For Friday: Plato’s Idealism

The next Friday discussion will be held on Friday, May 19th, 2017 at 9PM ET (0100 UT) in the #Philosophical channel on Undernet. The topic will be Plato’s Idealism.

Platonic Idealism is one of the oldest of all philosophies and has had incalculable influence on not only the development of western Philosophy, but on thought in general. We will be looking at the general outlines of Plato’s philosophy through the lectures of Professor George Brooks. The first episode can be found here.

Going into the discussion, we needn’t spend a lot of time discussing whether Plato’s ideas are true or not. The question of what the world is has undergone considerable evolution since Plato’s day (ca. 400 B.C.) and any coherent discussion of such a question must consider a great many more issues besides what Plato believed, but a good place to start is, What did Plato believe? Because there is no doubt that his influence has carried forward. So the question for Friday is: What is Plato’s Idealism?

Hope to see you there.

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Our Political Leaders

I suppose the big problem with either party, the Democratic and the Republican leaders both, is that if you listen to what they promise–if you listen to what they say about themselves–it’s all going to be great. Everything they do is for you and I, the little guys of the world. They want to make jobs, they want world peace, they want prosperity for all. But it’s all bullshit. They’re lying. And most people don’t have enough experience or enough critical thinking to see through it. So we keep electing the liars… and there they are, again, today, lying while they screw every single American who doesn’t make at least $500K a year. It’s a club for the rich, and we ain’t in it.

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For Friday: Immanuel Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason

Immanuel Kant is generally considered to be the greatest philosopher of the modern era, that is, the period beginning with the 1700’s and proceeding to the current day. His first work, the Critique of Pure Reason, examined the relationship between our faculties of reason and sensibility and the real world, and lead to a conclusion that is somewhat similar in its basic character to Plato’s claim that we live inside a cave but can never leave it to see the world as it truly is. Unlike Plato’s claim, which was based on intuition, Kant proceeded through a series of arguments to establish the idea more in the nature of a proof, and in doing so, elucidated the basic faculties of reason and thought by which we may apprehend “reality,” to the extent that we do.

There is a fundamental gap between Kant’s view of our epistemological ground (basically, how we know things), and the way science and scientific knowledge is presented to us. The problem concerns what Kant called the “noumenon,” or the thing-in-itself. In Kant’s view, the thing in itself is forever beyond our reach; we can know how things seem to us but not how they really are. Science educators, however, tend to present science as a collection of facts about things in themselves, as if this is how objects and events really are.

The problem for Friday is to view a short lecture in four parts presenting the fundamentals of Kant’s ideas, and then to form a judgement of your own about this relationship, or “gap.” Do you think we can know things as they actually are? or, are we more limited, as Kant and Plato seemed to think?

The “reading” for Friday consists of the following YouTube videos:

Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 1 of 4) and
Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 2 of 4) and
Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 3 of 4) Space & Time
Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: Part 4

You may also find the interview by Bryan Magee on Kant to be interesting, although it’s not an assignment: Geoffrey Warnock on Kant

When choosing your approach, you might want to consider the following “argument:”
Most plants and leaves look green to us, so much so that it is customary to say “grass is green” and “this leaf is green.” This kinds of statements imply that green-ness is a quality of the plant material, and yet, is it really? Something looks green to us because the object reflects light, and the light it reflects predominates in the green section of the color spectrum. Thus it is green light that reaches our eyes, and so the leaf looks green to us. And yet, consider that in the absence of light, the leaf doesn’t look like anything, and in such cases, the leaf is not green; it’s dark. Further, you might wonder why it is that if the leaf absorbs red and orange kinds of light, why don’t we consider that to be what the leaf is, and not the colors it rejects? But in either case, you could admit that the light we see is not a part of the leaf at all, so in that sense, the leaf is no color at all.

So now, how do you see the leaf without color or brightness? Does this mean that you cannot see the leaf as it truly is? Can this kind of analysis be used with respect to our other senses as well?

Hope to see you Friday. Remember, the time is Friday, April 28th, at 9pm ET, or, if you’re in Europe, some four hours later. In Australia it would be Saturday morning. The place is the Undernet IRC channel #philosophical.

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For Friday: Consciousness, What is it?

I have been unable to find a good video lecture that provides an overview of the field of Philosophy of Consciousness. The best source I know of was written by David Chalmers and published in 2003, titled

Consciousness and its Place in Nature

Unfortunately for our purposes, the paper is rather long and fairly technical, so I will give a brief summary here. I would encourage you to read the discussion above if you have the time and patience.

There are a wide array of people who have studied the problem of consciousness from the standpoint of philosophy, and many of them have credentials in both philosophy and psychology. Neuroscience and neurobiology are not particularly relevant here as they are more concerned with how the physical structures in brains work than they are concerned with what it is like to be that brain, so we will focus on the philosophical aspects. Principle philosophers engaged in this question include Daniel Dennett, John Searle, David Chalmers, Ned Block, Thomas Nagel, and we could also throw in some comments by Sam Harris, and even, going back in history, David Hume. In particular, there are videos by Dennett, Searle, and Chalmers available on youtube that provide various perspectives on the nature of consciousness. The problem with them is that each one has a rather narrow focus, trying to present their own particular view of the problem and their own particular approach to it without exposing what others have said on the subject and what criticisms arise with their approach.

Philosophies of consciousness fall into four or five main categories.

Eliminativism. Eliminativists include Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland. The main argument is that there is really no such thing as consciousness. Consciousness is treated as an illusion, and dismissed as “folk psychology;” that is, a belief shared by many if not most people, and yet unsupported by factual, scientific investigation. In this approach to understanding the mind, all the work that needs to be done can be done by neurobiology and those aspects of psychology that study overt behavior. Objective analysis of evidence is the primary method of eliminativism, and it is unconcerned with subjective, personal accounts of unverifiable phenomena.

Eliminativism has not had wide success. It is popular with people who share a materialistic view of the nature of the world. It has the advantage that it dispenses with all forms of spiritualism and “the ghost in the machine.” According to the eliminativists, there is no ghost, and there is nothing going on that is not visible to an objective, external observer. One suspects the main reason why some philosophers take up this view is to support the work of neuroscience, the projects of artificial intelligence, and to avoid untidy and distracting arguments with people who think these scientific projects miss the point or lack important epistemology. This is not to say that eliminativists are not sincere. Some certainly are. Dennett’s perspective on the matter (to the extent that I understand it) is that the electrochemical, neural activity in brains makes symbolic representations of feelings, emotions, and thoughts, but in fact they are no more real than an image of a flower is a flower. No scientific instrument can find anything in brains that is not something physical.

Epiphenomenalism. This big word is essentially the belief that consciousness really does exist, there is something going on in the brain that could be called “mind” and “experience,” but it has nothing to do with what people actually do. In this view, consciousness has no causal powers. It is like a helpless observer who can watch what is happening (like, watching a movie) but there is no way for it to participate in the action. Epiphenomenalism is an appropriate approach to some other phenomena as well, for example an experienced auto mechanic can identify problems with an engine, and tell whether it’s functioning correctly, by listening to the sounds it produces, and yet it’s obvious that the sounds do not affect the engine, and the engine was never designed to produce those sounds. So this view is like saying that consciousness is a side effect of brain function, but has nothing to do with what the brain is doing.

Epiphenomenalists are not particularly interested in explaining how consciousness arises. For them, the question is roughly equivalent to studying how an automotive engine produces sounds–nobody really cares. It has nothing to do with the function and design of the engine. There is also something of a fatalist attitude toward free will, since epiphenomenalists do not think people are able consciously to influence their own actions. It’s like your awareness of things is along for the ride and all you can do is accept whatever happens.

Panpsychism. David Chalmers has at times proposed a sort of panpsychism. The term, much older than contemporary philosophy of mind, refers to the belief that there is some element of mind and consciousness in all matter; that everything has some fundamental component of consciousness. This idea goes back to thinkers including Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who proposed that the fundamental unit (or “particle”) of matter was the Monad (see Monadology) and that one of its properties was intellectual content. Chalmers’ argument is that if we assume that every particle of matter has a basic element of consciousness to it, then the appearance of complex forms of consciousness in certain types of matter can be understood simply as a form of accumulation of components. The unfortunate side effect is that you have to wonder if it’s moral to mistreat your mouse pad, and what it thinks of a mousepad’s life in the Universe. This rather Douglas Adams-esque problem is rarely discussed by panpsychists, as they usually suggest that awareness, as such, only arises in the more complex combinations of “consciousness particles.”

Dualism. There are two kinds of dualism, property dualism and substance dualism. Both forms suggest that the nature of the mind is fundamentally different from the nature of matter. Under these views, consciousness both exists, and has the potential of causal interaction with the material world. Most of the philosophers who reject dualism do so on the basis that it’s unclear how anything that is non-material can causally interact with material substances. On the other hand, the idea that mind and matter are different kinds of things seems quite common and very familiar to the average person, leading to a kind of frustration for many philosophers such as John Searle, who decries the situation that everyone he speaks to in audiences seems to want to be a dualist.

The problems of dualism are not unique to philosophy of mind. There are also dualist problems in understanding how natural law regulates matter, and how geometry has any relationship to the form and shape of physical objects. This question has a more general form in philosophical discussions of the relationship between mathematics and the sciences, since mathematics, being abstract, would seem to have no binding or necessary relationship to how physical forces and objects behave; and yet mathematics is fundamental to our understanding of nature.

The great problem with dualism, as far as most professional philosophers are concerned, has to do with the way it allows some form of “spirit” (“the ghost in the machine”) to re-emerge as a component of reality. This causes an emotional conflict with the objective purity of science, and so these guys want to avoid it at all costs.

Well there you have it. Most philosophies of mind and consciousness are some form of the above views. If you would like to know more,  you might like the following lectures on YouTube:

The Magic of Consciousness by Dan Dennett (56:23)

Consciousness & the Brain by John Searle (A TED talk; 15:50)

Hard Problem of Consciousness by David Chalmers (9:18)

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For Friday: Can We Reach the Stars?

There is a lot of talk in the news lately about “exoplanets,” planets in other solar systems around other stars. “Exo-” is a prefix often used in space science to mean outside our solar system, for example “exobiology” is the study of life on other planets.

But there are two questions that have to be answered before we need even consider the question of whether we should commit the effort, the money, and the human lives that would be required to travel to other planets: Is there anyplace to go? And, How would we get there? Many exoplanets have been found; over 2,000 by the last count I’m familiar with, hundreds confirmed and thousands waiting for confirmation. Recent headlines tout the discovery of “Earth-like” planets, but what does that mean? What counts as “Earth-like?” Artists’ illustrations show these new planets with cloud cover, continents, oceans, sometimes even landscape views. How do we know what they look like?

Check out Crash Course Astronomy #27 to learn how astronomers discover exoplanets.

As you will see, nearly all of these exoplanets have been discovered by indirect means. That means we have no images of them and only scanty information about them, typically their distance from their star, their mass and size, and how long it takes for them to make one circuit around their orbit. That’s not much. It’s not enough to see coastlines, sometimes it’s not even enough to tell whether the planet is rocky, like Mars, or gaseous, like Jupiter.

But new astronomical tools are coming online all the time. The “Thirty Meter Telescope” project is on the drawing boards and the construction site has already been broken, although it won’t be until the 2020’s that it enters service. This optical telescope, over 100 feet in diameter, would be capable of taking photographs of exoplanets. So eventually we may know of places where a human settlement might be viable. How would we get there?

Check out How long to travel to Alpha Centauri? for a delightful and surprising discussion of available and proposed methods for travelling to other stars. As it turns out, even the fastest vehicles currently within our technological reach would take thousands of years to reach even the nearest star–but there are always possibilities.

So what do you think? When might human beings be capable of voyaging to the stars? Now? In ten or twenty years? Or ever?

Be prepared to discuss these issues and questions for Friday, April 14th, at 9PM ET in the #Philosophical channel on the Undernet IRC network. See you there!

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For Friday: Artificial Intelligence

I’d like to provide two videos for your consideration this Friday. The first is a short piece by well-known American philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the second is a half-hour discussion by Noam Chomsky on the limits of cognitive science and the goals of artificial intelligence.

Keep in mind some of the recent “achievements” in the field: the Deep Blue computer that vanquished world grand-masters in the game of chess, and Watson, also by IBM, which was entered into a game of Jeopardy against human opponents and won. Both of these were considered by their authors to be demonstrations of the abilities and power of artificial intelligence, and yet we can ask, how well did they approach the capabilities of true intelligence? And then of course there’s the often-heard claim that some day computers will be able to design computers, and at that point the evolution of artificial consciousness and intelligence will far outstrip human capabilities and we as a species will be obsolete. How likely is it?

Also, you should be aware that there is a closely related subject in AI theory concerning consciousness, which technically is distinguished from intelligence, since it is at least conceivably possible to have intelligence without consciousness, and some philosophers in history have proposed that consciousness without intelligence is also possible (for example, Leibniz’s monad, and the hypothesis of panpsychism). IBM has sponsored conferences on the development of artificial consciousness and prefers to use the term “cognitive computing.”

So those are the three questions. What does Artificial Intelligence actually aim to do? What can it do? And what can we learn about human intelligence from the attempt?

The short piece by Daniel Dennett is here

The longer discussion by Noam Chomsky is here

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Can Facts Lead us to Moral Principles?

Some of us (I might mention Sam Harris) seem to believe that the application of reason based on facts can lead us cogently and rationally to moral positions and conclusions. But there is a long-standing philosophical tradition stemming from the work of the Scottish philosopher David Hume to the effect that no amount of facts and rational chains of reasoning can proceed from the merely fact-based to a moral conclusion. This position, called “Hume’s Gap,” is based on the notion that there is a fundamental difference in kind between observing that P is so (for some proposition P) and advising that R should be true (where R is some moral Rule). Clearly P’s are always true, and just as clearly, R’s need not be true because people are breaking moral precepts all the time. Thus facts are consistent with reality and moral injunctions are not. This distinction is usually summed up in the famous phrase, “You can’t derive an ought from an is.”

If this precept is true, then no amount of science and empirical discovery will ever tell us what moral rules we should live by, although, given some set of moral principles, and some set of facts F, it would be possible to conclude that these facts should lead us to take certain actions, or bring about certain conditions as consequences. For example, if it is a moral rule that we should not allow a person to starve, and some person W is starving, then it would be required of us to feed W. Thus, a fact (W is starving) and the moral rule (People should not starve) leads to the action of feeding W.

This debate has never been finally settled. The big underlying problem behind all the debate is just this: If we cannot derive moral precepts from facts, then how should we derive them? And whose derivations are to be trusted? (Notice that these questions have the form of an “ought,” and so they are not requests for facts.) On the other hand, if Hume’s gap is false and moral precepts can be derived from facts, what facts? And what moral rules do we correctly compute?

I will provide a personal suggestion on this problem next time.

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