Thursday, February 26, 2009

Plantinga vs. Dennett

So, you are sitting in philosophy club on a random Monday afternoon listening to the philosophy faculty argue back and forth at a relenting speed and think to yourself, "Is this really what philosophers do?"


Last week, February 21st to be exact, at the Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Chicago Alvin Plantinga gave a paper and found himself in an intellectual joust with Daniel Dennett.

Succinctly, Alvin Plantinga gave a paper arguing that Christianity is compatible with evolution, and Daniel Dennett responded...with gusto.

A rather biased (but humorous) account of the entire debate can be found here. The author is clearly a fan of Plantinga concluding,

In my estimation, Plantinga won hands down because Dennett savagely mocked Plantinga rather than taking him seriously. Plantinga focused on the argument, and Dennett engaged in ridicule. It is safe to say that Dennett only made himself look bad along with those few nasty naturalists that were snickering at Plantinga.
If I am not mistaken, Plantinga once gave a talk at McNeese State University with the sponsorship of the philosophy club.

Monday, February 16, 2009


An Examination of Richard Parker’s Principle of Blameworthiness

By Todd Furman

In “Blame, Punishment and the Role of Result,” Richard Parker argues that the actual results of an actor’s conduct should not factor into the assessment of the blameworthiness of the actor –call this idea Parker’s Principle of Blameworthiness, (PPB). In this essay, I shall explain PPB and identify the moral intuition that justifies PPB. I will then explore the consequences of accepting the moral intuition behind PPB. These consequences just might prove to be a reductio of PPB.

The Case for PPB:
Parker begins his case for PPB by considering the following sort of scenario –call it the case of the drunken marksmen. Suppose two drunk party goers, A and B, decide to determine who the better marksman is by firing rifles out of a window at a lamppost across the street. And suppose that the contest ends in a draw inasmuch as both A and B are unable to hit the lamppost. But also suppose, unbeknownst to A and B, a bullet fired by A has ricocheted and killed an innocent bystander.
Parker then asks whether B should feel any less blameworthy than A? The answer, according to Parker, is no. And this seems right. Moreover, this judgment can be reinforced by considering a variation of the above case.
Suppose that a considerable amount of time passes before ballistic tests are able to determine whose gun fired the fatal bullet. In the meantime, should A or B believe that she is possibly less blameworthy than the other pending the results? Again, Parker’s answer –which seems intuitively correct—is no. And finally, Parker’s intuition can be driven all of the way home by supposing that the ballistics test is inconclusive such that the actual killer’s identity remains forever unknown. “If we never discover whose bullet did the fatal damage, is there some hesitancy, some cloudiness of our intuition with repect to how much blame the two … deserve? I think not.”
Parker summarizes the moral of his story as follows.

The view I am urging here is that, properly speaking, only an actor’s conduct can be blameworthy. I do not believe that it makes good sense to blame a person for the consequences that in fact flow from his conduct even if they are within the risk of that conduct. , ,

This is not to say, however, that Parker does not believe that intentions and the agent’s knowledge of the situation are not relevant to determining blameworthiness. Parker writes:

The individual is blameworthy and punishable, on my view, only for the conduct itself, where conduct is construed as a combination of overt action, state of mind (including intention, knowledge, ect.) and circumstances.

And Parker emphasizes his point that intentions and knowledge are relevant to assessing blameworthiness with the following thought experiment –call it the case of the stadium shooters.

Imagine that A takes a rifle to a place overlooking a stadium where he knows an event is underway and recklessly fires the weapon in the direction of the grandstands. Let us suppose the fortunate consequence of the bullet’s striking the bleachers harmlessly after narrowly missing members of the crowd. Compare this with the situation of B, who takes his rifle to the same spot on a day when he knows there is no event scheduled and in fact believes the grandstands to be entirely empty. He too fires toward the seats but with unfortunate results: a lone custodian is present policing the stands and he is struck and killed by B’s bullet. It takes either a considerable stretch of the imagination or adherence to a bad theory, or both, to want to hold B more blameworthy than A. Truly, the harm caused by B’s conduct outweighs that caused by A’s, the latter being negligible. But it is A, on the view I am defending, who is more blameworthy and whose desert is the greater punishment.

Hence, it becomes clear that Parker wants to substitute the risk of harm versus actual harm as the device for determining an actor’s level of blameworthiness and punishment. Moreover, all of Parker’s subsequent judgments seem to be intuitively right. And the import of PPB would be massive if it were incorporated into our current system of jurisprudence. To name just one of many obvious examples, if Parker is right, there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) murderers and those that have attempted murder but failed.

The Moral Intuition Behind PPB:
But what, exactly, is the moral intuition behind PPB? Rhetorically, Parker asks “on what rational grounds can we proportion punishment to the results of an actor’s conduct when those results are largely or entirely beyond the actor’s control?” And the implicit answer is that there are no rational grounds to do so given the role that luck plays in determining the actual results. That is, luck –be it good luck or bad luck—should play no role in the determination of an actor’s level of blameworthiness –call this moral intuition Parker’s moral intuition, (PMI). And since luck plays a large role in determining the exact consequences of any actor’s conduct, those consequences must be excluded from the calculations of an actor’s level of blame.

The Implications of PMI:
As I indicated above, adopting PPB, or more precisely, the moral principle upon which it stands, PMI, would radically makeover our system of jurisprudence. Presently, I would like to explore some further consequences of accepting PMI. These will be consequences far more radical than those already identified. In fact, these consequences may serve as good reasons for rejecting PMI.
Parker believes that blameworthiness is a function of an actor’s overt action, state of mind (including intentions and knowledge, etc.) and circumstances, but not the actual consequences of her overt act, since the actual consequences are a function of luck. But what Parker fails to realize is that the actual execution or non-execution of an overt action is also a function of luck. Hence, according to PMI, the actual overt action is not relevant to calculating an actor’s blameworthiness.
Consider the following case –call it the case of the campus shooters. Suppose that identical twins A and B have a grudge against the university that they attend. As such, they plan vengeance by climbing twin towers and simultaneously opening fire on all of the faculty, staff, and students they possibly can. Suppose that at the appointed time A and B open fire. However, on pulling the trigger for the first time A’s gun jams so that she is unable to fire even a single shot. B, on the other hand, is able to fire hundreds of rounds, wounding and killing several before authorities capture her and her sister.
On the face of it, A and B have committed different overt acts –B actually fired a gun at innocent people killing and wounding several people, while A merely tried to fire a gun at innocent people. Hence, according to PMI, an actor’s overt act should not play a role in determining blameworthiness, since whether or not an actor is able to execute an intended act is a function of luck, as the case clearly illustrates. Hence, following Parker, A and B should be ascribed the same level of blameworthiness. And this judgment seems right on target here –no pun intended.
But let me push harder on PMI and see what happens. Consider the case of the campus shooters again but with the following change. Suppose that A is never able to attempt to fire a shot since A is unable to gain access to her tower’s roof top; her bolt cutters –identical to those of B—break on the lock securing the roof access –a lock identical to the one on B’s tower. In this case, whether the agent is able to commit a given overt act is clearly a function luck. Hence, according to PMI, the actual overt acts should not play a role in determining A and B’s blameworthiness. Inasmuch as this is the case, there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) A and B in the above.
And even this conclusion –although it runs counter to actual practice—might seem agreeable, since the supposition is that in all of the close possible worlds in which A’s bolt cutters did not fail her, she proceeded as planned and rained down carnage similar to B’s. But the route to a reductio should be coming into focus now.
Suppose the case of the campus shooters again but with the following changes. Suppose that A doesn’t even make it to campus to begin the rampage. She is pulled over for a faulty tail-light and taken into custody based on an outstanding warrant that was issued solely as a result of a clerical error.
In this case, whether the agent is able to commit a given overt act is clearly a function of luck. Hence, according to PMI, the actual overt acts should not play a role in determining A and B’s blameworthiness. Inasmuch as this is the case, there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) A and B in the above.
But think about what is being said now. A, being as blameworthy as B, is to be punished as severely as B even though A caused no harm; even though A wasn’t even able to attempt to cause harm. It seems then that A and B’s blameworthiness is reduced to a function of their intent. And this result begins to strain believability.
It would seem that PMI taken to its extreme would justify some sort of thought police. If an actor intends some immoral/criminal offense, then there should be no difference in the way in which society handles (e.g. punishes) said actor from the way in which society handles an actor that actually attempts and/or executes the offense.

I am inclined to think that one’s moral character –one’s overall blameworthiness—is reducible to her desires, whether they are ever acted on or not. Hence, I believe that PMI is more or less right. However, I can see no practical means by which this insight –one’s moral character is reducible to her desires—could be put into practice (by mere mortals). Moreover, any attempt to institute any public policies based on this insight is bound to be soundly rejected by the body politic.

The All Pervasiveness of Luck:
To be completely fair, Parker claimed that blameworthiness was a function of the combination of overt action, state of mind (including intention and knowledge) and circumstances. And I have only shown that overt actions should be excluded from the matrix of calculating blameworthiness given PMI. And from this I reduced blameworthiness to a function of intention or desires. That is, I have neglected the roles that knowledge and circumstances play in calculating blameworthiness.
I believe, however, it does not take much imagination to concoct cases in which an actor’s knowledge and circumstances are clearly a function of luck. In this case, given PMI, they should be excluded from the matrix of calculating an actor’s blameworthiness. In the end, then, blameworthiness would reduce to a function of intent or desires.
The problem is, however, with a bit more imagination I believe that one can construct a case in which an actor’s desires are clearly a function of luck. Give this fact, and PMI, an actor’s desires must be excluded from the matrix of calculating her blameworthiness. In itself, this result is no big deal. But the overall situation arrived at is a big deal. Namely, there is nothing left by which an actor’s blameworthiness may be calculated and this cannot be right.

Given the unacceptable conclusion that I have reached using PMI –that there are no grounds by which an actor may be judged blameworthy. I believe PMI must be re-evaluated to determine whether it remains accurate as is. Until then Parker’s thesis remains dubious. My hunch is that this re-evaluation might profit from an analysis of luck.


Feinberg, Joel and Gross, Hyman. (1991) Philosophy of Law (Fourth Edition). Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California.

Parker, Richard. (1984a) “Blame, Punishment, and the Role of Result,” in Philosophy of Law (Fourth Edition) edited by Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross. © 1991 by Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California.

Parker, Richard. (1984b) “Blame, Punishment, and the Role of Result,” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 21, no. 3 (1984), pp. 1-11.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Filmosophy Series: The Big Lebowski

Dude-ist Philosophy: Laziness as a Personal Ethos [poster]

When: Friday, February 20th, 1:00 - 4:00 p.m.
Where: Hardtner Hall, room 128
Who: Joshua Finnell (guybrarian)
Why: "Because sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you."

Monday, February 9, 2009

The One

by Hanno

The uniqueness of human beings is an issue at least as old as Aristotle and has at least two components: First, Aristotle places our unique status as the primary way of understanding both our purpose and our goodness. The Greeks thought that everything has a purpose, and that the purpose of anything had to be unique. Following that, if we think that we are not unique, we would start to think there is no purpose in our life, no function we are supposed to fulfill. And since the good knife is one that fulfills its function well, the good person is one fulfills our purpose well. If we have no purpose, what happens to our notion of living well?

What, then, is unique to humans? What is our purpose? Many people have thought of different answers, and for a long time, it always struck me as odd to even ask. Some people point to our thumbs as being unique, some to the creation of culture (non-biologically driven patterns of learned behavior), some to language, some to thought, some to reason. Each of these, 'cept the thumb, have been shown not to be unique, and a thumb is not much to hang your hat on. OK, you could hang an actual hat on a thumb, but not a metaphorical one.

The reason this always struck me as odd is simple: its rather obvious that we are unique, that even if a chimp can learn language and reason, we are not the same as a chimp. In other words, our definition in terms of these features is so inadequate that it seems silly to ask: what makes us human? And without the Aristotelian background, the importance of the question escaped me. So what if monkeys can speak, or reason, or have a culture, or if we discover some other species with a thumb? Why would that effect our conception of ourselves? Why would that threaten our conception of ourselves as unique? What rides on determining unique features of the human being?

Now when we discover that some feature that we thought was unique turns out to be shared (The bonobo is able to grasp language at a high level, chimps are able to reason, some chimps have a culture, some chimps use tools, etc., etc.) the obvious response is mere passing interest. "I thought that feature was unique... oh well, I guess it isnt." I have had that reaction myself and I see it in others. So where would existential angst come from?

Second (there has to be a second, there was a first... forgot? first paragraph), moral notions are limited (historically, if not philosophically), to people. This is not a Western idea. So, for example, the Comanche called themselves "The people" (Nermernuh). Everyone else is not. If you are of the people, you are protected by the people. There was, apparently, almost no violence within the tribe, or against anyone who culturally acted like a tribe member. However, anyone outside the tribe was not similarly protected. They may trade with you, or they may kill you, that choice is up to an individual Comanche, and simply not part of their ethical framework, not subject to judgment. Other people's moral status was like any other piece of nature, sometimes to be preserved, sometimes to be used and sometimes to be abused. It has been argued (I think correctly) that the whole 10 commandments were originally understood in the same way: "Thou shalt not kill" really meant "Thou shall not kill a fellow Jew." It, too, was a tribal notion.

The question then of what a human being is connects to our conception of morality: humans are beings to which we have a moral duty, while non-humans are not protected by moral codes. It is also easy to see how correctly defining the human in terms that shape our moral attitudes (reason, not thumbs) is one way of intuitively increasing beings with moral rights. "I know those things do not act like us, but they really are human, and hence we have moral duties towards them." "I know we do not seem to be human to you, but we have this uniquely human feature, too, so you should treat us as moral agents." Historically, when we have broadened our notion of the human, we bring more people into society, and start acting better. A good definition of a human, then, has been of great importance. It is then easy to see that if we are not so important, not so unique, nature gets raised by default. Many people who do not see humans as unique see us as part of nature, thus raising the moral status of nature. We call them "environmentalists."

So now we can see why much of the artificial intelligence science fiction asks whether or not computers that develop consciousness are moral agents. Early in Star Trek, The Next Generation, we see a trial to determine whether or not Data, a computer, is a moral agent, or not. Is he an officer in the Federation, or is he like any other computer, to be used by its owner as its owner sees fit?

I think our angst about thinking computers is not existential, but about control. It is the worry of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, HAL in 2001, and Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sarah Connor: "Look... I am not stupid, you know. They cannot make things like that yet."

This weekend, I finally finished reading James Trefil's book entitled Are We Unique? This is a very accessible, introductory text for anyone interested the study of human consciousness. You can even find it in the Frazar library (BF 444 t74 1997). Trefil is the Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University and has appeared on NPR several times over the years. He also has a mustache like Don Mattingly.

As a scientist, Trefil chooses consciousness and intelligence as the defining characteristics that make human beings distinct from both animals and computers. A great majority of the book is dedicated to the idea of computers nearing anything close to consciousness or artificial intelligence. Needless to say, Searle and the Chinese Room example are written about extensively. Trefil ends up contextualizing his own theory of consciousness within a larger general theory of complexity, defining consciousness as an emergent property of neuronal complexity. Like a philosopher, he ultimately leaves the question of artificial intelligence open (but his tone is more than skeptical).

After I finished reading the book, I couldn't help but wonder why human beings are so threatened by the idea of artificial intelligence? What is so sacred about intelligence as opposed to any other ability that human beings have? We have built machines that can "run" faster (cars) and are stronger (forklifts) than human beings, yet we don't feel threatened by these machines. However, if Deep Blue beats Kasparov in a chess match we start to question our own uniqueness.

Is it evolution anxiety? Do human beings simply fear becoming a place holder between animals and intelligent machines? Supposing we could create a conscious machine, would human beings cease being unique? After all, Australian orchids are not conscious entities but are still rather unique.

Or is it just a control issue as opposed to an issue of uniqueness? James Cameron seems to think so. We build the machines and the machines eventually become more powerful and kill us (See The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation forthcoming)

What do you think?


Monday, February 2, 2009

Lecture on Buddhism

by MAB

Just as an FYI, I will be giving a lecture on Buddhism (history, belief, and practice) this Wednesday evening. New Ranch Gallery Room, 7-8 PM. Come one, come all.

Do Vampires have Rights?

By Hanno

It is quite common now to understand vampires and zombies in terms of some disease which takes over the body and re-animates it after death. Movies like "night of the Living Dead" and all of its offspring, including "28 days later," as well as books like "World War Z" use this theme. This is not the way vampires were always understood, however. The folklore of vampires is much older than Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the where widely regarded as real creatures in many parts of the world. But instead of disease, the vampire was either a person possessed by a malevolent spirit, or a ghost-like specter. It is only in the late 1800's that the germ theory of disease gains prominence, so the ground for changing our understanding of vampires was not set until then. (By the way, I love the irony of speaking scientifically about fictional entities, and using science to discover which of the myths surrounding vampires are factual, and which are purely mythical, something every vampire book has done since "I am Legend" first did it in 1951.)

For Matheson, there are three kinds of vampires. There are the newly diseased who will eventually die and turn into the undead variety. On the way to this disturbing end, many go mad, as they realize what they have become: flesh eating creatures that would eat their own loved ones if they could. Matheson explains the anti-social, hardly human variety of vampire in that way: they have gone mad. But it is possible not to go mad, or to come out of madness, and still not be undead. These are people simply with a disease that, if untreated, will kill them and turn them into the undead, and the disease will make them yearn, desire, require the blood of a living thing, preferably human, preferably undiseased human, to keep living. The bacteria at the root of vampirism needs blood to survive and prosper. At the death of the human, the corpse reanimates into a being properly called the vampire. The corpse does not breathe, its heart does not beat. This being seems quite rational, remembers events and people from its living days, plans ahead, and interacts socially with other creatures like herself. For example, knowing that Neville is all alone, the women vampires dance seductively, stripping, etc., in an effort to lure Neville out of his home so that they can eat him.

Now as we saw in the last post, Neville has turned himself into a scientist. he discovers many of the things I just described through experiments. Early experimentation include dragging a female into the sunlight to see if light really does damage the vampire. Answer: yes, as he watches the still living female scream, whither and die in the sun. He collects some blood from another to see if he can find the root cause of vampirism. Answer: yes, a bacteria he can see and for which he can test. He also experiments on the blood to see if the ingredients in garlic are toxic to the vampire. Answer: no, it seems to be an allergic reaction. In short, without the approval of the subject, without any desire for the good of the subject, Neville performs scientific experiments upon his subjects in an effort to know and understand. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

Later, he checks the blood of a woman who does not want him to to see if she is a vampire. He does not do this for her sake, but for his. Here we have experiments performed not for the sake of science, nor for the sake of the victim, but for the sake of the experimenter.

Now it turns out that a section of humanity has managed to survive, but with the disease. They develop a medicine to keep it in check, so they do not die of the disease, and as humans with a disease, they function socially just fine. They create a new society. Now suppose Neville found a cure. What if the new vampire-humans do not want to be cured? Is it right for him to force them to be cured against their own will?

I want to point to a few features of the current medical ethics in order to put these points into perspective. First, remember, "I am Legend" is written in the early '50's. Students of medical ethics are well acquainted with the Tuskegee Syphilis study of the 1930's. Here, the question was: what is the natural progression of syphilis in an African American? So they recruited poor black folks under the guise of treating syphilis, paid for by the Federal Government, when in fact, they were given no medication, and watched for years. A few years later, when a cure for syphilis was discovered, they were still kept in the dark, and watched for almost three decades. When the first people started to complain about the ethics of the study, the people in charge of the study reacted angrily, saying they would ruin its results. In other worlds, in a common attitude towards scientific study, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake trumped any concern about the ethical treatment of the patients/subjects/victims. There are many, many examples like this, but perhaps not quite as egregeious.

Neville's attitude towards science and medical ethics fit the 1950's. But our intuitions differ. We hold you must keep the welfare of the subject in mind first and foremost, and we hold that you must have the approval of the subject, made aware of any problems that may occur. Neville does none of that.

Do vampires, as depicted in the book "I am Legend," have rights? Is it immoral to treat them as Neville does?

(Post is too long, I know.)