The Simulation Argument for Work-Life Balance

[Caveat lector: this is going to get pretty weird. Instead of peppering it with warnings that I am not sure about this and I don’t know about that, please take this paragraph as such a warning.]

During an emergency, people often feel that normal decision-making procedures should be suspended and replaced with something more unitary and top down. The Roman Republic had a constitutional provision that allowed the emergency appointment of a temporary dictator. Famously, this did not work out in the long run.

Continue reading “The Simulation Argument for Work-Life Balance”

Language’s Holiday Pictures

Here is what neuralblender.com, a neural net that creates images when prompted with strings of text, produced when given some famous lines from Wittgenstein:

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

“That fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”

“Whereof one cannot speak…”

“…[thereof] one must be silent”

“[Philosophical problems arise] when language goes on holiday”

More on Darwin

[previously: How Darwin Lost his Religion]

Commenter Mark writes: “I expected the answer would be ‘evolution removes the need for God as creator’. But no – the issue was something else entirely (theodicy)”.

The theodicy problem was formulated at least as early as Epicurus (d. 270 B.C.), so was Darwin’s (1809-1882) atheism independent of his theory of evolution? The rest of the letter suggests that the title of my previous post was a bit misleading, and that evolution played a role in addition to theodicy. Here is the relevant section in full:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.

Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.

This passage is clearly based on the assumption that living things appear to show evidence of design; it is very hard to believe that the heart effectively pumps blood because of mere random chance. Without the theory of evolution, the appearance of design in nature leads to traditional theism. But, we might reconstruct Darwin’s thinking, once you have the theory of evolution, you no longer need to be convinced by the argument from design. So you are free to jettison the (at least seemingly) inconsistent beliefs that natural evil exists but that the deity is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient.

Stephen Toulmin’s 1969 Wittgenstein Essay

The philosopher Stephen Toulmin published a great essay on Wittgenstein in 1969 that I can’t find anywhere online. After tremendous danger and adventure I obtained a copy and am providing it to all of you. You’re welcome. Here’s a taste:

LET ME BEGIN by stating and defending a series of negative theses. Public reputation has attributed to Wittgenstein half-a-dozen general doctrines, positions and philosophical attitudes which were not at all to his liking; and the first step towards recognising the true nature [59] of his philosophical quest is to see past these false attributions. To summarise

  1. Wittgenstein was never a positivist;
  2. He was never deeply concerned with epistemology;
  3. He was not a “linguistic philosopher”;
  4. There were not “two Wittgensteins,” having different philosophical questions and concerns – the author of the Tractatus, and the author of the Investigations;
  5. There were not even two distinct Wittgensteins – one the technical philosopher, the other the “thinker.”

Of these misconceptions, the first four were always (in my view) the result of shallow and hasty reading. However, it was more pardonable to overlook the complete unity of Wittgenstein’s thought, both philosophical and “ethical.” During the 1940s, for example, Wittgenstein himself drew a fairly sharp line between the professional, conceptual questions he discussed in his formal seminars and the deeper, more personal topics he used to raise during his “At Homes.” The connections between the two aspects of his thought are fully apparent only now, thanks to the letters and memoir of Paul Engelmann. These resolve some residual puzzles within his formal philosophical writings, and help one to understand his sympathy for men like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and St. Augustine–a sympathy which would have been surprising in the anti-metaphysical, positivistic “Ludwig Wittgenstein” of popular reputation.

Two Simple Reasons to Study the History of Ideas

A few years ago at a party I was explaining some interpretive debate about Marx to a friend. Marx, I was saying, might have believed A, or he might have believed B, and there is evidence on both sides. My friend objected: what does it matter? Surely we should talk about whether A or B (or neither) is correct, not about which of them a guy from the Rhineland who died almost 150 years ago believed.

Prima facie, this is a pretty good objection. It is a good objection because a lot of people who study the history of ideas don’t seem to realize that it is an error to believe something merely because someone whom you consider to be wise believed it.

But I think the history of ideas is worth studying. Some of the reasons for this are pretty complicated (see here and here), but two are simple:

1. You might be able to use the ideas

In historical study, you might come across some ideas that you like. For instance, much of A Theory of Justice involves Rawls’s adaptation of Kant’s ideas.

Why study the history of ideas to get access to ideas from the past rather than just going with the stereotypical versions of various writers that you get from high school, reading general histories, or watching cartoons? Because, and this is a claim I can’t prove here, the primary sources by writers who are in the canon tend to be far more complicated than the memes about them that circulate in the culture. For more than two hundred years, economists across the political spectrum have drawn inspiration from reading Adam Smith. You could look at that and say, well, no point reading Smith if people can’t even agree what he said. But I think a better way of looking at it is that Smith helps economists of various persuasions set aside their normal methods of work, look at things from a more abstract point of view, try to transpose some old concepts into their own paradigms, and see if their ways of thinking can answer questions that Smith leaves open.

Some historians, most famously Quentin Skinner, object that it is illegitimate to look to the past for concepts and arguments that you can pick up and use for your own purposes. But Skinner himself was unable to resist the temptation to revive what he calls the “neo-Roman” conception of liberty and apply it to contemporary political philosophy in his book Liberty before Liberalism (which I will probably post some notes on soon). In general, I don’t see what the problem with reading canonical thinkers for inspiration on contemporary questions could possibly be (unless it is that there are more pressing uses of time).

2. You might better understand people in the present

Often people are adherents of religions or ideologies that are written up in canonical works. If you want to know what those people will do, how to negotiate with them, or how to stop them, it may be worthwhile to study those works. Graeme Wood’s article “What ISIS Really Wants” includes some discussion with Bernard Haykel about how ISIS fits into the broader tradition of political Islam. There are a lot of reasons you might need to know what ISIS really wants, and studying the history of ideas could be part of finding out.

Political leaders sometimes espouse an ideology merely because it would look bad if they openly admitted that they were just in it for power. However, even in such a situation, the ideas that a leader claims to believe constrains his actions. It is ceteris paribus harder to improve relations with an ancestral enemy if you got elected by claiming to be a nationalist firebrand. This is true regardless of how you privately feel about nationalism. And if an ideology is socially dominant but not always believed in private, it might still guide action. People won’t want to imply by their actions that they no longer believe in the ideology. That closes off certain paths to them. Having this sort of information about a partner or an adversary is useful.

There also might also be some overlap between reasons 1 and 2. For example, you could set out to learn about how to stop religious extremism and end up converting to Islam.

Animal Welfare or Animal Rights?

There is a debate among moral philosophers about whether we should think about our obligations to animals as obligations to respect their rights or to promote their welfare. On this question, it is worth separating theory from messaging.

In my experience, if you tell the average person that you believe in animal rights, they probably will think that you’re a vegetarian and you oppose factory farming. If you say you support animal welfare, they might be confused or they might think that for you it is a high priority to improve the conditions of dogs in animal shelters (or something like that). It is certainly sad that some dogs in shelters are in bad conditions, but I don’t think anybody who has seriously thought about the issue regards this as a bigger problem than factory farming. So, I think, it gives people a more accurate idea of where you are coming from to say you believe in animal rights.

It might be objected that most people who care about this issue (and probably 90+% of readers of this essay) actually do care about welfare rather than rights. Therefore, saying “rights” is misleading in its own way. I disagree with this because I think it misses how most people understand rights discourse. Amartya Sen, as quoted by eminent blogger and internet personality Matt Bruenig, explains well:

The ‘existence’ of human rights is obviously not like the existence of, say, Big Ben in the middle of London. Nor is it like the existence of a legislated law in the statute book. Proclamations of human rights, even though stated in the form of recognizing the existence of things that are called human rights, are really strong ethical pronouncements as to what should be done. They demand acknowledgement of imperatives and indicate that something needs to be done for the realization of these recognized freedoms that are identified through these rights.

[…]

Thus understood, an assertion of a human right (for example in the form: ‘this freedom is important and we must seriously consider what we should do to help each other realize it’) can indeed be compared with other ethical proclamations, such as ‘happiness is important’, or ‘autonomy matters’, or ‘personal liberties must be preserved’. The question, ‘Are there really such things as human rights?’ is thus comparable to asking, ‘Is happiness really important?’ or “Does autonomy or liberty really matter?’

I think Sen provides a pretty convincing account of how people must be thinking to talk as they do about rights. If he is right, then saying “animals have rights” is equivalent to saying “I care a great deal about how animals are treated.” Which is true, and more important to convey than theoretical niceties.

There probably are some people and groups who should talk about welfare rather than rights. If you are trying to persuade farms to cease certain bad practices, animal rights probably sounds too threatening. And, in general, it is quite important not to come off as fanatical. A lot of what the average person can do to help animals is convince their friends and family to become vegetarians or vegans. I would estimate that for me this has been 3-5X as important as my own vegetarianism.

But I don’t think the phrase “animal rights” sounds fanatical by itself. People love rights talk.

Meditate on this

Arbitrary-Humean sources of normativity are subjective, internalist, and “egoist” but in a trivial rather than substantive way. You prefer for art to exist and therefore cet. par. you have a reason to create art. This is the most basic, taken-for-granted level of normativity, including: wanting to be happy rather than sad, wanting to be sad instead of happy under certain circumstances (to mourn a friend’s loss, say,) wanting people you personally care about to be happy, wanting humanity to explore the stars, simultaneously somehow wanting animals not to suffer and for there to be a large diverse “natural” biosphere, wanting to do heroin, wanting to hurt people who piss you off, wanting anything. (Trivial formulation: if you don’t achieve your ends your ends won’t be achieved.)

Phronetic-Aristotelian sources of normativity are instrumental rules you have to obey to sustain yourself as an agent and exercise power over the world to achieve preferences. This morality is externalist, objective, and nontrivially egoistic. In order to function you need to eat, acquire a reputation for deal-keeping and reciprocity, gather more power and resources that can be deployed for ends you haven’t figured out yet entirely, and so on. (Trivial formulation: if you can’t do anything you can’t achieve your ends.)

Superrational-Kantian sources of normativity involve reasoning that you are not special, and that if you’d rather be a partner to cooperate-cooperate deals with strangers you’d better start cooperating. This morality is internalist, objective, and only derivatively egoistic. (Trivial formulation: generic agents cooperate with each other to the extent that generic agents cooperate with each other.)

Things with no normativity: rocks, numbers, suns.

Things with AH normativity only: children (in the limit case), most other animals considered as individuals, maybe primitive AI.

Things with AH and PA normativity only: bad people, including counterfactually bad people who are just some incentives and norms shifts away from from being bad. (I think most people hover between this and the full normative experience.)

Things with PA normativity only: cancers, corporations, (another limit case) the sort of bad person who simply only cares about power itself rather than power as a means to sex or ideology or whatever.

Things with SK normativity only: reasoners behind the veil of ignorance

Things with AH and SK normativity only: God prior to the creation of the world

Things with PA and SK normativity only: angels

Things with AH, PA, SK normativity: you (imperfectly)

a wise philosopher

How Darwin Lost his Religion

What an old-fashioned way to start a blog in 2021!

Parasitoid wasps are wasps whose lifecycle involves laying their eggs in other small animals, such as caterpillars.  When the eggs hatch, they begin to consume the host from the inside. Eventually the host is killed by the larvae.  If you want to see what this looks like, there are some illuminating images on Wikipedia.

After publishing On the Origin of the Species, Darwin wrote to a devout friend  about these charming creatures:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always  painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write  atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do,  & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design &  beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the  world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God  would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitoid wasp] with the express  intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars [emphasis added]


What interests me about this passage is that, normally, the plight of insects doesn’t really move me very much. I swat flies like anybody else. When I had bed bugs, I hired an exterminator. But when I think about parasitoid wasps, I have the same reaction that Darwin does. Parasitoid wasps strike me as an ostentatiously evil thing, one whose design by a benevolent creator would call for explanation. Thinking about insects dying in other ways doesn’t have the same effect. Even if we stipulate, just for the sake of the argument, that caterpillars cannot feel pain, there is something a bit sick about the design of parasitoid wasps. Something is wrong here.

When I mentioned this letter to a devout friend of my own, he said that these aspects of the natural world reflect the influence of Satan. But I don’t find this very satisfying because either it implies that God is not strong enough to overpower Satan (this is the Gnostic heresy), or that God allowed Satan free reign to design parasitoid wasps. In a way, this kind of natural evil seems like an even more potent objection to omnipotent omnibenevolent omniscience than natural evil affecting human beings. Maybe if I get mesothelioma next month and die horribly, I will wake up in heaven and God will explain to me what lesson I was supposed to derive from that experience. Perhaps I would be bothered at first, but I would have eternity to get over it. It is hard to believe that God has some explanation that a caterpillar could understand of what parasitoid wasps are supposed to teach.  So I think parasitoid wasps present a major problem even for theodicies that offer universal salvation.

There is a way out: skeptical theism, the idea that the Lord works in mysterious ways. If there is an omnipotent entity with perfect access to the facts about morality, perhaps we should assume that He knows what He is doing, even if it looks bad from our fallible perspective. This argument is not logically incoherent.

But to the extent that parasitoid wasps represent either a strong reason to disbelieve or a mysterious way for the Lord to work, it seems like I incur a duty to not behave like a parasitoid wasp myself. After all, I know I don’t work in mysterious ways. When I do something bad, it isn’t part of the working of Providence, it is just bad.

I’m not sure exactly what the implications of not wanting to be like a parasitoid wasp are, but I think they probably involve not eating the bugs.