What Is Good?

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. –  Aristotle

What is good? What is truth? How do you know when you find truth? These are some very important questions I have been trying to ask myself lately.

To know how to fix things you first need to know how things work. One thing I have been rather interested in lately is how the brain works. In light of that I read and listened to a few books about the brain.

The Man Who Wasn’t There – Anil Ananthaswamy
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain – (Audiobook) David Eagleman
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry– (Audiobook) Jon Ronson

One incredible thing to me is how many extremely intelligent people don’t seem to be the most logical. Many of the murderers you hear about are actually very intelligent people. This leads you to question why someone like that would be drawn to doing something that we are told is hardwired into our brains to be avoided.

After reading this article about people who became serial killers and how they had normal childhoods, I came upon the case of Alexander Pichushkin. The gist of his story is that he was hit in the head by a swing and damaged his frontal cortex. This caused him to became a crazed murderer. I am not sure what happened in the years between the swing incident and his first murders besides that he was bullied some and his grandfather died. The point of this story is that it’s pretty scary to think that each of us is one bump on the head away from becoming a murderer.

In another story, recounted from “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain”, I believe, was told of a respected older man who became caught up in gambling and pedophilia. This is a link to a similar story but not the exact one. The man in the story had a tumor removed and he appeared to return to normal. Months later, the symptoms appeared again. It was discovered that they had missed a piece and the tumor had returned. It was again removed and I believe he made a recovery. Again. Astonishing to think that perhaps something like that could affect a person so much. I am not suggesting we should go set all these people free by any means, but I believe understanding the real cause of crimes has real value.

Moving on in the understanding people and actions as well as trying to determine truth, I thought I’d take the time to read a book by a certified madman, Ted Kaczynski, more commonly known as the Unabomber. Now most people might take pause at that. “Do you want to kill people Axel?” they might ask. I can assure you I am not interested in that. I am in pursuit of the truth. Kaczynski was actually quite a brilliant man. He studied at Harvard at the age of 16 and eventually earned a Ph. D in Mathematics from The University of Michigan and eventually was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley by the age of 25. Subsequently he determined that technology was opposed to freedom and that the only way to let people be completely free was to destroy all technology. This lead him to bomb universities, airplanes and businesses related to technology.

The thing about Ted Kaczynski is that despite all his craziness and evil actions, he really has some profound thoughts. i would say that one of his main beliefs was that because of the proliferation of technology people have much less that they have to do to survive. Because of this we are prone to making up “surrogate activities” for ourselves. These activities could be anything we all a hobby. From building fancy cars, learning about astrology, intricate wood working, learning and adhering to any set of silly religious beliefs that don’t help us survive and spending time convincing others of those beliefs, making any collections, lifting weights and just about any other activity you could consider. He even considers many jobs as surrogate activities as we do them more out of interest for money and developed interest in a subject, instead of for survival.

In paragraph 40 he points out “But if they work under rigid orders handed from above that leave them no room for autonomous decision and initiative, then their need for the power process will not be served.” This could point out why many people feel unsatisfied in jobs where they are not required to think and are only cogs in the wheel. This is where the surrogate activities come in. People will feel powerful if they are accomplishing some goal that they have some control over.

These are some thoughts that have been crossing my mind in the last year as I search for a sense of purpose in this world. Wanting to do good is noble but we are certainly unable to determine the consequences of our actions many generations from now. I am reminded of a story by Ravi Zacharias. Basically it is a story where a series of bad and good things happen to a man while his neighbor comments on the goodness or badness of each situation while the man just accepts each think, commenting that “How can you tell what is good or bad luck?” It eventually ends on a positive note, giving the listener the feeling that all bad things can work out to good eventually. I’m not sure how I really feel about the story. I certainly question it.

A story from my life. I believe that I am doing good via a charity I volunteer at. Cedar Valley Gearheads. The gist of our work is that we fix cars and give them to people who are without a vehicle. Most people I talk with seem to really think this is a great ministry and list the reasons. People will have much easier access to food, medical care, jobs, the list goes on. I tend to agree with them. Now what if one person we gave a car to was killed in a car accident a week later by someone running a stop sign. Would that lead me to question if I am really doing good? It might.

Kaczynski’s main problem seems to be the belief that no technology can be used for good and that it will all eventually be used for evil. He does concede in paragraph 128 that “each new technical advance CONSIDERED BY ITSELF appears desirable.” but further points out “all these technical advances taken together have created a world in which the average man’s fate is no longer in his own hands or in the hands of his neighbors and friends, but in those of politicians, corporations executives and remote anonymous technicians and bureaucrats whom he as an individual has no power to influence.”

I think this paragraph is instructive as it shares the helplessness that Kaczynski feels. I think that was his downfall. This, along with his other thoughts about the “power process” can probably give much instruction to those in power, to give workers enough room to exercise ideas, as well as in our individual lives to help us choose activities that will give us the feeling of being in control.

Another interesting topic that Kaczynski brings up in thinking about the application of future technologies. He specifically mentions gene manipulation. As mentioned before all technical advances considered by themselves appear desirable. For gene modification what if you could remove all blindness and deafness before people are born? Surely we’d want that? Also removing the predisposition for other common inherited diseases would certainly be a positive benefit. But what if as Kaczynski discusses in paragraph 124 “Somebody (probably the upper middle class mostly) would decide that such and such applications of genetic engineering were “ethical” and others were not, so that in effect they would be imposing their own values on the genetic constitution of the population at large?” Certainly this would at least make some people pause and consider if genetic engineering is such a good idea afterall.

Ultimately, I am a firm believer in progress and certainly Ted Kaczynski was a crazy man. There is no way his complete plan would ever have been enacted, which is good, but we should consider some of the situations he brings up. I would suggest reading the book “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” by  Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler for an alternative view of how the future with technology will be much better than Kaczynski thinks it will be. As to the point of what is really good though, I think it is important to continue discussing these questions with each other, especially taking the time to understand where someone else is coming from before we assure them they are wrong. We just might learn something.

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