Friday, July 9, 2010

Augmented human minds

Another interview on Philosophy Bites, this time with David Chalmers on the singularity. The singularity describes a scenario in which humans create computers that are slightly more intelligent than ourselves. These computers can then create other computers that are increasingly more intelligent.

A discussion about the singularity rests on careful definitions of intelligence. I think that computers are more intelligent than humans in many respects, albeit in a limited sense of the word.

Nevertheless, I am struck by how such a discussion reanimates many traditional questions in philosophy, epistemological and ethical questions that I often find tedious in their traditional settings, such as the problem of other minds.

On a practical level, though, I am most obsessed with the possibility of augmenting my own human mind and memory by integrating myself more thoughtfully with computer systems. Perhaps it's time to get an iPhone?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Meaning in, not of, life

Philosophy Bites has posted an interview with Susan Wolf on meaning in life.

According to Wolf, meaning in life has the following properties:
- It is distinct from the meaning of life.
- It is but one aspect of the good life.
- It is distinct from happiness or morality.
- It has both a subjective and an objective component.

The last point is especially weak. Wolf tries to distinguish her definition of meaning in life from that of the existentialists. A life that is only subjectively meaningful but not objectively meaningful can be said to be authentic but not meaningful. However, she doesn't succeed at describing the criteria by which a life can be judged to be objectively meaningful. For example, she says that a life engaged in solving Sudoku puzzles is objectively less meaningful than one engaged in competitive sport.

Wolf does, however, describe some plausible features of a meaningful life. First, it is characterized by excellence. Second, it has a social or communal aspect to it. These are two features that are useful for me to keep in mind as I pursue a more meaningful job (let alone life).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Eliminative materialism makes me less easily offended

Both The Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites have recently posted interviews with Pat Churchland discussing eliminative materialism.

Eliminative materialism goes beyond the materialist claim that mental states have a physical basis and claims that at least some mental states do not exist at all.

I think eliminative materialism is a useful concept (though I suspect that describing it as a "concept" may not sit easy with eliminative materialists). For example, one hypothesis forwarded within the eliminative materialist program is the idea that "beliefs" do not exist. There appears to be poor evidence to suggest that "beliefs" are coded in the neural circuitry of the human brain.

As someone who is easily annoyed - and occasionally offended - by the beliefs of others, I find it useful to entertain the notion that "beliefs" do not exist at all. Instead of resenting others for their noxious moral or religious beliefs, maybe I can present them with data that they haven't yet encountered. And if "beliefs" have very little physical basis in the brain, then I can abandon the assumption that others will act in a consistently noxious way by force of their noxious beliefs, thereby letting me give them the benefit of the doubt.

Switching gears slightly, even as a hobbyist philosopher, I can see how Pat Churchland's argument feels threatening to the pursuit of philosophy, classically understood. Within the eliminative materialism framework, epistemologists, for example, would have to acquaint themselves with the latest developments in cognitive science in order to make philosophical statements about the mind. I'm not sure this would be a bad thing, though it would change my conception of philosophy and upset the status quo of legions of philosophy departments around the world.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Well begun is half done

I've been thinking about creating a blog about philosophy and religion for a while. My motivation for doing so is to create a platform for me to explore my interests in philosophy and religion and, most importantly, to interact with others with similar interests.

I am not a professional philosopher. However, I am decently familiar with the Western canon and have a framework with which to make sense of much of the philosophical material I encounter. I have no bias toward continental or analytic philosophy - I admire the questions that continental philosophers pose even as I appreciate the utility of analytic methods. I'm interested in metaphysics and, to a lesser degree, epistemology, and generally uninterested in ethics, aesthetics and that sort of applied stuff.

I am not a religious person. If I had to choose a label, I would pick some combination of atheist, pantheist, mystic or Unitarian Universalist. I think there is poor evidence for the existence of a personal deity who takes an active interest in the lives of humans. Nevertheless, I think there are creative ways of fostering dialog between religious and non-religious people. I continue to be fascinated by the philosophical, theological and devotional aspects of religion. In particular, I see mysticism as an interesting response to the philosophical exhaustion that characterizes the exit from modern philosophy.

To facilitate my interests in philosophy and religion, I also take a great interest in learning languages. I have working knowledge of French, German and Chinese, and have dabbled in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Scandinavian. Maybe one day I will read "Fear and Trembling" in the original Danish.

In the beginning, I will probably post random stuff that catches my fancy, though I hope that the posts will settle into some semi-regular format. It would be great if we could set up a reading group where we worked through short passages of philosophical writings in the original languages on a fortnightly basis. Comment below if you're interested or have any other ideas to suggest.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Welcome to my first blog post.