Taking History seriously: Good, Evil, and Free will

One of my themes is the idea of being generous in acknowledging intelligence elsewhere.  That generosity comes in the form of striving for a broader definition of intelligence than just saying it must be like us.  

Being like us means it has to have a brain-like organ that allows it to use its own hands to build new technology.  It may be interesting to find such a being that is not at all human but just like a human.   At least we might have a chance to communicate with each other.

I take a broader view of intelligence to include ones that come from non-brains, have no need for technology, and have no interest or capacity to communicate with us.   When introduced to him, I presume he is intelligent.

In other posts I began exploring the idea of explaining the challenges of working with historical data and what I feel is the overlooked problem of dark data: made up data to stand in for missing data.   That is a profession I take seriously but after some thought I realized I share this concern with the historical sciences.    Being brought up with the idea that hard sciences are closer to the ideal of science than the soft sciences, I now appreciate that they are equal partners in the same enterprise.  I guess this qualifies as form of acknowledgement within my own species.

I redefined hard and soft sciences as present-tense and past-tense sciences.  One is eager for observation, experimentation, and innovation.  The other patiently picks through the historical record to understand what came before.   I mention that these are co-equal branches but it may be too generous to say they are partners.   There is a natural adversary between the two.   Historians can’t create new data, Experimenters can’t be limited by historical data.

There is third category of sciences that I called persuasive sciences.   These include language arts including rhetoric, politics, issue studies.  It includes religious studies.   This type of science straddles the line between past and present in its attempt to make good decisions.  A modern phrase for this goal is “being on the right side of history”.    It is not a bad phrase, but I prefer “taking history seriously”.

The special intelligence exemplified by humans is the sense of purpose in his everyday activities where that purpose includes concern for how it will be recorded in history.   It recognizes that history and present are part of the same reality and that it has a role to use the present to influence the path of history.

All of the persuasive sciences attempt to engineer history: to seek a tomorrow that will look back and appreciate our decisions.    I find this to be most explicit in the religious studies: the reason for their persuasion is for the good.    

Persuasive sciences are different from the other sciences.   There would be no need for persuasion if there weren’t different opinions of what good means.   The mission of persuasion science is to influence the present to do actions that will enshrine their ideas of good into the history.

In my last post, I suggested we accept history is a unchallenged fact.  We see evidence of history and of its progress over various timescales from human-scale, to universe scale.  History relentlessly marches forward one instant at a time and leaves a record of all the things that happened before.   We can trace those events backwards and recognize there were times when modern conveniences did not exist, times when humans didn’t exist, times when the earth didn’t exist, etc.  This progression leads us to conclude there was a time when nothing exists, an absolute zero for time.

For this post, I want to talk about how taking history seriously can define some concepts taken from religion: good, evil, and free will.  Instead of invoking some deity, I’m invoking history.   While we may have arguments about the specifics of history, we all agree that there was a past and that past stretches back a long ways.

I see our role with respect to history as very similar to our role as an employee to a corporate entity.  

One annoying thing about corporations is that they claim for themselves what are actually the accomplishments of the people they just happen to employ.   My recent favorite example is the What My Mom Does at GE advertisement that is claiming GE does all these things but personalizes the entire company as a single person.   Instead of giving acknowledgement to the very different groups of people involved for each of the projects, it is claiming everything for itself and then packaging that as a single person.  To avoid the controversy of equating the corporation as a person, they substituted the corporation for a human person: someone’s mom.

Nearly all promotional materials for corporations claim that the corporation has a specific value evidenced by its past performance.   In reality, this performance come from individual employees either of the corporations or of one of its contractors.  As in the above ad, most projects required large teams with lots of resources and organization provided by the corporation.   But to achieve what they claim to achieve, they needed people to do their jobs.

A work product is something that adds to the value of the company.  Typical corporations require employees to agree that during employment any idea of the employee belongs to the company.  Some innovation may have the individual’s name on it (such as an invention) but the ownership of that innovation is immediately transferred to the company.   This is how the company can become some supernatural person like that mom in the GE ad.

A company relies on current employees to advance its identity, but it all it can claim is what employees have done in the past.

Now consider the employee’s experience of the present.  When he wakes up in the morning he has autonomy.  He has the choice of not working at all (even a slave may choose to fight instead).  Even when he arrives at work, the corporation cannot operate the employee like some robot (if they could, then they wouldn’t need the employee).  In the present, the company is at the mercy of the the employee to direct his free will to the corporation’s task.   Most commonly the employee fully cooperates but the corporation still remains restrained by the employee’s capabilities and diligence.   An employee may do a job poorly because he is properly prepared or because he is not careful enough.    The company is stuck with whatever the employee produces.

In the present tense, the employees have freedom to do whatever they want and the corporation will get whatever the employee provides them.   The corporation’s power derives from its complete ownership of the past-tense.  It records what the employee does and that record judges the employee on the broadest term of whether the employee is helping or hindering the corporation.   At a minimum, it affects the employee’s performance appraisal.  At the other extreme, the employee can be fired and become no longer relevant to the progress of the corporation.   The corporation’s ownership of the past tense provides sufficient motivation for the employee to direct his will to the good of the corporation.

I am suggesting this is an analogy to everyone’s relationship to history.   Or, maybe corporations are modeled after the reality of our relationship with history.   Corporations are taking the role of history of owning everything that we do.

As an individual, I own myself only at the instant of the present.  As soon as I do something, that something becomes part of the past. History owns all events equally no matter how it happened.   My name may be attached to some past event, but I no longer own it.  History owns it.   I may be judged by the events that can be traced to my name, but this is a convention we choose to use because it is useful for persuasion in the current present instance.

All events become historical events.   History doesn’t own the present but it owns all of its events.   History is all encompassing, it started at some 0 time and includes everything that happened everywhere.  In the historical record it is all powerful, all present, all knowing.   But in the present it is just as helpless to influence its course as the corporation is.  Free will is the present boundary layer of history.

Our free will is influenced by persuasion.

Persuasion sciences leverage the past to motivate the individual to direct his motivations in certain ways.   The past provides examples of good things happening as a result of certain behaviors.  The past provides examples of bad things that one would regret to have their names assigned to.

History has a sibling called Missed Opportunity.   Missed Opportunity is the bucket that owns all of the things that could have happened in place of the event that actually happened.  In some ways, missed opportunity is even more expansive than history because it includes every possible alternative.   In other ways, it has no record to study.  We might be able to recognize an alternative to the historical event, but we can not judge its consequences.  Missed opportunities have no recorded consequences.

Imagine that history and missed opportunity are beings that share a desire for good.   Imagine they both agree on a definition of good that matches our own definition.   Both are powerless as to what we ultimately decide to do as we weigh persuasive arguments for all our options.   Whatever we do will belong to history, and whatever we didn’t do will belong to missed opportunity.

Both sides want good but what they get is whatever we choose to do.   If our choices result in good things, then history smiles because a good option was chosen.   If our choices result in bad things, then history frowns.  

Mirroring these emotions is the losing argument side: missed opportunity.   If our choices result in good things, then missed opportunity frowns because its possessions were unlikely to have turned out better.   If our choices result in bad things, then missed opportunity smiles: one of its possessions could have turned out better.

History smiles when good things happen.   Missed Opportunity smiles when bad things happen.  

Events belong to history.   History includes events that are both good and bad.  This is nothing inherently good or loving about history.  It is whatever happens.  But we can interpret history as smiling when good things happen and crying when bad things happen.   We can interpret missed opportunity as having the opposite emotions.  

Good and evil is defined as which side smiles when the event is added to the history.

Taking history seriously means that we are aware that our current actions will belong to history and we recognize history as the definitive record of all past events.   Taking history seriously means fearing history.  We weigh our choices carefully and ultimately decide which events to place in history’s possession and which to place in missed opportunity’s possession.

Intelligence is the awareness of the fate of our actions is to become part of the one and only history of everything.

As we take our decisions seriously, we may need to overcome our remaining doubts by speaking our loud our reasoning and intention: adding a prayer to accompany our actions to be preserved in history.

This is inherently the human condition.   In the past we discussed this dilemma in religious terms.  Today we still confront the same problem but in secular terms.  In corporations, we have a word for it: decision making.    In every day terms we may still use good and evil but placing them some distance from any particular religion.  

The concept of taking history seriously works for me.

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6 thoughts on “Taking History seriously: Good, Evil, and Free will

  1. Pingback: Laughing at Taking History Seriously | kenneumeister

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  3. Recent aeon videocast describes evil as a consequence of God’s plan to allow us to make choices. Although the short video ends with leaving open the question of natural evil, I can imagine an argument that this too is God’s plan to challenge the complacent with an opportunity to choose the greater good in a bad situation. I mention it here because it captures my understanding of the good and evil argument from my education, such as it is. In the above discussion, I am offering a different perspective that good and evil are not personified by a God and a devil respectively. Instead there are two god-like beings representing the chosen path in one and the accumulation of all missed opportunities in the other. Both godlike beings have good intentions but the consequences come from the chosen path. If the consequences are good, the first being smiles so we call him good, or even God. If the consequences are bad, the second being is satisfied because he probably possessed a better choice in the bag of missed opportunities, but because of that satisfaction, we call him evil, or the Devil.

    Evil is apparent when we suffer the consequences of missing an opportunity to have made a better choice. Good and evil is not an intention of any god-like being, but instead it is a label we assign on the decisions we make. In a more recent post I argue that a data-driven approach to decision making may be a more effective way to avoid evil.

  4. Pingback: Controversy over Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA): Separate laws for young and old | kenneumeister

  5. Pingback: Dedomenocracy’s nemesis: the innovative criminal | kenneumeister

  6. Pingback: Appreciating biblical stories as proto-journalism | kenneumeister

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