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The Ultimate Responsibility

Entry 1934, on 2018-09-12 at 20:16:28 (Rating 2, Philosophy)

In a recent discussion on Facebook (so you know it must have followed the highest levels of intellectual rigour, right?) I came across an argument that humanity is like a cancer on the planet and doesn't deserve to exist. The argument was that our harm to the environment - climate change being just the most obvious - is so bad that it would be better if our species didn't exist.

I thought this was a bit extreme, and said so in the discussion, but I do have to concede that I have made similar comments in various blog posts (such as "Captain's Log" from 2017-08-28).

But then I read an article where quite respectable scientists (from Oxford University) suggested that we might be the only intelligent life in the whole universe. Before going further, let's get the "intelligent" debate out of the way. Clearly there are many human behaviours which might make us look rather unintelligent: wars between sub-groups, believing clearly untrue religions, using the planet's resources with little regard for the future, etc, but those are caused more by lack of rationality or morality rather than lack of intelligence.

The fact is that humans are the only species we know of who can do exactly what I am doing now: transferring my thoughts into a sophisticated language, recording that in a standard form on an incredibly complex machine (a laptop computer), and distributing it to billions of people over the internet (OK, I probably won't get billions of readers, but it does have that potential).

Can any other species do that? Dolphins? Chimps? No, and they don't show the slightest sign of ever being able to. Do we see a single sign that intelligent life (in fact, any life) exists elsewhere in the Universe? Again, no. The silence is absolute. So let's just give humanity a pass on this and say that "intelligent" is not too bad a description to use.

Our planet is one of 8 orbiting a star, which is one of hundreds of billions in our galaxy, which is itself one of hundreds of billions, or possibly trillions, in the universe. It's a big universe out there, and if this was the only place that intelligent life exists, does that not make it incredibly precious, despite our obvious and well-documented deficiencies?

I would have thought so.

So maybe, instead of looking at the human race as a cancer on this planet, we should look at it as the most important and valuable thing in the entire universe. And maybe that means we all incorporate the ultimate responsibility for both continuing and improving what we are.

Maybe I should start a new philosophy based on this idea, or maybe even - dare I even suggest it - a religion! It could be the opposite of many religions where humans are taught they are undeserving, flawed, and trivial in their god's eyes. Instead, we could be the opposite.

It may seem that a lack of humility will lead to humans becoming even more irresponsible, but I don't think so. I think that if we were aware that we are the most important thing in the universe and that it was our responsibility to use that unique gift of intelligence for the utmost good, we would become far more conscious of long-term goals, making ourselves better, and fulfilling our real role in the universe.

So there would be several outcomes from my new philosophy...

First, all the old philosophies and religions which purport to offer us a reason for existing would be thrown out. We are an incredible lucky accident (I'm not making any teleological claim here) where the laws of physics have created a single instance of intelligence in this whole, vast universe. Individually we are not important, but everyone should work towards the common goal: survival and improvement of our species.

Second, short-term thinking is not good enough. We can't try to achieve anything truly great if it can happen within a normal election cycle, lifetime of a single leader, or reporting cycle of a company. We need something more like the great projects of building a pyramid or cathedral, except even exceeding them by many orders of magnitude. So climate change, and meteor strikes become short-term risks which we should be fixing immediately. And colonising other planets, and exploring the universe are just medium term goals.

Third, we are all the same species. We should all be part of one group. Artificial divisions based on race, gender, age, political preference, and geographical location don't really mean much. Sure, they mean something, but not as much as we seem to think. Different ideas should be celebrated, not attacked. But we don't really want everyone to be the same either. Still having countries is OK, because that way we can try different social models. But we shouldn't go to war with a different country because they have a model which we think is incompatible with ours.

Finally, unconventional ideas are what move us forward. I'm not saying that every new idea is great and should be immediately accepted and promoted. In fact, probably far less than 1% of new ideas are genuinely revolutionary improvements on existing knowledge. But the risk of losing the tiny fraction of good new ideas means that every new idea should be looked at without being immediately deprecated.

So there it is. I won't be founding the "Church of Ultimate Responsibility" any time soon, because it would just look like L Ron Hubbard all over again! But not really, because all of my ideas are based on best accepted current knowledge. They are all perfectly rational. And the resulting philosophy is amongst the best we could hope for, I think.

But despite the lack of an organised church, I think this is where our philosophy, science, and politics should be heading. In the far future when this is all the accepted orthodoxy, remember you saw it here first!


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