On Philosophy

June 30, 2006

More On The Transmission of Information

Filed under: Epistemology,Information — Peter @ 2:53 am

Earlier I argued that for us to have information about an event that event must lie in our casual past, such that the event in question can be said to be the cause of at least some of our mental states. (see here for a longer explanation)

Consider then the following objection: Say a certain type of particle, P, has a chance to decay into particles Q and R, which are found in nature only when a particle of type P decays. Now let us assume that we find a Q particle. We know then that an R particle must also exist. However the R particle doesn’t lie in our casual past. Is this a counterexample to the theory I earlier proposed?

No (if it was the word “retraction” would be in the title). We have information concerning the decay of P particles into Q and R because such events do lie in our casual past (i.e. P, Q, and R are in many cases all in our casual past). From this we have generalized, and assume that every P decay results in Q and R. Thus we might say that we have information concerning the class of P decay events since we have observed some instances of P decay. What makes the counterexample invalid is the assumption that information about a class of events yields information about specific instances. I would argue that in the “counterexample” we only really have information about P and Q. The reason can be seen simply as follows: it is possible that our generalization was wrong, and that sometimes P decays into Q and S. In the case we observed it is possible this did indeed happen, thus there was no R particle only and S particle. Since this is possible clearly we don’t have information about R, because to have information about R would be to know for sure, or at least have good reason to believe, that R exists. Thus the theory stands, for the moment.

June 29, 2006

The Ontological Argument Examined

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 2:38 pm

Many arguments have been put forth for the existence of god. Among them is the ontological argument, which was first proposed by St Anselm, and was later used by Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy. The ontological argument is notable for three reasons. First is that it is one of the few arguments for god’s existence that attempts to prove its conclusions without relying on evidence from experience. Secondly, many other arguments for god’s existence “lean on” the ontological argument; to show that the ontological argument is invalid would force these other proofs of god’s existence to be discarded (the reliance of other arguments on the ontological argument was shown by Kant). Finally, reasoning about the ontological argument reveals other interesting problems about the logic of existence, which are at least as interesting as the question of god’s existence.

The ontological argument comes in two basic forms, a weak form and a strong form. The weak form of the argument (also the original form of the argument) runs as follows: god is a being with all possible perfections. Existence is a perfection. Therefore god exists. Kant argued that this form of the ontological proof of god’s existence was invalid because existence was not properly speaking a predicate that could be applied to anything. In Kant’s view to state anything is to state that it exists. However we might think that a predicate of “existence” might be reasonable if we define existence more narrowly, say something that has a casual effect on the world (or something else that makes existence more concrete). In this case there might be possible entities that don’t “exist” in this sense (say a particle that never interacts with anything), thus showing that it is reasonable to say that “existence” is a property that can apply to some things and not others. Even if we allow existence as a predicate the argument is still invalid. The problem we now run up against is that to conceive of something as having a property does not guarantee that it actually has that property, unless the object in question is purely mental. For example I might assert: “this table is red”, but that in no way makes the table actually red. Likewise the assertion “god ‘exists’” in no way guarantees that god actually exists. Of course we could use the ontological argument to show that the idea of god exists, but since this is trivially obvious, and in no way guarantees that a god with real power exists, the weak ontological argument seems to be a failure.

Let us then turn to the strong form of the ontological argument. In the strong version the goal is not to show that god simply exists but to show that he/she/it necessarily exists (or has “maximal existence”). If something necessarily exists then it exists in every logically possible world (and thus in our real world as well). The argument runs as follows: Consider a being (god) who necessarily exists. Clearly is possible that such a being exists, which means that this being exists in some possible world. However, due to the meaning of necessary existence, if this being exists in one possible world it exists in all of them. Thus god exists. There are two flaws with the strong version as presented here. One is that to be necessary is an attribute of statements, not of things. It is meaningless to say that something is necessary; what the argument meant to say was that god’s existence was necessary, meaning that the statement E(g) is necessary. The real flaw in the argument however is a confusion concerning the role of necessity and the structure of possible worlds. There are three classifications of sentences that define the structures of possible worlds, necessary, possible, and contradictions. Necessary sentences are true in all possible worlds, possible sentences are true in some and false in others, and contradictions are true in no possible world. These classifications are exclusive, a sentence can only belong to one of them, and it belongs to the same classification no matter what possible world we are considering. The flaw in the argument then is to assume that E(g) is necessary and possible, when it can only be one of the two. If we assume that E(g) is possible, as the argument states, then clearly it is not necessary. One (valid) way to determine when a sentence is necessary is if its negation is false in all possible worlds (its negation is a contraction). However it is extremely easy to imagine very simple worlds (for example those without time, containing only a single particle) where not-E(g) is true, showing that E(g) is not necessary after all. Finally let us consider momentarily the possibility that the argument is correct, and my objections wrong. If this is true we could form an equally valid argument as follows: it is possible that “my desk is red” is necessary. Since it is necessary in some possible world then it must be necessary in all of them. Therefore my desk is red. Since my desk clearly isn’t red this is absurd.

Have I demonstrated the non-existence of god by refuting the ontological argument? No. In fact it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything unless it is a contradiction. However E(g), while not necessary, isn’t a contradiction either. It is possible to conceive of a world where E(g) is true as well as worlds where E(g) is false. I personally think that E(g) is false based on the available evidence and epistemological grounds, but that doesn’t prove I am correct.

June 28, 2006

The Origin of Ethical Behavior

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 2:57 am

Philosophers often wonder why people act ethically. Because ethical behavior seems to be the norm we speculate that there must be some reason for it. Thus, partly motivated by a desire to explain the phenomenon, we form theories that demonstrate that ethical behavior is rational, or motivated by self-interest, or some intuitive grasp of universal goodness. Although many of these theories may agree with our intuitive sense of right and wrong, and may even make a reasonable code to live by, they fail to explain why we should be ethical, leaving us to wonder at the actual reasons that people are good more often than they are bad.

If we aren’t motivated by ethics itself we might suppose that we are motivated by the consequences of not being ethical instead, leading to a negative theory of ethical behavior, namely that people behave ethically because they are afraid of punishment, and that if there were no penalties people would simply do whatever they desired (see the ring of Gyges). However such theories don’t quite match up with our experience. It seems plausible that if someone were to grow up without some kind of reinforcement they might become immoral, but most adults seem to have a natural aversion to doing wrong. There are many times when it might be easy to steal or take advantage of others, but for the most part we restrain ourselves, even though the possibility of being punished is extremely remote.

Since we can’t understand why people are ethical by examining ethics and its associated rewards and punishments it is time to look for other kinds of explanations. One way to understand the origin of ethical behavior that doesn’t depend directly on ethics itself might be to take a page out of Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell, and argue that ethical behavior has come about as the result of societal evolution. Of course societies don’t have children or DNA, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change over time in an evolutionary manner. Societies with beneficial customs and practices survive and flourish, and if their neighbors are weaker their influence extends until those other cultures have been subsumed into them, a process analogous to competition between animals. There is also natural variation within a culture in the practices and beliefs among people of different regions and different times. Together these two factors of variation and competition almost ensure that the development of cultures is a process that corresponds in many ways to the evolution of a species.

Our hypothesis then is that the behavior we now consider ethical has been selected by the evolutionary process to be beneficial to society as a whole. It is a corollary to this that societies whose population acts unethically will either collapse, or at least be noticeably weaker than their neighbors. If we examine what behaviors are considered ethical in our own society it certainly seems to support this theory. For example behavior that tends along utilitarian lines (behavior that is for the good of everyone) is more generally accepted as ethical than behavior motivated by rational self-interest (what is best for the individual). Societies whose members act only in only their own best interests will be less productive and weaker than those whose members act with the interests of others in minds as well (see the tragedy of the commons), and thus the societies with more utilitarian ethics survive to perpetuate these customs while their neighbors do not, resulting in our modern moral sensibilities.

Of course we must also explain ethical variation in different societies. We know from history that societies with different ethical standards can be competitive with each other even over long periods of time. Since we assume that the ethics of a society contributes to its success we must conclude then that a balance between societies with different ethical standards (assuming other factors such as natural resources are held constant) means that there is more than one set of maximally beneficial ethical principles. For example I earlier presented the idea that justice and ethics were separate concepts (see here). Since some societies seem more focused on what I called “ethical” principles and some seem more focused on principle of justice, and since they seem to be equally successful, we might conclude that these principles are equally beneficial to a society (which would explain why our moral intuitions have a hard time choosing between them).

However if the benefit of ethical behavior is really to society and not to the individual why do people act ethically? Clearly we have some immediate motivations to be ethical (from punishment, ect), but I suspect that none of these reasons are objective, in the sense that if we were to encounter someone without any ethical sensibilities there would be no way to convince them to act ethically, even if they were perfectly rational. It seems that the best explanation for our observed ethical behavior is a kind of gentle indoctrination. We are surrounded by pressures to act ethically from birth, and by examples of other ethical people, and so we end up acting ethically ourselves. Not surprisingly there is a biological component as well, our natural feelings of sympathy towards other people, which reinforces the ethical principles we are raised with. Is this really all there is to why people act ethically? Of course we try to justify our actions to each other, by appealing to one ethical theory or another, but I think the existence of sociopaths proves the non-existence of objective reasons to be ethical. Here I am referring to the clinical sociopath, who feels no sympathy towards other people and no remorse (they are lacking the biological reinforcement for ethical standards). Such people can be extremely rational, and may even refrain from acting immorally most of the time because they fear punishment. Their mere existence however demonstrates that there is nothing intrinsically motivating about ethics; there are no reasons that we can give to convince the sociopath to do the right thing for its own sake.

Should we abandon our ethics then? No, because there are practical reasons for us to be ethical. Perhaps we simply wish to get along with other people, or to satisfy our natural feelings of sympathy, or perhaps we want society to continue to prosper so that our children can enjoy it as well. What we should give up however is a search for objective principles that we cannot possibly find.

June 26, 2006

Objects as Abstraction

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 2:30 pm

Usually if we want to formalize a statement such as “the king is bald” we might be tempted to put it in the form B(k), k = the king. Here we have used the predicate B to designate the property of being bald, and k as the object that is the king. Russell however would argue that we should instead have formed the sentence as follows: There exists some x such that K(x) & B(x). Now instead of identifying some object as the king we have formulated the properties that make the king the king (and not someone else) as K. In this formulation the object or substance has become simply a placeholder, and it is the predicates (that represent properties) that give the statement its meaning. This development also fits nicely with Leibniz’s law (if two objects have all the same properties they are the same object). We let the predicate A pick out all the properties of the object in question. If we allow this then we can do away with equality, instead of stating that b = c now we can simply say that A(b) & A(c), which by Leibniz’s law ensures that they are the same object.

What does this way of formalizing sentences tell us? To me it seems to imply that it is only the properties of an object that are important. All of an object’s casual interaction with the world, including our perception of it, is dictated by its properties, which as I have argued before implies that objects are not part of the “real” world. At this point some will protest, and argue that the object or substance somehow binds the properties together. They might say that even though color and shape are different properties you can’t see the color of an object without perceiving a shape, and this connection comes about because of the underlying object or substance, and thus showing that objects or substances really do have a role to play. This statement however is itself questionable. Studies of the biology of vision have revealed that there are neurons that are specifically sensitive to the shape of objects. If these neurons were damaged it seems reasonable to assume that we would no longer perceive shapes. Since our sensitivity to color has not been damaged we would still perceive it, and thus we are in a situation where color has been separated from shape. From this I would argue that there is really no necessary connection between the properties we perceive that requires some extra object or substance to tie them together, and thus no reason to believe that a substance or object exists at all.

So then what are these objects that we think we know so much about? Well, like causation. or the identity of objects over time, I would say that they are a convenient abstraction that arises naturally from dealing with the world. It is an empirical fact that certain properties seem to be found together under most circumstances (for example shape and color). Thus without the abstraction of objects we would have to deal with collections of many properties instead of a single thing. Instead of typing this text on a computer I would be typing this text on a rectangular, somewhat heavy, gray object, which responds to my touch by displaying different images on its upper half. Clearly to think in such a way would be extremely cumbersome, and thus to simplify matters we naturally abstract the constant conjunction of certain properties as a single object. Normally this abstraction is a useful tool of thought, but there are times when it can mislead us, especially in philosophy (for example into believing a theory of metaphysical forms).

June 25, 2006

If Not Causation Then What?

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:08 am

I have earlier presented the idea that causation is not a part of the structure of the world, but simply a convenient abstraction that we create. (see here) However if causation isn’t real what is? How do we explain the regularities we observe in nature without it?

To begin we must give up our now-centric view of the universe. By that I mean that we must consider the universe as a whole, and not simply the slice of time we are currently experiencing. At the moment physical laws support the view that time is simply another dimension, much like that of space. Moreover the future and the past seem to equally exist (although the progression of events doesn’t seem to rely on future states in any way). If you don’t believe that the future already exists then one must explain how the simultaneity plane of a moving observer can include events that only exist in a future simultaneity plane of a stationary observer. Of course this information can never reach the stationary observer before the future actually happens. However this still leads to the conclusion that future events must already exist, unless one wants to hold a view that somehow future events are created whenever an observer changes speed. (For a better explanation of this effect see The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.)

With this in mind let us consider a much simpler universe such that we can think about what it would be like to observe it from a perspective not embedded in a particular instant. I have drawn a picture of such a simple universe, in which each gray line represents one instant of time.

As you can see the matter in this universe obeys a very predictable pattern; in any given instant there will be a dot if in the previous instant exactly one of its neighboring spaces contained a dot. Someone living in this universe however would not see the pattern this way. Instead they would formulate laws about the placement of dots, and such laws would describe the dots as coming into existence and moving about over time. We can even see how dots in various instants can be described as the “cause” of later dots (if previous lines in the pattern hadn’t contained a certain configuration the pattern wouldn’t be extended in the same fashion).

However from our position outside time with respect to this universe we can see that there is no cause and effect, and no change, only the pattern. Of course we can ask a different set of questions about why one pattern exists versus some other, and we should expect an answer containing some reference to the shape of spacetime/cosmological constants/ect, but at this point we have left causation long behind.

This also shows why asking about the cause of the beginning of the universe is meaningless. Anyone living in the dot-world that I have presented earlier may make the observation that a dot is always “caused” by some other dot (they do not come from nowhere). Since they also can infer that at some point there must be a first dot they may feel justified in asking “what is the cause of the first dot?” This line of questioning merely shows that the abstraction of causation isn’t suitable for all circumstances. The pattern exists, and the first dot is simply a special point in the pattern with no preceding points. Although it is true that an edge may be considered usual it is certainly not impossible. For example if the length of a piece of paper was time, and the width space we wouldn’t wonder why there was a top or bottom edge, it is simply the way the paper is structured. We only think time is more mysterious because we experience it differently than we experience space; this difference doesn’t reveal a fundamental difference between time or space, or some special property of time, simply a special property of our perception.

Obviously our universe considered as a whole contains a much more complicated pattern than the simple universe that I have used here as an example. It is even possible that our “pattern” is laid out in such a way that each instant “agrees” with future events as well as past ones (if time travel is possible). Of course my description of the universe as a whole existing “all at once” may leave you wondering why we experience time as a succession of moments. Why do we only experience one instant and not the future and the past as well? In order to keep this post within a reasonable length I won’t provide you with the answer now (wait a few days), but I will mention that it has to do with the physical nature of our minds and how events are structured.

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