My philosophy, so far — part II

220px-RobertFuddBewusstsein17Jhby Massimo Pigliucci

In the first part [19] of this ambitious (and inevitably, insufficient) essay I sought to write down and briefly defend a number of fundamental positions that characterize my “philosophy,” i.e., my take on important questions concerning philosophy, science and the nature of reality. I have covered the nature of philosophy itself (as distinct, to a point, from science), metaphysics, epistemology, logic, math and the very nature of the universe. Time now to come a bit closer to home and talk about ethics, free will, the nature of the self, and consciousness. That ought to provide readers with a few more tidbits to chew on, and myself with a record of what I’m thinking at this moment in my life, for future reference, you know.

Ethics, meta- and standard

I have written extensively on ethics, perhaps the most comprehensive example being a seven part series that can be found at the Rationally Speaking blog [20]. Although in the past I have considered myself a realist, my position is probably better described as quasi-realism, or perhaps as a kind of bounded instrumentalism. Indeed, it is not very different  — in spirit, not the details — from the way I think of math or logic (see part I).

So, first off, I distinguish three types of questions one can meaningfully ask about ethics or morality (I am using the two terms interchangeably here, even though some authors make a distinction between the two): where does it come from, how does it work, and how it should work.

The first question is the province of evolutionary biology and anthropology: those are the disciplines that can tell us how a sense of right and wrong has evolved in our particular species of social, large-brained primates, and how it further diversified via cultural evolution. The second question is a matter of social and cognitive science: we want to know what sort of brain circuitry allows us to think about morality and make moral decisions, and we want to know how that circuitry is shaped not just by our biology, but also by our cultural milieu.

It is the third question, of course, that is more crucially philosophical in nature. Still, one can distinguish at the least two levels of philosophical discourse on ethics: how should we think of morality in general (the so-called “meta-ethical” question), and which system(s) of moral reasoning are best suited for our purposes as social beings.

It is in terms of meta-ethics [21] that I am a quasi-realist (or a bounded instrumentalist). I don’t think that moral truths exist “out there,” independently of the human mind, which would be yet another example of Platonism (akin to the mathematical / ontic ones we encountered last time). But I also don’t accept the moral relativist position that there is no principled way in which I can say, for instance, that imposing genital mutilation on young girls is wrong — in a sense of wrong that is stronger than simply “I happen not to like it,” or “I have a strong emotional revulsion to it.”

Rather, I think of moral philosophy as a method of reasoning about human ethical dilemmas, beginning with certain assumptions (more or less analogous to axioms in mathematics, or postulates in logic), plus empirical input (from commonsense and/or science) about pertinent facts (e.g., what causes pain and how much, what policies seem to produce the highest amount of certain desiderata, like the ability to flourish, individual freedom, just distribution of resources, etc.), plus of course the basic moral instincts we have inherited from our primate ancestors (on this I’m with Hume: if we don’t care about X there is no reasoning that, by itself, could make us care about X).

This sounds a bit complicated and perhaps esoteric, but it’s really simple: if you want to see what I mean, just read one of Michael Sandel’s books on moral reasoning [22]. They are aimed at the general public, they deal with very practical questions, and yet they show exactly how the moral philosopher thinks (and, incidentally, why science informs but simply cannot determine, our ethical priorities).

I haven’t forgotten about the second level of philosophical discourse concerning ethics: which ethical framework can best serve our aims as individuals within a broader society? Here the classical choices include deontology (Kant-style, not the Ten Commandments stuff) [23], utilitarianism-consequentialism [24], and virtue ethics [25], though there are others (ethics of care, communitarianism, and egalitarianism, for instance).

Although I have strong sympathies for much of what John Rawls [26] has written (from an egalitarian perspective) on justice, I decidedly embrace a neo-Aristotelian conception of virtue ethics. Actually, I maintain that the two can be brought together in “reflective equilibrium” (as Rawls would say) once we realize that virtue ethics addresses a different moral question from all the other approaches: for Aristotle and his contemporaries ethics was concerned not simply with what is the right thing to do, but with what is the right life to live, i.e. with the pursuit of eudaimonia (literally, having a good demon; more broadly, flourishing). So I think that I can say under penalty of little contradiction that when I ask myself what sort of life I want to live, my response is along virtue ethical lines; but when I ask the very different question of what sort of society I want to live in, then a Rawls-type quasi-egalitarianism comes to mind as the strongest candidate (to be practical, it is the sort of society you find in a number of northern European countries).

Free will

Free will is one of the oldest chestnuts in philosophy, and it has come back into fashion with a vengeance, lately [27], especially because of a new dialogue between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists — a dialogue that at times is very enlightening, at others just as equally frustrating.

If you consult the Merriam-Webster, its two definitions of the concept are illustrative of why the debate is so acrimonious, and often goes nowhere:

1. voluntary choice or decision

2. freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

Before we go any further, I believe in (1) and I think that (2) is incoherent.

Now, very briefly, there are basically four positions on free will: hard determinism, metaphysical libertarianism, hard incompatibilism, and compatibilism.

Hard determinism is the idea that physical determinism (the notion that the laws of physics and the universe’s initial conditions have fixed every event in the cosmos since the Big Bang) is true and therefore free will is impossible; metaphysical libertarianism (not to be confused with the political position!) says physical determinism is false and free will is possible; hard incompatibilism says that free will is impossible regardless of whether physical determinism is true or false; and compatibilism accepts the idea of physical determinism but claims that free will (of a kind) is nonetheless possible.

First off, notice that the four positions actually imply different conceptions of free will. For a compatibilist, for instance, free will of type (2) above is nonsense, while that is precisely what the metaphysical libertarian accepts.

Second, given the choices above, I count myself as a compatibilist, more or less along the lines explained at length by Daniel Dennett (see [27] and references therein), but with a fairly large caveat.

I am a compatibilist (as opposed to both a hard determinist and a hard incompatibilist) because it seems to me self-evident that we make choices or take decisions, and that we do that in a different way from that of a (currently existing) computer, or a plant (with animals things become increasingly fuzzy the more complicated their nervous system). I have definitely chosen to write this essay, in a much richer sense of “chosen” than my computer is “choosing” to produce certain patterns of pixels on my screen as a result of other patterns of keyboard hits that I created with my fingers. You may deny that, but that would leave you with a large number of interesting biological and psychological phenomena that go pretty much unexplained, unaccounted for, or otherwise swept under the (epistemic) carpet.

I am also a compatibilist (as opposed to a metaphysical libertarian) because I think that causality plays a crucial and unavoidable role in our scientific explanations of pretty much everything that happens in the universe above the level of sub-atomic physics (more on this in a second). You simply can’t do any “special” science (i.e., any science other than fundamental physics) without invoking the concept of causation. Since the scientific study of free will (I prefer the more neutral, and far less theologically loaded, “volition”) is the province of neuroscience, psychology and sociology — all of which certainly depend on deploying the idea of causality in their explanations — to talk of a-causal or contra-causal free will is nonsense (on stilts).

So, my (and Dennett’s) compatibilism simply means that human beings are sophisticated biological organisms (I reserve the word “machine” for human-made artifacts, as I have a problem with the deployment of machine-like metaphors in biology [28]) capable of processing environmental stimuli (including language) in highly complex, non-linear fashion, and to arrive at decisions on actions to take. The fact that, if exposed to the same exact stimuli we would unfailingly come out with the same exact decisions does not make us a puppet or marionette, those decisions are still “ours” in an important sense — which of course implies that we do deserve (moral) blame or praise for them [29].

What about the caveat to which I hinted above? Well, it’s actually three caveats: i) We still lack a good philosophical account (let alone a scientific theory, whatever that would look like) of causality itself [30]. That ought to make everyone in the free will debate at least a bit queasy. ii) Causality plays little or no explanatory role precisely where the determinist should expect it to be playing a major one: in fundamental physics. Again, someone should think carefully about this one. iii) Hard determinism is, let us not forget it, a philosophical (indeed, metaphysical!) position, not a scientific theory. It is often invoked as a corollary of the so-called principle of the causal completeness of physics [31]. But “causal completeness” simply means that the laws of physics (in general, not just the currently accepted set) exhaust our description of the universe. The notion is definitely not logically incompatible with different, not necessarily reductionist, ways of understanding said laws; nor does it rule out even instances of strong emergence [32] (i.e., the possibility that new laws come into being when certain conditions are attained, usually in terms of system complexity). I am not saying that determinism is false, or that strong emergence occurs. I am saying that the data from the sciences — at the moment, at least — strongly underdetermine these metaphysical possibilities, so that hard determinists should tread a little more lightly than they typically do.

Self and consciousness

And we finally come to perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of humans (although likely present to a degree in a number of other sentient species): (self)-consciousness.

Again, let’s start simple, with the Merriam-Webster: their first definition of consciousness is “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself”; they also go for “the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought.”

When I talk about (self)-consciousness I mean something very close to the first definition. It is a qualitative state of experience, and it refers not just to one’s awareness of one’s surroundings and simple emotions (like being in pain) — which presumably we share with a lot of other animal species — but more specifically the awareness of one’s thoughts (which may be, but likely is not, unique to human beings).

The first thing I’m going to say about my philosophy of self & consciousness is that I don’t go for the currently popular idea that they are an illusion, an epiphenomenon, or simply the originators of confabulations about decisions already made at the subconscious level. That sort of approach finds home in, for instance, Buddhist philosophy, and in the West goes back at the least to David Hume.

The most trivial observation to make about eliminativism concerning the self & consciousness is that if they are an illusion who, exactly, is experiencing such illusion? This is a more incisive point, I think, than is often given credit.

But, mostly, I simply think that denying — as opposed to explaining — self & consciousness is a bad and ultimately unsatisfactory move. And based on what, precisely? Hume famously said that whenever he “looked” into his own mind he found nothing but individual sensations, so he concluded that the mind itself is a loosely connected bundle of them. Ironically, current research in cognitive science clearly shows that we are often mistaken about our introspection, which ought to go a long way toward undermining Hume’s argument. Besides, I never understood what, exactly, he was expecting to find. And, again, who was doing the probing and finding said bundles, anyway?

Some eliminativists point to deep meditation (or prayer, or what happens in sensory deprivation tanks), which results in the sensation that the boundary between the self and the rest of the world becomes fluid and less precise. Yes, but neurobiology tells us exactly what’s going on there: the areas of the brain in charge of proprioception [33] become much less active, because of the relative sensorial deprivation the subject experiences. As such, we have the illusion (that one really is an illusion!) that our body is expanding and that its boundaries with the rest of the world are no longer sharp.

Other self & consciousness deniers refer to classic experiments with split-brain patients [34], where individuals with a severed corpus callosum behave as if they housed two distinct centers of consciousness, some times dramatically at odds with each other. Well, yes, but notice that we are now looking at a severely malfunctioning brain, and that moreover this sort of split personality arises only under very specific circumstances: cut the brain in any other way and you get one dead guy (or gal), not multiple personalities.

To me all of the above, plus whatever else we know about neurobiology, plus the too often discounted commonsense experience of ourselves, simply tell me that there is a conscious self, and that it is an important component of what it means to be human. I think of consciousness and the self as emergent properties (in the weak sense, I’m not making any strong metaphysical statements here) of mind-numbingly complex neuronal systems, in a fashion similar to which, say, “wetness” is an emergent property of large numbers of molecules of water, and is nowhere to be found in any single molecule taken in isolation [35].

Now, that conclusion does most certainly not imply the rejection of empirical findings showing that much of our thinking happens below the surface, so to speak, i.e. outside of the direct control of consciousness. Here Kahneman’s now famous “two-speed” model of thinking [36] comes handy, and has the advantage of being backed by plenty of evidence. Nor am I suggesting that we don’t confabulate, engage in all sorts of cognitively biased reasoning, and so forth. But I am getting increasingly annoyed at what I perceive as the latest fashion of denying or grossly discounting that we truly are, at best, the rational animal, as Aristotle said. Indeed, just to amuse myself I picture all these people who deny rationality and consciousness as irrational zombies whose arguments obviously cannot be taken seriously — because they haven’t really thought about it, and at any rate are just rationalizing…

The second thing I’m going to reiterate (since I’ve said it plenty of times before) concerns consciousness in particular. As many of my readers likely know, the currently popular account of the phenomenon is the so-called computational one, which draws a direct (although increasingly more qualified as time goes by) analogy between minds and (digital, originally) computers [37]. For a variety of reasons that I’ve explained elsewhere [38], I do think there are some computational aspects to minding (I prefer to refer to it as an activity, rather than a thing), but I also think that computationalists just don’t take biology seriously enough. On this, therefore, I’m with John Searle (and that’s quite irrespective of his famous Chinese room thought experiment [39]) when he labels himself a biological naturalist about consciousness. The basic idea is that — as far as we know — consciousness is a biological process, not unlike, say, photosynthesis. Which means that it may be bounded not only to certain functional arrangements, but also to specific physicochemical materials. These materials don’t have to be the ones that happen to characterize earth-bound life, but it is plausible that they just can’t be anything at all.

I think the most convincing analogy here is with life itself. We can’t possibly know what radically different forms of life may be out there, but if life is characterized by complex metabolism, information carrying, reproduction, homeostasis, the ability to evolve, etc. then it seems like it better be based on carbon or something that has similar chemical flexibility. Hard to imagine, for instance, helium-based life forms, given that helium is a “noble” gas with very limited chemical potentialities.

Similarly, I think, with consciousness: the qualitative ability of feeling what it is like to experience something may require complex chemistry, not just complex functional arrangements of arbitrary materials, which is why I doubt we will be able to create conscious computers (which, incidentally, is very different from creating intelligent computers), and why I think any talk of “uploading” one’s consciousness is sheer nonsense [40]. Of course, this is ultimately an empirical matter, and we shall see about it. I am simply a bit dismayed (particularly as a biologist) at how the computational route — despite having actually yielded comparatively little (see the abysmal failure of the once much trumpeted strong AI program) — keeps dominating the discourse by presenting itself as the only game in town (reminds me of string theory in physics, but that’s a whole other story for another time…).

It should go without saying, but I’m going to spell it out anyway, just in case: none of the above should give any comfort to dualists, supernaturalists and assorted mysticists. I do think consciousness is a biophysical phenomenon, which we have at the least the potential ability of explaining, and perhaps even of duplicating artificially — just not, I am betting, in the way that so many seem to think is about to yield success any minute now.

The whole shebang

Do the positions summarized above and in part I of this essay form a coherent philosophical view of things? I think so, even though they are certainly not airtight, and they may be open to revision or even wholesale rejection, in some cases.

The whole jigsaw puzzle can be thought of as one particular type of naturalist take, of course, and I’m sure that comes as no surprise given my long standing rejection of supernaturalism. More specifically, my ontology is relatively sparse, though perhaps not quite as “desert like” as W.V.O. Quine’s. I recognize pretty much only physical entities as ontologically “thick,” so to speak, though I am willing to say that concepts, mathematical objects being a subset of them, also “exist” in a weaker sense of the term existence (but definitely not a mind-independent one).

My take could also be characterized as Humean in spirit, despite my rejection of specific Humean notions, such as the illusory status of the self. Hume thought that philosophy better take on board the natural sciences and get as far away as possible from Scholastic-type disputes. He also thought that whatever philosophical views we arrive at have to square with commonsense, not in the strict sense of confirming it, but at the very least always keeping in mind that one pays a high price every time one arrives at notions that are completely at odds with it. In some instances, this is unavoidable (e.g., the strange world of quantum mechanics), but in others can and if so should be avoided (e.g., the idea that the fundamental ontological nature of the universe is math).

Outside of Hume, some of my other philosophical inspirations should be clear. Aristotle, for one, at least when it comes to ethics and the general question of what kind of life one ought to live. Bertrand Russell is another, though it may have been less clear from what I’ve written here. Russell, like Hume, was very sympathetic to the idea of “scientific” philosophy, although his work in mathematics and logic clearly shows that he never seriously thought of reducing — Quine-style — philosophy to science. But Russell has been influential on me for two other reasons, which he shares with Aristotle and Hume: he is eminently quotable (and who doesn’t love a well placed quote!), and he embodied the spirit of open inquiry and reasonable skepticism to which I still aspire every day, regardless of my obvious recurring failures.

Let me therefore leave you with three of my favorite quotes from these greats of philosophy:

Aristotle: Any one can get angry — that is easy … but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109.a27)

Hume: In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 10 : Of Miracles Pt. 1)

Russell: Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. (Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel, pp. 178-179)

Cheers!

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[19] My philosophy, so far — Part I, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 19 May 2014.

[20] Here is the last entry, you can work your way back from there.

[21] Metaethics entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[22] By Sandel, see both: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009; and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

[23] Deontological ethics, SEP.

[24] Consequentialism, SEP.

[25] Virtue ethics, SEP.

[26] John Rawls, SEP.

[27] Here is one of my favorite examples. And here is the obligatory SEP entry.

[28] See my paper with Maarten Boudry, Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education, Science and Education 20 (453):471, 2011.

[29] See the following SEP entries: Causal processes, The metaphysics of causation, Causation and manipulability, and Counterfactual theories of causation.

[29] I was recently having an enlightening discussion about this with my friend Maarten Boudry, and we came up with another way to conceptualize in what sense, say, I could have hit a penalty kick that I actually missed (soccer, you know), whereas I couldn’t have written Hamlet. The idea is to deploy the logical concept of possible worlds (see the pertinent SEP entry). It should be obvious that — given exactly identical circumstances — I would have kicked the penalty in exactly the same way. But there is (in the logical sense of “is”) a nearby possible world in which the circumstances are different, say because I focused more on the task at hand, and I do hit the ball correctly, thereby scoring a goal. However, the possible world in which I write Hamlet is so distant from the actual world that there is no sense for me to say that I could have written Hamlet. If you find value in logical counterfactuals, this way of thinking about free will is very helpful. If not, I’ll try something else some other time.

[30] See Causal determinism, SEP.

[31] On the causal completeness of physics, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 27 February 2013.

[32] On emergence, see a series of four essays I wrote for the Rationally Speaking blog.

[33] For the basics on proprioception, see the Wiki entry.

[34] See The split brain: A tale of two halves, by David Wolman, Nature 14 March 2012.

[35] Which is why, incidentally, I think Dennett’s famous model of consciousness as made possible by stupider and stupider robots all the way down to individual neurons is too simplistic. In the case of wetness, there is a level of complexity below which the property simply does not apply, and I think the same can be said for consciousness.

[36] Thinking, Fast and Slow, by D. Kahneman, Turtleback, 2013.

[37] The computational theory of mind, SEP.

[38] See the following essays from the Rationally Speaking blog: Philosophy not in the business of producing theories: the case of the computational “theory” of mind (29 July 2013); Computation, Church-Turing, and all that jazz (5 August 2013); Three and a half thought experiments in philosophy of mind (6 September 2013).

[39] The Chinese room argument, SEP.

[40] See David Chalmers and the Singularity that will probably not come, Rationally Speaking, 5 October 2009; and Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity: visionary genius or pseudoscientific crank?, Rationally Speaking, 11 April 2011.

286 thoughts on “My philosophy, so far — part II

  1. Hi Massimo,

    But I also don’t accept … a sense of wrong that is stronger than simply “I happen not to like it,” or “I have a strong emotional revulsion to it.” […] Rather, I think of moral philosophy as … beginning with certain assumptions (more or less analogous to axioms in mathematics, or postulates in logic), …

    What justifies those starting assumptions, if they are not ultimately grounded in human opinions and feelings? If they are not “justified” but simply “adopted”, what is to say that the resulting scheme is “about” human morality (the product of evolution talked about in your answer to your “first question”)?

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  2. Hi Massimo,

    Very good, I have enjoyed these posts and am in broad agreement. I particularly like your treatment of free will, which is always such a thorny topic in online debates.

    One thing I have to weigh in on a bit regards: “The first thing I’m going to say about my philosophy of self & consciousness is that I don’t go for the currently popular idea that they are an illusion, an epiphenomenon, or simply the originators of confabulations about decisions already made at the subconscious level. That sort of approach finds home in, for instance, Buddhist philosophy …”

    As regards early Buddhist philosophy (that of the Nikāyas) one must be a bit careful regarding claims about the self. The Buddha never said that there was “no self”; what he consistently said was that the objects of experience could not be identified as the self. That is, his philosophy was one of “not-self” rather than “no-self”. Further, one of the things that could be identified in experience was “consciousness”, so he certainly did not claim that consciousness was an illusion (Whatever that could mean. I am inclined to think such a claim is incoherent).

    As to the related question of to whom these experiences occur if there is no self, the simple answer from within an early Buddhist context is that they occur to the bundle of five so-called “aggregates” that make up the mind. (These can be roughly identified with brain, feeling, perception, consciousness, volition).

    Insofar as the Buddha was after the denial of any kind of “self” it was the self as substantial, unchanging, and permanent, outside of the ordinary flux of causal conditions. That was the self he was interested in saying was not found within experience. As to the conventional, ever-changing, causally conditioned self constructed from the five aggregates, there is no denial that this sort of self exists, though one is not to cling to it.

    I think the closest one finds to an early Buddhist notion of self within contemporary philosophy is Derek Parfit, FWIW.

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  3. Massimo,
    I find myself agreeing with most of your positions, although I think your skepticism of mind uploading is unwarranted. If the mind indeed arises from physical operation of the brain, I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t eventually be possible to analyze that physical operation and recreate it, either physically or in a virtual environment. Even if consciousness ends up requiring wet chemical reactions, it still seems like something we’d eventually be able to recreate, although at that point you might refer to it as engineered life rather than uploading.

    Now, I do think there is plenty room for skepticism that it’s going to happen in 20 years and lead to a transcendent “rapture of the nerds” singularity, but I see that as a separate issue from us eventually being able to record, store, and re-instantiate our minds. It might be centuries before it’s possible, but short of substance dualism or some other ghost in the machine mechanism being true, I think humans will eventually do it. (Assuming we don’t drive ourselves extinct first.)

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  4. Hi Massimo,

    Really enjoyed these last two essays. I have been trying to learn philosophy on my own during graduate studies and writing my thoughts across roughly the same categories you highlighted has helped me make sense of the bigger picture. Here are a few thoughts and questions I had regarding your views.

    Ethics

    Would it be fair to characterize the virtue ethics view as being more about psychological state and conditioning that will lead to more ethical behavior whereas Rawls (or other systems like deontology) as more about generating rules and trying to reason about specific cases?

    I am somewhere in between a Rawlsian social contract, Parfit’s Triple Theory (which would include a version of social contract) and virtue ethics (your writings have influenced me here considerably as well as Sandel). I like the idea of Parfit’s that most moral systems (deontology, consequentialists, and contractarian), even ones that seem to be completely opposed to one another are actually in large agreement. However, I think virtue ethics does answer a fundamentally different concern, how to actually live a moral and meaningful life. I don’t see why that would not be compatible with any of the other moral systems as it says nothing about any specific action is right or wrong or even how to arrive at the conclusion (asides from cultivating virtues but that’s a bit removed).

    Free Will

    >>>You may deny that, but that would leave you with a large number of interesting biological and psychological phenomena that go pretty much unexplained, unaccounted for, or otherwise swept under the (epistemic) carpet.

    What would these be exactly? Can you give me an example?

    I’m not necessarily denying the richer nature of the choices we make compared to say plants and I think our choices are different in degree of complexity and types of choices we can make. I even think it’s helpful in social situations to differentiate actions we consider free will (volition) versus actions we don’t but from my point of view, that is a pragmatic distinction as we can more directly alter actions that fall under the compatiblist notion of free will. Going beyond that pragmatic distinction though, I can’t see “free will” having any special place compared to other complex phenomena in the universe. I’m not sure if that makes me a compatibilist.

    Self-Consciousness

    I agree here that consciousness and self-consciousness (sense of self) is not just an illusion, which seems to be a bizarre trend recently by different people of trying to explain away things (free will is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion). However, I think there is something to be said about how our notion of “self” in the traditional sense can be challenged, just as the libertarian free will notion can be challenged.

    In psychological literature, I know there is research to indicate that we can break down the notion of self into different components, none of which are illusions. This includes a “Self as context”, which you referred to as “who is doing the probing” and “self as content”, which tends to be what our cognitive content about ourselves is filled with. My conversations on this topic with numerous people both professional and personally makes me think that people often conflate the two types of selfs into one or inconsistently use the two. However, if there are really two separate phenomena that we can call “self”, than I think the traditional notion of self needs to be challenged but not by dismissing it as an illusion.

    >>>It should go without saying, but I’m going to spell it out anyway, just in case: none of the above should give any comfort to dualists, supernaturalists and assorted mysticists. I do think consciousness is a biophysical phenomenon, which we have at the least the potential ability of explaining, and perhaps even of duplicating artificially — just not, I am betting, in the way that so many seem to think is about to yield success any minute now.

    I wanted to comment on this because I think it’s a bit misleading. I agree that lack of understanding of consciousness should not give dualist, supernaturalist or mysticists any comfort but not necessarily because we have the potential to explain it scientifically or within a naturalistic conceptualization. Even if we completely fail at explaining consciousness and cannot conceive of an explanation, unless these other so called “competing” views can provide an explanation themselves as opposed to simply declare victory by default, I don’t think we should take them seriously until they do so. This to me seems like the same type of argument that is made in the God of the gaps but switching in dualism, supernaturalism or mysticism of the gaps here.

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  5. A Humean naturalist, a biological naturalist about consciousness, a compatibilist of free will, a quasi-realist in terms of meta-ethics, a believer in justice based on neo-Aristotelian conception of virtue and ethics, and in constant pursuit of eudaimonia.

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  6. Thanks for clearing up what is a very common (in fact almost ubiquitous) misunderstanding of basic Buddhist thought. It seems to be due to a combination of inaccurate and misleading translations of Pali and Sanskrit texts, the subtlety of that thought itself, and the carbon copy nature of a lot of writing on such subjects, that is, the phenomenon in which one or more persons make the original mistake, and later writers just copy what they wrote without bothering to go back and carefully study the original texts (which frankly takes a lot of work–who has time to learn Pali and Sanskrit these days?).

    Sue Hamilton’s Early buddhism: A New Approach is a good reference on this subject.

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  7. At a certain point, I think, this kind of argument comes to an assertion that “I (the arguer) don’t see any reason why we can’t do X at some indefinite point in the future–who knows how many centuries it might take.” Yes, possibly, but one can extend one’s vision so far into the future that there is no way that anyone can possibly come up with any objection. The original arguer just says, “Yes, your objection holds given today’s state of knowledge and technology, but given a limitless future in which knowledge and technology can develop, who knows what might eventually be possible?” And an argument that can’t possibly be objected to is kind of an unfair argument, I think.

    To put it another way, just because one can’t think of a limit to a course of development doesn’t necessarily mean that one won’t eventually be reached. There are two visions of the future: one in which this development has no limit and one in which it might. And as someone or other said–just who is a matter of dispute–“Predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.”

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  8. I agree completely that predictions are perilous. But I think we can put future capabilities into two categories. Those that would require new laws of physics, such as traveling faster than the speed of light, and those that are possible within current physical laws, even if we don’t know how to achieve it. In general, if nature does it, particularly if it does it at energy levels we already have mastery of, then it seems overly skeptical to me to assume we’ll never be able to do it.

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  9. Hi SAP,

    Even if consciousness ends up requiring wet chemical reactions

    I can’t see how it could. I’m just curious if you disagree or if you are only indulging Massimo. Any information processing achieved by chemical reactions can also be achieved by simulation of chemical reactions.

    It might be centuries before it’s possible, but short of substance dualism or some other ghost in the machine mechanism being true, I think humans will eventually do it.

    I’m not so sure. It may be so difficult it will never happen. This has very little bearing on whether computationalism is true.

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  10. I just want to emphasize that computationalism should not be confused with predictions that we will actually have sentient AI or mind uploading. Computationalism is the view that these things are possible in principle. Whether they will ever be realised is another question on which I am agnostic because I have no idea how feasible such projects might be.

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  11. You have a carefully thought out philosophical framework that makes a great deal of sense. You exemplify the truth of these statements:
    ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ – Plato
    ‘Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight’ – Thomas Carlyle
    You examine life with care and bring to it keen insights, which is something we should all be doing. We should all aspire to be well rounded philosophers.

    What I miss in your discussion of ethics is your concept of eudaimonia and telos.

    I smiled when you wrote that you used the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ interchangeably. I always confuse the terms and use them interchangeably.

    Your warning “I am saying that the data from the sciences — at the moment, at least — strongly underdetermine these metaphysical possibilities, so that hard determinists should tread a little more lightly than they typically do.
    should be heeded by all the cock-sure opponents of free will.

    Whenever I read that someone denies the existence of free will, contrary to the evidence of his choice to do just that and in the absence of compelling evidence, I know that strong metaphysical prejudices are in play.

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  12. Animal consciousness requires wet chemical reactions – whether or not all consciousness does is another story.

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  13. The section on Ethics strikes me as the least developed, in relation to the others, so I’d like to push on a few points.

    First, with respect to the following:

    ” I think of moral philosophy as a method of reasoning about human ethical dilemmas, beginning with certain assumptions (more or less analogous to axioms in mathematics, or postulates in logic), plus empirical input (from commonsense and/or science) about pertinent facts…”

    If the question is how we are to justify particular moral judgments and more generally, a moral worldview, then the question of the starting assumptions is crucial, and with what you’ve said here, I don’t see how you avoid running right into the critique offered by McIntyre, in “After Virtue.” The starting assumptions of the pre-modern ethicists — especially Aristotle –would invoke a “thick” (i.e. teleologically characterized) conception of human nature, from which a set of valued dispositions to behave would follow straightforwardly. But if one eschews this starting point, as Modern thinkers do, and start with nothing but a purely material conception of human nature — i.e. your “empirical input from common sense and/or science about pertinent facts” — nothing prescriptive can be validly inferred; i.e. you walk right into the “is/ought” gap. As MacIntyre points out, every single version of Modern moral philosophy has to confront this problem.

    Second, with respect to your admiration for Aristotle and virtue ethics, I really don’t see how you could embrace anything other than a heavily revisionist version of him and it, given your starting assumptions. He has little to nothing to say about the morality of individual actions — because what counts as moderate/virtuous depends on the circumstances, all that one can prescribe is that a person “behave appropriately” — so, all the real work on the moral front is done by practical reasoning and moral perception (the “baked bread” analogy), rather than by theory and general principles. And at the level of what life we should live — what constitutes human flourishing — given that “Eudaimonia” is an inherently functional concept, I don’t see how one could have any sort of substantive account of it, on a purely biological account of human nature, other than, of course, Benthamite Utilitarianism. (The human purpose, as determined by nature, is to survive, pursue pleasure, and avoid pain.)

    We *could* conceive of human nature in teleological terms, even while retaining a purely materialist conception of human nature, if we were to conceive of the self – or personhood – as irreducibly social. This would give us roles and functions that would be intrinsic, yet not commit us to any sort of pre-scientific conception of human nature. I am not sure, however, whether such a conception of personhood would sit well with some of the other ideas that make up your general philosophy, especially the stuff on consciousness, as well as the Rawlsianism.

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  14. Massimo already knows that I largely agree with Hume on ideas of a single unitary conscious self, and halfway agree with Dennett on some of his explanatory items by subselves. This is, of course, why I reject traditional ideas on free will without accepting determinism. Per Dennett (who illogically, unlike someone like Daniel Wegner, doesn’t go that far himself) if there’s no “Cartesian meaner,” there’s no “Cartesian free willer,” or “Cartesian volitioner,” either. As noted before, I say “mu,” in the Zen and Doug Hofstadter sense, to the whole idea of free will VERSUS determinism, as a result. http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/12/mu-to-free-will-vs-determinism-part-2.html

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  15. Hi Massimo,

    Very interested to read the continued summary of your overall worldview. As before, there are few surprises since I’ve been following you for a while, but now we’re getting into more territory where our worldviews divide so there’s plenty to discuss.

    As I began to realise in the commentary on the last post, it seems to me that an awful lot of our differences can be explained with regard to the differences in our attitudes to computationalism, so that’s a topic that is perhaps most interesting to tackle. I am a computer scientist by training, and your discussion of what computers can do seems to me to be naive. For instance, you have at times seemed almost sympathetic to connectionist accounts of consciousness, without seeming to realise that all computational processes can be carried out by any kind of computer hardware, so there is no tension whatsoever between connectionism and computationalism.

    Ethics, meta- and standard

    Overall I find relatively little to disagree with here, apart from what I see as tension between your claim that your sense of wrong is grounded in something stronger than an intuitive revulsion while admitting that what it is grounded in are just assumptions which are ultimately grounded in instinct. I think this is a contradiction. I think that a sense of revulsion is just one of those primate instincts and this is the basis on which morality is built, albeit augmented and refined by reason and reflection in light of evidence.

    I agree with this as a general attitude, but I have no problem admitting that my morality is essentially aesthetic. I think consequentialism is a more distilled, purer basis for morality because it boils everything down to one relatively uncontroversial principle – that it is good to help people and wrong to harm people, all things being equal. This can serve as a basis for virtue ethics because it allows us to justify the virtues in terms of how they promote well-being and limit suffering.

    In particular I agree that for practical purposes virtue ethics may be the best way to think about morality for individuals, while something more directly consequentialist makes more sense for public policy.

    One interesting point I would make is that I think you are wrong to think that moral realism is like Platonism, at least for me. Paradoxically, I hold to moral anti-realism for essentially the same reasons I hold to mathematical realism, because I think realism means two different things in these contexts. Moral realism is the view that there is objective morality, i.e. one objectively correct way to judge right from wrong. My mathematical realism holds that all mathematical systems exist, so there is no one correct mathematical system. I might therefore rephrase my moral anti-realism as the view that all possible moral systems exist, with no one moral system objectively preferable to any other.

    Free will

    We agree at least that libertarianism is incoherent. we also agree that “volition” is a less contentious term than “free will” and since this is the main reason I do not call myself a compatibilist we are perhaps closer than I realised.

    However you also think that the way humans make decisions is fundamentally unlike the way computers make decisions, and while this may be approximately true of typical computer programs (if only because typical computer programs are much simpler than humans) I cannot agree that it is true of all potential computer programs. So our difference on free will is again rooted in our differences regarding computationalism.

    Incidentally, my understanding of Dennett would be that he would not distinguish between the decision-making of a human and that of a sufficiently complicated computer. In fact I would argue that his account of free will is compatible with even current computers making decisions.

    I don’t understand your caveat (ii), that causality plays little to no explanatory role in fundamental physics.

    Self and consciousness

    I don’t think there is a fact of the matter on whether the self exists. It depends what you mean by self and it depends what perspective you adopt when it is discussed.

    I do, however, think that it is very defensible to adopt the attitude that selfhood and consciousness could be illusory, particularly if you accept that machines could be intelligent without being conscious. If we consider a simulation of a human brain, it would believe what a brain believes and simulate all the same thoughts as a brain would think. In particular, it would believe itself to be conscious (I am using the word “belief” here in a consciousness-agnostic sense). Machines have beliefs all the time, but if an unconscious machine believes itself to be conscious, then we can regard this belief as illusory.

    But I, like you, prefer to adopt the stance that consciousness is real. Unlike you, this to me means that computers could in principle be conscious, because I think that the conviction that one’s own consciousness is real while that of a simulated brain is an illusion is untenable. Either both are illusions or neither are, and I prefer neither.

    These materials don’t have to be the ones that happen to characterize earth-bound life, but it is plausible that they just can’t be anything at all.

    And most computationalists don’t argue that we can build a useful computer out of anything at all either. You say life can’t be helium based, but it’s just as true that I can’t build a computer out of helium so I don’t see your point. We can build a computer only out of materials that can be used to process information usefully. If the brain’s purpose is to process information, I don’t see any reason to think that the specific material it is built out of matters as long as it can process information, particularly as the properties of any materials you care to mention can be simulated.

    Elsewhere, you compare the function of the brain to photosynthesis and argue that simulated sugar is not sweet, so why should simulated consciousness be conscious? This is a disanalogy because you can have a test tube full of sugar but not a test tube full of consciousness. Consciousness is not a substance but an abstract property of an information processing system (at least on computationalism — I’m not sure what you would call it). If the “product” of a brain is not a substance but control and coordination, then a simulated brain will fulfil the same function. Simulated sugar is not real sugar, but simulated control is real control (if it is not an oxymoron). If consciousness is a byproduct of this information processing, as it seems to me it must be, then a computer system undertaking the same information processing will be just as conscious.

    Of course, this is ultimately an empirical matter

    Not in my view. Consciousness is not a physical property that we might someday prove with a detector. We could build a computer system that had every outward appearance of consciousness and you still wouldn’t consider the matter settled. In princple, the only way to be certain that a given entity is conscious is if you are that entity (and even then you could be wrong if computationalism is false and you are in fact a simulation of a person).

    see the abysmal failure of the once much trumpeted strong AI program

    Like the dismal failure of medicine to cure all diseases and achieve immortality? Or the dismal failure of philosophy to resolve every philosophical problem, ever? Or the dismal failure of physics to find a Grand Unified Theory?

    I could go on and on. This is a hard problem, and it will take time. It may never be solved. Nevertheless, AI research is making steady progress, and I don’t think you are being fair.

    Do the positions summarized above and in part I of this essay form a coherent philosophical view of things?

    Not in my view. There are a number of tensions if not contradictions in your views that I find it hard to resolve, if I understand you correctly.

    This is essentially a recap of all the problems I find with your views:

    (1) Mathematical objects exist, but they do not exist mind-independently. I do not understand how this can be resolved with your understanding that the same objects can be discovered independently. This is not a case of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, because some mathematical or abstract objects are not modelling the natural world in any meaningful sense, e.g. the game of tic tac toe.

    (2) You agree that mathematical objects can have relations without relata, but you deny that the physical world can be a mathematical object because it doesn’t make sense for it to have relations without relata. I don’t see how this is not circular. If, hypothetically, it were a mathematical object, then it could have relations without relata, so your objection does not make sense.

    (3) You insist that your morality is not founded on feelings such as revulsion, and yet you later concede that it is (ultimately at least) founded on evolved instincts (which I would say include feelings such as revulsion).

    (4) Your naturalism is in tension with your vew that human decision-making is fundamentally unlike the kind of decision-making that might be achieved by a computer. The laws of physics (as far as we know) can be computed, so a computer could in principle make decisions just like a human does by simulating a human brain. Furthermore, you say you agree with Dennett’s account of compatibilist free will, but this account of free will is compatible with decision-making by computers.

    (5) There are (in my view) all kinds of things wrong with your views on computationalism. You compare the products of consciousness to sugar, but you don’t acknowledge that sugar is a substance while consciousness (or the control and coordination it enables) is not. The signals and chemicals produced by a brain can also be produced by a computer with some simple hardware attached, so this is not an adequate response.

    (6) You don’t give much of a positive argument for why a computer could not be conscious, but you do present (dubious) reasons for skepticism. I think this is in tension with your apparent conviction that computationalism is wrong. Agnosticism would seem to be more reasonable.

    (7) As stated before, naturalism would seem to imply that a computer can simulate any natural process, including the operation of a brain. Such a computer would have all the outward appearance of a conscious being. If this is true, this shows a tension between your view that consciousness cannot be an illusion but that such an intelligent entity, believing itself to be conscious, would not actually be conscious.

    (8) Following from 8, naturalism but anti-computationalism means it is possible to have all the outward behaviour of a conscious entity without being conscious. How come we are conscious then? What was the point of evolution producing consciousness if it was not intimately bound with the intelligence of human brains?

    I love discussing these things with you because I don’t yet understand how your viewpoint can be seen as coherent, and I want to. I hold my worldview because it is the most coherent set of positions I can find on these subjects, even if it leads to unintuitive conclusions. Your worldview may be more in line with intuition, but I cannot make sense of the many contradictions I perceive in it.

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  16. Since philo is only locally normed language and mainly academic English, this is interesting:

    “The heritability of cortex thickness increases gradually throughout late childhood and adolescence, with three more uniquely human areas, including circuitry supporting language and thinking, emerging as the most genetically influenced,” explained Jay Giedd, M.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health. “These same increasingly heritable brain areas are also most implicated in mental illnesses, which typically emerge in late adolescence. So the findings may provide insights into the workings of gene-by-environment-by age interactions that underlie the perplexing delayed onset of these disorders.”

    So, if language ability is mainly genetic determined in later adolescence, what does that say for the credibility of philosophical statements….with so much determined, bio-mechanical individual variation in comprehension….?

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  17. I think “possible in principle” depends on what the principle is (or principles are), and whether other principles are discovered in the future. I don’t know what knowledge we will stumble on some day that will turn out to make it clear that something can’t, in principle, be done in fact.

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  18. Hi DM,
    On requiring chemical biology, I can’t see how it could either, but my point was that even if it was, we should eventually be able to deal with that.

    Generally, my guiding rule is that if nature can do it without requiring astronomical energy levels, then we should be able to, eventually.

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  19. I think the real issue with notions of self-consciousness have to do with conflating it with philosophical/theological prejudices about the soul. To me it seems appropriate to compare real mental activity to a rainbow, something that only exists in a certain perspective and not in another. Alternatively, you could say that all consciousness is illusory in the same way persistence of vision is illusory. I don’t think saying this is at all equivalent to saying that mind or ego is worthless or trivial or delusional. (Illusion and delusion are after all separate words for a reason.) But I’m afraid I do think the philosophical insistence to the contrary is another example of philosophy/theology sowing confusion.

    And I’m afraid I also think all varieties of compatibilism and libertarian free will are apologetic constructs aiming to justify notions of moral responsibility derived from religion, law and philosophical prejudice (insofar as this is distinguishable from the rest.) Acts of volition are never free, they have real biological costs and limits. It is certain for example that people cannot choose at will what their sexual response will be, a notorious fact that is fodder for popular literature and drama. The reasoned cultivation of habit is probably the closest to a genuine example of a compatibilist perspective at work. Daily life says to us that the compatibilist view that there really is a “free” will is not very useful, not without a lot of work at least. I don’t think any are actually interested. Perhaps the only real interest in compatibilism is justifying society’s judgments on people for failing to live up to their moral responsibility.

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  20. DM,
    see the abysmal failure of the once much trumpeted strong AI program
    Like the dismal failure of medicine to cure all diseases

    We have made great progress in medicine but none whatsoever in strong AI.
    In medicine we see continuing progress. In strong AI we see none.

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  21. DM,
    Machines have beliefs all the time
    That is such a strange statement. Computers have states and they transition between states according to some well defined algorithm.

    To go from a machine having a state and transitioning between states to having a belief is a massive jump. How do you justify that statement? And what is a belief?

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  22. I said I intended belief in a consciousness agnostic sense. As a software developer yourself, you know well what I mean. If a computer database has my nationality as Irish, the computer database believes or knows that my nationality is Irish. It is in that sense that I use the term, because it is extraordinarily difficult to talk about what information computer systems have access to without using these verbs

    This is not mysterious and it is common usage among computer professionals. If you think it is metaphorical, by all means interpret me to be speaking metaphorically. However, I don’t really think it is metaphorical, because I think beliefs and knowledge are really defined by having access to information. This is simply what I mean by the terms.

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  23. Hi labnut,
    I agree with DM here. Would you say that a complicated but artificial neural-network could have a belief? Would you say that a natural, biological neural-network can have a belief? If there is a difference, what is it?

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  24. I would suggest these principles:
    1. Your mind is the sum total of all the information processing that happens in your brain (your body, actually, but for this argument we can talk about just your brain).
    2. This sum total includes every single physical interaction that happens in your brain. (The butterfly of slightly increased amount of neurotransmitter near one neuron can create the hurricane of deciding to go to McDonalds for lunch instead of SubWay).
    3. It would be physically impossible to model, in anything close to real time, every physical interaction (that’s every particle) in your brain in a computer made up of all the matter of the known universe. (I actually haven’t done this math, but I feel pretty safe about it. Anyone wanna do the math?)
    4. Given the above, when you talk about “uploading your mind” you are talking about modeling some subset of the total information processing capabilities of your brain.
    5. Some subsets are trivial, such as the ability to do simple math (that’s the kind you do in your head).

    So the question becomes what subset will you upload (model)? Will you include the effects of less adrenaline in your system from having donated a kidney? (Does that happen? Just consider a malfunctioning adrenal gland then). Will you include the effect of a periodic surge of caffeine?

    Personally I think it will be far easier to create a human-level intelligence from scratch. Modeling an extant human mind might be an interesting project to see how large a subset we can get in, but will be far too resource-intensive to be useful on any kind of large scale.

    James

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  25. DM,
    progress made in AI, which is very real
    I would love to know what that progress is.

    We can cure a great many diseases. Can you do a great deal of AI? (since you insist on the medicine comparison)

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  26. DM,
    I intended belief in a consciousness agnostic sense
    How is that possible? Belief is a property of consciousness. An unconscious person does not believe anything. His memories are preserved in his brain as chemical states. When he regains consciousness he can examine those states and form beliefs. But in the absence of consciousness he cannot do that.

    If a computer database has my nationality as Irish, the computer database believes or knows that my nationality is Irish
    This where you go wrong. An physical, electronic representation of Irishness is stored in the database. The computer can manipulate and display the codes for Irishness but those codes do not convey any inherent meaning of Irishness to the computer. To the computer the physical representation is just some convenient shorthand that allows manipulation and display. It is only when you or I look at the display that our minds light up with the recognition of Irishness. The computer does not discern meaning, it merely manipulates symbols. We discern the meaning when we look at the display.

    The great mystery of consciousness is that we both store the symbol for Irishness and can by reflective introspection recognise the meaning of Irishness. How is this possible? We don’t know. The computer can only do the first part of this but not the second. When we examine the computer display we supply the second part, understanding the meaning, which the computer cannot do.

    I think beliefs and knowledge are really defined by having access to information.
    Information are merely symbols. It is the application of reflective introspection to the symbols that creates beliefs and knowledge. We can do that but computers cannot.

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  27. If by ‘belief’ you mean propositional attitudes, then at a minimum, in order to be able to believe that P, one must be able to mentally represent the proposition that-P.

    From what I understand from the philosophy of mind literature, no one has been able to give a plausible functionalist account of mental content, which is part of the reason why so many people in the field have abandoned functionalism (of which computationalism is simply a version).

    If by ‘beliefs’ you *don’t* mean propositional attitudes, then you haven’t given a computational account of belief, but rather of shmeliefs, which I would maintain, is not very interesting.

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  28. If you think belief is a property of consciousness, then we simply mean different things by the terms. An unconscious person believes nothing but a computer system does. A computer system can answer the question “What is DM’s nationality”, but an unconscious person cannot.

    “This where you go wrong. ”

    No, this is where our interpretations part ways. There is a difference.

    “The great mystery of consciousness is that we both store the symbol for Irishness and can by reflective introspection recognise the meaning of Irishness. How is this possible? We don’t know.”

    Here’s my answer.

    http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/in-defence-of-strong-ai-semantics-from.html
    http://disagreeableme.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/in-defence-of-strong-ai-meta-meaning.html

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  29. Coel,

    “What justifies those starting assumptions, if they are not ultimately grounded in human opinions and feelings?”

    Just the same as what justifies assumptions in logic and math: once adopted they lead to interesting / positive results. In this case, human flourishing.

    doug,

    “The Buddha never said that there was “no self”; what he consistently said was that the objects of experience could not be identified as the self. That is, his philosophy was one of “not-self” rather than “no-self”.”

    I might go for that, if I understand you correctly, but I’m not sure I do. What do you mean by “objects of experience”? The self is what does the experiencing, but there is also perception of internal states, so in a sense the self is an object of (self) experience.

    “As to the related question of to whom these experiences occur if there is no self, the simple answer from within an early Buddhist context is that they occur to the bundle of five so-called “aggregates” that make up the mind.”

    But that to me simply means they occur to the self, which is just such aggregate (or, in my terminology, emergent property).

    “Insofar as the Buddha was after the denial of any kind of “self” it was the self as substantial, unchanging, and permanent, outside of the ordinary flux of causal conditions.”

    So was Hume (who was reacting to the concept of soul). And I have no beef with that sort of denial.

    SelfAware,

    “If the mind indeed arises from physical operation of the brain, I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t eventually be possible to analyze that physical operation and recreate it, either physically or in a virtual environment”

    Physically, yes; virtually, no. Because of the notion — which I have by now repeated ad nauseam I’m afraid — that I see a fundamental ontological distinction between X and a simulation of X.

    “short of substance dualism or some other ghost in the machine mechanism being true, I think humans will eventually do it.”

    Funny, because I regard computationalism as a type of dualism: the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software. Outside of Christian theology, it hardly gets more dualistic than that.

    imzasirf,

    “Would it be fair to characterize the virtue ethics view as being more about psychological state and conditioning that will lead to more ethical behavior whereas Rawls (or other systems like deontology) as more about generating rules and trying to reason about specific cases?”

    Maybe, though that’s not how I would put it. I think of the two approaches as addressing different ethical questions (as you point out), respectively what is the right life to live, and what is a just society.

    Regarding free will: “What would these be exactly? Can you give me an example?”

    For instance, how would we then make sense of the difference between involuntary and voluntary behavior? I can’t avoid twitching my eyes, say, but I choose whether to have coffee or not in the morning.

    “I’m not necessarily denying the richer nature of the choices we make compared to say plants and I think our choices are different in degree of complexity and types of choices we can make.”

    It’s not only that some choices are more complex, it’s that some behaviors are the result of choices, others aren’t.

    “I think there is something to be said about how our notion of “self” in the traditional sense can be challenged”

    Not sure what you mean. If you mean a permanent, essential, soul-like self, sure, I agree.

    “Even if we completely fail at explaining consciousness and cannot conceive of an explanation, unless these other so called “competing” views can provide an explanation themselves as opposed to simply declare victory by default, I don’t think we should take them seriously until they do so.”

    Agreed.

    labnut,

    “What I miss in your discussion of ethics is your concept of eudaimonia and telos.”

    Thanks for your kind words. However, I don’t think I need a concept of telos, since it doesn’t play a part in my worldview. As for eudaimonia, the Aristotelian view is good enough as a first approximation: it means living a fulfilling, purposeful, moral life. Am I missing something?

    Aravis,

    “The section on Ethics strikes me as the least developed, in relation to the others”

    Well, that’s because the pertinent footnote refers to a 7-part article in Rationally Speaking. Didn’t really want to repeat myself here.

    “The starting assumptions of the pre-modern ethicists — especially Aristotle –would invoke a “thick” (i.e. teleologically characterized) conception of human nature, from which a set of valued dispositions to behave would follow straightforwardly.”

    Well, I believe there is such a thing as human nature, and I do think it’s “thick” enough.

    “and start with nothing but a purely material conception of human nature”

    My conception is purely material. What else could it be?

    “you walk right into the “is/ought” gap”

    No, because the empirical data underdetermine the choice of values, as I pointed out in the essay. So by themselves do not constitute a reduction of ought to is. I see “oughts” in morality, by the way, as best expressed by if … then type of statements. If you wish to build a just society … then. If you wish to allow people to flourish … then. And so forth.

    “with respect to your admiration for Aristotle and virtue ethics, I really don’t see how you could embrace anything other than a heavily revisionist version of him and it”

    Correct. Which is why I label myself a neo-Aristotelian. I reject Aristotle’s telos (see above), as well as a number of his specific views (on women, slavery, etc.).

    “given that “Eudaimonia” is an inherently functional concept, I don’t see how one could have any sort of substantive account of it, on a purely biological account of human nature, other than, of course, Benthamite Utilitarianism”

    Well, modern virtue ethicists think they do, and I agree. Again, I don’t see why biology is a problem here, not to mention that I see human nature as a complex interplay of biology and culture, not just reducible to the first.

    DM,

    this is going to disappoint you, but you’ve got to be kidding, my friend! You’ve written a whopping 2,000 word response to my essay. I can’t possibly engage with it point by point, first because I don’t have the time; second because I don’t want this forum to be monopolized by a one-on-one between the two of us; and third because of course in my mind I have already addressed most of your points. If you want to try again and be more focused and coincide, I’ll be happy to oblige…

    steven,

    “I think the real issue with notions of self-consciousness have to do with conflating it with philosophical/theological prejudices about the soul. To me it seems appropriate to compare real mental activity to a rainbow, something that only exists in a certain perspective and not in another.”

    I agree with your first point, but rainbows simply conjure far too epiphenomenalist a view for my taste. For me self and consciousness are more interesting than an epiphenomenon. But maybe that’s not what you meant.

    “I’m afraid I also think all varieties of compatibilism and libertarian free will are apologetic constructs aiming to justify notions of moral responsibility derived from religion”

    Not at all, at the least not in my case. I think there is an important sense in which I am responsible (and therefore should get blame or praise) for aspects of my behavior. If I choose a bad book to read before going to bed, I justifiably blame myself for the choice. I can’t blame myself if my knee jumps because something hits it and triggers a reflex. Even simply from a pragmatic perspective, if blame and praise change behaviors (and they do), then we are justified in distributing them quite regardless of whatever underlying metaphysics one may wish to develop.

    “Acts of volition are never free, they have real biological costs and limits.”

    Correct, but those are constraints, not absolute determinants. Again, think of the difference between choosing a book and raising your knee in reflex.

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  30. A lot does depend on how granular you have to go to make a functional copy of the mind. If mapping the connectome, the neurons and synapses and their strength, along with some adrenal mechanics, is enough, then I think uploading can be done with foreseeable technology. (It’s definitely more complicated than how I’m saying it here in the name of brevity.)

    But if fidelity requires accuracy down to the atomic level, then I’d agree that mapping it into a virtual environment is probably hopeless. (From what I understand, most neuroscientists don’t think this is likely.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can build a replacement brain and copy the data into it, only that you couldn’t usefully run that copy in a virtual environment.

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  31. Massimo wrote:

    “No, because the empirical data underdetermine the choice of values, as I pointed out in the essay. So by themselves do not constitute a reduction of ought to is. I see “oughts” in morality, by the way, as best expressed by if … then type of statements. If you wish to build a just society … then. If you wish to allow people to flourish … then. And so forth.”

    —-

    If this is what you mean, then you are traveling pretty far away from what is commonly understood by ‘obligation’ and by a theory of obligation. I mean, anyone can “wish” anything they want…nothing follows from that as to what *ought* to be the case, in the commonly understood sense of ‘ought’. And it’s pretty hard to see how one preserves the normativity of moral judgments and imperatives on a view like this.

    There is the further problem that only the Benthamite conception of value can be plausibly “read off” of the purely biological description of human nature. All the other potential values and norms that one looks to ethical theory to ground — say, justice or liberty or “flourishing” — cannot plausibly be grounded in a purely biological description of human nature.

    You ask “what else could it be” with respect to our self-description and the answer, of course, as MacIntyre points out, is that we could treat persons as irreducibly social – that is as being partly defined by the social connections of individuals. This would provide a more substantial basis, in human nature, for grounded the values and norms you’d like to ground, in human nature, without abandoning a materialist ontology (presumably, the existence of social facts while not reducible to facts of biology, nonetheless do not commit us to any sort of metaphysical dualism). I suggested this in my previous reply, but wondered if it would sit well with some of the other commitments you want to make, specifically, re: the Self and also, re: Rawlsianism.

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  32. “Funny, because I regard computationalism as a type of dualism”
    Actually, I totally agree with this. It’s why I was careful to say “substance dualism”. In my view, it’s this type of dualism (property dualism?, hardware/software dualism?) that makes uploading at all plausible.

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  33. Hi again Massimo,

    “What do you mean by “objects of experience”? The self is what does the experiencing, but there is also perception of internal states, so in a sense the self is an object of (self) experience.”

    The Buddha, like Hume, would not say that the self was one of the objects of experience: the self is instead a kind of cognitive construct out of those objects. Now, on your terms that might make it a kind of ’emergent property’, although not one that is experienced.

    It would be simplest perhaps simply to identify the self with the bundle of five aggregates, as I think you suggest doing. (I’m not quite sure). But the Buddha explicitly rejects this move, I think because within his context again the self (ātman) was something that was unchanging, permanent, etc., and the aggregates are basically a causally connected bundle of mental and physical events.

    As you note, the Buddha’s picture of the self is quite similar to Hume’s, who also said that one could not find a self among the furniture of the mind. Though to be fair the Buddha’s ‘self’ was thicker in certain respects than Hume’s, in that it was the origin and target of karmic reward and punishment. This is an aspect of Buddhism that nowadays many of us would be inclined to reject, at least in its more supernatural respects, of course, but it goes against the notion that the Buddha said there was “no self”. Without some sort of self, at least a thin sort, there would be no possible ground for ethical reward or punishment, which the Buddha clearly believed there was.

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  34. Dear Massimo,

    In reply to: “What justifies those starting assumptions [of morality], if they are not ultimately grounded in human opinions and feelings?”:

    Just the same as what justifies assumptions in logic and math: once adopted they lead to interesting / positive results. In this case, human flourishing.

    The concepts of being “interesting” or “positive” and of humans “flourishing” can only be grounded in human opinions and feelings. (Which is of course not a criticism since the only conception of morals that makes the slightest sense is that they are about human opinions and feelings.)

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  35. (5) There are (in my view) all kinds of things wrong with your views on computationalism. You compare the products of consciousness to sugar, but you don’t acknowledge that sugar is a substance while consciousness (or the control and coordination it enables) is not. The signals and chemicals produced by a brain can also be produced by a computer with some simple hardware attached, so this is not an adequate response.

    I think the meaning of the word simulation is the issue here. If I create an apparatus that can take light, carbon dioxide, and water and turn it into sugar, did I simulate photosynthesis? Or did I just make sugar?

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  36. Very nicely done piece, Massimo. If I said I like it more than part I, that would only be because most would agree that each of the topics is in many ways intricately related to the others and because they are topics that arise almost daily in our lives.

    Well, maybe not free will per se. But it is, nevertheless, standing off-stage to cue the actors when they forget some of their lines.

    I’m afraid I’m less invested in particular positions here than some others. But . . .

    Where we probably have some differences is regarding “consciousness.” and “self.” Unlike you, given the choice between the two definitions you quoted from Merriam-Webster, I prefer the second even while acknowledging that each of the four characteristics given are open to further discussion and taken alone may not be adequate to the task. The first has more to do with “self”-consciousness, and I take your opening sentence in the following paragraph to be at least tacit admission of this difference.

    Regarding “self” I have less problem with Hume’s position or Buddhist positions and so appreciate the clarification of the latter by doug1smith and zenner41. In “The Big Lebowski,” the Dude may “abide,” but not without difficulty. It is a self-conceptualization that he tries to cling to without much success as the events unfold. To describe this realization as reducing to illusion or confabulation is an oversimplification of Buddha’s position, though they play roles. I would envision Buddha as suggesting that a view of self as something persistent or enduring to be a mistake resulting from conceptual limitation. Of course, I have no real problem with someone dismissing this as nonsense, but I am more inclined to see it as a problem that results from trying to describe what in fact can only be practiced and ultimately can only be attested to in an anecdotal manner at this point in our history.

    Perhaps closely related to the notion of self or personal identity is your annoyance with “the latest fashion of denying or grossly discounting” rationality. Not that I don’t find a simplistic reliance on confabulation and biased-thinking as a position of last resort when engaged in everyday discussions to be annoying, even when I resort to them. But I do find the subject fascinating both as a bystander and as a participant, particularly in the context of beliefs.

    There is reason to think that the difficulty of getting someone to change a belief, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence that a held belief is irrational/wrong/incorrect/immoral, is related to the importance of the belief as reflective of the other’s supposed and rigid sense of self-image or identity. If the change in belief would entail a significant change in self-image, evidence against the belief results in a back-fire effect regardless of the weight of the evidence.
    Granted, I imagine I’m not providing news to you or many of the readers here. And there does seem to be some circularity involved here, lots of chicken and egg differential to explore.

    Mostly, though, with respect to most of your positions, we are probably residents of the same neighborhood, perhaps live on the same street, though occasionally I mistake your residence for mine and you have to escort me home. 🙂

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  37. I don’t think that Merriam-Webster should be considered the authority on the definition of Libertarianism.

    I doubt that anybody thinks that there are no prior causes, just that we are the cause and that we could have done otherwise.

    Here is what I think is the best, most rigorous definition of Libertarianism from C D Broad:

    We are now in a position to define what I will call “Libertarianism.” This doctrine may be summed up in two propositions.

    Some (and it may be all) voluntary actions have a causal ancestor which contains as a cause-factor the putting-forth of an effort which is not completely determined in direction and intensity by occurrent causation.
    In such cases the direction and the intensity of the effort are completely determined by non-occurrent causation, in which the self or agent, taken as a substance or continuant, is the non-occurrent total cause. Thus, Libertarianism, as defined by me, entails Indeterminism, as defined by me; but the converse does not hold.

    C D Broad Determinism, Indeterminism and Libertarianism

    He calls it “self-evidently impossible”, but I think that non-occurrent causation, as he describes it, is not impossible, certainly not mathematically impossible as far as I can see.

    Whether or not our minds work that way is another matter.

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  38. Then let me talk of schmeliefs in order to make my points and we’ll leave the question of whether schmeliefs and beliefs are the same thing for another time.

    Computer systems have shmeliefs which are states which correspond to propositions in some way. These shmeliefs can be true, in which case they might be regarded as shmowledge, or they may be false in which case they might be regarded as shmistakes, perhaps consisting in a persistent shmillusion.

    Or we can just drop the pointless use of “shm”.

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  39. mpigliucci: “I do think consciousness is a biophysical phenomenon, which we have at the least the potential ability of explaining, and perhaps even of duplicating artificially … We still lack a good philosophical account (let alone a scientific theory, whatever that would look like) of causality itself. … I am a compatibilist (as opposed to both a hard determinist and a hard incompatibilist) because … I’m sure that comes as no surprise given my long standing rejection of supernaturalism.
    Do the positions summarized above and in part I of this essay form a coherent philosophical view of things?”

    Of course, the above is a very coherent philosophical position, and I agree with it 99%. The 1% difference comes from the fact that you did not address the issue of ‘ontological tunneling’. Although this is a term coined by me, but there are many examples available for thousands years. This is an issue of ‘how to determine whether a statement (or a framework) is true or not’. Although the term ‘epistemology’ connotes many meanings in addition to the ‘determining the truth’, let me borrow it for this narrowed meaning here.

    The issues of ethics, free will, the self, and consciousness are way beyond the reach of ‘science-epistemology’ which ‘mainly’ consists of interplay of theory and testing (contacting data, based often on paradigm biased test designs) and the principle of falsifiability. Science is thus far super successful, but in an analogy, its epistemology is like a dental-drill, capable of doing many great fine-jobs. But, for the mammoth jobs (such as free will, self and consciousness), science can only exclude them (at least a big part of them) from its scope because that science lacks (at least on a ‘formal’ level) the following epistemological ‘tools’.

    One: Principle of ‘necessary true’; every language (including the mathematics) has two personalities.
    First, it is a large complex system and has internal structure, that is, it has laws and theorems for that structure. And there is a “Large Complex System Principle” (LCSP) — there is a set principles which govern all large complex systems regardless of whatever those systems are, a number set, a physics set, a life set or a vocabulary set.

    Second, it acts as a symbolic representation to describe a system (of not itself), that is, its function is as a language. In this language capacity, it is ‘neutral’, not carrying any true/false value. When a system is ‘described’ with a language (an equation), it (the system) is ‘necessary true’ if that language is proven to be true by some means (testing data, reasoning or the else). Of course, the ‘language’ is necessary true if the ‘system’ which is described by that language is an established knowledge. These two form the principle of ‘necessary true’. In general, science has accept (informally) the first part of this principle but not the second part.

    Two: Principle of ‘cosigning’, contacting a-knowledge: we now have many established (anchored) knowledge (a-knowledge), and they form an a-knowledge web. When a statement (or a framework) is making ‘contact’ to this a-knowledge web, it must be contingently true.

    Three: Principle of similarity, tiers (vertical); I (or we) accept that this universe is built with ‘similarity-transformations’ with tiers. If one thing is a concrete fact at one tier (such as consciousness), it should have a corresponding ‘representation’ at all other tiers. Thus, if a statement (or framework) at other tier is ‘linked’ to a concrete fact of different tier, it must be contingently true even without any supporting ‘data’.

    Four: Principle of large-complex-system, lateral; Corollary of LCSP (CLCSP) — the laws or principles of a “large complex system x” will have their correspondent laws and principles in a “large complex system y.” Thus, if a statement of discipline X is linked to a ‘fact’ (proved knowledge) of discipline Y, then X must be contingently true.

    Five: Principle of Ontological tunneling; we all heard about the quantum tunneling which moves a quantum particle into different vacua, that is, a change in degree, not in kind. On the other hand, the ontological tunneling tunnels into different kind. The following is a short list of the examples.

    a. Godel process: infinitum of contradictions which finally tunnels into an imminent life system (see “Linguistics Manifesto”, ISBN 978-3-8383-9722-1).
    b. Paradoxes tunnel into unified higher truths (see “The Divine Constitution”, ISBN 9780916713065).
    c. Buddhism methodology: emptying to produce ‘ultimate emptiness’ which tunnels into ‘final and solid reality’.
    d. The Chinese ying-yang: the ying can tunnel into yang, and vice versa.

    With this ontological tunneling, the causal-incompleteness issue will be no more. And, “free will, the nature of the self, and consciousness” can be discussed empirically, not only on the conceptual level anymore.

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