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Certainty & The Benevolent Universe Premise

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Is the fact that I don't constantly observe and experience "unforeseeable accidents" evidence of a benevolent universe?
 
If I want to fly from Sydney to New York, I can say that I will certainly land when I’ve checked my situation against the conditions (standard of proof) required for planes to land. Sometimes however there may be something outside of my context of knowledge, a new factor or qualification. In the plane example, let’s say the military mistakenly shoots down my plane because of a bureaucratic error from their military command-control: in this case, even if I somehow survived, I was right to conclude what I did and be certain, but reality introduced some new unforeseen condition (military error). Another example would be discovery of blood type compatibilities and then only discovering additional qualifiers or conditions (RH factor) after someone has died through blood transfusion. At first this idea frustrated and confused me: “Oh what, so we can walk around saying I’m certain of this and that and then suddenly we die because of the introduction of a factor previously outside of our specified context of knowledge!!!???”
 
The answer I later discovered is yes, but more so the answer is that to agitate against this is actually to implicitly hold onto omniscience as a standard of certainty. We can only be guided by what we know. We need a standard of certainty that is actually functional for life given our nature as non-omniscient, fallible beings. The only alternative is arbitrary considerations qualifying as evidence which, in principle, leads to dysfunctional paranoia.
 
But there is something else I thought: I don’t seem to live in a universe where there are constantly new unaccounted for conditions introduced into my context of knowledge that results in death or injury. It seems like there’s some kind of fit between my mind and the universe such that people are not constantly being hit and dying because of unanticipated asteroids, unknown diseases, or dangerous unknown insects. Is this part of what we mean by a benevolent universe? That yes, we’re non-omniscient, and so there can be unaccounted for factors in reality but we’re not so fragile that we’re always being killed by them (at least not in developed, relatively free countries)? 
 
I feel like there’s some link, but I also am not sure because I realize that in observing that people seem to be thriving and not falling victim to “unknown, unforeseen factors” all the time, I’m making a statistical observation and saying that “most of the time” our mind is able to deal with reality and not fall victim to an “unknown factor.” Is it right then to make this observation to support one’s conviction of a benevolent universe—to observe the times man is confronted with some new, previously unknown factor and survived it?
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2 hours ago, Jonathan Weissberg said:

Is the fact that I don't constantly observe and experience "unforeseeable accidents" evidence of a benevolent universe?

When integrating evidence, the consideration of the absence of factors that would otherwise be present and indicative of a malevolent universe premise would be reasonable. 

Look, too, to the positive reinforcements. All are born tabula rasa and despite any intellectual detours of history have managed to cultivate the land of eternal spring (air-conditioned workplaces, etc.) chock full of delights for more and more conceivable indulgences. 

CoViD-19 revealed a segment of the population that had been studying mRNA, providing an unprecedented response despite governmental obstacles that had been erected in the past.

The benevolent universe premise is rightfully adopted by those seeking to practice a morality of reason. The evidence, and the selective absence of evidence to the contrary, would entail a contradiction to deny it.

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6 hours ago, Jonathan Weissberg said:

Is this part of what we mean by a benevolent universe?

Perhaps, but benevolence could be seen as extending beyond that (and I may perhaps be extending it beyond what Rand meant) in the literal (and religious) sense of "Ask and it shall be given".

The real issue is, what are you asking for and by what means are you asking, which is really only one thing... the thing you ask for is the consequence of your means of asking regardless of your intent.

You ask when you act, or fail to act.  What you ask for, are the totality of consequences of your acting or not acting in the full context of reality.  In that sense, the universe gives, in spades.

Work hard to understand and master a craft or skill and reality rewards you, directly in response to what you do and how you do it, but what you ask cannot be merely equated with what you wish or intend.  Wishing for fish, by looking in an apple tree is NOT asking the universe for fish, intending to get better at basketball by painting pictures is not actually "asking" the universe for skill at basketball... that requires the proper action.

Reality gives perhaps when you thought you weren't asking... but in some sense you were "asking for it", even if there were no possibility for you to know it.

Even just choosing to remain alive in a difficult to predict world, is in a sense its own way of asking for it.. all of it.

And don't be fooled by the idea of not asking for anything.  Doing literally nothing is a way of asking ... specifically, for death.

Standing under a crumbling cliff, also is asking for death (or injury), and indeed it may be given, more so, if you can shake the rock with a sledgehammer, or have the knowledge to find the right bit of cliff just ready to fall.  In a very real sense to reality, which is not "interested" in your good or ill, this is benevolence, absolute unquestioning, consequential benevolence.

This is an incredibly powerful idea, especially when one is engaged in seeking the knowledge and experience required to know HOW to ask reality in just the right way.

So, the connection between fallibility and reality is precisely in the what and how of your "asking for it".  The more you know, the better you can act in asking, and the more likely what is given is what you intend... the greater the causal connection between what you intend to ask for and what you actually do reap from what you do.

 

One thing to keep in mind though, is the distinction between the manmade and the metaphyscially given... in some sense reality does give in a way that other humans do not.  Humans can make mistakes and they can lie and evade...  they can react very differently when you "ask" of them in the same way... of course you can shift your thinking a bit, and think of human beings as that part of reality which is capricious and whim ridden and prone to error, or you can choose to separate the benevolence of reality itself from your assessment of society and the people in it.  I think the latter approach is more intelligible.

 

 

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13 hours ago, StrictlyLogical said:

"Ask and it shall be given".

You seem to be discussing the principle of justice. You reap the consequences of what you sow, positive and negative. This is all fine and accurate, but I wouldn't say that this is what Rand meant when she thought of the universe as benevolent. After all, we are even talking about things that happen accidentally. How should we interpret things when they truly are not our fault? (This is a jumping off point, the rest of my post is directed at the OP)

As I understand it, the benevolent universe premise is something that I would call an aesthetic abstraction. It's an attitude towards the universe, and a recognition that ideas are important. A recognition that the universe is understandable, determinate, lawful, intelligible. With that recognition, it is easier to see that evil is impotent. After all, if the universe really is intelligible, we are not in a constant state where what we know will suddenly collapse, or that in spite of our best efforts, perishing is all that we can expect. But even when the worst happens that is not your fault, people still survive and flourish.

So, it's more than a metaphor. It emphasizes the power of ideas, and that evil is ultimately only the denial of the universe's intelligibility and a denial that man can ever hold knowledge of any kind. Maybe even deeper than that, any human capacities as rational animals are functional. They further our existence. We are biological organisms. Reality, being intelligible, is why reason works, why knowledge is perfectly natural and expected. 

 

 

 

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Is this part of what we mean by a benevolent universe?

From what I've read and contemplated so far, benevolent universe premise is the acknowledgement of the fact that we can know the world, can solve problems, protect ourselves and flourish. This is a consequence of the fact that the truth can be known following a certain method. 

I think one caution is that: even though it's true to say that human can still survive and flourish without being objectively certain about everything, the thing that makes it true is not directly the benevolent mindset, but the systematic ranking of several life purposes and questions. Living in current society, with effective division of labour, we do not need to be certain about the amount of harmful chemical substances of a burnt bacon we eat once a year, or the precision of the engine of the safest transportation method. This type of prioritisation, I think, is very important to live in a complex world. To come up with the right priority list is a difficult task and the benevolent universe premises certainly help motivate us achieving this task :)

Edited by Ella Pham
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My summarized take after reading all your responses:

The Benevolent Universe Premise describes an attitude that views man as empowered to survive in an intelligible universe: he can discover facts, causal connections and the unknown. He is equipped with a tool that, when applied correctly, allows him to build an ever-growing context of knowledge which, rather than being threatened by new knowledge, is strengthened by it.

It's also helpful to make a few distinctions that clarify thinking about the kind of world we live in: (1) the metaphysical vs. the man-made; (2) the unknowable vs. the unknown;

With respect to distinction #1: The differences between men and objects are consequential enough (a badly styled outfit is capable of being visually irritating, a badly developed soul is capable of murder) to separate them out for analysis.

 

 With respect to distinction #2: A quote from John Galt's speech describing the feeling of living in an unknowable universe:

Quote

"To a savage, the world is a place of unintelligible miracles where anything is possible to inanimate matter and nothing is possible to him. His world is not the unknown, but that irrational horror: the unknowable. He believes that physical objects are endowed with a mysterious volition, moved by causeless, unpredictable whims, while he is a helpless pawn at the mercy of forces beyond his control. He believes that nature is ruled by demons who possess an omnipotent power and that reality is their fluid plaything, where they can turn his bowl of meal into a snake and his wife into a beetle at any moment, where the A he has never discovered can be any non-A they choose, where the only knowledge he possesses is that he must not attempt to know."

 

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Eiuol: After all, we are even talking about things that happen accidentally. How should we interpret things when they truly are not our fault?

Actually, this is something I had in mind originally too. According to the quotes below we consider “accidents” as not being the essence or the “norm” of human life. It’s still not really clear to me what kind of conceptual stepping stones I need to jump over to be fully convinced of this. I can see that we have a tool to discover the unknown, but there is still the unknown—and the unknown can include causes of negative, deadly consequences and this fact is "in the nature of existence." I don’t think I’ll get an answer until I explore lots of real-world examples of how men actually dealt with the unknown, e.g., the case of discovering blood types compatibility and how that unfolded. This is what Greg pointed out with exploring “positive reinforcements” too.

Some quotes:

With respect to distinction (1), the man-made:

Rearden reflecting in Atlas Shrugged:

Quote

“… this dinner was a felony—meant no more to him than the possibility of being run over by a truck: an ugly physical accident without any moral significance.”

“The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy:"

Quote

“No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.”

With respect to distinction (2), an unknown as opposed to unknowable universe:

Leonard Peikoff's lectures:

Quote

 

Although accidents and failures are possible, they are not, according to Objectivism, the essence of human life. On the contrary, the achievement of values is the norm—speaking now for the moral man, moral by the Objectivist definition. Success and happiness are the metaphysically to-be-expected. In other words, Objectivism rejects the view that human fulfillment is impossible, that man is doomed to misery, that the universe is malevolent. We advocate the “benevolent universe” premise.

The “benevolent universe” does not mean that the universe feels kindly to man or that it is out to help him achieve his goals. No, the universe is neutral; it simply is; it is indifferent to you. You must care about and adapt to it, not the other way around. But reality is “benevolent” in the sense that if you do adapt to it—i.e., if you do think, value, and act rationally, then you can (and barring accidents you will) achieve your values. You will, because those values are based on reality.

Pain, suffering, failure do not have metaphysical significance—they do not reveal the nature of reality.

 

 

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2 hours ago, Jonathan Weissberg said:

It’s still not really clear to me what kind of conceptual stepping stones I need to jump over to be fully convinced of this.

The difficulty here I think is that much of this deals with emotion. It's not just the idea that the universe is intelligible (and the rest). I think of it as an emotional premise as well, granting that such intelligibility is important and positive. That's why I call the benevolent universe premise an aesthetic abstraction, dealing with a wide range of concretes and concepts united by some emotional evaluation. So it is not so much a matter of being convinced, it's more of an emotional development. At the very least, you can learn about the value of feeling that way, and the necessary concepts to get to that point. 

 

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On 6/5/2021 at 1:28 AM, Jonathan Weissberg said:

I realize that in observing that people seem to be thriving and not falling victim to “unknown, unforeseen factors” all the time, I’m making a statistical observation and saying that “most of the time” our mind is able to deal with reality and not fall victim to an “unknown factor.” Is it right then to make this observation to support one’s conviction of a benevolent universe—to observe the times man is confronted with some new, previously unknown factor and survived it?

I have a question: Do you see “unknown, unforeseen factors” as necessarily being harmful?

If you do, then not being harmed by these infinite unknowns would indicate an ever present shield against this eternal malevolence. And therefore, underneath that thought process is a belief that the universe is in fact malevolent.

But the vast majority of unknowns are benign, irrelevant, imatterial, harmless.

I know know how many red cars are in New York. I don't know how many hairs are on Donald Trump's head. I don't know if you are wearing shoes. I don't know if Louie wears glasses. etc. These are unknowns and there are many more.

I'm not going to fall victim to these. Most unknowns are like this, they don't victimize.

18 hours ago, Eiuol said:

At the very least, you can learn about the value of feeling that way, and the necessary concepts to get to that point. 

What is a necessary concept to get to that point? If you are talking your own track record, then we talking self esteem and confidence based on experience not necessarily abstract principles.

Another thing to consider is one's amount of risk aversion. How much do you think that is going to influence the attitude (the sense of safety and optimism toward the universe)? Some can naturally live in a very scary environment and never consider that "things" are malevolent.

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3 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

If you are talking your own track record, then we talking self esteem and confidence based on experience not necessarily abstract principles.

The concepts we are talking about in this thread are the necessary ones. But this is what I'm getting at with validating or accepting the idea. You really need to have the experience, the feeling.

Yes, risk aversion will affect the attitude, but I don't think risk aversion is like a personality trait that you're born with. It depends on how you conceptualize risk, the uncertainty behind the risk, or even your levels of neuroticism or anxiety that influence what seems risky. It can also go the other direction, where your attitude reinforces or alters your beliefs about risk. Not sure what you're asking about with scary environments though.

 

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1 hour ago, Eiuol said:

but I don't think risk aversion is like a personality trait that you're born with.

Higher prenatal exposure to testosterone and higher circulating levels of this hormone were associated with lower risk aversion. The organizational effects of testosterone on risk aversion appeared to be weaker than the activational effects, perhaps because prenatal hormone exposure was assessed with indirect measures

Copied from: Gender differences in financial risk aversion and career choices are affected by testosterone | PNAS - <https://www.pnas.org/content/106/36/15268>

1 hour ago, Eiuol said:

Not sure what you're asking about with scary environments though.

Not asking but indicating that (biological) risk aversion will color one's assessment of the environment, man made or otherwise.

So for some who are in fact highly risk averse, they would take a relatively safe situation and consider it as dangerous.

I don't want to get stuck on this issue, I'm simply emphasizing that there is also a nature vs. nurture issue involved in one's assessment of the universe. It's not entirely experience or learning. 

I used to think that "principles" or "beliefs" will handle most or all of my fears. (Or even that principles will always inspire me to action). In many cases they do but not all. Especially in the area of probabilities. Like a 1 percent probability of failure can be frightening even though it is not "reasonable" to think (or feel) that. It is an emotional issue as you say.

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That study is fine, but it's a correlational study directed at gender differences, so we can't say much about if it's a personality trait that is stable across time. Anyway, yeah, you're right to say that there are natural genetic or biological factors that influence the way emotions develop, but I think it really only affects the path you take for understanding through experience. I don't think you can reason yourself to believe that the benevolent universe premise is correct, as you would to reason yourself to believe that man is a rational animal.

 

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6 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

I have a question: Do you see “unknown, unforeseen factors” as necessarily being harmful?

If you do, then not being harmed by these infinite unknowns would indicate an ever present shield against this eternal malevolence. And therefore, underneath that thought process is a belief that the universe is in fact malevolent.

But the vast majority of unknowns are benign, irrelevant, imatterial, harmless.

I know know how many red cars are in New York. I don't know how many hairs are on Donald Trump's head. I don't know if you are wearing shoes. I don't know if Louie wears glasses. etc. These are unknowns and there are many more.

I'm not going to fall victim to these. Most unknowns are like this, they don't victimize.

I see as I review and respond to these replies, I get clearer on what I was thinking about, but the kind of question I have about the whole thing changes. If the benevolent universe is only a matter of "success is possible to me" vs. "success is impossible" then I don't think my question relates to it anymore. I may need to set aside time for a different line of thought. But here's what I've got so far:


It's a good point to make and I agree with you. It's especially illuminating with respect to the phrase "fear of the unknown" as capturing either unidentified fears or a metaphysical fear (but that's a different discussion). And no, I don't see the unknown itself being harmful, but as having potential for harm. And this capacity itself is "in the nature of things." Also I don't think it's the quantity of benign unknowns that matters, but the severity of the harmful unknowns. There millions of unknowns that are irrelevant to me, e.g., the number of hairs on Joe Biden's head or the thread count of his mask, as you pointed out. But the fact is that one bad unknown can end or crush my life. That too is written into reality, into the nature of things. I suppose we can call it an "accident", but I don't think it's the right way to think about it, i.e., statistically.  Why is this devastating unknown, not also considered a "norm" or "essential" about life? Both it and success, together, are in the nature of things.

6 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

What is a necessary concept to get to that point? If you are talking your own track record, then we talking self esteem and confidence based on experience not necessarily abstract principles.

I can imagine this attitude wouldn't even be a question for someone who has implicitly reached it, but the conceptual stepping stones are necessary for anyone who wants to get there or keep it. I only saw your other posts later, but I do think you can develop the attitude by beginning with it conceptually and then applying that knowledge to choices small and large throughout your life. 

6 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

Another thing to consider is one's amount of risk aversion. How much do you think that is going to influence the attitude (the sense of safety and optimism toward the universe)? Some can naturally live in a very scary environment and never consider that "things" are malevolent.

I do wonder if "risk aversion" is even a good way to think about this. Consider these:
Is a North Korean watching bootlegged American movies at the risk of being sent to a labor camp "aggressively risky"? Or is art just such a deep need that he can't live without it? Is a businessman who hires someone because he wants to expand his business "risk tolerant" or does he just value growing his business and acknowledge that hiring is part of that process? Is a paranoiac who refuses to leave his house for fear of asteroids "risk averse"? 

Edited by Jonathan Weissberg
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On 6/8/2021 at 1:28 PM, Eiuol said:

The difficulty here I think is that much of this deals with emotion. It's not just the idea that the universe is intelligible (and the rest). I think of it as an emotional premise as well, granting that such intelligibility is important and positive. That's why I call the benevolent universe premise an aesthetic abstraction, dealing with a wide range of concretes and concepts united by some emotional evaluation. So it is not so much a matter of being convinced, it's more of an emotional development. At the very least, you can learn about the value of feeling that way, and the necessary concepts to get to that point. 

 

I see what you're getting at and I like it: a chain of abstractions that, when subconsciously held, results in a particular emotional sum. 

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