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/