To be, or not to be by mattsteinglass
September 2, 2010, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism, Philosophy

Bryan Caplan wonders why economists don’t value non-existent people’s lives.

If someone gives another person $100, almost all economists agree that the recipient is better off…If someone gives another person the gift of life, however, I’ve noticed that many economists suddenly become agnostic.  $100?  Definitely an improvement. Being alive? Meh. It’s hard to see the logic. Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark?

Interesting. And, to take it one step further: what if I give someone $100, but don’t give them the gift of life? Is that person better off than someone who didn’t get the gift of life, and also didn’t get the $100? Conversely, if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also steal $100 from them, are they worse off? What if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also slander them, seduce their girlfriend, and poke them in the eye with a sharp stick?

Here’s a thought experiment for Bryan Caplan: I didn’t give the gift of life to a fellow named Milton J. Fishbein who owns the house Bryan Caplan currently lives in. You can look it up: I didn’t give the gift of life to any such person. The thing is, Bryan Caplan didn’t give the gift of life to Milton J. Fishbein either. But on top of not giving Milton J. Fishbein the gift of life, Bryan Caplan has the gall to actually live in the poor guy’s house. Who among us is doing more harm, here? On the other hand, neither Bryan Caplan nor I gave the gift of life to any lady named Dahlia Rostropovich Chatterjee who owns the house I live in, but at least Bryan Caplan has the decency not to go and live in her house. So I guess we’re even on that count.

I think these thought experiments may illuminate certain flaws in the initial proposition.


Cartoon proves existence of God to be stupid question by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2010, 1:54 pm
Filed under: Philosophy

American Elf shows you the power of pragmatism.

Giving science a bad name by pretending it can encompass morality by mattsteinglass
May 10, 2010, 12:14 am
Filed under: Philosophy, Science, Sexuality and Gender

Sam Harris thinks we should create a universal morality through…science!

Carroll and Myers both believe nothing much turns on whether we find a universal foundation for morality. I disagree. Granted, the practical effects cannot be our reason for linking morality and science — we have to form our beliefs about reality based on what we think is actually true. But the consequences of moral relativism have been disastrous.

They have? Name a single disaster that has resulted from “moral relativism.” Couldn’t, could you? Here’s what happens to Sam Harris when he tries, earlier in the essay.

Many people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose, because we can combat human evil while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are unwarranted. It is always amusing when these same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa

Okay, stop right there. The burqa is “abominable behavior”? Has Mr Harris traveled to Afghanistan or rural Iran and asked women whether they would like to go out in public without a burqa? What responses did he receive? Gender-based dress codes inculcated at young ages become part of people’s cultural assumptions. Women in traditional areas of rural Iran or Afghanistan aren’t up in arms over their traditional form of dress. They’re probably much more upset that their men beat them. Women in urban Iran want to be able to dress as they please and resent legally imposed dress codes, but guess what: they arrived at that desire entirely without the aid of any scientifically grounded system of morality, and Westerners have universally supported them on the basis of existing Western liberal ideas about personal freedom, again without any need for a scientific grounding of morality. Now, systems of norms that allow men to beat women, or expect them to commit shame killings for violations of caste or religious expectations, are indeed “abominations”. But those abominations don’t suit Sam Harris’s purposes, because he wouldn’t be able to find any so-called moral relativists to defend them, so they don’t help him to denounce moral relativism. Continuing:

…or a practice like female genital excision, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that his moral relativism does nothing to diminish his commitment to making the world a better place.

How many Westerners can Sam Harris find who defend female genital excision? There basically aren’t any, and indeed the overwhelming majority of those who denounce female genital excision are secular Western leftists, precisely those whom Harris would presumably denounce as moral relativists. The defense of female genital excision is carried out by Muslim men and women who live in the countries where it is practiced. And here’s the key: Western governments have had no trouble whatsoever enacting or enforcing bans on FGM on their own territory, while Western anti-FGM activists have had only moderate and gradual success in fighting the practice through propaganda in the countries where it is practiced. And neither of those things would change one whit if we decided that we had some kind of science-based morality in addition to the Western rationalist secular moral tradition that has been getting along quite well over the past several hundred years.

I am a big believer in science. That’s why I think it shouldn’t attempt to generate knowledge in fields where it can’t generate knowledge. Science has been badly damaged, over the past century-plus, on those occasions when it has attempted to make claims in normative political arenas where it cannot justify those claims: Nazi racial “science” (projecting aesthetic and nationalist sentiments into biology), early “criminology” (of the phrenological variety), the “science” of marijuana-fiend drug abuse, and so forth. The wave of anti-scientific and anti-rationalist feeling that began in the ’60s came in reaction to attempts to misuse the mantle of science in service of moralistic claims. It doesn’t make any sense to repeat that episode.

Buddhism and Charles Stross and Julian Sanchez on persistent identity by mattsteinglass

I became aware via Andrew Sullivan that Julian Sanchez is having an argument with someone about immortality, or more specifically whether the idea that one’s identity doesn’t persist after death is a problem or not. In the course of his argument Sanchez notes a Douglas Adams passage about the Japanese conviction that a pagoda is still the “original” pagoda even if it’s been torn down and reconstructed many times. This brings me to two reference points in my current field of view: the Charles Stross book I’m reading, “Glasshouse”; and the Kim Lien Pagoda, a few blocks away on the far side of my village of Nghi Tam.


Kim Lien Pagoda dates from 1631, though extensive renovations were carried out in 1792. When we moved to the neighborhood in 2005 the interior of the pagoda felt heavy, medieval, antique and absolutely authentic. Last year the city tore it down, carefully, piece by piece. They’re going to improve it, rebuild it with a perfect copy in order to make it nice and clean for the 2010 celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. I expect all the bricks will be new, and that most of the timbers (particularly the carved ones) will be saved, though I fear those great old, imperfectly hewn columns may be replaced by more “perfect” ones with some kind of tacky finish.

Sanchez brings up the issue of the replaceability of “original” buildings in Buddhist traditions in the course of explaining why he feels no particular discomfort at the notion that his consciousness, embedded in his identity, is an artifact of the continuity of certain physical processes, and that once those processes are halted or dissipate, the identity will dissipate with it. The idea that identity must persist is, he thinks, partly a semantic confusion:

I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language.  Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found.   There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation.  So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance.

So what if we did live in a world where split-brain disorders were common and Star Trek teleporters were literally on every street corner? That’s part of the premise of Charles Stross’s “Glasshouse”. We’re many centuries into the future, and two technologies that have existed since about the 22nd century are key: T-gates and A-gates. T-gates are teleportation wormholes, and they’re all over the place, such that neighborhoods can be non-contiguous in physical space from one room to the next, and you can pull a gun you’ve stored in another solar system out of a little T-gate in your pocket. More important, A-gates (or “assemblers”) can rapidly synthesize anything down to the subatomic level, including an exact copy of you, or an exact copy of you but with blue skin and four arms, or an exact copy of you but with the painful memory of your last marriage carefully excised. And widespread acceptance of the principle that an exact molecular copy is the same as the original means that people no longer die; if they’re killed, they’re quickly resurrected via their most recent “backup”; and they can go through profound transformations in their physical existence, including switching gender, or turning into an interstellar battle tank for a few decades. And memory surgery from one body to the next means you’re not necessarily exactly the same self you were before. All that’s necessary is that you voluntarily give full consent to whatever memory surgery you want to undergo, before you have yourself scanned, broken down and reassembled. The main task of society becomes the guarantee of identity, protection against identity theft, and firewalling against worms, which corrupt people’s identity from one copy to the next by infecting A-gates and inserting their code into the copies.

But is your fifty-third instantiation in the last hundred years, now a large “ortho” male rather than your previous delicate blue female with four arms, really you? Is that consciousness really the same consciousness? This question doesn’t even occur to the people living in this society; it’s an outmoded moral problem belonging to a different universe, like whether slaves have souls. There were, at one point, humans who resisted having themselves copied or reconstructed in A-gates, for philosophical or religious reasons, but those human societies died out long ago, because they were less powerful and attractive. All the humans now alive are the product of A-gates, they consider themselves to really be themselves, and they view the prospect of walking into an A-gate, having themselves annihilated and then reconstructed, with perfect equanimity, just as we view the prospect of falling asleep and waking up again.

This makes the experience of reading the novel rather intriguing, because you have to ask yourself, when the narrator goes into an A-gate and comes out again — sometimes as a person of the opposite sex, sometimes with his/her character altered, and so on — whether it’s still really the same narrator. But then you have to ask yourself what it is, when you’re reading any novel, that gives you the confidence from one chapter to the next that this is still a unitary person you’re listening to, or watching, apart from a narrative convention. That tension is brilliantly explored in William Gaddis’s first novel, “The Recognitions”, about an ultra-talented forger of oil paintings. Part of the tension for much of the novel comes from the hanging question of whether a particular painting is “real”, or the work of our protagonist; and then, cleverly, we find ourselves watching our protagonist himself only through other people’s eyes, until in the last few chapters a figure resembling him passes through the narrative, but there’s no reason to believe it’s actually him except that why else would we be hearing about this guy in this novel? So the question of a character’s integral identity is reduced to a narrative convention and to the will of the reader to believe that the character is an integral individual.

I would like to think that these kinds of questions really are integral to the philosophy and practice of Buddhism. But in fact whenever I’ve gone to a Buddhist sitting the issues raised have been vastly less interesting, and the music has mainly been intolerably bad. In any case, I do find the idea that our consciousnesses are not continuous or coherent somewhat disturbing, and I think it’d be nice to have a religion that treated the issue seriously; I don’t think it comes up much in Judaism anyway.

French people, desiring the impossible by mattsteinglass
July 3, 2009, 8:37 am
Filed under: Music, Philosophy

John Quiggin Holbo thinks Matthew Yglesias is wrong: the answer to the question on the French Bac exam is that it’s not absurd to desire the impossible. What’s clear is that if French teens consider this question a serious one, it’s because they have quite rightly been listening to plenty of Paris-based Swedish musician Peter Von Poehl.