Tag Archives: philosophy

Leaving out the dead

She asked how uncle Freddie was doing. The past few days have been quite bad for him, I said. He was killed by a bus just over a month ago. The first few weeks nothing good happened that he would have missed, but he really would have liked it when the cousins visited. We are thinking about cancelling the wedding. He really would have wanted to be there and the deprivations are getting to be a bit much.

This is a quote from Ben Bradley via Clayton Littlejohn‘s blog. Commenters there agree that postponing the wedding will not help Freddie, but their suggestions about why seem quite implausible to me.

This is really no different to if Freddy was alive but couldn’t come to the wedding because he was busy. Would it be better for him if we cancel it entirely so he wouldn’t be able to come in any case? I hope it is clear enough here that the answer is no. His loss from failing to attend is the comparison between a world where he could attend and the real world. Changing to a different real world where he still can’t attend makes no difference to him in terms of deprivation. This doesn’t involve the controversial questions about how to treat non-existent people. But I think in all relevant ways it is just the same as dead Freddy’s problem.

The apparent trickiness or interestingness of the original problem seems to stem from thinking of Freddy’s loss as being some kind of suffering at some point in time in the real world, rather than a comparison between the real world and some counterfactual one. This prompts confusion because it seems strange to think he is suffering when he doesn’t exist, yet also strange to think that he doesn’t bear some cost from missing out on these things or from being dead.

But really there is no problem here because he is not suffering in the affective sense, the harm to him is just of missing out. It would indeed be strange if he suffered ill feelings, but failing to enjoy a good experience seems well within the capacity of a dead person. And as John Broome has elaborated before – while suffering happens at particular times, harms are comparisons between worlds, perhaps of whole lives, so don’t need to be associated with specific times. My failure to have experienced a first time bungie jumping can’t usefully be said to have occurred at any particular moment, yet it is quite clear that I have failed to experience it. You could say it happens at all moments, but one can really only expect a single first bungie jump, so I can’t claim to suffer from the aggregate loss of failing to experience it at every moment.

You might think of the failure as happening at different moments in different comparisons with worlds where I do bungie jump at different times. This is accurate in some sense, but there is just no need to bother differentiating all those worlds in order to work out if I have suffered that cost. And without trying to specify a time for the failure, you avoid any problems when asked if a person who dies before they would have bungie jumped missed out on bungie jumping. And it becomes easy to say that Freddy suffered a cost from missing the wedding, one that cannot be averted by everyone else missing it too.

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P.S. If you wonder where I have been lately, the answer is mostly moving to Pittsburgh, via England. I’m at CMU now, and trying to focus more on philosophy topics (my course of study here). If you know of good philosophy blogs, please point them out to me. I am especially interested in ones about ideas, rather than conference dates and other news.

Hidden philosophical progress

Bertrand Russell:

If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences…this is partly accounted for by the fact that, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton’s great work was called ‘the mathematical principles of natural philosophy’. Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology. Thus, to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.

I often hear this selection effect explanation for the apparently small number of resolved problems that philosophy can boast. I don’t think it necessarily lessens this criticism of philosophy however. It matters whether the methods that were successful at  providing insights in what were to become fields like psychology and astronomy – those which brought definite answers within reach – were methods presently included in philosophy. If they were not, then the fact that the word ‘philosophy’ has come to apply to a smaller set of methods which haven’t been successful does not particularly suggest that such methods will become  successful in that way*. If they were the same methods, then that is more promising.

I don’t know which of these is the case. I also don’t actually know how many resolved problems philosophy has. If you do, feel free to tell me. I start a PhD in philosophy in the Autumn, and haven’t officially studied it before, so I am curious about its merits.

*Note that collecting resolved problems is only one way philosophy might be valuable. Russell points out that philosophy has been productive at making us less certain about things we thought we knew, which is important information.

Compare the unconceived – don’t unchain them

People often criticise me of thinking of potential people as Steven Landsburg describes without necessarily endorsing:

…like prisoners being held in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living. If they have rights, then surely we are required to help some of them escape.

Such people seem to believe this position is required for considering creating good lives an activity with positive value. It is not required, and I don’t think of potential people like that. My position is closer to this:

Benefit and harm are comparative notions. If something benefits you, it makes your life better than it would have been, and if something harms you it makes your life worse than it would have been. To determine whether some event benefits or harms you, we have to compare the goodness of your life as it is, given the event, with the goodness it would otherwise have had. The comparison is between your whole life as it is and your whole life as it would have been. We do not have to make the comparison time by time, comparing each particular time in one life with the same time in the other life.

That is John Broome explaining why death harms people even if they hold that all benefit and harm consists of pleasure and pain, which are things that can’t happen when you are dead. The same goes for potential people.

Yes, you can’t do much to a person who doesn’t exist. They don’t somehow suffer imaginary pains. If someone doesn’t exist in any possible worlds I agree they can’t be helped or harmed at all.  What makes it possible to affect a potential person is that there are some worlds where they do exist. It is in the comparison between these worlds and the ones where they don’t exist where I say there is a benefit to them in having one over the other. The benefit of existing consists of the usual things that we hold to benefit a person when they exist; bananas, status, silly conversations, etc. The cost of not existing relative to existing consists of failing to have those benefits, which only exist in the world where the person exists. The cost does not consist of anything that happens in the world where the person doesn’t exist. They don’t have any hypothetical sorrow, boredom or emptiness at missing out. If they did have such things and they mattered somehow, that would be another entirely separate cost.

Often it sounds crazy that a non-existent person could ‘suffer’ a cost because you are thinking of pleasures and pains (or whatever you take to be good or bad) themselves, not of a comparison between these things in different worlds. Non-existent people seem quite capable of not having pleasures or pains, not having fulfilled preferences, not having worthwhile lives, of not having anything at all, of not even having a capacity to have. Existent people are quite capable of having pleasures (and pains) and all that other stuff. If you compare the two of them, is it really so implausible that one has more pleasure than the other?

‘Potential people’ makes people think of non-existing people, but for potential people to matter morally, it’s crucial that they do exist in some worlds (in the future) and not in others. It may be better to think of them as semi-existing people.

I take it that the next counterargument is something like ‘you can’t compare two quantities when one of them is not zero, but just isn’t there. What’s bigger, 3 or … ?’ But you decide what quantities you are comparing. You can choose a quantity that doesn’t have a value in one world if you want. Similarly I could claim all the situations you are happy to compare are not comparable. Getting one hundred dollars would not benefit you, because ‘you without a hundred dollars’ just won’t be around in the world where you get paid. On the other hand if you wanted to compare benefits to Amanda across worlds where she may or may not exist, you could compare ‘how much pleasure is had by Amanda’, and the answer would be zero in worlds where she doesn’t exist. Something makes you prefer an algorithm like ‘find Amanda and see how much pleasure she has got’, where you can just fail at the finding Amanda bit and get confused. The real question is why you would want this latter comparison. I can see why you might be agnostic, waiting for more evidence of which is the  true comparison of importance or something, but I don’t recall hearing any argument for leaping to the non-comparable comparison.

Orange juice 2

Image via Wikipedia

In other cases it is intuitive to compare quantities that have values, even when relevant entities differ between worlds. Would you say I have no more orange juice in my cup if I have a cup full of orange juice than if I don’t have a cup or orange juice? I won’t, because I really just wanted the orange juice. And if you do, I won’t come around to have orange juice with you.

I have talked about this a bit before, but not explained in much detail. I’ll try again if someone tells me why they actually believe the comparison between a good life and not existing should come out neutral or with some non-answer such as ‘undefined’. Or at least points me to where whichever philosophers have best explained this.

Person moments make sense of anthropics

Often people think that various forms of anthropic reasoning require you to change your beliefs in ways other than conditionalizing on evidence. This is false, at least in the cases I know of. I shall talk about Frank Arntzenius‘ paper Some Problems for Conditionalization and Reflection [gated] because it explains the issue well, though I believe his current views agree with mine.

He presents five thought experiments: Two Roads to Shangri La, The Prisoner, John Collins’s Prisoner, Sleeping Beauty and Duplication. In each of them, it seems the (arguably) correct answer violates van Fraassen’s reflection principle, which basically says that if you expect to believe something in the future without having been e.g. hit over the head between now and then, you should believe it now. For instance the thirder position in Sleeping Beauty seems to violate this principle because before the experiment Beauty believes there is a fifty percent chance of heads, and that when she wakes up she will think there is a thirty three percent chance. Arntzenius argued that these seemingly correct answers really are the correct ones, and claimed that they violate the reflection principle because credences can evolve in two ways other than by conditionalization.

First he said credences can shift, for instance through time. I know that tomorrow I will have a higher credence in it being Monday than I do today, and yet it would not be rational for me to increase my credence in it being Monday now on this basis. They can also ‘spread out’. For instance if you know you are in Fairfax today, and that tomorrow a perfect replica of your brain experiencing Fairfax will be made and placed in a vat in Canberra, tomorrow your credence will go from being concentrated in Fairfax to being spread between there and Canberra. This is despite no damage having been done to your own brain. As Arntzenius pointed out, such an evolution of credence looks like quite the opposite of conditionalization, since conditionalization consists of striking out possibilities that your information excludes – it never opens up new possibilities.

I agree that beliefs should evolve in these two ways. However they are both really conditionalization, just obscured. They make sense as conditionalization when you think of them as carried out by different momentary agents, based on the information they infer from their connections to other momentary agents with certain beliefs (e.g. an immediately past self).

Normal cases can be considered this way quite easily. Knowing that you are the momentary agent that followed a few seconds after an agent who knew a certain set of facts about the objective world, and who is (you assume) completely trustworthy, means you can simply update the same prior with those same facts and come to the same conclusion. That is, you don’t really have to do anything. You can treat a stream of moments as a single agent. This is what we usually do.

However sometimes being connected in a certain way to another agent does not make everything that is true for them true for you. Most obviously, if they are a past self and know it is 12 o clock, your connection via being their one second later self means you should exclude worlds where you are not at time 12:00:01. You have still learned from your known relationship to that agent and conditionalized, but you have not learned that what is true of them is true of you, because it isn’t. This is the first way Arntzenius mentioned that credences seem to evolve through time not by by conditionalization.

The second way occurs when one person-moment is at location X, and another person moment has a certain connection to the person at X, but there is more than one possible connection of that sort. For instance when two later people both remember being an earlier person because the earlier person was replicated in some futuristic fashion. Then while the earlier person moment could condition on their exact location, the later one must condition on being in one of several locations connected that way to the earlier person’s location, so their credence spreads over more possibilities than that of the earlier self. If you call one of these later momentary agents the same person as the earlier one, and say they are conditionalizing, it seems they are doing it wrong. But considered as three different momentary people learning from their connections they are just conditionalizing as usual.

What exactly the later momentary people should believe is a matter of debate, but I think that can be framed entirely as a question of what their state spaces and priors look like.

Momentary humans almost always pass lots of information from one to the next, chronologically along chains of memory through non-duplicated people, knowing their approximate distance from one another. So most of the time they can treat themselves as single units who just have to update on any information coming from outside, as I explained. But conditionalization is not specific to these particular biological constructions; and when it is applied to information gained through other connections between agents, the resulting time series of beliefs within one human will end up looking different to that in a chain with no unusual extra connections.

This view also suggests that having cognitive defects, such as memory loss, should not excuse anyone from having credences, as for instance Arntzenius argued it should in his paper Reflections on Sleeping Beauty: “in the face of forced irrational changes in one’s degrees of belief one might do best simply to jettison them altogether”. There is nothing special about credences derived from beliefs of a past agent you identify with. They are just another source of information. If the connection to other momentary agents is different to usual, for instance through forced memory loss, update on it as usual.

If ‘birth’ is worth nothing, births are worth anything

It seems many people think creating a life has zero value. Some believe this because they think the average life contains about the same amount of suffering and satisfaction. Others have more conceptual objections, for instance to the notion that a person who does not exist now, and who will otherwise not exist, can be benefited. So they believe that there is no benefit to creating life, even if it’s likely to be a happy life. The argument I will pose is aimed at the latter group.

As far as I know, most people believe that conditional on someone existing in the future, it is possible to help them or harm them. For instance, suppose I were designing a toy for one year olds, and I knew it would take more than two years to go to market. Most people would not think the unborn state of its users-to-be should give me more moral freedom to cover it with poisonous paint or be negligent about its explosiveness.

If we accept this, then conditional on my choosing to have a child, I can benefit the child. For instance if I choose to have a child, I might then consider staying at home to play with the child. Assume the child will enjoy this. If the original world had zero value to the child, relative to the world where I don’t have the child (because we are assuming that being born is worth nothing), then this new world where the child is born and played with must have positive value to the child relative to the world where it is not born.

On the other hand suppose I had initially assumed that I would stay at home to play with any child I had, before I considered whether to have a child. Then according to the assumption that any birth is worth nothing, the world where I have the child and play with it is worth nothing more than the one where I don’t have it. This is inconsistent with the previous evaluation unless you accept that the value of an outcome may  depend on your steps in imagining it.

Any birth could be conceptually divided into a number of acts in this way: creating a person in some default circumstance, and improving or worsening the circumstances in any number of ways. If there is no reason to treat a particular set of circumstances as a default, any amount of value can be attributed to any birth situation by starting with a different default labelled ‘birth’ and setting it to zero value. If creating life under any circumstances is worth nothing, a specific birth can be given any arbitrary value. This seems  harder to believe, and further from usual intuitions, than believing that creating life usually has a non-zero value.

You might think that I’m unfair to interpret ‘creating life is worth nothing’ as ‘birth and anything that might come along with it is worth nothing’, but this is exactly what is usually claimed. That creating a life is worth nothing, even if you expect it to be happy, however happy. I am most willing to agree that some standard of birth is worth nothing, and all those births in happier circumstances are worth more, and those in worse circumstances worth negative values. This is my usual position, and the one that the people I am debating here object to.

If you believe creating a life is in general worth nothing, do you also believe that a specific birth can be worth any arbitrary amount?