April 25, 2005

Why is suicide avoidance a perfect duty?

I've been grading undergraduate papers on Kant and euthanasia for the last few days, and in making comments, I've come to realize that there's something that I don't get about Kant's argument for the immorality of suicide. I'm far from a Kant scholar, so I might just be misunderstanding Kant's view. (Luckily, my concern hasn't gotten in the way of my grading at all.)

In the Groundwork, Kant argues that suicide is immoral because it rests on the following maxim, which cannot be universalized without contradiction: "From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction."

Something that genuinely loves itself, Kant tells us, cannot desire its own destruction; thus, the maxim results in contradiction. Now, I think it's debatable whether something that loves itself cannot desire its own destruction, but that's not the issue I want to raise. Kant says that suicide avoidance is a perfect duty, which would mean that this maxim results in a contradiction in conception. I think it looks more like a contradiction in the will, which would render suicide avoidance an imperfect duty.

I can see why the contradiction looks like a contradiction in conception. One cannot attempt to kill oneself if one is acting out of desire to preserve oneself. There is a clear contradiction there. But what makes this issue tricky is that it looks like someone who acts out of self-love could not will their own death. Isn't Kant's prohibition on suicide from self-love a case of an imperfect duty then? One can imagine the consequence of everyone killing themselves. That's not inherently contradictory. The problem stems from the willing.

One might try to make the following counterargument: imperfect duties are those that generate fully consistent perverted worlds when their maxims are universalized, but that have maxims that cannot be willed because the perverted world results in one's ends not being met. In other words, imperfect duties come about when there's a breach in a hypothetical imperative. The contradiction in the self-love maxim does not necessarily come about from a person's ends not being satisfied. But I think this is wrong. Self-love, Kant tells us, impels the improvement of life. It looks like the contradiction occurs because death ceases all improvement in life, thus one's ends are not being met.

Moreover, if we don't interpret "from self-love" as making a claim about hypothetical ends, then the maxim Kant offers does not correspond to the traditional "In situation X, I will do Y in order to achieve Z" template. Normally, if a maxim is contradictory simply in virtue of the "in situation X, I will do Y" portion (as maxims condoning lying or promise-breaking are), then it forms a perfect duty. If this is not the case, but the maxim becomes contradictory when Z is taken into account (in other words, the perverted world is consistent but does not achieve the ends of the hypothetical imperative), then the maxim forms the basis of an imperfect duty. "From self-love" seems to fit squarely into variable slot Z. If we insist that it does not but that it still generates the contradiction, then we give up on the standard maxim template, and we have to tell some sort of story about what sort of work "from self-love" is doing and why it's permissible to include in our maxim.

There is one other unique aspect of this maxim that may be relevant. It results in contradiction whether universalized or not. However, I don't know if this influences the perfection or imperfection of our duty, nor do I know why it should.

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April 23, 2005


This page now supports expanded entries, thanks to Richard and No Fancy Name. This means you can hide portions of your posts behind a link. This allows more posts to appear on the front page. All you have to do is type a special tag at the beginning and end of the lengthy part of your post. The tags are in the penultimate box (a blue one) on the No Fancy Name page.

Also, commenting is no longer restricted to blog members.


2 suggested paths from mechanism to consciousness

Irrationality is a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition for consciousness?? Think about it this way. You have a system like Drescher's which compiles statistics to direct its actions in a "world." For consciousness, the most important aspect of such a system is that which

"is defined not so much by its particular set of primitives as by its ways of combining structures to form larger ones, and by its means of abstraction -- its means of forming new units of representation that allows the details of their implementation to be ignored." (Drescher, Made Up Minds, p10)

As I read it, what this means is we get a system which combines its primitive processes into higher-level ones so that you get a "commanding" program with any number of functions, or sub-routines. For non-programmers, this means you could have the lower level processes carrying out the detailed statistical analyses to determine actions, while the so-called commanding program is "unaware" of of those activities. All it needs to operate is a "Yes" or "No" from the sub-routine based on its detailed statistical analysis.

What you end up with is a system, if it is indeed ignoring the primitive functions, that is unaware of its own internal processes and how its actions are determined. If it receives a command, say, to stack 3 blocks that are in its world, the primitive statistical processes are going to run in order to determine the locations of said blocks and make the parts move to execute the command. The higher order process of the system, though, undergoes only the "experience" of receiving the command, finding the blocks, and doing it. If you could ask what it is doing, it would say it was following the order, not that it was carrying out statistical analysis. I believe this is the first step towards conscious machines. There is nothing it is like to be a mechanism which merely compiles statistics and uses it to push buttons on and off. And maybe there is nothing it is like to be a higher-level program which "sees" only the results of such compiling and uses the "Yes" or "No" to push other buttons on and off. But maybe there is something it is like to be a higher-higher-higher ... -level program which pulls vast amounts of different types of input together in one orderly mechanism and is ignorant of the extraordinarily complex underworkings.

Why could this be true? Because it could be true that we are such systems. The complex set of processes that go into pouring myself a bowl of cereal feels simpler by orders of magnitude.

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April 19, 2005

Women in Philosophy

To continue with the "topical" posts:

Some of us on occasion remark on the differences in tone of philosophical exchanges between men and those between women. I confess that I sometimes fail to see what's going on in exchanges between men, and I'm sure the reverse happens, as well. And I often find myself blaming gender for frustrations with philosophical discourse. Yet I also tend to think that gender is not what I ought to be blaming--if I ought to be blaming anything at all--, but something like cognitive styles, which vary along lines that correlate with, without being equivalent to, those of gender. Whether gender itself is a social construction or contains natural kinds is not terribly interesting to me; I would prefer to avoid positing anything external as far as possible. It may, of course, turn out that there is no other option if we want to make progress with respect to specific gender issues; but since I'm concerned with philosophy, and philosophy consists of conversation and thinking, I'm under the illusion that certain differences that fall within that domain don't need to be blamed but owned up to.

Earlier this semester, wondering if others had wondered about differences in philosophical method that tend to correllate strongly (but not exclusively) with gender lines, I found this post at Sappho's Breathing, which suggests that philosophical subfields are "gendered." Hence the title, "Real Men Do Metaphysics." It's a suggestive post, but the correlations don't match up with my experience. What might match up with my experience is a difference in method, regardless of subject matter.

What I mean by "method" must be combination of things, temperamental and cognitive. It's not clear where to draw the line between the two, or which can be rightly given "external" explanations and which cannot. For instance, women talking philosophy tend to be less careful of each other's pride; the interaction tends to be less tense, whereas men often tend towards combativeness. This difference is hard to internalize; it's difficult to think of it as anything more than "beyond one's control."

But combativeness often goes hand in hand with analytic method. Previously, I have referred to this as the "hunt-and-kill" method of philosophy and contrasted it with (what else?) the "gathering" method. Clearly, analytic thinking cannot be dispensed with in analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, I confess to having a preference for getting all the details onto the table before one starts analyzing things; and I prefer that analysis make the problem messier, not cleaner. To what extent these preferences are "gender-based" I don't know. But they are preferences that seem to be more "within one's control" than broader temperamental differences.

About the analytic approach combined with combativeness, Cleis had this to say: "I'm concerned that a primarily adversarial approach to philosophical argument alienates many smart women, who then turn their attention to other fields of study. That is philosophy's loss. I'm also concerned that philosophical talent is recognized most often when it's delivered in an aggressive package" , "The Brights and the adversary method" (no, one has nothing to do with the other).

The broad question I want to ask is, To what degree can the differences between the ways women and men approach to philosophy be ascribed to gender? Will the line be drawn at differences in aggressiveness and social hierarchy issues, or will cognitive differences also come into play? And if cognitive differences do come into play, should we think of them as gender differences? My worry regarding the last issue is that, as intellectuals with responsibilities to understand and make ourselves intelligible to others, there may be very good reasons why we shouldn't blame cognitive differences on (or for) anything.

It's possible, too, that my division of gender differences in philosophy into those that are "beyond one's control" and those that are "within one's control" is just an attempt to knock against the former with the latter, which may or may not be helpful.

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April 17, 2005

Philosophy and Know-Nothing Conservatism

Perhaps you have a friend who read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind when she was 17, concluded that all contemporary Anglo-American philosophy was bunk, and then decided to dress in school marmish frocks all day and to devote herself to getting money from corporations to disseminate culturally conservative propaganda at the American Enterprise Institute? Perhaps you are that friend from year-17 at an advanced stage of recovery. In any event, next time that friend shows up for dinner and bugs you with her half-informed opinions about your career plans, send her to the evisceration of Ross Douthat's put-down of analytic philosophy (see title link). Follow the connected links to the discussion on Matthew Yglesias' site as well. Ross writes for a blog, The American Scene, along with my dear friend Reihan Salam, who, despite having some Cro-Magnon political opinions, is at least gifted with the capacity for endless self-criticism and creative neurosis. [BTW, I wonder who that Crooked Ember guy is in Comments threads. All these references to contemporary Kantians and cranky Catholic intellectuals. . . Hmmm.]


The World's Greatest Acknowledgements Page

It's not to a philosophy book, but close enough: link

April 16, 2005

Uwe Meixner

Some good, old-fashioned German philosophy. Though I haven't read the book, I pretty much agree with everything in this excerpt: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/dfwmeixner.html


April 13, 2005

Angry About Politics?

Not as angry as this man: http://www.nplusonemag.com/thong.html


April 12, 2005

The Monads

For those of you who haven't already found these through my blog--I present the apex of what can be done with knowledge of philosophy: songs about David Hume and counterpart theory.

The Monads


April 9, 2005

"Is there a thesis of Determinism?"

He asks, while birds most likely chirp.

I will be giving a talk in Metaphysics soon (not this week but next). I will be discussing, among other things, P.F. Strawson's essay, "Freedom and Resentment" (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/dfwstrawson1.htm).

I wanted to start this week by throwing out some teasers of what I will be talking about. Getting some early feedback will be helpful in getting me prepared and in anticipating possible concerns.

Early on in “Freedom and Resentment” Strawson says,

“Some philosophers say that they do not know what the thesis of determinism is. Others say, or imply, that they do know what it is. Of these some—the pessimists, perhaps—hold that if the thesis is true, then the concepts of moral obligation and responsibility really have no application, and the practices of punishing and blaming, of expressing moral condemnation and approval, are really unjustified. Others—the optimists perhaps—hold that these concepts and practices in no way lose their raison d’etre if the thesis of determinism is true. [ . . .] If I am asked to which of these parties I belong to, I must say that it is first of all to the party of those who do not know what the thesis of determinism is.”

Since Strawson does not make much of this point (I used to just read it as a coy nod to ordinary language philosophy’s scruples), I want focus this post on this question—that is, on whether there is a thesis of determinism that is intelligible, well-motivated, and substantive. By “substantive” I mean a thesis that gives us reason to believe we are discussing what the actual world, in its most general aspects, is really like—that is, whether determinism is telling us something true about the world we experience on a day-to-day basis and explain via our best science.

One fairly standard way of construing the thesis of determinism is as follows:

“Consider now the existence of certain events governed by natural laws. It appears as if any such events must occur. Given a prior state of the world that is governed by laws of nature, a unique state of the world is forthcoming. It is helpful to think of the laws of nature operating as mathematical functions and the antecedent events as arguments for these functions. Once the function and the argument (input of the function) are settled, the output is necessitated. To implement the mathematical analogy, let f(x) = 5x + 2 and the input of the function be 3. The output of f(3) is 17, a mathematically necessitated result relative to the function and argument. Just as any other result is mathematically impossible—a violation of the laws or rules of mathematics—any event other than the one that actually occurs, relative to the antecedent state of the world and the laws of nature, is naturally impossible. Only by supernatural interference could an outcome other than the actual one occur in a world with the identical prior state and laws. Determinism can then be defined as claiming that it is logically impossible that there are worlds with natural laws and pasts congruent with the actual world and yet with futures distinct from that of the actual world.”

Mark Bernstein, “Fatalism,” Oxford Handbook of Free Will, p. 68

This kind of thesis of Determinism might be called a thesis of Global Determinism. It works as follows:

(1) Start with any possible world W whose causal order is structured by laws of nature. (Assume, for the time being, that the concept, ‘laws of nature,’ is coherent and we know how to construe it. Laws of nature, according to this construal, would operate like mathematical functions in Bernstein’s sense: taking definite inputs as arguments, they would produce definite outputs).

(2) Assume that at some of level of description there are structurally homogeneous, basic particulars in W out of which all complex objects and relations in W are composed (we can assume, to make it easier to imagine, that these particulars are physical, but they need not be to carry through the argument). A definitely describable system of relationships among all of these particulars at some time t is a ‘Global Event.’ Global Events are the “arguments” upon which the laws of nature do their computational work. In the worlds in which these particulars are physical, we can assume that the character of a Global Event will be given by a complete description of the spatio-temporal arrangements of basic particles in fields of force (or whatever our best science tell us is the best idealization of a Global Event).

(3) Conclude that, in any such world W, the laws of nature must compute, at t, only one possible future (one future Global Event at time t2 ).

The reason this is “Global Determinism” is because what the thesis is quantifying over is worlds:

(GD): There is a world W such that if (1) and (2) are true of W, then (3) is also true of W.

If the actual world satisfies GD, then we live in a deterministic world. Do we have any reason to believe we live in a deterministic world? We certainly deliberate and make choices as if there were alternative possible futures, so at first glance we do not act like we believe that GD is true. Are we simply massively self-deceived?—believing one thing in the philosophy classroom (or the physics laboratory) and another in ordinary practical life.

I think the best way of approaching this question is to ask: does the thesis of determinism make sense of the phenomena that our best scientific and common sense theories (including ordinary psychology) explain?

Bernstein’s analogy between laws of nature and mathematical functions is helpful, if massively deceptive. The kind of function that could map a Global Event is, to say the least, slightly more complicated than a one-variable, two-term algebraic equation.

I am sure that those savvy with the computer science, mathematics, and physics involved can help me out, but it would seem that the orders of magnitude involved in computing a state description of the world or ‘Global Event’ would quickly lead us to, at best, intractable predictability problems and, at worst, paradoxes of infinity.

But let’s be philosophers about this. Sure, what we imagine here is impossible for us, but not for an Omniscient Mind or Super-Laplacean Computer. The issues I am raising are a problem for epistemology, not analytic metaphysics. Verificationism died a long time ago. Let it rest in peace.

Ok, so now we are relying on another concept, ‘Omniscient Mind,’ to make sense of the thesis of Determinism (at least in its ‘Global’ variety). Unlike us poor souls, the Omniscient Mind knows that the actual world is composed of basic particulars, knows the number of and relations among these particulars, and knows the function that computes Global Events in our world.

But wait? What use does an Omniscient Mind have for a function? It knows everything, after all. Presumably, it knows the future before it happens. Presumably, the concepts of past, present, and future are useless to it (as well as any computations among them). The Omniscient Mind just looks at the whole of space and time and absorbs it in one gulp.

But wait, what is the Omniniscient Mind 'looking' at? Whether or not the world has a beginning and/or an end in time and space is presumably just an ‘an empirical issue.’ Space and time might be infinitely ‘self’-contorting manifolds. So what would there be for an Omniscient Mind to ‘look’ at? ‘Looking’ implies figure and ground, things that come before consciousness and things that move to the background. But there could be no such definite perspectival structures in the scenario we are imagining: it would just be one inifinite series of one damned indistinguishable thing after another.

These problems are not new (I first encountered them, I think, in Sister Regina’s fourth grade class as we debated whether God can square circles or create rocks he cannot move).

We started this discussion of Determinism by worrying about whether our best beliefs about the ‘world as it is in itself’ might threaten the world as it looks to us when we deliberate in practical life. And yet, it turns out the world as it is in itself is not something we have a firm grip on. We have helped ourselves to some half-formed metaphysical concepts—‘Global Determinism,’ ‘Omniscient Mind,’ ‘Laws of Nature as Mathematical Functions’—but then, as we actually examine how to cash out these shibboleths of our philosophical fancy in precise terms, we quickly lose our grip on the concepts. Better to end where we started--that is, with what we knew perfectly well before we started philosophizing in the first place: that we live our lives by imagining possible futures, deliberating about which among them would be the best, and acting so as to realize as our choices (except when we are weak willed).

The metaphysical question at issue is what kind of world makes this notion of freedom intelligible and whether or not we are justified in believing we live in it; the question is not whether some fantastic thesis of Global Determinism threatens it.


April 1, 2005

Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline

I suppose this will be a counterpoint to Tucker’s last two posts, although it does not really express a disagreement with them. I will simply be drawing attention to another quarter within which philosophy moves.

A while back Jason Stanley hosted a discussion on Brian Leiter's blog on related topics, though it was pitched as a debate between (what else?) whether philosophy should move towards becoming an ever-more technical, specialist discipline or engaging with questions of popular cultural concern ( http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2004/11/technicalhumani.html ).

The most cliché response to this choice is to claim it expresses a false dichotomy. “Fine,” I say, but then the onus is on the technician who is trying to develop a formal logic for vague predicates to demonstrate how making progress on that question contributes to our understanding of the nature of knowledge or the good life. Technical achievements in logic or science are obviously permanent contributions to our knowledge of the world, but their philosophical importance is always a further question (e.g., think about how much bad philosophy is premised on drawing pop conclusions from Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).

At that time Stanley hosted this discussion, I had responded—rather anonymously under ‘IP’—by including a link to Bernard Williams’ online essay, “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” (see title link). Along with Bertrand Russell, Simon Blackburn, and Thomas Nagel, Williams was the first analytic philosopher that I ever read seriously. Even while being sharp, clear, and deep thinkers who were appreciative of science and the worldview it has given us, they were also all characterized by having a sort of old-fashioned, donnish familiarity with the history of Western culture and a concern with the evolution of our self-conception.

I think, as Tucker himself noted, that these concerns are what should separate analytic philosophy from the kinds of scientific inquiry it so often tries to ape. Few people (except for maybe Tucker!) read Bishop Berkeley because he was “right.” He will continue to be read, however, because he took a set of facts about the world (as understood by the best science of his time), drew some of counterintuitive conclusions from them, and then constructed a worldview that could make it all hang together.

If this was the only point that Williams’ essay made—that philosophy should continue to ask the ‘big questions’—then his points would be cogent but fairly uncontroversial. Some might still quarrel that he was asking for too much—that philosophers should stick to being good under-laborers for the scientists—but I think history would probably repay their humility by forgetting they ever existed in the first place. The better response is that almost everything one says in philosophy will be forgotten anyway--better to make a serious attempt at saying something both interesting and true that makes a young person go, "a hah."

Williams’ real point is that the practice of philosophy is incapable of being understood in independence from its history. Current questions about “free will” and “determinism” would, for example, be unintelligible in a different intellectual culture. Likewise with questions about how to balance “liberty” and “equality” or what the criteria are for constituting “personhood” or “knowledge of the external world.” Questions about these concepts are, for some, inescapable. Usually, those people are philosophers (or students and professors of philosophy, if you prefer). Some of the concepts and the debates that stem from them might be incoherent. Wittgenstein thought this about a lot of them. Even if that is the case, however, Wittgenstein thought you have to understand and be entranced by the depth of the problems before you can claim a release from them. Furthermore, what I take to be Williams' point is that you will only understand the depth of the problems if you understand the history of how some fairly strange men (sadly, it is almost universally men) have constructed them. Wittgenstein's own inattention to history may be a reason why his solutions--even while dramatic and revolutionary--have not always been convincing. He simply left a lot that was relevant to the problems unanswered and even unasked.

Finally, delving into such history is what makes philosophy a humanistic discipline in the classical sense: a discipline for understanding arcane texts in order to better understand ourselves. The move towards making philosophy a humanistic discipline does, however, have a cost: the cost is that you are not discovering anything new, in the way that a physicist discovers the existence of a new particle or a new set of symmetries in nature. The only kind of discovery that philosophy is capable of generating is a kind of self-discovery--that is, a discovery of what you and the world were like all along.

Maybe there are people doing philosophy who are really not bitten by the old problems (even if it is only unconsciously—that is, by way of being bitten by the new problems that are really just extensions of the old ones). I wonder, however, what exactly philosophy is doing for them?