Saturday, April 14, 2012

Thought Experiment: Alien Responsibility

Another firestorm on the topic of Free Will has been raging on Talking Philosophy. As always, the discussions center on how responsible people are for their actions. Can we ultimately hold them to account? Does it, as Russell Blackford suggests, make any sense to distinguish between what a person could have done versus what they actually did? Jerry Coyne doesn't think so. The Laws of Physics are what they are. They predetermine what you eat, what you want, who you love, what you're children will be like and how you will die. "Choice" is a mechanical process with a precise result.
This type of assault on Free Will is common, Sam Harris being another well known and strong proponent. If they are right – if, as Jerry Coyne puts it, the sort of free will where you could have chosen otherwise is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics – then what does this mean? Several proponents of this strict form of determinism have suggested that it implies we must treat people rather than punish them. This seems like an attractive proposition, a form of compassion. But I think there is a darker side overlooked by those who advocate that we should, in essence, see deeper causes everywhere.

The notion that everything has it roots in other causes is a very old idea. Ex nihilo nihil fit. Nothing comes from nothing. In more recent times  we have Spinoza, the 17'th century philosopher who struggled with concepts of God and was consequently banned from his community. He came to the conclusion that God, the eternal, was the only causa sui, the only cause in itself. Everything else had, as rational idealists like him believed, a sufficient reason for why it was as it was. God was becoming equivalent to the Universe as such. It was no longer a force intervening in someones life. It was everything that had and would ever happen, including the substrate in which it occurred (or more precisely in which it was fixed).

The implications of such thinking are far reaching. The universe inhabited by humans becomes an eternal and static construct. Those who believe in this type of universe begin slipping into language were much of what we experience is described as an illusion. We have no free will. We choose nothing. Instead our mechanics – our biochemistry and the environment acting on it – produces a distinct outcome. Though we go through life and whatever happens to us happens because of what we do, we are sort of puppets pulled by the strings of Equation E, the Laws of Physics.

Yet hard determinists tell us we should not despair even if we could never have "chosen" otherwise than whatever we "chose". Even if choice is an illusion, we can liberate ourselves and strive to greater perfection by understanding the necessary reasons and causes for why anything and everything happens.  We can seek to understand Equation E as perfectly as possible. Again this seems like a very attractive proposition. We can liberate ourselves from the fear and hardship that comes of all things unknown. We can become perfect scientists that can reverse engineer and fix anything. We can, in essence, become gods.

The darker side of this view is beginning to reveal itself. Perfect knowledge is possible. We can know Equation E. And those who have Perfect Knowledge should quite easily be able distinguish between those who, like themselves, have it and those who don't. Society becomes discretely split into two epistemic camps, between what Plato called the Philosopher Kings and all the other fools. If Perfect Knowledge is possible, then it seems like we simply have to accept such a social structure, however dark I or anyone else claim it to be. Reality is reality. We should not fool ourselves just because we're scared by the potential consequences of knowing the truth.

In such a world, the Philosopher Kings have a heightened responsibility over others. They must strive to maintain a perfect society by protecting society against those who threaten it by actions rooted in their imperfections. But it would seem we are already getting into trouble. I imagine their must be some type of extensive and quite invasive test to be accepted into the halls of the Philosopher Kings. It would not be some type of consensus. Remember that Perfect Knowledge is possible. Anyone who has it can be identified through strictly objective means. There is no need for a modern republic with it's cumbersome vestiges of voting, representation and negotiations.

Before I illustrate the problem I see though a grander thought experiment, let me present a common example how we should supposedly approach justice in the kind of world Sam Harris and his like imagine. They often bring up the case of a person who does something bad and then it turns out the person has some defect (e.g. a tumor) to some area of the brain. And the damaged area has been deemed by some scientist (who is unclear) to be involved in decisions relating to whatever bad act was committed. What should we do? Punish them by throwing them in prison or treat the defect? They rightly point out that punishment for the sake of deterrence is likely to be ineffective in such cases. The person lacks the capacity to make rational decision in the first place due to their brain defect.

This type of thinking can be extended to any type of legal case. So if a person finds themselves in court because they did something "bad", we should assume they did it because something is wrong with their body structure and that it can be fixed. The question arises how we should find out what is wrong. The only way we could would be by performing some type of invasive medical examination of the person. We seem to be turning the assumption of who is responsible for proving mitigating circumstances on its head. In fact, everything about a person has become a mitigating factor that prosecutors must examine. The legal system subsequently has the responsibility to then fix the factors that caused the unwanted behavior.

Perhaps this isn't such a bad thing. The person has presumably already been found guilty. Traditionally we would now severely restrict their "freedom" to act by imprisonment. Why not instead force the culpable to be scientifically examined and receive medical treatment? Why not treat everyone as innocent by reason of mental deficiency?  But something that seems to have been overlooked is if someone was responsible for determining their mental deficiency prior to them committing the bad act. And who that someone would be. Well, it couldn't really be the person themselves because their failure to realize and treat their deficiency could be part of their defect. The very moment the tumor became detectable, their capacities might already have been sufficiently diminished, thereby making them incapable of rectifying their own flaws.

If the Philosopher Kings want to really create a better society by actually preventing crimes, they will have to exhaustively and invasively examine everyone throughout their lives, including themselves. A conundrum is arising that can be expressed in form of the following question: who is responsible for understanding whom? Are we responsible for understanding you and what you're communicating and capable of doing? Or are you responsible for understanding yourself, making yourself understood and demonstrating your abilities (or lack thereof) to the rest of us? The  whole issue here seems to be turning into an epistemic issue. Like so many things the question seems to revolve around what the truth is and who should be considered the authority of reference.

Let's rephrase the question in a more universal way where the answer might become almost self-evident: are we responsible for understanding ourselves? Though it may be unclear if you are responsible or I am responsible, surely at least one of us must be and preferably both. This seems like a great solution. After all, good understanding has traditionally be achieved through Socratic dialogue. And good behavior is at the very least an agreement between several parties. And talent must be both demonstrated and sought out.

Epistemic and ethical responsibility is equally distributed in a cooperative network. But what's slipping away here is that this is a world where Perfect Knowledge is achievable. No consensus should be necessary. Truth and falsehood, right and wrong, is purely an objective matter. Either you get it or you don't. We must properly and strictly reject the bandwagon fallacy. It's completely irrelevant what the foolish imperfect masses believe. What matters is the determinations (for they are not opinions) of the Philosopher Kings.

To  illustrate the epistemic and ethical problem, we can consider a thought experiment I call Alien Responsibility. Imagine that a powerful alien being makes direct contact with us. Call her Klaatu. Her technology is clearly far superior to ours. She has evidently gotten far closer to figuring out Equation E. Although she doesn't rub our face in it, she seems to think of us as quite primitive and possibly a threat to both ourselves and others. Fortunately, being as perfect as Klaatu is, she has a means to "cure" us. But the cure would essentially transform humanity into another species more like Klaatu.
For some reason though, Klaatu insists that we must choose for ourselves if this is what we want. Importantly, once the  "cure" is deployed it will eventually and inevitable turn every human on Earth into this new species. Humanity will essentially go extinct within a generation or so. So that our consent is truly informed, Klaatu demonstrates her far reaching understanding of cause and effect to everyone on Earth. She proves that she can predict almost any human behavior under almost any circumstances.

20% of humanity is awestruck and blown away by her near perfect science. They are ready for the cure. But for some strange reason, 80% of the somewhat spooked masses remain unconvinced. They certainly don't think becoming a new species is the right strategy. So the question is, what should Klaatu do now? Should she even have required humanity's consent?

Klaatu barada nikto?


Anonymous said...

Klaata barada niktu, my friend!

Anonymous said...

Oops, i meant "Klatu barada niktu"

Amos Elroy said...

Since Klaatu is bound by the Prime Directive, she would have no choice but to avoid altering the course of humanity. :)

Seriously though, the question has an inherent paradox lodged in it. If Klaatu has mastered equation E, she already knows 80% of humanity was going reject that offering.

Determinism in my opinion is long dead. It was killed by Quantum physics. Once the inherent tenants of probability in matter have been show, there is no way to compress the genii back into the cat's box (or was it a bottle?).

The discovery of quantum structures in neural cells has introduced probability into thought. the Quantum Brain Dynamics also makes that connection between brain function and quantum effect. Since matter on the sub Plank scale is non-deterministic, but rather probabilistic in nature, this means that the resulting thoughts and brain functions would be too.

People like Amit Goswami, a Quantum Physicist, as well as David Bohm, and the Indian philosopher Krishna Murti, further believe that consciousness is in fact the generator of physical reality, not the other way around, which actually makes more sense to me.

shella gyska said...

cara menggugurkan kandungan
good ideaa