Monday, 23 August 2010

Philosophy - Morality

And now finally, the point. The entire purpose of philosophy, of thought in general, is to determine what we should do. The key problem is the famous is-ought gap. Thus far I have talked about what is, firstly my perceptions, then theories about them. And then the world reviled by these theories. So now we have to find a way to talk about “ought”. No amount of statements about what is can tell us what we should do. This is because the word “should” is not yet defined. So we need some way to jump the is-ought gap. I'm going to try this by defining the word “should”. This is a definition so cannot be wrong in a logical sense. The only question is if other people agree with me. Other people choose different definitions for should, others will choose to define ought statements in other ways. Many choose not to define ought statements at all, saying the is-ought gap exists so we cannot jump it at all and must live in a haze of intuitive notions when talking about moral ideas.

So far I have talked about the world in almost exclusively physical terms. I've talked about humans and people in terms of objects. But it's important to recognise an aspect of my perceptions. Happiness. For me perceiving the taste of a ham sandwich is fundamentally different from the taste of porridge, far more different than the foods themselves. I enjoy ham sandwiches far more than porridge, this is a definite observed perception, it's not something I'm just saying to myself. How do I know it's not just a thought with no real significance? My actions. 6

I have never actively sought out porridge. I dont put effort into going to find it, I do however put effort into making a nice ham sandwich. We act to achieve those perceptions that bring us most happiness, this is the definition of happiness. Endless tomes can and have been written on happiness so I'll just point out a few obvious features.

  • More than one kind of happiness exists. Different things make us happy at one and the same time. So being happy that I am at a fine university doesn't stop me being happy that I am eating a cheese sandwich.
  • Happiness is not the same as physical pleasure. It is said that rats can be wired to electrodes that stimulate the orgasm section of the brain, it is also said that if given a button to activate this they will stave themselves to death pushing it. If this is true human happiness and rat happiness is different. There are many examples of so-called sex addicted people, but I have yet to encounter a story of people starving themselves to death from sex-induced neglect. So people at some point stop having sex (or masturbating), the do this to gain some other kind of happiness. This cannot be physical pleasure, no higher or stronger form of physical pleasure exists than orgasm. So we can conclude that non-pleasure forms of happiness, (self preservation, loyalty, friendship, knowledge, art, appreciation, the happiness of others, accomplishment etc etc etc) can overpower physical pleasure, so happiness and pleasure are not the same.
  • We benefit others and this makes us happy. I dont give money to Africa to help them. Well, I do, but if I'm a little more honest with myself, the reason that I do this is that I like to think of myself as a charitable person, and donating whatever nominal sum I give will have a much greater effect on boosting my own self image (or my image in the eyes of others) than it will actually helping people. This is not to say that donating money to Africa is bad or that we should stop doing it, or that we should change ourselves so we dont act on these selfish motives. I simply note that the concept of acting on our desires only is not always the same as the idea of selfishness as normally understood.
  • We often do things that make us unhappy in the short term but happy in the long term, or vice versa. We balance the strength of our desires to conclude which of the two happinesses is more important to us.
  • You can be happy in awful situations, the history of martyrs tells of countless people who have voluntarily withstood unimaginable physical and emotional suffering. People exist who have actively chosen torture. These people choose their principle or friends or religion or whatever else over relief from pain. The principles that drive them obviously make them more happy than would freedom from pain.
  • We can, with a lot of effort, change what makes us happy. Ask any ex-addict, the drug used to make them happy, no longer. It's a hard process but it can be done. Of course there are a number of short cuts, sudden road-to-demascus type conversion from one thing making you happy to a fundamentally different form of happiness exists, often it's religious in nature, but similar things can happen in the context of animal welfare or their world aid say.

There is one big observation though. Theory of mind, I said above, is a scientific theory that suggests that others have a mind (ie all those perceptions that aren't sense data, thinking, feeling etc), and this includes desire. So we conclude others have desires, the question is what are they? This we have to work out by a slightly more complex route than simply asking them. I say this because people have an astonishingly strong tendency to deceive themselves and others. But it can be done.

We can notice a number of things in common with people's desires. Almost all people have basic desires, the act to preserve their own life, their family, they desire sex, a fulfilled life, the praise of their peers, full Maslow's hierarchy of needs stuff. We can then have a fairly good guess at what a random stranger would be like. For instance, they would be happy if you complimented their dress, unhappy if you stabbed them, happy if you gave them money, unhappy if you suggested their momma was so fat that something improbable resulted.

Of course, there are going to be exceptions to this because what we are asking here is scientific in nature. The question is “what kinds of things will this organism seek to bring about using its knowledge of cause and effect?”. And please note I said organism, but that isn't the most general thing. Humans have desires clearly, they act in a purposeful way, but so do all animals, they act in a way that their knowledge of cause and effect leads them to suspect will make them happy. But plants also can be said to act in some very very limited sense, turning to face the sun, growing roots towards better soil etc. This idea of desire is so general we can talk of robots or computer programs having desires. The problem with these last two examples is that their determinism is far more clear to us, our best scientific theory of how animals act is not neurological, it's behavioural, we understand animals best as minds with bodies rather than just as bodies with brains. This is either fundamentally correct or will eventually be overturned by far better neurology. Either way the question is of our best theory.7

So I would like to suggest a definition of the word should. “An individual should perform an action to the extant that it fulfils all desires that exist”. Things to note are:

  • This is continuous. Should and should not are spectral, it's not the case that you can put things that should be done in one self contained set.
  • This is consequentialist, virtue, duty, commands, intents etc matter in this theory, but only as tools. You should (as I have defined it) desire the happiness of others, but this is only a tool to making them happy, simply desiring it is not enough. Likewise rules can be (and will be) proposed that aim to make people do what they should, and these should be obeyed if and only if they achieve that. Just laws should be obeyed because they are just, not because they are laws.
  • I've not said how we compare desires. This is something (like the problem of time) that is key to my philosophy that needs vastly more care and good thinking than I have the ability to give it. For now as a patch to allow this to continue I will use the idea of the veil of ignorance. In this theory an action that prevents one desire while allowing another should be done to the extent that one would prefer one desire over another if one didn't know which of the effected people one was going to be. I'm not convinced this is satisfactory, if anyone has suggestions please offer them.


6)My body acts, for the sake of not having to do linguistic acrobatics I'm going to say it's because I choose to do something using free will, but this is a metaphysical idea nothing more.

7)See my point about speaking in terms of free will? You can say all that in deterministic terms, but it's clumsy and unclear.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Philosophy - philosophy of science


Science works by testing theories. But I (and philosophy of science as written by scientists generally) have been tight lipped on the subject of where these theories come from. Some say that theories are essentially random, some that they are artistic and require genius to understand. All say that it doesn't matter where they come from. The problem with this kind of philosophy of science is that it's totally false. Scientific theories are not random, they dont require genius, and it does matter where they come from. For easy example I'll take Newtonian gravity.

The distinction between scientific theories and metaphysics is important here. If you generated theories at random (whatever that would mean) you would almost defiantly never generate even a simple understanding of the world. Perceptions are just too complex, you cant hope to get a good approximation of them randomly, there's just too much going on. So we need a way of testing theories that are likely to work better than by chance. The way you do this is to imagine an “ultimate reality”, some version of the world that is metaphysical, but tied to perceptions.

So, Newton is sat at his desk working out the force of attraction between two point masses. He is now 90% of the way to solving the problem. Because asking that question needs a conceptual framework, you need to imagine that there are such things as point masses, you need to imagine that these accelerate due to force, you need to imagine that forces can happen in the gaps between them. This framework cannot be directly tested, because there's nothing in it that makes predictions. You cannot deduce from this how large objects act, what the relationship between acceleration and force is, and what forces act in the gap. But just because it cannot be tested itself doesn't mean it's as good as any other metaphysic.

Because the possible answers to these questions are quantitatively very few, and are suggested by the metaphysic. Once you have this conceptual framework to act as a heuristic the answers (like a point mass at their centre of mass, Newton's Second, and Newtonian Gravity respectively) are reasonably obvious, (that is, if you're the greatest mind to have existed). Without this kind of a framework minds as as good as Newton in the Classical age would never have thought of Newtonian gravity, because guessing it randomly is next to impossible.

Comparing models

So, given that it is possible for a heuristic to exist that will give you very good theories far better than chance. (Why this is so is a metaphysical question, “because that's what the universe is really like” is one answer, “because such conceptions tap into a subconscious understanding of our perceptions we already have” is another). The question is which do we go for. Do we keep dogmatically with a static eternal idea of the universe and expand and refine Newtonian Mechanics. Or do we shift to a new paradigm, an Einsteinian paradigm. Now this is not a question of one theory verses another. You can formulate General Relativity in Newtonian terms, (you just say that point forces exert a force on each other given by a hideous formula that looks very similar to one you use for dealing with curved space). The reason nobody does this is that it makes no sense. The theory does not follow from the paradigm.

The real question is not which theory is right, the question is which paradigm generates it. Newton's Law follows from his paradigm just as obviously (if you're a genius) as Einstein's does from his. The way you test what paradigm you use is to see which generates the best theories. We can even refine this idea. Sometimes theories are very general and take a lot of work to particularise. Consider the moon landings. At the time computing power was a scarce resource. So when the question arose, do we calculate using Newton or Einstein Newton won. Now General Relativity is the better theory, is makes predictions that are closer to reality. The problem is that these predictions are hard to compute, Newton is easy to compute with and well understood. Because of resources Newton's calculations could be done to far more decimal places, so whilst Einstein would have eventually beaten him, Newton won the race to the moon.

So I'd like to suggest that we think about predictions a different way. I'd like to suggest that it isn't the case that if one theory beats another it does so everywhere. If one theory makes one kind of prediction well (eg prediction the bending of light by gravity) that doesn't mean it will make another sort (eg low resolution predictions) just as well. So, we must always pick the right theory for the job, bearing in mind the situation. And we must always keep the right paradigm in mind, considering its results.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A nice proper rant.

Thankyou Ann Widdecombe. I've not had chance for a proper rant recently, so your article was a great help.


Ok I wont.

Has anyone noticed that what the opponents of religion really want is that Christianity should be silent?

I would have thought opponents of religion would want far more than that, namely that all religions stop existing, not much point be an opponent of something if you're quite happy with it. But I'm sure you're going somewhere with this, carry on.

Last week it was reported that the British Humanist association has condemned an award given to Noah’s ark Zoo, a creationist centre near Bristol.

Quite accurate, I got a link to the article myself via their email newsletter.

The zoo has put on such an imaginative and educational display that the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom has issued it with a mark of recognition.

It is doubtless a fun place to go and one can learn a lot about modern animals, just as with any zoo. However:

Those who run the zoo have established workshops which cover the national science curriculum but do not include discussion of religion and do not promote the extreme creationist view that the world was created 6,000 years ago.

Here is a first problem. This is not an organisation which can be regarded as anything other than extreme. The clue is in the name. The Noah's Ark Zoo contends that Noah's Ark literally existed, all life is descended from a boat full of animals fully formed in their modern species. See several pages from their website. Admittedly they dont openly claim that the Earth is 6000 years old. An age for the earth is conspicuous by its absence. However their "sister website" does claim that the Cretaceous period lasted "around 4,000 years", this is like claiming the Empire state building is "around 2cm" tall, ok so you've not claimed the earth is 6000 years old, equivalent to it being half a millimetre tall, but it's still really very wrong.

In other words it is a moderate, education-focused organisation that challenges children’s minds and produces evidence from fossils.

Umm. No, not really. It's an organisation that promotes false science by pointing at misleading evidence including gaps in the fossil record that simply do not exist. Challenging children's mind on issues that are unclear or controversial is a great idea, it's important to make kids think about evolution in a critical way. But doing this with things that are simply empirically false is not critical thinking, it's just lies.

The British Humanist association says the award is inappropriate merely because the zoo concentrates on creation.

Yes. It's inappropriate for an award for education to be awarded to a religious organisation pushing a religious (and false) view of the world. Schools shouldn't go here anyway. If you want to go there yourself that's fine, if you want to take your kids that's fine, but you do not send school kids to a religious institution to be taught a false religious theory about the world using government money. That's not an extreme view, it's called church state separation and it's one of the most important ideas the enlightenment brought us.

In short the British Humanist association does not believe that children should be allowed even to discuss creation or to be exposed to any evidence that might support it.

Yeh. Creationism is a religion. It is not a fact. It is a purely empirical question and on a purely experimental observational basis it is false.

Also, academics carry out a study of the effects of prayer on the blind and deaf and finds evidence people’s sight and hearing have improved as a result of faith healing. Immediately the National secular society brands the findings “religious propaganda”.

Yeh, because if you're thinking of the study I am it's a load of crap. It's been Phyrangualted pretty well, but in short, the study shows that a small group of people who believed in the power of prayer and wanted to prove as much to others said that they felt better after being prayed for in a very dramatic and obvious way. In short this study proves only the stupidity of the people who designed it.

Its president Terry sanderson says faith healing groups “exploit the desperation of people living in extreme poverty who are unable to access proper medical care”.

For example those selling magic medicine to cure AIDs in sub-Saharan Africa.

Really, Mr sanderson? My mother lived comfortably and had available to her all the medical care the NHs could provide and her private insurance could buy and she still experienced miraculous healing.

Non sequitur. There is no contradiction between faith healing groups exploiting poor people and your rich mother experiencing a miracle. (One could argue there is a contradiction between receiving "all the medical care the NHs could provide and her private insurance could buy" and still calling the healing she got miraculous, but I digress).

Forbidding children to examine both sides of an argument is to substitute propaganda for education and dismissing as propaganda properly conducted surveys is a mark of intolerance.

I totally agree. So when there is a situation with two sides and valid arguments on both then children should be shown both sides. But that's not the case with evolution is it? It's not intolerant to say that when every sane intelligent person who examines something (including the majority of religious people in this country) concludes one thing, and people with an anti-scientific world view who deliberately falsify evidence and peddle lies to kids conclude another, that maybe there's no controversy. Teach the controversy, but not if it doesn't exist.

We can expect the British Humanists and the National secular association to be pretty vocal during the Papal visit.

Damn right people are going to be vocal when the head of an anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-choice, anti-freedom, anti-everything-that's-bright-and-happy-in-the-world organisation comes to the UK at taxpayer's expense. Damn right there's going to be protests against the head of an organisation that has covered up rape on an industrial scale. Damn right there's going to be protests against a bigot who speaks against the equalities bill not, as many (myself included) did, because its approach was heavy handed and unworkable, but because he is genuinely opposed to equality. Damn right we're going to protest, the man is a bigot.

It is as well therefore to understand their bigoted approach from the outset.

Umm, no. Intolerance and bigotry means an irrational rejection of an idea and a demand that it shut up. Seeing that demonstrably evil groups (the Catholic Church) are attempting to spend taxpayers money and campaigning against that is not bigotry. Seeing that organisations that wish to lie to children about empirical facts (Noah's Ark Zoo) are recommended as a place for school trips and campaigning against that isn't bigotry. Seeing that academics wish to present the kind of stuff that would be thrown out of a year 9 science fair as novel research and telling them they need to seriously consider a new career isn't bigotry. And writing this article for the Daily Express isn't bigotry either, it's just stupidity.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Philosophy - Science part 2


This seems a natural point to consider a few odd topic together. Firstly, equivalent theories. Consider the two theories “in front of me is a laptop made of plastic made of atoms” and “in front of me is an infinite number of infinitely small holographic projectors that act like a laptop no matter what I do to them or how I change them”. These make exactly the same predictions. I have no way of determining then which theory I should accept. I dont believe this to be a problem, I think that I'm not here talking about two theories. To my mind this is one theory expressed in two sets of words. We could just as easily say “en face de moi est un ordinateur portable”.

To a natural interpretation this is quite strange. Surely it makes all the difference in the world if the laptop is real or an illusion, but I would ask, what difference. Science tells us about perceptions, if there is a “way things really are” and it is not a perception, we can never know about it. Not in the sense that it's a hard problem or that we'll never be 100% sure. I mean we have exactly no clue, we cant even have an informed guess, because we have no information to base any ideas on.

We can know nothing that is beyond our sense data (I'll get onto metal constructions like logic later). It might be helpful to point out that my idea of what is metaphysical is a lot wider than normal. Normally it is said that the existence of gods is metaphysical, but that of chairs is not. I dont accept that we can have knowledge of chairs. Take my laptop, I can see patches of white and black that are explained almost perfectly by the scientific theory “in front of me is my laptop”, but also by the theory “I am a brain in a vat being fed sense data identical to those I would experience according to the laptop theory.” I dont claim that I can prove, or indeed that I have even the ability to think it probable, that my laptop is real.

We all have metaphysical beliefs. For instance, I believe my laptop exists. This is not true, nor is it false. It is better thought of as a statement about my emotions than about things in a “world out there”. If someone says that my laptop does not exists I dont think we really have any means of arguing about the fact, because there is no question of being right or wrong in the matter.4


Gods are tricky ideas. Many gods are purely metaphysical ideas with no scientific component at all. A god who starts the universe or who sits outside of it to judge or just to observe is totally metaphysical, a universe with him would look exactly the same as one without him. So we must be agnostic about such gods, we cannot have proof of them, but far more than that, we cannot even have an educated guess, there are no arguments for or against. So when I say “I dont believe in such a god” I am not right or wrong any more than I would be if I said “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. There is no right and wrong because there is no truth in the matter.

Some gods however stray beyond this. A god that acts in the world is, by that fact, a part of the world. So we can distinguish a god that creates the world but has no more influence on it from a god who creates the world and then sets about populating it over a period of 6 days. This kind of intervening god is far more simple from a philosophical perspective. We can simply get a scientist to do an experiment and tell us with high levels of certainty if such gods exist. And, to my knowledge, none of them do, all stories of interventions by gods have been shown to be without evidence. The important problem for philosophy is how to combine rejection of aspects of supposed divine action which are false from ones which are metaphysical. Almost all religions combine both aspects.

The internal world

When I defined science I said we make theories about perceptions. Thoughts and emotions are perceptions. So in this sense we can expand the domain of science to include “subjective” ideas. The key idea is theory of mind. Normally the term theory of mind is used in the context of autistic people or children and used to discuss the idea that they cannot understand the behaviour of others. But I think we can interpret it far more literally.

Considering the object near our centre of perception (I.e. ourself), we consider as a scientific theory the idea that we can control our actions. The first theory is that motions of our bodies are exactly the things we think of doing. Then we observe ourselves breathing or our heart beating or some other automatic action. We also observe an imagined action that feels much like our feeling before acting which doesn't actually result in anything. So we have to slightly elaborate our theory, and this elaboration is going on right now in every neuroscience department and I'm not going to try and pre-empt this.

Looking at other people we see they act in similar ways to us. We observe that there are perceptions that look like . We also observe that these objects do things that are similar to how we act in a similar situation. Then we can propose that they, like us, have minds, memories etc which can be predicted based on their past. This theory works quite well and is the basis of almost all our knowledge of others. We simply ask “if I were standing where they are, and knew what they knew, and had their history and characteristics what would I do?”, this is normally a good prediction.

Other people and science

One problem that a lot of people have with a sceptical5 approach to the world is that we cannot possibly examine everything in the world. So suppose I am deciding if I should accept Newton's law of Gravity or General Relativity it's just not reasonable to expect me to wait for a solar eclipse, probably travel thousands of miles, and do the experiment myself. So we must postulate the theory of the reliable scientist. This states that we can, under some situations, expect that others are telling the truth about their own experiences, and that we can deduce from this things about our own perceptions. We can test this theory and compare it to the opposing theory that we should ignore other people in discussing scientific theories by doing experiments and comparing our results with those of others. This gives us a list of people who can, in general, be relied upon. We can go further, it is perfectly scientific to believe someone we know nothing about if they are recommended as reliable by someone whose past recommendations have been reliable. In this we we can build up and produce such concepts as peer review and repeated reproducible experiments.

Free will

The question of the existence of free will is an ancient one. And one that I believe will never be resolved. The question is, given how the universe is now and everything that has happened in the past. Is it possible that some of our actions are freely determined so that we could in theory do more than one different thing? Or are future events totally pre-determined? This I believe is metaphysical. Because there is only one direction of time, we only experience one version of events. If events are pre-determined then we experience just this one set of events, if other things could in theory have happened then there is some means by which exactly one outcome is selected and that happens. Either way our perceptions are exactly the same. There is literally no difference between a deterministic universe and a universe in which free will exists but which just happens to do the same thing.


4) I'm going to end up being loose with language. I'll probably say something stupid like “my laptop exists” is true when I mean to say that it is an accurate theory. You'll have to forgive me, and agree in advance to interpret that kind of thing in the context of the entire theory.

5) I mean philosophical scepticism. One of the most uninteresting and damaging things a first year philosophy student can be taught. There are different realms of epistemology and if you dont respect this you're just going to end up standing around like a nutter not knowing anything. "I know that I know nothing" is not indicative of wisdom, it means that your concept of knowledge is useless.