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. Gibney has also summarized his own 100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.” (Here is his summary of, and my brief commentary on, Baggini’s thought experiments.)
What do I know? From #1 The Evil Demon, we cannot be absolutely certain of anything. #62 I Think, Therefore? shows that not even cogito ergo sum is a bedrock. Everything is uncertain and all knowledge is probabilistic. In #41 Getting the Blues, we saw that knowledge comes only via sensory experiences. We haven’t found any exceptions to this. This is reinforced in #13 Black, White, and Red All Over, where the physical nature of the universe creates an epistemic barrier to our knowledge. As a consequence of all this, #63: No Know shows that since we can never be certain that any TRUTH will remain unchanged in a changing universe, our cosmological revolutions need to sink into our epistemological understanding. Knowledge can only ever be: justified, beliefs, that are surviving. For such an evolutionary epistemology, all theories are “true” only provisionally, regardless of the degree of empirical testing they have survived. #73 Being a Bat showed that this evolutionary perspective provides a clear and interlocking set of beliefs that consistently come together to help solve the most fundamental questions of philosophy.
What about the knowledge of others? What do they know? And what can we ever really say to one another? #47 Rabbit! showed that we cannot know for certain that we are talking about the exact same thing whenever we talk to someone, in this language or another. Through #74 Water, Water, Everywhere, we see that the meaning of our words evolves as more information comes in. This is why the many and varied efforts of philosophers of language to find logically perfect and universal definitions of meanings are doomed to failure. There is hope, however. #23 The Beetle In The Box shows that we cannot know what is inside other minds, but our shared evolutionary history makes it highly probable that there is much in common. For example, in #59 The Eyes Have It, vision has shared the same chemical basis across the entire animal kingdom for over a billion years. We can’t Know with a capital K what others see, but it is extremely likely to be the same as what we ourselves perceive. In #19 Bursting the Soap Bubble, our shared evolutionary history shows that we all see the world similarly, but we must still be open to hearing others’ views and change our minds when it is justified. In fact, according to #3 The Indian and the Ice, we absolutely must change our minds, although only when it’s appropriate.
How do we know when it’s appropriate to change our beliefs? In #40 The Rocking-Horse Winner, we see that knowledge cannot be generalized from prior perceptions, nor predicted using the assumption that the universe is uniform. The best we can do is prove through falsification via the scientific method what does not work. In the face of this, #28 The Nightmare Scenario shows that there is a big difference between productive speculation, which is the hallmark of good science, and pernicious speculation that specifically eliminates the possibility of testable hypotheses. As shown by #51 Living in a Vat, there are infinite unfalsifiable notions about reality so none of them are more probable than any other. Therefore, none of them ought to have any bearing on our behavior. In fact, as shown by #81 Sense and Sensibility, if a belief is completely unscientific because it is unfalsifiable, then the burden of proof for such strange ideas must fall on the person advocating the notion, since such things cannot be disproven, and there are infinite such nonsenses (like Bertrand Russell’s teapot orbiting the sun, the flying spaghetti monster, or all historical notions of God).
To reiterate, according to #93 Zombies, we cannot use our general epistemological uncertainty to arrive at any epistemologically certain statements, such as “physicalism is true” or “physicalism is false.” Philosophers seem to enjoy speculating about the unknown and fighting about what may or may not be there while the evidence is gathered by scientists, but none of these merely potential occurrences have any weight whatsoever to actually affect our current knowledge. They are observations with an n of zero.
So now that we have some knowledge—justified, beliefs, that are surviving—what can we do with this?
My brief reflections – I agree with Gibney’s epistemological fallibilism/skepticism modified by the view of the provisional nature of all truth. I would only emphasize that this does not imply relativism, as the provisional truths of science are often supported by mountains of empirical evidence. The best a rational person can do, as Locke and Hume taught us, is proportion their assent to the evidence.
First off, as seen in #42 Take the Money and Run, logic puzzles alone don’t always teach us much. However, #6 Wheel of Fortune helps us see that our guts are bad at statistics. And to solve any paradox, like the one in #70 An Inspector Calls, you must carefully define unclear terms. #64 Nipping the Bud shows that simple answers to complex situations are always wrong in some way. And via #49 The Hole in the Sum of the Parts, it’s a “category mistake” to treat concrete things and abstract ideas as if they both existed as singular entities.
In #85 The Nowhere Man, we see that “meaningless statements” whose meanings seem clear is a contradiction in terms, but this is the kind of problem that was solved in mathematics by the invention of the concept of zero. Just as “the present King of France” or “the round square” don’t refer to anything, neither does the number zero, and so such linguistic oddities might, therefore, be labeled xero, as in, they are neither true nor false, but technically xero.
In another problem for the application of logic, we see in #16 Racing Tortoises that time cannot be slowed to a halt. This then shows us in #94 The Sorites Tax that the concepts of TRUE and FALSE were built on an ancient’s view of the universe as an unchanging and eternal thing. Once we discovered evolution in 1859, and the Big Bang was confirmed by background radiation in the 1960s, our cosmological revolutions should have led to logical revolutions as well. You cannot impose eternal and unchanging TRUE/FALSE logic on an evolving and expanding universe. I call this the Static-Dynamic Problem of philosophy. One can only apply logic to a static picture where TRUE or FALSE definitions can remain valid. Once you move to the dynamic realm, classical logic breaks down.
Nonetheless, as in #61 Mozzarella Moon, when mutually exclusive ideas mingle, they must either adapt or go extinct, and it would be much better for all involved if the changes didn’t have to come from violent conflict (might doesn’t make right), so it’s vital we figure out how to root out truly maladaptive thoughts by using logical reason alone. Sadly, as seen in #24 Squaring the Circle, irrational beliefs in gods are unaffected by rational arguments. And so we, therefore, must move to the subjective realm to understand emotions and other views about the nature of one’s reality.
My Brief Reflections – There is a lot here but I agree that as long as there is time, as long as there is a tomorrow, we cannot claim to know something definitively. Still, I’d argue that if we can enhance our intelligence, merge with AIs, create a global brain, become transhuman, etc., then there is a possibility of adjudicating our disputes with reason alone.
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.”