to ignore one's responsibilities. »

On Memetics

Applying general ideas of cybernetics and evolution to ideas in general, and to a few particular ideas in particular.

On Liberty

Liberty wins over lack of it. A society based on liberty will, in the long run, perform better. That, by anyone's definition of "better", if only one's notion of "good" is extensive is space-time (i.e. takes into account long-term and wide-area effects).



Random Draft Notes

Ideas to integrate: Other things to do:


It's hard to write down a bibliography, when all these are ideas that I slowly absorbed from the surrounding environment. I've tried to write down references to all material I could think of that was relevant to the essay.
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