Sunday, December 2, 2018

When 2+2 Does Not Equal 4


When asked to give an example of an analytic truth, something that simply must be true no matter what, a clear go-to example is 2+2=4. No matter what happens, no matter what experience may tell us, we can rest assured on the unassailable truth that putting two together with two will always yield four. The only problem is, it isn’t always the case that 2+2=4. The world in which we live does not always yield itself to such simplistic precision.

For example, you can add 2 cups of liquid with another 2 cups of liquid and get a grand total of 3.8 cups of liquid. (You can see a simple illustration of this here.) How is this possible? It can happen when the first two cups of liquid are water and the second two cups are 99% rubbing alcohol. The alcohol molecules are smaller than the water molecules, and hence fit in the 'negative space' between the water molecules (think of sand filling in the negative space in a mason jar full of ping-pong balls. 2 cups, plus 2 cups equals 3.8 cups.

Now I know what you're thinking: 'of course 2 and 2 of DIFFERENT THINGS won't necessarily equal 4 of the same thing. 2 + 2 is only guaranteed to equal 4 when you are adding the SAME THING together.' Okay, fair enough, but that just gives rise to a key question: what, exactly, does it mean for two things to be 'the same thing'? Clearly two cups of water and two cups of alcohol are not 'the same thing' for our current purposes, but when can we say that two things are, indeed, the same thing?


Consider just water for a moment. Any two cups of water will be different in myriad ways from any other two cups of water; they will have slightly different levels of trace minerals and other atoms besides hydrogen and oxygen. No matter what your filter company might tell you, in the real world, there is no such thing as 'pure water', and as such, no two cups is ever 'the same' as another two cups.


I suspect that some of you still will be thinking that I've missed the point. When we say '2+2 = 4', we're not talking about two OF anything; we just mean TWO, the abstract, the number, not a measurement of things in the world, but simply the concept of 'one and one.'


Again, this is a fair retort, but also again this idea needs to be unpacked. What exactly IS 'the number two' when it is abstracted away from things in the physical world? There is a huge and historic literature on the ontology of numbers, which I cannot begin to summarize here. Suffice to say, the view of numbers expressed in the above objection is likely some kind of 'mathematical realism', the most popular variety of which is 'mathematical Platonism'. This view, roughly stated, claims that numbers are real, just as real (if not more so) than material objects, and they endure in their own 'plane' of existence separate from the physical.


According to it's champions, mathematical Platonism is the only way we can truly make sense of the idea that '2+2=4 is true', precisely because the non-Platonist alternatives are susceptible to the kind of counterexample that I opened up with. Non-Platonist views are limited to saying '2+2=4' is only 'mostly true', 'approximately true', or 'true in some contexts'.


Personally, I don't find this a terribly hard bullet to bite. For me, it's a lot easier to bite than the idea that there really is an eternal, immaterial realm of numbers (and possibly other categories of non-physical things) that transcends, yet at least loosely applies to the physical world. This is, of course merely an appeal to my personal intuition, an argumentative strategy that I don't place too much stock in, but if nothing else it should suffice to give the Platonist-sympathizer pause. Platonists have more than just their appeal to incredulity in their quiver, of course, but I suspect that said incredulity drives more people towards Platonism than are probably comfortable admitting.


I think this temptation towards mathematical Platonism should be resisted. One way to do so is to reflect on how science education often sweeps situations where 'the math doesn't add up' (like my opening example) under the rug. Anyone who has taken a high school science class is familiar with the concept of 'significant digits', which allow scientists to ignore potential differences in measurement that go beyond either their instruments' capacities, or the particular needs of the given experiment.


There's nothing wrong with appealing to significant digits, of course; infinite precision of measurement isn't possible, so for practical purposes it makes sense to just, at a certain point, round things off. But when we do that we need to recognize that our inability (or our not caring) to measure infinitesimally small differences doesn't mean they're not there. Richard Feynman famously compared the accuracy of the predictions of quantum physics to specifying the width of North America to within the length of a single human hair. That is an utterly astounding finding, of course, but it only underscores the point I'm trying to make: if you add 2 hairs and 2 hairs to another 2 and another 2 and another 2... pretty soon your margin of error will add up. In quantum mechanics 2+2 might equal 4, but 2 trillion + 2 trillion might only equal 3,999,999,999,999.


Perhaps things are different in the world of Plato's forms, but the world in which we live is not mathematically precise. Most of the time this impercision doesn't matter, and we can safely ignore it. But just because we can ignore it doesn't mean it's not there. In this world, 2+2 only equals 4 when we decide that we don't really care about the microscopic difference between the substances in question.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Monday, November 12, 2018

Moral Twin Earth


I’ve been working on theories of reference for moral concepts of late with collaborators, particularly on Moral Twin Earth (MTE). I’ll present some results I found on this hypothetical from Terrance Horgan and Mark Timmons (H&T). Then I’ll explore what implications this may have.

First, regarding semantic internalism/externalism: Internalists claim that the reference of a concept is solely determined by internal mental states in one’s head. E.g., descriptivism generally claims that the referent of a concept is that entity that satisfies the mental descriptions associated with the concept in question. Externalists maintain that the reference of a concept is at least in significant part dependent on properties external to one’s mind. E.g., the causal theory from Richard Boyd claims that the referent of a moral concept is a natural property, such as human well-being, which causally regulates our moral decision-making.

H&T ask us to assume that there is a world called MTE that is nearly identical to our own world except that our moral term ‘good’ is causally regulated by natural properties whose essence is captured by consequentialist properties while the orthographically identical term ‘good’ for those on MTE is causally influenced by natural properties whose essence is captured by deontological ones. Both those on Earth and MTE internally understand their respective moral terms to be related to the evaluation of actions, persons, and institutions. What goes on inside the moral minds of you and your twin are quite similar, but they differ at precisely the points we would expect them to given the fact that they are being causally regulated by the different consequentialist and deontological properties, respectively.

H&T conclude that our intuitions in this case are that when there are antithetical judgments between you and your doppelganger on a particular moral issue, both of your moral concepts really share the same reference, despite the different causal relations, such that both of you are not talking past one another in this debate. Therefore, this situation can be characterized as one of a difference in some moral beliefs rather than one of a difference in reference given that on Earth and MTE your moral concepts respectively are understood to play a role in governing behavior. H&T want to claim that when dealing with moral concepts, reference is determined internally by our cognitive understanding of the action-guiding role of moral concepts. Reference is not determined externally. For, if this were the case, then our intuitions should conclude that those on both planets have disparate referents for their moral concepts given that such concepts are causally influenced by different properties. However, this is not the case.

I ran experiments testing intuitions on MTE, winnowing the hypothetical to a 10th grade reading level on the highly reliable Flesch-Kincaid readability measurement. I am still running studies trying to replicate the results in various ways. There are no previous experiments on the internalism/externalism debate in moral semantics. I ran tests on 116 lay subjects from the U.S. with an average age of 45 spanning from 18-61 years of age and 102 lay participants from Singapore with an average age of 34 spanning from 19-73 years of age. All had a high school diploma or higher. I also conducted the test on 53 “experts” with PhDs in philosophy.

Here are the results:

Philosophers:  40%  Internalism,  41%  Externalism, 19% Other
Singapore:  38% Internalism ,  62%  Externalism ,  0% Other 
USA:  28% Internalism , 70% Externalism,  2% Other

Philosophers appear generally split on MTE. However, most of the folk, East and West, are externalists for MTE. Against H&T, even amongst only philosophers, we do not see that a majority of intuitions are internalist ones. Rather, when combining all the populations East, West, and philosophers, it appears that most have externalist intuitions on MTE.

Furthermore, we see that there is substantial intracultural variation. The minority subpopulations in both folk groups are rather sizable, and moral semantic intuitions on MTE lack the kind of widespread consensus that is found in other staunch a priori domains of inquiry, such as in math and logic. As there is an absence of sufficient consensus within a culture, an internalism seemingly applies to both minority folk subgroups in the East and West, although an externalism purportedly applies for most in both East and West groups. Different theories of reference may apply to different people even within the same culture. This also seems to hold for philosophers on MTE too. It appears that if theories of reference are adjudicated based on intuitions, as is commonly held in the philosophy of language, there’s a moral semantic pluralism, where different theories of reference apply to different people. This runs not only contrary to H&T, but it flies in the face of all current moral semantic theories in that they are either exclusively internalist or externalist.

One may counter that only expert philosophers’ intuitions should be relied upon. However, even if we did this, there will still be a pluralism. One may reject the pluralism option because there needs to be some kind of argument establishing that the semantic intuitions provide any evidence about reference such that the disparate intuitions generate a pluralism. As there is no such argument, we should not trust semantic intuitions at all, and philosophers should abandon arguing for a theory of reference. However, experiments have shown that people’s intuitions in semantics on theories of reference coincide with how they actually use specific terms in sentences (Machery et al. 2009). This provides sufficient empirical data that semantic intuitions do provide evidence about the reference of our concepts. An objection is that there is merely a disagreement in non-semantic facts, such as regarding the storyline descriptions in the MTE hypotheticals. Once we get clear on and in agreement with the non-semantic facts, our semantic intuitions will align such that there will be a sufficient consensus. However, given the readability measurement, we can inductively infer that most of the participants, including experts, are clear on the non-semantic facts of MTE and comprehend the scenario.

John Park
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Perception and Entrepreneurship

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’s selective attention test has become a classic in behavioral psychology. Before reading further, you should take the test at this link to their YouTube video.

Did you “pass” the test? (The rest of this post is after the jump.)


Sunday, October 28, 2018

God Wouldn’t Perform Miracles



You are capable of doing less good than you have the capacity to do. You sometimes lie when you could have told the truth, you are less charitable, compassionate, loving, and forgiving than you are capable of.

You are also able to exert less power than you are fully capable of. You lift a single grocery bag when you could have carried three. You run slower than your limit. You don’t perform actions that are within your capacity. In some cases, there are external forces, events, or obstacles that thwart the exertion of your power. And in some cases, the restriction on your exertion of your power is your choice; you have failures of knowledge, character, virtue, or wisdom.

You also have less knowledge than you are capable of having. There are logical theorems that you could prove on the basis of things you already believe, but you haven’t put the intermediate steps together and made it explicit knowledge. There are things you just don’t know because of your limits; you don’t know the cure for cancer or how to build a spaceship for interstellar travel. And no amount of effort would produce that knowledge for you.

God, I submit, would not act in any sub-maximal ways with regard to knowledge, power, and goodness. God, by the conventions of traditional theism, possesses all knowledge. God knows all and only truths. There is no fact that is knowable not known by God. Furthermore, God is the almighty, all-powerful creator of the universe. But not only did he create the totality of this universe, his power includes the capacity to do all things that are doable. He could have made any number of other universes, including those requiring more power. He can do any action that is logically possible. And finally, God is an infinitely good, morally perfect being. God has endless love, limitless virtue, and is a being that cannot be morally exceeded in any way. God is omnibenevolent.

God would not act in ways that are inconsistent with infinite power, knowledge, and goodness. You can and often do act in ways that are sub-maximal, given your knowledge, power, and goodness. Sometimes through some fault, imperfection, or error, you choose the wrong action; if you had more knowledge, or if you even had more of the knowledge that you are capable of possessing, you would have chosen better. But God will never act in some sub-maximal way because of this sort of failing. God lacks no knowledge. Sometimes, you exert less power than you are capable of because of laziness, a lack of goodness, a character fault, or a lack of knowledge. God won’t act sub-maximally in any of those regards because of his infinite knowledge and moral perfection. Sometimes, even exerting all of your power you fail to achieve your ends, you are thwarted, or you fail because there are other external forces that exceed your power; you are overpowered. God, being infinitely powerful, cannot be overpowered by external forces. Sometimes you do less goodness with your actions than you are capable of or than you should have done. You lack goodness, virtue, or character. Maybe you could have done better, but you didn’t. Or maybe the act in question is simply beyond the limits even of your acting to your full potential goodness. God, being infinitely good, morally perfect, infinitely loving, won’t act sub-maximally in any of these ways.

Miracles are violations of the laws of nature. To walk on water, raise the dead, or feed thousands with a few fishes and loaves of bread would all violate physical laws such as the conservation of matter, the conservation of energy, the density of matter, entropy, and so on.

Miracles are also limited with regard to knowledge, power, and goodness. That is, an agent performing a miracle need only have enough power to perform that miracle, to raise that corpse from the dead, or sustain that instance of walking on water. Miracles only require sub-maximal power, knowledge, and goodness. We might think that infinite power, knowledge, and goodness are sufficient for performing miracles too. But, as we have seen, infinite power would express itself perfectly and fully, reflective of all knowledge and goodness, in God’s case. To cure a leper is to leave thousands or millions more uncured. To raise one corpse from the dead is to leave millions or billions of others in the grave. To feed one hungry crowd is to leave millions or billions of others starving. An action of such limited scope is consistent with the actions of a being that has limited knowledge, power, and goodness. But it would be inconsistent, contrary to the expressions of a being with infinite properties.

It’s not merely that by doing a miracle God would be acting at levels that are within but below his limits; such a limited action is precluded by God’s infinite nature. Limited actions are as much outside the capacities of God as performing miracles are outside of yours. Can or would God sin? No. Can or would God be less than perfectly moral? No. Can or would God exert less power in the world than he is capable of? No. Can or would God act in ways that defy or neglect his infinite knowledge? No. Miracles, however, achieve limited goals. Miracles would not be within the tool set, or expressed actions of a being that has no limits or imperfections. However, miracles insofar as they imply limited power, knowledge, and goodness are quite plausible as the actions of finite, imperfect beings who lack power. That is suggestive about why they strike us as so important and interesting, but miracles simply do not make sense as expressions of the goals or actions of a being so vastly beyond us in power, knowledge, and goodness.

I have argued:

1. God wouldn’t act in any ways that are below capacity.
2. Performing a miracle would be acting below capacity for God.
3. Therefore, God wouldn’t perform miracles.

Matt McCormick
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Friday, October 19, 2018

Animals and Authority: with Authority Comes Responsibility


Where should we draw the insuperable line? What morally significant difference separates moral agents from other living things? Many historical and present-day injustices occur not because the groups involved didn’t know that certain acts were wrong (many normative theories converge on what constitutes right action in easy cases), but because one group failed to include some other group within the scope of its moral community (e.g., Jews during WWII or Blacks in America before the mid-19th Century). Many injustices involve a problem of scope.

This question in animal ethics has been debated thoroughly, maybe to the point where it too could be relegated to the pile of unresolved issues that ultimately depend on one’s metaphysical commitments. Maybe reason has done all that it can?

The animal rights defender Tom Regan (1983) argued that any attempts to limit the scope of rights to humans based on some capacity is rationally defective for two reasons: (1) some humans lack the identified capacity and (2) some animals have it. Regan’s argument seems right that any identified criterion will face these difficulties (along with difficulties in specifying exactly the nature of the capacity (e.g., autonomy) and determining whether it is animals who lack it or humans who have failed to design experiments to measure it). The unapologetic speciesist Carl Cohen (1986) responds that it is not about patterns of measurable external behavior, but about having the requisite internal mental state. He ultimately claims it was never a matter of exhibiting a capacity, but about being a certain kind of being.

Instead of identifying a criterion for moral status, maybe one promising way forward is to focus on what humans have and its ramifications. Humans often have authority over animals. I think we can set aside what capacities humans have that enable them to have authority or whether they should have authority. We can simply begin with the fact that humans often have authority over certain animals and then think about what this entails.

Authority, according to Joseph Raz, is a species of normative power, which he defines as a power to effect a normative change or change a person’s reasons for action (1979; 1990). Raz’s conception of authority consists of two, among others, distinct moral theses, the dependence and normal justification theses, which together provide moral justification for authority (1986; 2009).

Dependence Thesis (DT): “all authoritative directives should be based on reasons which already independently apply to the subjects of the directives and are relevant to their action in the circumstances covered by the directive” (1986, p. 47).

Normal Justification Thesis (NJT): Authority is justified when, “…the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him…if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritatively binding and tries to follow them, rather than by trying to follow the reasons which apply to him directly” (1986, p. 53).

Raz’s account is called a service conception because, as reflected in the dependence thesis, the primary role of authority is to serve one’s subjects and address the reasons that apply to them. While I don’t agree entirely with Raz’s conception, I do think that justified authority includes something like DT and NJT.

If this is what we mean by having justified authority over another, what does this entail?

Basically, this: with authority comes responsibility. The word “authority” may bring to mind the state or law enforcement, but another paradigmatic example is a parent’s power over a child. A five-year-old child has good reasons to eat her vegetables, but would better achieve those reasons (e.g., health) by complying with her mother’s directive “Eat your vegetables!” than if the child was left to her own devices. I’m using the parent-child example because a child may not have developed reasoning skills to come up with her own reasons or even the capacity to act for those reasons. From an objective or third-personal perspective, we can observe that a child has these reasons that apply to her and that she would be better off if she listened to her mother.

If it is true that humans have authority over nonhuman animals, and if we want our exercise of power to be morally justified—an instance of de jure authority as opposed to de facto authority, then it should be consistent with DT and NJT. Humans have power over animals in various ways. Animals are kept in captivity and used for various purposes, including companionship, agriculture, experiments, and entertainment. Human caretakers have control over things that animals need, such as food, water, shelter, sufficient space or territory, exercise, and social interaction. Human caretakers can impose rules and practices that provide animals with their species-specific needs and promote their species-specific behaviors or they can impose rules that deprive animals of these things. Consistent with DT, human rules regarding captive animals should be based on reasons that already apply to them. Consistent with NJT, human rules over captive animals should help them to achieve the reasons that apply to them than if they were left to their own devices. Human rules regarding animals should serve to help animals achieve their species-specific needs and behaviors.

Justified authority is demanding in its application to both humans and animals; some may call it ideal. Nevertheless, many of us may agree that it is how we ought to live. When we exercise power over other humans, we ought to use our power in ways that would help those we serve, especially those who are vulnerable and dependent on us. When we exercise power over animals, we similarly ought to use our power in ways that recognize that with great authority comes great responsibility (see Palmer 2011). Our current use of animals are the result of historical practices and modern institutional standards, but it need not always be this way. We ought to be humbled by our responsibility and seek to change our practices and standards to be more consistent with these necessary conditions of de jure authority.

Chong Choe-Smith
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Past is Never Really Gone and Done With: A Case for The Pragmatist Philosophy of History

A few of us in the department were chatting about nuclear energy the other day. I found myself pondering the following quandary: if we were to guess how often our conversations turn to the past, in some form, what would the percentage be, on average? Certainly, talking about nuclear energy requires considering, for instance, how it has functioned up until today, or comparing case studies of Chernobyl versus Fukushima—it requires, at least in part, historical study.

“History is philosophy teaching by example”—this has been repeated by many. As Collingwood described it so succinctly: “all history is the history of thought” and “philosophy is thought about thought.” It is important to also make a distinction with historiography, or the methods and results of historical study. “History” is a very complicated term, because history itself and historical writing are indeed two different concepts. But broadly, we could say that history is the events of the past; it is past time. “Historiography” is about the interpretations we then create of those events of the past; of the time that has passed—this is the written result of historical record.

The “past” is full of historical facts, the next step is for historians to both describe them and to try make sense of them—but how can the historian be certain that first the descriptions truly match the past events selected for recording? How close in time should the historian be, in regard to epistemic questions of accuracy, to the event being recorded? Hume argued that the further away in time, the less accurate; however, sometimes temporal distance can increase the possibility of some objectivity. Nonetheless, few would disagree that the general notion of complete objectivity seems impossible in historical record.

Certainly, a history book written today about Ancient Greece would be quite different than one written in the Middle Ages, for many reasons. For one, a historian is always writing with his or her “present day lens”—we must try to consider the text in and of itself while trying to see through those same lenses. Indeed, sometimes a historical text says quite a bit about the time it is being written in along withthe contents in and of themselves.

What can we really make of the historical evidence in the past? Not everything from the past survives for analysis. What is available and then selected may be value-laden. We can only know some of what happened in the past, and we cannot be absolutely certain about why or how much of it we have really gathered for record. We must ask whether historical record represents only particular instances of events, or if universals can be discovered. There are indeed fallacies committed by historians and in historical record to overcome. The language we use in historical writing can instantly categorize and conceptualize—much could be said about the term “revolution.” It helps clarify some epistemic dilemmas by placing historians into schools, such as “Cultural Historians.” This is not to mention, however, that language itself is in part historical (i.e., “I’ll Google it”). These are only a few key philosophical quandaries about history and historiography.

One area of the philosophy of history gaining prominence represents an effective approach to many of these challenges: a Pragmatist Philosophy of History and Historiography. For a historical text to be meaningful, and for it to circulate and continue to circulate, it must have utilityamong the writer and wider audience. Lack of utility results in the book collecting dust on the shelf. Certain historical events are simply unnecessary to record; what is recorded is what the historian believes is practically usefulto record, what the historian assumes the public who reads his or her book will consider useful to record, and what the public indeed does believe isuseful. Few may read Aristotle’s history of elephants (interestingly, he wrote this yet considered historical study of little importance). If we are to peruse the list of top-selling history books, we should alsoconsider what it is abouttodaythat makes those books interesting for the historian to research and write, and to the larger public. Part of the reason for this may simply be the writing style of the historian him or herself, but it can also tell us about our own time; in thisperhaps we can epistemically capture something of a metaphysical historical essence to record for the future. There is a hierarchy of utility at any moment in time of historical texts. From a pragmatist perspective, the past is never reallygone and done with; it is ongoing and helps us understand the present and the future. There is no end of inquiry to history and historiography, as what is yielded are “warranted assertions,” to use Dewey’s term, of possible historical “truths.”

Goethe wrote: “Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.” We are truly nothing without our histories; we are historical beings. Everything is, at least in part, a historical process, all connected in a continuum of time. The Young Hegelians could not have existed without Hegel. We cannot fullyunderstand anything outside of its historical context, and an effective way to philosophize about this is with a pragmatist lens. We cannot stop time; the present becomes the past almost as quickly as we say it. We are beings always embedded in a historical moment; or, Kuhn’s notion might be useful here, in a paradigm of historical knowledge and existence. We must ask: what has practical utility to be selected for evidence, record, interpretation, and readership?

Returning to my initial quandary: what might that percentage be? It is probably higher than one might expect, because despite also being forward-looking beings, it is often in retrospect as to what is useful that we can learn about the past to apply to the future.


Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What is a problem or pseudo-problem we should do nothing to fix? Why?


We asked our faculty members, and this is what some of them think:

Dr. G. Randolph Mayes:
Death is a problem if anything is, but it is also a solution and there’s the rub. It’s a problem for individuals, but it’s nature’s solution to the survival of species. Steve Jobs said, while dying: “Death is likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent.”

On the current plan, the reason you must die is so new creatures may live. And the reason new creatures must live is that they instantiate the novel traits and ideas required for the species to survive in an ever-changing world. Currently, you are stuck with the genes you were born with. As you grow older, you become less desirous of novelty and less able to adapt to change. You instinctively see new notions, practices, technologies and behaviors as indicative of social decline, because they scare you.

Maybe you think death is a certainty, a brute fact of life that nobody is ever going to solve. You may be right, but that is not what some of the richest and smartest people on the planet believe. They are preparing to live forever.

Most of the problems we encounter today arise from solutions to the problems of yesterday. When we address them, it should be with a full appreciation of the good they are doing and the harm we may unleash in eliminating them. Mosquitoes are the most dangerous creature on the planet. What good are they? Nobody knows. But we better find out before we solve them.


Dr. Chong Choe-Smith:
A lack of evidence to prove an allegation of sexual assault? This isn’t really a problem.

In both criminal and civil cases, “the testimony of a single witness is enough to prove any fact” (CALCRIM 301; CACI 5003).

The testimony of a single witness, say, a victim of sexual assault, if credible, is sufficient to prove any fact. This testimony IS evidence—indeed, maybe sufficient evidence. So the problem is not a lack of evidence.

Maybe what people mean is that there is a lack of corroborating evidence. No DNA or testimony from other witnesses.

This too isn’t a mystery. Sexual assaults often occur when a person forces himself on another when no one else is around. Sexual assaults also often go unreported. One in six women have been victims of attempted/completed rape. Yet over two-thirds go unreported and only six in 1000 result in a conviction. Victims have their reasons for distrusting the system and not immediately subjecting themselves to being probed and prodded for biological evidence.

Imagine this. Person A is alleged to have forced himself on person B. Person A may have been too drunk to remember. Person B later describes the incident in detail and is certain that it was A who assaulted her. If credible, person B’s testimony is sufficient evidence of A’s wrongdoing. Person A categorically denies it. But it is entirely compatible for person A to have committed the act while drunk and still believe he is incapable of such behavior.


Dr. Marnie Binder:
Can we find non-problems in considering those “well, duh, sure” moments? Nozick’s “experience machine” comes to mind: “well, duh, sure” human beings seem to generally prefer to be in this world as we understand it rather than hooked up to a virtual world free of pain and full of pleasure. We invest heavily in technology, yet it seems certainly not to be (at least knowingly) fully inside it—that technological example of virtual reality, we seem to believe, would be quite problematic.

Still, could there be any instance of life inside virtual reality that we might often agree would be better, or a possible solution?

The film Upgrade comes to mind (spoiler alert): a man loses his wife to thugs, and he is left a quadriplegic. He has no will to continue living, until he is offered a computer chip implant that gives him super powers to take his revenge. Turns out, the implant is a very intelligent AI that takes over his body and leaves him in a permanent dream world where he is walking again with his wife, while this computer chip, called STEM, endeavors to take over the world. He does not know where he is, and he seems happy.

Technology is historically and circumstantially-embedded; at one time it may seem to be the solution and then become the problem, or vice-versa, depending thus on the moment of time in reference. A computer implant may one day make us super humans, and it may ultimately destroy us.


Dr. Kyle Swan:
All of them...

...are probably too costly to fix. I mean, why else would we have them?

For example, maybe we have too much pollution, but we don’t want zero pollution. We want the optimal amount. Similarly, maybe we have too many automobile deaths, but we don’t want zero automobile deaths. We want the optimal number of them.

Anything we want is like this. For example, in a competitive-enough industry, something’s (S) price will be the opportunity cost of all the resources that went into its production. So, what from everything available in the world should I use to make S? One filter is going to be technological feasibility. But after that, I want to know if what I use to make S is economically feasible — is this the optimal use for these resources?

Tough question. Because I may know a lot about S, but next to nothing about the many other somethings that S-resources could be used for. Luckily, I don’t have to know. I just look at their prices. Prices are knowledge surrogates. If they’re too high, I’ll be driven to use some cheaper alternatives.

Now consider these questions about the resources I could use to produce S:
Which ones cost less?
Which ones have higher opportunity costs?
Which ones waste fewer resources?
Which ones impose the least harm?

Different people may prioritize these questions differently. But it looks like it doesn’t matter. Any one of them gets them to move in the right direction.


Dr. Tom Pyne:
Reason has less influence than it should. But this provides little guidance on how much it should have.
Many philosophical claims are like this: Practice P is not grounded by any universal, necessary principle. Alternative practice A is conceivable and possible. Therefore, we have no reason to prefer P to A.
A stronger version: A is a universal, necessary principle itself. So we have a compelling reason to substituteA for P.
Examples abound. Utilitarian distributions don’t depend on arbitrary distinctions like egoism. Families lack the universalism required for properly moral action. Sexual jealousy should (must) give way. The Categorical Imperative. The Original Position.
Such claims are some of the strongest in philosophy. However, they derive their power from an assumption about the scope of reason.
Here’s a precept to provide guidance on how far we should press such claims: A basic substratum of human practices lies beneath the reach of reason. Therefore, attempts to apply reason there will be incoherent and self-defeating.
That stratum derives from our specific – and contingent – natural and cultural history. What we find cognitively salient; what we consider interesting; who we care about. And it is, emphatically, not a deliverance of reason.
We may think that we can prefer alternative practices, but we can’t. We can’t get below our lowest stratum.
Or, to put it another way, we are not platonic souls.
That is why attempts to extend the reach of reason (the term is ‘Utopianism’) produce the results they do.


Dr. John Park:
Given the 70 sextillion (7x1022) stars in the observable universe from Earth and countless others in the non-observed universe, many astrophysicists argue that even if the possibility of intelligent life developing on another planet is small, there is likely many intelligent alien life forms in the universe. Assuming this is so, there is likely to be many life-threatening moral problems in at least some of these alien societies if life on Earth provides an indication. A monstrously big problem spanning the universe then is to try and establish moral goodness and justice across the universe to prevent harm from occurring. For example, it very well may be physically possible for humans to right now try and build up to resolving various future galactic issues via many generations of scientific knowledge acquisition even though we cannot resolve the moral issues right now. We could spend many additional resources now to explicitly try and fix galactic problems by trying to build a weaponized space program built specifically to interfere in galactic affairs. However, we should not try to begin to fix and resolve all of these issues by enhancing our knowledge of space with the express intention of resolving outside galactic moral issues and having extra resources devoted to such specific endeavors. For, at minimum, we have too many moral issues here on Earth to expend such extra resources, inter alia. While the regular space program can remain, extra funds and energy should be spent addressing the moral issues on Earth now.

Dr. Saray Ayala-López:
For many people, lacking a romantic and/or sex partner is a problem. Let’s call the state of lacking a romantic and/or sex partner “X” (for space reasons I take them together). Seeing X as a problem triggers a desperate need to solve it, and this need both brings and reflects moral evils.

First, it assumes amatonormativity:
X is a problem when we accept that the best, happiness-guaranteed status for a person is that of a (usually exclusive) romantic relationship, and/or one that involves sex. Friendships and other social relationships (e.g. asexual romances) are diminished. This assumption impoverishes our social life and makes our romantic and sexual relationships toxic and unhealthy. It also makes many people in state X unhappy.

Second, it invites the idea of entitlement to sex and romantic affection:
A visible and disturbing case of this is the incels, or involuntary celibates: heterosexual men who think that society, and especially women, owe them sex and romantic affection. This assumption takes everything about sex and affection wrong (e.g. it confuses sex with domination), it draws on and promotes misogynistic ideas, and it leads to abusive relationships and crimes.

Third, it sets us up for a morally controversial technological future:
We’ll desperately try to solve X with robot companions(we already are), giving up on social skills, falling in love with à la carte dolls (most of them, marketed for heterosexual males, recreate an exaggerated ideal female body), and exploring all sorts of sexual (and emotional) exploitationof human-like maybe-one-day-conscious artificial organisms.