Monday, 17 December 2012

Strong AI: The Illusion of Real Consciousness

Perhaps we are no more conscious that the automatons we imagine in our thought experiments when considering questions about artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind.

In this view, all we have to explain is why we believe we are conscious, without explaining why we actually are. "Real consciousness" is an illusion, and consciousness is simply comprised of the functions it affords, namely the ability to be self-reflective, to deliberate, to perceive the world, etc., in such a way that the entity believes itself to have a subjective experience or "real consciousness".

If we allow the assumptions of Weak AI, namely that it should be possible in principle to create a computational artificial intelligence which has all the functionality of a human brain, then all of these abilities can be achieved. If we deny Strong AI, then we must suppose that the AI will falsely believe itself to be conscious.

If we understand how artificial intelligences might believe themselves to be conscious, then we can understand by analogy why biological intelligences might share those beliefs. In other words, if we have explained our belief that we are conscious (by analogy to our artificial intelligences), then what, exactly, remains to be explained?

Strong AI: Evolutionary Parsimony

In this post, I will attempt to make an argument for Strong AI from an evolutionary perspective. Please keep the assumptions stated in my previous post in mind.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Strong AI: The Story So Far

Let's take Strong AI as the viewpoint that the essential capabilities of the brain are computational, meaning that were we to reproduce these same computational functions in an artificial machine such as a silicon computer, then that machine would have a mind just as real, just as conscious as a human mind.

In my recent posts, I have argued against some common criticisms of this view.

I have shown how The Chinese Room may establish that a piece of computational hardware cannot become conscious, but it does not show that the software running on that hardware is unconscious.

I have shown that the concept of a philosophical zombie does nothing to cast doubt on Strong AI, for if Strong AI is true then philosophical zombies are probably logically incoherent. Philosophical zombies are nothing more than a restatement of the viewpoint that Strong AI is not true.

I have shown that qualia, with specific reference to Mary's Room, do not in themselves disprove physicalism, but are probably simply brain states which act as labels for certain percepts and concepts.

I have agreed with Alvin Plantinga that the mind and body are distinct entities (like hardware and software), but argue that this is a conclusion of no consequence which no thoughtful person should be surprised by and which does not imply that the soul can survive the destruction of the body.

I have also explained why I disagree with the assertion that semantics cannot be derived from syntax, and sketched how I think semantics can be viewed as a special case of syntax.

What I have not done yet is given some positive reasons for the suspicion that Strong AI is true. In my following posts I will attempt to do so.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In Defence of Strong AI: Meta-meaning

Yesterday's post was quite long and wide-ranging, with a lot of examples etc. It focused specifically on how it might be possible to get semantics from syntax, particularly with reference to The Chinese Room thought experiment.

However I feel that I could sum up my position more succinctly by looking at the meaning of the word "meaning" itself.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

In Defence of Strong AI: Semantics from Syntax

Is it possible to get semantics from syntax?

If it were impossible to get semantics (meaning) from syntax (symbols and formal rules for manipulating them) then we probably wouldn't have bothered broadcasting the Arecibo image to the universe in the hope of communicating with aliens.

Without any way to explain the meaning of this image, it seems to consist of syntax alone. Whether it could be deciphered by aliens in practice or not, it at least seems possible in principle, which seems to suggest that it may be possible in some cases to derive semantics from syntax.

The assertion that you can't, that there is no way to get from syntax to semantics, is perhaps the strongest response from John Searle to the systems/virtual mind refutation of his Chinese Room thought experiment (as outlined in my post on the topic).

Searle illustrates his point by saying that if he is in The Chinese Room and has a formal system of rules (syntax) for manipulating Chinese words, he has no way to get from this syntax to the semantics of what is being said. If he has no way to do this, then how can the system do it?

In Searle's view, the systems/virtual mind reply to the Chinese Room is just hand-waving until this is explained.

Let's see if I can attempt to do just that.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

In Defence of Strong AI: The Modal Argument Refuted

In this video, philosopher and Christain theologian Alvin Plantinga outlines his modal argument, which in my view successfully establishes that he is not identical with his brain or body.

He interprets this to mean that he is something more than physical, and presumably that he has a soul. Physicalism refuted? Nope!

In Defence of Strong AI: Qualia and Mary's Room

Photo: brokenview

The Mary's Room thought experiment considers a brilliant neuroscientist who has been raised and educated in an entirely colourless environment. It was originally proposed by Frank Jackson as follows:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. [...] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

On the day she is allowed to emerge from her confinement, she sees the colourful world for the first time. "Wow!" she says, as she takes it all in. Though she knew everything there was to know about the human brain and everything there was to know about the physics of colour, she had never before known what it was like to experience it first-hand.

But if she now knows something she didn't know before, then evidently she could not have known everything there was to know about colour before her escape. This surely proves that conscious experience transcends physics and neuroscience. Physicalism (the belief that everything is the result of physical interactions) must simply be wrong. Right?

Well, not really...

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

In Defence of Strong AI: Philosophical Zombies Refuted

One concept that often comes up in discussions about consciousness and strong AI is that of the philosophical zombie.

Generally, a philosophical zombie is something which looks like and behaves like a human being, but has no conscious experience of the world. It may deceive us by protesting that it is conscious and claiming that it does feel pain and experience sensations just as we do, but it is just an automaton mimicking a real sentient being. It is no more aware than a character in a novel or a two-line computer program that prints to the screen the message "Hello World! (I'm conscious, by the way)".

Opponents of strong AI will often bring up the idea of a philosophical zombie to illustrate that it is conceivable that something can behave as though it were conscious while actually having no inner experiences whatsoever. David Chalmers, in The Conscious Mind, discusses the idea of an entire world, perhaps indistinguishable from our own, which is populated entirely by philosophical zombies.

While those who bring up the concept may not claim that philosophical zombies are possible in this universe, they do maintain that the concept is at least logically possible or coherent. I disagree.

Friday, 2 November 2012

In Defence of Strong AI: The Chinese Room Refuted

It has become obvious to me that in order to fully explain my world view, I must first defend strong AI.

Strong AI is the position that it is possible in principle to have an artificial intelligence, implemented as a computing machine much like the machines we have today, which would be capable of consciousness, feeling and sensation. This is in contrast to the position of weak AI, which only claims that we could in principle make a computing machine which would merely behave as if it were conscious.

This is important not just for the ethics of how we might treat sentient computers but because it cuts to the heart of what it is that our minds actually are. If our minds are dependent on something other than simple computation, this puts limits on certain questions we might ask about our universe. For example, if computation cannot produce consciousness, then we immediately know that we cannot all be living in a computer simulation.

Firstly, I would like to point out the problems I see with some of the most popular criticisms of strong AI, starting with perhaps the most famous: John Searle's "The Chinese Room". Later I will attempt to build a positive case of my own.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Resolving the impossible lottery

In a previous post, I have posed a question which seems to admit of two contradictory explanations. Go read that post before this one or this post won't make a whole lot of sense!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Apologies for my absence!

I must apologise to my reader (singular intentional) for being absent from blogging for so long. And of course I've left a puzzle hanging, with my explanation of the impossible lottery puzzle.

I've been distracted by the acquisition of an iPad, a birthday, a trip abroad and various computer games (especially Supreme Commander 2 which I have recently discovered I quite like). The Steam Summer Sale has also been reminding me how much I love games.

I'm not sure my enthusiasm for this blog will ever quite get back to the levels it had before this hiatus, but I do intend to write at least a few more posts. Let's see how it goes!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Coincidences surprising and inevitable

Kitler photographed by Amy Halligan

Why is it that we might have no problem suspending our disbelief when watching a movie about an alien invasion, but we would find it ridiculous if the writers of a realistic soap opera suddenly started a storyline involving aliens?

This is actually a question that has interested me for some time, even if I seldom gave it much thought.

I will be getting back to the lottery paradox I posed in my last post, but first I have some things to say about the nature of coincidences and improbable events, and this is one of the questions I will attempt to answer.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Winning the impossible lottery

Photo: Nick See
I wanted to call this post 'The Lottery Paradox', but it turns out that title is already taken by a very similar idea. The version I'm going to discuss is a bit more extreme and has a different focus.

It is inspired by some thoughts I've been having related to the validity of the Anthropic Principle (the subject of my last post), inspired by the comments left by Callum J Hackett on that post.

Suppose the nation of Foobar has a national lottery, but the way it works is that every single day, one of the citizens is chosen at random to win a big prize.

Now suppose that the nation of Foobar has an arbitarily huge number of citizens (say a Googolplex).

I'm going to try to persuade you to believe two completely opposing conclusions about the possibility of believing that you have won this lottery. One of these conclusions is true, and one of them is false. See if you can tell which is which.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The anthropic principle goes wild

The anthropic principle has been much discussed and it is likely that you have already come across it. It's a strange and counter-intuitive idea because it seems to place human beings in a privileged central place in our account of why our world is the way it is.

I want to raise the subject because the anthropic principle is exactly the kind of logical or philosophical argument that might have a bearing on the fundamental existential questions I mentioned in my last post.

The anthropic principle is a simple but profound idea that at first sounds like a useless tautology. It explains that we shouldn't be too surprised to find ourselves in an environment that is so well suited to us, because if our environment were not as it is then we would not be as we are.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: to marvel at the many wonderful and hospitable aspects of our world that enable our existence is like a sentient puddle being impressed with how well its pothole fits its shape.

The anthropic principle explains why the earth is positioned in the narrow band of space at just the right distance from the sun to allow liquid water to exist. It explains how life can have come into existence despite the long odds of its arising by chance. It explains how this life can have evolved into intelligent self-reflective creatures such as ourselves.

Thinking of life, the universe and everything

The great hope of physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss is that a deep understanding of physical law will ultimately lead to an answer to the ultimate questions. Why are we here? Why does any universe exist at all? Why are the physical laws the way they are? What is the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything?

This question has been bothering me for a long time, ever since I was a small child in fact. When I was taught that we fall because of the force of gravity, I was first confused and then dissatisfied.

I have already discussed why I was confused in an earlier blog post, but essentially it was because it seemed natural to me that anything without support should fall. After all, without support, there's nothing to keep it up! There seemed to be no need to invent some mysterious force called "gravity".

This confusion did not last long. On becoming accustomed to the concept, I could see that it made sense. There is no clear logical reason why something should fall down without support any more than it should fall into the sky if not tied down. Clearly the concept of gravity makes sense.

If only it were not so dissatisfying!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Super naturalism

Naturalism is a metaphysical proposition assumed by scientists (at least real scientists!) as they go about their work. Naturalism holds that every phenomenon we observe, and every phenomenon we will observe, is a result of natural processes. Even scientists of faith assume this position, limiting their belief in miracles to their private lives. This keeps us from taking supernatural shortcuts in our scientific investigations. We can never simply shrug and say "God did it!".

For most atheists, this proposition is more than an assumption, it is a belief. But what does this belief actually mean? What differentiates the natural from the supernatural?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Essential identity: Meet your future selves

While discussing my ideas about identity with a friend, it became apparent that I hadn't delved sufficiently deeply into the existential consequences of cloning yourself body and mind. This friend appeared to agree with me on most of what I had written, but when I proposed a new thought experiment to him, he came to very different conclusions to me.

The thought experiment is simple enough, and asks whether you have any interest in the welfare of your clone should you clone yourself.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Essential identity: Paradoxes resolved

This cartoon is an excellent illustration of the problems posed by our intuitive notions of identity. I saw it on television as a child and it has stayed with me, prompting much of my thoughts on the subject.

In this post, I will give my answers to the questions posed by thought experiments such as this.

Essential identity: The essence of essence

It seems that we cannot tie the identity of a person to their physical characteristics or to the atoms that make up their bodies. The former cannot be true because we regard physically identical individuals to be distinct people. The latter cannot be true because these atoms are recycled constantly.

It seems identity of people and things may be bound up in some sort of non-physical mystical "essence". If this were not so, Christopher Walken could have just bought another watch for Bruce Willis.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Essential identity: Physical identity

In continuing the discussion of our intuitive concept of personal identity, I look at ways in which our physical attributes might be the source of our identity.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Essential identity: Introduction

My last blog post discussed the notion that our intuitions are not trustworthy guides to understanding truths that are outside the bounds of our everyday experience. Relativity shows how our intuitions deceive us as to the nature of space and time, while quantum theory shows us the flaws in our common sense notions of matter and energy.

But there are many other ways in which our intuitions may deceive us. Much has been written about free will and whether this is an illusion (I believe it is). Bruce Hood has recently released a book called The Self Illusion, which argues that what we identify with is not a well-integrated self but a collection of competing drives and subconscious processes.

In this post I will introduce the idea that something is wrong with the very notion of personal identity itself.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Intuitive deceptions

As the years pass, and I mull over various philosophical or scientific ideas, it's becoming increasingly obvious to me that our human intuitions lead us astray all to often. We have uncovered numerous phenomena in the scientific world where reality is stranger than our intuitions suppose. In some cases, the nature of reality stretches the capability of our imaginations past breaking point.

Let's look at some examples.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

A part is more complex than the whole

Here's two apparently unrelated hypotheses for you:

1. The universe contains infinite space and an infinite quantity of stuff.

2. The many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true.

Both of these appear at first glance to be astonishingly wasteful, positing infinities upon infinities of things we can never observe and which can never affect us. As such, they appear to be more complex than ideas which assume that space is finite or that there is only one quantum world.

It would seem that Occam's razor weighs against them.

In this post, I will argue that in fact the reverse is true.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Something from nothing: Competing premises

In my previous post, I discussed how Dr. Carrier's argument that the universe could come into existence from nothing is cogent only if you choose to assume that anything can happen in preference to assuming that there is no dimension of time in a state of absolute nothingness.

My own viewpoint is that absolute nothingness does in fact imply a lack of a time dimension, and so Carrier's argument does not hold. So how can we choose which is the better description of absolute nothingness? In this post, I will argue for my position.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Something from nothing: Reconciliation

In my last few posts, I've been highlighting the reasons why I do not agree with Dr. Richard Carrier's argument that the universe could spring from absolute nothingness simply because there would be no laws to prevent this happening.

The focus of my argument has been that there would be no time in a state of absolute nothingness and so nothing at all could happen, including the spontaneous creation of time

In this post, I try to understand the fundamental origin of our disagreement and propose that perhaps neither of us are really wrong.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Something from nothing: Flavours of singularity

One of the ways Dr. Richard Carrier defends his contention that time can arise from a state of absolute nothingness is by giving one example where this may have happened: the singularity at the origin of our universe.

In this post, I will attempt to refute this by arguing that this singularity was not really a state of absolute nothingness at all.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Something from nothing: Time and hypertime

In continuing the discussion of my objection to Richard Carrier's argument that the universe could arise out of a state of absolute nothingness, I consider the question of whether time could arise spontaneously in a timeless environment.

The crux of my argument is that if time does not exist, then nothing can change. The state of absolute nothingness implies that there is no time. As absolute nothingness is not what we observe around us, we can safely conclude that the state of absolute nothingness has never described reality.
You are still stuck on hypertime. You seem to think we need some "extra" time in which to create time. We don't. It's instantaneous.
This is the argument I will attempt to refute in this post.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Something from nothing: The assumption of time

Dr. Richard Carrier has kindly responded to my criticism of his argument with a comment on his blog as well as a number of emails.

In the following posts, I will attempt to represent his position as accurately as I can and outline the precise points of disagreement between us. In this one, I discuss the issue of whether Carrier needs to assume that time exists in order to make his point.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Existence and existence

In my last post, I discussed two different types of beginnings, and in doing so outlined a new way to attack an old problem about the creation of the universe.

In this post, I'm going to talk about two different types of existence. This post isn't going to have any new ideas in it, but I want to write down my take on it anyway because I will be depending on these arguments in future posts.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Beginnings and beginnings

One of the most common and most persuasive arguments for the existence of God is the Kalam cosmological argument. William Lane Craig is perhaps its foremost proponent.

The argument has been formulated at a high level by Craig as follows (according to Wikipedia):
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
He then goes on to argue why this cause must be God, an argument I find unconvincing but won't get into here.

This argument is usually attacked by tackling the first premise with quantum mechanics, where events do not necessarily have causes per se, however Craig counters this by insisting that the laws of quantum mechanics themselves serve as the cause.

Premise number two is often attacked also by raising the possibility that the universe, or at least time, has always existed. Craig responds with all the evidence for the big bang (which is not actually in dispute) and with some unconvincing arguments attempting to prove that an infinite series of past events is impossible.

I propose to attack the argument from another angle. Again, I attack premise two, but not by denying the big bang or the beginning of time, but by arguing that there are beginnings, and then there are beginnings.

Something from nothing

I read an interesting blog post by a fellow named Richard Carrier the other day. In it he discusses the common idea that the universe was created from nothing, and what that might mean.

After all, a common question is why should the universe exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? One explanation is that God must have created the universe. Another is that for some reason nothingness is somehow unstable and will always lead to something.

And, quite apart from this question, creation from nothing is a common religious theme. It is also commonly assumed by the non-religious that all matter, time and space were created in the big bang, essentially from nothing. As such, perhaps it's worth thinking about what might happen if we can imagine such a state of nothingness.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

And another thing!

Before leaving the subject of The Moral Landscape completely, I want to write a post specifically to defend Harris's idea against one particularly bad criticism.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was quite annoyed by a howler of an error made by William Lane Craig in a debate he had with Sam Harris on the topic of whether there could be an objective basis for morality without God.

What was even more annoying was that Dr. Craig was convinced that he had unambiguously proved his argument with this ridiculous misunderstanding. Unbelievably, Harris never bothered to challenge this, resolutely ignoring Dr. Craig and evidently concentrating on all the points he had scripted for himself well in advance of the debate.

After the jump, Dr. Craig's bogus argument and why it's so wrong.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Moral Landscape: conclusions

For all the reasons I've outlined, I don't think it's correct to say that Sam Harris has justified his claim that science can in principle give us objective moral values.

However, that doesn't mean that moral values are completely subjective either. Moral systems can be inconsistent, and moral values can be effective or ineffective at achieving more profound moral goals. For those who agree that well-being is of primary concern, various moral decisions can be evaluated objectively with regard to how well they promote it.

Should we value a parent's right to corporally punish a child, or value the child's right to be spared deliberate physical pain? Well, if we wish to promote good character, then an objective decision should be possible given enough data. Unfortunately most of us make these decisions subjectively based on our own upbringing and capacity for empathy.

I suspect that Harris's true position is not that different from my own, and that perhaps our disagreement is more a matter of semantics than incompatible world views.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The conscious beneficiaries of morality

To whom do we have a moral duty? Sam Harris identifies "conscious beings" as the beneficiaries of our morality.

This is a very broad category, and perhaps Harris is correct. The momentum of history appears to be with him, in that our moral circle is ever-expanding. We first felt this duty only to our kin, then later to our nation, our race, our species.

In the present day, many are concerned with the well-being of members of other species. The future may bring yet more expansion of this moral circle, perhaps even bringing artificially intelligent constructs into the fold. 

Harris seems to include certain animals in his circle of morality, which will please animal rights advocates. On the other hand, pro-life campaigners will be disappointed that Harris seems to exclude human embryos. That some people may reasonably disagree with him calls the objectivity of his axiom into question, however this is the topic of an earlier post.

Let's assume Harris has correctly identified the correct description for moral beneficiaries. In this post, I discuss the problem of deciding objectively who fits it.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The subjectivity of well-being

In keeping with the theme of attacking the objectivity of Harris's moral axiom, this post will address whether the concept of well-being itself has objective meaning.

I don't have a lot to say about it other than to claim that it doesn't.

The possibility of other moral systems

In my last post, I discussed some potential problems with the axiom chosen by Sam Harris as the basis of his system of morality. I showed why I believed this axiom was not sufficient to explain our intuitive sense of morality, and I explained why I believe Harris would need to show that such a simple axiom is possible in order for his argument for the objective reality of morality to hold together.

In this post, I suggest that even if we did manage to patch the problems with Harris's axiom, it would be hard to accept it as an objective basis for morality because it may contradict moral views held by various significant subsets of the human population. If Harris derives his axiom from human moral intuition, as I believe he does, then it seems problematic to claim it as objective when such differences of opinion exist.

An unimpeachable moral foundation

Sam Harris claims that a science of morality may be considered objective because if it is founded on a premise that no reasonable person could disagree with. The premise or axiom proposed by Harris is that moral good is that which tends to improve the aggregate well-being of conscious creatures, while moral evil is the converse. He maintains that this is so obviously correct that were anybody to disagree, we would not take them seriously.

I do think Harris's choice of moral axiom is a good one, and may be among the best we can come up with. However it may not be sufficient to provide a basis for all of our common moral intuitions, indicating that perhaps this axiom is not a perfect basis for morality after all. Our moral intuitions are important, because these are the only justification that Harris can offer for this axiom in the first place. There can be no other reason to suppose that it is correct. 

In this post, I intend to argue that there are grounds to disagree with this axiom.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Objective conclusions, subjective premises

Continuing the discussion of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape, I have a problem with the notion of claiming to derive an entirely objective system of morality from an arbitrary premise, no matter how reasonable that premise may appear to be.

While I find Harris's arguments to be compelling and interesting, I feel in some ways he overstates his point, opening him to criticism and distracting from the central message.

The subtitle of The Moral Landscape is How Science Can Determine Human Values, and I think this is a problem because I'm not convinced it can. The problem is that the axiom Harris has chosen as the basis of his morality is itself a value which is not determined by science. Harris states that this axiom is uncontroversial - anyone who sought to decrease well-being for all conscious creatures would surely be considered evil by any reasonable person, whereas anyone who sought to increase universal well-being would be considered good. I agree with this point, however, the reasonableness of Harris's grounding value is not the issue, the issue is that the very title of the book claims that science can determine values, whereas his basic foundational value is not derived from anything but what reasonable people will usually agree.

In one way, I don't think this is a big problem. I agree with a lot of Harris says, and I agree with his goal to base morality in science and reason rather than appeals to a higher power. As such, the claim that moral values can be truly objective is a red herring which distracts the reader from what I feel should be the central message of the book. It may well be true that given some foundational axioms we may be able to derive a number of higher-level values as conclusions with an objectively valid chain of logical reasoning. However I feel that Harris is wrong to claim that the resulting values are then objectively true.

Perhaps How Science Can Determine Human Values Given the Assumption That We Seek To Improve the Well-Being of Conscious Creatures just wasn't as catchy? Even How Science Can Help to Determine Human Values would be more accurate.

After the jump, Harris defends his reasoning using an analogy to health and medicine.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Harris's Moral Axiom

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris argues for the reality of moral truths and maintains that they can in principle be discovered by science. As such, Harris is a moral realist, however he cannot base the reality of his morality on the dictates of a God in whom he does not believe. Instead, he declares that we can choose another basis for a system of objective morality.

As Harris points out, any philosophical, scientific or mathematical pursuit must start out with some basic assumptions which we hold to be self-evident. In formal systems of logic, these are usually called axioms.

All logical systems must have foundational axioms. For the familiar Euclidean geometry, it turns out we need five axioms (other forms of geometry have been discovered by altering these axioms). Arithmetic depends on a set of axioms known as the Peano axioms, without which we cannot prove that 1 + 1 = 2.

But even informally, if we wish to engage in logic at all, we must value reason and consistency just as we must reject contradictions. For the pursuit of scientific research, we must assume the axiom that beliefs should be based on evidence and not guesswork and that the behaviour of objects in the universe is not random and unpredictable but governed by a system of laws waiting to be discovered.

For any mode of reasoning, thinking or philosophy, there must be some foundational assumptions. These axioms are not derived from anything, they are simple statements which usually appear to be intuitively obvious and upon which we can base our reasoning.

After the jump, Harris attempts to found an objective system of morality upon a simple axiom.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Amoral relativism

Moral relativism is an attitude that seems to be relatively prominent in liberal circles, and it is an attitude that both Sam Harris and I find to be distasteful.

Moral relativism appears to have a few different meanings, but here I refer to the position that no particular moral system can be said to be superior to any other. Different cultures or people will have different values, and nobody can say that anyone else is right or wrong with respect to a given moral viewpoint. We ought to understand that our own values are not special and so tolerate behaviour in others (and especially in other societies) that we might privately consider to be immoral.

After the jump, why I disagree with this point of view.

The implications of religious morality

In continuing the discussion of morality, let's have a look at the claim made by many that morality has an objective existence emanating from God or gods.

As this is leading up to a discussion of the morality of Sam Harris, I think it's relevant to post a link to a video of a debate in which Harris and William Lane Craig debate the proposition that there can be no objective basis for morality without God. Many of the arguments I will touch on come up. Surprisingly, I think on balance I agree with Craig, however he makes at least one major logical blunder which I hope to address in a later post. For those of you without the time to watch the video, there is a transcript here.

The religious view of morality, held by the majority throughout history and today, is that morality was handed down from God(s), and as such it can be viewed as a type of moral realism. Good is simply that which is approved of or mandated by God. Evil is that which is prohibited. Disagreements among believers about what is moral arise only from uncertainty about the will of God.

In this view, for example, one must acknowledge that religious terrorists are motivated by morality, however mistaken they may be in their interpretation of God's will.

After the jump, some questions raised by using religion as a basis for morality.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Is there an objective basis for morality?

I've been following Sam Harris for a while and have recently read The Moral Landscape in which he attempts to answer this question. As an atheist, my own view is that there can be no objective basis to morality and so morality must be a function of culture and convention only, however Harris valiantly argues against this popular point of view in his book.

Reading Sam Harris has been illuminating - while I still don't really believe in the fundamental objectivity of morality, his arguments help to explain how one might apply science, logic and reason to compare alternative moral values and determine which are to be preferred.

Before delving into Harris's view of morality, and my own, I'll be taking a look at some alternative views of morality, starting with the basic question of whether morality has any independent existence at all.

Welcome to Disagreeable Me

Welcome to my new blog!

I've chosen this title for the blog because people who know me always complain that I'm always predisposed to disagree with any proposition put to me. I'm a contrarian who loves a good argument, even occasionally arguing against viewpoints I hold myself.

Rather than trying to get along with people a little better, I enjoy being who I am and believe that this annoying tendency to disagree is more than an irritating character quirk. For me, it is the essence of skepticism, which I think is the best approach we can take to forming rational conclusions about the world. I try to subject my own attitudes and beliefs to the same skeptical analysis as I do those of others.

Unfortunately debunking nonsense such as creationism and homeopathy is already being dealt with on a great number of other blogs and websites, so I may not have much to add on these subjects. Instead, let's get the discussion going on controversial points of view within the rational community.

As such, one theme I intend to explore in this blog is arguing against prominent atheists, philosophers and scientists who I admire and generally agree with on most topics. I intend to write posts disagreeing with such wonderful thinkers and writers as Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking and Dan Dennett.

To start with, I'm going to concentrate on disagreeing with Sam Harris's views on morality as published in The Moral Landscape. Over the next few posts, I'm going to write about my thoughts on the subject of morality, specifically whether there is any such thing as objective morality as well as the moral implications of atheism and the free will debate.

In future I'd also like to tackle topics such as the anthropic principle, whether we could in principle be living inside a simulated universe (matrix-style) and what would that mean, and how the universe could have come into existence without a creator.

Hope it provides food for thought and look forward to hearing from you!