Submissions Wanted for Upcoming Philosophers’ Carnival

Philosophers’ Carnival #173 will be happening soon. And unless there’s been some change of plans, it will be happening here! (And if not here, then somewhere). So, if you have some philosophical content on a blog that you would like to be included, please go here and use the submission form – soon!

Please be aware that I’m happy to consider contributions from across the breadth of philosophical disciplines, practices and traditions. That said, I’ve got a soft spot for all things science-fiction, so if your post has some SF-meets-philosophy action going on, I’d be especially thrilled.

Brains (or Hands) in Vats

Tristan Haze over at Sprachlogik wrote this post about a particular argument relating to being a Brain in a Vat (BIV) a while ago. I started to write a comment on it this morning, but it got slightly too long, so here we are.

I have to agree that much ink has been spent on the following kind of argument:

  1. If you’re a brain in a vat then you don’t have hands
  2. You don’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat
  3. Therefore you don’t know that you have hands

Haze argues that the there is good reason to not accept (1). Essentially, he claims, there is a sense in which if you were a BIV, that hand-talk still expresses a proposition. Despite what Putnam said, even if you were a BIV, ‘hands’ still means something.

I don’t really want to get into Putnam today, but as a defender of a kind-of causal theory of reference, I would agree for slightly different reasons. Meaning, for a word like ‘hands’ comes from the causal chain of use and it would not really matter if the chain were partly (or even entirely) in a simulated environment.

What I was interested in, and was happy to see that Haze acknowledged, was that knowing that her have hands says nothing either way about whether or not we are living in a simulation or not.

Since premise (1) isn’t unambiguously true, the modified argument ends up something like this:

  1. If you’re a brain in a vat then you have hands in a different way than if you weren’t a brain in a vat.
  2. You don’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat
  3. Therefore you don’t know that you have ‘real’ hands or simulated hands that are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from ‘real’ hands.

Is the conclusion worth worrying about? For everyday purposes, probably not, since the only doubt you have about your hands is unrelated to the everyday experience of your hands. Imagine  someone in a Matrix-style simulation, whose simulated body has no hands, while their real body still has them (even if, as in the movie, they don’t actually use them). Would this person be particularly comforted to be told that it’s OK because they ‘really’ have hands? I think not.

My conclusion indicates that I’ve assumed the simulation to be perfect in the sense that (unlike Neo’s experience of the Matrix) there is nothing in what we perceive  or experience that gives us reason to think that the world around us is not what it seems. For those not familiar with BIV and deceiving demon scenarios, this is normal – we would hardly worry about whether or not we were in a simulation if we could tell the difference between it and reality.

What is important to note is this: you can’t perceive your way out of a perfect simulation.  “But I have hands!” you cry, whilst gesturing dramatically. Yes, you perceive and experience your hands, but since the problem is trusting one’s perceptions, this doesn’t tell us much either way.

Can you reason your way out of the vat? I don’t have a definite opinion. But at this point, I suspect not.

What Should you do for Love (or Jewellery)?

I caught an ad for Michael Hill jewelry  on TV a few nights ago, (timed to coincide with Valentines Day I suppose). If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here. (You don’t have to watch it – but this might make more sense if you do.)  I think a lot of advertising is (at best) ethically and morally ambiguous, but this ad is interesting because this characteristic is much closer to the surface.

The ad features the portrait style images of people expressing various (and occasionally intense ) emotions, accompanied by the following text, one line at a time.

I’d Die For It
I’d Cheat For It
I’d Lie For It
I’d Fight For It
I’d Turn For It

What Would You Do For Love?

Sure, it seems to be manipulative – that’s hardly unique in advertising. But I can’t help but feel a little troubled at the ideas implied here.

1. “I’d die for it” Sure, it’s the  classic romantic gesture when (possibly) referring to self-sacrifice. But there are times when this isn’t justifiable.

2. “I’d cheat for it”. In the context of romantic love, ‘cheating’ could certainly refer to infidelity, though that’s open to interpretation. In any case, it certainly refers to some sort of dishonesty. Whether or not such cheating is ethical or morally justifiable comes down to specifics. But most non-trivial interpretations of ‘cheat’ surely are only justified by extenuating circumstances, if at all. Cheating on one’s partner, committing academic fraud, such as plagiarism, and ripping off a casino are all broadly ‘cheating’, but under most circumstances the fact that you are doing them ‘for love’ does not, in and of itself, render them any less unethical (or immoral if that’s your preference).

3. “I’d lie for it”. Similar to above but even more complicated.

4. “I’d fight for it”. Possibly a euphemism for ‘I’d kill for it’? Again, there are circumstances where ‘fighting’ for love (whatever that means) might be permissible, and others where it is not. Note that I do not include stalking, punching/glassing some guy/girl because they looked at your guy/girl, or not taking ‘no’ for an answer in the permissible category.

5. “I’d turn for it”. Now, this one is complicated. On one hand I have no moral or ethical problem, all things considered, with someone changing their usual sexual preference for the sake of love. On the other hand, the use of ‘turn’ is possibly problematic as it implies choice – as if people can choose to be  sexually and/or romantically attracted to men or women. Were the makers of the ad trying to be controversial or edgy here? Some philosophers in the area of gender and feminism might also take interest in the fact that this line was paired with a woman – as if it’s safer PR-wise to suggest that she (rather than a he) might turn (in either direction).

When you add the final “What would you do for love?” the implication is complete. You’d do all these things for love, but you won’t go out and buy something from Michael Hill – what’s wrong with you? Get out there and buy some compressed carbon attached to a bit of metal!

These gestures implied by the ad are dramatic, but I’m not convinced that they are the hardest things that regular people do for love. What about ‘I’d compromise for it’, ‘I’d be honest even when I didn’t want to be’ or ‘I’d put my own interests to one side for it’? Accurate, but not a great way to sell the symbolic purchase of decorative mineral adornments.

Perhaps the ambiguity isn’t the fault of the advertisement – I mean people do sometimes do morally problematic or unethical things for love. Or they tell themselves they do, at any rate.

What I would take exception to would be the implication that otherwise immoral and/or unethical acts (cheating, lying, killing etc.) are somehow excusable in virtue of the fact that a person did them for love.

Does the Michael Hill advertisement imply this? Not directly. But it does imply that you should buy their jewellery  ‘for love’, so you have to wonder.

172nd Philosophers’ Carnival

The next Philosophers’ Carnival is on at elisafreschi.com.  It features an interesting selection of articles across a wide range of areas – mainly analytic, but with plenty of ‘non-Western’ and a little bit of continental as well.

I haven’t read them  all yet (still catching up on last month), but I do like the first two – the Leveling Argument and Playing Outside Your Wheelhouse.

My note on a feature of some conspiracy theories snuck in as well. I’m pretty excited to be involved in the Philosophers’ Carnival again and am looking forward to hosting the March installment.

A Note on Conspiracy Theories

While this isn’t specifically about the recent incidents in France or Nigeria, some of the comments I’ve read have reminded me of a discussion that I’ve had multiple times over the past ten years. I suppose that this is technically about the epistemology of conspiracy theories, as well as a seemingly self-contradictory or self-defeating feature of certain sets of beliefs. Scepticism is nothing new in philosophy, so I think it’s practitioners might have something to contribute in this case.

With the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I have seen at least a few comments on The Conversation that dispute the official account of events. In particular I have noted a few claims that this was some sort of ‘false flag’ operation perpetrated by CIA (or similar) agents. (I’ve yet to read any similar claims about the activities of Boko Haram for some reason.) Now, I’m not going to get into trying to assess these claims. But I do wonder how one might rationally  justify a belief in these sort of things.

A core part of an individual  accepting an alternative interpretation of these events is that certain sources of information and interpretations of events are seen as more reliable and trustworthy than others. Where the conspiracy is only partial, this is relatively unproblematic; the main-stream media and/or the state will selectively withhold or distort information. This is almost certainly true – even if only slightly. So the extent of, and intention behind, such manipulations form the contested area here.

In the context of over-arching conspiracy theories, where the reach of the conspiracy approaches ubiquity, epistemological  problems become more apparent. An example of this is the belief that the US government had infiltrated conspiracy theory forums in order to spread disinformation and distrust and undermine ‘the truth’. The paper by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, Conspiracy theories: Causes and cures*, was presented to me as evidence of this. This was in part because it reportedly suggested or even advocated such covert ‘cognitive infiltration’, but also because Cass Sunstein was close to the Obama administration. The argument comes down to something like this:

The government is out to manipulate people who believe in conspiracy theories out of knowing the truth, or to at least undermine their confidence in their beliefs. We know this because a source close to the government suggested it might be advantageous to do so.

I think there are some problems with this argument.

  1. For the sake of argument let’s agree that the US government does engage in conspiracies to manipulate our perception of the truth of certain matters and to alter our political, commercial and social behaviour in covert and insidious ways.
  2. If you accept premise #1, it is deeply implausible to suggest that Sunstein and Vermeule’s article made it into circulation on the Web without the approval and knowledge of the government.
  3. If it is the case that the article was published with the approval and knowledge of the government, and #1 is taken as being true, then the article itself has to be seen to be, at least potentially, part of the conspiracy.

If Sunstein and Vermeule’s article is part of the conspiracy to subvert ‘the truth’, then you can’t trust anything in it, inducing any suggestion that there is a conspiracy. This does not mean that  governments do not do such things, but this article does not count as evidence either way.

More generally, if the manipulation of evidence is everywhere, then how do you know that the evidence pointing towards such a manipulation is to be trusted?

Dhalgren

I’ve just started reading the second book in a week that has a foreword by William Gibson.(This was by coincidence, but since I average at least 2 novels per week, I wouldn’t read too much into it.) The first was Random Acts of Senseless Violence, by Jack Womack. The second is Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany and it’s that book that I feel compelled to write about today.

I haven’t gotten very far into it – about 120 pages, so I can’t yet talk about the book as a whole. What I can say is that I was struck very early on by a number of things and that I’m well and truly hooked on this story.

The foreword really impressed me, especially the part about the riots in Washington DC. It’s almost the favorite thing of his that I’ve ever read. I thought it was amazingly evocative. There is something about the way Gibson describes a scene that brings a sense of texture, movement and immediacy.

Delany’s city of Bellona is a setting that is deeply intriguing but at the same time, familiar. It reminds me a little of Steve Aylett’s Beerlight, if that city were a few steps further down the entropy spiral. On reflection, it’s more like the post-invasion London of Michael Moorcock’s A Cure for Cancer. On that note, I think the Kid and Jerry Cornelius have a more than little in common, despite the Kid’s rough exterior.

That blur, that feeling of being unsure of what’s real and what isn’t, feels similar to M. John Harrison’s Light. But where in Light it is ubiquitous, in Dhalgren (so far) it is ostensibly isolated to Bellona and produces such horror in those inculcated with the ideals of empiricism and modernity, that the rest of civilization turns it’s back and pretends nothing is happening. As with the Jerry Cornelius stories, the emotional response isn’t just just inspired by the physical & social chaos. It’s that the metaphysical assumptions that everyone takes for granted (and consequently never thinks about) are no longer reliable predictors of the way the world works. In some readers, and some of the characters, this inspires fear – in others this creates elation.  The comforting foundations of one person’s world-view can be the bars of someone else’s psychological cage. Paradoxically, both attitudes can (and do) occur at the same time, in the same individuals. This drives the internal tension and external behaviour of fictional characters and ‘real’ people alike.

(Well, that paragraph didn’t end up where I thought it would.)

It’s time for me to do some work now, but I’ll be returning to this book tonight to see what unfolds. If it continues in the way it started, I think it will be well worth the time spent.