A Philosopher's Blog

Love Across the Possible Worlds

Posted in Metaphysics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2017

Kelly & Portal BloodyWhile true love is the subject of many tales, the metaphysical question of its foundation is rarely addressed. One interesting way to explore this question is to bring in another popular subject of fiction, that of possible worlds. Imagine, if you will, a bereaved lover seeking to replace their lost love by finding an exact counterpart in another world. This raises the issue of whether it is rational to love the metaphysical counterpart of someone you love. I contend that this is just as rational as loving the original person and will argue for my case by using appeals to intuitions and analogies. In the interest of fairness, I will also consider and refute the transcendent argument for true love.

The metaphysics of Rick & Morty includes the existence of an infinite number of alternative worlds, each of which with its own Rick and Morty. The Rick and the Morty that are, one presumes, the true stars of the show have been forced to abandon their original reality a few times. However, they always end up living with “their” family (Beth, Summer and sometimes Jerry). While Rick often purports not to care, he repeatedly shows that he loves “his” daughter Beth and granddaughter Summer. However, as he and Morty themselves know, the Beth and Summer of their adopted world are not their Beth and Summer. They are daughter and granddaughter of the Rick of that world—a Rick who is (typically) dead.

CW’s The Flash show also makes use of the multiple world plot device as well, one that dates to the early days of comics. The DC comic universe features a multitude of different earths, most notably Earth 1 and Earth 2. Earth 2 was the home of the original Batman, Superman and others—it was used to maintain the timeline in which, for example, Superman was on earth in the 1930s. In a series of episodes of the TV show The Flash, Barry Allen (the Flash) travelled to Earth 2 and met the counterparts of people he knew and loved on his world, most especially his beloved Iris. On Earth 2, the normal Barry Allen 2 was married to Iris and Barry Allen 1 (from Earth 1) pretended to be Barry Allen 2 and was rather obsessed with her and her father, despite being explicitly told that the people of Earth 2 were obviously not the same people as those of Earth 1.

While people tend to feel how they do for no rational reason, there is a rather interesting question as to whether it makes sense to love someone because they happen to be the counterpart of someone you love. While this would be an interesting matter for psychology, the metaphysical aspect of this case is a question of whether the counterparts are such that it is rational to love or care about them because they are metaphysical counterparts of someone you love or care about.

For the sake of the discussion that follows, consider the following sci-fi scenario: Sam and Kelly met in graduate school, fell madly in love and were married shortly after their graduation. They were both hired by Kalikrates Dimensional, a startup dedicated to developing portals to other dimensions.

During an experiment, Sam was pulled into the blender dimension and ejected as a human smoothie. Unfortunately, he had neglected to keep up his premiums with Life Ensurance and had no backup. Distraught, Kelly considered cloning him anyway, but decided that without his memories and personalities, it would not be Sam.

Driven by her loss, she developed a safer portal system and then developed an Indexer that would scan and index the possible worlds. She programmed the Indexer to find a world just like her own, but where “she” rather than “Sam” would die in the portal accident. The Indexer labeled this world Earth 35765. Timing it perfectly, she popped through her portal just as the Kelly of 35765 would have returned, had she not been blended. The Kelly 35765 smoothie ended up in Kelly 1’s world, while Kelly 1 took over her life. Kelly 1 might have been happy with Sam 35765, but she was murdered and replaced a year later by the bereaved and insane Kelly 45765. Given this scenario, would it be rational for Kelly 1 to love Sam 35765?

One way to look at this matter is to use an analogy to counterparts in this world. To be specific, there are unrelated people who look exactly alike other people in this world. And, of course, there are also identical twins. While a person might be fooled by a twin or a look-alike, they would probably not love them simply because they looked like someone they loved. The same, it could be argued, can be applied to counterparts in other worlds: they look like someone you love, but they are not the one you love.

I certainly agree that it would be irrational to love someone simply because they looked like someone one already loves. After all, the look-alike could be utterly horrible or at least utterly incompatible. As such, it would be foolish to love such a twin solely based on appearance. That sort of shallow love would be irrational even in this world.

However, it can be rational to love a counterpart that exactly resembles the original. Such a counterpart could have the qualities that would provide a rational foundation for love. For example, if Kelly 1 loved Sam 1 because of his personality, values, laugh, and such, then if Sam 35765 had these same qualities, then it would make sense for Kelly 1 to love him. After all, he has the same qualities. To use an analogy, if Kelly loves Cherry Breeze pie because of its qualities, then she is obviously not limited to loving the first Cherry Breeze pie she had—any adequately similar Cherry Breeze pie would suffice.

Now imagine that there was one Cherry Breeze pie that Kelly loved above all others and that this pie could be duplicated to such a degree that every aspect of the pie would be indistinguishable from her most beloved pie. In this case, Kelly would love that exactly resembling pie as much as the original.

There is the obvious concern that there would be a fundamental difference between any counterpart and the original; namely that there would be no history or relationship with the counterpart. So, while Kelly 1 might love the qualities of Sam 35765, she has never done anything with him and thus has no history or relationship with him. She could develop that history and relationship, of course, but that would be falling in love with a new person. While it is true that Kelly 1 has no past relationship with Sam 35765, she selected the world in which Kelly 35765 and Sam 35765 did everything that Kelly 1 and Sam 1 did—there would be no distinguishable difference. Kelly 1 knows everything that happened between the other Kelly and Sam and will act exactly as Kelly 1 would have.

Going back to the pie analogy, while Kelly would have no established relationship with the new pie, the fact that it is (by hypothesis) exactly like the original pie in every way (other than being new) would intuitively entail that Kelly would love the new pie as much as the original. Everything discernable about the relationships with the pies would be the same other than their bare difference. If Kelly declared that she loved the original but did not care for the new pie, her claim would seem to be utterly unfounded—after all, she could point to no qualitative difference that would warrant her assertion.

It could even be contended that, in a way, Kelly does have a relationship with the pie—since it is exactly like the original pie, it would fit seamlessly into the relationship she had with the original pie. As such, it would be rational to love the exact counterpart of someone one loves.

Since I made the error of referencing true love, I opened the portal to easy and obvious objection to my position. One basic element of true love is that one person (Kelly 1) loves another (Sam 1) and not that person’s qualities. This is because qualities change and can be possessed by others. Intuitively, true love will not fade and cannot be transferred to another person that simply has the same qualities.

For example, if Kelly loves Sam because of his brilliance and humor. Then she would love someone else who had the same brilliance and humor. This sort of interchangeable love is not true love. If what is loved is not the qualities of a person, there is the question of what this might be.  What is wanted is something “beneath” all the qualities that makes the person the person they are and distinguished them from all other things. Fortunately, philosophy has just such a thing in stock: the metaphysical self. This, as should come as no surprise, takes the discussion into the realm of Kantian philosophy.

Kant split the world into noumena and phenomena.[i] The phenomena are the things as they appear to us. This is what we experience-such how good a person looks in a swim suit. We can have empirical knowledge of such things. The noumena are the things in themselves. Kant claimed the noumena cannot be known because they are beyond our experience.

On Kant’s view, it would be sensible to stick with the phenomena and not speculate about the noumena. But, Kant claims that cannot resists the sweet lure of the transcendent illusions of metaphysics.

The metaphysical self is the illusion that is needed here. Like David Hume, Kant thinks we have no impression of the metaphysical self. What we do have are impressions, via introspection, of the empirical self. The inner eye never sees that metaphysical self; it just encounters things like feelings and thoughts.

Unlike Hume, Kant argues that we must think of our experiences as if they occur within a unified self. This provides with a frame of reference for thought and it is thus useful to accept a metaphysical self. Since it is useful and we need the metaphysical self to make sense of things, Kant concludes that we should accept it. While Kant did not take the step of arguing for true love, I will do this now.

Applying his method to true love, true love would be impossible without the metaphysical self. As such, it is a necessary condition for true love. The metaphysical self is obviously beyond the realm of scientific proof. However, true love is irresistible because it seems to be a critical belief for our happiness and our conception of ourselves. As such, while Kelly 1 might feel that she loves Sam 35756, this would be irrational: Sam 35756 is not her true love. As would be imagined, in a tragically poignant Twilight Zone style sci-fi story, she would come to realize this.

While true love is appealing, the objection can be countered. This should not be surprising, since the argument itself acknowledges that it is appealing to an illusion. But, of course, what is needed is a substantive reply.

While the idea of a metaphysical self behind all the qualities sounds fancy, it is merely a repainted bare particular. It is bare because it does not have any qualities of its own beneath all the qualities that it possesses. It is a particular because there is only one of each (and each one can only be in one location at a time). In the ideal love of the objection, one loves the bare particularity of another as opposed to qualities that can change or be duplicated by another.

Fortunately for my position, there is a rather serious problem with this notion of love. When we interact with the world we interact with various qualities. For example, Kelly can see Sam’s quirky smile and experience his keen intelligence. But it seems impossible for her to be aware of his bare particularity. Since it has no qualities there would seem to be nothing to experience. It would thus be impossible for Kelly to be aware of Sam’s bare particularity to love him. As such, love must be about detectable qualities.

While this is less romantic than the idea of metaphysical true love, it is more realistic and intuitively appealing. When one person talks about why they love another, they talk about the qualities of the person. Some dating services also make a big deal about testing people for various qualities and using them to find compatibility and love. Scientists also talk about the emotion of love as being driven by genes in search of suitable genes to combine with. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that when Kelly loves Sam, she loves his qualities. As such, if it was rational for Kelly 1 to love Sam 1, then it is just as rational for Kelly 1 to love Same 35756. There is, after all, no discernible difference between the Sams.

In the above essay, I considered the issue of whether it is rational to love the metaphysical counterpart of someone you love. I contended that this is just as rational as loving the original person argued for my position by appealing to intuitions and using arguments from analogy. In the interest of fairness, I also considered the transcendent argument for true love. Thus, love is not only possible, it is possible across worlds.

 

Cherry Breeze Pie

Ingredients

 

Crust

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/3 cup butter or margarine — melted

or 1 pre-made graham cracker crust

 

Filling

1 package cream cheese — (8 ounces)

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 can cherry pie filling — (1 pound, 5 ounces)

 

Directions

  1. Cook butter and sugar in saucepan over medium heat until mixture boils. Remove from heat and mix in graham cracker crumbs. Press mixture evenly and firmly into 9-inch pie plate to form a crust. Chill. (Or just buy a pre-made crust).

 

  1. Beat cream cheese until smooth. Gradually mix in sweetened condensed milk, stir in lemon juice and vanilla. Spread in crust. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or until firm.

 

  1. Top with chilled cherry pie filling. To remove pie pieces easily, place hot wet towel around sides and bottom of pan before cutting.

 

 

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[i] Kant presents this distinction in I. Kant (1965), Critique of Pure Reason (trans. J. Ellington),  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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Of Dice & Chance

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 9, 2017

d20Imagine, if you will, a twenty-sided die (or a d20 as it is known to gamers) being rolled. In the ideal the die has a 1 in 20 chance of rolling a 20 (or any particular number). It is natural to think of the die as being a sort of locus of chance, a random number generator whose roll cannot be predicted. While this is an appealing view of dice, there is a rather interesting question about what such random chance amounts to.

One way to look at the matter, using the example of a d20, is that if the die is rolled 20 times, then one of those rolls will be a 20. Obviously enough, this is not true—as any gamer will tell you, the number of 20s rolled while rolling 20 times varies a great deal. This can, of course, be explained by the fact that d20s are imperfect and hence tend to roll some numbers more than others. There are also the influences of the roller, the surface on which the d20 lands and so on. As such, a d20 will not be a perfect random number generator. But, imagine if there could be a perfect d20 rolled under perfect conditions. What would occur?

One possibility is that each number would come up within the 20 rolls, albeit at random. As such, every 20 rolls would guarantee a 20 (and only one 20), thus accounting for the 1 in 20 chance of rolling a 20. This, however, seems problematic. There is the obvious question of what would ensure that each of the twenty numbers were rolled once (and only once). Then again, that this would occur is only marginally weirder than the idea of chance itself.

It is, of course, well-established that a small number of random events (such as rolling a d20 only twenty times) will deviate from what probability dictates. It is also well-established that as the number of rolls increases, the closer the outcomes will match the expected results (assuming the d20 is not loaded). This general principle is known as the law of large numbers. As such, getting three 20s or no 20s in a series of 20 rolls would not be surprising, but as the number of rolls increases, the closer the results will be to the expected 1 in 20 outcome for each number. As such, the 1 in 20 odds of getting a 20 with a d20 does not mean that 20 rolls will ensure one and only one 20, it means that with enough rolls about 1 in 20 of all the rolls will be 20s. This, does not, of course, really say much about how chance works—beyond noting that chance seems to play out “properly” over large numbers.

One interesting way to look at this is to say that if there were an infinite number of d20 rolls, then 5% of the infinite number of rolls would be 20s. One might, of course, wonder what 5% of infinity would be—would it not be infinite as well? Since infinity is such a mess, a rather more manageable approach would be to use the largest finite number (which presumably has its own problems) and note that 5% of that number of d20 rolls would be 20s.

Another approach would be to say that the 1 in 20 chance means that if all 1 in 20 chance events were formed into sets of 20, sets could be made from all the events that would have one occurrence each of the 1 in 20 events. Using dice as the example, if all the d20 rolls in the universe were known and collected into sets of numbers, they could be dived up into sets of twenty with each number in each set. So, while my 20 rolls would not guarantee a 20, there would be one 20 out of every 20 rolls in the universe. There is still, of course, the question of how this would work. One possibility is that random events are not random and this ensures the proper distribution of events—in this case, dice rolls.

It could also be claimed that chance is a bare fact, that a perfect d20 rolled in perfect conditions would have a 1 in 20 chance of producing a specific number. On this view, the law of large numbers might fail—while unlikely, if chance were a real random thing, it would not be impossible for results to be radically different than predicted. That is, there could be an infinite number of rolls of a perfect d20 with no 20 being rolled. One could even imagine that since a 1 can be rolled on any roll, someone could roll an infinite number of consecutive 1s. Intuitively this seems impossible—it is natural to think that in an infinity every possibility must occur (and perhaps do so perfectly in accord with the probability). But, this would only be a necessity if chance worked a certain way, perhaps that for every 20 rolls in the universe there must be one of each result. Then again, infinity is a magical number, so perhaps this guarantee is part of the magic.

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Experience Machines

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2017

Experience MachinesExperience Machines, edited by Mark Silcox (and including a chapter by me) is now available where fine books are sold, such as Amazon.

In his classic work Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick asked his readers to imagine being permanently plugged into a ‘machine that would give you any experience you desired’. He speculated that, in spite of the many obvious attractions of such a prospect, most people would choose against passing the rest of their lives under the influence of this type of invention. Nozick thought (and many have since agreed) that this simple thought experiment had profound implications for how we think about ethics, political justice, and the significance of technology in our everyday lives.

Nozick’s argument was made in 1974, about a decade before the personal computer revolution in Europe and North America. Since then, opportunities for the citizens of industrialized societies to experience virtual worlds and simulated environments have multiplied to an extent that no philosopher could have predicted. The authors in this volume re-evaluate the merits of Nozick’s argument, and use it as a jumping–off point for the philosophical examination of subsequent developments in culture and technology, including a variety of experience-altering cybernetic technologies such as computer games, social media networks, HCI devices, and neuro-prostheses.

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Out of Body

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2016

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

When I was young, I had my first out of body experience (OBE for short). While I did not know about them at the time, I later learned that my experience matched the usual description: I felt as if the center of my awareness and perception had left my body. It seemed as if I could perceive normally from that location, albeit with greater vividness (retrospectively, it seemed like high definition). After that, I had OBEs from time to time, especially when I was under great stress—such as all my years in graduate school.

When I was a kid, I only had two explanations for the experiences. One was supernatural: my soul was leaving my body and looking about. The other was paranormal: somehow, I had sensory capabilities that differed from the normal limits of the sense organs. As I learned philosophy and science, I came up with other explanations. As a bit of light and fun philosophy, I’ll go through some of them.

When I learned about metaphysical dualism in the context of Descartes, I found that I had a theory that would explain my experience. For the dualist, there are two types of stuff: the mental and the physical. The mind is made of mental stuff which thinks, but is not extended in space. The body is made of physical stuff that does not think, but is extended in space. On the dualist view, a person is their mind and this mind somehow interacts (or syncs) with the body. Since the mind is distinct from the body, it could presumably leave and someone still interact (or sync) with the physical world. Roughly put, an OBE would be having the ghost leaving the shell and looking about, but then returning to the still living body.

This account of the OBE does face all the challenges of metaphysical dualism and some of its own. In terms of the usual problems, there is the difficulty in proving the existence of such a mind and the classic mind-body problem of accounting for how the mind and body interact causally. In terms of a specific problem with dualist OBE, there is the obvious problem of how a disembodied mind would still perceive the physical world without its body. If it could do this, then there would be no need for sense organs and people would not lose their senses due to physical damage or disease.

Another approach to the OBE experience is to make use of Occam’s Razor, which can be taken as the metaphysical principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. That is, if there are competing explanations for a phenomenon, then the one with the fewest posited metaphysical entities has an advantage. The principle is also applied to the number of assumptions required by explanations and it is sometimes crudely put as the notion that the simplest explanation is best.

In the case of my OBE experiences, an application of Occam’s Razor would cut away the metaphysical account in favor of one with fewer entities/assumptions. In this case, the more economical explanation would be that my experiences were the result of unusual activity in my nervous system that created (hallucination or dreamlike) the impression that my awareness was outside my body. Since such malfunctions do exist and there is no need to postulate a wandering soul, this explanation has the most scientific appeal. It is also a disappointing one; like learning that a magic trick is not magic, but misdirection and deceit. Fortunately, it can be fun to briefly pretend to ignore the most plausible explanation and consider some other philosophical options. After the fun is over, the most plausible explanation should, of course,  be reseated on its throne.

One interesting possibility is that the mind has the capacity to receive sensory data in non-standard ways. That is, that our epistemic capabilities extend beyond our sense organs or that we are someone able to pull in sensory data from an unusual perspective. OBE experiences involve, at least in my case, only sight and hearing—which involve energy. It could be imagined that the nervous system is somehow able to shift its perception point by manipulating this energy. The easy and obvious counter to this is that studies of the nervous system would have presumably found evidence of such a strange system. Since there seems to be no biological mechanism for this, this explanation seems rather defective.

To close, it is worth considering the philosophical view known as phenomenology or idealism. This view was most famously held by Berkeley.  His view made it into the popular consciousness with the classic question: “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer, for Berkeley, was that there is always someone there to hear it. This someone is, of course, God. God perceives everything all the time. This might explain why when you shower, you always feel like someone is watching.

Getting back on track, Berkeley’s philosophical view is a rejection of dualism. Unlike the metaphysical materialist who rejects the mind and accepts matter, Berkeley accepted the mind and rejected matter. For him, what we regard as physical objects are collections of ideas in minds. For example, the device that you are using to read this is not a physical machine—it is ideas. On this view, all experiences are OBE—there are no bodies in which to have experiences. However, one could have experiences as if one was outside one’s body.

Another way to look at phenomenology is to think of virtual reality—only reality is all virtual with no physical entities. This provides a way to explain OBEs—they are glitches in perception. To use a video game first person shooter analogy, the game is supposed to have the game “camera” set so that it is as if you are seeing the world from the eyes of your character. This “camera” can glitch due to a software error, causing you to see the game world from a point “outside” your character’s head. This would be a game OBE. If phenomenology is correct, then perhaps OBEs are these sort of glitches—the point of perception is briefly in the wrong place. Since the world is clearly imperfect, such glitches are not inconceivable. Alternatively, it need not be glitch—perhaps this sort of perceptual capability is a feature and not a bug.

While I would like to regard my OBEs as supporting metaphysical dualism (and thus the possibility of existence after death), the best explanation is the least fun—that it is a malfunction of the brain; a strange hallucination.

 

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The Simulation II: Escape

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2016

The cover to Wildstorm's A Nightmare on Elm St...

Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation, thus adding a new chapter to the classic problem of the external world. When philosophers engage this problem, the usual goal is show how one can know that one’s experience correspond to an external reality. Musk takes a somewhat more practical approach: he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. In addition to the practical challenges of breaking out of a simulation, there are also some rather interesting philosophical concerns about whether such an escape is even possible.

In regards to the escape, there are three main areas of interest. These are the nature of the simulation itself, the nature of the world outside the simulation and the nature of the inhabitants of the simulation. These three factors determine whether or not escape from the simulation is a possibility.

Interestingly enough, determining the nature of the inhabitants involves addressing another classic philosophical problem, that of personal identity. Solving this problem involves determining what it is to be a person (the personal part of personal identity), what it is to be distinct from all other entities and what it is to be the same person across time (the identity part of personal identity). Philosophers have engaged this problem for centuries and, obviously enough, have not solved it. That said, it is easy enough to offer some speculation within the context of Musk’s simulation.

Musk and others seem to envision a virtual reality simulation as opposed to physical simulation. A physical simulation is designed to replicate a part of the real world using real entities, presumably to gather data. One science fiction example of a physical simulation is Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World.” In this story the inhabitants of a recreated town are forced to relive June 15th over and over again in order to test various advertising techniques.

If we are in a physical simulation, then escape would be along the lines of escaping from a physical prison—it would be a matter of breaking through the boundary between our simulation and the outer physical world. This could be a matter of overcoming distance (travelling far enough to leave the simulation—perhaps Mars is outside the simulation) or literally breaking through a wall. If the outside world is habitable, then survival beyond the simulation would be possible—it would be just like surviving outside any other prison.

Such a simulation would differ from the usual problem of the external world—we would be in the real world; we would just be ignorant of the fact that we are in a constructed simulation. Roughly put, we would be real lab rats in a real cage, we would just not know we are in a cage. But, Musk and others seem to hold that we are (sticking with the rat analogy) rats in a simulated cage. We may even be simulated rats.

While the exact nature of this simulation is unspecified, it is supposed to be a form of virtual reality rather than a physical simulation. The question then, is whether or not we are real rats in a simulated cage or simulated rats in a simulated cage.

Being real rats in this context would be like the situation in the Matrix: we have material bodies in the real world but are jacked into a virtual reality. In this case, escape would be a matter of being unplugged from the Matrix. Presumably those in charge of the system would take better precautions than those used in the Matrix, so escape could prove rather difficult. Unless, of course, they are sporting about it and are willing to give us a chance.

Assuming we could survive in the real world beyond the simulation (that it is not, for example, on a world whose atmosphere would kill us), then existence beyond the simulation as the same person would be possible. To use an analogy, it would be like ending a video game and walking outside—you would still be you; only now you would be looking at real, physical things. Whatever personal identity might be, you would presumably still be the same metaphysical person outside the simulation as inside. We might, however, be simulated rats in a simulated cage and this would make matter even more problematic.

If it is assumed that the simulation is a sort of virtual reality and we are virtual inhabitants, then the key concern would be the nature of our virtual existence. In terms of a meaningful escape, the question would be this: is a simulated person such that they could escape, retain their personal identity and persist outside of the simulation?

It could be that our individuality is an illusion—the simulation could be rather like Spinoza envisioned the world. As Spinoza saw it, everything is God and each person is but a mode of God. To use a crude analogy, think of a bed sheet with creases. We are the creases and the sheet is God. There is actually no distinct us that can escape the sheet. Likewise, there is no us that can escape the simulation.

It could also be the case that we exist as individuals within the simulation, perhaps as programmed objects.  In this case, it might be possible for an individual to escape the simulation. This might involve getting outside of the simulation and into other systems as a sort of rogue program, sort of like in the movie Wreck-It Ralph. While the person would still not be in the physical world (if there is such a thing), they would at least have escaped the prison of the simulation.  The practical challenge would be pulling off this escape.

It might even be possible to acquire a physical body that would host the code that composes the person—this is, of course, part of the plot of the movie Virtuosity. This would require that the person make the transition from the simulation to the real world. If, for example, I were to pull off having my code copied into a physical shell that thought it was me, I would still be trapped in the simulation. I would no more be free than if I was in prison and had a twin walking around free. As far as pulling of such an escape, Virtuosity does show a way—assuming that a virtual person was able to interact with someone outside the simulation.

As a closing point, the problem of the external world would seem to haunt all efforts to escape. To be specific, even if a person seemed to have managed to determine that this is a simulation and then seemed to have broken free, the question would still arise as to whether or not they were really free. It is after all, a standard plot twist in science fiction that the escape from the virtual reality turns out to be virtual reality as well. This is nicely mocked in the “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” episode of Rick and Morty. It also occurs in horror movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, —a character trapped in a nightmare believes they have finally awoken in the real world, only they have not. In the case of a simulation, the escape might merely be a simulated escape and until the problem of the external world is solved, there is no way to know if one is free or still a prisoner.

 

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The Simulation I: The Problem of the External World

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2016

Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation. The latest twist on this is that he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. This is, of course, the most recent chapter in the ancient philosophical problem of the external world. Put briefly, this problem is the challenge of proving that what seems to be a real external world is, in fact, a real external world. As such, it is a problem in epistemology (the study of knowledge).

The problem is often presented in the context of metaphysical dualism. This is the view that reality is composed of two fundamental categories of stuff: mental stuff and physical stuff. The mental stuff is supposed to be what the soul or mind is composed of, while things like tables and kiwis (the fruit and the bird) are supposed to be composed of physical stuff. Using the example of a fire that I seem to be experiencing, the problem would be trying to prove that the idea of the fire in my mind is being caused by a physical fire in the external world.

Renee Descartes has probably the best known version of this problem—he proposes that he is being deceived by an evil demon that creates, in his mind, an entire fictional world. His solution to this problem was to doubt until he reached something he could not doubt: his own existence. From this, he inferred the existence of God and then, over the rest of his Meditations on First Philosophy, he established that God was not a deceiver. Going back to the fire example, if I seem to see a fire, then there probably is an external, physical fire causing that idea. Descartes did not, obviously, decisively solve the problem: otherwise Musk and his fellows would be easily refuted by using Descartes’ argument.

One often overlooked contribution Descartes made to the problem of the external world is consideration of why the deception is taking place. Descartes attributes the deception of the demon to malice—it is an evil demon (or evil genius). In contrast, God’s goodness entails he is not a deceiver. In the case of Musk’s simulation, there is the obvious question of the motivation behind it—is it malicious (like Descartes’ demon) or more benign? On the face of it, such deceit does seem morally problematic—but perhaps the simulators have excellent moral reasons for this deceit. Descartes’s evil demon does provide the best classic version of Musk’s simulation idea since it involves an imposed deception. More on this later.

John Locke took a rather more pragmatic approach to the problem. He rejected the possibility of certainty and instead argued that what matters is understanding matters enough to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. Going back to the fire, Locke would say that he could not be sure that the fire was really an external, physical entity. But, he has found that being in what appears to be fire has consistently resulted in pain and hence he understands enough to want to avoid standing in fire (whether it is real or not). This invites an obvious comparison to video games: when playing a game like World of Warcraft or Destiny, the fire is clearly not real. But, because having your character fake die in fake fire results in real annoyance, it does not really matter that the fire is not real. The game is, in terms of enjoyment, best played as if it is.

Locke does provide the basis of a response to worries about being in a simulation, namely that it would not matter if we were or were not—from the standpoint of our happiness and misery, it would make no difference if the causes of pain and pleasure were real or simulated. Locke, however, does not consider that we might be within a simulation run by others. If it were determined that we are victims of a deceit, then this would presumably matter—especially if the deceit were malicious.

George Berkeley, unlike Locke and Descartes, explicitly and passionately rejected the existence of matter—he considered it a gateway drug to atheism. Instead, he embraces what is called “idealism”, “immaterialism” and “phenomenalism.” His view was that reality is composed of metaphysical immaterial minds and these minds have ideas. As such, for him there is no external physical reality because there is nothing physical. He does, however, need to distinguish between real things and hallucinations or dreams. His approach was to claim that real things are more vivid that hallucinations and dreams. Going back to the example of fire, a real fire for him would not be a physical fire composed of matter and energy. Rather, I would have a vivid idea of fire. For Berkeley, the classic problem of the external world is sidestepped by his rejection of the external world.  However, it is interesting to speculate how a simulation would be handled by Berkeley’s view.

Since Berkeley does not accept the existence of matter, the real world outside the simulation would not be a material world—it would a world composed of minds. A possible basis for the difference is that the simulated world is less vivid than the real world (to use his distinction between hallucinations and reality). On this view, we would be minds trapped in a forced dream or hallucination. We would be denied the more vivid experiences of minds “outside” the simulation, but we would not be denied an external world in the metaphysical sense. To use an analogy, we would be watching VHS, while the minds “outside” the simulation would be watching Blu-Ray.

While Musk does not seem to have laid out a complete philosophical theory on the matter, his discussion indicates that he thinks we could be in a virtual reality style simulation. On this view, the external world would presumably be a physical world of some sort. This distinction is not a metaphysical one—presumably the simulation is being run on physical hardware and we are some sort of virtual entities in the program. Our error, then, would be to think that our experiences correspond to material entities when they, in fact, merely correspond to virtual entities. Or perhaps we are in a Matrix style situation—we do have material bodies, but receive virtual sensory input that does not correspond to the physical world.

Musk’s discussion seems to indicate that he thinks there is a purpose behind the simulation—that it has been constructed by others. He does not envision a Cartesian demon, but presumably envisions beings like what we think we are.  If they are supposed to be like us (or we like them, since we are supposed to be their creation), then speculation about their motives would be based on why we might do such a thing.

There are, of course, many reasons why we would create such a simulation. One reason would be scientific research: we already create simulations to help us understand and predict what we think is the real world. Perhaps we are in a simulation used for this purpose. Another reason would be for entertainment. We created games and simulated worlds to play in and watch; perhaps we are non-player characters in a game world or unwitting actors in a long running virtual reality show (or, more likely, shows).

One idea, which was explored in Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World”, is that our virtual world exists to test advertising and marketing techniques for the real world. In Pohl’s story, the inhabitants of Tylerton are killed in the explosion of the town’s chemical plant and they are duplicated as tiny robots inhabiting a miniature reconstruction of the town. Each day for the inhabitants is June 15th and they wake up with their memories erased, ready to be subject to the advertising techniques to be tested that day.  The results of the methods are analyzed, the inhabitants are wiped, and it all starts up again the next day.

While this tale is science fiction, Google and Facebook are working very hard to collect as much data as they can about us with an end to monetize all this information. While the technology does not yet exist to duplicate us within a computer simulation, that would seem to be a logical goal of this data collection—just imagine the monetary value of being able to simulate and predict people’s behavior at the individual level. To be effective, a simulation owned by one company would need to model the influences of its competitors—so we could be in a Google World or a Facebook World now so that these companies can monetize us to exploit the real versions of us in the external world.

Given that a simulated world is likely to exist to exploit the inhabitants, it certainly makes sense to not only want to know if we are in such a world, but also to try to undertake an escape. This will be the subject of the next essay.

 

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Hillary, Secrecy & Pneumonia

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2016

While attending a 9/11 event, Hillary Clinton seemed to succumb to the heat. It was later revealed that she had been suffering from pneumonia, something her campaign had failed to disclose. As would be expected, her critics rushed to claim that this is yet another example of her problematic obsession with secrecy. As should also be expected, those who have long been advancing the narrative of her ill health were given a fresh magazine of ammunition. Her supporters mostly responded by downplaying the incident.

Assuming she really does have pneumonia, her illness is not really a big deal. After all, if getting sick disqualified a person from being president, then there would be no one to fill the office. The real concern was, of course, about the failure to announce in a timely manner that she was sick. This ties into the damaging narrative that Hillary is needlessly and problematically secretive.

It could be countered that the decision was not based in this desire for secrecy but was a calculated move in response to Trump’s strategy of claiming Hillary is unwell. While everyone gets sick at some point, there was no doubt concern that Trump would exploit such an announcement and ratchet up his attacks. Hillary and her handlers probably thought they could bluff their way through the illness; something that might have worked.

While that approach has some appeal, there is the very reasonable concern that the failure to disclose this illness was, as noted above, just another example of Hillary’s problematic obsession with secrecy. Hillary also recently faced the backlash from Bill’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch. This was rightly presented as an example of an approach so often taken by the Clintons. After all, while any sensible person would expect that Bill would use his influence to help Hillary, doing this in such a blatant and clumsy manner did considerable damage. Given that Hillary is supposed to be such a savvy politician, it is interesting to consider why she engages in what seem to be so many self-damaging actions. While the discussion focuses on Hillary, it also applies to people in general. Poor decision making is a common affliction.

One possibility is that such behavior is in her nature—she is what she is, so she does what she does even when it harms her efforts to fulfill her ambition to be president. This is illustrated by the classic story of the fox (or frog) and the scorpion.

A fox was about to start his swim across a river when a scorpion called out to him, asking for a ride across. The fox, being good natured, wanted to help. But, he was worried that the scorpion would sting him. The scorpion assured him that he would be in no danger. After all, if he stung the fox, they would both drown and he certainly would not do something so foolish.

The fox agreed and the scorpion climbed up on his back. When the pair was half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. When the fox asked the scorpion why, he replied “it’s my nature” and they both died. Each thing is what it is and does what it does because of what it is. So, perhaps it is simply Hillary’s nature to engage in such behavior—she simply cannot do otherwise. This does raise many interesting questions about whether people have a nature or not and it certainly ties into the endless philosophical battle over free choice.

An alternative that avoids metaphysics is to take the view that Hillary is habituated into doing as she does. While habits can be very powerful, they are obviously weaker than having a nature. This is because, as Aristotle discussed at length, habits can be made and broken. But, habits can be rather hard to break, especially bad ones and it is quite obvious that people will stick with detrimental habits even in the face of continuous negative results. For example, most people have the habits of eating poorly and exercising too little or not at all. As such, they suffer needless and easily avoidable health problems. As another example, many people form habits involving damaging substances ranging from sugar to opioids. These do considerable harm, yet people persist in their habits. Hillary seems have learned the habit of secrecy and, like many habits, she seems unwilling or unable to break it.

A third alternative is that Hillary has consciously adopted secrecy as a strategy. People do often stick with failing strategies for various reasons. It is also worth considering that she actually has a winning strategy. While the revelations about her email and her pneumonia have cost her politically, it could well be that she has other secrets that have been effectively kept and that doing so has proven very advantageous for her. To use a sports analogy, a team that has a good strategy does not win every time. However, they win enough to make it rational to stick to that strategy. One interesting thing about the strategy of secrecy is that the public only knows about cases in which the strategy failed, not the situations in which it worked very well. So, what seems to be a bad strategy because of a few very visible failures might actually be very effective—who knows what secrets remain hidden and what damage they would do if they were revealed?

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Am I my Own Demon?

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2016

The problem of the external world is a classic challenge in epistemology (the theory of knowledge). This challenge, which was first presented by the ancient skeptics, is met by proving that what I seem to be experiencing is actually real. As an example, it would require proving that the computer I seem to be typing this on exists outside of my mind.

Some of the early skeptics generated the problem by noting that what seems real could be just a dream, generated in the mind of the dreamer. Descartes added a new element to the problem by considering that an evil demon might be causing him to have experiences of a world that does not actually exist outside of his mind. While the evil demon was said to be devoted to deception, little is said about its motive in this matter. After Descartes there was a move from supernatural to technological deceivers: the classic brain-in-a-vat scenarios that are precursors to the more recent notion of virtual reality. In these philosophical scenarios little is said about the motivation or purpose of the deceit, beyond the desire to epistemically mess with someone. Movies and TV shows do sometimes explore the motives of the deceit. The Matrix trilogy, for example, endeavors to present something of a backstory for the Matrix. While considering the motivation behind the alleged deceit might not bear on the epistemic problem, it does seem a matter worth considering.

The only viable approach to sorting out a possible motivation for the deceit is to consider the nature of the world that is experienced. As various philosophers, such as David Hume, have laid out in their formulations of the problem of evil (the challenge of reconciling God’s perfection with the existence of evil) the world seems to be an awful place. As Hume has noted, it is infested with disease, suffused with suffering, and awash in annoying things. While there are some positive things, there is an overabundance of bad, thus indicating that whatever lies behind the appearances is either not benign or not very competent. This, of course, assumes some purpose behind the deceit. But, perhaps there is deceit without a deceiver and there is no malice. This would make the unreal like what atheists claim about the allegedly real: it is purposeless. However, deceit (like design) seems to suggest an intentional agent and this implies a purpose. This purpose, if there is one, must be consistent with the apparent awfulness of the world.

One approach is to follow Descartes and go with a malicious supernatural deceiver. This being might be acting from mere malice—inflicting both deceit and suffering. Or it might be acting as an agent of punishment for past transgressions on my part. The supernatural hypothesis does have some problems, the main one being that it involves postulating a supernatural entity. Following Occam’s Razor, if I do not need to postulate a supernatural being, then I should not do so.

Another possibility is that I am in technologically created unreal world. In terms of motives consistent with the nature of the world, there are numerous alternatives. One is punishment for some crime or transgression. A problem with this hypothesis is that I have no recollection of a crime or indication that I am serving a sentence. But, it is easy to imagine a system of justice that does not inform prisoners of their crimes during the punishment and that someday I will awaken in the real world, having served my virtual time. It is also easy to imagine that this is merely a system of torment, not a system of punishment. There could be endless speculation about the motives behind such torment. For example, it could be an act of revenge or simple madness. Or even a complete accident. There could be other people here with me; but I have no way of solving the problem of other minds—no way of knowing if those I encounter are fellow prisoners or mere empty constructs. This ignorance does seem to ground a moral approach—since they could be fellow prisoners, I should treat them as such.

A second possibility is that the world is an experiment or simulation of an awful world and I am a construct within that world. Perhaps those conducting it have no idea the inhabitants are suffering; perhaps they do not care; or perhaps the suffering is the experiment. I might even be a researcher, trapped in my own experiment. Given how scientists in the allegedly real world have treated subjects, the idea that this is a simulation of suffering has considerable appeal.

A third possibility is that the world is a game or educational system of some sort. Perhaps I am playing a very lame game of Assessment & Income Tax; perhaps I am in a simulation learning to develop character in the face of an awful world; or perhaps I am just part of the game someone else is playing. All of these are consistent with how the world seems to be.

It is also worth considering the possibility of solipsism: that I am the only being that exists. It could be countered that if I were creating the world, it would be much better for me and far more awesome. After all, I actually write adventures for games and can easily visually a far more enjoyable and fun world. The easy and obvious counter is to point out that when I dream (or, more accurately have nightmares), I experience unpleasant things on a fairly regular basis and have little control. Since my dreams presumably come from me and are often awful, it makes perfect sense that if the world came from me, it would be comparable in its awfulness. The waking world would be more vivid and consistent because I am awake; the dream world less so because of mental fatigue. In this case, I would be my own demon.

 

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Simulated Living

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2016

One of the oldest problems in philosophy is that of the external world. It present an epistemic challenge forged by the skeptics: how do I know that what I seem to be experiencing as the external world is really real for real? Early skeptics often claimed that what seems real might be just a dream. Descartes upgraded the problem through his evil genius/demon which used either psionic or supernatural powers to befuddle its victim. As technology progressed, philosophers presented the brain-in-a-vat scenarios and then moved on to more impressive virtual reality scenarios. One recent variation on this problem has been made famous by Elon Musk: the idea that we are characters within a video game and merely think we are in a real world. This is, of course, a variation on the idea that this apparent reality is just a simulation. There is, interestingly enough, a logically strong inductive argument for the claim that this is a virtual world.

One stock argument for the simulation world is built in the form of the inductive argument generally known as a statistical syllogism. It is statistical because it deals with statistics. It is a syllogism by definition: it has two premises and one conclusion. Generically, a statistical syllogism looks like this:

 

Premise 1: X% of As are Bs.

Premise 2: This is an A.

Conclusion: This is a B.

 

The quality (or strength, to use the proper term) of this argument depends on the percentage of As that are B. The higher the percentage, the stronger the argument. This makes good sense: the more As that are Bs, the more reasonable it is that a specific A is a B.  Now, to the simulation argument.

 

Premise 1: Most worlds are simulated worlds.

Premise 2: This is a world.

Premise 3: This is a simulated world.

 

While “most” is a vague term, the argument is stronger than weaker in that if its premises are true, then the conclusion is logically more likely to be true than not. Before embracing your virtuality, it is worth considering a rather similar argument:

 

Premise 1: Most organisms are bacteria.

Premise 2: You are an organism.

Conclusion: You are a bacterium.

 

Like the previous argument, the truth of the premises make the conclusion more likely to be true than false. However, you are almost certainly not a bacteria. This does not show that the argument itself is flawed. After all, the reasoning is quite good and any organism selected truly at random would most likely be a bacterium. Rather, it indicates that when considering the truth of a conclusion, one must consider the total evidence. That is, information about the specific A must be considered when deciding whether or not it is actually a B. In the bacteria example, there are obviously facts about you that would count against the claim that you are a bacterium—such as the fact that you are a multicellular organism.

Turning back to the simulation argument, the same consideration is in play. If it is true that most worlds are simulations, then any random world is more likely to be a simulation than not. However, the claim that this specific world is a simulation would require due consideration of the total evidence: what evidence is there that this specific world is a simulation rather than real? This reverses the usual challenge of proving that the world is real to trying to prove it is not real. At this point, there seems to be little in the way of evidence that this is a simulation. Using the usual fiction examples, we do not seem to find glitches that would be best explained as programming bugs, we do not seem to encounter outsiders from reality, and we do not run into some sort of exit system (like the Star Trek holodeck). Naturally, this is all consistent with this being a simulation—it might be well programmed, the outsider might never be spotted (or never go into the system) and there might be no way out. At this point, the most reasonable position is that the simulation claim is at best on par with the claim that the world is real—all the evidence is consistent with both accounts. There is, however, still the matter of the truth of the premises in the simulation argument.

The second premise seems true—whatever this is, it seems to be a world. It seems fine to simply grant this premises. As such, the first premise is the key—while the logic of the argument is good, if the premise is not plausible then it is not a good argument overall.

The first premise is usually supported by its own stock argument. The reasoning includes the points that the real universe contains large numbers of civilizations, that many of these civilizations are advanced and that enough of these advanced civilizations create incredibly complex simulations of worlds. Alternatively, it could be claimed that there are only a few (or just one) advanced civilizations but that they create vast numbers of complex simulated worlds.

The easy and obvious problem with this sort of reasoning is that it requires making claims about an external real world in order to try to prove that this world is not real. If this world is taken to not be real, there is no reason to think that what seems true of this world (that we are developing simulations) would be true of the real world (that they developed super simulations, one of which is our world).  Drawing inferences from what we think is a simulation to a greater reality would be like the intelligent inhabitants of a Pac Man world trying to draw inferences from their game to our world. This would be rather problematic.

There is also the fact that it seems simpler to accept that this world is real rather than making claims about a real world beyond this one. After all, the simulation hypothesis requires accepting a real world on top of our simulated world—why not just have this be the real world?

 

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Guardian Angels

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2016

AngelOn an episode of the Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch had an interesting discussion of guardian angels. Lynch, who currently stars as a guardian angel in “Angel from Hell”, related a story of how her guardian angel held her in a protective embrace during a low point of her life. Colbert, ever the rational Catholic, noted that he believed in guardian angels despite knowing that they do not exist. The question of the existence of guardian angels is certainly an interesting one and provides yet another way to consider the classic problem of evil.

In general terms, a guardian angel is a supernatural, benevolent being who serves as the personal protector of someone. The nature of their alleged guarding varies considerably. For some, the guardian angel is supposed to serve in the classic “angel on the shoulder” role and provide good advice. For others, the angel provides a comforting presence. Some even claim that guardian angels take a very active role, such as reducing a potentially fatal fall to one that merely inflicts massive bodily injury. My interest is, however, not with the specific functions of guardian angels, but with the question of their existence.

In the context of monotheism, a guardian angel is an agent of God. As such, this ties them into the problem of evil. The general problem of evil is the challenge of reconciling the alleged existence of God with the existence of evil. Some take this problem to decisively show that God does not exist. Others contend that it shows that God is not how philosophers envision Him in the problem—that is, He is not omniscient, omnibenevolent or omnipotent. In the case of guardian angels, the challenge is to reconcile their alleged existence with evil.

One merely has to look through the news of the day to see a multitude of cases in which a guardian angel could have saved the day with fairly little effort. For example, a guardian angel could inform the police about the location of a kidnapped child. As another example, a guardian angel could exert a bit of effort to keep a ladder from slipping. They could also do more difficult things, like preventing cancer from killing children or deflecting bullets away from school children. Since none of this ever seems to happen, one obvious conclusion is that there are no guardian angels.

However, as with the main problem of evil, there are some ways to try to address this specific problem. One option, which is not available in the case of God, is to argue that guardian angels have very limited capabilities—that is, they are incredibly weak supernatural beings. Alternatively, they might operate under very restrictive rules in terms of what they are allowed to do. One problem with this reply is that such weak angels seem indistinguishable in their effects from non-existent angels. Another problem ties this into the broader problem of evil: why wouldn’t God deploy a better sort of guardian or give them broader rules to operate under? This, of course, just brings up the usual problem of evil.

Another option is that not everyone gets an angel. Jane Lynch, for example, might get an angel that hugged her. Alan Kurdi, the young boy who drowned trying to flee Syria, did not get a guardian angel. While this would be an explanation of sorts, it still just pushes the problem back: why would God not provide everyone in need with a guardian? Mere humans are, of course, limited in their resources and abilities, so everyone cannot be protected all the time. However, God would not seem to suffer from such a limitation.

It is also possible to make use of a stock reply to the problem of evil and bring in the Devil. Perhaps Lucifer deploys his demonic agents to counter the guardian angels. So, when something bad happens to a good person, it is because her guardian angel was outdone by a demon. While this has a certain appeal, it would require a world in which God and the Devil are closely matched so that the Devil can defy God and His angels. This, of course, just brings in the general problem of evil: unless one postulates two roughly equal deities, God is on the hook for the Devil and his demons. Or rather, God’s demons.

As should be expected, guardian angels seem to fare no better than God in regards to the problem of evil. That said, the notion of benevolent, supernatural personal guardians predates monotheism. Socrates, for example, claimed to have a guardian who would warn him of bad choices (which Stephen Colbert also claims to have).

These sort of guardians were not claimed to be agents of a perfect being, as such they do avoid the problem of evil. Supernatural beings that are freelancers or who serve a limited deity can reasonably be expected to be limited in their abilities and it would certainly make sense that not everyone would have a guardian. Conflict between opposing supernatural agencies also makes sense, since there is no postulation of a single supreme being.

While these supernatural guardians do avoid the problem of evil, they run up against the problem of evidence: there does not appear to be adequate evidence for the existence of such supernatural beings. In fact, the alleged evidence for them is better explained by alternatives. For example, a little voice in one’s head is better explained in terms of the psychological rather than the supernatural (a benign mental condition rather than a supernatural guardian). As another example, a fall that merely badly injures a person rather than killing them is better explained in terms of the vagaries of chance than in terms of a conscious, supernatural intervention.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be little reason to believe in the existence of guardian angels. The world would be rather different if they did exist, so clearly they do not. Or they do so little as to make no meaningful difference—which is rather hard to distinguish from not existing.

I certainly do not begrudge people their belief in guardian angels—if that belief leads them to make better choices and feel safer in a dangerous world, then it is a benign belief. I certainly have comfort beliefs as well—as we all do. Perhaps these are our guardian angels. This, obviously, points to another discussion about such beliefs.

 

 

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