Thursday, 20 November 2008

Tough Questions

Apparently, it's been "Philosopher Day" recently. Not that I noticed. BBC took it as an excuse to feature an article on "Four Philosophical Questions that will Make Your Brain Hurt." So far, my brain feels fine, and I'm only slightly amused. Let's consider them in turn.

Should we kill healthy people for their organs?

I first misread that as "Should we kill wealthy people for their organs" and thought to myself: "My, what a good idea! that's no hard question at all." Unfortunately, on second glance, the question turns out to be the same old utilitarian vs. moralistic clash. And mind you, that's not strict philosophy, it's more like ethics.

You cannot justify utilitarian reasoning with moral doctrine. But you can doubt the utilitarian thought on other grounds: Since there is no way of predicting the future, utilitarian maximes will always be based on assumptions and guesswork. See the world as a system of interdependent states. Killing someone is quite an action on this system, and can have unpredictable consequences. Letting someone die of natural cause might be seen as part of the system, and will have the usual consequences.

Trying to answer this question without having a look at the big picture isn't sensible, but that's what they're doing here. And that's stupid. The big picture doesn't care about one person or five. WWII eradicated the same amount in Millions, per year. Humanity recovered. The human race is such that it can compensate for the loss of individuals. The current human (Western) society is such that it cannot (easily) compensate for the (open) loss of individual values. On the other hand, doing such things implicitly, is perfectly valid, even in the most "civilized" of nations. Or when did you last flush your fecal matter down the toilet, while children in other parts of the world die because of the lack of (clean) water.

Are you the same person who started reading this article?

Ugh. Not again that ol' "Who am I?" question. Heraklit (sortof) says: "You cannot go into the same river twice, since the river always changes." The question is the definition of "same." Ergo, the definition of individuality. If you like to think of time as nothing more than another dimension, you'll just say, it's me, over there. A state change does not indicate a change in kind. Or does it? Anyway, this doesn't make my brain hurt, it merely provides a nice distraction best discussed with friends over some pints of beer.

Is that really a computer screen in front of you?

Solipsism. How boring. For all I know, yes it is. It is safe to assume it is. If I'm mistaken, so be it. Conventionalism is the keyword here. Yes, senses can be fooled, but, what isn't perceived isn't there. What isn't perceived by me, isn't there for me. Since I call it a computer screen, and you call it a computer screen, it is a computer screen. If it turns out to be a sentient life form, disguising itself as something useful, I'd probably still call it a computer screen, at least until I find a better name and use for it.

Did you really choose to read this article?

Quoth the article:
Suppose that Fred existed shortly after the Big Bang. He had unlimited intelligence and memory, and knew all the scientific laws governing the universe and all the properties of every particle that then existed. Thus equipped, billions of years ago, he could have worked out that, eventually, planet Earth would come to exist, that you would too, and that right now you would be reading this article.

Ever heard of quantum physics? This scenario is as absurd as it is impossible, because there is no way of knowing all state in the universe. Even if you did, there is no way of predicting how that state would evolve.
But I like the idea of calling god 'Fred.'


ke said...

I pretty much agree. It often quickly becomes a question of "What does that even mean?" What does "the same" mean? And about the computer screen thing: What does it mean that "something IS really this or that" other than our senses, certain axioms we have acquired by nature or nurture, and our inner reasoning apparatus tell us so?

Another "what does that even mean" concerning the fourth question: If the world is deterministic, what does "choose" mean? Given any reasonable definition, a process of decision that may be - in principle - predictable, but that still exists. IMHO, determinism does not have any big implications for the concept of free will.

adimit said...

Exactly. What I cannot perceive, is not existent. Not for me it isn't.

If there's Fred and he's omniscient, omnipotent and omni-everything, that's fine, but I'm not. From my perspective, it's free will. If it isn't from Fred's, what difference does that make for me?

Musipher said...

Things that bore people often amuse cats, especially by the fact that people get bored by them. :) This was to the third "question", which i find particularly amusing.

It is one of the kind: "How can one be sure that one's desk doesn't turn noiselessly into a polka-dot rhino when no one looks?"

Actually, people's senses are so primitive, that they could easily be fooled, if this phenomena had happened.

As a cat I can assure you, this IS a computer screen, and your desks are loyal to you... But Santa, believe me, Santa is real


poet said...

What is real depends on our definition of reality... there's so much that depends on definition, it could actually make your neurons hurt (seeing that they have to do the defining) ... but I agree, these questions are old. How are you doing these days?

Hypertrophia said...

Baby, did you forget your meds? ;)