Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ethics in the Second Person

Still in China, so just a brief recollection.

When my son Davy was about six or seven, I asked him what the point is in thinking about right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair. He said that most of the kids who talked a lot about things like sharing and fairness seemed to want you to share with them.

We might think of this as "ethics in the second person" -- ethics that focuses on telling the people around you what they are morally required do, with no particular concern about applying the same norms to one's own actions. Of course, ethics in the second person needn't always arise from the motives that drive it in envious six-year-olds! And yet I'm inclined to think that one advantage of hanging around with children is that they reveal to us our vices purer, simpler, and less well disguised.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In China

... and Blogger is hard to access. Trying to work around, but posting and checking comments will be spotty for a couple weeks.

Telepathic Cyborg Rats!


It was only a matter of time.

The next step, of course, is aerial transmitters atop our heads which allow direct human brain-to-brain interface without all that slow-paced language business (as envisioned in Churchland 1981).

HT: Nathan Westbrook.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Portrayals of Dream Coloration in Mid-Twentieth Century Cinema

From the 1930s-1950s, people in the U.S. thought they dreamed mostly in black and white. Nowadays, people think they dream mostly in color. In previous work, I've presented evidence that this change in opinion was driven by people's over-analogizing dreams to movies -- assuming their dreams are colored if the film media around them are colored, assuming their dreams are black and white if the film media around them are black and white. A few days ago, I summarized my research on this at the Velaslavasay Panorama Museum in L.A., and media scholar Ann-Sophie Lehmann, who was in the audience, raised this question: If people thought they dreamed in black and white in that period, did the cinema of the time tend to portray dreams as black and white?

Here's the idea: If Hollywood directors in the 1930s-1950s thought that dreams were black and white, then color films from that period ought often to portray dream sequences in black and white. This would presumably have been, by the directors' lights, a realistic way to portray dreams, and it would also solve the cinematic problem of how to let the audience know that they're viewing a dream sequence. But that doesn't seem to have been the pattern. In fact, one of the most famous movies of the era actually goes the reverse direction: The Wizard of Oz (1939) portrays Oz in color and Kansas in black and white, and arguably Oz is Dorothy's dream.

I'm not worried about my thesis that people in the U.S. in that era didn't think they dreamed in color -- the evidence is too overwhelming -- but it's interesting that American cinema in that era did not tend to portray dreams as black and white. Why not? Or am I wrong about the cinema of the period? It seems worth a more systematic look. Thoughts? Suggestions?

Thursday, June 06, 2013

My Boltzmann Continuants

Lightning strikes me and I die. Fortunately (let's suppose), the universe is infinite and consciousness supervenes on the arrangement of molecules in one's body. So somewhere in my forward light cone -- maybe in about a double-boggle years [note 1], arises an enduring, Earthly, Boltzmann continuant of me.

A Boltzmann continuant for Person X at time T is, I stipulate, any being that, at time T-prime, arises suddenly from disorganized chaos, into a entity particle-for-particle identical to Person X at time T, within an error range of a thousandth of a Planck length. [note 2] A Boltzmann continuant is enduring just in case it survives in human-like form for at least one day. A Boltzmann continuant is Earthly just in case it exists in an environment that, at time T-prime, is particle-for-particle similar to Earth at T, within a range of 10,000 light years, and obeys the same laws of nature -- except allowing for minor differences in features that had not been observed before time T but would be plausible epistemic possibilities to human observers, such as the unobserved top of a cloud twisting one way rather than another, an unobserved flower in the Sierra being one centimeter to the left, differences in the details of how storms play out on distant planets, etc.

According to mainstream physics (back to Ludwig Boltzmann), there is an extremely tiny but finite chance that such an enduring, Earthly, Boltzmann continuant of me could arise. So if the universe exists long enough and doesn't settle into some inescapable loop, presumably I will eventually have a Boltzmann continuant.

By hypothesis, my Boltzmann continuant is not killed by the lightning strike; he survives at least one day. Maybe he survives a near miss with lightning. By hypothesis, my Boltzmann continuant will have the same arrangement of molecules in his body at time T-prime as I do at time T; and since the environment is Earthly, presumably things will proceed fairly normally from time T-prime forward, despite the chaos before time T-prime. By hypothesis, consciousness supervenes on the arrangement of molecules, so presumably my Boltzmann continuant will have conscious experiences very much like the ones I would have had if I had not been struck by the lightning. Maybe my continuant will have an episode of thinking to himself something like "Wow, that lightning struck close! I'd better get inside!" [note 3]

Earth is a pretty safe and stable place. So too, then, is continuant-Earth. My continuant returns "home", greets the continuant versions of his family, comes to the continuant version of his office, works on a post for the continuant version of The Splintered Mind. I have no future. He has no past. But we hook together seamlessly into one "Eric Schwitzgebel" with an undetectable double-boggle-year gap between us. Call the entity or quasi-entity composed of these two parts gappy-Eric.

In a way, it would be odd to think it mattered hugely that there is such a gap between these two half-Eric Schwitzgebels. From the inside, gappy-Eric will feel just like he's a continuous, Earthly Eric Schwitzgebel. From the outside, too, at least through the next 10,000 years, no one on continuant-Earth will have cause to suspect a gap in Eric or in the world. Gappy-Eric's family life, his professional life, the whole planet -- all would seem the same, all would seem to continue unabated. Continuant-existence would seem to be survival enough.

Of course, I needn't be struck by lightning for there to be enduring, Earthly, Boltzmann continuants of me. If we accept the that the universe is infinite, diverse, and subject to Boltzmannian chances, then every time slice of me will have an infinite number of enduring, Earthly, Boltzmann continuants somewhere in the future. So I needn't fear any early, chancy death: Some appropriate Boltzmann continuant of me will launch at precisely the right subjective moment to continue me seamlessly. Gappy-Eric lives! In some cases, going back a few seconds might be necessary to find an appropriate time T from which my death was not inevitable in any Earthly environment, but it seems like quibbling to think those few seconds make a huge ontological difference.

With infinitely many continuants of me, sprouting off from every moment of my life, whose continuant-bodies on continuant-Earth are for practical purposes as good a continuation of me as is my own body on Earth, maybe I shouldn't care about my individual death at all, in any circumstances -- or rather maybe I should care about it only as the loss of one soldier in an infinite army of me.

Yes, this is entirely bonkers.

[revised Nov. 19, 2014]


[note 1]: The number of particles in the observable universe is estimated at about 10^80. Maybe 10^75-ish of those are within 10,000 light years of us. To have enough particles suddenly conform to the structure described in the next paragraph from a previous state of chaos (rather than in some more normal-seeming way) might require a very long time -- longer, perhaps, than the Poincare recurrence time of the observable universe. If 10^100 is a googol and 10^10^100 is a googolplex, let's call a "boggle" 10^10^... [repeated a googolplex times] ...^100. A "double-boggle", then, could be 10^10^... [repeated a boggle times] ...^100. I'm hoping that's big enough.

[note 2]: I assume that differences of less than a thousandth of a Planck length don't matter to consciousness. If necessary, we can narrow the error range. If we use an ontology of fields, presumably an error measure similiar in spirit could be developed. There will also be an issue about temporal spread -- perhaps more serious if consciousness spreads across a specious present. If necessary, there could be a brief period during which consciousness slips into the Boltzmann continuant before full supervenience takes hold.

[note 3]: The question arises whether the continuant's thoughts would have that meaning, if the meaning of words depends on facts about learning history; but given our stipulations, at least the continuant's conscious experience of that episode of inner speech will be like mine would have been, even if it doesn't tack down its reference in the external world in quite the right way.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Invisible Revisions

Imagine an essay manuscript: Version A. Monday morning, I read through Version A. I'm not satisfied. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I revise and revise -- cutting some ideas, adding others, tweaking the phrasing, trying to perfect the manuscript. Wednesday night I have the new version, Version B. My labor is complete. I set it aside.

Three weeks later, I re-read the manuscript -- Version B, of course. It lacks something. The ideas I had made more complex seem now too complex. They lack vigor. Conversely, what I had simplified for Version B now seems flat and cartoonish. The new sentences are clumsy, the old ones better. My first instincts had been right, my second thoughts poor. I change everything back to the way it was, one piece at a time, thoughtfully. Now I have Version C -- word-for-word identical with Version A.

To your eyes, Version A and Version C look the same, but I know them to be vastly different. What was simplistic in Version A is now, in Version C, elegantly simple. What I overlooked in Version A, Version C instead subtly finesses. What was rough prose in Version A is now artfully casual. Every sentence of Version C is deeper and more powerful than in Version A. A journal would rightly reject Version A but rightly accept Version C.