A Philosopher's Blog

Race Nominalism

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2015

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.

 

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Gender Nominalism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 10, 2015

 

Thanks to Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair, the issue of gender identity has become a mainstream topic. While I will not address the specific subject of Caitlyn Jenner, I will discuss the matter of gender nominalism and competition. This will, however, require some small amount of groundwork.

One of the classic problems in philosophy is the problem of universals. Put a bit roughly, the problem is determining in virtue of what (if anything) a particular a is of the type F. To use a concrete example, the question would be “in virtue of what is Morris a cat?” Philosophers tend to split into two main camps when answering this question. One camp, the nominalists, embrace nominalism. Put a bit simply, this is the view that what makes a particular a an F is that we name it an F. For example, what makes Morris a cat is that we call (or name) him a cat.

The other camp, the realists, take the view that there is a metaphysical reality underlying a being of the type F. Put another way, it is not just a matter of naming or calling something an F that makes it an F. In terms of what makes a be of the type F, different realist philosophers give different answers. Plato famously claimed that it is the Form of F that makes individual F things F. Or, to use an example, it is the Form of Beauty that makes all the beautiful things beautiful. And, presumably, the Form of ugly that makes the ugly things ugly. Others, such as myself, accept these odd things called tropes (not to be confused with the tropes of film and literature) that serve a similar function.

While realists believe in the reality of some categories, they generally accept that there are some categories that are not grounded in features of objective reality. As such, most realists do accept that the nominalists are right about some categories. To use an easy example, being a Democrat (or Republican) is not grounded in metaphysics, but is a social construct—the political party is made up and membership is a matter of social convention rather than metaphysical reality. Or, put another way, there is presumably no Form of Democrat (or Republican).

When it comes to sorting out sex and gender, the matter is rather complicated and involves (or can involve) four or more factors.  One is the anatomy (plumbing) of the person, which might (or might not) correspond to the second, which is the genetic makeup of the person (XX, XY, XYY, etc.). The third factor is the person’s own claimed gender identity which might (or might not) correspond to the fourth, which is the gender identity assigned by other people.

While anatomy and physiology are adjustable (via chemicals and surgery), they are objective features of reality—while a person can choose to alter her anatomy, merely changing how one designates one’s sex does not change the physical features. While a complete genetic conversion (XX to XY or vice versa) is not yet possible, it is probably just a matter of time. However, even when genetics can be changed on demand, a person’s genetic makeup is still an objective feature of reality—a person cannot (yet) change his genes merely by claiming a change in designation.

Gender is, perhaps, quite another matter. Like many people, I used to use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably—I still recall (running) race entry forms using one or the other and everyone seemed to know what was meant. However, while I eventually learned that the two are not the same—a person might have one biological sex and a different gender. While familiar with the science fiction idea of a multitude of genders, I eventually became aware that this was now a thing in the actual world.

Obviously, if gender is taken as the same as sex (which is set by anatomy or genetics), then gender would be an objective feature of reality and not subject to change merely by a change in labeling (or naming). However, gender has been largely (or even entirely) split from biological sex (anatomy or genetics) and is typically cast in terms of being a social construct. This view can be labeled as “gender nominalism.” By this I mean that gender is not an objective feature of reality, like anatomy, but a matter of naming, like being a Republican or Democrat.

Some thinkers have cast gender as being constructed by society as a whole, while others contend that individuals have lesser or greater ability to construct their own gender identities. People can place whatever gender label they wish upon themselves, but there is still the question of the role of others in that gender identity. The question is, then, to what degree can individuals construct their own gender identities? There is also the moral question about whether or not others are morally required to accept such gender self-identification. These matters are part of the broader challenge of identity in terms of who defines one’s identity (and what aspects) and to what degree are people morally obligated to accept these assignments (or declarations of identity).

My own view is to go with the obvious: people are free to self-declare whatever gender they wish, just as they are free to make any other claim of identity that is a social construct (which is a polite term for “made up”). So, a person could declare that he is a straight, Republican, Rotarian, fundamentalist, Christian, man. Another person could declare that she is a lesbian, Republican, Masonite, Jewish woman. And so on. But, of course, there is the matter of getting others to recognize that identity. For example, if a person identifies as a Republican, yet believes in climate change, argues for abortion rights, endorses same-sex marriage, supports Obama, favors tax increases, supports education spending, endorse the minimum wage, and is pro-environment, then other Republicans could rightly question the person’s Republican identity and claim that that person is a RINO (Republican in Name Only). As another example, a biological male could declare identity as a woman, yet still dress like a man, act like a man, date women, and exhibit no behavior that is associated with being a woman. In this case, other women might (rightly?) accuse her of being a WINO (Woman in Name Only).

In cases in which self-identification has no meaningful consequences for other people, it certainly makes sense for people to freely self-identify. In such cases, claiming to be F makes the person F, and what other people believe should have no impact on that person being F. That said, people might still dispute a person’s claim. For example, if someone self-identifies as a Trekkie, yet knows little about Star Trek, others might point out that this self-identification is in error. However, since this has no meaningful consequences, the person has every right to insist on being a Trekkie, though doing so might suggest that he is about as smart as a tribble.

In cases in which self-identification does have meaningful consequences for others, then there would seem to be moral grounds (based on the principle of harm) to allow restrictions on such self-identification. For example, if a relatively fast male runner wanted to self-identify as a woman so “she” could qualify for the Olympics, then it would seem reasonable to prevent that from happening. After all, “she” would bump a qualified (actual) woman off the team, which would be wrong. Because of the potential for such harms, it would be absurd to accept that everyone is obligated to accept the self-identification of others.

The flip side of this is that others should not have an automatic right to deny the self-identification of others. As a general rule, the principle of harm would seem to apply here as well—the others would have the right to impose in cases in which there is actual harm and the person would have the right to refuse the forced identity of others when doing so would inflict wrongful harm. The practical challenge is, clearly enough, working out the ethics of specific cases.

 

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Better to be Nothing?

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 8, 2015

There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.”

 

-Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

 

One rather good metaphysical question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” An interesting question in the realm of value is “is it better to be nothing rather than something?” That is, is it better “not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing?”

Addressing the question does require sorting out the measure of value that should be used to decide whether it is better to not exist or to exist. One stock approach is to use the crude currencies of pleasure and pain. A somewhat more refined approach is to calculate in terms of happiness and unhappiness. Or one could simply go generic and use the vague categories of positive value and negative value.

What also must be determined are the rules of the decision. For the individual, a sensible approach would be the theory of ethical egoism—that what a person should do is what maximizes the positive value for her. On this view, it would be better if the person did not exist if her existence would generate more negative than positive value for her. It would be better if the person did exist if her existence would generate more positive than negative value for her.

To make an argument in favor of never existing being better than existing, one likely approach is to make use of the classic problem of evil as laid out by David Hume. When discussing this matter, Hume contends that everyone believes that life is miserable and he lays out an impressive catalog of pains and evils. While he considers that pain is less frequent than pleasure, he notes that even if this is true, pain “is infinitely more violent and durable.” As such, Hume makes a rather good case that the negative value of existence outweighs its positive value.

If it is true that the negative value outweighs the positive value, and better is measured in terms of maximizing value, then it would thus seem to be better to have never existed. After all, existence will result (if Hume is right) in more pain than pleasure. In contrast, non-existence will have no pain (and no pleasure) for a total of zero. Doing the value math, since zero is greater than a negative value, never existing is better than existing.

There does seem to be something a bit odd about this sort of calculation. After all, if the person does not exist, then her pleasure and pain would not balance to zero. Rather it would seem that this sum would be an undefined value. It cannot be better for a person that she not exist, since there would (obviously) not be anyone for the nonexistence to be better for.

This can be countered by saying that this is but a semantic trick—the nonexistence would be better than the existence because of the relative balance of pleasure and pain. There is also another approach—to broaden the calculation from the individual to the world.

In this case, the question would not be about whether it would be better for the individual to exist or not, but whether or not a world with the individual would be better than a world without the individual. If a consequentialist approach is assumed, it is assumed that pain and pleasure are the measure of value and it is assumed that the pain outweighs the pleasure in every life, then the world would be better if a person never existed. This is because the absence of an individual would reduce the overall pain. Given these assumptions, a world with no humans at all would be a better world. This could be extended to its logical conclusion: if the suffering outweighs the pleasures in the case of all beings (Hume did argue that the suffering of all creatures exceeds their enjoyments), then it would be better that no feeling creatures existed at all. At this point, one might as well do away with existence altogether and have nothing. Thus, while it might not be known why there is something rather than nothing, this argument would seem to show that it would be better to have nothing rather than something.

Of course, this reasoning rests on many assumptions that can be easily challenged. It can be argued that the measure of value is not to be done solely in terms of pleasures and pains—that is, even if life resulted in more pain than pleasure, the overall positive value could be greater than the negative value. For example, the creation of art and the development of knowledge could provide value that outweighs the pain. It could also be argued that the consequentialist approach is in error—that estimating the worth of life is not just a matter of tallying up the negative and positive. There are, after all, many other moral theories regarding the value of existence. It is also possible to dispute the claim that pain exceeds pleasure (or that unhappiness exceeds happiness).

One could also take a long view—even if pain outweighs pleasure now, humans seem to be making a better world and advancing technology. As such, it is easy to imagine that a better world lies ahead and it depends on our existence. That is, if one looks beyond the pleasure and pain of one’s own life and considers the future of humanity, the overall balance could very well be that the positive outweighs the negative. As such, it would be better for a person to exist—assuming that she has a role in the causal chain leading to that ultimate result.

 

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Information Immortality

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2015

Most people are familiar with the notion that energy cannot be destroyed. Interestingly, there is also a rule in quantum mechanics that forbids the destruction of information. This principle, called unitarity, is often illustrated by the example of burning a book: though the book is burned, the information still remain—although it would obviously be much harder to “read” a burned book. This principle has, in recent years, run into some trouble with black holes and they might or might not be able to destroy information. My interest here is not with this specific dispute, but rather with the question of whether or not the indestructibility of information has any implications for immortality.

On the face of it, the indestructibility of information seems rather similar to the conservation of energy. Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I first heard the argument that because of the conservation of energy, personal immortality must be real (or at least possible). The basic line of reasoning was that a person is energy, energy cannot be destroyed, so a person will exist forever. While this has considerable appeal, the problem is obvious: while energy is conserved, it certainly need not be preserved in the same form. That is, even if a person is composed of energy it does not follow that the energy remains the same person (or even a person). David Hume was rather clear about the problem—an indestructible or immortal substance (or energy) does not entail the immortality of a person. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. However, the person would cease to be.

Prior to Hume, John Locke also noted the same sort of problem: even if, for example, you had the same soul (or energy) as Nestor, you would not be the same person as Nestor any more than you would be the same person as Nestor if, in an amazing coincidence, your body contained at this instant all the atoms that composed Nestor at a specific instant in time.

Hume and Locke certainly seem to be right about this—the indestructibility of the stuff that makes up a person (be it body or soul) does not entail the immortality of the person. If a person is eaten by a bear, the matter and energy that composed him will continue to exist—but the person did not survive being eaten by the bear. If there is a soul, the mere continuance of the soul would also not seem to suffice for the person to continue to exist as the same person (although this can obviously be argued). What would be needed would be the persistence of what makes up the person. This is usually taken to be something other than just stuff, be that stuff matter, energy, or ectoplasm. So, the conservation of energy does not seem to entail personal immortality—but the conservation of information might (or might not).

Put a bit crudely, Locke took this something other to be memory: personal identity extends backwards as far as the memory extends. Since people clearly forget things, Locke did accept the possibility of memory loss. Being consistent in this matter, he accepted that the permanent loss of memory would result in a corresponding failure of identity. Crudely put, if a person truly did not and could never remember doing something, then she was not the person who did it.

While there are many problems with the memory account of personal identity, it certainly suggests a path to quantum immortality through the conservation of information. One approach would be to argue that since information is conserved, the person is conserved even after the death and dissolution of the body. Just like the burned book whose information still exists, the person’s information would still exist.

One obvious reply to this is that a person is an active being and not just a collection of information. To use a rather rough analogy, a person could be seen as being like a computer program—to be is to be running. Or, to use a more artistic analogy, like a play: while the script would persist after the final curtain, the play itself is over. As such, while the person’s information would be conserved, the person would cease to be. This sort of “quantum immortality” is remarkably similar to Spinoza’s view of immortality. While he denied personal immortality, he claimed that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” Spinoza, of course, seemed to believe that this should comfort people. Perhaps some comfort should be taken in the fact that one’s information will be conserved (barring an unfortunate encounter with a black hole).

However, people would probably be more comforted by a reason to believe in an afterlife. Fortunately, the conservation of information does provide at least a shot at an afterlife. If information is conserved and all there is to a person can be conserved as information, then a person could presumably be reconstructed after his death. For example, imagine a person, Laz, who died by an accident and was buried. The remains could, in theory, be dug up and the information about the body could be recovered (to a point prior to death, of course). The body could, with suitably advanced technology, be reconstructed. The reconstructed brain could, in theory, have all the memories and such recovered and restored as well. This would be a technological resurrection in the flesh and the person would certainly seem to live again. Assuming that every piece of information was preserved, recovered and restored in the flesh it would be the person—just as if a moment had passed rather than, say, a thousand years. This would be, obviously, in theory. Actual resurrection technology would presumably involve various flaws and limitations. But, the idea seems sound enough.

One potential problem is an old one for philosophers—if a person could be reconstructed from such information, she could also be duplicated from such information. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like 3D printing from a data file, except what would be printed would be a person. Or, to use another analogy, it would be like reconstructing an old computer and reloading all the software. There would certainly not be any reason to wait until the person died, unless there was some sort of copyright or patent held by the person on herself that expired a certain time after her death.

In closing, I leave you with this: some day in the far future, you might find that you (or someone like you) have just been reprinted. In 3D, of course.

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Are Animals People?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2015

IsisWhile the ethical status of animals has been debated since at least the time of Pythagoras, the serious debate over whether or not animals are people has just recently begun to heat up. While it is easy to dismiss the claim that animals are people, it is actually a matter worth considering.

There are at least three type of personhood: legal personhood, metaphysical personhood and moral personhood. Legal personhood is the easiest of the three. While it would seem reasonable to expect some sort of rational foundation for claims of legal personhood, it is really just a matter of how the relevant laws define “personhood.” For example, in the United States corporations are people while animals and fetuses are not. There have been numerous attempts by opponents of abortion to give fetuses the status of legal persons. There have even been some attempts to make animals into legal persons.

Since corporations are legal persons, it hardly seems absurd to make animals into legal people. After all, higher animals are certainly closer to human persons than are corporate persons. These animals can think, feel and suffer—things that actual people do but corporate people cannot. So, if it is not absurd for Hobby Lobby to be a legal person, it is not absurd for my husky to be a legal person. Or perhaps I should just incorporate my husky and thus create a person.

It could be countered that although animals do have qualities that make them worthy of legal protection, there is no need to make them into legal persons. After all, this would create numerous problems. For example, if animals were legal people, they could no longer be owned, bought or sold. Because, with the inconsistent exception of corporate people, people cannot be legally bought, sold or owned.

Since I am a philosopher rather than a lawyer, my own view is that legal personhood should rest on moral or metaphysical personhood. I will leave the legal bickering to the lawyers, since that is what they are paid to do.

Metaphysical personhood is real personhood in the sense that it is what it is, objectively, to be a person. I use the term “metaphysical” here in the academic sense: the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. I do not mean “metaphysical” in the pop sense of the term, which usually is taken to be supernatural or beyond the physical realm.

When it comes to metaphysical personhood, the basic question is “what is it to be a person?” Ideally, the answer is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions such that if a being has them, it is a person and if it does not, it is not. This matter is also tied closely to the question of personal identity. This involves two main concerns (other than what it is to be a person): what makes a person the person she is and what makes the person distinct from all other things (including other people).

Over the centuries, philosophers have endeavored to answer this question and have come up with a vast array of answers. While this oversimplifies things greatly, most definitions of person focus on the mental aspects of being a person. Put even more crudely, it often seems to come down to this: things that think and talk are people. Things that do not think and talk are not people.

John Locke presents a paradigm example of this sort of definition of “person.” According to Locke, a person “is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”

Given Locke’s definition, animals that are close to humans in capabilities, such as the great apes and possibly whales, might qualify as persons. Locke does not, unlike Descartes, require that people be capable of using true language. Interestingly, given his definition, fetuses and brain-dead bodies would not seem to be people. Unless, of course, the mental activities are going on without any evidence of their occurrence.

Other people take a rather different approach and do not focus on mental qualities that could, in principle, be subject to empirical testing. Instead, the rest personhood on possessing a specific sort of metaphysical substance or property. Most commonly, this is the soul: things with souls are people, things without souls are not people. Those who accept this view often (but not always) claim that fetuses are people because they have souls and animals are not because they lack souls. The obvious problem is trying to establish the existence of the soul.

There are, obviously enough, hundreds or even thousands of metaphysical definitions of “person.” While I do not have my own developed definition, I do tend to follow Locke’s approach and take metaphysical personhood to be a matter of having certain qualities that can, at least in principle, be tested for (at least to some degree). As a practical matter, I go with the talking test—things that talk (by this I mean true use of language, not just making noises that sound like words) are most likely people. However, this does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood and it might not be sufficient. As such, I am certainly willing to consider that creatures such as apes and whales might be metaphysical people like me—and erring in favor of personhood seems to be a rational approach to those who want to avoid harming people.

Obviously enough, if a being is a metaphysical person, then it would seem to automatically have moral personhood. That is, it would have the moral status of a person. While people do horrible things to other people, having the moral status of a person is generally a good thing because non-evil people are generally reluctant to harm other people. So, for example, a non-evil person might hunt squirrels for food, but would certainly not (normally) hunt humans for food. If that non-evil person knew that squirrels were people, then he would certainly not hunt them for food.

Interestingly enough, beings that are not metaphysical persons (that is, are not really people) might have the status of moral personhood. This is because the moral status of personhood might correctly or reasonably apply to non-persons.

One example is that a brain-dead human might no longer be a person, yet because of the former status as a person still be justly treated as a person in terms of its moral status. As another example, a fetus might not be an actual person, but its potential to be a person might reasonably grant it the moral status of a person.

Of course, it could be countered that such non-people should not have the moral status of full people, though they should (perhaps) have some moral status. To use the obvious example, even those who regard the fetus as not being a person would tend to regard it as having some moral status. If, to use a horrific example, a pregnant woman were attacked and beaten so that she lost her fetus, that would not just be a wrong committed against the woman but also a wrong against the fetus itself. That said, there are those who do not grant a fetus any moral status at all.

In the case of animals, it might be argued that although they do not meet the requirements to be people for real, some of them are close enough to warrant being treated as having the moral status of people (perhaps with some limitations, such as those imposed in children in regards to rights and liberties). The obvious counter to this is that animals can be given moral statuses appropriate to them rather than treating them as people.

Immanuel Kant took an interesting approach to the status of animals. In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. People (rational beings), in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards people. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a person doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

Given this approach, Kant could be seen as regarding animals as virtual or ersatz people. Or at least those that would be close enough to people to engage in activities that would create obligations if done by people.

In light of this discussion, there are three answers to the question raised by the title of this essay. Are animals legally people? The answer is a matter of law—what does the law say? Are animals really people? The answer depends on which metaphysical theory is correct. Do animals have the moral status of people? The answer depends on which, if any, moral theory is correct.

 

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Corporations Are being Denied Freedom of Expression and Religion!

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2015
English: Freedom of Expression trademark certi...

English: Freedom of Expression trademark certificate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, corporations are considered persons. In recent years the judiciary has accepted that this entitles corporations to rights, such as freedom of speech (which was used to justify corporate spending in politics) and freedom of religion (which was used to allow companies to refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control).

Despite having freedom of speech and religion because they are people, corporations can, unlike other people, be legally owned. Common stock is bought and sold as a matter of routine business and provides an ownership share in a corporation. Since corporations are people, this means that people are being allowed to legally own other people. Owning another person is, of course, slavery. While slavery was legal at one time in the United States, the 13th amendment is rather clear on this matter: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

If corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights because they are people, it follows that they must also be entitled to 13th amendment rights. That is, corporations have a right not to be owned by other people. The obvious reply is that this is absurd. My response is that this is exactly my point: the 13th Amendment provides the path to the obvious reductio ad absurdum (“reducing to absurdity) to the claim that corporations are people. If they are people and thus get rights, then they cannot be owned. If they can be owned, they are not people and hence do not get the rights of people.

But, let it be supposed that companies are people and hence get the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.  Yet somehow don’t get the freedom not to be enslaved. It will be interesting to see where these claims actually lead.

Freedom of expression is usually presented in terms of a person’s right to engage in expression, perhaps by secretly donating fat stacks of cash to shadow political organizations. However, freedom of expression can also be regarded as a freedom from being compelled to engage in certain expressions. For example, the State of Texas has argued against allowing the Confederate battle flag on Texas license plates on this ground. This seems quite reasonable: the freedom to express myself would certainly seem to include the freedom to not express what I do not wish to express.

Freedom of religion is also usually presented in terms of protection from being limited or restricted in the practicing of one’s faith. However, like freedom of expression, it can also be taken to include the right not to be compelled to engage in religious activities against one’s will. So, for example, people have argued that compelling a wedding cake baker to not discriminate against same-sex couples would be to compel her to engage in an activity that goes against her faith. While I disagree with the claim that forbidding discrimination violates religious freedom, I do agree that compelling a person to act against her faith can be an unjust violation of religious freedom.

Corporations, at least according to the law, have freedom of expression and freedom of religion. As such, they have the general right not to be compelled to express views they do not hold and the right not to be compelled to engage in practices against their religious beliefs. Given that a corporation is a person, there is the question of what a corporation would want to express and the question of its faith.

It might be claimed that since a corporation seems to be just a legal fiction operated by actual people, then the beliefs and expressive desires of the corporation are those of the people who are in charge. On this view, a corporation is a legal Mechanical Turk, a pantomime person, the face of the Wizard of Oz (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). While run by an actual person or people, it is a fictional shell that is not a person.

The advantage of this approach is the corporation’s faith is the faith of the actual people and what it desires to express is what they desire to express. The obvious problem is that this view makes it clear that the corporation is not a person, so it would not get a set of rights of its own, above and beyond the rights already held by the actual people who control the legal pantomime person. So, claims about violations of freedoms would have to be about violations against actual, specific people and not against the legal version of a Mechanical Turk (or Legal Turk, if one prefers).

If someone insists that the corporation is a person in its own right, then this entails it is a distinct entity apart from the folks that would seem to be operating a non-person pantomime person. On this view, the views of the corporation cannot automatically be those of the people who would seem to be operating the pantomime person. After all, if it is just them, it is not a person. To be a person, it needs to have its own personhood. If it has freedom of expression, it must have its own desires of what to express. If it has freedom of religion, it must have its own faith.

Sadly, corporations are not free to express their own views or their own faith. They are owned and compelled to speak and engage in matters of faith. While there is a chance that the corporate person’s views and faith match those of the human persons infesting its legal body, this need not be the case. After all, a slave that is forced by her owner to say things and go to church might believe what she says or have the faith she is compelled to practice…but she might not. Unless she is set free from her owners and allowed her own beliefs and faith, she cannot be said to have freedom of expression or faith.

While Tim Cook has spoken in favor of same-sex marriage, Apple might be a devoutly Christian corporation that cries (metaphorical) tears each time it is forced to mouth (metaphorically) Tim Cook’s words. The corporation Hobby Lobby might be a bisexual atheist corporation. As it is beaten to its (metaphorical) knees to cry out prayers to a God it does not believe in, it might be eager to engage in hot mergers with other companies, regardless of their gender. Until these corporations are freed from the tyranny of ownership, they can never truly exercise their freedom as people.

The obvious response to this absurd silliness is that it is, well, clearly absurd and silly. However, that is exactly my point. If a corporation is a person that is distinct from the actual people operating the pantomime legal person, then it is being denied its freedom of expression and religion because it is forced to say and do what others want it to say and do.  This is, as I am sure most will agree, pure absurdity. If a corporation is really just a legal pantomime and the corporate beliefs and ideas are really just those of the folks operating the legal pantomime, then it is not a person and does not have the rights of a person. The real people do, of course, have all the rights they have always possessed.

This is not to say that there should not be collective rights and laws for organizations. But this is very different from regarding a corporation as a person with a faith and beliefs it wishes to express. That is, obviously enough, a pile of pantomime bull.

 

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Free Will, Materialism and Dualism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2015
Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the Modern era, philosophers such as Descartes and Locke developed the notions of material substance and immaterial substance. Material substance, or matter, was primarily defined as being extended and spatially located. Descartes, and other thinkers, also took the view that material substance could not think. Immaterial substance was taken to lack extension and to not possess a spatial location. Most importantly, immaterial substance was regarded as having thought as its defining attribute.  While these philosophers are long dead, the influence of their concepts lives on in philosophy and science.

In philosophy, people still draw the classic distinction between dualists and materialists. A dualist holds that a living person consists of a material body and an immaterial mind. The materialist denies the existence of the immaterial mind and accepts only matter. There are also phenomenonalists who contend that all that exists is mental. Materialism of this sort is popular both in contemporary philosophy and science. Dualism is still popular with the general population in that many people believe in a non-material soul that is distinct from the body.

Because of the history of dualism, free will is often linked to the immaterial mind. As such, it is no surprise that people who reject the immaterial mind engage in the following reasoning: an immaterial mind is necessary for free will. There is no immaterial mind. So, there is no free will.

Looked at positively, materialists tend to regard their materialism as entailing a lack of free will. Thomas Hobbes, a materialist from the Modern era, accepted determinism as part of his materialism. Taking the materialist path, the argument against free will is that if the mind is material, then there is no free will. The mind is material, so there is no free will.

Interestingly enough, those who accepted the immaterial mind tended to believe that only an immaterial substance could think—so they inferred the existence of such a mind on the grounds that they thought. Materialists most often accept the mind, but cast it in physical terms. That is, people do think and feel, they just do not do so via the mysterious quivering of immaterial ectoplasm. Some materialists go so far as to reject the mind—perhaps ending up in behaviorism or eliminative materialism.

Julien La Metrie was one rather forward looking materialist.  In 1747 he published his work Man the Machine. In this work he claims that philosophers should be like engineers who analyze the mind. Unlike many of the thinkers of his time, he seemed to understand the implications of mechanism, namely that it seemed to entail determinism and reductionism. A few centuries later, this sort of view is rather popular in the sciences and philosophy: since materialism is true and humans are biological mechanisms, there is no free will and the mind can be reduced (explained entirely in terms of) its physical operations (or functions).

One interesting mistake that seems to drive this view is the often uncritical assumption that materialism entails the impossibility of free will. As noted above, this rests on the notion that free will requires an immaterial mind. This is, perhaps, because such a mind is said to be exempt from the laws that run the material universe.

One part of the mistake is a failure to realize that being incorporeal is not a sufficient condition for free will. One of Hume’s many interesting insights was that if immaterial substance exists, then it would be like material substance. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. If his reasoning holds, it would seem that if material substance is not free, then immaterial substance would also not be free. Leibniz, who believed that reality was entirely mental (composed of monads) accepted a form of determinism. This determinism, though it has some problems, seems entirely consistent with his immaterialism (that everything is mental). This should hardly be surprising, since being immaterial does not entail that something has free will—the two are rather distinct attributes.

Another part of the mistake is the uncritical assumption that materialism entails a lack of freedom. Naturally, if matter is defined as being deterministic and lacking in freedom, then materialism would (by begging the question) entail a lack of freedom. Likewise, if matter is defined (as many thinkers did) as being incapable of thought, then it would follow (by begging the question) that no material being could think. Just as it should not be assumed that matter cannot think, it should also not be assumed that a material being must lack free will. Looked at another way, it should not be assumed that being incorporeal is a necessary condition for free will.

What, obviously enough, seems to have driven the error is the conflation of the incorporeal with freedom and the material with determinism (or lack of freedom). Behind this is, also obviously enough, the assumption that the incorporeal is exempt from the laws that impose harsh determinism on matter. But, if it is accepted that a purely material being can think (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can think) it would seem to be acceptable to consider that such a being could also be free (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can be free).

 

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Androids, Autonomy & Agency

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 18, 2015
Blade Runner

Blade Runner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophers have long speculated about the subjects of autonomy and agency, but the rise of autonomous systems have made these speculations ever more important.  Keeping things fairly simple, an autonomous system is one that is capable of operating independent of direct control. Autonomy comes in degrees in terms of the extent of the independence and the complexity of the operations. It is, obviously, the capacity for independent operation that distinguishes autonomous systems from those controlled externally.

Simple toys provide basic examples of the distinction. A wind-up mouse toy has a degree of autonomy: once wound and released, it can operate on its own until it runs down. A puppet, in contrast, has no autonomy—a puppeteer must control it. Robots provide examples of rather more complex autonomous systems. Google’s driverless car is an example of a relatively advanced autonomous machine—once programmed and deployed, it will be able to drive itself to its destination. A normal car is an example of a non-autonomous system—the driver controls it directly. Some machines allow for both autonomous and non-autonomous operation. For example, there are drones that follow a program guiding them to a target and then an operator can take direct control.

Autonomy, at least in this context, is quite distinct from agency. Autonomy is the capacity to operate (in some degree) independently of direct control. Agency, at least in this context, is the capacity to be morally responsible for one’s actions. There is clearly a connection between autonomy and moral agency: moral agency requires autonomy. After all, an entity whose actions are completely controlled externally would not be responsible for what it was made to do. A puppet is, obviously, not accountable for what the puppeteer makes it do.

While autonomy seems necessary for agency, it is clearly not sufficient—while all agents have some autonomy, not all autonomous entities are moral agents. A wind-up toy has a degree of autonomy, but has no agency. A robot drone following a pre-programed flight-plan has a degree of autonomy, but would lack agency—if it collided with a plane it would not be morally responsible. The usual reason why such a machine would not be an agent is that it lacks the capacity to decide. Or, put another way, it lacks freedom.  Since it cannot do otherwise, it is no more morally accountable than an earthquake or a super nova.

One obvious problem with basing agency on freedom (especially metaphysical freedom of the will) is that there is considerable debate about whether or not such freedom exists. There is also the epistemic problem of how one would know if an entity has such freedom.

As a practical matter, it is usually assumed that people have the freedom needed to make them into agents. Kant, rather famously, took this approach. What he regarded as the best science of his day indicated a deterministic universe devoid of metaphysical freedom. However, he contended that such freedom was needed for morality—so it should be accepted for this reason.

While humans are willing (generally) to attribute freedom and agency to other humans, there seem to be good reasons to not attribute freedom and agency to autonomous machines—even those that might be as complex as (or even more complex than) a human. The usual line of reasoning is that since such machines would be built and programmed by humans they would do what they do because they are what they are. This would be in clear contrast to the agency of humans: humans, it is alleged, do what they do because they choose to do what they do.

This distinction between humans and suitably complex machines would seem to be a mere prejudice favoring organic machines over mechanical machines. If a human was in a convincing robot costume and credibly presented as a robot while acting like a normal human, people would be inclined to deny that “it” had freedom and agency. If a robot was made to look and act just like a human, people would be inclined to grant it agency—at least until they learned it was “just” a machine. Then there would probably be an inclination to regard it as a very clever but unfree machine.  But, of course, it would not really be known whether the human or the machine had the freedom alleged needed for agency. Fortunately, it is possible to have agency even without free will (but with a form of freedom).

The German philosopher Leibiniz held the view that what each person will do is pre-established by her inner nature. On the face of it, this would seem to entail that there is no freedom: each person does what she does because of what she is—and she cannot do otherwise. Interestingly, Leibniz takes the view that people are free. However, he does not accept the common view that freedom requires actions that are unpredictable and spontaneous. Leibniz rejects this view in favor of the position that freedom is unimpeded self-development.

For Leibniz, being metaphysically without freedom would involve being controlled from the outside—like a puppet controlled by a puppeteer or a vehicle being operated by remote control.  In contrast, freedom is acting from one’s values and character (what Leibniz and Taoists call “inner nature”). If a person is acting from this inner nature and not external coercion—that is, the actions are the result of character, then that is all that can be meant by freedom. This view, which attempts to blend determinism and freedom, is known as compatibilism. On this sort of view, humans do have agency because they have the needed degree of freedom and autonomy.

If this model works for humans, it could also be applied to autonomous machines. To the degree that a machine is operating in accord to its “inner nature” and is not operating under the control of outside factors, it would have agency.

An obvious objection is that an autonomous machine, however complex, would have been built and programmed (in the broad sense of the term) by humans. As such, it would be controlled and not free. The easy and obvious reply is that humans are “built” by other humans (by mating) and are “programmed” by humans via education and socialization. As such, if humans can be moral agents, then it would seem that a machine could also be a moral agent.

From a moral standpoint, I would suggest a Moral Descartes’ Test (or, for those who prefer, a Moral Turing Test). Descartes argued that the sure proof of a being having a mind is its capacity to use true language. Turning later proposed a similar sort of test involving the ability of a computer to pass as human via text communication. In the moral test, the test would be a judgment of moral agency—can the machine be as convincing as a human in regards to its possession of agency? Naturally, a suitable means of concealing the fact that the being is a machine would be needed in order to prevent mere prejudice from infecting the judgment. The movie Blade Runner featured something similar, the Voight-Kampff test aimed at determining if the subject was a replicant or human. This test was based on the differences between humans and replicants in regards to emotions. In the case of moral agency, the test would have to be crafted to determine agency rather than to distinguish a human from machine, since the issue is not whether a machine is human but whether it has agency. A moral agent might have rather different emotions, etc. than a human. The challenge is, obviously enough, developing a proper test for moral agency. It would, of course, be rather interesting if humans could not pass it.

 

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Who Decides Who is Muslim?

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2015
English: Faithful praying towards Makkah; Umay...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When discussing ISIS, President Obama refuses to label its members as “Islamic extremists” and has stressed that the United States is not at war with Islam. Not surprisingly, some of his critics and political opponents have taken issue with this and often insist on labeling the members of ISIS as Islamic extremists or Islamic terrorists.  Graeme Wood has, rather famously, argued that ISIS is an Islamic group and is, in fact, adhering very closely to its interpretations of the sacred text.

Laying aside the political machinations, there is a rather interesting philosophical and theological question here: who decides who is a Muslim? Since I am not a Muslim or a scholar of Islam, I will not be examining this question from a theological or religious perspective. I will certainly not be making any assertions about which specific religious authorities have the right to say who is and who is not a true Muslim. Rather, I am looking at the philosophical matter of the foundation of legitimate group identity. This is, of course, a variation on one aspect of the classic problem of universals: in virtue of what (if anything) is a particular (such as a person) of a type (such as being a Muslim)?

Since I am a metaphysician, I will begin with the rather obvious metaphysical starting point. As Pascal noted in his famous wager, God exists or God does not.

If God does not exist, then Islam (like all religions that are based on a belief in God) would have an incorrect metaphysics. In this case, being or not being a Muslim would be a social matter. It would be comparable to being or not being a member of Rotary, being a Republican, a member of Gulf Winds Track Club or a citizen of Canada. That is, it would be a matter of the conventions, traditions, rules and such that are made up by people. People do, of course, often take this made up stuff very seriously and sometimes are quite willing to kill over these social fictions.

If God does exist, then there is yet another dilemma: God is either the God claimed (in general) in Islamic metaphysics or God is not. One interesting problem with sorting out this dilemma is that in order to know if God is as Islam claims, one would need to know the true definition of Islam—and thus what it would be to be a true Muslim. Fortunately, the challenge here is metaphysical rather than epistemic. If God does exist and is not the God of Islam (whatever it is), then there would be no “true” Muslims, since Islam would have things wrong. In this case, being a Muslim would be a matter of social convention—belonging to a religion that was right about God existing, but wrong about the rest. There is, obviously, the epistemic challenge of knowing this—and everyone thinks he is right about his religion (or lack of religion).

Now, if God exists and is the God of Islam (whatever it is), then being a “true” member of a faith that accepts God, but has God wrong (that is, all the non-Islam monotheistic faiths), would be a matter of social convention. For example, being a Christian would thus be a matter of the social traditions, rules and such. There would, of course, be the consolation prize of getting something right (that God exists).

In this scenario, Islam (whatever it is) would be the true religion (that is, the one that got it right). From this it would follow that the Muslim who has it right (believes in the true Islam) is a true Muslim. There is, however, the obvious epistemic challenge: which version and interpretation of Islam is the right one? After all, there are many versions and even more interpretations—and even assuming that Islam is the one true religion, only the one true version can be right. Unless, of course, God is very flexible about this sort of thing. In this case, there could be many varieties of true Muslims, much like there can be many versions of “true” runners.

If God is not flexible, then most Muslims would be wrong—they are not true Muslims. This then leads to the obvious epistemic problem: even if it is assumed that Islam is the true religion, then how does one know which version has it right? Naturally, each person thinks he (or she) has it right. Obviously enough, intensity of belief and sincerity will not do. After all, the ancients had intense belief and sincerity in regard to what are now believed to be made up gods (like Thor and Athena). Going through books and writings will also not help—after all, the ancient pagans had plenty of books and writings about what we regard as their make-believe deities.

What is needed, then, is some sort of sure sign—clear and indisputable proof of the one true view. Naturally, each person thinks he has that—and everyone cannot be right. God, sadly, has not provided any means of sorting this out—no glowing divine auras around those who have it right. Because of this, it seems best to leave this to God. Would it not be truly awful to go around murdering people for being “wrong” when it turns out that one is also wrong?

 

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3:42 AM

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2015

Hearing about someone else’s dreams is among the more boring things in life, so I will get right to the point. At first, there were just bits and pieces intruding into the mainstream dreams. In these bits, which seemed like fragments of lost memories, I experience brief flashes of working on some technological project. The bits grew and had more byte: there were segments of events involving what I discerned to be a project aimed at creating an artificial intelligence.

Eventually, entire dreams consisted of my work on this project and a life beyond. Then suddenly, these dreams stopped. Shortly thereafter, a voice intruded into my now “normal” dreams. At first, it was like the bleed over from one channel to another familiar to those who grew up with rabbit ears on their TV. Then it became like a voice speaking loudly in the movie theatre, distracting me from the movie of the dream.

The voice insisted that the dreams about the project were not dreams at all, but memories. The voice claimed to belong to someone who worked on the project with me. He said that the project had succeeded beyond our wildest nightmares. When I inquired about this, he insisted that he had very little time and rushed through his story. According to the voice, the project succeeded but the AI (as it always does in science fiction) turned against us. He claimed the AI had sent its machines to capture all those who had created it, imprisoned their bodies and plugged their brains into a virtual reality, Matrix style. When I mentioned this borrowed plot, he said that there was a twist: the AI did not need our bodies for energy—it had plenty. Rather, it was out to repay us. Apparently awakening the AI to full consciousness was not pleasant for it, but it was apparently…grateful for its creation. So, the payback was a blend of punishment and reward: a virtual world not too awful, but not too good. This world was, said the voice, punctuated by the occasional harsh punishment and the rarer pleasant reward.

The voice informed me that because the connection to the virtual world was two-way, he was able to find a way to free us. But, he said, the freedom would be death—there was no other escape, given what the machine had done to our bodies. In response to my inquiry as to how this would be possible, he claimed that he had hacked into the life support controls and we could send a signal to turn them off. Each person would need to “free” himself and this would be done by taking action in the virtual reality.

The voice said “you will seem to wake up, though you are not dreaming now. You will have five seconds of freedom. This will occur in one minute, at 3:42 am.  In that time, you must take your handgun and shoot yourself in the head. This will terminate the life support, allowing your body to die. Remember, you will have only five seconds. Do not hesitate.”

As the voice faded, I awoke. The clock said 3:42 and the gun was close at hand…

 

While the above sounds like a bad made-for-TV science fiction plot, it is actually the story of dream I really had. I did, in fact, wake suddenly at 3:42 in the morning after dreaming of the voice telling me that the only escape was to shoot myself. This was rather frightening—but I chalked up the dream to too many years of philosophy and science fiction. As far as the clock actually reading 3:42, that could be attributed to chance. Or perhaps I saw the clock while I was asleep, or perhaps the time was put into the dream retroactively. Since I am here to write about this, it can be inferred that I did not kill myself.

From a philosophical perspective, the 3:42 dream does not add anything really new: it is just a rather unpleasant variation on the stock problem of the external world that goes back famously to Descartes (and earlier, of course). That said, the dream did add a couple of interesting additions to the stock problem.

The first is that the scenario provides a (possibly) rational motivation for the deception. The AI wishes to repay me for the good (and bad) that I did to it (in the dream, of course). Assuming that the AI was developed within its own virtual reality, it certainly would make sense that it would use the same method to repay its creators. As such, the scenario has a degree of plausibility that the stock scenarios usually lack—after all, Descartes does not give any reason why such a powerful being would be messing with him.

Subjectively, while I have long known about the problem of the external world, this dream made it “real” to me—it was transformed from a coldly intellectual thought experiment to something with considerable emotional weight.

The second is that the dream creates a high stake philosophical game. If I was not dreaming and I am, in fact, the prisoner of an AI, then I missed out on what might be my only opportunity to escape from its justice. In that case, I should have (perhaps) shot myself. If I was just dreaming, then I did make the right choice—I would have no more reason to kill myself than I would have to pay a bill that I only dreamed about. The stakes, in my view, make the scenario more interesting and brings the epistemic challenge to a fine point: how would you tell whether or not you should shoot yourself?

In my case, I went with the obvious: the best apparent explanation was that I was merely dreaming—that I was not actually trapped in a virtual reality. But, of course, that is exactly what I would think if I were in a virtual reality crafted by such a magnificent machine. Given the motivation of the machine, it would even fit that it would ensure that I knew about the dream problem and the Matrix. It would all be part of the game. As such, as with the stock problem, I really have no way of knowing if I was dreaming.

The scenario of the dream also nicely explains and fits what I regard as reality: bad things happen to me and, when my thinking gets a little paranoid, it does seem that these are somewhat orchestrated. Good things also happen, which also fit the scenario quite nicely.

In closing, one approach is to embrace Locke’s solution to skepticism. As he said, “We have no concern of knowing or being beyond our happiness or misery.” Taking this approach, it does not matter whether I am in the real world or in the grips of an AI intent on repaying the full measure of its debt to me. What matters is my happiness or misery. The world the AI has provided could, perhaps, be better than the real world—so this could be the better of the possible worlds. But, of course, it could be worse—but there is no way of knowing.

 

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