A Philosopher's Blog

Go Trump or Go Home

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2015

As I write this at the end of July, 2015 the U.S. Presidential elections are over a year away. However, the campaigning commenced some months ago and the first Republican presidential debate is coming up very soon. Currently, there are sixteen Republicans vying for their party’s nomination—but there is only room enough on stage for the top ten. Rather than engaging in an awesome Thunderdome style selection process, those in charge of the debate have elected to go with the top ten candidates as ranked in an average of some national polls. At this moment, billionaire and reality show master Donald Trump (and his hair) is enjoying a commanding lead over the competition. The once “inevitable” Jeb Bush is in a distant second place (but at least polling over 10%). Most of the remaining contenders are in the single digits—but a candidate just has to be in the top ten to get on that stage.

While Donald Trump is regarded by comedians as a comedy gold egg laying goose, he is almost universally regarded as something of a clown by the “serious” candidates. In the eyes of many, Trump is a living lampoon of unprecedented proportions. He also has a special talent for trolling the media and an amazing gift for building bi-partisan disgust. His infamous remarks about Mexicans, drugs and rape antagonized liberals, Latinos, and even many conservatives. His denial of the war hero status of John McCain, who was shot down in Viet Nam and endured brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, rankled almost everyone. Because of such remarks, it might be wondered why Trump is leading the pack.

One easy and obvious answer is name recognition. As far as I can tell, everyone on earth has heard of Trump. Since people will, when they lack other relevant information, generally pick a known named over unknown names, it makes sense that Trump would be leading the polls at this point. Going along with this is the fact that Trump manages to get and hold attention. I am not sure if he is a genius and has carefully crafted a persona and script to ensure that the cameras are pointed at him. That is, Trump is a master of media chess and is always several moves ahead of the media and his competition. He might also possess an instinctive cunning, like a wily self-promoting coyote. Some have even suggested he is sort of an amazing idiot-savant. Or it might all be a matter of chance and luck. But, whatever the reason, Trump is in the bright light of the spotlight and that gives him a considerable advantage over his more conventional opponents.

In response to Trump’s antics (or tactics), some of the other Republican candidates have decided to go Trump rather than go home. Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham seem to have decided to go full-on used car salesman in their approaches. Rand Paul posted a video of himself taking a chainsaw to the U.S. tax code and Lindsay Graham posted a video of how to destroy a cell phone. While Rand Paul has been consistently against the tax code, Graham’s violence against phones was inspired by a Trump stunt in which the Donald gave out Graham’s private phone number and bashed the senator.

While a sense of humor and showmanship are good qualities for a presidential candidate to possess, there is the obvious concern about how far a serious candidate should take things. There is, after all, a line between quality humorous showmanship and buffoonery that a serious candidate should not cross. An obvious reason for staying on the right side of the line is practical: no sensible person wants a jester or fool as king so a candidate who goes too far risks losing. There is also the matter of judgment: while most folks do enjoy playing the fool from time to time, such foolery is like having sex: one should have the good sense to not engage in it in public.

Since I am a registered Democrat, I am somewhat inclined to hope that the other Republicans get into their clown car and chase the Donald all the way to crazy town. This would almost certainly hand the 2016 election to the Democrats (be it Hilary, Bernie or Bill the Cat). Since I am an American, I hope that most of the other Republicans decide to decline the jester cap (or troll crown) and not try to out-Trump Trump. First, no-one can out-Trump the Donald. Second, trying to out-Trump the Donald would take a candidate to a place where he should not go. Third, it is bad enough having Trump turning the nomination process into a bizarre reality-show circus. Having other candidates get in on this game would do even more damage to what should be a serious event.

Another part of the explanation is that Trump says out loud (and loudly) what a certain percentage of Americans think. While most Americans are dismayed by his remarks about Mexicans, Chinese, and others, some people are in agreement with this remarks—or at least are sympathetic. There is a not-insignificant percentage of people who are afraid of those who are not white and Trump is certainly appealing to such folks. People with strong feelings about such matters will tend to be more active in political matters and hence their influence will tend to be disproportionate to their actual numbers. This tends to create a bit of a problem for the Republicans: a candidate that can appeal to the most active and more extreme members of the party will find it challenging to appeal to the general electorate—which tends to be moderate.

I also sort of suspect that many people are pulling a prank on the media: while they do not really want to vote for the Donald, they really like the idea of making the media take Trump seriously. People probably also want to see Trump in the news. Whatever else one might say about the Donald, he clearly knows how to entertain. I also think that the comedians are doing all they can to keep Trump’s numbers up: he is the easy button of comedy. One does not even need to lampoon him, merely present him as he is (or appears).

Many serious pundits do, sensibly, point to the fact that the leader in the very early polls tends to not be the nominee. Looking back at previous elections, various Republican candidates swapped places at the top throughout the course of the nomination cycle. Given past history, it seems unlikely that Trump will hold on to his lead—he will most likely slide back into the pack and a more traditional politician will get the nomination. But, one should never count the Donald out.

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The Ethics of Backdoors

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 13, 2015

In philosophy, one of the classic moral debates has focused on the conflict between liberty and security. While this topic covers many issues, the main problem is determining the extent to which liberty should be sacrificed in order to gain security. There is also the practical question of whether or not the security gain is actually effective.

One of the recent versions of this debate focuses on tech companies being required to include electronic backdoors in certain software and hardware. Put in simple terms, a backdoor of this sort would allow government agencies (such as the police, FBI and NSA) to gain access even to files and hardware protected by encryption. To use an analogy, this would be like requiring that all dwellings be equipped with a special door that could be secretly opened by the government to allow access to the contents of the house.

The main argument in support of mandating such backdoors is a fairly stock one: governments need such access for criminal investigators, gathering military intelligence and (of course) to “fight terrorism.” The concern is that if there is not a backdoor, criminals and terrorists will be able to secure their data and thus prevent state agencies from undertaking surveillance or acquiring evidence.

As is so often the case with such arguments, various awful or nightmare scenarios are often presented in making the case. For example, it might be claimed that the location and shutdown codes for ticking bombs could be on an encrypted iPhone. If the NSA had a key, they could just get that information and save the day. Without the key, New York will be a radioactive crater. As another example, it might be claimed that a clever child pornographer could encrypt all his pornography, making it impossible to make the case against him, thus ensuring he will be free to pursue his misdeeds with impunity.

While this argument is not without merit, there are numerous stock counter arguments. Many of these are grounded in views of individual liberty and privacy—the basic idea being that an individual has the right to have such security against the state. These arguments are appealing to both liberals (who tend to profess to like privacy rights) and conservatives (who tend to claim to be against the intrusions of big government).

Another moral argument is grounded in the fact that the United States government has shown that it cannot be trusted. To use an analogy, imagine that agents of the state were caught sneaking into the dwellings of all citizens and going through their stuff in clear violation of the law, the constitution and basic moral rights. Then someone developed a lock that could only be opened by the person with the proper key. If the state then demanded that the lock company include a master key function to allow the state to get in whenever it wanted, the obvious response would be that the state has already shown that it cannot be trusted with such access. If the state had behaved responsibly and in accord with the laws, then it could have been trusted. But, like a guest who abused her access to a house, the state cannot and should not be trusted with a key After all, we already know what they will do.

This argument also applies to other states that have done similar things. In the case of states that are even worse in their spying on and oppression of their citizens, the moral concerns are even greater. Such backdoors would allow the North Korean, Chinese and Iranian governments to gain access to devices, while encryption would provide their citizens with some degree of protection.

The strongest moral and practical argument is grounded on the technical vulnerabilities of integrated backdoors. One way that a built-in backdoor creates vulnerability is its very existence. To use a somewhat oversimplified analogy, if thieves know that all vaults have a built in backdoor designed to allow access by the government, they will know that a vulnerability exists that can be exploited.

One counter-argument against this is that the backdoor would not be that sort of vulnerability—that is, it would not be like a weaker secret door into a vault. Rather, it would be analogous to the government having its own combination that would work on all the vaults. The vault itself would be as strong as ever; it is just that the agents of the state would be free to enter the vault when they are allowed to legally do so (or when they feel like doing so).

The obvious moral and practical concern here is that the government’s combination to the vaults (to continue with the analogy) could be stolen and used to allow criminals or enemies easy access to all the vaults. The security of such vaults would be only as good as the security the government used to protect this combination (or combinations—perhaps one for each manufacturer). As such, the security of every user depends on the state’s ability to secure its means of access to hardware and software.

The obvious problem is that governments, such as the United States, have shown that they are not very good at providing such security. From a moral standpoint, it would seem to be wrong to expect people to trust the state with such access, given the fact that the state has shown that it cannot be depended on in such matters. To use an analogy, imagine you have a friend who is very sloppy about securing his credit card numbers, keys, PINs and such—in fact, you know that his information is routinely stolen. Then imagine that this friend insists that he needs your credit card numbers, PINs and such and that he will “keep them safe.” Given his own track record, you have no reason to trust this friend nor any obligation to put yourself at risk, regardless of how much he claims that he needs the information.

One obvious counter to this analogy is that this irresponsible friend is not a good analogue to the state. The state has compulsive power that the friend lacks, so the state can use its power to force you to hand over this information.

The counter to this is that the mere fact that the state does have compulsive force does not mean that it is thus responsible—which is the key concern in regards to both the ethics of the matter and the practical aspect of the matter. That is, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those that claim there is a moral obligation to provide a clearly irresponsible party with such access.

It might then be argued that the state could improve its security and responsibility, and thus merit being trusted with such access. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious fact that if hackers and governments knew that that the keys to the backdoors existed, they would expend considerable effort to acquire them and would, almost certainly, succeed. I can even picture the sort of headlines that would appear: “U.S. Government Hacked: Backdoor Codes Now on Sale on the Dark Web” or “Hackers Linked to China Hack Backdoor Keys; All Updated Apple and Android Devices Vulnerable!” As such, the state would not seem to have a moral right to insist on having such backdoors, given that the keys will inevitably be stolen.

At this point, the stock opening argument could be brought up again: the state needs backdoor access in order to fight crime and terrorism. There are two easy and obvious replies to this sort of argument.

The first is based in an examination of past spying, such as that done under the auspices of the Patriot Act. The evidence seems to show that this spying was completely ineffective in regards to fighting terrorism. These is no reason to think that backdoor access would change this.

The second is a utilitarian argument (which can be cast as a practical or moral argument) in which the likely harm done by having backdoor access must be weighed against the likely advantages of having such access. The consensus among those who are experts in security is that the vulnerability created by backdoors vastly exceeds the alleged gain to protecting people from criminals and terrorists.

Somewhat ironically, what is alleged to be a critical tool for fighting crime (and terrorism) would simply make cybercrime much easier by building vulnerabilities right into software and devices.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that baked-in backdoors are morally wrong on many grounds (privacy violations, creation of needless vulnerability, etc.) and lack a practical justification. As such, they should not be required by the state.

 

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The Value of Public Universities

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2015

One stock narrative in the media is that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed. This is true. There is also a stock narrative that this increase, at least for public universities, has been due to the cutting of public education funds. This certainly is part of the truth. Another important part is the cost of sustaining the every-growing and well paid administrative class that has ensconced (and perhaps enthroned) itself at colleges and universities. I will, however, focus primarily on the cutting of public funds.

The stock media narrative makes it clear why there was a cut to public education spending: the economy was brought down in flames by the too clever machinations of the world’s financial class. This narrative is, for the most part, true. Another narrative is that Republican state legislatures have cut deeply into the funding for public education. One professed reason for this is ideological: government spending must be cut, presumably to reduce the taxes paid by the job creators. A reason that is not openly professed is the monetization of education. Public universities are in competition with the for-profit colleges for (ironically) public funding, mostly in the form of federal financial aid and student loans. Degrading, downsizing and destroying public education allows the for-profit colleges to acquire more customers and more funding and these for-profits have been generous with their lobbying dollars (to Republicans and Democrats). Since I have written other essays on the general catastrophic failure that is the for-profit college, I will not pursue this matter here.

A third openly professed reason is also ideological: the idea that a college education is a private rather than a public good. This seems to be based on the view that the primary purpose of a college education is economic: for the student to be trained to fill a job.  It is also based on what can be regarded as a selfish value system—that value is measured solely in terms of how something serves a narrowly defined self-interest. In philosophy, this view is egoism and, when dignified with a moral theory, called ethical egoism (the idea that each person should act solely in her self-interest as opposed to acting, at least sometimes, from altruism).

Going along with this notion is the narrative that certain (mainly non-STEM) majors are useless. That is, they do not train a person to get a job. These two notions are usually combined into one stock narrative, which is often presented as something like “why should my tax dollars go to someone getting a degree in anthropology or, God forbid, philosophy?”

This professed ideology has had considerable impact on higher education. My adopted state of Florida has seen the usual story unfold: budget cuts to higher education, imposition of performance based funding (performance being defined primarily in terms of training the right sort of job fillers for the job creators), and the imposition of micro-managing assessment (which is universally regarded by anyone who actually teaches as pure bullshit) and so on.  When all this is combined with the ever-expanding administrative class, it becomes evident that public higher education in America is in real trouble.

At this point most readers will expect me to engage in my stock response in regards to the value of education. You know, the usual philosophical stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living, the importance to a democratic state of having an educated population and all the other stuff that is waved away with a dismissive gesture by those who know the true value of public education: private profit. Since I have written about these values elsewhere, I will not do so here. There is also the obvious fact that the people who believe in this sort of value already support education and those who do not will almost certainly not be swayed by any arguments I could make. Instead, I will endeavor to argue for the value of the public university in very practical, “real-world” terms.

First, the public university is important for the defense of the United States. While private, non-profit institutions do rather important research, the public universities have contributed a great deal to our defense technology, they train many of our officers, and they train many of the people who work in our intelligence agencies. Undermining the public university weakens the United States in ways that will damage our national defense. National defense certainly seems to be a public and not just a private good.

Second, large public universities are centers of scientific research that has great practical (that is, economic) value. This research includes medical research, physics, robotics, engineering and all areas that are recognized as having clear practical value. One sure way to ensure that the United States falls behind the rest of the world in these areas is to continue to degrade public universities. Being competitive in these areas does seem to be a public good, although it is obviously specific individuals who benefit the most.

Third, large public universities draw some of the best and brightest people from around the world. Many of these people stay in the United States and contribute a great deal—thus adding to the public good (while obviously benefiting themselves). Even those who return home are influenced by the United States—they learn English (if they do not already know it), they are exposed to American culture, they make friends with Americans and often develop a fondness for their school and the country. While these factors are hard to quantify, they do serve as advantage to the United States in economic, scientific, diplomatic and defense terms.

Fourth, having what was once the best public higher education system in the world gave the country considerable prestige and influence. While prestige is difficult to quantify, it certainly matters—humans are very much influenced by status. This can be regarded as a public good.

Fifth, there are the obvious economic advantages of a strong public higher education system. College educated citizens make more money and thus pay more taxes—thus contributing to the public good. While having a job is certainly a private good, there is also a considerable amount of public good. Businesses need employees and people need doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychiatrists, pilots, petroleum engineers, computer programmers, officers, and so on. As such, it would seem that the public university does not just serve the private good but the public good.

If this argument has merit, it would seem that the degrading of public higher education is damaging the public good and harming the country. As such, this needs to be reversed before the United States falls even more behind the competition.

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July 4th

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2015

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Is Libertarianism Viable

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2015

The United States has had a libertarian and anarchist thread since the beginning, which is certainly appropriate for a nation that espouses individual liberty and expresses distrust of the state. While there are many versions of libertarianism and these range across the political spectrum, I will focus on one key aspect of libertarianism. To be specific, I will focus on the idea that the government should impose minimal limits on individual liberty and that there should be little, if any, state regulation of business. These principles were laid out fairly clearly by the American anarchist Henry David Thoreau in his claims that the best government governs least (or not at all) and that government only advances business by getting out of its way.

I must admit that I find the libertarian-anarchist approach very appealing. Like many politically minded young folks, I experimented with a variety of political theories in college. I found Marxism unappealing—as a metaphysical dualist, I must reject materialism. Also, I was well aware of the brutally oppressive and murderous nature of the Marxists states and they were in direct opposition to both my ethics and my view of liberty. Fascism was certainly right out—the idea of the total state ran against my views of liberty. Since, like many young folks, I thought I knew everything and did not want anyone to tell me what to do, I picked anarchism as my theory of choice. Since I am morally opposed to murdering people, even for a cause, I sided with the non-murderous anarchists, such as Thoreau. I eventually outgrew anarchism, but I still have many fond memories of my halcyon days of naïve political views. As such, I do really like libertarian-anarchism and really want it to be viable. But, I know that liking something does not entail that it is viable (or a good idea).

Put in extremely general terms, a libertarian system would have a minimal state with extremely limited government impositions on personal liberty. The same minimalism would also extend to the realm of business—they would operate with little or no state control. Since such a system seems to maximize liberty and freedom, it seems to be initially very appealing. After all, freedom and liberty are good and more of a good thing is better than less. Except when it is not.

It might be wondered how more liberty and freedom is not always better than less. I find two of the stock answers both appealing and plausible. One was laid out by Thomas Hobbes. In discussing the state of nature (which is a form of anarchism—there is no state) he notes that total liberty (the right to everything) amounts to no right at all. This is because everyone is free to do anything and everyone has the right to claim (and take) anything. This leads to his infamous war of all against all, making life “nasty, brutish and short.” Like too much oxygen, too much liberty can be fatal. Hobbes solution is the social contract and the sovereign: the state.

A second one was present by J.S. Mill. In his discussion of liberty he argued that liberty requires limitations on liberty. While this might seem like a paradox or a slogan from Big Brother, Mill is actually quite right in a straightforward way. For example, your right to free expression requires that my right to silence you be limited. As another example, your right to life requires limits on my right to kill. As such, liberty does require restrictions on liberty. Mill does not limit the limiting of liberty to the state—society can impose such limits as well.

Given the plausibility of the arguments of Hobbes and Mill, it seems reasonable to accept that there must be limits on liberty in order for there to be liberty. Libertarians, who usually fall short of being true anarchists, do accept this. However, they do want the broadest possible liberties and the least possible restrictions on business.

In theory, this would appear to show that the theory provides the basis for a viable political system. After all, if libertarianism is the view that the state should impose the minimal restrictions needed to have a viable society, then it would be (by definition) a viable system. However, there is the matter of libertarianism in practice and also the question of what counts as a viable political system.

Looked at in a minimal sense, a viable political system would seem to be one that can maintain its borders and internal order. Meeting this two minimal objectives would seem to be possible for a libertarian state, at least for a while. That said, the standards for a viable state might be taken to be somewhat higher, such as the state being able to (as per Locke) protect rights and provide for the good of the people. It can (and has) been argued that such a state would need to be more robust than the libertarian state. It can also be argued that a true libertarian state would either devolve into chaos or be forced into abandoning libertarianism.

In any case, the viability of libertarian state would seem to depend on two main factors. The first is the ethics of the individuals composing the state. The second is the relative power of the individuals. This is because the state is supposed to be minimal, so that limits on behavior must be set largely by other factors.

In regards to ethics, people who are moral can be relied on to self-regulate their behavior to the degree they are moral. To the degree that the population is moral the state does not need to impose limitations on behavior, since the citizens will generally not behave in ways that require the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. As such, liberty would seem to require a degree of morality on the part of the citizens that is inversely proportional to the limitations imposed by the state. Put roughly, good people do not need to be coerced by the state into being good. As such, a libertarian state can be viable to the degree that people are morally good. While some thinkers have faith in the basic decency of people, many (such as Hobbes) regard humans as lacking in what others would call goodness. Hence, the usual arguments about how the moral failings of humans requires the existence of the coercive state.

In regards to the second factor, having liberty without an external coercive force maintaining the liberty would require that the citizens be comparable in political, social and economic power. If some people have greater power they can easily use this power to impose on their fellow citizens. While the freedom to act with few (or no) limits is certainly a great deal for those with greater power, it certainly is not very good for those who have less power. In such a system, the powerful are free to do as they will, while the weaker people are denied their liberties. While such a system might be libertarian in name, freedom and liberty would belong to the powerful and the weaker would be denied. That is, it would be a despotism or tyranny.

If people are comparable in power or can form social, political and economic groups that are comparable in power, then liberty for all would be possible—individuals and groups would be able to resist the encroachments of others. Unions, for example, could be formed to offset the power of corporations. Not surprisingly, stable societies are able to build such balances of power to avoid the slide into despotism and then to chaos. Stable societies also have governments that endeavor to protect the liberties of everyone by placing limits on how much people can inflict their liberties on other people. As noted above, people can also be restrained by their ethics. If people and groups varied in power, yet abided by the limits of ethical behavior, then things could still go well for even the weak.

Interestingly, a balance of power might actually be disastrous. Hobbes argued that it is because people are equal in power that the state of nature is a state of war. This rests on his view that people are hedonistic egoists—that is, people are basically selfish and care not about other people.

Obviously enough, in the actual world people and groups vary greatly in power. Not surprisingly, many of the main advocates of libertarianism enjoy considerable political and economic power—they would presumably do very well in a system that removed many of the limitations upon them since they would be freer to do as they wished and the weaker people and groups would be unable to stop them.

At this point, one might insist on a third factor that is beloved by the Adam Smith crowd: rational self-interest. The usual claim is that people would limit their behavior because of the consequences arising from their actions. For example, a business that served contaminated meat would soon find itself out of business because the survivors would stop buying the meat and spread the word. As another example, an employer who used his power to compel his workers to work long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay would find that no one would be willing to work for him and would be forced to improve things to retain workers. As a third example, people would not commit misdeeds because they would be condemned or punished by vigilante justice. The invisible hand would sort things out, even if people are not good and there is a great disparity in power.

The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of system generally does not work very well—as shown by history. If there is a disparity in power, that power will be used to prevent negative consequences. For example, those who have economic power can use that power to coerce people into working for low pay and can also use that power to try to keep them from organizing to create a power that can resist this economic power. This is why, obviously enough, people like the Koch brothers oppose unions.

Interestingly, most people get that rational self-interest does not suffice to keep people from acting badly in regards to crimes such as murder, theft, extortion, assault and rape. However, there is the odd view that rational self-interest will somehow work to keep people from acting badly in other areas. This, as Hobbes would say, arises from an insufficient understanding of humans. Or is a deceit on the part of people who have the power to do wrong and get away with it.

While I do like the idea of libertarianism, a viable libertarian society would seem to require people who are predominantly ethical (and thus self-regulating) or a careful balance of power. Or, alternatively, a world in which people are rational and act from self-interest in ways that would maintain social order. This is clearly not our world.

 

 

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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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Aristotle & the Quantified Life

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Sports/Athletics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2015

While Aristotle was writing centuries before the rise of wearable technology, his view of moral education provides a solid foundation for the theory behind what I like to call the benign tyranny of the device. Or, if one prefers, the bearable tyranny of the wearbable.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle addressed the very practical problem of how to make people good. He was well aware that merely listening to discourses on morality would not make people good. In a very apt analogy, he noted that such people would be like invalids who listened to their doctors, but did not carry out her instructions—they will get no benefit.

His primary solution to the problem is one that is routinely endorsed and condemned today: to use the compulsive power of the state to make people behave well and thus become conditioned in that behavior. Obviously, most people are quite happy to have the state compel people to act as they would like them to act; yet equally unhappy when it comes to the state imposing on them. Aristotle was also well aware of the importance of training people from an early age—something later developed by the Nazis and Madison Avenue.

While there have been some attempts in the United States and other Western nations to use the compulsive power of the state to force people to engage in healthy practices, these have been fairly unsuccessful and are usually opposed as draconian violations of the liberty to be out of shape. While the idea of a Fitness Force chasing people around to make them exercise amuses me, I certainly would oppose such impositions on both practical and moral grounds. However, most people do need some external coercion to force them to engage in healthy behavior. Those who are well-off can hire a personal trainer and a fitness coach. Those who are less well of can appeal to the tyranny of friends who are already self-tyrannizing. However, there are many obvious problems with relying on other people. This is where the tyranny of the device comes in.

While the quantified life via electronics is in its relative infancy, there is already a multitude of devices ranging from smart fitness watches, to smart plates, to smart scales, to smart forks. All of these devices offer measurements of activities to quantify the self and most of them offer coercion ranging from annoying noises, to automatic social media posts (“today my feet did not patter, so now my ass grows fatter”), to the old school electric shock (really).

While the devices vary in their specifics, Aristotle laid out the basic requirements back when lightning was believed to come from Zeus. Aristotle noted that a person must do no wrong either with or against one’s will. In the case of fitness, this would be acting in ways contrary to health.

What is needed, according to Aristotle, is “the guidance of some intelligence or right system that has effective force.” The first part of this is that the device or app must be the “right system.” That is to say, the device must provide correct guidance in terms of health and well-being. Unfortunately, health is often ruled by fad and not actual science.

The second part of this is the matter of “effective force.” That is, the device or app must have the power to compel. Aristotle noted that individuals lacked such compulsive power, so he favored the power of law. Good law has practical wisdom and also compulsive force. However, unless the state is going to get into the business of compelling health, this option is out.

Interesting, Aristotle claims that “although people resent it when their impulses are opposed by human agents, even if they are in the right, the law causes no irritation by enjoining decent behavior.” While this seems not entirely true, he did seem to be right in that people find the law less annoying than being bossed around by individuals acting as individuals (like that bossy neighbor telling you to turn down the music).

The same could be true of devices—while being bossed around by a person (“hey fatty, you’ve had enough ice cream, get out and run some”) would annoy most people, being bossed by an app or device could be far less annoying. In fact, most people are already fully conditioned by their devices—they obey every command to pick up their smartphones and pay attention to whatever is beeping or flashing. Some people do this even when doing so puts people at risk, such as when they are driving. This certainly provides a vast ocean of psychological conditioning to tap into, but for a better cause. So, instead of mindlessly flipping through Instagram or texting words of nothingness, a person would be compelled by her digital master to exercise more, eat less crap, and get more sleep.  Soon the machine tyrants will have very fit hosts to carry them around.

So, Aristotle has provided the perfect theoretical foundation for designing the tyrannical device. To recap, it needs the following features:

  1. Practical wisdom: the health science for the device or app needs to be correct and the guidance effective.
  2. Compulsive power: the device or app must be able to compel the user effectively and make them obey.
  3. Not too annoying: while it must have compulsive power, this power must not generate annoyance that exceeds its ability to compel.
  4. A cool name.

So, get to work on those devices and apps. The age of machine tyranny is not going to impose itself. At least not yet.

 

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Rule of Law & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2015

One interesting narrative about the riots in Baltimore involves the concept of the rule of law. Put roughly, the rule of law is the idea that the law should govern rather than the arbitrary decisions of those in power. The notion is sometimes applied to the citizens as well—namely that the citizens should follow the rule of law to resolve conflicts—as opposed to engaging in activities such as riots or vigilantism.

Thinker such as John Locke have laid out arguments as to why the rule of law is preferable to that of the state of nature. These arguments are generally persuasive, especially since Locke emphasizes the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so.

Since I find Locke’s arguments appealing, it is hardly surprising that I favor rule of law—at least when the laws are good and the leaders are acting for the good of the people. When the government has moral legitimacy, the laws and the leaders have the right to expect people to follow the laws and listen to the leaders. However, when the laws or leaders violate the basic agreement (that the laws are for the good of the people and the leaders are to not be tyrants), then their legitimacy evaporates.

Some conservatives speak of the tyranny of Obama and how the Democrats wish to create a tyrannical state. Interestingly enough, they are right to be worried about tyranny. However, their timeline is in error: tyranny is already here.

John Locke provides the following definition of “tyranny”:  “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.”

The United States seems to meet this definition. In 2014, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study to determine the extent to which laws reflect the views of the majority versus the interests of those in power. This study, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” , used data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

While following these laws would be to conform to the rule of law, it would also be to embrace tyrannical laws—laws crafted for the advantage of those holding power and not the good of the people.

While the people who strike out in riots are probably unfamiliar with the research in question, they do know the obvious: they live within a political and economic system that primarily serves the “private, separate advantage” of the elite class and has little to offer them. As such, it should be no shock that some people do not embrace the rule of such law. If they are striking out against these laws and their riots are a revolt, they are revolting against what seems to be a tyrannical system. That is, one that serves the interests of the powerful few and not the good of the people. Or, to be fair to those who are critical of the riots, perhaps they are just thugs who are breaking things.

Continuing with tyranny, Locke notes that “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.”

Sadly, this seems to accurately describe the excessive use of force against citizens by some police officers. Baltimore, as has been widely reported, has paid out millions of dollars in settlements due to the wrongful use of force by police against citizens. As people do like to point out, not all police officers are bad and there are excellent officers. However, even a cursory examination of the problems with policing in American cities shows that Locke’s definition of tyranny is routinely met. As such, it is evident that the rule of law was already broken well before the riots.

While Locke did not use this phrase, the rule of law is a two-way street and those who are charged with enforcing the law must also obey that law—otherwise it would be rather unreasonable to expect obedience from the citizens. As such, the most obvious step to restoring rule of law is to ensure that those charged with enforcing the laws are also following the laws.

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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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