So I’ve been thinking about that video I posted yesterday. I think the reason I liked it so much is because that video basically shows all the reasons why I believe in hylozoism. Something so incredibly vast and beyond comprehension like our universe cannot, in my opinion, be devoid of life itself. It doesn’t just contain bits of life like us and trees and turtles and dogs. It is life. Every infinitesimal bit of the universe holds “life” in my opinion. It may not be life in the way we’re able to see it like we’re able to see the life of a person or the life of an elephant, but I think that in order for atoms and electrical impulses and chemical reactions to come together to every so often create life as we define it, there must be something that’s present in all matter that holds some form of life on its own. It seems too implausible that only very specific combinations of the universe’s material can attain life and can only do so when amassed with just the right selections of other materials.
When the narrator talks about us “answering” the universe with respect to knowing what the universe is, in my opinion that’s a very potent expression of this idea. We are the universe. We are clumps of it that, for a VERY brief time, happen to take on an existence that is aware of itself, that is aware of the ridiculous distances between everything, even down to the relatively extreme distance between a nucleus of an atom and its cloud of electrons, but is also able to bridge this distance by acknowledging it. We know that our own little galaxy is vast beyond the human mind’s capability of understanding distance. We know that the relative distance between the nucleus of an oxygen atom and the inner most electrons is incredible. And yet we still function within the universe, a universe that allows for such extremes to exist but yet also allows for everything on all scales to work as a cohesive, living, thriving unit.
I see it as evidence that everything in the universe contains life when I see such extremes—the very large and the very small and the distance at both levels—working as one. How can we deny the universe a life of its own when we witness the effect of the smallest building blocks of our universe, quarks and leptons and whatnot, on the grandest events we’ve had privilege to witness: super novas and black holes and stars consuming one another? How can we say that the individual components of our universe exist as lifeless “things” when things so seemingly different have such a great effect on one another and the culmination of all these effects is existence itself?
That is how I define this “life.” The fact that things exist and the fact that they keep on existing shows that every component of our universe is responsive to every other component. And again, I don’t mean “responsive” necessarily in the way that humans respond to one another or the way a bee responds to pollen. The response could be chemical, it could be electrical, it could be in ways we can’t even witness because we don’t know what we’re looking for.
And we’re part of this! It’s common to look up at the vastness that is our universe and think of how insignificant we are. But we ARE significant! We are but for a brief moment a mass of “universe stuff” that happens to take the form of “human.” But in the blink of an eye, in the smallest fraction of a second on the time scale of the universe, we won’t be anymore! Maybe in 30 million years a part of me will be a part of a newly forming star. Maybe in 23 billion years a part of me will be a part of a meteor that splits a planet into fragments. Maybe in 80 billion centuries a part of me will be part of another thing that is also aware of the ridiculous distances between everything, from the galaxies to the components of an atom, and is able to bridge this distance by acknowledging it, just as I am as a human today. But regardless of what my parts become, they will retain this “life” that, in my opinion, is present in everything everywhere, always.
And that’s COOL.
Next week in Environmental Philosophy we will be discussing deep ecology. Says Wikipedia, “deep ecology is a contemporary ecological philosophy that recognizes an inherent worth of other beings, aside from their utility.” We’re also going a bit beyond that, exploring the opinion that EVERYTHING in nature has inherent worth, including non-sentient things like mountains and rocks and sand.
Of course, as we were having our initial discussion before we delve into the literature for next week, one of the prominent comments I heard was that the view that ALL things in nature have inherent worth (to the extent that humans have worth) is “stupid.”
So I can already tell next week’s going to be difficult.
As I’ve blogged about before, I identify myself with Hylozoism (or panpsychism, it depends on how you define things). Loosely, it’s the belief that all matter is, in some sense, “aware” or has a conscience*. As such, I can’t really place myself in opposition with the view that things like mountains or sand lack a worth comparable to the worth of, say, a dog or a pigeon or even a tree.
I can’t put my finger on EXACTLY why a Hylozoistic viewpoint overlaps with deep ecology in a sense and I can’t really explain EXACTLY why this viewpoint is probably going to get slaughtered next Thursday, but I’m pretty sure it will be. I think I might just keep my mouth shut the whole time, haha.
Whatever. I’ll probably say more about this after next Thursday, so be prepared.
*But not necessarily consciousness as humans experience it.
So now that this thesis nonsense is 95% over*, I can finally screw around on the internet again. Today, I found this site containing a bunch of different morality (and other miscellaneous) surveys.
What’s super cool about this site is that it gives you your results in comparison to self-identified conservatives and liberals (and, for some, libertarians and moderates). For example, here are my “moral foundation” results (in green) compared to self-identified liberals (blue) and self-identified conservatives (red). The higher the score, the more you endorse that particular moral foundation.
*Still have to actually turn it in for publishing, but that comes at the beginning of August. And it’s electronic submission, so it’s all good.
I went to the grocery store today because I needed broccoli and ended up impulse-buying some shrimp, because shrimp sounded good and I haven’t had them in forever.
Long story short, some lady coming down the aisle in the opposite direction decided that I, amongst the fifteen or so individuals milling around the meat section, was the one she would not-so-subtly criticize as she strolled by with her cart. She basically insinuated that I had no morals whatsoever, and my purchasing of meat was a direct ticket to hell—a ticket the righteous vegetarian would never purchase.
And so I must rant.
I know I’ve already posted a “why I’m not a vegetarian” blog before, but obviously the issue must be readdressed here. I suppose I can understand where this lady (and many others) is coming from. I’ve seen Earthlings, I know all the animal cruelty that goes on in slaughterhouses and fisheries, and I know that that’s what a large proportion of vegetarians/vegans oppose.
However, I also know that a decent proportion of vegetarians don’t eat meat because they have issues with taking the lives of animals for food that humans can live without. As I said in my vegetarian post, it strikes me as extremely contradictory that we assign so much more value to the life of, say, a pig, than we do to the life of a stalk of wheat or a sunflower. I understand that the sentience of a pig and the sentience (or lack thereof) of wheat aren’t the same, obviously. But I do believe that everything in the universe has some form of life, and if we promote the saving of certain lives, it just seems wrong that we don’t treat other lives the same way, you know?
So yeah, maybe plants don’t process getting chopped in half the same way a cow would, but do those who subsist solely on vegetation take into account the billions of lives that are extinguished to provide their food? Pain-perceiving or not, there’s no denying that there are lives being cut short (no pun intended).
Sorry, that just really got to me. Why value the life of a shrimp more than the life of a grain? Humans can, of course, subsist without meat, but that doesn’t, in my opinion, act as a suitable excuse for the difference in value between what we deem sentient beings and beings like grains and flowers.
Bah, I dunno.
Today’s song: Jimmy Olsen’s Blues by Spin Doctors
One of my mom’s favorite things with which to counter my determinism argument is this: “if we don’t have free will and we can’t choose what we do, then why aren’t we all just lying in bed doing nothing with our lives?”
I can see where she’s coming from, of course. It’s similar to a viewpoint fought against by many of the early Existentialists (Sartre, Camus, etc.) who had to respond to people claiming that an Existential outlook pretty much doomed you to something along the lines of, “oh, well, life is meaningless, so why bother?” Similarly, when you’re someone who believes in free will, the idea that all of our actions and “choices” are predetermined (and that we have absolutely no say in anything we do) is pretty freaking distressing. Why do anything if everything that’s supposed to happen happens regardless of what we “choose” to do? Why bother with anything?
Here’s how I see it: determinism doesn’t make us brainless, opinion-free automatons who stand passively aside as the world and our actions in it are dictated to us. It’s obvious we all have opinions and make conscious choices to do things. Examples: I like the color orange, I decided to go to the rec center today. I think a lot of people who oppose the idea of a deterministic universe think that these things—choices, opinions, even indecisiveness—are incompatible with determinism. Makes sense—how can our universe be deterministic if I can’t decide whether to wear pants or streak through the backyard?
That’s the thing about determinism (the way I see it, at least): it kind of sits in the background, unnoticed as we go about our daily lives. I’m not going to use the puppet master/puppet show analogy ‘cause that doesn’t translate exactly (puppet master = god and I don’t buy that), but that’s generally the idea. In other words, our opinions and choices are all determined, even though they don’t appear as such to us (unless we think about it constantly, then things start getting weird). So what does this mean? Well, if I’m a person who buys into a deterministic universe (and I do), and I were to consciously say to myself “screw this noise, I’m going to go play Fallout 3 until I die of thirst,” I would do it—but only if I were determined to think that thought and act accordingly. But me being me, I know I won’t do that. But it’s not my own choosing that prevents me from a Fallout 3-related death—it’s determinism. I’m determined to choose (or determined to believe I’m choosing, I guess, is more appropriate) to get up and go do stuff tomorrow (apart from Fallout 3), just as I’m determined to like orange, you’re determined to read this blog (because you are if you’re reading this sentence), and my mom is determined to resist the idea of determinism.
In fact, I think that’s why so many people (at least, so many people I talk to) are against the idea of a deterministic universe. They know that they have opinions, they make choices, they grow indecisive about some things. It seems odd to consider that all such things are, ultimately, determined.
At least, that’s how I see it.
Today’s song: I Predict a Riot by Kaiser Chiefs
First off, all our morals are screwy, it’s just the way we all are. So please try not to judge me too harshly for this; if the following doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s probably because I’ve never really openly discussed it. But it makes perfect sense in my head. Okay? Okay.
So. Vegetarianism. Those who read these bloggies semi-regularly may have seen one of my posts about hylozoism—the belief that life, to some extent, is present in all matter, not just in things that we classify as conscious or even just in things that are considered animate.
I suppose in a sense that my “why I’m not a vegetarian” argument stems more from the panpsychism perspective. That is, the idea that all things possess some form of sensation or consciousness (you drop an iPod, that iPod senses it or is aware of it).
I am of this view. To me, everything responds to what we do to it. If you break a pot, that pot “feels” the break, if you cut the grass, the grass “feels” itself being sliced. I’m not saying it causes pain necessarily, but who’s to say it doesn’t? I’m certainly of the idea that the material responds in some way, and I definitely think such an argument could be put out there for things we typically consider sentient.
This is where the whole vegetarianism thing comes in. If a person wants a cheeseburger, they’re aware on some level of the fact that they’re eating a part of a cow that had to be killed for the person to consume it. They’re probably less aware of the amount of wheat that had to be cut in order to create the bun (I don’t know the general number of wheat stalks that go into an average hamburger bun, but you get what I’m saying). Or the tomato that gets picked to provide a slice.
Yeah, I know that sounds crazy. But think about it. It just seems weird to me to place more value on beings that emit an audible scream when we slaughter them than silent yet still living beings like wheat and peas. Even if such “lower organisms” don’t have pain receptors and therefore don’t respond to being removed from water/nutrients/the means to continue living the same way organisms like cows and pigs do, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re being killed.
Call me a hippy, call me crazy, call me stupid, but that’s how I see it. There are only two ways, as I see it, to provide equal “ethical” treatment to both beings like cows and beings like wheat—either don’t eat either of them (or anything else that was once living), or eat both of them. And since I probably can’t live on air (like the Astomi people apparently could), I choose the latter.
Please note: I am not condoning things like inhumane poultry housing or cruel slaughtering techniques—that’s not what I mean. Read this as if the comparisons between higher and lower organism slaughter involve the most humane way of killing, say, a cow, with the most humane way of harvesting grain.
Today’s song: Crystal Ball by Keane
Haven’t had a crappy pun title in awhile now.
Polymathy and Knowledge in the 21st Century (or, “The Crazy Ramblings of a Super-Hyper Person, Feel Free to Disregard This Whole Blog”)
I don’t remember when or where I read this, but somewhere a few years ago I came across the idea that the polymath in its truest form is not really something that’s accomplishable nowadays, as there is so much more things to know today than there where back in the time of the polymath. From either the same source or a different one there was the mention of the fact that “back in the day” much more time was given to pure thinking—that is, people devoted solid blocks of time to working on their ideas and inventions, something that we with our daily time-consuming jobs (and school) rarely do. So I suppose they were trying to say that idea of a polymath exists as an anachronistic ideal; the “all knowing man” is something that today seems unobtainable.
Think about it. Think about the birth of the Age of Enlightenment, when there was this sudden boom of yearning for knowledge (in Europe, at least). There was this ability back then, perhaps due to different lifestyle or some ideal balance between what was known and what was unknown (or perhaps due to both) that allowed for polymathy to develop. There was this beautiful merging of everything creative and scientific (obviously not mutually exclusive categories) that gave rise to this insanely productive, inspired time. It makes you wonder what it was about this specific period in time, in that specific geographic area, that caused such a wonderful explosion of knowledge. It also makes you wonder why that’s not going on right now.
If you look at psychological development books you’ll see in almost every one something called the “critical period” for such developmental milestones as language learning, walking, and some other stuff I don’t remember because hell if I paid attention in Infancy class. Language is probably the best example, as it has the most incidents documented wherein an individual fails to either be exposed to language entirely or fails to be exposed to enough of it within this critical time frame, and thus fails to fully develop language to the extent the majority of people do.
I think analogous critical periods exist for a lot of different human endeavors (I just spelled that with the extra “u” before backspacing, kill me now). There has to be some sort of ideal balance between lifestyle, existing knowledge, and knowledge yet to be discovered for periods like the Age of Enlightenment to happen. The drive that spurs people on to create may not dissipate or change significantly from generation to generation, but other things are apt to (and do) change.
For instance, think about how much busier our lives are now. Think of how we’ve managed to pack our existences with this meaningless dribble just so we can “survive” in modern society. We don’t allow ourselves to stop and just think. We don’t allow significant time for mulling over of ideas (unless we do so at our jobs/on the bus/during class, in which cases I think it’s much less productive than just mulling outright) to bring them into fruition, or to even develop significant ideas. I’m not necessarily talking individually here, but when you look at it from a larger scope, I think that there’s a significantly smaller percentage of pure “thinking” that exists in our society today than there was, for example, back during the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. In short, we’re too busy to delve, but too focused in our specific school work/job/what-have-to-you gain breadth. That’s a problem.
Now think about how the balance between known and unknown has changed since the Age of Enlightenment. We know SO MUCH MORE than we did at the beginning of that shift in information, but we’re also equipped with far more tools to delve deeper into our universe. What’s stopping us today from having the same strides in discoveries, expansion, and overall innovation that were found then? I don’t think we’re running out of things to discover. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of things to discover. What I do think, though, is that there’s been some sort of fundamental change over the last several centuries in what is left to discover that we’re unable to reach previously set records of leaps and bounds in knowledge due to the way we’ve been approaching what’s left to discover.
We’re all yocto- and yotta- and gamma wave now, we’re past a large amount of those things that can be seen with the naked eye here on this planet and have moved on to the microscopic, macroscopic, and invisible (for a small but good example of this, just look at the SI prefixes and the change in dates from the mid-range prefixes to the very large and very small ones). Time that was before spent on envisioning, creating, and fine-tuning the machines whose purposes were to get to these other worlds is now being spent actually utilizing these machines, searching for what we think is out there because we finally can. And I think one of our problems is that we’re going about things with that old mindset, not with any new way of thinking about things.
It’s hard to explicitly explain what I mean by this…it’s like we haven’t done anything to refine our technique to help us reach past this “eye level” of invention, creation, and discovery, and therefore are having difficulty reaching out into these new and different areas. It’s like if you were a master fisherman—all you’ve ever done is fish—and suddenly there are no more fish in the sea so you have to utilize your technique elsewhere in order to procure food. So you look up at the sky, realize there are birds up there you can catch, and so you start casting your line into the air with the intent to catch these birds. Now you may be a master fisherman, you may cast your line better than anyone else, you may have the technique perfected, but you’re still casting it into the sky. You can be as perfect as you like, you’re not going to hook any birds. So what you have to do is redefine your technique—tweak it to fit the new circumstances. I don’t think we’ve managed to do that yet with how we look at things in terms of discovery.
So why don’t I think there’s another Age of Enlightenment going on now, when we’re fully equipped with all these wonderful scientists and wonderful machines to help us along our journey of discovery? We’re too busy, we’re too set in our ways of methodology, and we seems to be unable to break free of either of these things, at least anytime soon.
There was a whole lot more I was going to say on this, but I’ve discovered my secret stash of Pocky and have found one of the coolest songs ever, so I’m going to try and calm this hyperness down so I can hopefully sleep tonight.
Today’s song: Kärlekens Alla Färjor by Detektivbyrån (it’s FANTASTIC)
Guess what, kids? PHILOSOPHY TIME!
Panpsychism is the view that all matter possesses a soul (or has consciousness). There are a couple of different types of this view, though, and there are also different types of similar views that aren’t technically panpsychism.
Hylozoism, which is similar but not exactly the same, holds that all forms of matter posess life. It’s different from panpsychism because life and souls are obviously two different things, and it is different than animism because animism focuses more on things having consciousnesses. In other words, hylozoism is the doctrine that everything is alive, while panpsychism is the belief that everything is conscious.
So. You all may or may not believe this, but I’ve always been of this sort of belief, that all matter is, in some way, alive. I think that this belief is based on the fact that as a materialist, I don’t think consciousness in humans arises from anything but the physical components of the brain. That is, consciousness is due to the chemical and electrical interactions of the components that makeup the brain, rather than any sort of “extra” component, like a soul or some other special addition to the physical.
Because I’m a materialist, I think that human consciousness arises, then, solely out of the physical. Because of this, I don’t believe that certain physical “components” are capable of coming together and achieving human consciousness—or any other consciousness/life/etc.—if others aren’t.
That’s a bit difficult to understand; let me put it another way. There’s a metric ton (not literally, shut up) of atoms that make up the human body, right? And a lot of those atoms go into making up the brain—in which, according to materialists, the consciousness originates and exists.
Now we can take this in two directions (still assuming materialism):
1. Either consciousness arises out of only a set of specific arrangements of atoms, or
2. All atoms/smallest particles in the universe (obviously not atoms, but ‘atom’ is familiar and easiest to conceptualize) are capable of maintaining a sort of consciousness on their own.
It seems odd to me that only certain atoms in certain arrangements are capable of bringing about any sort of consciousness without the additional condition that consciousness is a potential property of all atoms. Why would only specific combinations lead to consciousness, and what would make certain that the “right” atoms would be chosen in the first place? I think that a variation of consciousness—certainly not human consciousness or any type we can recognize—exists in every atom in the universe. I think culminations of these atomic consciousnesses can lead to other variations, uncluding human consciousness, but I think that there must exist some sort of basal form of it in everything.
Does that make sense?
Anyway, it’s how I’ve always seen it.
Oh yeah. Searle. I heart Searle.
Note: do not read if you don’t care for philosophy and/or speculations regarding the way the mind understands, or if you just don’t want to read my crappy essays.
“A Whole-Systems Response to the Chinese Room”
Of the several different responses to dualism—the idea that the mind and the body are separate substances entirely—one that has gotten a large number of responses is functionalism, or the idea that mental states are functional states of the brain and that the mind’s relationship to the body is analogous to software’s relationship to a computer. One form of this response—the idea of strong AI—claims that a properly programmed computer is a mind rather than just a model for the mind (Searle, 67) and that the processes and outputs of such a programmed computer demonstrate an understanding similar to the type of understanding we exhibit. One notable argument against strong AI is put forth by John Searle in his essay, “Minds, Brains, and Programs.” Using the example of a man locked in what he calls the “Chinese Room,” Searle claims to show that a mind as demonstrated by computers is not analogous to humans’ mind.
In Section I of this essay I explain Searle’s Chinese room and follow it with the important relationships his example has both with understanding and with strong AI in order to explain what he attempts to show with his demonstration. I then compare in Section II what I take to be the logic used in the Chinese Room with a more real-life example to demonstrate that Searle’s argument fails to show that strong AI is false due to the fact that it does not take into account the fact that understanding requires context. Following this, I better explain my argument by comparing and contrasting it to the systems reply, another argument against Searle’s Chinese Room.
Searle sets up his Chinese Room example by asking the reader to imagine him locked in a room full of books containing Chinese writing. He notes that in this scenario, he has no knowledge of Chinese—he cannot read it, he cannot understand it when it is spoken, he cannot tell Chinese characters from random squiggles—he doesn’t even have knowledge of China (Searle, 68). Knowing this, he then asks us to imagine that, while in this room, he is constantly given input, or Chinese writing, from outside. His instructions in English are to compare these input characters to another set of symbols in the books, and then compare the information from the books with a third set of characters he is given. He responds to this third set of characters based on the comparisons he makes in the books, and outputs these responses back to the outside world (Searle, 69).
For those who are native Chinese speakers outside of the room, Searle’s output responses are indistinguishable from those generated by native Chinese speakers. This, Searle claims, is him behaving like a computer—his output is based on the input that enters the room and the “program,” or the set of English instructions he is given, helps to formulate output that is something indistinguishable from responses given by native Chinese speakers (Searle, 69).
The goal of Searle’s Chinese Room is to argue against the idea that strong AI is true—that is, to argue against the idea that a properly programmed computer is actually a mind, rather than just a model for a mind. In order to understand how Searle comes to this conclusion, it is important to see how Searle defines both understanding and strong AI. Searle describes the concept of understanding by viewing it in relation to representation of things or concepts. He notes that when a human reads a story, he or she can correctly answer questions that are derived from the story but whose contents involve information that was not explicitly provided. He uses the example of a story about a man ordering a hamburger from a restaurant and then storming out without paying because the hamburger arrived at his table horribly burnt. The human can answer the question, “did the man eat the hamburger?” correctly, even though that information was never explicitly stated, due to his or her understanding of the story (Searle, 68).
As for the concept of strong AI, Searle describes it as the idea that a properly programmed computer can actually be a mind, instead of just a representation of one. Rather than just demonstrating how the mind works, strong AI proponents claim, properly programmed computers can literally understand—e.g., read a story about a man who angrily left a restaurant because of a burnt hamburger and correctly determine whether or not he ate it—and possess cognitive states, and thus exist as minds rather than mere models.
For Searle, both of these definitions play into his denial of strong AI. An important component of the Chinese Room example is the fact that the Searle isolated in the room fails to understand (his definition of understanding) Chinese. Even though he can take the input, manipulate it, and produce an output that is, to any native Chinese speaker, indistinguishable from responses produced by any other native Chinese speaker, Searle fails himself to understand what the symbols mean. This lack of understanding, coupled with the fact that he is functioning as a properly programmed computer in the example, demonstrates for Searle that a computer with strong AI is not equivalent to a human mind.
He basically uses his situation and compares it with what occurs in computers. If Searle in the example is doing everything a computer that appears to understand Chinese does—taking in input, processing it and manipulating symbols, and providing an output—but he fails to understand Chinese, how can it be said that the computer could understand Chinese, either? A computer properly programmed to output Chinese can appear to understand but really doesn’t understand it at all. Because of this lack of understanding, according to Searle, it seems inappropriate to him for us to claim strong AI—to claim that properly programmed computers essentially are minds.
Searle puts a lot of weight on the importance of understanding. He wants to demonstrate that a computer can look like it understands Chinese—but only so far as a door with a motion sensor can understand when to open or a can opener understands how to open a can. He wishes to draw a connection between attaching the idea of understanding to inanimate objects and the fact that people, as he puts it, “can follow formal principles without understanding” (Searle, 71). In other words, a person can act much like a door with a motion sensor—if the motion sensor detects movement, it sends an electrical signal, which triggers the door to open—by simply following the logical steps (much like a Turing Machine). However, if the situation is reversed, Searle claims that you cannot have a door with a motion sensor act like a person—it cannot gain a sense of understanding that a person can.
Drawing from this idea, he wishes to claim that minds are capable of some sort of deeper understanding than symbol-manipulating computers. In other words, he wants to show with his Chinese Room example the dissimilarity between the understanding demonstrated in the example and the understanding we all experience when we, for example, read a sentence “the dog is brown.” If the example is examined closer, though, I do not feel that it demonstrates exactly what Searle wants it to demonstrate—that is, I do not think that it is an argument against strong AI.
It is true that when Searle isolates Example Searle (ES) in the room and has him take in Chinese characters and produce uninterpreted outputs, ES fails to understand Chinese. However, I do not feel that his example is an accurate representation of how understanding arises. ES is all alone in the room. Aside from the set of English instructions telling him which input characters go with which characters in the books and which characters in the books go with which third character, ES has nothing else to go on—no background, no scenarios in which to see the use of the Chinese characters, no relation of these unfamiliar characters to a language he does know or even to components in his world (e.g, “this squiggle here represents the English word “mouse” or the object “chair”). In other words, ES is isolated from all other context in which these characters could be applicable, and it seems unfair of us to assume that ES, in this situation, could possess any level of understanding (that is, understanding in the same sense we gain when we read the sentence “the dog is brown”) with regard to the Chinese language.
Looking at the Chinese Room example from this angle, I think that it is analogous to a situation in which we could take, for example, the syntax-understanding part of the brain, isolate it from all other parts, and ask it to understand the phrase “the dog is brown.” Assuming that this isolation were possible, it would seem odd to assume that this part of the brain could understand the sentence as we do. It does not understand “dog” in the sense that it represents a four-legged, furry mammal, and it does not understand “brown” in the sense that it represents a color that can be formed by mixing two complementary colors. It understands that “noun is adjective,” and that “dog” represents a noun and “brown” represents an adjective in this case, but that is probably the extent to which anyone would credit understanding to the syntax-understanding part of our brain. This part of our brain is like Example Searle, and the words “dog” and “brown,” apart from the roles they play in syntax, may as well be random Chinese characters.
However, if we examine our understanding of the sentence “the dog is brown,” it becomes apparent that our understanding of this sentence goes far beyond its syntax—we know what “dog” is due to various other experiences, mental routes, and inputs, and we know what “brown” is due to various components of the brain—the vision center, memory (since we’ve probably seen brown before), etc. This is due to the fact our mind—and our understanding in the way that we experience it—does not arise from isolated components of the brain. Rather, it arises from the culmination of the different parts of the brain as well as the inputs into the system of the brain. I need a syntactical understanding of the sentence to understand how brown relates to dog, but I need experiential understanding of what a dog is to know how brown can be applied, etc. Isolating any part of the brain and asking it to understand something will not produce the same type of understanding we are used to because we use many different components—the whole system of the mind—when arriving at an understanding of something.
The problem I see with Searle’s argument is that by isolating ES, he is in effect assuming that one component of the mind is responsible for understanding. In other words, he eliminates the idea of the system of the mind arriving at understanding and instead focuses on one aspect of it, claiming that what ES is doing is merely symbol manipulation, moving uninterpreted Chinese characters around and producing a recognizable output for those who understand Chinese while still failing to actually understand what the symbols mean. If we take understanding to arise out of this more compartmentalized view of the mind—that is, if we isolate processes that produce different forms of understanding and ask them to form an understanding of something—it is true that the compartmentalized parts of the mind, such as the syntax-understanding part of the brain discussed above, are merely manipulating symbols (‘dog’=noun, ‘brown’=adjective, and so on). However, what I think Searle fails to look at is that understanding as we see it arises out of the entire system and all inputs into it.
While my objection may initially seem like a form of the systems reply as discussed and replied to by Searle, it is distinctly different. The systems reply argued against by Searle claims that while the individual (ES) does not understand Chinese, the entire system does. Searle argues against this by claiming that even if ES internalized the entire system, ES still would not understand, and therefore the entire system would not understand (Searle, 72-73). What I am arguing for is different—understanding instead lies in the different communications and connections in the system as well as outside influences that are interpreted through the components (like, for example, light interpreted through the vision center of the brain). There is no way that all inputs into the system can be internalized into, for example, the syntax-understanding part of the brain, due to the fact that the inputs exist outside of the system and since the system relies so heavily on connections between components.
Computer programming as it stands today may only be able to represent an example such as one demonstrated in Searle’s Chinese Room—that is, it may only be able to produce computers and programs for those computers that can only run one form of input à symbol manipulation à output chain. Regardless of this, however, I think that Searle’s Chinese Room example fails to argue against strong AI due to the way the example represents understanding.
Rather than seeing understanding from the viewpoint that it arises from a multitude of different functions, the isolation of ES in the Chinese Room seems to suggest viewing understanding as based on components (in his example, ES in the room). For Searle, the fact that ES does not understand Chinese despite the fact that his output looks like he does is indicative of a failing of strong AI. However, I think Searle’s example is only indicative of trying to get at understanding by looking at the mind piecemeal rather than as a whole—analogous to trying to derive an understanding of the sentence “the dog is brown” based off of the sole interpretation of the sentence by the syntax-understanding part of the brain rather trying to get at it from the whole system of the mind.
Searle, J. R. (1980). Minds, brains, and programs. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 417-424.
Here’s a big heap of Humean goodness, mainly because I don’t have anything else to write about today and I’m always afraid of Vaio crashing and me losing this paper before I have to turn it in. Ignore it, or read it, I really don’t care either way.
Despite it being a relatively new field in philosophy, environmental ethics has so far seen its fair share of varying approaches to solving the problems that human-nature relationships bring to the philosophical table. With regards to many different components of human beings’ relation to nature, including to what extent we should concern ourselves with the future state of the planet, the basic relationships we have with nature, and any possible responsibilities we may have in caring for the environment, there have been many different approaches developed to help solve problems that may arise.
There are several points of debate in this still-developing field. One area of debate involves the notions of intrinsic versus instrumental value—that is, whether nature should be valued due to it having worth in and of itself or whether it should be valued solely because it is of use to humans. Another involves monism versus pluralism—whether ethicists should develop a single approach that could be adopted in all cases, or whether different approaches should apply to each individual situation.
The pragmatic approach to environmental ethics is unique among these different approaches as it draws ethics away from the more traditional “armchair philosophy” realm and into a more practical, action-based philosophy. As I will show, advocates of a pragmatic environmental ethic seek to place what we deem moral in our interactions with the environment in a more active, progressive realm, rather than confining our ethics to abstract concepts that do not necessarily readily apply to the world.
Several proponents of a pragmatic environmental ethic advocate an approach that is based off the philosophy of David Hume. More specifically, they promote basing an environmental ethic on Hume’s famous distinction between reason and sentiment and his claim that both are important in defining and interpreting morality. While some authors mention Hume’s reason-sentiment distinction explicitly, many appear to implicitly advocate the importance of this distinction in their description of a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics.
In this essay, I will explore the connections between modern pragmatic approaches to environmental ethics and the reason-sentiment explanation of moral decision-making Hume developed. My goal is to demonstrate that Humean ethics strongly support a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics. I will show that the combination of sentiment in the form of feelings and emotion and reason in the form of communal discussion and lead to a strong, functioning, pragmatic ethic.
I begin with a brief overview of Hume’s ethic—mainly his distinction between reason and sentiment, drawn from his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, then follow with several modern environmental ethicists’ interpretations of environmental pragmatism in order to define pragmatism in term of environmental ethic. Following this, I show how several authors explicitly connect Humean ethics to their idea of pragmatism, as well has how several other authors use Humean ethics in a more implicit manner. Finally, through a general overview of the goals of environmental pragmatism—as well as through a criticism of this view—I show how I see Humean ethics in connection with a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics.
Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals begins with his claim that the foundation of morals seems to arise either from “argument and induction” or from “an immediate feeling and finer internal sense,” thus causing a conflict as to whether moral distinctions are discernable from pure reason—logic and formal proof—or from sentiment—feeling and intuition (Hume).
Hume further develops this distinction by explaining moral distinction drawn from reason as distinctions involving long proofs, examples, analogies, the detection of fallacies and the drawing of conclusions. He then explains moral distinction drawn from sentiment as that relying not on impartial, indifferent logic that fails to push men closer to ethical action, but rather that which relies on feeling and intuition—things that evoke from man warm feelings towards virtue and disgust toward vice (Hume).
From these seemingly opposite sources of moral distinctions, Hume is able to suggest that both reason and sentiment occur in moral determinations and conclusions. Sentiment, he claims, is responsible for all feeling that “pronounces characters [people’s characters] and actions amiable or odious, praise-worthy or blameable…that which renders morality an active principle” (Hume). In other words, it is primarily responsible for the judging of Personal Merit—the attributes of a person that renders them either praiseworthy or contemptible.
The importance of Hume’s ethic and its relation to pragmatic environmental ethics lies in his relation of sentiment and reason and their importance in moral decision making. First, he claims that reason alone cannot motivate moral decision making. We base our moral judgments on personal merits—the qualities that render a man “an object of esteem and affection or of hatred and contempt” (Hume). The only thing man needs, he claims, to decide whether or not a quality should be ascribed to himself is to “enter his own breast for a moment, and consider whether or not he should desire to have this or that quality ascribed to him, and whether such or such and imputation would proceed from a friend or an enemy” (Hume). This indicates that the judgment of whether a quality is considered “good” or “bad” is a judgment based on sentiment.
It is important to note, however, that Hume does not divorce reason from the process of moral judgment; rather, he makes special note to underline its importance while still maintaining that it is not the deciding factor in our judgments. Important to Hume is the idea of the usefulness of human qualities or actions. Reason, he claims, “when fully assisted and improved, [is] sufficient to instruct us in the pernicious or useful tendency of qualities and actions” (Hume). In other words, it is the role of reason to discern and discriminate between virtue and vice, and Hume states how important this step is in even getting to the point where one can employ sentiment—reason allows distinctions between qualities to be made, but once this distinction is made, it can do no more. It is up to the role of sentiment at that point to be the final factor in our moral judgments.
Following this line of reasoning, he states also that reason alone is not sufficient enough for any moral judgments to be made at all. All qualities upon which men make moral judgments, he says, require some sort of subjective “influence” that causes us to either praise or scorn them. Reason discovers truth, but carries no persuading influence with such truths. Reason, therefore, cannot motivate on its own any sort of moral judgment, since the truths it discovers “are indifferent, and beget no desire or aversion, [and] they can have no influence on conduct and behavior” (Hume). The traits that we find admirable as well as those we find despicable, Hume claims, we deem so due to our sentiments regarding them.
To understand how Hume’s ethic—especially his claim that both reason and sentiment play important roles in the development of moral distinctions—relates to pragmatism, we need to see first how modern philosophers interpret pragmatism in relation to environmental ethics. A common problem with many approaches to such an action-oriented ethic, according to environmental pragmatists, is the tendency of philosophers to focus on more abstract, unnecessarily complicated definitions and distinctions. This focus on what I considered at the beginning of this paper to be components of “armchair philosophy” rather than more practical, easier-to-understand elements seems to be less than optimal for an ethic that is so focused on being applied to real life.
Anthony Weston, for example, in his paper “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics,” mainly attacks the idea of intrinsic value. Drawing a distinction between instrumental value—valuing nature because it is necessary or useful—and intrinsic value—valuing nature for its own sake, Weston claims that most environmental ethicists tend to focus on the latter as their reason for why we should demonstrate respect for and care for nature. However, he claims that such a thing as “inherent value” is a non-natural property “where problematic metaphysical commitments are plain to see” (Weston, 329). In other words, how can one judge what has inherent value and what doesn’t? Others (e.g., Minteer & Manning) see such abstract, theoretical concepts in a similar manner, stating that when focused on alone, they do little for an ethic that is very much based in action and connection with the real world.
A pragmatic approach to ethics, according to its supporters, attempts to involve experience, differing viewpoints, and a less “removed” approach to what constitutes morality in order to create a more applicable environmental ethic. According to Weston, pragmatism “focuses on the interrelatedness of our values” (Weston, 334) and creates a sort of ecology of values that can be changed and modified. Minteer and Manning share a similar interpretation of pragmatic ethics. A pragmatic approach, they hold, strives to develop a more “applied” ethics, one that is based on experience, experiments, and more societal- and cultural-based guidelines for defining and determining morality. That is, the authors advocate an approach that, with the input from the community and lawmakers in that community, will be based mainly off of the society’s moral guidelines in which the ethic will take hold.
From the perspectives of both Minteer and Manning and Weston, we can define pragmatism now in terms of environmental ethics. For environmental ethicists, a pragmatic approach is an attempt to involve experience, differing viewpoints, and a less “removed” approach to get to what constitutes morality. The idea of a pragmatism in environmental ethics is to examine things from a more practical and applied approach that involves more action-based ideas such as looking at differing viewpoints, experience, and experiments.
With pragmatism defined in terms of environmental ethics, we turn now to two authors—P.S. Greenspan and Y. S. Lo—who explicitly mention Humean ethics in relation to their interpretations of environmental pragmatism. P.S. Greenspan examines the idea of social norms and codes in relation to Hume’s notions of reason and sentiment, while Lo focuses on how we come to deem actions virtuous or vicious.
Greenspan claims that the concept of moral wrong is the result of a “collective response”—it arises due to society and the way certain acts are forbidden in order to achieve or to allow for what he deems “group flourishing” (Greenspan, 110). In other words, he claims that moral codes are constructed by society in order to promote the flourishing of that society. It is here that Greenspan makes a comparison with Hume’s idea of reason. His suggestion “presuppose[s] notions of group rationality, or arguably even moral assessment, on the order of ‘social flourishing’” (Greenspan, 109). Group members, according to Greenspan, are rational agents, not just in general but within each individual case where questions over morality arise. It is this rationality of the members of a society that allow for a rational application of morals.
The more important component to morality for Greenspan, though, involves a semi-Humean notion of sentiment. This relates to how morality is taught. Emotion is relied upon as a “supplement to cognition in general terms” when morality is taught and in the way morality is generally set up in a society. With the assumption that moral language, moral emotion, and moral rules are taught generally in the same manner to children, he makes the assertion that emotion and sentiment are actually the first components of morality taught to young children.
For example, when a child does something that is deemed morally wrong, such as pushing another child, they are taught that what they did was a bad thing—either because their actions caused the other child to be sad, or because their actions led them to an unfavorable consequence (such as being put in time-out, thus making them angry). “What comes first,” according to Greenspan, “is basic emotion tendencies such as sadness and anger, along with some sort of higher order tendency to pick up emotional reactions from others—something like Humean sympathy” (Greenspan, 107).
The practicality and pragmatism of this combination of reason and sentiment is quite apparent. The aspect of sentiment allows for a more “personal” application of morals—what one does leads to consequences (or benefits) that evoke some form of emotional response. The aspect of rationality allows for a coming together of differing emotional responses and reactions that allow for a form of “group consensus” of what may be deemed immoral (things that cause adverse emotional reactions) and moral (things that cause good emotional reactions).
This type of application of reason and sentiment combined to develop morality can be extended to apply to environmental ethics as well. For example, suppose the individuals of a community decide to overlook the pollution in their lake. However, at a certain point, the lake water becomes poisoned due to the pollution and the members of the community, who rely on the lake for their drinking water supply, get sick because of the poisoned water. I will develop this example in relation to Humean ethics and pragmatism in general later in this essay, but for now, we examine it from Greenspan’s theory. According to Greenspan, the members of the community will first respond with an emotional reaction—maybe some will be angry that their water supply is poisoned, others will be generally upset, some will be sad, etc. Along with this, Greenspan would argue, many would probably make the connection between the poisoned drinking water supply and the pollution in the lake. Led by their rationality, these members of the community would come together and try to work out the best way to deal with the cause (the pollution) of their adverse emotional responses.
A very similar interpretation of the importance of Humean sentiment and reason with regards to environmental ethics can be drawn from Y. S. Lo. He reiterates Hume’s claim that which actions are deemed “virtuous” and which are deemed “vicious” are based on the feeling or sentiment one has regarding the action (Lo, 128). Reason alone, due to its objective, unbiased standpoint, could not lead one to make any sort of distinction between that which is considered moral and that which is considered immoral. “An action or character is virtuous/vicious,” Lo claims, “if and only if the ‘spectator’ feels the sentiment of approbation/disapprobation towards it” (Lo, 130).
Like Greenspan, Lo points out the importance of rationality, citing Hume’s condition that the spectator in question must be a “judicious spectator,” adopting points of view that are free of and indifferent to private interests and relations (an especially important component when we consider that at least some significant conflicts regarding environmental ethics are caused when a private company is in conflict with environmental regulations set up by a different group).
Lo claims that it is this rationality combined with sentiment that allows for genuine virtues and vices—those that can be viewed as such under ideal conditions (though he never specifies what these are). In other words, he reiterates a view of Hume’s—that there is a human nature that all humans universally share. The relation of this view to morality, according to Lo, is that it “sets the limits within which a moral theory remains humanly intelligible” (Lo, 133)—that it must be interpretable and clear.
With this claim, Lo subtly argues against the “armchair philosophy” approach to ethics in general. Even if the concept of a universal human nature seems unbelievable, the important limit this idea places on philosophers when determining an ethic has to do with retaining the entire ethic in the realm of what can be humanly intelligible. In other words, such an idea appears to guide one away from more abstract, unattainable definitions such as “intrinsic value” versus “instrumental value.” While we can assume which things have intrinsic value and which do not, it is something we as a species will never truly be able to be sure about. Therefore, Lo appears to argue, we should not attempt to base an ethic on such concepts. Rather, we should stick with what we can know, experience, and define—something that is practical—reason and sentiment.
Authors who don’t explicitly mention Hume—such as Ben Minteer and Robert Manning and Anthony Weston—also demonstrate the importance of his claim that both reason and sentiment play important roles in defining morality through their descriptions of the importance of a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics.
Ben Minteer and Robert Manning, in their essay “Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics: Democracy, Pluralism, and the Management of Nature” fail to mention Hume at all, yet they advocate a pragmatism that is strongly based on Humean ideas. “Practical aims of environmental philosophy” they claim “are not well served by ethicists’ penchant for employing esoteric forms of discourse that make it difficult for a large audience to connect” (Minteer & Manning, 192). They advocate a communal, pluralistic environmental ethic derived from the coming together of different people with different viewpoints, rather than an ethic that employs terminology and distinctions that can be difficult to understand.
According to the authors, any attempt at constructing an environmental ethic based purely on “analytically constructed moral ‘truths’” is insufficient (Minteer & Manning, 194). This is similar to Hume’s objection regarding basing morality solely on reason. “There is a broad range of moral sentiments about human-nature relationships,” Minteer and Manning claim, and a more community-based ethic promotes a coming together of these different viewpoints and allowing them to be open for discussion and challenges. They advocate a solution similar to that of Greenspan, who suggested that a collective response would arise out of a community’s desire to flourish. They suggest that sentiment is combined with reason when a community comes together to rationally determine how to best act as a group with regards to differing sentiments.
30) The authors essentially make a very Humean claim without referring to a clear distinction between reason and sentiment at all. Individual viewpoints, or individual sentiments, must be combined in a group setting in order for criticism, challenges, and compromises to be made. This rational confluence of ideas, according to Minteer and Manning, allows for the most practical, applicable, and secure form of environmental ethic.
A similar train of reasoning can be found in Anthony Weston’s essay “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics.” As stated above, Weston argues against the abstract, obscurely-defined approach to environmental ethics. Instead he claims that a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics is essentially the only approach that would make a viable ethic possible. Disconnecting values from their contexts, Weston argues, does nothing to further our attempts to assign value, for once they are out of context, “what they are in relation to everything else is pushed out of focus” (Weston, 323). Similar to Minteer’s and Manning’s point, this, too, can be related back to Hume’s assertion that reason alone does little for defining morality. While reason is important, it is the combination of reason and sentiment that leads to the best decisions made when things become challenging.
“When values do become problematic,” Weston asserts “when choice is required, then they need articulation and defense” (Weston, 332). He promotes—again, like Minteer and Manning—a more community-based foundation for environmental ethics. Rather than relying on abstract concepts, we should rely instead on our sentiments which we then explore further through rational, communal considerations of sentiments. We must look at “the relation of these values to other parts of our system of desires…and to the solution of concrete problems” (Weston, 337).
After reviewing key points from a number of thinkers above, I have shown that many different approaches to environmental pragmatism rely on the Humean ethical components of sentiment and reason, regardless of whether or not they specifically take these components from Hume. Greenspan and Lo, who both explicitly mention the reason-sentiment distinction, claim that both components are necessary for an environmental ethic. Greenspan focuses on the fact that morality is taught first through sentiment, then rationally applied through a community coming together to better promote its flourishing. Lo focuses on the idea that “virtue” and “vice” are qualities we ascribe based solely off of our sentiments. The importance of reason, for him, lies in the fact that only judicious spectators, free of and indifferent to private interests, can make true value judgments with regards to what is virtuous and what is vicious.
Minteer and Manning and Weston, unlike Greenspan and Lo, do not explicitly mention Hume, yet the reason-sentiment distinction is still apparent in their suggestions for pragmatism. For Minteer and Manning, the focus lies on the idea of a community-based environmental ethics, where individual viewpoints (similar to sentiments) can be viewed, considered, and critiqued by all in the community, leading to a rational confluence of ideas used to develop an environmental ethic. For Weston, individual values, when they conflict with others’ values, should be worked through in a community setting, much like the rational setting Minteer and Manning suggest.
The goal of a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics is to abandon an armchair philosophy outlook on the discipline and instead focus on what can be actively, practically applied. From the authors I’ve noted above, it becomes clear that there are several key connections between the Humean distinction between reason and sentiment and components necessary for a solid, functioning pragmatic environmental ethic. The main connection between Hume’s reason-sentiment distinction and a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics exists in what many of the authors above advocate—a coming-together of individual values to systematically and rationally decide on an environmental ethic for a community. Sentiment—our emotions and feelings—guide our individual reactions to situations (such as the reaction to the poisoned drinking water in the scenario presented above). However, advocates of pragmatism suggest that if members of a community come together and rationally discuss their individual reactions to environmental issues, this will lead to a well-functioning ethic.
One criticism of a pragmatic ethic based on Hume’s reason-sentiment distinction argues against the idea that sentiment is necessary in all situations. Returning to the polluted lake example above, critics could argue that sentiment does not play a role at all—rather, the individuals in this community could come to the rational conclusion, “if we pollute the lake, the lake water will become poisonous. Since we do not want to drink poisoned water, we should stop polluting the lake” without sentiment necessarily playing a part.
A response to this criticism involves pointing out again the importance many of the authors cited above place on both reason and sentiment with regards to ethical decisions. Suppose we ask an individual in that community why he shouldn’t pollute the lake, and he responds that the pollution leads to the water being poisoned and that he doesn’t want to drink poisoned water. If we ask him why he doesn’t want to drink poison water, he will most likely come up, with a reason based off of sentiment—“it makes me sick, and being sick makes me sad/mad/upset/etc.” In other words, as many of the authors appear to suggest, at the heart of peoples’ rational decisons are sentiments, which guide their ultimate value judgments.
It is the coming together as a community to discuss and evaluate these differing value judgments, they go on to claim, that is similar to Hume’s idea of reason—communities that are able to work through many different value judgments as a group to reach a rational, general conclusion about an environmental ethic have combined both the sentiment aspect of morality and the rational aspect of morality in a pragmatic, practical, effective way.
This paper has attempted to demonstrate the strong connection between Humean ethics—particularly with the distinction between reason and sentiment and the roles both of them play in defining morality—and modern pragmatic approaches to environmental ethics. It is apparent through the articles and ideas discussed that ideas formed centuries ago by Hume still apply today, especially in a pragmatic setting. Sentiment, in the form of feelings and emotions, helps guide our value judgments—without sentiment, we could not make judgments whatsoever. Reason, in the form of communal discussion and critique, acts as a “guide” of our sentiments, which allows the ability, in a community setting, to base an environmental ethic rationally upon the collective sentiments of that community. The joint use of both reason and sentiment helps to promote a pragmatic, practical, strong approach to environmental ethics.
Greenspan, P.S.. “Moral Responses and Moral Theory: Socially-Based Externalist Ethics.” The Journal of Ethics 2(1998): 103-122.
Lo, Y.S.. “Making and Finding Values in Nature: From a Humean Point of View.” Inquiry 49(2006): 123-147.
Minteer, Ben A., and Manning. “Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics: Democracy, Pluralism, and the Management of Nature.” Environmental Ethics 21(1999): 191-207.
Hume, David. (1777; reprint 1912; digitized n.d.) An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume. Ed. J. Mamoun, C. Franks et al. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4320.
Weston, Anthony. “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Ethics 7(1985): 321-339
Hello people! So here’s a thing I wrote in response to an argument we were discussing in class about Nagel’s idea of absurdity, mainly because it’s a really interesting idea, and we had a really long discussion about it. Don’t read if you don’t want to, blah, blah, blahblahblahblahblah.
The issues regarding meaning and absurdity in our lives are two issues that have developed out of belief—specifically, beliefs regarding humans and their relationship to the rest of the world and universe. Humans naturally look for meaning in their lives and for their roles in the universe. An extreme conception of the meaning a human life can hold is demonstrated in the argument of a single person bringing an end to the world and all of humanity. However, this quest for meaning is a quest challenged most recently by existential philosophers seeking to demonstrate that meaning—at least meaning that can be understood by humans—does not exist. Thomas Nagel, in his work “The Absurd,” is one such philosopher, wishing to demonstrate that meaning—philosophical meaning, specifically—does not exist in a manner that can be understood by humans.
By first examining Nagel’s view of philosophical absurdity, a brief overview of a common conception of meaning, and then relating both of these viewpoints to the argument that meaning can be found in the life of a person who brings an end to humanity—henceforth called the Mad Scientist Argument—I will demonstrate that when Nagel’s definition of absurdity is applied to the argument, regardless of whether or not we accept that the Mad Scientist’s life impacts things, meaninglessness is eventually the conclusion reached.
In “The Absurd,” Nagel makes a distinction between two different types of absurdity. Peoples’ lives can become absurd temporarily due to their ambitions, circumstances, or relations. This, for Nagel, is what he considers to be ordinary, more situational absurdity—the “conspicuous discrepancies between…aspiration and reality” (Nagel, 718). He cites the example of a person giving a complex speech to support a motion that has already passed.
Philosophical absurdity, on the other hand, involves a more universal component—recognizing the collision or conflict between how seriously we take our lives and the possibility that everything we hold important (everything that we are serious about) is open to doubt (Nagel, 718). As humans, we are able to operate with these two viewpoints, since we are able to step back reflect on our lives and recognize the possibility that all things we take seriously are arbitrary, and yet we still do take things seriously. According to Nagel, this is what makes life absurd.
Nagel’s take on meaninglessness and absurdity contrasts with another, more popular viewpoint that presents meaningfulness as relative to the entire universe—similar to Nagel—but claiming that meaning can still be found in the form of impact. This idea is a type of meaningfulness-absurdity compatibilism—the idea that if a person were to affect things on a large enough scale, (i.e., something that is larger than themselves), their lives would be deemed meaningful and be free of absurdity, at least on the philosophical level. Nagel himself points to this type of example in “The Absurd.” “Those seeking to supply their lives with meaning,” he states “usually envision a role or function in something larger than themselves” (Nagel, 720). What I am calling the Mad Scientist Argument falls into this realm.
Suppose for the sake of argument that a Mad Scientist launches a rocket directly into the sun and, by doing so, causes the sun to explode. Due to this explosion, the planet and the entire human race is (forever) destroyed. The case made by those who pose similar scenarios to the Mad Scientist Argument is this: the Mad Scientist, by destroying the human race, has impacted the universe as a whole, since the universe is now forever going to be free of the influence of humans. Not only has the Mad Scientist changed the human race (by destroying it, of course), he has also eliminated one of the influences of the universe.
Such extreme individual cases, proponents of this viewpoint argue, are strong arguments for meaning and against absurdity. Despite the fact that the Mad Scientist is just one life, if it is in fact the case that his life gains meaning due to his destruction of the human race—since it is very difficult to claim that the person who destroyed the entire human race has a life devoid of meaning through its impact—then it is a case against complete absurdity.
The question that an example such as the Mad Scientist Argument poses is rather complex: does an individual bringing an end to the human race cause that individual’s life to have meaning? If this idea is explored further, we will see that it leads to an interesting conclusion and, ultimately, leads us back to a discussion of Nagel and his idea of absurdity.
Suppose we are to accept that the Mad Scientist’s life is given meaning when he destroys the human race by launching a rocket into the sun. If we accept this as the case, it follows that the next step would be to find out how the Mad Scientist was able to gain a meaningful life. To do so, we have to take a step back from the given scenario.
Yes, the Mad Scientist’s life was given its ultimate meaning when he destroyed the human race, but the question must be asked: would the Mad Scientist’s life still have gained meaning if the influences in his life had led him down another path? Perhaps his major professor at MIT dissuaded him from working for NASA, or his parents refused to support him during college and he had to drop out due to money issues. Suppose his great-grandparents had decided to remain in Europe instead of traveling to the United States, or suppose that he had had an older brother who persuaded him to go into business instead of science. Going even further back, suppose certain metal alloys had never been invented, making it impossible to even construct rockets capable of withstanding the heat needed to launch them into space, or suppose that certain political conflicts had delayed the advancement of science, causing rockets to not even be a feasible scientific effort during the lifetime of the Mad Scientist.
In other words, there are people in the Mad Scientist’s past who, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, influenced his ultimate position and made it possible for him to even be capable of launching a rocket into the sun and destroying the human race. Thus, if we deem the Mad Scientist’s life meaningful through the impact it had on the universe, we must deem every life that proceeded and affected him (all the lives that impacted him), causing him to be the person he was, meaningful as well. We cannot assign meaning to the Mad Scientist’s life without also assigning meaning to the lives of all that impacted him and shaped him into the rocket-launching Mad Scientist that decided to destroy the human race.
This argument demonstrates that once meaningfulness is assigned to the Mad Scientist, there is no non-arbitrary point at which we can cease assigning meaning to the lives of those who impacted him. However, this point is taken from a somewhat different angle when the Mad Scientist Argument is examined from Nagel’s viewpoint.
It is my opinion that, if this argument were to be analyzed by Nagel, it would still fail to be an adequate argument against absurdity. Following up on his acknowledgment that a common method of seeking meaning for one’s life is to view one’s role in something larger than one’s self (Nagel, 720), he points out an important condition: if we are to seek meaning in a larger enterprise, the meaning must still come back to something we are able to understand—lacking any understanding of the larger enterprise negates any possible meaning we may be able to derive from it. As he puts it, “its [the meaning’s] significance must come back to what we can understand, or it will not even appear to give us what we are seeking” (Nagel, 721).
If we are to accept that the Mad Scientist’s life has meaning, we also have to accept that this meaning arises from the circumstances that put him in the position to end the world. Therefore, according to the idea of meaningfulness, everything that influenced the scientist would have to be assigned meaning (as would everything that influenced them to put them in a place to influence the scientist, and so on).
This is the point to which Nagel would respond. In order to assign meaning to the Mad Scientist and to all who, in one way or another, impacted him, we would have to take these impacts and their ramifications seriously in order to understand them. However, since the impact from person to person—for each person leading up to those directly influencing the Mad Scientist—is so hard to find and so complicated (for example, how do whether or not the scientist’s first grade teacher’s choice of having the children focus more on art than math impacted the scientist in the end?), there is no way to understand it, and therefore, we really can’t derive any meaning from it.
One possible objection to this analysis involves the idea that Nagel’s definition of understanding does not have to be so stringent—that is, it is not necessary for us to completely understand every impact every person has on the Mad Scientist in order to gain a general understanding of the causal events (and their meanings) that led the Mad Scientist to the point where he destroyed the human race (thus giving his own life meaning). It is my opinion that Nagel would counter this argument by claiming that our seriousness in our attempts to discover the meanings in the Mad Scientist’s life and the lives of all who impacted him is in direct conflict with his idea that these things we take seriously are entirely arbitrary—in other words, the argument would still lead us to the conclusion of absurdity, regardless of whether or not we initially accepted that the Mad Scientist’s life had meaning.
What I’ve attempted to show in this essay is the fact that even with an example as extreme as the Mad Scientist argument, it can be demonstrated, using Nagel’s definition of philosophical absurdity, that we can still be led to the conclusion of absurdity. Even if we are to accept the idea that our lives have meaning, we are led, through our serious attempts to discover this meaning, to the conflict Nagel points out between the seriousness of our lives and the arbitrariness of the things we take seriously. This, to him, is absurdity.
Reference: Nagel, T. (1971, December). The absurd. The Journal of Philosophy, 716-727.
So I randomly found some article today that was talking about a college that was cutting their Philosophy department completely out of the school because Philosophy is, they figure, a completely worthless major.
I call bullshit.
I hated philosophy when I first started college and didn’t “get it.” But I’m pretty sure I still would have questioned a college cutting it entirely.
So, because you all know I love lists and love annoying you with my opinions, I present to you a list of seven skills that I have seen sharply defined by people taking philosophy classes or people who are philosophy majors.
Standing up and screaming your point does not take skill, it just takes powerful lungs (or fast fingers if you use sign language). Standing up and debating/defending your point with actual support does. Sometimes you think you support an issue when you’re really just unsure about where you stand; often, being forced to argue your point in class after class (after class after class…) makes you stop and think about some sort of cogent chain of support for your stance in your head before you stand up and start yelling stuff at the people around you.
You think philosophy classes involve sitting around discussing Kant? I remember Philosophy of Mind involving spring-up-out-of-your-chair-with-passion-and-a-logical-retort types of arguments. It was freaking great.
Written argument skills
Very different than verbal arguments. Not everyone can make a vehement and convincing argument as equally vehement and convincing on paper. Phil majors are pretty much required to. Why are you opposed to Machiavellian ethics? Are there similarities between Hume’s distinction between reason and sentiment and pragmatic environmentalism? Why is Leibniz the sexiest thing ever (a highly philosophical question)? You can make similarly strong points with the written word as you can with the spoken word, you just have to know how.
Writing skills in general
Proper essay format gets BEATEN INTO YOUR HEAD in philosophy classes as it does in intro English classes, though philosophy classes teach you how to use the generic outline to your benefit in ways English 101 never taught you.
Essential to arguments. Essential to pretty much everything else. Aside from all the other “logic,” Symbolic Logic particularly has been helpful in other classes, including the dreaded and most-feared Linear Algebra, Psychology of Learning, and Multivariate Analysis. I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of it.
A slightly different (and much less appreciated) history degree
Learning philosophy is like learning the history of the world, albeit through a slightly different lens. If you get a large enough range of philosophers, you’re able to group them into the time periods during which they were prominent. You can see the correlation between the major things that were going on during the time the philosopher was active and the things they wrote about. I remember Western history better ‘cause I know what all the white dudes in Europe were talking about at specific times. It’s strange, but it works.
An interesting way of merging disciplines
You’d be surprised how often philosophers’ discussions coincide with problems in other fields, particularly science. I’m surprised there’s such an overlap between philosophical discussions/theories and statistics. Probably not enough that would convince the formation of a joint philosophy/statistics degree (much to my chagrin), but quite a lot nonetheless.
An obscure sense of humor
The best of all possible benefits of being a philosophy major.
So…the whole “is the glass half-empty or half-full” question bugs the hell out of me, and here’s why: every time I’m asked that question, I desire to answer it based on the glass’ function. That is, I want to answer it by asking myself, “what is the purpose of a glass?”
What the hell do I mean? Well, let’s take another example.
Here I have a pen (not really, but just humor me). The pen’s purpose—its “human-granted teleology”—is to write. Yes, there could be other interpretations of this quite easily (a pen is for holding, a pen is for conveying information, a pen is for doodling boobies when you’re bored in stats, etc.), but let’s just stick with the obvious, okay?
So the pen’s purpose is to write. Therefore, if someone were to ask me “is this pen’s ink-chamber-thingy half-full or half-empty?” I would respond with what the state of the ink-chamber-thingy would be after the pen had performed half of its purpose (assuming it held a full chamber-thingy at its manufacture, you never know these days). The chamber-thingy would, then, be half-empty.
Of course, you could look at the same question a different way, now that I look back and realize I specified the ink chamber inside the pen and not the pen itself. What is the purpose of the ink chamber? Certainly not to write (that’s the pen’s job). To hold ink? If so, then it is half-full, as when it began its little journey to completing its teleological purpose (holding a full chamber of ink), it was entirely empty.
Now that I’ve contradicted my argument (BUT NOT MY POINT), let’s look at the glass. If you think that the purpose of a glass is to hold liquid, then you would say that the glass is half-full, right? Since at the beginning of its teleological journey, the glass is empty.
But suppose you say, “you’re an idiot, the purpose of a glass is to be drank from,” then it seems natural to say that the glass is now half-empty, since a glass, in order to be drank from, must contain some amount of liquid, and since trying to drink out of an already-empty glass is dumb.
Does that make any sense? Any sense at all? Do I belabor everything way too much? I believe this discussion could carry on further into the metaphysical realm (“but what if the teleology of the ink chamber is to be empty in order to later hold ink?!”) and ultimately into “what’s the teleological purpose of PEOPLE, OMG?” but I’m hungry and I want instant mashed potatoes like none other, so I’m going to go make some.
An essay. It’s on intentionality, which is basically any type of causal relation (either a statement or an action) that has a “cause and effect” kind of thing going on. Intentional mental states can include thirst, a desire for something specific, a thought that prompts an action, or a simple prepositional thought. I think that’s all the premises you need; most of it is explained in the essay. I’m arguing against Searle’s position again. ‘Cause I want to.
In his chapter on intentionality, Searle puts forth two differing arguments relating to how the contents of intentional states are determined and what properties of these intentional states constitute their having the contents they do. Out of the two arguments he puts forth—externalism and internalism—he argues for internalism, stating that intentional contents result solely from what is inside our heads.
The idea of internalism basically states that what features constitute intentional states exist entirely in our minds, or, as Searle puts it, “entirely between our ears.” This is in contrast to externalism, which says that intentional content is constituted at least in part by the external world—that is, that it is caused by relations between the mind and the external world. Searle argues his point by emphasizing the idea of conditions, or, more specifically, conditions of satisfaction. Conditions of satisfaction are conditions that allow for mind-world “fit”—that is, in the case of desires, conditions of satisfaction are satisfied when the world (reality) fits the content of the intentional state, and in the case of beliefs or convictions (for example), conditions are satisfied when the intentional state fits reality.
Searle asserts that these conditions are entirely represented in the mind and are entirely internal to it. He uses the example of water to demonstrate this. Something is defined as “water,” he says, if it matches the conditions of satisfaction for water that are set up in a person’s mind. In other words, if the external thing in question matches the “checklist” of traits that characterize the condition of “water” for a person, the thing is then deemed to be water. Here is where Searle draws the line between the internal and external influence: it is up to the external world whether or not an object fits these criteria, but it is up to the mind what the criteria are.
By the end, Searle has basically asserted that the features that enable intentional states to arise are constituted by conditions of satisfaction, the properties of which are set up entirely by the mind itself and are internal to it. In other words, he has stated that (P1) all non-null intentional states have conditions of satisfaction that allow for a mind-world “fit” and that (P2) these conditions of satisfaction are all internal to the mind. Therefore, (C) internalism, the argument that the features that constitute intentional states exist entirely in our minds, is valid.
I believe that it is possible to refute Searle’s second premise, that all conditions of satisfaction are internal to the mind, but in order to do so it is important to break away from an argument based on language or social interaction. I think a stronger argument against internalism can arise from arguing from meaning stemming from the intentional state itself. My argument will keep the same first premise, that (P1) all non-null intentional states have conditions of satisfaction that allow for a mind-world “fit,” but also assert that (P2) some intentional states’ conditions exist independently of the mind’s internal “checklist” and are instead determined by external factors, and therefore conclude that (C) internalism is not a valid argument for how the contents of intentional states are determined.
The best way to demonstrate this is with a primitive desire, like thirst. The intentional state of thirst has a very specific set of conditions of satisfaction, and the things that satisfy these conditions are things that the mind on its own cannot specify. That is, the mind cannot set the conditions for what satisfy thirst on anything that can be solely internally constructed. There is a very set list of things in the world that satisfy the desire of thirst (water, soda, juice, etc.), and the mind cannot create any other things or traits that satisfy thirst.
If we step away from using language as what assigns meaning to things, we can see that a better way to assign meaning to intentional states—and to argue that there is an external factor in at least some intentional states’ contents—is to rely on the intentional states t..hemselves and what actually satisfy their conditions of satisfaction. Looking at the intentional state of thirst in this way doesn’t rely on a social or language-based interpretation of the desire. The desire is the same regardless of what it is called, and the conditions of satisfaction are not something the mind can, on its own, determine.
The mind cannot assign, for example, the condition “sunlight satisfies thirst”—it has no control over what specific externally-existing objects or states satisfy the desire of thirst. The things that satisfy thirst do not do so because they conform to our internal list of conditions of satisfaction—they do so because they are the only things that satisfy the desire. We can say whatever we want in regards to what satisfies thirst—the basic biological fact is that only certain things actually do satisfy thirst. This is the external influence. The mind, on its own, cannot “set” these conditions of satisfaction; the things that satisfy thirst are the only things that satisfy the desire, and they exist independently of and are not dependent on the mind’s internal “checklist.”
Okay okay, no Dr. Pepper.
Here are my top 5 reasons for determinism, or at least my top 5 reasons against free will as most people see it. Probably not very well argued and certainly not comprehensive, because it’s 4 in the morning and I just ate a metric ton of M&Ms and am bouncing off the walls. From “least powerful” to “most powerful.”
“Choice” doesn’t really exist
I know this point is probably splitting hairs, but it’s a point that I think should be made. We can’t not “choose.” We may assume we’re in control of what we decide to do, but in truth, we’re not. Suppose I had an apple and an orange, and I got to pick which one I wanted. Even if I were to say, “I don’t like apples or oranges, so I’m not going to pick one,” I would still be making the choice not to choose between two options presented outside of my control. The choice not to choose is in our control, but it’s still a choice.
We are constrained and ultimately directed by our desires
I think we like to believe we have free will because we assume that we can choose to follow our desires or not. Suppose I had to choose between eating a crap ton of M&Ms (obviously the choice I want) or going to the rec center. If I chose the M&Ms, I would be choosing in the favor of my desire. But if I chose the rec center instead, I would be going against my desires, thus showing I could choose against what I want, right?
I don’t think so. The extent of our control over our desires lies only in the psychological realm, I think. I don’t believe we can ultimately choose pain over pleasure, even if, in the short run, what we’re choosing appears to be pain. I hate going to the rec center and think it’s boring. So why would I ever choose to do it? Because after I’m done, I feel better. Even people who do stuff that are “painful” or “not desirable” as characterized by the majority of people do so because, for some reason or another, the activities are desirable to themselves. I think, with any choice we make, we can find some positive link to a desire.
True free will would “eliminate” this desire
Okay, so what if you still think we have free will despite this element of desire? I’ve talked to some people (I talk about this a LOT, trust me) who have said that free will is the absence of any sway or any outside force influencing your decisions (like for example, one guy mentioned God’s influence). Well, wouldn’t that just put everything onto a level playing field, then? I would think it would be impossible to get anything done if we weren’t swayed by any influence outside of our own mind. “Do I wash the car or do I kill the president? DO I WASH THE CAR OR DO I KILL THE PRESIDENT?!?”
It seems like the inclusion of free will eliminates a portion of the parsimony of universal laws that can be retained if the same phenomena can be explained using determinism. That is, I think that determinism retains a simplicity that is lost when free will is added to the mix. I believe that our choices and actions in our world can be explained just as well with determinism as they can with free will. If this is so, then a universe with determinism included in its model rather than free will is a more parsimonious universe.
Materialism lends itself to determinism
I’m a materialist, which basically means that I think that all of consciousness arises solely out of the biological functionings of the brain and has nothing to do with any sort of “outside” source like a soul. The biological processes of the brain, of course, involve various chemical and electrical interactions. I think processes like these—things going down on an atomic level—are essentially governed by causation. Positive and negative charges influence sodium-potassium gates, if I can remember back to Bio 102 (sorry if I’m wrong, Matt). I think these causal influences, if we take materialism as our assumption and assume that consciousness arises out of purely biological mechanisms, can run all the way up the chain. That is, causal processes at the atomic level = causal processes at the level of the whole consciousness. To me, that just makes sense.
So open-mindedness is “how open you are to revising them [your opinions] in appropriate circumstances,” correct? In other words, it is the opposite of close-mindedness.
Here’s the question: would an open-minded person still be considered open-minded if circumstances required them to change their opinions to the point that the person became close-minded?
But then wouldn’t they just be close-minded and it wouldn’t matter anyway?
Is open-mindedness close-minded to close-mindedness?
Cleaning sinks all day does nothing to distract my mind from this crap, and probably screws with my logic quite a bit.
So Berkeley’s “to be is to be perceived” thing has been bothering me ever since we studied him last semester. So today I worked out a quick (and probably logically flawed) argument against his idea.
In case you may not know, here’s his idea in a few sentences: nothing exists if it is not being perceived in some sense by someone. This would make him the advocate of the idea that a room winks out of existence when everyone leaves it, but he’s got his catch to establish the idea that this does not occur…he says that God is constantly watching everything*, and therefore everything is always in existence (handy, huh?). But basically, he says that there is no material underpinning to the world—everything is and exists solely because it is perceived. There is no material world, existence is dependent on perception.
So because I have no job, no life, and an online class that is extremely easy and therefore takes up very little of my time, I sat around today and tried to work out a semi-coherent argument stating that there is something independent of our perceptions, and this thing is necessary for existence. This is confusing, but it works out in my head, so now I have to write it in a coherent manner. I want to see if other people can follow this train of thought, so I’m going to break it into little small sentences that build on each other in a sequential manner. It kind of work likes a proof, but I didn’t really feel like making a proof, so this is what you get.
- Existence cannot be perception due to the fact that to perceive something (the “positive”) requires space (the “negative”), or something in which the thing is perceived.
- The “negative,” or space, is imperceptible by itself.
- You need to perceive the “positive”, or things, in order to perceive the negative.
- But to perceive the positive, you need to perceive the negative.
- If existence were to be solely perception, it would be impossible for the things we perceive to exist because we are unable to perceive space, the quality that allows things to exist.
- However, one cannot perceive the positive without the negative, or the negative without the positive.
- If we take Berkeley’s theory as the base, then we have to perceive things in order for them to exist.
- Because of this idea, that means we would have to perceive space to perceive at all, since perceiving the negative is necessary to perceive the positive.
- However, we are not able to perceive space.
- But since we are able to perceive things, that must mean that space exists in some sort of sense.
- Space, therefore, must exist independent of our perception, because we can’t perceive it and yet we know it is there because we can perceive the positive, or things.
In fact, I’d say that space, not perception, is necessary for existence.
Does that make any sense at all? If it does, does it seem like a circular argument? I’d like to hear your reactions to this, especially if it seems unclear.
*Yes, he has a way of explaining how God exists if no one is necessarily perceiving him…don’t ask me to explain it, though, ‘cause I can’t remember it.
Tell me your opinion of free will. Does it exist?
My opinion, of course, shall come in a later blog. After grades come in.