Papers I almost Wrote

In celebration of my ten years of blogging I have been collecting some of my posts into thematic meta-posts. The previous two listed my writing on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness and my writing about various conferences and classes I have attended. Continuing in that theme below are links to posts I have written about various things that are not in either of the two previous categories. Some of these I had thought I might develop into papers or something but so far that hasn’t happened!

  1. Freedom and Evil
    • This was written for a debate at Brooklyn College entitled ‘If there is a God, Why does Evil Exist?” sponsored by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
  2. There is No Santa
    • Is it wrong to lie to children about the existence of Santa? I think so!
  3. What’s So Unobservable about Causation?
    • This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote while a graduate student at the University of Connecticut
  4. Freedom of Speech Meets Speech Act Theory
    • Freedom of speech means freedom of assertion but not the freedom to perform any speech act one wants
  5. Reason and The Nature of Obligation
    • A discussion of Locke and Hobbes on reason and obligation. I think this was first written for a class I had on social and political philosophy. I argue that both are committed to the view that reason is the source of moral obligation but fear (or some external motivator) is required to get people to conform to reason.
  6. Logic, Language, and Existence
    • I discover the problem of necessary existence, and, as usual, also discover that I have reinvented (a crappier version of) the wheel
  7. Timothy Williamson on Necessary Existents
  8. Stop your Quining!!!
    • Are there any counter-examples to some common analytic truths? I don’t think so
  9. What God Doesn’t Know
    • Can we invent Liar Paradox-type sentences involving God’s knowledge? Spoiler alert: yes!
  10. A Counter-Example to the Cogito?
    • Are you nothing more than an alternate personality of the all-power Evil Genius?
  11. Conceptual Atomism, Functionalism, and the Representational Theory of Mind
    • Can we construct quaility-inversion-type scenarios for the mental attitudes? I give it my best shot.
  12. Did Quine Change His Mind?
    • No he did not. The axioms of logic are revisable but we haven’t got any good reason to revise them (yet)
  13. God v. the Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser
    • one of my most popular posts.
  14. The Evolutionary Argument against Rationalism
    • Evolution may have built certain facts about our local reality into the brain, thus generating a priori justification (of a sort)
  15. The A Priori Argument against Rationalism
    • Is it conceivable that there are no necessary truths?
  16. The Empirical Justification of Mathematics
    • Could there be empirical disconfirmation of basic arithmetic?
  17. Invoking God Doesn’t Save Descartes from Skepticism
    • Doesn’t the case of Job from the bible undermine Descartes’ claim that God is not a deceiver?
  18. The (New) Agnostic’s Manifesto: Part 1 –Preamble
  19. Secular Ethics vs. Religious Ethics
  20. Breaking Promises
    • When is a promise broken versus excused?
  21. Second Thoughts about Pain Asymbolia
  22. Transworld Saints
  23. The Logical Problem of Omniscience
  24. Empiricism and A Priori Justification
  25. Reduction v. Elimination
  26. Why I am not a Type-Z Materialist
  27. Pain Asymbolia and a Priori Defeasibility
  28. Summa Contra Plantinga
  29. The Unintelligibility of Substance Dualism
  30. What is Philosophy that it Sucks so Bad?
  31. Identifying the Identity Theory
  32. Can we think about Non-Existant Objects?
  33. The Zombie Argument Depends on Phenomenal Transparency
  34. Bennett on Non-Reductive Physicalism
  35. News Flash: Philosophy Sucks!
  36. Kant’s response to Hume’s Challenge in Ethics
  37. The Identity Theory in 2-D
  38. Outline of the Case for Agnosticism
  39. Consciousness Studies in 100 words (more) or less
  40. The Argument from Photosynthesis
    • Could humans be photosynthetic? The answer seems to be yes and this i bad news for the problem of evil
  41. The Design Argument for the Simulation Hypothesis
  42. Consciousness as an M-Property (?)
  43. If Consciousness is an M-Property then it is Physical
  44. Do We Live in a Westworld World??
  45. Eliminativism and the Neuroscience of Consciousness

Existentialism is a Transhumanism

In the academic year 2015-2016 I was the co-director, with my colleague Naomi Stubbs, of a faculty seminar on Technology, Self, and Society. This was part of a larger three year project funded by a grant from the NEH and supported by LaGuardia’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  During my year as co-director the theme was Techno-Humanism and Transhumanism. You can see the full schedule for the seminar at the earlier link but we read four books over the year (in addition to many articles). In the Fall 2015 semester we read  The Technohuman Condition by Braden Allenby, and Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. In the Spring semester we read The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku, and Neuroethics, an anthology edited by Martha Farah. In addition to the readings Allenby and Kaku both gave talks at LaGuardia and since we had room for one more talk we invited David Chalmers who gave his paper on The Real and the Virtual (see short video for Aeon here).

All in all this was a fantastic seminar and I really enjoyed being a part of it. I was especially surprised to find out that some of the other faculty had used my Terminator and Philosophy book in their Science, Humanism and Technology course (I thought I was the only one who had used that book!).  The faculty came from many different disciplines ranging from English to Neuroscience and I learned quite a bit throughout the process. Two things became especially clear to me over the course of the year. The first is that many of my view can be described as Transhumanist in nature. The second is that a lot of my views can be described as Existentialist in nature.

The former was unsurprising but the latter was a bit surprising. I briefly studied Sartre and Existentialism as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University from 1997-1998 and I was really interested in Sartre’s work after that (i.e. I searched every book store in SF for anything Sartre related, bought, read it, and argued endlessly with anyone around about whether there was ‘momentum’ in consciousness). However once I got to Graduate School (in 2000)  I began to focus even more on psychology, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind and I gradually lost contact with Sartre. I have never really kept up with the literature in this area (but I have recently read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on Sartre and Existentialism), haven’t read Sartre in quite a while (but I did get out my copy of Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism a couple of times during the seminar), and don’t work on any explicitly Sartrean themes in my published work (though there are connections between higher-order theories of consciousness and Sartre) but during this last year I found myself again and again appealing to distinctly Sartrean views, or at least Sartrean as I remembered it from being an undergraduate! By the end of it all I came to the view that Existential Transhumanism is an interesting philosophical view and probably is a pretty good descriptor for what I think about these issues. So, all that having been said, please take what follows with a grain of salt.

The core idea of existentialism as I understand it is a claim about the nature of persons and it is summed up in Sartre’s dictum that ‘existence precedes essence’. Whatever a person is you aren’t born one. You become one by acting, or as Sartre might put it, we create ourselves through our choices. Many interpret that claim as somehow being at odds with physicalism (Sartre was certainly a dualist) while I do not. But what does this mean? It helps to invoke the distinction between Facticity and Transcendence. Facticity relates to all of the things that are knowable about me from a third person point of view. It is what an intense biographer could put together. But I am not merely the sum total of those facts. I am essentially a project. An aiming toward the future. This aiming towards something is the way in which Sartre interpreted the notion of intentionality. All consciousness, for him, was necessarily directed at something that was not itself part of consciousness. This is why Sartre says ‘I am not what I am and I am what I am not”. I am not what I am in the sense of not being merely my facticity. I am what I am not in the sense that I am continually creating myself and turning myself into something that I was not previously.

Turning now for the moment to Transhumanism, I interpret this in roughly the same way as the World Transhumanist Association does. That is, as an extension of Humanism. Reason represents the best chance that Human Beings have of accomplishing our most cherished beliefs. These beliefs are enshrined in many of the world’s great religions and espouse principle of universality (all are equal in some sense), and compassion. Transhumanists see technology, at least in part, as a way of enhancing human reason and so as a way of overcoming our natural limitations.

One objection to this kind of project is that we could modify ourselves to the point of no longer being human, or to the point of our original selves not existing any further. Here I think the existentialist idea that there are no essential properties required to be human can help. We are defined by the fact that we are ‘a being whose being is in question’. That is we are essentially the kind of thing which creates itself, which aims towards something that is not yet what it is. Once one takes this kind of view one sees there is no danger in modifying ourselves. This seems to me to be very much in line with the general idea that the kinds of modifications the transhumanist envisions are not different in kind from the kind we have always done (shoes, eyeglasses, etc). Even if we are able to upload our minds to a virtual environment we may still be human by the existentialist definition.

In addition, another objection which was the central objection in the Allenby book, is that the Transhumanist somehow assumes a notion of the individual, as an independent rational entity, which doesn’t really exist. This may be the case but here I think that existentialism is very handy in helping us respond. The kind of individual envisioned by the Enlightenment thinkers may not exist but one way of seeing the transhumanist project is as seeking to construct such a being.

Enlightenment, in Kant’s immortal words, is

….man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment

To this the transhumanist adds that Kant may have been wrong in thinking that we have enough reason and simply need the courage to use it. We may need to make ourselves into the kinds of rational beings which could fulfill the ideals of the Enlightenment.

There is a lot more that I would like to say about these issues but at this point I will briefly mention two there themes that don’t have much to do with existentialism. One is from Bostrom (see a recent talk of his at NYU’s Ethics of A.I. conference). One of Bostrom’s main claims is what he calls the orthogonality thesis. This is the claim that intelligence and values are orthogonal to each other. You can pair any level of intelligence with any goal at all.  This may be true for intelligence but I certainly don’t believe it is true for rationality.

Switching gears a bit I wanted to mention David Chalmers’ talk. I found his basic premise to be very convincing. The basic idea seemed to be that virtual objects count as real in much the same way as concrete objects do. When one is in a virtual environment (I haven’t been in one yet but I am hoping to try a Vive or a Playstation VR set soon!) and one interacts with a virtual dragon, there really is a virtual object that is there and that one is interacting with. The fundamental nature of this object is computational and there are some data structures that interact in various ways so as to make it roughly the same as ordinary objects and their atomic structure. Afterwards I asked if he thought the same was true for dreams. It seemed to me that many of the same arguments could be given for the conclusion that in one’s dreams one interacted with dream objects which were real in the same way as virtual objects. He said that perhaps but it depended on whether one was a functionalist about the mind. It seems to me that someone like Chalmers, who thinks that there is a computational/functional neural correlate for conscious states, is committed to this kind of view about dreams (even though he is a dualist). Dream objects should count as real on Chalmers’ view.

Kantian Compatibilism?

Spring Break is winding down for me and so I must soon quit the life of discussing philosophy and playing Assassin’s Creed IV and get back to discussing philosophy and playing Grand Theft Auto V. Since I have recently been bashing compatibism I figured I would do some small penance and write down some thoughts that first occurred to me when I read Joshua Green and Jonathan Cohen’s recent-ish paper For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing, and Everything and which occurred again after my discussion with Gregg Caruso and Pete Mandik for SpaceTimeMind. The idea is that if one is going to be a compatibilist one should be a Kantian Compatibilst if at all possible.

As any reader of Kant knows, Kant himself was no fan of compatibilism, at least not of the kind that was floating around in his day. He says,

This is a wretched subterfuge with which some persons still let themselves be put off, and so think they have solved, with a petty word-jugglery, that difficult problem, at the solution of which centuries have laboured in vain and which can therefore scarcely be found so completely on the surface. (Critique of Practical Reason p 189-190)

And indeed it seems that many philosophers think that any kind of compatibilism (or determinism) forces one to a consequentialist account of morality and moral responsibility. But why? I think it is mostly because Kantians have traditionally been Libertarians about free will, but there doesn’t seem to be any principled reason for that.

A Kantian Compatibilism, as I am imagining it, is a view that asserts that free will is compatible with determinism and that free will is still a real feature of the world, just one that we discovered something surprising about. Once this basic move is made one can then go and interpret Kant’s writing in this way, substituting the compatibilist notion of freedom for Kant’s libertarian notion. How would this work? Here is a typical passage from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “Autonomy of the will is that property of it by which it is a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition”. This lends itself nicely to a compatibilst interpretation: Autonomy is simply the will being determined by the Categorical Imperative rather than something ‘foreign’ to the C.I. “morally good actions are just the ones that are determined by the supreme moral law” has a very Kantian ring to it, and if one accepted it then one could say most, if not all, of the things that Kantians want to say. Some actions are free (determined in the appropriate manner), some are not (determined some other way), and we are morally responsible for the free ones, the ones that are determined or caused in the right way,and finally, morally good actions are the one that are determined via the Categorical Imperative.

I am not endorsing this view but if I were ever forced to be a compatibilist I would defend it, so what’s wrong with it?

The Argument from Photosynthesis

Though I very much enjoy the taste of food I have always thought that the actual act of eating is very primitive and mildly repulsive. Described abstractly eating involves the mastication of organic substances which are then broken down in digestive acids to produce sugars that are then used to fuel metabolic activity. The mastication process involves mechanically breaking down the organic substances and mixing them with saliva and in the process the organic substance is rubbed over the taste buds in our tongues and released gasses interact with the olfactory receptors via the nasal passages.

Now compare this process with the process of photosynthesis. In photosynthesis light energy is converted to sugar with oxygen as a waste product. This process is more elegant and much cleaner than eating (eating/digestion has excrement as its waste product versus oxygen for photosynthesis). However, the naturally evolved photosynthesis we find here on Earth is not very efficient (it captures somewhere in the area of 3-6% of the energy available in sunlight) and as a result we do not find vertebrates that use photosynthesis, though there is recent evidence that salamanders have photosynthetic cells and we might have an invertebrate or two that uses it.

So is it possible that humans might be able to someday use photosynthesis? Some have recently argued that we have a moral obligation to get rid of meat eating animals and replace them with herbivores. But herbivores are carnivores as well in the strict sense. While I don’t think that eating plants is as morally problematic as eating animals I still think it would be nice to free ourselves from eating all together. At least I would like to be able to do so for myself. So might I ever be able to? As it stands it looks like it would be difficult to do because extant photosynthetic processes are relatively inefficient and so even if we did successfully integrate photosynthetic cells over the entire area of our skin we would need to be exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation to meet our energy demands. Still it is certainly possible to improve photosynthesis and in fact scientists are working on it now and so while it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon it certainly seems possible that there could be photosynthetic humans at some point in the future. We might not be able to quit eating all together, we might still do it for pleasurable experiences of taste etc or we might have to eat some limited amount to supplement the energy from photosynthetic process, but still it is not physically impossible that this could happen and it does seem morally and aesthetically preferable to what we have now.

Aside from this bioethical issue I think this raises issues for those who think that there is evidence for design in the human body and it also puts new light on the problem of evil. Certainly if it is conceivable that we could produce a photosynthetic animal, human or not, then it must be possible for God to have created such a creature. But if so then why aren’t we photosynthetic? I mean God could have made it so that we run on solar energy, and even had the pleasurable taste and ‘mouthfeel’ experiences that makes eating enjoyable (perhaps different wavelengths and/or frequencies of light would produce different gustatory experiences). Doing this 1.) seems like a much better design. It is simpler and more elegant than eating is and 2.) seems much more humane. The sheer amount of suffering produced by eating meat over the course of evolution is nearly unimaginable. It seems to me that this argument from photosynthesis is as decisive as one can get in this area and I wonder why it has not received more attention…or maybe it has and I just haven’t found it yet?

Happy Christmas

Reposted from November 2009…my thoughts are generally unchanged since then…

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Secular Christmas!

Well, the holiday season is upon us again…

As some of you may know, I am no fan of Santa Claus. It is immoral to lie to children and to abuse their credulity. Some argue that we are not lying to children but are rather pretending that Santa exists with them. I doubt that most people are pretending, but if they were I would agree that there is nothing morally wrong with that.

I have also argued that a non-religious person shouldn’t celebrate christmas because it is a Christian holiday. But I came to be convinced that really there are two holidays that happen to fall on the same day and happen to have the same name. There is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus and there is the secular celebration of charity and family. The birthing pains of this new secular holiday also goes by the name ‘the war on christmas’. The latest contraction is here in the form of an ad campaign by the American Humanist Association that says “No God? …No Problem!” and encourages people to “be good for goodness sake”. I very much like this. It suggests that the secular holiday is a celebration of the Good Will (roughly in Kant’s sense), or of the virtuous person’s recognition that a virtuous action is done, in part, because it is virtuous and we recognize aiming at virtue as an intrinsic good.

So I say viva the war for (secular) christmas!

Aristotle on Pleasure

Is pleasure an intrinsic good according to Aristotle? Let’s say that something is intrinsically good when it is valuable just because of the kind of thing that it is and never valuable for relational reasons. To answer this question I had to re-read Book VII ch. 11-14 of the Nicomachean Ethics (forget about Book X -for now-). At first it may seem that he does think so. He certainly seems to think that pleasure is necessarily good and to be honest, I find that I am mostly sympathetic to the kinds of things he says (e.g. that pleasure must be good in some sense for otherwise it could not be a part of the virtuous life, that if pain is bad then pleasure must be good, that both humans and animals pursue it and that should tell us something, that it is a mistake to think that if it is bad for this or that task then it is bad full stop, that pleasure is a byproduct of an activity rather than a state, etc). But after thinking about it a bit I think that he is committed to the claim that pleasure is not intrinsically good. Let us turn to the text.

In particular in Book VII ch 12 he seems to be making a distinction between that which really is a pleasure and that which merely seems to be a pleasure. For instance at 1152b 30 he says

…while others are not even pleasures, but seem to be so, viz. all those which involve pain and whose end is curative, e.g. the processes that go on in a sick person” (Barnes translation, yes I am old).

Further on, at 1153a 5, he elaborates this into a distinction between pleasures that are so by nature and those that are merely incidentally pleasures.

…that the others are incidental is indicated by the fact that men do not enjoy the same things when their nature is in its settled state as they do when it is being replenished, but in the former case they enjoy the things that are pleasant without qualification, in the latter state the contraries as well; for then they enjoy even sharp and bitter things, none of which is pleasant either by nature or without qualitifaction. Nor then are the pleasures; for as pleasant things differ, so do the pleasures arising from them.

The idea here seems to be that that natural pleasures are produced by those things which are naturally pleasant and so if something which is not naturally pleasant produces something then whatever it produces cannot be naturally pleasant.

He goes on to say a bit later in ch 14 (1154b 15-20),

But the pleasures that do not involve pains do not admit of excess; and these are among the things pleasant by nature and not incidentally. By things pleasant incidentally I mean those that act as cures…things naturally pleasant are those that stimulate the action of a healthy nature

Ok, so it seems clear that Aristotle thinks that when we are not in our natural healthy state we may mistake as a pleasure something which really isn’t a pleasure (or: the pleasure is merely incidental pleasure not natural pleasure). But then the crucial questions is: Is the vicious person in their natural and healthy state? It seems to me that the only answer we can give, from Aristotle’s point of view, is that they are not. But if that is the case then we seem to be lead to the conclusion that the ‘pleasure’ derived from wicked activity is not really pleasure, it merely seem to be pleasure to the vicious person. Or to put it the other way, these are only incidental pleasures and are not natural pleasures.

So now it seems to me the lesson from the above is that pleasure is not to be desired for its own sake but rather is only desirable when it ‘stimulates the action of a healthy nature’. That is, whether we should desire a certain pleasure is a function of how that pleasure was produced and not merely a function of the kind of thing it is (pleasure). The alternative to this, it seems, is to hold that only the natural pleasures are really pleasures and they are intrinsically good. But this seems like a very strange view. The pleasure the serial killer experiences as he sees his victim squirm and beg for their life is (I assume) phenomenologically indistinguishable from the pleasure one may have when they see their offspring flourishing. If so then it is highly artificial and contrived to call only one of those ‘pleasure’.

If this is right then pleasures must be instrumentally good, and this seems right to me (on Aristotle’s view). They are instrumentally good in that they are the chief sources of actions and so can be used to produce virtuous activity. In fact this seems to be what he recommends when he discuses moral education.

[P.S. in case anyone cares, this was prompted by my writing an exam for my Ethics and Moral Issues course :]

Zombies vs Shombies

Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!