I Suppose This Is a Hobby

I retired almost thirteen years ago and have rarely thought about getting a job, even a part-time job, since. But it appears I’ve settled on a hobby, without really intending to. This blog has been part of it for twelve years. Another part is a philosophical “book” about perspective (or points of view) I’ve been “working on” for almost ten years. The other part is lots and lots of comments I’ve spread around the internet.

Many of these comments have been deposited at an interesting site called Three Quarks Daily. It’s mainly an aggregator. They link to articles of intellectual interest at other sites. They also have a Monday Magazine, which features original content.

Untitled

The site is free, although a “one-time donation” or “small monthly payment” makes advertisements disappear. Most of us don’t need more to read on the internet or elsewhere, but I highly recommend 3 Quarks Daily.

What led me to writing this post is that I spent part of last night and most of this afternoon responding to four articles at 3 Quarks (which is more than average output for me).

The first was a response to a Guardian article called “The Federal Reserve Says Its Remedies For Inflation ‘Will Cause Pain’, But To Whom?”. At 3 Quarks, I merely quoted some of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent dialogue with the Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell:

Warren asked Powell if Fed rate increases will lower gas prices, which have hit record highs this month. “I would not think so,” Powell said.

Warren asked if grocery prices will go down because of the Fed’s war on inflation. “I wouldn’t say so, no,” Powell said.

“Rate hikes won’t make Putin turn his tanks around and leave Ukraine,” Warren said, adding that they won’t break up corporate monopolies or stop Covid-19.

“Inflation is like an illness and the medicine needs to be tailored to the specific problem, otherwise you could make things a lot worse,” Warren said. ” … the Fed can slow demand by getting a lot of people fired and making families poorer.”

The Massachusetts Democrat urged Powell to proceed cautiously with further rate hikes.: “You know what’s worse than high inflation and low unemployment? It’s high inflation with a recession and millions of people out of work”.

Next was a response to an article at Aeon called “Armchair science: Thought experiments played a crucial role in the history of science. But do they tell us anything about the real world?”

I disagreed with one of the philosophers quoted in the article, James Robert Brown of the University of Toronto. He said he was extremely impressed with Galileo’s thoughts regarding falling objects. 

Suppose we connect the two objects [a musket-ball and a heavier cannonball] with a short, stiff rod. One could argue that the lighter musket-ball acts as a brake on the heavier cannonball, slowing its fall. Then again, one could also argue that the composite body, whose weight is equal to the sum of the two original bodies, must fall faster than either body alone. This is obviously a contradiction. The only solution, Galileo says, is that all bodies fall at the same rate, independent of their weight.

“I fell out of my chair when I heard it,” Brown said. ‘”It was the most wonderful intellectual experience perhaps of my entire life.” Brown went on to become a leading authority on thought experiments.

At Three Quarks Daily, I expressed skepticism, concluding that Galileo’s thought experiments didn’t prove anything except that it was worth getting empirical evidence on the question (trying it out) before reaching a conclusion.

Number 3 concerned an original article at Three Quarks written by Thomas R. Wells, a “British academic philosopher living in the Netherlands”. He called his article “We Should Fix Climate Change, But We Should Not Regret It”.

Mr. Wells argues that the climate crisis began with the Industrial Revolution, but we shouldn’t regret the Industrial Revolution because of what it’s led to. I’m not sure any sane environmentalists actually regret the Industrial Revolution. I left the fifth comment:

We can agree the Industrial Revolution was a good thing, while also noting that climate change [is] the result of regrettable choices we made along the way, not by starting the Industrial Revolution, but by ignoring our effect on the climate, even though scientists discovered that effect decades ago.

We could have made this a “vastly better world for most people” without making it a vastly worse world for so many other living things. Not exactly coining a phrase, but other living things matter.

Finally, another Three Quarks contributor, Mike Bendzela, who I believe teaches in the English department at the University of South Maine, published an article today called “Abort All Thought That Life Begins”. He argues that there is no such thing as the “beginning of life”. Life has always developed as a gradual process without any particular beginning (its ending isn’t always clear either).

As you might expect, this article has elicited a variety of comments (they’re still landing). I responded to another reader this way:

Justice Blackmun, who wrote the Roe v Wade opinion, shared an internal memo with the other justices before the majority decision was published. He wrote “You will observe that I have concluded that the end of the first trimester is critical. This is arbitrary, but perhaps any other selected point, such as quickening or viability, is equally arbitrary.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wi…]

… I believe the author … is making the point that any decision regarding a moment when there is “conversion from not human to human” is somewhat (or totally) arbitrary. I’d say the transition from “not human enough” to “human enough” is a matter of convention.

That’s how the five Republicans and two Democrats on the Court ruled in 1973 — they came to a nuanced agreement based on trimesters and viability. It was a reasonable compromise that worked well enough for 50 years, until the Court was corruptly (after Senatorial hypocrisy and lies told to the Judiciary committee) taken over by ideologues.

I see that the person I responded to has now responded to me. Once more unto the breach…

I’ve never read all of Roe v. Wade or the dissents, and I know some lawyers and scholars who oppose forced births (women who get pregnant being compelled by the state to eventually give birth) disagree with the Roe majority’s legal reasoning.

However, as others have pointed out, the 9th Amendment to the Constitution says: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”. Even though the Constitution doesn’t mention a right to privacy, or pregnancy or abortion for that matter, I agree with Tim Quick above that we all have certain fundamental rights, including the ones he mentioned that justify women and their doctors sometimes ending a pregnancy without interference from the government.

If topics like these interest you, I recommend Three Quarks Daily. You don’t have to read the comments.

Even If a Fetus Is a Person (It’s Not), a Woman Still Has Rights

A fertilized egg isn’t yet a person, despite beliefs, mainly religious, to the contrary. But what if we assume that it is? What would that mean with regard to a pregnant woman’s rights? Alec Walen is a philosophy professor with a law degree. He explains:

The discussion in the media in the wake of the leaked draft opinion making it plain that Roe v. Wade will fall has focused on the impact the decision will have on women who will lose the right to abortion in many states, the potential political impact of the decision, and what other rights may fall next. What’s missing is a discussion of the legal implications of taking the view of the fetus that was upheld in Justice Alito’s draft, that it is an “unborn human being,” i.e., a person.

Saying that fetal personhood is inconsistent with a right to abortion opens up deep moral tensions in the law. These tensions can be resolved in one of three ways. The right way to resolve these tensions is also something that we, as a society, need to examine.

The tensions result from an observation made by [the philosopher] Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971: if a woman is forced to carry a fetus to term—forced by threat of prosecution, either of abortion providers or perhaps of her—then she is forced to serve as the unwilling life support system for this other person. The problem is that the freedom not to have to serve others is a fundamental principle in our law.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution holds that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” As Justice Hughes explained in 1911, in Bailey v. Alabama, “The plain intention [of the Thirteenth Amendment] was to… make labor free, by prohibiting that control by which the personal service of one man is disposed of or coerced for another’s benefit which is the essence of involuntary servitude.”

Forcing a woman to serve as the life support system for a fetus for up to nine months, when she does not want to do so, flatly runs up against this fundamental principle. The question is: are there other exceptions, other than that listed in the Thirteenth Amendment itself—as punishment for a crime—that can be defended.

Option 1: Revise two basic limits regarding service.

First limit: on specific performance.

One argument that is sometimes made on behalf of requiring women to carry a fetus to term is that parents have a general duty to care for their children. We require fathers to provide child support after a child is born even if the father would have wanted the pregnancy aborted or the child given up for adoption. If we can require fathers to care for children financially, then we can require women to carry them to term before choosing whether to raise them or give them up for adoption.

But there is a long-standing distinction in the law between requiring monetary payments, when the person has the means to make them, and providing specific performance. Child support payments are tied to the income of the father or, more broadly, the non-custodial parent. A father can be required to work to provide financial support for his children, but he cannot be forced to do some specific task. This is quite different from forcing a woman to carry a child in her body. The degrees of freedom left to fathers, to find a job that suits them, are qualitatively different from the specific, often dangerous performance of the “job” of carrying an unwanted fetus to term.

One might respond that specific performance is required of parents: they have to feed their children and take them to the doctor when they are sick. Failure to do these things can lead to charges as severe as murder if the child dies.

The problem with this response is that these specific, positive duties are contingent on being a custodial parent. At least in our society—and in the vision of Justice Barrett—parents should be free to choose whether to be custodial parents or not. If they give them up for adoption, then they lose all duties of care; if they choose not to play a custodial role but the other parent retains a custodial role, then they are responsible only for financial support. In other words, while it is true that parents can find themselves with duties of specific performance, that is only if they have chosen those duties.

Are we willing, then, to overturn the general ban on unchosen duties of specific performance?

Second limit: intrusions on bodily integrity

Bodily integrity is deeply important in the law. As Justice Cardozo wrote in 1914 . . . in the case called Schloendorff v. Society of New York Hospital, “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body.”

But a woman forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy has to endure an unwanted physical intrusion in her body. To equate the service required of a woman who carries an unwanted child to that of a father who has to pay child support within his means overlooks not only the specific performance dimension, but the fact that an unwanted fetus constitutes a bodily intrusion.

If we wanted a better analog to pregnancy, it would be giving up a kidney—a serious intrusion into the body, with small but serious health risks involved. We do not now require fathers to give up a kidney to save a child who might need one.

Are we willing to require fathers to put their bodies on the line in the same way as mothers?

 Option 2: Revision of the equality of the sexes

If we are not willing to make the two revisions just mentioned, there is another way to resolve the tensions raised by recognizing fetuses as persons and concluding that pregnant women may not choose to abort them: abandon the assumption that women have the same rights as men. We could say again, as once was clearly said, that women are not equal citizens. If they become pregnant, they have to serve the interests of the fetus they carry whether they want to or not. They have to carry burdens that fathers would never be asked to carry for their children.

One who finds this appealing might say: yes, and men have their own burdens to carry. God, they might say, made men and women different; men are built to fight and protect the home, women are built to bear and nurture children. This is the natural order of things.

This is a view that many find appealing. But it is a view greatly at odds with our modern, liberal, egalitarian conception of the law. It is a view closer to that of Gilead, the fictional dystopia in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than our current legal order.

Are we willing to cast aside our modern, liberal-egalitarian order for some variation on Gilead?

Option 3: Recognize the right to abort fetal persons

If we are unwilling to take options 1 or 2, the third option is to maintain the right to abortion.

Adopting this third option does not mean adopting the Roe framework, with its focus on fetal viability. It might allow the state to recognize the value of fetal life by, for example, giving women a limited time to decide whether they want to carry a fetus to term. If a woman discovers that she is pregnant and does not decide to abort within that window, then she has effectively chosen to bear a duty of specific performance. She thereby presumptively waives her right not to carry it to term.

This too would need further refinement, as unforeseen conditions might arise that should revive her right to abort. For example, she might discover that she suffers a medical condition that makes carrying the fetus to term vastly more difficult and dangerous than she expected. These details, too, should be part of our conversation.

But the bottom line is this: if we are unwilling to take option 1 or 2, some basic right to abortion should be retained even if we assume that fetuses are persons.

Unquote.

Judith Jarvis Thompson’s classic essay, “A Defense of Abortion” is available here.

What Was Putin Thinking?

Why did he miscalculate so badly? Greg Sargent of The Washington Post asked that question of historian Timothy Snyder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

Sargent: What is it about Putin’s way of seeing the world, and his understanding of his own mythologies, that made it inevitable that he’d underestimate the Western response?

Snyder: For me the most revealing text here is the victory declaration, which the Russian press agency accidentally published on Feb. 26. What they say is that the West just basically needed one more push to fall into total disarray.

If you watch Jan. 6 clips over and over again, you can get that impression. The Russians really have been fixated on Jan. 6.

They thought a successful military operation in Ukraine would be that nudge: We’d feel helpless, we’d fall into conflict, it would help D____ T____ in the U.S., it would help populists around the world.

Sargent: When you say Russia has been making a lot of Jan. 6 — what do they read into it?

Snyder: . . . T____’s attempt to overthrow the election on Jan. 6 made the American system look fragile. They think, “One more T____ and the Americans are done.” In invading Ukraine, they think they’re putting huge pressure on the Biden administration. They’re going to make Biden look weak.

That probably was their deep fantasy about the West: Successful military occupation in Ukraine; the Biden administration is totally impotent; we humiliate them; T____ comes back; this is a big strategic victory for us.

Sargent: There’s an essential through line from Jan. 6 to what we’re seeing now: Accountability for Jan. 6 becomes more important in this geopolitical context, where we’re reentering a conflict with Russia over whether liberal democracy is durable.

Snyder: . . . Putin’s idea about Ukraine is something like, “Ukrainian democracy is just a joke, I can overturn it easily. Everybody knows democracy and the rule of law are just a joke. What really matters are the capricious ideas of a tyrant. My capricious ideas happen to be that there are no Ukrainians. I’m going to send my army to make that true”.

That is much closer to the way T____ talks about politics than the way the average American talks about politics. I’m not saying T____ and Putin are exactly the same. But T____’s way of looking at the world — “there are no rules, nothing binds me” — that’s much closer to Putin. So there’s a very clear through line.

Sargent: . . . on some fundamental level, [Republicans aren’t] willing to forthrightly disavow Trump’s alignment with Putin and against Ukraine and the West.

Snyder: I have this faint hope that Ukraine allows some folks to look at domestic politics from a new angle.

When we were in the Cold War, one reason the civil rights movement had the success it did, and one reason we kept up a welfare state, was that we were concerned about the Soviet rival.

Russia is a radically anti-democratic country now. Not only has it done frightful things to its own society; it has invaded another country that happens to be an imperfect democracy. We’re also an imperfect democracy.

When you have to look straight at the reality that a big powerful country is aimed at taking imperfect democracies and wiping them out, that gives you pause. I’m hopeful the realization that democracy rises and falls internationally might change the conversation at some deeper level about how we carry out our own voting.

Sargent: Rising populism made Putin think Western liberal democracy was on the losing end of a grand struggle. But Biden and the Western allies may have seen that populism as a reason to get more galvanized and unified in response to the invasion.

Snyder: In Putin’s mind, there’s a kind of confusion of pluralism with weakness. He’s misjudged both Zelensky and Biden, who are both pluralists: They’re both willing to look at things from various points of view. That can look like a form of weakness.

But history also shows that you can be a resolute pluralist. . . . Zelensky and Biden both embody that: At the end of the day, this whole idea that we listen to each other is something that we’re going to defend.

People in Ukraine are used to being able to exchange views and listen or not listen to their own government. That’s the thing which makes them different from Russia right now. That’s not something Putin can see from a distance.

Sargent: You put your finger on something that’s been an anti-liberal trope for at least a century: That pluralism is in some sense crippling to the possibilities of resolute national action. Putin is steeped in that type of anti-liberal philosophy, isn’t he?

Snyder: Authoritarian regimes look efficient and attractive because they can make rapid decisions. But they often make rapid bad decisions — like the rapid bad decision to invade Ukraine. Putin made it with just a handful of people, so he could make that decision rapidly.

That’s the reason you want institutions, the rule of law and pluralism and public discussion: To avoid idiotic decisions like that.

He’s been working from a certain far-right Russian tradition — that the state and the leader are the same person, and there should be no institutional barriers to what the leader wants to do.

It’s important for us to see that this is the realization of a different model, which has its own logic.

Sargent: Paradoxically, we’re seeing that model’s decadence display itself.

Snyder: Of course the situation is dangerous right now. But a lot of the sparks that are flying out of Russian media are a result precisely of their own fear and their own sense of crisis.

Your word “decadence” is helpful here: When you’re decadent, what you say starts to depart more and more from the way the world actually is. Some Russian politicians are talking about how Poland needs to be taught a lesson. That’s alarming but it’s also unrealistic.

Sargent: I want to explore something you said to Ezra Klein: That in many ways, the response from the Western allies has been realistic and grounded, in that they aren’t trying to do too much. . . . 

Snyder: The thing that I’ve liked about the Biden administration is that they don’t have this metaphysical language that previous administrations have had about American power. They’ve stuck much closer to the ground.

They say, “We can’t do everything. But we can be creative and do a lot of things.”

By the way, that includes some stuff that we and others could go further on. We have to keep pouring arms into Ukraine, and the Europeans — now is the time to move forward on not buying oil and gas from Russia.

Sargent: What’s your sense of where this is all going?

Snyder: This war is happening because of the worldview and decisions of essentially one person. And I think it comes to an end when something shakes the worldview of that one person.

If the Ukrainians can get the upper hand and keep it for a few weeks, I think the worldview we have been talking about may start to shudder.

The right side has to be winning. That’s when we might have a settlement that ends this horrible war.

I’m Glad They Agree

If you express an opinion and somebody disagrees, they’ve given you an opportunity to change your mind. If the other person’s opinion is better than yours, you’ve learned something. That’s a positive outcome. There can also be a positive outcome if the other person agrees with you. It makes you feel good (although if you were wrong to begin with, agreement will just make the situation worse). 

I had two instances today where somebody agreed with me. This made me feel good (I’m going with the assumption that I wasn’t wrong to begin with).

First, the philosopher Justin E. H. Smith criticized the idea that we may be living in a computer simulation, in response to David Chalmers’s book Reality + (my contribution, not as elegant and with a lot fewer words, was “Reality, the Virtual Kind and the Unlikely Kind”):

According to Chalmers’s construal of the “it-from-bit” hypothesis, to be digital is in itself no grounds for being excluded from reality, and what we think of as physical objects may be both real and digital. One is in fact free to accept the first conjunct, and reject the latter, even though they are presented as practically equivalent. I myself am prepared to accept that a couch in VR [virtual reality] is a real couch — more precisely, a real digital couch, or at least that it may be real or reified in consequence of the way I relate to it. But this does not compel me to accept that the couch on which I am currently sitting is digital.

There is a persistent conflation of these two points throughout discussions of the so-called “simulation argument”, which Chalmers treats in several of his works but which is most strongly associated with the name of Nick Bostrom, who in 2003 published an influential article entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” … Here I just want to point out one significant feature of it that occurs early in the introduction and that the author seems to hope the reader will pass over smoothly without getting hung up on the problems it potentially opens up. Consciousness, Bostrom maintains, might arise among simulated people if, first of all, “the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained”, and, second of all, “a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct.”

What is this widely accepted position, you ask? … It is, namely, the view, which Bostrom calls “substrate-independence”, that “mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences.” Arguments for functionalism or computationalism have been given in the literature, Bostrom notes, and “while it is not entirely uncontroversial, we shall here take it as a given.”

It is of course possible that conscious experiences may be realized in a silicon substrate or in a complex arrangement of string and toilet-paper rolls, just as they may be realized in brains. But do we have any evidence that the arrangements that we have come up with for the machine-processing of information are in principle the kind of arrangements that, as they become more and more complex or fine-grained, cross over into conscious experience? In fact, there is very good reason to think that the appearance of consciousness in some evolved biological systems is the result of a very different sort of developmental history than anything we have seen so far since the dawn of artificial intelligence in the mid-twentieth century….

Unquote.

Second, Michael Tomasky of The New Republic responded to the Republican National Committee’s characterization of what happened on January 6, 2021, as “legitimate political discourse”:

It’s now official: The Republican Party is no longer a political party in any known American sense. Honestly, it hasn’t been for a quite some time, but with last week’s resolution condemning Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the party made it official. We don’t always grasp the historic importance of events in real time, but rest assured that future historians, assuming the United States remains enough of a democracy to have honest ones, will point to Friday, February 4 as a pivotal day in the party’s war on democracy….

The money quote in this episode is the line in the resolution that condemns Cheney and Kinzinger for “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” This is right out of 1984. When The New York Times reported that this meant that the RNC was referring to the January 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse,” RNC gauleiter Ronna McDaniel howled that of course she has condemned violence, and the legit discourse business referred to other stuff.

What other stuff, it’s hard to say. The text of the resolution didn’t leave room to interpretation. And the select committee on January 6 is not exactly investigating Republicans across the country who are, say, protesting mask mandates. In fact, it’s not investigating any kind of “discourse.” It’s looking specifically at actions by people on and around the date of the infamous riot….

The truth here is obvious: The party is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The obvious intent with that sentence is to minimize and legitimize what happened on January 6…. And now that T____ himself has said he may pardon everyone charged with January 6–related crimes, it was clear that McDaniel saw her job as aiding [him] in that project: If it’s the official party line that the insurrection was legitimate, then there’s nothing outrageous about pardons.

The Anti-Defamation League recently released a report finding that more than 100 Republican candidates on various ballots in 2022 have explicitly embraced extremism or violence … This is not some aberration that time will correct. It is a storm that will continue to gather strength, because it’s where the action and the money are, and no one in the GOP is opposing it—except the two people who were just essentially read out of the party….

The Republican Party … has become an appendage of T____ dedicated to doing his will and smiting his enemies. I had to laugh at the part of the resolution that denounced Joe Biden for his alleged pursuit of “socialism”…..

The Republican Party is further down the road to fascism than the Democrats are to socialism. And when, by the way, might Democrats start saying that? What are you waiting for, people? How much deeper does this crisis have to get before you start telling the American people the truth about what the GOP has become? It’s time to say it and to put Republicans on the defensive….We are at a moment of historical reckoning…. But Americans won’t know it, Democrats, unless you tell them.

Unquote. 

In other words: “When Do We All Get To Say They’re Fascists?”

Reality, the Virtual Kind and the Unlikely Kind

David Chalmers, the philosopher whose gravestone will probably say he came up with the phrase “the hard problem of consciousness”, has a new book out. It’s called Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. From the publisher’s blurb:

Virtual reality is genuine reality; that’s the central thesis of Reality+. In a highly original work of “technophilosophy,” David J. Chalmers gives a compelling analysis of our technological future. He argues that virtual worlds are not second-class worlds, and that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality. We may even be in a virtual world already.

The Three Quarks Daily site linked to an interview Prof. Chalmers gave to promote the book. 

When discussing simulations (like what we could be living in already), it’s helpful to keep in mind that there are at least two kinds. The first kind is what’s usually called “virtual reality”. It can be described as “not physically existing as such, but made by software to appear to do so”. Despite what Chalmers’s interviewer says, this type of virtual reality doesn’t raise a bunch of deep philosophical questions. The machines that created the Matrix in the movies did an amazing job, but from a philosophical perspective, so what? When he was plugged into the Matrix, fully immersed in what Chalmers calls “digital reality”, Neo was still an organism with a physical body. In the future Chalmers envisions, many of us might spend most of our time in a “place” like that. But lots of people play video games. They make friends playing those games, they spend money, they laugh, they cry. So what?

The second kind of virtual reality would look like the Matrix, but it would be very different, so different that it would deserve to be called something other than “virtual reality” (maybe it already is). It’s the kind the philosopher Nick Bostrom referred to in his famous Simulation Argument (quoting from a 2003 article): “You exist in a virtual reality simulated in a computer built by some advanced civilization. Your brain, too, is merely a part of that simulation”.

Bostrom’s argument assumes that “what allows you to have conscious experiences is not the fact that your brain is made of squishy biological matter but rather that it implements a certain computational architecture . . . This assumption is quite widely (although not universally) accepted among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind”.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t see any reason to think that consciousness is purely computational and that it could be created on a computer. Presumably, a being could be made out of silicon or whatever and be conscious (feel pain, for example) but I believe it would still require a physical body. Chalmers thinks otherwise, that “algorithmic creatures” that only exist as software running on a computer could be conscious. That assumes something about consciousness that isn’t necessarily true and is much different from saying you could build something like a human using non-standard material.