Category Archives: philosophy

artificial intelligence and problems of collective action

Although I have not studied the serious scholarship on AI, I often see grandiose claims made about its impact in the near future. Intelligent machines will solve our deepest problems, such as poverty and climate change, or they will put us all out of work and become our robot overlords. I wonder whether these predictions ignore the problems of collective action that already bedevil us as human beings.

After all, there are already about 7.5 billion human brains on earth, about 10 times more than there were in 1800. Arguably, we are better off than we were then–but not clearly and straightforwardly so. If we ask why a tenfold increase in the total cognitive capacity of the species has not improved our condition enormously, the explanations are pretty obvious.

Even when people agree on goals, it is challenging to coordinate their behavior so that they pursue those ends efficiently. And even when some people manage to work together toward a shared goal, they have physical needs and limitations. (Using brains requires food and water; implementing any brain’s ideas by taking physical action requires additional resources.) To make matters worse, human beings often have legitimate but conflicting interests, like the need to gain sustenance from the same land. And some human beings have downright harmful goals, like dominating or spiting others.

One can see how artificial intelligence might mitigate some of these drawbacks. Imagine a single computer with computational power equivalent to one million human beings. It will be much more coordinated than those people. It will be able to aggregate and apply information more efficiently. It can also be programmed to have consistent and, indeed, desirable goals–and it will plug away at its goals for as long as it receives the physical inputs it needs. For instance, it could clean up pollution 24/7 instead of stopping for self-interested purposes, like sleeping.

However, it still has physical needs and limitations. It might use fuel and other inputs more efficiently than a human being does, but that depends on how good the human’s tools are. A person with a bulldozer can move more garbage than a clever little robot that works 24/7–and both of them need a place to put the garbage. (Intelligence cannot negate physical limits.)

Besides, a computer is designed by people–and probably by individuals arrayed as corporations or states. As such, AI is likely to be designed for conflicting and sometimes discreditable goals, including killing other people. At best, it will be hard to coordinate the activities of many different artificially intelligent systems.

Meanwhile, people already coordinate their behavior in quite impressive ways. A city receives roughly the amount of bread it needs every day because thousands of producers and vendors coordinate their behavior through prices. An international scientific discipline makes cumulative progress because thousands of scientists coordinate their behavior through peer-review and citation networks. And the English language develops new vocabulary for describing new phenomena as millions of people communicate. Thus the coordination attained by a machine with a lot of computational power should be compared to the coordination accomplished by human beings in a market, a discipline, or a language–which is impressive.

One claim made about AI is that machines will start to refine and improve their own hardware and software, thus achieving geometric growth in computational power. But human beings already do this. Although we cannot substantially redesign our individual brains, we can individually learn. More than that, we can redesign our systems for coordinating cognition. Many people are busy making markets, disciplines, languages, and other emergent human systems work better. That is already the kind of continuous self-engineering that some people expect AI to accomplish for the first time.

It is of course possible to imagine that an incredibly intelligent machine will identify solutions that simply elude us as human beings. For instance, it will negate the physical limitations of the carbon cycle by discovering whole new processes. But that is an empty supposition, like imagining that regular old science will one day discover solutions that we cannot envision today. That is probably true–it has happened many times before–but it is unhelpful in the present. Besides, both people and AI may create more problems than they solve.

See also: the progress of science; John Searle explains why computers will not become our overlords;

introducing Habermas

This is a 29-minute video lecture* in which I introduce the core ideas of the great German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. I made it for our current Introduction to Civic Studies course, but it’s available for anyone to use. It also summarizes the beginning of chapter 4 of my recent book, What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life. In the book, I proceed to raise numerous critiques of Habermas, all of which have some validity, although I continue to find his framework useful.

*New version posted on 9/29, with better audio.

A Husserlian meditation

This is a breath: in and out.

I experience it without noticing it. Then I decide to think about it. Given my cultural milieu, my first thoughts sound scientific: my lungs must be absorbing oxygen from the air. My nervous system responds positively to that sensation.

Then I realize that I am not sure whether these statements are well-founded or what their underlying concepts (such as causality and consciousness) mean. I resolve to focus on what I actually experience.

The phenomenon of my breath has certain features. It is a breath for me. I feel it and feel grateful for it. It belongs to the sequence of events that unfold in my inner time, occupying a short but not instantaneous period. It is located in my body, which occupies a specific place. It is an intentional act, yet it could have happened without my conscious attention. It has a purpose that I can know.

I can imagine a breath that lasts twice as long or sounds twice as loud, but a breath that is ceaseless is no longer a breath.

Soon that breath is gone. But another one comes; and even while I was experiencing the earlier breath, I implicitly knew that it was one in a series. Future breaths were phenomena that I could anticipate and even count on. Past breaths were phenomena that I could recollect if I chose to, or could imagine if I had forgotten them. All these breaths have a temporal rhythm that I can know in any one moment, meaning that they coexist in my present, albeit as different kinds of phenomena–memories, hopes, unnoticed experiences.

When I form a thought about my breathing, I know that I may return to that thought at will.

I can envision my body breathing one of the breaths of my own past. I can experience myself as then and there instead of now and here. This is very much like envisioning you and your experience, for you are there just as I am here.

My experience of you is mine; it belongs to the flow of my inner life. But my experience of you is not like my experience of myself, or my breath, or my past, or a number. It has peculiar features, such as the possibility of empathy. Once I know you, I know that you are real rather than imaginary and that we inhabit a shared world, because these are features of my own experience, which is an experience of you by and for me.

In truth, I may not know you, the reader of these words, but I can know what it’s like to breathe while one reads these words and imagines my experience.

My breath unfolds in the time of the world, which is jointly constituted by you and me and all other sentient beings. I cannot be a self that experiences this world without being in communion with others like me.

Each self is its own whole world. Everything that it experiences is its own experience. Yet every self is also a potential phenomenon for the other selves and needs the others to constitute and inhabit a world.

Each of my breaths reveals elaborate complexity when I examine it closely. One of the things I learn is that your breath is the same.

See also: a Hegelian meditation; Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); freedom of the will or freedom from the will? etc. I have benefitted from and recommend: Li, Jingjing. Same Road, Different Tracks a Comparative Study of Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology and Chinese Yogacara Philosophy. McGill University (Canada), 2019; and an article derived from that dissertation: Li, Jingjing. “Buddhist phenomenology and the problem of essence.” Comparative Philosophy 7.1 (2016): 7. Most of my own recent and direct knowledge of Husserl comes from his Cartesian Meditations (1929) as translated by Dorian Cairns.

the recurrent turn inward

Francis Bacon had a wonderfully pungent way of making points that have become commonplace in the era of scientific modernity. In the following passage, he denounces the previously dominant academic movement, Scholasticism, for speculating fruitlessly about empty questions instead of studying nature with empirical rigor and practical objectives:

Surely, like as many substances in nature which are solid do putrefy and corrupt into worms;—so it is the property of good and sound knowledge to putrefy and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate [like intestinal worms] questions, which have indeed a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the schoolmen [Scholastics], who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books.  For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit. (Advancement of Learning (1605) I (iv) 5)

Many since Bacon have shared his impatience with philosophy as an idle and bootless pursuit. A common insult is “navel-gazing,” but Bacon heightens that critique by imagining philosophers looking beneath their navels at the disgusting worms within. As an alternative, he advocates “the contemplation of nature” and “the observations of experience” (I.V(1)6), which will yield secure and profitable knowledge.

One rejoinder is that natural science cannot address such crucial questions as “What is justice?” and “What is a good life?” A second response is that natural science makes fundamental but often unexamined assumptions about metaphysics and epistemology. Bacon and his successors would consider such issues fruitless, but Kant argues in the original preface to his Critique of Pure Reason that “it is in reality vain to profess indifference in regard to such inquiries, the object of which cannot be indifferent to humanity. Besides, these pretended indifferentists, however much they may try to disguise themselves by the assumption of a popular style and by changes on the language of the schools, unavoidably fall into metaphysical declarations and propositions, which they profess to regard with so much contempt” (Meiklejohn trans.)

Picking up a similar theme, Edmund Husserl wrote in 1929, “Daily practical living is naive. It is immersion in the already-given world, whether it be experiencing, or thinking, or valuing, or acting. … Nor is it otherwise in the positive sciences. They are naivetes of a higher level. They are the products of an ingenious theoretical technique; but the intentional performances from which everything ultimately originates remain unexplicated” (Cartesian Meditations, English trans. by Dorian Cairns).

Assuming we do want to ask philosophical questions, how can we avoid mere opinions and speculations? A recurrent suggestion is to turn back to the ones who form such opinions–ourselves–and to critically assess how we think and what we have a right to claim. Kant is the most famous proponent of this turn. He calls for a “critical inquiry into the faculty of reason,” which is “not so much occupied with objects as with the mode of our cognition of these objects.” However, my point in this post is that the same move has been made many times, and it is interesting to list and compare the approaches that have been attempted.

Instead of making direct claims about metaphysics, epistemology, or value, one could:

  1. Critically assess the experts who make or imply such claims and see whether they know what they are talking about. This is Socrates’ main business, as he describes it. He tests the poets, orators, politicians and others to see if they possess knowledge. For the most part, he is interested in the thoughts and methods of individuals who belong to social categories, such as poets, but a roughly similar approach is to critically investigate institutions that purport to generate knowledge, such as labs and clinics. This approach is common in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the sociology of knowledge today.
  2. Investigate and clarify the rules of logic, on the premise that useful thoughts should be logical and that only some claims about the world will pass that test. Aristotle inaugurated this approach in Europe, although it had precedents, and it has also been influential in Asia.
  3. Critically investigate “reason,” understood as a faculty. This is Kant’s explicit approach, but Descartes and many others have begun in a similar way.
  4. Critically investigate language, on the theory that all complex, declarative thoughts take linguistic form. The “linguistic turn” was one of the main developments of the 20th century.
  5. Very closely attend to how we experience things, including the self that does the experiencing. This is the phenomenological approach, which Husserl called a “radical new beginning of philosophy” (op cit.) but which had obvious antecedents, including–as Husserl acknowledged–the Pali Cannon Canon in Buddhism.
  6. Study thinking as a natural activity of the brain and nervous system of homo sapiens–although it is tricky to do that without making the kinds of epistemological assumptions that people like Kant and Husserl attribute to empirical science.

(Nothing in this post is original, but I found it interesting to make the above list.) See also: is all truth scientific truth?; the progress of science; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; etc.

how we use Kant today

Michael Rosen’s wonderful book The Shadow of God: Kant, Hegel, and the Passage from Heaven to History explores the seriously theological aspects of German idealist philosophy. Rosen’s core insight is that philosophers from Kant to Hegel (as well as Marx) tried to solve the problem of arbitrariness by identifying free individuals with something abstract and rational–morality, the state, or history–which could take the place of a traditional Abrahamic God; but these were impersonal constructs that were unable to forgive or love us. “Two powerful drives–the desire to see the world as personal and human and the desire for human beings to be subject only to relationships that are rational and transparent–are in fundamental conflict” (p. 216). The German idealists chose the latter. They thus traded the “alienation of arbitrariness” for the “alienation of impersonality” and bequeathed to us a lonely world in which we became vulnerable to totalitarianism.

Although Rosen covers much more ground, here I want to mention his interpretation of Kant and explore what it suggests about moral philosophy today.

Kant is mainstay of undergraduate ethics courses, and we usually present him as offering a plausible–but also controversial–procedure for addressing moral questions, such as whether it is ever permissible to lie. We ask students to compare and contrast Kantian ethics to other theories, notably utilitarianism.

According to Rosen, Kant presumed that people already knew what was right to do. Kant was a “moral unanimist.” He agreed with–and was deeply influenced by–Rousseau’s claim that “the heart of man is always right about everything that does not relate personally to him” (p. 126). When we act and think wrong, it is because we are biased (Kant says, “seduced”) by self-interest. We don’t need a procedure to help us choose among options when we are sincerely confused or ambivalent. We need a reminder to be moral, in which case the right answer will be obvious. And we want to understand how human morality relates to freedom in a deterministic universe and how people can be free when the deity is omnipotent and omniscient. These are meta-ethical questions rather than ethical ones. Rosen cites previous commentators–H.R. Paton, plus others who are unfamiliar to me–who anticipate his approach to interpreting Kant.

Very few people are “moral unanimists” today. To varying degrees, we are aware of four kinds of plurality:

  1. Personalities vary, and it’s hard to adjudicate when individuals are drawn to different values, at least among basically decent ones.
  2. Cultures and eras have characteristic values or perspectives on ethics.
  3. A given person may feel compelled by real obligations that are in mutual tension (cf. p. 312).
  4. Human beings as a species may be hard-wired by evolution to value things that other species would not.

Even people who are convinced that there should be one right way for all creatures to answer all moral questions will generally concede that unanimity does not prevail. Few share Rousseau’s faith that all uncorrupted human beings agree about moral matters. Even if a single moral position is correct, it is pretty obvious that well-motivated people do not all see things that way.

At a time when people are deeply aware of–and often anxious about–moral disagreements of various types, it’s tempting to turn back to Kant for actual answers to our moral quandaries. Some find his theory persuasive and prefer it over utilitarianism or other available views. Others would relativize it in various ways, seeing Kantianism as: 1) a personality type, perhaps reflecting a tilt toward Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” of fairness and freedom, 2) a cultural inheritance, probably Protestant, bourgeois, and European, 3) a view that favors certain goods–especially freedom–and ignores others, or 4) a fancy way of describing instincts that evolved in human beings as social animals.

Despite these and other disagreements about how to read Kant, most are convinced that he proposes views about contested moral issues. Rosen suggests, instead, that a deep historical gap separates Kant from all of us. Kant is not interested in deciding what is right, because he assumes that is an obvious matter. For our part, we are so unsure what is right that we search Kant’s abstract principles and his rather unconvincing examples for actual moral guidance. This may say more about our circumstances than it does about Kant’s thought.

I find Rosen’s interpretation of Kant’s texts persuasive. At the same time, I continue to be interested in the contrast between Kantian and utilitarian applied ethics. For instance, the influential Effective Altruism movement is worth paying attention to. If nothing else, it challenges some prevalent hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Yet I can’t accept it because it seems to view the donor as the sole moral agent and the recipients as essentially passive. I find modern Kantian ethics–and some passages by Kant himself–useful for articulating the intuition that all people should be accorded the dignity of self-determination and that human beings should relate to each other as moral equals with rights, not as means to any end. Rosen acknowledges a “connection” between Kant’s philosophy and modern theories of rights (p. 257), notwithstanding the historical gap discussed earlier.

It could be that Kant would be a bit mystified by the debates about effective altruism and other issues in applied ethics and surprised to see his arguments deployed on one side of these controversies. Yet these are worthy debates, and Kant is more than just a famous name that we can cite as a token of respectability when we want to emphasize abstract duties and rights. In this case, intellectual history and practical ethics come somewhat apart. Kant may have been thinking about theodicy (how can God be good if there is evil in the world?), but we can find ethical advice in his principles and examples.

See also: qualms about Effective Altruism; why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; etc,.