Better never to have been

Rene Lopez asks:

Are there any good arguments against David Benatar’s antinatalism?

Answer By Craig Skinner

I dont think so. Benatar’s arguments in his book Better Never To Have Been (OUP 2009) are convincing.

His thesis is that a world without sentient beings (or no world at all) would be better than the actual world.

He has two arguments:

1. The vale of tears argument.
2. The asymmetry argument.

  1. The vale of tears view says that we humans are natural born reproducers and optimists (adaptive evolved traits). We overestimate the joys of life as compared with the sorrows, keep having children and hoping for better things for them, whereas an impartial assessment of how things really are for humans and other sentient creatures, will conclude that, whilst transient joys occur for most of us, and more joy for some of us, overall the balance is suffering.
  2. The asymmetry argument says that a world without sentient beings prevents both suffering and joy, but, whereas avoidance of suffering is a good thing FULL STOP, prevention of joy is not a bad thing because nobody exists to be deprived of it.

Of course, even if it would have been better for me never to have been born, it doesnt follow, now I do exist, that suicide would be best. A nonexistent person has no interests, rights or agenda, whilst an existent one has, and usually wants to live and make the best of it. Hence, Benatar recommends planned extinction of humanity by birth control. I doubt it will ever catch on, but unplanned extinction is a distinct long term possibility.

Meantime, driven by my evolved biases, and aware that although the Grim Reaper isnt quite knocking on my door, he may be lurking in the shrubbery, I best close and get on with living.

Metaphysical necessity

John asks:

Is there ANY notion of ‘metaphysical necessity’ that you consider to be defensible ?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, metaphysical necessity as the strictest or strongest grade of necessity: absolute;  necessity in virtue of the essences of things.

The grades, in increasing strictness, are:

1. Practical

2. Physical

3. Nomological

4. Logical

5. Metaphysical

Practical necessity refers to things we need to do in ordinary life to ensure our plans go smoothly eg before setting off to drive to Italy it’s necessary to check tyres, oil, insurance etc. But we could ignore this need and set off without doing any of it.

Physical necessity refers to something forced on us, not by logic or the laws of nature, but by the limits of our powers eg inability to time travel because we cant make big enough exotic wormholes in space or make a cylinder the mass of a galaxy spinning at half light speed. But maybe one day we will be able to do these things.

Nomological (Greek nomos = law) necessity is forced by the laws of nature eg on Earth a book dropped falls to the ground (law of gravity). But there may be other universes with different laws of nature where such a thing doesnt necessarily happen.

Logical necessity is necessity in virtue of the meaning of words (or symbols) plus the laws of logic eg “all bachelors are unmarried men”, “all red balls are red” are necessarily true. But maybe some other universes are illogical. Indeed, there are some true contradictions in our world eg “This sentence is not true” is both true and untrue.

Metaphysical necessity is absolute necessity, simply must be, no ifs, no buts. Examples are that I am necessarily the child of my specific parents (a child of somebody else couldnt be me); or that water is liquid H2O; or gold is the element with atomic number 79. We can say metaphysical necessity is due to the essences of things (the properties that make a thing the very thing it is). Nothing exists by metaphysical necessity though – any item in the world, or the entire universe itself, might not have existed. Of course we can define God as the being whose existence is his essence, in which case, if God exists, then his existence is metaphysically necessary.

The term “natural necessity” is sometimes used to mean physical, or nomological,  or both these necessities, but is confusing and best avoided.  Likewise “conceptual necessity”, due to definitions or meanings of words, which I include under logical necessity.

I may be a Brain in a Vat

Moe asks:

What do you think of Putnam’s argument against being a brain in a vat?

Assume we are brains in a vat.

If we are brains in a vat, then ‘brain’ does not refer to brain, and ‘vat’ does not refer to vat.

If ‘brain in a vat’ does not refer to brains in a vat, then ‘we are brains in a vat’ is false.

Thus if we are brains in a vat, then the sentence ‘we are brains in a vat’ is false.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Putnam’s argument is invalid. As indeed the wording of your question shows.

The statement ‘I am a brain in a vat’ is false whether I am a normal human (not a BIV) or a BIV. But I still don’t thereby know which I am.

To clarify:

If I am a normal human, then saying ‘I am a brain in a vat’ is obviously false.

If I am a BIV, then, as you say, my utterance ‘brain’ doesn’t refer to a 3-pound porridgy lump, it refers to a pattern of electrical impulses generated by the computer linked to the envatted brain, let’s call it ‘brain*’. Similarly, ‘vat’ refers to another pattern, call it ‘vat*’. So, when I say ‘I am a brain in a vat’ I mean ‘I am a brain* in a vat*’, which is false because I am not a brain* in a vat*, I am a brain in a vat.

Putnam’s error is to conclude that because ‘I am a brain in a vat’ is false whatever, then I can’t be a brain in a vat. The correct conclusion is that either I am not a brain in a vat or I am not a brain* in a vat*. But I don’t know which false proposition I am expressing.

Incidentally, I doubt it matters to a brain whether it’s in a glass vat connected to a supercomputer or whether (like mine) it’s in a tight-fitting, pitch-dark, bony vat connected to the outside world.

A little more on Hoyle’s ‘junkyard tornado’ argument

Orlando asks

Is the “junkyard tornado” argument of Sir Fred Hoyle for the existence of God as bad as Richard Dawkins seems to think it is?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, it is.

The argument intends to show that the development of a complex living creature by the random process of natural selection is as likely as the production of a Boeing 707 by the random process of a tornado in a junkyard ie so fantastically unlikely that we can dismiss the idea. Here’s the flaw. The tornado effect is a one-step process. But evolution proceeds by many intermediate steps, each of which is stable and conserved. The difference can be illustrated by the monkey-typing analogy mentioned by Geoffrey Klempner in his answer and used by Dawkins in his writings. The tornado is equivalent to the monkey having to type Hamlet all in one go – if an attempt fails (as it will) he starts again from scratch, and so on it goes, pretty well for ever, without success. Evolution is equivalent to keeping the letters which are correct in any given attempt while starting again with the others: so, if a version produces “T” where it should be, we keep this till  a later version happens to produce an “o” after the “T”, and now we have “To”. Pretty soon we get “To be or” and so on. In this way, and Dawkins quantifies it, Hamlet will not take that long for the monkey to produce.

Incidentally, I am a big fan of Fred Hoyle, his science, popular science books and science fiction. He coined the term “Big Bang” as one of derision (he championed the rival steady state idea which lost out as convincing evidence for the big bang appeared). He should have got the Nobel prize for his work on resonance states of carbon. Maybe his being a blunt, outspoken Yorkshireman outside the “establishment” of his day had something to do with it. He wasnt afraid to go out on a limb with his ideas, and he was more often right than wrong.

Flukes or simulants?

Timothy asks:

“Are we in a simulation?”

Though it is not strictly a logical approach to ask a philosophical question by reflecting on a feeling I do feel it helps to add meaning and perspective for the question. I wanted to ask what are the chances that we are living in a simulation. One reason I ask this is because of the infinitely unlikely possibility when looked at scientifically that I would ever be alive and yet less to be a human and in the era I could write this. Either this is like winning the lottery 1 million times in a row or something else is at work that I am alive, as a human (my opinion the best thing to be), in this era with all this technology. Thoughts?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Wonder at your existence, worry that you might be a simulant. Two philosophically interesting thoughts in one question. Also, it’s just fine if a question arises from a feeling.

Yes, your (or my, or my cat’s, or the squirrel in my garden’s) existence was hugely improbable. Had a different sperm out of the millions competing to penetrate the ovum been successful, had your father been away on business on the day you were conceived, you wouldnt exist. Also the huge fluke that your parents chose to mate with each other rather than with one of the many alternatives. And it’s mind boggling to think that not a single one of your millions of forebears over 3 billion years failed to reproduce. If just one of your myriad fishy ancestors had been eaten by a bigger fish when young, no you. And yes it is like a lottery. Just as somebody has to win however tiny the odds of success, so, given that you exist, you must be somebody, and somebody has to be you.

As to whether you (and I) are simulants, the answer is it’s a distinct possibility but it’s difficult to assign a probability. We assume there is a real world with intelligent beings in it. And your question is whether you could be a simulated being in a simulated world created by these real beings  who run the simulation on their supercomputers.

Clearly such technology is beyond current human capabilities. But given the pace of developments in computing and AI,  it may be  that future superintelligences, either augmented humans, or maybe more likely nonhuman following the singularity of the development of  smarter-than-us AIs which rapidly engineer ever-smarter successors  to reach unimaginable levels of intelligence.

And so the probability you seek depends on:

  1. Whether superintelligences will arise.
  2. Whether they would be interested in simulating earlier eras of human life (say as a game or for historical research), rather than ignoring or eliminating humans.
  3. Whether such simulations would be frequent (like our computer games played in most households).
  4. Whether simulated humans would be genuinely conscious (like you and me).

If the answers to these four questions are all yes, and they might be, then right now it’s far more likely that we exist in a future simulation than that we live in the real world in the 21st century.

So, in case we do, let’s tell the Simulater that we’re on to it:

Hey there BIGBRAIN, we know you’re there. And in case you had doubts, yes we are aware, we love, laugh, cry and care about our little lives down here. And dont get too smug up there in your real world, for you and your world could themselves just be simulations by yet higher orders of intelligence in the proper real world. Or maybe it’s simulations, rather than turtles, all the way.

The examined life

Mabel asks:

Evaluate the moral implication of Aristotle’s popular saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Answer by Craig Skinner

The remark about the unexamined life is made by Socrates at his trial. He has already been found guilty (of corrupting the young and holding the city’s gods in contempt), the prosecutor has suggested the death sentence, and Socrates addresses the jury. They expect him to ask for leniency, grovel a bit, promise to stop haranguing young men in the town square about the nature of virtue, exposing their ignorance and trying to get them to think clearly. But Socrates doesn’t play ball. Instead he says:

“I say that this is the greatest good for a human being — to have discussions every day about virtue and the the other things about which you hear me conversing and examining myself and others; and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” (Apology, 38a 1-6)

He is sentenced to death and accepts it without question, refusing offer of escape from prison by his friend Crito.

“Not worth living” is strong stuff. Not just a bad way to live but worse than not living at all. Socrates clearly believed it. Few others do. Plato, for instance, in his ideal city in the Republic, has three classes, philosophers, soldiers, workers. Only the first live an examined life whilst the others have unreflective lives, yet lives worth living. And most of us would surely agree that a life comprising useful work, family and leisure interests can be worthwhile.

However Plato does think that the examined life of the philosophers is the best life. And we can understand Socrates as holding the same less extreme view if we translate the greek “biotõs” as “to be lived” rather than “worth living” so that the saying becomes “the unexamined life is not to be lived”.  In short, no human should live an unexamined life.

Now we have something many of us would agree with. Aristotle certainly would (although I’m not aware that he went around quoting Socrates as your question rather suggests). He says:

“Human beings began to do philosophy, even as we do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered about the strange things right in front of them, and later, advancing little by little, because they came to find greater things puzzling” (Metaphysics, 982b12).

He argues in Nicomachean Ethics that the philosophical life is the pinnacle for humans, using reason in virtuous activity.

And I’m sure you agree with me that a full human life includes wonder about things and a sustained attempt to understand:  why there’s a universe rather than nothing, how it works, how did we come to be, how should we live, how will it end, what can we know, what does it all mean? Otherwise you and I wouldn’t be engaged in this dialogue.

So one implication of the saying is that all of us should philosophise in the broad sense at least some of the time.

You ask about the moral implications. Of course, saying how we should live because it is best for us, is already a moral judgment. But does it make me a better person? In the Apology Socrates assumes rather than argues for it. Elsewhere (Euthyphro, Crito, Charmides, Gorgias for instance) he argues that all virtue is related to the endless search for understanding, and those failing to do this fall into to all kinds of vice. However, lest we get carried away thinking philosophy is the royal road to virtue, reflect on Kant’s view that moral agents need no help from philosophy, they know where duty lies (but don’t always do it), and perfecting the soul needs a pure heart not a trained mind.

Physicalism bad, panpsychism good

Tim asks:

I was interested  in a specific response to a question that was previously answered by Geoffrey Klempner. He says:

“There’s no other way to put it: materialists believe in magic. Something magical happens when sufficiently many pulleys and cogs and rubber bands are assembled together. YOU come into existence. How utterly ridiculous!”

In response to this I am thinking yes that it is “magical”. I think how does a “you” come into existence through a physical process, whose “you” (THE YOU? The one you of the universe living all different lives spontaneously through different subjective experiences?). If this line of reasoning does not work, I am interested in how physical processes can create an “observer” that believes he is the “owner” of these experiences. What is the “owner” of these physical processes? Is it a portion of the brain, literally the brain matter working in conjunction with the rest of the brain, and body, that forms this conception of being a person with legs and arms and a face but in reality I am this small cluster of brain cells being self aware and the illusion is that I am a person when in reality I am the portion of self aware brain cells extrapolating an identity of a person that has a face and hopes and dreams?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, physicalism now gets a hammering by some people as a “ridiculous” explanation of the mind.

It seems only yesterday (excuse the old-timer musing) that dualism was ridiculed by Ryle as the “ghost in the machine”, referring to the intractability of explaining how an immaterial mind could possibly interact with a physical body making it move. Descartes struggled with it, suggesting interaction occurred in the pineal gland, but he failed to explain how it was done or why it should be easier in one bit of the body rather than in the whole body. Modern attempts at explanation invoke chaos theory, stochastic processes, quantum effects in dendrites and so forth, but none succeeds, or indeed can succeed in my view. Substance dualism is out, slain by the interaction problem.

As for physicalism, the enthusiast for it says that the “miracle” view of consciousness is much the same as life was viewed in the 19th century — how could an assembly of interacting dead chemicals possibly be ALIVE, how ridiculous. But we now know that life just is integrated assemblies of chemicals exhibiting overall stability, And so, when we understand the details, we will likewise grasp how mind arises from integrated electrochemical processes. I don’t buy this argument. Life is a complex physical process, I agree, but mind or consciousness is radically different from any purely physical processes. And another point worth stating. How can we expect physics to explain mind when the mind aspect of the world is excluded from physics by design? When Galileo started modern physics he made it clear that the subject was a mathematical treatment of the primary qualities of the world, such as mass, charge and motion, but that colour, sound and other sensations and feelings were in the mind and not the concern of physics. If he time-travelled to the present he would be surprised that, having excluded mind from physics, we now expect physics to explain mind. So I’m with Klempner here — physicalism fails.

So, if dualism and monism (physical) fail, what might work? I want to quickly reject two views. First, monism (mental) or idealism — all that exists is mind and ideas, material things are really ideas in minds (including God’s). This is wonderfully defended by Berkeley, but as Hume said, these views “admit of no answer and produce no conviction”, and I’ve never met anybody who believes idealism. The second view I want to reject is eliminativism — the idea that consciousness doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion. When you look into this you find that the proponents are not really saying consciousness doesn’t exist, they are saying that it isn’t as we naively think it is e.g. we think we see a rich detailed picture of the room in front of us, whereas really our eyes continually move over the scene so we are conscious of only one bit at a time, and the whole-picture view is an illusion.

So if dualism, physicalism, idealism and eliminativism are out, what’s left? Panpsychism of course, the idea that the fundamental units of the world (be they quarks, strings, quantum fields or whatever) have a mental as well as a physical aspect. Physics, as I’ve said, deals only with the relational or extrinsic properties (mass, charge, spin etc) and has nothing to say about intrinsic, nonrelational properties. And it’s the latter which, in suitable aggregation and integration, as in brains, produce consciousness in humans, some animals, and eventually computers I suppose. Be aware, the literature here is full of fancy names and fine distinctions within this viewpoint — neutral monism, Russellian monism, panprotopsychism, constitutive panpsychism, and so forth. Don’t get bogged down. The view is that the fundamental elements of the world have physical attributes which aggregate to make matter, and mental attributes which aggregate to make minds. Naturally, there is the question about how all the micromentals combine to make a unified mind.  However we seem happy to accept that the microphysicals can combine to make highly structured entities such as trees, bees and chimpanzees rather than just heaps of atoms, so no doubt the combination problem for minds will yield to science in due course.

As regards your question about your SELF being in a special brain module (so that if it were damaged YOU would be destroyed and the rest of you would would live out life as a zombie), there is no evidence of this. All evidence suggests a non-localized SELF distributed between brain, body and environment, constructed from babyhood onward, but developed throughout life, a narrative you and others tell about yourself, an insubstantial thing (of course), a virtual entity or fiction if you like, but one we live and love.