October: A Philosophy Paper a Day

I’m going to read, at least, a paper (philosophy) a day for the month of October. So here’s my list of 31 papers (probably will read more, if I have time). Papers are not arranged in any particular order. I’ll read randomly or the ones that interest me in any particular day. I’ll include some paragraphs or quotes, that I find interesting, under the papers. Leave your recommendations in the comments below.

1. ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’ by James Rachels (NEJM, 1975) 

The doctrine that says a baby may be allowed to dehydrate and wither, but may not be given an injection that would end its life without suffering, seems so patently cruel as to require no further refutation. The strong language is not intended to offend, but only to put the point in the clearest possible way.

. . .

Consider again the case of the infants with Down’s syndrome who need operations for congenital defects unrelated to the syndrome to live. Sometimes, there is no operation, and the baby dies, but when there is no such defect, the baby lives on. Now, an operation such as that to remove an intestinal obstruction is not prohibitively difficult. The reason why such operations are not performed in these cases is, clearly, that the child has Down’s syndrome and the parents and the doctor judge that because of that fact it is better for the child to die.

But notice that this situation is absurd, no matter what view one takes of the lives and potentials of such babies. If the life of such an infant is worth preserving what does it matter if it needs a simple operation? Or, if one thinks it better that such a baby should not live on, what difference does it make that it happens to have an unobstructed intestinal tract? In either case, the matter of life and death is being decided on irrelevant grounds. It is the Down’s syndrome, and not the intestines, that is the issue. The matter should be decided, if at all, on that basis, and not be allowed to depend on the essentially irrelevant question of whether the intestinal tract is blocked.

What makes this situation possible, of course, is the idea that when there is an intestinal blockage, one can ‘let the baby die’, but when there is no such defect there is nothing that can be done, for one must not ‘kill’ it. The fact that this idea leads to such results as deciding life or death on irrelevant grounds is another good reason why the doctrine would be rejected.

2. ‘A Defense of Abortion’ by Judith Jarvis Thomson (Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1971)

3. ‘Why Abortion is Immoral’ by Don Marquis (The Journal of Philosophy, 1989)

Kant believed that we do not have direct duties to animals at all, because they are not persons. Hence, Kant had to explain and justify the wrongness of inflicting pain on animals on the grounds that “he who is hard in his dealings with animals becomes hard also in his dealing with men.” The problem with Kant’s account is that there seems to be no reason for accepting this latter claim unless Kant’s account is rejected. If the alternative to Kant’s account is accepted, then it is easy to understand why someone who is indifferent to inflicting pain on animals is also indifferent to inflicting pain on humans, for one is indifferent to what makes inflicting pain wrong in both cases. But, if Kant’s account is accepted, there is no intelligible reason why one who is hard in his dealings with animals (or crabgrass or stones) should also be hard in his dealings with men. After all, men are persons: animals are no more persons than crabgrass or stones. Persons are Kant’s crucial moral category. Why, in short, should a Kantian accept the basic claim in Kant’s argument? 

4. ‘Abortion and Infanticide’ by Michael Tooley (Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972)

…the expression “right to life” is not entirely a happy one, since it suggests that the right in question concerns the continued existence of a biological organism. That this is incorrect can be brought out by considering possible ways of violating an individual’s right to life. Suppose, for example, that by some technology of the future the brain of an adult human were to be completely reprogrammed, so that the organism wound up with memories (or rather, apparent memories), beliefs, attitudes, and personality traits completely different from those associated with it before it was subjected to reprogramming. In such a case one would surely say that an individual had been destroyed, that an adult human’s right to life had been violated, even though no biological organism had been killed. This example shows that the expression “right to life” is misleading, since what one is really concerned about is not just the continued existence of a biological organism, but the right of a subject of experiences and other mental states to continue to exist.

. . .

Action involves effort, while inaction usually does not. It usually does not require any effort on my part to refrain from killing someone, but saving someone’s life will require an expenditure of energy. One must then ask how large a sacrifice a person is morally required to make to save the life of another. If the sacrifice of time and energy is quite large it may be that one is not morally obliged to save the life of another in that situation. Superficial reflection upon such cases might easily lead us to introduce the distinction between positive and negative duties, but again it is clear that this would be a mistake. The point is not that one has a greater duty to refrain from killing others than to perform positive actions that will save them. It is rather that positive actions require effort, and this means that in deciding what to do a person has to take into account his own right to do what he wants with his life, and not only the other person’s right to life. To avoid this confusion, we should confine ourselves to comparisons between situations in which the positive action involves minimal effort.

. . .

Once one reflects upon the question of the basic moral principles involved in the ascription of a right to life to organisms, one may find himself driven to conclude that our everyday treatment of animals is morally indefensible, and that we are in fact murdering innocent persons.

5. ‘It Makes No Difference Whether or Not I Do It’ by Jonathan Glover (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1975)

A morality is not incoherent simply because, in its own terms, it would be better not propagated. I can consistently adhere to a morality which, among other things, enjoins me to practise it secretly. It is true that, if much of the morality is esoteric in this way, the bad effects on me of deceiving others will start to operate. But if the cases where deception will be justified are as few as I think they are, I can allow for them in my consequentialist calculations. Sidgwick put the matter in an engaging sentence: ‘Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric.’ Sidgwick appropriately buried this sentence in page 490 of The Methods of Ethics.

6. ‘Overpopulation and the Quality of Life’ by Derek Parfit (J. Ryberg & T. Tännsjö (eds.), The Repugnant Conclusion)

Suppose that, as a Negative Utilitarian, I believe that all that matters morally is the relief or prevention of suffering. It is pointed out to me that, on my view, it would be best if all life on Earth was painlessly destroyed, since only this would ensure that there would be no more suffering. And suppose I agreed that this would be a very bad outcome. Could I say: ‘It is true that this very bad outcome would, according to my moral view, be the best outcome. But this is no objection to my view, since we are not in fact able to bring about this outcome’? This would be no defence. On my view, I ought to regret our inability to bring about this outcome. Whether my view is plausible cannot depend on what is technically possible. Since this view implies that the destruction of all life on Earth would be the best outcome, if I firmly believe that this outcome would be very bad, I should reject this view.

. . .

The Repugnant Conclusion: Compared with the existence of very many people— say, ten billion— all of whom have a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger number of people whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though these people would have lives that are barely worth living.

7. ‘The Extended Mind’ by Andy Clark and David Chalmers (Analysis, 1998)

If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process. Cognitive processes ain’t (all) in the head!

8. ‘What is It Like to Be a Bat?’ by Thomas Nagel (The Philosophical Review, 1974)

Experience itself, however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense here. What is the analogue in this case to pursuing a more objective understanding of the same phenomena by abandoning the initial subjective viewpoint toward them in favor of another that is more objective but concerns the same thing? Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity -that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint-does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.

. . .

Usually, when we are told that X is Y we know how it is supposed to be true, but that depends on a conceptual or theoretical background and is not conveyed by the “is” alone. We know how both “X” and “Y” refer, and the kinds of things to which they refer, and we have a rough idea how the two referential paths might converge on a single thing, be it an object, a person, a process, an event, or whatever. But when the two terms of the identification are very disparate it may not be so clear how it could be true. We may not have even a rough idea of how the two referential paths could converge, or what kind of things they might converge on, and a theoretical framework may have to be supplied to enable us to understand this. Without the framework, an air of mysticism surrounds the identification. This explains the magical flavor of popular presentations of fundamental scientific discoveries, given out as propositions to which one must subscribe without really understanding them. For example, people are now told at an early age that all matter is really energy. But despite the fact that they know what “is” means, most of them never form a conception of what makes this claim true, because they lack the theoretical background.

9. ‘Minds, Brains, and Programs’ by John Searle (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1980)

“Could a machine think?” My own view is that only a machine could think, and indeed only very special kinds of machines, namely brains and machines that had the same causal powers as brains. And that is the main reason strong AI has had little to tell us about thinking, since it has nothing to tell us about machines. By its own definition, it is about programs, and programs are not machines. Whatever else intentionality is, it is a biological phenomenon, and it is as likely to be as causally dependent on the specific biochemistry of its origins as lactation, photosynthesis, or any other biological phenomena. No one would suppose that we could produce milk and sugar by running a computer simulation of the formal sequences in lactation and photosynthesis, but where the mind is concerned many people are willing to believe in such a miracle because of a deep and abiding dualism: the mind they suppose is a matter of formal processes and is independent of quite specific material causes in the way that milk and sugar are not.

10. ‘Sensations and Brain Processes’ by J.J.C. Smart (The Philosophical Review, 1959)

There does seem to be, so far as science is concerned, nothing in the world but increasingly complex arrangements of physical constituents. All except for one place: in consciousness. That is, for a full description of what is going on in a man you would have to mention not only the physical processes in his tissue, glands, nervous system, and so forth, but also his states of consciousness: his visual, auditory, and tactual sensations, his aches and pains. That these should be correlated with brain processes does not help, for to say that they are correlated is to say that they are something “over and above.” You cannot correlate something with itself. 

11. ‘Beyond the Fact-Value Dichotomy’ by Hilary Putnam (Critica, 1982)

The fact is that the notions of “being a standard of a culture” and “being in accord with the standards of a culture” are as difficult notions (epistemically speaking) as we possess. To treat these sorts of facts as the ground floor to which all talk of objectivity and relativity is to be reduced is a strange disease (a sort of scientism which comes from the social sciences as opposed to the sort of scientism which comes from physics).

. . .

Logical Positivism maintained that nothing can have cognitive significance unless it contributes, however indirectly, to predicting the sensory stimulations that are our ultimate epistemological starting point (in empiricist philosophy). I say that that statement itself does not contribute, even indirectly, to improving our capacity to predict anything. Not even when conjoined to boundary conditions, or to scientific laws, or to appropriate mathematics, or to all of these at once, does Positivist philosophy or any other philosophy imply an observation sentence. In short, Positivism is self-refuting.

12. ‘What Experience Teaches’ by David Lewis (David Lewis, Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology)

What might the subject matter of phenomenal information be? If the Hypothesis of Phenomenal Information is true, then you have an easy answer: it is information about experience. More specifically, it is information about a certain part or aspect or feature of experience. But if the Hypothesis is false, then there is still experience (complete with all its parts and aspects and features) and yet no information about experience is phenomenal information. So it cannot be said in a neutral way, without presupposing the Hypothesis, that information about experience is phenomenal information. For if the Hypothesis is false and Materialism is true, it may be that all the information there is about experience is physical information, and can very well be presented in lessons for the inexperienced.

13. ‘Materialism and Qualia: The Explanatory Gap’ by Joseph Levine (Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 1983)

Rather than identifying types of mental states with types of physical states, functionalists identify the former with types of functional, or what Boyd calls “configurational” states. Functional states are more abstract than physical states, and are capable of realization in a wide variety of physical constitutions. In terms of the computer metaphor, which is behind many functionalist views, our mentality is a matter of the way we are “programmed,” our “software,” whereas our physiology is a matter of our “hardware.” On this view, the intuition that pain could exist without C-fibers is explained in terms of the multiple realizability of mental states.

. . .

Materialism, as I understand it, implies explanatory reductionism of at least this minimal sort: that for every phenomenon not describable in terms of the fundamental physical magnitudes (whatever they turn out to be), there is a mechanism that is describable in terms of the fundamental physical magnitudes such that occurrences of the former are intelligible in terms of occurrences of the latter. While this minimal reductionism does not imply anything about the reducibility of theories like psychology to physics, it does imply that brute facts— of the sort exemplified by the value of G — will not arise in the domain of theories like psychology.

14. ‘Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility’ by Harry Frankfurt (The Journal of Philosophy, 1969)

15. ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ by Alan Turing (Mind, 1950)

This special property of digital computers, that they can mimic any discrete-state machine, is described by saying that they are universal machines. The existence of machines with this property has the important consequence that, considerations of speed apart, it is unnecessary to design various new machines to do various computing processes. They can all be done with one digital computer, suitably programmed for each case. It will be seen that as a consequence of this all digital computers are in a sense equivalent.

16. ‘Brains in a Vat’ by Hilary Putnam (Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History)

17. ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’ by Nick Bostrom (Philosophical Quarterly, 2003)

A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human‐ level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor‐simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor‐simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).

18. ‘The Hornswoggle Problem’ by Patricia Churchland (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1996)

Beginning with Thomas Nagel, various philosophers have proposed setting conscious experience apart from all other problems of the mind as ‘the most difficult problem’. When critically examined, the basis for this proposal reveals itself to be unconvincing and counter-productive. Use of our current ignorance as a premise to determine what we can never discover is one common logical flaw. Use of ‘I-cannot-imagine’ arguments is a related flaw. When not much is known about a domain of phenomena, our inability to imagine a mechanism is a rather uninteresting psychological fact about us, not an interesting metaphysical fact about the world. Rather than worrying too much about the meta-problem of whether or not consciousness is uniquely hard, I propose we get on with the task of seeing how far we get when we address neurobiologically the problems of mental phenomena.

. . .

My lead-off reservation arises from this question: what is the rationale for drawing the division exactly there? Dividing off consciousness from all of the so-called ‘easy problems’ listed above implies that we could understand all those phenomena and still not know what it was for . . . what? The ‘qualia-light’ to go on? ? Is that an insightful conceptualization? What exactly is the evidence that we could explain all the ‘easy’ phenomena and still not understand the neural mechanisms for consciousness? (Call this the ‘left-out’ hypothesis.) That someone can imagine the possibility is not evidence for the real possibility. It is only evidence that somebody or other believes it to be a possibility.

The left-out hypothesis — that consciousness would still be a mystery, even if we could explain all the easy problems — is dubious on another count: it begs the question against those theories that are exploring the possibility that functions such as attention and short-term memory are crucial elements in the consciousness (see especially Crick, 1994; P.M. Churchland, 1995). The rationale sustaining this approach stems from observations such as that awake persons can be unaware of stimuli to which they are not paying attention, but can become aware those stimuli when attention shifts. There is a vast psychological literature, and a nontrivial neuroscientific literature, on this topic. Some of it powerfully suggests that attention and awareness are pretty closely connected. The approach might of course be wrong, for it is an empirical conjecture. But if it is wrong, it is wrong because of the facts, not because of an arm-chair definition.

. . .

What drives the left-out hypothesis? Essentially, a thought-experiment, which roughly goes as follows: we can conceive of a person, like us in all the aforementioned easy-to-explain capacities (attention, short term memory, etc.), but lacking qualia. This person would be exactly like us, save that he would be a Zombie — an anaqualiac, one might say. Since the scenario is conceivable, it is possible, and since it is possible, then whatever consciousness is, it is explanatorily independent of those activities.

I take this argument to be a demonstration of the feebleness of thought-experiments. Saying something is possible does not thereby guarantee it is a possibility, so how do we know the anaqualiac idea is really possible? To insist that it must be is simply to beg the question at issue. As Francis Crick has observed, it might be like saying that one can imagine a possible world where gases do not get hot, even though their constituent molecules are moving at high velocity. As an argument against the empirical identification of temperature.

. . .

From the fact that we do not know something, nothing very interesting follows — we just don’t know. Nevertheless, the temptation to suspect that our ignorance is telling us something positive, something deep, something metaphysical or even radical, is everpresent. Perhaps we like to put our ignorance in a positive light, supposing that but for the Profundity of the phenomenon, we would have knowledge. But there are many reasons for not knowing, and the specialness of the phenomenon is, quite regularly, not the real reason. I am currently ignorant of what caused an unusual rapping noise in the woods last night. Can I conclude it must be something special, something unimaginable, something . . . alien . . . other-worldly? Evidently not. For all I can tell now, it might merely have been a raccoon gnawing on the compost bin. Lack of evidence for something is just that: lack of evidence. It is not positive evidence for something else, let alone something of a humdingerish sort. That conclusion is not very glamorous perhaps, but when ignorance is a premise, that is about all you can grind out of it.

. . .

Whether we can or cannot imagine a phenomenon being explained in a certain way is a psychological fact about us, not an objective fact about the nature of the phenomenon itself. To repeat: it is an epistemological fact about what, given our current knowledge, we can and cannot understand. It is not a metaphysical fact about the nature of the reality of the universe.

19. ‘Quining Qualia’ by Daniel Dennett (A. Marcel and E. Bisiach (eds.), Consciousness in Modern Science)

20. ‘Where am I?’ by Daniel Dennett (Daniel Dennett, Brainstorms)

21. ‘Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind’ by Karl Popper (Dialectica, 1978)

All organisms are constant problem solvers; even though they are not conscious of most of the problems they are trying to solve.

. . .

The fact that the theory of natural selection is difficult to test has led some people, anti-Darwinists and even some great Darwinists, to claim that it is a tautology. A tautology like “All tables are tables” is not, of course, testable; nor has it any explanatory power. It is therefore most surprising to hear that some of the greatest contemporary Darwinists themselves formulate the theory in such a way that it amounts to the tautology that those organisms that leave most offspring leave most offspring. And C. H. Waddington even says somewhere (and he defends this view in other places) that “Natural selection . . . turns out . . . to be a tautology”. However, he attributes at the same place to the theory an “enormous power . . . of explanation”. Since the explanatory power of a tautology is obviously zero, something must be wrong here.

. . .

we produce conjectures, or hypotheses, try them out, and reject those that do not fit. This is a method of critical selection, if we look at it closely. From a distance, it looks like instruction or, as it is usually called, induction.

. . .

I suggest that downward causation can sometimes at least be explained as selection operating on the randomly fluctuating elementary particles. The randomness of the movements of the elementary particles – often called “molecular chaos” – provides, as it were, the opening for the higher-level structure to interfere. A random movement is accepted when it fits into the higher level structure; otherwise it is rejected.

. . .

…the behaviour of animals, like that of computers, is programmed; but that unlike computers, animals are self-programmed. The fundamental genetic self-programme is, we may assume, laid down in the coded DNA tape. There are also acquired programmes, programmes due to nurture; but what can be acquired and what cannot – the repertoire of possible acquisitions – is itself laid down in the form of the fundamental genetic self-programme, which may even determine the probability or propensity of making an acquisition.

. . .

Let our conjectures, our theories die in our stead!

22. ‘The Defense of Rationalism’ by Karl Popper (David Miller, Popper Selections)

I am entirely on the side of rationalism. This is so much the case that even where I feel that rationalism has gone too far I still sympathize with it, holding as I do that an excess in this direction (as long as we exclude the intellectual immodesty of Plato’s pseudorationalism) is harmless indeed as compared with an excess in the other. In my opinion, the only way in which excessive rationalism is likely to prove harmful is that it tends to undermine its own position and thus to further an irrationalist reaction. It is only this danger which induces me to examine the claims of an excessive rationalism more closely and to advocate a modest and self-critical rationalism which recognizes certain limitations.

. . .

Uncritical or comprehensive rationalism can be described as the attitude of the person who says ‘I am not prepared to accept anything that cannot be defended by means of argument or experience’. We can express this also in the form of the principle that any assumption which cannot be supported either by argument or by experience is to be discarded. Now it is easy to see that this principle of an uncritical rationalism is inconsistent; for since it cannot, in its turn, be supported by argument or by experience, it implies that it should itself be discarded. (It is analogous to the paradox of the liar, i.e. to a sentence which asserts its own falsity.) Uncritical rationalism is therefore logically untenable; and since a purely logical argument can show this, uncritical rationalism can be defeated by its own chosen weapon, argument. This criticism may be generalized. Since all argument must proceed from assumptions, it is plainly impossible to demand that all assumptions should be based on argument. The demand raised by many philosophers that we should start with no assumption whatever and never assume anything without ‘sufficient reason’, and even the weaker demand that we should start with a very small set of assumptions (‘categories’), are both in this form inconsistent. For they themselves rest upon the truly colossal assumption that it is possible to start without, or with only a few assumptions, and still to obtain results that are worth while.

. . .

…no rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.

. . .

Now the adoption of an anti-equalitarian attitude in political life, i.e. in the field of problems concerned with the power of man over man, is just what I should call criminal. For it offers a justification of the attitude that different categories of people have different rights; that the master has the right to enslave the slave; that some men have the right to use others as their tools. Ultimately, it will be used, as in Plato, to justify murder. I do not overlook the fact that there are irrationalists who love mankind, and that not all forms of irrationalism engender criminality. But I hold that he who teaches that not reason but love should rule opens the way for those who rule by hate. (Socrates, I believe, saw something of this when he suggested that mistrust or hatred of argument is related to mistrust or hatred of man.)

. . .

Loving a person means wishing to make him happy. (This, by the way, was Thomas Aquinas’s definition of love.) But of all political ideals, that of making the people happy is perhaps the most dangerous one. It leads invariably to the attempt to impose our scale of ‘higher’ values upon others, in order to make them realize what seems to us of greatest importance for their happiness; in order, as it were, to save their souls. It leads to Utopianism and Romanticism. We all feel certain that everybody would be happy in the beautiful, the perfect community of our dreams. And no doubt, there would be heaven on earth if we could all love one another. But the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.

23. ‘Knowledge without Authority’ by Karl Popper (Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations)

…all observation involves interpretation in the light of our theoretical knowledge, or that pure observational knowledge, unadulterated by theory, would, if at all possible, be utterly barren and futile.

. . .

…the empiricist’s questions ‘How do you know? What is the source of your assertion?’ are wrongly put. They are not formulated in an inexact or slovenly manner, but they are entirely misconceived: they are questions that beg for an authoritarian answer….They can be compared with that traditional question of political theory, ‘Who should rule?’, which begs for an authoritarian answer such as ‘the best’, or ‘the wisest’, or ‘the people’, or ‘the majority’. (It suggests, incidentally, such silly alternatives as ‘Who should be our rulers: the capitalists or the workers?’, analogous to ‘What is the ultimate source of knowledge: the intellect or the senses?’) This political question is wrongly put and the answers which it elicits are paradoxical. It should be replaced by a completely different question such as ‘How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers (whom we should try not to get, but whom we so easily might get all the same) cannot do too much damage?’ I believe that only by changing our question in this way can we hope to proceed towards a reasonable theory of political institutions.

The question about the sources of our knowledge can be replaced in a similar way. It has always been asked in the spirit of: ‘What are the best sources of our knowledge – the most reliable ones, those which will not lead us into error, and those to which we can and must turn, in case of doubt, as the last court of appeal?’ I propose to assume, instead, that no such ideal sources exist – no more than ideal rulers – and that all ‘sources’ are liable to lead us into error at times. And I propose to replace, therefore, the question of the sources of our knowledge by the entirely different question: ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error? The question of the sources of our knowledge, like so many authoritarian questions, is a genetic one. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may legitimize itself by its pedigree. The nobility of the racially pure knowledge, the untainted knowledge, the knowledge which derives from the highest authority, if possible from God: these are the (often unconscious) metaphysical ideas behind the question. My modified question, ‘How can we hope to detect error?’ may be said to derive from the view that such pure, untainted and certain sources do not exist, and that questions of origin or of purity should not be confounded with questions of validity, or of truth.

The proper answer to my question ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?’ is, I believe, ‘By criticizing the theories or guesses of others and – if we can train ourselves to do so – by criticizing our own theories or guesses.’ (The latter point is highly desirable, but not indispensable; for if we fail to criticize our own theories, there may be others to do it for us.) This answer sums up a position which I propose to call ‘critical rationalism’.

. . .

So my answer to the questions ‘How do you know? What is the source or the basis of your assertion? What observations have led you to it?’ would be: ‘I do not know: my assertion was merely a guess. Never mind the source, or the sources, from which it may spring – there are many possible sources, and I may not be aware of half of them; and origins or pedigrees have in any case little bearing upon truth. But if you are interested in the problem which I tried to solve by my tentative assertion, you may help me by criticizing it as severely as you can; and if you can design some experimental test which you think might refute my assertion, I shall gladly, and to the best of my powers, help you to refute it.’ 

24. ‘Is Act-Utilitarianism Self-Defeating?’ by Peter Singer (The Philosophical Review, 1972)

25. ‘A Defense of Rule Utilitarianism against David Lyons who Insists on Tieing it to Act Utilitarianism, Plus a Brand New Way of Checking out General Utilitarian Properties’ by Gertrude Ezorsky (The Journal of Philosophy, 1968)

Rule Utilitarians are, if anything, teleologists. Values, as far as they are concerned, are bound up with the effects of actions. So RUians have a right to interest themselves only in those properties of actions which are causally consequential. A property that fails to contribute causally to the effects of a performance can be dismissed by the RUian as irrelevant.

26. ‘On Refined Utilitarianism’ by Gertrude Ezorsky (The Journal of Philosophy, 1981)

27. ‘A Modified Concept of Consciousness’ by R.W. Sperry (Psychological Review, 1969)

…the individual nerve impulses and associated elemental excitatory events are obliged to operate within larger circuit-system configurations of which they as individuals are only a part. These larger functional entities have their own dynamics in cerebral activity with their own qualities and properties. They interact causally with one another at their own level as entities. It is the emergent dynamic properties of certain of these higher specialized cerebral processes that are interpreted to be the substance of consciousness.

. . .

The subjective mental phenomena are conceived to influence and to govern the flow of nerve impulse traffic by virtue of their encompassing emergent properties. Individual nerve impulses and other excitatory components of a cerebral activity pattern are simply carried along or shunted this way and that by the prevailing overall dynamics of the whole active process (in principle— just as drops of water are carried along by a local eddy in a stream or the way the molecules and atoms of a wheel are carried along when it rolls down hill, regardless of whether the individual molecules and atoms happen to like it or not). 

28. ‘Secrecy in Consequentialism: A Defence of Esoteric Morality’ by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer (Ratio, 2010)

…consequentialists may, to bring about the best consequences, need to discourage others from embracing consequentialism. Though they are ready to justify their criterion of moral rightness – the best possible consequence – and the correctness of consequentialism as a criterion of right action, they may state that people should adopt other criteria (or also other criteria) as a guide to action as that will produce the best consequences.

. . .

A second reason for rejecting Williams’ critique is that it is unrealistic to think that it would follow from a consequentialist theory that no one should try to act in accordance with its criterion of rightness. Again along with Parfit, we believe that a consequentialist theory is likely to be only partially self-effacing (though it is also partly esoteric). There are, and will be, people who believe in the principle of consequentialism and its rightness and who try to act to maximize general good. We doubt that the world would be a better place if no one was a consequentialist. Utilitarians have made the world a better place: Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick are among these, along with many other utilitarian reformers. In addition, as Peter Railton argues, consequentialism is more flexible than many deontological theories. It allows us to avoid any sort of ‘self-defeating decision procedure worship’ by taking into account the consequences of using particular decision procedures.

29. ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect’ by Philippa Foot (The Oxford Review, 1967)

30. ‘Death’ by Thomas Nagel (Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions)

Essentially, though there may be problems about their specification, what we find desirable in life are certain states, conditions, or types of activity. It is being alive, doing certain things, having certain experiences, that we consider good. But if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or non-existent, or unconscious, that is objectionable. This asymmetry is important. If it is good to be alive, that advantage can be attributed to a person at each point of his life.

. . .

Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural life-span and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open- ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer. Suppose that we were all inevitably going to die in agony— physical agony lasting six months. Would inevitability make that prospect any less unpleasant? And why should it be different for a deprivation? If the normal life-span were a thousand years, death at 80 would be a tragedy. As things are, it may just be a more widespread tragedy. If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.

31. ‘Human Being: The Boundaries of the Concept’ by Lawrence C. Becker (Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1975)

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