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The Lion, the HitchBOT and the Fetus

After Cecil the Lion was shot, the internet erupted in righteous fury against the killer. Not everyone was part of this eruption and some folks argued against feeling bad for Cecil—some accusing the mourners of being phonies and pointing out that lions kill people. What really caught my attention, however, was the use of a common tactic—to “refute” those condemning the killing of Cecil by asserting that these “lion lovers” do not get equally upset about the fetuses killed in abortions.

When HitchBOT was destroyed, a similar sort of response was made—in fact, when I have written about ethics and robots (or robot-like things) I have been subject to criticism on the same grounds: it is claimed that I value robots more than fetuses and presumably I have thus made some sort of error in my arguments about robots.

Since I find this tactic interesting and have been its target, I thought it would be worth my while to examine it in a reasonable and (hopefully) fair way.

One way to look at this approach is to take it as the use of the Consistent Application method, which is as follows. A moral principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that those that moral equals must be treated as such. It also requires that those that are not morally equal be treated differently.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

The method of Consistent Application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations that are not relevantly different. This allows one to conclude that the application is inconsistent, which is generally regarded as a problem. The general form is as follows:

Step 1: Show that a principle/standard has been applied differently in situations that are not adequately different.

Step 2: Conclude that the principle has been applied inconsistently.

Step 3 (Optional): Require that the principle be applied consistently.

Applying this method often requires determining the principle the person/group is using. Unfortunately, people are not often clear in regards to what principle they are actually using. In general, people tend to just make moral assertions and leave it to others to guess what their principles might be. In some cases, it is likely that people are not even aware of the principles they are appealing to when making moral claims.

Turning now to the cases of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus consistent application could be applied as follows:

Step 1: Those who are outraged at the killing of the lion are using the principle that the killing of living things is wrong. Those outraged at the destruction of HitchBOT are using the principle that helpless things should not be destroyed. These people are not outraged by abortions in general and the Planned Parenthood abortions in particular.

Step 2: The lion and HitchBOT mourners are not being consistent in their application of the principle since fetuses are helpless (like HitchBOT) and living things (like Cecil the lion).

Step 3 (Optional): Those mourning for Cecil and HitchBOT should mourn for the fetuses and oppose abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.

This sort of use of Consistent Application is quite appealing and I routinely use the method myself. For example, I have argued (in a reverse of this situation) that people who are anti-abortion should also be anti-hunting and that people who are fine with hunting should also be morally okay with abortion.

As with any method of arguing, there are counter methods. In the case of this method, there are three general reasonable responses. The first is to admit the inconsistency and stop applying the principle in an inconsistent manner. This obviously does not defend against the charge but can be an honest reply. People, as might be imagined, rarely take this option.

A second way to reply and one that is an actual defense is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent. The primary way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. For example, someone who wants to be morally opposed to the shooting of Cecil while being morally tolerant of abortions could argue that the adult lion has a moral status different from the fetus—one common approach is to note the relation of the fetus to the woman and how a lion is an independent entity. The challenge lies in making a case for the relevance of the difference.

A third way to reply is to reject the attributed principle. In the situation at hand, the assumption is that a person is against killing the lion simply because it is alive. However, that might not be the principle the person is, in fact, using. His principle might be based on the suffering of a conscious being and not on mere life. In this case, the person would be consistent in his application.

Naturally enough, the “new” principle is still subject to evaluation. For example, it could be argued the suffering principle is wrong and that the life principle should be accepted instead. In any case, this method is not an automatic “win.”

An alternative interpretation of this tactic is to regard it as an ad homimen: An ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
  3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

In the case of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus, the reasoning can be seen as follows:

  1. Person A claims that killing Cecil was wrong or that destroying HitchBOT was wrong.
  2. Person B notes that A does not condemn abortions in general or Planned Parenthood’s abortions in particular.
  3. Therefore A is wrong about Cecil or HitchBOT.

Obviously enough, a person’s view of abortion does not prove or disprove her view about the ethics of the killing of Cecil or HitchBOT (although a person can, of course, be engaged in inconsistency or other errors—but these are rather different matters).

A third alternative is that the remarks are not meant as an argument, either the reasonable application of a Consistent Application criticism or the unreasonable attack of an ad homimen. In this case, the point is to assert that the lion lovers and bot buddies are awful people or, at best, misguided.

The gist of the tactic is, presumably, to make these people seem bad by presenting a contrast: these lion lovers and bot buddies are broken up about lions and trashcans, but do not care about fetuses—what awful people they are.

One clear point of concern is that moral concern is not a zero-sum game. That is, regarding the killing of Cecil as wrong and being upset about it does not entail that a person thus cares less (or not at all) about fetuses. After all, people do not just get a few “moral tokens” to place such that being concerned about one misdeed entails they must be unable to be concerned about another. Put directly, a person can condemn the killing of Cecil and also condemn abortion.

The obvious response is that there are people who are known to condemn the killing of Cecil or the destruction of HitchBOT and also known to be pro-choice. These people, it can be claimed, are morally awful. The equally obvious counter is that while it is easy to claim such people are morally awful, the challenge lies in showing that they are actually awful. That is, that their position on abortion is morally wrong. Noting that they are against lion killing or bot bashing and pro-choice does not show they are in error—although, as noted above, they could be challenged on the grounds of consistency. But this requires laying out an argument rather than merely juxtaposing their views on these issues. This version of the tactic simply amounts to asserting or implying that there is something wrong with the person because one disagree with that person. But a person thinking that hunting lions or bashing bots is okay and that abortion is wrong, does not prove that the opposing view is in error. It just states the disagreement.

Since the principle of charity requires reconstructing and interpreting arguments in the best possible way, I endeavor to cast this sort of criticism as a Consistent Application attack rather than the other two. This approach is respectful and, most importantly, helps avoid creating a straw man of the opposition.

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The Parable of the Thermostat

“So, an argument is sound when it is valid and actually has all true premises. Any of that stuff about deduction need any clarification or are there any questions or stuff?”

“Professor, it is too warm in the room. Can you turn up the AC?”

“I cannot. But, this will probably be the most important lesson you get in this class: see the thermostat there?”

“Um, yeah.”

“It isn’t a thermostat. It is just an empty plastic shell screwed to the wall.”

“No way.”

“Way. Here, I’ll show you….see, just an empty shell.”

“But why? Why would they do that to us?”

“It is so people feel they have some control. What we have here is what some folks like to call a ‘teaching moment.’ So, wipe that sweat from your eyes because we are about to have a moment: life is like this empty shell. We think we are in control, but we are just fiddling.


I was a very curious kid, in that I asked (too) many questions and went so far as taking apart almost anything that 1) could be taken apart and 2) was unguarded. This curiosity led me to graduate school and then to the classroom where the above described thermostat incident occurred. It also provided me with the knowledge that the thermostats in most college buildings are just empty shells intended to provide people with the illusion of control. Apparently, fiddling with the thermostat does have a placebo effect on some folks—by changing the setting they “feel” that they become warmer or cooler, as the case might be. I was not fooled by the placebo effect—which led to the first time I took a fake thermostat apart. After learning that little secret, I got into the habit of checking the thermostats in college buildings and found, not surprisingly, that they were almost always fakes.

When I first revealed the secret to the class, most students were surprised. Students today seem much more familiar with this—when a room is too hot or too cold, they know that the thermostat does nothing, so they usually just go to the dean’s office to complain. However, back in those ancient days, it did make for a real teaching moment.

Right away, the fake thermostat teaches a valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: an exterior might hide an unexpected interior, so it is wise to look beyond the surface. This applies not only to devices like thermostats, but also to ideas and people. This lesson is especially appropriate for philosophy, which is usually involved at getting beneath the realm of appearance to the truth of the matter. Plato, with his discussion of the lovers of sights and sounds, made a similar sort of point long ago.

A somewhat deeper lesson is not directly about the thermostat, but about people. Specifically about the sort of people who would think to have fake thermostats installed. On the one hand, these people might be regarded as benign or at least not malign. Faced with the challenge of maintaining a general temperature for everyone, yet also aware that people will be upset if they do not feel empowered, they solved these problems with the placebo thermostat. Thus, people cannot really mess with the temperature, yet they feel better for thinking they have some control. This can be regarded as some small evidence that people are sort-of-nice.

On the other hand, the installation of the fake thermostats can be regarded as something of an insult. This is because those who have them installed presumably assume that most people are incapable of figuring out that they are inefficacious shells and that most people will be mollified by the placebo effect. This can be taken as some small evidence that the folks in charge are patronizing and have a rather low opinion of the masses.

Since the thermostat is supposed to serve role in a parable, there is also an even deeper lesson that is not about thermostats specifically. Rather, it is about the matter of control and power. The empty thermostat is an obvious metaphor for any system that serves to make people feel that they have influence and control, when they actually do not.

In the more cynical and pro-anarchy days of my troubled youth, I took the thermostat as a splendid metaphor for voting: casting a vote gives a person the feeling that she has some degree of control, yet it is but the illusion of control. It is like trying to change the temperature with the thermostat shell. Thoreau made a somewhat similar point when he noted that “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

While I am less cynical and anarchistic now, I still like the metaphor. For most citizens, the political machinery they can access is like the empty thermostat shell: they can fiddle with the fake controls and think it has some effect, but the real controls are in the hands of the folks who are really running things. That the voters rarely get what they want seems to have been rather clearly shown by recent research into the workings of the American political system. While people fiddle with the levers of the voting machines, the real decisions seem to be made by the oligarchs.

The metaphor is not perfect: with the fake thermostat, the actions of those fiddling with it has no effect at all on the temperature (except for whatever heat their efforts might generate). In the case of politics, the masses do have some slight chance of influence, albeit a very low chance. Some more cynical than I might respond by noting that if the voters get what they want, it is just a matter of coincidence. Going with the thermostat analogy, a person fiddling with the empty shell might find that her fiddling matches a change caused by the real controls—so her “success” is a matter of lucky coincidence.

In any case, the thermostat shell makes an excellent metaphor for many things and teaches that one should always consider what lies beneath the surface, especially when trying to determine if one really has some control or not.


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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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If you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways.



I never make the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of mistakes. So, I keep making new ones. Fortunately, philosophy is rather helpful in minimizing the impact of mistakes and learning that crucial aspect of wisdom: not committing the same error over and over.

One key aspect to avoiding the repetition of errors is skill in critical thinking. While critical thinking has become something of a buzz-word bloated fad, the core of it remains as important as ever. The core is, of course, the methods of rationally deciding whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected as false or if judgment regarding that claim should be suspended. Learning the basic mechanisms of critical thinking (which include argument assessment, fallacy recognition, credibility evaluation, and causal reasoning) is relatively easy—reading through the readily available quality texts on such matters will provide the basic tools. But, as with carpentry or plumbing, merely having a well-stocked tool kit is not enough. A person must also have the knowledge of when to use a tool and the skill with which to use it properly. Gaining knowledge and skill is usually difficult and, at the very least, takes time and practice. This is why people who merely grind through a class on critical thinking or flip through a book on fallacies do not suddenly become good at thinking. After all, no one would expect a person to become a skilled carpenter merely by reading a DIY book or watching a few hours of videos on YouTube.

Another key factor in avoiding the repetition of mistakes is the ability to admit that one has made a mistake. There are many “pragmatic” reasons to avoid admitting mistakes. Public admission to a mistake can result in liability, criticism, damage to one’s reputation and other such harms. While we have sayings that promise praise for those who admit error, the usual practice is to punish such admissions—and people are often quick to learn from such punishments. While admitting the error only to yourself will avoid the public consequences, people are often reluctant to do this. After all, such an admission can damage a person’s pride and self-image. Denying error and blaming others is usually easier on the ego.

The obvious problem with refusing to admit to errors is that this will tend to keep a person from learning from her mistakes. If a person recognizes an error, she can try to figure out why she made that mistake and consider ways to avoid making the same sort of error in the future. While new errors are inevitable, repeating the same errors over and over due to a willful ignorance is either stupidity or madness. There is also the ethical aspect of the matter—being accountable for one’s actions is a key part of being a moral agent. Saying “mistakes were made” is a denial of agency—to cast oneself as an object swept along by the river of fare rather than an agent rowing upon the river of life.

In many cases, a person cannot avoid the consequences of his mistakes. Those that strike, perhaps literally, like a pile of bricks, are difficult to ignore. Feeling the impact of these errors, a person might be forced to learn—or be brought to ruin. The classic example is the hot stove—a person learns from one touch because the lesson is so clear and painful. However, more complicated matters, such as a failed relationship, allow a person room to deny his errors.

If the negative consequences of his mistakes fall entirely on others and he is never called to task for these mistakes, a person can keep on making the same mistakes over and over. After all, he does not even get the teaching sting of pain trying to drive the lesson home. One good example of this is the political pundit—pundits can be endlessly wrong and still keep on expressing their “expert” opinions in the media. Another good example of this is in politics. Some of the people who brought us the Iraq war are part of Jeb Bush’s presidential team. Jeb, infamously, recently said that he would have gone to war in Iraq even knowing what he knows now. While he endeavored to awkwardly walk that back, it might be suspected that his initial answer was the honest one. Political parties can also embrace “solutions” that have never worked and relentless apply them whenever they get into power—other people suffer the consequences while the politicians generally do not directly reap consequences from bad policies. They do, however, routinely get in trouble for mistakes in their personal lives (such as affairs) that have no real consequences outside of this private sphere.

While admitting to an error is an important first step, it is not the end of the process. After all, merely admitting I made a mistake will not do much to help me avoid that mistake in the future. What is needed is an honest examination of the mistake—why and how it occurred. This needs to be followed by an honest consideration of what can be changed to avoid that mistake in the future. For example, a person might realize that his relationships ended badly because he made the mistake of rushing into a relationship too quickly—getting seriously involved without actually developing a real friendship.

To steal from Aristotle, merely knowing the cause of the error and how to avoid it in the future is not enough. A person must have the will and ability to act on that knowledge and this requires the development of character. Fortunately, Aristotle presented a clear guide to developing such character in his Nicomachean Ethics. Put rather simply, a person must do what it is she wishes to be and stick with this until it becomes a matter of habit (and thus character). That is, a person must, as Aristotle argued, become a philosopher. Or be ruled by another who can compel correct behavior, such as the state.


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Philosophy, Running, Gaming & the Quantified Self

“The unquantified life is not worth living.”

While the idea of quantifying one’s life is an old idea, one growing tech trend is the use of devices and apps to quantify the self. As a runner, I started quantifying my running life back in 1987—that is when I started keeping a daily running log. Back then, the smartest wearable was probably a Casio calculator watch, so I kept all my records on paper. In fact, I still do—as a matter of tradition.

I use my running log to track my distance, running route, time, conditions, how I felt during the run, the number of time I have run in the shoes and other data I feel like noting at the time. I also keep a race log and a log of my yearly mileage. So, like Ben Franklin, I was quantifying before it became cool. Like Ben, I have found this rather useful—looking at my records allows me to form hypotheses regarding what factors contribute to injury (high mileage, hill work and lots of racing) and what results in better race times (rest and speed work). As such, I am sold on the value of quantification—at least in running.

In addition to my ORD (Obsessive Running/Racing Disorder) I am also a nerdcore gamer—I started with the original D&D basic set and still have shelves (and now hard drive space) devoted to games. In the sort of games I play the most, such as Pathfinder, Call of Cthulu and World of Warcraft the characters are fully quantified. That is, the character is a set of stats such as strength, constitution, dexterity, hit points, and sanity. Such games also feature sets of rules for the effects of the numbers as well as clear optimization paths. Given this background in gaming, it is not surprising that I see the quantified self as an attempt by a person to create, in effect, a character sheet for herself. That is, to see all her stats and to look for ways to optimize this character that is a model of the self. As such, I get the appeal. Naturally, as a philosopher I do have some concerns about the quantified self and how that relates to the qualities of life—but that is a matter for another time. For now, I will focus on a brief critical look at the quantified self.

Two obvious concerns about the quantified data regarding the self (or whatever is being measured) are questions regarding the accuracy of the data and questions regarding the usefulness of the data. To use an obvious example about accuracy, there is the question of how well a wearable really measures sleep.  In regards to usefulness, I wonder what I would garner from knowing how long I chew my food or the frequency of my urination.

The accuracy of the data is primarily a technical or engineering problem. As such, accuracy problems can be addressed with improvements in the hardware and software. Of course, until the data is known to be reasonably accurate, then it should be regarded with due skepticism.

The usefulness of the data is partially a subjective matter. That is, what counts as useful data will vary from person to person based on their needs and goals. For example, knowing how many steps I have taken at work is probably not useful data for me—since I run about 60 miles per week, that little amount of walking is most likely insignificant in regards to my fitness. However, someone who has no other exercise might find such data very useful. As might be suspected, it is easy to be buried under an avalanche of data and a serious challenge for anyone who wants to make use of the slew of apps and devices is to sort out the data that would actually be useful from the thousands or millions of data bits that would not be useful.

Another area of obvious concern is the reasoning applied to the data. Some devices and apps supply raw data, such as miles run or average heartrate. Others purport to offer an analysis of the data—that is, to engage in automated reasoning regarding the data. In any case, the user will need to engage in some form of reasoning to use the data.

In philosophy, the two main basic tools in regards to personal causal reasoning are derived from Mill’s classic methods. One method is commonly known as the method of agreement (or common thread reasoning). Using this method involves considering an effect (such as poor sleep or a knee injury) that has occurred multiple times (at least twice). The basic idea is to consider the factor or factors that are present each time the effect occurs and to sort through them to find the likely cause (or causes). For example, a runner might find that all her knee issues follow times when she takes up extensive hill work, thus suggesting the hill work as a causal factor.

The second method is commonly known as the method of difference. Using this method requires at least two situations: one in which the effect in question has occurred and one in which it has not. The reasoning process involves considering the differences between the two situations and sorting out which factor (or factors) is the likely cause. For example, a runner might find that when he does well in a race, he always gets plenty of rest the week before. When he does poorly, he is always poorly rested due to lack of sleep. This would indicate that there is a connection between the rest and race performance.

There are, of course, many classic causal fallacies that serve as traps for such reasoning. One of the best known is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). This fallacy occurs when it is inferred that A causes B simply because A is followed by B. For example, a person might note that her device showed that she walked more stairs during the week before doing well at a 5K and simply infer that walking more stairs caused her to run better. There could be a connection, but it would take more evidence to support that conclusion.

Other causal reasoning errors include the aptly named ignoring a common cause (thinking that A must cause B without considering that A and B might both be the effects of C), ignoring the possibility of coincidence (thinking A causes B without considering that it is merely coincidence) and reversing causation (taking A to cause B without considering that B might have caused A).  There are, of course, the various sayings that warn about poor causal thinking, such as “correlation is not causation” and these tend to correlate with named errors in causal reasoning.

People obviously vary in their ability to engage in causal reasoning and this would also apply to the design of the various apps and devices that purport to inform their users about the data they gather. Obviously, the better a person is at philosophical (in this case causal) reasoning, the better she will be able to use the data.

The takeaway, then, is that there are at least three important considerations regarding the quantification of the self in regards to the data. These are the accuracy of the data, the usefulness of the data, and the quality of the reasoning (be it automated or done by the person) applied to the data.


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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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A-Philosopher's-Blog-2014A Philosopher’s Blog: 2014 Philosophical Essays on Many Subjects will be available as a free Kindle book on Amazon from 12/31/2014-1/4/2015. This book contains all the essays from the 2014 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The topics covered range from the moral implications of sexbots to the metaphysics of determinism. It is available on all the various national Amazons, such as in the US, UK, and India.

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The Corruption of Academic Research

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using r...

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using recombinant DNA technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are supposed to be the new darlings of the academy, so I was slightly surprised when I heard an NPR piece on how researchers are struggling for funding. After all, even the politicians devoted to cutting education funding have spoken glowingly of STEM. My own university recently split the venerable College of Arts & Sciences, presumably to allow more money to flow to STEM without risking that professors in the soft sciences and the humanities might inadvertently get some of the cash. As such I was somewhat curious about this problem, but mostly attributed it to a side-effect of the general trend of defunding public education. Then I read “Bad Science” by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones. This article was originally published in issue 14, 2014 of Jacobin Magazine. I will focus on the ethical aspects of the matters Hinkes-Jones discussed in this article, which is centered on the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980 and was presented as having very laudable goals. Before the act was passed, universities were limited in regards to what they could do with the fruits of their scientific research. After the act was passes, schools could sell their patents or engage in exclusive licensing deals with private companies (that is, monopolies on the patents). Supporters asserted this act would be beneficial in three main ways. The first is that it would secure more private funding for universities because corporations would provide money in return for the patents or exclusive licenses. The second is that it would bring the power of the profit motive to public research: since researchers and schools could profit, they would be more motivated to engage in research. The third is that the private sector would be motivated to implement the research in the form of profitable products.

On the face of it, the act was a great success. Researchers at Columbia University patented the process of DNA cotransfrormation and added millions to the coffers of the school. A patent on recombinant DNA earned Stanford over $200 million. Companies, in turn, profited greatly. For example, researchers at the University of Utah created Myriad Genetics and took ownership of their patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests for breast cancer. The current cost of the test is $4,000 (in comparison a full sequencing of human DNA costs $1,000) and the company has a monopoly on the test.

Given these apparent benefits, it is easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of the act and its consequences. After all, if allows universities to fund their research and corporations to make profits, then its benefits would seem to be considerable, thus making it morally good. However, a proper calculation requires considering the harmful consequences of the act.

The first harm is that the current situation imposes a triple cost on the public. One cost is that the taxpayers fund the schools that conduct the research. The next is that thanks to the monopolies on patents the taxpayers have to pay whatever prices the companies wish to charge, such as the $4,000 for a test that should cost far less. In an actual free market there would be competition and lower prices—but what we have is a state controlled and regulated market. Ironically, those who are often crying the loudest against government regulation and for the value of competition are quite silent on this point.  The final cost of the three is that the corporations can typically write off their contributions on their taxes, thus leaving other taxpayers to pick up their slack. These costs seem to be clear harms and do much to offset the benefits—at least when looked at from the perspective of the whole society and not just focusing on those reaping the benefits.

The second harm is that, ironically, this system makes research more expensive. Since processes, strains of bacteria and many other things needed for research are protected by monopolistic patents the researchers who do not hold these patents have to pay to use them. The costs are usually quite high, so while the patent holders benefit, research in general suffers. In order to pay for these things, researchers need more funding, thus either imposing more cost on taxpayers or forcing them to turn to private funding (which will typically result in more monopolistic patents).

The third harm is the corruption of researchers. Researchers are literally paid to put their names on positive journal articles that advance the interests of corporations. They are also paid to promote drugs and other products while presenting themselves as researchers rather than paid promoters. If the researchers are not simply bought, the money is clearly a biasing factor. Since we are depending on these researchers to inform the public and policy makers about these products, this is clearly a problem and presents a clear danger to the public good.

A fourth harm is that even the honest researchers who have not been bought are under great pressure to produce “sexy science” that will attract grants and funding. While it has always been “publish or perish” in modern academics, the competition is even fiercer in the sciences now. As such, researchers are under great pressure to crank out publications. The effect has been rather negative as evidenced by the fact that the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies.  Far from driving advances in science, the act has served as an engine of corruption, fraud and bad science. This would be bad enough, but there is also the impact on a misled and misinformed public. I must admit that I fell for the antioxidant and omega-3 “research”—I modified my diet to include more antioxidants and omega-3. While this bad science does get debunked, the debunking takes a long time and most people never hear about it. For example, how many people know that the antioxidant and omega-3 “research” is flawed and how many still pop omega-3 “fish oil pills” and drink “antioxidant teas”?

A fifth harm is that universities have rushed to cash in on the research, driven by the success of the research schools that have managed to score with profitable patents. However, setting up research labs aimed at creating million dollar patents is incredibly expensive. In most cases the investment will not yield the hoped for returns, thus leaving many schools with considerable expenses and little revenue.

To help lower costs, schools have turned to employing adjuncts to do the teaching and research, thus creating a situation in which highly educated but very low-paid professionals are toiling away to secure millions for the star researchers, the administrators and their corporate benefactors. It is, in effect, sweat-shop science.

This also shows another dark side to the push for STEM: as the number of STEM graduates increase, the value of the degrees will decrease and wages for the workers will continue to fall. This is great for the elite, but terrible for those hoping that a STEM degree will mean a good job and a bright future.

These harms would seem to outweigh the alleged benefits of the act, thus indicating it is morally wrong. Naturally, it can be countered that the costs are worth it. After all, one might argue, the incredible advances in science since 1980 have been driven by the profit motive and this has been beneficial overall. Without the profit motive, the research might have been conducted, but most of the discoveries would have been left on the shelves. The easy and obvious response is to point to all the advances that occurred due to public university research prior to 1980 as well as the research that began before then and came to fruition.

While solving this problem is a complex matter, there seem to be some easy and obvious steps. The first would be to restore public funding of state schools. In the past, the publicly funded universities drove America’s worldwide dominance in research and helped fuel massive economic growth while also contributing to the public good. The second would be replacing the Bayh-Dole Act with an act that would allow universities to benefit from the research, but prevent the licensing monopolies that have proven so damaging. Naturally, this would not eliminate patents but would restore competition to what is supposed to be a competitive free market by eliminating the creation of monopolies from public university research. The folks who complain about the state regulating business and who praise the competitive free market will surely get behind this proposal.

It might also be objected that the inability to profit massively from research will be a disincentive. The easy and obvious reply is that people conduct research and teach with great passion for very little financial compensation. The folks that run universities and corporations know this—after all, they pay such people very little yet still often get exceptional work. True, there are some people who are solely motivated by profit—but those are typically the folks who are making the massive profit rather than doing the actual research and work that makes it all possible.


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Neutral Good

My previous essays on alignments have focused on the evil ones (lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic evil). Patrick Lin requested this essay. He professes to be a devotee of Neutral Evil to such a degree that he regards being lumped in with Ayn Rand as an insult. Presumably because he thinks she was too soft on the good.

In the Pathfinder version of the game, neutral good is characterized as follows:

A neutral good character is good, but not shackled by order. He sees good where he can, but knows evil can exist even in the most ordered place.

A neutral good character does anything he can, and works with anyone he can, for the greater good. Such a character is devoted to being good, and works in any way he can to achieve it. He may forgive an evil person if he thinks that person has reformed, and he believes that in everyone there is a little bit of good.

In a fantasy campaign realm, the player characters typical encounter neutral good types as allies who render aid and assistance. Even evil player characters are quite willing to accept the assistance of the neutral good, knowing that the neutral good types are more likely to try to persuade them to the side of good than smite them with righteous fury. Neutral good creatures are not very common in most fantasy worlds—good types tend to polarize towards law and chaos.

Not surprisingly, neutral good types are also not very common in the real world. A neutral good person has no special commitment to order or lack of order—what matters is the extent to which a specific order or lack of order contributes to the greater good. For those devoted to the preservation of order, or its destruction, this can be rather frustrating.

While the neutral evil person embraces the moral theory of ethical egoism (that each person should act solely in her self-interest), the neutral good person embraces altruism—the moral view that each person should act in the interest of others. In more informal terms, the neutral good person is not selfish. It is not uncommon for the neutral good position to be portrayed as stupidly altruistic. This stupid altruism is usually cast in terms of the altruist sacrificing everything for the sake of others or being willing to help anyone, regardless of who the person is or what she might be doing. While a neutral good person is willing to sacrifice for others and willing to help people, being neutral good does not require a person to be unwise or stupid. So, a person can be neutral good and still take into account her own needs. After all, the neutral good person considers the interests of everyone and she is part of that everyone. A person can also be selective in her assistance and still be neutral good. For example, helping an evil person do evil things would not be a good thing and hence a neutral good person would not be obligated to help—and would probably oppose the evil person.

Since a neutral good person works for the greater good, the moral theory of utilitarianism tends to fit this alignment. For the utilitarian, actions are good to the degree that they promote utility (what is of value) and bad to the degree that they do the opposite. Classic utilitarianism (that put forth by J.S. Mill) takes happiness to be good and actions are assessed in terms of the extent to which they create happiness for humans and, as far as the nature of things permit, sentient beings. Put in bumper sticker terms, both the utilitarian and the neutral good advocate the greatest good for the greatest number.

This commitment to the greater good can present some potential problems. For the utilitarian, one classic problem is that what seems rather bad can have great utility. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” puts into literary form the question raised by William James:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

In Guin’s tale, the splendor, health and happiness that is the land of Omelas depends on the suffering of a person locked away in a dungeon from all kindness. The inhabitants of Omelas know full well the price they pay and some, upon learning of the person, walk away. Hence the title.

For the utilitarian, this scenario would seem to be morally correct: a small disutility on the part of the person leads to a vast amount of utility. Or, in terms of goodness, the greater good seems to be well served.

Because the suffering of one person creates such an overabundance of goodness for others, a neutral good character might tolerate the situation. After all, benefiting some almost always comes at the cost of denying or even harming others. It is, however, also reasonable to consider that a neutral good person would find the situation morally unacceptable. Such a person might not free the sufferer because doing so would harm so many other people, but she might elect to walk away.

A chaotic good type, who is committed to liberty and freedom, would certainly oppose the imprisonment of the innocent person—even for the greater good. A lawful good type might face the same challenge as the neutral good type: the order and well being of Omelas rests on the suffering of one person and this could be seen as an heroic sacrifice on the part of the sufferer. Lawful evil types would probably be fine with the scenario, although they would have some issues with the otherwise benevolent nature of Omelas. Truly subtle lawful evil types might delight in the situation and regard it as a magnificent case of self-delusion in which people think they are selecting the greater good but are merely choosing evil.

Neutral evil types would also be fine with it—provided that it was someone else in the dungeon. Chaotic evil types would not care about the sufferer, but would certainly seek to destroy Omelas. They might, ironically, try to do so by rescuing the sufferer and seeing to it that he is treated with kindness and compassion (thus breaking the conditions of Omelas’ exalted state).


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