Saturday, 6 May 2017

Functionalism Revision Notes

I produced a number of revision documents for my degree course, and maybe someone will find them useful. This is for A222 Exploring Philosophy, Book 5, Mind by Derek Matravers.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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Thursday, 4 May 2017

Darwin on the Development of the Human Mind

By Unknown - Karl Pearson (1914-30) The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton, IIIa, Cambridge: University press, p. 341 OCLC: 873074079., Public Domain,
This is a wonderful summary by Charles Darwin at the end of Chapter IV of the Descent of Man, after he has compared the 'Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals':
There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. An anthropomorphous ape, if he could take a dispassionate view of his own case, would admit that though he could form an artful plan to plunder a garden--though he could use stones for fighting or for breaking open nuts, yet that the thought of fashioning a stone into a tool was quite beyond his scope. Still less, as he would admit, could he follow out a train of metaphysical reasoning, or solve a mathematical problem, or reflect on God, or admire a grand natural scene. Some apes, however, would probably declare that they could and did admire the beauty of the coloured skin and fur of their partners in marriage. They would admit, that though they could make other apes understand by cries some of their perceptions and simpler wants, the notion of expressing definite ideas by definite sounds had never crossed their minds. They might insist that they were ready to aid their fellow-apes of the same troop in many ways, to risk their lives for them, and to take charge of their orphans; but they would be forced to acknowledge that disinterested love for all living creatures, the most noble attribute of man, was quite beyond their comprehension.
Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. They are also capable of some inherited improvement, as we see in the domestic dog compared with the wolf or jackal. If it could be proved that certain high mental powers, such as the formation of general concepts, self-consciousness, etc., were absolutely peculiar to man, which seems extremely doubtful, it is not improbable that these qualities are merely the incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again mainly the result of the continued use of a perfect language. At what age does the new-born infant possess the power of abstraction, or become self-conscious, and reflect on its own existence? We cannot answer; nor can we answer in regard to the ascending organic scale. The half-art, half-instinct of language still bears the stamp of its gradual evolution. The ennobling belief in God is not universal with man; and the belief in spiritual agencies naturally follows from other mental powers. The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals; but I need say nothing on this head, as I have so lately endeavoured to shew that the social instincts,--the prime principle of man's moral constitution (50. 'The Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius,' etc., p. 139.)--with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;" and this lies at the foundation of morality.
In the next chapter I shall make some few remarks on the probable steps and means by which the several mental and moral faculties of man have been gradually evolved. That such evolution is at least possible, ought not to be denied, for we daily see these faculties developing in every infant; and we may trace a perfect gradation from the mind of an utter idiot, lower than that of an animal low in the scale, to the mind of a Newton. (emphasis mine)
This last point, comparing the ontogeny of humans with our phylogeny, is well made. And this is not to say that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, as the famous, but defunct, theory suggests. But it is a counter to those who suggest that a thing as wonderful and mysterious as the human mind could not evolve gradually in mini-steps, by degree, since we have seen, and continue to see, countless examples of the human mind developing gradually in mini-steps, by degree, before our very eyes. Some might insist that a greater power steps in and animates this mind at some point, but this doesn't appear to be what is happening and, when I introspect, it doesn't appear to me to be what happened as I became conscious of my surroundings.

In the end the more parsimonious explanation is that the mental emerges from the physical, not the other way round.

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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Arguments for a Designer Revision Notes

I produced a number of revision documents for my degree course, and maybe someone will find them useful. This is for A222 Exploring Philosophy, Book 2, The Philosophy of Religion, by Timothy Chappell.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Would an Immortal Life be a Meaningless Life?

The Chaplain in The Meaning of Life

Bernard Williams (1929-2003) famously discusses this question in his essay The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality. I shall defend one particular premise in Williams’s argument that an immortal life would be meaningless against Donald Bruckner’s objections, to highlight some reasons for thinking Williams is correct.


While non-human life might have some meaning, I shall only discuss the issues as they relate to individual human lives. I shall assume that the life is to be embodied, since some considerations, such as personal identity, are slightly different if the life is to be unembodied. Maybe mortal life has no meaning either, but, if it does, I take that to mean that there is, in fact, a reason to get up in the morning, to earn a wage, to maintain oneself and to carry on living. The sort of meaning we need is some ‘point, purpose, significance or value’ (Belshaw, 2014, p.136).

There are subjective and objective accounts of meaning. Life’s meaning seems heavily tied to a personal valuer, but such values may disappear once the valuer dies. A more objective account is sought which stands outside of individual lives. Timeless value might more easily offer meaning to immortal lives, being independent of life, continuing or not.

Williams’s argument

Bernard Williams suggests that ‘[i]mmortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless’ and ‘intolerable’ (Williams, 1973, p.82). The intolerability follows from the lack of meaning a person would inevitably (Williams thinks) experience in an eternal life; boredom would result. He presents a dilemma:

1) Eternal life is either one person’s life, and therefore inevitably boring, or
2) Eternal life becomes a series of unconnected person’s lives, so one would not be immortal.

I’m not sure that even the second option escapes inevitable boredom, and bodily continuity may provide a reason to care about future identities; but, granting Williams’s claim, I shall concentrate on the first horn.

Williams makes a distinction between categorical and contingent desires. The categorical/contingent distinction is conditional on life; desires that are not contingent on being alive are categorical. Contingent desires might include eating or reading a good book. Categorical desires are those that would drive one through life even if no contingent desires were being met. Williams illustrates this through the example of a man contemplating suicide:
If he does decide to undergo [what lay before him], then some desire propels him on into the future, and that desire at least is not one that operates conditionally on his being alive, since it itself resolves the question of whether he is going to be alive. He has an unconditional, or (as I shall say) a categorical desire. (p.85-86)
I’m not sure this distinction is altogether valid. For example, someone might judge that some contingent desires will be satisfied tomorrow; one might not be hungry today, since one's appetite has been satisfied for the moment, but one knows that, come tomorrow, hunger will return, so a fresh opportunity to satisfy one's renewed appetite can be anticipated. Is that not then a categorical desire? Williams suggests this may be when he says that a basic categorical desire might be one ‘that future desires of mine will be born and satisfied’ (p.87). If the categorical desire is to acquire or satisfy future contingent desires then those contingent desires surely become categorical (being the object of a categorical desire)?

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty, aka Elina Makropulos, in Věc Makropulos.
Photo by Cory Weaver.
Nevertheless, the idea that some desires are independent of one’s own temporal existence is plausible; examples include the desires to nurture family, foster community and build legacies. Williams needs this distinction to combat the idea that more life is always better than less life, which follows if desires can only occur when one is alive. Because categorical desires do not depend on life, looking forward one can bridge periods of ennui with categorical desires and so retain the will to live. But immortality causes stasis; Williams suggests this through the repeated use of ‘froze’ and ‘frozen’ (p.91) when referring to the life of Elina Makropulos (EM), a fictional character who takes an elixir of life. The second horn of Williams’s dilemma would not engage, because life’s processes would stop. Looking forward, all categorical desires would be exhausted so nothing could bridge the periods of ennui.

Williams says:
The point is rather that boredom, as sometimes in more ordinary circumstances, would be not just a tiresome effect, but a reaction almost perceptual in character to the poverty of one's relation to the environment. (p.95)
This ‘almost perceptual’ response is a reaction to eternity: what happens to the categorical desires, such as nurturing family, when there is no end in sight? His suggestion is that they will inevitably evaporate, and unless there is a guarantee against this, we should reject immortality. Formally the argument can be stated:
Premise 1: In order for one’s life to be meaningful (and ‘recognisably human’ – Angelic lives are irrelevant), one must have a set of categorical desires that one wishes to satisfy.
Premise 2: Contingent desires alone cannot make life meaningful.
Premise 3: If one lived forever in a recognisably human form, one would exhaust one’s set of categorical desires and become bored and apathetic as a result.
Conclusion: Living forever in a recognisably human form would not be meaningful.
(Sinnicks, 2015)
Bruckner’s objections

Bruckner challenges P3 and suggests that categorical desires will not run out. He offers three objections:
1) That ‘the natural degradation of our memories would help to keep endlessly repeated experiences interesting’ (Bruckner, 2012, p.626)
2) That people naturally regain a taste for an activity once some time has elapsed.
3) That human ingenuity will generate new categorical desires.
Memory decay

Bruckner makes the reasonable point that our memories are not perfect and we would forget the experiences that had once satisfied categorical desires, so they would become unsatisfied once more. He gives the example of 20 careers of 40 years each, which would give a gap of 760 years between careers:
So pursuing that career again would provide a new-feeling, worthwhile, and enjoyable experience. One would be coming at it fresh. (p.630)
This doesn’t capture the full potential horror of the eternal situation. Certainly one might forget one’s previous career, but this would not mean that one would not discover that one had already ‘been there, done that’. Imagine you are an accountant who discovers 760 year-old notes in your own handwriting on some arcane interpretation of the tax laws of the time. One might think, how interesting to now be making similar interpretations of new tax laws; or, perhaps more reasonably, one might wonder how to get off this infernal merry-go-round.

Further, forgetting one’s own children, as EM does, illustrates how immortality would strip life of meaning. Perhaps EM could experience afresh the pain and joy of childbirth, but if she is at the same time forgetting the ends of that pain and joy, she is replacing an independent-of-self meaningful value (family) with a dependent-on-self less meaningful one (pain and joy). In Williams’s terms, she is losing a categorical desire while retaining a less meaningful contingent one.

Rejuvenation of Desire

Bruckner writes that ‘careers, ways of life, and other long-term pursuits are correctly classed as repeatable pleasures that would keep our immortal lives interesting.’ (p.632). He observes that short term desires, such as sex and eating revive after being satiated, and so too can longer term desires, such as gardening and teaching.

This is another reasonable observation about normal life but I’m not sure it entirely engages with Williams’s distinction between categorical and contingent desires. No doubt contingent desires can be satisfied and then rejuvenated after a while, but can the same be said for categorical desires eternally? Williams’s challenge is that if it cannot be shown that this is the case, immortality should be rejected (‘Nothing less will do for eternity than something that makes boredom unthinkable’ – Williams, p.95). If there is the chance that categorical desires can be exhausted at any time, then one should not want an eternal life. And since eternity is forever, it is inevitable that at some point there will be no categorical desires, even if they could be rejuvenated at a later time.

How plausible is this claim? Bruckner suggests it is holding immortal lives to a standard that we do not demand for mortal lives ‘which we think are perfectly worth living even given the risk of reaching a state of chronic boredom.’ (Bruckner, p.637). But Williams is pointing out that it is inevitable that one will exhaust categorical desires, not that there is a risk of it, in an immortal life, because we know some people do appear to exhaust their categorical desires in less than 100 year-old lives (and commit suicide). Therefore, there is a quantifiable risk per year, so in an eternity of years, there will be an incidence of categorical desire exhaustion.

So Williams demands that boredom be unthinkable. One episode of categorical desire exhaustion must be avoided even if some desires might subsequently be revived. I suggest this is because meaning involves looking forward with hope, and should categorical desires (the reasons that drive us on) be exhausted at any time, we will fall into despair, with nothing to bridge the period of ennui until a categorical desire rejuvenates. What is the attraction of an immortal life if we know at the outset that we will, definitely, fall into despair at some point?

Human Ingenuity

While the first two objections address the question of the exhaustion of similar experiences, the third suggests that ‘human ingenuity changes them and creates new ones’ (p.632-633).  Looking at my life today compared to my life as a teenager illustrates the point. I engage in many activities reliant on technological innovations, such as social media and 4GL computer programming, which were almost inconceivable when I was a teenager. Innovation generates new experiences that might provide a basis for new categorical desires. As Bruckner writes:
Riding a bicycle is good as a means of transportation and of exercise, but is also enjoyable in its own right. (p.634)
True enough, but there are at least two objections here:
1) We are not making the right evaluation of our categorical desires, and
2) We are assuming infinite human ingenuity.
First, if we take computer programming, for instance, our categorical desire may be to write a ground-breaking piece of software that mediates all international disputes to the satisfaction of all parties. Or, it may be to achieve world peace. The first looks like a new desire, but is in fact a way of achieving the second, pre-existing, desire. The suspicion is that however much technology advances it just provides new ways to pursue a finite list of human categorical desires. Unless the nature of humanity changes, these desires will not, and part of being recognisably human is to have a certain limited set of categorical desires.

But even if we allow that we can create new human categorical desires, there is a second objection: while human ingenuity seems capable of expanding our desires for a very long time, it’s not obvious that human ingenuity can increase them ad infinitum. We have finite tools at our disposal; a brain limited to the power of its thinking ability, a body limited to its physical constraints, so it may be safer to conclude that our ingenuity is finite too.


Williams provides an account of meaning which exists outside individual lives but is not everlasting. Bruckner counters by offering reasons to believe that desires giving meaning will recur indefinitely. But Williams’s ‘almost perceptual’ response takes human nature into account, suggesting such recurrences will become tiresome and meaningless. Bruckner’s objections are unconvincing because they address the lengthening of life but don’t full engage its eternity. There may be other, more convincing, objections, and the other premises may be problematic, but from this limited analysis I think there is some truth in the statement ‘an immortal life would be a meaningless life’.

Belshaw, C. (2014) The Value of Life (A333 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Bruckner (2012), ‘Against the Tedium of Immortality’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies vol.20, no.5.
Sinnicks, M. (2015) A333, 4. The Value of Life [Powerpoint presentation to A333 tutor group, Tonbridge]
Williams, B. (1973) ‘The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality’, in Williams, B. (ed.) Problems of the Self, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 82–100.


For further reading on Bernard Williams's argument, and the challenges and refinements to it, I recommend the following pieces by John Danaher:

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Friday, 3 March 2017

Theresa May Sings the Benefits of Economic Union

Some ironic quotes from Theresa May's speech to the Scottish Tory party:
One of the driving forces behind the Union’s creation was the remorseless logic that greater economic strength and security come from being united. Not the transient and shifting benefits of international alliance, but the fundamental strength of being one people. Those enduring economic strengths are obvious. Our wholly integrated domestic market for businesses means no barriers to trade within our borders. That has always been of immense value to firms here in ?.
They think independence is the answer to every question in every circumstance, regardless of fact and reality. It simply does not add up and we should never stop saying so.
The broad shoulders of ? provide enviable security for businesses and workers alike.
Ten years ago, banks headquartered in Edinburgh and London, which employ tens of thousands of people and look after the savings of millions, were rescued by the ?. Action that was only possible because of the size and strength of the ? economy.
In the oil and gas sector – a vital industry on oureast coast, from Aberdeen to Lowestoft – the broad shoulders of our wider economy have allowed the ? to take unprecedented action to support the sector following the decline in the international oil price. And public spending here in ? has been protected, even as North Sea tax receipts have dwindled to nothing. Time and again the benefits of the Union – of doing together, collectively, what would be impossible to do apart – are clear. Indeed the economic case for the Union has never been stronger. There is no economic case for breaking up the ?, or of loosening the ties which bind us together.
The ? has led the world in developing a strategy for preventing violent extremism, and we are working with our allies to take on and defeat the ideology of Islamist Extremism. It is firmly in our national interest to defeat Daesh and the ideology of Islamic extremism that inspires them and many others terrorist groups in the world today. In this task, we are fortunate to draw on intelligence provided by the finest security agencies in the world and the greatest armed forces anywhere.
The pooling and sharing of risks and resources on the basis of need across our ? is the essence of our unity as a people. All of the practical benefits which flow from our Union, and which are hallmarks of it, depend on that deep and essential community of interest which we all share. It has been shaped by geography and refined by history. And it has shown itself to be adaptable.
A tunnel vision nationalism, which focuses only on independence at any cost, sells ? short. As Unionists, our job is clear. We know we are united together by a proud shared history, but we are also bound together by enduring common interests.
The ? we cherish is not a thing of the past, but a Union vital to our prosperity and security, today and in the future. The Union I am determined to strengthen and sustain is one that works for working people across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A ? which everyone can feel secure in. A Union in which our national and local identities are recognised and respected, but where our common bonds are strengthened. Where difference and diversity are celebrated, but where those things we share are celebrated just as much.
Because at the heart of the ? is the unity of our people: a unity of interests, outlook and principles. 
The question marks refer to Scotland and the UK, or stand-in's for, and their institutions. These can be swapped for the UK and the EU and the arguments stand pretty much as strong. Yet May is hell-bent on ensuring a hard departure from the EU. Strange times.

In her conclusion, she said:
Because politics is not a game and government is not a platform from which to pursue constitutional obsessions.

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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Immaterial Soul Revision Notes

I produced a number of revision documents for my degree course, and maybe someone will find them useful. This is for A222 Exploring Philosophy, Book 1, The Self, by Nigel Warburton.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

Read more »