Monday, February 25, 2013

Armchair philosophy (2)

Terlassie passing the finish

Some time ago I criticized in a blog that philosophers using thought experiments often don’t realize that the assumptions of such an experiment can push the answer in a certain direction. In my last blog I criticized that in thought experiments the context often is left out, although it can be highly relevant for what we want to show in the experiment. Maybe there are more mistakes in thought experiments that I failed to notice. Who knows, for I have never made a systematic study of the subject. These were just two flaws that caught my eye.
Even so, I don’t want to say that thought experiments are useless but only that they bear the seed of misrepresentation within them and that they can be misleading. For there are also a lot of interesting and important philosophical thought experiments. And, to be honest, isn’t it just fun to think up a good one and to tease your mind with it? Isn’t just that one reason why we philosophize? One of the most famous thought experiments has laid even the foundation of modern western philosophy: Descartes’ evil demon (Descartes wondered whether his thoughts weren’t misled by a devil; or, in other words, whether his senses did not give him a complete illusion of the external world. He concluded that anyway his thinking activity could not have been misled). Used with insight, thought experiments can bring us a step forward or make us things clear. So, the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe used one for showing that in concrete situations it is not possible to delimit a person’s actions: What an action is is a matter of perspective. When I flip the switch, do I turn on the light in the room or do I warn the thief in my house? (the example is Davidson’s) If the thief left no traces and took nothing with him, I’ll never get the idea to use the latter description but only the former. This thought experiment shows also that actions can have side effects.
I think that in situations where assumptions and context play no fundamental role, thought experiments can be appropriate. That’s also the case when they are used for undermining arguments. This makes Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment so strong and to the point ( In this way, once I have used a thought experiment for refuting the idea that the person only goes where the brain goes and that brain and body can be separated, as is implicit or explicit in many theories on personal identity in the analytical philosophy, the so-called psychological identity theories (like the one defended by Parfit). Here I’ll present it in a new version:
Two marathon runners, Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat, have switched bodies, so that the brain of Gebrselassie and the body of Tergat belong together and the other way round (let we call them Gebregat and Terlassie respectively). They take part in the same race, but Gebregat leaves the race injured while Terlassie wins. Then, since the person goes where the brain goes according to psychological identity theorists, it is Paul Tergat who has won the race, although it was Haile Gebrselassie’s body that passed the finish line first and although Paul Tergat’s body could not withstand the strain of the race and even didn’t finish. So, if we may believe the psychological identity theorists it is not the body that runs but the brain. For how else could it have been that Paul Tergat had won?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Armchair philosophy

Philosophers think out all kinds of theoretical situations in order to discuss and answer their philosophical questions. However, it often happens that such a thought experiment starts from assumptions that push the answer looked for already into a certain direction. Thought experiments in which people switch brains are like that: how can we theoretically discuss brain switches and come to acceptable conclusions if we ignore factors that make such brain swaps impossible in practice? (see my “Can a person break a world record?” on ). An article by Allen Wood (“Humanity as End in Itself” in Derek Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. Two, pp. 58-82) drew my attention to another factor that is often left out, although it is usually relevant for the problem at hand: the context. In what follows I am greatly indebted to this article.
Two much discussed thought experiments in philosophy (also by Wood and Parfit) are “Sidetrack” and “Footbridge”:
Sidetrack: 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.
Footbridge: 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.
Most people will say that it is permissible that you turn the switch in Sidetrack but not that you push the man in Footbridge. One explanation for this difference is that it is impermissible to intentionally cause harm as in Footbridge, but permissible to cause harm as a foreseen but unintended consequence of one’s action as in Sidetrack.
Whatever the explanation is, one can wonder how people would react if
- the five people are walkers who want to take a short cut but are not allowed to walk in the tunnel
- the five people are copper thieves stealing railway copper
- the single person is a railway worker doing his job.
- it’s not you who have to take the decision but a mentally weak person who often takes wrong decisions.
- the large man in Footbridge is an escaped murderer (sentenced to death, if that makes a difference to you).
I can give my thoughts free rein and add more situations or I can combine them. However, I think that one thing is clear: what you’ll do and what you’ll find permissible will depend on the situation. It has no sense to strip off the context and then in the abstract tell what is right, or, in other thought experiments, what we’ll do. It’s the context that makes what is acceptable or right, and this context is often more complicated than we can imagine in our philosophical armchair.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Thinking with your legs

The Greek new it already: “A healthy mind in a healthy body”.
(entrance sign stadium of Sparta, Greece; see text circled in red).

Two years ago I have written a blog titled “Running with my mind”. It was about how we can improve our physical condition by simulating physical exercises in our mind: Simply by thinking that we do exercises our fitness increases. But how about the other way round? Does exercising influence our mental condition? Actually, I knew already that such an inverse relation exists but that was all. The theme sank to the bottom of my mind and I forgot it. But last week, I saw a little article in the science supplement of a newspaper saying that sportsmen have better cognitive functions and thicker cerebral cortices than students. I wanted to know more about it. For if it were true, I should beat them all, for I am a sportsman and a lifelong student, as my regular readers know. So I started to google the theme and what I found was very encouraging and enjoyed my mind and I should have immediately taken my running shoes, if I hadn’t had to write this blog first. It’s too much to summarize here all I found but one thing is clear: The best way to improve and strengthen your brain and your cognitive functions is not thinking, doing mental games or living in a stimulating environment, but it is running, cycling or any other aerobic bodily activity. For instance, in an experiment mice were divided in several groups. Some got special food; another group lived in a stimulating environment; a third group did nothing special; and the fourth group got running wheels (where mice enjoy exercising) and nothing more. Afterward the last group performed best when given cognitive tests. Other experiments showed that mice that were forced to work harder by using a treadmill performed better than mice that got a simple running wheel. And don’t tell me that this concerns only mice. Experiments with human test groups show the same results.
One reason why it works is that aerobic exercise stimulates the blood circulation in the brain. But there is more. Exercise helps also build new brain cells and extend neural networks. But you might reply: mental training will do this as well. That’s true, but there is a difference. Brain cells formed by mental exercise are specialized. They are only good in performing the task they were made for. However, brain cells formed by aerobic exercise are multifunctional. They are not only apt for making you run but are also for other, cognitive tasks.
And all this is not only for young people. The older brain profits also from bodily exercise, and then it doesn’t need to be running, but walking and cycling will do as well. Such aerobic exercises make the older brain younger, and slow or even reverse the decay of the brain and the occurrence of serious mental illnesses like Alzheimer.
I could mention many more experiments, but I would like to finish with this one, which I quote from a blog in the New York Times (see below for the link):
“21 students at the University of Illinois were asked to memorize a string of letters and then pick them out from a list flashed at them. Then they were asked to do one of three things for 30 minutes — sit quietly, run on a treadmill or lift weights — before performing the letter test again. After an additional 30-minute cool down, they were tested once more. On subsequent days, the students returned to try the other two options. The students were noticeably quicker and more accurate on the retest after they ran compared with the other two options, and they continued to perform better when tested after the cool down.”
So, when you want to learn something new, as a student or for another reason, want to do a complicated mental task, or are afraid to forget something, and the like, just take your running shoes or your bike, and you’ll become smarter.
There are many websites that describe the results that I mentioned here, but this one gives a good overview:
For the quotation: Look there also for the original source.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The steam of the whistle

Recently I argued that the idea that our meta-thoughts can influence the way we think and by means of that our behaviour can be undermined by the “third factor counterargument”: a piece of behaviour and a conscious thought that seems to trigger it can both be caused by a third factor that makes both the behaviour and the thought happen (see my blog dated Jan. 14). So my thought to go to a bookshop in Utrecht tomorrow and my actually taking the train then in order to go there may both be caused by me watching a book program on TV now. It’s not unlikely that in this instance it’s true, although I think it’s not as simple as that. Anyway, whatever may be the case, it is a practical problem that against any sound scientific argument or theory always another equally sound argument can be brought forward that seems to refute it. Actually it’s the base for scientific progress, but on the other hand how far do we go? If we can fundamentally refute everything, only cynicism remains. So I think that now and then we must show determination and say: This is what I think that is true and this is what I want to defend. Even though we know and accept in our heart that everything can be falsified.
This is what I thought of when I put forward somewhat reluctantly the argument that a piece of behaviour and a related thought can be caused by a third factor. For actually I think that in some way our conscious thoughts do cause – or influence at least – our behaviour. Especially Baumeister and his colleagues have analyzed many studies in this field and defended the view that it is quite likely that such a causal relation exists. I think that their arguments are convincing, keeping in mind, of course, what I just said about possible falsification. Here I don’t want to summarize their analysis or repeat their arguments (see the reference below for that). However, I think that it is interesting to list their “four broad conclusions”, as they call them, about how consciousness influences behaviour. Here they are:
1) Conscious thought integrates behaviour across time. It “is helpful for enabling present or imminent behavior to benefit from past and future events, and for present and recent events to influence future behavior”, as Baumeister et al. put it. Planning is an example of this.
2) Conscious thought relates social and cultural factors and the individual’s behaviour. It mediates sharing information with and understanding other people and dealing with the human world we belong to. Negotiating is a case in point.
3) Conscious thought helps to choose in situations of several alternative possible forms of behaviour. It helps to deviate from the road we would take if we would follow the automatic pilot within us. Again I could mention here negotiations or also when we want to buy something as simple examples.
4) In fact, everything we do is a mixture of conscious and unconscious processes. Therefore, many apparently exclusively unconscious pieces of behaviour have a conscious component. Baumeister et al. mention here giving instructions and focusing attention as instances where the conscious part is overstressed but certainly there are cases where it is the other way round. A division into conscious and unconscious behavior seems to be a false dichotomy.
In view of these four points, the idea that conscious thinking is a mere epiphenomenon is quite unlikely, even though it still remains possible that somebody will come out with factors that might explain both our behaviour and our thinking about it as processes that are not immediately related. Or they argue that our thinking is simply the steam of the whistle of the machine within us (see Thomas Huxley, for instance): It shows that there is activity in our body but it doesn’t causally make it move, anyhow.
Source: Roy F. Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Do Conscious Thoughts
Cause Behavior?”,