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Topics I've Started

Moral Realism

06 April 2015 - 08:22 PM

ETA: I have deleted the personal stuff, and apologize to the board for dragging in a personal dispute. If anyone wishes to discuss this topic, please do.

Moral Realism

Consider the following proposition: "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason."

Most people (fortunately!) would agree with this. Some would go further. Some would say it is always wrong to kill people for any reason, even self-defense. Others would say that while it's always wrong to kill people for no reason, it's OK to kill people for some reasons, including but not limited to self-defense.

Sadly, some small number of people (sociopaths?) might argue that sometimes it's right to kill people for no reason; an even smaller number of people (I hope never to meet any!) might contend that it's always right to kill people for no reason at all.

Now consider a different sort of proposition: "Saturn is a planet, and it is the eighth planet from the sun."

The statement has two clauses, each making a distinct claim. The first clause claims that Saturn is a planet, and the second asserts that it is the eighth planet from the sun. If the first clause is false, it's not possible for the second clause to be true; but it's possible for the first clause to be true and the second to be false.

It turns out that the latter is the case. The first clause is true, and the second false. Saturn is a planet, but it is the sixth planet from the sun, not the eighth.

We know this because we can check.

But even if it were true that both clauses were false -- imagine some counterfactual world in which Saturn does not exist -- the statement in its entirety remains truth apt. That is, the statement can be shown to have a truth value, to be either true or false by checking.

Can we, in some like manner, check the truth value of a statement like, "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason"?

Granted, these are two different types of statements. The statement about the wrongness of killing is normative, whereas the statement about Saturn is descriptive.

To puzzle this out, we need some theory of truth. One theory of truth is correspondence: truth inheres in propositions that correspond to facts about the world. Not everyone accepts correspondence theory, but we can accept it here for the sake of argument. Certainly, correspondence theory at least seems to be a plausible candidate for truth-bearing.

The normative statement about the wrongness of killing can be recast into a general descriptive statement: There is a moral fact about the world that makes it always wrong to kill people for no reason.

The above statement, if it is truth-apt -- capable of having a truth value in the first place -- must be either true or false. It cannot be both.

The problem, now, is to locate this alleged moral fact about the world, which makes the statement at issue truth-apt.

I can't find it.

I can find Saturn. I can see it with the naked eye. If I want to see it more clearly, I can peer at it through a telescope. To learn more about it, we've sent spacecraft to Saturn. I can consult a book and find out all sorts of properties about Saturn: Its diameter, density, mass, atmospheric composition, the composition of its rings, and so on.

I can't do any of this with a moral fact. I can't peer at a "moral cosmos" with a "moral telescope" and see a "moral fact." Moral facts, then, if they exist at all, cannot be concrete entities. This means such facts must be abstract entities.

Some people think abstract entities don't exist, just as some reject the correspondence theory of truth. But for the sake of argument (and brevity) we can provisionally accept both the existence of abstract entities and the correctness of correspondence.

Perhaps a moral fact is like a mathematical entity; a number, or an equation, or a theorem, or a formula. Maybe it's like twice two makes four.

If it is, no one has shown this. I don't even know how one would begin to go about trying to show it. Alleged "moral facts" seem to bear no relation at all to mathematics.

Perhaps moral facts are truths of logic? One promising line of reasoning might be to assert that the proposition "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason" is self-evidently true.

Is it? Consider the famous line from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…"

But what, exactly, is a self-evident truth? I think it is a statement wherein, if we were to assert its contrary, we would posit an obvious logical contradiction. Hence, it's self-evidently true that a triangle has three sides. To speak of a four-sided triangle would be, obviously, to speak nonsense.

What if we were to assert the contrary of "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason"? Suppose we asserted that sometimes it's OK to do that; or even that it's always OK? In so asserting, are we positing a logical contradiction?


We may be asserting something that most of us would disagree with, or find ghastly, but I detect no logical contradiction in so asserting. In the same way, "all men are created equal" cannot be a self-evident truth, the founders notwithstanding, because to assert its contrary does not describe a logical contradiction.

Perhaps alleged "moral truths" have some other kind of logical standing. We must await (in vain, I predict) for someone to parse out a moral logic -- an endeavor as futile, I think, as discovering a moral mathematics.

The upshot is that alleged "moral facts" about the world are neither concrete nor abstract.

Therefore, they don't exist.

This means that statements like "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason" either lack a truth value (they are neither true nor false), or, straightforwardly, such statements are false. I think there may be some disagreement about whether to designate such statements as lacking a truth value or as always being false, but I don't think that distinction matters much, because both designations are unnerving.

In sum, no one has moral knowledge, or can have moral knowledge, because there is nothing to have such knowledge of. Dire as this may seem, the situation is not beyond repair, though any repair, I think, requires that we jettison moral realism. One way to do this is to recast the statement, "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason" as, "I feel that it is always wrong to kill people for no reason." Now we have a checkable statement, a statement that is truth apt. I can introspect, and decide whether it is true or false that I feel this way about the world. In addition, I can speculate, "Most people feel that it is wrong to kill others for no reason." And others can report whether this feeling is true or false for them. Even if they don't volunteer this information, I can observe that most people in fact don't kill others for no reason (fortunately!), and so I have warrant to conclude that most of them, like me, don't feel it is right to do that.

On this account, statements about morality are not observations or descriptions of the external world, but simply reports of feelings, attitudes, emotions, inclinations, sensibilities and the like.

The worry remains what grounds these feelings, but I do not think this worry is too serious. We can simply be anti-foundationalist in response to this worry, or we can say -- correctly, I think -- that these feelings and intuitions are grounded by the kind of evolved entities that we are. A world in which members of a social species routinely killed their con-specifics does not correspond well with a fitness landscape for that species.

In expressing moral feelings, we can hope to influence others -- dissuading them, if necessary, from killing others for no reason, for a world in which such behavior was common would be even more unfortunate than the world in which we in fact find ourselves.

Ceres - wot?

03 March 2015 - 05:42 PM

Dawn spacecraft approches Ceres. Check out animation here.

Now it is quite obvious that, at least, the larger of the two bright spots maintains full brightness, even after it has plunged into darkness. This can only mean that it is a light source, not a light reflector.

Aliens at last? :shock:

Howl, for PP

23 February 2015 - 07:20 AM

:pp: before submitting your paper, you simply must read and internalize Howl. It's good advice, trust me. :deal:

It may not only change your paper, it may rock your world.

Excerpt, from toward the climax of Howl:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls
and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable
dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys
sobbing in armies!  Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless!
Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone
soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch
whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of
war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is
running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!
Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!  Moloch whose
ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose
skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless
Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the
fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is
electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter
of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless
hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

Natalism, Ethics, and the Multiverse

19 January 2015 - 05:46 PM

Now that the new post on anti-natlism has been puled before I even had a chance to read it, I'm done for good with the natalism  discussion, with the sole exception of this thread.

I wonder how much the ethicists and meta-ethicists at Cornell (and other campuses) know about the multiverse. Indeed, I wonder how much people on both sides of the natalism debate know about it. I'm going to guess, not much. Sadly, many philosophers don't know much about science, and may even disdain it; and conversely, many scientists know little about philosophy, and often disdain it in their turn. That's why you need disinterested generalists like me to bridge the gap. :humble:

All that notwithstanding, there is a growing body of literature on ethics and meta-ethics in the multiverse. If you're interested, Google, as always, is your friend.

There are a variety of different multiverses posited by modern physics -- Max Tegmark lists four; but there are actually more than that -- and there are strong grounds to believe in the truth of at least some of them. I'm not going to list those grounds, and I'm only going to focus on one version of the multiverse: The quantum Many Worlds thesis.

This is the thesis that every way that a world can be, is a way that a world actually is. So every possible outcome of your life is realized in some branch of the universal wave function. There are countless versions of you out there, doing stuff; and those versions of you find their world to be just as actual, as you do yours.

How does this effect ethics, if at all?

There are two schools of thought. Let's say a couple is deciding whether to procreate. One idea holds that it makes no difference if they do so or not, because the number of branches on the wave function in which they have kids, and the number in which they do not, is exactly the same.

This is, I think, quite mistaken. If a couple decides, in this branch, the one we share, to have a child, then in so doing they will increase exponentially the future number of branches populated by versions of their child born in this branch.

An anti-natalist suddenly has the most powerful argument at his disposal, in my view. In this branch, little Joey may well have a wonderful life. But the Many Worlds guarantees that in countless other branches, little Joey will simply have a terrible life -- on low-density branches, for example, he will be slowly tortured to death over a period of several days by having tiny heated needles  very slowly driven into every square inch of his skin. Concoct your own horrific scenario. And yes, on some low-density branches, he will be tossed into a wood chipper just as soon as he comes out of the womb.

By "low-density" branches, I mean what we ordinarily call, on the assumption that ours is the only actual world, improbable events. It's highly improbable, in our world, that anyone would be tortured to death by slowly having needles driven into their bodies. Let's say, arbitrarily, that at birth, the chances of this happening to you are one in a billion. But on the quantum multiverse, this just means that this actually happens in one of every billion branches, since all the branches are actual. Moreover, if there are an infinite number of branches, then this torture will occur an infinite number of times, since any subset of infinity, no matter how vanishingly small, is still itself infinite! These torture branches are "low-density branches" (improbable events), but real for all that, on the Many Worlds view.

Ethics counsels me that if the Many World interpretation of QM is true, we have a moral obligation to keep suffering as low-density as possible in the multiverse -- i.e., we should care for all worlds, not just our own actually perceived world. The inescapable upshot of this reasoning (if MWI is true) is that you should not have a child in this world, because in so doing you will vastly increase the density of worlds in which your offspring suffers, and indeed suffers horribly in some of them. As a general meta-ethical principle, you should avoid doing things in this world which will generate a greater range (higher density) of suffering in the other worlds. Not birthing Joey in this world means that in the future, there will be far fewer branches in which Joey suffers (though to be sure there will still be countless suffering Joeys regardless of what you do in this world). If MWI is true, this is a powerful ethical argument, it seems to me.

That's all I'm going to say on the natalism debate as such; frankly that specific subject bores me, because if anti-natalism is the correct normative stance, (assuming one subscribes to normative ethics to begin with) it is a plain fact that most people are not going to stop procreating any more than they are going to stop eating. So the whole subject strikes me as pointless academic wankery. However, the general subject of ethics and meta-ethics in a multiverse is certainly an interesting topic. Since we have strong grounds to believe in a multiverse (though of course we have, as yet, no proof of such, and indeed it may be impossible to get proof), ethicists and meta-ethicists seem to have a certain intellectual obligation to consider, or reconsider, their convictions in the multiverse context.

Digital Philosophy

11 January 2015 - 06:28 PM

This is a thread devoted to "digital philosophy," which seems to be a rapidly expanding new field.

It involves number of issues, including:

The idea that reality is, in some sense, a computation, and is fundamentally based on information and not on matter and energy.

The idea that we are living in a simulation. This includes, but is not limited to, Nick Bostrom's ingenious simulation argument,

The idea that we are living in a hologram, written in Planck-scale pixels "on the cosmic horizon," and that the third dimension of space is an illusion. Much to my surprise, I learned yesterday that Fermi Labs is running an experiment to determine whether this is true, using something called a holometer. The experiment began in August; I know of no results yet.

The idea of "libertarian compatibilism": Mind-body dualism is true, and all minds conspire to collapse the wave function and create reality. They do this ex nihilo, with no causal input, and thus free will is truly libertarian. This seems to have something in common with the Strong Free Will Theorem, in which two mathematicians have claimed to prove, mathematically, that either hard determinism is true, or we have true libertarian free will. The upshot of their argument is that if hard determinism is true, we are forever prohibited from conducting an experiment to prove hard determinism; since this seems beyond the pale, we should conclude that we have libertarian free will.

All metaphysical problems in philosophy -- time, space, consciousness, free will, the true nature of quantum mechanics, etc. -- are resolved by reference to massive multiplayer online roleplaying video games. (wot?)

Reality is a peer-to-peer (P2P) networked computer simulation. (wot?)

OK, that's all I got, till I do lots more reading. :) But if anyone wants to discuss this stuff, or knows anything about it, have at it. Note to :pp: See how metaphysics can encompass ethics and meta-ethics, like the free will/determinism debate? Someday you'll thank me when you become expert at all this stuff at Oxford. :thumb: