Summary of Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: Part 3 – Thought Experiments in Metaphsics

My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in  Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.”

(Here is his summary of, and commentary on, Baggini’s thought experiments dealing with metaphysics. It follows from a previous post on thought experiments dealing with logic. I have added my own brief reflections at the bottom of the page.)

From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.

3. Metaphysics

Traditional metaphysics seeks to answer the questions: 1) What is there?; and 2) What is it like? On the first question, we see in #90 Something We Know Not What, that there is an impossible barrier to break through at the core of a physicalist worldview, which requires a fundamental assumption to be made in order to act at all.

Then, in #63 No Know, we see that through the eons of the entire age of life, and overall the instances of individual organisms acting within the universe, the ability of life to predict its environment and continue to survive in it has required that ontologically the universe must be singular, objective, and knowable. If it were otherwise, life could not make sense of things and survive here. We may never know if that is TRUE, but so far that knowledge has survived. The objective existence of the universe may indeed be an assumption, but as a starting point, it now seems to be the strongest knowledge we have.

After this first assumption, we can (provisionally) bring into our worldview the entire accepted cosmology of scientific facts from the realms of physics and chemistry and their related offspring. But when we get to all the fields of biology and the social sciences, there are a few more mysteries left to uncover. Namely, the mind-body problem with its concerns about identity, consciousness, free will, artificial intelligence, and the rationality of emotions.

As for identity, #12 Picasso on the Beach shows that everything is ephemeral over long enough time horizons. #11 The Ship Theseus shows that identity is not a fixed, unchanging thing; all borders are fuzzy. In #2 Beam Me Up, we see that I am material, but not only this present material. That is because, according to #65 Soul Power, a full grasp of identity must be multi-level, it must take account of what the self knows as well as what others know, both of which change over time. #88 Total Lack of Recall expands on this by noting that according to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. In John Mbiti’s words: ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’ This helps explain why #46 Amoebaesque shows that none of the four traditional locations of identity — body, brain, memory, or soul — can stand alone to explain who “I” am.

In fact, according to #38 I Am a Brain, our personal identity is some bundle of our purely physical body parts plus our mental parts that reside in our physical brains. As seen in #30 Memories Are Made Of This, the individual self can be regarded as the totality of a set of perceptions within a body. In #54 The Elusive I, it’s even more apparent that we are collections of mental states or events: “bundles of perceptions”, as Hume said. This bundle theory view of the self may take away some personal, religious notion of a lonely, individual, immortal “I”, but in return, it binds us together with all of the rest of life who are in the same boat as “we” are. This is comforting. For #56 The Total Perspective Vortex shows us that we are just another species of animal life on a single planet orbiting one of the 30 sextillion to 30 septillion stars in the universe. We should feel awe when contemplating infinity and extinction, and exposure to both of these concepts does aid our judgment and moral character in choosing actions that comport with the meaning of life.

Can we really choose? Do we have totally free will? Or has everything already been determined by prior physical states? From our subjective perspective, something in the middle makes the most sense. #9 Bigger Brother shows that observer effects lead to unpredictable actions in humans. In #21 Land of the Epiphens, we see how thinking can affect our choices, and so hard determinism is unproven. According to #31 Just So, however, there is nothing outside of our evolutionary history that influences us. And so we arrive, via #25 Buridan’s an Ass, at the conclusion that the chaos of small influences in a changing universe may have been required to cause some decisions, especially in early forms of life, but our evolved freedom to now choose influences from any past action ever known and any possible future ever imagined gives us practically infinite free will now, even if that freedom is ultimately constrained at the limits of what is possible.

Is artificial intelligence something we can include in this realm of possibility? Can we create metaphysical subjectivity in new forms of existence? The limitations of epistemology in a physical universe mean we’ll never know for sure, but according to #39 The Chinese Room, emotions, definitions for good and bad, and the ability to learn to meet a hierarchy of needs are probably enough to create strong artificial intelligence. They are all we have ourselves.

Psychology and all the related sciences of biology can then inform us about the physical basis for these mental things. In #18 Rationality Demands, we see that reasons and feelings are not separate, they influence one another. Further, according to #80 Hearts and Heads, there’s a bi-directional feedback loop between reasons and emotions. These connections aren’t always consciously known or personally understood, but the link is always there. Our job as philosophers is to improve the functioning of this system by improving the logic behind our evaluations so that our emotions motivate us in the right direction. But what then is the “right” direction? To answer that, we must have ethics and definitions for “good” or “bad.”

My Brief reflections – Again so much substantive material here. As for personal identity, I think that Hume’s bundle theory and/or Buddhism’s idea of no-self is about right. Clearly, we just don’t have identity the way most of us imagine; if indeed we have any real self at all. And there almost certainly is no kernel that is us.

As for free will, I’m not sure what Mr. Gibney means by ” practically infinite free will” but I’m skeptical. I’m not a hard determinist, but I think that to say we are genomes in environments is a nearly exhaustive explanation of what we are. Still, we are not rocks, and free choice (which needs to be defined carefully but which is very, very limited) is something that emerged along with consciousness. That is, unlike rocks which are completely determined (let’s forget quantum theory for the moment), we have some deliberative faculties because we are conscious.

As for strong AI, I see no reason whatsoever why consciousness can’t exist on substrates other than our biological brains. In fact, in an infinite universe, consciousness may exist in almost limitless forms.  Finally, I completely agree with Mr. Gibney on the interrelationship between reasons and emotions and that it is a moral imperative to improve our thinking. Quoting from Pascal:

“Let us endeavour then to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

(Next up – the thought experiments dealing with ethics.)

4 thoughts on “Summary of Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: Part 3 – Thought Experiments in Metaphsics

  1. Now we’re getting into the Heavy Stuff. Nothing to add, except these are numbers I didn’t know of before:

    “…one of the 30 sextillion to 30 septillion stars in the universe.”

  2. Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what I meant by “practically infinite” either. : )

    I find that the wording I use for the free will debate is still changing a bit for me. Lately, I’ve begun to think that it’s an unfalsifiable question since it would seemingly require two universes with beings in exactly the same positions making different choices to definitively prove something about determinism vs. free will. Without supernatural influences, souls, or dualistic minds not made of matter (things Dennett calls “skyhooks”), it’s difficult to refute the logic of determinism in a physicalist universe. However, the sheer amount of things determining those outcomes makes it nigh impossible to calculate them. That’s really what I mean by “practically infinite.” If we can’t calculate the determined outcome, it seems better to focus on the myriad of choices we do have and keep working to find the best influences from among them. There’s even some empirical evidence that this works better.

    Ultimately though, I entirely agree with you that we are genomes in environments. I think that explains both the simplicity and the complexity of our existence.

  3. yes, just such a difficult question. I act as if I have free will even though I might not.

  4. “we are genomes in environments”

    The short-short version:
    environments are open– but our genomes are closed?

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