A Philosopher's Blog

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.

Running and Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2008

palace-5k.jpgBeing a philosopher, I pride myself on being rational. Being a runner, I pride myself on…well, doing things that might seem rather irrational.

Not surprisingly, people sometimes think that philosophy and running are an odd mix. Philosophers are generally pictured as inactive, unhealthy folks who smoke and drink wine while wondering whether they exist or not. Runners are generally pictured as annoyingly healthy people who know that they exist.

However, philosophy and running go great together, mostly.

First, it has been shown that running (and other, “lesser” aerobic sports) actually make a person smarter. It enhances the brain and its capabilities. Since philosophy requires thinking, being smarter is certainly a big plus. Of course, people do say to me: “If running makes you so smart, why are you out there running in the rain, Socrates?” An excellent question, to which I reply “why are you out here asking me questions in the rain?”

Second, aside from watching out for cars, broken glass and roots, the mind does not have a great deal to do while running. Hence, all that idle brain power (also enhanced by running) can be devoted to thinking about philosophical matters as well as other important things (like what to have for breakfast).

Of course, sometimes my philosophical nature is at odds with my running nature. From a rational standpoint, I should not run through injuries and I should rest more. Reason tells me this. But my running nature is to run and to do so even when it is clearly irrational. Or, to put it in the words of a friend “for a smart guy, you do some stupid stuff when it comes to running.”

I can say that I have gotten better about it over the years. For example, I ran after having my wisdom teeth pulled (I had no idea that it would be so hard to breath with my mouth packed with gauze), I ran when I had food poisoning (I found out that I could still run and throw up at the same time-a useful skill), I ran after some minor surgery (thus learning that blood loss makes it harder to run), and so on. Now, with years of wisdom, I would do things different. To be specific, I would run less distance under those conditions. Clearly my rational side has triumphed.

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47 Million

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2008

According to the latest figures, 47 million Americans (our of 300 million) lack health insurance. Given the high cost of medicine, this seems to be a serious problem.

In some cases, those without such coverage are actually reasonably well off. For example, I have friends who work state jobs that pay very well but do not provide benefits.  Such people can afford to pay for basic services, but something serious could completely devastate them.

Most of those without insurance probably are not in very good financial straits. After all, most people get health insurance as soon as they can afford it or when their job provides it. For such people even basic care might be beyond their limited means. People do point out that hospitals cannot turn people away, but going to the emergency room for basic ailments is hardly an effective solution.

One problem with the situation is the fact that people actually do need insurance. After all, we do not need insurance for other basics, such as food.  This is because food is generally priced so people can afford it. Of course, some aspects of medicine are justifiably expensive-MRI machines, for example, don’t come cheap. However, costs are rather high and perhaps needlessly so.

Will National Health care help?

Well, it depends on what it actually does and does not do. But, to keep it simple, consider the basic plan of requiring everyone to have insurance.

On one hand, this can be good thing. After all, with insurance people will presumably be able to afford  medial care.

On the other hand, there are two obvious problems. First, there is the matter of paying for such coverage. Of course, we can always raise taxes and take out more foreign loans. China, I’m sure, would be happy to loan us more money. Second, there is the concern that such insurance will raise medical costs even more than they are now, thus making the insurance less useful.


Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2008

Reincarnation has a long tradition in both religion and philosophy. The basic idea is a mind or soul occupies one body and then dies. After death, the mind or soul somehow acquires another body. In theory, this could also be done scientifically, perhaps via a memory transfer from one brain to another. Of course, that raises many questions about whether the person is being transferred, copied or whatever.

Reincarnation requires the existence of bodies and non-physical minds. Aside from cases such as thinkers like Berkeley, most accept the existence of bodies. The existence of a non-physical mind is much more controversial. The reason why reincarnation requires a non physical mind could be seen as a matter of definition. If the mind is a physical entity (such as the brain) then it cannot be reincarnated because it would always be incarnate. This non-physical mind could be the soul, a Cartesian mind, or even a set of functions (as per the functionalist account of the mind) that could move from one body to another. In case you might be wondering, a brain transplant would not really be reincarnation since the person would still be “in” his or her original brain.

Religious people tend to simply assume the truth of reincarnation based on their faith. As most know, it is an essential part of Buddhism (in its various forms) and also appears in Hinduism. Some thinkers attribute this view to Christianity and Judaism as well. After all, on Judgment day the dead are supposed to rise again in the flesh.

Interestingly enough, a 2003 Harris poll (see page 14 of the January 28 Newsweek) indicated that 40% of American believe in reincarnation. Since many Americans are Christians, this certainly creates an interesting situation. After all, Christianity is supposed to reject reincarnation in favor of an eternal afterlife. Of course, there is the bit about judgment day and the dead rising in the flesh. Perhaps the dead hang out until judgment day and then return after the events are over.

Tom Morton, in his unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise, claims that some Scientologists hope that Suri is the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard (a good sci-fi writer and the founder of Scientology). The Scientologists deny this. Based on what I’ve read about Scientology, their basic metaphysics is lifted from Cartesian dualism (there is a material body and a non-material mind). Assuming this metaphysics, reincarnation would be possible-the mind could survive the death of the body and acquire a new one.

Philosophers, of course, always argue for it-we live to argue in this life and possible the next. In the Meno, Plato presents perhaps the best case for reincarnation. His most plausible argument is that Socrates claims to have found knowledge about geometry in a servant that the servant did not learn in this life. Socrates infers that the servant acquired this knowledge in another life. Hence, reincarnation is inferred to be real.

Naturally enough, there are numerous arguments against Plato’s case. Some have argued that Socrates actually provided the knowledge via leading questions. Some put forth alternative explanations. For example, such knowledge might be innate to the mind or the brain.

Aside from Plato’s argument, the evidence for reincarnation is scarce and often dubious. The main evidence people point to are cases of past life regressions, deja vu and fears people have that seem to have no basis. While amusing, this evidence is extremely weak.

Past life regressions never provide any useful information and never provide anything that could not have been learned via more conventional means-such as books or the History Channel. Of course, if someone regressed and was able to reveal the location of lost cities, to speak correctly in ancient languages they never learned in this life, or reveal some hidden historical secret, then I would lend more credence to this alleged phenomenon. Also, people who “regress” seem to be clearly led by the person they are paying to regress them. This casts the whole regression thing into even greater doubt.

Deja vu does have some appeal as evidence, but can be better explained in terms that do not involve reincarnation. For example, the feeling could be the result of having experienced something similar that one has forgotten. Also, people experience deja vu in places that are new, such as a new house, and hence did not exist prior to the person being born. Of course, there is the possibility that some cases of deja vu are legitimate memories from a previous life-but the challenge is discerning these (alleged) true memories from other (far more likely) causes.

Some have claimed that if a person has a fear that cannot be explained by a current life experience, then it must result from a past life disaster. For example, if someone is very afraid of fires, but has never been badly burned, then it is suspected they were badly burned or killed by fire in a previous life. While this has some appeal, such fears are easy to explain without dubious metaphysical theories. For example, people can be afraid of things they are aware of even though they were never hurt by them. For example, I’ve never been in a plane crash, but I fear flying. This is not a past life thing. I know planes can crash and hence my fear is based on that knowledge and the general fear of death. Such fears can also be explained in terms of psychology and neurology without bringing in the matter of past lives.

Overall, there seems to be little reason to believe in reincarnation. It could be true, but it could also be completely wrong. My own view is that it can make a neat plot device in fiction but does not seem to be adequately supported enough for me to accept it.

MLK Day 2008

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr. day is an excellent day on which to reflect about matters of race, equality and ethics. Many of the goals that Dr. King set out to accomplish were achieved. Our world is now a better place thanks to his efforts and the efforts he inspired in others. Though he was murdered, his dream survived in the hearts and minds of others and the struggle for goodness and justice continues to this day.

America has come far since that terrible day when an assassin’s bullet took his life. One of the strongest testaments to this fact is that a black American is a serious contender for the Presidency of the United States. One of the strongest testaments to the fact that we still have far to go is the fact that his being black matters so much. Race is still, obviously, very much an issue these days.

While the past year was spiked with racist incidents, the signs of progress are still there. We have marched forward since the 1960s. The promised land is still out of sight, but each step takes us closer to it. Though I will never see it, I still believe and hope that there will be a day when the dream is a reality. I have faith in us and our capacity for goodness.

Free Will: The Practical Approach

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 19, 2008

My approach to the question of free will is a fairly practical one. Naturally, I’m oversimplifying things a bit in the discussion and ignoring many of the nuances, but such is life in the land of blog.

Put as a simple disjunction, I have free will or I do not. Obviously, there can be degrees of free will and various types of free will. But, it is something I possess (in whatever degree or variety) or something I lack.

There seems to be no actual way to discern which of these is true. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same. Perhaps we really are freely making choices, perhaps not.

Interestingly, people often argue in favor of one side or the other-as if there is some shred of evidence either way that cannot easily be defeated by some clever argument. Hence, this is why I take my practical approach.

Returning to the disjunction, I have no way to determine which is true.  Which, then, should I select? Let us consider each option.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.  If the person is seriously devoted to this rejection of freedom, this could have a rather negative impact.  For example, the person would reject responsibility for her actions and perhaps fall victim to a depressing fatalism. This is clearly not a good option.

Of course, from what I have observed, even people who argue for determinism still act and talk like everyone else when they are not in the thrall of their theory (which is not evidence against their view, but is nonetheless interesting). It would be fascinating to watch a proponent of determinism who consistently lived his theory every moment of the day. Naturally, he would need to make his language match his theory-he could not, for example, say things like “I decided” or “she decided.” Some determinists take the clever way out by saying they are determined to act as if they, in their normal life, think they are free.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right-but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view, which is always a plus.  They have also made the right choice-since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right-not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

From this brief discussion, it would seem that the best choice is to chose free will.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Carbon Credits & Corruption

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2008

While I am against pollution, carbon credits (and similar schemes) seem unlikely to do more than create more corruption.

In general terms, carbon credits work like this (there are many possible variations): a government decides that it will allow X amount of carbon production and then breaks X up into units that can be purchased. Those producing carbon on a large scale (such as oil companies) need to buy these units so they can produce carbon.  Under some plans, each company that produces carbon is also given Y units of carbon it can produce. If it produces less, it can then sell these carbon credits to other businesses. In general terms, it makes pollution “rights” a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Europe has created a market in which carbon can be traded. The result, as anyone with knowledge of how the world actually works expected, was that politically powerful companies were able to make new profits by exploiting the situation. To use one example, the German government gave credits to coal burning plants and these companies charged their customers for the the carbon costs. Since the companies paid nothing for these credits, they made a nice profit on this little trick. The carbon trade market also allows for some clever profiteering in other ways-such as getting carbon credits and then selling them at a vastly inflated rate.

Thus, the main result of the carbon credit system has been what one would expect: corruption, profiteering and business as usual. Perhaps it has helped cut down on carbon emissions,  but it seems unlikely it has had a major impact.

Does this mean that efforts to combat pollution should be abandoned? Of course not. The negative effects of pollution are well established and these harms, like any harms, should be countered. The trick, perhaps the impossible trick, is finding a way to do this without creating more corruption and profiteering.

The Probability of Life

Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2008

One fundamental scientific and philosophical problem is determining how life began on earth as well as the probability of such a thing happening. Those who favor a purposeful universe point to the existence of life as evidence for said purpose-they claim that the odds of life just happening are far too long to explain otherwise. Those who favor that life just happened need to provide an account of how it just happened and typically want to discuss the probability of the event.

In 1970 Jacques Monod (a biologist and winner of a Nobel prize) wrote “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance.” This quote nicely expressed the dominant scientific view of the time: the emergence of life on earth was 1) the result of chance and 2) a matter of such amazingly low probability that it most likely never occurred elsewhere. Of course, even if the probability of life were extremely low, it would still be a hasty inference to conclude what Monod concluded. It is, after all, a big universe.

While this view still enjoys some popularity, some scientists have started accepting the view expressed by Christian de Duve (a biochemist) who calls life a “cosmic imperative” and asserts that it should appear on any earth like world. Given that he has a sample of one (earth) to work with, his assertion is amazingly bold. This hypothesis is sometimes called “biological determinism” (not to be confused with the determinism in the free will debate, of course).

Finding life on another world, such as Mars, or even finding signs that life appeared multiple times on one world (such as earth) would help support the biological determinism hypothesis. Of course, it would require finding multiple worlds like earth with life on them to make accepting the hypothesis reasonabl. After all, finding a few worlds with life in a vast universe would be consistent with the claim that life arises by pure chance and at a very low probability.

As a philosopher, I find the debate quite interesting. After all, it is replaying debates that occurred centuries ago in philosophy regarding the nature of reality. It will be interesting to see the proposed mechanism for biological determinism. Naturally, it does seem to stray into the area of classic, Aristotelian style teleology. Of course, I think humans find that irresistible. For example, even those devoted to evolution find it almost impossible to avoid straying into talk of purpose.

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Bigfoot & Science

Posted in Science by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2008

While most scientists think that the notion of Bigfoot is a matter probably best left to bad shows on the Sci-Fi channel, Jeffrey Meldrum takes the possibility of bigfoot seriously. Meldrum has excellent credentials and is a noted expert in the field of primate and hominid anthropology. However, many of his fellow scientists are dismayed by his willingness to investigate bigfoot in scientific terms.

The general consensus is that bigfoot is merely a myth, despite the fact that there is some evidence that supports the claim that such a creature exists. On one hand, it is hard to imagine such a creature so effectively evading detection for such a long period of time. On the other hand, there are precedents for such creatures. On occasion, a new species (or a species thought extinct) is found. If the bigfoot creatures are intelligent, they might be able to avoid searchers and also hide their dead (a major strike against the bigfoot view is that no bodies have been found).

While it seems unlikely that bigfoot exists, there is enough evidence to make it a phenomenon worth investigating using scientific methodology. Also, if people can talk seriously about odd metaphysical entities (though they say they are doing science, they are really doing classical metaphysics…only with a bigger budget) such as “super strings”, “multiple universes”, and “dark matter” and still be seen as respectable scientists, I think the same courtesy should be extended to Meldrum.

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Visual Perceptions

Posted in Science by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2008

A study reported in the September 24 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that humans pay greater attention to animals than to other things (such as vehicles). In the December 2007 Scientific American, Charles Q. Choi commented on the study (page 37) saying that “visual priorities of our hunter-gatherer ancestors evidently remain embedded in the modern brain, regardless of how relatively useless they often are now.”

I found this comment rather odd, especially given the fact that the researchers themselves noticed that humans paid more attention to other humans as well. First, since we interact with humans all the time, we would have a great deal of experience observing humans. Since animals are similar to humans (more similar than cars, certainly) our experience with humans would extend analogically to animals.  Also, many people have pets and hence also have ongoing interaction with animals. Second, the humans and animals we interact with tend to be more important to us than non-living things. Further, my truck rarely demands my attention but my pets and friends do so regularly. Second, since we interact with humans and animals on a regular basis, these perceptual abilities are hardly useless.