Category Archives: Metaphysics

Discussing the Shape of Things (that might be) to Come

ThingstocomescifiOne stock criticism of philosophers is their uselessness: they address useless matters or address useful matters in a way that is useless. One interesting specific variation is to criticize a philosopher for philosophically discussing matters of what might be. For example, a philosopher might discuss the ethics of modifying animals to possess human levels of intelligence. As another example, a philosopher might present an essay on the problem of personal identity as it relates to cybernetic replacement of the human body. In general terms, these speculative flights can be dismissed as doubly useless: not only do they have the standard uselessness of philosophy, they also have the uselessness of talking about what is not and might never be. Since I have, at length and elsewhere, addressed the general charge of uselessness against philosophy, I will focus on this specific sort of criticism.

One version of this sort of criticism can be seen as practical: since the shape of what might be cannot be known, philosophical discussions involve a double speculation: the first speculation is about what might be and the second is the usual philosophical speculation. While the exact mathematics of the speculation (is it additive or exponential?) is uncertain, it can be argued that such speculation about speculation has little value—and this assumes that philosophy has value and speculation about the future has value (both of which can be doubted).

This sort of criticism is often used as the foundation for a second sort of criticism. This criticism does assume that philosophy has value and it is this assumption that also provides a foundation for the criticism. The basic idea is that philosophical speculation about what might be uses up resources that could be used to apply philosophy to existing problems. Naturally, someone who regards all philosophy as useless would regard philosophical discussion about what might be as being a waste of time—responding to this view would require a general defense of philosophy and this goes beyond the scope of this short essay. Now, to return to the matter at hand.

As an example, a discussion of the ethics of using autonomous, intelligent weapon systems in war could be criticized on the grounds that the discussion should have focused on the ethical problems regarding current warfare. After all, there is a multitude of unsolved moral problems in regards to existing warfare—there hardly seems any need to add more unsolved problems until either the existing problems are solved or the possible problems become actual problems.

This does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, if a person has not completed the work in the course she is taking now, it does not make sense for her to spend her time trying to complete the work that might be assigned four semesters from now. To use another analogy, if a person has a hole in her roof, it would not be reasonable to spend time speculating about what sort of force-field roof technology they might have in the future. This is, of course, the classic “don’t you have something better to do?” problem.

As might be suspected, this criticism rests on the principle that resources should be spent effectively and less effective uses of resources are subject to criticism. As the analogies given above show, using resources effectively is certainly reasonable and ineffective use can be justly criticized. However, there is an obvious concern with this principle: to be consistent in its application it would need to be applied across the board so that a person is applying all her resources with proper utility. For example, a person who prepares a fancy meal when she could be working on addressing the problems presented by poverty is wasting time. As another example, a person who is reading a book for enjoyment should be out addressing the threat posed by terrorist groups. As a third example, someone who is developing yet another likely-to-fail social media company should be spending her time addressing prison reform. And so on. In fact, for almost anything a person might be doing, there will be something better she could be doing.

As others have argued, this sort of maximization would be counterproductive: a person would exhaust herself and her resources, thus (ironically) doing more harm than good. As such, the “don’t you have something better to do?” criticism should be used with due care. That said, it can be a fair criticism if a person really does have something better to do and what she is doing instead is detrimental enough to warrant correction.

In the case of philosophical discussions about what might be, it can almost always be argued that while a person could be doing something better (such as addressing current problems), such speculation would generally be harm free. That is, it is rather unlikely that the person would have solved the problem of war, poverty or crime if only she had not been writing about ethics and cyborgs. Of course, this just defends such discussion in the same way one might defend any other harmless amusement, such as playing a game of Scrabble or watching a sunset. It would be preferable to have a somewhat better defense of such philosophical discussions of the shape of things (that might be) to come.

A reasonable defense of such discussions can be based on the plausible notion that it is better to address a problem before it occurs than after it arrives in force. To use the classic analogy, it is much easier to address a rolling snowball than the avalanche that it will cause.

In the case of speculative matters that have ethical aspects, it seems that it would be generally useful to already have moral discussions in place ahead of time. This would provide the practical advantage of already having a framework and context in which to discuss the matter when (or if) it becomes a reality. One excellent illustration of this is the driverless car—it certainly seems to be a good idea to work out the ethics of such matters of how the car should be programmed when it must “decide” what to hit and what to avoid when an accident is occurring. Another illustration is developing the moral guidelines for ever more sophisticated automated weapon systems.  Since these are being developed at a rapid pace, what were once theoretical problems will soon be actual moral problems. As a final example, consider the moral concerns governing modifying and augmenting humans using technology and genetic modification. It would seem to be a good idea to have some moral guidance going into this brave new world rather than scrambling with the ethics after the fact.

Philosophers also like to discuss what might be in other contexts than ethics. Not surprisingly, the realm of what might be is rich ground for discussions of metaphysics and epistemology. While these fields are often considered the most useless aspects of philosophy, they have rather practical implications that matter—even (or even especially) in regards to speculation about what might be.

To illustrate this, consider the research being conducted in repairing, augmenting and preserving the human mind (or brain, if one prefers). One classic problem in metaphysics is the problem of personal identity: what is it to be a person, what is it to be distinct from all other things, and what is it to be that person across time? While this might seem to be a purely theoretical concern, it quickly becomes a very practical concern when one is discussing the above mentioned technology. For example, consider a company that offers a special sort of life insurance: they claim they can back-up a person to a storage system and, upon the death of the original body, restore the back-up to a cloned (or robotic) body. While the question of whether that restored backup would be you or not is clearly a metaphysical question of personal identity, it is also a very practical question. After all, paying to ensure that you survive your bodily death is a rather different matter from paying so that someone who thinks they are you can go to your house and have sex with your spouse after you are dead.

There are, of course, numerous other examples that can be used to illustrate the value of such speculation of what might be—in fact, I have already written many of these in previous posts. In light of the above discussion, it seems reasonable to accept that philosophical discussions about what might be need not be a waste of time. In fact, such discussions can be useful in a practical sense.


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Hume & Kant

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

David Hume’s statements on ethics foreshadowed those of 20th century emotivists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following are videos covering the philosophy of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Hume Video #1

Hume Video #2

Hume Video #3: Skepticism regarding the senses.

Hume Video #4: This is the unedited video from the 4/14/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It covers Hume’s theory of personal identity, his ethical theory and some of his philosophy of religion.

Hume & Kant Video #5:  This is the unedited video for Modern Philosophy on 4/16/2015. It covers the end of Hume’s philosophy of religion and the start of the material on Kant.

Kant Video #1: This is the unedited video from the 4/21/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It covers Kant’s epistemology and his metaphysics, including phenomena vs. noumena.

Kant Video #2: This is the unedited video from my 4/23/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It wraps up Kant’s metaphysics and briefly covers his categorical imperative.

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Introduction to Philosophy

The following provides a (mostly) complete Introduction to Philosophy course.

Readings & Notes (PDF)

Class Videos (YouTube)

Part I Introduction

Class #1

Class #2: This is the unedited video for the 5/12/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the last branches of philosophy, two common misconceptions about philosophy, and argument basics.

Class #3: This is the unedited video for class three (5/13/2015) of Introduction to Philosophy. It covers analogical argument, argument by example, argument from authority and some historical background for Western philosophy.

Class #4: This is the unedited video for the 5/14/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the background for Socrates, covers the start of the Apology and includes most of the information about the paper.

Class#5: This is the unedited video of the 5/18/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the details of the paper, covers the end of the Apology and begins part II (Philosophy & Religion).

Part II Philosophy & Religion

Class #6: This is the unedited video for the 5/19/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the introduction to Part II (Philosophy & Religion), covers St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and some of the background for St. Thomas Aquinas.

Class #7: This is the unedited video from the 5/20/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Class #8: This is the unedited video for the eighth Introduction to Philosophy class (5/21/2015). It covers the end of Aquinas, Leibniz’ proofs for God’s existence and his replies to the problem of evil, and the introduction to David Hume.

Class #9: This is the unedited video from the ninth Introduction to Philosophy class on 5/26/2015. This class continues the discussion of David Hume’s philosophy of religion, including his work on the problem of evil. The class also covers the first 2/3 of his discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Class #10: This is the unedited video for the 5/27/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes Hume’s discussion of immortality, covers Kant’s critiques of the three arguments for God’s existence, explores Pascal’s Wager and starts Part III (Epistemology & Metaphysics). Best of all, I am wearing a purple shirt.

Part III Epistemology & Metaphysics

Class #11: This is the 11th Introduction to Philosophy class (5/28/2015). The course covers Plato’s theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, the Line and the Allegory of the Cave.

Class #12: This is the unedited video for the 12th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/1/2015). This class covers skepticism and the introduction to Descartes.

Class #13: This is the unedited video for the 13th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/2/2015). The class covers Descartes 1st Meditation, Foundationalism and Coherentism as well as the start to the Metaphysics section.

Class #14: This is the unedited video for the fourteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/3/2015). It covers the methodology of metaphysics and roughly the first half of Locke’s theory of personal identity.

Class #15: This is the unedited video of the fifteen Introduction to Philosophy class (6/4/2015). The class covers the 2nd half of Locke’s theory of personal identity, Hume’s theory of personal identity, Buddha’s no self doctrine and “Ghosts & Minds.”

Class #16: This is the unedited video for the 16th Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the problem of universals,  the metaphysics of time travel in “Meeting Yourself” and the start of the metaphysics of Taoism.

Part IV Value

Class #17: This is the unedited video for the seventeenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/9/2015). It begins part IV and covers the introduction to ethics and the start of utilitarianism.

Class #18: This is the unedited video for the eighteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/10/2015). It covers utilitarianism and some standard problems with the theory.

Class #19: This is the unedited video for the 19th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/11/2015). It covers Kant’s categorical imperative.

Class #20: This is the unedited video for the twentieth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/15/2015). This class covers the introduction to aesthetics and Wilde’s “The New Aesthetics.” The class also includes the start of political and social philosophy, with the introduction to liberty and fascism.

Class #21: No video.

Class #22: This is the unedited video for the 22nd Introduction to Philosophy class (6/17/2015). It covers Emma Goldman’s anarchism.

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Robot Love I: Other Minds

Thanks to improvements in medicine humans are living longer and can be kept alive well past the point at which they would naturally die. On the plus side, longer life is generally (but not always) good. On the downside, this longer lifespan and medical intervention mean that people will often need extensive care in their old age. This care can be a considerable burden on the caregivers. Not surprisingly, there has been an effort to develop a technological solution to this problem, specifically companion robots that serve as caregivers.

While the technology is currently fairly crude, there is clearly great potential here and there are numerous advantages to effective robot caregivers. The most obvious are that robot caregivers do not get tired, do not get depressed, do not get angry, and do not have any other responsibilities. As such, they can be ideal 24/7/365 caregivers. This makes them superior in many ways to human caregivers who get tired, get depressed, get angry and have many other responsibilities.

There are, of course, some concerns about the use of robot caregivers. Some relate to such matters as their safety and effectiveness while others focus on other concerns. In the case of caregiving robots that are intended to provide companionship and not just things like medical and housekeeping services, there are both practical and moral concerns.

In regards to companion robots, there are at least two practical concerns regarding the companion aspect. The first is whether or not a human will accept a robot as a companion. In general, the answer seems to be that most humans will do so.

The second is whether or not the software will be advanced enough to properly read a human’s emotions and behavior in order to generate a proper emotional response. This response might or might not include conversation—after all, many people find non-talking pets to be good companions. While a talking companion would, presumably, need to eventually be able to pass the Turing Test, they would also need to pass an emotion test—that is, read and respond correctly to human emotions. Since humans often botch this, there would be a fairly broad tolerable margin of error here. These practical concerns can be addressed technologically—it is simply a matter of software and hardware. Building a truly effective companion robot might require making them very much like living things—the comfort of companionship might be improved by such things as smell, warmth and texture. That is, to make the companion appeal to all the senses.

While the practical problems can be solved with the right technology, there are some moral concerns with the use of robot caregiver companions. Some relate to people handing off their moral duties to care for their family members, but these are not specific to robots. After all, a person can hand off the duties to another person and this would raise a similar issue.

In regards to those specific to a companion robot, there are moral concerns about the effectiveness of the care—that is, are the robots good enough that trusting the life of an elderly or sick human would be morally responsible? While that question is important, a rather intriguing moral concern is that the robot companions are a deceit.

Roughly put, the idea is that while a companion robot can simulate (fake) human emotions via cleverly written algorithms to respond to what its “emotion recognition software” detects, these response are not genuine. While a robot companion might say the right things at the right times, it does not feel and does not care. It merely engages in mechanical behavior in accord with its software. As such, a companion robot is a deceit and such a deceit seems to be morally wrong.

One obvious response is that people would realize that the robot does not really experience emotions, yet still gain value from its “fake” companionship. To use an analogy, people often find stuffed animals to be emotional reassuring even though they are well aware that the stuffed animal is just fabric stuffed with fluff. What matters, it could be argued, is the psychological effect—if someone feels better with a robotic companion around, then that is morally fine. Another obvious analogy is the placebo effect: medicine need not be real in order to be effective.

It might be objected that there is still an important moral concern here: a robot, however well it fakes being a companion, does not suffice to provide the companionship that a person is morally entitled to. Roughly put, people deserve people, even when a robot would behave in ways indistinguishable from a human.

One way to reply to this is to consider what it is about people that people deserve. One reasonable approach is to build on the idea that people have the capacity to actually feel the emotions that they display and that they actually understand. In philosophical terms, humans have (or are) minds and robots (of the sort that will be possible in the near future) do not have minds. They merely create the illusion of having a mind.

Interestingly enough, philosophers (and psychologists) have long dealt with the problem of other minds. The problem is an epistemic one: how does one know if another being has a mind (thoughts, feelings, beliefs and such)? Some thinkers (which is surely the wrong term given their view) claimed that there is no mind, just observable behavior. Very roughly put, being in pain is not a mental state, but a matter of expressed behavior (pain behavior). While such behaviorism has been largely abandoned, it does survive in a variety of jokes and crude references to showing people some “love behavior.”

The usual “solution” to the problem is to go with the obvious: I think that other people have minds by an argument from analogy. I am aware of my own mental states and my behavior and I engage in analogical reasoning to infer that those who act as I do have similar mental states. For example, I know how I react when I am in pain, so when I see similar behavior in others I infer that they are also in pain.

I cannot, unlike some politicians, feel the pain of others. I can merely make an inference from their observed behavior. Because of this, there is the problem of deception: a person can engage in many and various forms of deceit. For example, a person can fake being in pain or make a claim about love that is untrue. Piercing these deceptions can sometimes be very difficult since humans are often rather good at deceit. However, it is still (generally) believed that even a deceitful human is still thinking and feeling, albeit not in the way he wants people to believe he is thinking and feeling.

In contrast, a companion robot is not thinking or feeling what it is displaying in its behavior, because it does not think or feel. Or so it is believed. The reason that a person would think this seems reasonable: in the case of a robot, we can go in and look at the code and the hardware to see how it all works and we will not see any emotions or thought in there. The robot, however complicated, is just a material machine, incapable of thought or feeling.

Long before robots, there were thinkers who claimed that a human is a material entity and that a suitable understanding of the mechanical workings would reveal that emotions and thoughts are mechanical states of the nervous system. As science progressed, the explanations of the mechanisms became more complex, but the basic idea remained. Put in modern terms, the idea is that eventually we will be able to see the “code” that composes thoughts and emotions and understand the hardware it “runs” on.

Should this goal be achieved, it would seem that humans and suitably complex robots would be on par—both would engage in complex behavior because of their hardware and software. As such, there would be no grounds for claiming that such a robot is engaged in deceit or that humans are genuine. The difference would merely be that humans are organic machines and robots are not.

It can, and has, been argued that there is more to a human person than the material body—that there is a mind that cannot be instantiated in a mere machine. The challenge is a very old one: proving that there is such a thing as the mind. If this can be established and it can be shown that robots cannot have such a mind, then robot companions would always be a deceit.

However, they might still be a useful deceit—going back to the placebo analogy, it might not matter whether the robot really thinks or feels. It might suffice that the person thinks it does and this will yield all the benefits of having a human companion.


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Race Nominalism

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.


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Gender Nominalism & Competition

In the previous essay I discussed gender nominalism—the idea that gender is not a feature of reality, but a social (or individual) construct. As such, a person falling within a gender class is a matter of naming rather than a matter of having objective features. In this essay I will not argue for (or against) gender nominalism. Rather, I will be discussing gender nominalism within the context of competition.

Being a runner, I will start with competitive sports. As anyone who has run competitively knows, males and females generally compete within their own sexes. So, for example, a typical road race will (at least) have awards for the top three males and also for the top three females. While individual males and females vary greatly in their abilities, males have a general physical advantage over females when it comes to running: the best male runner is significantly better than the best female runner and average male runners are also better than average female runners.

Given that males generally have an advantage over females in regards to running (and many other physical sports), it would certainly be advantageous for a male runner if the division was based on gender (rather than biological sex) and people could simply declare their genders. That is, a male could declare himself a woman and thus be more likely to do better relative to the competition. While there are those who do accept that people have the right to gender declare at will and that others are obligated to accept this, it seems clear that this would not be morally acceptable in sports.

The intent of dividing athletes by sex is to allow for a fairer completion. This same principle, that of fairer competition, is also used to justify age groups—as older runner knows, few things slow a person down like dragging many years.  Because of this, a runner could, in general, gain an advantage by making a declaration of age identity (typically older). Perhaps the person could claim that he has always been old on the inside and that to refuse to accept his age identification would be oppression. However, this would be absurd: declaring an age does not change the person’s ability to compete and would thus grant an unfair advantage. Likewise, allowing a male to compete as a woman (or girl) in virtue of gender identification would be unfair. The declaration would not, obviously, change the person’s anatomy and physiology.

There are, however, cases that are much more controversial and challenging. These include cases in which a person has undergone a change in anatomy. While these cases are important, they go beyond the intended scope of this essay, which is gender nominalism.

Some competitions do not divide the competitors by sex. These are typically competitions where the physical differences between males and females do not impact the outcome. Some examples include debate, chess, spelling bees and NASCAR. In these cases, males and females compete equally and hence the principle of fairness justifies the lack of sex divisions. Some of these competitions do have other divisions. For example, spelling bees do not normally pit elementary school students against high school students. In such competitions, gender identification would seem to be irrelevant. As such, competitors should be free to gender identify as they wish within the context of the competition.

Interestingly, there are competitions where there appear to be no sex-based advantages (in terms of physical abilities), yet there are gender divisions. There are competitions in literature, music, and acting that are divided by gender (and some are open only to one gender). There are also scholarships, fellowships and other academic awards that are open only to one gender (in the United States, these are often limited to woman).

Since being a biological male would seem to yield no advantage in such cases, the principle of fairness would not seem to apply. For example, the fact that males are generally larger and stronger would yield no advantage when it came to writing a novel, acting in a play, or playing a guitar. As such, it would seem that if people should be able to set their own gender identity, they should be able to do so for such competitions, thus enabling them to compete where they wish.

It could be argued that the principle of fairness would still apply—that biological males would still have an advantage even if they elected to identify as women for the competition. This advantage, it might be claimed, would be based in the socially constructed advantages that males possess. Naturally, it would need to be shown that a male that gender identifies as a woman for such competitions, such as getting a woman’s only scholarship, would still retain the (alleged) male advantage.

It could also be argued that the divisions are not based on a principle of fairness regarding advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the divisions are to given more people a chance of winning. This could be justified on the same grounds that justify having many categories. For example, there are awards for being the best actor in a supporting role, which exists to create another chance for an actor to win something. If a person could just gender declare and be eligible, then that would create an “imbalance”, much as allowing non-supporting actors to declare themselves supporting actors to get a shot at that award would be unfair.

Of course, this seems to assume that there is a justified distinction between the genders that would ground the claims of unfairness. That is, it would be as wrong for a male to win best actress as it would be for a female screenwriter who never acted to win best actress for her screenplay.  Or that it would be as bad for a male to get a scholarship intended for a woman as it would be for a football player who cannot do math to get a math scholarship. This approach, which would involve rejecting one form of gender nominalism (the version in which the individual gets to declare gender) is certainly an option. This would not, however, require accepting that gender is not a social construct—one could still be a gender nominalist of the sort that believes that gender classification is both a matter of individual declaration and acceptance by the “relevant community.” As such, the relevant communities could police their competitions. For example, those who dole out scholarships for woman can define what it is to be a woman, so as to prevent non-woman from getting those awards. This would, of course, seem to justify similar gender policing by society as a whole, which leads to some interesting problems about who gets to define gender identity. The usual answer people give is, of course, themselves.


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Gender Nominalism

Thanks to Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair, the issue of gender identity has become a mainstream topic. While I will not address the specific subject of Caitlyn Jenner, I will discuss the matter of gender nominalism and competition. This will, however, require some small amount of groundwork.

One of the classic problems in philosophy is the problem of universals. Put a bit roughly, the problem is determining in virtue of what (if anything) a particular a is of the type F. To use a concrete example, the question would be “in virtue of what is Morris a cat?” Philosophers tend to split into two main camps when answering this question. One camp, the nominalists, embrace nominalism. Put a bit simply, this is the view that what makes a particular a an F is that we name it an F. For example, what makes Morris a cat is that we call (or name) him a cat.

The other camp, the realists, take the view that there is a metaphysical reality underlying a being of the type F. Put another way, it is not just a matter of naming or calling something an F that makes it an F. In terms of what makes a be of the type F, different realist philosophers give different answers. Plato famously claimed that it is the Form of F that makes individual F things F. Or, to use an example, it is the Form of Beauty that makes all the beautiful things beautiful. And, presumably, the Form of ugly that makes the ugly things ugly. Others, such as myself, accept these odd things called tropes (not to be confused with the tropes of film and literature) that serve a similar function.

While realists believe in the reality of some categories, they generally accept that there are some categories that are not grounded in features of objective reality. As such, most realists do accept that the nominalists are right about some categories. To use an easy example, being a Democrat (or Republican) is not grounded in metaphysics, but is a social construct—the political party is made up and membership is a matter of social convention rather than metaphysical reality. Or, put another way, there is presumably no Form of Democrat (or Republican).

When it comes to sorting out sex and gender, the matter is rather complicated and involves (or can involve) four or more factors.  One is the anatomy (plumbing) of the person, which might (or might not) correspond to the second, which is the genetic makeup of the person (XX, XY, XYY, etc.). The third factor is the person’s own claimed gender identity which might (or might not) correspond to the fourth, which is the gender identity assigned by other people.

While anatomy and physiology are adjustable (via chemicals and surgery), they are objective features of reality—while a person can choose to alter her anatomy, merely changing how one designates one’s sex does not change the physical features. While a complete genetic conversion (XX to XY or vice versa) is not yet possible, it is probably just a matter of time. However, even when genetics can be changed on demand, a person’s genetic makeup is still an objective feature of reality—a person cannot (yet) change his genes merely by claiming a change in designation.

Gender is, perhaps, quite another matter. Like many people, I used to use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably—I still recall (running) race entry forms using one or the other and everyone seemed to know what was meant. However, while I eventually learned that the two are not the same—a person might have one biological sex and a different gender. While familiar with the science fiction idea of a multitude of genders, I eventually became aware that this was now a thing in the actual world.

Obviously, if gender is taken as the same as sex (which is set by anatomy or genetics), then gender would be an objective feature of reality and not subject to change merely by a change in labeling (or naming). However, gender has been largely (or even entirely) split from biological sex (anatomy or genetics) and is typically cast in terms of being a social construct. This view can be labeled as “gender nominalism.” By this I mean that gender is not an objective feature of reality, like anatomy, but a matter of naming, like being a Republican or Democrat.

Some thinkers have cast gender as being constructed by society as a whole, while others contend that individuals have lesser or greater ability to construct their own gender identities. People can place whatever gender label they wish upon themselves, but there is still the question of the role of others in that gender identity. The question is, then, to what degree can individuals construct their own gender identities? There is also the moral question about whether or not others are morally required to accept such gender self-identification. These matters are part of the broader challenge of identity in terms of who defines one’s identity (and what aspects) and to what degree are people morally obligated to accept these assignments (or declarations of identity).

My own view is to go with the obvious: people are free to self-declare whatever gender they wish, just as they are free to make any other claim of identity that is a social construct (which is a polite term for “made up”). So, a person could declare that he is a straight, Republican, Rotarian, fundamentalist, Christian, man. Another person could declare that she is a lesbian, Republican, Masonite, Jewish woman. And so on. But, of course, there is the matter of getting others to recognize that identity. For example, if a person identifies as a Republican, yet believes in climate change, argues for abortion rights, endorses same-sex marriage, supports Obama, favors tax increases, supports education spending, endorse the minimum wage, and is pro-environment, then other Republicans could rightly question the person’s Republican identity and claim that that person is a RINO (Republican in Name Only). As another example, a biological male could declare identity as a woman, yet still dress like a man, act like a man, date women, and exhibit no behavior that is associated with being a woman. In this case, other women might (rightly?) accuse her of being a WINO (Woman in Name Only).

In cases in which self-identification has no meaningful consequences for other people, it certainly makes sense for people to freely self-identify. In such cases, claiming to be F makes the person F, and what other people believe should have no impact on that person being F. That said, people might still dispute a person’s claim. For example, if someone self-identifies as a Trekkie, yet knows little about Star Trek, others might point out that this self-identification is in error. However, since this has no meaningful consequences, the person has every right to insist on being a Trekkie, though doing so might suggest that he is about as smart as a tribble.

In cases in which self-identification does have meaningful consequences for others, then there would seem to be moral grounds (based on the principle of harm) to allow restrictions on such self-identification. For example, if a relatively fast male runner wanted to self-identify as a woman so “she” could qualify for the Olympics, then it would seem reasonable to prevent that from happening. After all, “she” would bump a qualified (actual) woman off the team, which would be wrong. Because of the potential for such harms, it would be absurd to accept that everyone is obligated to accept the self-identification of others.

The flip side of this is that others should not have an automatic right to deny the self-identification of others. As a general rule, the principle of harm would seem to apply here as well—the others would have the right to impose in cases in which there is actual harm and the person would have the right to refuse the forced identity of others when doing so would inflict wrongful harm. The practical challenge is, clearly enough, working out the ethics of specific cases.


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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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