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Virtual Reality & Its Moral Implications

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There’s a lot to be said about virtual reality (VR) in terms of our current technological capabilities, our likely prospects for future advancements, and the vast amount of utility that we gain from it.  But, as it is with all other innovations, with great power comes great responsibility.

While there are several types of VR interfaces on the market, used for video gaming or various forms of life simulation, they do have at least one commonality, namely the explicit goal of attempting to convince the user that what they are experiencing is in fact real in at least some sense.  This raises a number of ethical concerns.  While we can’t deny the fact that even reading books and watching movies influences our behavior to some degree, VR is bound to influence our behavior much more readily because of the sheer richness of the qualia and the brain’s inability to distinguish significant differences between a virtual reality and our natural one.  Since the behavioral conditioning schema that our brain employs has evolved to be well adapted to our natural reality, any virtual variety that increasingly approximates it is bound to increasingly affect our behavior.  So we need to be concerned with VR in terms of how it can affect our beliefs, our biases, and our moral inclinations and other behaviors.

One concern with VR is the desensitization to, or normalization of, violence and other undesirable or immoral behaviors.  Many video games have been criticized over the years for this very reason, with the claim that they promote similar behaviors in the users of those games (most especially younger users with more impressionable minds).  These claims have been significantly validated by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, where they have both taken firm stances against children and teens playing violent video games, as a result of the accumulated research and meta studies showing a strong link between violent video gaming and increased aggression, anti-social behavior, and sharp decreases in moral engagement and empathy.

Thus, the increasingly realistic nature of VR and the ever-consistent increase in the capacities one has at their disposal within such a virtual space, is bound to exacerbate these types of problems.  If people are able to simulate rape or pedophilia among other morally reprehensible actions and social taboos, will they too become more susceptible to actually engaging in these behaviors once they leave the virtual space and re-enter the real world?  Even if they don’t increase their susceptibility to perform those behaviors, what does such a virtual escapade do to that person’s moral character?  Are they more likely to condone those behaviors (even if they don’t participate in them directly), or to condone other behaviors that have some kind of moral relevance or cognitive overlap with one another?

On the flip side, what if it was possible to use VR as a therapeutic tool to help cure pedophilia or other behavioral problems?  What if one was able to simulate rape, pedophilia or otherwise to reduce their chances of performing those acts in the real world?  Hardly anyone would argue that a virtual rape or molestation is anywhere near as abhorrent or consequential as real instances of such crimes would be, horrific crimes made against real human beings.  While this may only apply to a small number of people, it is at least plausible that such a therapeutic utility would make the world a better place if it prevented an actual rape or other crime from taking place.  If certain people have hard-wired impulses that would normally ruin their lives or the lives of others if left unchecked, then it would be prudent if not morally obligatory to do what we can to prevent such harms from taking place.  So even though this technology could make the otherwise healthy user begin to engage in bad behaviors, it could also be used as an outlet of expression for those already afflicted with similar impulses.  Just as they’ve used VR to help cure anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD, and other pathologies, by exposing people to various stimuli that help them to overcome their ills, so too may VR possibly provide a cure for other types of mental illnesses and aggressive predispositions such as those related to murder, sexual assault, etc.

Whether VR is used as an outlet for certain behaviors to prevent them from actually happening in the real world, or as a means of curing a person from those immoral inclinations (where the long term goal is to eventually no longer need any VR treatment at all), there are a few paths that could show some promising results to decrease crime and so forth.  But, beyond therapeutic uses, we need to be careful about how these technologies are used generally and how that usage will increasingly affect our moral inclinations.

If society chose to implement some kind of prohibition to limit the types of things people could do in these virtual spaces, that may be of some use, but beyond the fact that this kind of prohibition would likely be difficult to enforce, it would also be a form of selective prohibition that may not be justified to implement.  If one chose to prohibit simulated rape and pedophilia (for example), but not prohibit murder or other forms of assault and violence, then what would justify such a selective prohibition?  We can’t simply rely on an intuition that the former simulated behaviors are somehow more repugnant than the latter (and besides, many would say that murder is just as bad if not worse anyway).  It seems that instead we need to better assess the consequences of each type of simulated behavior on our behavioral conditioning to see if at least some simulated activities should be prohibited while allowing others to persist unregulated.  On the other hand, if prohibiting this kind of activity is not practical or if it can only be implemented by infringing on certain liberties that we have good reasons to protect, then we need to think about some counter-strategies to either better inform people about these kinds of dangers and/or to make other VR products that help to encourage the right kinds of behaviors.

I can’t think of a more valuable use for VR than to help us cultivate moral virtues and other behaviors that are conducive to our well-being and to our living a more fulfilled life.  Anything from reducing our prejudices and biases through exposure to various simulated “out-groups” (for example), to modifying our moral character in more profound ways through artificial realities that can encourage the user to help others in need and to develop habits and inclinations that are morally praiseworthy.  We can even use this technology (and have already to some degree) to work out various moral dilemmas and our psychological response to them without anybody actually dying or getting physically hurt.  Overall, VR certainly holds a lot of promise, but it also poses a lot of psychological danger, thus making it incumbent upon us to talk more about these technologies as they continue to develop.

On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

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So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Another relevant topic I’ve written about in several previous posts is the concept of free will.  This is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.

Conclusion

In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.

Is Death Bad For You? A Response to Shelly Kagan

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I’ve enjoyed reading and listening to the philosopher Shelly Kagan, both in debate, lectures, and various articles.  One topic he’s well known for is that of death, specifically the fear of death, and trying to understand the details behind, and justification for, the general attitude people have toward the concept of death.  I’ve written a little about the fear of death long ago, but coming across an article of Kagan’s reignited my interest in the topic.  He wrote an article a few years ago in The Chronicle, where he expounds on some of the ontological puzzles related to the concept of death.  I thought I’d briefly summarize the article’s main points and give a response to it here.

Can Death Be Bad For Us?

Kagan begins with the assumption that the death of a person’s body results in the end of that person’s existence.  This is certainly a reasonable assumption as there’s no evidence to the contrary, that is, that persons can exist without a living body.  Simple enough.  Then he asks the question, if death is the end of our existence, then how can being dead be bad for us?  While some would say that death is particularly bad for the survivors of the deceased since they miss the person who’s died and the relationship they once had with that person.  But it seems more complicated than that, because we could likewise have an experience where a cherished friend or family member leaves us and goes somewhere far away such that we can be confident that we’ll never see that person ever again.

Both the death of that person, and the alternative of their leaving forever to go somewhere such that we’ll never have contact with them again, result in the same loss of relationship.  Yet most people would say that if we knew about their dying instead of simply leaving forever, there’s more to be sad about in terms of death being bad for them, not simply bad for us.  And this sadness results from more than simply knowing how they died — the process of death itself — which could have been unpleasant, but also could have been entirely benign (such as dying peacefully in one’s sleep).  Similarly, Kagan tells us, the prospect of dying can be unpleasant as well, but he asserts, this only seems to make sense if death itself is bad for us.

Kagan suggests:

Maybe nonexistence is bad for me, not in an intrinsic way, like pain, and not in an instrumental way, like unemployment leading to poverty, which in turn leads to pain and suffering, but in a comparative way—what economists call opportunity costs. Death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. That explanation of death’s badness is known as the deprivation account.

While the deprivation account seems plausible, Kagan thinks that accepting it results in a couple of potential problems.  He argues, if something is true, it seems as if there must be some time when it’s true.  So when would it be true that death is bad for us?  Not now, he says.  Because we’re not dead now.  Not after we’re dead either, because then we no longer exist so nothing can be bad for a being that no longer exists.  This seems to lead to the conclusion that either death isn’t bad for anyone after all, or alternatively, that not all facts are datable.  He gives us another possible example of an undatable fact.  If Kagan shoots “John” today such that John slowly bleeds to death after two days, but Kagan dies tomorrow (before John dies) then after John dies, can we say that Kagan killed John?  If Kagan did kill John, when did he kill him?  Kagan no longer existed when John died so how can we say that Kagan killed John?

I think we could agree with this and say that while it’s true that Kagan didn’t technically kill John, a trivial response to this supposed conundrum is to say that Kagan’s actions led to John’s death.  This seems to solve that conundrum by working within the constraints of language, while highlighting the fact that when we say someone killed X what we really mean is that someone’s actions led to the death of X, thus allowing us to be consistent with our conceptions of existence, causality, killing, blame, etc.

Existence Requirement, Non-Existential Asymmetry, & It’s Implications

In any case, if all facts are datable (or at least facts like these), then we should be able to say when exactly death is bad for us.  Can things only be bad for us when we exist?  If so, this is what Kagan refers to as the existence requirement.  If we don’t accept such a requirement — that one must exist in order for things to be bad for us — that produces other problems, like being able to say for example that non-existence could be bad for someone who has never existed but that could have possibly existed.  This seems to be a pretty strange claim to hold to.  So if we refuse to accept that it’s a tragedy for possibly existent people to never come into existence, then we’d have to accept the existence requirement, which I would contend is a more plausible assumption to accept.  But if we do so, then it seems that we have to accept that death isn’t in fact bad for us.

Kagan suggests that we may be able to reinterpret the existence requirement, and he does this by distinguishing between two versions, a modest version which asserts that something can be bad for you only if you exist at some time or another, and a bold version which asserts that something can be bad for you only if you exist at the same time as that thing.  Accepting the modest version seems to allow us a way out of the problems posed here, but that it too has some counter-intuitive implications.

He illustrates this with another example:

Suppose that somebody’s got a nice long life. He lives 90 years. Now, imagine that, instead, he lives only 50 years. That’s clearly worse for him. And if we accept the modest existence requirement, we can indeed say that, because, after all, whether you live 50 years or 90 years, you did exist at some time or another. So the fact that you lost the 40 years you otherwise would have had is bad for you. But now imagine that instead of living 50 years, the person lives only 10 years. That’s worse still. Imagine he dies after one year. That’s worse still. An hour? Worse still. Finally, imagine I bring it about that he never exists at all. Oh, that’s fine.

He thinks this must be accepted if we accept the modest version of the existence requirement, but how can this be?  If one’s life is shortened relative to what they would have had, this is bad, and gets progressively worse as the life is hypothetically shortened, until a life span of zero is reached, in which case they no longer meet the modest existence requirement and thus can’t have anything be bad for them.  So it’s as if it gets infinitely worse as the potential life span approaches the limit of zero, and then when zero is reached, becomes benign and is no longer an issue.

I think a reasonable response to this scenario is to reject the claim that hypothetically shrinking the life span to zero is suddenly no longer an issue.  What seems to be glossed over in this example is the fact that this is a set of comparisons of one hypothetical life to another hypothetical life (two lives with different non-zero life spans), resulting in a final comparison between one hypothetical life and no life at all (a life span of zero).  This example illustrates whether or not something is better or worse in comparison, not whether something is good or bad intrinsically speaking.  The fact that somebody lived for as long as 90 years or only for 10 years isn’t necessarily good or bad but only better or worse in comparison to somebody who’s lived for a different length of time.

The Intrinsic Good of Existence & Intuitions On Death

However, I would go further and say that there is an intrinsic good to existing or being alive, and that most people would agree with such a claim (and that the strong will to live that most of us possess is evidence of our acknowledging such a good).  That’s not to say that never having lived is bad, but only to say that living is good.  If not living is neither good nor bad but considered a neutral or inconsequential state, then we can hold the position that living is better than not living, even if not living isn’t bad at all (after all it’s neutral, neither good nor bad).  Thus we can still maintain our modest existence requirement while consistently holding these views.  We can say that not living is neither good nor bad, that living 10 years is good (and better than not living), that living 50 years is even better, and that living 90 years is even better yet (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the quality of life is equivalently good in every year of one’s life).  What’s important to note here is that not having lived in the first place doesn’t involve the loss of a good, because there was never any good to begin with.  On the other hand, extending the life span involves increasing the quantity of the good, by increasing it’s duration.

Kagan seems to agree overall with the deprivation account of why we believe death is bad for us, but that some puzzles like those he presented still remain.  I think one of the important things to take away from this article is the illustration that we have obvious limitations in the language that we use to describe our ontological conceptions.  These scenarios and our intuitions about them also seem to show that we all generally accept that living or existence is intrinsically good.  It may also highlight the fact that many people intuit that some part of us (such as a soul) continues to exist after death such that death can be bad for us after all (since our post-death “self” would still exist).  While the belief in souls is irrational, it may help to explain some common intuitions about death.

Dying vs. Death, & The Loss of An Intrinsic Value

Remember that Kagan began his article by distinguishing between how one dies, the prospect of dying and death itself.  He asked us, how can the prospect of dying be bad if death itself (which is only true when we no longer exist) isn’t bad for us. Well, perhaps we should consider that when people say that death is bad for us they tend to mean that dying itself is bad for us.  That is to say, the prospect of dying isn’t unpleasant because death is bad for us, but rather because dying itself is bad for us.  If dying occurs while we’re still alive, resulting in one’s eventual loss of life, then dying can be bad for us even if we accepted the bold existence requirement — that something can only be bad for us if we exist at the same time as that thing.  So if the “thing” we’re referring to is our dying rather than our death, this would be consistent with the deprivation account of death, would allow us to put a date (or time interval) on such an event, and would seem to resolve the aforementioned problems.

As for Kagan’s opening question, when is death bad for us?  If we accept my previous response that dying is what’s bad for us, rather than death, then it would stand to reason that death itself isn’t ever bad for us (or doesn’t have to be), but rather what is bad for us is the loss of life that occurs as we die.  If I had to identify exactly when the “badness” that we’re actually referring to occurs, I suppose I would choose an increment of time before one’s death occurs (with an exclusive upper bound set to the time of death).  If time is quantized, as per quantum mechanics, then that means that the smallest interval of time is one Planck second.  So I would argue that at the very least, the last Planck second of our life (if not a longer interval), marks the event or time interval of our dying.

It is this last interval of time ticking away that is bad for us because it leads to our loss of life, which is a loss of an intrinsic good.  So while I would argue that never having received an intrinsic good in the first place isn’t bad (such as never having lived), the loss of (or the process of losing) an intrinsic good is bad.  So I agree with Kagan that the deprivation account is on the right track, but I also think the problems he’s posed are resolvable by thinking more carefully about the terminology we use when describing these concepts.

Co-evolution of Humans & Artificial Intelligence

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In my last post, I wrote a little bit about the concept of personal identity in terms of what some philosophers have emphasized and my take on it.  I wrote that post in response to an interesting blog post written by James DiGiovanna over at A Philosopher’s Take.  James has written another post related to the possible consequences of integrating artificial intelligence into our societal framework, but rather than discussing personal identity as it relates to artificial intelligence, he discussed how the advancements made in machine learning and so forth are leading to the future prospects of effective companion AI, or what he referred to as programmable friends.  The main point he raised in that post was the fact that programmable friends would likely have a very different relationship dynamic with us compared with our traditional (human) friends.  James also spoke about companion AI  in terms of their also being laborers (as well as being friends) but for the purposes of this post I won’t discuss these laborer aspects of future companion AI (even if the labor aspect is what drives us to make companion AI in the first place).  I’ll be limiting my comments here to the friendship or social dynamic aspects only.  So what aspects about programmable AI should we start thinking about?

Well for one, we don’t currently have the ability to simply reprogram a friend to be exactly as we want them to be, in order to avoid conflicts entirely, to share every interest we have, etc., but rather there is a bit of a give-and-take relationship dynamic that we’re used to dealing with.  We learn new ways of behaving and looking at the world and even new ways of looking at ourselves when we have friendships with people that differ from us in certain ways.  Much of the expansion and beneficial evolution of our perspectives are the result of certain conflicts that arise between ourselves and our friends, where different viewpoints can clash against one another, often forcing a person to reevaluate their own position based on the value they place on the viewpoints of their friends.  If we could simply reprogram our friends, as in the case with some future AI companions, what would this do to our moral, psychological and intellectual growth?  There would be some positive effects I’m sure (from having less conflict in some cases and thus an increase in short term happiness), but we’d definitely be missing out on a host of interpersonal benefits that we gain from having the types of friendships that we’re used to having (and thus we’d likely have less overall happiness as a result).

We can see where evolution ties in to all this, whereby we have evolved as a social species to interact with others that are more or less like us, and so when we envision these possible future AI friendships, it should become obvious why certain problems would be inevitable largely because of the incompatibility with our evolved social dynamic.  To be sure, some of these problems could be mitigated by accounting for them in the initial design of the companion AI.  In general, this could be done by making the AI more like humans in the first place and this could be something advertised as some kind of beneficial AI “social software package” so people looking to get companion AI would be inclined to get this version even if they had the choice to go for the entirely reprogrammable version.

Some features of a “social software package” could be things like a limit on the number of ways the AI could be reprogrammed such that only very serious conflicts could be avoided through reprogramming, but without the ability to avoid all conflicts.  It could be such that the AI are able to have a weight on certain opinions, just as we do, and to be more assertive with regard to certain propositions and so forth.  Once the AI has learned its human counterpart’s personality, values, opinions, etc., it could also be programmed with the ability to intentionally challenge that human by offering different points of view and by its using the Socratic method (at least from time to time).  If people realized that they could possibly gain wisdom, knowledge, tolerance, and various social aptitudes from their companion AI, I would think that would be a marked selling point.

Another factor that I think will likely play a role in mitigating the possible social dynamic clash between companion AI (that are programmable) and humans is the fact that humans are also likely to become more and more integrated with AI technology generally.  That is, as humans are continuing to make advancements in AI technology, we are also likely to integrate a lot of that technology into ourselves, to make humans more or less into cyborgs a.k.a. cybernetic organisms.  If we see the path we’re on already with all the smart phones, apps, and other gadgets and computer systems that have started to become extensions of ourselves, we can see that the next obvious step (which I’ve mentioned elsewhere, here and here) is to remove the external peripherals so that they are directly accessible via our consciousness with no need of interfacing with external hardware and so forth.  If we can access “the cloud” with our minds (say, via bluetooth or the like), then the apps and all the fancy features can become a part of our minds, adding to the ways that we will be able to think, providing an internet worth of knowledge at our cognitive disposal, etc.  I could see this technology eventually allowing us to change our senses and perceptions, including an ability to add virtual objects that are amalgamated with the rest of the external reality that we perceive (such as adding virtual friends that we see and interact with that aren’t physically present outside of our minds even though they appear to be).

So if we start to integrate these kinds of technologies into ourselves as we are also creating companion AI, then we may also end up with the ability to reprogram ourselves alongside those programmable companion AI.  In effect, our own qualitatively human social dynamic may start to change markedly and become more and more compatible with that of the future AI.  The way I think this will most likely play out is that we will try to make AI more like us as we try to make us more like AI, where we co-evolve with one another, trying to share advantages with one another and eventually becoming indistinguishable from one another.  Along this journey however we will also become very different from the way we are now, and after enough time passes, we’ll likely change so much that we’d be unrecognizable to people living today.  My hope is that as we use AI to also improve our intelligence and increase our knowledge of the world generally, we will also continue to improve on our knowledge of what makes us happiest (as social creatures or otherwise) and thus how to live the best and most morally fruitful lives that we can.  This will include improving our knowledge of social dynamics and the ways that we can maximize all the interpersonal benefits therein.  Artificial intelligence may help us to accomplish this however paradoxical or counter-intuitive that may seem to us now.

The illusion of Persistent Identity & the Role of Information in Identity

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After reading and commenting on a post at “A Philosopher’s Take” by James DiGiovanna titled Responsibility, Identity, and Artificial Beings: Persons, Supra-persons and Para-persons, I decided to expand on the topic of personal identity.

Personal Identity Concepts & Criteria

I think when most people talk about personal identity, they are referring to how they see themselves and how they see others in terms of personality and some assortment of (usually prominent) cognitive and behavioral traits.  Basically, they see it as what makes a person unique and in some way distinguishable from another person.  And even this rudimentary concept can be broken down into at least two parts, namely, how we see ourselves (self-ascribed identity) and how others see us (which we could call the inferred identity of someone else), since they are likely going to differ.  While most people tend to think of identity in these ways, when philosophers talk about personal identity, they are usually referring to the unique numerical identity of a person.  Roughly speaking, this amounts to basically whatever conditions or properties that are both necessary and sufficient such that a person at one point in time and a person at another point in time can be considered the same person — with a temporal continuity between those points in time.

Usually the criterion put forward for this personal identity is supposed to be some form of spatiotemporal and/or psychological continuity.  I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the question of which criterion is correct has already framed the debate with the assumption that a personal (numerical) identity exists in the first place and even if it did exist, it also assumes that the criterion is something that would be determinable in some way.  While it is not unfounded to believe that some properties exist that we could ascribe to all persons (simply because of what we find in common with all persons we’ve interacted with thus far), I think it is far too presumptuous to believe that there is a numerical identity underlying our basic conceptions of personal identity and a determinable criterion for it.  At best, I think if one finds any kind of numerical identity for persons that persist over time, it is not going to be compatible with our intuitions nor is it going to be applicable in any pragmatic way.

As I mention pragmatism, I am sympathetic to Parfit’s views in the sense that regardless of what one finds the criteria for numerical personal identity to be (if it exists), the only thing that really matters to us is psychological continuity anyway.  So despite the fact that Locke’s view — that psychological continuity (via memory) was the criterion for personal identity — was in fact shown to be based on circular and illogical arguments (per Butler, Reid and others), nevertheless I give applause to his basic idea.  Locke seemed to be on the right track, in that psychological continuity (in some sense involving memory and consciousness) is really the essence of what we care about when defining persons, even if it can’t be used as a valid criterion in the way he proposed.

(Non) Persistence & Pragmatic Use of a Personal Identity Concept

I think that the search for, and long debates over, what the best criterion for personal identity is, has illustrated that what people have been trying to label as personal identity should probably be relabeled as some sort of pragmatic pseudo-identity. The pragmatic considerations behind the common and intuitive conceptions of personal identity have no doubt steered the debate pertaining to any possible criteria for helping to define it, and so we can still value those considerations even if a numerical personal identity doesn’t really exist (that is, even if it is nothing more than a pseudo-identity) and even if a diachronic numerical personal identity does exist but isn’t useful in any way.

If the object/subject that we refer to as “I” or “me” is constantly changing with every passing moment of time both physically and psychologically, then I tend to think that the self (that many people ascribe as the “agent” of our personal identity) is an illusion of some sort.  I tend to side more with Hume on this point (or at least James Giles’ fair interpretation of Hume) in that my views seem to be some version of a no-self or eliminativist theory of personal identity.  As Hume pointed out, even though we intuitively ascribe a self and thereby some kind of personal identity, there is no logical reason supported by our subjective experience to think it is anything but a figment of the imagination.  This illusion results from our perceptions flowing from one to the next, with a barrage of changes taking place with this “self” over time that we simply don’t notice taking place — at least not without critical reflection on our past experiences of this ever-changing “self”.  The psychological continuity that Locke described seems to be the main driving force behind this illusory self since there is an overlap in the memories of the succession of persons.

I think one could say that if there is any numerical identity that is associated with the term “I” or “me”, it only exists for a short moment of time in one specific spatio-temporal slice, and then as the next perceivable moment elapses, what used to be “I” will become someone else, even if the new person that comes into being is still referred to as “I” or “me” by a person that possesses roughly the same configuration of matter in its body and brain as the previous person.  Since the neighboring identities have an overlap in accessible memory including autobiographical memories, memories of past experiences generally, and the memories pertaining to the evolving desires that motivate behavior, we shouldn’t expect this succession of persons to be noticed or perceived by the illusory self because each identity has access to a set of memories that is sufficiently similar to the set of memories accessible to the previous or successive identity.  And this sufficient degree of similarity in those identities’ memories allow for a seemingly persistent autobiographical “self” with goals.

As for the pragmatic reasons for considering all of these “I”s and “me”s to be the same person and some singular identity over time, we can see that there is a causal dependency between each member of this “chain of spatio-temporal identities” that I think exists, and so treating that chain of interconnected identities as one being is extremely intuitive and also incredibly useful for accomplishing goals (which is likely the reason why evolution would favor brains that can intuit this concept of a persistent “self” and the near uni-directional behavior that results from it).  There is a continuity of memory and behaviors (even though both change over time, both in terms of the number of memories and their accuracy) and this continuity allows for a process of conditioning to modify behavior in ways that actively rely on those chains of memories of past experiences.  We behave as if we are a single person moving through time and space (and as if we are surrounded by other temporally extended single person’s behaving in similar ways) and this provides a means of assigning ethical and causal responsibility to something or more specifically to some agent.  Quite simply, by having those different identities referenced under one label and physically attached to or instantiated by something localized, that allows for that pragmatic pseudo-identity to persist over time in order for various goals (whether personal or interpersonal/societal) to be accomplished.

“The Persons Problem” and a “Speciation” Analogy

I came up with an analogy that I thought was very fitting to this concept.  One could analogize this succession of identities that get clumped into one bulk pragmatic-pseudo-identity with the evolutionary concept of speciation.  For example, a sequence of identities somehow constitute an intuitively persistent personal identity, just as a sequence of biological generations somehow constitute a particular species due to the high degree of similarity between them all.  The apparent difficulty lies in the fact that, at some point after enough identities have succeeded one another, even the intuitive conception of a personal identity changes markedly to the point of being unrecognizable from its ancestral predecessor, just as enough biological generations transpiring eventually leads to what we call a new species.  It’s difficult to define exactly when that speciation event happens (hence the species problem), and we have a similar problem with personal identity I think.  Where does it begin and end?  If personal identity changes over the course of a lifetime, when does one person become another?  I could think of “me” as the same “me” that existed one year ago, but if I go far enough back in time, say to when I was five years old, it is clear that “I” am a completely different person now when compared to that five year old (different beliefs, goals, worldview, ontology, etc.).  There seems to have been an identity “speciation” event of some sort even though it is hard to define exactly when that was.

Biologists have tried to solve their species problem by coming up with various criteria to help for taxonomical purposes at the very least, but what they’ve wound up with at this point is several different criteria for defining a species that are each effective for different purposes (e.g. biological-species concept, morpho-species concept, phylogenetic-species concept, etc.), and without any single “correct” answer since they are all situationally more or less useful.  Similarly, some philosophers have had a persons problem that they’ve been trying to solve and I gather that it is insoluble for similar “fuzzy boundary” reasons (indeterminate properties, situationally dependent properties, etc.).

The Role of Information in a Personal Identity Concept

Anyway, rather than attempt to solve the numerical personal identity problem, I think that philosophers need to focus more on the importance of the concept of information and how it can be used to try and arrive at a more objective and pragmatic description of the personal identity of some cognitive agent (even if it is not used as a criterion for numerical identity, since information can be copied and the copies can be distinguished from one another numerically).  I think this is especially true once we take some of the concerns that James DiGiovanna brought up concerning the integration of future AI into our society.

If all of the beliefs, behaviors, and causal driving forces in a cognitive agent can be represented in terms of information, then I think we can implement more universal conditioning principles within our ethical and societal framework since they will be based more on the information content of the person’s identity without putting as much importance on numerical identity nor as much importance on our intuitions of persisting people (since they will be challenged by several kinds of foreseeable future AI scenarios).

To illustrate this point, I’ll address one of James DiGiovanna’s conundrums.  James asks us:

To give some quick examples: suppose an AI commits a crime, and then, judging its actions wrong, immediately reforms itself so that it will never commit a crime again. Further, it makes restitution. Would it make sense to punish the AI? What if it had completely rewritten its memory and personality, so that, while there was still a physical continuity, it had no psychological content in common with the prior being? Or suppose an AI commits a crime, and then destroys itself. If a duplicate of its programming was started elsewhere, would it be guilty of the crime? What if twelve duplicates were made? Should they each be punished?

In the first case, if the information constituting the new identity of the AI after reprogramming is such that it no longer needs any kind of conditioning, then it would be senseless to punish the AI — other than to appease humans that may be angry that they couldn’t themselves avoid punishment in this way, due to having a much slower and less effective means of reprogramming themselves.  I would say that the reprogrammed AI is guilty of the crime, but only if its reprogrammed memory still included information pertaining to having performed those past criminal behaviors.  However, if those “criminal memories” are now gone via the reprogramming then I’d say that the AI is not guilty of the crime because the information constituting its identity doesn’t match that of the criminal AI.  It would have no recollection of having committed the crime and so “it” would not have committed the crime since that “it” was lost in the reprogramming process due to the dramatic change in information that took place.

In the latter scenario, if the information constituting the identity of the destroyed AI was re-instantiated elsewhere, then I would say that it is in fact guilty of the crime — though it would not be numerically guilty of the crime but rather qualitatively guilty of the crime (to differentiate between the numerical and qualitative personal identity concepts that are embedded in the concept of guilt).  If twelve duplicates of this information were instantiated into new AI hardware, then likewise all twelve of those cognitive agents would be qualitatively guilty of the crime.  What actions should be taken based on qualitative guilt?  I think it means that the AI should be punished or more specifically that the judicial system should perform the reconditioning required to modify their behavior as if it had committed the crime (especially if the AI believes/remembers that it has committed the crime), for the better of society.  If this can be accomplished through reprogramming, then that would be the most rational thing to do without any need for traditional forms of punishment.

We can analogize this with another thought experiment with human beings.  If we imagine a human that has had its memories changed so that it believes it is Charles Manson, has all of Charles Manson’s memories and intentions, then that person should be treated as if they are Charles Manson and thus incarcerated/punished accordingly to rehabilitate them or protect the other members of society.  This is assuming of course that we had reliable access to that kind of mind-reading knowledge.  If we did, the information constituting the identity of that person would be what is most important — not what the actual previous actions of the person were — because the “previous person” was someone else, due to that gross change in information.

Darwin’s Big Idea May Be The Biggest Yet

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Back in 1859, Charles Darwin released his famous theory of evolution by natural selection whereby inherent variations in the individual members of some population of organisms under consideration would eventually lead to speciation events due to those variations producing a differential in survival and reproductive success and thus leading to the natural selection of some subset of organisms within that population.  As Darwin explained in his On The Origin of Species:

If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

While Darwin’s big idea completely transformed biology in terms of it providing (for the first time in history) an incredibly robust explanation for the origin of the diversity of life on this planet, his idea has since inspired other theories pertaining to perhaps the three largest mysteries that humans have ever explored: the origin of life itself (not just the diversity of life after it had begun, which was the intended scope of Darwin’s theory), the origin of the universe (most notably, why the universe is the way it is and not some other way), and also the origin of consciousness.

Origin of Life

In order to solve the first mystery (the origin of life itself), geologists, biologists, and biochemists are searching for plausible models of abiogenesis, whereby the general scheme of these models would involve chemical reactions (pertaining to geology) that would have begun to incorporate certain kinds of energetically favorable organic chemistries such that organic, self-replicating molecules eventually resulted.  Now, where Darwin’s idea of natural selection comes into play with life’s origin is in regard to the origin and evolution of these self-replicating molecules.  First of all, in order for any molecule at all to build up in concentration requires a set of conditions such that the reaction leading to the production of the molecule in question is more favorable than the reverse reaction where the product transforms back into the initial starting materials.  If merely one chemical reaction (out of a countless number of reactions occurring on the early earth) led to a self-replicating product, this would increasingly favor the production of that product, and thus self-replicating molecules themselves would be naturally selected for.  Once one of them was produced, there would have been a cascade effect of exponential growth, at least up to the limit set by the availability of the starting materials and energy sources present.

Now if we assume that at least some subset of these self-replicating molecules (if not all of them) had an imperfect fidelity in the copying process (which is highly likely) and/or underwent even a slight change after replication by reacting with other neighboring molecules (also likely), this would provide them with a means of mutation.  Mutations would inevitably lead to some molecules becoming more effective self-replicators than others, and then evolution through natural selection would take off, eventually leading to modern RNA/DNA.  So not only does Darwin’s big idea account for the evolution of diversity of life on this planet, but the basic underlying principle of natural selection would also account for the origin of self-replicating molecules in the first place, and subsequently the origin of RNA and DNA.

Origin of the Universe

Another grand idea that is gaining heavy traction in cosmology is that of inflationary cosmology, where this theory posits that the early universe underwent a period of rapid expansion, and due to quantum mechanical fluctuations in the microscopically sized inflationary region, seed universes would have resulted with each one having slightly different properties, one of which that would have expanded to be the universe that we live in.  Inflationary cosmology is currently heavily supported because it has led to a number of predictions, many of which that have already been confirmed by observation (it explains many large-scale features of our universe such as its homogeneity, isotropy, flatness, and other features).  What I find most interesting with inflationary theory is that it predicts the existence of a multiverse, whereby we are but one of an extremely large number of other universes (predicted to be on the order of 10^500, if not an infinite number), with each one having slightly different constants and so forth.

Once again, Darwin’s big idea, when applied to inflationary cosmology, would lead to the conclusion that our universe is the way it is because it was naturally selected to be that way.  The fact that its constants are within a very narrow range such that matter can even form, would make perfect sense, because even if an infinite number of universes exist with different constants, we would only expect to find ourselves in one that has the constants within the necessary range in order for matter, let alone life to exist.  So any universe that harbors matter, let alone life, would be naturally selected for against all the other universes that didn’t have the right properties to do so, including for example, universes that had too high or too low of a cosmological constant (such as those that would have instantly collapsed into a Big Crunch or expanded into a heat death far too quickly for any matter or life to have formed), or even universes that didn’t have the proper strong nuclear force to hold atomic nuclei together, or any other number of combinations that wouldn’t work.  So any universe that contains intelligent life capable of even asking the question of their origins, must necessarily have its properties within the required range (often referred to as the anthropic principle).

After our universe formed, the same principle would also apply to each galaxy and each solar system within those galaxies, whereby because variations exist in each galaxy and within each substituent solar system (differential properties analogous to different genes in a gene pool), then only those that have an acceptable range of conditions are capable of harboring life.  With over 10^22 stars in the observable universe (an unfathomably large number), and billions of years to evolve different conditions within each solar system surrounding those many stars, it isn’t surprising that eventually the temperature and other conditions would be acceptable for liquid water and organic chemistries to occur in many of those solar systems.  Even if there was only one life permitting planet per galaxy (on average), that would add up to over 100 billion life permitting planets in the observable universe alone (with many orders of magnitude more life permitting planets in the non-observable universe).  So given enough time, and given some mechanism of variation (in this case, differences in star composition and dynamics), natural selection in a sense can also account for the evolution of some solar systems that do in fact have life permitting conditions in a universe such as our own.

Origin of Consciousness

The last significant mystery I’d like to discuss involves the origin of consciousness.  While there are many current theories pertaining to different aspects of consciousness, and while there has been much research performed in the neurosciences, cognitive sciences, psychology, etc., pertaining to how the brain works and how it correlates to various aspects of the mind and consciousness, the brain sciences (though neuroscience in particular) are in their relative infancy and so there are still many questions that haven’t been answered yet.  One promising theory that has already been shown to account for many aspects of consciousness is Gerald Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection (NGS) otherwise known as neural Darwinism (ND), which is a large scale theory of brain function.  As one might expect from the name, the mechanism of natural selection is integral to this theory.  In ND, the basic idea consists of three parts as read on the Wiki:

  1. Anatomical connectivity in the brain occurs via selective mechanochemical events that take place epigenetically during development.  This creates a diverse primary neurological repertoire by differential reproduction.
  2. Once structural diversity is established anatomically, a second selective process occurs during postnatal behavioral experience through epigenetic modifications in the strength of synaptic connections between neuronal groups.  This creates a diverse secondary repertoire by differential amplification.
  3. Re-entrant signaling between neuronal groups allows for spatiotemporal continuity in response to real-world interactions.  Edelman argues that thalamocortical and corticocortical re-entrant signaling are critical to generating and maintaining conscious states in mammals.

In a nutshell, the basic differentiated structure of the brain that forms in early development is accomplished through cellular proliferation, migration, distribution, and branching processes that involve selection processes operating on random differences in the adhesion molecules that these processes use to bind one neuronal cell to another.  These crude selection processes result in a rough initial configuration that is for the most part fixed.  However, because there are a diverse number of sets of different hierarchical arrangements of neurons in various neuronal groups, there are bound to be functionally equivalent groups of neurons that are not equivalent in structure, but are all capable of responding to the same types of sensory input.  Because some of these groups should in theory be better than others at responding to some particular type of sensory stimuli, this creates a form of neuronal/synaptic competition in the brain, whereby those groups of neurons that happen to have the best synaptic efficiency for the stimuli in question are naturally selected over the others.  This in turn leads to an increased probability that the same network will respond to similar or identical signals in the future.  Each time this occurs, synaptic strengths increase in the most efficient networks for each particular type of stimuli, and this would account for a relatively quick level of neural plasticity in the brain.

The last aspect of the theory involves what Edelman called re-entrant signaling whereby a sampling of the stimuli from functionally different groups of neurons occurring at the same time leads to a form of self-organizing intelligence.  This would provide a means for explaining how we experience spatiotemporal consistency in our experience of sensory stimuli.  Basically, we would have functionally different parts of the brain, such as various maps in the visual centers that pertain to color versus others that pertain to orientation or shape, that would effectively amalgamate the two (previously segregated) regions such that they can function in parallel and thus correlate with one another producing an amalgamation of the two types of neural maps.  Once this re-entrant signaling is accomplished between higher order or higher complexity maps in the brain, such as those pertaining to value-dependent memory storage centers, language centers, and perhaps back to various sensory cortical regions, this would create an even richer level of synchronization, possibly leading to consciousness (according to the theory).  In all of the aspects of the theory, the natural selection of differentiated neuronal structures, synaptic connections and strengths and eventually that of larger re-entrant connections would be responsible for creating the parallel and correlated processes in the brain believed to be required for consciousness.  There’s been an increasing amount of support for this theory, and more evidence continues to accumulate in support of it.  In any case, it is a brilliant idea and one with a lot of promise in potentially explaining one of the most fundamental aspects of our existence.

Darwin’s Big Idea May Be the Biggest Yet

In my opinion, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was perhaps the most profound theory ever discovered.  I’d even say that it beats Einstein’s theory of Relativity because of its massive explanatory scope and carryover to other disciplines, such as cosmology, neuroscience, and even the immune system (see Edelman’s Nobel work on the immune system, where he showed how the immune system works through natural selection as well, as opposed to some type of re-programming/learning).  Based on the basic idea of natural selection, we have been able to provide a number of robust explanations pertaining to many aspects of why the universe is likely to be the way it is, how life likely began, how it evolved afterward, and it may possibly be the answer to how life eventually evolved brains capable of being conscious.  It is truly one of the most fascinating principles I’ve ever learned about and I’m honestly awe struck by its beauty, simplicity, and explanatory power.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part II

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In the first part of this post, I briefly went over some of the larger problems that our global society is currently facing, including the problem of overpopulation and the overall lack of environmental and economic sustainability.  I also mentioned some of the systematic and ideological (including religious and political) barriers that will need to be overcome before we can make any considerable progress in obtaining a sustainable future.

Although it may seem hopeless at times, I believe that we human beings – despite our cognitive biases and vulnerability to irrational and dogmatic behaviors – have an innate moral core in common that is driven by the incentive to increase our level of overall satisfaction and fulfillment in life. When people feel like they are living more fulfilling lives, they want to continue if not amplify the behavior that’s leading to that satisfaction. If a person is shown ways that lead to greater satisfaction and they are able to experience even a slight though noticeable improvement as a result of those prescriptions, I believe that even irrational and dogmatic people do begin to explore outside of their ideological box.

More importantly however, if everyone is shown that their level of satisfaction and fulfillment in life is ultimately a result of their doing what they feel they ought to do above all else (which is morality in a nutshell), then they can begin to recognize the importance and efficacy of basing those oughts on well-informed facts about the world. In other words, people can begin to universally derive every moral ought from a well-informed is, thus formulating their morality based on facts and empirical data and grounded on reason – as opposed to basing their morality on dogmatic and other unreliable beliefs in the supernatural. It’s easy for people to disagree on morals that are based on dogma and the supernatural, because those supernatural beliefs and sources of dogma vary so much from one culture and religion to another, but morals become common if not universal (in at least some cases) when they are based on facts about the world (including objective physical and psychological consequences not only for the person performing the moral action, but also for anyone on the receiving end of that moral action).

Moral Imperatives & Happiness

Science has slowly but surely been uncovering (or at least better approximating) what kinds of behaviors lead to the greatest levels of happiness and overall satisfaction in the collective lives of everyone in society. Since all morals arguably reduce to a special type of hypothetical imperative (i.e. if your fundamental goal is X, then you ought to do Y above all else), and since all goals ultimately reduce to the fundamental goal of increasing one’s life satisfaction and fulfillment, then there exist objective moral facts, whereby if they were known, they would inform a person of which behaviors they ought to do above all else in order to increase their happiness and fulfillment in life. Science may never be able to determine exactly what these objective moral facts are, but it is certainly logical to assume that they exist, namely some ideal set of behaviors for people (at least, those that are sane and non-psychopathic) which, if we only knew what those ideal behaviors were, they would necessarily lead to maximized satisfaction within every person’s life (a concept that has been proposed by many philosophers, and one which has been very well defended in Richard Carrier’s Goal Theory of Ethics).

What science can do however, and arguably what it has already been doing, is to continue to better approximate what these objective moral facts are as we accumulate more knowledge and evidence in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and even other fields such as economics. What science appears to have found thus far is (among other things) a confirmation of what Aristotle had asserted over two thousand years ago, namely the importance of cultivating what have often been called moral virtues (such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), in order to achieve what the Greeks called eudaimonia, or an ultimate happiness with one’s life. This makes perfect sense because cultivating these virtues leads to a person feeling good while exercising behaviors that are also beneficial to everyone else, so then benefiting others is rarely if ever going to feel like a chore (which is an unfortunate side-effect of exclusively employing the moral duty mentality under Kant’s famous deontological ethical framework). Combine this virtue cultivation with the plethora of knowledge about the consequences of our actions that the sciences have been accumulating, thus integrating in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian or teleological/consequentialist ethical framework, and then we have a good ethical framework that should work very effectively in leading us toward a future where more and more people are happy, fulfilled, and doing what is best for sustaining that happiness in one another, including sustaining the environment that their happiness is dependent on.

A Science of Morality

To give a fairly basic but good example of where science is leading us in terms of morality, consider the fact that science has shown that when people try to achieve ever-increasing levels of wealth at the expense of others, they are doing so because those people believe that wealth will bring them the most satisfaction in life, and thus they believe that maximizing that wealth will bring maximal happiness. However, this belief is incorrect for a number of reasons. For one, studies in psychology have shown that there is a diminishing return of happiness when one increases their income and wealth – which sharply diminishes once a person exceeds an income of about $70K per year (in U.S. dollars / purchasing power). So the idea that increasing one’s income or wealth will indefinitely increase their happiness isn’t supported by the evidence. At best, it has a limited effect on happiness that only works up to a point.

Beyond this, psychology has also shown that there are much more effective ways of increasing happiness, such as cultivating the aforementioned virtues (e.g. compassion, integrity, honesty, reasonableness, etc.) and exercising them while helping others, which leads to internal psychological benefits (which neuroscience can and has quantified to some degree) and also external sociological benefits such as the formation of meaningful relationships which in turn provide even more happiness over time. If we also take into account the amount of time and effort often required to earn more income and wealth (with the intention of producing happiness), it can be shown that the time and effort would have been better spent on trying to form meaningful relationships and cultivating various virtues. Furthermore, if those people gaining wealth could see first hand the negative side-effects that their accumulation of wealth has on many others (such as increased poverty), then doing so would no longer make them as happy. So indeed it can be shown that their belief of what they think maximizes their satisfaction is false, and it can also be shown that there are in fact better ways to increase their happiness and life satisfaction more than they ever thought possible. Perhaps most importantly, it can be shown that the ways to make them happiest also serve to make everyone else happier too.

A Clear Path to Maximizing (Sustainable) Happiness

Perhaps if we begin to invest more in the development and propagation of a science of morality, we’ll start to see many societal problems dissolve away simply because more and more people will begin to realize that the reason why we all think that certain actions are moral actions (i.e. that we ought to do them above all else), is because we feel that doing those actions brings us the most happy and fulfilling lives. If people are then shown much more effective ways that they can increase their happiness and fulfillment, including by maximizing their ability to help others achieve the same ends, then they’re extremely likely to follow those prescribed ways of living, for it could be shown that not doing so would prevent them from gaining the very maximal happiness and fulfillment that they are ultimately striving for. The only reason people wouldn’t heed such advice then is because they are being irrational, which means we need to simultaneously work on educating everyone about our cognitive biases, how to spot logical fallacies and avoid making them, etc.  So then solving society’s problems, such as overpopulation, socioeconomic inequality, or unsustainability, boils down to every individual as well as the collective whole accumulating as many facts as possible about what can maximize our life satisfaction (both now and in the future), and then heeding those facts to determine what we ought to do above all else to achieve those ends.  This is ultimately an empirical question, and a science of morality can help us discover what these facts are.