Category Archives: Metaphysics

Information Immortality

Most people are familiar with the notion that energy cannot be destroyed. Interestingly, there is also a rule in quantum mechanics that forbids the destruction of information. This principle, called unitarity, is often illustrated by the example of burning a book: though the book is burned, the information still remain—

although it would obviously be much harder to “read” a burned book. This principle has, in recent years, run into some trouble with black holes and they might or might not be able to destroy information. My interest here is not with this specific dispute, but rather with the question of whether or not the indestructibility of information has any implications for immortality.

On the face of it, the indestructibility of information seems rather similar to the conservation of energy. Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I first heard the argument that because of the conservation of energy, personal immortality must be real (or at least possible). The basic line of reasoning was that a person is energy, energy cannot be destroyed, so a person will exist forever. While this has considerable appeal, the problem is obvious: while energy is conserved, it certainly need not be preserved in the same form. That is, even if a person is composed of energy it does not follow that the energy remains the same person (or even a person). David Hume was rather clear about the problem—an indestructible or immortal substance (or energy) does not entail the immortality of a person. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. However, the person would cease to be.

Prior to Hume, John Locke also noted the same sort of problem: even if, for example, you had the same soul (or energy) as Nestor, you would not be the same person as Nestor any more than you would be the same person as Nestor if, in an amazing coincidence, your body contained at this instant all the atoms that composed Nestor at a specific instant in time.

Hume and Locke certainly seem to be right about this—the indestructibility of the stuff that makes up a person (be it body or soul) does not entail the immortality of the person. If a person is eaten by a bear, the matter and energy that composed him will continue to exist—but the person did not survive being eaten by the bear. If there is a soul, the mere continuance of the soul would also not seem to suffice for the person to continue to exist as the same person (although this can obviously be argued). What would be needed would be the persistence of what makes up the person. This is usually taken to be something other than just stuff, be that stuff matter, energy, or ectoplasm. So, the conservation of energy does not seem to entail personal immortality—but the conservation of information might (or might not).

Put a bit crudely, Locke took this something other to be memory: personal identity extends backwards as far as the memory extends. Since people clearly forget things, Locke did accept the possibility of memory loss. Being consistent in this matter, he accepted that the permanent loss of memory would result in a corresponding failure of identity. Crudely put, if a person truly did not and could never remember doing something, then she was not the person who did it.

While there are many problems with the memory account of personal identity, it certainly suggests a path to quantum immortality through the conservation of information. One approach would be to argue that since information is conserved, the person is conserved even after the death and dissolution of the body. Just like the burned book whose information still exists, the person’s information would still exist.

One obvious reply to this is that a person is an active being and not just a collection of information. To use a rather rough analogy, a person could be seen as being like a computer program—to be is to be running. Or, to use a more artistic analogy, like a play: while the script would persist after the final curtain, the play itself is over. As such, while the person’s information would be conserved, the person would cease to be. This sort of “quantum immortality” is remarkably similar to Spinoza’s view of immortality. While he denied personal immortality, he claimed that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” Spinoza, of course, seemed to believe that this should comfort people. Perhaps some comfort should be taken in the fact that one’s information will be conserved (barring an unfortunate encounter with a black hole).

However, people would probably be more comforted by a reason to believe in an afterlife. Fortunately, the conservation of information does provide at least a shot at an afterlife. If information is conserved and all there is to a person can be conserved as information, then a person could presumably be reconstructed after his death. For example, imagine a person, Laz, who died by an accident and was buried. The remains could, in theory, be dug up and the information about the body could be recovered (to a point prior to death, of course). The body could, with suitably advanced technology, be reconstructed. The reconstructed brain could, in theory, have all the memories and such recovered and restored as well. This would be a technological resurrection in the flesh and the person would certainly seem to live again. Assuming that every piece of information was preserved, recovered and restored in the flesh it would be the person—just as if a moment had passed rather than, say, a thousand years. This would be, obviously, in theory. Actual resurrection technology would presumably involve various flaws and limitations. But, the idea seems sound enough.

One potential problem is an old one for philosophers—if a person could be reconstructed from such information, she could also be duplicated from such information. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like 3D printing from a data file, except what would be printed would be a person. Or, to use another analogy, it would be like reconstructing an old computer and reloading all the software. There would certainly not be any reason to wait until the person died, unless there was some sort of copyright or patent held by the person on herself that expired a certain time after her death.

In closing, I leave you with this: some day in the far future, you might find that you (or someone like you) have just been reprinted. In 3D, of course.

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Androids, Autonomy & Agency

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophers have long speculated about the subjects of autonomy and agency, but the rise of autonomous systems have made these speculations ever more important.  Keeping things fairly simple, an autonomous system is one that is capable of operating independent of direct control. Autonomy comes in degrees in terms of the extent of the independence and the complexity of the operations. It is, obviously, the capacity for independent operation that distinguishes autonomous systems from those controlled externally.

Simple toys provide basic examples of the distinction. A wind-up mouse toy has a degree of autonomy: once wound and released, it can operate on its own until it runs down. A puppet, in contrast, has no autonomy—a puppeteer must control it. Robots provide examples of rather more complex autonomous systems. Google’s driverless car is an example of a relatively advanced autonomous machine—once programmed and deployed, it will be able to drive itself to its destination. A normal car is an example of a non-autonomous system—the driver controls it directly. Some machines allow for both autonomous and non-autonomous operation. For example, there are drones that follow a program guiding them to a target and then an operator can take direct control.

Autonomy, at least in this context, is quite distinct from agency. Autonomy is the capacity to operate (in some degree) independently of direct control. Agency, at least in this context, is the capacity to be morally responsible for one’s actions. There is clearly a connection between autonomy and moral agency: moral agency requires autonomy. After all, an entity whose actions are completely controlled externally would not be responsible for what it was made to do. A puppet is, obviously, not accountable for what the puppeteer makes it do.

While autonomy seems necessary for agency, it is clearly not sufficient—while all agents have some autonomy, not all autonomous entities are moral agents. A wind-up toy has a degree of autonomy, but has no agency. A robot drone following a pre-programed flight-plan has a degree of autonomy, but would lack agency—if it collided with a plane it would not be morally responsible. The usual reason why such a machine would not be an agent is that it lacks the capacity to decide. Or, put another way, it lacks freedom.  Since it cannot do otherwise, it is no more morally accountable than an earthquake or a super nova.

One obvious problem with basing agency on freedom (especially metaphysical freedom of the will) is that there is considerable debate about whether or not such freedom exists. There is also the epistemic problem of how one would know if an entity has such freedom.

As a practical matter, it is usually assumed that people have the freedom needed to make them into agents. Kant, rather famously, took this approach. What he regarded as the best science of his day indicated a deterministic universe devoid of metaphysical freedom. However, he contended that such freedom was needed for morality—so it should be accepted for this reason.

While humans are willing (generally) to attribute freedom and agency to other humans, there seem to be good reasons to not attribute freedom and agency to autonomous machines—even those that might be as complex as (or even more complex than) a human. The usual line of reasoning is that since such machines would be built and programmed by humans they would do what they do because they are what they are. This would be in clear contrast to the agency of humans: humans, it is alleged, do what they do because they choose to do what they do.

This distinction between humans and suitably complex machines would seem to be a mere prejudice favoring organic machines over mechanical machines. If a human was in a convincing robot costume and credibly presented as a robot while acting like a normal human, people would be inclined to deny that “it” had freedom and agency. If a robot was made to look and act just like a human, people would be inclined to grant it agency—at least until they learned it was “just” a machine. Then there would probably be an inclination to regard it as a very clever but unfree machine.  But, of course, it would not really be known whether the human or the machine had the freedom alleged needed for agency. Fortunately, it is possible to have agency even without free will (but with a form of freedom).

The German philosopher Leibiniz held the view that what each person will do is pre-established by her inner nature. On the face of it, this would seem to entail that there is no freedom: each person does what she does because of what she is—and she cannot do otherwise. Interestingly, Leibniz takes the view that people are free. However, he does not accept the common view that freedom requires actions that are unpredictable and spontaneous. Leibniz rejects this view in favor of the position that freedom is unimpeded self-development.

For Leibniz, being metaphysically without freedom would involve being controlled from the outside—like a puppet controlled by a puppeteer or a vehicle being operated by remote control.  In contrast, freedom is acting from one’s values and character (what Leibniz and Taoists call “inner nature”). If a person is acting from this inner nature and not external coercion—that is, the actions are the result of character, then that is all that can be meant by freedom. This view, which attempts to blend determinism and freedom, is known as compatibilism. On this sort of view, humans do have agency because they have the needed degree of freedom and autonomy.

If this model works for humans, it could also be applied to autonomous machines. To the degree that a machine is operating in accord to its “inner nature” and is not operating under the control of outside factors, it would have agency.

An obvious objection is that an autonomous machine, however complex, would have been built and programmed (in the broad sense of the term) by humans. As such, it would be controlled and not free. The easy and obvious reply is that humans are “built” by other humans (by mating) and are “programmed” by humans via education and socialization. As such, if humans can be moral agents, then it would seem that a machine could also be a moral agent.

From a moral standpoint, I would suggest a Moral Descartes’ Test (or, for those who prefer, a Moral Turing Test). Descartes argued that the sure proof of a being having a mind is its capacity to use true language. Turning later proposed a similar sort of test involving the ability of a computer to pass as human via text communication. In the moral test, the test would be a judgment of moral agency—can the machine be as convincing as a human in regards to its possession of agency? Naturally, a suitable means of concealing the fact that the being is a machine would be needed in order to prevent mere prejudice from infecting the judgment. The movie Blade Runner featured something similar, the Voight-Kampff test aimed at determining if the subject was a replicant or human. This test was based on the differences between humans and replicants in regards to emotions. In the case of moral agency, the test would have to be crafted to determine agency rather than to distinguish a human from machine, since the issue is not whether a machine is human but whether it has agency. A moral agent might have rather different emotions, etc. than a human. The challenge is, obviously enough, developing a proper test for moral agency. It would, of course, be rather interesting if humans could not pass it.

 

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Free Will, Materialism & Dualism

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the Modern era, philosophers such as Descartes and Locke developed the notions of material substance and immaterial substance. Material substance, or matter, was primarily defined as being extended and spatially located. Descartes, and other thinkers, also took the view that material substance could not think. Immaterial substance was taken to lack extension and to not possess a spatial location. Most importantly, immaterial substance was regarded as having thought as its defining attribute.  While these philosophers are long dead, the influence of their concepts lives on in philosophy and science.

In philosophy, people still draw the classic distinction between dualists and materialists. A dualist holds that a living person consists of a material body and an immaterial mind. The materialist denies the existence of the immaterial mind and accepts only matter. There are also phenomenonalists who contend that all that exists is mental. Materialism of this sort is popular both in contemporary philosophy and science. Dualism is still popular with the general population in that many people believe in a non-material soul that is distinct from the body.

Because of the history of dualism, free will is often linked to the immaterial mind. As such, it is no surprise that people who reject the immaterial mind engage in the following reasoning: an immaterial mind is necessary for free will. There is no immaterial mind. So, there is no free will.

Looked at positively, materialists tend to regard their materialism as entailing a lack of free will. Thomas Hobbes, a materialist from the Modern era, accepted determinism as part of his materialism. Taking the materialist path, the argument against free will is that if the mind is material, then there is no free will. The mind is material, so there is no free will.

Interestingly enough, those who accepted the immaterial mind tended to believe that only an immaterial substance could think—so they inferred the existence of such a mind on the grounds that they thought. Materialists most often accept the mind, but cast it in physical terms. That is, people do think and feel, they just do not do so via the mysterious quivering of immaterial ectoplasm. Some materialists go so far as to reject the mind—perhaps ending up in behaviorism or eliminative materialism.

Julien La Metrie was one rather forward looking materialist.  In 1747 he published his work Man the Machine. In this work he claims that philosophers should be like engineers who analyze the mind. Unlike many of the thinkers of his time, he seemed to understand the implications of mechanism, namely that it seemed to entail determinism and reductionism. A few centuries later, this sort of view is rather popular in the sciences and philosophy: since materialism is true and humans are biological mechanisms, there is no free will and the mind can be reduced (explained entirely in terms of) its physical operations (or functions).

One interesting mistake that seems to drive this view is the often uncritical assumption that materialism entails the impossibility of free will. As noted above, this rests on the notion that free will requires an immaterial mind. This is, perhaps, because such a mind is said to be exempt from the laws that run the material universe.

One part of the mistake is a failure to realize that being incorporeal is not a sufficient condition for free will. One of Hume’s many interesting insights was that if immaterial substance exists, then it would be like material substance. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. If his reasoning holds, it would seem that if material substance is not free, then immaterial substance would also not be free. Leibniz, who believed that reality was entirely mental (composed of monads) accepted a form of determinism. This determinism, though it has some problems, seems entirely consistent with his immaterialism (that everything is mental). This should hardly be surprising, since being immaterial does not entail that something has free will—the two are rather distinct attributes.

Another part of the mistake is the uncritical assumption that materialism entails a lack of freedom. Naturally, if matter is defined as being deterministic and lacking in freedom, then materialism would (by begging the question) entail a lack of freedom. Likewise, if matter is defined (as many thinkers did) as being incapable of thought, then it would follow (by begging the question) that no material being could think. Just as it should not be assumed that matter cannot think, it should also not be assumed that a material being must lack free will. Looked at another way, it should not be assumed that being incorporeal is a necessary condition for free will.

What, obviously enough, seems to have driven the error is the conflation of the incorporeal with freedom and the material with determinism (or lack of freedom). Behind this is, also obviously enough, the assumption that the incorporeal is exempt from the laws that impose harsh determinism on matter. But, if it is accepted that a purely material being can think (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can think) it would seem to be acceptable to consider that such a being could also be free (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can be free).

 

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Could Black Panther be White?

Black Panther (comics)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is an established history of superhero characters having their ethnicity or gender changed, each specific episode tends to create a small uproar (and not just among the fanfolk). For example, Nick Fury was changed from white to black (with Samuel Jackson playing the character in the movies). As another example, a woman took on the role of Thor. I am using “ethnicity” here rather than “race” for the obvious reason that in comic book reality humans are one race, just as Kryptonians and Kree are races.

Some of the complaints about such changes are based in racism and sexism. While interesting from the standpoint of psychology and ethics, these complaints are not otherwise worthy of serious consideration. Instead I will focus on legitimate concerns about such change.

A good place to begin the discussion of these changes is to address concerns about continuity and adherence to the original source material. Just as, for example, giving Batman super powers would break continuity, making him into a Hispanic would also seem to break continuity. Just as Batman has no superpowers, he is also a white guy.

One obvious reply to this is that characters are changed over the years. To use an obvious example, when Superman first appeared in the comics he was faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings. However, he did not fly and did not have heat vision. Over the years writers added abilities and increased his powers until he became the Superman of today. Character background and origin stories are also changed fairly regularly. If these sort of changes are acceptable, then this opens the door to other changes—such as changes to the character’s ethnicity or gender.

One rather easy way to justify any change is to make use of the alternative world device. When D.C. was faced with the problem of “explaining” the first versions of Flash (who wore a Mercury/Hermes style helmet), Batman, Green Lantern (whose power was magic and vulnerability was wood) and Superman they hit on the idea of having Earth 1 and Earth 2. This soon became a standard device for creating more comics to sell, although it did have the effect of creating a bit of a mess for fans interested in keeping track of things. An infinite number of earths is a rather lot to keep track of.  Marvel also had its famous “What If” series which would allow for any changes in a legitimate manner.

While the use of parallel and possible worlds provides an easy out, there is still the matter of changing the gender or ethnicity of the “real” character (as opposed to just having an alternative version). One option is, of course, to not have any “real” character—every version (whether on TV, in the movies or in comics) is just as “real” and “official” as any other. While this solves the problem by fiat, there still seems to be a legitimate question about whether all these variations should be considered the same character. That is, whether a Hispanic female Flash is really the Flash.

In some cases, the matter is rather easy to handle. Some superheroes merely occupy roles, hold “super jobs” or happen to have some gear or item that makes them super. For example, anyone can be a Green Lantern (provided the person qualifies for the ring). While the original Green Lantern was a white guy, a Hispanic woman could join the corps and thus be a Green Lantern. As another example, being Iron Man could be seen as just a matter of wearing the armor. So, an Asian woman could wear Iron Man armor and be Iron…well, Iron Woman. As a final example, being Robin seems to be a role—different white boys have occupied that role, so there seems to be no real issue with having a female Robin (which has, in fact, been done) or a Robin who is not white.

In many cases a gender change would be pointless because female versions of the character already exist. For example, a female Superman would just be another Supergirl or Power Girl. As another example, a female Batman would just be Batwoman or Batgirl, superheroes who already exist. So, what remains are cases that are not so easy to handle.

While every character has an “original” gender and ethnicity (for example, Captain America started as a white male), it is not always the case that the original’s gender and ethnicity are essential to the character. That is, the character would still make sense and it would still be reasonable to regard the character as the same (only with a different ethnicity or gender).  This, of course, raises metaphysical concerns about essential qualities and identity. Put very simply, an essential quality is one that if an entity loses that quality, it ceases to be what it is. For example, having three sides is an essential quality for a triangle: if it ceases to be three sided, it ceases to be a triangle. Color and size are not essential qualities of triangles. A red triangle that is painted blue does not ceases to be a triangle.

In the case of superheroes, the key question here is one about which qualities are essential to being that hero and which ones can be changed while maintaining the identity of the character. One way to approach this is in terms of personal identity and to use models that philosophers use for real people. Another approach is to go with an approach that is more about aesthetics than metaphysics. That is, to base the essential qualities on aesthetic essentials—that is, qualities relevant to being the right sort of fictional character.

One plausible approach here is to consider whether or not a character’s ethnicity and gender are essential to the character—that is, for example, whether Captain America would still be Captain America if he were black or a woman.

One key aspect of it would be how these qualities would fit the origin story in terms of plausibility. Going with the Captain America example, Steve Rogers could have been black—black Americans served in WWII and it would even be plausible that experiments would be done on African-Americans (because they did for real). Making Captain America into a woman would be implausible—the sexism of the time would have ensured that a woman would not have been used in such an experiment and American women were not allowed to enlist in the combat infantry. As another example, the Flash could easily be cast as a woman or as having any ethnicity—there is nothing about the Flash’s origin that requires that the Flash be a white guy.

Some characters, however, have origin stories that would make it implausible for the character to have a different ethnicity or gender. For example, Wonder Woman would not work as a man (without making all the Amazons men and changing that entire background). She could, however, be cast as any ethnicity (since she is, in the original story, created from a statue).

Another key aspect would be the role of the character in terms of what he or she represents or stands for. For example, Black Panther’s origin story would seem to preclude him being any ethnicity other than black. His role would also seem to preclude that as well—a white Black Panther would, it would seem, simply not fit the role. Black Panther could, perhaps, be a woman—especially since being the Black Panther is a role. So, to answer the title question, Black Panther could not be white. Or, more accurately, should not be white.

As a closing point, it could be argued that all that really matters is whether the story is a good one or not. So, if a good story can be told casting Spider-Man as a black woman or Rogue as an Asian man, then that is all the justification that would be needed for the change. Of course, it would still be fair to ask if the story really is a Spider-Man story or not.

 

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Child of my Memories

It is July 16, 2214. I am at Popham Beach in what I still think of as Maine. I am standing in the sand, watching the waves strike the shore. Sand pipers run in the surf, looking for their lunch. I have a two-hundred year old memory of another visit to this beach. In that memory, the water is cold on the skin and there is a mild ache in the left knee—a relic of a quadriceps tendon repair. Today, however, there is no ache—what serves as my knee is a biomechanical system and is free of all aches and pains. I can, if I wish, feel the cold by adjusting my sensors systems. I do so, and what was once merely data about temperature becomes a feeling in what I still call my mind. I downgrade my vision to that of an organic human, then tweak it so it perfectly matches the imperfect eyesight of the memory. I do the same for my hearing and turn off my other sensors until I am, as far as I can tell, merely human. I walk into the water, enjoying the feeling of the cold. My companion asks me if I have ever been here before. I pause and consider this question. I have a memory from a man who was here in 2014. But I do not know if I am him or if I am but a child of his memories. But, it is a lovely day—too lovely for metaphysics. I say “yes, long ago”, and wait patiently for the setting of the sun.

In science fiction one of the proposed methods of achieving a form of immortality is the downloading of memories from an old body to a new one. This, of course, rests on the rather critical assumption that a person is her memories.

Philosophers, as should hardly be surprising, have long considered whether or not a person is her memories. John Locke took the position that a person is her consciousness and, in a nice science fiction move, considered the possibility that memories could be transferred from one soul to another. While Locke’s view does get a bit confusing (he distinguishes between person, body, soul and consciousness while not being entirely clear about how memory relates to consciousness), he certainly seems to take the view that a person is her memory. As far back as a person’s memory goes, she goes—and this brings along with it moral accountability. Being a Christian, Locke was rather concerned about judgment day and needed a mechanism of personal identity that did not depend on the sameness of body. Being an empiricist, he also needed a clearly empirical basis. Memory contained within a soul seemed to take care of both concerns nicely.

Interestingly, Locke anticipates the science fiction idea of memory transfer—he considers the problem that arises if memory makes personal identity and memory could be transferred or copied. His solution is what many would regard as a cheat: he claims that God, in His goodness, would not allow that sort of thing to happen. However, he does discuss cases in which one (specifically Nestor) loses all memory and thus ceases to be the same person, though the same soul might be present.

So, if Locke is right about memory being the basis of personal identity and wrong about God not allowing the copying of memory, then if my memories were transferred to another conscious system to compose its consciousness, then it would be me. So, in my opening story, if the being standing on the beach in 2214 had my memory from 2014, then we would be the same person and I would be 248 years old.

David Hume, another British empiricist, presented an obvious intuition problem for Locke’s account: intuitively, people believe that they can extend their identity beyond their memory. That is, I do not suppose that it was not me just because I forgot something. Rather, I suppose that it was me and that I merely forgot. Hume took the view that memory is used to discover personal identity—and then he went a bit nuts and declared the matter to be all about grammar rather than philosophy.

Another stock problem with the memory account is that if memory can be copied, it can presumably be copied multiple times. The problem is that what serves as the basis of personal identity is supposed to be what makes me, me and distinct from everyone else. If what is supposed to provide my distinct identity can be duplicated, then it cannot be the basis of my distinct identity. Locke, as noted above, “solves” this problem by divine intervention. However, without this there seems to be no reason why my memory of Popham Beach from 2014 could not be copied many times if it could be copied once. As such, the entity on the beach in 2214 might just have a copy of my memory, just as it might have a copy of the files stored on the phone I was carrying that day. The companion mentioned in the short tale might also have those same memories—but they both cannot be me.

The entity on the beach might even have an actual memory from me—a literal piece of my brain. However, this might not make it the same person as me. To use an analogy, it might also have my watch or my finger bone from 2014, but this would not make it me.

Interestingly (or boringly) enough, the science fiction scenario really does not change the basic problems of identity over time. The problems are determining what makes me the person I am and what makes me distinct from all other things—be that a scenario involving the Mike from 2013 or the entity on the beach in 2214. For that entity on the beach to be me, it would need to possess whatever it is that made me the person I was in 2014 (and, hopefully, am now) and what distinguished that Mike from all other things—that is, my personness and my distinctness.

Since we obviously do not know what these things are (or if they even are at all), there is really no way to say whether that entity in 2214 could really be me. It is safe, I think, to claim that if it is a copy of something from my memories, then it is not me—at best, it would be a child of my memory. It would, as philosophers have long argued, have the same sort of connection to Mike 2014 that Mike 2014 had to Mike 2013. It is also worth considering that as Hume and Buddha have claimed, that there really is no self—so that entity on the beach in 2214 is not me, but neither am I.

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A Teleological World

Creation of Adam ( )

One classic dispute in philosophy can be crudely summed up by two competing bumper-sticker slogans. One is “everything happens for a reason.” The other is “stuff happens.” The first slogan expresses a version of the teleological view—the idea that the world is driven by purpose. The second expresses the non-teleological view—the world is not driven by purpose. It might be a deterministic world or a random world, but what occurs just happens.

Not surprisingly, there are many different theories that fall under the teleological banner. The sort most people tend to think of involves a theological aspect—a divine being creates and perhaps directs the world. Creationism presents a “pop” version of teleology while Aquinas presents a rather more sophisticated account. However, there are versions that are non-theological. For example, Thales wrote of the world being “full of gods”, but did not seem to be speaking of divine entities. As another example, Aristotle believed in a teleological world in which everything has a purpose.

The rise of what is regarded as modern science during the renaissance and enlightenment saw a corresponding fall in teleological accounts, although thinkers such as Newton and Descartes fully embraced and defended theological teleology. In the sciences, the dominance of Darwinism seemed to spell the doom of teleology. Interestingly, though, certain forms of teleology seem to be sneaking back in.

One area of the world that seems clearly teleological is that occupied by living creatures. While some thinkers have the goal of denying such teleology, creatures like us seem to be theological. That is, we act from purposes in order to achieve goals. Even the least of living creatures, such as bacteria, are presented as having purposes—though this might be more metaphor than reality.

Rather interestingly, even plants seem to operate in purposeful ways and engage in what some scientists characterize as communication. Even more interesting, entire forests seem to be interlocked into communication networks and this seems to indicate something that would count as teleological. This sort of communication can, of course, be dismissed as mere mechanical and chemical processes. The same can also be said of us—and some have argued just that.

It is quite reasonable to be skeptical of claims that link the behavior of plants to claims about teleology. After all, the idea of forests in linked communication and plants acting with purpose seems like something out of fantasy, hippie dreams, or science fiction. That said, there is some solid research that supports the claim that plants communicate and engage in what seems to be purposeful behavior.

Even if it is conceded that living things are purpose driven and thus there is some teleology in the universe, there is still the matter of whether or not teleology is broader. While theists embrace the idea of a God created and directed world, those who are not believers reject this and contend that the appearance of design is just that—appearance and not reality.

One reason that teleology often gets rejected (sometimes with a disdainful sneer) is that it is usually presented in crude theological terms, such as young earth creationism. It is easy enough to laugh off a teleological view when those making it claim that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Also, there is a strong anti-religious tendency among some thinkers that causes an automatic dismissal of anything theological. Given that supernatural explanations do tend to be rather suspicious, this is hardly surprising. However, bashing such easy prey does not defeat the sophisticated forms of non-supernatural teleology.

The stock argument for teleology is, of course, that the best explanation for the consistent operation of the world and the apparent design of its components is in terms of purposes or ends. The main counter is, of course, that the consistency and apparent design can be explained entirely without reference to ends or purposes. To use the standard example, there is no need to postulate that living creatures are the result of a purpose or end because they are what they are because of chance and natural selection. When someone has the temerity to suggest that natural selection seems to smuggle in teleology, the usual reply is to deny that and to assure the critic that there is no teleology in it at all. Those who buy natural selection as being devoid of teleology accept this and often consider the critics to be misguided fools who are, no doubt, just trying to smuggle God back in. Those who think that natural selection still smuggles in teleology tend to think their opponents are in the grips of an ideology and unwilling to consider the matter properly.

Natural selection is also extended, in a way, beyond living creatures. When those who accept teleology point to the way the non-living universe works as evidence of purpose, the critics contend that the apparent purpose is an illusion. The planets and galaxies are as they are by chance (or determinism) and not from purpose. If they were not as they are, we would not be here to be considering the matter—so what seems like a purposeful universe is just a matter of luck (that is, chance).

It is, of course, tempting to extend the teleology of living creatures to the non-living parts of the universe. If it is accepted that we act with purpose and that even plants do so, then it becomes somewhat easier to consider that complicated non-living systems might also operate with a purpose, goal or end. Interestingly enough, being a materialist makes this transition even easier. After all, if humans, animals and plants are purely mechanical systems that operate with a purpose, then the idea that other purely mechanical systems operate with a purpose would make sense. This is not so say that stars are intelligent or that the universe is a being, of course.

There are those who deny that humans and animals operate with purpose and assert that we simply operate in accord with the laws of nature (whatever that means). Hobbes, for example, took this view. On this sort of view humans and the physical world are basically the same: purposeless mechanical systems. On this view, there is no teleology anywhere. Stuff just happens.

 

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Determinism, Order & Chaos


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As science and philosophy explained ever more of the natural world in the Modern Era, there arose the philosophical idea of strict determinism. Strict determinism, as often presented, includes both metaphysical and epistemic aspects. In regards to the metaphysics, it is the view that each event follows from previous events by necessity. In negative terms, it is a denial of both chance and free will. A religious variant on this is predestination, which is the notion that all events are planned and set by a supernatural agency (typically God). The epistemic aspect is grounded in the metaphysics: if each event follows from other events by necessity, if someone knew all the relevant facts about the state of a system at a time and had enough intellectual capabilities, she could correctly predict the future of that system. Philosophers and scientists who are metaphysical determinists typically claim that the world seems undetermined to us because of our epistemic failings. In short, we believe in choice or chance because we are unable to always predict what will occur. But, for the determinist, this is a matter of ignorance and not metaphysics. For those who believe in choice or chance, our inability to predict is taken as being the result of a universe in which choice or chance is real. That is, we cannot always predict because the metaphysical nature of the universe is such that it is unpredictable. Because of choice or chance, what follows from one event is not a matter of necessity.

One rather obvious problem for choosing between determinism and its alternatives is that given our limited epistemic abilities, a deterministic universe seems the same to us as a non-deterministic universe. If the universe is deterministic, our limited epistemic abilities mean that we often make predictions that turn out to be wrong. If the universe is not deterministic, our limited epistemic abilities and the non-deterministic nature of the universe mean that we often make predictions that are in error. As such, the fact that we make prediction errors is consistent with deterministic and non-deterministic universes.

It can be argued that as we get better and better at predicting we will be able to get a better picture of the nature of the universe. However, until we reach a state of omniscience we will not know whether our errors are purely epistemic (events are unpredictable because we are not perfect predictors) or are the result of metaphysics (that is, the events are unpredictable because of choice or chance).

Interestingly, one feature of reality that often leads thinkers to reject strict determinism is what could be called chaos. To use a concrete example, consider the motion of the planets in our solar system. In the past, the motion of the planets was presented as a sign of the order of the universe—a clockwork solar system in God’s clockwork universe. While the planets might seem to move like clockwork, Newton realized that the gravity of the planets affected each other but also realized that calculating the interactions was beyond his ability. In the face of problems in his physics, Newton famously used God to fill in the gaps. With the development of powerful computers, scientists have been able to model the movements of the planets and the generally accepted view is that they are not parts of deterministic divine clock. To be less poetical, the view is that chaos seems to be a factor. For example, some scientists believe that the gas giant Jupiter’s gravity might change Mercury’s gravity enough that it collides with Venus or Earth. This certainly suggests that the solar system is not an orderly clockwork machine of perfect order. Because of this sort of thing (which occurs at all levels in the world) some thinkers take the universe to include chaos and infer from the lack of perfect order that strict determinism is false. While this is certainly tempting, the inference is not as solid as some might think.

It is, of course, reasonable to infer that the universe lacks a strict and eternal order from such things as the chaotic behavior of the planets. However, strict determinism is not the same thing as strict order. Strict order is a metaphysical notion that a system will work in the same way, without any variation or change, for as long as it exists. The idea of an eternally ordered clockwork universe is an excellent example of this sort of system: it works like a perfect clock, each part relentlessly following its path without deviation. While a deterministic system would certainly be consistent with such an orderly system, determinism is not the same thing as strict order. After all, to accept determinism is to accept that each event follows by necessity from previous events. This is consistent with a system that changes over time and changes in ways that seem chaotic.

Returning to the example of the solar system, suppose that Jupiter’s gravity will cause Mercury’s orbit to change enough so that it hits the earth. This is entirely consistent with that event being necessarily determined by past events such that things could not have been different. To use an analogy, it is like a clockwork machine built with a defect that will inevitably break the machine. Things cannot be otherwise, yet to those ignorant of the defect, the machine will seem to fall into chaos. However, if one knew the defect and had the capacity to process the data, then this breakdown would be completely predictable. To use another analogy, it is like scripted performance of madness by an actor: it might seem chaotic, but the script determines it. That is, it merely seems chaotic because of our ignorance. As such, the appearance of chaos does not disprove strict determinism because determinism is not the same thing as unchanging.

 

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Acquired Savantism & Innate Ideas

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One classic philosophical dispute is the battle over innate ideas. An innate idea, as the name suggests, is an idea that is not acquired by experience but is “built into” the mind. As might be imagined, the specific nature and content of such ideas vary considerably among the philosophers who accept them. Leibniz, for example, takes God to be the author of the innate ideas that exist within the monads. Other thinkers, for example, accept that humans have an innate concept of beauty that is the product of evolution.

Over the centuries, philosophers have advanced various arguments for (and against) innate ideas. For example, some take Plato’s Meno as a rather early argument for innate ideas. In the Meno, Socrates claims to show that Meno’s servant knows geometry, despite the (alleged) fact that the servant never learned geometry. Other philosophers have argued that there must be innate ideas in order for the mind to “process” information coming in from the senses. To use a modern analogy, just as a smart phone needs software to make the camera function, the brain would need to have built in ideas in order to process the sensory data coming in via the optic nerve.

Other philosophers, such as John Locke, have been rather critical of the idea of innate ideas in general. Others have been critical of specific forms of innate ideas—the idea that God is the cause of innate ideas is, as might be suspected, not very popular among philosophers today.

Interestingly enough, there is some contemporary evidence for innate ideas. In his August 2014 Scientific American article “Accidental Genius”, Darold A. Treffert advances what can be seen as a 21st century version of the Meno. Investigating the matter of “accidental geniuses” (people who become savants as the result of an accident, such as a brain injury), researchers found that they could create “instant savants” by the use using brain stimulation. These instant savants were able to solve a mathematical puzzle that they could not solve without the stimulation. Treffert asserts that this ability to solve the puzzle was due to the fact that they “’know things’ innately they were never taught.” To provide additional support for his claim, Treffert gave the example of a savant sculptor, Clemons, who “had no formal training in art but knew instinctively how to produce an armature, the frame for the sculpture, to enable his pieces to show horse in motion.” Treffert goes on to explicitly reject the “blank slate” notion (which was made famous by John Locke) in favor of the notion that the “brain might come loaded with a set of innate predispositions for processing what it sees or for understanding the ‘rules’ of music art or mathematics.” While this explanation is certainly appealing, it is well worth considering alternative explanations.

One stock objection to this sort of argument is the same sort of argument used against claims about past life experiences. When it is claimed that a person had a past life on the basis that the person knows about things she would not normally know, the easy and obvious reply is that the person learned about these things through perfectly mundane means. In the case of alleged innate ideas, the easy and obvious reply is that the person gained the knowledge through experience. This is not to claim that the person in question is engaged in deception—she might not recall the experience that provided the knowledge. For example, the instant savants who solved the puzzle probably had previous puzzle experience and the sculptor might have seen armatures in the past.

Another objection is that an idea might appear to be innate but might actually be a new idea that did not originate directly from a specific experience. To use a concrete example, consider a person who developed a genius for sculpture after a head injury. The person might have an innate idea that allowed him to produce the armature. An alternative explanation is that the person faced the problem regarding his sculpture and developed a solution. The solution turned out to be an armature, because that is what would solve the problem. To use an analogy, someone faced with the problem of driving in a nail might make a hammer but this does not entail that the idea of a hammer is innate. Rather, a hammer like device is what would work in that situation and hence it is what a person would tend to make.

As has always been the case in the debate over innate ideas, the key question is whether the phenomena in question can be explained best by innate ideas or without them.

 

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The Worst Thing

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...

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It waits somewhere in the dark infinity of time. Perhaps the past. Perhaps the future. Perhaps now. The worst thing.

Whenever something bad happens to me, such as a full quadriceps tendon tear, people always helpfully remark that “it could have been worse.” Some years ago, after that tendon tear, I wrote an essay about this matter which focused on possibility and necessity. That is, whether it could be worse or not. While the tendon tear was perhaps the worst thing to happen to me (as of this writing), I did have some bad things happen this summer and got to hear how things could have been worse. Since it seemed like a fun game, I decided to play along: when lightning took out the pine tree in front of my house I said “why, it could have been worse” and then was hit with inspiration: what would be the worst thing? The thing that which nothing worse can be conceived.

I can say with complete confidence that there must be such a thing. After all, just as there must be a tallest building, there must be the worst thing. But, of course, this would not be much of an essay if I failed to argue for this claim.

Interestingly enough, arguing for the worst thing is rather similar to arguing for the existence of a perfect thing (that is, God). Thomas Aquinas famously made use of his Five Ways to argue for the existence of God and most of these arguments relied on a combination of an infinite regress and a reduction to absurdity. For example, Aquinas argued from the fact that things move to the need for an unmoved mover on the grounds that an infinite regress would arise if everything had to be moved by something else. A regress argument with a reduction to absurdity will serve quite nicely in arguing for the worst thing.

Take any thing. To avoid the usual boring philosophical approach of calling this thing X, I’ll call this thing Troy. If Troy is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists. If Troy is not the worst thing, then there must be another thing that is worse than Troy. That thing, which I will call Sally, is either the worst thing or not. If Sally is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists and is Sally. If it is not Sally, there must be something worse than Sally. This cannot go on to infinity so there must be a thing that is worse than all other things—the worst thing. I’ll call it Dave.

The obvious counter is to throw down the infinity gauntlet: if there is an infinite number of things, there will not be a worst thing. After all, for any thing, there will be an infinite number of other things. As Leibniz claimed, the infinite number cannot be said to be even or odd, therefor in an infinite universe a thing could not be said to be worst.

One might be inclined to reject the infinity gauntlet—after all, even if there is an infinite number of things, each thing would stand in a relation to all other things and there would thus still be a worst thing.

Another obvious counter is to assert that there could be two or more things that are equally bad—that is, identical in their badness. As such, there would not be a worst thing.  A counter to this is to follow Leibniz once again and argue that there could not be two identical things—they would need to differ in some way that would make one worse than the other. This could be countered by asserting that the two might be different, yet equally bad. In this case, the response would be to follow the model used in arguing for the best thing (God) and assert that the worst thing would be worst in every possible respect and hence anything equally as bad would be identical and thus there would be one worst thing, not two. I suppose that this would have some consolation value—it would certainly be a scary universe that had multiple worst things.

Of course, this just shows that there is something that is worse than all other things that happen to be—which leaves open the possibility that it is not the worst thing in another sense of the term. So now I will turn to arguing for the truly worst thing.

Another way to argue for the worst thing is to use the model of St. Anselm’s ontological argument. Very crudely put, the ontological argument works like this: God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. If God only existed as an idea in the mind, a greater being can be conceived, namely God existing for real. Thus, God must exist.

In the case of the worst thing, it would be that which nothing worse can be conceived. If it only existed as an idea in the mind, a worse thing can be conceived, namely the worst thing existing for real. Thus, the worst thing must exist.

Another variant on the ontological argument can also be used here. A stock variant is that since God is perfect, He must exist. This is because if He did not exist, He would not be perfect. But He is, so He must. In the case of the worst thing, the worst thing must exist because it is the worst. This is because if it did not exist, it would not be the worst. But it is, so it does. This worst thing would be the truly worst thing (just as God is supposed to be the best thing).

This approach does, of course, inherit the usual difficulties of an ontological argument as pointed out by Gaunilo and Kant (that existence is not a quality). It would certainly be better for the universe and the folks in it for the critics to be right so that there is no worst thing.

 

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Ethics & Free Will

Conscience and law

Conscience and law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs recently had their article, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will”, published in Scientific American. This article considers the causal impact of a disbelief in free will with a specific focus on law and ethics.

Philosophers have long addressed the general problem of free will as well as the specific connection between free will and ethics. Not surprisingly, studies conducted to determine the impact of disbelief in free will have the results that philosophers have long predicted.

One impact is that when people have doubts about free will they tend to have less support for retributive punishment. Retributive punishment, as the name indicates, is punishment aimed at making a person suffer for her misdeeds. Doubt in free will did not negatively impact a person’s support for punishment aimed at deterrence or rehabilitation.

While the authors do consider one reason for this, namely that those who doubt free will would regard wrongdoers as analogous to harmful natural phenomenon that need to dealt with rather than subject to vengeance, this view also matches a common view about moral accountability. To be specific, moral (and legal) accountability is generally proportional to the control a person has over events. To use a concrete example, consider the difference between these two cases. In the first case, Sally is driving well above the speed limit and is busy texting and sipping her latte. She doesn’t see the crossing guard frantically waving his sign and runs over the children in the cross walk. In case two, Jane is driving the speed limit and children suddenly run directly in front of her car. She brakes and swerves immediately, but she hits the children. Intuitively, Sally has acted in a way that was morally wrong—she should have been going the speed limit and she should have been paying attention. Jane, though she hit the children, did not act wrongly—she could not have avoided the children and hence is not morally responsible.

For those who doubt free will, every case is like Jane’s case: for the determinist, every action is determined and a person could not have chosen to do other than she did. On this view, while Jane’s accident seems unavoidable, so was Sally’s accident: Sally could not have done other than she did. As such, Sally is no more morally accountable than Jane. For someone who believes this, inflicting retributive punishment on Sally would be no more reasonable than seeking vengeance against Jane.

However, it would seem to make sense to punish Sally to deter others and to rehabilitate Sally so she will drive the speed limit and pay attention in the future. Of course, if these is no free will, then we would not chose to punish Sally, she would not chose to behave better and people would not decide to learn from her lesson. Events would happen as determined—she would be punished or not. She would do it again or not. Other people would do the same thing or not. Naturally enough, to speak of what we should decide to do in regards to punishments would seem to assume that we can chose—that is, that we have some degree of free will.

A second impact that Shariff and Vohs noted was that a person who doubts free will tends to behave worse than a person who does not have such a skeptical view. One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat. In general, the impact seems to be that the skepticism reduces a person’s willingness (or capacity) to resist impulsive reactions in favor of greater restraint and better behavior.

Once again, this certainly makes sense. Going back to the examples of Sally and Jane, Sally (unless she is a moral monster) would most likely feel remorse and guilt for hurting the children. Jane, though she would surely feel badly, would not feel moral guilt. This would certainly be reasonable: a person who hurts others should feel guilt if she could have done otherwise but should not feel moral guilt if she could not have done otherwise (although she certainly should feel sympathy). If someone doubts free will, then she will regard her own actions as being out of her control: she is not choosing to lie, or cheat or hurt others—these events are just happening. People might be hurt, but this is like a tree falling on them—it just happens. Interestingly, these studies show that people are consistent in applying the implications of their skepticism in regards to moral (and legal) accountability.

One rather important point is to consider what view we should have regarding free will. I take a practical view of this matter and believe in free will. As I see it, if I am right, then I am…right. If I am wrong, then I could not believe otherwise. So, choosing to believe I can choose is the rational choice: I am right or I am not at fault for being wrong.

I do agree with Kant that we cannot prove that we have free will. He believed that the best science of his day was deterministic and that the matter of free will was beyond our epistemic abilities. While science has marched on since Kant, free will is still unprovable. After all, deterministic, random and free-will universes would all seem the same to the people in them. Crudely put, there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will. There are, of course, observations that can indicate that we are not free in certain respects—but completely disproving (or proving) free will would seem to beyond our abilities—as Kant contended.

Kant had a fairly practical solution: he argued that although free will cannot be proven, it is necessary for ethics. So, crudely put, if we want to have ethics (which we do), then we need to accept the existence of free will on moral grounds. The experiments described by Shariff and Vohs seems to support Kant: when people doubt free will, this has an impact on their ethics.

One aspect of this can be seen as positive—determining the extent to which people are in control of their actions is an important part of determining what is and is not a just punishment. After all, we do not want to inflict retribution on people who could not have done otherwise or, at the very least, we would want relevant circumstances to temper retribution with proper justice.  It also makes more sense to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation more than retribution. However just, retribution merely adds more suffering to the world while deterrence and rehabilitation reduces it.

The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable. This then, provides an interesting and important challenge: balancing our view of determinism and freedom in order to avoid both unjust punishment and becoming unjust. This, of course, assumes that we have a choice. If we do not, we will just do what we do and giving advice is pointless. As I jokingly tell my students, a determinist giving advice about what we should do is like someone yelling advice to a person falling to certain death—he can yell all he wants about what to do, but it won’t matter.

 

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