Monday, June 17, 2013

Can we upload our minds? Hauskeller on mind-uploading (Part Two)

(Part One)

Could we achieve digital immortality by uploading our minds? Would such a process prolong our existence? Those are the questions being asked in this series of posts. The series is looking at Michael Hauskeller’s article “My Brain, My Mind and I: Some Philosophical Assumptions of Mind-Uploading”, which casts a sceptical eye over the notion of mind-uploading.

Part one is probably essential pre-reading before tackling this part, but to quickly recap, we are investigating the Mind-Uploading Thesis (MUT). According to the MUT, it is possible to prolong the existence of the Lockean self (i.e. the self as a continuing subject of conscious experience) by replacing one’s brain with an artificial analogue. There are several conceivable ways of doing this, two of which are important for our purposes: (i) gradually, whereby there is a step-by-step replacement of one’s brain parts by artificial equivalents; or (ii) discontinuously, whereby one’s brain is copied, emulated in some non-biological medium, and then the original is destroyed.

Obviously, we can’t say for sure that mind-uploading is feasible at this point in time. The concept is science fictional in the strong sense. Still, we can make some arguments about it. The best argument in its favour comes from the functionalist theory of mind. This argument can be stated as follows:

  • (1) It is possible to recreate a particular set of functional relationships in any media (Multiple Realisability Thesis)
  • (2) The mind (Lockean person) is simply a particular set of functional relationships between neurons (etc.) (Functionalist Thesis).
  • (3) Therefore, it is possible to recreate the mind in a non-biological medium, such as a digital computer or artificial neural network.
  • (4) Therefore, it is possible to preserve the Lockean person through mind-uploading.

One of the major problems with this argument comes in the inference from (3) to (4). As was highlighted at the end of part one, there is a logical gap between the two: even if it is possible to copy a mind and emulate it in a digital or artificial medium, it does not follow that the copy will preserve the Lockean person. Indeed, quite the opposite would seem to be true: if you have two copies of something they both have an independent ontological identity.

If the MUT is to be defended, additional assumptions and arguments must be provided to plug the gap between (3) and (4). In this post, we’ll look at two arguments that try to do exactly that. First up is an argument based on an analogy with book-copying, and second is the argument from gradual replacement. As we shall see, Hauskeller rejects both arguments, but I’m not so sure he’s that convincing in his rebuttals, particularly in the case of the second argument.

1. The Story-in-a-Book Analogy
You could argue that the gap between (3) and (4) is an illusion, an artifact of a misconception. The misconception relates to the nature and implications of a purely functionalist theory of mind. A proponent of that theory might argue that the whole point of functionalism is that the exact same mind can be instantiated in more than one medium at a time.

Consider an analogy. There are two copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses sitting on my shelves. The books have different covers, different fonts, and different page layouts. But they contain the same story. That’s because the story is an emergent property of the functional relationship between different words and sentences. These words and sentences can be reproduced in many mediums, and yet still share a one-to-one identity. The stories are not only qualitatively identical, they are numerically identical too. Couldn’t this be true of the mind as well? Isn’t the mind just like a story in the brain? And if so, why couldn’t one-and-the-same mind be recreated in multiple media?

This gives us an argument from analogy:

  • (5) When you have two copies of the same book, they contain one-and-the-same story, i.e. the stories are identical.
  • (6) The mind is like a story in a book.
  • (7) Therefore, it is possible to have two copies of the brain with one-and-the-same mind.

Hauskeller thinks this argument breaks down because it ignores a crucial ingredient in the original case. Two books cannot be said to share the same story without a reader’s mind interpreting the words and symbols on the page. Indeed, stories themselves don’t really exist without this crucial ingredient (since language is largely a matter of collective belief). It is the reader’s mind that recreates the story and allows for the one-to-one relationship between the stories in the two books.

What difference does this make to the argument? Hauskeller thinks it motivates a counter-analogy. This one focusing on two readers rather than two books. Imagine there are two readers reading the same story. Imagine further that they are so immersed in the story that no other thoughts or memories intrude on their reading. Thus, the stream of consciousness in both minds is the exact same. Despite this equivalency, is it still not true to say that there are different persons undergoing the same set of experiences? And if this is right, doesn’t it imply that creating a functional copy of the mind will not preserve the Lockean person? Hauskeller argues that it does, that different selves can share the same thoughts. (Note: Hauskeller bases this argument on conceivability not possibility. In other words, he is not claiming that the two readers example is actually possible, but that it is conceivable).

There is a possible riposte to this. It argues that the Lockean person (self) is an immediate property of our conscious experiences. So that if two brains are sharing the exact same stream of thoughts — as they are in the two readers example — then they really are one-and-the-same person. Hauskeller grants that this objection would defeat his argument. All I will say here is that this is a pretty recondite and difficult metaphysical question. I’m not sure we could ever know for sure who is right. This brings me back to the decision-theoretical framework suggested by Agar (mentioned in part one). Assuming a technology did exist for uploading the mind, and assuming all outward-facing evidence suggested that the digital copy thought the same thoughts as you did, you’ll just have to take a gamble on which metaphysical thesis is true. I have to confess, I would not be willing to bet that my Lockean self would survive. But if I’m going to die anyway, I’d have nothing to lose by undergoing the procedure.

2. The Gradual Replacement Argument
The previous argument speaks mainly to the case of discontinuous uploading and replacement. What about gradual replacement? This is where your brain is gradually replaced by functionally equivalent artificial parts. There is no point at which your original biological brain ceases the be and your new artificial version begins. There is instead a step-by-step slide into an artificial you. A more elaborate version of the scenario involves the complete replacement of all body parts with artificial equivalents, with much the same implications.

And what are those implications? Well, consider the spectrum below. At R1 you are a biologically normal adult, with full Lockean personhood. At R2 you replace your limbs. Are you still the same Lockean person? Surely you are. Now move on to R3 where you replace all your sensory organs with artificial equivalents. Is your identity preserved in this case? Presumably it is since we can do this to a minimal degree already and it doesn’t seem to destroy the Lockean self. How about R4, where individual neurons are gradually replaced by functional equivalents? This is obviously trickier since we don’t know for sure what would happen, but it seems to me that your identity would be preserved if you replaced a few of your neurons. Admittedly though, this would be a gamble. That leaves us finally with R5 where every part of your brain is replaced. Assuming Lockean personhood has been preserved through all the previous replacements, it would be odd to claim that it was suddenly destroyed at this point. (Note: there are direct connections between this case and the classic thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus).

There is an argument here and it rests on a simple inductive principle:

Replacement Principle: If a part of an object O is gradually replaced in a step from Rn to Rn + 1, and the identity of O is preserved in that step, then the gradual replacement of further parts in equivalent steps (i.e. Rn+1 to Rn + 2) will also preserve the identity of O.

But is this principle correct? Hauskeller argues that it is not. He says that arguments from graduality generally fail because they deny the reality of change. The classic Sorites thought experiment is said to illustrate the problem. Take a heap of sand and start reducing it in size, one grain at a time. The removal of one grain is never sufficient to change the heap of sand into a non-heap, but nevertheless if you keep removing grains of sand it will eventually become a non-heap. So even if there is gradual change, and even if there is no point along the continuum of change at which an object can definitely be said to change from one form to another, there is nevertheless change. Reasoning along these lines could defeat the argument from gradual replacement.

Similarly, Hauskeller argues that there are cases in which an object is gradually altered, and even though each alteration doesn’t seem to fundamentally change its properties, it does change radically and discontinuously towards the very end of the sequence. Imagine you have a bowl of water, warmed to 20 degrees celsius. Now imagine that you gradually reduce it in temperature, one degree at a time. As you repeat this over and over, the water won’t seem to fundamentally change. In particular, it won’t look like it is changing from liquid to solid. But this is exactly what happens. The water turns to ice once it is cooled below 0 degrees. If we apply this reasoning the gradual replacement of brain parts, it could be that although no fundamental change seems to be occurring throughout the gradual replacement, at the very end it does. You could rapidly change from you, into someone else altogether.

There is something appealing about Hauskeller’s arguments. And his general objections to the Replacement Principle are well-taken. But it still seems to me like the principle could apply in certain cases. Most of the cells in the human body replace themselves over time without this fundamentally changing who we are (as best I can tell anyway). Admittedly, this continual replacement does not seem to be true of all neurons, even though new brain cells and new neural networks can form over time. Still, you’d have to think that certain brain cells are somehow magical, irreplaceable, consciousness-exuding entities to think it is impossible not to have gradual replacement without preservation of identity.

To be clear, the point I am making is not that the Replacement Principle is defensible — I don’t think it is — but I do think replacement without fundamental change is possible in at least some cases. Mind-uploading might very well be such a case. Hauskeller’s counterexamples don’t defeat this point. They do give reasons to doubt preservation, and these would need to be factored in when making any decision about uploading, but so too would the reasons for thinking it is possible.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, mind-uploading gains support from the functionalist theory of mind. But there is significant metaphysical uncertainty surrounding it. A functional copy of the mind may preserve the Lockean self, but then again it may not. Likewise, the gradual replacement of the brain may preserve the Lockean self, but then again it may not. Any decision to upload would be made under this metaphysical uncertainty, and this would impact on our decision making.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Are we cosmically insignificant?

Many people are concerned about our size and status in the universe. The universe is mind-bogglingly big, old, empty, and largely inhospitable to life; we are small, short-lived and confined to a remote and humdrum corner of it. This difference in scale is often thought to have some philosophical implications. In particular, it is thought to rob us of significance, meaning and value. But is this right?

I’ve looked at this question before, most recently when revisiting Tom Nagel’s classic article on the absurd. Agreeing with Nagel, I suggested that issues of scale have little impact on meaning, significance and value. If certain things possess intrinsic value, then their value is not diminished or eliminated by the largeness of the universe. I still think this is pretty much on the money, but a recent article by Guy Kahane on this very topic caught my eye the other day (h/t to exapologist) and gave me some pause for thought.

Kahane doesn’t actually challenge the position defended by Nagel (and myself), but he does offer a novel and interesting analysis of cosmic significance. I want to examine it here. In the process, I hope to clarify and simplify some his arguments, which should be a useful exercise for anyone with an interest in this topic.

(Rant: I usually wouldn’t say this, but I have to confess that Kahane’s article was one of the least enjoyable papers that I have read in some time. I’d be curious if anyone else shared this reaction. It could be that my expectations for a paper on this topic just didn’t match up with his preferred style of discussion, but part of me thinks he just didn’t write it that well and I’d like to know if I'm out of line in thinking this.)

Anyway, I’ll break the discussion down into four parts. First, I’ll tackle some conceptual and definitional issues, in particular the nature of cosmic significance and its relation to value theory. Second, I’ll present an argument that suggests that we (humanity) are cosmically insignificant. Third, I will argue, along with Kahane, that this relies on an implausible measure of significance (and hopefully I’ll be a lot clearer about the different measures than Kahane). Fourth, I’ll show how the inclusion of a more plausible measure of significance leads to an alternative argument, one suggesting that we might actually be immensely significant.

To give a capsule summary of Kahane’s main thesis (as interpreted by me): humanity as a whole may be immensely cosmically significant, but individual humans may not. So if you are looking for something to assuage your existential doubts, this isn’t the best place to start. But if you want to clarify your thinking about significance, this could be exactly what you need.

1. What is Cosmic Significance/Insignificance?
Since it’s nice to attach labels to things — if only for ease of reference — I’m going to attach one to the central issue in this discussion. I’m going to call it the “Cosmic Insignificance Worry” (CIW). The CIW is that, in the cosmic sense, human lives count for little. This is usually cashed out in terms of our physical smallness, finiteness, and geographical location. Humans, we are told, are tiny specks in an vast cosmic ocean. This is disquieting.

There are many evocative and poignant illustrations of the CIW. One of my favourites comes from a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. In the first panel, Calvin and Hobbes are outside at night, looking up at the stars. Calvin passes some comment about how the universe seems to go on forever and ever. In the next panel, Hobbes replies that it makes you wonder why man thinks he is such a big deal. We switch then to the final panel, this time set indoors, with Calvin saying “That’s why we stay inside with our appliances”. It’s silly, but it effectively captures the point. There is something so existentially discomfiting about the cosmic perspective that it leads us to retreat to our small, cosy, human perspective. (This theme crops up repeatedly in Calvin and Hobbes by the way).

But what is the CIW actually about? What exactly is threatened by the cosmic perspective? Kahane identifies a few flawed answers to that question. I’ll just mention one version for illustrative purposes: the metaethical-CIW. According to this, the problem with our smallness is that it removes the foundation for objective moral value. But it’s difficult to see how this could be true. If there is objective value, then it doesn’t seem like the smallness or largeness of the universe would have any effect on it. It’s either there, or it’s not. The size of the environment in which it resides (or on which it supervenes) would seem to be irrelevant.

I think that’s exactly right, but it raises the question: what is the correct (or most plausible) version of the CIW? Kahane thinks the correct version speaks not to meta-ethical issues, but rather to issues of focus and importance. While scale may not eliminate or reduce value, it may affect which kinds of value are most worthy of attention. Indeed, this seems to be precisely the effect of scale on other things. A tiny pebble in the middle of the road, is not really worth paying attention to, but a large boulder might be.

This could be the basis of an argument for cosmic insignificance.

2. The Argument for Cosmic Insignificance
It seems generally true to say that scale has an impact on attention-worthiness. Kahane has a nice analogy for this. Imagine you are a historian writing books that take different perspectives. In the first instance, you are writing a history of your family. From that perspective, the medal that your father won in his school sports competition might be quite significant, certainly something to include in the book you’re writing.

But now suppose you are writing a history of your local area. Is your father’s medal worth including then? Possibly, but it would depend on how much of an impact your father had on local events, or whether he grew up to be a local sports star or something like that. If he was, then it might be worth including; otherwise it wouldn’t be. It’s too trivial a detail from that perspective. Now jump to the national perspective. Is your father’s medal worth including in the nation’s history? Probably not, but again it would depend on other factors. Events like this are typically not relevant from the national perspective. They just don’t register on that scale.

We can repeat the shift in perspective a few more times if we like, but the point is clear. As we shift scales — from the familial, to the local, to the national, to the global and, eventually, to the universal — events that once seemed significant begin to lose this quality. This is because significance is always judged relative to a particular context. Your father’s medal-winning has significance relative to your family’s history, but not relative to the national history. As context broadens, significance seems to diminish.

There seems to an argument here:

  • (1) As the context broadens, objects, events and states of affairs become less and less significant.
  • (2) The cosmic context is vast (perhaps infinite).
  • (3) Human lives are tiny relative to this context.
  • (4) Therefore, human lives are immensely insignificant (from the cosmic perspective).

This argument is seductive, but deeply flawed. The flaws emanate from the motivating principle (premise 1). This principle is terribly imprecise. Implicitly, it suggests that there is some way to measure the significance of particular objects, events and states of affairs, but it’s pretty vague about the actual standard of measurement it is putting forward. If we want to make any sense of the argument, we need to get a lot more explicit about how we are measuring significance.

3. How do we measure significance?
Significance must be a measure of the value or interest of an object, event or state of affairs, relative to some other property or properties. The crucial variables here are what is being compared to what. We need to pin those variables down to make reliable, consistent and justifiable judgments about significance. In certain cases, the variables will be easy to characterise; in others, much less so.

In the case of writing a history from some particular perspective, the variables are usually pretty clear. If you are writing you history of your own family, then the significance of an event is its merit or interest relative to the overall story of your family. If your father’s medal-winning seriously affected the future course of your family’s life (say: he met your mother at a medal-winning party), then its obviously highly significant and worth including. If it doesn’t have this connection to other events, it might still merit inclusion, but it depends on the competition. What other events are out there that might also merit inclusion?

So what are the relevant properties in the case of the CIW? Clearly, when asking questions about cosmic significance we are asking about our intrinsic value (i.e. the objective value of human beings) relative to some property of the universe. But which property (or properties)? For the argument outlined above to work, we must assume that the other property is the size or temporal duration of the universe (let’s just focus on size for now since temporal duration raises similar issues). That suggests the following measure for the significance of some object, event or state of affairs (SignificanceE):

Measure One: SignificanceE = Value/ Size of the Universe

This is a pretty odd way to measure the cosmic significance of an event. If intrinsic value is the first key variable, why should we think that this gets diluted by the size of the universe? Such a view reduces to the absurd. Imagine a simple block universe about the size of a football field. In the centre (or in the corner — it doesn’t matter) a small child is being tortured needlessly. There is nothing else in the universe. Clearly, this event is of great moral significance in this universe*. Now imagine a block universe the size of bedroom. Again, the universe contains nothing apart from a small child being tortured. Does the event suddenly increase in moral significance because the size of the universe has diminished? Surely not, but that’s what the above measure is saying.

The problem is that when you’re measuring significance you really have to compare like with like. So, when you are wondering whether an event is cosmically significant, you have to compare the value of that event to the value of everything else in the universe, not to overall size of the universe. Call the first variable ValueE and the second variable ValueU (where U means “every event in the universe”). That gives us:

Measure Two: SignificanceE = ValueE / ValueU

This makes a lot more sense, and avoids the absurd implications of the first measure. Take the simple block universe (about the size of a football field) and compare two versions of it. In the first, one small child is being tortured (call this event E), but nothing else of moral concern is happening. In this universe, the significance of the child’s torture is 1. This means the torture is of immense or total moral significance. Now consider a second version. In this one, ten thousand small children are being tortured. In this universe, the significance of the child’s torture (E) is greatly diminished (1/10,000). This makes sense. There are so many other events of moral concern taking place that E loses some of its significance. E competes for attention with other valuable events.

4. The Argument for Cosmic Significance
If we take another shot at formulating an argument for cosmic insignificance, only this time we explicitly use Measure Two rather than implicitly using Measure One, we end up with a very different argument. Indeed, we could even use Measure Two to make an argument claiming that humans are of immense cosmic significance. How would this work? Well, one thing that is disturbing about the universe as we currently know it, is how utterly devoid of life it seems to be. If we take it that conscious, intelligent and rational agents are the only bearers of intrinsic value, and that the universe is empty of such beings outside of the planet earth, we get the following argument:

  • (5) The cosmic significance of E (where E stands for any event, object or state of affairs) is equal to ValueE divided by ValueU.
  • (6) Humans possess intrinsic value.
  • (7) Nothing else in the universe possesses intrinsic value.
  • (8) Therefore, the value of humans (ValueE) is equivalent to the value of everything in the universe (ValueU).
  • (9) Therefore, the cosmic significance of humans is equal to 1 (which is the maximum amount of significance anything can have).

Premise (7) is obviously controversial. I can only imagine a nihilist denying premise (6), and they have nothing to worry about from a cosmic perspective anyway (“If nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters”). Likewise premise (5) has been defended in the preceding discussion about measures of significance.

So what can we say about premise (7)? Two things seem apposite here.

First, it could of course be true that there are other conscious, intelligent, rational beings out there in the universe. This is an empirical matter that has yet to be settled (concerns about the great silence or the great filter notwithstanding). If it turns out that we are alone in the universe, then the argument would seem to hold. If we are not — if the universe is in fact teeming with conscious, intelligent and rational lifeforms — then our significance diminishes. By how much? Who knows.

Second, it could be that there other things in the universe that bear intrinsic value, besides conscious, intelligent and rational beings. For example, perhaps all sentient life, or all living things (regardless of sentience) bear intrinsic value. In that case, the significance of humans would definitely diminish to some extent (since we know that there are other sentient or living beings here on Earth). But would it diminish greatly? There is some reason to think it wouldn’t, for even if these things have value, it’s likely that conscious, intelligent and rational beings possess much greater value. So humans would still be pretty significant. Much the same reasoning works if non-living material things possess intrinsic value (like, say, black holes and comets), though one must also note that it seems unlikely that these things have intrinsic value. At best, they are likely to have instrumental or extrinsic value.

A final point needs to be discussed as well. The argument speaks to the cosmic significance of humans as a collective. In other words, it measures the significance of every human being relative to the universe, not of individuals relative to the universe. This is important, because if we apply the same measure of significance to individual human beings, the situation remains disquieting. The significance of the individual human is massively diluted by the presence of billions of other human beings, with the same intrinsic properties. But then there’s nothing particularly “cosmic” about that problem: it would arise even if the universe just contained the Earth and the sun.

5. Conclusion
So where does that leave us? Hopefully, with a little more wisdom than when we started out. We now have a better handle on the notion of significance and the CIW. As we have seen, it is indeed implausible to think that the size and age of the universe have an impact on our significance. If significance is, first and foremost, a measure of our intrinsic value, then it’s very difficult to see why it would decrease in proportion to the size or age of the universe.

What is far more likely is that our significance decreases in proportion to all other intrinsically valuable things in the universe. This may or may not be disturbing. It depends on what else is out there possessing intrinsic value. If humans are the only possessors of intrinsic value, then they are immensely significant, even from the cosmic perspective. If there are other possessors of intrinsic value, our significance diminishes.

* This reveals an interesting property of significance. It is symmetrical with respect to negative or positive value. A highly negative event can have just as much significance as a highly positive one.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Can we upload our minds? Hauskeller on Mind-Uploading (Part One)

A lot of people would like to live forever, or at least for much longer than they currently do. But there is one obvious impediment to this: our biological bodies break down over time and cannot (with current technologies) be sustained indefinitely. So what can be done to avoid our seemingly inevitable demise? For some, like Aubrey de Grey, the answer lies in tweaking and re-engineering our biological bodies. For others, the answer lies in the more radical solution of mind-uploading, or the technological replacement of our current biological bodies.

This solution holds a lot of promise. We already replace various body parts with artificial analogues, what with artificial limbs, organs, and sensory aids (including, more recently, things like artificial retina and cochlear implants). These artificial analogues are typically more sustainable, either through ongoing care and maintenance or renewal and replacement, than their biological equivalents. So why not go the whole hog? Why not replace every body part, including the brain, with some technological equivalent?

That is the question at the heart of Michael Hauskeller’s article “My Brain, My Mind, and I: Some Philosophical Assumptions of Mind Uploading”. The paper offers a sceptical look at some of the assumptions underlying the whole notion of mind-uploading. In this post and the next, I’m going to run through some of Hauskeller’s arguments. In the remainder of this post, I’ll try to do two things. First, I’ll look to clarify what is meant by “mind-uploading” and what we would be trying to achieve by doing it. Second, I’ll introduce the basic argument in favour of mind-uploading, the argument from functionalism, and note some obvious objections to it.

This series of posts is probably best read in conjunction with my earlier series on Nicholar Agar’s argument against uploading. That series looked at mind-uploading from a decision-theoretical perspective, and offers what is, to my mind, the most persuasive objection to mind uploading (though, I hasten to add, I’m not sure that it is overwhelmingly persuasive). Hauskeller’s arguments are more general and conceptual. Indeed, he repeatedly relies on the view that the concerns he raises are conceivable, and worth bearing in mind for that reason, and doesn’t take the further step to argue that they are possible or probable. If you are more interested in whether you should go for mind-uploading or not, I think the concerns raised by Hauskeller are possibly best fed back into Agar’s decision-theoretic framework. Still, for the pure philosophers out there — those deeply concerned with metaphysical questions of mind and identity — there is much to grapple with in Hauskeller’s paper.

1. What are we talking about and why?
In my introduction, I noted the obvious link between mind uploading and the quest for life extension. That’s probably enough to pique people’s curiosity, but if we are going to assess mind uploading in a serious way we need to clarify three important issues.

First up, we need to clarify exactly what it is we wish to preserve or prolong through mind-uploading. I think the answer is pretty obvious: we want to preserve ourselves (our selfs), where this is defined in terms of Lockean personhood. In other words, I would say that the essence of our existence consists in the fact that we are continuing subjects of experience. That is to say, sentient, self-aware, and aware of our continuing sentience over time (even after occasional bouts of unconsciousness). If we are not preserved as Lockean persons through mind-uploading, then I would suggest that there is very little to be said for it from our perspective (there may be other things to be said for it). One important thing to note here is that Lockean personhood allows for great change over time. I may have a very different set of characteristics and traits now than I did when I was five years old. That’s fine. What matters is that there is a continuing and overlapping stream of consciousness between my five year-old self and my current self. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to the claim that mind-uploading leads to the preservation and prolongation of the Lockean person as the “Mind-Uploading Thesis” (MUT).

The second thing we need to do is to clarify what we actually mean by mind-uploading. In his article, Hauskeller adopts a definition from Adam Kadmon, according to which mind-uploading is the “transfer of the brain’s mindpattern onto a different substrate”. In other words, your brain processes are modelled and then transferred from their current biological neuronal substrate, to a different substrate. This could be anything from a classic digital computer, to a device that uses artificial neurons that directly mirror and replicate the brain’s current processes. Hopefully, that is a reasonably straightforward idea. More important than the basic idea of uploading is the actual method through which it is achieved. Although there may be many such methods, for present purposes two are important:

Gradual Uploading/Replacement: The parts of the brain are gradually replaced by functionally equivalent artificial analogues. Although the original brain is, by the end of this process, destroyed, there is no precise moment at which the biological brain ceases to be and the artificial one begins. Instead, there is a step-by-step progression from wholly biological to wholly artificial.
Discontinuous Uploading/Replacement: The brain is scanned, copied and then emulated in some digital or artificial medium, following which the original brain is destroyed. There is no gradual replacement of the parts of the biological brain.

There may be significant differences between both kinds of uploading, and these differences may have philosophical repercussions. I suspect the latter, rather than the former, is what most people have in mind when they think about uploading, but I could be wrong.

Finally, in addition to clarifying the means through which uploading is achieved, we need to clarify the kinds of existence one might have in the digital or artificial form. There are many elaborate possibilities explored in the sci-fi literature, and I would encourage people to check some of these out, but again for present purposes, I’ll limit the focus to two broad kinds of existence, with intermediate kinds obviously also possible:

Wholly Virtual Existence: Once transferred to an artificial medium, the mind ceases to interact directly with the external world (though obviously it relies on that world for some support) and instead lives in a virtual reality, with perhaps occasional communication with the external world.
Non-virtual Existence: Once transferred to an artificial medium, the mind continues to interact directly with the external world through some set of actuators (i.e. tools for bringing about changes in the external world). These might directly replicate the human body, or involve superhuman “bodies”.

An added complication here comes in the shape of multiple copies of the same brain living out different existences in different virtual and non-virtual worlds. This should probably be factored into any complete account of mind-uploading. For an interesting fictional exploration of the idea of virtual existence with multiple copies, I would recommend Greg Egan’s book Permutation City.

Anyway, with those clarifications out of the way, we can move on to discuss the arguments for and against the MUT.

2. The Argument from Functionalism
Basic support for the MUT could come from the functionalist theory of mind. According to functionalism, the mind is not, in fact, a particular ontological substance or substrate. Rather, the mind is a kind of informational pattern that is constituted by the functional relationships between different ontological entities and activities. The belief among functionalists is that if you can replicate those functional relationships you can replicate a mind. And since functional relationships can, in theory, be instantiated in any medium it follows that minds are multiply realisable.

If this is correct, it could provide support for the MUT. The argument might run like this: since the Lockean person is, to the best of our knowledge, associated with a particular set of functional relationships between neurons, glial cells, neurotransmitters, neural networks, and so forth, it would follow that if those functional relationships can be replicated in other media, so too could the Lockean person. Let’s try to formalise this to see more clearly where the strengths and weaknesses lie:

  • (1) It is possible to recreate a particular set of functional relationships in any media (Multiple Realisability Thesis)
  • (2) The mind (Lockean person) is simply a particular set of functional relationships between neurons (etc.) (Functionalist Thesis).
  • (3) Therefore, it is possible to recreate the mind in a non-biological medium, such as a digital computer or artificial neural network.
  • (4) Therefore, it is possible to preserve the Lockean person through mind-uploading.

This argument has a couple of points in its favour. For starters, note how relatively modest its claims are. It does not claim that mind-uploading is probable or likely, merely that it is possible (or even more weakly that it is conceivable). It may turn out that there are technological or physical hurdles to multiple realisability of minds. For instance, it may be that we could never generate enough energy to sustain an artificial copy of a brain (though people are working on these issues as we speak). Still, if there is a genuine possibility, that is itself significant. Further, note how the argument does trace out an appealing line of inference from functionalism and multiple realisability to the MUT.

Nevertheless, there are some problems with the argument. I’ll mention two significant ones here, one of which is particularly important from Hauskeller’s perspective. First, there is the obvious point that the argument depends on the truth of functionalism. Some people have argued that functionalism is an implausible theory of mind, particularly if what we are most interested in about our minds is not their cognitive abilities but the Lockean persons they seem to instantiate. The most famous arguments in this school of thought are John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment and Ned Block’s Chinese Nation thought experiment. These are probably familiar to most readers of this blog, but to quickly summarise both Searle and Block use their thought experiments as reductios of the functionalist position. Take Block as an example. He imagines the entire Chinese nation perfectly replicating all the functional relationships in the human brain. He then asks: would that entire nation of people thereby become a self-aware Lockean person? Surely not, surely it is absurd to think that by just performing a series of computations an entire nation of people could become a distinct conscious self.

To his credit, Hauskeller doesn’t think the Block/Searle line of attack is all that persuasive. This is for the simple reason that whether the mind can be detached from the brain is, at this moment in time, entirely a matter of speculation. To butcher a quote:

”[A]s long as we have not had the chance to put the theory to test by actually producing an accurate whole brain emulation and then seeing what happens [we won’t know whether it is absurd]. In other words, it is an empirical question, which we cannot decide on purely philosophical grounds.
(Hauskeller, 2012, p. 191) 

I’m inclined to agree. Thought experiments involving Chinese Rooms or Chinese Nations probably seem absurd because we don’t have the capacities to imagine what those things would really look like if they were emulating the whole brain.

There is, however, another major problem with the argument from functionalism. If we go back to the formalised version above, and pay close attention to the inference from (3) to (4), we begin to see the problem. To say that Lockean personhood would be preserved in a digital or artificial analogue is very different from saying that it is possible to recreate a mind in an artificial medium. I could create a mind in a digital environment, and that mind might have the capacity for self-awareness and sentience that we value so dearly, but that in itself wouldn’t involve the preservation or prolongation of a particular Lockean person. The kind of overlapping sentient continuity that we are looking for isn’t entailed by the creation of a mind in an artificial medium. Indeed, on the face of it, creating a functional copy of the mind would never be enough for this. If I take a picture and print out two copies, the two copies are not one and the same thing. They are distinct ontological entities. Surely the same would be true of a biological brain and any functional copy of it?

To put all this more succinctly, there is a significant logical gap between (3) and (4). You cannot derive the latter from the former without some additional assumptions and argumentation. This is true even if the functionalist view of the mind is correct. So what additional assumptions and arguments might we need? That’s a question I’ll take up the next day when examining two of Hauskeller’s anti-MUT arguments.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Does pornography falsely construct women's natures? (Part Two)

Catherine MacKinnon

(Part One)

Does pornography create a false picture of what women are and how they are to be treated? Feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon has famously argued as much, claiming that pornographic material falsely constructs women’s natures, and that this false construction has negative implications. In this series of posts, I’m trying to see whether any sense can be made of this claim.

To help me do this, I’m making use of an article by Mary Kate McGowan entitled “On Pornography: MacKinnon, Speech Acts, and “False” Construction”. In this article, McGowan makes the case that MacKinnon’s false-construction thesis can be understood in light of contemporary speech act theory. We laid the groundwork for appreciating McGowan’s arguments in part one. There are three important points to bear in mind from that discussion.

First, MacKinnon’s claim does not cover all forms of pornography, merely a subset of pornography with particular features. We call this subset “Mac-Porn”. To get the full list of criteria for becoming a member of that subset, you’ll need to read part one, but (roughly) Mac-Porn covers sexually explicit material that brutalises, objectifies and reduces women to purely sexual beings.

Second, there are significant problems associated with the notion of false construction. While we can agree that certain facts are socially constructed — e.g. the fact that two people are married — it seems nonsensical to say that a constructed fact is false. If the construction is what brings the fact into being, how can that fact be false? That would seem to be a contradiction in terms. It is, however, possible to say that a constructed fact is defective or deficient in some respect. Consequently, it is probably best to reinterpret MacKinnon’s thesis as the “defective construction” thesis (or something along those lines).

Third, and finally, it is possible to do this if we view pornography as a kind of verdictive speech act. This is because within speech act theory, the successful performance of speech act is dependent on the satisfaction of a number of conditions. If those conditions are not satisfied, the act may still be performed, albeit in a defective or incomplete manner. We had just introduced this concept at the end of the last post, so we’ll start this post by further exploring its complexities. Following this, we’ll see exactly how one might defend an argument in favour of the defective construction thesis.

1. Erroneous Verdictives and Sneaky Exercitives
A verdictive speech act is an authoritative judgment about some antecedent matter of fact or value. We noted the classic example of this the last day: the call of a referee, linesman or umpire in a sporting contest. Take the linesman in a football game. He can declare that a player is offside by raising his flag. In doing so, he reports on a purely factual matter (namely: the position of the player on the football pitch relative to others). Take also the jury in a legal trial. They can declare whether a defendant committed a crime. In doing so, they report on purely factual matters, although they also evaluate those facts in light of legal concepts. In both instances, it is possible for those making the judgments to get things wrong. In other words, for the authorities to issue erroneous verdictives. These would match our definition of deficiency.

Verdictive speech acts are typically contrasted with exercitives. The latter being enactments of permissibility conditions in particular social spheres. For example, a golf club president may be able to ban the use of mobile phones within the club by words alone. In doing so, he does not report on antecedent facts, but rather makes it the case that something is true in future. In this instance, he makes it the case that mobile phone use is banned.

When discussing verdictives and exercitives in the previous post, I got slight ahead of myself by suggesting that verdictives can defectively construct social facts. I want to back up for a moment here and consider exactly how they might be able to do this, because, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem like they can. After all, verdictives are merely judgments about past facts, they are not, like exercitives, constructions of facts.

Or are they? One of McGowan’s key moves in her article is to highlight how verdictives have a sneaky exercitive aspect to them. As she points out, it is not merely the case that verdictives report on facts; they also (like exercitives) affect permissibility conditions in the future. Thus, when the linesman judges a player to be offside, he doesn’t merely report on the fact, he also thereby prevents the player from continuing a particular move or passage of play. Likewise, if the jury in a legal trial decide that the defendant has committed a murder, they make it permissible for a sentence to be imposed or for liberty to be taken away. The reason verdictives have this power is that they are issued by authorities in social settings where those verdictives have normative significance.

So, not only can verdictives be erroneous, they can also be sneakily exercitive. And in being erroneous and sneakily exercitive, they thereby provide a mechanism through which speech could defectively construct social facts.

2. The Defective Construction Argument
That brings us, at long last, to McGowan’s reconstruction of MacKinnon’s argument. In essence, she claims that Mac-Porn may be an erroneously verdictive, sneakily exercitive speech act about women’s natures. As a result, it may defectively construct facts about women’s natures, and those facts may take on the kind of social significance that MacKinnon abhors. Specifically, those facts may affect permissibility conditions for women in society.

This suggests something like the following argument in defence of the defective construction thesis (this is a bit of mess, but it is my attempt to formalise some of the preceding concepts and ideas):

  • (1) If X is an erroneous verdictive about Y, then X defectively constructs Y-type facts, and those facts may take on a certain social significance (usually in relation to permissibility conditions for agents affected by or covered by Y-type facts). 
  • (2) Mac-Porn is an erroneous verdictive about women’s natures. 
  • (3) Therefore, Mac-porn defectively constructs facts about women’s natures, and these facts may affect permissibility conditions for women is the social sphere.

The defence of the first premise is immanent in much of what has already been said. The example of the linesman declaring a player offside, when he/she really was not, provides a concrete illustration of the principle. The declaration is erroneous, but has a significant effect on what is permissible after the declaration. The principle state in premise (1) is merely an extrapolation from cases like this, which could be multiplied ad nauseum.

The defence of the second premise is much trickier. Indeed, McGowan doesn’t really even attempt to defend it in her article. Her goal is much more modest than that. She’s just interested in showing how it may be possible to defend MacKinnon’s thesis (or something pretty close to it). She’s not actually interested in defending it. Still, it would be disappointing if nothing at all could be said about premise (2), since that is at the heart of this debate.

The easiest way to defend premise (2) would be to draw a direct analogy between Mac-Porn and other erroneous verdictives (such as the case of the linesman we just described). But McGowan notes that any such analogy will run into, at least three, difficulties.

The first difficulty relates to authority. Clearly, the linesman is a recognised authority in football, and this authority is what allows his declarations to have their verdictive and exercitive effects. But does Mac-Porn have authority? That’s more difficult to justify. In a previous series of posts, I looked at some arguments suggesting that it might be possible to say that pornography has authority through the complicity of the audience. There is also the possibility that it has authority through some more subtle, sub-conscious psychological mechanism. Still, there are problems with this, and they cannot be ignored.

The second difficulty relates to the facts that Mac-Porn is supposedly passing judgment on. In the case of the linesman in football, the facts are pretty straightforward: they concern the position of the player on the pitch relative to other players and to the ball. Furthermore, the mismatch between those facts, and the facts actually reported by the linesman are usually pretty straightforward too. Neither of these things holds in the case of Mac-Porn and women’s natures. For starters, the notion that there is some fact of the matter about women’s natures is highly controversial (and something I am inclined to doubt).

Additionally, it is difficult to say exactly how Mac-Porn makes erroneous judgments about women’s natures. Ostensibly, pornography doesn’t make any profound scientific or metaphysical claims about anything: it provokes sexual responses, not intellectual ones. Still, these are not insuperable problems. It may be that the error made by Mac-Porn is in claiming that there is some fact of the matter about women’s natures; and it may be that Mac-Porn inadvertently creates representations of women’s natures, even when that is not its primary purpose.

Finally, there is the difficulty relating to the constructive mechanism. In the case of the linesman in football, this mechanism is simple enough. The raising of the flag is the verdictive, and this constructs a fact that has normative significance for subsequent phases of the game. Usually, however, if an error was made in the initial verdictive it is readily identifiable, even if people have to go along with it. In the case of Mac-Porn the mechanism is more complex and subtle. As McGowan sees it, if Mac-Porn is indeed a verdictive with a sneakily exercitive aspect, it could succeed in masking its erroneous representation of women’s natures. This would happen through the following four-step mechanism:

Step One: Mac-Porn represents women as having a set of essential qualities.
Step Two: This has normative significance for socio-sexual relationships such that women are only permitted to behave in accordance with their essential qualities in those relationships.
Step Three: Women adjust their behaviour to fit with this set of permissibility conditions.
Step Four: Consequently, women end up behaving in a way that is consistent with the erroneous verdictive, thereby masking the original construction.

With this kind of mechanism at play, it may become very difficult to actually determine whether or not Mac-Porn defectively constructs women’s natures. I think this is an interesting observation on McGowan’s part, but I suspect it overstates the masking effect of Mac-Porn. I suspect in many cases it is relatively easy to prove that pornography does not accurately represent women’s natures. I say this mainly because I think it unlikely that there are such facts in the first place. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I often worry about the potential in some academic quarters to overstate the power of symbols and symbolic representations.

These three difficulties do not make it impossible to defend premise (2). Far from it. But they do make any purported defence a more daunting prospect.

3. Conclusion
It’s time to bring this to a close. To sum up, we’ve been examining Catherine MacKinnon’s claim that pornography falsely constructs women’s natures. The claim is probably indefensible in its original form, insofar as it is too broad and too paradoxical. But if it is reinterpreted as the more narrow and precise claim that a certain subset of pornographic material (Mac-Porn) defectively constructs women’s natures, then it might stand a chance.

This would work if we could view Mac-Porn as a type of erroneous verdictive speech act, with a sneakily exercitive aspect. To translate that into ordinary English: it would work if we could view Mac-Porn as an authoritative judgment about what women are, and if that judgement has normative significance for the way in which they are treated in the social sphere.

While it is interesting to consider this possibility, one must nevertheless acknowledge certain difficulties with its proper defence.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Does pornography falsely construct women's natures? (Part One)

Catherine MacKinnon

Catherine MacKinnon’s work has featured on this blog before. For those of you who don’t know, MacKinnon is a famous (infamous?) feminist legal scholar. She has been particularly influential in campaigns against sexual harassment, for the recognition of rape as a crime against humanity, and (to a lesser extent) against pornography.

In her work on pornography, MacKinnon tries to argue that pornographic materials should not be categorised as legally protected forms of speech. In her effort to defend this point of view, she advances three interesting claims about the nature of pornographic speech. First, she argues that pornography silences women. Second, she argues that it subordinates women. And third, she argues that it falsely constructs women’s natures.

Powerful rhetorician and tireless campaigner though she may be, I must admit I have never found MacKinnon’s work on these matters to exhibit the kind of prosaic clarity and analytical precision I admire. It has thus been a welcome surprise to find that a number of philosophers have attempted to reconstruct and reconceive her arguments along more analytical lines. One of those philosophers, whose work I have found particularly useful, is Mary Kate McGowan.

In a previous series of blog posts, I covered McGowan’s attempt to reconstruct MacKinnon’s silencing/subordinating arguments. In this series, I want to look at another of her articles which reconstructs the false construction argument. The article in question is entitled “On Pornography: MacKinnon, Speech Acts, and “False” Construction”.

It will take me a couple of posts to cover the key arguments in this paper. To give a quick precis, McGowan’s argument is that the production and distribution of pornography can be viewed as a type of speech act — i.e. as a way of doing something with words or other symbolic forms of communication. And that as a type of speech act, pornography may create a defective representation of what women are (what their “nature” is), which affects how they are treated in the social sphere.

To understand this argument fully, we need to familiarise ourselves with some key concepts and ideas. The remainder of this post attempts to do just that. First, we’ll try to clarify what MacKinnon means by pornography and false construction. Second, we’ll deal with the paradox of false construction, i.e. how can a construction be false? And third, we’ll look at the distinction between two basic types of speech act: (i) the verdictive; and (ii) the exercitive. (The last two have been covered on the blog before, but a little repetition won’t hurt).

1. Mac-Pornography and False Construction
The term “pornography” covers a range of materials — written, photographic, cinematographic — with many different varieties available in each medium. Clearly, pornographic materials involve the depiction or representation of sexual acts, and are typically intended to provoke some kind of sexual response (at least in part).

One initial question that arises, then, is whether MacKinnon intends to impugn all forms and varieties of pornography. The answer, would seem to be “no”. In her 1980s campaign, MacKinnon and feminist author Andrea Dworkin, tried to create legal mechanisms for women to sue for the damage caused to them by pornography. They did this through a series of civil rights ordinances, which treated pornography as violation of women’s civil rights. Within these ordinances, “pornography” was defined in a restrictive fashion. The following is the definition taken from the model ordinance:

1. "Pornography" means the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words that also includes one or more of the following:
a. women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities; or 
b. women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; or 
c. women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest, or other sexual assault; or 
d. women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or 
e. women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or 
f. women's body parts-including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks-are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or 
g. women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or 
h. women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.
2. The use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women in (a) of this definition is also pornography for purposes of this law. 
3. "Person" shall include child or transsexual.

Although the list of conditions (a)-(h) includes things that are often typical of hardcore pornography, it seems obvious to me that not every sexually explicit or provocative novel/movie/image would fall foul of this definition. And if we assume this definition governs MacKinnon’s anti-porn arguments, it seems fair to say that those arguments do not in fact impugn everything we might call “pornographic”. Consequently, when discussing MacKinnon’s arguments we should bear in mind the restrictive class of materials they invoke. McGowan does this in her article by using the delightful neologism “Mac-Pornography”, which I shall abbreviate to “Mac-Porn”.

(Note: you might worry that the above definition is seriously question-begging with respect to some of MacKinnon’s claims. After all, she defines pornography as something that subordinates women when that is surely something she needs to prove. This is a bit of a problem alright, but charitably one can interpret the conditions (a)-(h) as specifying what is it for pornography to be subordinating. So it’s not necessarily question-begging)

We are concerned with whether or not Mac-Porn falsely constructs women’s natures. What on earth does that mean? This is a tricky question, one which we’ll explore in more depth throughout this series, but as a first pass we can note the obvious affinities between false construction and Marxist concepts of false consciousness and false necessity. I’m assuming these are deliberate given MacKinnon’s Marxist leanings.

Within Marxist theory, the material conditions of production are said to generate an overarching ideology that helps to sustain those conditions of production. Thus, in a capitalist economy, an economic and social ideology is generated which makes worker’s believe that the way in which profit is generated and prices are set is somehow a necessary or intrinsic property of the underlying material reality. The Marxist claim is then that these things are not truly necessary or intrinsic. Thus, the ideology being generated is “false”.

MacKinnon’s claim is that Mac-Porn creates and constructs women’s natures in a way that is false. More specifically, her claim is that:

The False-Construction Claim: Mac-Porn falsely constructs women’s nature, how women are seen, and how they are treated, such that it creates a social reality in which women are viewed as sexual objects to be dominated and brutalised.

We need to figure out how it is that pornography, qua speech, could bring this about. To do that, we first need to ask whether the whole notion of “false construction” makes sense.

2. Can a Construction be False?
Pause for moment and look at the false construction claim. Personally, I think it makes sense, when viewed in light of Marxist theory. Still, there is something odd about the language being used. When we say that something is constructed, we say that a particular activity makes it the case that it exists (“X is constructed” → “X is made to exist”). But surely one can’t falsely make it the case that something exists?

Take the most obvious case: We construct objects out of other materials. Thus, for example, we construct a house out of bricks, mortar, wood, roof tiles, windows and so forth. In so doing, we make it the case that the house exists. But then how could we say that we falsely construct the house? Although the proposition “there is now house over there” is capable of being true or false, the house itself is not. It does not carry a truth value; it either exists or it doesn’t. Admittedly, the construction may not be perfect. It may, in other words, fall short of our paradigm of housey-ness. But that still doesn’t mean that the constructed object bears a truth value.

Clearly, pornography does not construct women’s natures in the same way the builder constructs the house — in that sense the analogy breaks down — but the analogy is close enough to reveal the problem. If pornography makes it the case that women’s natures are such-and-such, in what sense can it do so falsely? To answer that, we need to clarify two things: (i) how it is that facts, particularly social facts, are constructed; and (ii) how such constructions might fail to be true (if they can indeed fail to be true).

A fact is a true proposition. In order to be true, a proposition must satisfy a number of truth condition. For example, the proposition: “There is pink unicorn at the bottom of the garden” is true when the following condition is met: there actually is a pink unicorn at the bottom of the garden. Facts can be constructed if we have the power to bring about the satisfaction of their truth conditions. This is true in the case of virtually all social facts. For example, the social fact that the speed limit outside my house is 30mph is a constructed fact. Certain recognised institutions declared the speed limit to be that, and in so declaring they satisfied the truth conditions for the proposition “the speed limit outside my house is 30mph”. In much the same way, the proposition “Jack is married to Jill” can be socially constructed fact when Jack and Jill are declared to be in that relationship by a certain institution. For those who wish to learn more, John Searle has written some useful books about the construction of social facts.

How could a socially constructed fact be false? Even in the case of the speed limit, it seems to difficult to say that the constructed fact could be false: if the speed limit is declared to be 30mph by the relevant authority then that, surely, is what it is. Others might report falsely on the speed limit — for instance they could tell you that the speed limit is 25mph — but since they don’t have the requisite authority to construct social facts this does not mean they falsely construct the speed limit.

McGowan seems to acknowledge the insuperable difficulty here. But she has a solution. Although one cannot falsely construct a social fact, one can defectively or improperly construct a social fact. Just like the builder can construct a bad or improper house, so too can a social institution defectively impose a status on a certain state of affairs. Indeed, this very notion of defectiveness is integral to speech act theory, which makes it an auspicious place to further our analysis of the false (or, rather, “defective”) construction claim.

3. Verdictive and Exercitive Speech Acts
It has long been known that speech plays an important role in the construction of social facts. By saying things like “I promise to sell you my car” or “I now pronounce you man and wife”, we don’t merely report facts, we actually perform actions. In both examples our declarations make it the case that certain propositions are true. Speech act theory tries to clarify exactly how this happens.

One of the key elements of speech act theory is that in order to successfully perform a speech act certain conditions of success must be satisfied. If they are not, the act will be defective in one or more respects. To explain, let’s consider two types of speech act: (i) the verdictive; and (ii) the exercitive.

A verdictive speech act is an authoritative judgment about some antecedent matter of fact or value. A classic example would be the call of a referee, linesman or umpire in a sporting contest. In football, for example, by raising their flag, the linesman can pass judgment on whether a player was offside or not. In doing so, they make a judgment about a purely factual state of affairs (was the player beyond the last defender before the ball was passed to them). But because they are a recognised authority within the game, their declaration doesn’t simply report the facts, it actually makes it the case that the player was or was not offside for the purposes of that game.

An exercitive speech act is the enactment of permissibility conditions in a certain social sphere. A classic example of this is rule-setting within clubs or sports. For example, suppose I am the president of a golf club and, being recognised to have the power to do so, I declare that the use of mobile phones will henceforth be banned from the members’ bar. Given my recognised authority, my declaration thereby makes it the case that the use of mobile phones is impermissible within the members’ bar.

In both cases, the successful performance of the speech act is dependent on a number of conditions. These include (non-exhaustively): recognition by the audience that the person performing them has the requisite authority, successful communication of the content of the speech act to the relevant audience and, in the case of the verdictive, accurate reporting on the antecedent facts or values. In this sense, the verdictive allows for the defective construction of social facts. As in, for example, the linesman who declares a player offside when they really weren’t. This declaration still constructs a fact for the purposes of the game, but the fact fails to track the antecedent truth.

What we have here are the ingredients for a plausible reconstruction of MacKinnon’s false construction argument. All we need to do is show that pornography is a kind of verdictive speech act that fails to track the antecedent truth. We’ll see whether this is possible the next post.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Must we pursue good causes to have meaningful lives? (Part Two)

(Part One)

James lived a life of idle self-indulgence. He gambled, fornicated, drank his fill and ate the finest foods. The quintessential libertine. John, on the other hand, lived a life of charity and self-sacrifice. He worked to improve the lives of others, to relieve suffering, to combat poverty and illness. No doubt James had a good time, but surely John had the more meaningful life?

In essence, this is what Aaron Smuts’s article “The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life” argues. The article contends that the following is the correct account of meaning in life:

Good Cause Account (GCA): A person’s life is meaningful in virtue of and in proportion to the amount of objective good they are causally responsible for.

As noted in part one, this is a purely objectivist account of meaning. It is to be contrasted with subjectivist and hybrid accounts of meaning. Both of these require the person living the life to have a particular kind of subjective awareness in order for their life to be meaningful. The GCA rejects this, holding that being causally responsible for good is sufficient.

The problems with subjectivist and hybrid accounts were discussed in part one. In essence, they boil down to this: neither can deal with cases in which a person seems to be living a meaningful life but is subjectively unaware of this (the “error” problem). The go-to example of this was George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Bailey wasn’t happy with his life, but the message of the film is that his life was meaningful despite his lack of awareness. Smuts suggests that cases like this provide powerful counterexamples to subjectivist and hybrid theories.

But where does that leave the GCA? Does it simply win by default? No, of course not. The GCA needs to be rendered plausible in its own right. The remainder of this post considers how Smuts tries to do this. The discussion is quite fragmentary. It starts with a brief consideration of what they GCA actually says and then considers five possible objections to it (Smuts’s actually considers eight in his article but I’m ignoring three).

1. What does the GCA actually say?
The section heading might seem strange in light of the preceding definition of the GCA. Doesn’t that tell us what the GCA actually says? Not quite. We know from the definition that the GCA holds that meaningfulness is a function of the number and quality of the objective goods one is causally responsible for, but there are quite a few questions raised by this.

The main one being: what are the objective goods? Smuts’s doesn’t even attempt to offer an account of those goods in this article, but there are many candidate theories. For the hedonic utilitarian, the only objective good will be achieving maximum aggregate conscious pleasure (thus leading to a curious fusion of the GCA with a type of subjectivism), and meaning will be assessed relative to that. Alternatively, a proponent of new natural law theory might say that there are seven objective goods (life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, practical reasonableness, friendship, and sociality) against which the meaning of life may be assessed. Or one might adopt a capabilities or welfarist account of utilitarianism in order to identify the objective goods (this seems to be the approach Smuts favours). We won’t decide between those accounts now.

One thing that is worth considering, however, is the role of intrinsic and instrumental goods in the GCA. Several theorists — Wielenberg being the most prominent — hold that the pursuit of intrinsic goods is the key to meaning in life. Indeed, in determining whether or not an activity is meaningful, Wielenberg proposes an isolation test: would the activity still have value if it was isolated from all its typical consequences and sequelae? This test effectively filters out all non-intrinsic goods.

Interestingly, Smuts rejects Wielenberg’s purely intrinsic account of meaning. He argues that there is no good reason to exclude instrumental goods from our account of meaning in life. Providing food or shelter or financial assistance to others may not (always) be intrinsically good. Sometimes, it may just help people to secure other goods. But does that mean that someone who helps others in this manner lives a meaningless life? Smuts says “no”.

Now, it is possible to reconcile Wielenberg and Smuts’s views. It could be, as Wielenberg argues, that there two different kinds of theory one could offer about meaning in life — an internal and an external one — and it may be that Wielenberg is talking about internal meaning and Smuts is talking about external meaning. I won’t get into that issue here as it brings us back to the whole subjective-objective dispute, and requires some careful interpretation of Wielenberg’s argument. Suffice to say, there’s more going on here than we have time to cover in a short blog post.

I will say one thing, however. For those who are interested in articulating a theory of meaning that does not require immortality, intrinsic goods have an obvious appeal. They provide clear stopping points for the chains of justification one might require in order to obtain meaning. If there was nothing but instrumental goods, the chains of justification might need to go on forever.

Anyway, that’s enough on the general characteristics of the theory. Let’s move on now to discuss five objections to it. As we shall see, these objections are very similar. They all tend to claim that the GCA is over-inclusive — i.e. includes lives that shouldn’t be classed as meaningful.

2. Five Objections to the GCA
The first objection brings us back to the sad case of Sisyphus, condemned to rolling his rock up the hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down again every time he reaches the summit. This is the paradigmatic meaningless life. Now, suppose that Sisyphus’s actions actually provided amusement for the residents of a village located near the summit of the hill. In this sense, his life would be causally responsible for a minimal amount of good. Would that be enough to make his life meaningful?

In response to this, Smuts makes two moves. First, he bites the bullet and accepts that such a life would have some minimal degree of meaning. Second, he draws a distinction between a meaningful life and a life worth living. His argument would then be that a life with a minimal degree of meaning, may not be worth living, but that’s not to say it lacks meaning. Of course, this raises important questions about where the cut-off point lies between a life worth living and a life not worth living. That, however, is a topic for another day.

The second objection focuses on the problem of evil intent. Suppose there is a person with consistently selfish and destructive intentions. They try to do bad things but, as it happens, they happen to bring about some good. The GCA seems to hold that their life is meaningful, despite their subjectively malicious intentions. Surely that is absurd? (Note: Smuts links this to another objection, saying much the same thing. I’m treating them as being equivalent here).

There are four possible replies to this. First, one could argue that such an individual is not really a “cause” of objective good. The counterexample seems to assume that if one is a conduit, or transitive, cause of some outcome, then one is causally responsible for it. But that seems like a bit of stretch. If my mother gives me a cheque for a million pounds, and asks me to present it to a specified charity on her behalf, am I really causally responsible for the good that might arise from this donation? Surely not, and surely the same could be said about (at least some) individuals with malicious intentions. Second, the morally hideous nature of the intentions and beliefs of such a person must factor into the overall calculation of how objectively good their actions were. That is to say: the fact that they had malicious intentions may offset the good they cause. Third, there may be nothing wrong with saying that a person lived an accidentally meaningful life. And fourth, consider the opposite case in which someone with good intentions inadvertently brings about a lot of bad. Smuts doesn’t think it is counterintuitive to suggest that they have (“accidentally”) lived a meaningless life. But if that’s right, then the original case of the person with malicious intentions may not be a true counterexample to the GCA.

The third objection is slightly more complex, relying as it does on claims about causation across different possible worlds. According to counterfactual theories of causation, to say that A caused B is to say (roughly) that if A did not exist, B would not exist. In other words, that if in some possible world A does not exist and B does exist, then A is not the cause of B. Admittedly, that’s a very rough account of counterfactual theories of causation, but it suffices to make a point about causation and meaning. Imagine that there are two possible worlds, W1 and W2, and that they are equal in terms of the amount of objective good in each. Now suppose that the only difference between these two possible worlds is that you exist in W1 but not in W2. Finally, suppose that in W1 you seem to be responsible for some objective good. Then the question arises: notwithstanding your contribution to the good in W1, is it not true to say that your life lacks meaning? After all, your life makes no overall difference to the amount of objective good in each world?

Objections of this sort are one reason why Wielenberg distinguishes between internal and external accounts of meaning. His concern is that on a purely externalist account of meaning, it would be true to say that your life lacks meaning because it makes no difference to the world. But on an internalist one — one that is directly indexed to you — this problem does not arise. Smuts rejects the whole notion of external meaning for the same reason that people reject counterfactual theories of causation: they are not very good at accounting for cases of causal overdetermination. To see the problem, consider the life of Hitler, which everyone will agree (I presume) lacked meaning. Suppose it is true that one day during his youth he did something good, made someone happy, or relieved some suffering. Now, it could well be that the social and economic conditions in Germany after WWII were such that, if Hitler did not exist, someone else would have led a fascist party to power, set up something equivalent to the Third Reich and caused an equal amount of suffering. In that case, we would have two different possible worlds, one in which Hitler did some good and a lot of bad, and another in which Hitler does not exist and someone else did an equal amount of bad. The external account of meaning would imply that, in this case, Hitler led a meaningful life. But this is clearly absurd, so there must be something wrong with the external account.

A fourth objection to the GCA relies on a variation of Nozick’s infamous experience machine argument. This argument was thought to refute a purely hedonic/subjective account of value. It presented us with the opportunity to live out our lives in an elaborate virtual reality machine that would provide us with a continuing stream of pleasurable experiences, or to go on living in the real world, with its usual ups and downs. The fact that many people reject the opportunity to live in the experience machine is thought to suggest that pleasure is not the sole good. Now imagine a slight variation on this, involving a results machine argument (Nozick himself identified this). In this version of the argument, we are presented with a machine that would bring about any results in the world that we might bring about, without requiring any activity or effort on our part. With such a machine, we could be causally responsible for a lot of good, but surely our lives would lack meaning if all we did was press some buttons on this machine?

Smuts offers two replies. The first goes back to our earlier worries about the nature of causal responsibility. Arguably, a plausible theory of causal responsibility would reject the notion that by simply pressing a button on the results machine one becomes causally responsible for its outcomes. This, however, is highly contentious. A second, better, reply holds that the value of achievement should feature in a plausible account of objective good. In other words, bringing about good with achievement is better than bringing about good without achievement. Thus, since the results machine blocks achievement, it makes life less meaningful.

The fifth and final objection holds that the GCA is false because it implies that animals could live meaningful lives. After all, animals could be causally responsible for some good, and so would meet the conditions set by the GCA. Smuts’s reply to this is admirably direct: what’s wrong with that? Why can’t we say that animals live meaningful lives?

3. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of this series of posts. To quickly recap, there are three general accounts of meaning in life: (i) subjective; (ii) objective; and (iii) hybrid. Smuts holds that objective accounts are to be preferred over subjective and hybrid accounts. His main reason for this is that subjective and hybrid accounts do not allow for the possibility of error, i.e. the possibility that someone is mistaken about the meaning of their lives.

Building on this, he then defends a particular kind of objective theory (the GCA), which holds that one’s life is meaningful in virtue of and in proportion to the amount of objective good one is casually responsible for. Many object to the GCA on the grounds that it is over-inclusive, but as we have just seen, Smuts thinks it is possible to fend off such objections.