Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Real Unreality • The Meaning In and Of Life • Robotic Reasoning • Distilling Hegelian Spirit • Capital Letters • Godless Morality
Dear Editor: In Issue 139, Harry Whitnall asks us to consider the proposal that the universe is a simulation, the result of a scientific experiment by more technologically advanced beings. If this idea were true then the simulation would also include our thinking about the universe being a simulation. In other words, we would be talking about a simulation thinking about a simulation. But can a simulation think about anything?
I thought that the idea of a totally simulated Universe had finally been put to bed, but it keeps cropping up. There are better things to think about!
Pamela White, Nottingham
Dear Editor: Thank you for PN Issue 139 and its focused analysis of AI. In my opinion, a very good case can be made for mankind to have been commissioned for a junior high school experiment in some advanced civilization. Students of a middle year have been assigned to Groups to oversee the various facets of our simulated, AI life. Group 1 might be assigned control of dirt, soil, dust, rocks, etc. and everything that lives in that medium. Group 2 might control air – atmosphere – viruses, birds and everything else that lives that medium. Similarly, a Group 3 might be assigned control of water and everything that lives in that. How many Groups would be needed is unclear to me, especially since outer space seems have been included in the exercise.
It is also easy to imagine that a Council has been appointed to oversee the ongoing activities of the Groups. The task of the Council, I imagine, would be to fix boundaries on what the Groups can achieve, within a framework of strict laws – concerning the death of AI life-forms – and not-so-strict laws, such as gender divisions across all species, reproduction, life-span, knowledge etc.
Will humans ever really know what’s going on? Probably not. Does it matter? Probably not.
Ray Price, Queensland
The Meaning In and Of Life
Dear Editor: In Issue 139 Frank Martela invokes Leo Tolstoy’s well documented midlife existential crisis, citing his My Confession (1882) and the nihilistic thoughts that haunted him to the point where he claims that “there was nothing ahead of me but destruction.”
Using Tolstoy’s anguish as a backdrop, Martela draws a distinction between the meaning of life, and the meaning in life. This is illustrative of a misunderstanding that my friends have when I claim that existence is meaningless. They do not accept the distinction between existence and life, claiming that they’re the same. Then I remind them that a dead body exists. Ultimately then, existence is indeed meaningless, but life doesn’t have to be; that depends on the choices we make, or don’t make. As Sartre reminds us, a man is no more than the ensemble of his acts, and the totality of our essence remains undefined until the moment of our death.
In choosing Tolstoy to illustrate this, Martela gains access to a wealth of supporting literature, and there’s none better than Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In this gripping story, Ivan lives his entire life for the Other. He craves the approval of the crowd and is attuned only to the external. Never self-examining, he fails to turn inward until he has lost the power to change his life, eventually falling ill. After months of excruciating suffering, and unable to comprehend why he has been so unfairly afflicted, he finally accepts that “I have been here; now I’m going there. Where?… When I’m dead, what happens then? Nothing happens.” At the end, Ivan embraces the Nothing and understands that all around and within him is a lie. Using Tolstoy’s example, Martela warns us that the end being inevitable makes existence in and of itself meaningless. It is the journey that matters – a journey enriched by self-expression and our concerned involvement in the welfare of others.
Life’s meaning is only what we choose to make it. To paraphrase Alan Watts, when it’s all said and done, we need to be able to say that as long as the music was playing, we danced.
Jeffrey Laird, Kentucky
Dear Editor: I am grateful to Frank Martela for highlighting the distinction between ‘the meaning of life’ and ‘meaning in life’ in Philosophy Now Issue 139. The former I understand as setting life within a context. In this sense I might derive meaning by seeing life as part of a greater scheme, just as a word takes its meaning within a sentence. By contrast, I take the latter to refer to a belief that certain activities or experiences are felt to be intrinsically worthwhile and give value to the life of which they are a part.
Despite the fact that probably the vast majority of people throughout history, and even today, believe that there is a meaning of life, in the article Martela has no interest in this area. But what of his thoughts on ‘meaning in life’? Martela points out the importance of two types of experience: ‘expressing yourself’ and ‘contributing to the well-being of other people’. I would add to his list the satisfaction of completing a task which has presented a challenge and which was accomplished by the exercise of some expertise. But it’s one thing to claim that certain experiences feel meaningful, but if the notion of a ‘meaning of life’ has been rejected, then what beyond an emotional reward is the justification for attributing meaning or value to them? My worry is that raising the profile of ‘meaning in life’ rather than continuing the search for the ‘meaning of life’, might be no more than a feel-good displacement activity – an instance of self-directed virtue signalling.
Oliver Leech, Newcastle under Lyme
Dear Editor: I really enjoyed Keith McVeigh’s story ‘What Colour Are Numbers?’ in Issue 139, because it addresses something I’ve been frustrated with since I first heard the question ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ It’s always seemed like a nonsensical non-question to me, and I think the implicit parallel McVeigh makes between it and the question ‘What colour are numbers?’ is perfect! The meaning of life is treated, at least by armchair philosophers, as the ultimate question, but personally, I don’t really care to know what the meaning of life is. First, I want to know what on earth the question means!
Emily Schranz, Arkansas
Dear Editor: I thoroughly enjoyed the stark contrast between the Japanese and Western attitudes toward robots illustrated in James Wight’s ‘The Battle for the Robot Soul’ in Issue 139. However, I cannot help but refute his sentiment that we do not feel compassion toward the protagonist robot (Arnie) in The Terminator until after it has been reprogrammed and robbed of its free will. While a human reprogramming a robot would result in the robot’s intentions being altered outside of its own agency, this does not mean its free will becomes non-existent. In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett explores a limited free will which distinguishes between choices that could have been made (even if they were not) and choices which were never possible at all. The T-800 is reprogrammed, and hence, does not have complete freedom to engage in an infinite set of desired activities. Yet, the machine gains a limited number of choices which were not available to it before, including whether or not to kill humans in the pursuit of its new task. It is precisely this granting of limited freedom that humanises the T-800, in turn commanding our sympathies.
Jason DiNovi, Albany, NY
Dear Editor: Regarding the theme of Issue 139, Future Shocks, I have been considering how in the future there could be areas of thought in which the human mind might be able to operate well but a foreseeable AI might not. One can think of the humanities here, and particularly the arts, including literature. I have tentatively concluded that a large area in which an AI might have considerable difficulty competing with us is in the field of music, specifically tonal melody. I don’t see how we could even begin to program an AI – or have it program itself – to ‘create’ a melody that would be as never-fading in its meaningful appeal to us as many we have already composed, such as ‘The Toreadors’ Song’ from Carmen, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, or Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.
Dan Shively, Greensburg, PA
Dear Editor: In ‘Pascal’s Artificial Intelligence Wager’, Philosophy Now 139, Derek Leben states that “The main insight from Pascal relevant to the debate about AI is this: any probability of infinite losses will always outweigh any possible finite gains.” I am not convinced of this. For example, it is common place for individuals to elect for surgery to improve their quality of life (finite gain), well knowing that there is a small chance of their perishing under the surgeon’s knife (infinite loss). Therefore I don’t think Pascal’s wager resolves the issue of the value of the benefits or loss of AI.
Ken Lewchuk, Houston
Distilling Hegelian Spirit
Dear Editor: After reading the articles on Hegel in PN 140, the meaning of a number of things he said remains unclear to me, along with the justification for them. Despite this, his view actually seems to be similar to mine in some rather radical respects. According to Matt Qvortrup’s introductory article, Hegel insisted that reality “is not something existing independently of our minds… and the nature of reality is… Geist” (mind or spirit). According to Jack Fox-Williams’s article, Hegel thinks that nature is ‘the embodiment of reason’. What does this mean? Perhaps he means the embodiment of what a mind may understand when using reason – in which case, nature can sometimes also exist independently of mind, or there would be nothing to understand except reason itself? Or perhaps he meant the embodiment of something which is necessarily understood by some mind – and so which necessarily exists in minds?
Either way, I believe there is a Berkeleyesque argument as to why we should not believe that anything exists independently of a mind. This argument is that there cannot actually be an idea of a thing unless that thing is in a mind. So it never makes sense to conceive of something which isn’t in a mind. This seems logical, even though it conflicts with normal, strongly held, beliefs.
According to Fox-Williams, Hegel also said “self-consciousness depends on its own being to come into actuality”. Again, I’m not clear what this means or what his justification for it is. However, once again, there seems to be a logical argument for something similar, concerning why a consciousness can’t be caused by anything else. A consciousness only exists from its own subjective perspective, which means that it can’t actually co-exist with other things, so, it can’t be caused by them.
Based on these arguments, I can’t logically believe in anything which exists outside minds. However, if nothing is independent of mind, then that truth itself must be perceived by a mind, otherwise, it wouldn’t exist! It would follow that a mind must be constantly thinking that nothing exists outside of minds. But, minds don’t do that. There don’t seem to be any logical possibilities left. Which means there’s a paradox.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
Dear Editor: In Prof Matt Qvortrup’s introduction to Hegel in Issue 140, he describes the basic Hegelian structure of history as an ongoing conversation where ‘opposites clash and are overcome’. Doesn’t this exclude a great deal of the past where the need to overcome opposites is neither obvious nor easy to gauge in terms of success – such as a year spent running a farm or hospital department; a term of study for exams; months of learning in government; or preparing the family home for Christmas?
Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton
Dear Editor: Unlike Arianna Marchetti (Issue 139), I’ve never been able to give Foucault & Co the time of day. Foucault’s theory of power is self-refuting: if neoliberal ideology imprisons our thinking through police, prisons, schools and mental hospitals, as he says, how can he think as he does, and why has no one constrained him and the teachers in the schools and universities who lean towards more extreme liberalism? The four leftist liberal orthodoxies on sex, racism, climate and immigration dominate our media, our universities, even global manufacturers of ice cream. Neoliberals like me have silenced and sacked no one.
We flourish under capitalism just as democratic, pluralist Athens did. We are all writing footnotes to Athens, not to monolithic, oligarchic Sparta. Neoliberalism does what it says: it liberates. Where, except in neoliberal capitalism, would a truck driver who left school at sixteen be able to change billions of people’s lives for the better, as Malcom McLean has? No NGO or charity has ever come close to alleviating poverty and spreading liberty as container-freight has done, which he invented and gave patent-free to the world.
The philosophical parent of what is mystifyingly called ‘new’ or neo liberalism was Adam Smith, writing 250 years ago. No one was as relentless in his desire to spread liberty and prosperity to the poor: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the number are poor and miserable”, he wrote. He also noted that in earning a living for ourselves we make possible the lives of others (the ‘invisible hand’). Smith deplored the maxim ‘all for ourselves and nothing for other people’ that had always been ‘the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.’ He noted that it was always high wages, not high profits, that harm business. He backed higher tax rates for the rich. No Western capitalist society has deviated from these notions. Most tax revenue comes from the rich.
Crucially, Smith saw that freedom of trade and enterprise necessarily pulled along with it freedom of expression and politics. It was no coincidence that the industrial revolution was followed by expansion of the franchise. Nor is it surprising that increased political and social liberty in China, has accompanied the explosion in non-state-controlled commerce and industry. Crippled manufacturing, ideologically cramped schooling, and a crippled press are found together. I don’t need to list examples.
Michael McManus, Leeds
Dear Editor: In just two pages in Issue 138, Raymond Tallis, with his usual clarity, lays out the sweep of damage done by libertarian attacks on progressive programs in Britain and the US. I would like to offer an example of the damage.
I’m a delivery driver. I pick up blood and urine samples from pet clinics and take them to a diagnostics laboratory. When I first started this job in 2002 I worked directly for the lab, driving its cars, which were insured, fuelled, and maintained by the lab. After six years, the lab realized that it could save money by contracting with a delivery company, which in turn offered contracts to the drivers, who became ‘independent’ contractors. We drivers could either take the offer or look for another job.
Some of us stayed. The quotation marks tell the tale. We’re about as independent as Trump is from Putin. We did receive an increase in pay to offset certain expenses. But the contract between the driver and the delivery company was not hammered out between the two parties. It was already written, take it or leave it. Its contents include: We drive our own cars, pay for the gas, and insure them (with mandatory quite expensive beefed-up coverage); we’re required to pay for an annual business license and limited liability papers; required to purchase a smartphone (a requirement added later not in the contract). The smartphone is used to enter data at each stop on our routes, which adds work time. Other time-consuming paperwork is added at the company’s convenience. In other words, it gets free labor. As a final indignity: we are paid $2.75 per regular stop on the route, plus $3.75 for call-in stops. In the twelve years I’ve been an Independent Contractor, neither of those payments have been raised! If you ask for a raise, your route is put up for bid. Of course no one risks that. To top it off, we are not eligible for unemployment benefits should the delivery company end the contract.
The Independent Contractor sham has grown as unions have shrunk. Such are the wiles of capitalism.
Chris Christensen, Portland, Oregon
Dear Editor: I read with great interest the article ‘Beyond Humanism?’ by Robert Griffiths (Issue 138). The question of ethics without God(s) has long vexed me, and the article got me thinking. Years ago I had a martial arts instructor named Marcus. Our sessions often evolved into philosophical discussions and ran on quite late. On one particular occasion we hit upon the topic of ethics in the absence of God(s). The arguments we slung at each other raged in my head all the while I was driving home. Upon arriving, I wrote down my thoughts in verse:
All human motivation
Is to serve the self.
The only difference among people
Is whether their thought
Is long-term or
Long-term thinkers realize
What is good for all
Is good for them.
They seek to build
On fleeting pleasures
Building nothing of value,
Hindering society as a whole.
To be long-term thinkers
Is the true goal
Of all education.
Tim Roettiger, Alstead, NH
Dear Editor: I am writing in reaction to Rick Aaron’s piece, ‘Christianity & Homosexuality’ in Issue 138, in which the author discusses “what religious believers often recommend that a gay person do as a practical matter.” Aaron examines what he considers to be the two most common options: marrying someone of the other sex, or leading a life of chastity. He concludes that neither are practically feasible and therefore not morally obligatory. While I agree with his overall conclusions, I strongly disagree with entering this type of argument in the first place. Engaging in this type of argument leads us into very dangerous territory. To engage in discussion on the feasibility of responses to homosexuality, one has implicitly accepted the possible validity of the conservative view that homosexuality is a problem, thereby already conceding too much.
Alex Crumbie, Manchester