Monday, July 17, 2017

Social media and identity


Last week my conclusion was that it is not our memories that make our personal identities but that experiences do (at least, for a part, for elsewhere I have shown that our bodily make-up is also important). However, experiences are not independent of memories: How we experience an event we go through or what we are doing is determined also by how we experienced such events in the past or how we remember what we did before. What we think of a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony depends not only on the performance we hear now but also on what we remember of performances of the same symphony in the past. And after we have heard the symphony several times, maybe we can hum even parts of the melody: When we recall something we did or experienced in the past, we get a better retention of it. When we tell others about what we experienced or when we reread our diary notes, we keep what we lived through better in the mind. On the other hand, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat. One important way for reviving memories is looking at old photos. When we see them again, usually we know what we did then, and in case we have taken the photos ourselves, we can often also tell how we have taken them and where we stood. However, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat by such artificial means or otherwise. What is not in a photo, gradually vanishes from the memory. What is in a photo is highlighted and determines the recollection of the doing or event.
In these days of the internet we share our life experiences increasingly via the social media. Of course, we leave out what we don’t want to share and we share only what we see as highlights or worth to mention. Therefore, as Julia Shaw says in her book on memory quoted last week: “remembering life events through social media is going to enhance memories for those particular events” (pp. 213-4). However, publishing life events in the social media is not a neutral affair. As said, we don’t share everything, but we select. Moreover we present what we present there in a certain way: We don’t share how we are but how we want to be seen. We don’t present in social media our selves but our better selves and our improved selves, on purpose or unconsciously. But since bringing back memories is selective, especially when it happens with artificial means, like photos, in fact we get a distortion of reality. This is the more so, when we bring back memories via what we have uploaded in the social media. This has important consequences for the self-image. As Shaw says, “[w]hat is different about social media is that the prompts are being selected from your online persona so they already represent a distorted, social media appropriate, version of your life. This amounts to a double distortion – distorting the memory in your brain with a previously distorted memory from your online persona.” Even if we originally knew that we are not the way as presented in the social media, in the end we tend to believe in it.
“By having the social media dictate which experiences count as the most meaningful in our lives”, so Shaw goes on, “it is potentially culling the memories that are considered less shareable. Simultaneously it is reinforcing the memories collectively chosen as the most likeable, potentially making some memories seem more meaningful and memorable than they originally were. Both of these are problematic processes that can distort our personal reality.” (p. 215) When this happens it is no longer that we shape ourselves in the social media but that the social media shape us. Then it’s the social media that shape our personalities, even if these personalities are distorted, and by that they shape our personal identities.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Personal identity and memory

The author's memory

What makes a person P2 at time t2 the same person as person P1 at time t1? Following Locke (1689/1975), in contemporary analytical philosophy, this question is usually answered in psychological terms, to wit by specifying a psychological criterion that shows, when continuity or connectedness between P1 en P2 exists: Memory. Although currently memory is no longer seen as the only criterion of personal identity, it is still considered an important determinant of personal identity over time. As a rule reference is made to only episodic memory, so to certain events or experiences in the life of the individual concerned. Other kinds of memory, like semantic memory and implicit non-conscious kinds of memory, are generally ignored by the mainstream of personal identity theorists when they consider what makes a person a person. So it is episodic memory that makes that the little schoolboy who went to school in a provincial capital in the Netherlands is the same person as the man who writes this blog on one of the first days of July 2017. Of course, everybody forgets many of his or her life experiences, but personal identity theorists have thought out several solutions for overcoming this problem of forgetfulness. But is episodic memory really a reliable criterion for personal identity?
When someone forgets about what s/he did or experienced in the past, determining the personal identity is a matter of reconstructing the connection between the person who acted in a certain way some time ago or who experienced then this or that and the person who s/he is now. However, if s/he explicitly remembers what s/he did it seems obvious that the person in the memory and the person now who remembers are the same. But is it really so that we can say that what a man or woman remembers now as something that s/he lived through or experienced some time ago makes him or her the same person as the one in the recollection?
Much has already been written about the unreliability of our memory but I think that the next investigation well substantiates my point:
Memory expert Julia Shaw selected a group of test subjects for what was allegedly a study on emotional memory. First she asked each participant about his or her memory of a true emotional event which Shaw had learned from a person who had informed her about the participant. It might be being bullied at school, fainting on vacation or something else. Next Shaw introduced a false event, telling the test subjects they did something that she knew they actually did not, like telling the participants that they had committed a crime with police contact – assault, assault with a weapon, or theft – or had experienced another emotional event – an animal attack, a bodily injury, losing a large sum of money or getting in trouble with their parents. Shaw did as if someone the test subject knew, like his/her parents, had informed her about the event. At first the participants said correctly that they didn’t remember the event. After a visualisation exercise, which gave the test subjects access to their imagination instead of their memories – which they didn’t know – the participants still hadn’t much to tell about the event. Then they were sent home with the instruction not to talk about the test and to try to visualise the memory at home. One week later in a second interview the test subjects were asked to tell both about the true emotional event and about the false event. Many participants began to “remember” and report of details of the false event. The visualisation exercise was also repeated. Next the participant were sent home again with the instruction of trying to get more details of the false event. One week later in a third interview the second interview session was repeated. “After three interviews”, so Shaw, “... many participants are divulging a tremendous number of details about an event that never happened, talking about them with confidence.” In other words: The false events had really become part of the memories of the test subjects. Don’t think that only exceptional persons “recollect” false memories. Shaw found in her investigations that at least 70% of the participants develop full false memories about criminal and emotional events. Most of us will do in the right circumstances.
Perhaps you think that Shaw’s case is extreme. Maybe it is, but as Shaw shows in her book: Everybody’s mind is probably full of false memories. There are many reasons why we get them and it is unlikely that anybody is free of them.
What does this mean for the view that episodic memory is the most important determinant of man’s personal identity as the mainstream of personal identity theorists maintains? On the base of a false memory each of us could be a criminal while s/he is in fact a honest burgher. Even more, as Shaw makes clear, it also happens often that we adopt recollections told to us by others as if they were our own. If so this would mean – following the mainstream of the personal identity theorists – that such a recollection would give the person with the adopted recollection the personal identity of another person, at least partly. It would literally put him or her in someone else’s shoes. The upshot is: What we remember may be important for us but it doesn’t make our identities. Only what we really lived through and experienced does, but it’s not obvious that we remember all of it nor that we lived through and experienced everything that we remember.

References
- John Locke, An essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975 (1689).
- Noonan, Harold W., Personal Identity. London etc.: Routledge, 2003.
- Shaw, Julia, The memory illusion. London: Random House Books, 2016. You can find the case described on pp. 171-175.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The mind of an introvert

Happy interovert

Suppose a friend invited you for his birthday party, like every year. You know most people that have come there. I don’t know how such parties are held in other countries, but let me suppose it’s a Dutch party with not so many guests, say around ten or fifteen. All sit most of the time at the same place in a circle in the living room, as it happens here. You don’t know the man left of you, who comes for the first time. He seems to be an interesting person, but you don’t know how to start the conversation. You are thinking of all kinds of themes you might start with, but in the end you say nothing. Happily, the man starts to talk with you, and then the conversation develops. Even more, you find it very interesting, and you talk a long time together, for you and your neighbour have much in common.
Do you recognize this? Are you maybe even such a kind of person? If so, then you are probably an introvert. How pity, or so many people think, for introverts have the reputation of being not very social and they could better be avoided. What a weird idea about people who make up at least one third of the world population! But alas, it’s a view that is not quite unexpected in a society where being extrovert pays. The view has been even supported by psychological “insights” for a long time. It’s true that introverts are not as chatty and sociable as extroverts are, or rather, as I would say it, they are chatty and sociable in a different way, for once you know them they are pleasant to get along with, and you can talk a lot with them, albeit often not about superficial things.
This was already known to me, but it became even clearer to me, when I happened to visit the website of Psychology Today when looking for a subject for this week’s blog. There is so much positive about being introvert and remember that people like Newton, Einstein and Wittgenstein were also introverted. It’s true that it has also negative aspects, for as Allison Abrams writes in an article on the theme in Psychology Today: “One of the greatest frustrations introverts experience is squelching [their] gifts.” For example “You’re sitting in a ... [discussion] group when you are suddenly hit with a great idea, as introverts often are. While you’re working up the nerve to voice that idea out loud, the extrovert sitting next to you blurts it out first, of course getting all the credit. You’re devastated and angry at yourself for once again not speaking up.”
But what is then so positive about being an introvert? Let me summarize the seven plus-points that Abrams mentions:
1) Creativity. Introverts have often a big imagination and fantasy which makes them very creative.
2) They can think outside the box, for they feel no need to conform to society’s rules and prefer making their own.
3) Attunement to others. They are sensitive to how others feel, which makes that they have empathy and understanding for others. However, it can make also that they don’t feel at ease in groups, because their sensitivity can become overloaded.
4) Introverts are very good observers. Even if they don’t talk a lot they do see a lot.
5) They are good in overcoming challenges. Introverts are often low in the pecking order. Therefore they are used to overcome obstacles. Moreover, being low in the pecking order has given them understanding of those in difficult situations.
6) Maybe it is so that introverts don’t have many relationships, but they are good in making genuine and reliable connections. Being able to act alone is an asset for them, for having a few – but good – relationships is enough.
7) They can change the world, but they do it in silence or without much ado.
As Liz Fosslien and Mollie West explain on another website, introverts are maybe slow thinkers, but it is because they are deep thinkers, which takes time. Introverts need less stimulation from the world, which makes that they become easily over-stimulated; it makes also that they need less to feel happy (“simply” reading a book is enough). Introverts feel less excitement from surprise and from risk. Introverts process everything in their surroundings and pay attention to all sensory details in their environment, not just to people (which makes that they may seem distracted). And last but not least, the minds of introverts are full of thoughts and they talk with themselves.
All, this sounds rather positive, doesn’t it? But each personality type has negative aspects as well (every introvert can tell you; see also above). Moreover, there are also advantages of being an extrovert; without a doubt. And, oh yet this. Introverts may seem stand-offish and maybe they are not the first to give you a hug, but to quote the end of Abrams’s web article, if they do “feel honored. They don’t let just anyone in. But when they do, their fierce loyalty and empathic nature make them some of the best friends, partners, co-workers and bosses anyone can ask for. Their presence is a gift.”

Sources: For this blog I heavily relied on Allison Abrams, “7 Reasons to Be Proud to Be an Introvert”,  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201706/7-reasons-be-proud-be-introvert . Moreover, on Liz Fosslien and Mollie West, “6 Illustrations That Show What It’s Like in an Introvert’s Head”,  http://www.quietrev.com/6-illustrations-that-show-what-its-like-in-an-introverts-head/

Monday, June 26, 2017

First encounters

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright (right)

Sometimes first encounters are quite dramatic. Take for example the first encounter between the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright and Ludwig Wittgenstein. When von Wright arrived in Cambridge, UK, early May 1939, in order to prepare his dissertation, he heard that Wittgenstein was giving lectures. Of course, he wanted to attend these lectures, although the running class had already almost finished. Let’s see what von Wright tells us about it:

 “My first encounter with Wittgenstein was rather dramatic. I went to his lecture ..., introduced myself when he entered, and said that I had the chairman’s permission to attend lectures in the faculty. Wittgenstein murmured something in reply which I did not understand, and I seated myself among the audience. He started to lecture and I became at once fascinated. ... At the end of the lecture, however, Wittgenstein expressed his great annoyance at the presence of ‘visitors’ in his class. He seemed furious. Then he left the room without waiting for an apology or explanation. I was hurt and shocked. My first impulse was to give up efforts to approach this strange man. But I also wanted a straightforward answer as to whether I could come to his lectures or not. So I wrote him a letter [not expecting an answer. However,] a few days later I got a friendly reply from the man whom I had so angered.” (pp. 10-11) This led to a personal encounter between them, and although Wittgenstein didn’t like von Wright’s presence in this class, he was welcome to visit the next series of lectures.

This first rather dramatic meeting between two outstanding philosophers – one who had already established his fame; the other would soon do so – became the start of a long lasting friendship. After Wittgenstein’s death von Wright became his successor in Cambridge and moreover he became one of the executors of Wittgenstein’s literary legacy. What would have happened if von Wright had not sent a letter to Wittgenstein after his rejection? Actually, I am a bit surprised about the good relationship between Wittgenstein and von Wright, for to my mind it was difficult to become befriended with “this trange man”. It’s true that Wittgenstein had also some other good friends, like his student Elizabeth Anscombe. However, his at first good relationship with Russell finally broke up, especially because Wittgenstein couldn’t accept Russell’s different philosophical views.
“First encounter stories are generally fascinating and frequently bloody”, as H.T.R. Williams writes on listverse.com. But then he thinks of more or less political meetings, like those between the Romans and the Gauls or between the Europeans and people outside Europe. Often such encounters are dramatic if not tragic, indeed. Nevertheless, I think that we forget most of our own first personal meetings, since they are usually routine and nothing special. Of all personal encounters we experience in life, we remember only a few, like the first time we met our future partner. Although first encounters can have a big impact, most of them are far from dramatic. And really, in view of the world events that followed from many first meetings in the political field, also the one between Wittgenstein and von Wright was only a little bit dramatic; almost melodramatic. Even so, what would have been the consequences for philosophy, if von Wright had not sent a letter to Wittgenstein?
Actually, it would be nice if I could meet yet Georg Henrik von Wright, since I have devoted a big part of my Ph.D. thesis to his action philosophy. Alas, it will not be possible anymore, for the philosopher died in 2003 in Finland, where he had returned after his professorship in Cambridge. 2003 happened also to be the first time I was in Finland, but then I visited only shortly a strip of land in the extreme north of the country, far away from where von Wright lived.
First encounters are often underrated, I think. The problem is that we have so many of them and often it will be difficult to foresee their consequences. Most of them are only brief and casual. Also explicit appointments are usually hardly different. Maybe we should give our first encounters more attention, even if it is from some kind of autobiographical curiosity. They say so much about the way we live and the persons we are.

References
Georg Henrik von Wright, “Intellectual autobiography”, in Paul Arthur Schillp and Lewis Edwin Hahn (eds.), The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989.
http://listverse.com/2014/02/17/10-tragic-cross-cultural-first-encounters/

Monday, June 19, 2017

The cement of society (2)

Trenches of the Western Front, First World War.
 On the foreground Allied trenches; on the background German trenches. 

In my last blog I put that trust is the cement of society. Montaigne stated that it is just language that ties people together, but I see it this way that language is the means used to inspire trust. However, what is trust? In an old blog I described trust as a kind of promise, but as I see it now this is actually not to the point. It’s true that accepting a promise is not possible without trusting the person who gives the promise, but trust is much wider. It involves also other relationships. Nevertheless we can find the essential aspects of trust in the relationship constituted by a promise. For one thing, a promise involves a kind of dependence, and so it is with trust. One doesn’t give a promise or accept it, when one has nothing to do with the other. The person who accepts the promise needs the help of the person who gives the promise, or the other way round. This dependence can be of different kinds. For instance,you need the practical help of the other, or his or her moral support. My friend promises to help me, or a person in need promises to follow my advice, knowing that it is the best for him or that by not doing so he will lose my future support. However, the latter example shows that the dependency may be rather weak, for perhaps the person who gives the promise may know others who can help him, so why not break the promise? Often there are no sanctions in order to extort a promise. It’s the same so for a relation of trust. So, for another thing, trust is vulnerable. This makes that Annette Baier sees trust as a kind of reliance on the good will of the other, and that she formulates the essence of trust in this way: “Where one depends on another’s good will, one is necessarily vulnerable to the limits of that good will. One leaves others an opportunity to harm one when one trusts, and also show’s one’s confidence that they will not take it. ... Trust then ... is accepted vulnerability to another’s possible but not expected ill will (or lack of good will) toward one.” (p. 235) This description of trust is, so Baier, a first approximation of the idea, but for this blog it will do.
Briefly, who trusts takes the risk that things will not evolve as hoped or expected. It’s therefore not surprising that for Niklas Luhmann – who wrote an influential book on trust – risk is the core of trust. He called it a “risky advance” (p. 27). I think that this idea of trust as risky advance needs an explanation, but instead of spending some abstract words on the matter, I want to quote a passage from Léon Werth’s autobiographic novel Clavel Soldat, which exactly says what it is about. The event takes place during the First World War on the Western Front in Northern France. Clavel cannot sleep and goes back to the trench for a smoke, when dawn breaks:
“Someone holds out his head above the parapet. He makes a movement with his arms as if he brings a rifle to his shoulder. Then he shakes his head as if he says “no”. It’s Arnoult, one of the volunteers...
Apparently a German in the trench on the other side has answered his signs, for he seems not to consider it necessary any longer to take precautions.
– Comrades... Dirty work... Arnoult says.... Scheissarbeit [shit work]
A voice on the other side answers:
Verfluchte Scheissarbeit [damned shit work]
The corporal plucks him by his coat.
– They’ll shoot you down.
He answers:
– I trust them.
And then he shows himself up to his middle through a break in the parapet.”
(p. 174)

In our incalculable and anonymous world we have often no option but trust if we want to reach our aims or if we want to make contact. Not everything can be arranged and regulated ahead: We have to take risks and to trust, even though, as Luhmann puts it, in the end trust has no foundation (p.31). For trust bridges the moments of uncertainty in the behaviour of other people (p. 27).

References
- Baier, Annette, “Trust and Antitrust”, in Ethics, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Jan., 1986), pp. 231-260.
- Luhmann, Niklas, Vertrauen. Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft; 2014.
- Werth, Léon, Clavel Soldat. Paris: Viviane Hamy, 2006.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The cement of society


Murder is the worst crime you can commit. I think that most of us will agree. Not so Montaigne. For him there is at least one crime that is worse: Lying. As he writes in his essay Of liars: “In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes.”
On the face of it, Montaigne’s view seems surprising. Nevertheless there is some truth in it, for as Montaigne says a few lines after the quotation: “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.” In other words, lying undermines the faith we have in the speaker. We cannot trust a person if s/he lies. And if we cannot trust what someone says, what remains then? As Montaigne had just said (see the first quotation here): we have no other ties with each other than by what we say. We need it for inspiring trust. That’s why lying affects the basis of society, even to that extent that for Montaigne it’s the worst crime that can happen.
I think that the importance of trust for our living together is underestimated. It glues society together. It’s the cement of society. If we don’t trust someone, it is difficult to built a relationship with him or her. If a person lies to us on one occasion about something that is important to us, who knows maybe s/he’ll do it a next time as well. If we don’t have reason to think that this person has changed, we tend to avoid him or her and we don’t want to enter into a relationship with this man or woman any longer or we take our precautions in order to diminish the risk that we’ll again be deceived. As a consequence our relationship becomes difficult, often to the detriment of both of us. That’s one reason why corrupt societies are economically less flourishing than societies where corruption is more or less absent. For isn’t corruption also a kind of a lie?
Montaigne says of himself that “I have this vice in so great horror, that I am not sure I could prevail with my conscience to secure myself from the most manifest and extreme danger by an impudent and solemn lie.” Actually, I think that this has more to do with the type of personality Montaigne is than with a principled horror of lying whatever the circumstances – if it is true what he writes here, for who says always the truth about him or herself, even if s/he doesn’t lie? – For, would a modern Montaigne who had hidden an Anne Frank in a tower of his castle really say “yes”, if an SS-man would knock on his gate and ask whether she is staying there? (If I may believe him, Kant would have said that she is). Who lives within a lie must not be surprised that s/he will meet with a lie. And a lie to the SS-man is a word of truth and confidence to Anne Frank. Sometimes lying is necessary in order to restore trust.

Sources: Michel de Montaigne, “Of Liars”, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#link2HCH0009
James Lewis, “Commentary on Montaigne’s On Liars, http://www.fourbythreemagazine.com/issue/deception/commentary-to-on-liars

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Barber of Seville


Although it was not a real promise to write yet another time on Russell, nevertheless once I have said that I may return to him sooner or later I feel it as a kind of obligation to do so. And since there is a saying that you must never put off till tomorrow what you can do today, I think the best is to write about him now.
I reread the chapter “The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge” in Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy, but when I asked myself what I should say about it, I realized that I had not so much to add to my criticism written a few weeks ago. For also in this chapter Russell’s view on philosophy (as treated here and in the whole book) is somewhat limited and moreover it is a bit outdated. When Russell thinks of philosophy he thinks of epistemological issues in the first place, so questions in the field of knowledge. But as I have written four weeks ago, there is so much more in philosophy. Now it is so that Russell himself writes in this chapter that “we have scarcely touched on many matters that occupy a great space in the writings of most philosophers. Most philosophers – or, at any rate, very many – profess to be able to prove, by a priori metaphysical reasoning, such things as the fundamental dogmas of religion, the essential rationality of the universe, the illusoriness of matter, the unreality of all evil, and so on.” (p. 82) And then he thinks of philosophers like Kant and Hegel. However, according to Russell, such problems cannot be solved by philosophy but only by science. That’s true, I think, but I doubt whether most, or otherwise very many philosophers spent their time in Russel’s days and before on the themes just mentioned and on related themes. I think that there were also quite a lot of philosophers who reflected on other themes, and they were not the least important. I guess that there were more of them than Russell thought. A case in point is Nietzsche. And when I was developing the ideas that led to my dissertation, I spent much time on studying the works of the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), who transformed the method of explaining texts into a general method for the social sciences. By doing so he developed the method of Verstehen (understanding) and in this way he became one of the founders of the philosophy of action (still today one of the lively branches of philosophy). Dilthey was also an important contributor to the so-called Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life). A few other philosophers I want to mention yet without further explanation are Montaigne, Rousseau and Karl Marx. All these philosophers (with the exception of Dilthey) are mentioned in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
But by writing in this way on Russell I tend to ignore his great contributions to philosophy. For example, his critique on set theory led to a shock in the world of mathematics around 1900. I am not a mathematician, so I can’t explain you the ins and outs in detail and in a accessible way, but who doesn’t know the story of the Barber of Seville? And then I don’t mean Rossini’s opera but the barber in this town who had written on the signboard of his shop “I shave all men who do not shave themselves” (implying: and only men who do not shave themselves). It’s a paradox, for what about the barber himself? The story has been told in another version by Lewis Carroll and has been used by Russell to criticize the set theory, for does or doesn’t the barber belong to the set of his clients? The set theory couldn’t tell and finally the problem was solved by changing the rules that define a set. It seems that there is nothing as easy as that: When you can’t solve it, ignore it. In a positive way we can say, of course, that a mistake in the set theory was eliminated in the sense of Popper’s error elimination. It’s the way science develops. Nevertheless, it looks a bit like a trick. Moreover, actually the entire paradox is based on the prejudice that the barber is not a woman.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why don’t we care?


Maybe I should add this week yet a bit to what I have written in my last blog. My view on the case there has been implicit, but actually there is much to say about it. And doesn’t the case tell a lot about the kind of persons we are? For I don’t see it as a case about individuals who behave in a specific situation but as a case that is typical for man (woman) as such. So I do not reproach by writing this blog the individual agents involved and their individual behaviour; nor do I reproach the individual policeman and -woman his and her (in my eyes) unprofessional behaviour – “unprofessional”, for shouldn’t it be so that in emergency cases helping the victims is one of the first things to do as long as no other help is present? – No, in my view the case says a lot about the kind of person Man (Woman) is, at least in certain social, cultural and historical circumstances. Just that’s why I started in my last blog with the quotation from Werth’s autobiographic novel Clavel Soldat, – actually Clavel=Werth – which happened to take place in the same region where my wife and I were involved in the road accident. But in the end Man (Woman) does not exist and there are only individuals who act and make choices.
There is much in this case that must make you think and that determines what people do in certain concrete circumstances. I’ll mention a few:
- As psychological studies have shown: The more people are present at the place of an accident, the fewer people will help, for everybody thinks that another person will do so, and if no one else does, why just you?
- Once one person takes the initiative to help, more people present are prepared to help. However, in fact most of them will help only if they are asked in person to do so. So if you are at the place of an accident and can’t handle it alone, don’t expect that the others present will help you, but address yourself to a specific person among the bystanders – whoever it is – and then it’s almost certain that this person will help.
- Each car driver (and car passenger) passing by without giving help was not simply someone passing by, but s/he was passing by in a box, namely in a car. They saw the accident through the windows of their cars, a bit as if they were watching a drama in a theatre. And who will give help to the actors in need on the stage? In other words, the fact that you are sitting in a car creates a distance between your world within the car and the world outside the car. The world outside the car becomes a kind of objective occurrence that develops independently of you; a kind of drama acted on a stage (unless you yourself collide with another car).
- People are more willing to help when they have prepared themselves in some way what to do in situations they don’t expect or that suddenly happen. Even a little mental preparation at home will do a lot to make you act in the right way in sudden circumstances. That’s also why I called the behaviour of the policepersons involved unprofessional, for isn’t it to be expected that it is a part of their training to care for the victims and to see whether help is necessary?
- All persons involved in the accident were foreigners or of foreign origin (which in case of the Frenchman involved was maybe not clear at first sight, however; but the other cars involved had foreign registration numbers).
Voilà a little philosophy of help or rather non-help. I had the intention to write this week yet a bit about Bertrand Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy and especially about the chapter on “The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge”. But once I started to write, my fingers begun to type on the Problem of Man (Woman) and so it became a blog on his (her) limits. Maybe another time I’ll return to Russell.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Who cares

(the truck had already gone to the hard shoulder)

Spring 1915, at the front of the First World War near Nancy, France
“At midnight someone is knocking at the door ... It’s a soldier from the colonial troops who comes back from the trenches, wounded at his hand. He cannot find the aid station. Clavel asks the card players. They give only a vague indication. They don’t want to be disturbed. In the black night Clavel goes to look for it, together with the colonial soldier, walking in the rain and through the mud. ...
‘I am bleeding ..., I am bleeding’ the colonial soldier says.
.....
At last after half an hour they find the aid post.
When Clavel comes back, the players don’t ask anything. They even don’t look up.”
From Léon Werth, Clavel Soldat (first edition 1919).

Spring 2017, on the motorway near Nancy, France
The truck moves to the left, comes on our lane and touches our car. Then suddenly another car appears in front of the truck and jumps on our lane. It’s impossible to avoid it. A crash. Our car comes to a standstill.
My wife and I remain sitting in our car for a few minutes. We see the driver of the other car getting out. We see the truck driver walking on the road. We ask each other whether we are all right. Happily we are. We sit there yet for a few moments. Then we get out, too. Nobody comes to help us and ask whether we are okay, although it is very busy on the highway. The drivers behind us must have turned their car and fled away. Who cares about an accident?
When the police arrives – a policeman and a policewoman – they immediately start to control the traffic and to move our car and the other cars to the hard shoulder. They don’t get the idea to ask whether we are okay and maybe need medical help. The first few minutes they even don’t talk to us...

A few years ago, on the motorway near my town, the Netherlands
Our car goes into a skid, overturns and lands on its wheels. Dizzy and in shock we are sitting there. We ask each other whether we are all right. Happily we are. A man runs to our car and asks whether we are okay. Two policeman – a policeman and a policewoman – who happen to pass by stop. While the one starts to control the traffic, the other one comes to us and asks several times whether she has to call an ambulance for us and warns us to see a doctor when we get pain in the back of the neck. Then she explains the further procedure to us.

Often we cannot help what happens to us but what we can help is how we get along with it. How one does is a matter of individual differences and a matter of education. It’s up to the reader to pass his or her judgment on the cases described above.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Even Russell sometimes nods

Even Homer sometimes nods

Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher, who made valuable contributions to philosophy. He was also a very creative philosopher. His view was wider than the mathematical and analytic philosophy, which were his specialities and which he helped develop. As for this we must also mention that he stimulated Wittgenstein, who had approached him. Russell was politically very active (which brought him in prison because of his opposition to the First World War). He popularized philosophy. And so on. It was not without reason that he got the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. He contributed to the advancement of philosophical thinking and thinking in general. It will be clear that I cannot do justice to his work in a blog.
Russell also made mistakes, also philosophically, and in many respects his philosophical ideas have been superseded. Here I want to discuss such a mistake.
Let me take again Russell’s book The problems of philosophy, which I discussed in my last blog. In this book he defends the view that “all our knowledge of truths depends upon our intuitive knowledge” (ch. 10). I’ll not go into details, but Russell says that some of our self-evident (intuitive) truths immediately derive from sensation. “We call such truths ‘truths of perception’”, he says. According to Russell these self-evident truths of perception – or perceptive intuitions, as I’ll also call them – can be of two kinds: either they can assert the existence of a sense-datum in an unanalyzed way or they can be judgments of memory (ch. 11). And just here we have a problem. Particularly the idea of sense-data has been the object of much debate and in the end it appeared untenable, especially after its rejection by Karl R. Popper, who put forward strong arguments against the idea. Sense-data, so Russell, is the name for “the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on.” (ch. 1) Now the idea that sense-data exist is seen as naive, although many great philosophers thought so. “[I]f we are to know anything about [a] table”, so Russell, “it must be by the means of the sense-data – brown colour, oblong shape, smoothness, etc. – which we associate with the table” (ch. 1). However, one can object that colour, shape, structure (like smoothness), and other properties not mentioned by Russell like material (the wood the table is made of) are not data objectively given in nature. These properties are shaped in the mind. For example, physically colour does not exist. There are only waves with a certain length, which are interpreted by us as red, blue, brown, etc. It is the same for all other properties that Russell ascribes to sense-date. That we see a table in a certain way is an interpretation of the mind. It’s not a kind of objective fact like a sense-datum in the sense of Russell.
Take now the other kind of perceptive intuition: judgments of memory. It’s true that Russell admits that we often make mistakes in what we remember. Therefore he thinks that intuitive truth of memory is gradual. There is a transition from what we certainly and self-evidently know to what we are uncertain about whether we remember it to clear mistakes in memory (cf chs. 11 and 13). Nevertheless there are absolute self-evident truths of this kind, so Russell. Memories and other mental facts can be self-evidently true if they refer to private facts that are finally unknown to others and can be known only by the one who has them. Let me quote Russell for an example: “When Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio, the corresponding fact, if his belief were true, would be ‘Desdemona’s love for Cassio’. This would be a fact with which no one could have acquaintance except Desdemona; hence in the sense of self-evidence that we are considering, the truth that Desdemona loves Cassio (if it were a truth) could only be self-evident to Desdemona. All mental facts, and all facts concerning sense-data have this same privacy: there is only one person to whom they can be self-evident in our present sense, since there is only one person who can be acquainted with the mental things or sense-data concerned.” It is as if Desdemona has a list with characteristics of being in love that she checks and then says: “Indeed, I’m in love with Cassio”. No, it doesn’t work that way. For Desdemona there is no fact of “Desdemona’s love for Cassio” that can be self-evident to her. Russell confuses here the third-person perspective of Othello and the first-person perspective of Desdemona. She simply is in love with Cassio, without thinking.
There is a saying that even Homer sometimes nods. We use it when even the most gifted person makes mistakes. Despite his flaws Homer was a great poet. Accordingly Russell was an excellent and brilliant philosopher, even though we don’t always agree with him.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The times they are a-changin’


Since I created this philosophical website ten years ago, I have published more than 500 blogs. Nonetheless, if the reader wants to know what the main themes in philosophy are, it has no sense to list the themes of my blogs, since they don’t show what is important in philosophy but only what my philosophical interests are. Moreover, since I am not a philosopher by education but a sociologist who later became interested in philosophy, I even haven’t a good overview of the field. So, I got the idea to browse a bit on the Internet and to enter the words “problems in philosophy” in the Google search machines and see what I would get. Well, what did I find? Pages and pages with entries referring to Bertrand Russell’s book The problems of philosophy. I could even download the book for free, which was not necessary though, since I have it already. As such the result was not bad, but the book is already from 1912. However, because I wanted to see what the main philosophical problems were then according to Russell, I took my copy, read the contents and thumbed it through. What was it that Russell considered the major philosophical issues? I’ll spare you an enumeration of the fifteen subjects he discussed but they concern all the nature of reality and matter (ontological problems) and knowledge related problems (epistemological problems like induction, intuition, truth, universals). Although I lack a good overview of the field, as said, also for me it’s striking what Russell does not discuss in view of what is regarded philosophically important today. It’s true that Russell wrote in the foreword of his book that he had “confined [him]self in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which [he] thought it possible to say something positive and constructive ... For this reason, theory of knowledge occupies a larger space than metaphysics ..., and some topics much discussed by philosophers are treated very briefly, if at all.” And it’s also true that some problems became important only after Russell had published the book. Even so, it is useful to mention a few subjects that Russell ignored, albeit only for illustrating what has changed in philosophy. So here are a few themes that are absent in his book:
- Themes from ethical and moral philosophy. But didn’t already the ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, talk about questions of right and wrong and the best way of life and about what they meant for us? These themes have always been present in philosophy since then, and maybe they are now even more popular than before.
- What is consciousness and what does it mean for human experience.
- The relationship between mind and body. The theme has become important since Descartes made his famous statement “I think so I am”. In Russell’s time it was still mainstream philosophy that mind and body were different substances. How much has changed, especially since brain research has started booming with all philosophical consequences involved like whether there is a free will.
- If “we are our brain”, as some philosophers and brain scientists say, what does remain then of the idea of the free will? Although this theme has become especially important since the rise of modern brain research, it was not new when Russell wrote his book.
- The philosophy of action, so questions about what actions are, how we study them, what makes how we act and so on. Although action philosophy developed as a special philosophical field not before the end of the 1950s, already in the 19th century there was a debate whether the humanities need a method of their own which is different from the method of the natural sciences. Although this discussion had many epistemological implications it was ignored by Russell, as it was by most other main stream philosophers studying epistemological themes.
- What is a person? What is personal identity? The question was raised by John Locke in 1689 and again and again it attracted the attention of philosophers, till today.
I am the first to admit that my list of problems of philosophy is casual and incomplete, also as a supplement to Russell’s list. Moreover, one cannot blame Russell for not mentioning problems that were not relevant in his days or even did not yet exist. Nonetheless, his list was one-sided, but what is more important, his choice shows that the main themes of philosophy have changed. Epistemological problems have become less important; ontological problems like the essence of matter and reality have become hobbies for specialists. What are important now are questions in the philosophy of mind on the consequences of brain research, for instance, like their effects on our idea of free will. Or ethical questions about good life and how we give sense to what we do. The times they are a-changin’, and so is philosophy.

Russell’s The problems of philosophy can be found on several websites, for example http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5827 and http://www.ditext.com/russell/russell.html.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Philosophy by the Way contest

The correct answers on the two questions for the contest on occasion of ten years Philosophy by the Way are:
1) The philosopher most mentioned in my blogs during the first ten years was, of course, Michel de Montaigne. (Everybody got it)
2) He has been mentioned 345 times during this period. (no one had the exact answer)
The winners will receive their prizes as soon as possible.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Moral luck (2)


In my blog last week, I treated moral luck as a one-dimensional concept. In fact, Nagel distinguishes four types of moral luck. I must say that his discussion of the types is not always clear and sometimes Nagel’s wording is confusing, so I doubt if there are just these four types. Anyway, let me present the types and say what I think of them. First I’ll quote how Nagel introduces the distinction:
“There are roughly four ways in which the natural objects of moral assessment are disturbingly subject to luck. One is the phenomenon of constitutive luck – the kind of person you are, where this is not just a question of what you deliberatively do, but of your inclinations, capacities, and temperament. Another category is luck in one’s circumstances – the kind of problems and situation one faces. The other two have to do with the causes and effects of action: luck in how one is determined by antecedent circumstances, and luck in the way one’s actions and projects turn out.” (p. 28) I have taken the labels for the types of luck from the Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_luck).
1) Consequential moral luck: “luck, good and bad, in the way things turn out” (p. 28). A case in point is the pedestrian who suddenly crosses a street and is hit by a car, which I discussed last week. However, Nagel discusses here also cases that he calls “cases of decision under uncertainty” (p.29). For example: “Chamberlain signs the Munich agreement, the Decembrists persuade the troops under their command to revolt against the czar, the American colonies declare their independence from Britain ...” (ibid.). According to Nagel the agents who take the decisions in these cases cannot foresee the outcomes. Hitler could have stopped his aggressive policy after having taken Sudetenland; Britain could have started to negotiate with the Americans, etc.: At the moment the agents make their choices, the consequence are not yet clear. However, I think that there is a difference with the traffic accident: The traffic accident just happens to you, but by signing an agreement or by revolting you can be sure that the other party will react, although you don’t know yet what your opponent will do. There is a kind of relationship between the choices by Chamberlain or the rebels and the following actions, while such a relationship is absent in the case of the traffic accident. I doubt whether the actions by Chamberlain and the rebels fall under the heading of moral luck.
The next two types of moral luck are clear, I think:
2) Constitutive moral luck: The character, temperament, personality traits etc. one has developed insofar as they are determined by one’s genetic constitution and education. A person may be greedy, envious, cowardly, unkind, or nice, helpful etc. and, so Nagel, “to some extent such [qualities] may be the product of earlier choices; to some extent it may be amenable to change by current actions. But it is largely a matter of constitutive bad fortune. Yet people are morally condemned for such qualities, and esteemed for others equally beyond control of the will: they are assessed for what they are like.” (p. 33)
3) Circumstantial moral luck: Luck in one’s circumstances because they are impossible to control or foresee at the moment one takes the relevant decision. For instance: “It may be true of someone that in a dangerous situation he would behave in a cowardly or heroic fashion [but such a situation may never arise and will have no consequences for his moral record]” (pp. 33-34). See the case of the Nazi officer in the concentration camp and the German migrant to Argentina in my last blog.
4) Causal moral luck: “A person can be morally responsible for what he does; be what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but it is a paradox).” (p. 34). Nagel is very brief about this type and the only thing he says yet about it is that he sees a link between these problems about responsibility and control and the problem of the free will. However, it makes me think of the so-called Frankfurt-type cases, which I have discussed before: Jones is in a voting booth deliberating whether to vote for the Democratic or for the Republican presidential candidate. Unbeknownst to Jones, a neurosurgeon, Black, has implanted a chip in Jones’s brain that allows Black to monitor Jones’s neural states and alter them if need be. Black is a diehard Democrat, and should he detect neural activity indicating that a Republican choice is forthcoming, Black will activate his chip to ensure that Jones instead votes Democratic. However, Jones chooses on his own to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, so Black never intervenes (from my blog dated Feb. 23, 2012). The question then is whether Jones is or isn’t responsible for his action. I’ll not discuss it here (see my blog last week and the blog just quoted), for more important is now: Is causal moral luck really an independent type? It’s doubtful, for a closer look at it will probably show that it doesn’t cover cases that do not fall also under one of the other types. For instance, the case of Jones has traits of consequential moral luck (he couldn’t help being manipulated by Black) and constitutive luck (it’s a property of him always to vote Democrat, voluntarily or manipulated). However, it should need further investigation. Be it as it may, often things happen to us and we cannot help. And in case we can, it doesn’t automatically follow that we are morally responsible for the consequences.

Source: Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”, see last week (italics by Nagel)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Moral luck


First case. You drive home from your work. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, but you couldn’t help. Actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
Second case. You drive home from your work. You take your mobile and call your wife that you are on your way home. Suddenly a pedestrian crosses the road without looking to see if it was safe to do so. You cannot stop and you hit him. He is seriously injured. You feel guilty, for it’s not allowed to use a mobile when driving. However, even if you had had both hands on the wheel, it would have been absolutely impossible to stop in time and not hit the pedestrian. So, actually it was simply bad luck that you were there just when the pedestrian crossed the road.
On the face of it, both cases are the same: You couldn’t have stopped, anyway, and it was simply bad luck that you were there and hit the pedestrian. As Thomas Nagel writes (p. 25): “Whether we succeed or fail in what we try to do nearly always depends to some extent on factors beyond our control.” Here the factors were that the pedestrian suddenly crossed the road and that just then you were passing by. However, in the second case, you were calling with your mobile, which was not allowed. Just this gives a moral aspect to the second case: Maybe you could have stopped in time, if you hadn’t been calling, even if it is dubious. Therefore philosophers talk of “bad luck” in the first case and of “moral bad luck” in the second case: that you were using your mobile makes that the accident has a moral aspect.
Moral bad luck, or generally “moral luck”, is an important though not much discussed problem in philosophy. The term has been introduced by Bernard Williams, and the idea has been further developed by authors like Thomas Nagel and Alfred R. Mele. For reasons of space I’ll limit my remarks to discussing Nagel’s article “Moral Luck”.
In the course of time, we do many things that can be judged morally – positively or negatively –, but whether it’s done so often depends on chance occurrences, as my cases illustrate. “What has been done, and what is morally judged, is partly determined by external factors”, so Nagel (p. 25). To take an example by Nagel: “Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930.” (p. 26) This, so Nagel, illustrates a general point: “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck. Such luck can be good or bad.” (ibid.) However, what is under your control and what is beyond your control? If we would consider all factors that determine what you do, we might come to the conclusion that “ultimately nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.” (ibid.)
Nagel doesn’t go that far. He sees a connection between the problems about responsibility and control and the problem of the free will. It’s true that “everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors, antecedent and posterior to action, that are not within the agent’s control. Since he cannot be responsible for them, he cannot be responsible for their results.” (p. 35) And “admittedly, if certain surrounding circumstances had been different, then no unfortunate consequences would have followed from a wicked intention, and no seriously culpable act would have been performed; but since the circumstances were not different, and the agent in fact succeeded in perpetrating a particular cruel murder, that is what he did, and what he is responsible for. Similarly, ... if certain circumstances had been different, the agent would never have been developed into the sort of person who would do such a thing.” But since the circumstances weren’t different and “he did develop ... into the sort of swine he is, and into the person who committed such a murder, that is what he is blameable for.” (ibid.)
In other words: An agent makes choices and that’s what he is responsible for. “Moral judgment of a person is judgment not of what happens to him, but of him.” We don’t judge his circumstances or his fate. “We are judging him, rather than his existence or characteristics.” (p. 36). It is the agent who acts, not his or her circumstances or fate that do. It’s so that “something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events, or people being things. ... [T]hose actions remain ours and we remain ourselves, despite the persuasiveness of reasons that seem to argue us out of existence.” (p.37).
In discussing Nagel’s view on moral luck I had to leave out much what would make Nagel’s view clearer and what gives a better foundation of his conclusion. Anyway, it’s a conclusion that I endorse. Even if the circumstances happen to us, it’s me who bends them to my will by my actions. In this way, moral luck is also moral chances.

Source: Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”, in: Mortal Question; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979 (1991), pp. 24-38. (all italics in the quotes by Nagel)

Monday, April 10, 2017

The double meaning of words


The regular readers of these blogs will know that I am not a fan of Big Brother. So I am not here to draw his attention to difficulties he may come across when trying to manipulate his subjects. However, some such problems are interesting from a philosophical point of view. I think that it has no sense to ignore them, as if they don’t exist, so I feel free to talk about them. One problem that Big Brother must solve when he tries to develop the mind-reading technology as mentioned in my last blog is the problem of double meaning.
Let’s assume that Big Brother is reigning and that each newborn child gets a chip in the brain that is connected with a computer. In this way Big Brother can send thoughts to the child and he can use it also for reading the child’s thoughts. Let’s call the newborn child Subject. Then I think that it will be impossible to make that Subject will have only thoughts in her (or his) head that are acceptable to Big Brother. For no matter what Big Brother will do, it’s unavoidable that Subject sees things around her that haven’t been foreseen by Big Brother, or that Subject will get independent thoughts by talking with other subjects. Then Subject will gradually develop some thoughts of her own. If it has come that far, Big Brother is confronted with the problem of double meaning. For it is quite well possible that some words used by Big Brother for bringing thoughts to Subject’s brain have a different meaning for Subject than they have for Big Brother. The effect may be that Subject doesn’t behave any longer in the way desired by Big Brother and maybe she resists to him, too.
Here is a case of double meaning that I found on the Internet (but that actually is based on an incorrect comma):

A panda walks into a roadside cafe. He orders a bun, eats it, draws out a pistol and fires into the air and heads for the door.
"Why?" asks the confused waitress as the panda was half way out of the door. The panda produces a wild-life dictionary and shouts: "I'm a panda. Look it up!".
The waitress turns to the "P" section and reads:
"PANDA: Large black and white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

The problem with the double meaning of the words in this joke is that they have been divorced from the context, and just the context is important for understanding the meaning of a word, as Wittgenstein has made clear when saying “The meaning of a word is its use” (Philosophical Investigations 43). However, it can be difficult to determine what the use of a certain word is, since the context is not always obvious, for it is not automatically given. Every translator can tell you. In order to show this, I’ll translate for you a Dutch sentence, that contains several words with double meanings (I have italicized these words, which are in pairs in the text, and I have explained them in a note; I hope that you will not stop going on, if you don’t know Dutch). Here is the Dutch sentence:

Toen mijn moeder aan de was was, zag ik twee vliegen vliegen. Daar was ook een bij bij. Ze vlogen onder de deur door, over de weg weg.

For a competent translator its meaning is clear:
When my mother was doing the laundry, I saw two flies passing by. They were accompanied by a bee. They passed under the door and flew away over the road.

However, when I had translated the sentence with an Internet translator, I got this incomprehensible result:
Then my mother to the wax was, saw I two flies flying. There was also at at. Them flew under the door, concerning the way gone.
(try it with your own translator or translate it into another language in this way and the result will be as incomprehensible).

The problem was that the computer translator didn’t know or understand the context of the sentence. It translated simply the single words without considering their uses in the text and the context. As this example clearly shows: What the context of a sentence is, is not obvious as such. It always needs an interpretation to get it. However, usually interpreting is an unconscious process that takes places without consciously thinking about it.
The upshot is that if you want to communicate a thought to another person, or if you want to bring over a thought literally to another mind (as Big Brother would like to do), it is possible that the other doesn’t understands you, even when she knows all the single words you used. I think that everybody has experienced this sometimes. Normally you try to solve the problem by talking with the other and explaining what you mean. But if you want to manipulate the other, it’s already more difficult to do so, since you want to hide your real intentions. And if you are Big Brother, I wonder whether this problem of double meaning can be really solved – which shows that there’ll always remain a place where you are free: In your mind (with the hope for a better future if the world would have come that far).

Note. The meaning of the italicized words in the Dutch sentence
was1=(she) was, was2=laundry – vliegen1=flies (insects), vliegen2=(to) fly – bij1=bee, bij 2=at – deur=door, onder ... door= under – weg1=road, weg2=away

Monday, April 03, 2017

Big Brother will come within you


Last week I described Hilary Putnam’s case of a brain in a vat. Here I’ll bypass Putnam’s interpretation of the case and the philosophical debate it provoked. However, currently it’s not yet possible to remove a brain from a body, keep it alive in a vat with nutrients and make the brain think that it is a real person that behaves and thinks as a normal human being. Nonetheless, I think that the time will not be far away that is be possible to envat a brain.
The Dutch neuro-scientist Anke Marit Albers took a number of test persons, placed them in a fMRI scanner and asked them to imagine a multi-banded grate that could be rotated in three different ways: 60, 120 or 180 degrees. Albers didn’t know how many degrees each test person mentally rotated the grate but the fMRI scanner could tell her by scanning the individual brains.
Of course, it was not as simple as that, although it’s the essence of the test. First, since each person organizes his or her brain in a different way, a scanner must learn for each single person which pattern in the brain corresponds to a grate that has been rotated either 60 or 120 or 180 degrees. But once the fMRI scanner has learned the typical patterns for each test person, it can read the rotation in a test person’s brain. Second, although the scanner basically can tell how much a test person has mentally rotated the grate, it makes mistakes. In spite of this it does better than chance. So if you want to know how much the test person has rotated the grate, you can better use a scanner than just guess it.
The investigation has its limitations. That’s clear. The test person was allowed to rotate the grate in his or her imagination only in three different ways and the prediction how much s/he did is not infallible. Nevertheless it’s a giant leap forward on the road to read the minds of other persons. Once the method will have been improved, it can be useful to help patients who suffer from hallucinations or obsessions, so Albers.
What does it mean for the case of a brain in a vat? There is an important difference between this case and the investigation by Albers: Albers tries to detect which imaginations a person has; so the imaginations are the output of her test. In the brain-in-a-vat-case, however, imaginations are put into the brain; they are the input of the brain. Our first thought of the idea to use imaginations as brain input may be that it’s science fiction. However, what is science fiction today can be reality tomorrow. Wasn’t – to take an example – Jules Verne’s novel Around the Moon science fiction in his days and hasn’t it become true a century later? Even more, man has not only flown around the moon but he also walked on the moon. And maybe already soon the day will come that thoughts can be inserted into the brain. For doing so we need to know how the brain is structured, and, as I just have shown, the first steps have already been done to find it out.
Investigators can already steer the behaviour of test animals by stimulating their brains. Brain implants are being developed in order to restore vision in the brains of people who are congenitally blind or to make paralyzed limbs move again. In fact, this is a matter of bringing outside information inside the brain. One step more and it will be possible to bring fake information (and thoughts) in the brain in this way. According to Albers theoretically such things can be done, although there still are many practical impediments. For a handicapped person brain implants would be fantastic. However, “it evokes also more terrifying ideas within me”, so Albers. For Big Brother such a progress of science will be great. No longer he needs to manipulate your environment in order to manipulate you in an indirect way, with the risk of failure and undesired effects. When the knowledge of thought implantation will have been fully developed, he simply can put a chip in your head and connect you with a computer. One step further and only transmitting a special kind of brain waves in the air will suffice. Then we’ll not be much unlike Putnam’s envatted brain.

Sources: De Volkskrant, March 22, 2017; p. 27. Anke Marit Albers, “Tracking dynamic mental representation in early visual cortex”, on http://www.ru.nl/dondersdiscussions/previous-events/dd2014/sessions/session-8-predictive/abstract-anke-marit/