Sunday, January 21, 2018

Knowledge and Belief

I wonder if, I suspect, I believe, I know

Every thinker must have moments where one wonders if some bizarre idea that one has never thought of before could actually be true. Sometimes the notion is quickly forgotten  and dropped, perhaps sometimes it stays in her mind for a while. The possible number of metaphysical or theological ideas that are of this type must be enormous, especially to those who do not adhere to any particular religion. I recall that the late Stephen J Gould commented somewhere that anyone could think of a dozen different plausible religions “before breakfast”, and I think that is true for some people with active and questioning minds.

I want to suggest that the title of this post represents a sort of spectrum of thoughts about the absolute nature of things, ranging from the willingness to briefly consider an idea up to “knowing” that some idea is true.

Let me plunge ahead into an example that will illustrate what I mean. Take the supreme question that dogs all of serious human thought, that of whether there is a God. (Let’s not worry for the moment about whether such a question refers to a coherent being). We know that humans in the western world generally have a high degree of belief that there is such a transcendent being. Many would defend or justify their belief as being based on a “faith” that such a being exists, and many would feel that the significance of their lives is centered on this “faith”, even going so far as to say that they have an actual personal relationship with this God.

No doubt there are some---perhaps an extreme minority--that might say they only “suspect” that some kind of a being fitting the generally accepted notion of “God”  exists, stopping far short of an actual belief in it. Or, some (atheists and agnostics) might at times “wonder if” there could be something to the idea.

I am pretty sure that a sizable percentage of those professing belief would even go so far as to say they “know” that such a being exists. But I want to say that they really do not “know”, while admitting that it would be reasonable for some to say that they “believe” that God exists.

In much the same way, there are those of the mirror image who (1) insist that they know that there is no such being, or (2) believe that there is no such being, or (3) suspect that there is no such being, or (4) wonder about there being no such being. This last category might refer to a person who was raised in, and continues in, some religious tradition, but has occasional doubts that flit through his or her mind.

I was in a small gathering of philosopher friends a few days ago, and I floated the idea that consciousness is so mysterious, and seemingly so deeply imbedded in the universe (e.g., as suggested by quantum mechanics), that perhaps, as far as we know, ones consciousness continues in some unimaginable manner upon death. One of my friends insisted that no, oblivion follows death of a human. Now from where I sit, this certainly could be true, and it would very likely be the belief of the majority of people in the Western world that are professional scientists or philosophers. But of course this is not an issue to be decided by majority vote.

I insist that none of them really “know” that oblivion follows death. (it is such an odd thing that they would only “know” the truth of the opposite if, when they die, they find their consciousness somehow still intact).

I think it will be clear from what I have written above that I do not deem “faith” to be a valid way of acquiring knowledge, or of validating ideas. Faith, if it has an rational meaning at all, refers to a way of trying to make ones belief a constant mental attitude in spite of the vicissitudes of happenings in actual life.

One could cite examples of things we can say we “know” are true. For example, the fact that the sun rises in the east. But this is not known only as a result of experience, but is strongly supported by the model of the earth in an orbit around the sun. In other words, there is a highly coherent model that super-cedes the mere observational fact, and makes it virtually certain. To doubt this fact would really be proof of insanity, assuming that one has some minimal level of exposure to the idea of the solar system.

So as we humans go about our lives, we necessarily have to hold certain beliefs, although with varying degrees of certainty. Without such a set of beliefs, it seems unlikely that we could act or accomplish anything. Some of these beliefs are no doubt often of a metaphysical, or a religious kind, and hence are beliefs about an unseen world. I suspect that many of these might be better described as hope or fears. Probably many of these beliefs are not essential to our lives, and perhaps not even consciously examined to any great extent. Many of them will change over the course of our lives.ß

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Set of Beliefs on Interesting Questions

I am pretty sure that each of us humans carry around with us a set of beliefs, each with varying degrees of certainty, about the truth of certain of life’s “Big Questions” (or in some cases these might be more properly called “Interesting Questions”). Is there a God?, is there an afterlife?, Are UFOs real?, and so on. In some cases, ones belief about each of these is well thought out, while there are no doubt some that have not been consciously considered. Surely, there are some that have not even been thought of at all.

In any case, one must realize that the degree of knowledge and intelligence varies to an enormous extent across the span of the human race. In some cases, a particular human might have expertise on a particular subject that allows him or her to make a highly informed opinion (however, that does not necessarily mean it is highly likely to be right).
For most of the questions considered here, nobody knows whether the answer is a definite “yes” or “no”. I thought it would be an amusing exercise to consider  a set of certain “Big” questions, and muse on them myself to arrive at a qualitative and (hopefully) honest opinion about the truth or falseness of each.

I emphasize that my answers are subjective. I do not claim to have any special knowledge pertaining to most of these questions, and I offer my opinion in a spirit of humility. I do not wish to offend anyone with my takes on these.

There are of course a great many additional, important questions that can be asked. I am under no delusion that these constitute a “complete set”.

In what follows, I consider UFOs, NDEs, the existence of God and/or an afterlife, Artificial intelligence, cyborgs, nuclear war, meteor impact, life on other planets, the origin of human consciousness, the odds we are living in a simulation, plus a number of other issues.

These question are in no particular order. 

  • Have we been visited by Aliens; are UFOs alien spacecrafts?
I believe this is extremely unlikely. What appear to be habitable planets are too far away for the distance to be traversable by alien crafts subject to the limitations of light speed. Also, consider the likelihood that, if there were such aliens, why would they deem the human race to be worthy of such close examination? We wouldn’t depart from an expensive and important voyage of our own to investigate, say, an anthill, would we?

But lets admit that if we do have, or have had, alien life forms on Earth it would be stupendously exciting news, probably by far the biggest news of all time. Because of this, I suspect wish fulfillment inclines so many people to fervently believe in UFOs, alien visits, etc.

Furthermore, the vast percentage of humans are unreliable witnesses. This includes military and civilian pilots, and even astronauts, who testify that they have direct experience of UFOs.

Regarding the widespread belief that the US government is hiding remains of an alien craft (and associated alien bodies) that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico many years ago: as with any “conspiracy theory”, the odds that if there really was a such a crash of an alien craft, so many people would be involved in the “cover up” that it would be bound to come out into the public. And furthermore, why would the US government want to hide such an occurrence from the American people?

So, I am inclined to believe the official version, namely, that the incident was a crash of a weather balloon.

  • Are “Near Death Experiences” (NDEs) real?--i.e., are  they an indication there is a life beyond this one?
I am very skeptical that these are real, and not some illusion created by, or in, a dying brain. For one thing, I have never heard a metaphysical or theological argument explaining (or justifying) how God (or the Gods) would be motivated to give some nearly dying humans a preview, or a peek, into “heaven”. I suspect the apparently widespread belief in these, and the large amount of literature about them, is motivated by wishful thinking, since they are always offered as proof of a life beyond the present one.

The persons claiming to have experienced these transcendent events could be (1) simply lying in order to, for example, sell a book about it, or (2) imagining the event, being partly confused, unconscious, or otherwise deluded by their mental state at the time the “near death” event occurred.

In conclusion, I do not believe NDEs have any objective reality, and they are not proof of a life beyond the present one.

  • Is there intelligent, conscious, advanced life in the Universe outside of Earth?
I do not have a strong belief here either way. Part of me is inclined to think that the answer is almost certainly “yes”. This is because we now know that life is (at least partly) a biochemical phenomena, and these or similar chemicals are bound to be richly distributed throughout the entire universe. Once life takes hold, Darwinian evolution would take place, and quite possibly, on a time scale of perhaps a billion years, result in intelligent life.

But on the other hand, we just do not have any quantitative idea as to what the probability of life forming is; this probability is a multiplicative factor in the well known “Drake equation”, which purports to estimate the probability of a planet having life. Along those lines, we could imagine this probability being sufficiently small so that there would be no life predicted to be anywhere else. So, if our planet turns out to house the only life in the entire universe (or even multiverse?), not only would that be amazing, but also a bit scary. Maybe even a bit depressing to some of us.

Of course, one has to distinguish conscious, intelligent life from purely macrobiotic, non sentient life. I am restricting myself to the former, since Darwinian evolution would surely eventually lead to intelligent life.

One must also acknowledge the (remote?) possibility that life here was seeded by a supernatural, one-time, interaction with a supernatural entity. Or, as some SciFi writers (e.g., A. C. Clark in 2001) have suggested, seeded or started by some highly advanced alien civilizations.

In conclusion, I am going with a “yes” here to this question--- i.e., there is likely to be conscious life elsewhere in the universe. But we will in all likelihood never confront it, or interact with it in any way.

  • Will the human race create AGI?
Here the “G” refers to generalized intelligence, which would go beyond just a robot-like mechanical capability. It would involve deep understanding on the part of the AGI platform, and probably even consciousness. The character ‘Data” in Star Trek the Next Generation would represent the AGI idea quite well. (see the episode “The Measure of a Man” for an emotional and gripping depiction of the issues associated with this idea).

I have no strong view either way on this question. I have several young, bright friends who strongly believe that AGI will be created “soon”. But there are highly intelligent skeptics as well.

The downside to such AGI creations is well known: these creatures might, once they attain maturity and sufficient numbers, take one look at the history and behavior of the human race, and decide that we are a huge mistake, and quickly move to eliminate us from the planet.

In effect I will take a “pass” on this one, even though I am inclined toward the skeptic side.

  • Will we enter a post human phase where AGI machines and biological human bodies are combined in some manner (for example, like Star Trek’s “Cyborgs)?
This one seems easy to answer, since this “bio-mechanical” phase is already well underway. Artificial limbs, and even artificial organs, are almost commonplace, and are surely bound to become even more so.

I must add that it seems unlikely that artificial brains will be installed, since, as understood at the present time, the brain is what determine individual identity.

  • Is consciousness generated entirely within and by the brain, or is the brain (acting as an antenna) and picking it up from a pervasive consciousness “field” of some kind?
It is not clear to me that this question can be answered scientifically, partly because consciousness does not seem to be objectively observable. But it does not appear that anyone, even among the most hardened materialists, have any idea how the gray matter alone would generate consciousness (this of course does not rule out there being such a mechanism).

The internet abounds with sites claiming that the brain is an antenna, picking up consciousness from a field. Some of these sites appear to be rather “kooky” New Age sites, but that is not true for all.

I don’t know which is right. So I am going with a “tie”, even though I slightly incline to the “brain as an antenna” idea.

  • Is there a God (or gods)?
This is surely the most important metaphysical question confronting all humans, one we must surely all begin to answer to ourselves in some early phase of adult life. Of course, we must acknowledge that many people the world over are taught, virtually from infancy, that the answer is “yes’, and quite often such people seem to retain this belief their entire life, without, it would seem, ever questioning it.

Now consider the term “God” (or Gods). Here there is a lot of ambiguity, or lack of clarity, as to what we mean by the concept. So let’s restrict ourselves to a God along the lines of that of the Abrahamic religions. Basically, this would be a Being (admittedly unimaginable to the human brain) infinitely good, infinitely powerful, and infinitely wise, that made the Universe.

Well, I really do not know about all of that. But I must quickly add that I do believe something of the sort in that I believe in a transcendent being that had something to do with the creation, or the existence of, physical reality, and that such a Being is on the whole good, and cares about humans (maybe even cares about all living creatures in the universe).

Why? Well, I am sure it has part to do with my upbringing in a Christian family, which I radically broke from in my mid teenage years. It might have even more to do with my particular emotional makeup, whereby I do not think I can bear facing a universe where there is no transcendent realm and/or transcendent being, only the brute physical (and uncaring) materialistic, physical realm. So I admit I have a huge bias here, in that I very much want God to exist.

Of course, this question has a lot to do with whether there is an afterlife. I suppose it is possible to believe there is a God, but no afterlife. But my impression is that this view is rare these days, although it seems likely that the Hebrew Old Testament writers, who definitely believed in God’s existence, had no concept or belief in an afterlife or a “heaven”. Personally, I tend to believe that if there is, in some sense, a God, then there is an afterlife for all rational beings, here and elsewhere (non human animals pose difficult issues, and I will not go into that here).

From circumstantial evidence alone, I am inclined to agree with Scott Adam’s avatar in God’s Debris (a free book on the internet) that very few people actually do believe in God’s existence. They may say they do, but Adams’ avatar points out that there are many advantages to saying they believe (sometimes even fooling themselves).

Before leaving this issue, I must mention the controversial “Pascal’s Wager”, whereby Blaise Pascal presented an argument that you really could not lose by believing in God. I will not go into any details on this argument here, because it would take me too far afield to do so. For those especially interested in it, a vast amount of material about it can be found on the web. But I will just say here that I find Pascal’s argument completely unconvincing, and I believe there are a great many fallacies wrapped up in it.

  • Is there life after death?; Does our consciousness continue on after our bodily death?
It might be noted that these are slightly different questions. For example, ones consciousness might continue on after death, but not necessarily in a form that would, in common sense terms, constitute a continuation of an individual’s life. There is a question of whether the individual’s identity is carried over in the transition, for example.

My strong suspicion is that one cannot really escape from conscious existence, even through suicide (Hamlet’s soliloquy is very insightful on this). I am strongly driven toward the idea that all individuals (not just human individuals, perhaps those in other galaxies also) have some kind of permanent soul, which has eternal existence. If this were to be true, then the answer to the question is necessarily “yes”.

This question is closely related to the question whether there is a God/Gods or not, since if there is, it would seem likely (at least if the God is anything like the traditional model) that this God/Gods has arranged for a more permanent existence of his creatures.

Now this brings up the issue of whether there could possibly be some kind of judgment by God on the worthiness of an individuals life, and an associated consignment to a “bad place” (Hell) or a “good place” (Heaven). I completely reject as a lie the view that bad people go to “Hell”, a place of eternal suffering. Belief in that would be an affront to God (if he exists), because even a partially morally good Being would never subject a conscious creature to such everlasting punishment.

Now, if the punishing environment were of finite duration, that might be different. One can surely think of a great many people that would seem to deserve punishment for some finite time interval, perhaps with the punishment ceasing at such time that the evildoer truly repents in his/her “heart” (as would presumably be known to “God”).

Let’s buy, for the sake of argument, that there is a “heaven” (roughly in the traditional sense of the term in the Abrahamic religions) for humans. What could this be like? Could the inhabitants still do evil things (and maybe be “thrown out”?). Can natural disasters still occur that might result in the “second death” of some? What would prevent an individual from growing weary of such “blissful existence” after eons of time in heaven? Could a person who was deemed “good” upon admission eventually be corrupted and become morally bad? Would the inhabitants have “free will”?

These are all very difficult questions, and so much so that they render the entire concept of heaven dubious and perhaps even incoherent.

In conclusion, I believe it likely that in some way a person’s identity and consciousness continue on after death, but I have no idea what kind of existence this might be.

  • Are we likely to be living in a “simulated” world, as many have suggested to be the case?
This is a very difficult, perhaps unanswerable question, and I warn the reader that it will not be answered satisfactorily here.

Many brilliant scientists and philosophers have considered this question, many of them holding that the world as we know it is almost certainly a simulated one. Even though the arguments that lead them to that conclusion seem sound (or at least plausible), I must admit that I have a great deal of trouble imagining it to be true. What we think of as reality just seems “too real” to me.

Now, it should be realized that the Abrahamic religions (as well as some others) argue that the world was created by a transcendent being (or beings), and that, in that view, the world would be a type of simulated world. It is my understanding that these religions imagine the world we all know will “pass away”, and perhaps be replaced by a new world (another simulated world?).

This even brings up the question of what would a simulated world even mean.?
Many fictional works, both films and novels, depict convincing  visions of how reality could be simulated. For example, Vanilla Sky, Total Recall, the Matrix, , the “Holideck” of Star Trek, are films that depict it. Phillip Jose Farmer’s River World and Terry Schott’s The Game (a free Kindle book) are a couple of examples of books that involve technological simulation of worlds.

  • Will we be able to learn how life on earth started , assuming it started via natural processes?
Hmmmm....I wonder if anyone really cares about the answer to this question except for (1) ardent religious scoffers and militant atheists, who argue that life does NOT require supernatural intervention to begin, and (2) evolutionary biologists, who, as scientists, are quite rightly are obsessed with how such an amazing phenomena such as life could have spontaneously arisen. 

  • Will we ever be able to travel to other worlds?
This seems to require that we find a way to exceed the speed of light? (such as by using wormholes, as depicted in Star Trek and other Sci Fi works.

  • Can we (the human race) create consciousness artificially?
I have argued above, and elsewhere on this blog, that we do not have any way to determine if a system is conscious or not. This is because consciousness is entirely subjective, and only known to the system itself.

But if the platform (i.e., AI system) seems conscious, and for example, passes the Turing test, we will surely have to, on moral grounds, assume it is conscious, since to assume otherwise to result in evil consequences if we have assumed wrongly.

I am inclined to think that no, we will not artificially create consciousness. But we may be forced to act as if we have.

  • Will we learn, or come up with a plausible answer to the metaphysical question, “why is there something instead of nothing?”.
I do not see how the methods of science can be used to answer this question, which is indeed one of the most perplexing questions we human can imagine. Seemingly, any plausible answer would have to assume the existence of laws of reality, thus being circular.

The psychologist William James considered this question, and felt that it was the “darkest” question that the human mind could consider. I believe that somewhere the philosopher Heidegger wrote that this question is the most important philosophical question.
However, can I please direct my readers to my previous blog post, where I suggested an answer based an eternal, necessarily existing, abstract realm of ideas, a plausible answer that avoids any circularity.

  • Will the human race become something like the cyborgs depicted in Star Trek?
Well, the essence of those creature in Star Trek is that they are designed to only care about “the herd”, or the collective set of all the cyborgs. That is, they do not seem to have the concept of individual identity (as I recall, there is one exception to this).

The culture of the human world, at the present time, seems to have a considerable amount of momentum in the collectivist direction, especially among those on “the Left”. It is to hoped, however, that this will soon be reversed, and the world culture will continue along the line of the individualism of the Enlightenment. So hopefully the human race will avoid the collectivism of the Star Trek cyborgs.

But the other aspect of the cyborgs is that some of their biological organs have been replaced by technological ones. As discussed above, I do feel that that will come to pass in the future of humanity.

  • Will the human race be exterminated, or made to revert to a primitive, stone age-like, existence, due to nuclear war, asteroid/meteor impact, AGI attacks, or disease? 

I am confident that the human race will make it past what Carl Sagan called the period of technological adolescence, and will thereby avoid a “Dr. Strangelove”-like nuclear extermination. However, some of these other dire effects are probably beyond human control, at least for the near future (we do not have any way to “steer” meteors away from a collision path with earth, for example).

It is to be hoped that by the time asteroid impact becomes a threatening issue, earthlings will have the means to direct it away from earth.

The disease pandemic is of course a real concern. I do not have any idea how likely it is, on a global scale, but of course I hope it never happens.

Many science pundits believe that AGI poses a huge threat to the human race. However, my personal feeling is that, unless some or all of these platforms are programmed to attack humans, they will never actually achieve consciousness, and hence will be unable to make a decision to wipe us out.

Friday, January 5, 2018

“Why does the the Universe Exist”?

A wild speculation as to why “There is Something Rather Than Nothing”?
(that is, “Why does the the Universe Exist”?, the “ultimate question)

The basic ideas in this approach:

That there is a timeless, non-physical realm of mathematical and logical relationships. These are relationships that do NOT need any kind of physical realm to be realized in. For example, the axioms and theorems of Euclidean geometry are true, and do not need any kind of a matrix of realized things to be true. “Pi” is the ratio of the circumference of a perfect circle to its diameter in any possible reality. This idea has been discussed by Roger Penrose, for example, who has called himself a “tri-alist instead of a dualist, because he believes in this third, abstract realm of ideas (the other two being (1) the materialistic universe, and (2) the realm of conscious beings. Rather along the lines of Descartes and his famous “dualism”.) . Of course, Plato also seemed to believe in this realm, and his belief would run counter to his teacher Aristotle’s view that the mathematical relations are merely abstracted from observations made in the physical world, and no have no basis or reality otherwise.

Here I am thinking along the lines of Max Tegmark, who, if I understand him, says that it is not at all odd that our mathematical concepts work to describe the physical world: It is not odd, because, in a very real sense, the physical world IS mathematics. Now what this would mean, exactly, I m not sure, but I can at least imagine that is true in some sense. After all, we are thinking loosely, creatively, and to some extent poetically. This subject can not be put in a syllogistic manner, with tied up with bows and ribbons on the package.
I suppose I must confess that here I am trying to come up with a way to provide some kind of an answer, however heuristic, to the “Ultimate Question” in the title to this post, which has nearly driven me bonkers since I was a college student becoming interested in philosophy and metaphysics. Now I am old, and dammit, I want some hint of what an answer might look like!

The third piece of the meta-model is hinted at in Stephen Hawking’s famous question: “Who is it that has ‘put the fire in the equations’ to make the world based on these equations actually acquire reality”? Several possibilities can be discerned here: 
(a) if the realm of pure math and logic is consistent, then the world based on them MUST exist (I must, for the time being, ignore the problems brought up by Kurt Godel about mathematical consistency). This first possibility would not require any kind of agency.
(b) Or, maybe there is in fact an agency: perhaps there is some kind of “gatekeeper” (God or Gods) that decides which of these equations to implement. I suppose such a gatekeeper could be viewed as a “God” or Deity of some kind, although it is not clear that the gatekeeper need be “conscious” in any way we can understand. Also it might be possible that this gatekeeper could be, along polytheistic lines, a pantheon of Gods or Deities.

Now turning to what is surely the most enigmatic aspect of all: Conscious minds that perceive the mathematically constructed physical world. Indeed, in the absence of reality-perceiving Conscious minds the Ultimate question does not even make any sense, since nothing would be perceived as existing, and the question doe not arise.
 My idea here is that God or the Gods have built a sort of “consciousness field” into the mathematically constructed physical universe, and once evolution has produced suitable living platforms to absorb some amount of this field, conscious individuals come to inhabit the world and ask philosophical questions such as the one under consideration here.
Now there are many variations that can be imagined here. My favorite is that there is what Lord Dunsany called “The Sea of Souls”, which might consist of a large number (maybe an infinite number) of disembodied souls, or spirits, that are vying in some manner to be selected to occupy a conscious “body” in the (some) world. These souls would probably be immortal, although to sure, their realization as a physical body could be killed or terminated via interactions in the world they temporarily occupy. It would just be that they would be returned to “The Sea of Souls”, and there await there chance to be instantiated in the world (or some other world), perhaps after some kind of review, or critique, of their behavior (while they were in the world) with the God or Gods.

In summary:
The idea presented above is that there is a timeless, necessarily existing, realm of abstract mathematical and logical relationships, and these are selected (by a God, Deity, or panel of Gods or “Overlords”) to be mathematically consistent to form a world. Well, there could be a great many ways (again, maybe an infinite number) that these relations could be extracted out, while remaining fully mathematically consistent, to form a great number of mathematically consistent worlds.
 Sentient beings are selected in some manner to occupy life within these worlds, and are carefully isolated from each other, although they all bathe in, and couple to, the consciousness field created to fill the universe.

The souls are considered to be immortal, having existed eternally before and after any of their time spent in a world. (this also solves the problem of free will, since they would not be bound by “nature or nurture" acquired while in a world.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Brief Comparison of Rand’s Toohey and Lew’s Screwtape

Even though Ayn Rand would have probably have been appalled by this comparison, Toohey's advice is very similar in many ways to that of the devil-like character in C S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, wherein the devil-like character writes to his nephew, a lesser, novice devil, on how to demoralize and weaken the religious faith of his human victims.

I say Rand would have been appalled because of course she was an ostensible atheist, while Lewis was a prominent Christian. I say "Ostensible atheist" because there are places in Rand's writings that suggest some non-atheistic features of her thought. At one point in the Fountainhead someone says of Roark that though he will say he does not believe in God, he really does. Rand has also written somewhere that "God is a psychological reality". Isn't that a type of belief?

There are differences between Screwtape and Toohey, however. Whereas Toohey is trying to destroy humankind's hope and spirit, Screwtape's aim is to corrupt human souls, and, ultimately, to lead them to damnation (in the Christian theology).

This brief comment was inspired by the youtube video at

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Problem of Identity

There are a number of problems that might be termed “Identity” problems, or issues. Many of these have bothered me all of my life, and I have had trouble even framing some of them in words. But I am going to try here.

Basically, they are all related to “why is something one thing and not another”?

One question is: How does the identity of the whole depend on the identity of the parts?:
I have often heard that our cells that comprise our bodies are replaced every seven years. There is the old classic “Ship Puzzle”, which was apparently posed by the ancient Greek: a ship, lets call it “The Proud Mary”, is replaced one board at a time. As the old boards are taken off, they are placed in a scrap pile. Eventually all of the boards are replaced, so that not one of the original boards is still in the ship. Since this happens gradually, the ship retains its identity as “The Proud Mary” at all times. Then one day, someone goes and puts the original boards all back together and says that one to be the true original ship “The Proud Mary”. The other one, he says, is a copy or duplicate. To some people this seems a frivolous problem, but to me it has always seemed to contain some genuine grounds for puzzlement. This puzzle would seem akin to the issue of how we maintain our personal identity in view of the fact that our individual cells are replaced.

Teleportation of bodies, such as is imagined to be possible in the Star Trek TV show, raises similar, even more daunting, paradoxes. If your molecular configuration is radiated to some other location and reconstructed there, is it really you? What if the original is not destroyed In the process of sending the molecular information? Which is the "real you"?
Consider cloning, which in spite of some the popular misconceptions does not pose an identity problem, any more than does the phenomena of identical twins. A few years back, a sheep was cloned. This caused some controversy. But I do not understand why. I suspect that it threatens people’s underlying concerns about identity, though they do not know that that is the cause of their uneasiness about it. In fact, cloning, in contrast to the teleportation problem, poses no such problems. The cloned organism is a different organism, and as it grows it will have no connection with the cell donating original.

What if my leg were replaced? Would I still be me?--of course, there's no problem with anyone accepting that. What about all of my internal organs being replaced? Again, I don’t think there is any question that it would still be “me”. But what about the brain itself? It appears to be an organ, but it is the one that appears to be responsible for my thoughts, for me being who I am. So if Bob's brain is replaced by Mary’s, isn't the being in Bob’s body now really Mary? That is, the person you would perceive in Bob’s body would in fact be Mary. This would clearly argue that the real me is my brain. Just as the real nature of a computer is defined by its processor and memory. All of the organs and limbs are just “peripherals” that have little to do with the personal identity.

But can we imagine dividing the brain somehow? That is, what if the memories are Bob’s but the processor is Mary’s. Is there some reason why this is inherently a contradictory achievement? Is the person standing in front of you with Bob’s body, Bob’s memories, but Mary’s processor Bob or Mary?

Consider this question: “Can two separate or distinct entities be exactly alike?” In our everyday experience, this is of course not something that would ever occur to us, because compound or complex objects (trees, chunks of concrete, baseballs, rabbits, and so on) always have numerous traits that would allow us to label distinct members of their class. Maybe it is not always evident (as with baseballs where they all look very similar), but surely no one doubts that there are differences that could be discerned upon very close inspection. To carry it even further, we note that even if one insisted that there were no discernible differences, then differences could be added (the basketballs could be numbered, or the owners name etched on the surface somehow, etc.).

I have never heard of any set of parents, or even close friends, who have trouble distinguishing the separate identity of twins (although casual acquaintances may have a great deal of trouble telling them apart). In other words, there are always some small distinguishing characteristics that permit the distinction between them to be made.
But electrons are imagined, in physics, as being fundamentally indistinguishable from each other. The same is true of other sub-atomic particles, and even all molecules or atoms of a given type are identical to each other. But, in our experience, can any entity be exactly the same as all others? What insights into the identity problem can the Pauli exclusion Principle give us? The electrons may be in different states, but in a sense the basic electron is assumed to be in every way identical as every other electron in the universe.

Reflect that physics/chemistry/biology do indeed say that our bodies are comprised of particles, atoms, and molecules. As groups of molecules string together, the possibility of distinguishing the configurations becomes possible.

Is it meaningful to imagine being someone else? Why am I me and not someone else (or how do I know I’m have not been someone else, but have just forgotten?). Maybe the question makes no sense, but why does it seem to arise in our minds? What does it mean when we refer to “being in someone else’s shoes”? We seem to be imagining, at least to some extent, what it would be like to be somebody else? Does this make sense, or can it be in any way imagined to be meaningful? While it seems relatively easy to imagine our selves being positioned somehow in another’s body, that would not really seem to be being them. As Douglas Hofstader asks in his anthology “The Minds Eye”, “What is it like to be a bat”? Does it make any sense to ask this, or related questions, that involve our self being transplanted into some other beings consciousness? Does it depend on whether the transplant involves beings of the same order of complexity and intelligence (i.e., does it make sense among humans, but not between say a bat and a human?). Is it possible that our self will really cycle through all possible people’s lives? Would this be a just eschatology? (sort of an analogy with Feynman’s one electron scattering back and forth in time).
Does this have some bearing on what Christians might believe about the nature of Jesus Christ and the incarnation--that is, is it possible, consistent, or reasonable to imagine that Jesus Christ was God but was somehow limited by having to occupy a physical body?
Ann Rice, in Tales of a Body Thief, simply imagines without dwelling on the difficulties, that such an exchange is possible. In fact, this very ingenious and imaginative author has depicted many variations of the mind-body switch scenario...

Aren’t such moral principles as the “Golden Rule”, and Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” based on the perception that it is possible to imagine being someone else? Maybe even on the possibility that in some sense you are or will be that someone else. You are sympathetic at least in part because you can imagine being them.

Isn’t the Marquis deSade’s arguments that he puts into his philosophical (but perversely randy) villains mouths about how morality is a ruse and that no one really has to care about anyone else base on his perception that we are all utterly removed and detached from each other, that there is no reason to care about another because you will no, can not, could not, ever be that other person.

But where does this stop? That is, how different can the being be before it is clearly impossible to imagine being the other? The old Jewish prayer of thanking God that I am not a woman springs to mind. It seems to assume that “I” could have been either. But does the “I” come into existence after my body, or was it there before? Is this just the issue of whether we have a soul or spirit? (Could this be related to the abortion arguments?)I can imagine being a woman, so it seems to be a reasonable switch. In fact, people even have sex change operations. Does a man really become a woman with such an operation? With the above example involving interchanges or transplants involving Tom’s brain and Mary’s body it seems clear that such a switch is possible or at least plausible.

But what about a being interchanged with another being of a different level of complexity? Of course, this could even be an issue within the human realm: IQs differ (but how widely in an absolute sense?)...But can I imagine being a slug, or a sheep, or any living animal.

What if I maintain that in fact you are always being interchanged with other people? That one moment ago you were John Smith, but now he is you and you are him. He has all of the memories and capabilities of me, and vice-versa. Maybe this just keeps happening, involving large numbers of people (or maybe all people). But his probably makes no sense, as it would be indistinguishable, would it not, from no interchange taking place at all.

And of course the big question: What is it like to not exist? Of course, we have in a sense all known this, as we presumably did not exist before we were born (or if we did, I for one do not remember it). Woody Allen said, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. “To be or not to be” isn’t the only question (even if that is an option, and Hamlet went on to question that)--there is also, what is it like to “not be”?

Related to this is the issue of, or the position of, solipsism, and the question of how this differs from materialism/atheism picture (where death involves annihilation and hence non-existence). In other words (and this is hard to explain, so bear with me), if we are annihilated at death, then for me the universe does not exist anymore. If it is inconceivable or meaningless for me to imagine being another conscious organism or being, then might I just as well argue that for all practical purpose, solipsism is true. At least in a practical sense.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Three short philosophical reflections as 2016 draws to an end.

The world as a simulation:

If the universe is a simulation for the “benefit” of earthlings, perhaps it would not be necessary for the “overlords” designing and creating the simulation, to simulate all of space time. I think this was broached in the Truman Show, where the world of the main character (played by Jim Carrey) was actually a very small region of space, perhaps the size of a small village, but surrounded by solid walls.

Following along with this idea, the seemingly distant and vastly numerous galaxies would not have to actually be objectively there, they would only have to appear to be from earth based observations. Similarly, cosmological time could be greatly truncated to merely the historical times of humans. The Big Bang and the eons of cosmological and geological evolution need only be made to have apparently occurred. The simulation would not need to actually include these eras of time.

Would all of the apparent “creatures” in the simulation need to be conscious? No, as aforementioned, some could be “zombies” (to use the term popular in consciousness writings, robots of a sort with no subjective lives). To introduce a bit of cynicism, this might explain the seeming stupidity of so many people in the world today.

The HBO series “West World” depicts this idea, where, if I am understanding it, only a tiny fraction of the beings within the simulated world are actual sentient beings, the rest being robots. Star Trek the Next Generations’s “Holideck” simulations of past epochs of human history also involve only fractional populations of conscious beings.

Robotic Consciousness:

Today, many AI workers and theorists tend to talk as if this is certain to be achieved by the end of the 21st century (if not significantly earlier). But how will they know for sure that a robotic AI unit is really conscious, and not a “Zombie”? Indeed, we do not know which of our friends, relative, colleagues, and members of the human race at large possess consciousness. We assume that organic humans have it using “Occam’s Razor”: isn’t it the most straightforward assumption that they are conscious, just as we are ourselves? But it is far from certain (for example, consider the point made above in connection with us living in a simulated world).

Yes, there is the Turing Test for intelligence, but this test is not for detecting consciousness. I think it is easy to imagine a platform with intelligence that does not possess subjective consciousness.

However, as so brilliantly and poignantly illustrated in the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation (in connection with the robot known as “Data”), if a robot, or artificial human, seems to be conscious, it seems the only morally acceptable approach is to assume it is conscious. The opposite approach, treating such a being as not having consciousness, runs the risk of treating a conscious being as inanimate, and expendable, machinery. This would be unacceptable morally, horribly so.

Free Will:

It is not only difficult to see how we humans can have free will, it is difficult to even define exactly what it means. Where did the agent supposedly having free will come from? 

The first difficulty comes from “physicalism”, the idea that all motion in the universe ultimately results from causal behavior of elementary particles obeying some kind of “laws” of nature, and nothing can escape from these---certainly not the atoms comprising our brains, or the nerve impulses that seem to represent our thoughts. While quantum mechanics suggests that there is a random element in how the micro-world is realized in the macro-world of our everyday, such randomness does not really seem to be what we want free will to be.

The second sticking point is that “Nature plus Nurture”....i.e., our genetic makeup plus the effects of accumulated experiences would seem to exhaust what could determine the behavior of an individual human. Each individual human begins life as an infant with certain instinctual drives and capacities, but surely decision making invoking free will would only come later after experiences, in conjunction with the physical body,  have molded the character and personality of the human person.

It would seem that a mechanism similar to this would hold even if each person has a spirit or soul that has developed in time (or something like time in some transcendent realm, what we might call “hyper-time”). As long as the decision making nature of a being is formed from some kind of a starting point plus accumulated experiences, whether in this physical realm in another, it would seem that the concept of free will in such a being becomes untenable.

Everything a person does, whether constrained by the physicalist model or the nature plus nurture model, is, at root, just due to random effects. This makes us think that such things a praise and blame, punishment and reward, admiration and condemnation, are all quite unjustified at the deepest level.

There would seem to be a way out of this trap, however---admittedly a highly speculative one, and one that I doubt very many moderns want to entertain for even a moment. But I want to proceed with it here because I firmly believe that each of us do in fact have free will. Furthermore, I think ALL of us believe we do have free will, no matter what is maintained in formal philosophical writings.

So given that I believe we all do have it, a far out idea that is almost surely impossible to prove might compel some degree of acceptance, simply because of the explanatory power of the idea. Suppose that each person has a soul of some kind that is eternal, or at least outside of any kind of time, much in that way that I believe Plato and certain other Greek philosophers imagined.

There are precedents in science for entertaining, or taking seriously, ideas or models that are, at least currently, beyond empirical verification, but that have explanatory power. Examples would be string theory of elementary particles or gravity loop theory, either of which hold out hope of incorporating the gravitational force into the presently incomplete “standard model of particle physics”.

This idea of an eternal soul does suggest that a type of reincarnation might be in operation. Suppose that upon death in this world, your soul goes through some kind of review process in a temporary realm, and that you then maybe even have some say as to what realm you are going to next. Just as dreams fade rapidly upon awakening, so the soul might only very briefly recall or sense fragments of the formal life. Such an idea, if I understand it correctly, is put forth by William Wordsworth in his beautiful poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality....”. The Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany has also toyed with similar ideas in his eschatological short story, The Last Voyage of the King

The subsequent realm does not necessarily have to be Earth, or even this galaxy or universe. It could be in a parallel universe, as some kind of a creature such as was imagined by H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps as a tentacled creature with 7 eyes or legs, or as some conscious being wholly unimaginable to us in our present human state. It would not even necessarily be represented or instantiated in an individual manner, maybe the reincarnated being could be composite of several beings, whether former Earthlings or other.

The speculations along these lines could clearly go on for a long time. but having sketched the broad outline of such a (greatly enlarged from the usual popular idea of it) reincarnation model, now want to move on to other topic, perhaps returning to this one at a later date (in 2017 or beyond).

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Physician Assisted Suicide

Should I be able to commit suicide legally? The question seems absurd. What if I am caught in the act and my attempt is aborted? What are they going to do? Execute me? Well, mission accomplished, LOL.

No, but seriously, the real crux of this issue is whether a physician should be legally allowed to help any of us who wish to painlessly “shuffle off this mortal coil”. While recognizing that there are potential dangers associated with physician assisted suicide, I think the answer should be a resounding YES!

The dicey issues and pitfalls are obvious: members of the family that are heir to the dying person’s wealth might wish, if they are bad, greedy people, to hasten the sick person’s death, even in cases where recovery might in fact be possible. So safeguards need to be put in place to prevent this. What exactly are these safeguards? I do not know, I am not a lawyer, but I am confident that such safeguards can be put in place.

Surely such safeguards would involve getting a panel of, say, three or more independent physicians to attest that there is no chance of recovery, and that the dying person has no chance for any quality of life unless a lethal medical method is employed to bring about termination of life. Perhaps as part of a person’s “living will” he/she would list the relatives or loved ones he/she trusts to be involved in the life-ending decisions.

What confuses the issue is the religious objection to suicide. Well, that is fine for religious people to choose to suffer because they believe that it is part of God’s plan for them to do so, but it is not defensible for them to impose that upon those of us who are non religious, or secular. In other words this is a “separation of church and state” issue.

It is fine with me if ones religion forbids him/her to seek a painless exit from the living, but it is not OK if you force others to suffer because you feel it is God’s plan. 

Would I choose to seek a physician to end my life via, for example. some kind of painless injection? I actually do not know. I may come down on the side of the religious objectors to such a procedure, in my case. Maybe I would feel, when actually in that position, that there is a meaning in my pain and suffering. But that is not for the government to decide, and I very much resent the attempts of Christians or other religious groups to deny me the right to seek such a “final solution”.