Why ‘Prometheus’ gets it all wrong, and why it matters

There were a lot of things wrong with Prometheus (daft dialogue, ridiculous character behaviour, odd-pacing, odd-editing and incongruous music), but I’m only going to focus on the greatest error the film made: its ridiculous distain for scientific fact. I’m going to explain just how badly the writers got it wrong and why it matters. I almost laughed before I realised how tragic the tale is.

If you’re telling a fantasy story you can pretty much get away with anything. With science fiction, depending on how “hard” or “soft” you want it: you can get away with a lot less or a bit less respectively. Prometheus fails as science fiction because there is nothing more scientific about its premise than the Never Ending Story’s. But even if you want to say that Prometheus is a bit of fantasy fun set in space, it still fails because it contradicts some of the most important and established knowledge we have, just as any fantasy story that depicted the earth as being the fourth planet from the sun would instantly lose all credibility and connection with the audience. Similarly, even a fantasy about humans must depict them as creatures with two arms, two legs, and not, for example, 100 tentacles.  We know that the earth is not the fourth planet from the sun, so whatever planet “earth” we are told is the fourth from its sun, it’s not ours, and it’s not our earth, and it’s not us, just like we might connect with a 100-limbed fantasy species and even empathise with them, but if you call them “human” you’re just being silly. But imagine that a large politically-powerful group of people had a vested interest in perpetuating a myth that our earth is in fact the fourth planet from the sun. All the evidence notwithstanding, Mars is the third planet and Earth is the fourth. What seems like a scientific faux pas and bit of fantasy fun takes on a darker and worrying shade. Well that is the problem with Prometheus.

The basic plot of Prometheus is: an alien race dropped their DNA in the oceans of earth long ago and so created humans. This is about as scientific as saying that you can take a drop of blood from a dog, inject it into a giraffe, and expect the giraffe to give birth to dogs or giraffe-dog hybrids. The very definition of “species” in fact is a community that can only breed successfully with itself.

During the film, it’s discovered that these aliens called “Engineers” have a 100% DNA match with humans. This is either rubbish or meaningless, take your pick. If the writers were trying to say that the Engineers are genetically similar to humans, the match is trivial: every living thing that lives or has ever lived on this planet shares the same DNA. A lot of DNA is arguably junk anyway, but “there is more than 95% to 98% similarity between related genes in humans and apes in general. (Just as in the mouse, quite a few genes probably are not common to humans and apes, and these may influence uniquely human or ape traits.) Similarities between mouse and human genes range from about 70% to 90%, with an average of 85% similarity but a lot of variation from gene to gene…” [source] So if they have the same DNA code as us, so what? That only proves that they evolved on earth. But if the insinuation is that they are a 100% DNA match with humans, despite being aliens, that is nonsense because…they aren’t human! That would be like a forensic detective placing you at a murder scene 5000 miles away and 5000 years in the past, because your DNA was a 100% match to a criminal in the past, which is impossible, or matching you because you both happen to be human beings…

But, even if aliens could drop something in earth’s primordial oceans that could somehow mingle with DNA…even that doesn’t make sense because evolution simply doesn’t work that way. A few Star Trek episodes tried to do something similar with evolution and failed for the same reasons. In those stories, the premise was that evolution could be sped up and the results observed in hours or days instead of millions of years. This is such a spectacular misunderstanding of evolution that it makes me depressed just thinking about it. But before I explain that, let’s start at the beginning:

All living things on this planet are the product of common descent. We all share the same DNA and metabolise energy in the same way because those fundamental parts of life happened once, billions of years ago, and not again. All life is descended from very simple self-replicating molecules. On this planet, DNA eventually got this job and the code used is the same today as it was 3 billion years ago. (If life exists on another planet, it too almost certainly started with very simple self-replicating molecules, but it’s overwhelmingly improbable that it would evolve the same DNA code as Earth’s, if it even used DNA at all.) Today, there are thousands of computer programming languages because each was designed by a human computer programmer for a specific need. But in nature, there is only one programming language and it had to be modified and utilised only by trial-by-fire selection in the wild over a very long time. (Incidentally, the ubiquity of this one (and only one) natural language is another argument against intelligent design.)

The “Engineers” could not have any DNA similarity with us unless they came from earth, which they clearly did not do. But we didn’t see the Engineers dropping DNA into the earth 3.5 billion years ago (unless the opening scene of the film was supposed to be earth at that time…in which case I suggest History of the Earth 101 for the writers to give them an idea of what this planet was like so early in its life. Let’s just say Hell would’ve been more hospitable.)  But suppose the engineers got DNA started in the first place (which isn’t implied in the film) all those aeons ago. Is that any better? Nope. Which brings us to:

Humans look the way we do because on this planet we are a member of the primate family. We share a common ancestor with all apes alive today, and our nearest relatives are chimpanzees. The modern human being as we know it today is only about 150,000 years old. But, we didn’t have to evolve this way. On earth, countless unpurposed events directed life in different directions. To name just two: the great oxygen catastrophe and the Cretaceous–Paleogene event (which wiped out the dinosaurs) – two events which forever shifted the course of evolution on Earth, and which were unplanned and devastating in their own right. The oxygen catastrophe didn’t have to happen, but it did. A meteor didn’t have to hit the earth and wipe out the dinosaurs, but it did. On this planet in the past, creatures that we would call primates today found it advantageous to walk upright thus freeing their hands for manipulating the world. On this world, that gave them an advantage over their competitors in the wild. Those creatures which would become us developed higher intelligence as tool-using thinkers. But as Chuck from sfdesbris.com says: “it’s not enough to be smarter, smarter has to give you a distinct advantage.” It’s not a foregone conclusion that evolution will lead to intelligent life, although given time and the right conditions one might expect it to. One might also expect that intelligent life on other worlds would be analogous to humans as tool-using thinkers, using their appendages to manipulate the world and freeing up their bodies to evolve larger brains. But that is not to say at all that such life would also evolve from creatures that would look anything like primates – they could just as easily look like walking octopuses. Again, on earth – we look the way we do, not because some alien dropped some DNA in a pool 3 billion years ago (and most certainly no sooner), but because we evolved from similar looking creatures who evolved from similar looking creatures, all of whom can call themselves descendants of apes, who in turn can call themselves descendants of whatever small mammals remained (or evolved) after the mass destruction of the dinosaurs left niches in nature for new creatures to fill.

To say that aliens created humans is absolutely stupid because we already know how life developed on this planet and everything we know and have ever learned in biology, genetics and geology confirms it – just like we know the Earth is the third planet from the sun. And this makes the entire premise of the film pointless, (much like the Answers in Genesis website). It’s like a great mystery novel akin to the space equivalent of Angels and Demons, but the final startling revelation being: the earth is flat and the sun orbits it.

No matter how wild your story premise is, there must be a part of the audience that thinks “this could happen, this is how things might’ve have been, even if they weren’t.” For example, imagine a story where aliens brainwash Hitler to invade Poland. Silly, yes, but at least it can’t be disproved. (Of course, something isn’t proven true just because it can’t be disproved.) But with Prometheus, it simply can’t be true, because we didn’t pop into existence with unique DNA 150,000 years ago – we evolved from other species very slowly and share our DNA with all other life on earth. The story is not reflective or metaphorical, it’s dumb.

The only way to have Prometheus’s story make any sense as regards its DNA claim is to say that aliens created DNA itself and put it on earth 3 billion years ago, but even that doesn’t explain why the aliens are almost identical to humans: you cannot predict which path evolution will take because evolution, by very definition, is simply the change of gene frequencies in generations responding to the pressure of natural selection. Natural selection can be caused by sexuality and/or environment, but it’s location specific. The millions of varieties of life you see on earth today are only possible because it takes evolution that long to produce any noticeable change at all, especially speciation (although evolution on every meaningful level is an observed documented fact.) To illustrate this by contrast: if a species were already perfectly suited to its environment and its surroundings never changed, that species would never change (and evolve), not in ten million years.

But why does it matter? It matters because Prometheus is a major international release that completely abuses a wondrous field of science. It’s rubbish at best and slander at worst. It matters because there are people in positions of power who deny evolution because it contradicts their ignorant beliefs about the universe, and they want to push those beliefs on you and your children, by law, in the classroom. It matters because evolution is as established and beautiful a scientific fact as anything the human race has ever discovered, and it’s a travesty that it’s so badly misunderstood in the 21st century, so much so that most people who see Prometheus won’t even notice anything wrong with its “science”.

And the moral of Prometheus the film? Our protagonist Elizabeth Shaw regains her faith in god (of course, the personal choice of god of the writer, which is the Christian version). At one point she is teased about her faith with the claim “I guess creating life is easy…anyone can do it…you just need some DNA.” But that’s the kind of nonsense strawman of evolution that no evolutionist ever claimed! Life didn’t happen on earth because of some DNA in an ocean…DNA is only a coding language. It is genes that allow characteristics to pass from generation to generation, and NATURAL (or sexual) SELECTION is the only method by why nature can pass on some genes and withhold others. So no, you need more than just a bit of DNA…and that fact is totally ignored (deliberately?) by the writer(s) of Prometheus. Is there any other scientific field that could be so grossly disfigured and butchered by a film writer in this day and age and still get approved? I don’t think so. What do you think?

The irony here is sadly amusing: if the moral of the story was to have the protagonist reclaim her faith in god and challenge the notion that life on earth evolved naturally…it speaks volumes that such a notion was only possible in a fantasy land where the real world can be ignored and the movie script can make the impossible possible, just like the bible has the sun stand still in the sky. Most people don’t take those stories seriously, with good reason. But some do unfortunately, and they even try to re-write scientific fact to suit their beliefs. Some even use their big chance writing a Hollywood screenplay to push their creationist agenda on a worldwide audience. The sad thing? Many people don’t know any better.

***

Further reading:

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. Not arguments, no debate. Read this if you doubt the facts.

Evolution at Wikipedia (if I were ever to endorse compulsory education this would be the second thing on my list.)

Other good critical reviews:

http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/ridley-scotts-prometheus-anti-science/

What is luck?

Derren Brown’s latest and final episode of his new TV show concerned luck. I thought it was a brilliant piece of television and illustrated, artistically, some truths about luck. There was also a nice message that a positive outlook in life greatly influences how we react and respond to events.

So what is luck? This is my opinion: luck is a valid concept, metaphorically. It is valid in that it expresses the notion that seemingly random events have worked in our favour or against us. It is a way of saying, for example “such-and-such an event could easily have gone either way, but by the narrowest margins it went for (or against) me.” It could be a way of saying “the probability of such-and-such an event was overwhelmingly unlikely, yet it happened anyway.” When the incredibly unlikely happens, we call it fortunate or unfortunate depending on the result.

But we need to briefly consider the nature of existence. Existence exists; it is what it is – and everything in existence behaves according to its nature. Clouds form as gas then fall as water, because that’s what clouds do. Planets orbit stars and birds fly, because that’s what they do. Ayn Rand called the non-human aspect of existence the metaphysically given. It simply is. It is deterministic in the sense that everything in existence is the way it is, and according to the law of identity it couldn’t be anything else, and therefore couldn’t behave any differently. Human behaviour is of another sort, a unique nature: our actions, unlike the metaphysically given, are volitional.

So, if an asteroid was flung towards earth by gravitational forces 1 billion years ago, and only today hits the planet and destroys your house, it was always going to. This isn’t fate or destiny, at least not in the true meaning of those words, although you could use them metaphorically in the weak sense. Consider: if you drop a ball from your hand it will fall to the ground. It can’t NOT fall to the ground, because on a planet with a positive gravity objects of positive mass will be drawn towards it. The law of identity demands it to happen. If it didn’t, the universe would be a very different universe. That is, a universe where the law of identity did not hold. That is, a universe where existence did not exist. In other words, no existence at all. But there is no alternative to existence itself. Asking for the asteroid not to hit your house is like asking the ball not to fall to the ground. The variables are incalculably greater with the asteroid scenario, but the principle is the same. Of course, the odds of an asteroid hitting your house are astronomical – and in this sense you’d be right (metaphorically) to call it unlucky, but given the events that preceded it, it was inevitable. If you knew 50 years in advance that the asteroid was coming, when it finally happened would you say “that was unlucky!”? Not likely. It wasn’t “unlucky” because you knew it was coming; there was no surprise, no shock, no sense of regret or wishing to turn back time.

This is where an appreciation of probability comes into the discussion. Given a large enough sample, extraordinary events won’t just happen, they are bound to happen. An oft-used example is when you think about someone, and then the phone rings and it’s them. Or having a dream about something, and the next day it comes true. Or being 14-million-to-1 to win the lottery, but you do. But of course, someone had to win the lottery, and whoever won it would think “I can’t believe it was me!” The same is true for victims of road-traffic or airplane incidents; the latter being statistically unlikely, but they do happen, and whomever experienced it says “I never thought it would be me.” Most people never do.

To continue with the airplane example: if the aircraft has a technical fault that is critical, to knowingly board the aircraft would be suicidal; foolish. You wouldn’t declare yourself unlucky when it crashed. So being ignorant of knowledge one couldn’t possibly have has nothing to do with fortune, fate, destiny, or anything superstitious. So you’d be unlucky, metaphorically, because the odds were against you – but only in a very weak sense. To illustrate this, consider a sealed box in which I tell you is either a black ball or a white ball. If you guess correctly you win a fortune, if you don’t then you won’t. Without foreknowledge, your odds of being right are 50%, but of course the actuality isn’t 50/50. Let’s say the ball is white. There is a 100% chance it is white. It won’t change colour depending on your guess. The ball is white and always will be. Without knowledge your best odds are half that. Are you unlucky if you guess wrong?

The asteroid was always going to hit your house. The plane was always going down. That lottery win was bound to happen. The ball was always white. Your lack of knowledge had no effect on the actuality, and omniscience is not a valid epistemological precondition for choice.

So if luck is an acceptable metaphor, let’s say colloquially at best – when is it not valid? The realm of human decisions. As we saw above, the metaphysically given is what it is. And as with the secret ball, our choices aren’t always correct – but human actions are not the same as the rest of the universe, because nothing of human causing had to be. The ball had to be white, but you didn’t have to choose white. Trees grow, conditions permitting. Planets spins on their axes. Masses will attract each other with a gravitational force. But a sky scraper didn’t have to exist. A building have to be built. A car didn’t have to be invented. You don’t have to fall in love. Human actions are chosen, not determined. (To deny this is to contradict yourself.)  They could have been something else, if we’d have wanted it that way. But since omniscience is impossible (and invalid), humans make choices based on the sum of their knowledge. That we don’t have every single possible fact (although surprisingly, most of the time in the right context, we know all the need to know), is irrelevant.

So what’s the point? That what happens outside our control is impervious to retrospection and analysis (morally here, in the field of decision making), and is in this sense irrelevant. That is, the fact that an asteroid destroyed your house is, as far as your decisions leading up to that point are concerned, irrelevant. The only thing that is now of concern, the only area within your field of control, the aspect of reality that didn’t have to be (like the asteroid) but what could be, is what you do from now on. If you stand there, the universe will go on; asteroids will fly through space, vegetation will overtake the rubble of your house, and you will pass. The universe makes no concessions to our whims, but it can be controlled by our actions. And it is this difference between mystical wishing and positive action that separates people into negative and positive types.

The point of Derren Brown’s show was that people who think they are lucky seem to be get more lucky than those who think they’re unlucky.  Of course, to events outside human control, like asteroids and gravity – your outlook really has no effect at all. A universe that responds to lucky charms, prayers, crossed-fingers and positive attitudes is the same as one where balls don’t drop to earth and 2+2 equals 5; in other words, a universe without identity, without existence. And it is this view of luck that is unhealthy and destructive: if you believe that actions outside your control or understanding shape your future, you will not act to effect change in your life. But your actions are the only thing that can effect change! “Luck” is fine as a concept expressing probabilistic ignorance, but not as a way of saying the universe or the Fates are against you.

What is true, though, is that a positive view of your life (even a mystical one) can have positive effects in the realm of actions within your control. It’s a cliché, but it’s true (for instance in sport), that you must believe first. If you think you’re going to miss this penalty, you probably will. If you think you’re a loser who can’t find love, you probably won’t. If you’re looking for things to go wrong, you’ll definitely notice them when they do and ignore the times things went for you. The latter is called confirmation bias. If you believe there is no invisible force holding you back or conspiring against you, you are more likely to take chances or sensible risks. Not every chance taken will succeed; not every risk pays off – but if you never taking any chance or risk you’re pretty much guaranteeing that nothing will pay off.

Of course, being naively optimistic is dangerous too. So what’s the balance? Simple: accept that the universe is what it is, but your actions need not be. The universe isn’t for or against us, but it won’t stand in our way. It doesn’t like or dislike you, but it’s not out to get you. The beauty of existence is that if you work with it, the results are quite incredible. As proof of this, look at any field of modern science. Long ago, some clever people realised that wishes were not horses. It’s a shame that in the 21st century this magical thinking is still around.

Ultimately, bad “luck” befalls us all. But this is just another way of saying that there are setbacks in life, minor and major. Since the past cannot be changed, and since being caught unawares by facts we couldn’t possibly have known is no cause for regret, the only challenge facing humans is: ‘what do we do about things now? What will I do with the time ahead?’ To return to the asteroid scenario one last time: one could move away and get a new home. One could end up living next door to the woman (or man) or one’s dreams. One might be “forced” into getting a new job and discover a fantastic new career. One might take the opportunity to have a fresh start in more ways than one. Who now thinks the asteroid event was lucky or unlucky? Isn’t life full of stories that started out with misfortunate only to be the best thing that could’ve happened? I know I can think of many examples personally. And of course, the universe doesn’t try for this, just as nobody thought a billion years ago: “if I send this asteroid to John Smith’s house, he might be forced to up and move and meet his true love and raise kids in this house instead of that.” John could have gotten depressed and drunk himself to death, but he didn’t. Something bad happened, and he acted positively. At the end of the day, what else should one possibly do? As I once said to a friend, a real hero isn’t a superman who is impervious to damage or despair. A real hero is a person who acts positively every day to pursue their values in the face of possible failure. Or in the words of one of Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes: “We do not think that tragedy is our natural state. We do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it, and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering, that we consider unnatural. It is not success but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.

UK riots – my thoughts on who, what and why

As riots continued for a third night running in major cities across the UK, many have had their say on the animalistic slime causing massive devastation to property and lives. What should we do about it? What is an appropriate response and what is too far? Why do yobs do this sort of thing? I’ll give my thoughts.

First of all, it’s not really clear what these barely-human criminals are rioting about. There is no doubt in my mind that most of them are simply along for the ride, and enjoy the thrill and excitement of being in the mob, mindlessly ruining without consideration. Even if there was a legitimate purpose to riot, surely the cause is negated by the gross violation of the rights of innocent citizens whose lives and property are being wrecked? What cause could possibly be worth fighting for that is somehow not connected, or superior to, the legitimate rights of others?

So should the government call in the army? No. There is a reason why the army is not and should not be used to keep the law. The army defends the country from enemies of the state; the police protect the citizens and enforce the law. When the army is used against its own citizens, the enemies of the state become its own people. Government power should necessarily be heavily limited in this regard and we cannot throw away that principle when it seems expedient. So should police use lethal force against the rioters? Again, I would say no, not unless it is absolutely necessary. Whilst it is true that these rioters are degenerate insects who deserve no mercy, the law and the police derive their power from their citizens and cannot begin arbitrarily executing them when they get out of hand.

However, I should stress that the rioters have freely abandoned the rule of law and chosen to violate the Rights of their fellow citizens. The cause does not matter, if there even is one. Riot police should be deployed in full force and use water cannons, tasers, tear gas and rubber bullets. The rioters should be beaten into submission, even if it means hospitalising them. The message must be loud and clear: the government will protect the rights of individuals from any threat, foreign or domestic, and those who contravene this rule should be put down, hard. There should be no compromise with vicious thugs. Force should be met with force. Not for the purpose of hurting them, or teaching them a lesson, or quashing citizens under the boot of the government – no, for the purpose of protecting individual Rights.

One thing that also needs pointing out is the makeup of the mob: the majority are youths. The obvious question once again: where are the parents? Once again we are witnessing the result of mediocre and disinterested parenting, of a society where family and integrity is meaningless, where the mothering and fathering skills of adults have atrophied due to a government that insists on doing our thinking for us. How can you expect youths to respect the rights of others, when everywhere you look, the concept of Rights of individuals is watered down or ignored? How can you ask parents to do their jobs and regulate their children, when across the world we see parents asking the government to create yet another rule, regulation or law to restrict content on this, age limits on that, certificates on this, bans on that, censorship on this, criminalisation on that. Perhaps, just perhaps, if the government stayed out of our private affairs and parents had to actually do their job, they would raise their children in a more responsible and dignified manner? Which brings me to my next point: the parents of any youth found convicted in these riots should be forced to make reparations to the owners of damaged property. Your kids, your problem. They smashed, stoned, defaced and burned it? You will pay for it.

I’m not excusing the rioters at all, but I am hardly surprised by their actions. Our culture is warped and sick. In almost every article I write I talk about philosophy, and how it’s a vital part of everyday life, whether people realise it or not. But look at the “intellectuals” of today; look at the philosophy that pervades the world: we are told that reality isn’t real, that there are no moral truths, that there are no real whites and blacks, that morality is subjective and uncertain, that our senses are weak or useless, that the good is whatever the majority commands, that the purpose of life is to sacrifice it, that property is greed, that Rights are “selfish”, that intelligence is sad, that power is all that matters, that dedication and determination are a waste of time, that fame for fame’s sake and beauty for beauty’s sake and money for money’s sake is the lifestyle to pursue, that scientists and businessmen are fools and whores, but celebrities and sportsmen should be objects of idolatry and role-models to follow. This might not be the culture the intellectuals and the philosophers and the bureaucrats wanted, but it’s the one they deserved. This is the inevitable result of an evil and flawed worldview from Christianity to Socialism, from Islam to Communism, from Fascism to Humanism, from Libertarianism to Anarchism, from Hume to Kant, Christ to Mohammed, Nietzsche to Plato: the rejection of moral truths in this world; the denial of morality as useful to the individual in his everyday life. In essence it is this: the rejection of reason.

To those of who you say there is no such thing as morality, that truth is ambiguous, that reality isn’t real, that good and bad are just matters of opinion, that man is just an animal in shoes, that we carry original sin or instead are merely slightly-evolved apes, I say: this is the world you wanted. Well you have it. You wanted a world where reason didn’t matter, where good and bad were just opinions, where truth was both sides of the coin – well this is what happens in such a world. People blow each other up, they fly planes into buildings, they commit holy wars, they rob and pillage in the name of “welfare”, they set fire to buildings, destroy livelihoods, and they riot for the sheer thrill of rioting. Because they don’t know any better, because you told them there was no better, and if there was, there was no way to know it, and so it didn’t matter what they did, because nothing was right or wrong anyway and no one alive could ever know it.

To those who believe that truth and morality are subjective, I say I hope you’re happy with the results of your philosophy. These riots across the UK are just one symptom, but they aren’t the disease itself.

Are you selfish or selfless?

The more I think about the nature of selfishness, the more transparent it becomes that all moral and noble acts are selfish. It’s so obvious, (but then everything is in hindsight) I can’t believe I didn’t come to this conclusion myself long before reading Ayn Rand. But the reason I didn’t, and many people haven’t, is due to the corruption of the language and concepts involved.

Obviously selfishness is assumed to be evil and bad in almost all cultures today, and altruism and selflessness deemed to be good. It’s interesting that this is the moral code of religion which atheists have blindly adopted too, but that’s another discussion. Selfishness is taken to mean acting without any regard for others, sacrificing them to oneself, whilst selflessness is taken to be acting for the good of others without regard for oneself. However, Ayn Rand identified a huge flaw with this thinking, namely a false dichotomy; we are left with two polar options that exclude another type of interaction between humans: behaviour that requires no sacrifice of anyone to anyone else!

“How can this be?”, some might ask. “Surely, ultimately, we are acting either for ourselves or others?” This is actually true. All choices and actions we take, however large or small, are in pursuit of values. The question is, are those values our own or others’? Values are things which living beings strive to gain or keep to further their lives. Notice that: their lives. We pursue food, to further our lives. We pursue careers, music, art, entertainment, love – because they further and enhance our lives. All our values are directed at one thing: our lives. If this weren’t true, we would actually strive to acquire values that were of no benefit to our lives, or even detrimental to them. But if this were so, they wouldn’t be “values” since they wouldn’t be valuable. A value is only a value if it’s a positive enhancement. And of course the thing we must all strive to enhance, either consciously or otherwise, is our own lives.

“But I strive to enhance the lives of others!”, some might object. That’s true and I’ll get onto that. But first reconsider the above paragraph: it is only your continued life that allows you to take any action, pursue any value. If you’re dead or incapacitated, you can’t act for the enhancement of anyone. It is therefore life which makes value possible. Your own life gives rise to your values. Before we pursue anything, we must first pursue our own lives.

“Well, that’s obvious enough. What’s your point?” The pursuit of our own values (and therefore life) is a selfish act. We must evaluate things in our life, judge them as worthy, evaluate them as positive or negative, and pursue or avoid them. Each of us has to do this. No one can think for us, and we cannot think for another. We must act in our self-interest, because the alternative is misery and (ultimately) death. This may sound dramatic or radical, but it’s undeniably so: eventually you are either pursuing life, or its opposite.

“But if each of us pursues our own lives, what becomes of relationships?” Actually, it is only self-interested behaviour that allows for the beauty of human relationships; family, friendship and lovers. Consider: every person you hold dear is a value in your life. As such, they enhance and further it. It is positively selfish to have friends and lovers. If it weren’t, the people in our lives would actually be those we didn’t care for at all! But the best part is that just as the people in our lives are our selfish concern, so we are theirs in their life! What sort of friendship would it be if our “friends” were not values to us, but we maintained contact out of duty or guilt or fear? Would you want someone as a friend under these terms? Would someone want a lover based on force or blackmail? What sort of meaningful relationship could exist if the person we wanted didn’t really want us? And who would want another person who wanted us but whom we felt nothing for?

Obviously, self-interest is at the heart of not only every rational action of individuals, but it is the foundation of all honest human relationships. In voluntary relationships, both parties give, both receive, but no one loses out! This is the essence of the idea of not giving more than you should, nor withholding more than you should. A relationship where one gives and gives but doesn’t receive requires the sacrifice of yourself to another. A relationship where one takes and takes and never gives requires the sacrifice of another to yourself. No one wants a relationship like that. But this is the very definition of selflessness!: sacrifice, altruism, self-denial. Yet no proper human relationship could or does work this way.

The notion of selflessness has corrupted and bastardised the true virtue of selfishness, to the point where good noble actions towards other people have been couched in altruistic terms – as if it were not possible to be selfish and also be good towards other people. But as we’ve seen, not only is it possible, it is only selfishness that allows true benevolence to others.

“But what about strangers, whom aren’t a value in our lives? Surely that means they mean nothing to us and we shouldn’t regard them?” It is true that strangers are of significantly less value to us than people we know. But there are very practical and moral reasons to be kind to others, based on self-interest of course. Consider the simple act of holding a door open for another. This may appear to be putting yourself, rendering a service expecting nothing in return. But not so! If I hold a door open, I lose nothing except seconds of time. In exchange I get a thank you or smile from another thinking person, a person like me, one of my own kind – which makes me feel good. I have helped someone at no cost to myself, another bonus. I have directly contributed to a feeling of good-will between individuals, and since society is nothing more than a collection of individuals, I have contributed positively to the society I live in. This might encourage other people to act the same, and obviously living in a society of good-willed people is a selfish concern of mine – it is much preferable than living in a society of cutthroat thoughtless thugs. I also go up in that person’s estimation; they think higher of me and I want people to think highly of me, because it might open up opportunities for me down the line.

In fact to deny this is patently stupid: who would assert that consistently acting negatively to others is actually in one’s self-interest? Consider the person who consistently acts with disregard for other people. That person consistently loses the estimation and praise of others (a selfish and often necessary requirement), and their personal and professional relationships. What would we think of the self-esteem of such a person? If they do not bother (or care) to act in their own self-interest, they cannot have a very high opinion of themselves to consider themselves worthy of their own benefit. If they cannot care to pursue their lives, they certainly cannot care about others’. And no one would want that person as a friend. And why? Because friendship only works between selfish individuals. The selfless person is thoughtless and self-destructive, since they care less about their own life. Now think how ridiculous it is to assert, for example, that a thrill-seeking drug abuser is acting selfishly: to act for your own destruction without regard for one’s life or the thoughts of others is actually the most selfless thing one could do! Only a virtuous selfish individual abstains from short-term pleasures due to rational long-term goals. Such is the ultimate act of a healthy ego.

To briefly return to the issue of our values versus those of others – there is no competition here. If someone is a value in your life, their values become your values – and the pursuit of those is still selfish. To deny this would be to claim, for instance, that whilst you care about your child you don’t care if they do well in school or not. Or, that whilst you love your partner, it is irrelevant to you whether they exercise regularly or drink themselves into an early grave.

Being selfish in relationships forces us (in a casual sense) to cultivate positive qualities which make us more valuable to those we care about. Notice how we gain by becoming a better person and the other person gains to? And neither loses out. In fact, because we are a value in the lives of others, and the values of others are values to us, we become our own values! Likewise, the other person is not only a value to us but also to themselves through us. What perfect harmony! How does this manifest itself? Well there are countless ways but some obvious ones could be wanting to keep ourselves healthy (and more attractive), or better educated (and a better communicator), or braver, bolder, more confident. In short, whatever benefits us benefits the other, and whatever benefits them enhances us. But none of this would be possible on a foundation of sacrifice and self-denial.

There are extreme examples of selfishness, such as in emergencies, that are beyond the scope of this article. But to address them very briefly: it’s possible that another person is such an immense value in our lives that life without them would be unbearable. It such situations, we would be prepared to undergo anything to help them, perhaps even at the cost of our own lives. But this too, is selfish. The person who denies this essentially says that dying to save a lover is no different than dying to save an enemy. What’s the difference? The difference is selfishness. We don’t care about the enemy. We care about our lover. Our value, in our life.

So are you selfish or selfless? I’m selfish. In fact I strive to be a little more selfish every day. And I’m proud of it.

Are we insignificant?

I really like Brian Cox’s TV series’ on science, (predominantly cosmology), because he demonstrates wondrous facts about the earth, solar system and universe. I have seen how his shows appeal to a wide variety of people and I think it’s great, in this miserable cynical mystical soap-opera ridden and reality-TV infested culture, that the general public are still fascinated by the physical existence around us. 

It is virtually impossible to describe, and literally impossible to imagine, just how vast the universe is. Approximately 15 billion years since we can say “time” in the manner we understand it, started. Our minds and bodies have evolved to see a slight fraction of the EM spectrum, useful for hunting/gathering on ancient plains, and building things to our scale of observation and interaction. The universe below our perceptual range is almost incomprehensible, but the universe beyond it is perhaps more so. One only has to consider the space between stars, and the staggering and ridiculously huge flight times between them to grasp that, in a very real sense, as much as we might ever learn about the universe, this, this life, this planet, this continent, this house, this job, are all we will ever know.

There are two ways of looking at this. The most common one, and the one I used to hold, is to realise just how tiny human beings are in the cosmos; to look at the age of the universe, and how long it will continue before motion (and therefore time) cease to exist; at the tiny slice of the temporal pie we’ve had on earth; at the enormous power the sun radiates every second and how all the manmade energy ever produced in total, multiplied a million times, wouldn’t come close to the fireball we orbit.

None of this is untrue, but the conclusion, the general feeling that many people take from these facts is: how small am I? How insignificant is the human race? Nothing I do matters. I am nothing in the grand scheme of things. But this line of thinking is unwarranted, because the mind makes a faulty presumption, a presumption based on our cultural value judgements and mindset. A presumption that almost all intellectuals, scientists, idealists and politicians make.  A presumption that is so glaringly false, but only once it’s realised. It is the presumption, or idea, that all values must be values in the eyes of some external grand mover, i.e. someone other than us. But since all of us are just individuals, and none of us (we are told) is the arbiter of value, the actual arbiter of value must be no one.

Another way of looking at it is: if the universe were only 50 years old, would that make you feel less insignificant? If the universe ended outside the orbit of Neptune, would that make you feel less tiny? If every planet in the solar system had humanoid life, would you feel differently about your place in the universe? If all the stars in the universe except our sun died overnight, would your feelings for those you love change?

It’s easy to come up with rhetorical spiel to ease a lonely mind. It’s harder to actually believe it. But you should believe it, because there is no “grand scheme of things”. There is no god who gives your life meaning; who sees a phenomenal universe and yet chooses to value your little life; there is something far more relevant in play: you, who in all the mindless universe of matter, energy, waves, dust, rocks, and empty space – who can do what (for all intents and purposes) no other thing could do a few hundred thousand years ago: think. Think, judge, choose, create, love. Only a being capable of valuing can value. The question is not: what value is your life to the universe? The question can only be: what, in this universe, is of value to your life? Ten trillion trillion stars in ten trillion trillion galaxies, or the man or woman you love? The majesty of Saturn’s rings, ethereal dark matter, stupendous space-time defying singularities, or your family, your career, your passions, your goals?

“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” is an oft-quoted line in one science-fiction show. In cosmology it is very true: all of this has happened before, and all will happen again. Stars were created, exploded, and died, long before ours came into being. The death of stars begets new stars, and planets.  And if stars are ten a penny, or a dime a dozen, we couldn’t print enough money for them all. This cycle has continued for billions of years, and it will continue for trillions more. “And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us.*

If a nebula, or ringed-body, or sunrise, or sunset, or night-sky smattered with stars – purposeless conglomerations of matter and energy – are beautiful, how much more so the chosen free conscious acts of humanity? The invention of the wheel, the discovery of electricity, the constitution of the United States, art, poetry, trade, and the source of them all, love?

The next time you find yourself contemplating humanity’s, or your own worth in unnecessarily humble terms, consider: “insignificant” – to whom? “Small” – compared to whom? “Worthless” – to whom? “Nothing we do matters” – matters to whom?

Life is what makes values possible. And for all we know, we’re the only rational life in existence. This means, the only values in existence are mine and yours. So we cannot be “valueless” transient specs of dust in this universe – far from it. In a very real sense of the word; the only meaningful use of the word, we are the most valuable things in existence. So the stars will go on burning long after you’ve died. The difference is: stars will never know any differently.

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