On a possible form of faster-than-light travel

Pica asked:

If I was annihilated and a mentally/ physically perfect copy of me instantaneously came into existence on the other side of the world, would that be a case of travel faster than the speed of light?

Answer by Craig Skinner

No, it would be a case of a digitized superscan (encoding your structure down to the molecular level) travelling (at light speed of course) to the other side of the world where, in another fancy machine with suitable stocks of chemicals, rather like a 3-D printer, decoding of the scan would produce your duplicate.

It would be easy to delay disintegration of the original (you) until the moment the duplicate was completed, thereby producing the duplicate at the exact moment you are annihilated, as your question specifies.

However, this ‘beam me up Scotty’ scenario has both technical and philosophical problems.

Technical: it is estimated that the energy needed to scan at that level of detail, transmit and reconstitute one human may exceed all the energy in all the stars in the galaxy. So probably forever unfeasible.

Philosophical: the setup is often talked of as teleportation (YOU step into the machine on Earth and, moments later, YOU step out of the machine on Mars). But the reality is different. It would be a case of you stepping into your execution chamber and being no more.

Unless of course the disintegration bit was omitted and you and your duplicate, or duplicates, or duplicates of these duplicates, all lived and worked, allowing you to extend your influence to wherever, or whenever – scans can be stored for years – you like.

But let’s assume the law of the land prohibits original/duplicate coexistence so that if you want to go to and from, say, work on Europa quickly, you must accept that, for the first journey you die but a duplicate, considered to be you by everybody including the duplicate itself, does duty for you. Of course this new you in turn dies when the journey home occurs, and so on for every trip.

Would you accept this setup as convenient long-distance travel, or find it as attractive as the gas chamber ?

It depends on whether you think identity or psychological continuity (PC) is more important.

Of course, they normally go together. Indeed, PC (memory) is a key feature of your identity. But they can come apart. For instance, if due to brain damage, you enter a persistent vegetative state, then PC, indeed consciousness, is gone. But we dont then say that YOU dont exist. No, your identity remains, and we say that, sadly, you are in a PVS. Many people think that such a life is not worth living, suggesting that they value PC more than identity.

And, of course, in duplication, PC is preserved whilst identity is destroyed. So if you think that PC is a most valuable feature of human life (even if identity is destroyed) whereas identity without PC is less valuable (as in PVS), then you would be happy to step into the machine.

Would you prefer to enter a PVS (preserving your identity) or to die (destroying your identity) and be replaced by a duplicate that has all your treasured memories, future plans and relationships. Most of us would jump at the latter possibility. But, of course, many of us would prefer just to die full stop than enter a PVS.

I would be reluctant to step into the teleporter and say goodbye, letting my duplicate take over my life.

All of this assumes

1. That a molecularly exact copy of me couldnt be a zombie.
2. That I dont have an immaterial (substantial) soul, a la Descartes.

But these are points for another occasion.


Answer by Shaun Williamson

No it wouldn’t. To travel you must be a material body which starts in one place and arrives at another place by moving through space.

It is possible for something to move faster than the speed of light as long as it isn’t a material body. For example suppose I point a laser at the moon. It makes a spot of light of the surface of the moon. I swing the laser pointer from side to side. If I do it quickly enough the spot of light would move across the surface of the moon faster than the speed of light. However this doesn’t violate relativity because no material bodies are moving faster than the speed of light.

You might also like to read about ‘Spooky action at a distance’ where a quantum property of an atomic particle can be transmitted instantaneously to another particle with which it is entangled over any distance (billions of miles). Again this does not violate relativity because no movement of matter is involved.


Am I here?

Jonathan asked:

Am I here?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Yes, of course. If you were not you could not ask the question.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The first thing we need to establish is who is asking the question and also who is being asked.

It seems absurd to ask myself this question. If I ask a question, or do anything, then it necessarily follows that I exist. Descartes says something along those lines. And if I exist, I must be somewhere, mustn’t I? But then again, strictly according to Descartes’ mind-body dualism, although my body has spatial properties and is therefore located in space, my mind has no spatial properties and therefore cannot ‘be’ anywhere in particular. (Nor would it be correct to say that it is ‘everywhere’, in the sense that space or gravity is everywhere.) For an ‘I’ which is metaphysically distinct from body, there is no ‘here’. What there is, is only the mysterious physical/ metaphysical link that enables mind-body interaction, which for obscure reasons Descartes believed to occur in the pineal gland.

For any variety of physicalist, on the other hand, the answer is necessarily, Yes. It is always true that I am here. To be the kind of entity that is capable of being ‘I’ is necessarily to be located in space. But then again, why should it be necessary that I am here and not also there? Suppose I have a perfect double on twin earth. As I type these words, so does my twin earth double. Are we two or one? Would it be so absurd to say that, rather than it being the case that there are two versions of GK, the entity referred to (that I refer to myself as) ‘GK’ exists in two places simultaneously? In that scenario, ‘I am here’ is false, when understood in the sense of, ‘I am here but not there.’

But you are asking this question of me. How do I know that you exist? Maybe the words were caused by a cosmic accident, a highly improbable but nevertheless logically conceivable sequence of web server errors that caused the Ask a Philosopher form to be submitted and delivered to the Ask a Philosopher mailbox with just that sequence of characters.

Or more likely, between the time when you submitted the form, and I replied, you passed away. You are no longer here. That’s something I could find out, but right now I don’t know the answer to that question.


On omniscience and immutability

Anon asked:

On omniscience and immutability. I’m looking at the problem posed by Kretzmann among others. In essence, if God is immutable then then how can he know today is Friday and tomorrow know that today is Saturday as this would mean that he’s subject to change to know one thing to day and another thing tomorrow etc. I am puzzled by few things:

1. Why must God’s experience of time equate to ours? As corporeal temporal beings our experience is in the context of change and time is something that we use in order to make sense of our experience. But given that God is neither corporeal or temporal why should his experience of time be the same?

2. Does this dilemma rest on an assumption that in order to know something, one must have experience of it? There are many things that God as a perfect immutable being would not be able to experience such as regret or shame yet this doesn’t seem to pose a problem I have in mind Kenny’s comment here.

Thanks for your help with this.

Answer by Peter Jones

It seems to me that you are correct. It would make no sense to say that God is immutable and yet knows what time it is. It must always be Now. Or perhaps Never. It would also make no sense to say that He experiences time’s passing, or, come to that, anything at all except perhaps His own presence in what Meister Eckhart calls the ‘Perennial Now’. But then, if God is omniscient, He must experience the passing of time, just as we do, in fact exactly and precisely as we do, right now, for otherwise a human being could know things that God cannot. There is only one solution. We are God, in His mode as a myriad of unenlightened centres of experience in an unreal world of time and space, regret and shame.

So, on this analysis God cannot experience time and yet must experience time. This would be the reason why Lao Tsu says, ‘true words seem paradoxical’. They would only seem so since this seeming contradiction can be resolved. Nagarjuna would reject both views as being one-sided and thus false.

If there is a real dilemma here, as you assume, then it will certainly rest on an assumption. In philosophy they always do. It would be a rule. But it would not be an assumption that in order to know something, really know it, we must ‘have experience of it’. According to the logic of how we know things, ‘knowledge by Identity’ would be the only totally secure form of knowledge. At any rate, Aristotle took this view. Second, an immutable entity would not be able to experience, since by our usual meaning an experience would require the passage of time, and because an experience would require a division of this immutable entity into experience-experiencer as the subject and object of the experience. This is three things that would have to exist for this experience, while in His immutable state God would have to be just one. Third, if God is to be worthy of His definition then He must be able to experience regret and shame. He could only do this, however, in the space-time world of Maya and relativity.

Accordingly, the practices of mysticism are designed to bring us to the point where we can leave behind regret and shame by a process of remembering who we are. This would be the Buddha’s path to the cessation of suffering.


Consequences of the argument from illusion

Fred asked:

Does the argument from illusion show that there are no differences between the visual experiences involved in veridical perception, illusion, and hallucination?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Yes, Fred, definitely. That is the difficulty with the argument: it has never been refuted, but its conclusion is almost universally rejected, irrationally. The conclusion is that all visual (indeed, perceptual) experiences are representations of reality, not reality itself. That is, the only explanation of illusions is that they are misrepresentation of reality, not reality itself, because they are contradictions between the senses, or contradictions between perceptions and well-established beliefs; and there are no intrinsic differences between veridical and non-veridical perceptions, in which case all perceptions are representations. This means that empirical objects around us — indeed, the entire empirical world — is a representation of the real world, not itself the real world.

This leads to the question: what is the real world like? There are two answers, ultimately the same: the philosophic answer is that it is metaphysical, the scientific answer is that it is theoretical. You can begin to get a handle on all of this if you ask about the nature of your own body: is it real, or only an image of your metaphysical/ theoretical body?


Free will problem revisited

Harvey asked:

Is there free will?

Answer by Eric DeJardin

This is a question I haven’t yet (definitively) answered for myself, Harvey, but perhaps we can try to puzzle at least a bit of the way through it together.

Questions about the world seem to arise in two basic ways: first, through experience, and second, through reflection. (This is of course simplistic, since both experience and reflection contribute to the sorts of questions we ask, but it seems to be the case that many questions are motivated more powerfully by just one of these factors.) So, we might notice through experience that objects we drop tend to fall downwards, and wonder why that’s so. Or, after we’ve investigated the manner and the rate at which objects fall, we might notice certain recurring mathematical patterns, and on reflection wonder why in this respect the world and mathematics happen to match up so neatly.

Now I think it’s fair to say that questions about free will don’t tend to arise from our experience of the world, but rather from reflection on it, for we consider only our ‘inner’ experience as rational agents in the world — what me might call our phenomenal experience — it certainly seems as if we act freely, at least when we act deliberately. As it’s usually put, for any act we deliberately perform, it seems as if we ‘could have done otherwise.’ Indeed, we might say that many of our fundamental concepts, at least as they are commonly understood, reflect this seeming-so, e.g. ‘choice’, ‘responsibility’, ‘morality’, ‘mistake’, ‘regret.’ It’s only when we begin to notice that the world around us behaves in certain law-like (or, perhaps, random) ways, and that patterns of cause and effect are everywhere to be found, that we begin to question whether we, as apparently proper parts of the world, might also act in ways governed by law-like causal factors.

So it’s reflection on this tension between the apparent determinism of the world as we observe it, and the apparent freedom of our phenomenal experience (coupled with our strong sense of moral responsibility) that ultimately gives rise to the problem of free will. It’s important to notice that experience alone doesn’t give rise to this tension, but rather experience coupled with observation and reflection, for that helps explain our natural attachment to the notion that we are free, without which the problem of free will would never arise.

There are two basic ways of dealing with this tension, viz. that of the incompatibilist, and that of the compatibilist. The former believe, as the name implies, that free will and determinism are incompatible, and so one of them must be jettisoned if the other is to be retained. The latter, again as the name implies, believe that free will and determinism are compatible, though this coherence may require us to change the sense in which we understand free will. Let’s look a little closer at each of these alternatives.

There are two basic types of incompatibilists, viz. determinists and libertarians. Determinists tend to find the discoveries of modern science and the bottom-up, causally determined (and possibly partly random) world it reveals to us to be dispositive, and so they reject the notion that we have free will. Libertarians, however, tend to find the experience of freedom, and the sense that we’re morally responsible for our actions — coupled with the concomitant belief that moral responsibility presupposes free will — to be dispositive, and so they reject determinism, which leads them to embrace a radical conception of freedom according to which each person is a sort of unmoved mover.

The compatibilist wants to have his cake and eat it: he agrees with the determinist that the findings of science are dispositive, and with the libertarian that we are morally responsible for our actions, and that moral responsibility presupposes freedom. He disagrees, though, that moral responsibility requires the libertarian’s radical freedom: rather, all it requires is that one act in a way that’s not compelled (e.g. no one is placing a gun to your head), and in a way that’s consistent with one’s desires, beliefs, intentions etc. — i.e. with one’s ‘character’ — at the moment of action. Although one’s character is itself a consequence of previous causes, this doesn’t matter, the compatibilist says — if we act sans compulsion according to our character, then that’s a sufficient condition of moral responsibility, and we can be said to have the only kind of freedom that’s ‘worth wanting’.

One way to make your way through these competing notions is to ask yourself what you’re willing to give up: so, to be a determinist, you must be willing to give up any substantive notion of moral responsibility; to be a libertarian, you must be willing to give up the idea that everything in the world is governed by the law of causality; and to be a compatibilist, you must be willing to give up the notion that freedom requires that our actions not be determined by events over which we have no control.

Alternatively, you might ask what it is you cannot part with: is it moral responsibility? the scientific worldview? the acceptation of freedom?

Another way to make your way through these ideas is to consider the weakness(es) of each position: so the determinist must concede that there’s nothing immoral about genocide, since nothing is ‘really’ immoral; the libertarian must be comfortable with a notion of freedom that seems impossible to make sense of, for if my actions are not caused, in what sense are they mine, and how does this help with moral responsibility?; and the compatibilist must admit that although one’s actions are determined by events that occurred prior to one’s birth, they’re nonetheless free.

Perhaps now you can see why I’m so confused about this issue!

Here’s where I currently hang my hat: since I’m more certain that genocide is immoral than I am that every single event in the universe is caused, I find that I can’t accept determinism; and, since I think that the notion that I’m morally responsible for actions that I was determined to perform by events that occurred long before I was born is incoherent, I find that I can’t accept compatibilism; therefore, I’m left with a very tentative acceptance of libertarian freedom (LF).

While I concede that I can’t formulate an intelligible notion of LF beyond ‘whatever sort of freedom is necessary for moral responsibility,’ that’s not the same as concluding that the notion itself is unintelligible, as I would say is the case with compatibilist freedom (though the fact that I can’t intelligibly conceive of LF may indeed count as evidence of its ultimate unintelligibility). The former requires only my bafflement, while the latter requires a demonstration of incoherence.

Now the notion that we’re ‘somehow’ free in ‘the sense moral responsibility requires’, but not in this or that particular sense, doesn’t amount to a terrifically substantive position. Alas, it’s as far as I’ve gotten. But we might make the position a bit more tenable by presenting one sort of argument that might be used to support it. So, if we consider the following ‘transcendental’ argument form,

(1) Some phenomenon P obtains
(2) C is a necessary condition of P
(3) Hence, C

we might formulate an argument for LF as follows:

(1′) We are morally responsible for our actions
(2′) Having LF is a necessary condition of moral responsibility
(3′) Hence, we have LF

I think that most of us would concede that (1′) is true (if not in argument, then minimally in action — if you treat someone who claims to reject the notion of moral responsibility unjustly, chances are he’ll let you know that your treatment was unjust, and so we can say he ‘dispositionally’ believes in moral responsibility); hence, the controversial premise is (2′), and the primary difficulty with it is formulating a notion of LF that’s both coherent and capable of sufficiently latching on to the individual person in a way as to make sense of moral responsibility. Since I cannot yet provide that formulation of LF, I remain a mere tentative libertarian.

OK, now it’s your turn!


Kant and Mill on the golden rule

Bill asked:

What is the philosophy that teaches:

‘Do what you like without impacting others’?

I heard of this theory recently but i would like to learn more about it. It seems like a better version of the biblical ‘Do unto others’.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

These are ostensibly two different principles, and not different versions of the same principle.

The first, ‘Do what you like without impacting others’ is a version of J.S. Mill’s Liberty Principle expounded in his book On Liberty (1869).

The second, ‘Do unto others as you would them do unto you’ is known as the Golden Rule, taken from the New Testament, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Kant noted that his Categorical Imperative — in the first formulation, ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’ — is an improved version of the idea underlying the Golden Rule beause it takes away any suggestion of a merely ’empirical’ motivation. Someone who just doesn’t care about what others ‘do unto them’ would be capable of any action, if the only rule governing ethics was the Golden Rule. It can’t be a merely empirical matter of fact, whether you ‘care’ or not. Reason alone determines the right action, according to Kant.

Mill was consciously adding to Kant, in enunciating his Liberty Principle. Mill is concerned with actions which we are tempted to do for the betterment of others. It is said that people don’t always know what is in their best interests, and in that case we have to make decisions for them — using the law, if necessary. This is the seemingly altruistic notion that Mill is concerned to contest.

On a possible reading of Kant, using the law to enforce behaviour which is in a person’s own best interests — for example, a law against marijuana, or a law which requires the wearing of seat belts — is consistent with the Categorical Imperative, but inconsistent with Mill’s Liberty Principle.

As is often the case in philosophy, things are not so simple. Mill stated in his essay Utilitarianism (1863) that he was following Kant’s idea of the Categorical Imperative in enunciating the Greatest Happiness Principle, and there is insufficient evidence that he fundamentally changed his view in the six years between the two essays. It could be argued that restricting another person’s freedom, even for benevolent motives, goes against the Categorical Imperative. On the other hand, it is not at all clear that examples like probibited drugs, or seat belts, are cases where people only hurt themselves. Drug use does impact non-drug users, and drivers or passengers injured because they didn’t wear seat belts divert the valuable resources of hospitals and medical services.

The key point for Mill is that individuality is an essential ingredient in human happiness, and must be protected at all costs, even at the price of allowing people to sometimes make bad judgements which cause harm to themselves. You can argue with someone, but you can’t physically interfere. A human being must be free to attempt ‘experiments in living’ as Mill calls it. It is in making a unique life for ourselves that we exercise our highest capacities.

For Kant, the most important thing about a human being is the faculty of
rationality. In another formulation of the Categorical Imperative, human beings ought to act ‘as law making members of the Kingdom of Ends’. The moral laws we live by are discovered by reason, and reason alone.

It could be argued that these ideas, when pursued to the limit, are inconsistent. If the capacity for reason alone constitutes the human essence, then we are all somehow ‘the same’. If our essence is individuality, then we are each of us uniquely different, and the better for it. But perhaps both can be true: for it is our very capacity to create an individual life that defines what all human beings — or indeed all rational beings — have in common.