Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Origin of Chinese Morality

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
— Stephen Hawking, 1988[1]
If you are religious, the origin of your morality is simply you creator, or the myth you subscribe to. If you are an rational atheist, the origin of your morality is by no means settled. Can it be rationality itself? Very few people understand game theory or Axelrod’s Game of Life simulation (“Tit-for-Tat”), and humans are predictably irrational. No rational model can explain one-off transactions with no expected payoffs, like tipping in a restaurant you will never revisit, or sacrificing your money or even life for strangers. George Bataille and David Hume further argued that no rational models can have rational final objectives, e.g. let’s say your model is to maximize your income, but how will you spend the leftover money after feeding yourself?

What about biology? Darwin speculated that “man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common”. Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” popularized W.D Hamilton’s Inclusive Fitness theory, and can be summed up as ‘I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins’. Dawkins inspired Thatcherism: “There was no such thing as society, just individuals...and families”, together with rational market fundamentalists, they proved ‘scientifically’ that selfishness and greed are good!

E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard biologist who had sided with Dawkins, now admits that Inclusive Fitness “was a mistake and I went along with it to begin with. But it’s finished. It’s over”. According to Wilson’s new multilevel group selection theory, “individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, on the one side, and group-level selection, with competition among groups, on the other. The latter force promoted altruism and cooperation among all the group members. It led to innate group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honor. The competition between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.

The problem with scientific origin of morality is, like all good science, it takes a while to decide the winner until it isn’t. While the technical debates between Inclusive Fitness and multilevel selection camps still raging, for non-biologists like us, who is to believe? Even if you believe Wilson’s math is correct, it still leaves you with choice whether to cooperate on per-transaction basis, or with which groups. Should you include Californians but not Texans, or gays but not lesbians? Even if atheists can agree on the same principles and groups, famous atheists like Jonathan Haidt and Alain De Botton, admit they still need to address the critical functions of religions, namely the rituals that build trusts and communities amongst strangers. After all, morality means nothing if it doesn’t facilitate charities to nonkin, and where do atheists meet every Sunday to foster friendships, volunteer their money and services to help those in need?

According to Wilson, humanity, or our flexibility to choose between individual and group strategy, was an evolutionary accident, just like life on earth was a cosmic accident. “Of the millions of species of animals that have lived during the 3.7 billion-year history of life on Earth, we only know of 20 ancestral lines that are true “eusocalists” (caring for children not of our own). Fourteen of them are insects (ants, bees, wasps and termites), three are species of marine shrimp, and three are mammals – two species of naked mole rats and, arguably, humans.” Humans is also the only eusocial specie that the choice whether compete or cooperate is not hard-coded in our gene, and this unique flexibility has enabled us to adapt and flourish. “Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made Homo sapiens the first fully dominant species in Earth’s history.” Our flexibility to choose is not only the most powerful gift evolution has chanced upon us, but as Victor Frankl said, gives meaning and dignity to the human existence.

But what does meaning mean? If meaning cannot be rationally defined, aren’t they just myths? Turned out “Myth is a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.” In Yuval Harari’s brilliant “A Brief History of Humankind”, he stated that it is mankind’s singular ability to invent myths that enabled large-scale cooperation and our triumph over all other specie.

China used to have many theories on the origin of morality: Confucius did not believe in anthropomorphic heaven and created the myth of ancient sage kings. He posited that rituals are critical in developing our capacity for compassions. Mencius, like Darwin, believed that humans are endowed with unique qualities that separate us from animals. Xunzi, like the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, believed humans can be programmed like a robot, and inspired Lee Kuan Yew’s Asian Model in Singapore. Laozi, went beyond the origin of morality and speculated the origin of the universe was the beginning of information, believed that we must simply follow the Way and inspired the Beat Generation. Zhuangzi, believed in the ghost in the machine(a.k.a. soul), inspired Zen Buddhism and the modern Search Inside Yourself movement. Mozi, the supreme rationalist and atheist like Peter Singer, believed in universal compassion and voluntarism, and started probably the world’s first grass-root non-religious NGO in keeping peace between warring states and advancing society's goals.

Unencumbered by religions, the search for the origin of Chinese morality 2,600 years ago rivaled the European enlightenment movement in the 17th century. Unfortunately, it ended when the First Emperor conquered all of China in 200 BC. He killed all the scholars, burned all the books and kept only the Legalists, who placed the supreme moral authority in himself. Subsequent emperors replaced Legalism with Confucianism, which placed the moral authority in the chain of sons to father, and subjects to emperor. In the 12th century, the Confucians finally suffered enough despotic rulers to abandon the myth of the sage kings, and instead seek the ultimate origin of morality in human rationality. But without the tools of math, computer simulations, biology or psychology, the “search for morality inside yourself” movement resulted in narcissism (men are as great as the universe, it’s just we belittle ourselves). The self-entitled Confucian elite seek success within the government, and believe that government, not individuals, should solve the society's problems. The result? There was no such thing as Chinese society, only families and the state, and China went through endless cycles of marginalized people got fed up and toppled the elite, only to re-establish themselves as the new tyrants. The deep Confucian influence was why China embraced communism in 1949, and placed the ultimate moral authority in Mao during the Culture Revolution. Today despite China, HK and Taiwan having the same number of billionaires as US, only one Taiwanese, as opposed to hundreds of Americans, signed the Giving Pledge. Only 13% Chinese give money to charities, compared with 68% in US, or 77% in Thailand. 70% of China’s social science research budgets is allocated to studying the thoughts of Xi Jinping, its current leader.

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the official origin of Chinese morality had gone from “Any cat that can catch mice is a good cat”, to Three Represents, to Harmonious Society, to China Dream. But what about individual search for the origin of morality? Do Chinese people believe they can choose differently and still coexist in peace? Does the responsibility of the search belong to individuals or to the state? What should a Chinese mother teach her child how to make the right choices?

Unlike the scientifically inevitable Marxism, democracy itself was a historical accident. Inspired by the irrational Christian belief that all men are created equal, the American founding fathers gambled that a society can tolerate different choices and still endure. Their bet has not only survived a civil war, but saved the world, twice, from the grip of tyranny. Democracy protects our right to choose, thus our humanity. But like all accidents in the evolutionary history, democracy’s survival was by no means guaranteed. Had Hitler got the bomb first and conquered the world like China’s First Emperor, today there will be no Jews, no Chinese, no democracy, no choices, and no humanity.

The last turtle after all, is our choice. As improbable as it was beautiful, no state, religion, or ideology on earth should be allowed to extinguish that last turtle, again. To parallel Stephen Hawking, “However bad life may seem, while there's life, there is hope”, however bad the choices may seem, while there’s choice, there is humanity.

Monday, June 2, 2014

China’s Missing Models


“Imagine that you arrive late at a party. Everyone is already there, sitting at a big round what appears to be some kind of a game. The host tells you to sit down and join in. Let’s say that you quite like playing poker, and you get excited at the prospect of participating, but you quickly realize that this is not poker...You turn around to consult the host, but he seems to have disappeared. You take a deep breath and keep quiet, not wanting to reveal your ignorance.., and you quietly continue to observe… you probably cannot work out the meaning of this game until you have seen a sufficient number of cards. But you start to ask yourself,...what is the main point of this activity? If it is a game, how do you win it, and if it’s not a game, what is the point of it?”

Vlatko Vedral, Decoding Reality

The original story, told by Italo Calvino, used the card game as the metaphor for life - that in life no one knows the truth, and given the signals we observed, we can only build models that approximate the truth. Since realities are infinitely complicated, by necessity models must be simple enough to live in our head. There is also no way to prove that a model is correct. We used to believe that all swans are white until the discovery of black swans in Australia. Since it’s only possible to prove a model wrong than right, all models are inherently speculative. Newton’s laws were correct until the speed of light was proved constant. Einstein’s theory can explain both but doesn’t apply to particles, that has to wait until quantum mechanics. Now we are onto the string theory and more...

Spurred by the scientific discoveries since the Renaissance, philosophy and social science also provide alternatives to Monotheism as the foundations of human morality. From Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Adam Smith, Hume, Wittgenstein, Marx,... we went from God’s words to common sense, passion, game theory, rationality, until the latest behavioral economics researches proved that humans are predictably irrational, and our inquiry into the origin of human morality continues.

So why do we bother with models if they lack such staying power? Why don’t we simply act and react to the environment, and let the nature select the outcome, just like the rest of the species do? The simple answer is models make us human. Of all the species on earth, we are probably the only specie that build models consciously, and adjust our behaviour accordingly, even though we know they are imperfect. Civilization advances not just by new inventions, but also by the search for new models. Periodic table was a speculation that predicts real elements, irrelevant math theory SU(3) predicts the layout of quarks. Google was built on a model called PageRank, Internet was the accidental byproduct of CERN, whose goal was to provide insights to fundamental physics models, and the list goes on and on...

2200 years ago, China used to have many models, until 220 BC when the first emperor united China (think Hitler united Europe). He killed all philosophy schools and only kept Legalism that suit his purpose. Subsequent emperors replaced Legalism with Confucianism, but still banned all other schools. For the last 2000 years, Confucianism was the only state sanctioned model (Buddhism and Taoism were tolerated but routinely persecuted). Confucianism dismissed all religion as superstitions and based its teachings on the founding myth that all ancient kings are sage, therefore we must obey the emperor. Confucians also insist on ingratiating themselves with the regime, unlike Mohism which built its own NGO to advance social good (and were persecuted to extinction because the state considered it a rivalry). Chinese people became heavily dependent on their government instead of NGOs/churches, and were reluctant to embrace religions or other philosophies. (Fewer than 20% Chinese are religious, as opposed to ~80% American)

The intolerance for multiple models explains the "The Needham Question", why China had been overtaken by the West in despite its earlier successes. “Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and paper and printing, which Francis Bacon considered as the three most important inventions facilitating the West’s transformation from the Dark Ages to the modern world, were invented in China". Had China not banned its 100 schools of philosophies, just Mohism alone, which advocates science and compassion, could have started the Renaissance when Europe was still in the dark age.

The state monopoly of model resulted in serial state failures and society breakdowns that continued to this day. The 1911 revolution created the first democracy in Asia, but the new era’s motto “Traditions as core, western technology as utility” resulted in two decades of civil war because no factions wanted to share power. In 1949, Marxism became the new state model, until it went bankrupt in 1989. Since 1989 China had embraced the market capitalism and the motto: “Crossing the river by feeling the stone”, but no one knows what the other side is. The 2008 world financial crisis proved the market does not always work, and decades of single minded pursuit of GDP had lead to rampant corruptions and environmental degradations. The latest model “China Dream”, according to Evan Osnos, is about “a state and its citizens bursting with aspiration toward an undefined goal”.

The search for working models has been the central issue of Chinese modernization effort since 17th century, and it has been hampered by state interferences and deep culture reluctance to embrace religions, philosophy, or pretty much anything that is not rational. But rationality is just a mean, not an end to itself. The objective of models cannot be just numbers since many important things in life are not even  measurable. America was founded based on “..Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Self-evident truths? Unalienable rights? Creator? Happiness? All men are equal? This entire statement is irrational, except Life, yet it addresses the most central question: “Why we live?” If you think America’s founders are hopelessly romantic, Kahneman and Tversky proved we are predictably irrational, humans have so many cognitive biases and pitfalls that believing in human rationality is like worshiping our 3 billion neurons as God, and China had been down this path before.

In the 12th century, after seeing enough despotic rulers to finally give up on the myth of the sage kings, Neo-Confucian scholars tried to reset human morality on the ‘firm’ ground of rationality(理學) instead of the Great Teacher’s fairy tales. “Humans were as big as heaven and earth, it’s just that we belittle ourselves”. Elevating one’s own rationality to deity, Confucian elites became narcissists who think they are entitled to their own success. One of the most important Neo Confucian scholar, Zhu Xi, persecuted Buddhists as a high official, and even tortured a prostitute who refused to incriminate his political opponent. This goes to show Confucian rationality has nothing to do with conscience or compassion. Like the alpha males of a chimp colony, the Neo-Confucian elite became ignorant of the sufferings of others, and the society became fragile and unable to meet environmental or external challenges. The legacy of rational entitlement still lives today: China/HK/Taiwan now have the same number of billionaires as US, yet only one Taiwanese billionaire signed Bill Gate’s Giving Pledge, as opposed to hundreds in US. Recently one of the richest Taiwanese billionaires died and left nothing to charity, and let his four wives and dozen children suing each other over his hidden overseas assets. Will a society without compassion last? Can the invisible hand come to the rescue in time of crisis?

Even Adam Smith wasn’t so optimistic. “Each one of us, being totally selfish, can paradoxically contributed to our overall well-beings”, yet Smith also held the professorship of moral philosophy, and he’s prouder of his other work “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. The great depression of 1929 and 2008 proved that invisible hand still requires bailout from the common people. Picketty’s latest book shows that a rational market is not sustainable even when it works, because in the long run the return of capital will outstrip all others. Without the irrational wealth redistribution by the government through progressive tax and welfare, or donations to charities, a market based society simply will not last. Mariner Eccles, a mormon Republican banker from Utah who became the federal reserve chairman under Roosevelt, concluded that The Great Depression was like a poker game in which the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and the game stopped when most players had to leave the table. He campaigned for increased public spending to create jobs to end the depression, but eventually it was Hitler who did the job by starting WWII that employed everyone. Eccles’s descendants are still one of the largest charity donors in Utah today. When driving in Salt Lake City, one cannot help but noticing numerous Eccles sport stadiums, science centers, libraries, olympic park, performance center, etc.. It is totally irrational to make all these billions only to give them away, yet hundreds of US billionaires pledge to give away majority of their wealth, so their society, and democracy, can last.

The search for modern China is the search for the missing models, some will be new, some will be old (Mohism is amazingly modern), and the responsibility must lie with each individual, not the state. Some objectives of these models will be irrational, like compassion, happiness and faiths. Some will seek the truths that are never attainable, like why do the world exist, why we live, etc. Whatever they are, they must incorporate all human experiences and tolerate our differences. In this age of globalization, to build models based on a failed state-sponsored philosophy, and 2000 years of censored history which concerns mostly despotic rulers instead of the common people, is like building a prediction model for global market based on a bankrupt luxury good company. That model had failed and will fail again. After all, all human beings are the children of the same African mother only 150,000 years ago, our common mother would probably think we are really not that different, neither should our models be.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

How China Squanders

"I will begin with a basic fact: The living organism, in a situa­tion determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, will­ingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically."


Like entropy in a closed system, all the excess profits must be squandered irrationally, like “coffee thrown into the sea”, and our only choice is whether to squander “gloriously or catastrophically”. If the idea of compulsory squander bothers you, try ask yourself a series of questions: the reason I want A is because of B, the reason I want B is because of C, pretty soon you will realize the last thing you want has no reason or logic, except it makes you happy (admit it, you are squandering after all!).

For individuals, the act of squandering can be conspicuous consumptions, i.e. buying things we don’t need, or spending less time at work and more on leisures. For companies, squandering takes the forms of uncertain R&D and unprofitable investments. For example, Google tries to squander the $50 billion accumulated profits in projects like Google Glass, self-driving cars, Google Fiber, etc. However, if any of these becomes future profit makers just like the past squanders (i.e. AdSense, Android), then Google would have more billions to squander! Eventually, Google will have to return profits to the shareholders if it runs out of ideas of squandering.

For economies or the planet as a whole, the need to squander is even more acute since we can not pay dividends to Martians, and historically each society squanders in its own ways. Aztec had daily human sacrifices and constant wars with its neighbors. Europeans started WWI and WWII. Squanders can also come in the forms of conservations: Tibetans send their (excess) children to monasteries and support large population of monks to avoid overpopulation and over-exploitation of their environments. Countries set aside huge swath of lands for national parks or ban developments in some area. Arts and leisure are alternative forms of squandering - until the recent century, we used to work 12 hours a day and 7 days a week. Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes had predicted in 1930 that as our productivities rise, by 2000 we only need to work 4 hours a day and spend the rest in leisures.

There are glorious squanders too, like the grand churches, religions and clergies, philanthropies, international aids, universal health care (which will never make money), scientific researches, art and music, etc.. None of which are rational investments or have any practical purposes. Ironically, some irrational squanders can turn into great investments, like the effort to build particle accelerators (in the words of the physicist Robert Wilson: “has nothing to do with defending our country, except to make it worth defending for”), ultimately lead to CERN and the invention of World Wide Web. Philanthropies may not achieve their intended goals, but they redistributed the chips and make the economy more sustainable. Religions may not deliver eternal life, but strengthen the communities. Meditations, the most useless human activity, can make you smarter and more successful. Democracies, borne out of the Christian faith that all men are created equal, was deemed less efficient than Fascism, yet in the long run prove to be more prosperous because open societies folster better innovations.

Because of its culture, China tends to squander catastrophically. Confucians dismissed religions as superstitions, and place filial piety and individual virtues as the core values in society. Lacking transcendent values as the escape valves, the ‘rational’ Confucian society kept reinvesting the excess profits into growth and reproduction, until overpopulation ran into the environmental limits, resulting in cycles of catastrophic squanders of wars, famines and diseases.

Even worse, unlike Mohists and other religions who built their own organizations to advance their social agenda, Confucians seek to ingratiate themselves with the regime, and their founding myths of ancient sage-kings demanded a strict chain of obediences of sons to father, wives to husband and subjects to ruler. “The sage-king stands alone, unchallenged and unchecked except by self-imposed restraints”. This blind faith in human rationality caused Confucians to accrue all their faith and profits to the supreme ruler, who is only human and had no problem squandering them in corruptions, wars and slaughtering of his own people.

The 1911 Chinese revolution intended to build a modern society by adopting western technology only, without changing the traditional values. This became a complete disaster and resulted in two decades of civil wars. The 1949 Communist revolution continued the catastrophic squanders by waging wars in Korea and Vietnam, and massacres and famines that culminated in the Culture Revolution which squandered a decade of Chinese lives.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and massacre of Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chinese has adopted capitalism to replace the bankrupt communism. Although capitalism has raised the economic throughput, it has no core values and still offers no solutions to how China should squander its new wealth. As a result, China continues the catastrophic squanders by keeping the largest standing military in the world, and an even larger ‘public security’ force to watch over its own people. It continues the exploitations of its environment instead of conservations, and continues to perpetuate the low trusts society with rampant corruption and lack of NGOs. When it couldn’t squander all by itself, it exports the saving glut to the rest of the world, which squandered them in the 2007 financial crisis.

Some Chinese now begin to identify the lack of transcendent values as the core problem of the society. In order to squander gloriously instead of catastrophically, China needs to rise above its traditional utilitarian values and stop seeking purposes in everything it does. Whether it’s in arts that have no practical use, in democracy that lack efficiencies, in philanthropies with no payoffs, in faiths that reward the next life instead of this one, in social security and universal health care that will never turn profits, and most importantly, in trusting each other and respect each other’s dreams, which may not make this life richer, but will make it worth living.