Friday, June 14, 2019

Will Philosophy Ever Come to an End?

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with the prominent Chinese science fiction writer Xia Jia, who is visiting UC Riverside for a year. She asked me whether I thought that if we were to create, or become, post- or transhuman superintellects, would all important philosophical questions be answered?

You might think so. If fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, value, meaning, and mentality aren't entirely hopeless -- if we can make some imperfect progress on them, even with our frail human intellects, so badly designed for abstract philosophical theorizing -- then presumably entities who are vastly intellectually superior to us in the right dimensions could make more, maybe vastly more, philosophical progress. Maybe they could resolve deep philosophical questions as easily as we humans can solve two-digit multiplication problems.

Or here's another thought: If all the facts of the universe are ultimately facts about microphysics and larger-level patterns among entities constituted microphysically, then the main block to philosophical understanding might be only the limits of our observational methods and our computational power. Although no superintelligence in the universe could realistically calculate every motion of every particle over all of time, maybe all of the "big picture" general issues at the core of philosophy would prove tractable with much better observational and calculational tools.

And yet...

I want to say no. Philosophy never could be fully "solved", even by a superintelligence. (It might end, of course, in some other way than being fully solved, but that's not the kind of end Xia or I had in mind.)

First reason: Any intelligent system will be unable to fully predict itself. It will thus always remain partly unknown to itself. This lack of self-knowledge will remain an ineradicable seed for new philosophy.

To predict its own behavior a system will require a subsystem or subprocess dedicated to the task of prediction. That subsystem or subprocess could potentially model all of the entity's other subsystems and subprocesses to an arbitrarily high degree of detail. But the subsystem could not model itself in perfect detail without creating a perfect model of its modeling procedures. But then, to fully predict itself, it would need a perfect model of its perfect model of its modeling procedures, and so on, off into a vicious infinite regress.

Furthermore, some calculations are sufficiently complicated that the only way to predict their outcome is to actually do them. For any complex cognitive task, there will (plausibly) be a minimum amount of time required to physically construct and run the process by which it is done. If there is no limit to the complexity of some problems, there will also (plausibly) be no limit to the minimum amount of time even an ideal process would require to perform the cognitive task, even if the cognitive task is completable in principle. Therefore, given any finite amount of time to construct the prediction there will always be some outcomes that a superintelligence will be unable to foresee.

Now even if you grant that no superintelligent system could fully predict itself, it doesn't straightaway follow that philosophical questions will remain. Maybe the only sorts of questions that escape the superintelligence's predictive powers are details insufficiently grand to qualify as philosophical -- like the 10^10^100th digit of pi?

No, realistically, the actual self-predictive power of any practical superintelligence will always fall far, far short of that. As long as it has some challenging tasks and interests, it won't be able to predict exactly how it will cope with them until it actually copes with them. It won't know the outcome of its mega-intelligent processes until it runs them. So it will always remain partly a mystery to itself. It will be left to wonder uncertainly about what to value and prioritize in light of its ignorance about its own future values and priorities. I'd call that philosophy enough.

Second reason: No amount of superintelligence can, I suspect, entirely answer the question of fundamental values. I don't intend this in any especially mysterious way. I'm not appealing to spooky values that somehow escape all empirical inquiry. But it does seem to me that a general-capacity superintelligence ought always be able to question what it cares about most. A superintelligence might calculate with high certainty that the best thing to do next, all things considered, would be A. But it could reopen the question of the value weightings that it brings to that calculation.

Again, we face a kind of regress. Given values A, B, and C, weighted thus-and-so relative to each other, A might be clearly the best choice. But why value A more than C? Well, the intelligence could do further inquiry into the value of A -- but that inquiry too will be based on a set of values that it is at least momentarily holding fixed. It could challenge those values using still other values....

The alternative seems to be the view that there's only one possible overall value system that a superintelligence could arrive at, and that once it has arrived there it need never reflect on its values again. This strikes me as implausible, when I think about the diversity of things that people value and about how expanding capacities and experience increase that diversity rather than shrink it. As new situations, opportunities, and vistas open up for any being, no matter how intelligent, it will have new occasions to reflect on changes to its value system. Maybe it invents whole new forms of math, or art, or pleasure -- novel enough that big questions arise about how to weigh the pursuit of these new endeavors against other pursuits it values, and unpredictable enough in long term outcome that some creativity will be needed to manage the uncertain comparison.

No superintelligence could ever become so intelligent as to put all philosophical questions permanently to rest.


Related: Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain (Oct 9, 2014)

[image source]


Mike Almeida said...

Well, corresponding to the increased capacity to solve problems superintellects would have the capacity to generate amazing counterexamples. So philosophy would still be around.

Howie said...

Could you see this question as a close cousin to the question of whether we'd want to live forever- omniscience versus immortality?
Is a life that can't be examined worth living?

Anonymous said...

if we understand that Values are just what we value and not some things unto themselves then they aren't matters to be solved but enacted...

Callan said...

Double negative in the last sentence?

Stephen Wysong said...

Eric, your topic question reminds me of P. M. S. Hacker’s views, in that I suspect he would entirely reject the idea of “philosophical progress” because of his perspective that Philosophy is a search for understanding rather than for knowledge. As he wrote:

“... if one asks a physicist or biologist, a historian or a mathematician what knowledge has been achieved in his subject, he can take one to a large library, and point out myriad books which detail the cognitive achievements of his subject. But if one asks a philosopher for even a single book that will summarize the elements of philosophical knowledge—as one might ask a chemist for a handbook of chemistry—he will have nothing to present. There is no general, agreed body of philosophical knowledge—although there are libraries full of philosophical writings from antiquity to the present day, which are in constant use.”

Instead of achieving knowledge, Hacker maintains, “[Philosophy] explains, by description, how the various elements in the web of concepts are woven together. It explains why forms of words that at first blush appear to make sense do not, or why forms of words that appear to fulfill a given role actually fulfill an utterly different one. It explains the sources of conceptual puzzlement and confusion. And it explains how to eradicate such confusions.”

Consequently, progress in Philosophy is not limited by “our frail human intellects” and vast intellectual superiority wouldn’t help. I think Hacker would, however, agree with you that Philosophy cannot be “solved,” but for quite different reasons:

“Precisely because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge but for understanding, what it achieves can no more be transmitted from generation to generation than virtue. Philosophical education can show the way to philosophical clarity, just as parents can endeavour to inculcate virtue in their children. But the temptations, both old and new, of illusion, mystification, arid scholasticism, scientism, and bogus precision fostered by logical technology may prove too great, and philosophical insight and overview may wane. Each generation has to achieve philosophical understanding for itself, and the insights and clarifications of previous generations have to be gained afresh.”

Most Wittgensteinian of course. All quotes are form Hacker’s 2009 paper, “Philosophy: A Contribution, Not to Human Knowledge, but to Human Understanding” … available at

Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla said...

Is not possible that there are a multitude of diverse 'superintelligences', each with its own and idiosincratic views and preferences about ethics, music, food (or whatever it takes), etc.? Exactly as in the case of humans.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Jesus: Sure, I'm inclined to think so.

Steven: I'm traveling with a bit of vacation-brain, but all of that is far too Wittgensteinian for my tastes. So profoundly different in outlook that it's hard to know how even to engage, other than over drinks for a couple hours in person.

Callan: Thanks for the catch! Corrected.

Mike: Yes!

Howie: I've discussed these issues a bit in posts like Goldfish Pool Immortality and The Immortal's Dilemma. A bit much for my vacation-brain self to dive into them again right now!

Gordon said...

"spooky values" come hand in hand with spooky logic and spooky mathematics--though there is nothing spooky about it

Philosopher Eric said...

Sci-fi writers make their livings by discussing the implications of manufactured superhuman intelligences and so on. Thus she was surely hoping for the opposite answer. I’d have disappointed her as well, though in a much different way.

Humanity can never “fully solve” philosophy, just it can never do so for science. Beyond a hypothetical god, nothing can have access to “noumena” itself. So all that anything natural can ever know with certainty about what exists, is that it does exist in some manner (confirmed by means of its “thought”, per Descartes).

So now the question becomes, “Could a superhuman intelligence develop highly effective philosophical answers?” I believe that even we humans can and will do so, so sure! I don’t consider intelligence to hold us back however, but rather unfortunate conventions and biases in the field.

For example I see the “values” question as one such convention. Different people under different circumstances will naturally have different values, and by means of causal influences. No need for philosophy to waste any more time dinking around with this. Instead I think it needs to get back to the source, or “value” itself.

Apparently it’s possible for a computer that is not conscious (like my brain), to produce a punishment / reward dynamic from which to drive the function of a conscious entity (like me). So if you want to assess how valuable existence is for anything over a given period of time (whether individual or social), this will be represented by its aggregate positive minus negative valence score over the period. This position is Amoral, it’s perfectly Subjective, and it concerns Total Valence over a defined period, or ASTV.

Without a respected community of professionals with such a common premise, I believe that our mental and behavioral sciences will continue to suffer. How might we grasp the nature of a value laden entity, without formally acknowledging value to it? Only the science of economics has formally done so that I know of so far. Here value is referred to as “utility”.

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AAB College said...

Thank you for sharing

Stephen Wysong said...

Had I known you were luxuriating in your vacation-brain, Eric, I might’ve postponed posting so disruptive a view as Hacker’s. But Hacker does seem to have a valid point, in that Philosophy seems to have no methodology to discriminate philosophical knowledge from speculation, unlike Science, whose methodology relies on evidence-based testability and iterative improvement for the accumulation of the scientific knowledge to which Hacker refers. History and Mathematics also have accepted methodologies to recognize and properly label nonsense. I think those methodologies are the key to achieving knowledge, rather than intelligence or intellect.

As a case in point, let's examine the Philosophy of Time as presented by Dr. Bradley Dowden of CSU Sacramento in his Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Time” … at Dowden begins by stating that "... despite 2,500 years of investigation into the nature of time, there are many unresolved issues.” In the context of Hacker’s assertion about the absence of philosophical knowledge, I don’t believe the article cites any philosophical knowledge about Time—I can’t find any—other than perhaps the definitions of concepts and terminology, but that’s the philosophical content that Hacker finds legitimate.

The naïve realism of Presentism continues to be widely supported philosophically even though no evidence can be cited to justify that support. But Presentism’s view of the architecture of the universe is incoherent, in that it proposes that we perceive a zero-sized flowing “now” somehow instantiating—making real—a new state of the entire universe while somehow transitioning the current reality of the universe into non-existence, with no mechanism underlying these transitions ever suggested. Eternalism—the block universe—is, in contrast, an implication of relativity physics, whose correctness continues to be verified for over a century now, most recently by the detection of gravity waves.

But Dowden’s article contains no statements that Eternalism is correct and Presentism is incorrect, as demonstrated by our current scientific understanding of the geometry of the universe. Are unequivocal statements that a proposal is wrong, incorrect, or evidence-free considered rude in the philosophical community? With the Philosophy of Time, as with much of the theorizing of contemporary Consciousness Philosophy, it seems that anything goes because of a lack of a methodology to distinguish knowledge from unlikely theories and outright nonsense. It takes a Hacker to state outright that “what-it’s-likeness” is a meaningless nounification based on a linguistic massacre.

More generally, aside from linguistic analysis in the service of philosophical clarity, as Hacker put it, precisely what are the enumerated philosophical certainties—the solid meat of philosophical knowledge—concerning, for instance, “value, meaning, and mentality”? Where are they to be found? Why is there not a Philosophical Knowledge for Dummies?

The abundance of philosophical theorizing would seem to contradict your view that “... our frail human intellects ... [are] badly designed for abstract philosophical theorizing”—humanity continues to theorize endlessly on abstract philosophical topics. But theories are not knowledge. The lack of philosophical methodology, the inability of the philosophical community to adopt standards for solidly distinguishing knowledge from nonsense, and the widespread evidence-resistant proclivities of Philosophy would seem to render the attainment of actual Philosophical Knowledge most unlikely to the extreme of impossibility, so that Philosophy would seem to be at no risk of either "making progress” or coming to an end. Unless, as frequently happens, I'm in error, or completely misunderstanding what's meant by knowledge, reality and existence.

And now, Eric, I imagine you're wishing you could return to your vacation ... ;-)

Stephen Wysong said...

I’m surprised at the silence following my post of June 27th. After all, only a single counterinstance—one statement of verifiable fact—need be cited to invalidate my generalization about philosophical knowledge.

And it’s not at all a recent observation: over a century ago in The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined "Cartesian" as:

“Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum—whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum—‘I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;’ as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.”

I think I think that my views are a consequence of a corruptive exposure to A. J. Ayers’ Language, Truth and Logic in one of my earliest Philosophy classes in my embryonic, intellectually vulnerable years so many decades ago ... ;-)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I've been traveling and fell behind on comments! I also prioritized some more recent posts, which were substantial work. If your comment is meant as an objection to my post, I'm not sure why you think that doing philosophy requires attaining philosophical knowledge. As for examples of philosophical knowledge, I think we know that Leibniz's monadist metaphysics is false and that if you want to be a flat-footed utiliarian you will have to accept some consequences that many judge to be counterintuitive or unappealing e.g. about killing the innocent in some circumstances. Would either of those count? (I'm aiming low.)

Stephen Wysong said...

I don’t believe that doing Philosophy results in philosophical knowledge, although the sort of “negative” knowledge of philosophical falsehoods you mention is probably abundant. And I didn’t present Hacker’s position as an objection to your post but, rather, as an additional perspective on Philosophy’s coming to an end.

Certainly Philosophy is the Mother of All Science historically, perhaps beginning with Aristotle, although the scientific pursuit of knowledge about the natural world has whittled away at the breadth of appropriate philosophical subject matter. Personally, I find some philosophical discussions quite interesting and quite like mental resistance exercises—conceptual weightlifting as it were, some of it very enjoyable. I’ve also had the amusing (to me at least) thought that Philosophy can be viewed as a genre of Literature, a kind of speculative non-fiction.

But, IMO, the limitations of Philosophy as a knowledge generator don’t seem to be as widely appreciated as they should be, as in much of Consciousness Philosophy, which continues to look to me like a “god-of-the-gaps” exercise, with consciousness being the last gasp gap. The philosophical “theories” of consciousness (panpsychism, neutral monism, IIT, HOTs, etc.) all appear untestable and I suspect that an eventual precise neurophysiological identification of the actual workings of consciousness will render all of them historical curiosities. But, at that point, it’s likely that Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy will characteristically avoid assertions about their incorrectness ... ;-)

Regarding the Philosophy of Time, however, I find it strange that Philosophy continues to ignore the essential conundrum posed by the scientific support of Eternalism: How do we explain our “Presentist” experience of our lives, our illusory feelings of “now” and a flowing present time and our perceptions of change in a static, unchanging universe where nothing happens, indeed, where nothing has ever happened?

Why do you suppose the subject is ignored by philosophers, other than the occasional lament about the impossibility of free will? In a universe that must have been entirely “computed” (or something similar) and instantiated “all at once,” including all conscious experience, what does Self mean when the feeling of, and attachment to Self is wholly a construction? In fact, if our entire lives are a construction, what does meaning mean? I’d appreciate some help sorting out my own philosophical “conceptual puzzlement and confusion” here ... any volunteers?

Unrelated, but rather humorous I believe, here’s a recent blow to the theories of “plant neurobiologists” that plants are conscious: per Feinberg and Mallatt's findings, “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness” at

Plant neurobiologists? The paper notes that, “This particular lexical complaint was soon resolved when the group quietly changed its name a few years later from the Society for Plant Neurobiology to the more acceptable Society for Plant Signaling and Behavior.”

Progress!! ... ;-)