Spider Minds, Extended Minds, and the Web

Join us tomorrow afternoon at 4:30 in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the Strange Philosophy Thing. All are welcome to this informal conversation, and to our refreshments!

According to the extended mind hypothesis, sometimes objects outside of an individual’s body can come to constitute part of that individual’s mind. This view, originally articulated in a 1998 paper by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, has primarily been considered as a hypothesis about human thought. However, some exciting recent research within evolutionary biology suggests that it might be even more applicable to invertebrate minds.

As discussed in this fascinating article, evolutionary biologists Hilton Japyassú (Federal University of Bahia) and Kevin Laland (University of Saint Andrews) have, “argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.” Through a series of experiments, Japyassú has demonstrated that “changes in the spider’s cognitive state will alter the web, and changes in the web will likewise ripple into the spider’s cognitive state,” suggesting that the two are working together as a larger cognitive system. In a series of studies, for example, Japyassú showed that web-building spiders, which “are near blind, and…interact with the world almost solely through vibrations” are “put on high alert” and “rushed toward prey more quickly” when strands of their web were artificially tightened by experimenters, leading these strands to transmit vibrations more forcefully. And, as the article notes, “the same sort of effect works in the opposite direction, too. Let the orb spider Octonoba sybotides go hungry, changing its internal state, and it will tighten its radial threads so it can tune in to even small prey hitting the web. ‘She tenses the threads of the web so that she can filter information that is coming to her brain,’ Japyassú said. ‘This is almost the same thing as if she was filtering things in her own brain.’”

The fascinating article includes a number of other neat examples, involving spiders, octopuses, and grasshoppers. In fact, as the article discusses, it may turn out that extended cognition strategies are favored by natural selection for small organisms, and therefore that the extended mind hypothesis more accurately describes invertebrates than any other group of animals. Haller’s Rule, first proposed by the Swiss naturalist after which it is names in 1762, is a general rule of biology, which holds across the animal kingdom: “smaller creatures almost always devote a larger portion of their body weight to their brains, which require more calories to fuel than other types of tissue.” Work by Japyassú and others, though, is beginning to suggest “that spiders outsource problem solving to their webs as an end run around Haller’s rule”. If this is explained by evolutionary considerations related to Haller’s Rule, then we would expect to see responsive relationships between other small animals and components of their environments as well.

Opponents of Japyassú object to his definition of cognition in terms of acquiring, manipulating and storing information, suggesting that this misses an important distinction between information and knowledge. Cognition, they contend, involves interpreting information “into some sort of abstract, meaningful representation of the world, which the web — or a tray of Scrabble tiles — can’t quite manage by itself”. Others contend that Japyassú’s research misrepresents the amount of embodied, non-extended cognition that spiders are capable of. For example, “Fiona Cross and Robert Jackson, both of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand…study jumping spiders, which don’t have their own webs but will sometimes vibrate an existing web, luring another spider out to attack. Their work suggests that jumping spiders do appear to hold on to mental representations when it comes to planning routes and hunting specific prey. The spiders even seem to differentiate among ‘one,’ ‘two’ and ’many’ when confronted with a quantity of prey items that conflicts with the number they initially saw.”

I look forward to talking with you about all this—about animal minds, extended minds, and the way our environments might enter into thought—tomorrow at the Strange Thing!

A Fun Argument that You Should Have Never Been Born

Life is so terrible, it would have been better to not have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand! –An old Jewish joke

A few weeks ago, Prof Phelan lead us in a discussion that began with the intuition that morality takes into account not just possible harms to actual people, but possible harms to possible people.

This week, we’ll explore a different puzzle beginning from the same place. And again, we’ll have to say some odd things in order to compare the life that a merely possible person would live if they came into existence with the state of affairs in which that person does not come into existence.

David Benatar argues for “anti-natalism,” the position that it’s always wrong to bring people into existence. He tries to show this by showing that coming into existence is always a harm. The basic argument is pretty simple, but we’ll discuss some of the complications on Monday.

The first step is to show that sometimes coming into existence can be a harm. Benatar suggests that you are harmed if you are put into a state that is bad for you while the alternative would not have been bad for you. Of course, not existing is not bad for anyone, because there’s no one for it to be bad for. So, if someone’s life is not worth living (which is bad for them), then they are harmed because not existing would not have been bad for them.

The second step is to show that not coming into existence is never a harm. When we talk about existing people, we say that missing out on good things, such as pleasure, is bad for them. Or that getting the good thing is better for them. But for “someone” who never comes into existence, there’s no one that it’s bad or worse for (nor is there someone who “misses out” on the good thing).

So, prospectively, before “someone” is brought into existence:

With respect to the pains, harms, and other bad things that would be in the life lived, existing is worse than not existing.

With respect to the pleasures and other good things that would be in the life lived, not existing is not worse than existing.

So, if someone is harmed when they are put into a state that is worse for them than the alternative state, coming into existence always is a harm.
That also means that, for all of us, no matter how good our lives may be, we were all harmed by being brought into existence. (This is perfectly compatible with saying ceasing to exist would be a harm or bad for us.)

This conclusion likely strikes you as incorrect, as it does many people.

The challenge is to identify where the reasoning goes wrong (in this and in Benatar’s parallel arguments that I’ll have on hand), so we can see what justifies rejecting the conclusion. And if we can’t find where it goes wrong, perhaps we’re not justified in rejecting it.

Don’t be a stranger (in the sense of not showing up–please be a stranger in the sense of coming to Strange Philosophy Thing!)Join us in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall on Monday, 2/13.

The Ethical Weight of Possible People

Suppose that you could make the world a better place, without too large a cost to yourself and without violating any deontological principles (for example, continuing to respect people as ends). Many people would suppose that, if you could, you would have an obligation to do so. Now, consider two possible worlds, A & B:

Derek Parfit (1986) writes of these as possible outcomes for a group in “Overpopulation and the Quality of Life”:

Consider the outcomes that might be produced, in some part of the world, by two rates of population growth. Suppose that, if there is faster growth, there would later be more people, who would all be worse off. These outcomes are shown in Fig. i . The width of the blocks shows the number of people living; the height shows how well off these people are. Compared with outcome A , outcome B would have twice as many people, who would all be worse off. To avoid irrelevant complications, I assume that in each outcome there would be no inequality: no one would be worse off than anyone else. I also assume that everyone’s life would be well worth living. There are various ways in which, because there would be twice as many people in outcome B , these people might be all worse off than the people in A . There might be worse housing, overcrowded schools, more pollution, less unspoilt countryside, fewer opportunities, and a smaller share per person of various other kinds of resources. I shall say, for short, that in B there is a lower quality of life.

Despite the fact that each individual’s quality of life is lower in B than in A, the total quality of life in B is, in some sense, greater, because more people exist in B, leading slightly less good lives-worth-living.

Is world B a better world than world A? If we had an opportunity to support policies that would make the world more like A, on the one hand, and more like B, on the other, would it be more appropriate to support policies that made the world more like B? And, how do our intuitions shift when we consider world Z, which Parfit describes as including “an enormous population all of whom have lives that are not much above the level where they would cease to be worth living…The people in Z never suffer; but all they have is muzak and potatoes” (148).

Leaving behind our vague obligation from above, to make the world a better place, suppose we accept some form of Utilitarianism, which claims that the right action is the one that produces the most good. Its hard to see how such a theorist avoids the conclusion that, all else being equal, World Z is preferable to World A. This is a version of what Parfit calls:

The Repugnant Conclusion: Compared with the existence of very many people— say, ten billion— all of whom have a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger number of people whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though these people would have lives that are barely worth living.

We’ll discuss the ethical value of possible people and the Repugnant Conclusion at tomorrow’s Philosophy Strange Thing, at 4:30 in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall, If you’d like to learn more about these topics, here are some resources:

Parfit’s Article, “Overpopulation and the Quality of Life”.

The SEP Entry on the Repugnant Conclusion

An Economist Podcast on this material. (Skip to 11:20 for the piece on our topic.)

See you soon! Professor Phelan

Creativity: What is it? Can we improve it?

Join us for the Strange Philosophy Thing today (11/14), at 4:30 p.m. for refreshments and some fun, informal philosophy talk. Today’s topic: Creativity.

Creativity is among the most valued attributes in a person. Corporations rank creativity as the most sought after attribute in potential employees. And each of us values conversation with a witty, creative interlocuter. But what is creativity? How is it realized by the mind? How can we develop it? And what aspects of contemporary life impede it?

In a short, recent article, the philosopher of mind Peter Caruthers distinguishes two kinds of creativity: online and offline. “Online creativity,” Caruthers writes, “happens ‘in the moment,’ under time pressure.” Importantly, online creativity is the kind of creativity exhibited in a task with which one is currently engaged. It is exhibited, for example, when the person with whom you’re talking says something witty or unexpected. It is also exhibited when the jazz musician offers a brilliant and unforeseen elaboration on her bandmate’s musical motif. Offline creativity, on the other hand, “happens while one’s mind is engaged with something else”. Here is a memorable example of offline creativity from the 20th century physicist and public intellectual Carl Sagan:

I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew curves in soap on the shower wall and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I had found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics…I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.

Caruthers’ primary focus is on offline creativity of the sort Sagan describes, which, Carruthers writes, “…correlates with real-world success in most forms of art, science, and business innovation”. Caruthers claims that this sort of creativity is realized by an interplay between two distinct mental capacities for attention. One of these capacities is described by psychologists as a top-down system. Sometimes metaphorically characterized as a spotlight, top-down attention is the active, deliberate attending by an individual to her occurring mental states. Such attention is sufficient to bring mental states to consciousness. Think about deliberately attending to the distant, percussive sound of a jack hammer that you’d been successfully ignoring—suddenly the sound, which had been heretofore unconscious, rises to consciousness. The other capacity is a bottom-up process, which Caruthers characterizes as the ‘relevance system’. In addition to our own willful direction of attention, it seems that processes within our minds constantly assess the relevance of non-conscious mental states to “current goals and standing values”. This bottom-up system puts forward those mental states it deems relevant as candidates for top-down attentional focus. So, for example, you may have a standing value to be polite to people you know. Attuned to this value, the bottom-up system promotes your perceptions of familiar faces in a crowd for top-down attentional focus. 

Caruthers contends that this interplay between bottom-up and top-down attention is essential to offline creativity, writing that: 

If you also have a background puzzle or problem of some sort that you haven’t yet been able to solve, chances are the goal of solving it will still be accessible, and will be one of the standards against which unconsciously-activated ideas are evaluated for relevance. As a result, the solution (or at least, a candidate solution) may suddenly occur to you out of the blue. Creativity doesn’t so much result from a Muse whispering in your ear as it does from the relevance system shouting, “Hey, try this!”.

But Caruthers contends that such offline creativity is impeded by activities that focus our attention. The best route to offline creativity, he contends, is to let your mind be offline sometimes. But contemporary life—encompassing, for example, the ever-presence of smartphones and social media—makes this difficult. Caruthers characterizes the situation as follows: “Since there is no room for minds to wander if attention is dominated by attention-grabbing social-media posts, that means there is less scope for creativity, too.”

What do we think? Are there really two types of creativity? Are they “anti-correlated” as Caruthers suggests? Has creativity really been declining over recent centuries? How is creativity impeded and can we devise ways to make it flourish? Are there any trade-offs to a more creative society?  

The Paradox of Horror

Join us for a SpOoKy edition of the Strange Philosophy Thing tomorrow, Halloween (10/31), at 4:30 p.m. for refreshments and some fun, informal philosophy talk. Grab a treat from our candy stash and get ready to discuss:

Topic: The Paradox of Horror

Consider the following three claims:
1. Horror stories and movies cause negative emotions in the audience (e.g., fear, disgust).
2. We want to avoid things that cause negative emotions.
3. We do not want to avoid horror stories and movies.

Though each of these claims seems intuitively plausible, they cannot all be true. For example, if claim 1 is true and horror causes negative emotions, and if claim 2 is true and we want to avoid things that cause negative emotions, then it seems to follow that we would want to avoid horror. But that’s inconsistent with claim 3. On the other hand, if, as claim 2 has it, we want to avoid things that cause negative emotions, and if, as claim 3 has it, we do not want to avoid horror, then, presumably, horror doesn’t cause negative emotions. But that’s inconsistent with claim 1. So, it seems that, in order to avoid inconsistency, we must reject (or modify) one of these claims. Which should we reject?

You need not prepare in anyway in order to attend the Strange Thing discussion. However, if you’re interested, there’s a wealth of info on the paradox of horror available from across the web. Here’s a short video on the topic by, perhaps, the premier philosopher of horror, Noël Carroll. We discussed this topic back in 2017 and Professor Armstrong provided a great write-up here. And, finally, for a look at the neuroscience of horror, check out this recent audio interview with Nina Nesseth, author of the book, Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films.

See you tomorrow! And, why not bring a friend, to kick off All Hallows’ Eve in style, with philosophy!

Fetal Personhood

Join the Philosophy Department tomorrow,. Monday (10/17) in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall (103), 4:30-5:30pm for refreshments and informal conversation.  This Monday, October 3, we will discuss debates surrounding fetal personhood laws.

A Person Seed

For this Strange Philosophy Thing, we’ll be discussing the recent trend of fetal personhood laws. Specifically, we’ll look at possible legal and policy implications, and discuss the ethics of those policies. Here are a few examples of the kind of thing I want to discuss:

Georgia’s state department of revenue has extended the state’s tax exemptions for dependents to include gestating fetuses.  

A Texas woman claimed the fetus she was gestating counted as a second passenger, allowed her to drive in the carpool lane.

Women are charged under child abuse or endangerment statutes, for behaviors including drug use while pregnant. (This specific example, however, does not depend on a fetal personhood law.)

Evaluating the ethics of law and policy is complicated, and doesn’t easily connect to the ethics of the behavior being regulated. Breaking promises is typically wrong, but it would be a mistake to legally require everyone keeping their promises. We only do this for special cases, such as contracts. Driving on the left side of the road is not in itself wrong, but legally prohibiting it is completely appropriate.

Sometimes the ethical status of a law or policy depends on its relation to other things in the hierarchy of laws, such as compatibility with a State’s or the federal Constitution. But if this is all there is to it, then the problem may not be the otherwise sensible subordinate law, but the but the superior law that it conflicts with. Certain gun control regulations are (arguably) an example of this.

Sometimes a law or policy is intrinsically wrong, such as those that allow partisan gerrymandering. This is wrong by its very nature, since its nature is to disenfranchise equal citizens because of their political viewpoints.

Sometimes a law or policy is instrumentally or contingently wrong. This is when there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the policy, but the effects it has in the world are unacceptable. An example of this is voter ID laws. There is nothing wrong in principle with requiring identification to vote. Voter fraud is worth preventing because each case of voter fraud functionally removes one valid vote. But in practice, these laws have several negative effects. First, they prevent more eligible voters from voting than they prevent cases of voter fraud. So when we look at the rationale for such laws (the ethically acceptable rationale, whether or not it’s the actual motivating rationale), it is inappropriate for being self-defeating. It’s worse if more valid voters are removed through ID laws than if fewer are neutralized through fraud. Second, the discouraging or preventing effects are concentrated on already marginalized groups of people (racial and ethic minorities, lower economic classes).

Sometimes a policy that would be otherwise problematic is actually fine because of the outcomes it has. One example might be the pandemic relief funds that were sent out to individuals (oversimplified to serve the example). It’s problematic (regressive economic policy) to send the same amount of money to people at all points on the economic spectrum, because a large portion of that money is not needed and so is wasted. It would be better to target the relief to those who would benefit from it the most, since this would help them more. But this targeting would be costly, difficult, and slow, so the people we want to help avoid harm will be harmed while we try to figure it out. So, it is better overall to give the economic help faster but less efficiently targeted.

Or, it might not be a single law or policy that is problematic, but a cluster of them that are together problematic. Consider: while the right to abortion was constitutionally protected, Louisiana passed a law requiring abortion providers to have admitting (patient transfer) privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. While that’s a single law (deemed unconstitutional at the time for lack of medical benefit, violating the undue burden requirement on abortion restrictions), we could imagine passing a second law that prohibited hospitals from giving admitting privileges to abortion providers. Even if we didn’t find either law objectionable in isolation, we might find the conjunction objectionable. (This isn’t the cleanest example, but it was the easiest (realistic) one for me to think of at this point.)

I want to consider implications of fetal personhood laws in this light (or, the last four lights). Or, the implications of other laws and policies in light of fetal personhood laws.

What policies might have intrinsically problematic effects?
What are the points and purposes of these laws? How do the effects of these policies (or the ones we should expect them to have) relate to those rationales?
Are there any effects that are problematic, independent of how they relate to the policy’s rationale?

Take the suggestion that driving pregnant makes you eligible for carpool lanes. The point of these laws is to reduce traffic congestion and auto emissions by encouraging people going to and from the same or close places to travel in fewer vehicles. They do this by giving access to a special lane that is (supposed to be) less crowded, allowing you to get where you’re going faster. And so they specify “high occupancy” thresholds, and (from my quick research) these typically specify the number of seats filled rather than the number of persons in the vehicle.

This excludes fetal persons from counting towards HOV requirements for carpool lanes. Is there something intrinsically problematic for excluding this class of person? It’s hard to see what that would be. Is there something contingently problematic about excluding them? By looking at the point of carpool lanes, it seems like there would instead be something problematic about including them. Pregnant people cannot travel separately from the fetuses they gestate, and so having them travel together does not reduce the numbers of cars on the road (congestion, emissions). This adds a car to the carpool lane (slowing it down), without removing an extra car from the other lanes. So counting them towards HOV eligibility would work against the purpose of the law.

We also have to think about similar cases. What about family or friends who would be driving together even without carpool incentives? It makes sense to allow these passengers because if we did not, sorting out the good cases from the bad cases would be unduly invasive for the purposes of the law. Similarly, if we did count fetuses as passengers for HOV purposes, having HOV levels about two might be problematic because sorting out which people have single pregnancies and which have twins (or more!) would be unduly invasive. (I think this further counts against considering fetuses as separate passengers, rather than counting in favor of capping HOV requirements at two.)

So, I want to talk about policies like the dependent tax exemption and gestational child abuse examples above, but also “safe surrender” (“infant relinquishment”) allowances, and adoption and surrogate pregnancy. The article on the Georgia law also raises questions about child support policies. We might also discuss in vitro fertilization and unused zygotes.

If there are any policies that you think might have interesting (problematic or just unexpected) implications given a fetal personhood law, we can talk about that as well.

“Is a Fetus a Person? The Next Big Abortion Fight Centers on Fetal Rights,” Kelsey Butler and Patricia Hurtado, Bloomberg (linked at Washington Post)

Georgia says ‘unborn child’ counts as dependent on taxes after 6 weeks,” María Luisa Paúl, Washington Post

Pregnant woman given HOV ticket argues fetus is passenger, post-Roe,” Timothy Bella, Washington Post

Pregnant women were jailed over drug use to protect fetuses, county says,” Marisa Iati, Washington Post

Safe Surrender’ or ‘Infant Abandonment’ Legislation,” ACLU

Indigenous People’s Day

The philosophy department will be taking a break from the Strange Thing next week in honor of LU’s Indigenous People’s Day! Please join the celebration at Warch Campus Center 324 (Somerset Room) between 5-7 p.m. on Monday, October 10th. The event will include song, dance, food, and local Native American guest speakers and leaders. It’s open to the entire Fox Valley community, so bring your friends!

Large language models: Genuinely intelligent or just making us less so?

Please join us Monday, September 19, at 4:30 p.m. in the newly renovated Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the return of the Strange Philosophy Thing. 

Language models are computational systems designed to generate text by, in effect, predicting the next word in a sentence. Think of the text-completion function on your cell phone. Large language models (LLMs) are language models of staggering complexity and capacity. Consider, for example, OpenAI’s GPT-3, which Tamkin and Ganguli note, “has 175 billion parameters and was trained on 570 gigabytes of text”. This computational might allows GPT-3 an as yet unknown number of capabilities—unknown, because they are uncovered when users type requests for it to do things. Among its known capabilities are summarizing lengthy blocks of text, designing an advertisement based on a description of the product, writing code to accomplish a desired program effect, participating in a text chat, and writing a term paper or a horror story. Early users report that GPT-3’s results are passably human. And LLM’s are only destined to improve. Indeed, artificial intelligence researchers expect LLMs to serve a central role in attempts to create artificial general intelligence. Our discussion on Monday (9/19) will focus on two aspects of this research:

  • Are LLMs genuinely intelligent?

The issues we will discuss this week are alluded to in John Symon’s recent article in the Return. To frame our discussion about the general intelligence of LLMs, we might consider the following thought experiment, as discussed by Symons:

Alan Turing had originally conceived of a text-based imitation game as a way of thinking about our criteria for assigning intelligence to candidate machines. If something can pass what we now call the Turing Test; if it can consistently and sustainably convince us that we are texting with an intelligent being, then we have no good reason to deny that it counts as intelligent. It shouldn’t matter that it doesn’t have a body like ours or that it wasn’t born of a human mother.  If it passes, it is entitled to the kind of value and moral consideration that we would assign to any other intelligent being.

LLMs either already do (or, it is plausible to suppose, they will soon) pass the Turing Test. Are we comfortable with the conclusions Symons derives from this fact—that LLMs “count as intelligent” and are “entitled to…moral consideration”? Perhaps we should rather reappraise the Turing Test itself, as a recent computer science paper suggests we should do. If LLMs can pass the test by merely reflecting the intelligence of the tester, then perhaps the true test is to have LLMs converse with one another and see if we judge them as intelligent from outside of the conversation. 

  • Are LLMs making us less intelligent?

A second—and the more important—theme in Symons article is the role that LLMs might play in making us less intelligent. Symons’ claims here are built on his own observations about LLMs. As he writes:

I tried giving some of these systems standard topics that one might assign in an introductory ethics course and the results were similar to the kind of work that I would expect from first-year college students. Written in grammatical English, with (mostly) appropriate word-choice and some convincing development of arguments. Generally, the system accurately represented the philosophical positions under consideration. What it said about Kant’s categorical imperative or Mill’s utilitarianism, for example, was accurate. And a discussion of weaknesses in Rawlsian liberalism generated by GPT-3 was stunningly good. Running a small sample of the outputs through plagiarism detection software produced no red flags for me.

Symons notes—rightly it seems—that as the technology progresses students will be tempted to use LLMs to turn in assignments without any effort. Instructors, including college professors, will be unable to detect that LLMs, rather than students, generated fraudulent assignments. But, while this might seem a convenient way to acquire a degree, Symons argues that it would undermine the worth of the education that the degree is meant to convey. For—or at least as Symons maintains—learning to write is learning to think, and deep thought is possible only when scaffolded by organized prose. Students completing writing assignments, then, are learning to think, and when they rely on LLMs (or other means) to avoid writting assignments, they are cheating themselves of future competent thought. Focusing on the discipline of philosophy in particular, Symons writes:

…most contemporary philosophers aim to help their students to learn the craft of producing thoughtful and rationally persuasive essays. In some sense, the ultimate goal of the creators of LLMs is to imitate someone who has mastered this craft. Like most of my colleagues who teach in the humanities, philosophers are generally convinced that writing and thinking are connected. In some sense, the creators of GPT-3 share that view. However, the first difference is that most teachers would not regard the student in their classroom as a very large weighted network whose nodes are pieces of text. Instead, the student is regarded as using the text as a vehicle for articulating and testing their ideas. Students are not being trained to produce passable text as an output. Instead, the process of writing is intended to be an aid to thinking. We teach students to write because unaided thinking is limited and writing is a way of educating a student in the inner conversation that is the heart of thoughtful reflection. 

These passages might constitute a jumping off point for our second topic of discussion. Ancillary questions here might include :1) What is the purpose of writing assignments in college? 2) To what extent is complex thought possible without language? 3) How can we design education in such a way as to produce the best possible thinkers and writers?

I look forward to seeing you all on Monday at 4:30 for a fun, informal discussion, open to everyone! Philosophy professors and snacks provided.

Parents and Children & Determinism and Freedom of the Will, (S3E5-7) Feb. 9/22 Strange Lounge Main Hall

Join us Wednesday, February 9 at 4:30 p.m. in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the return of the Strange Thing. This week, we have a pair of episodes about relationships to loved ones–especially, parental relationships–and an extended philosophical discussion between Eleanor and Michael about determinism and freedom of the will. I think we should start with E7 and the discussion of freedom of the will. But, I’ll say a word about E5-6 after that, as they imply interesting issue about humanity’s natural goodness.

Episode Seven spins off of Episode Six, in which Eleanor reconnects with her mother. The emotional reunion shakes Eleanor. She ends Episode Six blaming her mom for the fact that she was never really able to experience human love. But, then, Michael says that, “In one of the reboots, you and Chidi fell in love…deeply, and you told him that you loved him, and he told you that he loved you back.” Episode Seven opens with Michael and Eleanor having wandered into a public library, because they need somewhere quiet for the Earthly Eleanor to experience memories of her afterlife (and, as Michael says, “there’s no place more deserted than a public library in Arizona.”) Eleanor views her afterlife memories. There are some side-effects.

Side Effects of Viewing Afterlife Memories

Eleanor’s reaction to these afterlife memories is to believe all of her actions are deteremined. This leads to a long debate between Eleanor and Michael, which focuses on determinism and freedom of the will, but also touches on divine foreknowledge. Eleanor helpfully finds a philosophy book on the shelves and reads the definition of determinism, as “the theory that we have no control over our own actions. Everything we do happens because of some external force beyond our control.” We might–perhaps equivalently (perhaps not)–define determinism instead as the thesis that the entirety of the facts that are true of the universe at T1 fully determine the entirety of facts that are true of the universe at T2. Given T1, T2 could not have been otherwise. Eleanor has become enamored of this view and Michael–a divine, eternal being–attempts to argue her out of it. A few philosophical thesis other than determinism come up during their debate.

Incompatibalism: Incompatibalism is the position that determinism and human freedom are incompatible. It holds that if determinism is true, we are not free. Eleanor, at least, seems to be assuming incompatibilism. But are determinism and free will really incompatible?

Divine Foreknowledge: An important component of Michael’s argument that Eleanor has free will rests on the idea that she surprised him, a divine being, who (I think we are to presume) has special foreknowledge. For example, Eleanor surprised Michael by admitting she belonged in the bad place, back in Season 1. But is divine foreknowledge incompatible with freedom of the will? Our could God create us, know everything we are going to do in our entire life before creating us, and yet us still be free? Does divine foreknowledge entail determinism or are the two independent?

Freedom of the Will: Most generally, Michael and Eleanor’s discussion might prompt us to ask what is it to act freely? If we are incompatibilists, then we hold that we are not free if we are determined. Some incompatibilists–called hard determinists–hold that determinism is true, and so we lack free will. Other incompatibilists–called libertarians–hold that determinism is false; we have free will. But some philosophers, such as David Hume, are soft-determinists who hold the compatibilist position that determinism is true and yet we are free. Which of these positions seems most plausible to you? What arguments might you deploy to defend it?

In addition to this discussion of determinism, I was struck by the three vignettes involving family that comprise the bulk of episodes 5 and 6. Parents weigh heavily in these episodes: Jason reconnects with Donkey Doug, who has been in prison many times, once for selling “counterfeit truck nuts”. Tahani and Kamilah bond over their shared psychological trauma, wrought by their parents. And Eleanor confronts Donna Shellstrop, the mother she believed dead, but who had simply faked her own death and started a new life in Nevada. Both Tahani and Eleanor express, at some point, the sentiment that at least some of their own moral short-comings in life are due to their parents. This resonates with the foregoing considerations about determinism and free will. But, it also raises questions about the natural goodness of human beings. To what extent is our morality natural to us and to what extent is it the result of up-bringing? *Could* children, who were never instructed about morality nor were the subjects of moral reprimand by parents (or society in general) grow into moral adults? Or, is moral training in childhood required to get moral adults? What sorts of arguments might lead us to one conclusion or the other? Here’s a possibility: If morality is dependent on cultural influence, then we might expect to see different moral codes in different cultures. Do we? Here’s another: If our morality is, at least in part, natural to us, then we might expect to see strong repulsive reactions to immoral acts. Do we?

Finally, there are some really great digs on Arizona in E7. Every establishment is used to shoot pornography after closing. The sex education section of the public library contains only the Bible. The poetry section is all Jeff Foxworthy.