Wednesday, 31 August 2011


All systems of knowledge are, in one way or another, axiomatic. No matter how thorough our logic is, we ultimately begin with a premise and make the assumption that it is true. Everything else unfolds from that, whether by syllogism or dialectic or whatever. If the rules of logic hold true, then they only hold true for the consequences of a premise. And that's logic 101. It's also part of the basic argument that John Lennox uses about rationalists and faith.

We always start with an axiom or a premise and infer its consequences. It's great technique to use those inferences to determine whether the axiom is true. In the more complicated questions, the logic can be quite convoluted. Not everything is just a matter of "David is unmarried. Is he also a bachelor?" When it comes to questions of God, both theists and atheists have appealed to nature to support their arguments, and in both cases there is an interpretative element to the logic that's based around some axiom. Ultimately, I think axioms are inescapable. We need to postulate them in order to understand the world, and we need to test them to make sure we aren't being deceived, but we can't do without them.

I'm also interested in the consequences for another reason. If we have an axiom that holds reasonably true (albeit beyond proof either way) then we should take time to figure out what that means for our daily lives and then do it. I don't think there's enough of this going on, and I think that's because we're happy not to have to do that work. And that, I think, is the point of any philosophy that matters.
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."
Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Simulation Argument

I know I'm eight years behind the game on the Simulation Argument, but that's a lot more recent than my catchup with other thinkers. If you're like me and also just playing catchup, the argument says that only one of the following three propositions is true.
(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
(2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
It sounds odd and is definitely counter-intuitive, but the logic is sound. I think that they can be re-written a little for clarity.
(1) there are no beings capable of creating a computer simulation of sentient life
(2) there are no beings capable of creating a computer simulation of sentient life, who also have the interest in creating such a simulation
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation
Or, to put it in grand theological terms.
(1) there is no being capable of creating a universe with sentient beings
(2) there are no beings capable of creating a universe, who also have the interest in creating such a universe
(3) we are almost certainly living in a created universe
Even just putting it into those terms makes me feel as though there's a fault somewhere in the logic, or that I've engaged in some trickery. It reminds me of the classic formulation of theodicy.
Only two of these are true.
(4) God is omnipotent
(5) God is omnibenevolent
(6) There is evil in the universe.
The simulation argument appears to be a negative expression of the same form. With that sense of structure in mind, let's abstract it some more.
Consider an act (A) which is conceivable but just a little bit beyond our capability
Only one of these is true.
(1) There is no agent capable of (A)
(2) There is no being capable and interested in (A)
(3) There is almost certainly (A)
Or perhaps in the very simple form, "If there is an agent who is willing and able to perform (A), then (A) has almost certainly happened."

When (A) is conceivable and just a little bit beyond our capability, we're more likely to take the argument seriously. However, if we define the act (B) as something far beyond our capacity to imagine or achieve then we have a hard time with the whole thing. In the very simple form, "If there is an agent who is willing and able to rebuild the universe out of subatomic matchsticks then it has almost certainly happened." If we can imagine a posthuman technology capable of creating a simulated universe, why can't we imagine a being (posthuman, transhuman, transcendent, or other) capable of subatomic matchstick constructions?

In its complex form, the simulation argument sounds all well and good, but with your friend and mine, the reductio ad absurdum, it starts to fall apart. I'm not convinced that it's a fatal flaw in the argument, but it's much less convincing at the far end of the scale.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Psychopaths and the Law

The latest episode of The Philosophers Zone is all about psychopaths. It brings a great perspective to the issue of mental illness and the law, specifically around psychopaths and their awareness, or lack thereof, of what is morally right and wrong.

They hinted at the purpose of punishment and how that changes when the guilty party is mentally ill. The notion that a person should be punished disappears when the capacity for moral awareness is absent. However, that doesn't mean that the culprit shouldn't be incarcerated. In that case, the incarceration is for the protection of society and to, for want of a better word, force treatment upon the perpetrator.

Generally speaking, I'm ok with this. I think it still allows a legal system to identify who committed the illegal act, but also the liberty to apply a different kind of sentence for the mentally ill than for others.