On Philosophy

February 23, 2007

The Cogito And Consciousness

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:02 am

The cogito is Descartes’ famous I think, therefore I am, which he thought proved that we existed, indubitably. Previously I have discussed how his cogito holds up in terms of modern philosophical thought, and, in brief, it does quite well, although a modern philosopher would have probably made it more formal and given it more detail than Descartes did, something I have tried to rectify, at least to some small extent. Of course, unlike Descartes, we wouldn’t think that this knowledge was completely apriori, since it rests on certain principles about how truth works, specifically how true conclusions can be deduced from true premises. And the nature of truth is something that, although we may have strong intuitions about it, can only be known for certain by making observations about how it works in the external world. In any case, instead of scrutinizing the cogito here I will instead take it for granted, and investigate the connections between it and consciousness.

Obviously the cogito cannot be deduced by every conscious system. The fact that we can deduce the cogito is dependant on our ability to think formally (at least in some language) and to be able to make deductions. But there is no reason to think that every conscious system must have these abilities, and thus not every conscious system can deduce the cogito. However, it does seem that there is an important connection between the cogito and consciousness in the other direction; that if something can deduce the cogito it must be conscious.

But, although it may seem reasonable to claim this, it remains to be shown that a system that can deduce the cogito must be conscious. To do that I must first clarify what I mean by deduce in this context, in order to rule out some obvious counter examples, for instance a printer that is programmed to print out “I think, I am” over and over, or a system that works with statement on a completely formal level being given the statement “I think” and arriving at the conclusion “I exist”. Obviously the second is closer to deducing the cogito than the first, but it is only doing part of the deduction, the part that requires reasoning ability. The complete deduction of the cogito requires the ability to come up with the statement “I think” without any outside prompting (or at least to be able to affirm the truth of the statement based on the evidence available). And this is something that neither the printer nor the deduction system can do. But we can, and certainly any conscious being that is sufficiently intelligent can as well.

So why must the ability to deduce the cogito in this way imply that the system that can deduce it is conscious? Well, there are two ways to argue for this. One is by appeal to our own situation with regards to consciousness. The cogito is one of the most foundational truths that we have available to us. Although there is not much else that can be built off of it, it itself is immune to doubt, because the very act of being able to doubt affirms its conclusion, because in order to doubt we must exist. Everything else about ourselves is more open to doubt than it. For example, I can more readily doubt that I am who I think I am, that I have some ability that I think I have, than I can doubt that I exist. But being conscious is not something that we are supposed to be able to doubt, it is supposed to be evident, indubitably, to us. Thus there are two possibilities. The existence of the cogito can logically imply that we are conscious, consciousness can be equally indubitable for some other reason, or consciousness may not be as certain as existence. If you make consciousness less certain than existence then consciousness essentially evaporates. This is because it would become rational to doubt that we ourselves were conscious, because we have problems identifying what consciousness is in objective terms. And if we can’t find it, and it is rational to doubt its existence, then it would seem natural to then conclude that we weren’t, in fact, conscious, but that we only thought that we were. Hopefully this seems as absurd to you as it does to me. The second possibility, that it has an independent reason for being indubitable, which seems unlikely to me as well, simply because I can’t see how to construct such an indubitable basis for it. One possible way to attempt to establish that it is indubitable is to simply say that it is self evident that we are conscious, that we simply know it. But that is not a valid argument, because by the same logic you could conclude that anything you want existed (god, unicorns, ect) as long as their existence felt indubitable to you, which is silly. A second possibility is to construct a cogito-like proof, reasoning that if you think you must be conscious, since thinking is conscious, but this just begs the question, since to prove that you are conscious you are assuming that you have conscious acts. (And can’t even a mindless computer “think” in some sense when it churns through sentences in a deduction program, even though it isn’t conscious?) And thus it seems that the ability to deduce the cogito must imply consciousness, since we have shown that the other two possibilities are unacceptable.

Of course, as I mentioned above, there is another, more direct, way to argue that the ability to deduce the cogito implies consciousness, which is good, since the method presented above might seem rather roundabout, and thus suspicious. To do that we must pull apart the initial premise of the cogito, that “I think”. This means that the system that deduces the cogito is in some sense a subject, because it conceives of itself as a unitary entity extended through time. And secondly the fact that it thinks that it thinks (heh), means that it has experiences, or at least thinks that it has experiences. Which means that it naturally would conceive of itself as conscious. If you described your experience of being conscious (that you have a stream of experiences, and so on) the system would conclude that it too was conscious (if it previously had no opinion on the matter), since it too has a stream of experiences, just like you, although the nature of its experiences may differ from you. Again, I appeal to the basic indubitably of consciousness, that if a system honestly thinks of itself as conscious when you explain what consciousness is to it, then it is conscious. I should hope this principle is self-evident, because it is why we think that we are conscious, someone explained what consciousness was, and then we realized that we too were conscious. So to doubt that such a system is conscious would be to doubt that you (or at least everyone else) was conscious. Since that is unacceptable we must thus conclude that the system that deduces the cogito is conscious.

February 22, 2007

Action And Inaction

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Ethically there seems to be a difference between action and inaction. If I steal something then I am to blame, ethically, because of my action. But if someone else steals something I am not to blame, because I am not the one who acted (more specifically, my actions did not cause the theft to be committed). And thus it seems like only a person’s actions should matter for ethical considerations, not the things that they didn’t do. However, there are cases that invalidate this principle, or at least seem to, for example if someone is about to fall into a well, and I can catch them without risking myself, then if I fail to act, and allow them to fall into the well, it would appear that I am ethically to blame, even though my actions in no way caused their fall into the well, at least in most peoples’ opinion.

Thus we are motivated to improve our principle, perhaps this time to hold that a person is ethically responsible for both the results of their actions and the things they could have prevented but didn’t. But now consider the same situation, with a person falling into the well, except that this time I have my back turned, and don’t see them fall. Even in this situation I could have saved them, if I hadn’t been looking the other way, but I think that few would consider me ethically at fault.

And so we might try to improve things by modifying our principle, yet again, to hold that we are responsible for all the bad events that we knew would occur but did nothing to prevent (this covers both our actions and the situations in which we fail to act). But this version has two problems. One is that it doesn’t allow for situations in which we can’t prevent the bad event from happening, for example I may want to prevent the person from falling into the well, but perhaps I am too far away. But this is easily rectified by limiting our principle to consider only events that we are able to prevent. A more serious problem is that it doesn’t hold someone who is willfully ignorant responsible. For example, if you are making a product and that product is harmful to people (unbeknownst to you) it seems that you are still ethically responsible for that harm if you had the opportunity to determine if your product was safe or harmful for sure, but chose to pass up that opportunity up because you didn’t want to know (perhaps because you feared that it might be harmful). And cases of negligence probably serve equally well as counterexamples, although it is a bit harder to phrase them in terms of knowledge.

And this time the principle isn’t so easy to improve because you can’t insist that everyone know everything that will happen, or take every opportunity to improve their knowledge, because then nothing would get done. We would have to devote all our resources to knowing more, and none to acting, for fear that our actions might cause some ill effect that we could have known about, but didn’t.

Let me refer back to the ethical spectrum. So far we have been drawing upon both the right side and the left side of the spectrum. When we were concerned initially with only our actions and their effects then we were on the right side. And when we started to consider knowledge as determining what was right and what was wrong we were on the left side. But we ignored the exact center, choices, and I think that this is where the solution to our problem lies.

Instead of trying to judge only the results of our actions, which ignored inaction, or what we know, which leads to impossible ethical demands, we can simply judge people based on the choices made, which avoids all of the problems mentioned so far. It avoids the problem of ignoring inaction because when you see something happening doing nothing is a choice. If someone starts to fall towards a well you have the option to try and catch them and the option to do nothing, and you pick one of them. But it avoids the problem of ignorance (being responsible for something you could have prevented but knew nothing about) because in such a situation you aren’t presented with a choice between catching them and doing nothing, since you aren’t aware of what is happening there is no choice for you to make. And it does not blame people for things that they are unable to prevent because they can choose to try and save them (if they think there is the possibility of success) and still fail, and be blameless because they made the right choice, or they may realize that it is impossible to save them, in which case they won’t be making a choice between saving them or not (since we only choose between alternative we think are possible, only someone who is mentally ill chooses to jump to the moon). And finally it can handle the problem of willful ignorance, because they made a choice not to have certain knowledge, and if that choice leads to something bad happening (because you could have known about what was happening and prevented it, but didn’t) then you are responsible*.

The elegance of this solution (and the fact that it works while attempting to improve the version of the principle that made its judgments based on what people know is hard if not impossible) is one more reason, in my opinion, to prefer ethical theories that sit at the exact middle of the spectrum.

* Actually the handling of cases of willful ignorance requires a little more detail than this. Whether someone is ethically to blame in this case depends specifically on the nature of the choice they made when they chose to remain ignorant. If they thought that their product was safe, and had no reason to suspect that it was harmful (building on the example previously given) then they are not to blame ethically, since neither option they were presented with seemed to them that it could have any ethical implications, specifically they didn’t think that learning might reveal information that would give them an ethical reason to change their behavior. In such a situation the fact that the product was harmful was a sad accident, but not that person’s fault. But, if someone suspects that their product may be harmful, even if that suspicion is small, then they are ethically to blame for not choosing to learn more, because the choice they made was between ignorance and possibly preventing some harm.

February 21, 2007

Phenomenology’s Bad Assumption

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:05 am

There are some, phenomenologists, who attempt to study experience from the first person perspective. After all, they reason, since we are the ones who live through experience who could be in a better position to report on and study it? I do agree that experience is lived through by the subject, meaning that they are the closest person to it, but this doesn’t necessarily give the subject a good position to study that experience. It may very well be that an external observer really can know more about the structure of an experience than the subject of that very same experience.

This may seem contradictory, but it arises from the simple reason that experience is had pre-reflectively, which is to say that we simply have experiences, they aren’t presented to us in a formal or structured manner as an object of study. And this means that reflecting on our experiences in order to study them is not something that we can do while we have them, rather it is something we must do from a bit of a distance, through a second act that has our previous experience as its object. How do I know that we can’t reflect on our experiences as we have them? Well, if we could we would be able to have the experience of reflecting upon the experience of reflecting upon the experience of … ad infinitum. But we never have experiences with this infinite depth. Even when I contemplate reflection itself it is always through a third act about that previous reflection, and to think about that reflection requires a fourth act, and so on.

Of course just because there is some distance between our thoughts about the experience and the experience itself doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in error. There is some distance, in this sense, between my perception of a cup and the cup itself, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that my perception of the cup is in error. But it does allow for the possibility of error, which the phenomenologist might otherwise be tempted to deny (because the subject is supposed to be in a privileged position).

Consider then this picture:

What is it about, what is its structure? If I asked different people I would probably get different answers, some would see one kind of structure, some would see another. I maintain that experience, when reflected upon is in some ways like this picture, it doesn’t really have a fixed structure. However, when we reflect upon it we impose a structure on it, a structure that is partly determined by what we expect to find there. Now I am not saying that the original experience, as we have it, is vague or unstructured in this way, I suspect that it is anything but. But my conclusion that experience has structure is not based on my experience of reflecting upon my experience alone, I assume that it is structured because I am able to formulate distinct thoughts about the content of experience (which can be expressed in words), which implies that experience isn’t vague, otherwise the thoughts that were motivated by that experience would probably be vague as well.

And the reason that I think that the content of reflection upon our own experiences doesn’t have a definite structure is that if it did there would be no disagreement in phenomenology. It would be like describing the shape of an object we can see visually; if everyone’s eyes are working there is rarely any disagreement, and if there is it is easily cleared up. But there is plenty of disagreement in phenomenology, some give experience one structure, some another, and they cannot be brought into agreement with each other. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that everyone’s experience has a unique structure, a structure that can differ greatly from the structure of the experience of others. But I find this explanation unlikely because in most other ways the minds of different people have many similarities. They process information in similar ways, they react in similar ways; they even develop the same kind of mental problems when exposed to certain stresses. Although everyone’s mind is unique it is not completely unique, and so it seems reasonable to expect that the structure of experience would have some similarities, but, as a survey of phenomenology will reveal, the similarities are far outweighed by the differences. The other explanation, of course, is the one I put forward earlier, that the remembered experience that is available to our reflective act is vague, and that by reflecting on it we impose structure, unconsciously, on it. And this is phenomenology’s mistake, it assumes that the reflective acts through which phenomenology is conducted capture the real structure of experience, when there is the real possibility that they don’t

Naturally this raises two question: why don’t our reflective acts capture the structure of experience, and how could be get at the real structure of experience? In response to the first I would hypothesize that there was simply no evolutionary advantage to being able to reflect upon experience as experienced, unlike, for example, the advantage in remembering things as we saw them, and thus we didn’t develop it. As for the real structure of experience, well I suspect that cognitive science is on the right track; you design experiments to test what information is available to people from moment to moment, and how that information is connected. And this reveals at least some of the content and structure of experience. But phenomenology is not the solution, at best it will only reveal facts about how we reflect on our experience, and it seems that those facts are very idiosyncratic, and thus don’t reveal many universal truths to us.

February 20, 2007

Freedom From Happiness

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:01 am

What constitutes being free? Is it to be free of the influence of external forces when you make your choices? If it is then many of us are not as free as we could be. Our desire to be happy is in many ways an external force, not in the sense that something else makes us want to be happy, but rather than we did not choose to have this motivation, we were simply born with it. Of course if you freely chose to be motivated by happiness then you would be free, but that is not the situation we are in.

Of course do we even want to be free in this way? Why resist the motivations that we are born with? Well, if I were Kant I would probably say something about the nobility of human nature, but I am not Kant. One reason that we might want our motivations to be freely chosen is simply that our intelligence is probably superior to evolutionary forces, meaning that the motivations we would freely choose would be superior to those we just happen to be born with. Of course what superior means in this context remains to be defined. It might simply mean that the motivations we would rationally choose would conflict with each other less than the motivations we actually find ourselves with. For example, our desire to be happy often conflicts with many of our other desires (such as to follow the law, ect), and thus it might be better if we valued our happiness less (or valued the law less).

So let us assume that we do want our motivations to be freely chosen, so on what basis then should we choose them? Well, it doesn’t make sense to try to choose as if we had no motivations, because then we would have no reason to make one choice instead of another; in fact we would be unable to make any choice at all. Of course there are those who have said that we should freely choose in this way, but they always assume that there is some motivation left over, such as rationality, or self-interest. This to me appears to be a mistake, since what reason can there be to pick one motivation over another as foundational? To make one particular motivation the foundation would simply be to have your choices compelled by it instead of your existing set of motivations, since that motivation itself was not freely chosen by you.

So instead of trying to make a free choice from nothing, which seems impossible, let us instead consider a free re-evaluation of our motivations from within the framework of our existing motivations. The point of the re-evaluation is not to acquire new and better motivations, but rather to improve our existing set of motivations by reducing, or, better yet, eliminating, any conflicts between them. This was, after all, our motivation for wanting a free choice to begin with. The motivations that we have, and the degree to which they influence us, are a product of our experiences. Because they are not picked with forethought, but are instead acquired rather haphazardly, they are not the kind of motivations that we would expect to have as a result of the ideal choice. Some things we value too much and some too little, and thus the need for improvement in the first place.

Of course there is no one optimal set of motivations that a free re-evaluation will lead to. Let us say that you value two things equally, and that they are in conflict with each other. A free re-evaluation will point out that you need to lose one or the other, but not which one it should be. Both are equally good choices, at least as far as the standards presented here can inform us about them. Which brings me back to my original topic, happiness. Being strongly motivated by happiness conflicts with almost every other motivation. It is not like, say, a desire to finish a painting co-existing with a desire to complete a sculpture, where each one can receive some time, and eventually both can be done. In most cases the pursuit of our other desires can lead us to be occasionally unhappy. For example, sometimes working on the sculpture may be hard or unpleasant, you may become injured or have to sacrifice some luxuries in order to get it done. And thus if you placed a high value on your own happiness you would never be able to complete the sculpture. Of course there are some motivations that the pursuit of happiness does not conflict with, for example if you desire to eat chocolate whenever convenient, and chocolate makes you happy, then this may be compatible, but such motivations are not common. Now the free re-evaluation does not say that we have to get rid of happiness as a motivation, nor that we can’t enjoy ourselves when we are happy. It simply presents us with a choice, either to keep most of those motivation that conflict with the pursuit of happiness and to value our happiness less, so that it doesn’t get in their way, or to continue to put happiness first but to give up those other motivations which would interfere with it.

Of course you could always resist the free re-evaluation altogether, but in that case you would simply continue to be pulled back and forth by your motivations. Not only does this seem inherently undesirable, but it is unlikely to make you happy either. Well, I know what choice I would make.

February 19, 2007


Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Normativity is everywhere. For example, if you want to get a paper out of the file cabinet then you should open the file cabinet. Thus in this situation opening the file cabinet is normative, it is something you should do. But when we say that something is normative in the context of philosophy we usually mean something a little different, we mean universal normativity. If something is universally normative then it is something that everyone should do, no matter what they want. Opening the file cabinet is obviously not universally normative.

Obviously normativity is tied into motivation, and thus to Ends. And this means that in the strictest sense nothing can be universally normative, since a being with no Ends has no reason to ever adopt any Ends, and thus there will never be a case in which they should do something, as dictated by their Ends. However, if we restrict universal normativity to beings with Ends then to say something is universally normative would be to say that if a being has any Ends, no matter what they are, then they should do it.

One example that immediately springs to mind is knowledge. If a being has any Ends at all then they should seek knowledge. This is because knowledge is required to predict the consequences of your actions successfully, and you must be able to predict the consequences of your actions if you want to accomplish your Ends, no matter what your ends are. Now this doesn’t mean that the search for knowledge in general is normative (meaning that you should always be on the lookout for new facts), rather it means that it is normative to ensure that all of your beliefs are knowledge (are as likely to be as true as possible). You might think this would only apply to beliefs that were directly related to your Ends, but this isn’t the case because an unrelated false belief can still prevent you from reaching your Ends. For example, consider the belief that your car can fly when you turn on the rear defroster, a belief you have never tested because you live near the equator. If you have this belief and come to a bridge that has lost a section in the middle you are likely to drive right over it, after turning on the defroster. This will probably lead to your death, and interfere with one of your Ends such as happiness or survival, even though the belief that your car could fly wasn’t directly related to either of those Ends.

Another thing that is also often claimed to be universally normative in this sense is ethics. But the case of ethics is much less straightforward than the case of knowledge. First of all we can only consider whether ethics is universally normative or not if we consider only individuals who want to be part of society, as ethics is irrelevant to the individual that is alone (since there is no one else for them to behave ethically towards). Now it is true that most Ends are better furthered by being part of society, where you can find people with similar Ends, but this is not universally the case. Of course any stable society will have rules of behavior, and will do its best to punish those who infringe upon them, and so obeying the rules might be considered a universal imperative. But we also must consider that our actions may have good or bad consequences for society as a whole. Obviously if you are part of society, because you find it useful, then you will be interested in things going well for it instead of badly, and so this too might be a universal imperative. Here then there are three questions we need to answer. Is one or both of these considerations universally normative? Which of them is ethics? And what which is more important in the case of a conflict between them?

Well the first, to obey the rules of society, is less “universally” normative than the second, to do what is best for society. It is less universal because it is not something that you have a reason to do all of the time. Sometimes there is little chance of being caught. The second is more universal because, as someone who derives some usefulness from society, there is always a reason to do what is best for society. However even though this factor is always an influence on your decisions it too can be occasionally outweighed in some circumstances. As to which is ethical, well that depends on how you define ethics. I would say that it is the second, that doing what is in society’s best interests is what is ethical, but surely there are those who would disagree. Finally, in the case of a conflict between them, I would have to say that which has more force depends on the situation. Which simply highlights an interesting feature of “doing what is best for society” as a universally normative principle. Even though it is universally normative it doesn’t always outweigh all other considerations, and there is the possibility that some will value it more highly than others.

This exhausts the principles that are universally normative, I think. Some may suggest survival, as many Ends become impossible to further when dead, but this is a generalization that isn’t true universally, although it is probably true for most of us. And of course there are many conventional issues, such as the use of language, that are also required if you are to be part of a society, but these fall under following the rules of society, its just that in this case the punishment is the inability to communicate.

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