Posts Tagged debate

Telos and Virtue

Some may say that maximizing happiness is the most important, or that every individual should be free to choose, but in a community, where people interact and affect each other, it is worthwhile to ask, “of all the ends that could make us (the community) happiest, which ones are the right ones?”  This essentially boils down to what the community should honor and respect, or what Aristotle calls the good (or sometimes, the “good life”).

The process for determining what is worthy of honor is teleological – a fancy word that means “divine its purpose”.  Here, that means its purpose to the community.  Examples from Justice ask what is the purpose of:

  • Marriage (in the same-sex marriage debate: is it reproductive? honor a strong exclusive bond among persons? something else? nothing?)
  • Universities (is it okay for universities to auction off admissions? or is this a form of corruption because the community should honor principled academia?)
  • Military service (is it okay for the military to be entirely mercenary? or is the honor of serving one’s country (patriotism) valuable to the community?)

Telos is a wonderful tool, in my opinion, but it has its cost – it gets people into the contentious space of arguing over what they believe is best for everyone.  We can all agree on increasing welfare (everything else being equal) and on protecting individual freedom (everything else being equal), but discussions of virtue and the purpose of community activity require us to prioritize other missions (like honoring commitment between two faithful partners in the same-sex marriage debate) over welfare or freedom or both.  A utilitarian, for example, might say there is no purpose to marriage but increasing total happiness, and if a large majority of people are much happier with no same-sex marriage, then that’s how it should be.

Since I do believe in principles (like the value of human life) that transcend utilitarian calculus, I am happy to know that now I have a good tool for logically explaining my position beyond blind assertion.

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Food Variance

(alternative heading: Ingredient Kwality)

I was eating at Eats Market Cafe (an excellent little brunch place in Westwood Village near me in West Seattle) and got a tomato basil soup.  But the story doesn’t end there!  The soup was DELICIOUS – I could say “with a capital etc.” here but, as you can see, I have already capitalized everything.  The key reason was the quality of the tomatoes – insane!  It got me thinking about the scale of “goodness” of various foods, and how steep a slope it is from edible to delectable.

For tomatoes, I think, the quality range is huge.  I love love love high-quality tomatoes (like what I get from a quality restaurant and assumedly from fresh grocers), I don’t really like grocery tomatoes (e.g. the ones at Safeway), and I actively avoid having anything to do with fast food tomatoes.  For some foods, the range doesn’t appear large at first look – take milk, or steak, for example.  The difference between medium and good quality is minor.

…or so I thought when I was first framing this discussion.  I realized that it is a sort of acquired subjectivity: I used to think most fish and steak was the same, but then I had really high quality sushi (in Japan) and really high quality steak (in a high-end steakhouse, probably in Manhattan), and realized the error of my ways.  Thinking about spice/hotness level, the range can also be quite precise but narrow – my ability to detect and discern between low amounts of spice is quite good, but past a certain point, I don’t notice any difference (because my mouth has already burned off).  But for someone like Wedge or Zac, who literally subsist off of spicy, the reverse is probably true – it’s the high amounts of spice they can discern between.

I wonder if this is a good thing or not – clearly, it can become more expensive if you begin to prefer the high-end stuff, but how much of this acquired subjectivity is tolerance and how much is precision?  Can the two be separated?

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Life Raft

Back in high school, for a few summers I was involved with CASC (the California Association of Student Councils) first as a summer-leadership-conference attendee, then as an officer, then as a conference (camp) counselor.  There were a lot of team building and leadership training exercises for the summer camp attendees, but the most interesting and engaging for me was the last one on the Advanced track: a “team destroying” exercise called Life Raft. (Really more about “team closure,” but I sometimes saw it that way.)

You get your group, let’s say it’s 10 people.  Sit them down in a circle.  Tell them that they are on a life raft, but there’s only room for 9 people.  If one person doesn’t leave, all ten will die.  BUT – they have to reach the decision by consensus (nobody can disagree with the decision).  When I did it, I told them there was an unknown time limit just to make sure discussion would flow and that there was a sense of urgency (there wasn’t a time limit, really).

In the various groups I played with and in, I saw strange behaviors develop that I would not have otherwise expected.  Many groups started doing a merit-based analysis of who should go, which always gets people at each other’s throats.  Some promised “life insurance payoff” so that if they lived, they would contribute to the martyr’s remaining family.  In one group, one guy volunteered immediately to go, and was told no (no consensus reached) by the rest of the group!  It was fascinating to listen to these discussions, and when I went through it myself, I learned something important – I fought for my right to stay on the raft, but still wanted somebody to go.  This doesn’t line up exactly with my ideals (find any other option that doesn’t involve causing someone’s death), but the nature of the exercise was such that I considered it “real enough” to weigh in practical considerations.

Life Raft taught me that I can say and definitely mean one thing in the ideal circumstance (philosophical debate) but when it comes down to practice, I might choose otherwise.

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Species Suicide

Would you attempt to stop an alien, intelligent species from committing species-suicide (I guess, self-genocide)?  Is there moral value to this question?  It came up in the course of a discussion Sarah, I and others had while hiking on Catalina – when you consider “would you let 10 die to save this one particular person,” the scale involved makes the moral calculus different to some people.  I felt like this construction – the one of species suicide – was a good way to get at the scale problem with suicide (as opposed to with murder/choice-of-who-dies).  After thinking about it, I feel like the scale is irrelevant.

At the core of my philosophy is that sentient individuals should be allowed to make choices freely.  Well, as freely as possible, as many have brought up that no one really makes an uninfluenced decision in society.  But this leads to the possible choice of suicide, which as choices go, is fairly limiting.  An entity should be allowed to make this choice, my mind suggests, but my instincts scream “This individual needs to be protected from the unintended consequences of that choice, which is not making any more choices!”  It really gets down to what is valuable – are choices themselves valuable, even if their value compared to other courses of action is insignificant?  (See Three Doors from yesterday.)  Or is it the ability to make choices that is valuable?  My guess is that the vast majority of those who consider suicide don’t actually weigh the benefits of death vs. the loss of all their future choices… but just because it matters to me, doesn’t mean it matters to them, so in cases like this, I am probably projecting too much into other people’s decisions.

Now, onto the alien species.  Assuming for the purposes of this discussion that the entire species decided unanimously to suicide (imagine a hive mind, or perfect telepathy), I have no biological imperative to stop them (it’s not my species, after all).  As in the case of individual suicide, I would want to communicate with them and see if they have considered the entirely of the consequences of this action of species-suicide.  I don’t think it’s necessary that they answer to me – I am a relative nobody, in the grand scheme of things – but I think of myself-in-the-thought-experiment as an interlocutor: the physical embodiment of a soundboard, forced upon the choosing entity to make sure they are thinking.  I do think it’s my moral obligation to provide that soundboard if nobody else has (or can) – in the case of the alien species, I think it would only matter if I were in an ambassador-like role (e.g. in a position to know the situation), but generally I think “somebody else can do it” is an amoral answer at best.

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Would You Rather

One of my favorite psychological games is the Would You Rather game.  I call it a psychological game, but that doesn’t have to be its primary purpose – it can be used for culture identification (fly, or turn invisible?), attempts at shared valuation (tons of money but no time, or tons of time but no money?), or just plain raw humor (all nose, or no nose?).  For this post, though, I want to consider its implications as a tool to study individual psychology.

Let’s say I want to understand how much a person values a certain thing (or idea, or experience).  I can frame a series of “would you rather”s to home in on their valuation, in a way similar to linear interpolation or binary searching (that is, reducing the gap between alternatives over and over until you converge on a single “value”).  But even more interesting is the way in which people answer “would you rather”s — although the question is framed quite clearly as a yes/no kind of thing, you always get to the point where you ask:

Would you rather… kill to save the one (or ones) you love, or die to save the one (or ones) you love?

…and the respondent says, “Neither!  Because [reason why question is dumb].”  The point at which a person switches from comfort with yes/no answers and begins to question the integrity of the questions (or questioner!) is a very interesting sort of point: I believe it is a kind of “point of no return” for choices.  A lot of times, when a person answers “would you rather”s, they are placing themselves into a hypothetical situation only partially and don’t think much of the choice as impacting their life in nonhypothetical (real) space.  But when the person starts to argue with the situation (or in less confrontational situations, takes a lot of time considering and hemming and hawing), that implies that the projection is becoming more complete and they feel like they are going to be bound by the decision they make.

And in a sense, they are.  Not only is the questioner getting some insight into the answerer, but the answerer might be learning things about themselves.  “Would you rather”s are like tiny thought experiments for choice, and by chaining them together to home in on a person’s true feelings, you and they can gain a lot of insight into each other (because the questioner is revealing what interests them by the nature of the questions, too!).  And that’s why I love it!

Addendum: Turn invisible, Tons of Time / No Money, All Nose (obv), and Die for the Ones I Love.

Post-Addendum Addendum: If I could fly AND turn invisible, that would be the best. :)

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Live Forever

Would living forever be a blessing or a curse?  I figured the simplest way for me to figure out how I felt about it would be to write out some pros and cons.  I am imagining the definition of “living forever” here is that you don’t die of natural causes, you stay at roughly the same physical body for all time (you don’t age, or you age very slowly) and nobody else is living forever with you.  Other possibilities (like you CAN’T die) are worth considering too, but I think of those three factors as the baseline.

The biggest reason that living forever would be great is that I would have all the time I want to do all the things I want.  Since I believe humans have basically unlimited potential – and that includes me! – having all the time in the universe to discover new things and make “progress” is pretty awesome.  There’s also no worrying about time being limited.  I think that all humans do things because of the impending deadline (pun intended), and more generally because they know they are aging and feel pressure to do certain things (leave a mark, propagate their genes and their ideas, achieve goals).  Living forever sidesteps the stress of needing to do a lot of that stuff, leaving you with just what you intellectually decide you want to do.

The biggest reason that living forever would be terrible is that you basically have nobody to share it with.  I don’t mean that you wouldn’t have people to share various experiences with – a big part of being human (even one who lives forever) is connecting with people in the short-term.  Although it is certainly possible to make new long-term friends and such, I think that a person living forever is going to be separated from humanity-at-large in a pretty big way.  I think most people who say they wouldn’t want to live forever are coming to terms with the fact that they would not be okay with living apart in this way.

I think, right now, if I had to choose, I would say yes, I want to live forever.  I am constantly worried that there’s so much I want to accomplish and so little time – living forever would remove the burden of that worry.  I have a sneaking suspicion that right now, I am underestimating the nature of the curse I describe above because I am not as emotionally close to my friends and family as say, many people are to their families (husbands, wives, children)… probably best to re-evaluate my opinion on living forever as I develop more close relationships.

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Who am I?  Who is anyone?  How do you tell if, after going through some transformational experience, you are still you?  These are the sorts of questions about identity that keep me up at night.

One of the core issues of identity to me is the difference (or gap, I guess) between the way I make my thoughts (let’s call it agency) and the sum of my experiences (let’s call it memory).  Throughout my life, as I experience new things, I am continuously altering myself in tiny ways.  I like to think of myself as the combination of my memories, but this immediately leads to a problem: if I somehow lost my memory, or if, in the course of aging, I became unable to recall some memories, am I a different person entirely?  This bothers me – I think that I have an unbroken chain of identity through my life, so that each moment I can still lay claim to being “me”.

On the flip side, if I were to suffer some huge shift in personality or ability to think, would that alter my agency and thus my identity?  This seems like a more likely candidate to change Dave from “me” to “someone else”.  Of course, once again we consider the case where over time, I subtly but surely alter my thought patterns in response to experience.  Is this different than the radical shift I proposed first?  My guess is it’s not very different at all.  So where alteration of memory seems irrelevant to my identity, alteration of agency seems highly relevant.

There’s another factor – the continuity of my physical body (by which I mean brain) – but I choose to discount it (see my posts on Free Will).  That’s because I think the relevant factor in identity is some combination of memory and agency, and not physical being.  I think that if a person could somehow be transferred into pure energy or information (as in, running on a computer system), the chain of identity for that person could remain unbroken and they would still be “them” (curse you, English, for no neuter third person singular for individuals!).

This brings us to the extreme cases:

  • Teletransportation – I think I am still me.  The continuity of the physical body is not relevant to me… but there’s yet another factor here: my BELIEF that I am the same person.  Dennett considers this in his essay Where Am I? In the case where the teletransport can make a copy, which is the real me?  Are both the real me?  What does that mean for my conception of identity?
  • Replacement of Brain with Machine – This one gets me thinking again about how agency is represented.  Maybe there’s something really complicated about natural brain changes over time that this replacement with machine parts couldn’t capture.  Another random thought – this means that a computer simulation could potentially model me and claim to be me… would it be?  I want to say “no” but I can’t really give a reason – I don’t think that the initial biological organism has any special claim of primacy here.
  • Soul Removal – When the issue is forced, and I have to say whether I believe in a nonphysical soul, I have to say not really – there’s no particular evidence to convince me, and I feel like the universe is complex enough to handle all of my existential questions without the need for hidden variables.  As to my answer to the question, I think I am still me… but I would feel bad.

Here’s a parting thought: I often stop and think, why is it that I am in this moment, thinking this thought, of all the possible moments I could be living as “now” – and of all the people I could be?  It’s very frustrating to be unable to even consider the question of why in a thorough manner with respect to this problem of identity.

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Identification, Please

Some thought experiments before getting into definitions and discussions of identity (as discussed by me and some college friends during a recent visit; I can’t find the website with them in quiz form):

EDIT: Todd found it! The questions below, in quiz form.

  1. You are traveling to Mars.  You have two options for getting there: spacecraft or teletransportation.  The spacecraft is pretty dangerous: there’s a 50% chance you’ll die in transit.  The teletransportation method will disassemble you at the origin (Earth), transmit you as information, and reconstruct you at the destination (Mars).  Which do you choose?
  2. You are suffering from a peculiar neurological malady.  You have two options: you can let it run its course, or you can go through a process designed to fix it.  If it runs its course, your brain will be screwed up and you’ll have a radical personality shift.  The process to fix it involves replacing all of your brain, piece by piece, with new techy brainlike material – you’ll retain your current personality (totally cured) but when the process is complete, none of your original brain will remain.  Which do you choose?
  3. Scientists discover the nature of the soul (or agency, or consciousness, whatever you prefer), around the same time that you contract a deadly disease.  It turns out the soul will leave a dead body and attach to a newborn, a sort of reincarnation.  You have two options: you can let the deadly disease run its course, have about a 50/50 chance of dying, and your soul will reincarnate to a new host, or you can be put into cryostasis long enough to cure the disease.  The same research which determined the nature of the soul also found that this cryostasis operation will destroy your soul.  Which do you choose?

Another really interesting essay on identity, via Kelly: Where Am I?

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Time Travel 2

The mutable scenario is nice because it neatly sidesteps most paradoxes.  Time CAN change, in this scenario, and the resulting timeline is {past previous to the change} + {changed timeline that includes a time traveler}.  Of course, in order to understand what’s going on in the changed timeline, we have to consider (as Mark and I discussed the other day) the two unique constructions of mutable time: replacement, and multiply.

The replacement timeline is where the changed timeline just wholesale replaces the original timeline, past the change.  Any time travelers will still “remember” the old unchanged timeline if they lived through it, because their proper worldline (their path through time) – although loopy – is still internally consistent.  This is the first major divergence from the immutable construction, because in that world, there only ever was one timeline (talking of “alternate histories” is sort of meaningless in immutable time).

The multiply timeline is the one I am fond of: in this construction, each change to the timeline splits it in two, and the two resulting timelines are separate universes, A and B.  What is the change we’re talking about?  The introduction of a time traveler, of course!  This implies that a time traveler can’t ever “return” to the original timeline from which he or she originated, but one can assume that if the time traveler is going back and wreaking havoc changing things, going back isn’t foremost in the planning.

It is interesting how the multiply timeline shares traits with the Many Worlds theory of quantum mechanics: basically, that multiple-possibility states (Schroedinger’s Cat is both alive and dead inside the box) do not become one or the other via observation, but exist simultaneously in separate, noninteracting universes.  Observation merely tells the observer which of the many possible universes he or she is in.  The relationship between a quantum observer and a multiply-timeline time traveler feels weird to me: they clearly share properties, but the time traveler seems both more powerful (can move from one universe to another) and more constrained (can’t get into universes where time travelers aren’t).

Time travel is fun to think about.

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Time Travel 1

In this and future time travel posts, I’m going to “think out loud” (e.g. do exactly what I always do on this blog) about some possible ways in which time travel might work, were it possible, and resulting implications.

When I think about time travel, I consider two potential timeline scenarios – immutable and mutable.  In the immutable scenario, there is only one timeline – that is, One True Time.  Imagine I go back in time and kill someone (like, e.g., my grandfather).  Since there is only one timeline, it must be true that I didn’t change anything – it was always the case that I arrived at that moment in time and killed that person. “How is this possible,” one might ask, since killing my own grandfather would seem rather paradoxical.  Well, in One True Time, if I did actually kill someone, it can’t have been my actual grandfather – events will have seemed to have conspired to make that true.

This version of time is fatalistic, in a similar sense to the biomachine-free-will argument: although people believe that they are making meaningful choices, they are really just acting out the programming, which in this case is the way Time “ought to be”.  An interesting conundrum with this sort of timeline is — who determined what the fixed timeline looked like, once time travelers were added to the mix (or what, or why, or at least how)?  The term “closed causal loop” stems from this conundrum: events that seem fated to happen don’t really have a cause, since their cause and their effect become blurred.  If I find a time machine, deconstruct it and make detailed instructions on how to build one, go back and give the plans to an inventor, and that inventor creates a time machine and leaves it for me to find, who created the time machine?

Immutable time is tidy, but not particularly interesting to me.  It can make for very dramatic science fiction – since conflicts can easily be railroaded via time travel to terrible, tragic conclusions (or beautiful, “serendipitous” conclusions), it works quite well.  But in terms of usefulness, I think it falls short.  Just as I don’t like considering lack of free will, I also don’t like considering predetermination of events.  Although… I suppose it’s still an open question as to whether events are predetermined BEFORE time travel is possible!

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