Monday, September 25, 2017

How to Build an Immaterial Computer

I'm working on a paper, "Kant Meets Cyberpunk", in which I'll argue that if we are living in a simulation -- that is, if we are conscious AIs living in an artificial computational environment -- then there's no particularly good reason to think that the computer that is running our simulation is a material computer. It might, for example, be an immaterial Cartesian soul. (I do think it has to be a concrete, temporally existing object, capable of state transitions, rather than a purely abstract entity.)

Since we normally think of computers as material objects, it might seem odd to suppose that a computer could be composed from immaterial soul-stuff. However, the well-known philosopher and theorist of computation Hilary Putnam has remarked that there's nothing in the theory of computation that requires that computers be made of material substances (1965/1975, p. 435-436). To support this idea, I want to construct an example of an immaterial computer -- which might be fun or useful even independently of my project concerning Kant and the simulation argument.


Standard computational theory goes back to Alan Turing (1936). One of its most famous results is this: Any problem that can be solved purely algorithmically can in principle be solved by a very simple system. Turing imagined a strip of tape, of unlimited length in at least one direction, with a read-write head that can move back and forth along the tape, reading alphanumeric characters written on that tape and then erasing them and writing new characters according to simple if-then rules. In principle, one could construct a computer along these lines -- a "Turing machine" -- that, given enough time, has the same ability to solve computational problems as the most powerful supercomputer we can imagine.

Now, can we build a Turing machine, or a Turing machine equivalent, out of something immaterial?

For concreteness, let's consider a Cartesian soul [note 1]: It is capable of thought and conscious experience. It exists in time, and it has causal powers. However, it does not have spatial properties like extension or position. To give it full power, let's assume it has perfect memory. This need not be a human soul. Let's call it Angel.

A proper Turing machine requires the following:

  • a finite, non-empty set of possible states of the machine, including a specified starting state and one or more specified halting states;
  • a finite, non-empty set of symbols, including a specified blank symbol;
  • the capacity to move a read/write head "right" and "left" along a tape inscribed with those symbols, reading a symbol inscribed at whatever position the head occupies; and
  • a finite transition function that specifies, given the machine's current state and the symbol currently beneath its read/write head, a new state to be entered and a replacement symbol to be written in that position, plus an instruction to then move the head either right or left.
  • A Cartesian soul ought to be capable of having multiple states. We might suppose that Angel has moods, such as bliss. Perhaps he can be in any one of several discrete states along an interval from sad to happy. Angel’s initial state might be the most extreme sadness and Angel might halt only at the most extreme happiness.

    Although we normally think of an alphabet of symbols as an alphabet of written symbols, symbols might also be imagined. Angel might imagine a number of discrete pitches from the A three octaves below middle C to the A three octaves above middle C. Middle C might be the blank symbol.

    Instead of physical tape, Angel thinks of integer numbers. Instead of having a read-write head that moves right and left in space, Angel thinks of adding or subtracting one from a running total. We can populate the "tape" with symbols using Angel's perfect memory: Angel associates 0 with one pitch, +1 with another pitch, +2 with another pitch, and so forth, for a finite number of specified associations. All unspecified associations are assumed to be middle C. Instead of a read-write head starting at a spatial location on a tape, Angel starts by thinking of 0, and recalling the pitch that 0 is associated with. Instead of the read-write head moving right to read the next spatially adjacent symbol on the tape, Angel adds one to his running total and thinks of the pitch that is associated with the updated running total. Instead of moving left, he subtracts one. Thus, Angel's "tape" is a set of memory associations like that in the figure below, where at some point specific associations run out and Middle C is assumed on to infinity.

    The transition function can be understood as a set of rules of this form: If Angel is in such and such a state (e.g., 23% happy) and is "reading" such and such a note (e.g., B2), then Angel should "write" such-and-such a note (e.g, G4), enter such-and-such a new state (e.g., 52% happy), and either add or subtract one from his running count. We rely on Angel's memory to implement the writing and reading: To "write" G4 when his running count is +2 is to commit to memory the idea that next time the running count is +2 he will "read" – that is, actively recall – the symbol G4 (instead of the B2 he previously associated with +2).

    As far as I can tell, Angel is a perfectly fine Turing machine equivalent. If standard computational theory is correct, he could execute any computational task that any ordinary material computer could execute. And he has no properties incompatible with being an immaterial Cartesian soul as such souls are ordinarily conceived.


    [Note 1] I attribute moods and imaginings to this soul, which Descartes believes arise from the interaction of soul and body. On my understanding of Descartes, such things are possible in souls without bodies, but if necessary we could change to more purely intellectual examples. I am also bracketing Descartes' view that the soul is not a "machine", which appears to depend on commitment to a view of machines as necessarily material entities (Discourse, part 5). --------------------------


    Kant Meets Cyberpunk (blogpost version, Jan 19, 2012)

    The Turing Machines of Babel (short story in Apex Magazine, July 2017)

    Tuesday, September 19, 2017

    New Paper in Draft: The Insularity of Anglophone Philosophy: Quantitative Analyses

    by Eric Schwitzgebel, Linus Ta-Lun Huang, Andrew Higgins, and Ivan Gonzales-Cabrera


    We present evidence that mainstream Anglophone philosophy is insular in the sense that participants in this academic tradition tend mostly to cite or interact with other participants in this academic tradition, while having little academic interaction with philosophers writing in other languages. Among our evidence: In a sample of articles from elite Anglophone philosophy journals, 97% of citations are citations of work originally written in English; 96% of members of editorial boards of elite Anglophone philosophy journals are housed in majority-Anglophone countries; and only one of the 100 most-cited recent authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy spent most of his career in non-Anglophone countries writing primarily in a language other than English. In contrast, philosophy articles published in elite Chinese-language and Spanish-language journals cite from a range of linguistic traditions, as do non-English-language articles in a convenience sample of established European-language journals. We also find evidence that work in English has more influence on work in other languages than vice versa and that when non-Anglophone philosophers cite recent work outside of their own linguistic tradition it tends to be work in English.

    Full version here.

    Comments and criticisms welcome, either by email to my academic address or as comments on this post. By the way, I'm traveling (currently in Paris, heading to Atlanta tomorrow), so replies and comments approvals might be a bit slower than usual.

    Thursday, September 14, 2017

    What would it take for humanity to survive? (And does it matter if we do?) (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

    guest post by Henry Shevlin

    The Doctor: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you're gonna get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive. (Doctor Who, “The End of the World”)

    It’s tempting to think that humanity is doomed: environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and pandemics all seem capable of wiping us out, and that’s without imagining all of the exciting new technologies that might be lying in wait across the horizon waiting to devour us. However, I’m an optimist. I think there’s an excellent chance humanity will see this century out. And if we eventually become a multi-planetary species, the odds start looking really quite good for us. Nonetheless, in thinking about the potential value in human survival (or the potential loss from human extinction), I think we could do more first to pin down whether (and why) we should care about our survival, and exactly what would be required for us to survive.

    For many hardnosed people, I imagine there’s an obvious answer to both questions: there is no special value in human survival, and in fact, the universe may be a better place for everyone (including perhaps us) if we were to all quietly go extinct. This is a position I’ve heard from ecologists and antinatalists, and while I won’t debate it here, I find it deeply unpersuasive. As far as we know, humanity is the only truly intelligent species in the universe – the only species that is capable of great works of art, philosophy, and technological development. And while we may not be the only conscious species on earth, we are likely the only species capable of the more rarefied forms of happiness and value. Further to that, even though there are surely other conscious species on earth worth caring about, our sun will finish them off in a few billion years, and they’re not getting off this planet without our help (in other words: no dogs on Mars unless we put them there).

    However, even if you’re sympathetic to this line of response, it admittedly doesn’t show there’s any value in specifically human survival. Even if we grant that humans are an important source of utility worth protecting, surely there are intelligent aliens somewhere out there in the cosmos capable of enjoying just as fancy pleasures as those we experience. Insofar as we’re concerned with human survival at all, then, maybe it should just be in virtue of our more general high capacity for well-being?

    Again, I’m not particularly convinced by this. Leaving aside the fact that we may be alone in the universe, I can’t shake the deep intuition that there’s some special value in the thriving of humanity, even if only for us. To illustrate the point, imagine that one day a group of tiny aliens show up in orbit and politely ask if they can terraform earth to be more amenable to them, specifically replacing our atmosphere with one composed of sulphur dioxide. The downside of this will be that humanity and all of the life on Earth will die out. On the upside, however, the aliens’ tiny size means that Earth could sustain trillions of them. “You’re rational ethical beings,” they say. “Surely, you can appreciate that it’s a better use of resources to give us your planet? Think of all the utility we’d generate! And if you’re really worried, we can keep a few organisms from every species alive in one of our alien zoos.”

    Maybe I’m parochial and selfish, but the idea that we should go along with the aliens’ wishes seems absurd to me (well, maybe they can have Mars). One of my deepest moral intuitions is that there is some special good that we are rationally allowed – if not obliged – to pursue in ensuring the continuation and thriving of humanity.

    Let’s just say you agree with me. We now face a further question: what would it take for humanity to survive in this ethically relevant sense? It’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. One simple option would be that we survive as long as the species Homo sapiens is still kicking around. Without getting too deeply into the semantics of “humanity”, it seems like this misses the morally interesting dimensions of survival. For example, imagine that in the medium term future, beneficial gene-modding becomes ubiquitous, to the point where all our descendants would be reproductively cut off from breeding with the likes of us. While that would mean the end of Homo sapiens (at least by standard definitions of species), it wouldn’t, to my mind, mean the end of humanity in the broader and more ethically meaningful sense.

    A trickier scenario would involve the idea that one day we may cease to be biological organisms, having all uploaded ourselves to computers or robot bodies. Could humanity still exist in this scenario? My intuition is that we might well survive this. Imagine a civilization of robots who counted biological humans among their ancestors, and went around quoting Shakespeare to each other, discussing the causes of the Napoleonic Wars, and debating whether the great television epic Game of Thrones was a satisfactory adaptation of the books. In that scenario, I feel that humanity in the broader sense could well be thriving, even if we no longer have biological bodies.

    This leads me to a final possibility: maybe what’s ethically relevant in our survival is really the survival of our culture and values: that what matters is really that beings relevantly like us are partaking in the artistic and cultural fruits of our civilization.

    While I’m tempted by this view, I think it’s just a little bit too liberal. Imagine we wipe ourselves out next year in a war involving devastating bioweapons, and then a few centuries later, a group of aliens show up on Earth to find that nobody’s home. Though they’re disappointed that there are no living humans, they are delighted by the cultural treasure trove of they’ve found. Soon, alien scholars are quoting Shakespeare and George R.R. Martin and figuring out how to cook pasta al dente. Earth becomes to the aliens what Pompeii is to us: a fantastic tourist destination, a cultural theme park.

    In that scenario, my gut says we still lose. Even though there are beings that are (let’s assume) relevantly like us that are enjoying our culture, humanity did not survive in the ethically relevant sense.

    So what’s missing? What is it that’s preserved in the robot descendant scenario that’s missing in the alien tourist one? My only answer is that some kind of appropriate causal continuity must be what makes the difference. Perhaps it’s that we choose, through a series of voluntary, purposive actions to bring about the robot scenario, whereas the alien theme park is a mere accident. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’m assuming there’s a gradual transition from us to the robots, rather than the eschatological lacuna of the theme park case.

    I have some more thought experiments that might help us decide between these alternatives, but that would be taking us beyond the scope of a blogpost. And perhaps my intuitions that got us this far are already radically at odds with yours. But in any case, as we take our steps into the next stage of human development, I think it’s important for us to figure out what it is about us (if anything) that makes humanity valuable.

    [image source]

    Tuesday, September 12, 2017

    Writing for the 10%

    [The following is adapted from my advice to aspiring writers of philosophical fiction at the Philosophy Through Fiction workshop at Oxford Brookes last June.]

    I have a new science fiction story out this month in Clarkesworld. I'm delighted! Clarkesworld is one of my favorite magazines and a terrific location for thoughtful speculative fiction.

    However, I doubt that you'll like my story. I don't say this out of modesty or because I think this story is especially unlikable. I say it partly to help defuse expectations: Please feel free not to like my story! I won't be offended. But I say it too, in this context, because I think it's important for writers to remind themselves regularly of one possibly somewhat disappointing fact: Most people don't like most fiction. So most people are probably not going to like your fiction -- no matter how wonderful it is.

    In fiction, so much depends on taste. Even the very best, most famous fiction in the world is disliked by most people. I can't stand Ernest Hemingway or George Eliot. I don't dispute that they were great writers -- just not my taste, and there's nothing wrong with that. Similarly, most people don't like most poetry, no matter how famous or awesome it is. And most people don't like most music, when it's not in a style that suits them.

    A few stories do appear to be enjoyed by almost everyone who reads them ("Flowers for Algernon"? "The Paper Menagerie"?), but those are peak stories of great writers' careers. To expect even a very good story by an excellent writer to achieve almost universal likability is like hearing that a philosopher has just put out a new book and then expecting it to be as beloved and influential as Naming and Necessity.

    Even if someone likes your expository philosophy, they probably won't like your fiction. The two types of writing are so different! Even someone who enjoys philosophically-inspired fiction probably won't like your fiction in particular. Too many other parameters of taste also need to align. They'll find your prose style too flowery or too dry, your characters too flat or too cartoonishly clever, your plot too predictable or too confusing, your philosophical elements too heavy-handed or too understated....

    I draw two lessons.

    First lesson: Although you probably want your friends, family, and colleagues to enjoy your work, and some secret inner part of you might expect them to enjoy it (because it's so wonderful!), it's best to suppress that desire and expectation. You need to learn to expect indifference without feeling disappointed. It's like expecting your friends and family and colleagues to like your favorite band. Almost none of them will -- even if some part of you screams out "of course everyone should love this song it's so great!" Aesthetic taste doesn't work like that. It's perfectly fine if almost no one you know you likes your writing. They shouldn't feel bad about that, and you shouldn't feel bad about that.

    Second lesson: Write for the people who will like it. Sometimes one hears the advice that you should "just write for yourself" and forget the potential audience. I can see how this might be good advice if the alternative is to try to please everyone, which will never succeed and might along the way destroy what is most distinctive about your voice and style. However, I don't think that advice is quite right, for most writers. If you really are just writing for yourself -- well, isn't that what diaries are for? If you're only writing for yourself you needn't think about comprehensibility, since of course you understand everything. If you're only writing for yourself, you needn't think about suspense, since of course you know what's going to happen. And so forth. The better advice here is write for the 10%. Maybe 10% of the people around you have tastes similar enough to your own that there's a chance that your story will please them. They are your target audience. Your story needn't be comprehensible to everyone, but it should be comprehensible to them. Your story needn't work intellectually and emotionally for everyone, but you should try to make it work intellectually and emotionally for them.

    When sending your story out for feedback, ignore the feedback of the 90%, and treasure the feedback of the 10%. Don't try to implement every change that everyone recommends, or even the majority of changes. Most people will never like the story that you would write. You wouldn't want your favorite punk band taking aesthetic advice from your country-music loving uncle. But listen intently to the 10%, to the readers who are almost there, the ones who have the potential to love your story but don't quite love it yet. They are the ones to listen to. Make it great for them, and forget everyone else.

    [Cross-posted at The Blog of the APA]

    Tuesday, September 05, 2017

    The Gamer's Dilemma (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

    guest post by Henry Shevlin

    As an avid gamer, I’m pleased to find that philosophers are increasingly engaging with the rich aesthetic and ethical issues presented by videogames, including questions about whether videogames can be a form of art and the moral complexities of virtual violence.

    One of the most disturbing ethical questions I’ve encountered in relation to videogames, though, is Morgan Luck’s so-called “Gamer’s Dilemma”. The puzzle it poses is roughly as follows. On the one hand, we don’t tend to regard people committing virtual murders as particularly ethically problematic: whether I’m leading a Mongol horde and slaughtering European peasants or assassinating clients as a killer for hire, it seems that, since no-one really gets hurt, my actions are not particularly morally troubling (there are exceptions to this of course). On the other hand, however, there are still some actions that I could perform in a videogame that we’re much less sanguine about: if we found out that a friend enjoyed playing games involving virtual child abuse or torture of animals, for example, we would doubtless judge them harshly for it.

    The gamer’s dilemma concerns how we can explain or rationalize this disparity in our responses. After all, the disparity doesn’t seem to track any actual harm – there’s no obvious harm done in either case – or even the quantity of simulated harm (nuclear war simulations in which players virtually incinerate billions don’t strike me as unusually repugnant, for example). And while it might be that some forms of simulated violence can lead to actual violence, this remains controversial, and again, it’s unlikely that any such causal connections between simulated harm and actual harm would appropriately track our different intuitions about the different kinds of potentially problematic actions we might take in video games.

    However, while the Gamer’s Dilemma is an interesting puzzle in itself, I think we can broaden the focus to include other artforms besides videogames. Many of us have passions for genres like murder mystery stories, serial killer movies, or apocalyptic novels, all of which involve extreme violence but fall well within the bounds of ordinary taste. However, someone who had a particular penchant for stories about incest, necrophilia, or animal abuse might strike us as, well, more than a little disturbed. Note that this is true even when we focus just on obsessive cases: someone with an obsession for serial killer movies might strike us as eccentric, but we’d probably be far more disturbed by someone whose entire library consisted of books about animal abuse.

    Call this the puzzle of disturbing aesthetic tastes. What makes it the case that some tastes are disturbing and others not, even when both involve fictional harm? Is our tendency to form negative moral judgments about those with disturbing tastes rationally justified? While I’m not entirely sure what to think about this case, I am inclined to think that disturbing aesthetic tastes might reasonably guide our moral judgment of a person insofar as they suggest that that person’s broader moral emotions may be, well, a little out of the ordinary. Most of us feel revulsion rather than fascination with even the fictional torture of animals, for example, and if someone doesn’t share this revulsion in fictional cases, it might provide evidence that they might be ethically deviant in other ways. Crucially, this doesn’t apply to depictions of things like fictional murder, since almost all of us have enjoyed a crime drama at some point in our lives, and it's well within the boundaries of normal taste.

    Note that there’s a parallel here with one possible response to Bernard William’s famous example of the truck driver who – through no fault of his own – kills a child who runs into the road, and subsequently feels no regret or remorse. As Williams points out, there’s no rational reason for the driver to feel regret – ex hypothesi, he did everything he could – yet we’d think poorly of him were he just to shrug the incident off (interestingly paralleled by the recent public outcry in the UK following a similar incident involving a unremorseful cyclist). I think what’s partly driving our intuition in such cases is the fact that a certain amount of irrational guilt and regret even for actions outside our control is to be expected as part of normal human moral psychology. When such regret is absent, it’s an indicator that a person is lacking at least some typical moral emotions. In much the same way, even if there is nothing intrinsically wrong about enjoying videogames or movies about animal torture, the fact that it constitutes a deviance from normal human moral attitudes might make us reasonably suspicious of such people’s broader moral emotions in such cases.

    I think this is a promising line to take in regards to both the gamer’s dilemma and the puzzle of disturbing tastes. One consequence of this, however, would be that as society’s norms and standards change, certain tastes may no longer come to be indicative of more general moral deviancy. For example, in a society with a long history of cannibal fiction, people in general might lack the same intense disgust reactions that we ourselves display despite their being in all respects morally upstanding. In such a society, then, the fact that someone was fascinated with cannibalism might not be a useful indicator as to their broader moral attitudes. I’m inclined to regard this as a reasonable rather than counterintuitive consequence of the view, reflecting the rich diversity in societal taboos and fascinations. Nonetheless, no matter what culture I was visiting, I doubt I’d trust anyone who enjoyed fictional animal torture with watching my dog for the weekend.

    [image source]

    Friday, September 01, 2017

    How Often Do European Language Journals Cite English-Language vs Same-Language Work?

    By Eric Schwitzgebel and Ivan Gonzalez-Cabrera

    Elite English-language philosophy journals cite almost exclusively English-language sources, while elite Chinese-language philosophy journals cite from a range of linguistic traditions.

    How about other European-language journals? To what extent do articles in languages like French, German, and Spanish cite works originally written in the same language vs. works originally written in other languages?

    To examine this question, we looked at a convenience sample of established journals that publish primarily or exclusively in European languages other than English -- journals catalogued in the Philosophy section of JStor with available records running at least from 1999 through 2010. [note 1] We downloaded the most recently available JStor archived issue of each of these journals and examined the references of every research article in those issues (excluding reviews, discussion notes, editors' introductions, etc.). This gave us a total of 96 articles to examine, 41 in French, 23 in German, 14 in Italian, 8 in Portuguese, 6 in Spanish, and 4 in Polish.

    Although this is not a systematic or proportionate sample of non-English European-language journal articles, we believe it is broad and representative enough to provide a preliminary test of our hypothesis. Are citation patterns in these journals broadly similar to the citation patterns of elite Anglophone journals (where 97% of citations are to same-language sources)? Or are they closer to the patterns of elite Chinese-language journals (51% of citations to same-language sources)?

    In all, we had 2883 citations for analysis. For each citation, we noted the language of the citing article, whether the cited source had originally been published in the same language as the citing article or in a different language, and if it was a different language whether that language was English. As in our previous studies, sources in translation were coded based on the original language of publication rather than the language into which it had been translated (e.g., a translation of Plato into German would be coded as ancient Greek rather than German). We also noted the original year of publication of the cited source, sorting into one of four categories: ancient to 1849, 1850 to 1945, 1946-1999, or 2000-present. [note 2]

    In our sample, 44% of citations (1270/2883) were to same-language sources, 30% were to sources originally published in English (some translated into the language of the citing article), and 26% (749/2883) were to all other languages combined. These results are much closer to the Chinese-language pattern of drawing broadly from a variety of language traditions than they are to the English-language pattern of citing almost exclusively from the same linguistic tradition.

    French- and German-language articles showed more same-language citation than did articles in other languages (51% and 71% respectively, compared to an average of 20% for the other sampled languages), but we interpret this result cautiously due to the small and possibly unrepresentative samples of articles in each language.

    Breaking the results down by year category, we found the following: [if blurry, click for clearer display]

    Thus, in this sample, cited sources originally published between 1946 and 1999 were just about as likely to have been originally written in English as to have been written in the language of the citing article. When the cited source was published before 1946 or after 1999, it was less likely to be in English.

    Looking article by article, we found that only 5% of articles (5/96) cited exclusively same-language sources. This contrasts sharply with our study of articles in Anglophone journals, 73% of which cited exclusively English-language sources.

    We conclude that non-English European-language philosophy articles cite work from a broad range of linguistic traditions, unlike articles in elite Anglophone philosophy journals, which cite almost exclusively from English-language sources.

    One weakness of this research design is the unsystematic sampling of journals and languages. Therefore, we hope to follow up with at least one more study, focused on a more carefully chosen set of journals from a single European language. Stay tuned!


    note 1: Included journals were Archives de Philosophie, Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Gregorianum, Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik, Les Études Philosophiques, Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, Revue de Philosophie Ancienne, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Revue Philosophique de la France et de l'Étranger, Rivista di Filosofia Neo-Scolastica, Rivista di Storia della Filosofia, Roczniki Filozoficzne, Rue Descartes, Sartre Studies International, Studi Kantiani, and Studia Leibnitiana. We excluded journals for which substantially more than half of recent articles were in English, as well as journals not listed as philosophy journals on the PhilPapers journals list.

    note 2: Coding was done by two expert coders, each with a PhD in philosophy. One coder was fluent only in English but had some reading knowledge of German, French, and Spanish. The other coder was fluent in Spanish and English, had excellent reading knowledge of German and Portuguese, and had some reading knowledge of French and Italian. The coding task was somewhat difficult, especially for journals using footnote format. Expertise was required to recognize, for example, the original language and publication period of translated works, which was not always immediately evident from the citation information. We randomly selected 10 articles to code for inter-rater reliability, and in 91% of cases (235 of 258 citations) the coders agreed on both the original language and the year-category of original publication. Errors involved missing or double-counting some footnoted citations, typographical error, or mistakes in language or year category. Errors did not fall into any notable pattern, and in our view are within an acceptable rate given the difficulty of the coding task and the nature of our hypothesis.