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.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Do you and I deserve to die?

I recently read about a Pakistani Christian who was falsely accused of violating Pakistan Penal Code 295-C:

“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

I also recently read the ancient Christian account of King Herod’s death given by Luke the physician (who accompanied the apostle Paul on much of his travels) in Acts 12:21-23 (for contemporary biomedical accounts see here and here):

“On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”

There are countless differences between the Pakistani penal code and this story of King Herod’s death. But each in their own way might raise the following question:

When, if ever, does a person deserve to die?

I recognize that “desert” is not explicitly mentioned in either text. But people in general—and believers in a God who is in some sense good and fair and just in particular—should be alert to desert-based discussions of each.

Consider four statements of how a person who believes in some desert-based explanations might explain what Herod deserved at the moment when the angel allegedly struck him down:

1. Herod deserved to live.

2. Herod did not deserve to live.

3. Herod deserved to not live.

4. Herod deserved to die. 

I think resistance to 4 is based on 1. But if 1 is overcome for 2, and 2 for 3, then 4 is a done deal.

I think the shock of being told that a person “deserved to die” for an activity is often due to our sense that death is a penalty that gets “tacked on” and utterly fails to fit the activity.

But perhaps death is not a penalty “tacked on” to certain activities, but is a reasonably expected outcome of the activities themselves. At least viewing it this way might clarify how the causing of Herod’s death does not necessarily come from an utterly different moral universe than our own.

Here’s my proposal:

A. If something is a continuous gift from one person to another, dependent on the will of the first person (the giver) at each moment, then anything the second person (the gifted) does that can reasonably change the will of the first can reasonably end the gift.

B. Herod’s life was a continuous (not one-time) gift (not entitlement) dependent on the will of the giver at each moment (not an enduring thing of its own).

C. So anything Herod did that could reasonably change the will of the giver could reasonably end his life.

An example to support A: Nun lives next door to beloved Nephew, who she gives the gift of a crisp twenty-dollar bill to each year, for each day between Christmas and Easter. But one year he turns around and makes an elaborate money shrine out of these bills and worships them. And boasts about it. Often. To her face. Even after her pleas to use the money better. Nephew can reasonably expect not to get a crisp twenty from Nun next Christmas—or even tomorrow. He certainly has no right to expect another installment of such a gift from her. If he keeps getting twenties from her, it may be that she is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do him or others—but it’s not like she owes it to him.

I shall not try to support B. It does not challenge any sciences studying how we die.

Now consider: is not Herod’s offense here similar to what some politicians do during their speeches?

Or what you and I do every day?

Let me speak just for myself here. I am, to the giver of my life, much like Nephew to Nun. I practically worship my own life, even though I ought to know better, and even when the rumor’s out that I have been told better. And yet the spicket (sorry, spigot) supplying my life to me remains “on.” Why? It’s not entirely clear. But perhaps the giver is remarkably patient and hopeful of some good it will do me or others.

And yet occasionally the spigot is abruptly turned off—like with Herod.

Crucial clarification #1: we should be reluctant to invoke a desert-based explanation when someone today dies—to the point of almost never doing it.

There’s a brilliant line that the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about someone who asked the following horribly insensitive questions online:

“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?...It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?”

To which Hitchens replied (in part): “my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”

Nice. But Hitchens’ point actually makes my point. I give the middle finger to God all the time, even when it’s not with my middle finger. And yet he is “patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Crucial clarification #2: there are many additional ideas that one must accept before she thinks we mortals should get involved in giving a person the death they deserve—especially in the form of a law, especially like the law I quoted from Pakistan.

Russell DiSilvestro
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Friday, September 14, 2018

Spoilers vs. Keepers

There’s a certain kind of philosopher who plies the trade proving that things we believe in and care deeply about do not really exist: free will, mind, love, evil, knowledge, God, self, the external world. Stuff like that. Call them Spoilers.

The method of the Spoiler is straightforward: (1) Identify a susceptible entity and advance a definition of the term we use to refer to it. (2) Claim that this definition captures its Genuine Meaning. (3) Proceed to argue that there is, in fact, (or, better, logically could never be) anything in the world that satisfies this definition.

There’s another kind of philosopher whose mission it is to rescue these entities from the ignominy of non-existence. Call them Keepers. As I will use the term, a Keeper is not simply someone who attempts to refute a Spoiler’s argument; rather, she is someone who believes that the definition advanced misconceives the entity in question.

There are two different types of Keeper.

Keeper1, accepting the basic methodology of the Spoiler, engages him on his own terms, providing criticisms of his definition and defending an alternative Genuine Meaning. She then permits the Spoiler to respond in kind. Theoretically, this process continues until a mutually acceptable definition emerges. We call this the method of Reflective Equilibrium and it is how Analytic Philosophy gets done.

Keeper2 is someone who is disengaged from the search for Genuine Meaning, at least as a purely philosophical activity. She practices a different method known as Concept Explication. Explication typically occurs when the entity in question is the subject of ongoing scientific inquiry. Hence, when Keeper2 explicates a concept, she does so, not in an attempt to capture a quiddity, but rather in an attempt to clarify it for the purpose of further inquiry.

Consider an example: Knowledge. Most of us stipulate that knowledge is a fine thing and we humans have acquired quite a bit of it. A Spoiler might propose a definition of Genuine Knowledge that implies that to know P we must (in some sense) be certain that P is so. He may then argue that no such P could exist, since all beliefs must be based on evidence, which is inherently uncertain. Ergo, knowledge does not exist.

Whereas Keeper1 objects to the Spoiler’s definition on intuitive grounds, Keeper2 rejects it on methodological grounds. Keeper2 may allow that Spoiler’s definition accurately captures some traditional or intuitive meaning. But she knows that these often stem from immature theories of the entity in question. The failure of anything in the world to satisfy such a definition testifies to the shortcomings of the theory, not to the unreality of the entity.

In general, Keeper2 is interested only in definitions that serve some clear explanatory aim. So, if the subject is knowledge, her question will not be “What is Genuine Knowledge?” Her question will be “What notion of knowledge will best serve the attempt to explain how humans learn about the world?” (Clearly, scientific knowledge has progressed in the face of uncertainty, so the Spoiler’s definition will never do.)

Both types of Keepers should remain of interest to you, but I wish to better your acquaintance with Keeper2, whom I henceforth refer to simply as Keeper. Let’s look at a few other perennial targets of Spoiler and how Keeper might rejoin.

Free Will

Spoiler argues that everything we know about the physical world entails that free will is an illusion. For him, genuine free will involves a moment of choice between multiple options, all of which are equally available to the agent. Spoiler argues that choice, like all events leading up to it, is a purely physical process. Our feeling that it occurs in a “causal gap” is an illusion that itself must have a physical explanation.

Keeper suggests that Spoiler misconceives the nature of free will. He may be credited with accurately characterizing a traditional theory as well as its flaws, but all he has shown is that it is a poor theory. It is the theory that must be discarded, not free will itself. Keeper counters that free will just is the observable human capacity to consider various possible futures and to make decisions aimed at bringing one of them about. The important explanatory questions are how this ability evolved and how it is implemented in the human mind.

The Self

For Spoiler, the self is necessarily a Genuine Me that persists unaltered through all physical and mental change. Among other things it is supposed to explain how all of our various sensory modalities can be unified into a single coherent perspective. Spoiler argues that we have no introspective evidence for such an entity, nor any clue how such a thing could perform the functions assigned to it.

Again, Keeper’s response is to suggest that Spoiler is mistaking an inadequate theory for the thing itself. Again, she identifies the self with something that patently exists, namely a being with a self-conception, one that, as the renowned Keeper John Locke observed, “considers itself as itself, the same thing in different times and places.” For Keeper, a successful theory of the self so conceived will be one that explains, inter alia, how humans become aware of their own existence.


God, of course, is a perennial target of the Spoiler. For him, the genuine meaning of God is a traditional one: an eternal supreme person-like being who created the universe and the physical and moral laws by which it is governed. Spoilers argue for the non existence of such a being on a variety of grounds, but generally its radical implausibility, the paucity of evidence in its favor and varieties of fatal incoherence.

Keeper has no commitment to preserving an ancient theory of a creator God. Rather, she identifies God with what indisputably exists, and that is the operating principles of the universe itself. (This, of course, is the God of Spinoza and Einstein.) On the Keeper’s view a theory of God is simply a Theory of Everything.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State