Monday, August 10, 2015

A meta is just a meta

There’s a Zen saying, “Before I became aware of Zen, the mountain was just a mountain. When I became aware of Zen, the mountain became more than just a mountain. After enlightenment, the mountain is just a mountain.”

Does self awareness add something of value or take it away? Consider some examples:

In philosophy, Harry Frankfurt gives an account of personhood that necessitates a multi-tiered awareness of desires. A person not only has desires, but also has desires about those desires. Your homeostatic existence, its torture or its ease, depends on a constant tussle between levels of desires.

The artist can become hyper-aware, such as Vermeer painting himself painting.


Characters can be hyper-aware, too. In the spirit of the times, Deadpool is the metacritic of his own modern story.


I think we’re a bit like that, too. Our life trajectories aren’t always accompanied by smooth echoing storylines. Rather, they’re collaged out of floating fragments of hashtags and selfie-referential photographs. In the future, the digi-dated content of our abandoned social media profiles will baffle alien anthropologists. And if we could see that future moment, our initial reaction might be, “Voyniched the sh*t out of that.”

There are flavors of awareness. One that’s had a curious taste for me is meta. Simply put, content that is self-referential and multiplying to no end. I’m not sure what the taste is like. My hunch is it moved from zesty to acerbic to lysergic. Let's explore that taste and try to figure out why, at certain times, we just don't like it.

In "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" David Foster Wallace presents the authentic but outdated rebel:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. 

Maybe Wallace gets at the feeling by pointing to something direct, human. Shake a hand, lock ocular nerves, reminisce for a while. That’s direct. We’ve seen that.


It’s either too contrived and superfluous, or as Wallace predicts, it’ll die before it picks up because it’s too banal.

Or maybe he hits a nerve: We’re tired of stacking entendre’s, one-upping, and potpourri-ing our inner lives with out-of-context historical quotes. We’re digesting too much meta content too often and at some point it’s time to upchuck. For example, take one consequence of meta culture, hyper-irony. Let’s look at how the self-referential layers multiply at an unbearable pace.

Situational irony is when an expectation is met with the opposite outcome. A meteorologist plans a vacation right in the eye of the storm. Modern day Don Juan never gets swiped the right way on Tinder. Your anti-meta culture quote is souped-up into a meta humor meme about your meta humor so that you can laugh at yourself laughing at others laughing about their laughing.

Dramatic irony adds another dimension: audience vs. character perspective. On stage and in film, dramatic irony works effectively by contrasting what the audience knows with what the character believes, so it’s not just the expectation, it’s whose expectation that is important. Romeo thinks Juliet is dead, Schrader isn’t aware that Heisenberg is his brother-in-law, Luke doesn’t know Darth Vader is his father; but the audience knows. The audience waits for the moment when the character replaces his falsehood with the truth, already seen by the audience. An effective irony structure for comedy is that the characters are clueless about their absurdity, even within moments of reflection. Harry and Lloyd are too stupid to know they’re stupid (Dunning-Kruger Effect). Lloyd sells the van for a scooter and, in a moment of reflection, Harry says, “…just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber…you go and do something like this, and…totally redeem yourself!” The audience expects the characters to figure out their stupidity, but they never do.


Perspective in comedy evolves and shifts. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character and the audience are aware of the eternal recurrence of the day, but no one else is. The next natural, experimental step is hyper-irony: The characters are aware of the irony and will sometimes direct the audience to it. This can be done in Annie Hall fashion where Woody talks into the camera.


The characters can also become aware of the absurdity of the situation. An absurdity occurs, the characters are aware of it, but just to reaffirm, one character responds with any of these shudder-producing words: ‘Really’,‘yikes’, ‘awkward’.

Key & Peele call it out best:


Maybe meta is tiring because it’s ineffectively hyper-ironic. Maybe it’s something else. I asked a friend about this: “Why is it annoying when people try to be meta?” “Because people don’t know sh*t.” Perhaps it’s that each layer is just flimsy, and the bottom layer is just hot air. Behind the commentary about the commentary, there’s no complete idea—just BS. Harry Frankfurt characterizes ‘bullsh*t’ by the non-commitment to truth or falsity. Bullsh*t roams in a vast indefinite space. That makes it wasteful for knowledge. But it makes it a bit of fun. Maybe that’s a function of meta, too. It’s not for anything deep, anything actually meta, but just for fun. That’s why we get tired of and annoyed at meta content. We expect it to be more than what it is. Instead, we can accept it and soup up our bullsh*t. 

If you like the rebellion and resignation route, sometimes the Zen line is best: “The mountain is just a mountain.” Or, “When you eat, eat, when you sleep, sleep.” Maybe Deadpool said it better.


Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The experience machine thought experiment in an increasingly virtual world: Will we be faithful to our philosophical methodology or our moral values?

The experience machine thought experiment is widely thought to be part of an important objection to Internal Prudential Hedonism. Internal Prudential Hedonism (henceforth IP Hedonism) is an account of what wellbeing consists of. In other words, it is a view of what ultimately makes our lives go well for us. According to IP Hedonism, only the experience of pleasure ultimately makes our lives go well for us, and the opposite for pain. Things that we tend to like, but aren’t themselves experiences, such as money, are only good for us to the extent that they bring us pleasure or help us to avoid pain. Experiences of pleasure include all positive feelings, regardless of what caused those feelings, or what those feelings might lead to in the future.

The experience machine thought experiment, made famous by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, invites readers to assume that they has been offered to spend the rest of their lives in an amazing machine that perfectly simulates a life full of wonderful experiences. When in the machine, any memory of deciding to get into the machine is erased, and no one ever realizes that they are in a machine as opposed to living in the real world.

Most variations on the thought experiment ask readers to ignore their moral responsibilities to their loved ones and dependents, i.e., don’t decide for anyone else, just yourself. Readers also needn’t worry about missing their loved ones, as they will be recreated in the machine (and probably with some improvements!).

Despite the amazing experiences on offer, it is widely believed that the vast majority of people would not forego their real life for a life in the experience machine. Theories as to why this is abound. Indeed, since the inception of philosophy, one of philosophers’ main tasks seems to have been to point out that life is about more than pleasure. But this is not my focus here. I want to investigate the method used in the related argument, which goes like this:

If hardly anyone would connect to an experience machine, then there must be more to life than how our experiences feel on the inside. Why? Well, the machine offers the very best version of how our experiences could feel on the inside, and yet the vast majority of us still don’t go for it. And, if there is more to our lives than how our experiences feel to us on the inside, then IP Hedonism, which claims the opposite, must be false. This is the experience machine argument against IP Hedonism.
For philosophy geeks, here is a rough formalization of the argument:

P1) We have good reason to believe that the things which really matter to the vast majority of us are constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing. 
P2) If the vast majority of us don’t wish to connect to an experience machine, then we have good reason to believe that something other than the internal aspects of our experiences is constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing. 
P3) The vast majority of us don’t wish to connect to an experience machine. 
C1) Therefore, we have good reason to believe that something other than the internal aspects of our experiences is constitutive of everyone’s wellbeing.
P4) IP Hedonism includes the claim that only internal aspects of our experiences can be positive constituents of wellbeing. 
P5) When a central claim of a theory contradicts a vast-majority judgement derived from a thought experiment about what matters, then we have good reason to believe that the theory is false. 
C2) Therefore, we have good reason to believe that IP Hedonism is false.

I, and others, have many gripes about this argument, but we needn’t go through them here. Indeed, the weaknesses of this kind of reasoning does not prevent it from being the dominant form of reasoning in normative ethics. So, let’s go with it this time and see where it leads us.

Now for a bold empirical claim: over the next 25 years, the responses of people who live in the developed world to the experience machine thought experiment will change so that the vast majority would connect to the machine. In some of my previous surveys on the experience machine, close to half of student respondents indicated that they would connect to the machine. I suggest that this number has been increasing due to the expansion of science fiction, virtual reality (VR), and massively immersive computer games. VR seems exceedingly likely to get better, more immersive, and more popular. Young gamers will become VR-sympathetic adults, and older people will be introduced to virtual reality rooms in their rest homes etc. These trends will make a life connected to an experience machine seem less weird, less scary, more realistic, and, most importantly, more acceptable. Our values will change such that living our lives in close connection with reality, really living our lives for ourselves, will not be considered important for our wellbeing, at least for the vast majority of us.

Of course, we don’t know yet if this empirical claim is true (we’ll have to wait for a planned empirical analysis!) But, for the sake of argument, imagine it is true. How would philosophers, and especially normative ethicists, react to P2 from above being flipped around? Would they reject their previous methodology and still think that IP Hedonism is false, or would we stay faithful to the methodology and accept that IP Hedonism might be true, or at least that, if it is false, then it is for some reason not captured by the experience machine objection to IP Hedonism? And, finally, if the methodology is to be changed, then how?

My hunch is that the vast majority of philosophers will continue to do what they have nearly always done: argue against IP hedonism’s main claim that only the internal aspects of experiences matter for our wellbeing.


Dan Weijers
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes on a prolegomena to any future theory of microaggression

During the 2008 campaign, Senator Joseph Biden, seeking the Democratic nomination for president characterized his rival Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean…”

Articulate, bright, and clean are doubtless very worthy things to be. Nonetheless this was deemed by some as offensive to Obama.

Biden’s remarks are an example of what has come to be called ‘microaggression.’

Microaggressions are acts whose common factor is the production of a particular kind of offense in an observer. The observer must be a member of a ‘marginalized’ group, which in an American context includes certain racial minorities, gays, women, and the disabled.

The offense which the observer takes is produced by (i) the act’s apparent appeal to stereotypes regarding a marginalized group and (ii) the suggestion that the observer, as a member of the group, fits (or, in the case in question, fails to fit) the stereotype.

So Biden’s remark traded on a stereotype of African-Americans and seemed to praise Obama by contrast.

In Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue gives the following examples.[i]

· Clutching one’s purse/crossing the street when a Black man approaches.

· “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”

Can there be a Theory of Microaggression? To the extent there can be such a theory, we already have it.

One thing becomes evident from this list: Except for producing a particular kind of offense, purported examples of microaggression have nothing else in common. Some are speech acts; some are not. Some presuppose an audience; some are actions the agents would prefer remain unobserved.

That is, ‘microaggression’ does not demarcate a kind. There is no theory of gifts, after all, since entities of almost any category can be gifts.

For a subset of microaggressions a theoretical treatment has long been available: Grice’s theory of conversational implicature.

Compare Biden’s remark to Grice’s example of an Englishman saying (smugly) of a fellow citizen, “He is an Englishman; he is, therefore, brave.”[ii] Grice insists that that the utterer has not explicitly said that it follows from being an Englishman that you are brave. Rather the utterer has implicated it. Indeed, the conclusion does not logically follow, yet Grice insists that the utterance in a given case is not false.

Implicature depends precisely on the sort of cooperative, common understandings that stereotypes represent.

Stereotyping is an unavoidable social heuristic – and furthermore in some cases a useful and helpful one. In many social situations a stereotype is the only information available. In the right lane in front of me is an elderly lady in a Lincoln Town Car; in the other lane is a twenty-something young man in a muscle car with flames painted on the hood. Whom should I pull up behind? When the light turns green Granny might lay rubber through the intersection; The Dude might drive off sedately, keeping five miles under the speed limit. But that’s not the way to bet.

If something of moral importance hung on the choice, you would be irresponsible to ignore the stereotype.

Someone who secures her purse, who acts in a self-protective manner in the face even of an improbable threat, is just acting sensibly.

We cannot be required to pretend that we are unaware of stereotypes. Indeed, if we were to become unaware, the stereotypes would still persist, driven below the conscious level; but a critique of microaggression would become unstateable.

The more diverse society the more socially important stereotypes will become. Consider Sue’s example: “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”

According to Sue, this example presupposes the ‘Myth of Meritocracy,’ suggesting that “people of color are given unfair benefits because of their race.” But believing (i) that the most qualified person should get the job and (ii) that people of color occasionally receive preference in hiring is neither inconsistent, nor unreasonable, nor even illiberal. A liberal could accept both of these propositions as a general principle. What does seem unreasonable, though, is to avail oneself of preferential hiring and then take offense at the presumption that one has in fact done precisely that.

A further conceptual point. Whether an act is offensive depends on facts about the agent, the observer, and the context. An act can be offensive even though the agent did not intend it so. Just as conversational implicatures are ‘cancellable,’ so are offenses. “I didn’t mean to offend” can be uttered truthfully and sincerely. But the observer has something to say about whether it was offensive, and can accept that disavowal.

But whether an act is an aggression depends on facts about the agent’s intentions. The observer can take to it to be an aggression and just be wrong. He has very little to say about it. Therefore, most microaggressions, whether or not they are offenses, are not really aggressions.

Besides the conceptual resources of Grice’s theory we also have the moral resources to give a critique of many of the acts factitiously bundled under the concept of ‘microaggression.’ To characterize an act as offensive is to give a moral reason to refrain from doing it. But the moral ban on offending others can be overridden by more urgent moral obligations, including duties of self-preservation.

What seems more important in this realm is to develop a reasonable standard for non-offensiveness in social dealings. The ancient definition of a gentleman as ‘one who never unintentionally gives offense’ implicates (among other things) that no one can be a gentleman all the time.

So what level of sensitivity to what might offend others is required for ordinary social dealings? Individuals differ in their awareness of the potential for offense. (They don’t call him ‘Clueless Joe’ for nothing.) Demanding a level that the averagely-sensitive but good-hearted cannot sustain will render ordinary social interactions more difficult and conflictful than necessary.

A certain amount of amused tolerance seems preferable on all sides.


Tom Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[i] Sue, Microaggression in Everyday Life (Wiley 2010).
[ii] Grice, “Logic and Conversation”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I liked white better

“I liked white better.”

The thought flashed across my mind the moment I saw the White House lit up in colors to celebrate the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage.

The thought need not reflect any particular position about the wisdom of that ruling.

Or about the wisdom of the executive branch displaying the iconography of one side of a still-far-from-over social debate.

Or even about the aesthetic preferences for exterior home lighting.

But in my case, I know exactly what it reflected.

The thought simply occurred to me, quite apart from my choosing to call it up, because I had recently read the exact same words in Tolkien, in Gandalf’s retelling of his fateful meeting with Saruman.
“So you have come, Gandalf,” he said to me gravely; but in his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.

“Yes, I have come,” I said. “I have come for your aid, Saruman the White.” And that title seemed to anger him.

“Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!” he scoffed. “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.”

‘I looked at him and wondered. “But if I am not deceived,” said I, “things are now moving which will require the union of all our strength.”

“That may be so,” he said, “but the thought is late in coming to you. How long, I wonder, have you concealed from me, the head of the Council, a matter of greatest import? What brings you now from your lurking-place in the Shire?”

“The Nine have come forth again,” I answered. “They have crossed the River. So Radagast said to me.”

“Radagast the Brown!” laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. “Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message. And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
By this point some of my readers may be starting to lose patience.

They are either asking “Why is he giving so much context?” or else “How dare he compare the White House and the white robes of Saruman?”

“After all, it’s not like our leader repeatedly lied for the sake of increasing his power—like Saruman.

“And it’s not like our world has nine black-clothed people whose power is all but impossible to overcome—like Ringwraiths.”

“And it’s not like, in our world, the leader joined the side of the Nine.”

OK, I could go on, but if you have now lost all patience, good!—that’s exactly how Saruman felt with Gandalf at this point.
“You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends,” said he. “I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.”
That choice, as Saruman explained, was between joining him in the service of Sauron, or joining him to try and get the One Ring for himself, or becoming his prisoner. Gandalf choose imprisonment.

Let me here recognize something that may reassure some of you.

It really is the case that, despite their starting with the same English letters, the battle over Marriage Equality is quite unlike the battle over Middle Earth.

For example, those in favor of it are not necessarily in Sauron’s service. Nor, it should be said, are those who are against it.

And yet.

And yet I recently read that one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellen—who plays Gandalf, of all people!—boasts about regularly ripping pages out of hotel bibles whose contents are not to his liking.

This response to those with whom one disagrees is not what I used to expect from typical liberals. (At least he doesn’t do it, or boast about it, with the Koran.)

When McKellen was asked what he would like to ask Tolkien, he said this:

“Would he be the sort of Catholic who wouldn't understand why someone like me would be openly gay and think myself God's creature as he was?”

Seriously? Not one Catholic I know (or know about, save in someone’s fantasy world) would have any trouble at all understanding the things McKellen mentions, either separately or together.

The idea that being openly gay undercuts being equally God’s creature is a projection, entirely of some people’s own making.

And the suggestion that merely believing that certain sexual choices are wrong commits one to believing the above idea is a lie from the pit of hell.

Which brings us back to our story.

I know we might see our nine, not like Ringwraiths, but like the chosen nine in the Fellowship of the Ring. Perhaps the four conservatives are like hobbits, the two remaining men like humans, and the three women like an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard (though one of the men already thinks he’s the wizard).

OK. Fine. But even those nine were tempted with a lie from the pit of Mordor…


Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two policy truisms

The faithful at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC have reacted to the evil attack on their community with a quiet and loving strength and dignity. The remarks by the church’s Senior Bishop, Right Rev. John Richard Bryant, at the funeral service for the nine victims were particularly moving. And the families’ expressions of forgiveness to the shooter, Roof, were simply astonishing.

Contrast their response with what has been much more common in the media (on both sides of the political spectrum). I wish it weren’t so common to use tragedies like this one to advance a political agenda. It’s unseemly and smacks of opportunism. That said, I admit I’m hopeful that propriety won’t stop the developing head of steam to remove the Confederate flag from in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. Whatever else that flag is supposed to represent, it’s also a big, government sponsored middle finger to something like 28% of the state’s population.

A more important objection to folks who use tragedies like this to advance a political agenda is based on a presumption that political responses to relatively rare albeit tragic events will just make things worse. Various factors work together to get the policy through the legislative process despite plausible concerns about unforeseen and unintended bad consequences.

First, in the wake of such an event, natural emotional reactions – sympathy for the victims and fear related to being one – are running high. Second, this fear is all out of proportion to the probability of the event recurring. We’re just not that good at risk analysis. Limited, anecdotal evidence tends to weigh heavily in our evaluations of risk. And modern news reporting makes us think that certain kinds of events happen with a greater regularity than they really do. Third, elected politicians are subject to this same psychological pressure, but also a great deal of political pressure to respond. Would you want to be the one asking questions about the expected costs and benefits of, e.g., the Patriot Act after 9-11 or Caylee’s Law, let alone the one voting against them? Would you if you were contemplating an upcoming reelection campaign? Constituents want their representatives to DO SOMETHING, and a vote against the law is viewed as a vote against freedom or children or whatever. Sometimes bad, not-very-well-thought-out policy is good politics.

So here’s policy truism #1:
 Laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.
Many have used the Emanuel AME tragedy to argue for stricter gun control. I’m agnostic about the effectiveness of gun control generally and, specifically, about whether proposed changes to existing gun control laws would have prevented Roof’s murders. But I’m fairly certain that racial minorities will disproportionately suffer under a stricter gun control regime.

Last year, 48.6% of people convicted under federal firearms legislation were black. The racial disparity in this category of federal offense is greater than any other. Most proposed changes to firearms legislation would crack down further on illegal possession and sale of firearms, which comes with the need for police, agencies and prosecutors to exercise a great deal of discretion in how to go after these activities. Given the extent of violations, they can’t go after everyone. And we probably shouldn’t expect them to enforce new laws in an unbiased way when they already don’t enforce existing laws in an unbiased way.

New firearm offenses also mean new reasons to stop and search people that police tend to suspect of criminal activity or who present easy targets. In the end, there would be more people in prison, and that tends to mean more black men in prison. So the question isn’t whether it's broadly possible to have effective gun control without more and worse civil rights violations. The question is whether that's what we'd actually get.

Here then is policy truism #2:
The fact that a policy, if expertly tailored and benevolently administered, would make things better isn’t a good reason to implement it.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, June 29, 2015

The undone

The other day I was home alone working on my house when I stopped to make myself lunch.  I almost never sit down to eat when it's only me; I'll just get back to doing whatever I was doing, wolfing down whatever I have slapped together as quickly as possible. I have a right to eat this way. I see sitting down to eat as a social occasion, which makes sitting down by myself to eat an absurdity. As my friend Scott Merlino once pointed out to me, men do not dine alone, they feed.

Anyway, at some point during this period the UPS truck showed up with a delivery and I went out to sign for it. Later, back at work, I suddenly remembered something: I had not finished my lunch. I thought briefly about where I had been when the truck had pulled up, and returned to find one last bite of the sandwich sitting on my miter saw. I blew off the saw dust, popped it in my mouth, and got on with my day.

Later still, back at work again my mind drifted to this question: Why did I recall with such clarity that I had not finished my sandwich?  Why did I recall it at all?  It came like a message from God. God can not be bothered to remind me where I put my coffee cup, or the measurement I had made just before the phone rang. What's so important about the last bite of my sandwich?

Here is the answer that occurred to me: I had accepted making and eating my lunch as a project, a task to be completed. Whenever we do this, the mind opens up an account, a mental line of credit, which will not be closed until it has been paid off. During the period in which the task is incomplete, there will be a nagging feeling of something owed, something left undone.

Toward the end of Philosophy 180 this spring my students and I were thinking a lot about the role of emotion in rational cognition. It's a great topic, not the least because the more you think about it the more you realize how little we understand what an emotion even is. In thinking about the sandwich question it occurred to me that the nagging feeling of the undone as well as the satisfying feeling of accomplishing a task could be emotions evolved specifically to facilitate task-oriented behavior.

I like to think about how my dog sees the world. I think it is right to describe him as engaging in goal directed behavior, like running off strangers or begging for a biscuit. He can't assign himself a task, though. If we are interrupted from playing fetch by the UPS man, the goal simply becomes to run him off the place. When the truck drives away, he will lie down feeling satisfied. But he will not hear a voice saying: You did not finish your fetch.

Imagine if our ability to recollect whether we have finished a task were no better than our recollection of other information, like the name of the person you just met or DeMorgan's rules or the capital of Delaware. Did you finish yesterday's homework? Hmmm... I can't remember. Dude....what?

Clearly this ability to set ourselves tasks, long and short term, and bring them to fruition is something very distinctive about human beings and we rightly count it as a virtue to be cultivated and admired in individuals. Indeed those who fail to develop this ability to a high degree will simply fail to thrive in this world. But this ability seems to come at a price, a dark and dangerous liability.

You are probably familiar with the idea of sunk costs. A sunk cost is just something you have spent, that can not be recovered. It can be money, time, effort, or anything else of value. In the context of a self-appointed task, it is extremely difficult to recognize sunk costs. Scores of intelligent, highly capable people have done incalculable harm through an inability to recognize them.  Everyone has said this to herself at one point or another: I have worked so hard, have come so far, invested so much, I simply can not quit now.  This is the voice of the undone.

Why is it so difficult to ignore sunk costs? Why can't we just do what is rational, which is to consider our present condition without reference to the path that got us here, and decide the best course of action from this point forward? Part of the answer is that it is very difficult for us to be objective in such circumstances. Are we changing course now because the cause is lost, or do we simply lack the courage of our convictions?  It is often not easy to know.  When we accuse ourselves or others of letting sunk costs influence our reasoning, we often do so only on the basis of another arch bias, hindsight.

But the answer I like best is provided by the Meaning Maintenance Model of human motivation, which posits that humans are essentially meaning makers, and that our decisions and actions are best understood as attempts to create and preserve meaning in our lives.  What 'meaning' actually means in this context is not at all settled, but we can at least say that it is always relative to a representational framework, one of the most common being a narrative or story.

When we say that pursuing lost causes and justifying sunk costs is irrational, we do so with respect to another framework, namely the framework of probability and expected utility. But if humans really have a fundamental need for their lives to make a kind of narrative sense, then this is too simple. From this perspective, the undone is an abomination, a story that simply


G. Randolph Mayes
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Building self aware machines

The public mood toward the prospect of artificial intelligence is dark. Increasingly, people fear the results of creating an intelligence whose abilities will far exceed our own, and who pursues goals that are not compatible with our own. I think resistance is a mistake (and futile) and I think we should be actively striving toward the construction of artificial intelligence.

When we ask “Can a machine be conscious?,” we often miss several important distinctions. With regard to the AI project, we need to distinguish at least between qualitative/phenomenal states, exterior self-modeling, interior self-modeling, information processing, attention, sentience, executive top-down control, self-awareness, and so on. Once we make a number of these distinctions, it becomes clear that we have already created systems with some of these capacities.  Others are not far off, and still others present the biggest challenges to the project. Here I will focus just on two, following Drew McDermott: interior and exterior self-modeling.

A cognitive system has a self-model if it has the capacity to represent, acknowledge, or take account of itself as an object in the world with other objects. Exterior self-modeling requires treating the self solely as a physical, spatial-temporal object among other objects. So you can easily spatially locate yourself in the room, you have a representation of where you are in relation to your mother’s house, or perhaps to the Eiffel Tower. You can also easily locate yourself temporally. You represent Napoleon as an 18th century French Emperor, and you are aware that the segment of time that you occupy is later than the segment of time that he occupied. Children swinging from one bar to another on the playground are employing an exterior self-model, as is a ground squirrel running back to its burrow.

Exterior self-modeling is relatively easy to build into an artificial system compared to many other tasks that face the AI project. Your phone is technologically advanced enough to put itself in a location in space in relationship to other objects with its GPS system. I built a CNC machine in my garage (Computer Numeric Controlled cutting system) that I ”zero” out when I start it up. I designate a location in a three dimensional coordinate system as (0, 0, 0) for the X, Y, and Z axes, then the machine keeps track of where it is in relation to that point as it cuts. When it’s finished, it returns to (0, 0, 0). The system knows where it is in space, at least in the very small segment of space that it is capable of representing (About 36” x 24” x 5”).

Interior self-modeling is the capacity of a system to represent itself as an information processing, epistemic, representational agent. That is, a system has an interior self-model if it represents the state of its own informational, cognitive capacities. Loosely, it is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. It is a system that is able to locate the state of its own information about the world within a range of possible states. When you recognize that watching too much Fox News might be contributing to your being negative about President Obama, you are employing an interior self-model. When you resolve to not make a decision about which car to buy until you’ve done some more research, or when you wait until after the debates to decide which candidate to vote for, you are exercising your interior self-model. You have located yourself as a thinking, believing, judging agent within a range of possible information states. Making decisions requires information. Making good decisions requires being able to assess how much information you have, how good it is, and how much more (or less) you need or how much better you need it to be in order to decide within the tolerances of your margins of error.

So in order to endow an artificial cognitive system with an interior self-model, we must build it to model itself as an information system similar to how we’d build it to model itself in space and time. Hypothetically, a system can have no information, or it can have all of the information. And the information it has can be poor quality, with a high likelihood of being false, or it can be high quality, with a high likelihood of being true. Those two dimensions are like a spatial-temporal framework, and the system must be able to locate its own information state within that range of possibilities. Then the system, if we want it to make good decisions, must be able to recognize the difference between the state it is in and the minimally acceptable information state it should be in. Then, ideally, we’d build it with the tools to close that gap.

Imagine a doctor who is presented with a patient with an unfamiliar set of symptoms. Recognizing that she doesn’t have enough information to diagnose the problem, she does a literature search so that she can responsibly address it. Now imagine an artificial system with reliable decisions heuristics that recognizes the adequacy or inadequacy of its information base, and then does a medical literature review that is far more comprehensive, consistent, and discerning than a human doctor can perform. At the first level, our AI system needs to be able to compile and process information that will produce a decision. But at the second level, our AI system must be able to judge its own fitness for making that decision and rectify the information state short coming if there is one. 

The ability to represent itself as an epistemic agent in this fashion is one of the most important and interesting ways to flesh out the notion of  something being “self-aware.” By carefully analyzing other senses of "machine consciousness" we may come to see that there is no single, deeply mysterious and inherently insoluble problem. Rather, there are many different, fascinating questions that can be framed and answered in computational terms and which will yield to computational methods.


Bostrom, Nick.  Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press 2014.

McDermott, Drew. “Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness,” The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, 117-150. Zelazo, Moscovitch, and Thompson, eds. 2007.


Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State