What if the human race screws up?

Peter asked:

It is widely accepted that there is a high probability of intelligent life on other planets. Given that there is so much we don’t know about how life began, that seems a sensible judgement.

But suppose we discovered evidence that made it extremely likely that the human race is alone. Intelligent life has just one shot to get things right, and if we screw up then there are no more chances, ever.

Would that make a difference to how we live? (I’m thinking of global warming, nuclear proliferation, etc.)

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I do question the supposition ‘that there is a high probability of intelligent life on other planets’. It is a conjecture based entirely on the rise of intelligent life on earth, and there is not a smidgin of actual evidence from anywhere else, not even the solar system. In short, we simply extrapolate from the evolution of life on earth a handful of principles which could conceivably occur elsewhere in the universe. But it is not a compelling argument.

So the evidence you ask for, that the human race may be alone, is more powerful than the contrary supposition. And so to your question: What if we succeed in screwing it up?

I would suggest to you that it would mean the end of only a particular form of intelligence. We have a tendency of exalting it, even to the extent of dreaming about ‘theories of everything’ and playing God with genetically modified life forms. But clearly, if it were to end in a nuclear catastrophe, any putative aliens watching could come to only one conclusion: That our supposed intelligence was far outweighed by our collateral stupidity.

What then? The earth would be rid of a dangerously delusional and immensely rapacious life form. And since all evolutionary evidence points to failed gene pools never being re-used, we would not get a second chance. But intelligence itself would endure, because nuclear fallout does not affect the survival of anaerobic life forms. Let’s not forget that on a 36-hour clock, Homo sapiens is only 2-3 seconds old; that’s all it has taken for the human brand of intelligence to misfire. But the possibilities and opportunities for other kinds of intelligence to emerge from our fiasco are endless in the geological long-term view.

Keeping a terminal scenario before our eyes should obviously affect the way we live. But we humans are also an extremely short-sighted species. We can hardly plan for more than one generation into the future. Thus we think nothing today of the possibility that we are robbing our grand-children of maybe half or all the resources of civilisation that we still enjoy. That’s not very intelligent and the negative imprint of our vaunted intelligence. Paraphrasing Schopenhauer, we humans have accustomed ourselves to employing our intellect to furnish us with cogent arguments in support of the stupid things we do. It’s a very pessimistic view on our future; but unless the many find ways of depriving the few of the power with which they bring ruin on our head, we can only hope that there is really a God who won’t let it happen!


Plato’s allegory of the cave

Sam asked:

What could be the explanation of epistemology using Plato’s allegory of the cave?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Plato must have been an excellent teacher. Many people might dislike his use of the technique of dialogue and metaphor, and they would no doubt have preferred him to write text books, or straightforward academic papers. But there is no quarrelling with the tension and drama he creates with his particular methods. I have often imagined him holding a group of his students rapt, as he drew out the lessons from the cave metaphor, perhaps drawing a diagram of the cave and its occupants in the sand, using his staff. I have been a lecturer myself, and often wished I could have devised teaching metaphors as vivid.

Many teachers of philosophy since Plato have used and elaborated on the cave metaphor, sometimes adding details (why not? Metaphor is a very flexible technique) and sometime paring the image down a little. The main details are always;

• A cave with just one small entrance

• A group of people who could be actual slaves, or who could be slaves in the sense that they are in thrall to false data masquerading as knowledge

• The ‘slaves’ sit with their backs to the entrance, watching the wall before them

• There is a fire at the entrance to the cave

• People passing between the fire and the cave entrance are shadow on the back wall of the cave.

• The slaves believe that these shadow images represent reality, and have no direct apprehension of the objects causing the shadows

Think of the metaphor first, as offering Plato’s opinion on the various sources of knowledge, perception, testimony, memory, reason and introspection. What the inhabitants of the cave apprehend consists just of shadow images. The objects which are casting these shadows are outside the cave and, if they partake of reality at all, are just a pale imitation of it. The shadows in the cave are not knowledge in the way that many people today consider it; as justified true belief. If the slaves could turn round, or better still, leave the cave, they would, (after becoming attuned to the bright light), see that what they have taking for reality is just an illusion, and the real objects are outside the cave. The shadows on the cave wall are the objects of perception, and as long we take them at face value, can never provide us with true knowledge. The only way we can acquire true knowledge is by seeing what is causing the shadows.

To do this, Plato tells us that we must abandon our total trust in perceptual knowledge and use our reason. Only by using reason can we acquire knowledge of what is outside the cave. In Plato’s own language in the theory of forms, we need to apprehend the true ‘form’ of knowledge, rather than the pale perceptual copies of it. If you wish to add more metaphor still, you can think of ‘a veil of perception’ between the inhabitants of the cave and what lies outside, preventing them from getting to know the real truth. You could argue that the power of Plato’s metaphor breaks down a little here, as you could just argue that the clueless cave dwellers could just get up, turn around and leave the cave. Job done! This is true knowledge! However, the metaphor can still be argued for by saying that this is not an option for any of us; we cannot come out of the cave, peer through the veil of perception, or even turn round. Our only hope is to use our reason to try and gain an insight about what lies outside our dark, damp smelly cave.

Another image I have of Plato teaching, is to visualise him using his cave metaphor to give a lesson in how we might change from being a shadow-fixated slave to becoming a free person, strolling in the sun-bright, knowledge-rich area outside the cave. The path from perceptual delusion to true knowledge is not easy. One of the slaves is gradually introduced to the outside world, not without some kicking and screaming apparently. The slave is only taken from the cave very gradually and is very reluctant to leave the apparent (but illusory) certainties of his habitat. He is blinded by the light, and takes a long time to get used to it, but after doing so, begins to apprehend things as they are. The real form of knowledge is at last acquired. This part of the cave metaphor is to demonstrate that there is a very long educational process needed before our slave of perception can gaze at the sun of reason. Not every one of the slaves will be able to benefit from such an education, and the process is long and arduous.

Finally, the enlightened sage will reluctantly return to the cave, to live with, and share the problems of the cave dwellers. The newly enlightened one, in attempting to enlighten the others will often meet with opposition and sometimes outward derision. Clearly, even the trustworthy testimony of a philosopher as to the nature of truth could be regarded with suspicion.

I do not think I have exhausted the possible lessons which could be drawn from the analogy of the cave, but the above is at least a start.


The Matrix and philosophy

Lucy asked:

According to Descartes, before Neo is freed from the Matrix (i.e. when his body and brain are still imprisoned by the machines), can he properly claim to know anything at all? If so, give an example of something he can know and explain why it counts as knowledge.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Actually your question should go much further. Before asking how much (if any) knowledge Neo might possess, you should enquire if Neo has the capacity to think; and whether, upon his exit from the matrix, if he is actually fit to live in the empirical world.

So we start with him as a typical denizen of the matrix, which is to say, as a particular instantiation of a computer program which controls his brain. As his brain’s inputs have been disconnected from his body, Neo’s sensory experience from birth to manhood is negligible. His body has not gone through the mandatory process of priming it for life in an empirical (social and natural) habitat. I regret to say that the movie skips over this elementary item, as if it didn’t matter or could be circumvented. But it does matter and cannot be circumvented.

To elaborate on this: One of the really useful aspects of philosophy is, that it teaches one to take unquestioned presuppositions apart and subpoena the evidence on which the whole construction might rest. You would undoubtedly agree that the explanation of the origin and constitution of the matrix is pretty rough and obscure. No details! Instead we are fobbed off with intuition pump that suggests to us that the denizens of the matrix are all exemplifications of Descartes’ ‘thinking thing’ or, in its updated terminology, the ‘brain in the vat’ hypothesis. Descartes does not speculate on the possibility of a brain being dissociated from its body and allocated to another; but it is implied in the hypothesis. The ‘brain in the vat’ hypothesis takes this implication to the stage of running the idea through a series of thought experiments. ‘The Matrix’ hangs it on a salvationist story line, by insinuating that Neo’s instantiation is an instance of a glitch in the system, as he has the capacity of discerning a flaw in its architecture that enables him to sabotage it.

His brain, like all others, is being fed data by the system, on which it can work and produce images that emulate the normal life cycle of a person. But the glitch has already enabled others to escape; and this can mean nothing other than somehow (no details!) re-connecting these brains with their own body.

However, there is another glitch, this time in the theory. Let’s re-enter the matrix for a moment and examine the crack in its edifice. Everyone knows that a huge preponderance of the signalling traffic between the body’s nervous system and the brain is concerned with evaluating real time occasions. Accordingly, in an empirical habitat, the outcome of the brain’s manipulation of all the inflowing signals is a corresponding outflow of signals into the body, consisting of options for behaviour, motion, exertion etc. So body, brain and mind are an integrated feedback system; and now the obvious question must be asked, apropos the matrix: where does this return traffic flow to, when there is no body to respond to it?

It flows back into the matrix, But the matrix cannot maintain the two-way feedback, as it cannot handle the infinite regress of the continuous ricochetting of responses between brain and body (the famous halting problem). Biological organisms don’t have this problem, because they make constant arbitrary, spontaneous decisions involving equipollence breaking. As one biologist famously said, body and brain working in tandem produce lots of ‘quick dirty fixes’ for real time situations — a best guess from 5 to 50 alternatives that has the merit of promoting survival, if not logic! A computer program can’t work that way; it needs precise data and unambiguous yes/ no alternatives for its logic gates. Moreover, the matrix is a closed system, and this implies that over certain stretches of time it would have to recycle of all its contents in new mixes, as otherwise the signalling tree would rapidly outgrow the system’s capacity to operate in ‘real time’.

In a word, the ‘individuals’ in the system are not evolved, but reconstituted entities, and the resources of the matrix constrained to a finite quantity inside the boundary of its architecture.

Returning now to the rebels, but focussing on Neo because he is the new boy on the block, we come upon the third and most fatal objection. Which is that Neo would be unfit to live an empirical earthly life, precisely because the body-brain feedback system has been truncated. Inside the matrix, his brain produces images that are a simulacrum of human society, but — they are images, nothing else.

In real life, images are only a part of the brain’s work. As it works in real time, most of the results of mental processing are actions. Accordingly Neo’s exit from the matrix subjects him immediately to a sensory environment of which he has almost zero experience and therefore none of the know-how that is required to cope with real-life stimuli and situations. He would be helpless as a new-born babe. To repeat this important principle: life in the matrix is not sensory, as the information is already formed to produce images in the brain. This is frequently overlooked, especially by those who subscribe to the incorrect assumption that every stimulus impacting on the body is registered in the brain. In fact, a very large percentage of sensory information is pre-processed and filtered before it reaches the brain, and another large percentage is withheld altogether, if it can be dealt with in situ.

Thus all living bodies maintain a certain amount of autonomy, which is indeed crucial, because the last thing that e.g. the metabolic and homeostatic systems want is for the brain to interfere with their delicately tuned microprocesses. Besides, every organ and every fibre in the body has to be primed for optimum performance in the subject’s habitat, and none of this has any relevance to the brain.

Consider now a couple of absolutely basic facts of life. The matrix is not a habitat. Therefore he has never learnt to use his eyes, ears or tongue. He doesn’t need them in the matrix! But in real life, he needs them for orientation on what’s going on. Babies learn the use of eyes, ears and tongue in the first years of life. Neo missed out.

In a word: None of his biological fibres have been primed for the conditions of life in an empirical habitat. This means that his brain knows literally nothing that pertains to living; and his body has not acquired any navigation, orientation and anticipation skills. On top, his muscles and nerves would be totally dysfunctional (maybe atrophied) and the ordinary living pressures he encounters on his entry into the ‘dirty’ world of reality would induce high levels of distress, disorientation, fear, excessive blood pressure, breathing difficulty etc. etc.

I come to conclusions. The proposition of ‘The Matrix’ is about the energy of living humans being sucked into the matrix for power. But this is all one-way traffic (as they say, the body is basically a battery). About Neo’s brain, the most favourable hypothesis would be that, perhaps, he acquired some purely intellectual knowledge such as mathematical equations. But as he cannot be a knowing agent, this is tantamount to proposing that knowledge is something that can exist on its own, without being held by knower. That may suffice for the matrix, but it is nonsense in the real world.

Altogether: Entertaining movie; insupportable presuppositions; careless stitching together of several incompatible scientific-philosophical theories; internal self-contradictions; inadmissable conflation of two disparate states of existence.

Final answer: Neo is merely the simulation of a person. Try to work out how he ‘exists’ if someone got hold of the main switch and turned the power for the whole matrix off. Then you also have the answer to how much knowledge he has.


Does it matter if nothing’s real?

Dakota asked:

Does anything matter if nothing’s real?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

If nothing is real then you aren’t real and your question isn’t real. I am not real, the internet isn’t real and my answer isn’t real. Fortunately all these things are real so they all matter. What we need to explain to ourselves is how thinking philosophically can tempt us to think that everything might not be real.


Practical philosophies

Sisella asked:

Existentialism and Stoicism are two well known philosophies of life. Are there any others you can think of? What makes a philosophy ‘practical’?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Philosophy, as much as it is hard to believe nowadays, very much started out as a practical endeavor. For many of the ancient Greek philosophers — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno, and a number of others — it simply would not have made much sense to think of philosophy as detached from everyday life. The very word ‘philosophy,’ after all, means love of wisdom, not love of academic discussions that nobody else cares about.

So, aside from Stoicism (which originated in Greece during the Hellenistic period and flourished during the Roman Empire) and Existentialism (a 20th century approach developed especially by French writers like J.P. Sartre, S. de Beauvoir, and A. Camus) a number of practical philosophies have been proposed in both the Western and Eastern traditions. Just to name a few: Cynicism (in the ancient Greek sense, not meaning a club of nasty naysayer), Epicureanism (which, contra popular opinion, it’s not all about seeking carnal pleasures), Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Moreover, these days there is a healthy (I think) blurring of the line separating philosophy and psychology, particularly so-called positive psychology, i.e. the psychology of life’s meaning and affirmation. Consider two well established approaches to psychotherapy: logotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Logotherapy was established by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who tried to learn from his terrible experience and make it the foundation of a general method of coping with life’s difficulties. Similarly, the related cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on practical ways to analyze one’s faulty thinking about difficult situations in life, attempting to redirect thoughts and emotions through repeated practice. Interestingly, cognitive behavioral and similar type of approaches have been found empirically to be the most effective therapies for actually changing human behavior for the better.

Your question mentions Stoicism, and it is crucial to note that both logotherapy, and especially cognitive behavioral therapy, have been greatly influenced by that ancient practical philosophy. Stoics were concerned with three general areas of inquiry: logic, physics, and ethics. By logic they meant not just the kind of formal logic we study today, but more generally anything to do with reasoned discourse and epistemology (theories of knowledge). Physics for the Stoics included the natural sciences broadly construed, as well as metaphysics. Finally, ethics was concerned with knowledge of what it takes to pursue the good life, what the Greek called eudaimonia.

The important thing to appreciate is that the Stoics saw both physics and logic as directly related to ethics, that is they conceived a coherent philosophical system that made their ethical precepts consistent with what we know about the world (science, metaphysics) and about reason (logic, epistemology). This may explain a recent resurgent interest in Stoicism, with the University of Exeter actually organizing an annual ‘Stoic Week’ at the end of November every year (try it out: it encourages people to live like a Stoic for a few days, logging their experiences on the initiative’s web site, essentially conducting an ongoing social experiment in practical philosophy).

The other thing to note is that for a number of years now some philosophers have taken to develop a practical application usually known as philosophical counseling, often nicknamed ‘therapy for the sane.’ This can be done in a number of ways, and you can find out more through popular books like my colleague Lou Marinoff’s Plato, Not Prozac! Philosophical counselors draw from the vast variety of practical philosophical traditions (including the above mentioned Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Existentialism) to help people cope more rationally with life’s everyday challenges.


Philosophy as classic liberal education

Phil asked:

I intend to give myself a systematic classic liberal education for the next 5-10 years. I realize one could spend a lifetime with one philosopher such as Nietzsche, Aristotle, Plato, and many others. Having said that, I want to read the texts of about 25 or so of the greatest political and moral philosophers and determine for myself what they say. I have read many of them for school or pleasure already along with a lot of criticism but I want to start fresh.

My questions on how to proceed are manifold. I am equally interested in theology, and understand Aquinas and Augustine as well as others in the Christian tradition wrote on politics and morals so should I include them in my study? Or should I do a separate study on Christian philosophy? Should I narrow my focus to something specific like ‘what is the best form of government?’ or ‘what kind of person should governor’ ‘or ‘how should children be educated?’ I really am most interested in political philosophy and how it can be used for today’s problems.

The next question is, after reading Plato and analyzing it myself should I start on criticism of him to compare with my analysis or proceed to the next philosopher, who would most likely be Aristotle? Should I include novels and fiction like The Iliad, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, etc? And if I do, should I read them during the period of philosophy in which they were written or just as supplemental not in any particular order? Another idea I am considering is to just start with Homer, work through some histories and then begin Plato and see where that leads? There is just an overwhelming amount of work in the Western Tradition and I need guidance on where to begin and how to proceed.

Answer by Julian Plumley

The first thing is that philosophy isn’t really something you study, it is something you do. Treating it as ‘getting an education,’ especially treating it like learning history, is not a good idea. You risk getting part way into your programme and getting stuck and demotivated. You mention political philosophy. What about this is most interesting to you? What questions do you have, which authors have you always wanted to study? You can read some introductory articles on the subject, for example at the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia site: http://plato.stanford.edu/contents.html. But what are you going to do with what you learn? Write a blog, write an essay, maybe contribute to Ask a Philosopher? Without knowing that, it is very hard to keep this effort up.

The second thing is that philosophy is by far the most confusing subject to study. The scope is enormous; there are no signposts. But it is critical for you to get ‘lost’ in philosophy, in order to really learn anything. It is emphatically not a subject where you can proceed from one classic book to another and eat it all up. Just learning what each philosopher said about such-and-such isn’t much use, because it will not be actionable for you. You should keep reading modern criticisms of classical works and up-to-date papers to better understand what you are looking at, and especially to see what questions they ask of the source materials. Follow your nose, browse and dip into things to see if they are useful for you. For sure, quite a lot of what you read will not make sense at first, but it may do later. And you will find your own voice.

My specific advice is that you study for a qualification — one that has exams that test you. (I did the London philosophy BA, International program — but your choice should be guided by your interests.) This is not so much because you will end up with a certificate. There are two more important things that that. Firstly, the curriculum and the reading list will have hopefully been chosen by someone with wide experience of the subject. And secondly, because exams force you to put things together in your mind in a coherent way. They force you to stop being lost and find your own path through the material. Certainly, from my own experience, I don’t think I would have learned much without the discipline of essay-writing and exams.

Lastly, I question the premise of starting with classic texts, such as Plato, in order to understand today’s problems. Yes, they are relevant, but not always in an obvious way. Why not start with modern authors, and recent academic work? For sure, you will find that they refer back to Plato and all the rest. But then you will have some thread to follow when you read them yourself. This is not to say that gaining a broad knowledge of philosophy is not useful, it is. But philosophy is guided firstly by the questions we have now. Good luck!


Philosophical views on love

Maurice asked:

What is love? Have philosophers anything useful to add to Plato’s discussion of this question in the ‘Symposium’?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Philosophers have been discussing the idea of love and its implications for human affairs at least since Plato. Modern philosophers have proposed four different, though perhaps partially overlapping, conceptions of love that are significantly distinct from those of the ancients: (1) love as an emotion, (2) love as a ‘robust concern,’ (3) love as a union, and (4) love as valuing the other.

Let us start with the idea of robust concern. The defining feature of this kind of love is selfless interest in the other’s well-being, for his or her sake and not because we gain anything out of it. In the somewhat dry and formal words of philosopher Gabriele Taylor: ‘If x loves y then x wants to benefit and be with y etc., and he has these wants (or at least some of them) because he believes y has some determinate characteristics Ψ in virtue of which he thinks it worthwhile to benefit and be with y. He regards satisfaction of these wants as an end and not as a means towards some other end.’

All right, I promise never to quote a technical paper on the philosophy of love directly again, because this is the sort of thing that gives philosophers a bad reputation. Still, what Taylor is saying is that we don’t love the other (y) because her characteristics (Ψ) benefit us, but because they are worth cherishing in their own right. Although this idea of selfless love has some commonsense appeal, there also seems to be something clearly amiss. As another philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, put it (not a direct quote!), the idea is that robust love is neither a matter of feelings nor a matter of opinions, but a matter of will: we love someone in a robust fashion because she acts in accordance with a set of motives and preferences that we approve of.

A second modern philosophical view to entertain is that of love as valuing the other person. The basic idea is that love means to value someone in himself or herself, and that we do so because of an appraisal that centers on the dignity of that person. If this sounds a bit abstract and detached from the real world, well, it is. But there is an important kernel that philosophers who support the value conception of love are trying to get at: the idea that a love object (a person) cannot simply be swapped for another one with similar characteristics, because this would violate the dignity of both people. Think of the ‘robust concern’ view just discussed: there is nothing in that view that would preclude you from having the same ‘concern’ for (that is, loving) another object with the same characteristics as the one you are loving now. You could therefore swap gods or lovers, or even love many gods and many people at the same time, as long as they share the same set of characteristics (Ψ). Some people might be okay with this, but others feel that real love ought to be more exclusive and less subject to commodification. If you are in the latter group, then the value view of love might fit you well.

The third modern philosophical perspective is of love as a union. This is the idea that what is central to love is two independent individuals forming a third, collective union, a ‘we’ that becomes more important than and transcends each individual ‘I.’ Some philosophers speak of this ‘we’ entity in a clearly metaphorical way, while others seem to give a more serious ontological (pertinent to existence) status to the ensemble, almost as if it really were a new individual in its own right. As with the value view of love, the union conception tries to capture something that most people who have been or are in love can relate to: the creation of a new set of priorities as the couple as a unit becomes more important than the individuals who constitute it. But therein lies a problem as well: human beings are both social and fairly individualistic animals, and one can object that a union view of love puts too much emphasis on the couple at the expense of personal space, rights, and dignity. As we all know, it is precisely this tension between joint and individual needs that often is at the root of relationship problems in real life.

Finally, we turn to the emotional view of love. In philosophy an emotion is a combination of an evaluation of the object of the emotion and a motivational response to that object. For instance, if I’m afraid of you, that means I have evaluated you as somehow dangerous to my health, and it probably also means that I am prepared to take some action against you, either defensive or evasive. Of course, thinking of love as an emotion would hardly be surprising for the non-philosopher, but the question for us here is: What sort of understanding of the phenomenon can be gained this way? And what potential problems arise if we conceptualize love primarily as an emotion?

One thing that philosophers get out of emotional theories of love is being allowed to distinguish loving someone from simply liking someone. If love is a distinct and deeper sort of emotion than the emotions elicited by friendship or admiration, then we begin to see why those other experiences are so clearly not like love. According to several philosophers who support an emotional view of love, what accounts for much of this difference is that we share a unique narrative history with the beloved: regardless of how he or she will change throughout life, we keep accumulating common memories of events and situations that are obviously unrepeatable with anyone else. This, according to such philosophers, also explains why we don’t commonly ‘trade up’ at the first opportunity, why we do not switch partners as soon as we meet someone with even better characteristics (call them ‘ Ψ+’) than the one we are currently engaged with.