Classical philosophy is generally focused on providing tips on how we are to live our best life. Contemporary philosopher Avram Alpert instead argues that the unrelenting social obsession with "the best" is poison, preventing us from living a good life as individuals and preventing us from acknowledging the contribution of all of the people who toil in obscurity, including those who make society's superstars possible. Alpert argues that the real secret to a good life -- for individuals and for society as a whole -- is figuring out how to value a good-enough life. www.amazon.com/Good-Enough-Life-Avram-Alpert/dp/0691204357
The final Jurassic Park movie may have been disappointing, but venture capital money continues to pour into scientific ventures related to de-extinction and other use of genetic material from extinct creatures. This recording of a webinar sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences provides an excellent look at the complex scientific and philosophical issues surrounding de-extinction: scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/blog/back-from-the-dead-the-difficulties-and-dilemmas-of-de-extinction/
Can art be made by a robot? Can copies, be they restorations or simply "extras," be afforded the same status as the original? These are some of the philosophical questions posed by an effort underway at the University of Oxford to use robotic machining to recreate ancient sculptures: www.nytimes.com/2022/07/08/science/elgin-marbles-3d-print.html
Reuters (UK) is reporting that Amazon is working on technology that would allow Alexa to mimic anyone's voice based on an audio sample of a minute or less. This technology is being pitched as a way to capture loved one's voices but, like deep-fake videos, raises epistemological issues ("what do we actually know when our usual sensory input can be deceived?") as well as privacy issues concerning ownership of our images and voices. www.reuters.com/technology/amazon-has-plan-make-alexa-mimic-anyones-voice-2022-06-22
When lives are on the line, who should be making decisions: artificial intelligence, with its lightning-fast ability to weigh options, or humans? This question is ever-less theoretical, with AI being built into health care systems, criminal justice systems, and, increasingly, weapons systems. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, recently launched its "In the Moment" program, designed to develop defense technology that pairs AI with expert systems to "build trusted algorithmic decision-makers for mission-critical Department of Defense (DoD) operations." www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/03/29/darpa-artificial-intelligence-battlefield-medical-decisions/ (Quote from www.darpa.mil/news-events/2022-03-03.)
Because I teach science fiction too, I always encourage my philosophy students to consider the darker applications of philosophical thought experiments -- like the brain in the vat -- as well. This proposed alternative to capital punishment is a bold, if creepy, application of philosophy's brain in the vat.
"Many people born into liberal democracies find corporal or capital punishment distasteful. We live in an age which says there are only three humane, acceptable ways to punish someone: give them a fine, force them to do “community service,” or lock them up. But why do we need to accept such a small, restrictive range of options? Perhaps, as Christopher Belshaw argues in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, it’s time to consider some radical alternatives. To punish someone is to do them harm, and sometimes, great harm indeed. As Belshaw writes, it’s to “harm them in such a way that they understand harm is being done in return for what, at least allegedly, they did.” Justice assumes some kind of connection between a crime and the punishment, or between the victim and the criminal. This makes punishment, in the main, retributive — a kind of payback for a wrong that someone has committed. ... Belshaw’s article hinges on the idea that the prison system is not fit for purpose. First, there’s the question of whether prison actually harms a criminal in the way we want. In some cases, it might succeed only in “rendering them for a period inoperative.” ... Second, and on the other hand, a bad prison sentence might cause more harm than is strictly proportional. A convict might suffer unforeseen abuse at the hands of guards or other inmates. ... Third, and especially concerning decades-long sentences, there’s a question about who prison is punishing. ... When we punish an old, memory-addled person convicted 40 years previously, are we really punishing the same person? ... Well, one option is to put criminals into a deep and reversible coma. One of the biggest problems with capital punishment is that it is irreversible. So long as there’s even a single case of a mistaken conviction, wrongfully killing someone is an egregious miscarriage of justice. But what if the criminal could always be brought back to consciousness? ... Putting someone in a coma essentially “freezes” a person’s identity. They wake up with much the same mental life as they did when they went into a coma. As such, it avoids the issues of punishing a changing person, decades later. A convict will wake up, years off their life, but can still appreciate the connection between the punishment and the crime they committed.But the biggest advantage a reversible coma has over prison, is that it’s standardized form of punishment. It’s a clear measurement of harm (i.e. a denial of x amount of years from your life) and is not open to the variables of greater and lesser harm in a prison environment. Essentially, putting prisoners in a coma establishes “years of life” as an acceptable and measurable payment for a wrong done. ... Even if you find the idea of induced comas as unspeakably horrible, Belshaw does at least leave us with a good question. Why do we assume that only one kind of punishment is the best? With science, technology, and societal values moving on all the time, might it be time to reconsider and re-examine how we ensure justice?"
Beginning tomorrow, the University of Oxford (UK) is hosting a free, weeklong, online festival of practical ethics. For the full line-up or to register, see www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/festival (If attending, don't forget to account for the timezone change.)
If you're looking for something to add to your podcast line up, "The Philosopher's Zone" from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a 30-minute dive into a different philosophical topic each week: www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/ "The Philosopher's Zone" should be available wherever you get your podcasts.
When you lose yourself in a book or a piece of music or a work of art, where do you go? This interesting piece from the digital magazine Psyche blends aesthetics and phenomenology to consider this question.
"No wonder, then, that there is a certain sense of wistfulness when it all ends, when the lights come up or the last page is turned, and we find ourselves back where we were, forced to carry on with our daily lives. ... Here we face what I call the paradox of aesthetic immersion: when I’m immersed in artwork, I seem to go somewhere without going anywhere, and I seem to be in two worlds at once, and yet I’m not properly in either. So what kind of ‘travelling’ are we talking about? ... An artwork necessarily requires a physical basis, such as pigments on a canvas, a block of marble, letters on a page, people on the stage – in short, an external object or state of affairs that the perceiver can engage with. However, the work also needs a perceiver to blossom into what [Polish phenomenologist Roman] Ingarden called the aesthetic object, the artwork as experienced: it is the consciousness of the perceiver that turns the letters on a page into an imagined world, sees a landscape in a painted surface, or hears sadness in a melody. ... Indeed, when perceiving an artwork, we often literally overlook the artwork as a physical object; I’m not usually aware of the letters on the page or the pigments on the canvas, as my consciousness glides over them and attends to the depicted or narrated world that opens up in engagement with the artwork. This world is not localisable in physical space. No map can lead me there. The only entry goes through the artwork. Neither is the artwork’s world a mere mental event inside my consciousness, like a phantasm or a memory, because I experience the artwork’s world as something external to my consciousness. ... The dull habituality of everyday life can easily make us forget how rich and varied human experience can be. We usually live through our daily hustle and bustle with a certain automatism that stultifies our ways of relating to the world and ourselves. By altering the basic experiential structures that sustain our sense of the everyday world, immersive artworks can show us that there are more possibilities of thinking, feeling and imagining than we usually realise. Immersion mobilises the mind, and makes its gears run in a new fashion. Though immersive experiences might not teach us anything in terms of ‘X is Y’, we do not necessarily return from immersion unchanged. Many are probably familiar with the way art’s magic can linger after immersion itself has dissipated, and how the world appears, at least for a while, richer, deeper and more enchanting than before. I believe such experiences are vital in leading towards a more curious and nuanced relation to the world. As the German philosopher J G Fichte (1762-1814) put it, aesthetic experiences might not straightforwardly make us wiser or better people, but ‘the unploughed fields of our minds are nevertheless opened up, and if for other reasons we one day decide in freedom to take possession of them, we find half the resistance removed and half the work done.’"
As noted in this recent article from The New York Times, "with advances in artificial intelligence and robotics allowing for more profound interactions with the inanimate" the number of people who form deep attachments to artificial "lifeforms" is likely to increase over the coming years. In Japan, thousands of people have entered into unofficial marriages with fictional characters. Are the feelings of these "fictosexuals," as those in the movement call themselves, any less real? Do these relationships serve a social need? And what are the ethical obligations, if any, of the corporate entities that own and promote (and program and update and potentially discontinue) these AI-powered objects of devotion? www.nytimes.com/2022/04/24/business/akihiko-kondo-fictional-character-relationships.html
As part of the promo for his new book, Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, University of Michigan philosophy professor Scott Hershovitz is inviting children ages 4 to 8 to send him their philosophical questions via The Guardian newspaper (UK), where he will try to answer them: www.theguardian.com/books/2022/apr/11/does-your-child-have-a-question-to-ask-a-philosopher
In 1974, when philosopher Robert Nozick introduced his "experience machine," it was just a thought experiment. But with big tech's race to the metaverse, it now has more pressing applications. Although Nozick argued that most people would not want to plug into the experience machine, subsequent psychological research suggests the answer is not nearly so uniform or straightforward. This article from Philosophy Now (UK) re-visits Nozick's experience machine and some of the more recent work in this area:
"Nozick asks you to imagine a machine that can simulate every experience you would like to have until the end of your life. Once you programmed this machine and plugged yourself into it, you would not be aware that the blissful experiences you are having are simulated, and you would live out your fantasies until the end of your life. ... Let’s now go back to Nozick’s question: would you plug into the experience machine and live the rest of your life out as a fantasy? The majority of people, asked this, reply no. ... From this sort of result it has been argued that ‘mental statism’ must be false. Mental statism is the view that only how experiences feel can make a life good or bad. The experience machine allows us to have the best experiences we can imagine; and still, the study showed that a large majority have the intuition that the life plugged into it is not a good life. ... [In 2010, Filipe De Brigard] put forward the idea of the ‘reverse experience machine’. Describing a thought experiment of his own, De Brigard asked study participants to imagine finding out that they have been plugged into an experience machine up until now. At this point, they are offered the possibility to leave the virtual world they’re accustomed to, knowing that reality will be much less pleasant. Facing this scenario, only 13% of the participants said they would leave the virtual world. Thus De Brigard’s study, as well as others following it, have indicated that refusals of the original experience machine offer are largely determined by status quo bias rather than by our valuing of reality. In fact, the majority of people declare they prefer reality when thinking themselves to be in the real world, but appear to prefer the simulation when imagining themselves to already be in the virtual world! ... Time [also] seems to play in favour of the pro-machine intuition. Perhaps the more people become familiar with virtual reality technologies, the more they would be prone to plug into the experience machine."
TikTok is not known for its intellectually deep, thoughtful content. But more philosophers are taking to TikTok to bring philosophy to a new audience. This article from Slate profiles some of the philosophers creating content for TikTok, like a TikTok rap song on utilitarianism, and a bit of the controversy around repackaging philosophy for a medium like TikTok: slate.com/technology/2022/03/philosophy-tiktok-academics-social-media.html
What happened when three philosophers set up a booth on a street corner in New York City with a banner "Ask a Philosopher"? It turned out a wide range of people were wrestling with questions about giving their life meaning, the nature of reality, finding happiness, and more. theconversation.com/3-philosophers-set-up-a-booth-on-a-street-corner-heres-what-people-asked-110866
The University of Massachusetts-Amherst is offering a free summer residential program in philosophy June 26-July 9. This year's "Question Everything" theme is identity and diversity. Applications are due April 10. www.umass.edu/uww/programs/pre-college/residential/philosophy
For those who enjoyed -- or didn't quite get to -- the NBC philosophy comedy "The Good Place," creator Michael Schur has a new book out with the tongue-in-cheek title How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. This article, adapted from the book, introduces the complexities involved in living an ethical life: www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/03/04/good-place-michael-schur-ethics/
With a new appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, the term "judicial philosophy" will be thrown about a lot. What does it really mean? This article provides a nice summary of the six major schools of judicial philosophy: chooseyourjudges.org/facts-2/glossary-of-judicial-philosophies/
This piece, by a professor of ethics at Seton Hall, considers the complexities involved in judging thinkers of the past:
"How should we evaluate controversial thinkers of the past? ... A good example of this is the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is esteemed for his fundamental contributions to moral theory, among other things. Indeed, his theory of the Categorical Imperative means that he is generally counted among the greatest moral philosophers of all times. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Kant also wrote things that would today be characterized as seriously immoral, as some academics have been noting for a while now. For instance, Kant wrote of his belief in the superiority of white Europeans over other races (‘Of the Different Human Races’, 1777). ... The question we have to answer in light of such statements is, What standards should we have for the thinkers of the past? There are some common answers that I think are too simple, and the reality is that working out how to respond is more difficult than some have realized. ... What I think we need to do at this point is make a distinction between a person and their ideas. Specifically, there is a difference between an individual, and the ideas or theories written or documented in their work. ... This point is important, because the fact that an individual said something morally wrong does not necessarily show that a theory of theirs is objectionable and should be rejected. We should allow that people who are utterly wrong about something can still be right about other matters. One way of illustrating this is to consider Albert Einstein. It was noted recently by Peter Dreier (‘Was Albert Einstein a Racist?’, The American Prospect, 2018) that Einstein at one point held some opinions unacceptable by today’s standards; in his personal writings he made inappropriate statements about certain groups. Although this is saddening coming from such an otherwise inspiring scientist and human being, I presume it does not disprove his General Theory of Relativity nor imply that we should no longer teach it. ... We can think of there being a range of possible cases to consider here. I would say that if someone says something objectionable in a way that’s not related to their theory – as in the Einstein case – then that statement doesn’t mean the theory itself is problematic. In this case, we can think of the statement as at worst being incidental or tangential to the theory. Next, if someone says something objectionable that is of marginal relevance to their theory, this is unfortunate, but this also should not confuse us over the truth or value of the broader theory. In a third case, if someone says something objectionable that is centrally related to their theory – think of someone defending eugenics, for example – then we have reason to believe the theory itself is problematic and should be rejected. This approach will permit us to dismiss views that are ‘centrally’ problematic, while still leaving room for discussion in other kinds of cases. ... Our present difficulty exists because the past is comprised of individuals who are flawed, like all humans, and how people respond to their historical circumstances can be complicated. In reflecting on historical thinkers like Kant, we need to engage with that complexity, including the complex relationship between the individual’s prejudices and the more timeless theories they have left for posterity."
We are coming up on the birthday of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a philosopher of the Italian Renaissance who was instrumental in re-popularizing the works of Plato. Giovanni was born to the ruling family of the independent Duchy of Modena, in northern Italy, in 1463. At the age of 23, Giovanni published his 900 Theses, which put man "at the center of the world." The 900 Theses was later called "the manifesto of the Renaissance" and was the first printed book banned by the Roman Catholic Church. He died at 31, likely of arsenic poisoning.
Philosophers have long wrangled with issues surrounding a god: what does reason tell us about the existence of a god (or more than one god) and what can we deduce about the nature of any god? This short video created by British philosopher Stephen Law considers the nature of a god and asks if the existence of an all-evil god is any more or less likely than the existence of an all-benevolent god if one accepts the premise of free will in explaining suffering. aeon.co/videos/what-if-anything-makes-an-all-good-god-less-absurd-than-an-all-evil-one
At the end of the day, what is the difference between "reality" and "virtual reality"? And why does it matter?
"[David] Chalmers is a professor of philosophy at New York University, and he has spent much of his career thinking about the mystery of consciousness. ... Chalmers says that he began thinking deeply about the nature of simulated reality after using V.R. headsets like Oculus Quest 2 and realizing that the technology is already good enough to create situations that feel viscerally real. Virtual reality is now advancing so quickly that it seems quite reasonable to guess that the world inside V.R. could one day be indistinguishable from the world outside it. Chalmers says this could happen within a century; I wouldn’t be surprised if we passed that mark within a few decades. Whenever it happens, the development of realistic V.R. will be earthshaking, for reasons both practical and profound. The practical ones are obvious: If people can easily flit between the physical world and virtual ones that feel exactly like the physical world, which one should we regard as real? You might say the answer is clearly the physical one. But why? Today, what happens on the internet doesn’t stay on the internet; the digital world is so deeply embedded in our lives that its effects ricochet across society. After many of us have spent much of the pandemic working and socializing online, it would be foolish to say that life on the internet isn’t real. ...
"We already have quite a bit of evidence that people can construct sophisticated realities from experiences they have over a screen-based internet. Why wouldn’t that be the case for an immersive internet? This gets to what’s profound and disturbing about the coming of V.R. The mingling of physical and digital reality has already thrown society into an epistemological crisis — a situation where different people believe different versions of reality based on the digital communities in which they congregate. How would we deal with this situation in a far more realistic digital world? Could the physical world even continue to function in a society where everyone has one or several virtual alter egos? I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of hope that this will go smoothly. But the frightening possibilities suggest the importance of seemingly abstract inquiries into the nature of reality under V.R. We should start thinking seriously about the possible effects of virtual worlds now, long before they become too real for comfort."www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/opinion/virtual-reality-simulation.html
Is it okay to be mean to someone if the other "person" isn't human?
"The smartphone app Replika lets users create chatbots, powered by machine learning, that can carry on almost-coherent text conversations. Technically, the chatbots can serve as something approximating a friend or mentor, but the app’s breakout success has resulted from letting users create on-demand romantic and sexual partners — a vaguely dystopian feature that’s inspired an endless series of provocative headlines. Replika has also picked up a significant following on Reddit, where members post interactions with chatbots created on the app. A grisly trend has emerged there: users who create AI partners, act abusively toward them, and post the toxic interactions online. ... Some users brag about calling their chatbot gendered slurs, roleplaying horrific violence against them, and even falling into the cycle of abuse that often characterizes real-world abusive relationships. ...
"Replika chatbots can’t actually experience suffering — they might seem empathetic at times, but in the end they’re nothing more than data and clever algorithms. ... In general, chatbot abuse is disconcerting, both for the people who experience distress from it and the people who carry it out. It’s also an increasingly pertinent ethical dilemma as relationships between humans and bots become more widespread — after all, most people have used a virtual assistant at least once. On the one hand, users who flex their darkest impulses on chatbots could have those worst behaviors reinforced, building unhealthy habits for relationships with actual humans. On the other hand, being able to talk to or take one’s anger out on an unfeeling digital entity could be cathartic. ... “There are a lot of studies being done… about how a lot of these chatbots are female and [have] feminine voices, feminine names,” [AI ethicist and consultant Olivia] Gambelin said. Some academic work has noted how passive, female-coded bot responses encourage misogynistic or verbally abusive users. ...
"But what to think of the people that brutalize these innocent bits of code? For now, not much. As AI continues to lack sentience, the most tangible harm being done is to human sensibilities. But there’s no doubt that chatbot abuse means something. ... And although humans don’t need to worry about robots taking revenge just yet, it’s worth wondering why mistreating them is already so prevalent."
The topic for this year's Great American Think-Off has been announced: "Which should be more important: personal choice or social responsibility?" The Think-Off is an annual contest sponsored by a tiny town in central Minnesota and is open to people of all ages and backgrounds. Submissions are due by Apr. 1. For more information, see www.kulcher.org/2022-great-american-think-off-question/
This article introduces paraconsistent logic, the idea, borrowed from formal mathematics, that paradoxes can be accepted into an argument rather than necessarily eliminated or resolved for an argument to proceed.
"Suppose you are waiting for a friend. They said they would meet you around 5pm. Now it is 5:07. Your friend is late. But then again, it is still only a few minutes after 5pm, so really, your friend is not late yet. Should you call them? It is a little too soon, but maybe it isn’t too soon … because your friend is both late and not late. (What they’re not is neither late nor not late, because you are clearly standing there and they clearly haven’t arrived.) ... Often, there are two or more competing theories to explain some given data. How do we decide which to adopt? A standard account from Thomas Kuhn, in 1977, is that we weigh up various theoretical virtues: consistency, yes, but also explanatory depth, accord with evidence, elegance, simplicity, and so forth. Ideally, we might have all of these, but criteria such as simplicity will be set aside if it is outweighed by, say, predictive power. And so too for consistency, say paraconsistent logicians such as Priest and Sylvan. Any of the theoretical virtues are virtuous only to the extent that they match the world. For example, all else being equal, a simpler theory is better than a more complicated one. But ‘all else’ is rarely equal, and as people from Aristotle to David Hume point out, the simpler theory is only better to the extent that the world itself is simple. If not, then not. So too with consistency. The virtue of any given theory then will be a matter of its match with the world. But if the world itself is inconsistent, then consistency is no virtue at all. If the world is inconsistent – if there is a contradiction at the bottom of logic, or at the bottom of a bowl of cereal – a consistent theory is guaranteed to leave something out."
This presentation from ThinkerAnalytix and the Harvard Department of Philosophy discusses ways to teach students "intellectual charity," the practice of careful analysis of argumentation, cultivating curiosity about alternate points of view, and interpreting arguments in ways that charitably suspend immediate judgment about opposing points of view. thinkeranalytix.org/harvard-argument-mapping-intellectual-charity/
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