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On the Idea that Life is a Test

Suppose, as a thought experiment,  that a group of aliens with near godlike power and wisdom had come up with the idea of creating a lesser race, and we are that race.  These aliens wanted to learn whether we were worth receiving a very valuable gift — let’s say immortality, and an increase in our cognitive powers to make us as wise as they are.  After deliberation they decided they could not simply tell their creations that they had such a goody in store because working for the purposes of receiving a reward would have bad consequences: perhaps eliciting a servile or insincere or affected attitude.  So they created a situation in which they could observe and judge how we behaved without knowledge of the possibility of reward and gave out the reward based upon our behavior.

In fact what they did was give us the planet Earth to share alongside creatures who bore the same relationship to us as we do to them.  They decided it would be fair to treat us well if we treated our planetary companions well and poorly if we treated our planetary companions poorly.  Our planetary companions of course are non-human animals, and I don’t need to say how well we as a species did on this test!  Suffice it to say that in the afterlife most humans are eaten, others hunted for sport, and the lucky ones castrated and kept as household pets.  A medical researcher who blinded a rabbit will himself be blinded.  Only the very few militant vegans among us were given the reward of immortality and higher galactic consciousness.

I’ve come up with this version of a traditional religious theodicy as a way into thinking about the idea that life is a test.  Some of the features of this idea are:

a)there is a task to be performed

b)there is a right way to do the task

c)crucial facts about the task are hidden from us with the result that the task is harder.

So for example Christians believe that God incarnated as a lowly servant in part to see how we would treat him — if he had come as a radiant king it would not have been a good test.  Orthodox Jews believe the Torah is the right answer but the test includes a built-in evil impulse whispering to us that the Torah is not actually worth following.

In the fanciful case of the aliens for example the medical researcher who blinded rabbits in order to come up with a better understanding of how the eye works has made a mistake and will be punished for the mistake, but the aliens do not tell him that his treatment of rabbits is a test, or that the right answer to the test is “don’t blind rabbits”.

Are the aliens treating human beings fairly in my story?  Is God on the Christian and orthodox Jewish account playing square?

At first blush it seems we could answer “yes” — after all the person who is cruel to animals has endorsed the idea “it’s okay to be cruel to a less powerful and less intelligent creature” so he has no brief to complain when more powerful and intelligent creatures mistreat him.  The human being who disobeys God by failing to follow Torah or mistreating Jesus or the powerless who embody Jesus deserves punishment.  In all cases the human being seems analogous to an office worker who pilfers funds without realizing that he is being observed by a hidden camera.  Upon being fired the worker cannot plead “I wouldn’t have stolen if I knew I was being watched”.  That is admitting what his employers are accusing him of — that he has failed a test.

On second thought though maybe not.  After all it is the aliens who created the conditions of ignorance which caused him to make the mistake, who hid the critical importance of animals in a life full of competing claims and distracting information.

Another sign that things are not quite right.  If a human being snuck out of Earth and listened in on the counsels of the aliens and heard how important kindness to animals was, would that be a good or a bad thing.  On first blush it would seem a good thing — after all such a person would be a prophet, sharing the most important task of human life with his fellows.  But on second thought such a person would actually be no better than a student who snuck the answers to the exam into the examination room.

Perhaps the only fair tests are those we take upon ourselves.  So for example if I am trying to quit smoking I might accept a program in which secret agents would come upon me at various times in my life and ask me to smoke with them.  I would not know who was an agent of the program and who was not.  By observing how well I did passing and failing these tests I could learn something about myself. If I passed them I would learn to trust myself and if I failed learn to be suspicious and try harder.

And yet even this example requires trusting the judgment of the program I willingly commit myself to.  At some time in the future Philip Morris may invent a cigarette that has no dangers to health — it simply makes you look cool.  If I then continue in my program and refuse to smoke I will be passing a test in one sense — I will be sticking by my resolution — but failing another one — I will lose the benefits of looking cool for no reason at all.

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8 thoughts on “On the Idea that Life is a Test

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    An interesting thought-experiment. A problem is that I don’t know any non-utilitarian way to prove that one standard of fairness is better than any other, nor any way at all to prove it to an unreceptive listener. Very few moral facts can be read directly from reality.

    As a candidate for a directly-readable moral fact, I’d say that causing needless suffering is wrong; and moreover, that the wrongness of causing needless suffering is much more certain than any known standard of fairness (analogous to G.E. Moore’s argument against idealism).

    However, you also reminded me of this:

    • anyone who would cause needless suffering is not somebody I would want to hang out with! I wonder if anybody ever has done that deliberately though. Even Jack the Ripper probably caused the suffering he did cause he thought he needed to to get off, don’t you think? Somebody might have done it as an acte gratuit I suppose. But not many people.

  2. I think that the idea that life is a test of humans by God etc. is silly and baseless and there is no sane reason to think that. I think this sort of beliefs come from minds which have lost the capacity to think honestly because of long time practice of self-deception, living in denial and lying to themselves.

    • I’m more interested in the structure of the idea than its literal truth which I think is unknowable. But I know sincere people who believe it — I have no a priori reason to think they are wishy-washy self-deceivers.

  3. I did understand that your interest is in the structure of the idea.
    The truth of this idea is unknowable, yes, in the same way as the truth about Russell’s teapot.
    Have these sincere believers told you their reasons for believing this?

  4. Mikey says:

    I have a vegetarian friend who used to experiment on animals. I think the superaliens would look at her situation and judge it according to its merits. The basis for the alien test’s fairness is that they are treating us how we’re treating others. So if Sam was experimenting on mice for some higher reason and in her free time abstaining from eating meat – the aliens would get that. I don’t think they’d focus specifically on the one or two bad things she’d done to individual animals, any more than they’d focus on the time a vet had killed a few insects on the way into work by splatting them in his car.

    The Jewish and Christian test situations don’t seem similar to the office worker stealing office supplies to me. That guy knows he’s not allowed to steal office supplies, but a dude who’s born on earth and found that later they were being judged by someone saying “Why didn’t you follow the Torah?” will just say “Huh? Why should I? I mean, I have heard of it, but I never thought I should follow it.” He couldn’t say that to the aliens because they’re using his own values to judge him.

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