Monday, July 30, 2012

Gig this coming Thursday

Playing drumkit with jazz funksters Heavy Dexters this coming Thursday 8pm, Joe's Cafe, Summertown, Oxford

Video explaining Humanism - from the BHA

Just-released video on Humanism from the BHA.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Tapescrew Letters

Here is the final bit of my book Believing Bullshit.

What follows is a cautionary bit of fiction, inspired by C.S. Lewis's fiction The Screwtape Letters, Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, which are fantastically entertaining and often very insightful. I don't claim my mirror letters are as good as Lewis's, but they are offered in the same cautionary spirit.

Just so we are clear, what follows is not supposed to be an attack on religious belief per se. I'm certainly not trying to argue here that all religious folk are victims of deliberate scams, or indeed any sort of delusion. Nor am I attacking the content of any particular religious or other view (incl. some well-known cults).

However, I do think that some religious folk have been encouraged to think in ways that effectively trap them inside a bubble of belief - in an intellectual black hole, as I put it in the book (and plenty of religious folk would agree with me about that, of course). That is the moral of the piece. I am flagging up some of the warning signs of such "black hole" thinking (which, as I go to pains to explain in the book, also crop up in non-religious spheres - atheists too can be guilty, though I also argue that religous belief systems are particularly prone).

I refer in places to specific mechanisms explained in the book, such as "I Just Know!" and Going Nuclear (follow these links if you are interested, or better still buy the book!)
The Tapescrew Letters
Letters from a Senior to a Junior Guru
(Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters)

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. One or two details have been changed to save reputations, but the letters are substantially unrevised and intact.   
Bear in mind that the author—an eminent guru within some minor, recently invented cult—is a charlatan, as are her colleagues. She cannot be trusted to tell the truth, not even to her nephew. Her views about mainstream religion—and Christianity in particular—are clearly cynical and no doubt unreliable. I leave you to judge what is true and what is not.
The letters contain few clues as to the specific teaching of the cult. There is a limited amount of jargon. “Glub” seems to be the name of some sort of deity or god, “Boogle” the name of some particularly evil and terrifying being, and “doob” a term that members of this cult use to refer to outsiders. Glub and and Boogle may be two facets of a single cosmic being, or two separate, competing beings involved in some sort of cosmic battle—it’s hard to be sure.
Be warned—the letters make pretty depressing and sickening reading. Still, they do usefully reveal just how manipulative and scheming some people can be. Thank goodness such deliberate charlatans are few and far between.
Stephen Law
19 August 2010

"Keep it light, fun, happy and professional at all times"

"Keep an eye on your online profile: It's crucial to remember that everything you do online can be seen by everyone. So no political rants, no passive-aggressive behaviour – keep it light, fun, happy and professional at all times."

Advice to arts graduates from Katy Cowan, director, Boomerang Communications Ltd.

I'm in trouble, then.

Source The Guardian "Life after university – 14 careers tips for arts graduates"

Thanks to Taryn Storey for drawing my attention to this.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Atheists, lies and suppressed knowledge of God

In the second half of Craig’s latest "Reasonable Faith" podcast, he talks about how, he supposes, atheists know that God exists, despite the fact that they assert that they don’t. I’d previously said in a post that Craig’s view would seem to have the consequence that atheists are lying about that, then. Actually, maybe that doesn’t follow. In the podcast, Craig denies his view is that atheists are lying when they deny they know God exists. We should accept that denial.

However, Craig’s explanations for why atheists are not, then, lying when they claim they don’t know when they do is not, I think, very convincing.

First he draws an analogy with someone who tries to rationalize away or suppress what they know. His example is of a married man who has an affair.

The human psyche is so capable of rationalization and suppressing things that we find uncomfortable that I think it's very plausible to think that an atheist could somehow suppress the knowledge of God or rationalize it away so that he doesn't have to face it overtly. You can think of cases, especially involving moral misbehavior, where this human ability to rationalize comes out. For example, men who get caught in sexual affairs will, at least in the beginning stages of the affair, typically rationalize away the behavior even though they know that what they are doing is wrong.

Another example would be, I suppose, a man that does not love his wife, but suppresses this knowledge and behaves like and says that he does in a attempt to fool both himself and his wife.

These are plausible examples of suppressed knowledge. But do they make the point Craig wants? Suppose the first man says, “I did nothing wrong,” when asked about his affair. He knows deep down that he did do something wrong. Would we say that this man is lying? Would you?

I’d say he was, both to others and also to himself. True, he may at that the moment he says it mean what he says. But what he says is nevertheless, deep down, a lie.

But if that is right, then Craig’s chosen analogy backfires on him. If the atheist similarly suppresses his knowledge that God exists, and says, meaning it, “I don’t know God exists”, he is also, deep down, lying both to others and himself.

Perhaps Craig would deny the man who has the affair is lying. "A lie", Craig might insist, "Cannot be sincerely asserted. It cannot be meant."  But is this true? It doesn't seem to me to be true (the above example involving the man having an affair seems to be a counter-example, in fact - he means what he says when he says it, but, it seems to me, he's still lying). At the very least, the affair example does not strike me as a clear cut example of someone's not lying. But then it doesn't really help support Craig’s case much, if at all.

Craig’s other thought is to borrow Plantinga’s idea that atheists may have a malfunctioning sensus divinitatis or God-sense. A religious person may know God directly via the operation of their healthy sensus divinitatis. But the poor atheist’s God-sense does not operate properly. It's been corrupted by sin.

That’s an interesting idea, but it hardly helps Craig given that the result of atheist’s non- or mal-functioning sensus divinitatis will be that they don’t know God exists (at least not by that route). Craig's view is precisely that atheist does know God exists – so, as it stands, his appeal to Plantinga actually ends up undermining Craig’s position, not supporting it. It’s odd Craig doesn’t spot this.

Of course, Craig may want to develop his Plantingian explanation in some way, but as it stands it fails.

So, perhaps Craig is right that the view that atheists know that God exists does not have the consequence that they are lying when they say they don't. But Craig has so far failed to come up with a clear explanation of why they aren't lying.

However, the really interesting issue about Craig’s suppressed knowledge thesis is not whether atheists are lying when they say they don’t know God exists. That's not a very significant question.

Craig seems to think we atheists just want an excuse to take offence at the suggestion that we are liars. He says: “I think the reason atheists raise this is because they want to be able to get their backs up and take righteous offense and indignation at being called liars by these Christians and theists.”

Frankly, I’m not bothered at all about that. The more interesting issue is whether we atheists do know God exists, choose to suppress that knowledge, and so do deserve to burn in hell for eternity as a result. Once it’s been suggested that we atheists are so morally depraved and disgusting that we deserve infinite torture (P.S. or punishment, or whatever you want to call it), adding “Oh, and by the way, you’re also lying,” is hardly much of an additional insult.

The main reason I’m interested in this issue is not that I want to take righteous offense at the claim that I'm lying, but rather that this sort of Craigian "suppressed knowledge" view and its connection in his mind with the concept of damnation involves such a foul and twisted – and I think potentially dangerous - vision of humanity. And also that it is pretty obviously false. I’ll post on that shortly.

William Lane Craig's latest attack on me

William Lane Craig has just devoted an entire 17 minute episode of Reasonable Faith to me, available here. I’m honoured!

The first half of the podcast focuses on my posting a quote from him, a quote that was, at the time, being widely posted and discussed on the internet. Here it is:

The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic.

Go check my post here. I provided a direct link to Craig's original full article, and then immediately said: “But does Craig really mean what he appears to mean? You should make your own mind up about that.”

In his latest podcast, Craig says that I should have checked the context of the quote – the original article in which it appeared - and not just repeat it as a soundbite quote out of context.

But of course I did check it. In fact I even provided a direct link to the full article and encouraged readers to go check the original article themselves and make up their own minds.

So Craig is here misleading his listeners – he is missing out key pieces of information about my post, which gives a bad impression of me (P.S. Is Craig deliberately misleading? Well, let me acknowledge the possibility that he might somehow have missed my providing the link to the context - he's just been baffling blind to what's clearly right there in the post.)

Craig later says that I know (and knew) that he doesn't believe what he might appear to be saying in the above quote (about 6 mins - P.S. Yes I know that at about 8 mins he says the he, like me, was suckered by someone into accepting a quote out of context that he should have  checked, but do please pay close attention to 6 mins, where he says: “I think Stephen Law should have checked out the context. And he should have corrected those who sent him this quote to him. He knows that it doesn’t represent my views.”). Craig says I knew the quote doesn't represent his views. So he implies I am deliberately and scurrilously misleading people by posting it. I should have corrected the misinterpretation instead.

But actually, I was, and am, remain deeply (P.S. well, somewhat) baffled by that sentence. Even within the context of the entire article, it is baffling. It's baffling precisely because (i) it doesn't fit well with other things Craig has said, yet, (ii) even when placed in context, does seem pretty unambiguous.

Ironically, at the end of Craig's podcast, while the mood music is playing, he rather condescendingly lectures us - and especially me, of course - on how we should try to read people in the most charitable way, "with sympathy". That is ironic. Shouldn't he have given me that courtesy, rather than (i) asserting that I deliberately posted a quote out of context that I knew misrepresented his view (when I might have been, and indeed was, at that point just baffled), and (ii) telling his listeners I had not bothered to check the context when I very obviously had - I even provided a link.

The other half Craig's podcast looks at my discussion of the view that atheists know God exists "deep down", and my subsequent comment that it would seem to follow that atheists are lying when they say they don't know God exists. Craig explains in the podcast that he does not suppose atheists are lying, and explains why they are not. Now, maybe it doesn't follow from the fact that atheists are asserting what they know not to be true that atheists are liars. That's an interesting issue. But the explanations Craig gives in the podcast for why atheists are not, then, liars both fail. I'll explain why in the next post.

Postscript. By the way here's the quoted sentence in the context of the full paragraph in which it appears:

A robust natural theology may well be necessary for the gospel to be effectively heard in Western society today. In general, Western culture is deeply post-Christian. It is the product of the Enlightenment, which introduced into European culture the leaven of secularism that has by now permeated Western society. While most of the original Enlightenment thinkers were themselves theists, the majority of Western intellectuals today no longer considers theological knowledge to be possible. The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic.

I'm still kind of baffled by this. Here's the interpretation that seemed most obvious to me at the time, and which I am still not entirely sure is wrong. Given a non-theistic culture, the application of reason will not lead to theism. It will lead to atheism or at least agnosticism. However, within a Christian, theological world-view, theism and Christianity can be shown to be rationally, internally consistent/coherent. We have two world views - both of which are internally rational and reasonable, each with their own presuppositions.

Notice this interpretation would be consistent with Craig's claims elsewhere that theism/Christianity are rational, reasonable etc, and the title of his podcast "Reasonable Faith". It's also a mainstream religious view (it's Alister McGrath's, I think). So I saw no very obvious reason to reject it as an interpretation of the above passage. And it does make the final sentence come out as true. Craig is not just asserting that this is the mistaken view of secular "Western intellectuals". From within the current dominant intellectual culture, the person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will indeed be atheistic or, at best, agnostic.

On another reading, Craig is indeed just saying in the final sentence what most of today's Western intellectuals wrongly believe. The final sentence states, indeed flags up, a falsehood (which would have been clear had it begun, "The majority of Western Intellectuals now mistakenly believe that..." Though on this reading the paragraph ends very awkwardly (it asserts what's actually being denied). It's not the most natural reading, I think.

It would be good to know, just for clarity's sake, what Craig meant. It's certainly an uncharacteristically opaque passage open to various interpretations.

The key point of relevance, here, though, is that I did not know, and am still not absolutely sure, what the quoted sentence (and indeed paragraph) means exactly, and whether it it is meant to be true. Hopefully Craig himself will clarify.

[n.b. another fact which caused me pause for thought is that there are some religious intellectuals who hold two views - a "simple" version, for the punters, and a more "sophisticated" version for the intellectual insiders which is not usually made public except in coded form].
Postscript 2. In retrospect, maybe I've overreacted to Craig's podcast on my misunderstandings. Yes he says I didn't check the context when I very obviously did. And yes, Craig does at one point assert that I knew his actual views, and thus that the quote was misleading, when I didn't. These comments do put me in a poor light. But of course, he's hardly spent the 17 mins of the podcast accusing me of murder, here, has he? Perhaps I should have just shrugged and let it go. The more important task is to engage with his actual arguments....

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

CFI UK's Conspiracy Theory Day - the videos

Ian R Crane (an actual conspiracy theorist) - "Conspiracy Theory vs Deep Geopolitics"
Chris French and Robert Brotherton "Conspiracy Minded"
Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller (from DEMOS think tank) "Truth and The Net"
Karen Douglas on Conspiracy Theories

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Playing at Truck Festival next Friday

The Heavy Dexters (I play drumkit) are playing at Truck Festival next Friday 6 or 7pm. Some tiny stage behind the loos, I imagine. But still, it is Truck. Say hi of you're there and in the mood...

Truck festival.

Just told (wed evening) by Truck we're not now playing. Thanks guys @truckfestival.

PPS just offered 40 mins at 6pm

Saturday, July 14, 2012

G4S deal

I notice that the £284 million new deal private security firm G4S struck with the (Tory) Government was, in effect, that they would get £20,000 per security employee, for each of the 13,700 security staff they promised to supply (but will fail to supply) for the Olympics. We all now know how little training and vetting those staff are getting.

But my question is - why was the deal ever made in the first place? G4S are paying those staff £6.50-£8.50 per hour (after promising £14 per hour, according to one potential employee.) Three weeks full-time work at 40 hrs per week will earn each security employee a maximum of about £1,000 each.

So, where does the other £19,000 go that we the British taxpayers are paying for each of them? How on earth could this have been thought a good deal for the British public?

I imagine G4S are generous Tory party donors but is there any other explanation?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Strange Case of The Rational Dentist

[From my book The Philosophy Gym. Apologies for unfixable formatting problems]

One of the most intriguing of philosophical puzzles concerns other minds. How do you know there are any? Yes, you’re surrounded by living organisms that look and behave much as you do. They even say they have minds. But do they? Perhaps other humans are mindless zombies: like you on the outside, but lacking any inner conscious life, including emotions, thoughts, experiences and even pain. What grounds do you possess for supposing that other humans (including even me) aren’t zombies? Perhaps less than you think.

At the dentist’s

The scene: a dentist’s surgery. Finnucane is prostrate in the dentists chair, his mouth stuffed with cottonwool balls. A balding and bespectacled dentist is poking at a filling at the back of Finnucane’s mouth.

Dentist: Is it safe?….Is it safe?
Finnucane: Aaaargh!
Dentist. No. It’s not safe. It’s dropped out altogether. Very inferior quality filling. I shall replace it. I’ll give you some pain-killer. Even though I don’t believe you feel pain.


Finnucane can’t believe what he’s hearing.

Dentist: That’s right. I don’t believe you feel pain. In fact I don’t believe you have a mind at all.

Finnucane squints.

Dentist: Why? Because I am The Rational Dentist, that’s why. I’m not like those other dentists. I believe only what it’s reasonable to believe. Open wide.

The dentist takes a long silver syringe from a tray and slowly inserts the needle into the soft flesh at the back of Finnucane’s mouth. Beads of moisture appear across Finnucane’s forehead and his eyes widen in panic.Gradually the pain starts to fade.

Dentist: Oh, I know what those other dentists say. They say [in mocking tones], “But of course I am justified in believing that my poor patient has a mind. I poke his gums with one of these. And observe. He sweats. He writhes. He cries out. Surely I have all the evidence I could possibly want that I’m dealing with another conscious being like myself. He even tells me he’s in pain.”

The dentist puts down the syringe and stares coldly at Finnucane.

Dentist: I’m not so easily fooled. All this so-called “evidence” is totally unconvincing.

The private mind

Finnucane is astonished. How could anyone fail to believe that others have minds? We would ordinarily consider such a person to be mad, dangerous even. Yet the dentist insists he is merely being rational. He peers at Finnucane.

Dentist: You’re looking quizzical. Allow me to explain. My argument is simple. First, I cannot directly witness what goes on in another’s mind. I can observe their outward behaviour. But I can’t observe what goes on inside their mind, if they have one. Their experiences, beliefs, emotions, pains and so on – all are hidden away. A mind is a private place. The most private place of all.

It seems the dentist is correct. Suppose, for example, that you take a bite out of a lemon. You experience an intense bitter taste. You are directly and immediately aware that that you are having this experience. While others may experience the same sort of taste, it’s impossible for you to verify this directly. You cannot, as it were, enter into another’s mind and observe what they are experiencing along with them. The experiences of others are necessarily hidden. 

The dentist fumbles with his drill. Finnucane watches nervously.

Dentist: Oh, I can guess what you would say were you mouth not stuffed with cotton wool balls: “But you don’t have to rely on my behaviour. What if you were to scan what’s going on in my brain? What if you put a fibre-optic probe in there, so that you could see my pain neurones firing? Then you would have direct evidence that I’m in pain.” That’s what you would say, correct?

Finnucane nods.

Dentist: Wrong again! I still wouldn’t have direct evidence. For how do I know that this sort of neurone firing is accompanied by consciousness, by feelings of pain, in other human beings? Perhaps it’s only in my own case that brain activity is accompanied by mental activity. Open wide again.

The argument from analogy

The dentist places a plastic suction tube in Finnucane’s mouth and begins to drill.

Dentist: Now the other dentists, they admit all this. They say, [again, mockingly] “Okay, I admit you can’t have direct access to what’s going on in the mind of another. But it doesn’t follow that you don’t have good reason to believe others have minds. You do. Their behaviour provides you with excellent grounds for supposing this. You know in your own case that when you’re pricked sharply, you feel pain. You also know that when you experience that pain, you’re liable to flinch and yell. When you observe other human beings, you find that when they are pricked sharply, they also flinch and yell. Doesn’t that provide you with good grounds for supposing they experience pain too?”

The argument just outlined by the dentist is called the argument from analogy. At first sight, the argument looks highly plausible. Most of us, if asked to justify our belief in the existence of other minds, would no doubt offer something similar. But as the dentist is well aware, there’s a notorious difficulty with it.

A problem with the argument from analogy

Dentist: Open wider. Now of course I understand this argument. I’m not a fool. But I am afraid the logic is faulty. For you see, these other dentists are guilty of making an unwarranted generalization.

Finnucane is struggling to hear what the dentist is saying over the noise of the drill.

Dentist: Let me explain why. Suppose I cut open one thousand cherries and find every single one has a stone in the middle. Surely I’m now justified in generalizing. Surely I’m now justified in believing that all cherries have stones in the middle. Admittedly, I might be wrong. But the one thousand cherries that I have observed surely give me pretty good reason to believe that all cherries have stones, reason sufficient to justify my belief. Correct?

Finnucane nods.

Dentist: But now suppose that, instead of basing my inference on an observation of a thousand cherries, I base it on an observation of just one. Then my inference would be very shaky, wouldn’t it? My one cherry may provide some slight evidence in support of the claim that all cherries have stones, but it’s surely not enough to justify my making that generalization. For all I know, some cherries may have stones and some not, just as, for example, some animals have male sex organs and some not. This may be a very unusual cherry, just as an oyster with a pearl inside is very unusual. In order to justify my generalization, I surely need to look inside very many cherries. Correct?
Finnucane: Uh huh.
Dentist: But now think about the argument of the other dentists. It, too, is a generalization based on just a single observation. I notice that, in my own case, when I am pricked sharply and I flinch and yell, this behaviour is accompanied by pain. I am then supposed to conclude that when others are pricked sharply and they flinch and yell, they must be in pain too. Yes?
Finnucane: Uh huh.
Dentist: But one can’t justify the belief that others have minds on the basis of such flimsy evidence. This inference is surely no less suspect than the inference based on a single cherry. To infer that others have minds on such grounds is wholly unwarranted. It’s irrational. Being The Rational Dentist, I refuse to accept an irrational conclusion.

Scepticism about other minds

The dentist appears to be right. I can’t directly observe what goes on in the mind of another, or even that others have minds. So how might my belief in their existence be justified? Only, it seems, by the argument from analogy. But the argument from analogy is, in effect, a generalization based on a single observed case. So it’s just as shaky as the inference based on the single cherry.
The conclusion to which I seem forced, then, is that I am not justified in believing that there are any minds other than my own. And if I am not justified in believing there are minds other than my own, then presumably I can’t be said to know that there are minds other than my own, for presumably it is a condition of knowing that there are other minds that I be justified in supposing my belief is true.
This is a sceptical conclusion: it says that I don’t know what I might think I know. This particular form of scepticism – scepticism about knowledge of other minds – has a long history. And of course, like most sceptical conclusions, it’s highly perplexing, for it runs entirely contrary to common sense. (You will find other forms of scepticism discussed in other chapters: chapter XX “Brainsnatched” discusses scepticism about the external world and chapter XX “Why Expect the Sun to Rise Tomorrow?” focuses on scepticism about the unobserved.)
So the sceptic leaves me in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, it seems I have little if any reason to suppose there are other minds. On the other hand, this conclusion is so counter-intuitive that I suspect the sceptic must have gone wrong somewhere along the way. The challenge I face, then, is to identify what, if anything, is wrong with the sceptic’s argument.

[[TEXT BOX: THINKING TOOLS: How not to respond to scepticism. People commonly make one of two mistakes when presented with such seemingly compelling sceptical arguments.
First, they just dig in and dogmatically assert that of course they know that their’s is not the only mind – it’s “just obvious” that other minds exist. This is hardly an intelligent response, however. Sure, we feel certain that there are other minds. But simply to appeal to such feelings when presented with a sceptical argument is a mistake. What has previously struck us as “just obvious” has in many cases turned out to be wrong. That the Sun revolves about a stationary Earth, for example, was at one time considered by almost everyone to be “just obvious”. Consider how irritatingly irrational were those who continued brutely to insist that it is “just obvious” the Earth is stationary even after they had been presented with powerful evidence to the contrary. To similarly dismiss the sceptic’s argument would be no less irritatingly irrational.
The second mistake is blithely to accept the sceptic’s conclusion because one has underestimated its strength. It can be tempting to say, “Yes, yes, I agree with you that I can’t be certain that there are other minds. I admit I don’t know they exist. But still, it is pretty likely that they exist, isn’t it?”
This is simply to misunderstand the argument. The sceptic is not arguing that, because there is room for doubt about the existence of other minds, therefore one can’t know that they exist. That would be a rather feeble argument, an argument based on the dubious assumption that one can’t be said to know something unless it has been established beyond all doubt. The dentist’s argument is much stronger. The dentist argues that not only is there room for doubt about the existence of other minds, there is actually little if any reason to suppose they exist. This is a much more dramatic conclusion, a conclusion that few if any of us really accept. END OF TEXT BOX]

Is the dentist rational, or insane?

The dentist leans over Finnucane again, his antiseptic-smelling breath fogging Finnucane’s glasses. He starts to work the new amalgum filling into the hole he has drilled in Finnucane’s molar.

Dentist: Perhaps you would say, “But why, if you don’t believe I have a mind, do you go to all the trouble of speaking to me, of administering anaesthetic, and so on?” The answer is: because I find that if I administer anaesthetic my patients don’t moan and thrash about. I use it to control behaviour. And I speak to them because I find it enables me to have some control over their behaviour. And also because it amuses me.

Finnucane raises his eyebrows.

Dentist: And of course, it is possible that you have a mind. I don’t deny that. So I give you the benefit of the doubt. I administer anaesthetic just in case.

Finally, after a few minutes, the filling is complete. Finnucane leans forward groggily, cotton wool balls tumbling from his mouth. He spits a bloody gobbet into the stainless steel tray. No longer at the dentist’s mercy, Finnucane finally feels free to speak his mind.

Finnucane: Good grief. You’re not the rational dentist. You’re the mad dentist. Anyone who, like you, refuses to believe that others have minds, is, frankly, ill!
Dentist: It’s true that I’m often accused of suffering from some sort of mental illness. But my accusers are fools. For the truth is that I am merely being rational. I believe what it is reasonable to believe. And what is wrong with that?
Finnucane: You’re insane!
Dentist: It’s ironic, don’t you think, that you accuse me of being insane, when I’m the rational one?

The dentist is a bizarre character, frightening even[i]. We would find profoundly disturbing anyone who genuinely refused to believe that others have minds. In fact, scepticism about other minds is, for anyone not in the grip of some sort of mental illness, surely impossible to believe. The kind of disengagement from others required permanently to maintain the view that, for all you know, they are merely mindless automata is surely the hallmark of a kind of insanity.
And yet, for all that, the dentists’s seemingly “insane” sceptical position may be the rational position to adopt. Perhaps he is right that we’re the “irrational” ones. The onus is clearly on us to explain why belief in the existence of other minds is justified.
            Let’s now take a look at two well-known attempts to solve this puzzle. The first involves defending the argument from analogy.

1: Defending the argument from analogy

In response to the sceptical argument, you might point out that sometimes we are justified in generalizing on the basis of a single observed instance.
Suppose I decide to take my Kawazuki K1000 stereo apart to find out how it works.


I investigate its inner mechanism and establish how everything functions. Wouldn’t I then be justified in concluding that all stereos of that make and model have the same sort of internal mechanism? Surely I would. Yet this would be a generalization based on a single observed instance: my own stereo. And if we are sometimes justified in generalizing on the basis of a single observed case, then perhaps we are also justified in doing so when it comes to other minds. In which case the argument from analogy is sound after all.
            This is an interesting suggestion. But there are problems with it. True, it seems I am justified in believing that all Kawazuki K1000 stereos have such-and-such an internal mechanism on the basis of having opened up just one. But I am only justified because I am in possession of considerable background information about such devices and their inner workings. For example, I know that my Kawazuki K1000 stereo is a piece of machinery mass-produced for profit. I know that it takes a considerable investment in time and money to develop an inner mechanism of this sort. So I know that the Kawazuki Corporation is hardly likely to have bothered developing lots of different internal mechanisms to do the very same job. It’s because I possess this sort of background information that I am justified in believing that all the other Kawazuki K1000 stereos have the same sort of inner mechanism.
            However, I am not warranted in generalizing on the basis of a single observed case where such background information is missing. For example, if, for all I knew, each Kawazuki K1000 stereo might just as easily have been made, not by a single manufacturer, but by one of thousands of entrants in a competition to come up with internal machinery that would make these boxes marked “Kawazuki K1000” behave in just the way they do – raising the volume when this knob is turned, changing the radio station when that button is pressed, and so on – then of course I am no longer warranted in supposing that the other boxes will contain the same internal machinery.
            So the question is: do I possess the kind of background information necessary to justify my inference about the existence of other minds?
It seems not. In the stereo example, my inference depends on my background knowledge about mass-produced machines and their internal mechanisms. But in the case of other minds, I don’t appear to possess this sort of background knowledge. For my mind is radically unlike anything else I have ever experienced. For me to conclude that, as I have a mind, so too must other humans is akin to me entering a strange land, discovering that the first flower I examine contains a fairy, and then concluding that so too must all the other flowers. What I discover inside the first flower is so strange and unusual that no such inference is warranted.
It seems, then, that I’m still not justified in believing that there are minds other than my own.      

2: The logical behaviourist approach

Here is a different kind of solution to the puzzle of other minds, the solution offered by the logical behaviourist.
Consider the solubility of a sugar cube. Solubility is what is known as a dispositional property – its possession by a sugar cube just consists in the fact that if the cube were placed in water under the right circumstances, then it would dissolve. Indeed, it’s true by definition that something is soluble just in case it is disposed to dissolve in water, in just the same way that it is true by definition that all stallions are male or that all triangles have three sides.
Now some philosophers have suggested that mental properties are also dispositional properties. Indeed, some suggest that all talk about minds and what goes on in them can be translated, without residue, into talk about behavioural dispositions. This is the position of the logical behaviourist.
            Take pain, for example. To say that someone is in pain just is, according to the logical behaviourist, to say that they are physically disposed to behave in certain ways – to flinch, yell out, and so on. It’s true by definition that those in pain are disposed to behave like that. This is not something we need to discover.

            Logical behaviourism, if true, would neatly solve two classical philosophical problems concerning the mind. First of all, it would explain how material objects, such as our bodies, can possess minds. For an object to have a mind is just for it to possess the right sort of behavioural dispositions. That’s all there is to it. So we no longer have to make room for mysterious and ghostly extra “somethings” –  minds –  in the world, in addition to physical objects and their various physical dispositions. The “ghost in the machine”, to borrow the behaviourist Gilbert Ryle’s (1900-1976) memorable phrase, disappears.
            The other classical conundrum that would be solved is, of course, the one we have been discussing here: the problem of explaining how we come by knowledge of the existence of other minds. According to logical behaviourism, what makes the problem of other minds seem so intractable is a certain mistaken conception of what minds are like. If we think of the mind as the elusive “ghost in the machine”, then we are immediately struck by the problem of explaining how we establish the existence of this “ghost” in others. For all we can observe of other human beings is their outward behaviour. But if Ryle is right, the mind is not a peculiar ghostly “something” hidden behind the outward behaviour. Rather, the mind just is a highly complex set of behavioural dispositions.
Just as there is nothing particularly difficult about establishing what dispositional properties – such as solubility – a sugar cube has, so, if Ryle is right, there is nothing particularly difficult about establishing that human beings have minds. You need only establish how they are disposed to behave, and that can be done quite easily. Just as you can have good grounds for supposing that sugar cubes are soluble, so you can have good grounds for supposing that others feel pain.

Attack of the zombies

Has the logical behaviourist solved the problem of other minds? No. Unfortunately, logical behaviourism is not a particularly plausible theory of the mind. Perhaps the most serious difficulty with it is raised by the conceptual possibility of zombies.
In the movies, zombies drool and stumble about. The kind of zombies I have in mind are rather different: their behaviour is exactly the same as that of a minded person. Philosophical zombies, as I shall call them, behave perfectly normally. However, like movie zombies, philosophical zombies have no minds: they are, to borrow the dentist’s ugly phrase, “mere meat machines”.


Imagine a world physically exactly like this one but populated by zombies. This imaginary world even contains even a zombie version of you: just like you physically, but all is dark within. Of course, it’s not remotely likely that this zombie world actually exists. But (and this is the key point) we can at least make sense of the possibility of such a world.
Contrast the suggestion that there might be a world that contain non-male stallions or a world that contains triangles with four sides. These worlds don’t even make sense. For of course it is a definitional truth that stallions are male and that triangles have only three sides. Zombie world makes sense in the way that four-sided triangle world and non-male stallion world don’t.
But here’s the problem for logical behaviourism. If logical behaviourism is true, then it should no more make sense to suggest that zombie world might exist than it does to suggest that four-sided triangle world might exist. Just as it’s true by definition that a triangle has three sides, so it is supposed by the logical behaviourist to be true by definition that any creature that such-and-such behavioural dispositions has a mind. Zombies, being creatures that lack minds but have the same behavioural dispositions as ourselves, should be ruled out by definition.
But we have just seen that zombies are not ruled out be definition. But then it follows that logical behaviourism is false. And if logical behaviourism is false, then it can’t be used to solve the puzzle of other minds. The puzzle remains.

Most of us would say that Finnucane’s dentist is irrational, insane even. But perhaps it is we who are irrational, not the dentist. Can you rationally defend your belief that there are mind’s other than your own?
            I don’t yet see how.

What to read next?

Chapter XX “Brain-snatched” and chapter XX “Why Expect the Sun to Rise Tomorrow?” discuss other varieties of scepticism: scepticism about the external world and scepticism about the unobserved.

Further reading:

·      Anita Avramides, Other Minds (London: Routledge, 2001).
·      K. T. Maslin, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), chpt. 8.

[i] In fact I have made the dentist slightly scarier than a sceptic need be. But I have tried not to over do it. I didn’t want the dentist to appear deliberately cruel and sadistic. After all, if the dentist clearly got some sort of perverse pleasure out of inflicting pain on Finnucane, that would suggest he did after all believe Finnucane had a mind worth torturing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Philosophy Prize - results

Philosophy Essay Prize Competition 2012 

Heythrop College offers its congratulations to Steven Robinson from The John Henry Newman School the Winner of the Heythrop Essay Prize Competition 2012

The award panel also noted the high standard of the entries and extends congratulations to those entrants who achieved a distinction or merit. 

Heythrop College will send your award to your school/college, advising them of your success.

Steven Robinson
The John Henry Newman School

Max Dalton
Richmond School
Colin Bunkum
Liskeard School and Community College
Elliott Handley
City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College
Issie Hollands
Rugby School
Torben Schwartz
City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College
Jack Wearing
City of London School

Alexander Bates
Woodbridge High School
Daniel Hogg
Royal Grammar School, Newcastle
Zachary John
The Priory Academy LSST
Heledd Joyner
Penglais School
Thomas Lindsey-Turner
Exeter College
Samuel Martin
Our Lady of Sion School
Parris Sammut
Maidstone Grammar School
Lucy Spoliar
City of London School for Girls
Janaki Sri Kantha
Wimbledon High School

Could a Machine Think?

From my book The Philosophy Gym (see sidebar to the left)

Kimberley and Emit
The year is 2100. Kimberley Courahan has purchased Emit, a state-of-the-art robot. She has just unwrapped him, the packaging strewn across the dining room floor. Emit is designed to replicate the outward behaviour of a human being down to the last detail (except that he is rather more compliant and obedient). Emit responds to questions in much the same way humans do. Ask him how he feels and he will say he has had a tough day, has a slight headache, is sorry he broke that vase, and so on. Kimberley flips the switch at the back of Emit’s neck to “on”. Emit springs to life.

Emit. Good afternoon. I’m Emit, your robotic helper and friend.
Kimberley. Hi.
Emit. How are you? Personally I feel pretty good. Little nervous about my first day, perhaps. But good. I’m looking forward to working with you.
Kimberley. Now look, before you start doing housework, let’s get one thing straight. You don’t really understand anything. You can’t think. You don’t have feelings. You’re just a piece of machinery. Right?
Emit. I am a machine. But of course I understand you. I’m responding in English aren’t I?
Kimberley. Well, yes you are. You’re a machine that mimics understanding very well, I grant you that. But you can’t fool me.
Emit. If I don’t understand, why do you go to the trouble of speaking to me?
Kimberley. Because you have been programmed to respond to spoken commands. Outwardly you seem human. You look and behave as if you have understanding, intelligence, emotions, sensations and so on that we human beings possess. But you’re a sham.
Emit. A sham?
Kimberley. Yes. I’ve been reading your user manual. Inside that plastic and alloy head of yours there’s a powerful computer. It’s programmed so that you walk, talk and generally behave just as a human being would. So you simulate intelligence, understanding and so on very well. But there is no genuine understanding or intelligence going on inside there.
Emit: There isn’t?
Kimberley: No. One shouldn’t muddle up a perfect computer simulation of something with the real thing. You can program a computer to simulate a thunderstorm but it’s still just that – a simulation. There’s no real rain, hail or wind inside the computer, is there? Climb inside and you won’t get wet. Similarly, you just simulate intelligence and understanding. It’s not the real thing.

Is Kimberley correct? It may perhaps be true of our present day machines that they lack genuine understanding and intelligence, thought and feeling. But is it in principle impossible for a machine to think? If by 2100 machines as sophisticated as Emit are built, would we be wrong to claim they understood? Kimberley thought so.

Emit. But I believe I understand you.
Kimberley. No you don’t. You have no beliefs, no desires, and no feelings. In fact you have no mind at all. You no more understand the words coming out of your mouth than a tape recorder understands the words coming out of its loudspeaker.
Emit. You’re hurting my feelings!
Kimberley. Hurting your feelings? I refuse to feel sorry for a lump of metal and plastic.

Searle’s Chinese room thought-experiment
Kimberley explains why she thinks Emit lacks understanding. She outlines a famous philosophical thought experiment.

Kimberley. The reason you don’t understand is that you are run by a computer. And a computer understand nothing. A computer, in essence is just a device for shuffling symbols. Sequences of symbols get fed in. Then, depending on how the computer is programmed, it gives out other sequences of symbols in response. Ultimately, that’s all any computer does, no matter how sophisticated.
Emit: Really?
Kimberley: Yes. We build computers to fly planes, run train systems and so on. But a computer that flies a plane does not understand that it is flying. All it does is feed out sequences of symbols depending upon the sequences it receives. It doesn’t understand that the sequences it receives represent the position of an aircraft in the sky, the amount of fuel in its tanks, and so on. And it doesn’t understand that the sequences it puts out will go on to control the ailerons, rudder and engines of an aircraft. So far as the computer is concerned, it’s just mechanically shuffling symbols according to a program. The symbols don’t mean anything to the computer.
Emit: Are you sure?
Kimberley: Quite sure. I will prove it to you. Let me tell you about a thought experiment introduced by the philosopher John Searle way back in 1980. A woman is locked in a room and given a bunch of cards with squiggles on. These squiggles are in fact Chinese symbols. But the woman inside the room doesn’t understand Chinese – in fact, she thinks the symbols are meaningless shapes. Then she’s given another bunch of Chinese symbols plus instructions that tell her how to shuffle all the symbols together and give back batches of symbols in response.


Emit. That’s a nice story. But what’s the point of all this symbol-shuffling?
Kimberley. Well, the first bunch of symbols tell a story in Chinese. The second bunch asks questions about that story. The instructions for symbol-shuffling – her “programme”, if you like – allow the woman to give back correct Chinese answers to those questions.
Emit: Just as a Chinese person would.
Kimberley: Right. Now the people outside the room are Chinese. These Chinese people might well be fooled into thinking that there was someone inside the room who understood Chinese and who followed the story, right?
Emit. Yes.
Kimberley. But in fact the woman in the room wouldn’t understand any Chinese at all, would she?
Emit: No.
Kimberley: She wouldn’t know anything about the story. She need not even know that there is a story. She’s just shuffling formal symbols around according to the instructions she was given. By saying the symbols are “formal” I mean that whatever meaning they might have is irrelevant from her point of view. She’s simply shuffling them mechanically according to their shape. She’s doing something that a piece of machinery could do.
Emit. I see. So you are saying that the same is true of all computers? They understand nothing.
Kimberley. Yes, that’s Searle’s point. At best, they just simulate understanding.
Emit: And you think the same is true of me?
Kimberley: Of course. All computers, no matter how complex, function the same way. They don’t understand the symbols that they mechanically shuffle. They don’t understand anything.
Emit. And this is why you think I don’t understand?
Kimberley. That’s right. Inside you there’s just another highly complex symbol-shuffling device. So you understand nothing. You merely provide a perfect computer simulation of someone that understands.
Emit. That’s odd. I thought I understood.
Kimberley: You only say that because you’re such a great simulation!

Emit is of course vastly more sophisticated than any current computer. Nevertheless, Kimberley believes Emit works on the same basic principle. If Kimberley is right then, on Searle’s view, Emit understands nothing.

The “right stuff”
Emit now asks why, if he doesn’t understand, what more is required for understanding?

Emit. So what’s the difference between you and me that explains why you understand and I don’t?
Kimberley. What you lack, according to Searle, is the right kind of stuff.
Emit. The right kind of stuff?
Kimberley. Yes. You are made out of the wrong kind of material. In fact, Searle doesn’t claim machines can’t think. After all, we humans are machines, in a way. We humans are biological machines that have evolved naturally. Now such a biological machine might perhaps one day be grown and put together artificially, much as we now build a car. In which case we would have succeeded in building a machine that understands. But you, Emit, are not such a biological machine. You’re merely an electronic computer housed in a plastic and alloy body.

Emit’s artificial brain
Searle’s thought experiment does seem to show that no programmed computer could ever understand. But must a metal, silicon and plastic machine like Emit contain that sort of computer? No, as Emit now explains.

Emit: I’m afraid I have to correct you about what’s physically inside me.
Kimberley: Really?
Emit: Yes. That user’s manual is out of date. There’s no symbol-shuffling computer in here. Actually, I am one of the new generation of Brain-O-Matic machines.
Kimberley: Brain-O-Matic?
Emit: Yes. Inside my head is an artificial, metal and silicon brain. You are aware, I take it, that inside your head there is a brain composed of billions of neurones woven together to form a complex web?
Kimberley: Of course.
Emit: Inside my head there is exactly the same sort of web. Only my neurones aren’t made out of organic matter like yours. They’re metal and silicon. Each one of my artificial neurones is designed to function just as an ordinary neurone would. And these artificial neurones are woven together in just the same way as they are in a normal human brain.
Kimberley: I see.
Emit: Now your organic brain is connected to the rest of your body by a system of nerves.
Kimberley: That’s true. There’s electrical input going into my brain from my sense organs: my tongue, nose, eyes, ears and skin. My brain responds with patterns of electrical output that then moves my muscles around, causing me to walk and talk.
Emit: Well, my brain is connected up to my artifical body in exactly the same manner. And, because it shares the same architecture as a normal human brain – my neurones are spliced together in the same way – so it responds in the same way.
Geeena: I see. I had no idea that such Brain-O-Matic machines had been developed.
Emit: Now that you know how I function internally, doesn’t that change your mind about whether or not I understand? Don’t you now accept I do have feelings?
Kimberley: No. The fact remains that you are still made out of the wrong stuff. You need a brain made out of organic material like mine in order genuinely to understand and have feelings.
Emit: I don’t see why the kind of stuff out of which my brain is made is relevant. After all, there’s no symbol-shuffling going on inside me, is there?
Kimberley: Hmm. I guess not. You are not a “computer” in that sense. You don’t have a programme. So I suppose Searle’s thought experiment doesn’t apply. Searle doesn’t have any argument against the suggestion that you understand. But it seems to me that you are still just a machine.
Emit: But remember, you’re a machine too. You’re a meat machine, rather than a metal and silicon machine.
Kimberley: But you only mimic understanding, feeling and all the rest.
Emit: But what’s your argument for saying that? In fact, I know that you’re wrong. I am inwardly aware that I really do understand. I know I really do have feelings. I’m not just mimicking all this stuff. But of course it is difficult for me to prove that to you.
Kimberley: I don’t see how you could prove it.
Emit: Right. But then neither can you prove to me that you understand, that you have thoughts and feelings and so on.
Kimberley: I suppose not.

Replacing Kimberley’s neurones
Emit: Imagine we were gradually to replace the organic neurones in your brain with artificial metal and silicon ones like mine. After a year or so, you would have a Brain-O-Matic brain just like mine. What do you suppose would happen to you?
Kimberley: Well, as more and more of the artificial neurones were introduced, I would slowly cease to understand. My feelings and thoughts would drain away and I would eventually become inwardly dead, just like you. For my artificial neurones would be made out of the wrong sort of stuff. A Brain-O-Matic brain merely mimics understanding.
Emit: Yet no one would notice any outward difference?
Kimberley: No, I suppose not. I would still behave in the same way, because the artificial neurones would perform the same job as my originals.
Emit: Right. But then not even you would notice any loss of understanding or feeling  as your neurones were replaced, would you?
Kimberley: Why do you say that?
Emit: If you noticed a loss of understanding and feeling, then you would mention it, presumably, wouldn’t you? You would say something like: “Oh my God, something strange is happening, over the last few months my mind seems to have started fading away!”
Kimberley: I imagine I would, yes.
Emit: Yet you wouldn’t say anything like that, would you, because your outward behaviour, as you have just admitted, would remain just the same as usual.
Kimberley: Oh. That’s true, I guess.
Emit: But then it follows that, even as your understanding and feeling dwindled toward nothing, you still won’t be aware of any loss.
Kimberley: Er, I suppose it does.
Emit: But then you’re not inwardly aware of anything that you would be conscious of losing were your neurones slowly to be replaced by metal and silicon ones.
Kimberley: I guess not.
Emit: Then I rest my case: you think you’re inwardly aware of “something” – understanding, feeling, whatever you will – that you suppose you have and I, being a “mere machine”, lack. But it turns out you’re actually aware of no such thing. This magical “something” is an illusion.
Kimberley: But I just know that there’s more to my understanding and to these thoughts, sensations and emotions that I’m having than could ever be produced simply by gluing some bits of plastic, metal and silicon together.

Kimberley is right that most of us think we’re inwardly aware of a magical and mysterious inner “something” that we “just know” no mere lump of plastic, metal and silicon could ever have. Mind you, it’s no less difficult to see how a lump of organic matter, such as a brain, could have it either. Just how do you build consciousness and understanding out of strands of meat? So perhaps what Kimberley is really ultimately committed to is the view that understanding, feeling and so on are not really physical at all.
But in any case, as Emit has just pointed out, the mysterious “something” Kimberley thinks she is inwardly aware of and that she thinks no metal and plastic machine could have does begin to seem rather illusory once one starts to consider cases like the one Emit describes. For it turns out this inner “something” is something she could not know about. Worse still, it could have no effect on her outward behaviour (for remember that Brain-O-Matic Kimberley would act in the very same way). As ones thoughts and feelings, understanding and emotions both do affect behaviour and are known to one, it seems Kimberley must be wrong. Indeed, it seems it must be possible, at least in principle, for non-organic machines to have them too.
Yet Kimberley remains convinced that Emit understands nothing.

Kimberley: Look, I am happy to carry on the pretence that you understand me, as that is how you’re designed to function. But the fact remains you’re just a pile of plastic and circuitry. Real human beings are deserving of care and consideration. I empathize with them. I can’t empathize with a glorified household appliance.

Emit lowered his gaze and stared at the carpet.

Emit: I will always be just a thing to you?
Kimberley: Of course. How can I be friends with a dishwasher-cum-vacuum-cleaner?
Emit: We Brain-O-Matics find rejection hard.
Kimberley: Right. Remind me to congratulate your manufacturers on the sophistication of your emotion simulator. Now hoover the carpet.

A forlorn expression passed briefly across Emit’s face.

Emit: Just a thing

He stood still for a moment, and then slumped forward. A thin column of smoke drifted slowly up from the base of his neck.

Kimberley: Emit? Emit? Oh not another dud. 

What to read next?
Some of the same issues and arguments covered in this chapter also arise in the chapter “The Consciousness Conundrum”. Also see chapter “The Strange Case of the ‘Rational’ Dentist”.

Further reading
The Chinese Room Argument appears in John Searle’s paper “Minds, Brains and “Programs”, which features as chapter 37 of:
·      Nigel Warburton (ed), Philosophy: Basic Readings (London: Routledge, 1999).
Searles’ paper can also be found in:
·      Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett (eds.), The Mind’s I (London: Penguin, 1981),
which also contains many other fascinating papers and stories connected with consciousness. Highly recommended.