Monday, December 29, 2014

"The Tyrant's Headache" in Sci Phi Journal

According to a broad class of materialist views, conscious experiences -- such as the experience of pain -- do not supervene on the local physical state of the being who is having those conscious experiences. Rather, they depend in part on the past evolutionary or learning history of the organism (Fred Dretske) or on what is "normal" for members of its group (David Lewis). These dependencies are not just causal but metaphysical: The very same (locally defined) brain state might be experienced as pain by one organism as as non-pain by another organism, in virtue of differences in the organisms' past history or group membership, even if the two organisms are molecule-for-molecule identical at the moment in question.

Donald Davidson's Swampman example is typically used to make this point vivid: You visit a swamp. Lightning strikes, killing you. Simultaneously, through incredibly-low-odds freak quantum chance, a being who is molecule-for-molecule identical to you emerges from the swamp. Does this randomly-congealed Swampman, who lacks any learning history or evolutionary history, experience pain when it stubs its toe? Many people seem to have the hunch or intuition, that yes, it would; but any externalist who thinks that consciousness requires a history will have to say no. Dretske makes clear in his 1995 book that he is quite willing to accept this consequence. Swampman feels no pain.

But Swampman cases are only the start of it! If pain depends, for example, on what is normal for your species, then one ought to be able to relieve a headache by altering your conspecifics -- for example, by killing enough of them to change what is "normal" for your species: anaesthesia by genocide. And in general, any view that denies local supervenience while allowing the presence or absence of pain to depend on other currently ongoing events (rather than only on events in the past) should allow that there will be conditions under which one can end one's own pain by changing other people even without any changes in one's own locally-defined material configuration.

To explore this issue further, I invented a tyrant with the headache, who will do anything to other people to end his headache, without changing any of his own relevant internally-defined brain states.

"The Tyrant's Headache" is a hybrid between a science fiction story and an extended philosophical thought experiment. It has just come out in Sci Phi Journal -- a new journal that publishes both science fiction stories and philosophical essays about science fiction. The story/essay is behind a paywall for now ($3.99 at Amazon or Castalia House). But consider buying! Your $3.99 will support a very cool new journal, and it will get you, in addition to my chronicle of the Tyrant's efforts to end his headache (also featuring David K. Lewis in magician's robes), three philosophical essays about science fiction, eight science fiction stories that explore other philosophical themes, part of a continuing serial, and a review. $3.99 well spent, I hope, and dedicated to strengthening the bridge between science fiction and philosophy.

[See also Anaesthesia by Genocide, David Lewis, and a Materialistic Trilemma]

(image source)


Callan S. said...

The tyrant changes everyone else, in order to alleviate himself? That's a nifty premise! :)

These dependencies are not just causal but metaphysical: The very same (locally defined) brain state might be experienced as pain by one organism as as non-pain by another organism, in virtue of differences in the organisms' past history or group membership, even if the two organisms are molecule-for-molecule identical at the moment in question.

Surely that's not an example of a broad class of materialist views - it's hidden dualism!

To me, the swampman feels pain due to the history that is the configuration of his atoms and their ongoing creation of further history by interacting with each other. Not some history which is...well, what is this other history? Metaphysical? So it's supernatural?

Whether you want to treat the swampman as human (which might affect whether you say it can feel pain) when it's not of the traditional branching causal chain reaction that we arrive from, I dunno. Maybe that'd be spontaniousist! (rather like racist! Heh!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I wouldn't want to be spontaneousist! But Lewis and Dretske are definitely materialists, if anyone is. It's an odd view, but it doesn't seem to require immaterial souls or properties, just denial of local supervenience.

Callan S. said...

I don't understand what a denial of local supervenience means, Eric?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Okay it's annoying jargon, but basically denying local supervenience means there can be a difference in the property without any local physical difference. Consider "uncle": No local change in me, but as soon as my sister gives birth, I acquire the property. So "uncle" doesn't locally supervene.

Callan S. said...


I have to say I think an entirely different process is going on with the uncle thing.

The theme of the piece still interests me, regardless - take, for example, a female dictator who gets a headache from her mysogynist subjects. So say she uses he powers to change their attitude to women, so as to alleviate her headache.

But in regard to swampman, I think pain (as in stub your toe pain) is a hardwired element of the mind. It is not softwired/adaptive. I think mysogyny is atleast partly softwired/adaptive. And so something like the tyrant example interests me.

I don't know if it's interesting to describe the distinction, but even then if swampman is a duplicate, then all the softwiring is duplicated too. If you were a mysogynist before you entered the swamp, so is swampman. If you held a more equal notion toward women when you entered the swamp, so does swamp man because duplication. Stub your toe pain is hardwired so in either case, so swampman feels pain.

To me that's a materialist account, because everything is in the materials that were duplicated. There's not some extra thing. The swampman, if an uncle, thinks he's an uncle because 'uncle' is merely name giving, like we give the name 'queen' to a chess piece. If a tyrant used their powers to socially issolate children from parents so parents would not pass on the idea of 'uncle' to children, then...the idea would not be passed on. Such children, when grown up and their sister gives birth, would not say something like they are an uncle or aquire an uncle property. Because it's just a naming pattern and that pattern, in as much as the meme was not handed on from parent to child, was broken.

So that's the idea I pitch, I guess - how is there any 'supervenience' when you can simply remove the word 'uncle' like that?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan --

Something like that is what "internalists" think. Internalism is probably the majority view among materialists about consciousness (though it is not Dretske's view), and a minority view among materialists about meaning and thought content.

Callan S. said...

I find Lewis and Dretske claims of materialism a bit confusing, then.

Though 'internalists' doesn't sound quite right either - like its making some distinction between matter and matter.