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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.

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.

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.

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.

John asked:

Precisely what is wrong with Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise argument?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Only some 200 words of Zeno survive. We rely on later commentators such as Aristotle and Simplicius. The latter first called Achilles’ opponent the Tortoise.

Zeno was a pupil of Parmenides, and the 4 paradoxes of motion (Achilles, Dichotomy, Arrow, Stadium) attempt to show that motion is impossible in line with the nothing-changes view taught by the great man.

Since motion clearly is possible, indeed actual, there must be something wrong with the arguments as you suggest.

I will briefly outline the Achilles and the Dichotomy, which are logically equivalent, and then suggest how they might be refuted.

The Achilles:

Achilles (A) is a good runner. He sportingly gives his slower rival, the Tortoise (T), a start. The race begins. By the time A reaches T’s start point, T has moved on to a new point. By the time A reaches that new point, T has moves again to a further point. By the time A reaches that further point, T has again moved ahead, and so on endlessly. A can never catch T.

The Dichotomy:

Version 1: To travel any distance, I must first reach the halfway point. Then I must reach the halfway point of the remainder, then the halfway point of the new remainder, and so on endlessly. I can never complete the journey.

Version 2: To travel any distance, I must first cover half the distance. To do this I first have to travel half of that half (first 1/4 ). Before that, half of that quarter (first 1/8), before that, 1/16, and so on endlessly. I can never start the journey.

The paradox is not that we must travel an infinite distance, or for infinite time. Clearly, knowing the speeds of A and T, and the length of T’s start we can easily calculate where/ when A catches T, or when the Dichotomy runner completes the run. The paradox is that an infinite number of actions (tasks) seems necessary — A has to pass every one of the unending sequence of points where T once was.

What’s wrong?

To refute the argument we must deny at least one of its 3 presuppositions, which are:

  1. In travelling a distance we must cross each and all of the intervening points.
  2. A line consists of an infinity of points.
  3. It is impossible to complete an infinite series of actions (tasks).

Aristotle denied 1., saying a line can’t consist of points, they have no size, whereas a line has. A point is potential, becoming actual only if we divide the line there. The paradox invites us to repeatedly divide the line at an infinity of potential points, but A does not have to touch an infinity of actual points to catch T.

Others deny 2., saying a line doesn’t consist of an infinity of points, rather space is not continuous but consists of tiny discrete units (quantized). In covering a distance we traverse a finite number of  space quanta. Motion is jerky but this is undetectable due to the fantastically tiny size of the quanta.

Yet others deny 3., saying that an infinity of tasks is possible. This is a subtle business, bringing in Aristotle and Dedekind cuts, and dealing with it would make this answer too long (ask me if you’re interested).

After 2500 years there is still debate, and no closure, especially about 2. and 3.

Some modern mathematicians offer as a solution that that the time/ distance till A catches T is the (finite) limit of an infinite convergent series (1/2 +1/4 +1/8 + etc). But this simply tells us what Zeno already said, that the distance is finite, just infinitely divisible, and doesn’t explain how we complete the task.

I hope this helps.

Andrew asked:

When, if ever, should a terminal patient’s right to be told the truth about their condition — that they are dying — be overridden?

Answer by Craig Skinner

I dont think a patient of sound mind who asks for the truth should be lied to.

As a medic, I would say medical ethics revolves around 4 principles:

  • beneficence (do good)
  • non-maleficence (do no harm)
  • autonomy (patient’s right to truth and to decide)
  • justice (fair sharing of limited resources)

Your question relates to autonomy. Relatives often say the patient shouldn’t know the truth because she couldn’t cope with it — she would give up, wouldn’t fight any more. So, they say,  autonomy clashes with doing no harm, the latter should prevail, I should lie. Whilst I always take account of relatives’ views, I am not bound by them, and I have never agreed with this view. It usually means it is the relative who cant cope, won’t know what to say if mum starts talking about death. And if we go along with it, the outcome is bad: the patient soon realizes she is dying anyway, but can’t talk about it because her family don’t want to, and so she is alone and isolated just when she most needs family support. So, I explain all this to the relative, and tell the patient the truth.

Two caveats.

First, a patient’s right to the truth doesn’t mean I have a right to ram the truth down her throat, as it were, when she doesn’t want to talk about it. I am guided by the patient’s wishes. So, having examined her and got back test results, I will start in nonspecific terms — there’s a shadow on your x-ray we need to investigate further, say. Then, “Is there anything you want to ask?”, and now we find out how much the patient wants to know, at this stage anyway. Some say no, that’s fine, lets get on with the tests, others ask if it could be cancer. And so it goes as we investigate further. If it turns out to be a fatal condition for which little can be done, I will say so if asked directly, otherwise will talk of treatment which may help for a time. If a patient has, or probably has, a very serious condition, but one which may be curable, and decides to bury her head in the sand, keep clear of doctors and hope for the best, then I will make sure she knows the serious position even though she did not ask me to spell things out.

Second caveat. Docs know only too well that they often get it wrong, so we must always consider very carefully before pronouncing an illness terminal or being too exact or sure about life expectancy. Second opinions may be a good idea.

I hope this is helpful to you.


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