On Philosophy

August 31, 2007

Making Kings

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

A monarchy ruled by a wise and just king or queen can be far better than any other form of government. This is because a wise king can act as a combination of the best features of all possible systems of government. For example, a wise king listens to their people, thus making the government responsive to their wishes, the best feature of democracy; but a wise king also knows when to ignore their wishes, when the people as a whole are making a bad choice. A wise king doesn’t cater to the extremes of society, but instead creates compromises that everyone can be satisfied with. And a wise king balances the advantages of free markets and making those markets serve the people.

Wise kings are wonderful, but they are also rare. And the problem with monarchies is that a bad king can make the system worse than any other possible form of government. And so, being risk adverse (and because power tends to bring out the worst in most people), we usually stay away from monarchies. If only we had some way to identify who would make a wise king, and who wouldn’t be corrupted by power, then we could simply put them on the throne, and not trouble ourselves any longer with trying to improve already complicated political systems, made complicated by their need to thwart the inevitable corruption of the various individuals who participate in them.

Unfortunately I have no way of identifying such individuals, nor does anyone else to the best of my knowledge. However, instead of running around trying to find the perfect king, we could simply make one instead. Obviously I am not talking about a computer, such technology is a long ways off. But we do have the most of the genetic and psychological tools required to make biological kings. Such a project is actually quite feasible, and only requires a small amount of future technology. The first step is to create the best possible genetic foundation for our kings, which means creating a gene set that contains predispositions towards intelligence, ethical behavior, and so on, and lacking any predispositions towards violence and selfishness. This is perhaps the hardest part of the project, and the part that requires technologies not yet developed, since the influence of various genes on behavior is not fully understood yet. And to make use of those genes we will need a way to create people from them, again a technology not completely developed yet.

The next step is to take this genetic template and make a large number of individuals with it. Each individual is raised separately from the rest in highly controlled ways. Their upbringing is designed to condition them to make the best use of their genetic potential, to desire to make the people happy, to properly manage the economy, and so on. Basically all the attributes we expect to find in a wise king. Now admittedly we don’t know exactly what kind of upbringing will produce a wise king, but that isn’t a major problem. We can try out a number of different ways of raising our candidates, which we try on groups (in order to determine the average effect). How successful a particular formula for raising a candidate is can be determined by letting them believe that they are king and seeing how they react to various situations. We take the upbringing of the group that performs best and raise another generation of candidates using variations upon it. This process is repeated until a formula is found that produces the best possible kings.

And once that is completed we can make as many wise kings as we need, simply by raising another generation according the formula we have discovered whenever we need more. Since we now have an overabundance of wise kings the best way to make use of them is probably to let them rule in parallel, meaning that we let a number of them be king simultaneously, and if one of them makes starts ruling in a way contrary to the rest we can remove them from power, on the assumption that some random factor has led to them being a less than optimal ruler. And since we have so many it isn’t necessary to have them rule for life, each can simply rule during their prime and be replaced, another safeguard against unforeseen events leading these kings to become bad rulers.

I suspect that the primary objection to this plan would be that it is inhumane. Certainly it could be run in an inhumane fashion, but it needn’t be. Assume that we only wish the kings produced in this fashion to rule until they are thirty. If that is the case then we have no use for our test subjects or actual kings past that point. And so there is nothing stopping us from letting them retire and go their own way after that age, with appropriate compensation. So while their lives may have been less than perfect until that point it is possible to compensate them so that overall they are better off then people who haven’t been raised in this way. Secondly we must consider whether life itself is valuable. If it is then implementing such a program is the good thing to do, because as part of the program we create a number of people who would have no chance to exist otherwise. Thus the program could be good both for society and for the individuals that are part of it. And that’s the best kind of win-win.

August 30, 2007

Reasonable Doubts

Filed under: Epistemology — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I discussed a principle of epistemic indifference, which stated that if it is impossible to tell the difference between two different situations (to have evidence that supports one being the case and not the other) then the differences between them are irrelevant, even though we can’t know which is the case. This is primarily a response to certain hypothetical scenarios that purport to throw the whole of reality into doubt, by supposing it to be a dream, or something similar. By appealing to our principle of epistemic indifference we can respond to such proposals by pointing out that whether the world is a dream or not simply doesn’t matter, and that for the sake of simplicity that we might as well just suppose that it isn’t.

This is not the only principle that can be used to defuse such worries. Another way to get around such problems is to argue that we can know something so long as we don’t have reason to doubt it. Obviously this rids us of the possibility that the world is a dream; no one seriously entertains that possibility (I hope), and no one has reason to believe it, and thus the fact that we can conceive of the possibility that the world is a dream, and recognize that all our evidence supports that hypothesis as much as it does the claim that the world is real, does not prevent us from knowing that the world is real.

Admittedly this principle is just as handy as that of epistemic indifference when it comes to dealing with such fabricated doubts. But it has a few problems as well. The first is that it handles these cases only as long as we are all basically in agreement as to what is the case, and are entertaining these doubts only to discover what we really know. Suppose that we encounter some mystic who really does believe that the world is a dream. If the mystic is as convinced that the world is a fantasy of some sleeper as we are of its reality then the mystic can apply this principle to demonstrate that they know that the world is a dream despite the fact that they can’t produce evidence against the possibility that it is real. If knowledge is strong, and entails truth, then we have a problem, because clearly both claims can’t be true. Even if knowledge isn’t strong the whole situation is a bit ridiculous, because it seems to make what we know dependant on who we have come into contact with, which seems irrelevant to matters of justification. (Assuming that if someone believes in a claim, and we know it, then that gives us reason to entertain the claim seriously, even if we personally don’t have any other motivation to take it seriously. If other people’s beliefs don’t give us reason to take a claim seriously then that makes the second problem, below, that much worse.)

The second, and more serious, problem is that this principle can be extended beyond where it was supposed to apply. Consider a scientific theory that is well accepted. Now let us suppose that someone proposes a different theory, which makes basically the same predictions (and thus is supported by all the same evidence). Obviously if they agreed completely then we would be in one of those situations where the differences doesn’t matter. Thus we will further stipulate that there is a possible experiment which could tell us which theory was correct, even though the conditions in the experiment would never be reproduced naturally. In spite of this proposed rival it would seem like scientists who believe the established theory could still claim that they know that it is true and that the rival is false. Since no one has done the experiment yet they don’t have any reason to doubt the established theory. And since they already know that the established theory is correct there is no reason to perform the experiment. Similarly, consider someone who believes a logically complicated set of propositions about the world. And let us suppose that those propositions contain a subtle contradiction that can be exposed through a twenty step proof. But so long as the person doesn’t actually learn of this proof they can invoke the principle to claim that they know this complicated set of propositions to be true, and then using the fact that they know them to be true to justify never investigating whether a contradiction exists.

Obviously it is possible to improve the principle by making exceptions. For example, we could stipulate that it could only be invoked where every possible effort has been made to distinguish the two possibilities empirically and failed. That would seem to rule out the situations that give rise to the second problem (although not the first). Obviously such an addition is ad hoc, and we could argue that methodologically such fixes are prohibited because every claim can be repaired if tacking on exceptions is allowed, but that is all beside the point. The central problem with the principle is not really any particular situations it might give rise to, but rather that it falsely creates certainty where none is warranted. It is clear that we can’t be certain (can’t know) that the world is not a dream. It is also obvious that we aren’t bothered by this lack of certainty, and that we don’t entertain the possibility seriously. The principle discussed here tries to reconcile these facts simply by denying our lack of certainty, by fiat, and thus explaining our apparent confidence by supposing that we can be certain. And really the solution is just to accept that certainty (and knowledge) is impossible with respect to these matters, and that the fact that we aren’t bothered by that lack simply shows that our lack of certainty is irrelevant in these cases because the differences don’t matter. So my final argument against the principle is not really an argument at all, simply an observation that we are only led to such principles by certain commitments to labeling everything we strongly endorse as knowledge, when really the proper response is simply to drop those commitments.

August 29, 2007

The Inner Life Of R2-D2

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

To definitively know whether someone is or isn’t conscious would require the ability to study their inner workings in great detail. Obviously we don’t have that ability in most situations, and yet we still come to the conclusion that most of the people around us are conscious. Similarly the only way to definitively know whether this chair is made of wood is to break it apart and see, otherwise it could be made of something else very cleverly disguised as wood. Despite that we have justifiable confidence in our judgment that it is made of wood, based only on the external properties of the chair, because a chair with the right external properties is likely to be made of wood even though the possibility of a fake exists. Likewise, we can make reliable judgments about whether someone or something is conscious based on their behavior (and species), even though these factors aren’t directly responsible for consciousness. (This is to refute the claim that we are behaviorists if we make judgments about consciousness on the basis of behavior.)

With that in mind let’s exercise our understanding of consciousness by applying it to a fictional example, R2-D2. Obviously it is quite reasonable to treat as unconscious all present day machines, since none have been designed to be conscious or have ever displayed any signs of developing consciousness on their own. R2-D2, however, exists in universe where it is quite clear that machines can be conscious. His companion, C-3PO, is almost certainly conscious. But why is it reasonable to say that C-3PO is conscious when no modern machine is? Well, C-3PO acts as if he were conscious, meaning that he creates the impression, through language, that he has a point of view through which the universe is understood, as well as a sense of self. Certainly it could all be an elaborate deception, but then again so could the behavior of the biological people we meet in real life. Thus it is reasonable to grant C-3PO the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is conscious.

Unfortunately for our analysis R2-D2 cannot speak in a way we can understand, although he seems to be able to understand us. In that respect he is more like Chewbacca than he is like C-3PO. And Chewbacca certainly appears to be conscious. One reason to believe that Chewbacca is conscious derives from a design perspective and the knowledge that he is an intelligent, evolved, biological being. Let us put that aside for later. Even without resorting to a design perspective we still have good reason to believe that Chewbacca is conscious. Chewbacca expresses fear, anger (at losing to C-3PO), and discomfort. All of these basically self-centered emotions imply the existence of a self and a perspective on the world for which things can go better or worse. It is true that R2-D2 also expresses emotions, but they are usually of a different nature. R2-D2’s emotions usually revolve around what is happening to other people, as if they are comments about the situation. It is true that R2-D2 does express pain at one point, but he rarely expresses fear (often he completely ignores blaster fire). Although R2-D2’s emotions could be an expression of a basically stoic consciousness it is equally possible to attribute them to simply an emulation of real emotion, just as such emotions are added to some modern virtual creatures.

R2-D2 then is a kind of borderline case. There is no compelling reason to declare him conscious or unconscious. To settle the issue we must adopt the design perspective, where we attempt to guess at the internal workings of the person or thing in question based on the historical chain of events that led to their creation. When it comes to biological creatures considering their design means considering that they evolved. If the creature is basically an individual (and not, for example, part of a hive), then it is reasonable to suppose that it has a point of view if it has more than rudimentary intelligence, because a point of view (and a sense of self) is an evolutionarily simple way of structuring that intelligence so that it serves the survival needs of the individual. When considering artificial beings we need to consider why they were designed. Let’s first consider C-3PO. Before the prequels (which I will ignore) rewrote C-3PO’s history it was assumed that he was one of many droids designed to act as translators. And that role of translator requires the droid to be as much like a person as possible, in order to act as the best possible intermediary between two parties that cannot directly communicate. And so it isn’t unreasonable to suppose that C-3PO’s designers gave his type of droid consciousness in order to achieve that goal. R2-D2 however is an astromech, meaning that he is designed basically to function as an additional computer and to perform the occasional repair. From a design standpoint there is simply no need to make an astromech conscious. It is also telling that R2-D2’s designers decided not to include the capability to create human speech sounds even though he is built with the ability to create beeps and clearly can communicate in text when plugged into a spaceship. Leaving out speech would be almost a crime if R2-D2 was conscious, but if he is in fact lacking in consciousness it actually is an aid to the design; the whistles and beeps allow R2-D2 to create the appearance of having actual emotions, and adding speech would defeat that since it would quickly reveal R2-D2 as lacking any kind of consciousness. So, given that R2-D2 doesn’t display any behavior that would lead us to believe that he is conscious, considering the matter from the design perspective leads to the conclusion that R2-D2 lacks consciousness even though other droids in the Star Wars universe may possess it.

August 28, 2007

Mass Manipulation

Filed under: Essays,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Is it ethically permitted to manipulate the public? Are we allowed to subtly influence them so that the majority of people develop the attitudes and beliefs we want them to have? The question is often made more complicated than it needs to be by our tendency to focus on cases of mass manipulation used for evil ends, and from them drawing the conclusion that all manipulation is bad. That is much like focusing on car accidents and coming to the conclusion that driving is bad. To reason in such a way is too erroneously reach the conclusion that driving is intrinsically bad because it can be used in a way we would disapprove of. To properly consider the issue of mass manipulation we must address these concerns separately. Is it intrinsically bad regardless of its consequences? And can it be reliably used to achieve good results?

If someone was to argue that mass manipulation is intrinsically bad it would have to be because takes away the freedom of people to have attitudes and beliefs independently of outside influences. In one sense it is hard to argue against this claim from first principles, because whether such freedom is good tends to be an assumption, or at least close to one. Fortunately there is a way around pondering that question; it is easy to show that regardless of whether we are being manipulated or not people have the same amount of such freedom, because the people who can be manipulated never had that freedom to begin with. To demonstrate why this is the case I must use an analogy. People are like a flock of birds, a flock not in physical space, but in the space of ideas. People naturally imitate other people, and so tend to have the same attitudes and the same beliefs. Of course not everyone is part of one flock, some are naturally independent and ignore the flock to a great degree, and depending on how you look at it there may very well be more than one flock (people are most likely to be influenced those that they are already similar to, thus allowing distinct groups to exist). The details are largely irrelevant. Mass manipulation works by using this flocking behavior to the manipulator’s advantage. People instinctively try to stick to the flock, so manipulators try to convince people that certain attitudes or beliefs are in the majority. And so, wishing to stick close to the flock, people begin to pick up those attitudes and beliefs until they really are the majority. The flock not equally sensitive to all of its members at all times; depending on the current state of the flock a change in some members may result in a large influence on the flock as a whole. The manipulator thus works by identifying these key members and influencing them, which in turn influences everyone. And by now I hope it is relatively obvious why no one is really “free” from manipulation, even in the absence of manipulator. Even if someone isn’t trying to control the flock it will still be influenced more by some members than by others. In the absence of external guidance they will tend to change their “trajectory” in the “space of ideas” in essentially a random fashion. This does not result in the members of the flock being free of external influences when they choose their attitudes and beliefs. Rather, their attitudes and beliefs are as subject to the flock as ever, only now the flock as a whole is guided essentially randomly instead of purposefully (subject to emergent manipulation, to coin a phrase). And I can’t see any intrinsic advantage in that.

So mass manipulation is obviously not intrinsically undesirable. Which brings us to our second question: can mass manipulation be used reliably to achieve good results? The answer would seem to depend only on whether the manipulator is able to do a better job then the essentially random influences that would govern the behavior of the flock in their absence. Let us give the flock in its natural state the best possible advantage, and assume that the random influences (the emergent manipulation) reflects the average intellectual capacity of the members (although in reality it is probably worse than that; the emergent manipulation tends to reflect the intellectual capacity of the most well-connected members of the flock). This means that the manipulator can achieve better results assuming they are in a position to make a better decision than the average person. And thus that when it comes to manipulating the flock in large ways they probably do worse, as the individual is unable to take everything into account, while the average person, reflecting all the members of the flock, is influenced by everything, from foreign politics to the current price of eggs (the same reason that even a person intelligently trying to set prices does worse than the free market). But the manipulator probably can do better than the average person when it comes to specific issues. A professional is much better at making judgments about, for example, how many nuclear power plants we should have in proportion to solar wind and hydroelectric sources than the average person is (because of their irrational fear of nuclear power). Thus a manipulator who was a professional, or listened to professional advice, could conceivably direct the flock in a better direction, as long as they restricted their manipulation to a single issue (rather than trying to affect people’s opinions on a wide range of topics).

Thus I am inclined to give mass manipulation, used wisely, the thumbs up. Of course that doesn’t say whether people who are currently engaged in mass manipulation are using it wisely. I suspect that the people inclined to try to manipulate the public aren’t restricting their influence to just a few issues, and thus aren’t using it wisely. But then we should condemn them for using their power to manipulate us poorly, not just because they were manipulating us, as we would condemn a driver who causes an accident for driving poorly, not just because they were driving.

August 27, 2007

The Entertainment Economy

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Yesterday I discussed briefly what might be called a post-production economy. A post-production economy is one in which the methods of producing the material goods that people want become completely disconnected from the people who want to consume those goods. Meaning, in other words, that the consumers in no way contribute to production. One way this might happen is if computers take over production. Obviously computers don’t have any desire to consume, and so they are producing goods effectively for free. If we wish to be more fanciful we could imagine completely automated robot factories in the asteroids, and other resource rich locations, that periodically send cargos of goods to Earth, like manna from the heavens, except with a higher playstation to food ratio.

Obviously there are still limits as to how much stuff can be produced in a given time frame (which we might choose to limit further in order to preserve resources), and so while consumption is effectively free it can’t be unlimited either. Let us assume then that everyone is simply given equal shares of this productive capacity; seeing as how no individual has an effect on it there is no good reason for giving more of it initially to any one person over another. We can also assume that people can transfer parts of their shares to one another, for a limited period of time, allowing for the possibility of an economy, since people desire the productive capacity allocated to others (because most people always want more).

Given such a set-up would an economy emerge? Or would people simply be happy with their shares and never trade any portion of them away? One possibility is that people still might need to pay each other for services. Granted, the effectively unlimited production of goods doesn’t necessarily guarantee that those goods can transport themselves, or that people won’t require education or other kinds of assistance. But given the level of technology that can provide goods essentially without supervision I think it is safe to assume that most of these demands will be able to be met by machines as well.

But such thinking is a step in the right direction. Obviously any economic exchanges will be focused around dividing a limited resource. And one such limited resource is the time of individual people. Some people naturally want to use the time of other individuals; they want them to listen to the things they have to say. Maybe they are personally driven to get a certain message out, maybe they are trying to convince people to join them in some endeavor, or maybe they are trying to change public opinion for political reasons. Now obviously individuals aren’t seeking out these messages, but they do participate in many activities, such as reading websites and playing online games, into which these messages could be inserted. This gives us a three way dynamic. Individuals get to select how to divide their time among a number of different entertainment “channels”. Obviously some channels will be better then others, and so operators might be able to charge people a fee to partake of them. The operators of these channels naturally have to provide a selection of usually high quality content centered on some specific theme, to keep their viewers interested. They might have to pay for the best content, as it is in demand because it helps attract viewers, but some content providers might pay them in order to distribute their content (as mentioned above), since such content usually turns viewers away.

I call this the entertainment economy. Such an economy already exists, in a very limited form, on the current version of the internet, although usually the channel operators are also the content providers, and ads are the only form of content that they are paid to distribute. But the current entertainment economy is currently dwarfed by the production economy. Contributing to production in order to consume is the primary focus for most people, how they spend their free time is something that comes in a distant second. This means that the current entertainment economy is stunted, because people are unlikely to pay to participate in a channel (since it is of relatively low importance), which make it equally unlikely for channel providers to pay for content, and doubly unlikely for anyone to pay them to distribute content, except for ads, which are really part of the production economy. Certainly it is possible that the internet will evolve into a full blown entertainment economy that dwarfs the production economy, but I really doubt that it will, unless something completely unforeseen happens that frees people from having to spend the majority of their time as part of the production economy.

If my analysis is on track the production economy and entertainment economy can’t exist simultaneously; one will always be more important than the other. And, furthermore, the production economy will eventually be replaced by the entertainment economy, no matter what our opinions about them are. Despite this we are probably still curious as to which is “better”. Obviously “better” is hard to pin down in this context. They both result in the best allocation of resources for a specific end, but in one case that end is production and the other it is entertainment. And it doesn’t really make sense to say that one end is better than another, given the surrounding circumstances. However, as described here, the entertainment economy has the edge. No one is forced to subscribe to any channels at all (as they are forced by nature to consume), and so everyone has a real option to “opt-out”, either partially or completely, of the entertainment economy. And this, as I see it, gives it a leg up in terms of fairness, as there isn’t any arm-twisting involved.

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