Sunday, March 22, 2015

God, Immortality and the Futility of Life




William Lane Craig has a pretty dispiriting take on the atheistic view of life:
If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value or purpose. 
(Craig 2008, 72)
Embedded in this short quote are a number of important claims. The first is that in order to avoid futility and meaninglessness we need our lives to have ultimate significance, value and/or purpose. The second, perhaps more important, is that we cannot have these things unless two conditions are met:

Craig’s Two Conditions for Meaning: Our lives are without ultimate significance, value or purpose unless (a) there is a God (who, among other things, determines objective value, purpose and significance); and (b) we are immortal.

Over the years, I have written several pieces that call into question Craig’s claims about futility and the atheistic view. In particular, I disagree with his claim that God determines objective value, purpose and significance. I also disagree with the notion that “ultimate” significance is absent on the atheistic view, or that we need it in order to avoid futility.

Today, I want to consider another criticism of Craig’s view. This one comes from Toby Betenson who has just published a nice little article in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion entitled “Fairness and Futility”. In it, Betenson mounts an internal critique of Craig’s view of God and the futility of life. In short, he argues that if we take Craig seriously in his views about God, it turns out that God actually undermines the meaningfulness of our lives. Betenson then uses this internalist critique to suggest that Craig’s focus on ultimate significance (as opposed to relative significance) is misconceived.

I want to go through the main phases of this argument. I have my own thoughts on it and I will insert those into the discussion as I proceed.


1. How might our lives be futile?
Betenson’s argument works by paying close attention to what Craig himself says about the futility of life under atheism and the meaning of life under theism. This close attention is what allows him to hoist Craig on his own petard. This means that several portions of Betenson’s article are given over to quoting Craig verbatim and then drawing out the implications of what Craig is saying. I don’t want to follow the same approach here, since that would end up with me simply repeating what Betenson has to say, but I’ll have to do a little bit of it in order to illustrate a key point in the dialectic.

This key point relates to Betenson’s claim that Craig’s account of meaning under theism implies the existence of a “causal relevance” condition for meaning. In other words, in addition to the two conditions stated above (viz. the existence of God and personal immortality), Betenson thinks that Craig’s account of meaning implies a third condition. This third condition stipulates that in order to live a meaningful life, one’s actions must make a causal contribution to events that are of ultimate significance. Betenson cites some passages from Craig in support of this. In these passages, Craig speaks repeatedly of the need for one’s life to ‘make a difference’. Here’s an example:

The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing [on the atheistic view]. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. 
(Craig 2008, 73)

Craig is here talking about the difference between a life filled with actions that make some relative difference (i.e. that have value relative to a particular person or time frame) and those that make some ultimate difference (i.e. have value from the point of view of the universe). The latter are what matter when it comes to meaning. So this gives us Craig’s third condition for meaning in life:

Craig’s Implied Third Condition for Meaning: Our lives have meaning (and they avoid futility) if our actions make some causal difference to events of ultimate significance, value or purpose.

It’s important to realise how this affects Craig’s complete account of meaning in life. It means that in order to live a meaningful life, you must have three things. First, you must have a God that brings into existence objective values. Second, you must live forever. And third, your actions must be causally relevant to events of ultimate significance (or ultimate “value” if you prefer).

There are already some peculiarities in this account. For instance, one could dispute the role of God in bringing into existence objective values. One could also puzzle over the importance of personal immortality in this account (why must I hang about forever in order for life to have meaning? Isn’t it enough for my actions to make a difference to something of ultimate value?). I puzzle over these things myself and as we shall see such puzzles reemerge in Betenson’s argument. But set them to the side for now.

Let’s focus, instead, on the consequences of Craig’s third condition. Granting its coherence, there are at least four possibilities when it comes to the state of the universe and the satisfaction of that condition. They are:


  • (i) The universe could contain events of ultimate significance/value, and our actions could make a causal difference to them.
  • (ii) The universe could contain events of ultimate significance/value, and our actions could make no causal difference to them.
  • (iii) The universe could contain events of mere relative significance/value, and our actions may make a difference to them.
  • (iv) The universe could contain events of mere relative significance/value, and our actions may make no difference to them.


These four possibilities are further illustrated by the diagram below.




For Craig, only the first of these possibilities allows for a meaningful life. The other three all lead to futility. Craig is well aware of the futility of (iii) — that’s what he is talking about in the passage quoted above, and that’s what he finds so problematic about the atheistic view. The fourth possibility (iv) is an example of what Betenson calls “futility overkill” since it involves a double failure. We can ignore it. The second possibility (ii) is the interesting one. Betenson wants to argue that Craig’s understanding of God actually supports this view. If so, then even by Craig’s own standards, the theistic view implies futility.


2. Betenson’s “Theism implies Futility” Argument
The argument for this is actually quite simple. It comes, once again, from paying close attention to what Craig says about God. As I have noted on previous occasions, one of Craig’s favourite critiques of the atheistic view is that it does not allow for “ultimate accountability” (or “ultimate justice”). In the atheistic universe, we can perform moral acts throughout our lives, including acts of great personal sacrifice, but in the end these acts count for nothing because they will not be rewarded or punished. We could have lived lives of debauchery and sadistic cruelty and the result would be the same.

In the theistic universe things are different:

[O]n the theistic hypothesis, God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall finally see that we do live in a moral universe after all. Despite the inequities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. Thus, the moral choices we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can with consistency make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures. Rather our moral lives have a paramount significance. 
(Craig - quoted in Betenson 2015

Betenson thinks that there is something odd going on here. Craig seems to be saying that there must be ultimate justice in order for any of our actions to have moral significance (it’s the only way we can be sure that we “live in a moral universe after all”). He also seems to be saying that God is the only thing that can supply the necessary justice. He ensures that the moral scales will ultimately be balanced. The net result of this, according to Betenson, is that our actions don’t seem to be all that relevant on Craig’s account of ultimate significance. It is God as justice-giver, not us as moral decision-makers, who “makes the difference”. In short, if Craig is right about the importance of God in ensuring ultimate significance, he implies that our lives are not causally relevant to events of ultimate significance. But that was one his conditions for meaning in life. We have a contradiction.

To put this a little more formally:


  • (1) If our lives are not causally relevant to events of ultimate significance, then our lives are futile (devoid of meaning).
  • (2) If God exists, then God ensures that the universe has ultimate significance (by ensuring that it is ultimately just).
  • (3) If God ensures that the universe is ultimately just, then our lives are not causally relevant to events of ultimate significance.
  • (4) Therefore, if God exists, our lives are futile.


Is this a persuasive argument? Let’s consider some objections and replies.


3. Objections and replies
Betenson covers four objections in his article. The first two strike me as being fairly uninteresting. The last two are more important. I’ll briefly summarise what he has to say about each of them. Here’s the first objection (note: they are not set out exactly like this in the original article):

Objection 1: Even if God is responsible for the ultimate balancing of the moral scales (the ultimate Good), that does not mean that our lives are not causally relevant to lesser, but still significant goods.

This is an obvious criticism because Betenson’s critique seems to take an overly narrow view on the range of goods to which our moral choices must be causally relevant. It seems plausible to say that the decision of the doctor to cure a patient is a causal contribution to the good, even if it is not a contribution to the ultimate Good. Betenson argues that this objection is not available to Craig. This is because Craig repeatedly emphasises that a causal contribution to events of localised significance (like the curing of a patient) are not enough. Contribution to those sorts of events is possible on the atheistic view and Craig clearly doesn’t think it is enough.

The second objection is slightly more interesting:

Objection 2: On Craig’s view, our actions do have ultimate significance because our actions determine whether we go to heaven or hell, and since we live forever in heaven or hell, this means that our actions have everlasting moral implications.

But there are problems with this too. For starters, one has to accept a very traditional view of heaven and hell to find it at all persuasive (if you are a universalist, this option won’t be available to you). For another thing, it assumes that a causal contribution to an event of everlasting personal significance is equivalent to a causal contribution to an event of ultimate significance. This equivalence is dubious. As Betenson puts it, when assessing events in terms of their ultimate significance, you have to take the “point of view of the universe” (i.e. a depersonalised point of view). From that point of view, it is not at all clear that whether you get into heaven or hell is ultimately significant. It is important to you, for sure, but not from the universal point of view. All that matters from that point of view is that the moral scales are balanced: that good is rewarded and wrongdoing is punished.

As I say, I don’t find these first two objections to be particularly important. It is with the third objection that things really start to heat up:

Objection 3: Betenson’s argument assumes that ultimate reward and punishment are what matter from the universal perspective; but this is wrong. What matters is whether objective good is done. There are other objective goods and we can, as moral beings, contribute to the total amount of objective good.

This is a modification of the first objection, but it is an important modification. It highlights problems in Betenson’s original discussion of the ultimate good. It suggests that, from a universal point of view, ensuring that people are appropriately rewarded and punished is just one good among many. There are other potential, universally significant goods (e.g. pursuit of knowledge and understanding, or, if you are a Christian, the worship of God). We can causally contribute to the total sum of those other goods.

As it happens, this is pretty much my view of meaning in life (except I do not think the worship of God is an impersonal good). The problem with it is twofold. First, it is not at all clear why immortality would be required on this account. I could make my contribution to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, then shuffle off this mortal coil and drift into eternal oblivion. The total amount of good in the universe would still have increased through my actions. Second, it is not at all clear why God is needed on this account. Craig thinks He is needed because God determines what is and what is not good, but if like me you think that standards of goodness must be independent of God the need for His existence dissipates.

The problems with this third objection lead to the construction of a fourth:

Objection 4: In line with objection 3, what matters from the universal perspective is that good is done and this conception of good extends beyond ultimate justice. But it just so happens that the most important objective goods require that you live forever.

This is effectively a slight modification of objection 3 that tries to explain why personal immortality is needed in order to avoid futility. It may seem a little ad-hoc right now, given the order in which I have presented these objections, but there is some independent motivation for it. There are those — and I believe Craig is among them — who think that eternal salvation or eternal worship of God are the most important objective goods. And it just so happens that both of those things seem to require personal immortality.

The difficultly with this objection is twofold. First, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being other objective goods to which we could causally contribute and which could provide some degree of meaning to our lives. Second, there are serious questions to be asked about whether these objective goods really are objective goods. I and others have written about the dubious nature of the obligation to worship God. It also seems pretty strange and arbitrary for God to create us and then decree that the ultimate objective good — the one which will allow our lives to have meaning — is our willingness to worship him forever. As Maitzen points out in another article on this topic, it is doubtful whether such divinely ordained purposes could rescue our lives from futility. They will always seem questionable and unsatisfactory. This leads to some doubts about the very notion of “ultimate” significance.

I tend to agree, but that’s where I shall leave it for now. To briefly recap, Craig holds that God, personal immortality, and a causal contribution to events of ultimate significance, are needed if we are to avoid a futile and meaningless existence. Betenson counters that on Craig’s conception of God, we make no causal contribution to events of ultimate significance. This is because God is the ultimate justice-giver, who balances the universe’s moral scales. There are responses to this, but they tend to create more problems for Craig’s account.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Should prospective parents have to apply for licences? An Ethical Debate




Should prospective parents have to apply for parental licences? The argument seems obvious. Having children is a serious business. Negligent or irresponsible parents risk causing long-term harms to their offspring, harms that often have spillover effects on the rest of society. A licensing system should help us to filter out such parents. Therefore, a licensing system would benefit children and society at large. QED

Of course, I’m being somewhat facetious here. The idea of prospective parents applying for parental licences will strike many as both absurd and offensive. But there is no idea so absurd and offensive that at least one philosopher has not defended it. And when it involves something as contentious as parent-child relationships, you can rest assured that there will be more than one.

In this post, I want to review the philosophical debate about parental licensing. I start by looking at Hugh LaFollette’s now-classic argument in favour of parental licences. This argument was originally published in 1980 in Philosophy and Public Affairs. It has since been the subject of much commentary. After outlining LaFollette’s argument, I want to consider a recent critique of that argument from Jurgen de Wispelaere and Daniel Weinstock. As we shall see, they claim that while there is something to be said for educating prospective parents and avoiding risks to children, it is not at all clear that licensing is the best way to go about doing this.

Let’s see how the argument develops.


1. LaFollette’s Argument for Parental Licensing
LaFollette’s argument for parental licensing was based on a simple set of analogies. Modern societies routinely rely upon licensing regimes. The most obvious example is the licensing regime that governs the driving of cars. If you want to drive a car, you must earn a driving licence. This involves passing a test of knowledge and skill that establishes a minimum level of competence. The same holds true in other areas. If I want to practice brain surgery, I have to earn a medical licence. If I want to practice law, I have to earn a law licence. And so on.

What is the rationale for all these licensing regimes? The answer seems pretty straightforward. Activities like driving and brain surgery carry significant risks to the rest of society. A car is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Likewise a scalpel. We can reduce these dangers by having a testing and credentialing system that establishes basic levels of competency. The benefits of such policies more than outweigh the risks. This chain of reasoning may not hold true in all cases. The cost of licensing lawyers, for instance, may not outweigh the benefit. But that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that it holds true in some cases.

That is all that LaFollette’s argument requires. Because if it does hold true in some cases it should also, by analogy, hold true in the case of parental licensing. Having and rearing children is a risky business. Incompetent parents risk causing significant long-term harm to the their children. A licensing system would train parents to obtain a basic level of competence and would filter out those who pose a serious risk to children. The benefits would outweigh the costs.

In other words, the following argument from analogy seems to hold:


  • (1) Licensing systems are desirable/justifiable in the case of driving, doctoring or lawyering on the grounds that (a) those activities pose significant risks of harm to others; and (b) a licensing system would help to reduce those risks in a cost-effective manner.
  • (2) Reasons (a) and (b) would also be true in the case of parental licensing.
  • (3) Therefore, parental licensing would be desirable/justifiable.


Like all arguments from analogy, this has some holes in it. Two are particularly important. The first is the strength of the analogy itself. It could be that there are important differences between parenting and driving that justify licensing in the latter but not in the former. The second has to do with implementation. It could be that there are significant differences between driving and parenting when it comes to the practical implementation of a licensing system. In particular, the costs associated with licensing parents might be significantly higher than the costs associated with licensing drivers.

Let’s consider both of these problems in turn.


2. The Non-Substitutability of the Parental Good
Consider first the important disanalogies between the activity of driving (or performing surgery or whatever) and parenting, particularly in relation to the value of those activities to those who are unjustly denied their licences. No licensing system is perfect. Every system is likely to issue “false positives” and “false negatives” (i.e. likely to deny licences to those who are genuinely competent and grant licences to those who are not). The question is whether we can tolerate those imperfections. To answer that question we need to think of the nature of the licensed activities.

Driving is, for most people, a useful (occasionally necessary) convenience. It gets them about from A to B. This may have considerable value in their lives, but if they really need to get about, there are often reasonable substitutes to driving themselves. They could ask someone for a lift, or they could use public transport, or they could cycle or walk. Some of these will be more reasonable than others, depending on the circumstances. The important point is that — with some limited exceptions — there are always other ways of getting from A to B. If someone is denied a driving licence, they are not damned to permanent house imprisonment.

Something similar is true of performing surgery or practicing law. Those activities will be valuable to many people. It is true that some of those people may have had their hearts set on a career as a doctor or lawyer — that it is their dream job — but there are, nevertheless, alternative forms of employment available to them, many of which might end up being equally (if not more) fulfilling. So, once again, there are reasonable career substitutes available to those who are denied their medical or legal licences.

Is the same thing true of parenting? De Wispelaere and Weinstock argue that it is not. They argue that there certain aspects of the parental good (i.e. the relationship between parent and child) that render that good non-substitutable. If people were denied this parental good thanks to the vagaries of a licensing system, they would lack the reasonable substitutes available in other cases. So what is it about the parental good that makes it non-substitutable? They put it like this:

First, children are utterly dependent on parents for securing their basic needs and wellbeing, and therefore vulnerable to the choices and actions of parents. Second, children typically have no right or power to exit the relationship. Third, children’s love for their parents is spontaneous and unconditional; at times it simply defies ‘rationality’. Finally, the parent is explicitly charged with the responsibility of taking care of the child. Because of the form and quality of the intimacy associated with raising a child, many individuals develop a very strong interest in experiencing such a relationship. 
(De Wispelaere and Weinstock 2012, p 199)

When you add the distinctive nature of the parental good to the fact that any licensing regime with a sufficiently large reach is likely to issue a high number of false positives, you have a situation in which those false positives start to look less tolerable. For example, if a licensing regime successfully authorised 99% of all competent parents and only denied 1% of competent parents, you still have a significant problem if the regime is used to licence every potential parent. Say you have a population of one million potential parents. Even with a 99% accuracy rate, you would be denying parenthood to 10,000 competent parents. These parents would not be like unlucky drivers who can hop on the next bus.

To sum up:


  • (4) Every licensing system will be imperfect, i.e. it will deny licences to those who deserve them and grant them to those who don’t. The question is whether this imperfection is tolerable.
  • (5) If the goods that deserving people are denied through the imperfections of the licensing system are reasonably substitutable, then some imperfections are tolerable; if the goods are not reasonably substitutable, then the imperfections are less tolerable.
  • (6) The goods associated with traditional licensing schemes (e.g. driving, performing surgery) are reasonably substitutable; the good associated with parenting is not reasonably substitutable.
  • (7) Therefore, the inevitable imperfections of a parental licensing system are less tolerable than the imperfections of typical licensing systems.


I have relatively little to say about this argument. I agree with the De Wispelaere and Weinstock that the parental good is non-substitutable. Nevertheless, I would make two points. First, it is not clear to me that the good associated with particular careers are as reasonably substitutable as they let on. In particular, I think there may be unique goods associated with, say, the act of saving someone’s life through surgery that are not easily replicated by other career paths. Second, I think the properties of the parent-child relationship that make it non-substitutable cut both ways. In other words, the dependency and vulnerability of children might be part of what makes parenting so special, but those properties are also reasons to worry about the harms of incompetent parenting. Indeed, they may even provide stronger grounds for licensing than would apply in the case of driving or performing surgery.


3. Implementation Problems
Let’s set aside the disanalogies for now and assume that the prima facie argument for licensing goes through. What would such a licensing system look like? What would be its practical costs? Even in his original paper, LaFollette acknowledged that it would be very difficult to implement a restrictive licensing regime. Unless you are willing to allow mass sterilisations and or invasive clampdowns on procreative sexual behaviour, the regime would probably be highly ineffective. People who would not pass the licensing tests would still be allowed to conceive and bear children.

Once the children are brought into existence, various options would arise for taking them away from irresponsible parents, but this may well have undesirable effects. The adoption system is unlikely to have the capacity to absorb such children, which will put pressure on institutional or foster care systems, which are often bad for child welfare.

These practical difficulties have led LaFollette to revise his proposal. In a 2010 article, he suggests that a licensing regime should not focus on punishing or restricting unlicensed parents but should, rather, focus on rewarding or incentivising licensed parents. In particular, he suggests a system of tax breaks. Parents who are willing to undergo the training and pass the basic competency tests should be rewarded with some tax break. This would avoid the significant costs associated with a punitive regime, while still retaining some of the benefits of a licensing regime.

The problem with this, as de Wispelaere and Weinstock point out, is that it leaves the licensing proposal in tatters. If the idea is that educating prospective parents has social value, and that it is not possible to punitively filter out irresponsible parents through a traditional licensing regime, then its not clear why we should retain a voluntary licensing regime. The most irresponsible prospective parents would have very little reason to engage with such a regime. Surely there are better ways of supplying the necessary education. For example, why not simply include parenting classes and tests as part of the mandatory school curriculum? That way everybody would still require some basic knowledge and skills of parenting and you’d avoid all the negatives associated with a licensing regime. This would come with its own set of problems, but they would be no more significant than the problems associated with all other forms of standardised education, and they might do some (comparative) good.

This sounds about right to me. Indeed, I am more persuaded by this critique than the former one. I think a restrictive licensing regime would be morally and practically unworkable (not unless we are willing to tolerate costly invasions into our private sexual lives). Given these practical problems it seems likely that there are other, less costly, means to a similar end.


4. Conclusion
In sum, the argument for parental licensing is provocative, controversial and initially quite plausible due to the seductive analogies with similar licensing regimes. In short, it has everything that you might want from an applied ethical argument. It is only when you delve a little deeper and consider the distinctive nature of the parental good and the costs of practical implementation that it starts to unravel.

But there may be broader implications here. At the very end of their article, de Wispelaere and Weinstock point out that this critique of the licensing proposal might have unforeseen implications for traditional adoption regimes. After all, adoption regimes already tend to involve the de facto licensing of adoptive parents. But if licensing is unwelcome in the case of natural parents why is it any more welcome in the case of adoptive parents? There may be answers to that question, but I won’t pursue them now. Something to take up in the comments section, perhaps?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Three Practical Hurdles to a Universal Basic Income




The campaign for the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI) has been gaining ground in recent years. What was once a slightly obscure proposal, beloved by certain political theorists and welfare reformists, is now being embraced as a potential solution to the threat of technological unemployment. I myself have written about it on several occasions, mainly focusing on different political and philosophical arguments in favour of its introduction. These arguments focused on the normative/political grounding for the UBI. They rarely, if ever, focused on the practicalities of the UBI. How would it be introduced? Would this be an easy thing?

In this post, I want to take up some of those practical questions. In particular, I want to consider a pragmatic argument in favour of the UBI, one that is often trotted out by its supporters. Then, I want to consider some potential pragmatic hurdles to the introduction of a UBI. In doing so, I draw upon an article by Jurgen De Wispelaere and Lindsay Stirton entitled ‘Practical Bottlenecks in the Implementation of a UBI’. In that article they look at three specific hurdles to the introduction of a UBI, ones that supporters of the policy should consider.


1. The Under-consumption of Welfare and the Simplicity of the UBI
Most welfare entitlements are selective. That is to say, only certain people qualify for those entitlements. For example, jobseekers allowance is a selective entitlement: you are only entitled to it if you are an adult who is actively seeking work. Similarly, childcare benefits are selective: they are only available to those who have dependent children. Sometimes, there are multiple dimensions to the selectivity. For instance, childcare benefits might be means-tested, meaning that only those with children and with incomes below a certain level, are entitled to the benefit. These selective policies can be justified on various grounds, but their selectivity can give rise to certain practical problems. Chief among these practical problems is the problem of under-consumption.

This problem is widely discussed in the literature on welfare entitlements. It arises whenever people who are genuinely entitled to a welfare payment fail to receive it. This is a significant failure of policy: the rationale behind selective welfare programmes is that they provide benefits to people who are genuinely in need of them (who genuinely deserve them). If they fail do this, then there is a significant “justice gap” associated with their implementation.

Under-consumption may be attributable to any number of causes, but it is generally believed to increase whenever the programme includes complex sets of rules and guidelines, whenever the entitlement criteria are vague, whenever the programme requires the applicant to pass a means test, or whenever the criteria of entitlement are associated with some negative prejudice (e.g. the “unemployed”). Selective entitlement programmes tend to exhibit these properties to greater or lesser degrees, which means they often suffer from the problem of under-consumption. Furthermore, there is a limit to how fast and effective bureaucracies can be at tracking people as their life circumstances change (e.g. their employment status, marital status, parental status). Since these life circumstances often determine eligibility for selective entitlements, it follows that selective programmes will always have to contend with a significant risk of under-consumption.

There are other practical problems associated with selective programmes. As you might imagine, the bureaucratic costs associated with policing the boundaries of entitlement are often significant, and sometimes entail humiliating and morally costly intrusions into the lives of those trying to claim the entitlements. It would be better if we could minimise those costs.

This is where the pragmatic benefits of the UBI are typically touted. Irrespective of its moral, political or economic credentials (which are nothing to be sniffed at) the UBI seems attractive because of its administrative simplicity. If it is truly universal, then there is no need to police the boundaries of entitlement. There is no need for costly bureaucratic structures to assess those who make claims, no need for complex rules and guidelines, or prejudicial criteria of entitlement that might dissuade people from making a claim. The problems of bureaucratic cost and under-consumption can be addressed in one fell swoop.

If only things were that simple. Although the UBI certainly has some practical advantages over its more selective peers, it also comes with its own practical hurdles to implementation. As de Wispelaere and Stirton point out, the sheer size and scale of a UBI would be unprecedented. Setting up the infrastructure for its administration would be no small feat. Indeed, there are at least three hurdles that would need to be cleared. Let’s examine them all.


2. The First Hurdle: Maintaining a ‘Cadaster
The first practical hurdle for the UBI is:

Hurdle (1)- Identifying all eligible claimants: If the UBI is to be made available to everybody (or at least every adult or citizen) in a given society, then it is essential that we have some way of identifying all these people. In other words, it is essential that we have some universal register or ‘cadaster’ for eligible claimants.

Many people don’t perceive this as a problem. This is because they think the main problem with selective entitlement programmes is that they struggle to identify the ineligible, i.e. to exclude those who don’t meet the criteria for the programme. Consequently they tend to think that the UBI, because it removes most criteria of ineligibility, solves the problem of identifying eligible participants. But this is incorrect. Just because we no longer have the same number of criteria of exclusion, does not mean that we will magically succeed in including everyone entitled to the UBI. Identifying every person (or adult or citizen) in a given state is itself a significant administrative task.

So how could we do it? De Wispelaere and Stirton look at two possibilities. First, we could try to construct a register from scratch. In other words, introduce some new scheme for tagging and identifying every person (adult or citizen) in an administrative area. This is likely to be a costly endeavour. When the UK proposed to introduce a ID card scheme in the 2000s, the original government estimates were that this would cost approximately £5.6 billion. Later independent estimates suggested that the true cost could be anywhere between £10 and £20 billion (these figures are cited in De Wispelaere and Stirton’s paper). Furthermore, there may be great cultural differences in the willingness of a populace to put their names on such a register. People may not trust the government, and people may worry about how their personal information would be used (beyond simply determining eligibility for the UBI).

The other possibility is that we make use of pre-existing registers. Obvious examples would include registers of social security numbers or voting registers. The problem with these is that they are often far less universal than people suppose. Social security registers tend to work pretty well for people whose births are registered in a particular state but not for those who move to a state later in life. They usually need to apply for a number, and some are either unaware of the need to do so, or simply cannot be bothered to do so. The same holds true for voting registers. I can speak from personal experience on this front since there have been several times in my adult life that I failed to register to vote and so my name was missing from the register. Use of overlapping, but pre-existing, registers might be a possibility but this too would come with costs and would be likely to contain gaps.

I would make one point about this practical hurdle. While I agree with de Wispelaere and Stirton that we shouldn’t ignore the practical hurdles associated with the UBI, I also think it is important not to overstate them. As with every policy, the assessment of the UBI should be conducted comparatively, i.e. by comparing it to its rivals. No welfare policy will completely avoid the problem of under-consumption, or be free from all administrative costs. What matters is whether it is preferable to its rivals and whether these problems can be minimised. The importance of this observation holds in relation to the other two hurdles as well.


3. The Second Hurdle: Ensuring Robust Payment Modalities
The second practical hurdle is an obvious one:

Hurdle (2)- Ensuring that everyone gets paid: It is key to the ethos behind the UBI that everyone receives their income grant, but how can you ensure that this is the case? In other words, how can you ensure that the payment modalities are sufficiently robust to include all eligible claimants?

As I say, this is a pretty obvious practical hurdle to implementation. There are many different payment modalities in modern societies. Not everyone is able or willing to access to all of them. In their analysis, de Wispelaere and Stirton consider a few options.

The first is to use the existing taxation system. This would involve disbursing the basic income grant as a tax deduction (or “negative income tax”). The advantage here is that you could piggyback on top of pre-existing administrative structures. The disadvantages are multifold. First, not everyone participates in the formal economy, or is capable of or willing to submit a tax return. Furthermore, this system is often disliked by feminists on the grounds that taxation systems are often set-up for households as opposed to individuals, and men have tended to control the household. This might impact on the alleged benefits of a UBI for women. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the fact that taxation systems often operate on a “once a year” basis, meaning that the income grant may only be supplied in one large annual lump sum. It is arguable that a more regular system of payments would be more beneficial to vulnerable members of society.

But if there is to be a more regular system of payments, how would it be disbursed? Direct payments to bank accounts might be problematic on the grounds that some people may not have bank accounts, and direct cash payments would have significant administrative costs (i.e. the need to have large, well-staffed payment centres where people could go to pick up their payments on a weekly or monthly basis). A more innovative solution would be to introduce a system of basic income debit cards for all eligible persons. These could be used to make payments or to take out cash from approved ATMs. But problems arise when it comes to: (a) ensuring that people actually get these cards; and (b) setting up and maintaining the IT systems that would be used to administer this payment system.

Again, these problems could be overcome (with some inevitable errors or gaps), but the costs should not be underestimated.


4. The Third Hurdle: Maintaining an Effective Oversight Mechanism
The third hurdle arises even if we can clear the other two:

Hurdle (3)- Maintaining effective oversight: Once a UBI is implemented it will be still be important to ensure that everyone is receiving their income grant and that no one is being left out.

This is again about ensuring that we avoid under-consumption. You might wonder why the focus is solely on under-consumption. Surely, you might say, there is also a problem associated with potential overconsumption (or “double-dipping”)? We don’t want people to get more than their fair share of the income grant, do we? I would tend to agree with this but de Wispelaere and Stirton deliberately avoid this issue in their analysis. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that an oversight mechanism would also be needed to avoid the problem of over-consumption.

So what kinds of oversight mechanism could we have? In the public administration literature, two general types of oversight mechanism are discussed. The first is a “police patrol” mechanism. This requires some centralised administration, specifically a group of enforcers, to investigate and ensure proper enforcement and compliance with the terms of the policy. This is typical of traditional selective entitlement programmes involving means-testing. Since the absence of such a centralised system of enforcement is usually thought to be an advantage of the UBI proposal, it is unlikely that UBI advocates would be keen to create such a system. Furthermore, given the size and scale of the UBI, it is pretty clear that any such system would represent a massive and unprecedented intrusion into our private lives. Maybe we are willing to tolerate that; but recent scandals about government data collection suggest otherwise.

That leaves us with the second type of oversight mechanism. This is the “fire alarm” mechanism. This doesn’t require a centralised group of enforcers. Instead, it relies on individuals self-reporting the problems they are having with the system (e.g. failures to receive entitlements). The complaints from individuals would then be processed by some agency, which could help to ensure optimal levels of consumption.

There are at least two problems with the fire alarm mechanism. The first is that it is unlikely to work in identifying possible incidents of over-consumption. People who are receiving more than they are entitled to will have few incentives to report this problem (though, of course, some honest souls might do so). Resolving this by getting people to “spy” on one another seems like it could lead to some unpleasantries. The second problem is that even though it might work better when identifying incidents of under-consumption, it is likely to face some practical costs. There will need to be some bureaucratic agency for processing complaints, and people will need to feel comfortable trusting this agency with their problems.


5. Conclusion
In sum, although the UBI may represent a gain in terms of social justice and economic efficiency, it will not be without its practical costs. Three costs, in particular, were discussed in this post. The first is the cost associated with identifying all the eligible claimants; the second is the cost associated with setting up some reliable means for disbursing the income grants; and the third is the cost associated with maintaining some ongoing oversight mechanism. Although every policy is likely to have some costs and some inevitable flaws in consumption, it is important that UBI advocates don’t ignore the costs that are unique to it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Interview on Robot Overlordz Episode 150: Tech Unemployment and Enhancement




I have the good fortune of being a guest on the Robot Overlordz podcast this week. Some people might be interested in checking it out. The link is here.

Robot Overlordz is a biweekly podcast, hosted by Mike Johnston and Matt Bolton. As they say themselves:

Robot Overlordz is a podcast about the future. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing. Everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms. All in about 30 minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday

I recommend checking out their website and listening in regularly to their show. In my episode, I discuss three things with Mike and Matt:


  • Tech Unemployment: Are human workers going to be replaced by robots? Is this happening now? Are fears about tech unemployment misplaced? And doesn't this simply point to a tension or contradiction inherent in capitalism?

  • Neuroenhancement and the Extended Mind: Could smartphones and wearable tech be a part of our mind? Is interfering with someone's iPhone ethically equivalent to interfering with someone's mind?

  • Enhancement in Sports and Education: Should we allow the use of enhancement technologies in sport or in education? Are traditional methods of educational assessment fit for purpose?


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Human Life and the Quest for Immortality


Romano - Allegory of Immortality

Human beings have long desired immortality. In his book on the topic, cleverly-titled Immortality, Stephen Cave argues that this desire has taken on four distinct forms over the course of human history. In the first, people seek immortality by simply trying to stay alive, either through the help of magic or science. In the second, people seek resurrection, sometimes in the same physical form and sometimes in an altered plane of existence. In the third, people seek solace through the metaphysical/religious concept of the soul as an entity that houses the essence of our personalities and which will live on beyond the death of our physical bodies. And in the fourth, people seek immortality through their work or artistic creations.

With the exception of the last of these forms, most versions of the quest for immortality share the belief that the immortal existence of the self — i.e. the human person — is something worth pursuing. But some philosophers reject this notion. They do so not because they wish to die or think that death is a good thing, but because they think that without death there is no possibility of a recognisably human life. That is to say: they believe that the quest for an immortal human life is incoherent.

One such philosopher is Samuel Scheffler. In his recent(ish) book Death and Afterlife, Scheffler tries to defend the claim that an immortal life would be no life at all. More precisely, he tries to argue that temporal scarcity is a condition of value in human life, and that without the “threat” of death, it would be difficult to make sense of our existence. In this post, I will try to outline Scheffler’s argument and consider its implications for those who seek to promote radical life extension.


1. What is an immortal life anyway?
One thing I have noticed in the debate about life extension and immortality is a tendency for the participants to talk past one another. This is chiefly because the participants often conceive of an “immortal life” or the quest for “immortality” in very different ways. It’s important that we try to avoid this mistake here.

Let’s suppose that there are four types of human life that we could be arguing about (I am aware that this fourfold distinction doesn’t exhaust the possibilities, but I think it suffices for now):

Ordinary Contingent Human Life: This is the kind of life we all currently lead. We are organic beings, whose bodies are susceptible to injury, disease and decay. We can stave off some of these existential threats, but eventually our bodies will give up and we will die. At present, we can expect to live (roughly) between 80-100 years. With medical advancements we might expect to increase that life expectancy (maybe even up to 150 years), but still we will eventually die.

Necessarily Immortal Human Life: This the kind of life in which we continue to exist in something roughly equivalent to our current form, but we do so forever, without the risk or possibility of death. In other words, it is the kind of life in which we must continue to exist, irrespective of our wishes.

Contingently Immortal Human Life (Type 1): This is the kind of life in which we continue to exist in something roughly equivalent to our current form, and we do so with the continuing risk of death by injury or, maybe, some diseases. In other words, our bodies no longer decay or degrade over time, but they are still vulnerable to some external existential threats (perhaps the main one being the risk of fatal attack from other human beings).

Contingently Immortal Human Life (Type 2):: This is the kind of life in which we continue to exist in something roughly equivalent to our current form, without the risk of death by injury or disease, but with the periodic option of ending our lives. In other words, it is the kind of life in which we are free from all existential threats, apart from “threats” realised by our own volition.

Let’s agree, for the sake of argument, that we want to escape the limitations of the first option and live forever. Which of the remaining three options do we hope for? In my experience, most life extensionists and scientifically-inclined immortalists argue for something like the third and fourth options, i.e. lives of indefinite duration with the lingering possibility of death. Most of them don’t really consider the second option. On the other hand, many religious believers seem more committed to the second possibility. The most obvious examples of this are those that believe in the traditional conceptions of heaven and hell, which often seem to require involuntary immortality.

So which type of existence is the subject of Scheffler’s argument? The answer is the second. It is the necessarily immortal human life that he deems to be an incoherent concept. This immediately limits the audience for his argument. Most life extensionists will be non-plussed by what he has to say because it doesn’t touch upon the sort of life they wish to live; religious believers (at least, those who are committed to the idea of immortality) will more plussed about what he has to say.

I think it is important to acknowledge these limitations at the outset as it helps to avoid potential misinterpretations of Scheffler’s argument. That said, in making the case against the necessarily immortal life, Scheffler says some things about temporal scarcity and conditions of value that could have a (lesser) effect on contingently immortal lives. This is something worth bearing in mind.


2. The Argument for Incoherence
With that clarification out of the way, we can proceed to address Scheffler’s argument for the incoherence of a necessarily immortal life. Scheffler doesn’t present this with any degree of formality. Instead, he adduces a number of considerations and tries to informally draw out some conclusions. I’ll try to adopt a more formal approach here. I take it that the argument is something like this:


  • (1) Much of what is central to our conception of human life (including our conception of value in life) tacitly assumes that that life will come to an end, and/or is persistently vulnerable to existential threat.
  • (2) A necessarily immortal life is one that does not come to an end and is not persistently vulnerable to existential threat.
  • (3) Therefore, much of what is central to our conception of human life (including our conception of value) would be lost if we lived necessarily immortal lives.
  • (4) If a form of existence entails the loss of much of what is central to our conception of human life, it is not clear that that form of existence can be deemed “human”.
  • (5) Therefore, there may be no such thing a necessarily immortal human life (i.e. the concept of a necessarily immortal human life may be incoherent).


The argument can be dragged in different directions once this main conclusion is reached. In particular, it can be used to support the claim that we ought not to desire a necessarily immortal life, or, perhaps more interestingly, to argue against certain religious doctrines that presuppose such an existence (Brian Ribeiro does this in his article “The Problem of Heaven”).

But I am not too interested in those possibilities. I am more interested in how Scheffler defends the main premises of the argument. In particular, I am interested in how he defends premise (1). I take it that the rest of the argument is relatively uncontroversial. Premise (2) is true by definition. (3) looks to be a valid conclusion from (1) and (2). (4) might be controversial because it is vague, but that can be corrected by having a more detailed account of what is taken from the concept of human life by immortality. That is something that the defence of (1) helps to provide. And, finally, (5) also looks to be a reasonable inference from (3) and (4).

So let’s consider the defence of premise (1). In the book, Scheffler offers three reasons in support of premise (1). The first is:


  • (6) Our conception of life, and of success in life, is bound up with the notion that life has stages that come to an end.


Scheffler provides more detail on what he is talking about in the book. He notes how the standard conception of a human life has a finite duration, i.e. a beginning (birth) and an end (death). Between these two endpoints, the living person passes through a number of stages, childhood, adolescence, adulthood etc.. These stages, and their durations, vary somewhat from culture to culture. Nevertheless, all cultures share the notion that life is broken down into distinct stages and that these stages come to an end. More importantly, our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction is often intimately linked to our conception of these stages. Thus, what counts as an achievement for a child (first words, learning to read) would not count as an achievement for an adult, and vice versa. As Scheffler puts it:

Our collective understanding of the range of goals, activities, and pursuits that are available to the person, the challenges that he faces, and the satisfactions that he may reasonably hope for are all indexed to these stages. The very fact that the accomplishments and satisfactions of each stage count as accomplishments and satisfactions depends on their association with the stage in question…” 
(Scheffler 2013, p 96)

Scheffler’s point is that this division of life into stages, each with its own characteristic virtues and vices would be lost if we lived necessarily immortal lives.

So much for the first reason. The second reason Scheffler offers is linked to the concepts of loss, illness, injury and so on:


  • (7) Concepts such as loss, illness, injury, harm, health, gain, security, safety (and so on), all of which are central to how we understand value in life, derive a good deal of their content from the assumption that life is temporally limited.


This is probably a more significant claim than the first since it focuses directly on things that are deemed to be of value (or disvalue) in human life. Scheffler doesn’t offer much in the way of support for this claim. He simply points out that much of human life is spent trying to avoid things like loss, illness, injury and harm, and trying to pursue health, gain, security and safety. And then adds that these concepts “derive much of their content from our standing recognition that our lives are temporally bounded, that we are subject to death at any moment, and that we are certain to succumb to it in the end.” (p. 97) Since that temporal boundedness is lost in a necessarily immortal life it follows that such a life would consist in a radically altered set of values. (It should also be added that if you are necessarily immortal you would presumably be free from many physical limitations and needs, e.g. hunger and thirst).

Arising from this is Scheffler’s third reason for supporting premise (1). This reason has to do with human planning and decision-making:


  • (8) Much of human decision-making and planning only make sense against a background assumption of temporal scarcity.


As I say, this arises from the same set of considerations as the previous reason, and so it may not be fair to treat it as a distinct ground for supporting premise (1). Still, I think it is worth separating it out because the planning and making of decisions (sacrifices, choices etc.) is central to human existence and may well be radically altered in a necessarily immortal life. The reasoning would be, roughly, that whenever we plan or decide to do something we do so on the basis that we must “give up” something (what economists call the “opportunity cost”). The presence of that opportunity cost lends some normative significance to our decision-making and adds to our sense of urgency and motivation. These things would be lost if we lived forever because we would always have a second chance (or a third or fourth or fifth…). Some people might welcome this fact, but even still it would make for a very different type of existence. (I wrote about this argument in much more detail before).


3. Concluding Thoughts
So what are we to make of all this? Let me close with two reflections on Scheffler’s argument. First, I accept most of Scheffler’s argument and I think it says something important about the desire for a (necessarily) immortal life. For example, I accept that a necessarily immortal life would be free from many of the limitations that currently shape our conception of what is or is not of value. Consequently, I am largely persuaded by his use of (7) and (8). I am less persuaded by his use of (6). It seems conceivable to me that an immortal life could still be broken down into stages of finite duration. Maybe it would be more difficult to then associate those stages with distinctive accomplishments and satisfactions, but sufficient ingenuity may make it possible. That said, I believe this to be a minor point. The larger point is that a necessarily immortal life would be radically different from what we currently have, and there is no doubt that much of our current understanding of value would be altered. Although this might not make the desire for a necessarily immortal life incoherent, it may make it silly or misconceived: such a life cannot hope to preserve the things we value about our present lives.

Second, although I accept he was not arguing about contingently immortal lives, I think it is worth asking how much of his argument would carry over to such lives. It seems fair to say that some of it would. After all, a contingently immortal life would reduce at least some of the existential threats that Scheffler thinks are essential to our conception of a human life. For instance, it would force some restructuring of the stages of life and their associated accomplishments and satisfactions (I considered this before). Likewise, with a contingently immortal life of the second type (i.e. one free from all involuntary existential threats) things like loss, illness, harm, safety, health and so on would be deeply affected. How exactly they would be affected is difficult to say. There would still, presumably, be some values that are independent of existential threats (e.g. the intrinsic value of pleasure, or of enhancing theoretical knowledge), but we may find that a good deal of our values are lost or radically altered. We may also, of course, acquire new values that compensate for these losses. But there is something of bet taking place: we risk trading one set of familiar values for another, less familiar, set.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say for now.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Two Interpretations of the Extended Mind Hypothesis




I’m trying to wrap my head around the extended mind hypothesis (EMH). I’m doing so because I’m interested in its implications for the debate about enhancement and technology. If the mind extends into the environment outside the brain/bone barrier, then we are arguably enhancing our minds all the time by developing new technologies, be they books and abacuses or smartphones and wearable tech. Consequently, we should have no serious principled objection to technologies that try to enhance directly inside the brain/bone barrier.

Or so some have argued. I explored their arguments in a previous post. In this post, I want to do something a little different. I want to consider how exactly one should interpret the claim that the human mind can extend into the external environment. To do this, I’m calling upon the help of Katalin Farkas, who has recently written an excellent little article entitled “Two Versions of the Extended Mind”. In it, she argues that there are two interpretations of the EMH, both extant in the current literature. The first makes a wholly plausible and, according to Farkas, uncontentious claim that can be endorsed by pretty much everyone. The second is rather more contentious and, arguably, more significant.

In the remainder of this post, I will go through both interpretations.


1. Some Key Concepts
Before I get to those interpretations, I need to run through a few key conceptual distinctions. First, I need to distinguish between different types of mental event. We all know what the mind is: it is that “thing” that thinks, feels, believes, perceives, dreams, and intends. Mental events are the events that happen within the mind, i.e. the thinking, feeling, believing, perceiving and so on. By describing it in this way, I do not mean to rule out the possibility that the mind is itself an extended set of events (and so not a “thing” per se). The mind could well be an extended set of events and still consist of sub-events like believing, perceiving, dreaming, intending and so forth.

Anyway, although there are many different mental events, they seem to fall into two broad categories:

Events in the Stream of Consciousness: As the name suggests, these are the mental events that form part of the subject’s occurrent conscious life. They include things like the taste of chocolate, the feeling of warmth, the perception of red and so on.
Standing Events: These are mental events that need not form part of the subject’s occurrent conscious life. The classic examples are beliefs and desires, which are generally taken to characterise a subject even when they are not directly conscious of them (they are taken to be dispositions). For example, I can be said to “desire a meaningful relationship with my children” even when I am asleep and not consciously representing that desire. (Farkas refers to these as standing “states” not “events”; her terminology may be more correct)

This distinction turns out to be important when it comes to understanding what is being “extended” when we talk about the extension of the mind. That is to say, it is important when it comes to understanding the content of the mental extension. It is, however, less important than the next distinction when it comes to understanding the two competing interpretations of the EMH.

That next distinction arises from the functionalist theory of mind. According to that theory, whether something counts as a mental event or not depends on the role that it plays in fulfilling some function. Thus, for example, something counts as a “belief” not because it is made of a particular substance (res extensa or res cogitans) but because it has a particular role in an overarching mental mechanism. Thus, it can be said to counts as a belief because it is capable of producing certain conscious states, action plans and decisions.

Functionalists distinguish between two things that are necessary for mental events/states:

The Mental Realiser: This is the object or mechanism that realises (i.e. constitutes) the mental event. In other words, it is the physical or mental stuff that the event is made out of.
The Mental Role: This is the position (or locus of causal inputs and effects) that something occupies in the mental system.

This distinction is important when it comes to understanding the method or nature of mental extension. In fact, a very simple way to understand Farkas’s main contention is that when it comes to extending the mind, there is a significant difference between realiser-extension and role-extension. The former is trivial, and can arguably be embraced by non-functionalists. The latter is more significant. Let’s try to see why.


2. The Trivial Interpretation: Extending Mental Realisers
As mentioned in the introduction, the gist of the extended mind hypothesis is that the mind can extend out beyond the brain/bone barrier. There may be sound evolutionary reasons for our minds to be limited to that space, but according to proponents of the EMH there is simply no good, in-principle, reason to suppose that the mind has to remain confined to the three and half pound lump of squidgy biomass that we call the “brain”.

The easiest way to interpret that claim is to interpret it as a claim about mental realisers, i.e. as a claim that mental realisers can extend beyond the skull:

Extended Mind Hypothesis (1): The physical basis for mental events can extend beyond the boundaries of our organic bodies

Farkas appeals to an example used by Andy Clark (one of the original proponents of the extended mind hypothesis) to illustrate this version:

Diva’s CaseThere is a documented case (from the University of California’s Institute for Nonlinear Science) of a California spiny lobster, one of whose neurons was deliberately damaged and replaced by a silicon circuit that restored the original functionality: in this case, the control of rhythmic chewing. (...) now imagine a case in which a person (call her Diva) suffers minor brain damage and loses the ability to perform a simple task of arithmetic division using only her neural resources. An external silicon circuit is added that restores the previous functionality. Diva can now divide just as before, only some small part of the work is distributed across the brain and the silicon circuit: a genuinely mental process (division) is supported by a hybrid bio-technological system. 
(Clark, 2009 - quoted from Farkas)

Here, the hybrid bio-technological system constitutes an extended mental realiser for the performance of mental arithmetic. The word “constitutes” is important. The claim is not merely that the extended system causally precedes the mental event; it is that the extended system either is or grounds the mental event. What’s more, this claim applies to standing states just as much as it applies to events in the stream of consciousness. Indeed, in Diva’s case it is a mental event in the stream of consciousness that is getting its realiser extended beyond the brain/bone barrier.

Farkas argues that this version of the EMH is fairly trivial. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that non-functionalists and some dualists may be able to embrace it. All it is saying is that if some physical realiser is necessary for mental events (and many theories of mind accept that a physical realiser is necessary, even if it is not sufficient) then there is no reason to think that the realiser has to be made up of neurons, or glia or whatnot. Not unless you think that neurons have some magical mentality-exuding stuff attached to them.


3. The Significant Interpretation: Extending Mental Roles
The more significant interpretation of the EMH claims that more things can count as performing a mental role, even when they seem remarkably distinct from what traditionally seems to perform that role. As Farkas sees it, this is largely a claim about what counts as a standing mental state and, more precisely, as a claim about the possibility of extending the set of things that can count as a standing mental state.

Extended Mind Hypothesis (2): “the typical role of standing states can be extended to include states that produce conscious manifestations in a somewhat different way than normal beliefs and desires do.”

It will take a little longer to understand this version, but we can start by looking at the most famous thought experiment in the debate about the extended mind. This is the Inga vs Otto thought experiment from Chalmers and Clark’s original 1998 paper:

Inga and Otto: Imagine there is a man named Otto, who suffers from some memory impairment. At all times, Otto carries with him a notebook. This notebook contains all the information Otto needs to remember on any given day. Suppose one day he wants to go to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York but he can’t remember the address. Fortunately, he can simply look up the address in his notebook. This he duly does, sees that the address is on 53rd Street and attends the exhibition. Now compare Otto to Inga. She also wants to go to the exhibition, but has no memory problems and is able to recall the location using the traditional, brain-based recollection system.

The essence of Chalmers and Clark’s original paper was that there is no significant difference between what happens in Otto’s case and what happens in Inga’s case. They can both be said to “believe” that the Museum of Modern Art is on 53rd Street, prior to “looking up” the information. It just so happens that in Otto’s case the recollection system extends beyond his brain.

Farkas argues that this is a very different type of extension when compared with that of realiser-extension. In this instance, it is not simply that the notebook replaces the brain with a functionally equivalent bio-technological hybrid; it is that the notebook mediates the recollection process in a very different way. Consequently, to say that Otto’s mind extends into the notebook is to say that we should be more liberal in our understanding of what kinds of system can count as fulfilling a mental role.

To see this, it helps to consider some of the important differences between the recollections of Otto and Inga. First, note how they are phenomenologically distinct. Inga gains access to the relevant information through direct mental recall, not mediated by any other sensory process; Otto needs to literally see the information written down in his notebook before he can be said to “recall” it. Second, note how Inga’s “belief” is more automatically integrated with the rest of her mental system than Otto’s. If Inga learns that she got the wrong address, this will affect a whole suite of other beliefs and desires she might have had. In Otto’s case, learning that he has the wrong address will simply involve deleting the entry from his notebook and correcting it. This will not immediately affect other entries in the notebook that relied on the same information.

One could point to other differences too but these suffice for now. Some people argue would argue that these differences should lead us to re-evaluate the Inga-Otto thought experiment. In particular, they should lead us to say that Otto does not really believe that the Museum of Modern Art is on 53rd Street and that Inga does. The problem is that proponents of the EMH can come back and highlight how focusing on phenomenological and integration-based differences between Otto and Inga can affect how we interpret other cases. For example, the phenomenology of recollection varies greatly from case to case. I remember all of Macbeth’s “full of sound and fury” monologue from Act 5, Scene 5 of Macbeth. But in order to remember the fifth line (“Til the last syllable of recorded time”) I actually need to speak, out loud, the first four lines. That does that sensory intermediation deny me the status of an ordinary mental recollection? Likewise, with respect to automatic-integration, it is possible that Otto could have a “smart” organiser that automatically updates other entries with the new information. This is something that is increasingly a feature of smart devices with cloud-based syncing.

And this is where the EMH becomes significant. By responding to critics of their position in such a manner, proponents of the EMH are arguing that we should be much more ecumenical when it comes to determining what can count as a standing mental state. That’s what EMH (2) is claiming. Furthermore, this time round the claim is that the extension is limited to standing states and does not also encompass events in the stream of consciousness. There is a good reason for this. As Farkas sees it, EMH (2) isn’t really about physical expansion outside the brain-bone barrier in the way that EMH (1) is. For all that proponents of EMH (2) care, the notebook-lookup system could be located entirely within the confines of Otto’s skull. That wouldn’t make a difference to their claim. What matters for them is that we are less restrictive when it comes to determining what counts as a providing the basis for a mental standing state.


4. Conclusion
Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with two versions of EMH. The first is relatively straightforward and simply claims that mental-realisers need not be confined to the brain. The second is more contentious and claims that we should have a more expansive conception of what can count as a standing mental state.

To really understand the significance of the second version it helps if you consider Chalmers and Clark’s original criteria for assessing whether something could count as standing state. They suggested that anything that was readily accessible and automatically endorsed could form part of the extended mind loop that constituted a belief or desire. This could include something like the information in Otto’s notebook, the information stored on the Web, and also, more controversially, the information stored in someone else’s head. Imagine a really close couple who are in the habit of relying upon the mental content stored in their partners’ heads. In many ways, they would be just like Otto and his notebook.

But if it is possible for all such closely connected information-exchange partnerships to form part of an extended mind, we will find ourselves in some pretty tricky ethical and social waters. What does it mean for privacy? Individual autonomy? Responsibility and blame? Praise and reward? All of these concepts would need to be revised if we fully embraced the implications of EMH (2). That is some serious food for thought.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How I Write for Peer Review




Publish or perish, or so they say. That’s the rule in academia. But not all publications are created equal. I’ve “published” over 700 posts on this blog (and republished many on other blogs), and although I think there are advantages to having done so, I’d be lying if I said these publications were academically “significant”. They’re certainly not significant from the perspective of the administrators and overseers lurking within the groves of academe. If you want to please these people you must produce peer-reviewed publications (preferably double or triple-blind peer-reviewed publications) in high impact academic journals. That’s where the game is.

This is not to disparage the system. Suffice to say that, despite my rather cynical and world-weary tone in the opening paragraph, I’m something of a fan of peer review. With some limited exceptions, I can safely say that most of the articles I’ve published in academic journals have been improved by the process. But, in any event, my focus here is not on the merits or demerits of peer review. Instead, my focus is on the practical matter of how one actually goes about producing and publishing material in peer-reviewed journals.

Or, more precisely, my focus is on how I go about doing this. I focus on myself not because I am a self-obsessed egomaniac (though I may be) but because I don’t think there is a definitive set of “how tos” for success in peer review. Different people will have different methods, some of which may work for them but not for others. What I offer here is just my approach. I offer it in the hope that it will be useful to some, and in the spirit of transparency.

I’m not particularly successful in producing peer-reviewed publications (probably 12 good pieces in the past 4 and half years, and 4 other less good pieces), but I have some experience that might be worth sharing. One thing I noticed as a struggling PhD student — and this may have just all been in my head — was how guarded and competitive people seemed to be about their attempts at publication. It’s as if everyone knows that everyone else is grinding away at it, but no one is willing to share the stories of their failures. Given the levels of neurosis and impostor syndrome in the academy, it would be nice (I think) if people were more open about these things.

So in that spirit of openness, here are the steps I generally follow when writing for peer-review.


Step One: Prepare for Failure
Trying to publish in academic journals is often a soul-destroying process. Acceptance rates at the top journals are absurdly low (under 5% in some cases), and even at middle-ranked journals one is far more likely to be rejected than not. I might like to think that I am special, that my paper is truly exceptional and that the peer reviewers will be overwhelmed by the subtlety and sophistication of its argument, but the likelihood is that I am wrong. I have now come to accept this, and before I even start writing I prepare for failure.

I put this as step one because I think coping with failure is the most important thing to master. It’s certainly something I wish I had been better able to deal with before I embarked on an academic career. Throughout my school and undergraduate days, I was used to success. I had never failed an exam; I was (nearly) always at the top end of my class. The notion that something I had written would be rejected — often with peer-reviewers questioning my basic competence and understanding — was completely alien to me. Now, I’ve learned to deal with the fact that it will be a fairly regular occurrence.

Part of the trick is, I think, to frame failure in a positive way. In his book How to Write a Lot, Paul J Silva suggests that your goal should be to become the most rejected author in your department. Why? Because being the most rejected means you are also likely to be the most published. The reason for this is twofold. First, if you are throwing a lot of darts at the dartboard one of them will eventually hit the target. Second, most papers that get rejected from one journal will end up being published elsewhere. Although it may be painful and disappointing at first, taking onboard the reviewers’ criticisms, revising the paper and submitting it elsewhere will often result in success. That’s true of the most recent paper that I had published. Indeed, one of my biggest regrets is that I lacked persistence with some of my earlier papers. In 2010 I had three papers rejected from journals that, in retrospect, could have been published elsewhere. But I just gave up on them after one round of rejection.


Step Two: Generating Ideas
Although writing for peer review can seem like a tedious and grubbily instrumentalist process, it’s important to realise that at its foundation there is (one hopes) some genuine intellectual passion and interest. That’s certainly true for me. I write papers about topics that interest me (even if only for while) and generating ideas for papers is something that provides me with great joy.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how I manage to generate such ideas. I don’t think I have ever generated an idea for a paper through brute intellectual force (i.e. by simply sitting down and demanding myself to come up with an idea). They just seem to occur to me. That said, there are some discernible patterns. I usually come up with ideas when out running or cycling (when I’m free from other distractions), or else late at night (typically between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am). I don’t know why this is. Most of my ideas come from combining and manipulating arguments that I have found in other papers that I have read. I don't think I've ever had a truly original thought. For example, my paper on sex work and technological unemployment came from combining ideas that I came across when reading on the ethics and economics of prostitution with other ideas I encountered when reading about robots and technological unemployment.

By an “idea” for a paper I mean a basic argument I wish to defend. Sometimes those ideas come to me in a conclusion-first format. That is to say, I’ll think “wouldn’t it be interesting if someone were to argue X” and then work backwards from there. Other times, the ideas come in a premise-first format. That is to say, I’ll think “what does principle X imply?” and try to work out the details. Again, I don’t know how or why things occur to me in these formats. I believe that wide reading and ongoing curiosity are the key, but I don’t have a precise algorithm or strategy.


Step Three: Writing the Abstract
Once I think I have the kernel of a good idea (and this idea could be percolating around my brain for several months before I take it any further), I will try to write the abstract for the final paper. Some people might find this odd, but it is a habit I picked up from reading Wendy Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Week, which I recommended on a previous occasion. As she notes in that book, a good abstract should provide a summary of the argument you wish to defend in the paper. To me it makes sense to try to generate that summary first. Hence why I write the abstract first. I may, of course, revise it at a later point, if my argument changes slightly.

To help me to write the abstract, I will often use Stephen Posusta’s “Instant Thesis Generator” (something I also picked up from Belcher’s book). This comes from something called the Procrastinor’s Guide to Writing an Effective Term Paper, which as you may gather is a book for lazy undergraduates. Again, it might seem odd that I would rely on this, but I find it suprisingly beneficial because it provides a useful heuristic for thinking about a good argument. It is illustrated in the diagram below.





You can click on the image for a fuller explanation, but the basic gist of it is that you should be able to summarise your paper using a fill-in-the-blanks sentence: “Although….Nevertheless…Because”. The first part is a statement of the contrary point(s) of view (the ones you will be opposing in your article); the second part is a statement of your main conclusion(s); and the third part is a list of the reasons, evidence and argumentation you will use to support your conclusion(s). Of course, I will rarely actually write the abstract out in this exact format. But I will use it to structure how I think about the abstract. In essence, I think that if I can’t summarise my paper using the instant thesis generator, I probably don’t have an idea worth pursuing in any more detail. It may need some further percolation.


Step Four: Planning the Article
Once I have the abstract in place, I will proceed to write out a more detailed plan for the article. I will do this using pen and paper, and I will usually do it late at night (after 11:00 p.m.). For whatever reason, I find it easiest to work on plans at this time. I believe this is because article planning is, for me, an exercise in sustained thinking, and I find it easier to do this when I am free of all other distractions (emails, work, cooking etc.).

Unlike generating article ideas, I find that planning an article is something that can be done through brute intellectual force. Most articles I have written have been planned out in about one to two hours, by literally just sitting down and forcing myself to think through each step of the argument I wish to make. In other words, using my abstract as a starting point, I force myself to think about each of the premises I need to defend, the counterarguments that are likely to be thrown at me, and my responses to them.

My plans are pretty detailed. For a 10,000 word article, I’ll usually scribble out anywhere between 4 and 10 A4 pages-worth of a plan. I do this mainly because I like the actual writing process to be as mechanical and methodical as possible. Simply a question of filling in the details and smoothing out the edges of the plan.


Step Five: Writing the First Draft
With a detailed plan in place, I can proceed to sit down and write the first draft. In many ways, I find this to be the easiest and possibly least exciting part of the process (though there is a nice sense of accomplishment that comes with it). I follow pretty much the same timetable for writing all my articles. I set aside about two hours every morning (usually between 9 and 11 or 10 and 12), and I write approximately 1,000 to 2,000 words every day. In this way, I typically manage to produce a first draft of an article in about two weeks. Obviously, it all depends somewhat on the time of year and the presence of other distractions, but I think I can genuinely say that every one of my published articles had their first drafts produced in a two-week period.


Step Six: Revising and Seeking Feedback
Once I have finished the first draft of the paper, I will set it to one side for a period of time. The period of time varies. Sometimes it will be a month; sometimes it could be six months. Ideally, I aim for the shorter end of this spectrum: if it takes me six months to get back to a paper, that’s usually a sign that I didn’t really like what I wrote and I need more distance from it. Anyway, once I return to the paper, I will read through it and revise it however I see fit. This process usually takes only a couple of hours, though it may take longer if I think the paper needs substantive revisions. When revising, I do the usual things: I look for weakpoints in the argument and think of possible amendments (oftentimes I’ll have flagged these in bold in the initial draft), I try to improve the overall “flow” of the writing, and I try to correct for any spelling mistakes and referencing errors/omissions. I am, however, notoriously bad at that and nearly everything I have ever published (including articles that ultimately pass through copy-editing and proof-reading) will have some typographical and spelling errors.

At this point I face a choice. I can either send the paper around to some colleagues for feedback, or I can submit it to a journal. I’m guessing the former is preferable, and it seems to be a common practice among some of my peers, but I don’t do it that often. I usually send things out to journals before seeking feedback from others. Indeed, even though I have participated in various “work in progress” seminars over the years, in most cases the papers I was discussing had already been submitted.

I think the reason I prefer to submit without soliciting feedback is that I’m impatient and I’m all too aware of how slow the peer review process can be. I’m also a little bit insecure. I’m now pretty good at taking critical feedback from anonymous reviewers but I'm still less good at taking it from people I know. Once I’m happy enough with a piece I’ve written myself, I just want to get the peer-review ball rolling.

That said, once I’ve submitted the piece I will sometimes seek feedback (in anticipation of the need to revise once the journal gets back to me), or else I will seek feedback once I have received a “revisions requested” or “revise and resubmit” notification from a journal. This may, once again, reveal my insecurities: I’m less bothered by what people I know say about what I’ve written if I have some affirmation from the peer reviewers.


Step Seven: Submission
I’ve jumped the gun to this step already but just to reiterate, once I’ve revised the paper and I’m happy with it myself, I will submit it to a journal. I’m not hugely strategic about the choice of journal. I want something with a decent reputation and an international audience, but beyond that I’m not too fussy. When I’m writing I will usually have a number of options in mind (in fact, if I’m honest, I will rarely proceed with writing a paper if I can’t think of possible target journal in advance), and I’ll start by picking the best of those and then working my way down the hierarchy afterwards if needs be.

Once I have submitted, I’m forced to play the waiting game. Unfortunately, this waiting game can take a long time. In terms of my own publications, the best experiences I have had when it comes to the time from submission to initial decision were with Neuroethics (accepted with revisions), Religious Studies (accepted) and Journal of Medical Ethics (rejected) all of whom got back to me within a month and half. The worst experiences I’ve had, alas, were with Sophia and Law and Philosophy, where in both cases I was waiting nearly nine months for an initial decision. That said, both pieces were ultimately accepted and I know that these are far from being the worst waiting times. There may have been good reasons for them too (e.g. waiting for reviewers to write up their reports).


Step Eight: Prepare for Failure Again
When I have submitted the paper I will prepare myself, once again, for the possibility of failure. I think it is important to remind myself of this after the initial submission because, once I have written the paper, I may be lulled into a false sense of immodesty. I’ll think that what I’ve written is wonderful and important and bound to be accepted. It’s important that I disabuse myself of such notions. If I don’t, the reviewers of my paper will be quick to do so.


Step Nine: Responding to the Decision
…eventually I’ll receive a decision about my paper. If all goes well, the paper will either be accepted outright (this has never happened to me), accepted with revisions (major or minor) or I’ll be asked to revise and resubmit. If I receive one of those latter two decisions, I will parse the reviewers’ comments immediately and then I’ll go through the five stages of grief: denial (“they couldn’t have said that about my paper”); anger (“the reviewers must be idiots”); bargaining (“if only I could get them to see this point”); depression (“that’s it, I’m never writing another paper again”) and, finally, acceptance (“well, I suppose I better get on with it and revise the damn thing”). In the early days, it would take me a while to move through those five stages. Nowadays, I’m usually onto stage five within 24 hours.

I find responding to the reviewers to be one of the more difficult parts of the process. Unlike the writing of the first draft, I can only manage revisions in concentrated bursts. I usually manage them over two to three days (normally at weekends during teaching semesters). I’ll sit down on day one, read through my paper and the reviewers’ comments and try to come up with some strategy for responding to them. Then, on day two, I’ll add my revisions to the paper, taking in a third day if necessary. By way of illustration, on my two most recent papers (“Robotic Rape and Robotic Child Sexual Abuse” and “The Normativity of Linguistic Originalism”), I managed to complete the revisions over two and three days, respectively. Ideally, I like to do this pretty soon after I receive the comments, but sometimes it takes me a while to schedule the two or three days I need. I have no tips to offer on making your revision more likely to be accepted. The only thing I do — which I suspect everyone does — is to prepare a separate document with a very detailed response to each of the reviewers’ comments. The goal of this is to show how I have taken onboard everything they have said, and where exactly in the paper I address the point. In this document, I will say things like “on the penultimate paragraph of pg. 22, I have addressed reviewer one’s point about X by saying the following”. This level of precision and detail is something I picked up, in particular, from Matthew Kramer, who was a reviewer on a paper I once wrote.

If the paper is rejected (either initially or after revisions), I will also go through the five stages of grief, with the main difference being that the acceptance stage either consists of: (a) deciding to revise the paper and submit it elsewhere; or (b) abandoning it completely. As I mentioned at the outset, I’m less inclined to go for the nuclear option of (b) now, though it used to be my norm. That said, I am tempted by it on occasion. For example, I’m currently in the process of submitting a paper I wrote to a third journal, after it was rejected twice before. If it is rejected a third time I will certainly abandon it completely. The world is must be trying to tell me that it’s not a very good idea.


Conclusion
So that’s it. Those are the nine steps I usually follow when writing for peer reviewed journals. I’ll close with my favourite comment from an anonymous reviewer of one of my papers (if you’re interested it was about this paper). The comment is a positive one, but in a backhanded way that is typical among certain philosophers:

“This is a good paper. In the opinion of this reviewer, it is wrong at nearly every important point, but it is wrong in ways that are interesting and important -- a genuine contribution to the philosophical discussion.”

It almost makes it all worthwhile.