We’ve all heard variants of what is often refered to as “The Golden Rule”, act onto others as you would have them act upon you, some form of it is present in every major religion and most ethical theories. As in the prisoner’s dilemma1 addherence to the golden rule would create a society where everyone would be better off, and I think in this there is no disagrement. There is however a question, one that perhaps only a child would dare ask due to the ignorance of judgemental attitudes, which if it were to remain unanswered would undermine every philosophical system grounded in altruism. The question is “Why?” Why should I follow the golden rule if it only makes general life within the society brighter without significantly altering my own state of happiness, if I instead can prioritize my own well being at the expense of others why should I not do so? The parent might say to the child that it is simply a rule and rules are there to be followed. But who made the rule? And why is it a mysterious metaphysical duty to the universe to obey this rule? In a theological context these questions have obvious answers, but what if we view the world from a scientific or philosophical perspective?
Kant would claim that since you desire the help of others you cannot will that others should not help you when in distress and as such it is your moral obligation to do to them what you wish they do to you, but is it really so? Can I not say that while I certainly would want their help I also see that, as myself, they should consider their own happiness first. As R. Norman puts it:
- “If I treat myself as a person, I may be logically committed to accepting that others have good reason to treat themselves as persons, but I am not logically committed to the principle that I should threat them as persons. A world of self-respecting egoists is not an irrational world.”2
So why then, should I care for others?
I read a book on ancient Buddhist scripture, apparently a staff was passed down through the line of abbots, representing wisdom and knowledge about the true nature of objects. The abbot would hold the staff towards the sky and in front of the monks of the monastery proclaim: “This stick of wood is a tiger!” Now how could the true nature of a chopped down tree be that of a nearly extinct feline? One is quick to dismiss the statement as nothing but gibberish, as was I when I first read it, but as a thought experiment I decided to define the statement as true and then set out to prove that the staff was in fact a tiger. I shall here attempt to describe the, in my own humble opinion, extraordinary findings I’ve uncovered. There is a common Buddhist saying though, that you should not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. It is not enough simply to read my words to understand, you must also think for yourself in order to grasp that which I am trying to get at. It is a bit like the Matrix, one can not be told what the true nature of things are, they have to see it for themselves.
Consider you have a cup of coffee, coffee is made up from water siphoned through ground coffeebeans, so if you add a drop of water to the cup of coffee the coffee would still be coffee, since you’re only adding an ingredient already present in the mixture. If you added tea you could argue that it is no longer coffee but coffee and tea. This would be false however, as it would still be coffee, but more on that later. Now consider you have a machine that keeps dropping water into your coffee, it will be more and more diluted as the ratio ground-coffee-bean-molecule to water changes, when can you say that it stops being coffee? Relatively ofcourse you could gather up a bunch of experts on coffee who would reach a consensus that when the ratio is exactly one hundred to one it is no longer coffee, but anyone could come forward and claim that I, infact, enjoy my coffee with a hundred and one to one ratio. According to the experts he would be drinking water but to the person who prefers very weak coffee he would consider himself drinking coffee, and no one could say he is wrong. Thus an universal definition on how much water a cup of coffee can contain to retain its coffeiness would appear impossible to achieve. Do you agree? If not I would love to hear why not.
Now I mentioned earlier than even if you added tea to the coffee it was still coffee, the implication of the above reasoning is that if someone poured a cup of coffee into a lake, the whole lake would become coffee. Surely someone has sometime throughout history spilled tea at the source of where you get your water, so when you pour yourself a glass of water you’re actually drinking tea, and coffee, and cowshit for that matter.
I discussed this with my grandfather some time ago, and at this stage in my argument he intervened. If the ratio of anything is one to zero with water, i.e. there are only water-molecules present, then it couldn’t be said to be anything but water. So even if, when you pour coffee in it, the whole lake becomes coffee, you can still from it extract a glass of only water-molecules, and since separated from the coffeelake it was now no longer coffee, but water. If this was so then the argument fails and all the water in the million of cranes in the world would be only water, sporadically maybe one would pour a glass of cider or dishwasherdetergent but for the most part they would know what they are getting. Remember however, do not mistake the finger for the moon, already at the time I had a retort but at the time I could not put it into words, which is what I will be attempting to do here.
Consider this time an apple, say you remove one apple-molecule and replace it with a pear-molecule, is it still an apple? How many molecules can you trade before it becomes a pear? Here one might invoke the previous argument that it is both an apple and a pear, but! Speculate that before the tree from which the apple we picked came from existed in its place a peartree. The peartree died and all its pears fell to the ground, decomposed and became the earth from which the appletree grew. The same molecules that were in the pears are now being absorbed into the new growing tree and used in creating its own fruit. So before we switched any molecules between the apple and the pear the apple already contained pear-molecules, should all apples then be called “apple and pear”? We couldn’t even stop there, we would have to call the apple an “apple, pear, decomposed worm, dead mobster and a million spiders.” Using the analogy with the coffee we have to draw the conclusion that the apple is a pear, and the pear is an apple, the denomination of an apple as an “apple and pear” is then not faulty, just not the sole reportive definition.
Moving up the ladder lets now consider a cat, viewing the unaltered cat is it a cat? Or more importantly, is it only a cat? Deriving from earlier reasoning it appears that if we switch one or more molecules from the cat with that of a mouse we have an entity which is stuck somewhere in the middle, not really a cat and not really a mouse. If a cat lost its tail, and we view the unaltered cat as only a cat, would it still be only a cat? Yes you say? If the cats tail was replaced with a mouses tail, would it still be only a cat? No you say? Why not? Does a cat used in the sense above have to contain 100% cat-molecules in order to be only a cat? At first glance this argument might make quite a bit of sense, but then you realize, what do cats eat? As a matter of fact the original unaltered cat already contained mice-molecules. It was already a “cat, mouse and cheese.” One could perhaps say that a newborn kitten who has not yet eaten any mice is a “true” cat, but where would the energy and building blocks for the fetus come from? That’s right, decomposing mice in the mothers stomach.
So, to recap, since we cannot find any absolute rule about when a thing stops being “what it is” and becomes something else, instead we can only establish this by relative definitions that can be challenged by anyone (i.e. “That is a car”, “No it’s not, it doesn’t have any headlights and is therefore not legal to drive, a car should be legal to drive in order to be called a car”, “Nah dude, that’s totally a car.”), anything being picked apart piece by piece must, in an absolutistic sense, remain that which it originally was. We cannot expect to come up with a good answer if we have for example a car, take its tires away, its windshield, its engine, its doorhandles etc and after every thing we remove we ask ourselves, is this still a car? Anyone could say it is and anyone could say it isn’t, and neither could prove the other wrong.
The argument works the other way around as well, since anything being created must begin with a piece, and that piece has to come from somewhere, and that piece is that which it comes from, then what is being built contains that from where the materials came, and anything containing something else is also this else. Thus the table is a tree, it does not merely contain or consist of a tree but is in actuality one itself. The tree in turn is the soil from which it grew, the soil is the product of eons of leaves, insects, critters, mammals and giant reptiles. That is right, next time you have breakfast you are eating on top of a tyrannosaurus rex, and not just figuratively.
Yeah but so what, even if my table is a dinosaur you and me are still different, right? Not so. We live in a four (at least) dimensional world but we can only percieve three of them. Consider a two dimensional animal living in a three dimensional world, say it lived on a piece of paper and knew only of this pieace of paper, it could not leave it nor gaze outwards its limits. If I were to pierce one end of this paper with a nail, this theoretical animal, lets call it a smail, would see only a round dot. Now say I carefully fold the paper and pierce the other side aswell. The folding would not have any impact on the smails view of the world, in fact the fourth dimension folds all the time without us noticing. Ever heard of a wormhole? Folded dimensions is where the term comes from, it is as if the smail would crawl up the nail and now suddenly be at the other end of its world. But it doesn’t, it is after all only a smail, instead it spots this new dot, in an entirely separate place. Would it not be a reasonable conclusion for the smail to make, given the available information, that the two dots are two separate objects? It would be reasonable, but erronous, since it is, as we who can percieve the third dimension clearly see, one and the same object. In the same way a being with the capability to percieve the fourth dimension would laugh at the common mans claim to individuality. If we pull the nail through the paper the smail would see the two dots change and might say that they age, and when we’ve pulled the nail all the way through the smail might say the dot has died, but the nail is still here and it never even changed. It has only passed through the smails limited view of the world, just as people who grow old and die don’t dissappear because we can’t see them anymore. Humanity is like a spike piercing a three dimensional paper, a spike consisting of every human ever born. They are all there, constant and never changing, they are not a part of the spike but they are the spike, for without either of them, even the smallest most insignificant child, the spike could not exist. We are no more separated or individual than waves across the ocean; this view is supported not only by ancient Buddhist texts but also modern science, there is an episode of the Sopranos3 where they are watching a boxing match and a rocket scientist is present, he puts it quite delicately:
- “Well, think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air, two tornados say. They appear to be two things, right? Two separate things, but they are not, tornados are just wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is nothing is separated, everything is connected.”
In conclusion, since I have my mothers genes I am my mother, by the same principle I am also my grandmother. Regardless of whoever two people you find if you go back far enough you will find common heritage, ergo the two people will be the same. This step though, is in fact unnecessary, where do we all come from? Where does everything come from?
We are all stars.
1. Two people are caught, if both rat each other out they both recieve a halved sentence, if one person rats the other one out the rat walks free while the person who remained loyal receives maximum punishment. If both stay silent they are released after a short period of time.
2. Norman, Richard: The Moral Philosophers, Second Edition page 88.
3. Season 6, episode 4. Sopranos might not be the best of sources, but my conclusion does not rest upon its correctness. If you want to know more about the waves in string theory ask my friend, he’s a physichist: 0733125992