Things I might have been born ‘as’

geedeecee asked:

If animals were conscious isn’t it more likely that you would be be an animal? I mean there’s thousands more animals than humans so what’s the chances of finding yourself human? Doesn’t this mean animals are not likely to be conscious?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Your argument is valid only if the probability of a human being conscious is equal to the probability of a (non-human) animal being conscious; and why should they be equal? On the other hand, you might consider the possibility that some animals are in fact conscious: dogs, cats, and horses, for example, while others such as bumble bees are not.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a very strange but intriguing question. Let’s consider the notion of ‘what are your chances of finding yourself human’.

This seems to imply that (a) your existence in some form or other was necessary (has a probability of 1) (b) that ‘you’ could have been anything ‘conscious’ — whatever that means (I won’t go into that). If on some planet there were 100 conscious apes and a 100 conscious humans then your chances of being human would be 50/50. If there are 200 billion conscious animals and 4 billion conscious humans then your chances of being human would be 1 in 50. And so on. Is that the idea?

To do the calculation properly, one would have to include the time element: all conscious non-human animals who have existed or will ever exist, versus all humans who have existed or will ever exist. You could come into existence at any time, past, present or future — so long as (say) the Earth exists. (Then again, why not include the whole universe?)

However, there is a problem with this. Assumption (a) is problematic. Why did you have to exist? The picture this conjures up is that ‘you’ are some soul or essence waiting to be incarnated in a physical form. What grounds do you have for that assumption? Only your conviction that you had to exist, that you could not have not existed. Why must that be true?

I agree with you that this is how one feels, when you consider the seemingly miraculous fact of your own existence. The problem is making coherent sense of that feeling. I look at this in the fourth chapter of my book Semolina Pilchard — a philosophical journey (Download Preview), ‘I exist therefore what?’

"In order to be here, writing this, my father had to produce the sperm that fertilized my mother’s egg, which grew into a foetus and eventually became me. If the sperm and egg had not come together, I would not have existed. But exactly the same applies to the existence of my parents, and their grand parents, their great grand parents, and so on. If any one of those links in the chain had been broken — going right back to the beginning of the human race — I would not be here today.

All in all, an incredible chance, a fantastical improbability.

It’s almost impossible to believe. But let’s just look at the alternative.

I had to exist. I could not have failed to have been born. How does that sound? slightly mad?

Am I willing to grant the same about [you]? Not at all. I have not the slightest difficulty in supposing that [you]… might not have existed."

That’s the point. Whatever the source of your metaphysical conviction that you had to exist — the only question being who or what you were going to be — it seems much harder to maintain that conviction with respect to any other conscious being.


Objections to emotivism

Joseph asked:

What are the objections to emotivism?

Answer by Graham Hackett

To see what the main objections to emotivism are, we would need to know what problems its originators thought it solved, in the first place.

Consider these problems:

1. are our moral judgements powered by our reason or our emotions?

2. are our moral judgements and values objective?

3. can we say of our moral judgments that they are true or false?

One approach to these problems is called cognitivism. To be a cognitivist we would need to hold that statements about moral beliefs and values are ‘truth apt’, meaning that it is possible to say that they are true or false. Also, it is necessary to hold the view that the circumstances which make such statements true or false do not just depend upon us; they are objective in some manner. Cognitivists would say that there are ‘facts of the matter’ which are ‘out there’, and which make our moral pronouncements true or false. So, to take an example used by Simon Blackburn, if we say,

‘setting fire to cats is wrong.’

the cognitivist would be able to answer ‘true’ or ‘false’, and also say that there are objective facts they can refer to, in order to support the answer.

Some philosophers argue that this approach is all wrong, and they are referred to as non cognitivists. They say moral statements are not truth apt – it is just not possible at all to answer ‘true’ or ‘false’ to them. Secondly, there are no objective facts-of-the- matter to which one can refer when claiming support for moral pronouncements. Emotivists are non-cognitivists.

Emotivism was largely a development of the logical positivist A J Ayer. The logical positivists were concerned with reducing the real world to entities which were provable and discoverable by science and mathematics, or which were analytic truths (obvious to the unaided reason). There was no room in such a viewpoint for moral facts. Ayer would hold that moral statements are just not capable of being held to be true or false. Further, what we are doing when we are making moral judgements is making emotional statements of approval or disapproval. So when we say,

‘Setting fire to cats is wrong.’

we are actually saying,

‘Boo to setting fire to cats’.

You may already know the the sardonic reference to emotivism as ‘the boo-hurrah’ theory.

Opponents of emotivism argue that it removes the universally objective grounding for moral statements. If moral statements have no truth values, and if there are no moral facts in any case to ground such statements, then where does the authority for moral judgements come from? Some think this is quite a telling criticism, and there have been various attempts to answer it. C L Stephenson, who agreed with Ayer about the emotive nature of moral judgements thought that moral language had also a ‘magnetic’ quality about it, the idea being that it attracted (or repelled). It had an imperative quality which urged us to act. However, it could be said that this just resurrects the moral authority question in another direction; what gives moral judgements their imperative nature?

There is a view called Moral Fictionalism, which holds that non cognitivism is true, and that there are no such thing as objective moral facts. Nevertheless, it is possible to follow a pragmatic approach and hold that moral principles are a useful fiction, and we should behave as though they are true! You may find this a feather odd approach, and, in fact, there are few modern philosophers who advocate it. However, you should take a look at the view known as Quasi Realism developed by Simon Blackburn. Blackburn borrowing ideas from John Hume, holds that our emotions ‘gild and stain’ the natural world, so that although there are really no objective moral facts independent of us, it seems as though there are. Our moral susceptibilities are projected onto the real world. Blackburn has also developed a form of logic to help explain why we can legitimately talk about moral truths and untruths even though there are no such things actually in existence. It is also Blackburn’s long term project to develop a form of moral realism which is compatible with emotivism. It is a moot point how far he has been able to do this, and even whether it is possible, but he is very keen to deal with what he called the ‘schizoid attitude’ to moral values, which is one of the main criticisms of emotivism. The schizoid attitude occurs when we hold the position that there are no such thing as moral facts, yet pragmatically continue to behave as if there are.

Another problem for emotivism has to do with moral disagreement. Clearly, if moral statements are just expressions of approval/disapproval, then there appears to be no possibility of disagreement. If I say; ‘Abortion is wrong’, and you say; ‘Abortion is right’, then this might seem to be like a disagreement. Remember though, that these statements are really saying ‘Abortion ! Boo!’ and ‘Abortion! Hurrah!’ There is no argument going on. You might think that there is something wrong here, since experience seems to suggest that moral disagreement occurs all the time. Yet expressionism does not seem to be able to give a good account of it. Finally, we mention the Frege-Geach problem, which many seem to think is the chief problem for expressionism (and for other forms of non cognitivism).

Consider the following exchange

1. Murder is wrong.

2. If murder is wrong then it is wrong to hire someone as an assassin.

3. It is wrong to hire someone as an assassin.

This seems like a standard logical argument. However, In statement 1, ‘murder is wrong’ is an expression of disapproval, whereas in statement 2, it is not being asserted, so is not an expression of disapproval. This means that the statement changes its meaning between 1. and 2. This change of meaning is called a ‘fallacy of equivocation’, and means that expressions 1. 2. and 3. do not constitute a logical argument. It would mean that for non-cognitivists like emotivists, the ordinary rules of logic do not apply. Such a problem does not exist for cognitivists, because moral statements are propositions like any other, and are truth-assessable. This may sound like an abstruse problem, but what you should remember is that it seems to make logical argument about moral judgements and values impossible. Although there have been attempts to dissolve the Frege Geach problem, it remains in dispute whether the problem has been solved.


‘Hard’ determinism revisited

Greg asked:

Is hard determinism consistent with knowledge; that is, is it consistent with justified true belief? It’s the ‘justified’ condition that strikes me as problematic. If hard determinism is true, then wouldn’t my thoughts (including my belief in the truth of hard determinism) be the predetermined outcome of physical events in my brain? It may well be that natural selection favors my having certain (predetermined) thoughts in various circumstances, but the survival value of those thoughts is not necessarily the same as their truth value.

As a boy, when I first came across the stock syllogism, ‘All human beings are mortal, etc.’ it took a second or two for me to grasp its logic. My mental effort and subsequent understanding felt like the opposite of experiencing an automatic brain process; e.g., a startle reaction. And how would the ability to grasp a chain of formal logical reasoning have favored survival among the prehistoric environments under which such thinking would have presumably evolved?

In addition to your answer, I’d appreciate any recommended books or articles for further exploration of these topics. Thanks!

Hi, here’s one more question related to hard determinism: Is hard determinism utterly futile?

Here’s what I mean: Take the oftenheard argument that criminals should be treated leniently because (certainly under hard determinism) they aren’t morally responsible for their crimes. But, if we are to apply hard determinism consistently, a censorious judge can no more help being censorious than a criminal can help being antisocial. And the ‘bleeding hearts’ can’t do otherwise than bleed, and those who are moved can’t do otherwise than heed.

Like some vast Punch and Judy show set into motion, everyone does what the bouncing atoms bid them do. Our impact on each other is essentially the same as that of colliding billiard balls.

And if I despair that free choice is an illusion, even that despair is not my own, but just another predetermined swerve of the synapses.

And if I despair that even my despair is determinedeven THAT despair is not freely chosen.

Under hard determinism, I have no agency whatsoever. Contra the compatiblists, being a hand puppet is hardly an improvement over being a marionette.

A final irony: In the discussions of hard determinism that I’ve run across, the writers often lapse into addressing the reader as if they have a choice of how to react to their exhortationsbut I suppose the writers can’t help themselves.

Answer by Helier Robinson

First of all, the survival value of your thoughts IS the same as their truth value. False thoughts have no survival value except coincidently, such as: you avoid walking under a ladder, believing that this averts bad luck, and then do not get shot in a street shootout immediately after; but such coincidences cannot be relied upon. Whereas if you believe that learning to swim has survival value, so you learn to swim and one day fall overboard and manage to swim ashore, then your true believe did have survival value. More accurately, all thoughts that do have survival value have to be true, but not all true thoughts have survival value; if you prove to your own satisfaction what is the only value of n that satisfies the equation n plus n equals n times n, the result is true but is unlikely to have survival value.

Second, free choice almost certainly IS an illusion. A supposedly free choice is either caused, or else it is not caused. If it is caused then it is not free. If it is not caused then it is a chance event and so not willed, so not a free choice. Putting this another way, causal chains of events stretch into the past and into the future. A free choice is the start of a new chain, having no past antecedents; but how can that be?

So if determinism is true then you have no free choice. Tough. And if determinism is false then there are chance events but you still have no free will. Tough.


Defending Cartesian mind-body interactionism

Jennyfer asked:

Hello, I have a question about Descartes’ dualism. A lot of people have argued that with his dualism view comes the problem of interactionism: How can the mind have an influence on the body since it is a non-extended substance?

I was wondering how Descartes has defended his opinion when facing these criticisms. Did he consider that the union of the mind and the body (lying in pineal gland)was the reason of this interactionism? How did he explain that?
Thank you very much for your answer!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As you’re aware of his pineal gland hypothesis, you probably also know that he abandoned it, when told that dogs also possess a pineal gland. It did not seem right to him, as he had explicitly denied any form of conscious behaviour to animals. But whatever else may have been on his mind as a solution, it was no solution and, strictly speaking, that’s where his entire philosophy would have come unstuck, except for the fact that others (Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz et al) perceived it as a challenge.

Such a duality as Descartes proposed is, after all, highly intuitive. It is our daily experience. We tend to be a bit more graceful about it nowadays and accord intuition to animals as well. But the hard problem of how matter and non-matter can interact still leaves us between the devil and deep blue sea. Many of us (and our forefathers as well) have prematurely closed the question. In previous centuries by thinkers claiming that all matter is ultimately a derivative of the spirit; in our time by the opposite argument that all is matter and that therefore we only need to discover what kind of matter/energy equation settles Descartes’ issue.

As such problems always bring hardened dogmatists to the fore, it is appropriate to emphasise here that the Cartesian duality is not passe. It has been shoved under the carpet. Nevertheless, one prominent neurophysiologist — John Eccles, after all a Nobel Prize laureate — believed in Descartes’ proposition and spent years of research on it. Moreover, he believes to have discovered the interface where it all happens (not the pineal gland!). But this is much too complicated for a brief run-down. If you are interested, it is laid out in his book Evolution of the Brain — Creation of the Self, which I would therefore recommend for you to peruse. The section is entitled ‘The Microsite Hypothesis’ (p. 187ff in the Routledge paperback).


Time travel in a dream machine

Seymour asked:

We all know, currently, it’s impossible to ‘scientifically’ or ‘physically’ go back in time. But if you had the dying urge to do so, say if you wanted to correct a critical mistake you made, and provided you would not disastrously change the cause of history by doing so, could the following be plausible: you are given a drug which puts you in a coma for the rest of your life. You have a dream in that coma that lasts from when you were knocked out until your real-life death. The events in the dream start the day before you do this bad thing, so you can do something different instead. So essentially, this drug simulates your life from a certain point until your death.

My question is, is this the same as going back in time in reality (‘scientific’ or ‘physical’ time travel)? Or even, is there a difference between the two? And, what’s more important, the ‘reality’ of life, or our interpretation of it, or are they the same (because everyone has different interpretations)?

Answer by Helier Robinson

It depends on what you mean by ‘the same’. If you mean similar then of course the dream and reality are similar, except for your not doing the bad thing. If you mean identical, or one and the same, then of course the dream is not reality: dreams never are. Similarity has a plurality of terms, identity has only one; and ‘the same’ is ambiguous about these. Secondly, what do you mean about the reality of life? Reality is usually defined as all that exists independently of what anyone believes about it, and beliefs about it are true if they are similar to it, and otherwise false. So reality and a belief (or interpretation) about it are two, cannot be one; so what do you mean about them being ‘the same’?


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Before I answer your question, a spoiler alert. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen (but are planning to see) the movie Vanilla Sky (2001) starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, a remake of the movie Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos, 1997).

What you describe is basically the plot of Vanilla Sky. Honestly, I would much rather you saw the movie than read my answer (read the answer afterwards!).

OK, so we learn late in Vanilla Sky (warning, this is the big ‘reveal’) that much of what we thought was taking place in the life of the main character played by Tom Cruise, is actually a lucid dream. Following a disfiguring accident, he chose to be put to sleep, dreaming of the life he would have lived had the accident not taken place (he gets the girl, lives happily ever after, etc.). (This is a near-future where ‘dream machines’ have been developed.)

Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, and the dream morphs into a nightmare, forcing Tom into the big decision to have himself woken up to face the consequences of his actions in his ‘real’ life.

And that’s the point. Regardless of how well the dream machine works, you can always be woken up. That’s one definition of ‘reality’. An experience isn’t ‘real’ if there is the possibility of one’s being woken up.

That opens a can of worms, however. What kind of ‘possibility’ is this? I can conceive of the possibility of ‘waking up’ after I have finished writing this answer, to find that I am a nine-footed purple monster on the planet Zog who dreamed of being ‘human’. Is everything we can coherently conceive (in what sense of ‘conceive’?) actually possible?

I once thought I had an answer to this question, but I am not so sure now. ‘Reality’ is just whatever we take reality to be now, and if we find we were wrong (we wake up) then we just revise our definition.


‘Real’ and ‘nominal’ definitions

Marc asked:

My question concerns real vs. nominal definitions.

In brief: is it possible for real definitions to be either true or false?

For example, let’s assume I fix the denotation of the term ‘tiger’ (as I point to a large, four-legged cat). Then, I give a real definition of ‘tiger’: an eight-legged invertebrate.

Would it be reasonable to say that the real definition of ‘tiger’ I have given is false? Assuming the earlier denotation of ‘tiger’ I gave by pointing to actual large, four-legged cats?

Answer by Helier Robinson

I assume that you mean a real definition to be a definition of something in reality and a nominal definition to be a definition in language. A real definition is then a special case of a nominal definition (since it can hardly be a definition if it is not put into words) while a nominal definition may have no reference to reality but still be a definition (such as a mermaid being half woman, half fish).

We can then say that all real definitions are true, and all false definitions are nominal definitions. Ostensive definitions (definitions by pointing) become real definitions by assigning them a word, such as tiger, or a phrase such large four-legged cat; but the phrase must be a true description: eight-legged invertebrate is a false description and so a merely nominal definition.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question relates to the analysis of ‘natural kind’ terms, which was revived by Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke in the 1970s. Originally, a distinction coined by Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding the notion of a ‘real’ as opposed to a merely ‘nominal’ definition fell into disrepute — it had become associated with the supposedly ‘bad’ Aristotelian metaphysics of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, notions that looked suspect when viewed from the perspective of post logical-positivist analytic philosophy.

In his landmark paper, ‘Naming and Necessity’ (published in book form in 1980) Kripke showed a way to make sense of ‘real definitions’ of natural kind terms. To take an often quoted example, Gold, defined nominally as a ‘yellow metal, etc.’ is in fact not yellow in its pure form, but white. Iron Pyrites (fools gold) is not gold even though it is yellow and looks metallic.

What is Gold? Anything with the same atomic structure of that (pointing to a sample of gold). We identify samples of elements, say (it could equally be samples of animal species, such as a Tiger) and define the term as anything ‘similar in the theoretically relevant way’ to that.

This procedure, however, is not assumption free. You have to assume that the story about the Periodic Table of elements is true. It may be difficult to see how we could be wrong about that, but there will be other cases of ‘real definitions’ of supposedly ‘natural kinds’ which get going only because of a theory which is in fact false. We thought we knew what ‘kind’ we were pointing to but we were wrong.

With the perspective of a few decades, it now looks to me that the whole issue of ‘real essences’ and the revival of the Aristotelian/ Lockean notion of ‘essence’ was a trifle over-stated. Yes, there is an interesting distinction to be made, in relation to the practice of science — the way things are grouped into theoretically significant kinds. But really a ‘real definition’ is just a more sophisticated ‘kind’ (from the perspective of logic) of ‘nominal definition’. The idea of a real ‘real definition’ — which gets right down to the metaphysical nitty gritty of things — looks just as suspect now as it did in the heyday of logical positivism.