What are we doing when we conduct ‘thought experiments’?

Displaced Hours is an out-of-print novel by Ace Boggess (Gatto, 2004). In this tale of magic realism, a professor develops the belief that he can insert his consciousness into other people’s bodies, whereby he briefly controls their actions and enjoys their experiences before returning to his own body. The mechanism for this consciousness shift is a haunted clock. The device “gave me everything I wanted,” he says. “There was nothing I couldn’t find in time. Now I used that clock like a wiretap or a hidden camera.” He takes the journey many times.

Book cover of Displaced Hours by Ace Boggess.

Another character in the novel calls the concept “cross-consciousness.” Whatever such experiences may properly be called, they allow the professor to “go anywhere and do anything” and thus turn his life into a series of philosophical “thought experiments,” especially of the ethical sort. That is: By granting him a temporary lease on life that is measured in minutes and is devoid of consequences, these experiences allow him to make choices that are ethically questionable and that he would not otherwise make. The professor refers to the haunted clock as an “ethical device” and a “morality machine” because “it set up an infinite number of hypotheses I could test to their extremes.”

Cross-consciousness experiences become increasingly alluring for him. They also lead him to madness.

“…I locked myself away like the changing werewolf in an old horror film, except that I was more dangerous in my cage than out. I think I might have said a prayer of some sort, but I doubt anyone heard it. These were idle words without repentance and just a few hints of remorse. I pulled my chair over as usual and opened the dome of the clock.”

—Ace Boggess, Displaced Hours

The novel makes me wonder what philosophers are really doing when we engage in “thought experiments.” When we provisionally consider a course of action, are we mainly curious to establish what it would feel like to take that action? Do we also need to know what the consequences would be for ourselves or others? Is the assumption that, if the consequences were bad, we would immediately end the thought experiment rather than stick around and take responsibility?

It also reminds me that there are many real-life consequences we never face because our actions cannot be tied back to us in a straightforward manner with evidence a detective could use. This happens for nearly all collective actions (as when a million people use a scarce resource that is denied to another million people, for example), and also for personal actions that no one else happens to witness or follow up on. By some twist of fortune, we often escape others’ prying eyes and don’t have to take any more responsibility for our choices. But in another sense, the lingering consequences are tied to us in (shall we say?) a “spiritual” sense. That’s because, after all, we were the ones who did it. Not some experimental personae. It was we who made the choice. We remember (even if no one else does) that we used our conscious minds to make the choice. We know this is true, even if there is little evidence in the material world that traces the current state of affairs back to us. We live with the knowledge of what we did.

Tell me a Story

                                  Professor Lane with the Reverend Doctor Lex Crane                                                                

Long ago and in a romantic faraway place my life was changed forever. Outside a Lutheran Church I met the woman who, some 61 years later, is still helping me to tell our story as a family.
Later as a student I worked with Lex Crane at the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara where we would argue about philosophy, literature, and religion. (He was the minister and I the janitor.)
A second story was found in the works of Albert Camus – specifically the first two books he wrote:
The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger.
The ideas that had such an effect on me? The Absurd. And the absurd hero.
(The above is from a sermon I presented to the Unitarians here in Nanaimo some time ago. Interested?)
Or here:  UU_talk

Sunday’s Sermon: Morality

Re-publishing this review for obvious reasons. – sob89

Review – Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality
Evolution, Culture, and Wisdomdn
by Darcia Narvaez
W. W. Norton, 2014
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Mar 17th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 12)

Narvaez writes, Today there is often no logical grounding for morality and therefore no need to behave morally. (249)     In this interdisciplinary, well-researched, readable book she attempts to find, describe, and present arguments for that missing logical grounding with suggestions for the development of better people and better societies. The dozen chapters that comprise the book can be seen as either a paradigm shift or a sea change in moral philosophy. She advocates a care ethic based on a wide array of biological, environmental, and epigenetic factors.

Who doesn’t remember the work of Noam Chomsky in the field of linguistics and language acquisition? Chomsky taught us that there is a universal grammar and pointed as evidence to the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Kids know more about language than we can explain by pointing to what they have been taught. Similarly, Narvaez argues that “(1) morality emerges from biology and embodiment – our lived experience; (2) our morality is multi-dimensional and arises from our evolved brain propensities. Through epigenetics and developmental plasticity…” we grow our moral sense.  (3) Cultures are malleable and can either “encourage or discourage our highest human nature.” (4) Humans can “self-author virtue and wisdom capacities” to change culture. As with language acquisition we come into world biologically prepared for the development of a moral sense.

Continue reading

A brief report from Dr. Laura Shanner’s IPP talk

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 19.39.51 - Laura Shanner

Dr Laura Shanner is a wonderful public speaker.

At her IPP talk on October 22, she covered a gamut of topics, from public policy to personal responsibility, and painted a picture of epidemology that showed we were unprepared in Canada for the SARS outbreaks of the early nougthies, a remnant of public health legislation that was and is often outdated.

She covered some basic terminology to explain outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics, and went over historical examples, such as the Black Plague pandemic in Europe, and more recent ones such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. She also gave some estimates over how large a pandemic might need to be before its ripple effect throughout a population could bring life as we know to a halt. (The answer: Initially not that large, on the order of 15-20% of people affected directly, with a much larger, secondary ripple effect that spreads out and causes much greater disruption.)

A recurring theme throughout her presentation was the need to prepare NOW, rather than having to apply some form of ‘lifeboat ethics’ at the time of a major event, when ethical choices about who might receive treatment and who might not will always result in outcomes that are far less than ideal. Lifeboat ethics are always an exercise in tragic choices, in her words.

Dr Shanner also brought home some excellent points about how our own brains get in the way of being prepared, for an array of different reasons, such as our tendency not to pay heed to probabilistic predictions, being in denial of what might happen or what is happening around us (the latter witnessed during in the Ebola outbreak), and so forth.

Since the SARS outbreak, a whole body of work has sprung up that purports to provide ethical guidelines for public health preparedness and that outlines a framework for steps to take in reaction to events. She used these a couple of specific articles to go over some examples, and these articles turn out to be available online:

The response taken by public health officials needs to be effective, proportional, necessary, infringes on individuals as little as possible and can be justified publicly (in the Childress version). Upshur’s article has a similar framework that also includes the notion of reciprocity–how health care workers can be expect to be treated in return for potentially putting their lives on the line. Upshur also specifically invokes John Sutart Mill’s harm principle to help qualify how a public health response might need be formed.

There was much, much more discussed at Dr Shanner’s IPP talk, and I cannot go into all of it here. She started out with a disclaimer that she did not want to be alarmist, but the message in the end was clear: There is a great deal of work left to be done in the public health policy arena before we can consider ourselves well prepared, not just in developing nations, but also in those places that are considered reasonably well off, such as Canada.

Dinner at Asteras on Wesley Street after the talk was equally excellent, and a lively conversation continued until almost 9 PM. Overall, a wonderful evening and one that more than lived up to the expectations of an IPP talk!

Plan Ahead

There are a couple of very interesting talks coming up at the Institute of Practical Philosophy at Vancouver Island University.

The first one is “Measles, Ebola and you: Ethics in the Age of Traveling Illnesses” by Dr. Laura Shanner on Thursday October 22nd:

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 19.39.51 - Laura Shanner

The next one is “Will the Real Science Please Stand Up?” on November 12 by a graduate of the VIU philosophy programme, Evan Westre. For more information, see IPP Events.