Monday, March 18, 2019

The Constitution View. A homage to Lynne Rudder Baker

Lynne Rudder Baker

Who am I? Since Descartes asked this in his Meditations, it has been a leading question in philosophy and in these blogs as well. It has also been one of the leading questions in the philosophy of Lynne Rudder Baker. Her answer was that I am the thinking being that I am, so I am a human person. However, you can object that I am also a body, and in a sense we are body and mind at the same time. How is this possible and what then is the relation between my being a person and my being a body? Baker had a clear answer to these questions: the Constitution View. In short, it involves that, in her words, “a human person is constituted by a human body. But a human person is not identical to the body that constitutes her.” (p. 3) For most of my readers – as for me when I read about the constitution view for the first time – it will not be clear what constitution here means, so let me explain.
Actually the constitution view of what a human person is consists of two parts. First, we must know what makes a person as a person different from the body she is as well. Second, what makes a person a human person? To answer these questions, let’s start to look at Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. Actually it is not more than a piece of marble. Following Baker, let me call this Piece. Now you’ll protest. For you this object is not simply a lump of stone but it is a work of art, representing the Jewish King David. However, so Baker, Piece and David are not identical. In a world without art, for instance in a dog world, Piece would exist as a piece of marble but not as David. In such a world Piece would exist but David wouldn’t. On the other hand, David couldn’t exist without Piece. If Michelangelo would have died after he had bought Piece but before he had made David, Piece would have existed but David hadn’t. But once David exists he has properties that Piece has not. David, so Baker, “could not exist without being a statue. So, David has a property ... that Piece lacks” (p. 30), and the other way round as well, I want to add. It’s David (the person we see in the marble) not Piece that represents the Jewish king. And it’s not David that has the property “stony” but Piece has. So David and Piece are not identical, but because David cannot exist without Piece, we say that Piece constitutes David. In the same way we must think the relationship between my body and me as a person. I cannot exist without my body, but my body and I are not identical: My body constitutes the person I am.
So far so good. But if a person is not identical with her body, what then “distinguishes a person from the body that constitutes her”, Baker asks. (p. 59) For answering this question we must return to the beginning of this blog. We saw there that Baker assumed that I am a thinking being. This implies that I have an inner life. But it’s not my body as such that has an inner life, but I have. According to the constitution view, so Baker, something with an inner life is different from something that hasn’t. Having an inner life is characteristic of a person, but it is not just characteristic as such but in a certain way: it involves that a person can reflect on herself. A person can think “oneself as an individual facing a world, as a subject distinct from everything else.” (p. 60). In other words, a person has what philosophers call a first-person perspective. All this brings Baker to her definition of a human person: “[W]hat makes a human person a person is the capacity to have a first-person perspective. What makes a human person a human is being constituted by a human organism.” (p. 91)
I must leave it at this and I think that this abstract of the constitution view of identity will raise more questions than it answers, but be sure that Baker discusses many objections that you might raise against this view.
To my mind, the constitution view looks like the dual aspect theory view on man, which says that man can be considered in different ways: as a biological body or as a conscious and thinking mind, although in the end man is both together. It’s the view I adhere to. I think that LRB would not agree. Anyway, the constitution view is a well-founded and coherent theory. It helps us to fill in the idea of a person and to say what personal identity is. Much work by Baker tried to answer questions in this field and were important contributions to current discussions in the philosophy of mind. Therefore it’s a bit strange that I hardly paid attention to Baker in my writings, although I valued her work very much and although I have read much of it. That’s why by way of homage to her I have written this blog, for a few days ago I heard that Lynne Rudder Baker has died about a year ago, on 24 December 2017, 73 years old. She wrote five books and many articles and book chapters, not only on personal identity, but also in the field of action theory and ethics. Without a doubt her work will keep to rag the brains of other philosophers yet for a long time.

The page numbers in the text refer to Lynne Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies. A Constitution View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Do we think only with the brain?

Your mind is not only in your brain, but also in your body if not in the world around you or at least in some parts of it. I have sustained this view several times in my blogs. It is the main thesis of the so-called extended mind theory and also of the enactivist approach, which goes even a little bit farther. The first theory – defended for instance by Andy Clark and David Chalmers – leaves yet a rather important place for the brain as the centre where the mind processes come together, albeit so that according to this theory also much you know exists outside your brain, such as in your notebooks and your computer. The enactivist approach states that the brain has a rather decentralized function and that many cognitive processes take place outside the brain. This view is defended for instance by Shaun Gallagher. In short, the enactivist thesis says (p. 6; see “Source”) that “[c]ognition is not simply a brain event. It emerges from processes distributed across brain-body-environment.” What we see in this description of enactivism is that the brain is not the central processing unit that constitutes cognition (say “knowledge”, in order to keep it simple) but that it is only one such a unit, besides the body (and then especially understood as action, or intended behaviour) and the world around us, which comprises material objects but especially the people we interact with (significant groups and society in general). Now I could continue to give an abstract summary of the enactivist view, but instead I want to give a few examples in order to make the idea clear.
The first case that comes to my mind is not from Gallagher (whose view I want to discuss here) but it’s one discussed in an older blog (dated 20 July 2009): Holding a warm cup of coffee makes you have more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of ice coffee. In other words, how we are going to act towards others – friendly, rejecting – is not only a decision taken by the brain but it is also “taken” by the temperature of the coffee we drink. This is in line with an example used by Gallagher (p. 152): A study by Danziger et al. showed that the favourable rulings by judges generally went down during the morning from about 65% to 0. After the lunch it returned abruptly to 65%. So, the fact that the judges gradually became hungry influenced their decisions! Actually it’s a phenomenon that everybody knows: Hunger affects your decisions and what you perceive. The hungrier you are, the more you see food in everything you see, and finally it forces your behaviour. It’s a phenomenon already noticed by William James, so Gallagher, who “noted that an apple appears larger and more inviting red when one is hungry than when one is satiated.” (pp. 151-2) Even the phase of your heart beat – and who is able to perceive the phase of his or her heart beat? – has an impact on what you feel, for “[w]hen the heart contracts in its systole phase, fearful stimuli are more easily recognized, and they tend to be more fearful than when presented during its diastole phase”, so Gallagher (p. 152, referring to an investigation by Garfinkel et al.). A phenomenon that many people know is the connection between the breathing and feeling excited; and that you can become more quiet by slowing down your breathing.
Yet a few other examples from Gallagher (pp. 152-5; for a part my interpretations). After a day of trekking in the mountains the next slope may look steeper than it really is, because you are hungry and tired. The next morning, when you are fresh again, it’s no problem to go up, not because the slope has become less steep, but because your affective state has changed. Intentionality can influence your perception as well. After a day of climbing and trekking you are very tired and you feel that it had been better to stop an hour ago. Or, same situation, you are sitting with your friends around a campfire at the end of the day and you feel satisfied how much you have done this day. Or – my example – after a day of trekking you may feel that the next slope is too steep, because you are tired and that’s better to pitch a camp. But what if you know that a bear is following you or that your love is waiting for you .... ?
My cases are a bit limited, but they exemplify that cognition is not simply a product of the brain. What we perceive and know is to a large extent also determined by our affects, our intentions, the state of the world, and the like. Despite challenges of the idea by some, which I’ll ignore here, I think what stands anyway is that “judgment and perhaps perceptual experience is informed by one’s present affective state” (p. 155). I would rather delete the word “perhaps”, for I think that the affective state does have an impact on perceptual experience, anyway. In more technical terms, we can speak of the “embodied-affective nature of perception” (p. 156), and I would like to add “and of cognition in general”. Cognition is not only in the brain but in the brain, body and natural and social environment together and in their relations. In order to know how we know it’s not enough to know how the brain functions, but we must understand this whole aggregate and its internal dynamic connections.

The page numbers in the text refer to Shaun Gallagher, Enactivist Interventions. Rethinking the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Happiness as the stream of life

Money makes you happy by having it, not by trying to have it. We have seen this last week. However, what is happiness? Many authors have tried to answer this question, but for a basic understanding one falls back on Aristotle, as so often.
Following others, happiness is the highest good in life, so Aristotle. His reasoning is simple. We choose happiness as a goal only for itself and never for reaching another goal. It’s true that there are also other goals that are often set for itself, like honour, enjoyment or intellect, but even if we don’t choose them in order to become happy, we always assume that attaining these other goals goes together with being happy. Therefore we can say that happiness is the highest goal in life. However, saying so looks like a platitude, if we don’t define what happiness is. For otherwise we run the risk that we say, for instance, that I am not happy because I am depressed and I am depressed, because I don’t feel happy. Therefore we must define happiness that way that it can be taken independently of other feelings. Aristotle gives such a definition. Nonetheless, I’ll not quote it here. Instead I’ll give my interpretation of Aristotle’s approach of the idea of happiness, in order to avoid becoming entangled in a discussion what Aristotle actually means.
If we look at the example just given about the vicious relationship between being depressed and being happy, we see that this relationship is static: the state of being happy is related to another state such as being depressed in my case. It’s not the way Aristotle looks at the idea of happiness. Although he gives the impression that happiness can be seen as a state (especially when he discusses the question, whether or not we can judge whether a person was happy only after his or her death), in fact Aristotle’s approach is dynamic: For him happiness is in the activity of the soul that makes that this soul functions in an optimal way in view of its goals. It’s true that Aristotle adds yet the phrase “in a full human life”, and just this makes Aristotle’s dynamism again static in the end. But I think that I as a living person can ignore this phrase, since I cannot judge my whole life: At the moment that I judge, I have at least yet a while to go, and who knows what will happen yet that might completely reverse my judgment, as Montaigne says somewhere? The final judgment is up to others. I can judge only as I live right now and while I am still alive, giving my judgment from my own first person point of view. Seen that way, a person’s happiness is in his or her doing, in the acting, not in the achievements.
How then about the goals? Aren’t they important? Yes, as everybody knows they are. We set goals and once we have achieved them, we feel happy, even happier than before. But as everybody knows as well, soon this extra happiness will fade away. Happiness lasts three months as psychological investigations show. And then? Then we set new goals and we begin to focus on these new goals. And that’s the function of goals: they structure a person’s life. They make that a person’s life can stream, so to speak, and it’s just this streaming that makes us happy. How then about the money you have? Don’t keep it in your pocket but spend it, on experiences, for example. It will make you even happier than you are.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, 4-12

Monday, February 25, 2019

Will money make you happy?

Money doesn’t make happy. Everybody knows. Okay, when you have hardly any money, it can make you unhappy and then money can help, but at a certain level it doesn’t make happier anymore. A website that I came across when looking for inspiration for this theme gives ten reasons why:
1) Money gives instant gratification but once you are accustomed to it this fades away.
2) It doesn’t fix relationships.
3) It’s the root of all evil. Most problems are about money, some way
4) It can’t solve mental problems.
5) Money and friendship don’t mix, as 6) don’t money and family.
8) Things bought with money give only a feeling of happiness for a little while.
9) You’ll have never enough.
10) Money can’t bring peace.
I omitted reason 7, so actually nine reasons remain. At the end you’ll see why I did. Anyway, on the face of it these reasons seem true, and not only on the face of it, although it can be, for instance, that money is sometimes a precondition for peace or, another example, it can help you get a good psychiatrist when you have mental problems. Then the money itself doesn’t make you happier, but nevertheless because of your money you become happier.
Some years ago the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis may have agreed with these points, but he wanted to sort out how the relationship between money and happiness really was and he begun to study it. Indeed, what he found was that wanting to have more money doesn’t make happy. This is not only so when you are rich but also when you are poor. Are you surprised that bankers belong to the unhappiest people in the world? For they have already much money and still want more. And who are the happiest people in the world when we look at the way they earn their income? Here they are: Florists; then hairdressers and beauticians; and then plumbers. They don’t earn heaps of money, but they help other people and receive a lot of thankyous.
However, you had bought a ticket in the national lottery and you win the jackpot. You feel so happy! But soon your feeling of happiness will be as before. Two years later your washing machine breaks down. Two years ago it would have been a big problem to have it repaired or to buy a new washer. But didn’t you win the jackpot? Now you don’t need to worry about the money and within a few days you have a new one. Even more, studies show that, after a few months, people who have won much money in a lottery are not happier than before but after two years they are. And so it is also with salary increases. Whether you are rich or poor, after you have received it, you are happier, also in the long run, albeit so that in poor people the feeling of happiness grows more than in rich people. Money can make you happy.
So there may be a relationship between your individual income and your feeling of happiness. Even more, studies have shown that on the average people who have more money are happier than those with less money. Note that I say “on the average”, for as we have seen, bankers, who strive to have more money and usually have very much money, are rather unhappy. Now it is so that you find this relationship between money and happiness not only on an individual level but also on an international level. Which are the happiest countries? In order (in 2018) they are Finland, Norway and Denmark. My country, the Netherlands, is sixth. These countries belong to the richest countries in the world. And the unhappiest countries? These are Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, countries with the lowest national incomes. Also on this level it is so that there is a clear positive relationship between the wealth of a country and the general happiness of its population: A high national income makes a happy nation. Nevertheless there are exceptions, like the USA. This country is less happy than you would expect in view of its national income. Why? Well, on the average the Americans are rich, but the income is badly divided: There are a few very, very rich people, and many people are below average: Seeing big differences in welfare around you makes you feel unhappy.
Much more can be said about the relationship between money and happiness, but let me return to point 7) that I left out from the list why money doesn’t make happy. It says that studies show that money doesn’t make happy. Older studies said so, indeed, but more recent research makes clear that these studies are too simple and that the relationship between money and happiness must be differentiated. As we saw above, wanting to have more money doesn’t make happy. But if you have money and if your country has, you can better care for your health (you can pay or get better doctors); you feel less uncertain and safer; it gives you more respect; it gives you more autonomy; etc. All these things make you happier and all these things can be better realized if you have money. So, the upshot is: Trying to get money does not make you happy, but having money does. And the more money you have, the happier you are, even if you are already very rich. Your problem then is getting money without wanting to get it.
To end this blog, I want to make one person happy: Ap Dijksterhuis. Most information and conclusions in this blog are from his book Maakt geld gelukkig? [“Does Money Make Happy?”] (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2018). Buy this book and it will make him happy, for he’ll earn an unexpected extra income.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Selfies in the age of selfies

Montaigne’s Essays were the start of a new age: the Age of Man. We could also call it the Age of the Self. This age appears to continue till today. Look around: Nearly everybody today makes photographic self-portraits or “selfies” as we call them, and many people share them in Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Isn’t this symbolic for the era we live in? One thing that strikes me is that many people do not upload selfies showing themselves in different activities and situations but that their selfies are almost all the same: taken from almost the same position with almost the same facial expression. Why? Do these people love to have themselves seen so much that they don’t have the imagination to show at least different pictures of themselves? A kind of narcissism? The Age of the Self.
One can say – and with right, I think – that it is not Montaigne who is the father of the modern selfie, but that its forerunners are to be found among painters and not among writers. Although making self-portraits may be as old as the art of painting, it’s not before the Early Renaissance that it begins to develop as a special genre. Jan van Eyck’s painting “Portrait of a Man in a Turban” (1433) is perhaps the earliest Renaissance self-portrait. Two centuries later Rembrandt made even more than hundred self-portraits, as a kind of modern selfie taker. However, I am not here to talk about the art of painting, but I want to talk about philosophy.
Montaigne was not the first who wrote about himself. Already thousand years before him Aurelius Augustine (354-430; bishop of Hippo) had written autobiographically. However, there is one important difference: Augustine actually wrote about God while Montaigne wrote really about himself. Therefore we can say that it was Montaigne, and not Augustine, who started a new era. We might also say that the Renaissance self-portraitists – say Jan van Eyck – started the new era, but the difference between what these painters did and what Montaigne did is that the self-portraitists showed the new era while Montaigne put it into words. In the end images need a lot of interpretation: Were these self-portraits really a way of showing oneself or were they something else? The meaning of the Essays is clear: Yes, it is me and only me whom you see here. I have no other intention, so Montaigne. Maybe after having read Montaigne’s “To the reader” you would expect a kind of autobiography or perhaps a systematic treatise of his thoughts, as a modern author would write it. It’s not what Montaigne did. The Essays discuss many different themes and often the coherence seems to be missing, even within the individual essays! Where is the self? Where is the I? One often tends to ask this question. That’s one reason why these essays are often so intriguing and force you to continue reading; not only the clear statements and clearly autobiographic passages do. But Montaigne was a master in connecting personal experiences with lessons of life. Already during his life the essays had become popular and they still are, four centuries later.
Many philosophers after Montaigne have written about themselves. Descartes, Pascal, Weil, Wittgenstein, Nussbaum are cases in point. Nevertheless for most of them writing autobiographically was not a way of writing about themselves but a means to write about something else. Descartes used autobiographic elements for laying the foundation of philosophy. Pascal, who also wrote about himself, even called Montaigne’s Essays foolish! But, like Augustine, Pascal actually wrote about God. Etc.
Till not so long ago only few people had the time and means to make their self-portraits, written or in pictures; to be a “selfist”, so to speak. The arrival of the computer and the Internet changed this. Via the Internet or via the printing-on-demand system everybody can publish about him or herself. By the development of digital cameras everybody can take and publish selfies. Especially the latter has become popular. Just a click and you have a picture of yourself. Just a few clicks more and everybody can see it. Even more, today the slogan seems to be: Be yourself, take a selfie, so be a selfist. And so, in this age of individualism and ego-expressivism, the most of us do. For in an era in which appearance has become so important, you have no choice (or so you think). And isn’t it so that your picture is who you are? So show it! But as said in my last blog, each person – how honest s/he may be – always gives a self-subjective description and leaves things out that s/he considers not really important; that s/he feels ashamed of. And so it is with selfies. Selfies are selected (we upload only those we like); selfies are edited in order to improve our appearance; etc. But when everybody has become a selfist, what do we see then? Can we still see the individual? Can we still see the separate trees or do we see only the wood? Or do we now just belong to a category and is the individual self no longer important, as it was since the Renaissance, since Montaigne? If so, how contradictory it seems, but then the selfie stands for the end of an era.
I should upload a selfie to this blog, but instead I’ll put here a shadow of myself.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Montaigne to the reader

Maybe the most interesting chapter of Montaigne’s Essays is not, for instance his essay on friendship, in which he expresses the essence of friendship in the simple sentence “Because it was him, because it was me” (referring to his late friend Étienne de La Boétie). It is also not the last essay in the book (“Of Experience”), seen as such by many (the essay that ends with the phrase “When seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech.” No, I think that it is the preface of the book, entitled “To the reader”.
When you start to read the preface, you tend to think that it is what it is. Usually a preface explains to the reader what the author’s intention is and what his or her reasons are to write the book that follows. And it is true that you can read the “To the reader” this way. Montaigne tells us here that he has written the essays for his family and friends, as a kind of memory to him after his death. The essays will help them to remember what kind of person he was. Therefore Montaigne wants to give a realistic self-description and he doesn’t want to hide his bad sides. For “Had my intention been to seek the world’s favour, I should surely have adorned myself with borrowed beauties”. So, “it is myself I paint.” Therefore, he’ll be completely honest in the essays that follow. Now it is so that many Montaigne interpreters believe he is and they see the essays as a kind of self-expression by Montaigne; as a true and straightforward reflection of his thoughts and self-image. I, too, think that there are good reasons to believe that Montaigne was a very honest person, certainly considering the age he lived in and the persons in his environment. Nevertheless, I have my doubts whether the essays fully reflect the person he was. Each person, how honest she or he may be, always gives a subjective description of her or himself. Everybody leaves things out that s/he considers not really important; that s/he feels ashamed of; etc. Every self-description – even a honest one – is always a distorted description; consciously or unconsciously. Moreover, when Montaigne wrote only for his family and friends, why then had he published his book by a publisher? Why not simply having printed, say, 20, 30 or 50 copies for himself and give them away? However, he didn’t do so, and the book could be bought by everybody. So, probably Montaigne had a hidden intention with the Essays, anyway with the first editions (that comprised only the Books I and II; Book III has been added much later). I’ll not speculate what this intention was, but one possibility is, as Philippe Desan assumes, that the Essays were a kind of application for an official function, like an ambassadorship in Rome.
Montaigne gives a description of himself in the essays that follow the “To the reader”. The description is often not direct but for a part the kind of person he is must be inferred from and gathered from his discussions of all kinds of themes, varying from military affairs, the education of children, friendship, means of transport, etc., etc. However, already in the preface Montaigne starts with his self-presentation. Here already we see that he is a person who likes to talk about himself, who addresses himself in a familiar way directly to the reader; not with indirect polite language forms. He doesn’t like frills and artificiality. He would rather be seen naked than with clothes, figuratively speaking. Not to be looked upon without awe. Therefore, the preface can also be read in a second way. Then it is not a “To the reader” that invites others to read the book, but then it is actually the first essay of the series of essays that follow. Essay 0, so to speak.
All these aspects and the double status of the “To the reader” make that this preface is a special kind of document, which makes it by far more important than the essays themselves. Till the time of Montaigne people didn’t write about ordinary people, let alone that they wrote about themselves. Stories and writings went about God, the saints, knights and kings and people who had performed extraordinary deeds with a holy meaning. But this changed with the Renaissance and the rise of humanism. The holy and religious remained important, but it was no longer the centre of the mental world. In the new age man, and no longer the spiritual, became the main focus of attention. And that’s what we see also in this “To the reader”. Although Montaigne was religious, he doesn’t talk about God and the holy in this preface, and in the Essays he hardly does, if he does at all. No, in the preface Montaigne talks about himself and about nothing else. And that’s why it is the most important and most interesting text in the Essays. For this “To the reader” opens a new era. It is a declaration that opens the Age of Man. And the essays that follow? They are simply a footnote to it.

You can find the text of Montaigne’s “To the reader” here:
(In the original French text it’s simply called “Au lecteur”, so “To the reader”.)

Monday, February 04, 2019

Good guys and bad guys

When decisions to perform actions appear to be taken after the actions have already started, it’s no longer right to say that we decide to act. This is the conclusion drawn by many philosophers from Libet’s experiment discussed in my blog last week. However, I contended that, although we cannot say that we decided to act at the moment we started to perform the action, it is still possible that the decision to act then and there has been taken some time before the action concerned took place. Nonetheless, Libet’s experiment and other research made Wegner and others conclude that there is no free will. What we call a decision is only a kind of confabulation that fits the action. Actually it is so then that an action determines the decision to act and not the other way round.
But let’s suppose that my view is false and that there is no free will. Indeed, it is so that many of our actions aren’t really free, because they are determined, for instance, by our character or our physical constitution. For example, our character may change after a stroke or a severe damage of the brain caused by an accident. Sometimes it seems then as if the victim has become another person. Maybe it is not so that a stroke or brain injury directly determines our individual actions (which are, for instance, also dependent on the situation we act in and on the options we have), but they determine at least the range of actions we choose from. An illness that affects the brain can change a decent man into a sexual pervert. Considerations like these made Stijn Bruers remark in his book on moral illusions that, if there is no free will, then maybe we are simply destined to follow moral rules or to interfere when we see something bad happening. This raises the question, however, whether there still is room for ethics. For if there is no free will but people simply do, does valuing and judging actions and so punishing crime and other bad actions still has sense? According to Bruers, yes it has. Let’s see why he thinks so. However, before I go on, I must say that many philosophers who think that there is no free will, argue in the same way, and I discuss just Bruers’s view only in order to make my point clear.
In the end, all crime finds its cause in the brain, so Bruers, and one cannot punish a person for that, for it is nobody’s fault that his brain is structured in a certain way. Nevertheless, some kinds of punishing can make sense, if they influence a criminal that way that they discourage criminal behaviour. For often brains are made up thus that they tend to avoid bad behaviour if it is followed by punishment. Therefore it is useful to punish criminals in order to re-educate them, so that they don’t relapse into criminal activity. Likewise rewarding good behaviour makes also sense, albeit just because it stimulates pleasant feelings. So ethics doesn’t need a free will, as long its aim is to stimulate good behaviour, so Bruers. Metaphorically we need to see criminal behaviour like a kind of illness: dangerous behaviour that happens to a person and that needs to be cured, if possible. The administration of justice is then a kind of health care. Of course, in trying to cure a criminal, we have to follow the latest insights of neuroscience and psychology.
So far so good, and if there is no free will, it seems that the best we can do (and also the best we must do) is a kind of criminal justice based on the view just expounded. Nevertheless, to my mind there is a problem with such a reasoning: With the exception of a short remark  – “maybe we are simply destined to follow moral rules or to interfere when we see something bad happening”; see above – the reasoning leaves out the practitioner, i.e. the therapist who treats the criminal. But isn’t this practitioner in the same way the victim of his brains as the criminal is? The only difference is that the practitioner is on the good side, while the criminal is on the bad side. Then, just as a criminal commits a crime, simply because he “has to”, also the therapist treats the criminal just because he has to. In the no-free-will scenario it cannot be that the practitioner chooses a method to treat a criminal: His brain determines him to do so. In other words, who manipulates the manipulator? Brains that are brain mechanisms meet other brain mechanisms. Some tend to be on the good side and others on the bad side. There are good guys and there are bad guys, but it’s all determined and there is no ethics. The view that there is no free will leads to the view that the whole world is a complicated machinery of interacting mechanisms. A subpart of this world is the human world, consisting of interacting human mechanisms called men. In this world there is no sense; there is no meaning; there is no ethics. Maybe this is really the world we live in. I’ll no deny that it’s possible. However, if free will is an illusion, it is also an illusion that we can guide, steer or manipulate the behaviour of others. Everything simply happens.

Stijn Bruers, Morele Illusies. Antwerpen: Houtekiet 2017; pp. 66-71.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Freedom to act

David Papineau’s book Knowing the score shows that sport is a very relevant theme for philosophy. That’s why its subtitle is How Sport teaches us about Philosophy (and Philosophy about Sport). The world of sport is a kind of mini-society where everything happens what happens also “in real”. Therefore sport can be used as a kind of model world for learning about the wide wicked world. It is true both for team sports and for individual sports. This makes it important that everybody should spend some time on practising a sport (or preferably several sports) during a shorter or longer period; especially children should do. It’s a world where you can learn to cope with society at large. However, sport experiences need not only be positive. It’s not only about cooperation, comradeship, learning to set goals and accepting defeats and setbacks. In sport you find also much hate, jealousy and violence. Wasn’t it the outstanding Dutch football coach Rinus Michels who said “Football is war?” But besides that sport can be help to learn the practice of life, it can also be used for substantiating or refuting scientific and philosophical theories.
As for the latter, I think that the practice of training for a sport is a clear refutation of the philosophical view that says that there is no free will. Actually this view says that first you start to act and only after your act has started you confabulate a reason why you act this way. At least, I think that this is the essence of a common interpretation of the famous experiment by Benjamin Libet that showed that an action precedes the conscious decision to perform it with a fraction of a second. Libet discovered that the beginning of an action precedes the awareness of the decision to act with 200 milliseconds (a description of the experiment is easy to find on the Internet). On the basis of this experiment the psychologist Daniel Wegner argued that there is no free will but only an illusion of free will. We have a feeling that we decided to perform the action concerned, but since the decision comes after the start of the action it cannot be true that we took a decision.  It’s simply an illusion. Automatic behaviour controls our conscious decision making and not the other way round. Really?
I don’t want to deny that at the moment we act we mistakenly feel to act according the decision. But let me take an example from tennis. Say Roger Federer is playing against Rafael Nadal. At a certain moment Federer has to return the ball and he decides to hit the ball that way that it passes left of Nadal, which will make it impossible for Nadal to return. And so it happens. What would we see if we could look in Federer’s brain at the moment he hits the ball? Indeed: He first hits and then he decides to hit. However, although Federer may have taken the decision after the hit, nevertheless, he knew what he had to do in order to score and he could act according to this knowledge. How is this possible if Federer hit the ball automatically? Was it merely luck that he hit the ball in the right way and not a free action?
In order to investigate this question, let me assume now that Nadal wasn’t playing tennis against Federer, but against me, the author of this blog. It’s true, for a short period in my life I have been a member of a tennis club, but today I hardly know any longer how to hold a tennis racket in the right manner, let alone that I can return a ball if Nadal is my opponent and that I know more than the basics of the tactics of tennis. I simply don’t have the automatisms to hit and return a ball. However, hadn’t I stopped playing tennis after two years, but had I continued doing so for the rest of my life, and moreover, which is especially important here, had I invested a lot of time in training, then certainly I still wouldn’t have been able to beat Nadal even once in my life, but I surely would have possessed the automatisms I need in order to hit some balls with this top player. But it didn’t happen. I decided to stop playing tennis, and later I choose another sport. And Federer? When he was sixteen years old, he decided to go on with playing tennis and to become the best tennis player in the world (or so I assume for this example). Therefore, he invested very much time in training and in learning the automatisms needed in order to be able to react automatically in the best way when he had to return such difficult balls as in his match with Nadal just described. And that’s what makes that he is free (as a tennis player). Federer’s freedom is not that he returns the ball in the intended way at the moment he is playing, but he is free because he decided to learn to perform the automatic reactions he wishes to do at the moment he needs them to do. Actually the decision to hit the ball is not taken at the moment Federer hits but it has been taken already long before, namely during his training, and just because Federer is able to act automatically now he is free. Generally, it’s the planning, so the long term decisions, that makes us free, not the intentional momentary act itself. Being able to act automatically according our intentions makes us free. So if there is no free will, as many philosophers state, it’s not because we are not free to act but because we are not free to plan.

Monday, January 21, 2019

“There is no such thing as society” (Thatcher): A counter example

The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is known as one of the world leaders of the second half of the twentieth century. But do you know that she has also a reputation in philosophy? She got it by her bold assertion “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and families.” I don’t know what you think of this statement, but I am not only a philosopher but also a sociologist, and certainly – but not only –from a sociological point of view I think that it is quite naive. It leaves much of what we see around us unexplained and difficult to understand. In the end such social (!) phenomena like groups, associations, society, ingroup-outgroup conflicts, but also shared values and norms would be based on nothing than selfishness if they were family-based or based on individuality. But look around and you’ll see that the world is more complicated and that many loyalties and emotional attachments to others and to organisations, let alone to the nation could not be understood, for everything beyond the family would be merely practical and based on the calculated advantages we receive from extra-familial bonds. For example, all excitement about the Brexit would be mere fuss, and an account of the economic profits and losses would give the answer to the question whether or not Britain should leave the European Union. However, a closer look at the discussion shows that the problem is about loyalties and self-determination of the Britishness. But how can there be a loyalty to something that doesn’t exist and the self-determination of an non-existing x-ness?
I would have forgotten Thatcher’s assertion, hadn’t I read it again in the interesting book by David Papineau on sport and philosophy, Knowing the Score. After having quoted Thatcher’s assertion, Papineau continues: “Teams give the lie to this individualistic vision.” (p. 155) I think it is worthwhile to present here his example of cycle racing as an actual case why Thatcher’s view is false.
At first sight cycle racing seems a sport for individuals. Of course, there are teams but at the finishing line it is the winner who gets the flowers; it’s not the team that gets them. Teams seem only practical ways to go to the race and for organising the training. The only actual sign that the team members belong together is that they wear the same shirts. Is it true? No, and then I am not thinking only of the level of professional cyclists and good amateurs where riders may cooperate because they are paid for it or because they want to show that they are good enough to become professionals. No, riders cooperate at all levels in order to make that not just they themselves win but that one of the team wins. The team counts, not because you are paid for it but because you belong to it; certainly at the lowest levels. “Once you are part of a team”, so Papineau, “... you are no longer limited to asking ‘What shall I do?’ Now you can ask ‘What shall we do?’ ” (p. 159)
Let me illustrate what I mean by pasting together some quotes from Papineau’s book. Take teams in a race. “The domestiques, as the French bluntly term the lesser team members, slave away shepherding their team leader around the course. Their aim is to increase their leader’s chance of a medal, but in doing so they sacrifice any hopes of winning prizes themselves.” (p. 148). Papineau quotes from the website “Team riders decide among themselves which has the best chance of winning. The rest of the team will devote itself to promoting the leader’s chances, taking turns into the wind for him or her ... and so on.” (p.149) Papineau comments “[Y]ou won’t understand cycle racing unless you appreciate the complex dance of altruistic, mutualistic and selfish motives that are in play in a road race.” (ibid.; my italics)
So, as Papineau writes a few pages later, “[W]hat then are we to say about the domestiques who devote themselves to a team victory? Their goal is a living testimony to the way teams transcend their members. They want their team to win, not to win the leader to gain the winner’s medal. The leader’s prize just happens to be the symbol that cycling uses the mark which team has won.” (pp. 156-7) And what Papineau doesn’t tell us is that if a team leader doesn’t win because of his own mistakes, he isn’t only disappointed but feels also ashamed towards the team, which helped him so much, and often excuses himself.
This example refutes not only Thatcher’s assertion (for who can seriously maintain that your cycling team is your family?), but it undermines also “the economic theories of decision-making [that leave] no room for agents to care about anything but individual people.”, so Papineau (p. 156) Indeed, there are individuals, families and groups and much more, including society.

Papineau, David, Knowing the score. How Sport teaches us about Philosophy (and Philosophy about Sport). London: Constable, 2017

Monday, January 14, 2019

On customs

The idea that customs determine a big part of our lives runs like a thread through Montaigne’s Essays. Montaigne devotes even explicitly three essays to the theme but also in other essays the subject receives much attention. Searching the word “custom” in the Adelaide translation of the Essays (see Sources below) gives 275 hits. It is not surprising that customs were so important for Montaigne and he wasn’t alone in the 16th century in giving attention to them, for it was a time of change. This made that the world of his days was confronted with new ideas and other ways of life. First there was the rediscovery of classical antiquity and so the rediscovery of the world and works of Rome and Old Greece: the Renaissance. Then there was the discovery of another continent on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, which was called the New World - the world of the Indians with their “exotic” ways of living. And last but not least there was an important change of the world view within the world of the Europeans themselves: the rise of a new religion - Protestantism. Not only the views on the world changed but the discovery of the art of printing made that new ideas could spread rapidly.
Customs can be of three kinds. First they can be ways how things are done in a certain society, like greetings or political institutions. Second, they can be individual habits like making a walk every day after lunch. And thirdly they can be traditions, like midsummer celebrations or eating doughnut balls on New Year’s Eve, as the Dutch do. Montaigne pays attention to all these kinds of customs. Even more, for him customs are essential for understanding man. They are the key to culture. But it is dangerous to see the way man behaves as the way man is. Behaviour that is normal for us can be “not done” for other people; or others behave simply habitually in a different manner. Montaigne devotes pages and pages of his essay “Of custom” (essay 23; in other editions #22) in telling us how things can be done in a different manner than the French of his days did. Here is the beginning of his list of “unusual” habits in order to give an impression: “There are peoples, where, his wife and children excepted, no one speaks to the king but through a tube. In one and the same nation, the virgins discover those parts that modesty should persuade them to hide, and the married women carefully cover and conceal them. To which, this custom, in another place, has some relation, where chastity, but in marriage, is of no esteem, for unmarried women may prostitute themselves to as many as they please, and being got with child, may lawfully take physic, in the sight of every one, to destroy their fruit. And, in another place, if a tradesman marry, all of the same condition, who are invited to the wedding, lie with the bride before him; and the greater number of them there is, the greater is her honour, and the opinion of her ability and strength: if an officer marry, ’tis the same, the same with a labourer, or one of mean condition; but then it belongs to the lord of the place to perform that office; and yet a severe loyalty during marriage is afterward strictly enjoined. ....” Etc.
Being aware that the same things – approaching a king, marriage and so on – can be done in different ways makes that Montaigne gives us the warning not to be prejudiced that only what we do is right simply because everybody around us does it our way and simply because we have done it always that way. That a custom has become “second nature” doesn’t mean that it belongs to the nature of man. In the end, a custom is acquired, not innate. Montaigne gives this warning already in the first paragraph of the essay “Of Custom”, where he warns us also that a custom can be even unnatural: “[I]n truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She, by little and little, slily and unperceived, slips in the foot of her authority, but having by this gentle and humble beginning, with the benefit of time, fixed and established it, she then unmasks a furious and tyrannic countenance, against which we have no more the courage or the power so much as to lift up our eyes. We see her, at every turn, forcing and violating the rules of nature”.
Think of this, Montaigne wants to say, when you meet people from other cultures, those whom we call “barbarians” – a word borrowed from Old Greek that originally meant only “not-Greek”, “those whom we don’t understand”–. “Barbarians are no more a wonder to us, than we are to them” (id.) Or as Montaigne says in “Of Cannibals” (essay 31 resp. 30): “[E]very one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.”
The world of today is even more in flux than the world in Montaigne’s days. Then it was exceptional to meet someone from a culture different from yours. Today it has become normal in a large part of the world even in the sense that an increasingly number of societies has become multicultural. But often we see other cultures with other customs still as “barbarian”. “We” still have “always the perfect religion, ... the perfect government, ... the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.” (ibid.) If this is so, Montaigne still has us a lot to say.

- Guillaume Cazeaux, Montaigne et la coutume. Sesto San Giovanni: Éditions Mimésis, 2015.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Consequentialism and deontologist ethics

In my recent blogs I have talked about moral dilemmas, so about the question how to decide when you have a problem with several solutions with different moral consequences. For example, in the problem discussed last week (the “repugnant conclusion”) again and again we must decide whether we want an acceptable and positive welfare for many people or the highest welfare possible for fewer people (a question that can be relevant when a country must decide whether or not to accept refugees who are fleeing from a cruel dictator or a bloody war; or whether or not to receive foreign labourers in order to increase the total welfare of the country). What I didn’t talk about is which criteria we apply when taking such a decision. Many dilemmas are very complicated, which makes that in the end we must decide from case to case, but we can distinguish two main types of criteria in philosophy. One view says that we must look which consequence of our decision is the best. Not surprisingly this approach is called consequentialism. The problem then is, of course, what is “best”, but this is a derived discussion, which only arises when we have decided already to apply a consequentialist approach. For there is also an opposite approach to tackle a dilemma. It is called deontological ethics. It says that not the consequences of a decision count first but that its morality does, so whether the decision is morally right or wrong. These approaches can – though don’t need to – conflict when we have to choose in a dilemma. Usually it is so that a person is either an adherent of consequentialism or of deontological ethics.
Here are a few examples. In order to make the distinction clear, they have been simplified. I just mentioned the case of refugees fleeing from a cruel dictator or a bloody war. A hard consequentialist might say: Receiving refugees will lower the welfare of my country. They bring nothing and they’ll make my country poorer and as a consequence me finally as well. The dictator and the war are their problems, not mine. Let’s keep them out. A deontologist might say: We must help people in need anyway, even if it makes me poorer, so let them in.
A second example is about a possible situation during the Second World War. Your country has been occupied by the Germans and the persecution of the Jews has started. You have hidden a Jewish child in your house. One day there is a raid in your street: the SS is looking for Jews. An SS-man knocks at your door and he asks you: Is there a Jew in your house? If you are a consequentialist, you’ll certainly say “No”. But what if you are a deontologist who has as a principle “never lie”?
My third case is the “trolley problem”. Maybe you remember it from my older blogs: A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. As a bystander, you could save their lives by turning a switch and redirecting the trolley on to another track. However, there is a man walking on that track that would be killed instead of the five. If you are a consequentialist, you may say: I turn the switch for it may save four lives. However, I shall have killed actively – “intentionally” as some philosophers say – one man, and maybe my conscience will trouble me for the rest of my life because of that. If you are a deontologist, you may have another problem. Say you have the principles “Never kill a man” and “Always save as many people as you can”. What should you do then?
The trolley case becomes even more intricate in this footbridge variant: A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. You are standing on a footbridge above the track. You are slim and short but a large man is just crossing the bridge. If you jump on the track, you will be run over by the trolley, which will kill you and the five people as well. If you push the large man on the track, he will be killed but the trolley will stop and the five will be saved, but you will be prosecuted for killing an innocent person.
These cases are still relatively simple, but the footbridge example raises already the question: Are we allowed to use any means if in the end the result is positive if we subtract the costs of the means (like the number of people killed) from the yield of the consequences (like the number of lives saved)? This is the question whether the means sanctifies the purpose. Terrorists usually say “yes”. For deontologists this questions doesn’t arise, but they have the problem whether some consequences aren’t more important than their principles. Actually it is so then that their principles clash. But which principles are then most important and why and when? All this makes clear that the choice for a consequential or a deontological approach is itself a moral dilemma.

Monday, December 31, 2018

A repugnant conclusion

Dilemmas are not only playthings for philosophers. Many can be found back in real life, like the moral dilemma I presented last week. Actually I wanted to describe here one that looks a bit like the moral dilemma last week and which has been developed by Derek Parfit: The “repugnant conclusion”. It is also known ad the “mere addition paradox”. However, it’s too complicated for a blog of thousand words, but it’s easy to find on the Internet. Therefore, I have developed a simple variant of my own, with the help of Stijn Bruers’s Morele Illusies (pp. 129 ff.; see Sources last week). Its relevance is in the field of population ethics, especially what to do (if anything) if a population grows.
Say a country (or a continent or the earth or what you like) has a population of 100 inhabitants. You can multiply this 100 with thousand, or one hundred thousand or a billion in order to make the example more realistic, but in a blog 100 is easier to handle. A further assumption is that each inhabitant of this country has a welfare level of 100 on a scale from 0-120. So their welfare is very high. As most populations in the world, also the population of this country gradually grows and after an x number of years it has doubled. But, as everybody should know these days, the resources of the earth are not inexhaustible and also the resources of this country aren’t. Despite efforts to keep the welfare in this country stable, the statistics show that the 100 people of the old generation or their oldest heirs succeed to keep their welfare at the level of 100 per person, but the youngsters succeed to get only a level of 80 each, although they work very hard. The government thinks that this is unfair, and decides to redistribute the welfare, so that each inhabitant will have a level of 90. It’s not unlikely that you think that the situation after the redistribution is better than the original situation, for 90 is still very high and moreover the total welfare of the country has increased from 10,000 to 18,000 unities. Anyway, the 200 people of this country are satisfied with the new situation and the population of the country stays growing. And so it happens that after a y number of years the population of this country has doubled again. The “old people” still have a welfare of 90, but for the youngsters it is 70. So the government decides again to redistribute the welfare with the result that then everybody has a welfare of 80. But in the meantime the total welfare of the country has risen to 32,000! And since 80 is still quite high and certainly more than worth to live, it seems that altogether everybody is better off. Or don’t you think so? Anyway, the 400 people of this country are satisfied with the new situation and the population stays growing. And doubling. And growing. And doubling .... If it goes on in the same way as just described, after the seventh doubling the country will have a population of 128,000 with a level of welfare of 30 per person after the welfare redistribution and a total welfare of 384,000.
Of course, at a certain moment the welfare per person will level off and/or maybe the population will stop growing, but then this country will have a very big population and the level of welfare will be as low as about 1. This per capita welfare is still positive, indeed, and the total welfare will be bigger than ever before in the country’s history. If we look back on each step in the population growth and compare this situation with the preceding step, each time we can judge that the country is better off. Anyway, we thought that the second situation was better than the situation we started with (a still very high level of welfare per person and a higher total level). And altogether the third situation was also still very good, if not better, than the second situation. Etc. But if we compare the situation we got at the end with the situation we started with, is this final situation then still good? If not, where should we stop then and why just there? Isn’t it so that the series of apparent improvements in the long run leads to a miserable situation, certainly in view of the situation we started with? A step forward is not always an improvement. It can place you in a moral dilemma, for example when resources are depleting.

P.S. Maybe you might want to reread my blog “Global warming and the Prisoner’s Dilemma” now:

Monday, December 24, 2018

Moral dilemmas in life

There are many moral dilemmas in life. Almost each day we have to resolve some but most of them have become routine, and we don’t see them any longer. Other moral dilemmas give us sleepless nights. Happily they are rare.
Some moral dilemmas ask “only” for the right decisions. I put the word only in quotation marks, for often there is no right solution. The trolley problem, which I have discussed in several blogs, is a philosophical example. Other dilemmas costs us money, when we want to resolve them, and just that may be the problem. Here is such a case. I had to think of it when I read a newspaper article this morning.
First the philosophical description: John is suffering from a serious illness, although he will not die of it. Maybe he can become 100 years old! But since he is 20 now, it can mean yet 80 years of severe pain and awful treatments. Say that his suffering is 100 on a scale from 0-100. Happily there is a medicine that relieves his disease a bit, but there is one problem: It will make that another person – say his brother – will also suffer for the rest of his life, say on level 90. Moreover, John’s suffering will only diminish to this same level 90. Will we do this? Probably not.
Then a clever researcher develops a new medicine. It will cure John, but it is very, very expensive. The insurance doesn’t want to pay it and John cannot pay it. Happily the country is governed by the Radical Leftist Environment Party, which succeeded to make the people of this country the happiest in the world. It wants to keep it so, and since already the whole state budget is spent on happiness and health, it wants to introduce an extra tax. There is one problem: The level of suffering of every inhabitant of the country is 0 on the scale just mentioned (with the exception of John, of course) and it will raise to 1 because of this “John’s Recovery Tax”. But nobody will notice the rise, and the parliament agrees to the new tax. Although the Stand Alone Liberals vote against the bill on principle, in their hearts they think that it was the right decision. And so John gets his medicine and his level of suffering goes down to the general level of 1 (for he had to pay his share in the new tax as well).
That’s what I was thinking about after I had read the newspaper article this morning. It was about a boy who suffers from a metabolic disease that is so rare that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want to invest money in the development of a new medicine. Also his insurance company and the state don’t want to do it. So the boy and his parents stand alone and can only hope that they can gather enough money by crowdfunding for further research that may help the boy. Nevertheless, the problem could easily be solved by the state by spending a little part of the public health budget or of the research stimulation fund on developing a medicine. For it is better that many (the taxpayers) suffer a very little bit (and nobody will notice it) than that one suffers a lot.
But alas, my story doesn’t end here. Soon after the John’s Recovery Tax Bill had passed the parliament, there were general elections. Since many people thought now that they could become even happier yet by standing alone, the Stand Alone Liberals were the big winners and could form the new government. One month later it became known that Ann was ill of a different disease, which also would bring a life-long suffering to her, although she, too, could become 100 years old with her disease. Etc. But who would notice it if the national level of sufferance would raise to 2? Nobody. So the Radical Leftist Environment Party, now in opposition, put forward an “Ann’s Recovery Tax Act”. However, the Stand Alone Liberals rejected the bill, not only with the argument that it is better to stand alone, but also because, as they argued, there are 6,000 rare diseases. Maybe they can all be cured, but if the government would have to pay it, things will go out of hand and in the end everybody will noticeably suffer: Each new case would bring the national level of sufferance one point higher. So the government did nothing and Ann had to stand alone and from then on everybody with a rare illness. Only John was lucky, for the new government respected the decision of the old parliament to support him. The Radical Leftist Environment Party realized that 6,000 rare diseases is quite a lot, indeed, and it proposed to create an aid fund for a minimum support for every patient, on condition that the national level of sufferance would not surpass 5, but the government rejected this proposal, too.
So the problem is this: How much suffering is acceptable for a population that wouldn’t suffer if it would ignore the suffering of the unhappy few? You cannot bear the burden of whole world but this doesn’t imply that you don’t need to do nothing when others suffer, certainly not if you don’t notice that you bear a burden. What someone can bear and wants to bear is his or her responsibility, but this should not mean that everybody must stand alone and care only about the own problems and solutions (as seems to be the policy in some countries). Merry Christmas!

I wrote most of this blog without consulting any literature, but it leans heavily on what I remembered from Derek Parfit’s work (google for him!) and from Stijn Bruers, Morele Illusies. Antwerpen, Houtekiet 2017 (any Dutch reader of this blog should read this book!). See also Larry Temkin.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018

A chip in my brain

Do we need to scan the brain of the other
in order to know his or her thoughts ?

It is possible to play the piano with your thoughts. We have seen it in my blog last week. However, research how your thoughts can steer your body via a brain implant is yet in an experimental stage, and we saw last week, for instance, that the pianist with ALS still had to be connected by a wire with a computer. But sooner or later also this problem will be solved, and then people with ALS will be able to do what every healthy person can do.
Research like this is not exceptional and it is done everywhere in the world. Not so long ago investigators of the Utrecht University in the Netherlands succeeded to let a woman with ALS express her thoughts on a computer screen, about in the same way as the pianist with ALS succeeded to play.
What happens here is that thoughts are downloaded to an implant and then converted that way that an apparatus external to the body proper is brought into operation. We can use this method in order to help disabled people. One step more is helping healthy people to function better. This is what Elon Musk – the founder of SpaceX and Tesla – had in his mind when he founded Neuralink Corp. The brain, so Musk, functions efficiently and fast, but once we want to put our thoughts into text and motion we slow down, and move at a snail’s pace. How much time it takes to write a short app on your smartphone, for instance! That can be done better. Simply download thoughts and transfer them to a machine or appliance. It will work so much faster! And why should we put a chip in the brain in order to read thoughts? A brain scanner will do as well. Okay, the present fMRI scanners that are often used for reading the brain are big and clumsy instruments but in future this problem will certainly be solved. Moreover, there are also other methods to measure brain activity and maybe thoughts. Anyway, Musk thinks that within five years it will be possible to tap thoughts from the brain in an efficient and useful way.
However, if we can download thoughts and use them, why couldn’t it be possible then to upload thoughts as well? This is also an idea Elon Musk is playing with, and not only Musk, for the field of artificial intelligence and its relation to the functioning of the human brain is a rapidly developing field of science. And once we can upload thoughts to the brain, the possibilities are endless. Many psychological illnesses but also physical illnesses that have their origins in the brain – and also ALS is such a disease – can perhaps be cured (or partly). Or we can communicate more efficiently with computers and smartphones. One step further is that we can communicate in a more efficient way with other people, when thoughts can be directly transferred from person to person. But will it all be positive? Esther Keymolen, technology philosopher at Leiden University, says in an interview with the Dutch daily De Volkskrant: “With this kind of technology, in fact you get a business undertaking in your head. Now already it is difficult to find out what technology companies do with your data and how they connect them.” Musk wants to prevent that artificial intelligence will control us instead of the other way round. But this development can also make that the artificial intelligent entity we are connected with sends things into our brains. “If that happens, you can ask: Who are we then?”
Indeed, who are you, if private firms send information into your brain? If a technology firm acts in good faith and sincerely wants to improve your life, you can say, it’s okay. But even then, your personality doesn’t depend any longer on what you make of it, but on what others make of it. If in good faith a company changes your characteristics, your memory, etc., maybe that’s what you want. However, then what makes you the person who you are has become in the hands of others (for can you really know what they upload to your brain, if already now you don’t know what they do with your data?). But what if the technology company that you deal with acts in bad faith? So if it doesn’t want the best for you but only for itself, anyhow? When this happens the company makes you according to its own design; not to yours. Then it is so that what makes you the person who you are has become in the hands of another. Then you are no longer you, but you are the other.
Yet one step further is that it is not a private company that manipulates you out of self-interest, but it is the state that does in order to control you and maybe all citizens by means of the new technology of artificial intelligence. Then it happens that Big Brother is not only watching you but that Big Brother is literally within you.

De Volkskrant, dated 15 Nov. 2016, 22 and 29 March 2017; 22 Nov. 2018.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The extended body thesis (2)

P.S. to my blog last week: An interesting TED talk on the extended mind and on the extended body (thanks to David Chalmers who draw my attention to this TED talk by him).

Monday, December 10, 2018

The extended body thesis

In one of my blogs I sustain the so-called “extended mind thesis”, developed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. It says that the mind is not only in the head, but that a part of the mind is also outside the brain in the agent’s world. For instance, you have stored a mailing list in your computer and you know in which file it is, so you don’t need to keep the addresses in your mind. Or we write memos or tie knots in handkerchiefs in order not to forget things that are important for us. But how about the body? Do we have also body parts outside our body proper in an analogous manner?
I had to think of this, when I read a newspaper article about a woman who couldn’t play the piano any longer, because she suffered from ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a brain disease that leads to progressive muscular atrophy and so to paralysis). She got a kind of implant in the part of her brain that steers the hands. As a result she could play again, for instance, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
It’s a well-known phenomenon that an instrument can feel as if it is a part of the body; or almost. If I want to push a pin in a pin cushion, I just push it with my finger and nothing goes wrong. However, if I want to hammer a nail in a piece of wood, sometimes, or maybe often, I miss the nail and hit my thumb. This will not happen to an experienced carpenter. Each hit is as it should be. It is as if the carpenter’s hammer is an extension of his arm. As if the hammer is a part of his arm. Even more, I think, it was the same so for the woman in my case, before she got ALS, since she was an experienced pianist. In those days, the piano had become an extension of her hands, if not of her body. When she was playing, she and her piano were one. And let us hope that once she has become used to the implant in her head and has learned how to use it, she’ll regain her fluency in playing the piano. Then she and her piano will again be one.
But how about the implant in her brain? In the end it is a piece of hardware, a kind of chip put by a surgeon in her brain. Is it just as if a surgeon has put a metal rod in your arm, when you have broken it and that she will later remove again? No, I think. The metal rod is not more than a temporarily support of your arm. You don’t move your arm with the help of this rod but with the help of your muscles. The only function of this rod to fix the broken bone in your arm, so that it will heal well. The rod has nothing to do with how your body functions. It’s a bit like a chair you sit down on when you are tired. Sitting down on a chair helps your body recover, but the chair as such doesn’t recover your body. It’s simply a support. That’s why the metal rod can be removed, after the broken bone in your arm has healed.
How different it is with the implant in the pianist’s brain. If the implant would be removed or would break down, she can no longer play the piano. Even more, she operates the implant in her brain: When she thinks of moving her hand and fingers in the way she does when playing the piano, the implant stimulates the hand and fingers in the right way, so that she can play the melody she wants to play, like Beethoven’s “Ode of Joy”. Moreover, she doesn’t feel the implant in her brain, just like a healthy pianist doesn’t feel the neurons in his brain firing when she plays the “Ode of Joy”. Of course, at present technically the system is still imperfect: The implant is yet connected with a computer through a wire. But who doubts that also this problem will be solved in future? When playing the piano this pianist is not only one with her piano but also one with the implant in her brain.
The upshot is that an external object – such as an implant in your brain, but as I want to add, also a piano or a hammer –  can become a part of your body. Then your body is not only in your body proper (the “flesh” it is made of). At least also the instruments you know to use can become a part of it. The transition between what still belongs to your body proper and what doesn’t belong to it or what does not yet belong to it can be rather vague, indeed. However, I think that my analysis shows that we don’t have only an extended mind but that we have also an extended body. There is not only an extended mind thesis but also an extended body thesis.