Friday, May 31, 2019

The Dualist's Quadrilemma -- and All of Ours?

Old-school substance dualists hold that people not only have material or physical bodies but also immaterial souls, and that the soul rather than the body is the locus and origin of conscious experience (qualia, "something-it's-like"-ness, phenomenality). Two great advantages of this view are (1.) that it avoids the puzzle of having to explain how dumb, bumping matter can give rise to something as seemingly ontologically radically different as consciousness (at least many people find this puzzling), (2.) that it promises hope of an afterlife, since possibly the soul could continue to exist after the body has died.

However, substance dualism faces a scope of ensoulment problem, or what I'll call the dualist's quadrilemma. The more I think about this quadrilemma, however, the more I think some version of it might trouble virtually all theories of consciousness.

Who has a soul? I see four possible answers, each of which is problematic:

(1.) Only human beings have souls. (At least on Earth. Let's bracket Martians and angels.) At the moment of conception or at the moment of birth, God or nature gives us a soul, but no dog or chimpanzee or raven has a soul. From this it follows, since souls are the locus of conscious experience, that dogs and chimpanzees and ravens have no conscious experiences -- no emotional experiences, no experiences of pain or hunger, no visual or olfactory experiences. There is nothing it's like to be a dog or chimpanzee or raven -- they are, so to speak, entirely experientially blank, as blank as we normally assume a toy robot to be. They emit behavior similar to the behavior we emit when we experience pain or hunger, and they have nervous systems that closely resemble ours, but that is misleading. They lack the soul-stuff that turns on the lights.

This view is difficult to accept, both on commonsensical and on scientific grounds. Ordinarily, we think that dogs, chimpanzees, and ravens do have experiences, even if their experiences are not as cognitively complex as ours. And scientifically, this view seems to overestimate the gulf between us and our nearest biological relatives -- and furthermore seems to require that there was some discrete moment in our evolutionary history when we changed from unensouled to ensouled creatures (Australopithecus anamensis? Homo habilus?), despite, presumably, no radical saltation in our physiology.

(2.) Everything has a soul! Maybe we all are subparts of a single, grand, universe-sized soul; or maybe there are many, many, tiny souls for tiny objects such as electrons.

Although panpsychist views of this sort have received increasing attention in the philosophy and psychology of consciousness recently, most people in our culture appear to find panpsychism too bizarre to accept. My own view is that one of the main pressures in favor of panpsychism is the seeming unpalatability of the other three horns of this quadrilemma.

(3.) There's a line in the sand. Somewhere between electrons and humans, there's a sharp line between the ensouled and the unensouled creatures. Maybe mammals have souls but no other animal does. Or maybe toads have souls but (cognitively simpler) pond frogs don't.

The problem with this view is that physiology and cognitive sophistication comes in degrees, with no sharp dividing line among the species. If having a soul matters, then there ought to be some radical difference between the souled and unensouled creatures -- at least in their cognition, and probably also in their physiology. But the only place it seems at all plausible to draw a sharp line is between human beings and all the rest -- which puts us back on Horn 1.

[illustration of one possible theory of ensoulment; image source]

(4.) Having a soul isn't a yes/no thing but rather a matter of degree. Some creatures are half-ensouled or 6% ensouled.

The problem with this view is that is requires an entirely novel metaphysics that is difficult to envision. What would it be to be kind of ensouled? Some properties lend themselves to in-between, indeterminate cases: a color might be on the vague boundary between blue and not-quite-blue, a person might be in the vague region between being an extravert and being not quite an extravert. We can imagine how such cases go and build a metaphysics of colors and personality traits to accommodate in-between cases and matters of degree. But souls seem like the kinds of things that one either has or doesn't have, with no in-between cases. I am not aware of any philosopher who has attempted to construct a metaphysics of half-souls, and it's hard to see how this would go.

Now you might say so much the worse for substance dualism! But I think non-dualists face the same quadrilemma, even if not quite as vividly.

What kinds of creatures are conscious? If we don't want to say "only humans" and we don't want to say "everything", then we need either a bright line somewhere or we need a concept of in-between consciousness. A bright line seems implausible given the continuity of cognitive capacities and physiology across living species, in the course of fetal development, and in the course of evolution. So are we (even non-dualists) then pushed into conceptualizing consciousness as the kind of thing that one can kind of have, or half have? I, at least, find this difficult to conceive, and I know of no good attempts to make theoretical sense of the idea. On the face of it, a stream of conscious experience appears to be something you either have (however small or snail-like) or fail to have -- like a soul. There's either a center of subjectivity where experiences arise, or there isn't.

So maybe I need to reconcile myself to one of the other three horns? But they're all so unattractive!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Science Fiction as Philosophy

Ploddingly detailed expository arguments deserve a central role in academic philosophy. Yay for boring stuff![*] But emotionally engaging fiction can be philosophy too. And science fiction or "speculative fiction" has a special philosophical value that is insufficiently appreciated by mainstream philosophers.

I am inspired to write this after having organized and chaired a session on Science Fiction as Philosophy at the SFWA Nebula conference last weekend. (SFWA is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the main professional organization of SF writers in the U.S.)

Canonically recognized Western philosophers have often worked through fiction: Sartre's plays, Camus's stories, Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Rousseau's Emile and Heloise, to some extent Plato's dialogues, and (a personal favorite) Voltaire's Candide. My favorite non-Western philosopher, Zhuangzi, often uses brief parables or goofy stories (such as his famous butterfly dream). And I would argue that great works of fiction are often philosophical in the sense that they inspire, or become the medium of, potentially transformative reflection on the human condition -- even if those works aren't normally treated as "works of philosophy". In the Western literary tradition, for example: Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Faulkner.

What is philosophy? I reject the idea that philosophy is argument. If philosophy is argument, then Confucius's Analects is not philosophy, and the pre-Socratics' fragments are not philosophy, and the aphorisms of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are not philosophy. I say, instead: If an essay, or a parable, or a dialogue, or an aphorism, or a movie engages the reader toward new reflections on fundamental questions about meaning, value, the human condition, the nature of knowledge or art or morality or love or mentality, pushing us out of our settled and conventional ways of thinking, challenging us to explore and reconsider -- that's philosophy. Most real philosophy, as experienced by most people, takes the form of fiction.

Although expository essays have many virtues, they also have limitations. Compared to fictions, expository essays tend to lack imaginative specificity and emotional power. Philosophy looks different through the lens of imagination and emotion. It's one thing to consider, wholly abstractly, some principle like "in an emergency, you should act to maximize the expected number of lives saved". Maybe it sounds pretty good in the abstract (perhaps with some modifications to consider quality of life or expected remaining life years). But it's hard really to evaluate an abstract claim without trying some thought experiments. For example, if the only way to save five innocent people in a hideout would be to kill a noisily crying baby, ought you do it, as the abstract principle says you should?

Our philosophical evaluations are dry and empty if we don't challenge ourselves to emotionally engage with imaginatively vivid scenarios and consequences. We needn't always judge that overall the best thing to do is the thing that's most emotionally attractive when vividly imagined, but we should at least think through how it might really feel to live one way or another. Philosophers' paragraph-long thought experiments start us down the path. But more vivid, richly imagined fictions take us farther. Fiction and abstract expository argument have complementary roles to play in philosophy. Each needs the other.

Science fiction or speculative fiction deserves a special role. "Literary fiction" imagines scenarios that are broadly within the normal run of human experience. Speculative fiction, as I define it, imagines scenarios beyond the normal run of human experience. Speculative fiction can pull apart things that normally go together, can highlight and exaggerate one aspect of life so that we can see it better, can imagine possible transformations of our world and society. Speculative fiction, when written with philosophical purpose, is philosophical thought experiment with blood and bones.

Consider George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", great philosophical SF movies like The Matrix and Her, great philosophical TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Black Mirror. All of them imagine a way the world could be, or a helpfully simplified and cartooned world with certain aspects exaggerated, and they challenge us to think better about fundamental questions of human value and the human condition -- and they do so in a way that no abstract essay could.

Today in my upper-division class Philosophy of Mind I will teach Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode on whether the robot Data deserves human rights, alongside expository prose by John Searle and Daniel Dennett's famous philosophical story "Where Am I?". Terrific philosophy, all -- one no less than the others.

[image source]


[*] Though see also Trusting Your Sense of Fun (Jan 2, 2013).

Monday, May 20, 2019

Intuition, Disagreement, and a Rope Around the Earth

Check out this awesome new philosophical video by philosopher Jon Ellis at Santa Cruz.

The video starts with this thought experiment from Wittgenstein:

Suppose that a very long piece of rope is wrapped around the equator of the Earth. Now imagine that the rope is lengthened by one yard, but its circular form is preserved, so that the rope no longer fits snugly but occupies a circle at some slight constant distance from the Earth's surface. How great would that distance be? (reported in Horwich 2012, p. 7).

Your attitudes toward philosophical and political propositions might be kind of like your attitude toward that rope -- but with no clear mathematical means to resolve the disagreement.

If you like the video, you might check out Jon's on my paper Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Ethics of Drones at the University of California

I've been appointed to an advisory board to evaluate the University of California's systemwide policy regarding Unmanned Aircraft Systems or "drones". We had our first meeting Tuesday. Most of the other members of the committee appear to be faculty who use drones in their research, plus maybe a risk analyst or two. (I missed the first part of the meeting with the introductions.)

Drones will be coming to college campuses. They might come in a big way, as Amazon, Google, and other companies continue to explore commercial possibilities (such as food and medicine delivery) and as drones' great potential for security and inspection becomes increasing clear. Technological change can be sudden, when an organization with resources decides the time is right for a big investment. Consider how fast shareable scooters arrived on campus and in downtown areas.

We want to get ahead of this. Since University of California is such a large and prominent group of universities, our policies might become a model for other universities. The advisory board is only about a dozen people, and they seem interested to hear the perspective a philosopher interested in the ethics of technology. So I have a substantial chance to shape policy. Help me think. What should we be anticipating? What ethical issues are particularly important to anticipate before Amazon, or whoever, arrives on the scene and suddenly shapes a new status quo?

One issue on my mind is the combination of face recognition software and drones. It's generally considered okay to take pictures of crowds in public places. But drones could create a huge stream of pictures or video, sometimes from unexpected angles or locations, possibly with zoom lenses, and possibly with facial recognition, which creates privacy issues orders of magnitude more serious than photographers on platforms taking still photos of crowds on a busy street.

Another issue on my mind is the possibility of monopoly or cartel power among the first company or first few companies to set up a drone network -- which in the (moderately unlikely but not impossible) event that drone technology starts to become integral to campus life, could become another source of abusive corporate power. (Compare the abuses of for-profit academic journals.)

I'm not as much concerned about conventional safety issues (drones crashing into crowded areas), since such safety issues are already a central focus of the committee. I'd like to use my role on this committee as an opportunity to highlight potential concerns that might be visible to those of us who think about the ethics of technology but not as obviously visible to drone enthusiasts and legally trained risk analysts.

An agricultural research drone at UC Merced

Incidentally, what great fun to be a tenured philosophy professor! I get to help shape drone policy. Last weekend, I enjoyed entertaining UCSD philosophers with lots of amazingly weird facts about garden snails (love darts!, distributed brains!), while snails crawled around on the speaker's podium. This coming weekend, I'll be running a session at the conference of the Science Fiction Writers Association on "Science Fiction as Philosophy". I'm designing a contest to see if any philosopher can write an abstract philosophical argument that actually convinces readers to give money to charity at higher rates than control. (So far, the signs aren't promising.) Why be boring?

Philosophers, do stuff!


Friday, May 10, 2019

Early Onset Summer Illusion

Every spring I suffer the Summer Illusion. The following three incompatible propositions all seem to me, in the spring, to be true:

(1.) When summer arrives, I'll finally get a bunch of that research done which has been crowded out by my teaching and administrative commitments during the school year.

(2.) When summer arrives, I'll finally get a chance to do all of that non-academic stuff that I've been putting off during the school year -- big home maintenance projects, vacation travel to the four new places I want to visit, my plan to catch up on the whole history of golden-age science fiction.

(3.) When summer arrives, I'll finally have a chance to spend a lot more time just relaxing.

The Summer Illusion is surprisingly robust. Every spring, I suffer the Summer Illusion, building up big plans and hopes. Then, every summer, as those hopes fall apart, I scold my springtime self for having fallen, yet again, into the Summer Illusion. The pattern is so common and predictable I've given it a memorable name, The Summer Illusion, to help convince myself that it really is an illusion -- and hopefully not fall into it again. And yet I fall into it again.

You might think that the Summer Illusion depends on entertaining only one of the three propositions at a time. You might think that the way it works is that sometimes I entertain proposition 1 (I'll get my research done!), and at other, different times I entertain proposition 2 (I'll get all my other projects done!), and at still other times I entertain proposition 3 (I'll finally have lots of time to relax!). Largely this is so. And yet the Summer Illusion also survives simultaneous consideration of the three propositions. Even looking at the propositions side by side like this, I am tempted to believe them. Some part of me thinks of course all three can't be true, as I've seen time and time again -- and yet in my heart I continue to believe. Summer days expand so magnificently to fit my fantasies!

This year, I have Early Onset Summer Illusion. While I was working on my book, I thought to myself: Come April and May I will have plenty of time for all of my other projects. And so I put off project and project and project and project. And I also thought to myself: Come April and May, I'll finally have some good time to relax a bit more at work.

It's almost an inversion of busyness. If a period of time has the outward appearance of being a "relaxed", low-commitment period of time, it serves as a fantasy-and-procrastination magnet. I pile my future plans and hopes into that period of time, not noticing the impossibly mounting sum of expectations.

Well, now I'm off to U.C. San Diego to talk to the Philosophy Department about whether garden snails are conscious -- come by if you like! If this blog post seems a little short, well, it seemed like this week would be such an easy week, and so I found that I'd promised to finish this and this and this and this....

[image source]

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Flavors of Group Consciousness: Vanilla, Strawberry, and Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts

Yesterday, I was rereading Philip Pettit's 2018 article "Consciousness Incorporated". Due to some vocabulary mismatch, I find his exact commitments on group phenomenal consciousness not entirely clear [note 1]. (By "consciousness" or "phenomenal consciousness" I just mean conscious experience, the stream of experience, or "something-it's-like-ness" in a relatively theoretically innocent sense.)

Pettit endorses group consciousness of some flavor. But what flavor? A mild flavor, he hopes: something "sufficient to engage philosophical interest" but not too "challenging and mysterious" (p. 33). In contrast, in my article "If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious", I see myself as defending a radical position that clashes sharply with ordinary common sense. So the question is, can we distinguish among different degrees of ontological commitment in endorsing "group consciousness", with vanilla on one end (palatable to almost everyone) and, on the other end, well, let's call it "Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts".

Group Consciousness: Vanilla

Sometimes a group of people all, or mostly, share a particular conscious state -- in a weak or innocuous sense of "sharing". Individually, everyone (or almost everyone, or at least enough of the group) is undergoing that type of conscious experience. So if I say that the theater audience was alarmed by the sudden collapse of the lead actor onstage, or if I say that World Cup viewers around the globe saw the amazing goal, and if we assume that the alarm and the seeing are conscious experiences, then in a certain innocuous sense the groups share conscious experiences.

(One complication: The alarm or the seeing might manifest differently in different members of the group, depending on, e.g., their mood and their viewing position. Set this aside for simplicity.)

Here's a depiction:

[as always, click to clarify and enlarge]

"The audience felt alarmed by the actor's sudden collapse": In this vanilla version of group consciousness, that statement only implies that (enough) of the audience experienced, as individuals, a feeling of alarm (conscious state A in the depiction above).

Pettit clearly wants something more flavorful than this.

Group Consciousness: Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts

A radical view of group consciousness, in contrast, posits the existence of a stream of experience possessed by the group in addition to the streams of experience possessed by each individual. I have argued that the United States might have a distinctive stream of experience over and above the experiences had by individual citizens and residents of the United States. If streams of experience, or centers of subjectivity, are discrete, countable things (they might not be), and the group contains N members, then on the Chunky-Monkey-Extra-Nuts view, there are N+1 discrete streams of conscious experience -- 300,000,000-ish for the individual members of the United States plus another one for the group as a whole.

Furthermore, on a view of this sort, the conscious experiences of the group mind might be very different from the conscious experiences of any individual members of the group. If the United States is a conscious entity, for example, it might consciously enforce an embargo. But what it feels like, subjectively from the inside, to enforce an embargo might be completely opaque to any individual person. (Alternatively, consider a possible human-grade group mind that is composed out of smaller insect-grade individual minds, capable of appreciating Shakespeare in a manner far beyond what any insect could do: my Antarean Antheads case).

Here's a depiction:

It is highly counterintuitive (in current mainstream Anglophone culture) to think that the United States, or any existing groups of people, actually give rise to a discrete, higher-level stream of consciousness at the group level -- a distinct locus of subjectivity. On this view, group-level mental states arise from, and are not merely composed of, the mental states (and other interactions) of the members, so that there are four, not three, distinct occurrences of experience A (three among the individuals and a fourth for the group) as well as the possibility of experiences (B, D, E) that occur in none of the individuals. If you find this a weird and radical view, you are probably understanding it correctly.

Pettit presumably doesn't want to defend this flavor of group consciousness. [Note 2]

Group Consciousness: Strawberry

Can we and Pettit find an intermediate flavor -- more interesting than vanilla but not as wild as extra nuts?

Pettit compares the relation that a group mind (or "agent") has to its members to the relation of that a statue has to the molecules composing it:

As the statue relates to its molecules, so the group agent relates to its members. The group agent is not the same agent as the set of its members, because the set of members is not, as such, an agent at all. But still, the group agent is a set of members -- a suitably organized or networked set -- and qua set it is the same collection as the set of members who make it up. The group agent is distinct from the members under the one aspect but not distinct from them under the other (p. 23).

This physical analogy captures the intended non-radicalness of Pettit's view. It is a little too simple, however, since not everything in the members' minds belongs to the group mind, and since the group can have mental states that none of the members individually possess. This isn't analogous to how we normally think of the molecular composition of statues.

A favorite example of Pettit's is the following: The group has three members. Member A believes P, Q, and not-R. Member B believes P, not-Q, and R. Member C believes not-P, Q, and R. No one believes P-and-Q-and-R. The group decides collectively, however, that P-and-Q-and-R is a view they can stand behind as a group. They might endorse "We believe P&Q&R" -- though not all of them even need to endorse that, as long as there's a procedure by which it comes to constitute the group's view, for example, by being voiced by the leader after a proper consultative process.

We might depict the situation thus:

The conscious experience of the group is in the red box: The group consciously believes P&Q&R. It's not enough for the members to share a conscious state (e.g., A), and no individual believes P&Q&R, but due to structural features of their relationships, the group believes P&Q&R in virtue of the right members accepting that "we believe P&Q&R". (Let's ignore the trickier case in which the group believes P&Q&R without any individual member accepting that the group believes this.)

Now, is this an interestingly intermediate "strawberry" flavor of group consciousness? Maybe! But here's a question: In virtue of what is "P&Q&R" a conscious belief that the group possesses? If P&Q&R is a conscious belief because individual group members consciously endorse P and Q and R and/or P&Q&R in the right kind of coordinated way, then maybe this is a fairly vanilla view after all: Conscious experience is still the province of individual people. What Pettit adds is only a somewhat more complex way of picking out which individual conscious experiences count as the group's shared conscious experience. Group consciousness is just individual consciousness, plus a criterion for attributing some of those states to the group as a whole.

On the other hand, if the social relationships among the group members yield more than that, if the group's conscious experience arises from the interconnections among members so that conscious experiences at the group level aren't just individuals' conscious experiences plus a criterion -- well then maybe we're starting to get into Chunky Monkey territory after all.

Suppose there's something it's like to consciously think, "Ah, P&Q&R, that's right!" On the Chunky Monkey view, this experience could really transpire in the group entity, even if it occurs in no individual member's head. On the strawberry-that's-basically-vanilla view, that's impossible, and to say that the group consciously endorses P&Q&R is only to say something about structural relationships among what individual group members do consciously endorse.


Note 1: Pettit prefers "coawareness", which he appears to equate with "access consciousness" in Ned Block's sense. He says that access consciousness implies there being "something it's like" and maybe vice versa (at least for the case of belief). Despite this, he says he is "setting aside" the issue of phenomenal consciousness -- perhaps thinking of "phenomenal consciousness" as a phrase that is more theoretically commissive than I hear it as being (see p. 12-14, 33).

Note 2: In footnote 6, for example, Pettit favorably cites his sometimes-coauthor Christian List's 2018 criticism of my article on USA consciousness.