Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New home at http://laymanphilosopher.blogspot.com

This website is moving to http://laymanphilosopher.blogspot.com

No more updates are going to be made to this one, all new content is going there along with some redone old posts.

I'll see you there!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Faith VS Reason

Many would say that belief in God is something you accept by faith, not through reason but is that dichotomy meaningful at all?

What is a belief that is accepted by faith alone? Either it's a belief without real reasons behind it or its a belief whose reasons are of a different kind than one that is grounded on reason.

The first hypothesis seems obviously false. In order for someone to believe anything to be true, one must have reasons to do so. Believing that something is true without any reason is a logical impossibility since the effect (belief) would have no cause. Of course, we might argue about the weight of those reasons but we're calling them reasons nonetheless.

So, what about the 2nd hypothesis, can the reasons of a belief grounded on faith be of a different kind than those of a belief grounded on reason? Let's think of some examples and comparisons:
  1. If Bill believes in God because of some subjective personal experience of His presence, would his belief be based on faith? Not necessarily. It is subjective experience that warrants most of our most basic beliefs and I see no reason why that one in particular should be dismissed as a belief devoid of reason. This could be analogous to the belief in the outside world, we are reasonable in having that belief if there's no stronger reason to deny it. In this case, although Bill would not be able to show God's existence to others, he could still be said to know of God's existence in such a way.

  2. If Bill believes in God because his parents told him that God exists, then his belief would simply be based on fallacious arguments which doesn't seem to be a fair reason to label his belief as being grounded in faith. His belief is grounded in reasons that may not hold against other contradictory reasons but that's what arguments are for.

  3. Another case, and probably the most targeted by this distinction, is the case where Bill believes in God because he really wants that belief to be true. You could say that this belief isn't grounded on reason but it would be more accurate to say that this is not a belief at all. Wishful thinking is distinct from belief, one is wanting something to be true, the other is considering it likely to be true so, in this case, Bill doesn't actually believe that God exists, he merely wishes that to be true.

  4. Then there's the case in the opposite end of the spectrum. The belief in God's existence can come from objective arguments, much in the same way most of our other beliefs originate. Many people in the past, in natural theology, have put forth arguments to support that belief and although we might disagree on the weight of those arguments, the fact is that a belief that forms through such means is surely a belief grounded on reason.
Note that although the belief in God seems the central theme in this article, I'm merely using that belief in particular because it's within it that the distinction between faith and reason is invoked the most. The point is that the distinction doesn't seem to have a concrete meaning and usually causes confusion, it's probably used the most as a shortcut to mean something that should probably be articulated differently.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Is morality objective or subjective? (2/2)

Traditionally people have looked at morality as an objective reality since that's what it appears to be at first sight. With no other consideration and looking at it in isolation, does it feel any less objective than the existence of the physical world?

The way we usually speak, shows this. We constantly claim things to be right or wrong, as if those are facts about the world that we come to know about through our conscience. We could swear that such facts are true and that they transcend us and bind us, but shouldn't we demand evidence for the existence of such things or is our intuition enough?

Is our intuition enough?

I don't think there are any other reasons to think that morality is objective apart from our intuition, but is that a good reason alone? Our intuition has been shown to be a great aid in survival but it just wasn't meant to be used as an arbiter of truth. It has been shown to be wrong many times in the past.

It's also something that should not be ignored automatically though, if there's no way to confirm or deny our intuition then we would be reasonable in presuming it to be true. However, that's a very weak assumption that shouldn't be held against a conclusion that follows from your world-view. So is there anything else supporting an objective morality besides our intuition?

Stealing is wrong because it's unfair. Torture is wrong because it causes pain and suffering. These are objective grounds for moral judgment.

An objection that can be raised is that we can use reason instead of just our conscience, to determine the moral course of action. If we could, then our judgments of moral action would become objective:
  • For example, we can act in accordance with a general principle that specifies that whatever maximizes happiness and reduces suffering to most people is the moral action. For example, torture might be morally justified, even at a risk of torturing innocents, if thousands of lives are at stake; lying may be the right thing to do to someone to avoid needless suffering (imagine a woman in the last moments of her life and you just receive the news that her son was killed).

  • Or maybe we could argue that moral action stems from a number of duties that must be followed regardless of the consequences. In this case, telling the truth may always be the moral action, regardless of the amount of suffering it provokes. Honoring your promises and commitments may be the right thing to do even if it will lead to negative consequences for yourself or for others.
Indeed, this puts moral judgment in the objective corner but note that the question was not whether moral action can be judged objectively, as we've seen before, it certainly can if we adopt an objective moral system. The question is instead "what is morality?", not what we can make it out to be. Because, if an objective moral system is adopted for the sake of objectivity, then it's only objective by convention and not by nature. Appealing to such a system as an objective foundation for morality only adds an explanatory layer that would itself require an explanation and would face the exact same problems as the thing it tries to explain.

In other words, if you ground your moral action in the moral system of your choice, where do you ground the moral system itself?

On the other hand...

It seems to me that intuition is indeed the only thing supporting objective moral value but as I said before, it may be enough for us to reasonably have that belief if there's no reason to deny it. So, is there any reason to deny it?

Grounding objective moral value in the natural world.

One good reason is that natural sciences can't seem to provide warrant for that belief, which has traditionally led to positing the existence of objective moral value in a supernatural world instead. On the other hand, it's trivial for science to root a subjective morality in the natural world so, if our world-view doesn't account for the existence of a supernatural world, then I can't see where this objective morality would reside.

The keyword "ought".

Moral judgments refer to a comparison between what a thing is and what a thing ought to be, as if there is a state that we're aiming for and that we try to approximate. For morality to be objective, reality needs to encompass both what is and what ought to be. However, statements about what ought to be are never properly justified when they're made and the reason why they're never justified is probably because they are impossible to justify which points to a subjective nature of such claims as I explain below.

Can you prove that torture is wrong?

There's one thing that all subjective phenomena have in common, it's the impossibility to prove or show them to another person. Imagine a painting that you find beautiful, now what if I don't like it, how could you show me that I'm wrong and that the picture is truly beautiful? The same could be said about taste, I love chocolate but I know there must be someone out there who doesn't. How could I prove that I'm right when I defend that chocolate is indeed, delicious?

I couldn't prove neither of both claims, in fact, I couldn't even argue for them in a meaningful manner and that's because it doesn't make sense to talk about subjective phenomena as if they're objective features of the world. Since these things depend on the subjects, putting them in sentences as if they depend on the objects will lead to contradictions. For example, "chocolate is delicious" can't be true nor false because deliciousness is not a property of the chocolate. Of course that, in our everyday language, we use such statements but we usually mean something else than the literal meaning, like "I find chocolate delicious" or "the majority of people finds chocolate delicious", which are valid statements because they relate to the subjects instead.

I think there's a strong parallelism between our observations of ethics and these subjective phenomena but to show that, let's try to prove a moral claim. How could you prove that torturing someone for fun is wrong? You could argue that it is wrong because it causes needless suffering but then, why is causing needless suffering wrong? Maybe because that's the best moral principle among all the alternatives... but "best" in what respect exactly? What criteria can be used to judge how "good" a moral system is and to differentiate between them? Who chose that specific criteria and why that criteria and not any other?

If we don't stop too soon in our search for answers, I believe that we'll find it impossible to arrive to an objective answer, it's almost as if we're asking the wrong question, as if the statement about what ought to be is invalid and doesn't even make sense to be asked. This is a very consistent result with other subjective phenomena.

To sum it up...

I must admit that this isn't definitive proof of a subjective morality. In order for that to happen, we'd need to conclude that the impossibility to arrive to an answer is in fact of a metaphysical kind, as opposed to a physical impossibility. For example, it may be impossible to know the color of a dinosaur's skin but this is merely a physical impossibility. The information is gone in the past but the question is still valid, it still makes sense to be asked. A metaphysical impossibility would be for me to show you the beauty of a painting. I can only show you the painting itself and maybe some reasons for you to appreciate it but I can't show you its beauty because the nature of what beauty is doesn't allow it to be shown.

Even though I believe that this impossibility is indeed, of a metaphysical kind, I can't see a way to climb that very last step using deductive reasoning, but even though we can't arrive at an answer with absolute certainty, I believe that we can arrive at what I think is the overwhelmingly most likely answer to this question. So, based on the assumption of a naturalistic world-view, the lack of arguments for the case of objective moral value, the inability to ground what ought to be in reality, the ease of explaining subjective morality in reality and the analogy with other subjective phenomena, I believe that we would be much more reasonable to presume morality to be subjective.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Is morality objective or subjective? (1/2)

We have gone to the moon, we have cloned animals and we have even discovered the inner building blocks of protons... yet, the nature of ethics continues to elude us.

What is the nature of ethics anyway? Is it something that we discover about the world or is it something that we attribute to the world? Before we can answer this question, we must understand it, so what does it even mean to label anything as subjective or objective?
  • Let's take a spoon, for example. Its shape depends only on itself and not on any subject that perceives it. This is because what we're calling shape is only a function of how the spoon's molecules are arranged in space and, as far as we know, their arrangement doesn't change depending on who's perceiving it. Hence shape is a property of the object and is therefore objective.

  • As for a subjective perception, we could use beauty as an obvious example. Beauty is a property that does not seem to resides in the object itself, it seems to be only a feeling, the result of the experience of perceiving the shape and/or colors of an object. We could also use the less obvious but easier example of color. It's less obvious because each color correlate with an objective feature of the world (namely, the wavelength of the photons that reach our eyes) but the experience of redness is subjective because it doesn't follow from the photons themselves, it's only a mapping in our minds between the wavelength of the photon and the actual experience of color that surfaces into consciousness.
Now, in order to answer the question in the title of this post we must deal with one major obstacle that always arises in this discussion:
  • The usual arguments that I see being used are arguments of the type: "Western moral standards are different than eastern moral standards, which is just one example that proves the subjective nature of morality" or "Don't you think that at least some things, like murder and rape, are truly wrong regardless of the time and place?". This is the most common obstacle that is usually stumbled upon, it's this misunderstanding that an answer can be found by observing moral variability in the world.

    Let's go back to the spoon example. We can all disagree about its actual shape (due to perspective/optical illusion/faulty vision or any other cause) and that wouldn't automatically mean that its shape is actually a subjective property that we're attributing to the spoon. Because of what we know about the world, we know that shape depends on the object, not the subject, even when different subjects see different shapes. So variability doesn't entail subjectivity, but can the lack of variability entail objectivity? Let's imagine that suddenly, all people that dislike the taste of chocolate die. Everyone would find chocolate delicious but that would do nothing to establish the nature of that property as being dependent on the object. Also, we can all agree that the sunrise is beautiful and that doesn't necessarily mean that the sunrise is intrinsically beautiful, independently from the subject that experiences it. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", right?

    So, as you can see, observing the amount of variability of one thing isn't very useful in finding its nature. I believe that the question can't be answered by observing the thing we're testing alone, in isolation from its context, it's in examining how it fits within our world-view that we can find an answer.
So back to ethics! Is morality discovered by us in the actions of persons? If it's "discovered", then it's an objective feature of the world and we merely have a capacity to perceive it and make sense of it; Or is it attributed by us to the world? In which case, morality is within us, dependent on the subjects that actively attribute properties of rightness and wrongness to actions and is therefore, subjective.

Now you're probably wondering how can we possibly answer such a question after I claimed that the answer will come ultimately from what your world-view allows and how morality fits in it. It's probably impossible to arrive at an answer without a prior agreement on an underlying world-view but I believe we can reach a conclusion for a naturalist world-view at least. Part 2 will be up shortly, I'll edit this paragraph to point to it but for now, I hope I've been able to clarify what the question means and to make sense of it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Can robots ever feel pain?

Can robots ever feel pain? Can they ever love or experience sadness? These things are not possible today but they might be possible in the future if they're only a matter of technical engineering. So the question in this article is: are they only a matter of technical engineering?

There is an explanatory gap between the subjective sensations in our minds and the objective nature of the physical reality but is that gap merely physical in nature or is there an actual metaphysical difference between them? In other words, is that a difference only in degree or in their very nature?

The fact that there is even a problem here seem to elude most people, it's hard to realize what it is and even harder to explain it. There is this default position that consciousness is, in principle, knowable and explainable in the framework of modern neurology and that there are no reasons to think otherwise.

So are there good reasons to think otherwise? I'll try to show them by using robots as an example.

Building the robot.

For this to work we need to establish an assumption. Let's presume that everything that makes up a human being can (in principle only) be constructed in a robot. I think this is the default position and it basically means that, if we're just chemistry, then there's no reason why the same chemical principles can't apply in a robot. Where there's a group of nerve cells transmitting electrical signals, there can be an electrical wire. Where there's muscle there can be a small engine. Where there is skin there can be an organic compound that behaves like skin.

This is obviously an over-simplification but the actual materials and techniques are not important for the purpose of this article. The only important thing to presume is that each part we choose for our robot will maintain the same behavior as the human counterpart.

Building the feeling of pain.

Now let's say that we build this robot in a way that will enable it to experience pain.

Beneath the surface of a robot's skin there are pressure sensors. When pressure increases beyond a certain threshold, where further pressure could be threatening, the sensor (nerve) emits an electrical signal through a set of wires (nervous system) that are connected to a central processing unit (the brain). When the signal reaches that CPU, a procedure is fired so that the head and eyes track the source location of the signal to get more information, at the same time another procedure is fired that emits a laud noise and another procedure is fired to attempt to withdraw the arm away from the source of the pressure.

So by hammering the finger of that poor robot, the robot would turn it's head to you, scream and then withdraw the arm away from you.

The result.

Let's presume that all of this was so perfectly simulated that you could not distinguish between the behavior of that robot and a human being's behavior. The result is that we have just succeeded in simulating pain!

Or have we?

The truth is that we've only succeeded in simulating the behavior of pain but not the feeling of pain and it's important to distinguish both. Is that robot experiencing the feeling of pain? Not at all. Would it be immoral to torture that robot only because it behaves as if it was feeling pain? Now what if we threaten the robot to hammer his finger again, could we program it to feel fear? Again, it doesn't seem possible. Sure, he could have the logical pathways to recognize potential danger and avoid it by running away from it. It could effectively SEEM as if it was feeling fear but it still wouldn't be experiencing the feeling of fear.

The gap.

In a way, those sensations can be said not to exist at all in physical reality and they don't seem to logically follow from it. Would it be impossible for life to have developed into creatures like that robot? Creatures that, through the course of evolution by natural selection, have acquired the necessary programming to survive and replicate, while behaving as we behave, yet being devoid of subjective sensations? Is there a difference between us and that description of those robots if we're just biological machinery anyway? There's no difference in behavior but you'll probably recognize that the robot of our little thought experiment is not a person since it doesn't feel anything.

So what would it take for the robot to feel? There just doesn't seem to be a way since all we can construct are behaviors and not feelings. The problem is that what we feel is in the subjective realm of our mind and not on an objective physical reality, it's surely correlated with it but it's still unexplained by it and more importantly, it's seemingly unexplainable by it alone, which is what I mean by there being a difference in the nature of those things and that would entail that the assumption we started out with is probably wrong.

As a final note, this is one of those subjects that defy our language. It's so difficult to find the words to express this problem, but if the article was unclear, maybe its main concepts can be better understood by reading this other article: The metaphysics of color, which distinguishes the subjectiveness of our feelings from the objective phenomena that it relates to, in the world, using color as an example.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Selfishness as the source of empathy

Imagine yourself serving a client in some shop. The client is blind and asks you to take out the amount of money from his wallet for the items he purchased. You'll realize that you could take whatever you want but you'll probably feel aversion to the idea. You recognize the vulnerability that that person is feeling and you'll want to help him, be nice to him and be a positive influence in his life. You'll probably feel the same desire to help if you see someone crying or being subject to great physical pain.

This sensibility seems to be fairly common, at least in the example before, but seems to extend into multiple degrees of variability. From physical pain to emotional pain, from friends to complete strangers, from humans to other animals, and the higher we go, the less agreement there is.

The challenges.

Explaining empathy towards other animals have been a challenge since there doesn't seem to be any evolutionary purpose is such a feeling, quite the contrary, our nature should encourage the killing of baby seals if we must, in order to survive. So if this isn't part of our nature, is it mere convention? Are we taught that torturing cats for fun is wrong? That mustn't be right, if you find the torture of animals for fun aversive, it's probably not because you can be caught doing it and therefore, it's something much deeper than simply the result of a breach of some conventioned command.

Even on lower levels, the explanation seems very incomplete. We can attribute a Darwinian general purpose to account for empathy towards relatives and friends but not towards unrelated persons that cannot reciprocate.

We can argue that all of these levels of what I described are actually different things in their nature and therefore, don't require the same explanation. I disagree. I argue that we can explain all of these things as different aspects of the same thing and even though, on the lowest levels, said consequences might be advantageous for our survival, I'd say that generally, these are accidental and the result of a completely separate phenomenon.

So what is it?

I believe this is a spin-off of a skill that humans can take to these extremes. It's easy to imagine why properly understanding the needs, wants and feelings of another human is essential for our own survival so we honed the skill that allows us to do just that over the course of our evolution.

Now wouldn't it be almost unbelievable how fast and effortlessly one can know about our own state of mind given how complex creatures we are? We do this all the time that we observe someone and we don't even know we're doing it! Well, it would be unbelievable, unless we took a shortcut from all those calculations.

What we're really doing is that we're putting ourselves in another's shoes, almost literally. A quick way to know what someone is feeling is doing this exercise: "what would I feel if I was in that situation?". This might not be very accurate because it will translate into what YOU would feel. When we know a person well enough we might go further than this and think about what we'd feel if we WERE that person under that situation, but given that we don't have access to anyone else's minds to experience how different they really are, we can't possibly know how accurate we really are. One thing is certain though, this is the most accurate we can possibly get.

The link between selfishness and empathy.

We've explained how we know but we haven't explained why we care. The reason we care is a direct consequence of the method we use to know what that person is feeling. We're putting ourselves in another's shoes and essentially feeling what we'd feel under such circumstances, so if we know by feeling, we automatically care for what we're feeling ourselves. What you're actually feeling, by imagining someone's fingernails being forced out of one's fingers, is a simulation on yourself of what that would probably feel like and it's the discomfort of that self-inflicted pain that prompts us into action.

I believe this can explain even the highest levels of empathy that I've described, namely towards other animals. By mastering this skill, we can also apply it to know what other animals are feeling. Of course, this can be terribly fallacious since we don't know what it is like to be a dog, yet, we'll make the exercise of being a dog under such situation which can result in something that is very far from what a dog actually feels like. Any parent might also apply their own emotional knowledge of what it is like to have a baby when observing a baby seal being killed.

Explaining variability.

Lack of sensibility may then be explained a priori, by some neurological fault in this skill, or it can be explained a posteriori, with the absence of some necessary personal experiences to properly examine people's feelings. We can observe this with children, we all know how cruel they can be and I'd say that's related with a still undeveloped skill and lack of the necessary experience to understand the whole human emotional spectrum.

Wrapping it up

This is why I'm using the word selfishness to explain empathy. Not with the negative connotation it has and not even in the same way it's usually used, since this selfishness is based on the cause of an action and not on the consequence, which is how it's usually used. To wrap it up, we feel empathy and act on it to avoid the feelings on ourselves that mirror what we anticipate to be the feelings of another. It's because it hurts when we see someone suffering, it's because we feel like crying when we see someone crying, it's because we feel vulnerable when we see someone vulnerable, it's because we want to stop the pain we're feeling ourselves that prompts us so powerfully to help.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Laughter, Humor, Sexual Attraction (3/3)

The real reason behind establishing the concepts of laughter and humor (part 1 and part 2 of this series), was to end up at an attempt to connect all the dots, framing these questions within the context of man's biological evolution. They don't seem to fit anywhere but can they -not- have a purpose? Maybe they're just some odd product from an over-evolved brain or maybe their existence was more important in our evolutionary paths than we give them credit for. In exploring the later possibility, they can be seen as an evolutionary driving force, responsible for pushing our intelligence up to modern man standards.

In a recent study, women were asked to choose the most sexually appealing men according to their written introductions. Some introductions have been carefully crafted to be funny while others were not. Not surprisingly, women chose the funniest ones. Not surprisingly because we all know that women prefer men with a sense of humor, I'm not even sure why there's a study about it in the first place.

Now, can it be, that we have evolved our selection criteria to use a person's sense of humor as a sign of intelligence (broadly speaking)? There are a couple of points here. First, we must ask if the development of intelligence is a meaningful advantage in competing and surviving. That seems obvious, our species is a living proof of that. The second point is, can humor provide a generally meaningful correlation with cognitive capacity? If we agree with the way we described humor in part 2 of this series, then I'd say that humor seems very closely related with the kind of intelligence that would be useful in the chaotic, unpredictable world where the primitive man lived in.

But even if we agree that humor relates to our cognitive ability to quickly recognize logical patterns and sudden anomalies in them, it still couldn't be used as a selection method if the information of a successful recognition of humor wasn't available to anyone else other oneself, so that's where laughter comes in. So if we agree that laughter is used in this context to broadcast that recognition (part 1), then both can suddenly provide a working new possible selection criteria for a potential mate. Now if humor provides some useful measure of intelligence, the importance of humor as a selection criteria in women could have evolved in parallel and risen progressively as the actual consequences of the development of intelligence in man got more and more relevant.

The existence of this new selection criteria and the importance it has are very consistent with what seems to have been a dramatic shift in the strategic history of our evolution. Brains have always evolved, with or without humor, but never have they evolved in such a furious pace as is observable in the path that ultimately led to the Homo Sapiens. In comparison with our closest evolutionary branches, we are the most fragile, weak, devoid of any natural weapons like big teeth or claws; yet we're incredibly more intelligent. What drove us in such an unorthodox path? This would also help to explain the fact that humor is still observably a primary selection criteria, overshadowing physical dominance much of the time. However, any consideration about any selection criteria today should be taken with a pinch of salt since we risk mixing a natural animal criteria with many layers of culture and civilization.

In conclusion, I'd like to say that this is not just the case that the pieces fit here, it's also the case that they don't seem to fit very well anywhere else on the board. If we look at ourselves in light of our animal nature, if we think about the primitive roots that gave rise to these things, then humor is a very odd and special thing that either has a very odd and special explanation or else it must fit some sort of evolutionary purpose as the one suggested here. Maybe humor is not just some weird biological spin-off of our big brains and maybe it's more than a consequence of that, maybe it's a big part of the cause itself.