Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Dust Hypothesis

Consider the following argument:

(1.) It doesn't matter what your mind is made of, as long as the functional relationships between your mental states and the inputs and outputs are right. A conscious person could be made of carbon-based molecules with an organic brain, or of silicon chips in a robot body, or of suitably complex magnetic iron structures. If a being dependably acts like a sophisticated, conscious, intelligent being, it is a sophisticated, conscious, intelligent being. (Searle would disagree with this, but it is the majority view in philosophy of mind and standard in fictional portrayals of android and alien intelligences.) Let's call each temporal slice of such a being a "cognitive state".

(2.) The cognitive states (or temporal slices) of people can be temporally or spatially distributed. If a being of the sort in (1) exists for only one second out of every ten, it is still a conscious, intelligent being, just one with temporal gaps in it -- gaps the being itself may not notice. Likewise, if the being is partly instantiated in Paris and partly in Rio, with the two parts in constant communication, reacting in a co-ordinated way to produce the right sort of behavior, that also does not deprive it of consciousness and intelligence. (Something like this is suggested by Dennett.)

(3.) Furthermore, the objective temporal order of cognitive states is irrelevant. If input 1 ("How are you?") is followed by cognitive states 2, 3, and 4, then by output 5 ("Better, now that you've stopped kicking me!"), it shouldn't matter if as measured by the objective time of the outside world, state 3 comes before state 2, as long as in terms of subjective time and cognitive sequence state 2 comes first. (Dennett, again, is useful here. It's a little tricky to figure out what subjective time and cognitive sequence are independent of objective temporal order; but the conclusion of the argument can be weakened to dispense with this premise if necessary.)

(4.) Also, actual connection to the outside world is irrelevant. You could still have the intelligence and consciousness you now in fact have if your cognitive states were instantiated in a brain in a vat. (Here we may be departing from Dennett; but even if, as Dennett's student Noe and others have argued, some environmental connections are essential to mindedness, we can probably still run the argument I'm interested in. We just turn it into brain-and-relevant-bit-of-the-environment in a vat. We could also dispense with certain "externally defined" mental states and still have an interesting version of the conclusion if necessary.)

(5.) If all this is true, it appears to invite the following conclusion: As long as somewhere in the universe, in some temporal order there exists a functional equivalent of each of your cognitive states, no matter where, in what material, or how grossly distributed over time and space, then there is a mental duplicate of you in existence.

(6.) Then, finally: In all the spatial and temporal vastness of the universe, each of your cognitive states will be instantiated somewhere other than your own brain, in vastly different times and locations.

(7.) So, there is a mental duplicate of you spread out across space and time.

(8.) And this generalizes: There are many, many such people; the universe (at least the complex bits of it) is permeated with them; they include many possible alternative versions of you; etc.

Call this the Dust Hypothesis, after science fiction writer Greg Egan's similar Dust Hypothesis in his book Permutation City.

Assuming the conclusion is absurd, the question is where to put on the brakes. My own inclination is either (1), following Searle, or (5), or (6). On 6: Perhaps the functional relationships necessary for sophisticated, conscious thought are so complex that even in the vast universe they would not be instantiated except in coherent, brain-like packages. But maybe that underestimates the vastness and complexity of the universe?

On (5): Perhaps actual causation between cognitive states is necessary to mentality and consciousness, not just the instantiation of those states with the right counterfactual and dispositional relationships. But I worry. Couldn't there be a mental being causally truncated on one end (brought suddenly into being by freak quantum accident, like Swampman), or on the other (destroyed suddenly by lightning), or both (thus existing for only a moment)? Or what if you have an idea due to stroke or quantum accident (and then maybe the idea vanishes for similar reasons)? Or suppose that you are destroyed and merely by chance a duplicate of you is simultaneously created elsewhere -- wouldn't there be a stream of mentality that transitioned from one to the other? (Could you tell? Would it matter deeply to you whether the duplicate came about by chance or design?) Then generalize. It's a complex issue, but for reasons like those, I'm inclined to think that the actual instantiation of dispositional and functional structures, even if they're not actually causally connected, is enough for interesting and subjectively continuous mentality (even if some externally defined states like genuine [as opposed to apparent] memory require actual causation). But then if we grant (1) and (6) and the others, we seem to be back to the Dust Hypothesis.

Open Courseware in Philosophy

A reader just forwarded me this list of Top 100 Open Courseware links in Theology and Philosophy, including syllabae and the professors' lecture notes or overheads. The philosophy sections are dominated by MIT.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Introspection: A Draft Entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

... is now up here. It is, I'm afraid, monstrously long (85 double-spaced manuscript pages, about 21,000 words). Hopefully it's well enough organized that people can locate the section most relevant to their interests and read it in isolation. I saved for the end of the entry my own material on our poor knowledge of our own stream of conscious experience.

There are always trade-offs between accuracy, comprehensiveness, readability, and length, and I'm not sure I consistently found the right balance. Feedback welcome!

Monday, January 12, 2009

NEH Summer Seminar on Experimental Philosophy

Ron Mallon and Shaun Nichols are putting together an NEH summer seminar on Experimental Philosophy. NEH summer seminars are seminars for faculty across the country to learn about or deepen their knowledge of a particular topic in the humanities. I participated in one in 1999 (Robert Gordon 's on folk psychology), and it was great fun. It was almost like going to college again. Those of us who chose to live in the dormrooms did frosh-like things like sneak in liquor late at night and gossip over breakfast.

Here's their blurb:

Experimental Philosophy is a new movement that uses experiments to address traditional philosophical questions. Although the movement is only a few years old, it has attracted prolific practitioners as well as ardent critics. (For more about Experimental Philosophy, see the recent article in the New York Times or the ongoing discussion at the Experimental Philosophy Blog.)

This summer, the NEH is sponsoring an Institute on Experimental Philosophy. The Institute will bring in over a dozen distinguished guest faculty, who will present their latest research across a wide range of issues and perspectives. The Institute will also provide participants with the opportunity to learn experimental methods that are used in Experimental Philosophy.

The Institute will take place in Salt Lake City from June 22-July 17 2009. Eligible participants must have a teaching position at a U.S. college or university. The deadline for application is March 2. More information about the Institute, as well as application materials, are available here.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Joshua Knobe and Alison Gopnik Debating Children's and Scientific Thinking

... on Two of my favorite scholars!

Josh says that ordinary reasoning about mental states is unlike scientific reasoning because our reasoning about mental states is influenced by our moral judgments (as his work suggests) while scientific reasoning is not so influenced. Alison, in contrast, is a leading proponent of the view that scientific reasoning and ordinary reasoning have much in common, especially in children. Josh plays the role of interviewer and lets Alison do most of the talking.

Near the end, Alison touches briefly on what I think is the key flaw on Josh's argument, the unwarranted assumption that scientific reasoning is not much influenced by moral judgments. In my view -- and I think this is now the majority view in philosophy of science -- scientific thinking is, and should be, thoroughly permeated with emotion and morality. The old model of the impartial, objective scientific observer cannot be sustained. So there's no reason Josh's findings about the effects of moral judgments on ordinary reasoning have to stand in conflict with Alison's view of the continuity of scientific and everyday reasoning.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Gender Migration of Names

Noticing my son's playmates and classmates, the following thought occurs to me: Didn't Sidney used to be a man's name? And August? And Loren?

Being an empirically-minded philosopher (and one with a little time away from classes), I had to check. I went to the U.S. Social Security Administration's baby names site and I looked up the 1000 most popular boy and girl baby names for 1900 and for 2000. August, to my surprise, didn't rate among the top 1000 girls' names (though I know two young Augusts, both girls), but Sidney and Loren both made the gender switch. In 1900, Sidney was #108 among boy names and #777 among girls. By 2000, the ratio had flipped to #594 for boys and #264 for girls. Same with Sydney: In 1900 #730 among boys, unranked among girls; in 2000, unranked among boys and a startling #23 among girls. Loren/Lauren pulled the same trick: In 1900, #342 and #943 for boys, unranked for girls; in 2000, #704 and #11 for girls, unranked for boys.

In other words, Loren/Lauren and Sidney/Sydney went from being modestly popular boys' names to being leading girls' names. But does it ever go the other way around? Do girls' names ever become boys' names? I wouldn't think so: Calling a girl "Joe" (or "Jo") or "Jack" ("Jaq") is cute; calling a boy "Anna" or "Mary" doesn't have quite the same effect. In fact, it might be perceived as something like a lifetime curse.

So I ran a few analyses. In the SSA lists, I found 26 names that switched from masculine in 1900 to feminine in 2000 and 4 that went the other way. (That's p < .0001 on the binomial test, by the way, if you want the statistics.) Here they are:

Male to Female:
(apologies for the small reproduction: click to enlarge)As is evident from this list, 5 of the top 25 girls' names in 2000 (Madison, Taylor, Lauren, Sydney, Morgan) were boys' names in 1900! The gender migration of girls' names to boys' names looks very different.These seem to be aberrations, not a trend. Two appear to be due to an increasing acceptability of "-ie" and not just "-y" as a proper spelling of the long-e suffix for male names. The other two are due to the precipitous decline of "Jean" and "Joan" as girls' names, coupled presumably with the retention of those names as foreign equivalents of the durably and internationally popular boys' name "John". None ranks among the top 500 boys' names.

I can't resist concluding with the thought that if trends continue, someday every Tom, Dick, and Harry will be a girl.