Sunday, May 14, 2017

Future projects and stuff

"A book is a suicide postponed."
- Emil Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born 
It has been a while since I last made a blog post. I am in the middle of a hellish university program in computer engineering that requires me to take at least sixteen credits per semester, as well as summer classes and balancing an internship to boot. It is frustrating and time-consuming but for some reason or another I find it to be fulfilling, or at least more satisfactory than sitting on my ass all day doing nothing (i.e. being an internet blogger!).

For the last year I have been formulating an array of ideas, initially disorganized, that is focused primarily on the crossroads between phenomenology and ethics. Around six months ago I began drafting some of the ideas on paper. What started as an essay or short article quickly turned into a book of sorts; the current page count is over sixty, and I do not see myself finishing relatively soon.

The tentative title of the book is "Questioning the Primacy of Being", the précis being that phenomenal existence is ultimately negative in value, and that biological persistence continues by an irrational and unethical vital "pulse" that systematically obscures this fundamental disvalue. I follow the scheme set up by the philosopher Julio Cabrera between the affirmative and negative perspective, before proceeding to criticize the affirmative perspective and subsequently attempting to construct a basic ethical system based on the negative perspective.

I am under no delusions (of grandeur) that this book will become some great philosophical achievement; in fact I predict practically nobody will read it. Furthermore, I doubt that everything I say in it is right, but I suppose that is just as well. What I fear is that it will be interpreted as the work of an impressionable young adult, a manifesto of sorts, and only that. I fear it will be passed over in favor of the more "sophisticated" philosophical works, simply because it is not published by a major company or because I have no official formal degree in philosophy (despite spending the equivalent amount of time studying philosophy on my own, away from the narrow-minded dogmatism of academic philosophy).

One major, encompassing theme of the book is the importance of maintaining a certain degree of "elegance" in the various ways we live, through our actions, decisions, character and appearance. I make the case that unrestrained, noisy and impulsive snaps of emotion are degenerative and shameful, and I try to construct the image of an "ideal negative survivor", one who is careful not to over-indulge in excess, including hyperbolic evaluations. They are, ideally, "calm, cool, and collected," and I try to present the book in the same way: free of any unnecessary angst or gratuitous pretension.

Like I said before, the book is nowhere near being "finished". I just thought I would make a post in case people thought I had killed myself or something. The haters will be saddened to hear that I have no intention of committing suicide any time soon, although I continue to ruminate upon its possibility every day. Why commit suicide once when you can hypothetically commit suicide a thousand times? heh

Anyway, if you're interested in reading what I have written so far, tell me and I'll consider sharing it with you. I'm not quite ready to open access up to everyone, but there are a few people whom I wouldn't mind hearing constructive criticism from. Keep in mind, it's still in production and some of the ideas are not fully fleshed-out yet.

Monday, January 9, 2017

"Comfortable Pessimism"

Arthur Schopenhauer

This is something that I have thought about for a very long time now. It is my belief that the classic pessimists (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran, etc) espoused what I would label “comfortable pessimism”, or perhaps “convenient pessimism”.

What do I mean by “comfortable pessimism”? I mean a descriptive belief that establishes the world and its contents as negative in function and quality, but which there is an absent adequate prescription for its residents. In particular, an ethical prescription.

I will now provide some examples to justify my claim.

The first example is of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the greatest German philosophers of all time. Truly, an undeniable genius and the number-one icon for philosophical pessimism. Here we have him asking us to compare the suffering experienced by the prey with the pleasure experienced by the predator, or pointing out the tedium and pointlessness of life in general. His prescription to those who read him? Detachment from the material world, isolation, contemplation, asceticism.

This is aesthetically pleasing. Rejecting the world of conflict and strife for a bubble of security. A simple life.
Yet Schopenhauer betrays his own foundations when he became famous later in life. He went out partying and auctioning and traveling. Not exactly the life of an ascetic.

But we have to make sure we separate the actions of the man with the theoretical prescriptions he provided. So I’ll attack his prescriptions, or, rather, the lack thereof.

When Schopenhauer was in Berlin (I think?), there was a massive cholera outbreak. Schopenhauer said he was a “cholera-phobe” and promptly packed up and left, saving himself from a disease. This quotation shows his deep aversion towards the world in general, especially on the aesthetic level.

He later travelled all across Europe, thinking himself to be the bringer of truth to humanity. In his opinion, he thought he shouldn’t interact with the common rabble in the same way Chinese missionaries shouldn’t interact with the Chinese. Thus we have a clear example of separation: a sense of entitlement and superiority.

It’s true that Schopenhauer was very intelligent. But it’s also striking how a man as perceptive to global suffering as he was, he simultaneously seemed to care very little for it. He focused instead of pursuing Truth, and once asked himself what the world would think about himself in the year 2100. He contemplated getting a wife later in his years. After he died, he left all his money to charity - a noble gesture, yet neither did Schopenhauer have any close friends or family in which this would go to.

Despite his acknowledgement of suffering, Schopenhauer continued to see a hierarchy in the world, one in which he no doubt thought himself as residing in the upper echelons.

Additionally, he seemed to have thought that the world was still in some sense aesthetically redeeming. He was fascinated with nature, fascinated with finding out the ultimate reality of the universe. It is exactly this fascination that I use as justification for the view that Schopenhauer was decadent. Schopenhauer was able to enjoy himself in a surrounding world of suffering. Considering Schopenhauer saw married couples as the ultimate conspirators to the continuation of human suffering, I believe I am justified in criticizing Schopenhauer himself as an inactive bystander (passive accomplice) to a world he otherwise saw as horrible.

If it could be summarized, then, Schopenhauers’ ethics would seem to largely consist in “not my fucking problem”. It’s simply enough to recognize that suffering exists.

The same can be seen in the philosophies of Cioran or Leopardi. Leopardi, for example, thought the only thing that could really “save” a person was complete isolation from the material world. And Cioran curiously seemed to have embraced suffering in some sense as a livelihood - he once envied Beckett for his despair. Once again, we have the aestheticization of suffering, or the mere abstraction of a negative feeling. The romanticization of something that really is not romantic at all, but dirty, painful, narrowing, and bad.

Buddhist ethics is a bit different in that it talks about the existence of bodhisattvas, or beings who achieve nirvana yet stick around anyway to help everyone else out. True altruists. Many Buddhist philosophers of the past could be seen as consequentialists. For Buddhists, it is not simply enough to point out the suffering in the world, but to actively promote the destruction of it, as suffering is something that should not exist.

Then we come to Nietzsche, who wanted to say “yes” to everything, including suffering. Suffering, for Nietzsche, is also aestheticized as a necessary prerequisite for power. For Nietzsche, a single joyous experience justifies all existence. This is inspiring but ultimately implausible and actually insulting to those who are suffering greatly.

So, to wrap up, this is what I see to be characteristic features of “comfortable/convenient pessimism”:

  • Excessive individuality and self-centeredness, manifesting as isolation and a sense of entitlement/superiority
  • Aestheticization of suffering, manifesting as a romantic narrative more than a feeling
  • Acknowledgement of others’ suffering, but a general indifference to it, sometimes manifesting as amusement or disgust and a focus on one’s own priorities (“not my fucking problem” or “I’ve done ‘enough’ ”, aka not having the stomach for active participation)
  • The theoretical rejection of the world (negativity) paired with distinctly affirmative procedures, manifesting as a sort of “redemption” or “habit”, i.e. art, calligraphy, fine cuisine, philosophy, etc.
  • General melancholy, and an aversion to horror (Cioran as an exception), and a tendency to focus on maximizing one’s own comfort and security (i.e. Schopenhauer’s plush pillows and poodle)

Thus I believe that the “comfortable pessimist” betrays their own descriptive foundations by failing to follow-through and pursue their pessimism to a prescriptive end. For the comfortable pessimist, it is enough to merely recognize that suffering is everywhere, but there is no responsibility to clean it up. Instead, the comfortable pessimist focuses on making their own life as comfortable and easy as possible. Thus this sort of pessimism is often accompanied by misanthropy, which oftentimes entails other people as being unworthy of attention.

Unfortunately, this makes comfortable pessimism an inactive and thus self-fulfilling prophecy. One should not be surprised when the world continues be to quite bad when one does nothing about it.

Active, purpose-driven pessimism eschews aesthetic comfort and decadence for a prescription to end the problem once and for all. This entails participating in and supporting public institutions focused on maximizing welfare and making the world a better place, and actively advocating pessimistic philosophies, within the constraints of self-preservation.

Active pessimism recognize how inappropriate it is to find pure enjoyment in the midst of irredeemable suffering. It recognizes that if you enjoy being a pessimist as an identity, you're doing it wrong.

Response to AntiBullshitMan's "Petty Minds Discuss Messengers: Sam Harris vs. Status Vultures"

Recently, AntiBullshitMan and I got into a discussion over a few things over at his blog Extensive Arguments. I made a few comments that were admittedly long-winded, and he decided to make a video in response to some of the points I made:

(If you have not read anything by him on his blog, or watched any of his videos on YouTube, I recommend you take some time and do so. I appreciate the link he provided to my essay on wild animal suffering interventionist policies and the praise he gave it (thanks!) and I think it only fair to link to a video of his that I found to be quite compelling, in which he questions the compatibility between negative utilitarianism and deprivationalism.)

From my gauging, there are roughly three major topics brought up:

  1. The status of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
  2. Sam Harris as an individual and as a force for good in the world
  3. Theism

The first and third point are relatively short, it is the second that ABM spends the most time on. What follows are my responses. I have tried to be as unbiased and objective as possible, as well as keep things cool, although there are a few places that my annoyance is clear.

Topic 1: The Moral Landscape by neuroscientist-cum-philosopher Sam Harris:

TML as a book on axiology

ABM makes the argument that welfarism is an axiological position, whereas utilitarianism is an ethical position (a form of consequentialism). 

Yes, I will agree that there is a difference between axiology and ethics; ethical theories utilize axiological theories. I will also admit that I was too belligerent in my approach when I called it a rehash of utilitarianism 101. 

But I will point out how utilitarianism is implicitly welfarist. From its very origin it has been focused on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. To take away welfare from utilitarianism would make it, well, not utilitarianism. 

At any rate, TML is not exclusively axiological. I do not have the book with me, unfortunately, but if my memory is correct, Harris accepts notions like a Utility Monster, a direct consequence of classical utilitarianism. He already has developing ideas of ethics within his book. 

Later, ABM asks me to give a good reason why non-human animals warrant non-welfarist axiologies (in particular, non-hedonic axiology). I'm not a non-welfarist so I don't know how someone would formulate something like this, but it doesn't really matter, because to demand something like this seems to beg the question - it assumes what is good is what is good for something, when this is exactly what non-welfarists would deny. I will also point out that non-welfarists, or even non-consequentialists, don't have to completely eschew welfare or consequences from their theories, they simply don't see them as constituting their theories entirely.

ABM points out in the video how he would be willing to see TML as a rehashed welfarist axiology. Okay, cool. But we have to make sure we remember that TML's overarching goal was to show how "science" can definitely prove welfarist axiology as the correct axiology. 

Again, unfortunately I don't have the book with me, but I don't recall Harris ever mentioning Hume's is-ought gap at any point in the book, something that would be one of the very first things someone learns in an intro to moral philosophy course. Something that would spell ruin for Harris' theory.

From the video, it can be seen that ABM and I already agree that science cannot answer moral or even axiological questions, but can only inform us of important information. This means that the main thrust of Harris' book, which is pasted on the front cover, is wrong. And it's also misleading, as, according to ABM, the book is actually focused on axiology and not ethics. We already have two major strikes against the book.

(EDIT: But there's another strike against it, in regards to meta-ethics. Sam Harris sets up this false dichotomy between realism and anti-realism, where he asserts that moral realism has always been associated with religion, and that his book in a one-of-a-kind attempt to argue realism from a secular perspective. This is just wrong.)

On science

Later, ABM counters my statement that Sam Harris is using an "overly broad and weird" conception of science to make his argument work by reversing this and saying that it could be said that it is I who am using an overly narrow and weird conception of science. This has several problems.

First, it moves the goalposts. It doesn't defend anything, but rather forces me to explain why I have such a narrow conception of science to begin with. 

To reinforce my claim, then, I only have to point out that what most people see as science is not what Harris sees as science. ABM claims this is simply a semantic debate, as if we were debating whether or not golf was a real sport. This is rather a substantial debate concerning what we see as science, as science has its advantages and limitations. To allow Harris to call what he does "science" is to lose any meaning science conveys. 

The claim that this is just a semantic debate runs counter to one of the most important debates in the philosophy of science - what is science? Certainly some things can't be seriously seen as science. This is not the place and time to settle the debate, though.

ABM wants me to believe that any general inquiry is science - yet this runs counter to the history of science, which was originally called natural philosophy and later split off entirely from philosophy "proper". Furthermore, this definition is too liberal as to make it unimportant. If every sort of inquiry is scientific, then scientific becomes an empty word. Perhaps we ought to limit science to what can be falsified, a la Popper. But this means that there are some things outside the scope of science but nevertheless seem like meaningful inquiry. It's equivocation. There's nothing "stopping" you from calling everything science, but really there's no good reason to call everything science either.

Furthermore, a conception of science as broad as this actually harms science as it makes it too easy for things that are not science to be seen as science. There have to be limitations.

But the biggest issue is that it really is Sam Harris who is playing word games. You ask the average person "what is science" and they're not going to say it's just any general inquiry of any sort. ABM claims that Harris is writing for the public audience, but then later he claims that we should be able to call science something that is not what is usually accepted as science by the general public. This is entirely misleading.

It's not too hard to see how Harris has basically tricked people into buying his book, then, by putting catchy words like "science" on the front cover. People trust scientists as authorities (most of the time, at least), and I am arguing that Harris knows this and intentionally advertised his book this way. It's the exact same thing that is happening when ads say "Science has PROVEN this drug works!" or "According to scientists, X is better than Y!" And people fall for it.

ABM later asks me why someone like Harris should be dismissed for stretching the meaning of a word. I simply have to ask why he feels the need to stretch the word to begin with. Harris' books are not so much redundant as they are unnecessary and misguided.

Topic 2: Sam Harris as an individual

The majority of ABM's video was focused on my accusations against Sam Harris.

Truth vs Effectiveness

First, ABM argues that Harris rose to popularity because he's a better writer and speaker than professional philosophers. This is a major point that is brought up multiple times through the video. Basically, ABM argues that Harris may be incorrect on a great many things, but the fact is that he is a very popular and influential public figure who has connections to consequentialist-related practical programs, like Effective Altruism, and that we ought to see him as a fulcrum for welfarism and not criticize a person who might otherwise be motivating many people to do good.

ABM then hypothesizes that I am an idealist at heart, and not practical-oriented. That I value truth over welfare, or, more specifically, my "politically biased" professional, academic philosophy (who makes more money - a professor or a public intellectual?).

Now, this is partly true. In fact I'm reading a book right now on this, which I plan on making a post on sometime in the future, called Moral Demands in Non-Ideal Theory by Liam Murphy. It's a book on consequentialist ethics (which is actually aimed more at the public, as are all the books in the series), and it defends the theory that consequentialism is actually not an overly-demanding moral theory. Rather, it only seems overly-demanding when not everyone is a consequentialist - non-ideal theory. Thus those who are consequentialists are given an unequal and unfair burden.

Apply this same reasoning to ABM's claim that I am actually not being a welfarist consequentialist by hating on Sam Harris. At first glance, it does seem that I am being counter-productive. This might to true, but this doesn't change a single thing regarding Sam Harris' intellectual virtues, or lack thereof. In ideal theory, I shouldn't have to suck up to this guy, just like I shouldn't have to give away more money because other people are being selfish. But this is non-ideal theory we're talking about.

Luckily I am not super public about my general dislike of Sam Harris. I doubt it would really do anything. From my perspective, the world is non-ideal not just because Sam Harris exists as a public celebrity but because there exists a public that has made Sam Harris a celebrity. Philosophy isn't easy, and it's hard for philosophers to communicate philosophical ideas to the public without butchering them. (Actual philosophers would care about giving people the whole story - but Sam Harris, on the other hand, seems to not care at all.)

However, it's also not the case that all philosophers are like this. Right off the top of my head I think of Peter Singer, who writes opinionated philosophical articles all the time for magazines and newspapers. Or Peter Unger, or Liam Murphy, the late Derek Parfit (RIP), or Jamie Mayerfield. Or Zizek, of whom there is much controversy but who has a lot of interesting things to say. Or the MacAskills. Or even David Benatar, who has written some pretty funny shit. These are public figures who are also professional, and I think it's worth pointing out that for as popular Sam Harris is, the amount of followers who contribute to EA and other projects like that are probably not as large as ABM might think.

Furthermore, we need to remember that one can dispense with Sam Harris without severing ties to Effective Altruism. EA is still in its infancy. Hopefully in the future we won't have to depend on people like Harris to get publicity. For the time being, perhaps it is a necessary "evil" to keep Harris popular. Later on, hopefully not.

"Unfair" criticism of Sam Harris

ABM criticizes people like me for attacking Sam Harris without any restraint. This is problematic in three ways: 

First, professional philosophers had initially attempted to explain to Harris why he was wrong. Harris, in reply, decided to set up a competition for people to test their theories against his own from TML, as if he were the arbiter of truth. He ignored these initial criticisms, of which one was from his own friend Daniel Dennett. He still hasn't admitted that TML is flawed. 

The second problem is that those who react in such an inflammatory manner are often those who have been targeted by Harris supporters (and New Atheism in general) in an inflammatory manner. Here I'm talking about the people who call all Christians "stupid", who say religion "poisons everything", who openly admonish any sort of apparent "irrationality" they see as such, and who generally are just dickish in behavior. A theologian has the right to defend their discipline; to ignore this is an instance of Kafka-trapping. What goes around tends to come around.

The third problem arises from ABM's conviction that Sam Harris makes philosophical mistakes because he does a lot of things. To which I reply that maybe he shouldn't try to do philosophy.

Sam Harris' podcasts

Later on in the video, ABM mentions how Sam Harris has a wide variety of guests on his two-hour long podcasts. He says that all of them are "happy to be on his [Sam Harris'] show." Well, I mean, of course they're going to say this. Sam Harris reserves the right to kick anyone off his show whom isn't appreciative of his show. Of course they're gonna suck his dick.

Then ABM gish-gallops a list of prominent people who have been on his show, including:
  • Dan Carlan
  • Joshua Oppenheimer
  • Joseph Golstein
  • Paul Bloom
  • Max Tedmark
  • Douglas Murray
  • Scott Reits
  • Michael Weiss
  • Jonathan Hadith
  • David Chalmers
  • Juliet Kaeb?
  • NDGT (yes I fucking hate NDGT, he's a Carl Sagan wannabe)
  • Dan Dennett
  • David Crackhower
  • Eric Weinstein
  • William MacAskill
  • Jerry Coyne
  • Peter Singer
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Stuart Russell
  • The list goes on and on (I missed a few)
ABM asks why people can disagree with Harris and yet walk away with respect. You don't have to attack a person to not have respect for them. Honestly, if we're just going to speculate here, I would argue that these people come on Sam Harris' podcast shows simply because it's an opportunity to communicate their ideas to the world, not because they necessarily agree with Harris. If there's a reason to watch Harris' podcasts, it's to listen to what these people have to say, not what Harris has to.

Truth and Preferentism

There's another point I want to bring up. Earlier in the video, ABM talked about how he thought animals should be treated with hedonic axiology while humans are treated with preferentist axiology. I think this opens a potential flaw in his reasoning, however, in regards to Sam Harris: 

Generally, most people prefer to believe in true things. Even if they are not conscious of this preference, I think it plausible that we can assume that if they were conscious of truth, they would prefer to have it than not. 

If this is valid, then it stands that Sam Harris is profoundly harmful to the preferences of the majority who want to believe in true things. This harm may not be equivalent to the harm of, say, a wild animal being brutally killed by a predator, or the suffering of an Ethiopian child, but it's still a harm that needs to be accounted for.

Overall, then, it seems to me that ABM's defense of Sam Harris is only valid so long as Sam Harris continues to be a productive asset to the welfarist consequentialists' goals. He is conditionally valuable as an instrument of good, despite being a turd in general. Whether or not Harris actually is valuable, or whether or not criticism of him is seriously going to effect the goals of EA and other programs, I'm not sure. 

Then there's the issue regarding the things Sam Harris advocates himself, which I think are definitely harmful:

Why I believe Sam Harris is a turd

ABM asked me whether or not I thought Sam Harris was ignorant or dishonest. I lean towards dishonest while also supposing he's probably very ignorant about a lot of things as well. But why do I think this?

First, ABM claims my dislike of Harris as an individual is "psychological legwork". I must say I dislike being psychoanalyzed. I could easily just say that his liking of Harris is merely "psychological". It's question-begging.

Additionally, I confess that I when I was younger I used to love the man. I used to love all the New Atheists. Now the only one that I take seriously still is Daniel Dennett, and I don't particularly take interest to his writings on religion or God. 

But anyway, here's a working list of why I think Sam Harris is a turd:
"Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe." 
Well, if that last quote isn't a kick in the privates to all the professional philosophers working on these sorts of things, I don't know what would be. Does Sam Harris actually believe that his lack of interest is a serious argument against what he finds to be uninteresting?

What is ironic is that if Sam Harris had recognized and included meta-ethics in his book, his book probably would never have been published to begin with, because his position has already been discussed in the past.

Continuing ...  

Sam Harris is a public intellectual figure who makes his money largely off of profit from his books. He's not going to change his views unless it somehow benefits him. Least of all positions like antinatalism, which ABM and myself would prefer.

Later, ABM points out how Sam Harris, when asked what books he recommends reading, said that he recommended Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons. The first book is widely recognized by professional philosophers to be incomplete and more of a historical artifact than anything. The second book is not an easy read and it's ridiculous for Harris to expect the average Joe to read it without any background. The point, thus, is that Sam Harris essentially just gish-galloped philosophical texts to look knowledgeable.

ABM claims that I am being unfair in that I'm criticizing Sam Harris' approach while not criticizing the approach of ABM himself, which he calls "walking the tightrope" and being more informal than an SEP or graduate essay. The reason, though, is because Sam Harris is a major public figure and thus I expect more from him, and also I've already shown how he's a turd and basically deserves this fire. It may be a little insulting when I say this but I see neither my blog nor ABM's blog as serious contenders in the public perception, at least not right now. I see them as places where we practice refining arguments for the sake of argumentation and because we generally just enjoy doing it. It's a hobby more than a livelihood.

What I find to be curious is that ABM and Sam Harris have similar views. ABM is a determinist (if I remember correctly...?) and so is Sam Harris. ABM is an atheist and so is Sam Harris. ABM disapproves of many things going on the Middle East that Sam Harris also does. If I may speculate, it seems as though ABM happens to have similar views as Sam Harris, either by accident or by influence, and thus it's easier to downplay the problems Sam Harris has. So I have to ask ABM if he got some of his views from Sam Harris or if he just happens to agree with him on some things?

Then, later, ABM compares professional philosophers' disregard of Sam Harris' work with the general disregard of antinatalism, of which we both profess allegiance to. I believe this is a red herring. David Benatar, for example, has already stated that he doesn't expect AN to take off and has articulated many convincing reasons why this is so (biological urges, biases, etc). This is not the same with Sam Harris. There's no reason to believe Sam Harris is being "ignored" by the philosophical community simply due to some political reason or because he represents a threat to their discipline, as many professional philosophers have already shown how he is misguided. Both AN and Sam Harris don't "play by the rules", but the reasons are different. AN is taboo and Sam Harris is just an idiot. There are political reasons why Sarah Perry's book Every Cradle is a Grave is being ignored - then same cannot be said, I think, about Sam Harris' books, since at least his books have been addressed.

ABM later uses prophetic reasoning to assert that our own arguments for AN would be ridiculed by the professional philosophical community. This hasn't happened yet, so I don't see any reason to believe this. If anything they'd probably just get ignored as academia, just like anything else, has priorities.

Free Will

ABM provides a link to a video on Chomsky which is allegedly proof of political biases. This is an example, I think, of someone who has been influenced by people like Sam Harris and believe in a definition of free will that isn't compatible with the ongoing philosophical discussion on it. Chomsky is absolutely correct that the Libet experiment does not undermine free will, and ABM had asked me for an explanation of how this could be so. So I'll just go ahead and quote directly from my book on cognitive science (The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science edited by Frankish and Ramsey, pp. 102-103):
"Several philosophers have criticized Libet's interpretation of the bearing of his experiments on conscious agency and free will. First, it is worth noting that although the conscious urge to move may lag behind the onset of brain activity, it still precedes the actual onset of movement. Libet's interpretation of his finding is premised on the view that only the initial element in a causal chain, i.e., only a cause uncaused is metaphysically dubious and certainly hard to square with a naturalistic stance. A conscious mental state may play a causal role in the production of an action even though it doesn't trigger the whole causal process. If it makes a difference whether or not a causal chain contains conscious mental states as elements, and in particular if there are differences in the kinds of actions that can be the outcome of such chains or in the conditions in which such actions can be successfully performed, then it is fair to say that conscious mental states make a difference and are causally efficacious. One may note that the unconscious processes that precede conscious awareness are not themselves uncaused and that, by parity of reasoning, Libet should also deny that they initiate the action.
 "Second, as Mele (2003) points out, it is unclear whether the readiness potential constitutes the neural substrate of intentions or decisions rather than of desires or urges. If the latter, no one should be surprised to find that desires precede conscious intentions, and finding that we have such desires does not commit us to acting upon them. For all Libet has shown, it may be that another conscious act is necessary before the event associated with the readiness potential leads to action. Third, Libet's analysis focuses on proximal intentions (the proximal causes of overt behavior, whose contents in this case may be expressed as "I flex my wrist thus and thus now."), but it neglects distal intentions (whose content may be expressed as "I will flex my wrist when I feel the urge."). Yet, it is quite implausible that the participants in his studies would have produced hand movements at will unless they had formed the distal intention to do so in compliance with the experimenter's instructions. This suggests that distal intentions are not causally overt."
I'm not going to type up the part about the critiques of Wegner's studies since it's rather long.

Now, I agree that Chomsky was a bit dismissive of determinist and compatibilist positions, but I don't take it that seriously because Chomsky, in this situation, is not being watched by millions of people every day like Sam Harris is. Harris has more influence than Chomsky. We simply have to remember that not all philosophers are good at all philosophy, Sam Harris included (if he could even be called a philosopher). Recall how ABM was willing to pardon Sam Harris for his mistakes because he "does a lot of things" but apparently isn't ready to extend this to people like Chomsky. This is not consistent.

Contrary to what ABM argued, Sam Harris is not "steering" the philosophical discussion in the right direction, as philosophers don't need his help. If he's doing any steering, it's into a ditch on the side of the road.

A few more things ... 

ABM criticizes the subreddits I provided in my earlier exchange with him, calling /r/badphilosophy "cultish" and /r/askphilosophy my "beloved subreddit philosophers". Okay, guess I'll offer a defense.

First, /r/badphilosophy is the place all the professionals from /r/askphilosophy go to vent their frustrations. It's a circlejerk and it's not supposed to be taken too seriously. That is what I meant when I said it was satirical. It's right, but it's distasteful, and that's exactly why it's so funny sometimes.

At any rate, I might be getting on board with being a moderator with a new subreddit, /r/bad_philosophy , which aims to be a bit more civil and reasonable than the original one.

ABM mentions my own mention of Singer's (et al) book The Point of View of the Universe, which analyzes Henry Sidgwick's moral realism. ABM called it insulting. I apologize if this came across this way, it was not intended.

Finally, ABM asks me why I haven't discussed Brian Caplan's defense of natalism, and offers this as an analogy to why the New Atheists haven't discussed classical theism, or what he calls deism (they are not equivalent). The reason is that I think Sarah Perry already did a good enough job dismantling his argument in her book. I see no reason to rehash it.

Topic 3: Theism

...ah, fuck it, it's getting late. I'll do a post on this later.

Friday, December 23, 2016

On the rationality of preventative, insurance-based suicide

"Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance."  Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Typically addiction is used to describe things like drug abuse or media consumption. But should addiction be applied to life continuation as a whole? In order to do so, there has to be some reason why life continuation would be an overall bad for a person's well-being.

Take this example:

  1. Steven needs milk from the store.
  2. Steven drives to the store.
  3. On the way, a drunk driver collides with Steven's car, and a piece of metal impales Steven.
  4. Steven dies in agony.

Biological persistence can be an overall detriment to a person's well-being. Take the example above. Is getting milk from the store worth potentially getting impaled? Had Steven not gotten the milk, he wouldn't have been impaled. But what would have made Steven not need the milk? Perhaps Steven could be a vegan. Or perhaps Steven has a change in appetite. Or perhaps Steven could have killed himself and thus not had any more desires that expose him to the dangers of the world.

But Steven's story is hypothetical, right? A quick Google search leads me to believe that automobile-related impalements are not the work of an imaginative brain.

Another Google search brings up the random statistic that 0.0164% of scuba divers die. The primary cause of death is suffocation, usually by insufficient gas or getting entangled. It seems to be a combination of inexperience, as well as pure bad luck. What is important to note is that every single one of those part of the 0.0164% statistic didn't expect to drown that day. huh.

I have a personal story as well. Since 2013, there have been 207 public school shootings in the United States. I went through a school shooting at my high school during this time frame that resulted in the death of an innocent student and the death of the perpetrator by a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head. I remember thinking during the shooting how surreal it all was. I never would have expected it to happen to my high school - it's always the other schools that get shot up. As of today I have recovered from the experience, but I would never, ever voluntarily go through that traumatic experience ever again. Ever. 

People like to think that these sorts of things make you stronger, and indeed they do, for those who survive and aren't crippled. Yes, it was the will of the almighty cosmos that I went through something like this, because, in the end, it made me stronger. What a crock of bullshit. 

Nietzsche was incorrect. What doesn't kill you has a possibility of severely damaging you and making you wish it had finished you off.

Life: an accident waiting to happen
My conclusion from all this is that life continuation is one hell of a risk. Not only do we have statistics for horrible tragedies, but what is arguably worse is that we don't have statistics for many other things. Every time you walk out of your door, you are exposing yourself to danger. Cognitive inadequacy limits our appreciation of this fact. Why is it that danger has to be practically right in front of us in order for us to register it? Because long-term risk management is not conducive to reproduction.

How ironic it is that the greatest pleasures in life come at such a steep risk.

If we were truly rational creatures, we would realize that our unconscious will-to-live is analogous to being dragged across a cheese grater. It is manipulative in that it exposes us to dangers and harms that we otherwise would not choose to expose ourselves to. Epicureans are kidding themselves; we don't continue life for its pleasures, we continue life because we have no other realistic alternative. We are not in control. 

Tolstoy hit the nail on the head when he articulated four categories of human existence:
  1. Those who are blind to the human predicament (the ignorant fools)
  2. Those who understand the human predicament but see pleasure as a reason to continue (the Epicureans)
  3. Those who understand that human predicament but also understand that pleasure cannot be a true reason to live but continue to live anyway (the weak)
  4. Those who understand everything the weak do, but have the guts to kill themselves (the strong)
Why is it that people will voluntarily insure themselves against catastrophes that may not ever happen, but don't insure themselves against the catastrophes that cannot be covered by money? The cognitive bias of "that will never happen to me" effectively keeps people from questioning their own behavior. If it can't be fixed or prevented, just don't think about it. It is short-sighted and biased reasoning, meant not to service our welfare but to make sure we don't question our own fate.

This is tough to swallow. It's easy to get wrapped up in the moment and forget about the contingent nature of well-being. All of these possibilities are legitimate threats - but why worry about them? There's nothing you can do - except there actually is, it's just that practically nobody wants to consider it. Suicide as a preventative measure is a perfectly rational and reasonable response to the threats exposure to the world brings. In fact it seems like it's the only option with a 100% guarantee of effectiveness.

But nobody, including myself, can actually consider suicide as a rational decision if we're not currently suffering tremendously. In existentialist terms, humans are capable of transcendence - we are able to look beyond the immanent and see things how they could be. But we are nevertheless still immanent, and so the dynamic between transcendence and immanence emerges, with transcendence pushing forward and immanence pulling back. In the case of the rationality of suicide, we can transcend beyond our immediate experience and see how many risks and threats there are in the future, but are pulled back to immanence by the instinctual, irrational urge to persist.

Bet this guy wished he'd died earlier...
There's more. I will not deny that pleasure is intrinsically good for people. But neither will I deny that pain is intrinsically bad for people. So when the cost of pleasure gets too high, or when the stakes accompanying existence are unreasonable, pleasure becomes a good-turned-bad. Just as we may feel pain while climbing a mountain (a bad-turned-good), the pleasure we feel as we systematically expose ourselves to a greater amount of harm cannot actually be truly good for us. That is when pleasure becomes manipulative and addictive. The fact that it is difficult to see the sorts of things we typically enjoy doing as goods-turned-bad is a consequence of them being addictions. Recall the analogy of the cheese grater. Pleasure are goods-turned-bad because the strength of the desire for pleasure is not matched by the actual content. On the other hand, we have a disturbingly small fear of pains are are unimaginably bad.

The environment we live in that seduces us into continued existence can only be see as a web of toxicity. We live in a society that essentially indoctrinates us into continued existence. We do not act in our best interests by continuing existing. (EDIT: nor do we usually act in our best interests when we attempt suicide without a sufficient and present harm either, as we will force ourselves to experience much trauma with no success. In other words, we are incapable of acting in our best interests by killing ourselves because our own instincts won't let us kill ourselves. It is no use attempting to fight instincts as powerful as these. Thus life-continuation is irrational and yet attempting to quit life cold-turkey is also irrational.).

Some people might find my words dangerous. Am I actually recommending people kill themselves? Perhaps. What I am not advocating is the blind and instinctual journey through a strange world filled with risks, threats, and uncompensated pain.

What should we do, then? If we live in a world of threats of significant harm that cannot be compensated by any pleasure (terminal pain), is it possible to have a reason to live?

I would argue that there can be only one genuine reason to live: ethics. Ethics is not about self-interest. It's not about maximizing your own welfare. It's about treating others well, caring for their well-being. The life of a person dedicated to an ethical cause is one of altruism and selflessness. Some people might accuse those people of tooting their own horn, but given what I have already articulated, there is no rational reason to live that doesn't ignore certain aspects of life. Those who follow the ethical path of life are those who are not living for themselves (as this is irrational given what we know of the human predicament), but are living for the sake of others. The concept of a Buddhist bodhisattva comes to mind. The bodhisattva has achieved nirvana but sticks around anyway to help everyone else achieve nirvana. Similarly, the enlightened ethicist knows that continued existence is a net harm (or at least an irrational risk), but sticks around anyway to maximize their utility to others. Suicide may be the rational option, but ethics isn't about what's best for you personally. It's about something greater than yourself. 

And perhaps the "heroism" involved in selfless ethical life can be enough to keep the self-esteem of those committed to it high enough so they can continue to actually be productive.

What the enlightened ethicist also realizes are their own needs. So long as they are alive, they must tend to their own needs. Thus, nothing really changes all that much in terms of self-interested behavior, except that the self-interested behavior is not the purpose of life but rather a necessary requirement in order to maintain a maximally ethical life.

I will not pretend that I came up with all this by myself. I am heavily indebted to Buddhist ethics, the Argentine philosopher Julio Cabrera and his excellent book on "negative hyper-ethics", as well as Leo Tolstoy's A Confession, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea. I highly recommend checking these resources out. However, the synthesis of these works are of my own efforts.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Interventionist Policies Regarding Wild Animal Suffering: Philosophy, Science, and Pragmatics

I wrote this essay for a required composition class at university around a month or so back. Now that the semester has ended I have decided to upload the essay in pdf form. If, for some reason, this is somehow interpreted by my university administration as a form of plagiarism or academic dishonesty, I encourage the admins to compare the date of publishing with the date the assignment was originally due. I am also happy to confirm my identity to those who are skeptical of my authenticity, as I have deleted my personal information from the title page.

As the title suggests, the paper focuses on the ontology of wild animal suffering and the ethical implications it brings with it.

The link to the essay can be found here:

Please tell me if you have trouble accessing the essay.

(And for those who are curious: I received a 90% on this).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Antinatalism and relationships, appreciation

When I think of friendship and love, or relationships in general, I see them as social ties between separate parties. A key element, it seems to me, in "genuine" or "authentic" relationships would be the mutual appreciation of the other person's existence. The small group of friends I have in real life are all pleasant people to be around; they are generally nice, helpful, and funny. I enjoy spending time with them and deep down I would say that I am glad that they are alive. I don't just like them because they make me laugh but because I like who they are as people.

But I am also an antinatalist. Which means that I don't look to highly on the phenomenon of birth.

Depending on what kind of antinatalist I am, then, will significantly alter how I can view relationships in general.

For, let's say I believe that everyone would be better off never have existing, as the South African philosopher David Benatar and other comparative value antinatalists believe. This would seem to lead to a problem with relationships: on one hand, you enjoy the company of others and are glad they are alive, yet on the other hand you simultaneously believe it would have been better for them had they never existed. There seems to be a tension here. You cannot ethically believe that it would be better for your friend had they never existed, but simultaneously be glad that they are alive to be your friend; as that would lead to the conclusion that you value their company in an instrumental and malicious way, since you would rather them exist to be your friend rather than the comparatively-better alternative of never existing at all. It seems difficult to appreciate someone's existence while simultaneously believing it would have been better for them had they never existed at all.

Perhaps relationships are purely instrumental in nature. Perhaps the idea of altruistic and genuine relationships is an illusion and that therefore there is no tension involved. People are pieces of shit and we shouldn't be surprised when we pretend to appreciate others' existences while really all we are doing is using them for our own benefit.

But this cynical perspective strikes me as wrong. I do not (usually) see my relationships are purely instrumental. Ethical egoism, to me, is sort of analogous to a crowbar being used on a locked door. It's shoved in there and forces the door open. Similarly, benevolent and altruistic acts are psychoanalyzed and egoism is shoe-horned into the scene. In any case, it seems like a minor point, and undermines attempts at altruistic ethics (like antinatalism) as well.

If existence was good for someone, then being glad that this person is alive would be perfectly fine: you would desire "Good" to settle itself in this person. But if existence is always bad for someone (as long as there is at least a single bad experience), then being glad that this person is alive would be quite malicious. We see this obviously in cases when people try to convince others not to kill themselves, not for the suicidal persons' benefit but for their own benefit. They want this person to stick around despite their own suffering. Clearly instrumentality. The suicidal person becomes an object to be hoarded.

Perhaps it might be argued that, although it would be better for this person had they never existed, the fact is that they now exist and thus the circumstances have changed. Essentially this leads to the conclusion that it is better never to have been, but as soon as you come into existence it is (usually) now better for you to continue to exist. Presumably this is because we have a desire to continue to exist, as I believe David Benatar argues. This, I think, has an assortment of problems, but most notably the issue that the desire to continue to exist effectively becomes irrational and based upon fear.

This may be true. But it also means that we cannot actually see the continuation of life as good for this person, as comparative value theorists may wish to do. We already make evaluations for other people all the time. We can already know that it would be best for a person to get immunization shots instead of no shots at all, despite what they personally believe. We can already know that it would be better for a girl to get out of an abusive relationship, even if she doesn't realize how abusive it is. The fact is that not everyone knows what is best for them. And if it would have been best for someone to never exist, then it would seem to follow that it would be best for this person to discontinue existing, even if they themselves don't want to discontinue existence.

The key here is what I see to be fairly self-evident: if something is worth starting for someone, then it itself or its consequences are worth continuing for this same person. And if something is not worth starting, then it's not worth continuing either. All of this is ceteris paribus; there are, of course, some things that are (not) worth continuing in virtue of external, independent reasons. But I am referring to the worthiness of something in-itself, not its instrumental value or relationships to other concepts. Perhaps comparative value theorists will argue that the complicated mass of relations in daily life effectively makes suicide a difficult and unwise decision, something that we shouldn't do if we still have economic investments and relationships. But, again, this is appealing to external obligations, not worthiness in-itself.

The consequences of accepting comparative value antinatalism results in the instrumental use of other people in relationships. An even better example than friendship is that of love. In love affairs, people love who each other are on a deeply personal level. And, obviously, in order to be x, one must come from not-x; one must be created in order to exist in the world of material, concrete entities. It seems hard to love something and yet simultaneously wish it had never been created, for its own benefit. The same thing applies to great works, like those of a philosopher. Comparative value theorists have a difficult time avoiding instrumentality here as well: it would have been better for this philosopher had she never existed, but it sure is nice that she did actually exist, considering what she produced!

Now, there are alternative routes to antinatalism. I myself place most of the argument on concepts of liberty and risk, but also empirical facts about life. In my case, the product of a wrong decision can nevertheless be good. The Holocaust was a horrible tragedy, but produced great works of art, literature and philosophy. It does not follow that just because the Holocaust was a horrible tragedy means that I cannot appreciate the products of the Holocaust.

What I cannot do is see these pieces of art and whatnot as retroactively justifying the Holocaust. This would be, once again, an instance of instrumentality.

If this looks suspiciously similar to the position comparative-value antinatalists have, it's because it is. The difference, however, is that comparative-value theorists are attempting to apply value to two different, contradictory things at the same time (the pleasures of life cannot justify the beginning of life [birth] but can somehow justify the continuation of life), while a rights-based, immanent-value antinatalism like my own attempts no such thing. Rather, it applies value solely to those things that exist (or will exist), and understands birth to be an unwarranted violation of consent; birth is wrong because the consequences might be overall bad for someone.

To restate this point: it's not that birth is wrong because the alternative (non-existence) is better, but because the consequences of birth might be unreasonably bad (immanent, dual value). While comparative-value theorists end up bundling everyone together in the same schema, my version of antinatalism can recognize that existence might actually be a benefit for some people, but that this potential benefit does not justify the risk involving incredible harm to a person.

Risk-based, value-immanent antinatalism can successfully appreciate the various benefits of life without condoning the act of life-creation, and without falling into unethical instrumentality of other people. It is a more-metaphysically conservative (but just as ethically demanding) antinatalism that can recognize that some people may have lives worth living (and starting) but nevertheless demands that we also recognize the very real fact that many people have lives that are not worth starting or continuing.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Potential avenues for sentio-centric antinatalism

Sentio-centric antinatalism ("efilism") is, I take it, the belief that sentient life needs to end as swiftly, efficiently, and ethically as possible. Those currently alive may be allowed to live out the rest of their lives (although YouTube commentators continue to surprise me), but procreation is strictly out of the question. The purpose being, to minimize suffering by eliminating its source. Life just ain't worth it.

This belief is reasonable, I think, if one is honest and compassionate.

What is not reasonable are some of the methods commonly advocated to accomplish the sentio-centric antinatalist goal, which end up justifying harm impositions anyway: blowing up the world with thousands of nukes, putting chemicals in the water and air to sterilize organisms, altering the orbit of the Earth and smashing it into the Sun, etc. There are a couple of reasons why this is so, but in my opinion they all rest upon the aesthetically-displeasing or even downright scary nature of these options. How many of us would actually be willing to press the big red green button, and how many of us would "chicken out" so to speak and hesitate? How many of us would actually be able to explain our reasoning to other people:
"I'm sorry, but I have to kill you in order to ensure the prevention of future unrequested harm impositions."
Am I wrong with the above quote? Is this not what many of these antinatalist methods advocate, the imposition of harm to remove the possibility of a future greater amount of harm imposition?

For some reason this brings no joy to me.
Maybe I suffer from akrasia, and just don't have the guts to accept that annihilation of the world in a violent manner would be for the best. I mean, after all, I am a utilitarian. It would be pretty out of place for me to start utilizing terms like "intention" and "innocence".  But this highlights an important point, I think:

Previously I made a post about antinatalism's relatively poor PR problem. This is one of the problems I see with the future of antinatalism. I myself am an antinatalist and find some of these "solutions" to be repellent. As in, I am not sure if I could support someone who was publicly advocating blowing up the world for the sake of sentient welfare. For whatever reason it puts me off. If it puts me off, how many not-currently-antinatalists are going to be put off themselves?

Some antinatalists might see talk of blowing up the world as more tongue-in-cheek and hypothetical than a legitimate option. To which case I have to say a few things:
  1. Why is it tongue-in-cheek? Why are you not actually actively doing something about it? (Akrasia involves not just belief but action as well...)
  2. Why do you think this will never happen? (Presumably because the public will never accept blowing up the world as a legitimate path)
  3. If the public at large will be put off by talk of ethical Armageddon, then why are you advocating it?
Talking about blowing up the world is thus counter-productive and only satisfies the urge to express antinatalism, not communicate it. If destroying the world in a fiery explosion is what ought to happen, then we need to figure out a way of convincing people that this is what needs to happen and breaking down the emotional barricade that exists in probably most people. Simply telling other people to stay calm in the face of a proposition like this is unreasonable.

Rational self-preservation may be an instance of akrasia in utilitarian ethics. My experiences, in virtue of personal ownership alone, are no more important than anyone else's experiences. This ethical failure on each of our parts must be taken into account when we think about how we are to implement antinatalism. It may be for the greater good to destroy the world, but I doubt I'll be able to just stand idly by when my life is threatened like that. Call me a selfish pussy or whatever you want, that's not going to help. I already struggle with the guilt associated with the tension between rational self-interest and ethical altruism. It's in our nature to want to continue to live, and I'm considering seeing this as one of the excusable rights each one of us have when faced with an ethical dilemma. You cannot expect me to kill myself for the benefit of sentients at large, even if the overall outcome would be better. Maybe destroying the world isn't a problem for those who are suicidal, but considering I am not overtly suicidal (as of now), this is problematic.

So what would be the method I would like to see implemented for sentio-centric antinatalism? Here are a couple of chronological moves:
  1. First, there needs to be a gradual rise in awareness of suffering in nature by an enforced biology education in high school, the removal of censorship in nature documentaries, and the outlawing of zoos. This is the educational aspect, which fertilizes the soil for the next phases.
  2. Then, there must be a subsequent vocalization of antinatalism in various outlets and in various ways. The best way to convince people of anthropocentric antinatalism is to argue that long-lasting happiness is impossible (a "lighter" argument than the more straightforward and accurate, yet difficult to accept, LIFE SUCKS AND WE'RE ALL FUCKED)
  3. Next comes the side-lining of irrelevant and expensive activities in order to focus on the artificial intelligence (AI) research program. I have my doubts regarding strong AI, so the possibility of AI suffering may be null. 
  4. With the development of advanced AI comes the opportunity for all of us to peace out. We can program the AI to multiply themselves (non-harmful reproduction, as they will not feel) and gently lead the rest of the organic kingdom into extinction in a more refined manner than we could. Meanwhile human existence is phased out.
  5. The final result is an empty planet, populated by unfeeling AIs, who constantly stand vigilant in the case that sentient life emerges again. These AIs will also act as a method of communicating antinatalism to potential visiting extra-terrestrials after our own voluntary extinction, in the case E-Ts actually exist.
I think this is a far more reasonable, effective, and aesthetically-pleasing rough plan than many of the apocalyptic "alternatives" suggested by other antinatalists. If taken seriously and patiently, I think this could actually happen, and has certain advantages as well. All without the scary explosions.