A Philosopher's Blog

Love, Voles & Spinoza

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on March 17, 2014
Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

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In my previous essays I examined the idea that love is a mechanical matter as well as the implications this might have for ethics. In this essay, I will focus on the eternal truth that love hurts.

While there are exceptions, the end of a romantic relationship typically involves pain. As noted in my original essay on voles and love, Young found that when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. This was tested by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine how much the voles would struggle. Prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

Human beings also suffer from the hurt of love. For example, it is not uncommon for a human who has ended a relationship (be it divorce or a breakup) to fall into a vole-like depression and struggle less against the tests of life (though dropping humans into giant beakers to test this would presumably be unethical).

While some might derive an odd pleasure from stewing in a state of post-love depression, presumably this feeling is something that a rational person would want to end. The usual treatment, other than self-medication, is time: people usually tend to come out of the depression and then seek out a new opportunity for love. And depression.

Given the finding that voles can be treated for this depression, it would seem to follow that humans could also be treated for this as well. After all, if love is essentially a chemical romance grounded in strict materialism, then tweaking the brain just so would presumably fix that depression. Interestingly enough, the philosopher Spinoza offered an account of love (and emotions in general) that nicely match up with the mechanistic model being examined.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their affections and chained by who they love. This is an unwise approach to life because, as the voles in the experiment found out, the object of one’s love can die (or leave). This view of Spinoza nicely matches up: voles that bond with a partner become depressed when that partner is lost. In contrast, voles that do not form such bonds do not suffer that depression.

Interestingly enough, while Spinoza was a pantheist, his view of human beings is rather similar to that of the mechanist: he regarded humans are being within the laws of nature and was a determinist in that all that occurs does so from necessity—there is no chance or choice. This view guided him to the notion that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” To be more specific, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable.  In short, Spinoza engaged in what can be regarded as a scientific examination of the emotions—although he did so without the technology available today and from a rather more metaphysical standpoint. However, the core idea that the emotions can be analyzed in terms of definitive laws is the same idea that is being followed currently in regards to the mechanics of emotion.

Getting back to the matter of the negative impact of lost love, Spinoza offered his own solution: as he saw it, all emotions are responses to what is in the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have done something different in the past. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that what he is doing now might not bear fruit in the future. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past and present could be different and the future is not set. Once a person realizes that all that happens occurs of necessity (that is, nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be), then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains of love would be the recognition and acceptance that what occurs is determined.

Putting this in the mechanistic terms of modern neuroscience, a Spinoza-like approach would be to realize that love is purely mechanical and that the pain and depression that comes from the loss of love are also purely mechanical. That is, the terrible, empty darkness that seems to devour the soul at the end of love is merely chemical and electrical events in the brain. Once a person recognizes and accepts this, if Spinoza is right, the pain should be reduced. With modern technology it is possible to do even more: whereas Spinoza could merely provide advice, modern science can eventually provide us with the means to simply adjust the brain and set things right—just as one would fix a malfunctioning car or PC.

One rather obvious problem is, of course, that if everything is necessary and determined, then Spinoza’s advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators and not players. So, if one is determined to wallow like a sad pig in the mud of depression, that is how it will be.

In terms of the mechanistic mind, advice would seem to be equally absurd—that is, to say what a person should do implies that a person has a choice. However, the mechanistic mind presumably just ticks away doing what it does, creating the illusion of choice. So, one brain might tick away and end up being treated while another brain might tick away in the chemical state of depression. They both eventually die and it matters not which is which.

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The Chipped Brain & You

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2013
Cover of Cyberpunk 2020

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Back in the heyday of the cyberpunk genre I made some of my Ramen noodle money coming up with “cybertech” for use in the various science-fiction role-playing games. As might be guessed, these included implants, nanotechology, cyberforms, smart weapons, robots and other such technological make-believe. While cyberpunk waned over the years, it never quite died off. These days, there is a fair amount of mostly empty hype about a post-human future and folks have been brushing the silicon dust off cyberpunk.

One stock bit of cybertech is the brain chip. In the genre, there is a rather impressive variety of these chips. Some are fairly basic—they act like flash drives for the brain and store data. Others are rather more impressive—they can store skillsets that allow a person, for example, to temporarily gain the ability to fly a helicopter. The upper level chips are supposed to do even more, such as increasing a person’s intelligence. Not surprisingly, the chipping of the brain is supposed to be part of the end of the human race—presumably we will be eventually replaced by a newly designed humanity (or cybermanity).

On the face of it, adding cybertech upgrades to the brain seems rather plausible. After all, in many cases this will just be a matter of bypassing the sense organs and directly connecting the brain to the data. So, for example, instead of holding my tablet in my hands so I can see the results of Google searches with my eyes, I’ll have a computer implanted in my body that links into  the appropriate parts of my brain. While this will be a major change in the nature of the interface (far more so than going from the command line to an icon based GUI), this will not be as radical a change as some people might think. After all, it is still just me doing a Google search, only I do not need to hold the tablet or see it with my eyes. This will not, obviously enough, make me any smarter and presumably would not alter my humanity in any meaningful way relative to what the tablet did to me. To put it crudely, sticking a cell phone in your head might be cool (or creepy) but it is still just a phone. Only now it is in your head.

The more interesting sort of chip would, of course, be one that actually changes the person. For example, when many folks talk about the coming new world, they speak of brain enhancements that will improve intelligence. This is, presumably, not just a matter of sticking a calculator in someone’s head. While this would make getting answers to math problems more convenient, it would not make a person any more capable at math than does a conventional outside-the-head calculator. Likewise for sticking in a general computer. Having a PC on my desktop does not make me any smarter. Moving it into my head would not change this. It could, obviously enough, make me seem smarter—at least to those unaware of my headputer.

What would be needed, then, would be a chip (or whatever) that would actually make a change within the person herself, altering intelligence rather than merely closing the interface gap. This sort of modification does raise various concerns.

One obvious practical concern is whether or not this is even possible. That is, while it make sense to install a computer into the body that the person uses via an internal interface, the idea of dissolving the distinction between the user and the technology seems rather more questionable. It might be replied that this does not really matter. However, the obvious reply is that it does. After all, plugging my phone and PC into my body still keeps the distinction between the user and the machine in place. Whether the computer is on my desk or in my body, I am still using it and it is still not me. After all, I do not use me. I am me. As such, my abilities remain the same—it is just a tool that I am using. In order for cybertech to make me more intelligent, it would need to change the person I am—not just change how I interface with my tools. Perhaps the user-tool gap can be bridged. If so, this would have numerous interesting implications for philosophy.

Another concern is more philosophical. If a way is found to actually create a chip (or whatever) that becomes part of the person (and not just a tool that resides in the body), then what sort of effect would this have on the person in regards to his personhood? Would Chipped Sally be the same person as Sally, or would there be a new person? Suppose that Sally is chipped, then de-chipped? I am confident that armies of arguments can be marshalled on the various sides of this matter. There are also the moral questions about making such alterations to people.

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Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2012
Human brain NIH

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The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.

When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt.  That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.

In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.

On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do.  Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.

One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.

On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.

Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.

As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.

To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.

 

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Premonitions

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 5, 2010
a human brain in a jar

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While I am rather rational person, I have the occasional premonition. These, as most premonitions are,  tend to be predictions of something potentially bad. My first vivid premonition was when I was an undergraduate. I was in the dorm bathroom and I suddenly had an intuition that I would need to quickly finish my “business.” I had no sooner left the stall when the fire alarm went off.

Since then I have had numerous premonitions, most of them have proven very useful indeed. However, in some cases, they merely warn me of something bad to come without enabling me to avoid it. For example, when I finished my search committee meeting after turning in my summer grades yesterday, I should have felt like I was done. However, I had a clear feeling that something bad was yet to follow and mentioned this to my colleagues as the meeting ended. Sure enough, this morning I received an email from a candidate and learned that HR had made an error with his application. So, I spent a good chunk of the day sorting that out.

Being a philosopher, I am (of course) rather skeptical of premonitions. Even my own. After all, I know that memory is rather selective. People will tend to remember the few premonitions that are followed by a significant event and forget the hundreds that amount to nothing. However, in my own case I am careful to note when I have such an intuition and wait to see if it is followed by a suitable event. While I have not done a statistically rigorous study, my premonitions seem fairly reliable. Naturally, I do have them and nothing follows, but more often than not something does.

This leads to the question of what is going on. One obvious option is that I am simply fooling myself-I think I am keeping a reasonable track of hits and misses, yet I am still remembering the hits and letting the misses slide.

Another option is that a premonition tends to be rather vague and thus can be “confirmed” by anything negative (or positive for that sort of premonition). Since bad things commonly happen, the odds are that most such intuitions would thus be followed by such an event.

A third option is that the premonitions are actually real. Since I am not inclined to believe in a supernatural cause, I suspect that these premonitions are actually intuitions. That is, I suspect that my mind (or brain) is processing all sorts of information and probabilities and yielding a specific sort of feeling. In many cases I suppose that I am working with information I am not consciously aware of, yet acquired by the usual mundane means.

I do find these premonitions rather useful and they seem to work about as well as weather predictions (that is, not great but not always wrong). Sadly, I never get anything really useful, like lottery numbers.

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Mind Reading

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Law, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on January 31, 2008

Mind reading machines have long been a standard feature in science fiction, but they are now (to a degree) a reality.

Scientists have found that by using a functional magnetic resonance imaging device (a form of MRI) they can determine, with a high degree of accuracy, what a person is thinking. Of course, the capabilities of the technology are still somewhat limited. For example, the scientists could tell whether the subject was thinking about a hammer as opposed to a pair of pliers. But, they presumably could not read the contents of this blog from my brain. At least not yet.

Naturally, this has numerous philosophical implications. Fortunately, philosophers have already thought a great deal about this matter.

When I discuss John Locke’s theory of personal identity, I always bring up the matter of the mind reading machine. Locke’s view is that personal identity is based on consciousness, so the same person=the same consciousness. Put crudely, if you truly remember something, then that was you.

Locke goes on to discuss the implications his theory has for punishment. He argues that if you do not remember doing X, then you did not do X. If X is a crime, then you would not be guilty of that crime. Locke does note that we cannot tell whether people truly remember or not, hence the courts convict based on the evidence available to them. Since God knows everything, God knows what is remembered or not-and hence God only punishes people for what they remember (and hence did).

When discussing this, I always mentioned that if a machine could be made that would read memories, then guilt and innocence could be determined-assuming, of course, that Locke’s theory is correct. Of course, when I talked about this in the past, such a machine was a mere theoretical possibility.

Now that the machine is a reality, it can be used for just such a purpose. We might very well see people being brain scanned during police investigations in order to determine what they remember. For example, if only the killer and the victim would remember certain details about a murder, then the machine could be used to test suspects.

While such usage as a crime fighting device might be laudable and while I generally like technology, when I read about these new capabilities provided by the fMRI in Newsweek (Page 22, January 2008 issue) I felt a chill. I have a rather active imagination and immediately thought of how this capability will be horribly abused and misused in the future.

It could be used to steal secrets from people (imagine a brain scanner that can work from a distance-which is certainly a theoretical possibility).

It could also be used to seek out dissidents in repressive states. In short, the device could become the means to break through what had been our last area of true privacy-our minds.

While this seems like a small thing, it could well be a breakthrough (or horror) on par with nuclear weapons-something that radically changes the nature of the world in nightmarish ways. Be afraid…but try not to think about it.

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