Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Idiocy of Post Modernity

I recently came across the observation that “Post Modernism, in its adolescent attempt to ape the clever and witty in modern art, has shown itself to be lost in a cul–de–sac of idiocy” (source); with revision to ‘post modernism, in its adolescent attempt to ape the clever in modern philosophy, has shown itself to be lost in a cul-de-sac of idiocy’ I think we have a fitting description of this ‘paper’.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Stanford Encyclopaedia On Baudrillard.

The death of Derrida last year raised, among others, the question of who would take the position of the ‘First Man of French Philosophy’ – a position that in recent years had passed from Sartre to Foucault, who in turn passed it to Derrida. Among the contenders were Bernard Henri-Levy and Jean Baudrillard.

Baudrillard is one of the key ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers, his argument at one point being that society (in the contemporary West) had collapsed in on itself from the structures that had once supported it, and become the mass of ‘mass culture’. A parallel to this collapse was the decline of meaning, which has seen actual events transcended by simulations and simulacra, to a point where even the conflict of war had been replaced by its simulation (a position Baudrillard appears to have revised since September 2001). The style that he employs to convey this ideas is unusually idiosyncratic, and his prose can border on the obtuse.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has just published its entry on Baudrillard. Hopefully the extensive entry – twenty-two pages, the usual SEP length yet seemingly long for someone like Baudrillard who has a habit of writing rather short works – will go some way toward making Baudrillard’s volumous corpus opera somewhat more accessable.

Post Script - There is a link to an ammount of Baudrillard’s work on the links page and I intend to post a few notes on the entry in the next couple of days.

Singer and Singer – The Moral of the Story: An anthology of Ethics Through Literature

Peter Singer, and his wife Renata, have published a new anthology: The Moral of the Story. Leslie Cannold, in her review in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum, claims that it will be the sort of volume that will be returned to again and again.

Cannold’s thoughts on Singer himself, in the review, prove interesting. Cannold observes that with “the exception of Alain de Botton, Singer is without peer when it comes to picking the right topic and penning erudite and accessible prose steeped in casual references to philosophical debates on similar issues dating back thousands of years” – it is an observation that I would like to challenge. While de Botton is definitely accessible, I would not claim him to be erudite, since it always feels bland, contrived, and pretentious. Claiming that de Botton is the better of the two is simply misguided, Singer clearly is (this said even with my disdain for Singer and my enjoyment of de Botton). To even try to compare them seems somewhat pointless, since Singer is first and foremost an academic and an intellectual while de Botton is yet to amount to anything much more than a sophist. I am also yet, in my limited reading of Singer, to find him making casual references – his style always strikes me as well considered, and each reference is purposeful (unlike de Botton’s collections of attributions and quotations, jumbled together in a vain attempt at de Montaigne).

Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy – New Online Journal

The first issue of JESP is now available on-line. Given the rising costs of paper journal subscriptions, alternative on-line journals (with free content) should be supported as much as possible. The articles in the first issue deal with instrumental rationality …

Coleman On Globalisation And Ethics.

The University of Western Australia recently hosted a lecture by Dr Peter Coleman, a visiting Chair, on the topic of globalisation.

Coleman’s argument seems to be the way to redress the negatives of globalisation is through the ‘globalisation of morals’. He is, like most on the subject, aware that the processes of globalisation have both positive and negative impacts, including the impact that globalisation has had on nation states (a topic that Habermas has written an interesting work on). Coleman claims that these processes pose three challenges I) to adequate global governance for the common good, II) to a sustainable environment, and III) to solidarity with the poor and developing world. Coleman’s solution to these problems is to reinforce the notion of community, and the concept of nation that is derived from it, and from these notions to attempt to construct trans- and international consensus on other issues.

There are two main problems with this ‘modernist’ system of thought. It is ‘modernist’ because it seems to invoke the Kantian ideal of perpetual peace, though a consensus derived from rationality. Firstly, it fails to realise the complexities of the contemporary political environment – there is too much idealism in a mix where realism is better suited – where international consensus is hard to build unless it proves politically advantageous; gone are the days when many nations would rally to a global agreement, simply because it was a global agreement. Secondly, the very notion of globalising morals seems problematic – how do you develop an international consensus on such diverse things as norms? Even within the western world there are staggering differences between nations on which norms are acceptable, and these go beyond simply liberal-conservative divides. It is here that the challenge of solidarity with the poor of the developing world falls down, since the norms of contemporary society make it difficult for most people to have solidarity with the poor of their own nation, let alone the poor of other nations.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Schizophrenic Nightmares Come True - The Chip In Your Brain

Having a computer chip in your head controlling or monitoring your thoughts and actions is a cliched type of schizophrenic delusion, just like thinking you're Jesus Christ. But now this paranoid delusion has become reality.

Neuroscientists have successfully implanted a chip in the brain of a quadriplegic.(footnote 1) Its 100 gold sensors detect neural signals and feed them through wires thinner than a hair out through the scull to a computer interface. The quadriplegic can direct a mouse cursor by thought alone. Similar experiments have monkeys moving robotic arms by the power of thought. A large plug in the skull is the current uncomfortable and risky technique but scientists hope to develop wireless in the near future.

The focus of these developments is on enabling disabled people to regain the use of their limbs or cybernetic replacements - mechanical arms and legs. Feasibly the brain, remarkably adept at learning and coordinating movement in the world, could manipulate any kind of machine. You might be able to drive your car, fly a plane, hack into NASA, tell the security door your password, drive a tank on the other side of the world or fire off nuclear bombs on a bad day - all by thought alone. This is all focused on output from the brain and will probably in fact be used benevolently with useful cybernetic devices. In the current model there is no input from the chip back into, and influencing the brain.

But some related papers advocating this technology suggest it can be used to help not only physically disabled people, but people with depression.(footnote 2) The obvious suggestion is that such a chip could detect depressive activity in the brain and generate input to the brain to 'correct' it. If this is possible, then it is easy enough to see that people with schizophrenia might also be treated this way. The terrifying twist is that if someone fears that a computer chip has been implanted in their brain controlling their thoughts, the treatment for this might be to implant a computer chip in their brain to control their thoughts. So if you are worried that the military-industrial complex has already been using this technology since the 50's - watch out, they might cure you, or maybe they already have.

(This is leaving aside the whole question as to whether people with mental illness are in fact 'sick' and need to be 'cured' or whether they just have an artistic temperament, or think differently. While I acknowledge that some people might need help, and possibly treatment, I have serious concerns about over diagnosis, especially for depression. Statements are made by health authorities saying 1 in 5(footnote 3) or similar numbers suffer from depression or mental illness - to me being depressed is a perfectly sane reaction to this world.)

The good news is that while it is, in principle, easy to give people enhanced cybernetic motor control - it is very difficult for this technology to control emotions or types of thought, and practically impossible to report what someone is thinking. The brain is quite adept at learning the consequences of various neural activity and adjusting the links in its network to produce the right output. As babies we learn to move our limbs in an almost trial and error way. Our brains learn that certain activity produces certain limb movements and when learned, the successful configuration of connections and weights in the neural network is retained - though remains flexible as we need to respond differently to the changing world around us. To the brain it makes little difference if what responds to it's activity is a flesh and blood limb, or some robotic device.

Inputting to the brain to control it's activity is a different story. There is some degree to which this is possible. Electromagnetic fields have been applied to mentally ill patients' brains with some success, and the corresponding changes in brain activity at a broad scale are visible using brain scans. Mood changing drugs that affect the brain chemically have been with us for a long time. The point is that these are very general applications and effects and, in principle, they can only ever be general.

The neural networks of our brain do not store specific thoughts or functionality in localised easily discernable sites. The information in a brain, and it's functioning, is distributed widely across many nodes, or neurons, synapses, axons, dendrites and so on. To put this more simply, when someone thinks of a horse, there is not a particular compartment of the brain that corresponds to 'horse'. A whole series of activity and associations takes place, throughout the brain, and this activity constantly changes as the 'meaning' of a horse constantly changes in it's nuance and in different contexts. Thinking about a horse may be localised to some broad region of the brain, but this region would also be active for countless other thoughts and actions. Also, the configuration of one person's neural network when thinking of a horse, built up over time, may be entirely different to somebody else's regardless of how similar their response is, so that even if such a thought could be localised in one person, this does not apply to anyone else so it is just not feasible to attempt to detect it in anyone.

Remember also, that the brain naturally strengthens those network connections that are good and inhibits those that are bad (even if we have learned to do things we know are bad for us, it is because we derive some sort of satisfaction from them, or it is the way we have learned to get by in the world, whatever the social or cultural influences may have been). The brain will naturally inhibit inputs it doesn't like - though this applies to signals direct from the chip to the brain it leaves open the possibility of an overwhelming flood of brain affecting chemicals which cannot be resisted.

If delusional thinking is marked by a degree of over activity in some part of the brain, this could be detected by such a chip, which when processed through a program could lead to another component either outputting a certain type of drug, or some how changing the electrical activity in that broad area of the brain. So, in principle, it is relatively easy for a chip to gather output from the brain to control cybernetic devices, but difficult, though possible, for these chips to even broadly affect mood and types of thinking.

This potential is certainly something we should all be worried about, but it remains that yours and my thoughts, in their details as you and I experience them, remain our own. While the chip in my brain might one day tell the Pentagon I'm feeling kinky, no-one will ever know I am day dreaming of riding a horse in the Swiss alps while wearing a little French maid outfit.




Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Problem Regarding Violence And Creation

There is a growing volume of scientific data that points to intra-species violence (that is violence between members of the same species) being a phenotypic trait of Homo Sapiens (hereafter ‘humans’). How can this be rectified with the notion that God imposed suffering on man (apologies for the use of the masculine here) for the Original Sin of Adam?

I shall posit that there is no possibility of rectification, and that this is problematic for Christian theology.

(The argument here set out is only a first attempt – apologies for any error before I begin – and one that I have a slight intent to return to and develop, so any comments will be appreciated.)

The argument, as it has been presented by a visitor here, seems to run that God (the Judeo-Christian conception – seemingly more post-Protestant than Catholic) created Adam qua man as a perfect being free from suffering and death, and granted him free will. Adam then, under peer pressure, committed the sin of disobeying God (which seems to have been the only possible sin in Eden) – this event having been made possible by free will. God then punished man by casting him from Eden and into suffering. It is claimed then, that much of the suffering caused by man is a result of his free will.

This account does not appear to stand up to basic scientific scrutiny. Violence has been seen to be – however contentiously – at least partially hereditary; that is individuals born into families with a history of violence are more likely to be violent. This has given rise to an argument, much debated, that violence is genetically caused; and that there is a gene or group of genes that increase the likelihood of violence, and that in the right environment these genes will manifest themselves as phenotypic traits.

If humans are indeed phenotypic beings, with our individual phenotypes resulting from the interaction between our genes and our environment, this raises the question of how we came to be such. I will take it as beyond a reasonable doubt that human beings have genes – since I am yet to hear a Christian argue contra this – and for the purpose of the discussion acknowledge a creationistic view that God created man as a genetic being. Herein this account there lies a problem – if God created man he did so with a gene for violence because in both Genesis accounts God leaves man as created (except for the removal of a rib or two in one of the accounts) after He completes creation. Simply, when man is forsaken to this world, God is not recorded as interceding and inserting another gene into man for violence before sending man on his merry (?) way. So, it must be asserted that God engineered man with a gene for violence.

God need not have inserted this gene from a biological standpoint. It seems pointless to make the claim, as I fear some may want to do, that God had to insert a gene for violence because of free will – the claim is simply nonsense. In fact, if God had inserted a gene for violence, violence ceases to be an issue for free will. How is this? If a trait has a genetic basis, it is likely to become active regardless of the will of the possessor – I may will to have blue eyes, but I possess a gene that results in brown and my will can do nothing about my actual biology on this issue – and can be said to be ‘determined’. Effectively, if God implanted a gene for violence then God has caused man to be violent. I take this position to be one that few, if any, Christians would consent to yet it seems the only logical one given the evidence.

The options that appear are either to concede the error of creationism and acknowledge that the flawed evolutionary theory that we currently possess (which are being developed) are better at explaining this issue and thus are paradigmatically better, our to concede that God has caused violence by implanting a gene for it and the consequences that this must have for theology.

Some may rally to the cry that violence is a product of environment. This would be a valid claim were it not for the data from higher primates that seems to show them capable of intra-species violence. This does not sit well with creationism at all – either God gave the apes a gene for violence or they must also have committed their equivalent of Original Sin and been cast from Eden as well. Of course, the tendency to employ violence has been demonstrated to have evolutionary advantages, and can actually be considered evolutionarily valuable, which would amount to an explanation of violence in apes as well as humans, without recourse to a deity …

To restate the question – how can the scientific data pointing to violence having a biological basis be rectified with creationism?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

US Science Conference Prank

Simply couldn't let this one slip by ... Three guys develop a conference paper generator, they submit two papers, one is accepted! The rest is here.

There really is nothing like a good prank now is there.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Editorial Announcement: 15th April 2005

Those of you whom are regular visitors to these pages may have noticed a few changes to the Blog. These are part of the on-going Editorial process, and intended to make the Blog a more friendly place for Contributors and Visitors alike.

Simply, the List of Blogs has been updated to include a few new blogs (as part of our on-going attempt to maintain a nearly definitive list of the philosophy blogs on-line), which has meant that the List of Philosophical Links has been moved, and given its own post after the style of several other Philo-bloggers. Further, you will now find a post containing a means of contacting us in the new Nota Bene section; it is going to be here that Posts with on-going streams of discussion will be listed as they threaten to fall of the main page as well as other Posts Of Note, such as the Dialectic Tables Of Contents (which has finally found its way on-line) and the Fragmenta.

It is hoped that this changes will improve the Blog, in you – the Readers – interests.

The Editor.
Post Script, If you have any helpful comments feel free to leave them here. Many Thanks.

Peter Singer Appointed Time’s Influential Philosopher

Peter Singer, controversial utilitarian, has been appointed this year’s influential philosopher by Time Magazine (Time, April 18, 2005, p. 97). It is an interesting appointment to succeed Jurgen Habermas, and one likely to encourage some debate.

Arthur Caplan’s blurb on Singer is brief, pointing only toward Singer’s significance. But it does provide an insightful grasp of the relationship many of us, who are inclined towards ethics, have with Singer’s work (and him, by implication). Caplan writes:
It is easy to demonise Singer … since his theory points toward conclusions
that some find morally repugnant … Those who scorn his views can
rarely produce an argument about why he is wrong – they simply don’t like
his conclusions. But ethics is all about arguments, not moral pronouncements …
he is a man whose reasoning merits consideration by everyone. There are few
philosophers, living or dead, about whom that can be said.
Caplan and I agree in disagreeing with Singer, but I am willing to concede that his arguments are always worthy of careful consideration. (I am one of those who has been trying to pull apart his arguments for the moral consideration of animals so that I can maintain my carnivorism in clear conscience, ever since Singer turned me into a vegetarian for a couple of weeks in 2002). I am also drawn to his arguments regarding infanticide and euthanasia.

I would like to open this post up for a discussion of Singer’s corpus.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Golding On The Existence Of God

Given the discussion in these parts over the past days, weeks, has revolved around God - His ontological status - it is perhaps fitting that Richard Swinburne has seen fit to prepare a second edition of his The Existence of God.

Here is the Notre Dame review, by Josh Golding ... Goldings observation that the best the theist can do is establish the 'objective probability' of God is apt; it is important for those who bandy proofs around here as if they are conclusive to remember that they are oft at best only logically sound, and that it is only when definitive and conclusive emperical evidence is established that the arguments may be considered valid - (there is the old observation that the Ontological Argument has never converted anyone) - and that until then it rest on the theist to prove existence and not vice versa.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Philosopher's Carnival, No. Twelve is presently hosting the Twelth Philosopher's Carnival. Wide range of material submitted, and references to several posts on themes that are presently under discussion here ... worth checking out if you want access to some different perspectives.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Dialogue? What dialogue?

For those who attended the horror that was the Christians and Sceptics 'Dialogue' on last thursday, all I can say is :"Ow, I think I just ruptured my spleen". (someting I said a number of times during the actual event).

If anyone would like to continue (or actually start) the debate/dialogue regarding the question "Do we need God?" or our favorite "Does God exist?" or the more relavent"Is it reasonable to beleive in God?", please feel free to make this the forum in which to do so. I would suggest starting a new thread/post for each indivdual question, so as to make the collection of replies neater and more coherent.

With regard to the event itself, I have this to say: Both side were poorly organised. The Sceptics especially so. The NASA (Newcastle Adventist Students Association) speakers spent much of the time pedalling account that a decent first year philosophy student could have refuted, or at least made a fair reply to. The Sceptics howerver, were not equipped to deal with even these somewhat elementary arguments. It would seem that NASA came out on top on the day, but only because their speakers were better at playing to the crowd. Don't be so smug guys, it was not a great victory.

So to everyone out there: If you want to have a real argument about God (or anything else) that might actually be a challenge, bring it on.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

That thing about God

For those who can't get a copy of Opus here is the article in full.

Arguments Over the Existence of God. Part 1.

During O Week, the Philosophy Club was just one group on campus handing out a number of different flyers. Of the hundreds that were handed out, we received back a handful of written reactions. It is my intention to reply, as it were, to these responses, mainly by pointing out how they are not adequate solutions to the issue at hand.

The bulk of the responses were to a flyer that quoted David Hume explaining what is known in philosophy as the ‘Problem of Evil’. Here is what Hume had to say on the matter:

“If the evil in the world is from the intention of the Deity, then he is not benevolent. If the evil in the world is contrary to his intention, then he is not omnipotent. But it is either in accordance with his intention or contrary to it. Therefore the Deity is not benevolent or not omnipotent”(Hume, Dialogues Concerning Religion).

The problem is easy to see. By this argument, an all-powerful being that allows tragic, painful and unpleasant events to occur is not benevolent. If a being means well, and would bring about a different state of affairs, but can’t, then it is not omnipotent, that is to say it is not an all-powerful being. Both these attributes seem central to what people tell us that a supreme being is like, which is why this problem never seems to entirely go away.

One of our first respondents wrote:

“This assumes that God is unable to use the evil in the world to his good ends.”

This response falls short of a solution by a very long way. It might well be true that God could use evil events, actions or means to his good ends, as the response seems to suggest. But this an omnipotent being, right? He could have used good means to achieve his ends. Or bizarre chicken-dependant means. Or no means at all, since an all-powerful being could just attain their ends directly by willing them to be so. Hume assumes nothing; he just asks why an omnipotent being would choose such objectionable methods.

A more comprehensive attempt was fielded by one of our blue-shirted faithful brethren:

“But what if the Deity’s cheifest desire was not benevolence – but love. Then he must allow free will for us to love. Similarly, his will is that we have our own will. This means we can endeavour for or against him – our choice. Since we work against him there is evil in the world.”

This is a better effort. The appeal to ‘free will’ has been a standard response to this problem for a long time now. In one form or other it is at the core of many of the most enduring attempts to solve the problem. But does it work? At a glance it is pretty good. If we have a choice, then it seems plausible to suggest that these choices are not always going to be the right ones and people are going to suffer as a consequence. God has to let us be free to be bastards to each other. But think a bit more. There are a lot of things we aren’t free to do, such as levitate on command, digest quartz, or transform into wild animals. Some thinkers have suggested that since we are already not completely free there is nothing contradictory about having free will and not being able to hurt (physically at least) our fellow beings. On top of this it is worth revisiting the first response. It may not be logically incoherent to suggest that a really omnipotent being could have made us so we never made the wrong choice, yet were always still free. At the very least God could intervene occasionally, by giving the occasional evil dictator a premature, but painless death. If I could intervene to prevent a violent crime, with no danger to myself but didn’t, people would consider me a monster or an idiot. The question in many people’s minds is this: If it is wrong for me to not intervene, then why is it not wrong for God?

Arguments about ‘free will’ and how it relates to this problem are somewhat unresolved. Questions to consider would be: Is the ‘free will’ humanity possesses proportional to the suffering that it experiences? Is the freedom of one particularly nasty person, eg Stalin or Hitler, worth more than the suffering of the millions of victims they were responsible for?

There is one area, however, where this response clearly fails. Natural evils. I would have thought that so soon after a natural disaster, I would not see anyone fall into that trap. Sure, we could admit that us having our own free will could be responsible for us being crappy to each other. But it does not account for the suffering caused by earthquakes, and any number of other natural phenomena that we do not, (for the most part), have any control over. Our ‘free will’ and the pain and heartbreak these events can cause have no relation whatsoever, and hence is no defence.

For the same reasons, the following response is also inadequate:

“Maybe individual human discretion just gets in the way of her benevolence and omnipotence.”

Maybe. But how exactly could one “get in the way of” a supreme being that is credited with creating our entire universe? I apologise for any offence caused by using a quote that assumes the gender of God; if I had written it myself, I would have said He/She or She/He etc. If God does exist, then maybe it is a She. But it has no effect on this problem.

The last response I want to look at was to our “Babel Fish” flyer. This entertaining bit of logic has its origins in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. For the uninitiated, the Babel fish is a fictitious animal; if you stick one in your ear you can understand any language you hear. I can’t believe anyone took it seriously enough to write back. Any way, here is the argument, adapted by myself from the radio script:

I. God refuses to prove that he exists, as proof denies faith, and without faith He is nothing.
II. The Babel fish is so useful that it is unlikely to have evolved by chance, and hence must be the work of God.
III. The Babel fish therefore, can be taken as proof of God’s existence.
I. Since God refuses to prove that He exists; proof of His existence constitutes a proof of His non-existence.
V. God does not exist.
(Adams, D. “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).

The response consisted of the person critiquing each point in turn, and I will follow their lead:

“I – Gods creation is proof of his existence. He has advertised his existence. Faith means to know something and believe it.”

Creation is only proof of his existence if you already believe in him. If you don’t, it might not be so convincing, especially in light of the problems encountered by people during their existence. Creation can only be considered proof of God’s existence if it can be proven that He/She at least caused it, and if it can be shown that there was no other way that it could have come about. There are plenty of accounts that explain how the universe began that do not mention God.

As for faith, this is a tricky area. Knowing something and believing something are two different things. Millions of people around the world seem to ‘know’ things via faith in the way that is implied here, and they can’t all be right.

“II & III – Can’t argue with that”.

They certainly got that bit right.

“IV – See I.”
Sorry, still doesn’t work If God says that He will never prove His existence, and then does, three things are possible; He has at least gone back on his word, He isn’t as omnipotent as his advertising has led people to believe, or He doesn’t exist.

“V – Does so.”
Now we get down to the guts of the matter. In my experience, this is where most arguments with the faithful about the existence of God (or whatever) end up. Which is about what I expected.

In the end there is no clear winner. Believers will stand up and say that everything is ok because philosophers can’t prove that God does not exist. And they are right. But remember, in the same way that I can’t prove that God does not exist, they can’t prove that He (or She) does either. Keep that in mind next time someone tries to give you a pamphlet.

If you feel I’m mistaken in my reasoning, or just feel the need to argue, please go to the club website, , and tell us what you think.

(References available on request)
-Sam Douglas.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Douglas On The Existence Of God

Samuel Douglas has had his essay 'Arguements over the existence of God' published in Opus Issue 2, 2005. (Opus is the University's student magazine). Copies are available around the campus (there are stacks in the Auchmuty Foyer).

Given that the piece was born of an attempt to engage the various Christian organisations in discussion, this post is being made available to anyone who would like to comment on Samuel's piece, or who would like to make any - rational - comments on the general topic of God's existence.

Also, a reminder that the NASA debate will be held on Thursday (details).

Ethics And Weapons of Mass Destruction

NDPR has just published a reivew of what looks like an interesting anthology on ethical perspectives regarding weapons of mass destruction. The review is available here.