I am so happy to have found an angle to expose my reflections about moral philosophy ^^ But this is not where our story starts.
How logic is impossible
Our story starts on YouTube, where I spend a lot of time lately, listening to french YouTubers, including Monsieur Phi, who revived my passion for paradoxes, notably introducing me to Lewis Carroll’s paradox (“What the Tortoise said to Achilles”). You can check out his video if you want, it’s great, but since I don’t want this post to be language restricted, I’ll stick to this version in English, which I don’t think is quite as good but is still pretty great (there’s surprisingly little English sources for something so important ;_;):
Essentially, this paradox is about the basic logic rule of deduction called Modus Ponens (I always hated how pretentious and obscure it sounds). Let me try to quickly summarize: Modus Ponens governs how to “instantiate” (or apply) the effects of a generic law to particular cases. Take this blue law for instance:
“If [A] is true, then [B] is true”
Modus Ponens is the name of the process that allows you to say that if the blue law holds, whenever [A] is true, [B] is also true (this process takes the law and the situation and produces a conclusion from them). If you want, Modus Ponens is what translates the words of the blue law into actual facts. It describes what a logical implication actually means.
Now here is the kicker and the heart of the paradox: Modus Ponens is a generic law, the law that describes what it means to do a logical implication. So to apply it, you’d need some kind of meta-Modus Ponens. Which would be a law. etc… etc…
Though I’ve been bingeing a lot of Donald Hoffman who explores the idea that it’s fundamentally consciousness all the way down.
Which is pretty amazing and important, because if you try to ground basic into elemental pieces, you literally cannot because you fall down this infinite abyss of Modus Ponens requiring each other ad infinitum. It’s like you cannot define what “logical implication” means.
So if you want to do anything logical, you basically have no other choice but to take Modus Ponens as a basic axiom, a law of the universe. You need some sort of leap of faith to accept how logic works. Much like Godel’s incompleteness theorem, logic kinda cannot ground itself.
And I think this idea has profound implications. It basically proves that you need some sort of fundamental axiom, a stop case, else you’re bound to fall down an infinite well of justifications. It’s a beautiful case against overthinking and grounding for the “just do it” innocent optimism of your average shounen manga protagonist.
But it’s also a very nice metaphysical call for Occam’s razor, which recommends taking the simplest possible explanation when several are available (and therefore stopping before you reach this infinite pitfall). By the way, did you know that it was formalized as Solomonoff’s theory of inductive inference, using Kolmogorov complexity to give mathematical meaning to the concept of “simple possible explanation” ? Genius.
There’s only atoms and interpretations
And this actually matters because Occam’s razor is a basic axiom grounding pretty much everything in our reality when you get down to it. I hate to once again go all postmodern Berkley on you, but our reality as humans is built on interpretations (it’s interpretations all the way down, there’s nothing outside the text, etc…). After all, we give sense and orders to this atom soup (mostly void) by delimiting arbitrary borders. Sure it’s nitpicking and we come to a consensus most of the time.
But this is particularly important in epistemology and in justice: you’ll never be able to prove positively anything for sure. Hume’s philosophy already highlight that causation is impossible to guarantee. But without going so deep, you can always find more and more convoluted explanation for anything, the ultimate convoluted explanation being “a god/demon put everything there to trick you into believing this but it’s completely false“.
It took me way too long to realize that you can never actually prove guilt, you can only prove that non guilt is way too unlikely in our universe, and thereby convince a jury. (for instance, that’s why someone caught in the act stealing would probably be guilty of theft, even though a valid though unlikely explanation could be that the owner gave them the items verbally but then had a mini stroke deleting any recollection of the event. Ok maybe that’s not the best example)
But I don’t want to talk about these classic very important topics that actually matter here 😛 Instead, I want to talk about another domain where the simplest interpretation is fundamental and may jeopardize or guarantee your immortality.
Indeed, to put it simply, I can define many arbitrary mappings between my neurons and random things (or even all the states my neurons will ever have had), like grains of sand or molecules in the wall. Some of them will obviously guarantee identity, like the one used to build a simulation of me in a computer or a teleporter. But where is the line? Which of them are “me”? How many “me” are there? Am I a Boltzman Brain? The best writings I’ve read on the topic are from Brian Tomasik, which I highly recommend.
There may indeed be traces of the thoughts you’re having now in your wall, and that’s fine. You can kinda sorta be your wall and the center of the sun and digital uploads all at once. Defining “you” is just poetry.
But I hear you, you want something more practical to use in your daily life. And that’s where we loop back to my introduction. I’ve struggled for a long time to build myself a moral philosophy framework, since any intent-based Kantian framework is obviously bullshit considering how you can harm a person a lot even when meaning them well.
Indeed, any action I will have can lead to so many interpretations. Maybe you’ll think I’m just pretending to be nice for my ends. Maybe you’ll think I’m pretending to pretend to be nice for some sort of ironic joke. No matter how good my intents, any sufficiently adversarial person can build up a case for the opposite intent. Most of the time it’s not very hard. Sometimes it even happens naturally.
In the same way as before, there’s no end to the infinite depths I can go to pondering how my actions can be perceived. Since I wanted to tie this back to pop culture, it’s worth pointing out that it’s actually the point that the TV show The Good Place really shines by: at this day and age, it’s pretty impossible to ponder all the implications of an action. Too much second guessing can lead to utter chaos, as is frequently portrayed by Chidi’s character.
To sneak another pop culture in here and center it back to social interactions, it is also neatly portrayed in the anime Gamers (which is also very touching) where the misunderstanding about interpreting each other’s motives grow to lengths I’ve rarely witnessed.
My solution to this potential infinite depth of recursion is to stop at level 2. Being aware of this pitfall, you can only try to do your best. I guess it’s a very stoic approach: focus on what you can actually do. You can’t assess or control all the ramifications, but you can control what you strive to be. All you can ever do is your best. And it’s ok to fuck up every once in a while, in fact it’s literally impossible to please a sufficiently adversarial interpreter. I guess in the end it loops back to intent, doesn’t it… Can’t believe I did this…
So keep forgiveness in mind and protect yourself from an infinite recursion that won’t help anyone. I think that the original YouTuber that inspired me this post found the perfect conclusion in early Wittgenstein. It is a great thing to keep in mind to escape this paradoxical overthinking which is by definition infinite:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.