On Philosophy

November 30, 2007

Two Kinds Of Claims

Filed under: Epistemology — Peter @ 12:00 am

Yesterday I briefly introduced a distinction between two kinds of claims. On one hand, I said, we have claims about the structure of a model of the world, and on the other we have claims about the world arising from the model. For example, the claim that there are forces is a claim about the Newtonian model, but the claim that things fall at 9.8 m/s2 is a claim about the world that might be deduced from the model. Previously I was specifically interested in identity, and asserted that identity claims are about the model and not the world. This solves a number of problems associated with them, because, taken about the world, identity claims seem trivial and uninformative. But, at the level of the model, claims about identity can be genuinely interesting because they affect which objects our model contains. That is simply one application of the distinction, but it illustrates that what we take a claim to be about, in this sense, may affect how we handle it, one of those differences being, as I will elaborate on, epistemological, with claims on one side of this divide being handled differently than those on the other.

Let’s begin with claims that are essentially about the world, but which follow from our model, meaning that, according to the model, the claim can be the case if and only if some particular fact holds in the model. For example, going back to Newton, something can only be under acceleration if there are forces acting on it, and for any particular acceleration and object there can only be a single vector sum for the forces acting on it. Thus we might justifiably treat the truth of such claims as being essentially tied up with deduction. Either we can deduce them from our model and the state that we think it is in, or we can deduce facts about what state the model must be in from them. (Given that we are working with some particular model.) Another feature of such claims is that they are verifiable, at least in principle. If we believe something to be accelerating then we can check that hypothesis with careful measurement. In fact this is the easiest way to distinguish what counts as claims about the world and about the model: if we can check them with uncertainty arising only from the nature of our measurements then they are claims about the world, but if they are always, even in principle, some distance from being able to be completely confirmed then they are claims about the model.

(Complicated digression: it follows from this that what may be claims about a model may change into claims about the world depending on our instruments, at least in some sense. I think this is essentially correct; consider, for instance, a model of the world that is atomic. And eventually instruments will be developed that allow people to look at these hypothetical atoms directly. Obviously when they make the observations they will take what they see to be the hypothetical atoms. But what has really happened is that they have discovered a new domain of phenomena and extended the old atomic model in a one to one correspondence to account for it. However, what is called “atoms” has changed from a part of the model to a part of the world simply because what is now called atoms are the things observed with the instruments, not primarily the hypothetical entities of the theory, and if they act in ways that disagree with the entities previously called atoms we will revise the atomic theory in response. Which proves that they are no longer part of a model, because when your model doesn’t correspond to reality you conclude that the entities defined by your model don’t exist, given that they were defined completely by the model, and you introduce new entities, possibly similar to the old ones, with different definitions. But when you have turned claims about atoms into claims about the world it is no longer possible to conclude that the atoms of the theory don’t exist, you can only revise the theory to make them act differently.)

In contrast, claims about the model are never deductive. We don’t deduce which model is correct, rather we infer it by determining which model best matches up to reality. And, obviously, we can never be completely sure that we have found a model that perfectly matches reality because there are always more particular facts about the world to examine which it may very well be inconsistent with. And, as mentioned above, claims about the model are also never directly verifiable; we can never find the entities that exist in our model themselves, we can only find the phenomena that we think correlate with them. None of this makes models, so described, undesirable. Obviously we would prefer perfect certainty, but when dealing with the world perfect certainty is impossible, and working with models in this way is simply the best we can do. Of course certain examples may seem to imply that deduction does play a role in models. For example, from an atomic theory of liquids and Newtonian mechanics we can “deduce” laws about water pressure. Thus we may think that a new model about water pressure has been arrived at by deduction from our previous ones. But this is not what has happened at all, all that we have done is simply apply the models we had already developed, the facts about water pressure were already contained within them in a latent form, just waiting to come out. Of course by extending the model we may arrive at more claims about the world, and thus more ways of testing it, but that doesn’t mean that there is anything new in the model. Furthermore it should also be clear that there is necessarily some core part of the model that cannot be arrived at by deduction and extension in this way, which must be confirmed by tests, and thus which must always be necessarily less than completely certain.

Another difference between claims about the world and the models we use to understand it is in the level of ambiguity that can exist. When it comes to claims about the world ambiguity is, in principle, impossible. Assuming we have made a well-formed claim we could go out and either confirm it or disprove it. Thus, again in principle, it is never an open question whether some claim about the world is true or not. In contrast it is quite possible for there to be systematic ambiguity when it comes to our models of the world. There might be two different models of the world that give rise to the same claims about the world (in fact there will necessarily always be such alternate models). And we cannot, even in principle, decide which of these two models is “right”, because there really is no fact of the matter at all about one of them being right, as they are both equally good models of the world. Still, in such situations we are generally going to prefer one of the models to the other, for reasons that have nothing to do with one of them being right and the other wrong. First we will always prefer the stronger model, the one that makes more claims about the world, both because stronger models are more useful, and because, by making more predictions, they are easier to confirm or refute, and thus we can be more certain of them. If two models are equally strong then we will tend to prefer the simpler and easier to conceptualize one, for the practical reason that they are easier to work with, and such practical reasons factor heavily into why we develop such models in the first place.

Thinking about things in this way has a number of implications, one of which is that we should never attempt to devise models though deduction from other principles, nor should we defend them in that way. A simple glance at science will show you that the best models there are usually justified by their results, and not by any simpler principles that they follow them. Indeed many successful models contain idea that may seem intuitively absurd, although that doesn’t stop them from being good models. And thus if we were committed to deducing our models from simpler principles we might be moved to reject them, illegitimately, because of the absurdity of the principles that would be required to arrive at them. The problem, as I see it, is that in philosophy part of our task seems to be to come up with such models and use them to explain various parts of the world. Indeed in this very post I am working with a particular model of theories and knowledge. Thus we shouldn’t be looking to prove our philosophical theories, as so many try to do, rather we should be constantly checking them against reality to see if they line up with it. A second consequence of this way of thinking about claims is that it illustrates that not all questions we might direct at the model need answering. Remember the model is not itself justified, and thus that we need never answer questions about why the model is the way it is, why a single object models two phenomena that may have seem distinct, or why a particular law holds. Rather the model has to submit to inquiries about its testability and whether it actually leads to claims about the world. It is only in the context of claims about the world that we can legitimately ask why they are the case, why an object is particular shade of red, or why two phenomena are correlated. And if our model purports to explain those things it must answer such questions or be revealed as falling short.

November 29, 2007

The Theoretical Nature Of Identity

Filed under: Epistemology,Metaphysics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Ordinary discourse doesn’t include many appeals to the notion of identity, and certainly not any precise ones, even though truths about identity often surface in the form of claims that two apparently distinct things are actually the same. Thus we might turn to logic for a precise definition of identity. There it is treated as just one two place relation among many, one that holds between every object and itself and which never holds between two different objects. Such a description removes all the mystery surrounding identity, but it is also relatively uninformative. For example, it would be nonsensical to ask why two objects are identical, because that would be equivalent to asking why one object is identical to itself. And clearly there is no reason why an object is identical to itself, that is just a brute fact. Problems also arise with the logical definition of identity when considering possibility and necessity, and in other contexts, which suggest that there is more to identity than the logical relation captures, such that logical identity only reflects the nature of identity in certain limited circumstances.

Given that the logical definition of identity has failed up perhaps we are forced to turn to our ordinary use of identity. But when it comes to our ordinary use of terms such as “the same”, which seem to be those from which the idea of identity is extracted, it doesn’t seem much like a relation at all. Whenever we say that two things are the same there is an implicit understanding that they are the same something. For example, we might say that two people drive the same kind of car, uniting the two distinct objects under the umbrella of a single kind. Now it might be objected that this is simply too broad a conception of identity, that all we really seek to understand is the way in which a brick viewed at one moment is the same as it viewed in another moment. But, even here, we must stipulate that they are the same brick where being the same brick brings with it the idea of a temporally extended object. Otherwise we could object that what we saw in those two moments were really distinct objects, distinct brick-moments. And the same applies when we try to talk about the same brick seen by two different people at a single moment. It could be claimed that there are two non-identical brick-presentations under consideration, and thus to say that they are the same we need to say that they are the same brick, where this time brick brings with it the idea of an observer independent object that can be presented in a number of different ways. Under this conception identity seems to be a concept that is essentially tied to a way of dividing the world into a number of equivalence classes, such that saying two things are the same is really just to say that they belong to the same equivalence class under some division. And thus which things are identical and which aren’t seems completely a product of the way we divide the world, which is itself arbitrary, and thus it is hard to see how claims about identity could be significant, which is the real problem.

That seems odd, because there certainly appear to be important facts about identity, but we can’t easily get back to such facts and something like the logical conception from this starting point. We can’t for example, simply try to redefine identity without any such equivalence classes. Well, we could, but identity defined without such equivalence classes to bring together things that we might otherwise distinguish between leaves us with virtually no cases where identity holds at all. Under identity, so defined, the only time we might legitimately say that two things are identical is when we are referring to the same particular experience of something and saying that it is identical to itself. This would make identity simultaneously trivial and useless. Nor can we recapture the logical notion by simply picking one way of dividing the world into equivalence classes as “right”. Admittedly such a division would fix things to some extent, but the decision about which division is “right” seems itself completely arbitrary. Some might even make the case that the universe is best conceived of as a single object, and that what we think of as different objects, such as different particles at different moments of time, are really just properties of this universe-object, the property of it containing a particular particle in a particular place at a particular time. Certainly we can’t say that this way of logically describing the universe disagrees with our experience, it just makes talking about it a little difficult, and it completely does away with the possibility of any identity relation, since there is only one object that it might apply to, and is thus rendered meaningless simply because it doesn’t distinguish between objects.

A third way to bridge this gap, which we haven’t considered previously, is to consider equality as tied up with language, something that hasn’t come into play yet. The interesting claims involving identity, we might note, are those where we say that two things designated by different names are identical. For example, we might assert that the richest man in Europe is the tallest man in Europe, which could be to claim that those individuals are identical. And thus it might be supposed that identity is really a claim about what two terms refer to, namely the same thing, which couldn’t be properly captured by the suggestions above simply because they had no way to talk about referring. There does seem to be a kernel of truth in this suggestion, but it too has its failings. First of all it is still based on a kind of ordinary understanding about identity, and so still seems vulnerable to what it means for two things to be “the same thing”, which plays a key role in the definition. Again it seems that a division of the world into equivalences classes is necessarily involved. And in this case the division seems even more complicated. Certainly, for example, the richest man in Europe hasn’t been the richest for exactly as long as he has been the tallest, thus we run into problems in saying what exactly “the tallest person in Europe”. Does it mean the time extended person who is the tallest now, does it refer to the person-moment that is tallest now, or does it refer to all person-moments in all times that are tallest, regardless of whether they belong to the same time extended person? To make it true and meaningful we must pick some division, but, again, how to divide the world seems arbitrary. Secondly, it seems to fail to capture some of the ineffable essence of claims about identity. When we claim that the morning star is identical to the evening star we mean to say something to the effect that, roughly, the two objects under consideration are really one object. But so far none of the possibilities entertained have let us make this kind of assertion, because they don’t allow us to talk about two objects in one breath and a single object in the next.

To solve some of these problems I think we need to turn to why we talk about objects in the first place. The idea of objects, I claim, is a device that exists simply to make conceptualizing and theorizing about the world simpler. We divide the world up into objects and assign them properties, and then on the basis of this division and its laws we make predictions and check how well our model matches up to observations. Thus objects are from the beginning our invention, they don’t exist outside of us to find, even though talk about objects can be considered in the domain of objective fact. Thus we can make a distinction between talk about the model and talk about relationships between the model and the world as observed. To say that an object is red or at a particular location is to make a claim about the world, expressed through a relationship between statements about our model and the world. On the other hand, to say that a certain law holds of objects is strictly talk about the model. Of course we can make observations that contradict the proposed law, but we can never observe the law itself. And thus it is more accurate to say that our observations have revealed that the proposed model, including the law, doesn’t accurately reflect the world, rather than saying that they show the law doesn’t exist or is false. We can put this distinction to a number of purposes. For example we might point out that world-model correspondences can be given explanations in terms of the model, we can say why an object has a particular color or location by appealing to the structure of the model and its laws; but we can’t explain brute facts about the model itself, such as its laws, in the same way. But obviously this is tangential to the matter at hand.

So, to return to identity, allow me to simply assert that identity is a claim about the model, not about the world. It is saying that our model contains only one object that will be used to explain what might be thought of as two distinct phenomena, or what were explained using two objects in another model. Because identity fixes the model this explains why we have talking about identity from within the model; once you have decided what your objects are it is fairly useless to go over those facts again. Of course even under this understanding of identity there is still some arbitrariness about what your objects are. For example, we could double the number of objects by modeling the world with two objects wherever previously we had one, with one object accounting for all observations made from galactic north and another for the observations from galactic south. However I would point out that there is nothing “wrong” with such models, they are just a more complicated way of expressing essentially the same facts. But, for the sake of convenience, we tend to go for the fewest number of objects, and thus the maximum amount of identity, arguing that we should use a single object whenever possible, so long as contradictory properties (A and ~A) aren’t assigned to that object. Most importantly, of course, is simply that, regardless of whether there is arbitrariness here, claims about identity are significant, not as facts about the world, but as facts about the model, which makes arbitrariness somewhat irrelevant. I would elaborate further, but I fear I have gone on too long for one day already, so I will leave the rest to the reader (unless some especially interesting complications occur to me later).

November 28, 2007

No Singularity

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

The idea that there is coming “technological singularity” is a somewhat popular one these days. Specifically it is claimed that technology will continue to advance at an ever-increasing rate until we reach a point in the not-to-distant future (usually within 100 years of the time that the prediction is being made) where technology will be advancing so fast that it is able to give us everything we could possibly desire and more. Among the promised rewards of this singularity are immortality and the ability of intelligence to spread throughout the universe at a speed close to that of light. To me these predictions remind me of those made in days past of flying cars and regular trips to the moon, just with different fantasies. There are often rapid bursts of progress within some specific domain, and extrapolating from those bursts of progress will seem to imply that soon technology will be doing all sorts of miraculous things. But so far that is not how things have worked, the burst has tapered off and rapid development shifts to a different domain. The cars we drive now, for example, aren’t that much better than those that were around twenty or thirty years ago; they may be more comfortable but they don’t go too much faster, nor are they that much more efficient (some are even less efficient). Currently the burst of innovation is in computing technology, so naturally the cool future things are expected to be AIs and such rather than flying cars. However, I already see indications that the rapid advancements made in computers are already beginning to taper off; for example, the word processors we have now aren’t much more powerful than those of five or ten years ago, they are just more comfortable to use. Just because more powerful computers will continue to be developed doesn’t meant that the power will necessarily be put towards productive uses. And if I was to mock the position further I would point out that it plays on people’s desires; they want to live forever and to have all their desires satisfied. Thus people are likely to believe in the singularity simply because they want it to be true, which interferes with their ability to rationally evaluate its likelihood. And, finally, I will note that some of the things that are claimed are highly unlikely to happen no matter what technological capabilities we develop. For example, it is highly unlikely that we will ever expand into the universe turning it into “smart matter” as we go, as one prediction I read claimed. Any highly advanced civilization is going to be using as much power as it has available to it, which means reducing “leaks” into the external universe as much as possible, both through stray transmissions and through purposeful egress. From the point of view of the people remaining behind any energy spent on spreading out to the rest of universe would be wasted. This means that either everyone will stay home, or everyone will leave, creating a society that acts like locusts, exhausting the resources of one region of space and then moving on to the next, or they will set things up so that the energy spend expanding outwards is returned many times over by energy sucked out of the rest of the universe. For the sake of the rest of the universe we had better hope that the first is the preferred option.

But of course all of that is a digression, because whether there really will be a technological singularity in the future isn’t affected by when it will occur, the similarity of the prediction to flawed predictions made in the past, or whether many of the absurd claims associated with it may turn out to be false. To see whether we are destined for a technological singularity or not we have to examine why this singularity is expected to occur, not simply extrapolate from current trends. And to do that we have to do more than those who actually make the predictions. So is progress really accelerating? And if so, why? To begin with we can start at the level of individuals, because it is individuals who make the discoveries that count as progress. Thus there are two reasons that the rate of progress might accelerate, either individuals are becoming faster at making discoveries, on average, or the number of individuals is increasing. And certainly the population of the world is increasing, and during the periods in the past where technology has been increasing rapidly indeed there were often rapid increases in population as well. And so we might expect, from that observation, that the rate of technological advancement will level off as the number of people levels off. Still, while that can account for some of the rapid advancements we have made in recent times I am reluctant to pin down all of our progress to simple increases in population. First of all the people responsible for new discoveries are only those living outside of the third world, and the third world is where population has been increasing most rapidly. And so the pace of progress doesn’t seem to quite match up with population increases. For example, the population of the United States has doubled within the last 60 years, but the rate of progress may legitimately seem more than double what it was in the 50s. Thus any increase in the progress beyond that must be attributable to an increase in the rate at which individuals can make discoveries.

But what would make someone able to make discoveries faster? Well a better education might, but I highly doubt that we can attribute such progress to better schools. It must then have something to do with the progress of discovery itself, which comes in three parts. The first part of discovery is the idea, the idea is then refined into a precise form, and then the precise form is tested. And all of this is a relatively linear process, there are no shortcuts, and, while someone might try to work on more than one idea at a time, that doesn’t make them any faster at making discoveries, since the time taken to work on one idea detracts from the time devoted to another. We might legitimately claim that technology has made the second and third steps much faster than they were before, that computer models and mathematical assistance make turning ideas into precise forms and testing them easier than ever before. But, while this could be responsible for the observed increasing rate of progress, it clearly can’t give rise to a singularity, because even if the time for the second and third steps was reduced to zero by some miracle of technology there would still be a relatively fixed amount of time required to develop new ideas. Which means that we would end up with perhaps a very fast rate of progress, but there will be some maximum the rate will increase to at which point it will go no faster.

Naturally this is complicated by the fact that discoveries are not made independently of each other, for progress to exist the people making the discoveries must have been exposed to previous advancements and must be building on them. This might seem like another area in which technological advancements might speed up progress, but communication never seems to have been a major issue in this regard. What is a problem is that it takes time for individuals to absorb and understand new discoveries so that they are able to build on top of them, which is not something that can be sped up by technological advancements. And this time can become a serious limitation when discoveries are made rapidly, because then individuals are forced to decide whether they will spend all their time trying to master the work of other people, or whether they will ignore some of it in order to do original work. No matter what balance is struck there are disadvantages: the more time they spend learning about other discoveries the slower they make their own discoveries, but the more they don’t read the more likely it is that their discoveries will essentially repeat work already done, which also effectively reduces the rate of new discoveries. Of course clever technology can mitigate some of these problems by helping people make better decisions about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. But it is one more hidden limitation that serves to limit how fast progress can be made.

Some may point out that these supposed limitations are all human limitations, and indeed if we were smarter maybe we could come up with new ideas more often, or ones that were more likely to pan out, and maybe we could assimilate new knowledge quicker. And so some believe that the singularity will occur because of artificial intelligences who will be able to exceed us when it comes to those things. And I agree that artificial intelligences will eventually be developed and that eventually they will be intellectually superior to us, simply because they will be able to think faster, if nothing else. The problem is, however, that artificial intelligences don’t seem like they will be developed anytime soon; even though people have been claiming that they are right around the corner ever since the idea was thought up. Despite all the work that has gone into the field we have yet to develop a machine that can learn as well as a pigeon. But when artificial intelligences are developed I doubt that they will produce a technological singularity. Although they may be superior thinkers to us there are still upper bounds on the speed of computation, which means that there will still be fixed limits on how fast they can make discoveries. Furthermore there is the problem that discovery works by trying our new approaches to problems, new ways of thinking about things. As more and more discoveries are made it will probably become harder and harder to find productive “new” ways of looking at things to make further advancements, as all the obvious approaches will have already been tried, forcing investigators to consider more and more bizarre possibilities, which are much less likely to prove fruitful. Which is an argument that sometime in the distant future after the maximum speed of computation and maximum populations have been reached that the rate of progress will actually slow down.

So, as nice as a technological singularity would be, I highly doubt that one will ever be encountered. Although the rate of progress may increase further, and indeed it would be nice if it did, it will eventually run into some upper bound. And we will certainly never achieve the kind of power where everything is possible. Of course some may think that I am simply ignoring the possibility of discoveries that turn everything we know on its head and remove those limits. First of all I would point out that neither can we rationally count on such discoveries since we don’t even know what they are. And, secondly, claims that something is impossible made nowadays are much more credible than those made in the past and subsequently overturned, for the simple reason that in the past the claim that something couldn’t be done was based simply on an inability to envision how it could be done. But now when we say something can’t be done it is because we have uncovered what look to be physical laws including such constraints. And although we have been mistaken about physical law before we have never been as drastically mistaken as we would have to be if these limitations were to disappear.

November 27, 2007

Evolution Is Myopic

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

Occasionally I encounter people who display a strange kind of faith in evolution, who think that evolution has provided everything that we need, or will provide it if it is given enough time. Perhaps they share a chapel with those who believe that the almighty market and his invisible hand will right all wrongs. Naturally I am slightly exaggerating, because I doubt that there is anyone who has blind faith in evolution, but it does seem that evolution selects for what is good, at least in a sense. And so it might be possible to argue that if evolution isn’t selecting for something than it must not really be as good as it appears, that it is either superfluous or has some hidden defect. For example, evolution shows no indication of providing us with perfect rationality, nor does it seem likely that it will provide everyone with the capability to live the good life. Are these things really good, despite the fact that evolution isn’t selecting for them, or are we mistaken in thinking so?

Since I have already defended at length, on separate occasions, the idea that perfect rationality is superior to pragmatic shortcuts, and that living the good life is superior to not living it, perhaps it is better to look at the problem from the other side, and examine whether evolution really selects for what is good and for everything that we need. The first thing we need to take into consideration is that evolution doesn’t care about individuals, at least not directly. All evolution “cares” about is species (gene pools). And thus evolution selects for what the species needs to survive and thrive. But note that this is all that evolution selects for, if a species already has all it needs to optimally catch its prey, for example, then evolution won’t lead to the species being any better at that, because there is simply no need for it. Of course this reinforces the idea that evolution gives the species everything it needs and no more or less.

But why must we gauge the efficacy of evolution based on how well the species is doing? We might also take the perspective of social groups within the species or of individuals. At first glance it might appear that whatever is good for the species must be good for such groups or individuals as well. After all, if the species as a whole is made fitter by evolution doesn’t that mean members are as well? But here we can easily demonstrate that this is simply not the case. Consider the case of bees, which are evolved to sacrifice themselves for the good of the hive. Although the death of individual bees is often good for the hive it is certainly not good for the bees that die (assuming that things can legitimately be said to go well or poorly for an individual bee). Aging is a similar phenomena. Certainly it would be good for us not to get old and die of natural causes. However, it is bad for the species to have individuals with outdated genes floating around; keeping the gene pool more dynamic helps the species adapt to changing circumstances. And thus we age, which is certainly bad for those who get old (although not getting old, given that it means we died early, may be worse).

Thus it may be in our best interests to defy evolution, even if it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the species. Although, on the other hand, it may not be bad for the species either given our other capability. This is because humanity is in an odd position, where we are so far ahead of the competition that we, as a species, are indifferent to most changes. If we were to become 5% smarter or 5% dumber it wouldn’t affect our ability to beat up on the other species around, and basically that is all that evolution cares about. And so if we could manage to beat aging I wouldn’t claim that it is necessarily bad for the species, since we no longer really need to evolve to adapt to changing circumstances, we can deal with them using technology.

Thus the reason that evolution hasn’t selected for perfect rationality isn’t because perfect rationality is inferior to the way we actually reason, but because perfect rationality simply isn’t needed. It is true that perfect rationality would benefit the people and groups possessing it in some ways, for example, perfectly rational people wouldn’t have wasted so much energy on religion, building pyramids and such. However, since that energy wasn’t needed to survive evolution was blind to the possible advantages of perfect rationality, and if some people had been born with perfect rationality they wouldn’t have done substantially better than their less rational neighbors. (In fact they might even have done worse; our imperfect rationality seems tied up with our social and emotional capabilities, such that a person possessing it might do worse because they wouldn’t be able to get along as well with everyone else. Indeed, the mental “disorders” that I am aware of that seem to bring with them some superior rational capacity seem to diminish that ability to integrate.)

For related reasons evolution doesn’t provide us with everything we need to lead the good life. This is because living a good life isn’t necessarily any different from living an inferior life when it comes to survival. And it is quite easy to demonstrate that, because what may be a good life for one person may not be for another, depending solely on what they desire; and obviously there is no difference in the ability to survive between two people living exactly the same life. In fact we might argue that, if everyone lived the good life, the species as a whole might be in some trouble. Because there is no guarantee that people want to lead lives that are productive; there isn’t even any guarantee that they will want to have children. This means that evolution might have selected for characteristics that inhibit our ability to live the good life, such as a certain susceptibility to short-term rewards or peer pressure. Such weaknesses might be good for the group and good for the species, but remember that what is good for the hive might not be good for the bee, and so just because evolution selects for such weaknesses doesn’t necessarily mean we should embrace them.

Strangely it might be that a harsher world would have been better for us. If humanity had fiercer competition (perhaps from another intelligent species) we might have improved cognitively, becoming closer to perfectly rational beings. But, on the other hand, I can’t imagine any circumstances that would select for beings who were more likely to lead the good life. Obviously things such as self-reliance and the ability to prioritize long-term goals could have been selected for if we weren’t herd animals and if conditions were harsher. But such conditions give rise to other problems, because if humans weren’t social creatures things such as language, and thus science and culture, may have never been developed. And that would hinder our ability to live the good life by presenting us with only a few ways to live if we wished to survive. Perhaps then we have been dealt the best hand we could expect with respect to the good life, and that it is simply up to us to defy evolution.

This then is why I call evolution myopic, because it looks only at one specific way for things to be good. Because evolution doesn’t select for what is good from the point of view of the individual it is perfectly capable of producing a species full of individuals that fall short of their full potential, even if realizing that potential would be good for them. All evolution cares about is producing individuals that can meet a certain minimum standard, one that allows the species to keep on surviving. But what do we care about the survival of the species? Although we should care about ourselves and the people that compose the groups to which we belong we owe no loyalty so some abstract conception of humanity, nor ought we.

November 26, 2007

Game Playing

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

For most of us games are a form of relaxation and entertainment, which may make them seem like a complete waste of time, especially in light of what I have said previously about entertainment in general. I pointed out that entertainment was essentially a distraction, and that such distractions could prevent people from ever finding what is really valuable to them. Does that mean that we should never play games? I would say that it depends on the person. Obviously pursuing what is considered good is the most important task, and in some way everything must be in service of that. And finding the right psychological balance between sacrifices made for that long-term goal and feeling good in the present is important. Some people have the kind of will power that allows them to focus only on that one thing without breaking down, and obviously such people are able to lead the best lives, by their own standards (since they can better satisfy their desires than they would be if they were distracted by other things). But others are unable to have such a single minded focus, they need a number of smaller desires to be satisfied to keep them feeling good while they pursue their long term goals. Thus a small number of diversions may actually be appropriate for them, because they will pursue what is considered good better with them than without them.

But games don’t seem to be entertainment for everyone, there are people who play games in a way that might be described as “professional” in the amount of time they devote to them. Of course we must toss out from such considerations professional athletes, because it is clear that most of them are not really interested in the game, but in the money and the lifestyle. Because if the game was really that important to them then there would be no point in them continuing on after they had become too old to play (indeed it is extremely odd to focus your life on something you can only do for a short time). To really see the kind of people I am talking about we must turn our attention to those who don’t become rich or famous off playing their game well, such as professional chess players. Such professional players spend so much effort on playing that game well that they seem to basically ignore everything else, the kind of attitude that is consistent with what a good life is for them as being somehow tied to the game. This might make them seem crazy from our perspective, after all isn’t it just obvious that such games are merely entertainment, that they don’t really have any objective value whatsoever. And so such professional players must be deluded, pursuing some false conception of what is good.

Of course we might point out in their defense that many intellectual activities (which chess and other such games certainly are among) can be thought of as games. Mathematics, for example, might seem to be a game played with symbols with very complicated rules determining how one symbol string can be transformed into another. Of course the winning conditions in mathematics aren’t obvious, so perhaps the game is a kind of solitaire, with the player attempting to arrive at either a certain symbol string or that same string prefaced by a negation by using the allowed transformation rules. And if someone who spends all day playing solitaire with cards is deluded about what is good in life then certainly someone who is playing solitaire with symbol strings is equally deluded, even if they receive more praise and are held up as a great intellectual while the solitaire player is ignored. But it is possible to break this apparent symmetry by pointing out that mathematics, and many other intellectual exercises, can be put to other uses, while skills at playing solitaire cannot. And thus such intellectual exercises can be legitimately thought of as valuable, even if in intrinsic terms they are nothing more than complicated games. Whether the players of such intellectual games actually pursue them with such intensity because of the possible applications is something that I will leave unexamined for them moment, but it seems quite possible to me that most engaged in such activities do them for their own sake. And thus that even though they may have useful applications the people engaging them are as deluded as professional game players, if they are deluded, because they give no thought to the applications and thus would be equally happy were there no applications at all.

Let’s go back to the initial problem for a moment and take another look at it. The idea that professional game playing doesn’t make sense is founded on the assumption that being good at a games isn’t valuable. And that conclusion is supported by the observations that playing games doesn’t have any extrinsic effects that people would generally recognize as valuable, and that for most people playing games is a diversion from the good life rather than an essential part of it. Obviously the first observation doesn’t really support the conclusion, what is a good life has nothing to do with how other people benefit from it, the good life is determined by what the person truly finds valuable. And similarly the second observation isn’t sound basis for the conclusion either; what one person finds essential to their good life is probably a distraction to most other people. While reading philosophy papers is something I must do it is probably not something you have to, and might even be a waste of your valuable time. Thus we can’t pass judgment on professional game players so quickly, just because we find the way they are living bizarre.

Indeed I am tempted to say that our intuitions are almost completely wrong, that rather than being examples of how not to lead the good life the people who devote themselves to chess and its like are rather models of how to lead the good life, for the most part. First we can observe that, while individual games of chess are probably fun for the people who play professionally, the things they do in order to play professionally, such as study chess strategy, are probably not very enjoyable to anyone but a professional player. And that implies that their game playing is really something they desire, rather than a distraction that has consumed their life because of the immediate gratification it brings. Obviously anyone is fully capable of wasting their life on entertainment, but only real desires make things that don’t bring immediate gratification, and which would be by themselves rather boring, enjoyable. A second sign that game playing might really be part of the good life for them is that doing it well doesn’t bring any special benefits for most, most professional players aren’t made rich or famous by their skills. Since many people pursue money and fame tying those things to any activity often clouds whether it is really desired or simply a means to an end.

And game playing also has a number of other advantages that make it seem a suitable goal to pursue. Simply because it is basically an intellectual goal the professional game player is, for the most part, freed from any dependencies on other people. No one can stop them trying to be a better player, nor is it easy possible to frustrate their goal by withholding something from them. Another advantage of game playing is that there is always room to improve, because, assuming that the game is reasonably complex, there is no humanly accessible upper performance bound. And, because games have winners and losers, these improvements are relatively easily measured, which makes it easier for the person who desires to excel at playing the game to keep themselves on the path of constant improvement, in contrast to many other activities where it can be hard to tell if you are really getting any better at them in an objective way. Finally, it also has the advantage of being a creative kind of desire, since the game player is always trying to “create” new victories, new strategies, new solutions to certain problems within the game. Again, this is a sign that it is a desire with enough “depth” not to be exhausted within a person’s lifetime.

Those are the advantages that come simply from the nature of games themselves, but there are also psychological advantages stemming from the way people professionally play games and the attitude of the rest of the population. First of all we might note that, due to competitive pressures, people who want to be good have to devote a lot of time to the game. And this is a good thing because such a single-minded focus is helpful to making the most of life, assuming that one is able to handle it, as mentioned earlier. But, even more importantly, professionally playing games is generally looked down upon or simply not understood by the majority of the population. And that is good for the people who actually do decide to play games professionally, because it means that their choice to do so is actually motivated by their desires, and not by any side effects or the perception of other people that such activities are good. I think people are often diverted from what they really want to do because they allow their judgments about what is worth doing to be influenced by other people. But that is exactly the wrong way to decide what to pursue, because it simply doesn’t matter in this situation what other people find valuable. However, as with all things, nothing is perfect, and desiring to play games professionally also comes with a psychological downside as well, namely that it is intrinsically competitive. And, while it is perfectly acceptable to desire to be good at something, the desire to be best is itself undesirable. There can only be one best, and so most people with such a desire are just setting themselves up to fail in life, not to mention that they may be putting themselves through undue stress.

So, to conclude, while professional game playing may seem valueless to the rest of us it isn’t to the people playing, and that is what really matters. And, because it seems so pointless to the rest of us, those people may actually serve as models of what living the good life might be like.

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