Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Ethics of Academia (3) - Regina Rini

In this episode I talk to Regina Rini, Canada Research Chair at York University in Toronto. Regina has a background in neuroscience and cognitive science but now works primarily in moral philosophy. She has the distinction of writing a lot of philosophy for the public through her columns for the Time Literary Supplement and the value of this becomes a major theme of our conversation.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple, Spotify and other podcasting services.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

"We and the Robots" - Conversation with Anthony Morgan


I recently did a live online session with Anthony Morgan (editor of the Philosopher magazine) on robots/AI and philosophy. You watch the recorded video from the session above. It was a fun conversation and includes some of my thoughts about the recent LaMDA sentience kerfuffle. Below is the description from Youtube:

Can you be friends with a robot? Should we oppose the development of sex robots? Should child sex robots be used to treat those with paedophilic predilections? How could robots impact on our work lives and social relationships? Can robots have significant moral status? Should they be granted the status of legal personhood? We are living through an era of increased robotisation. In this conversation, philosopher of technology John Danaher considers various social, moral, and legal implications arising from this phenomenon, as well as the risks and possibilities that it presents for human flourishing.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Ethics of Academia (2) with Michael Cholbi




This is the second episode in my short series on The Ethics of Academia. In this episode I chat to Michael Cholbi, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. We reflect on the value of applied ethical research and the right approach to teaching. Michael has thought quite a lot about the ethics of work, in general, and the ethics of teaching and grading in particular. So those become central themes in our conversation.

You can download the podcast here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify and other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Ethics of Academia Podcast (Episode 1 with Sven Nyholm)



I have been reflecting on the ethics of academic life for some time. I've written several articles about it over the years. These have focused on the ethics of grading, student-teacher relationships, academic career choice, and the value of teaching (among other things). I've only scratched the surface. It seems to me that academic life is replete with ethical dilemmas and challenges. Some systematic reflection on and discussion of those ethical challenges would seem desirable. Obviously, there is a fair bit of writing available on the topic but, as best I can tell, there is no podcast dedicated to it. So I decided to start one.

I'm launching this podcast as both an addendum to my normal podcast (which deals primarily with the ethics of technology) and as an independent podcast in its own right. If you just want to subscribe to the Ethics of Academia, you can do so here (Apple and Spotify). (And if you do so, you'll get the added bonus of access to the first three episodes). I intend this to be a limited series but, if it proves popular, I might come back to it.

In the first episode, I chat to Sven Nyholm (Utrecht University) about the ethics of research, teaching and administration. Sven is a longtime friend and collaborator. He has been one of my most frequent guests on my main podcast so he seemed like the ideal person to kickstart this series. Although we talk about a lot of different things, Sven draws particular attention to the ethical importance of the division of labour in academic life.

You can download the episode here or listen below.


Thursday, June 9, 2022

98 - The Psychology of Human-Robot Interactions


How easily do we anthropomorphise robots? Do we see them as moral agents or, even, moral patients? Can we dehumanise them? These are some of the questions addressed in this episode with my guests, Dennis Küster and Aleksandra Świderska. Dennis is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bremen. Aleksandra is a senior researcher at the University of Warsaw. They have worked together on a number of studies about how humans perceive and respond to robots. We discuss several of their joint studies in this episode.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify and other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).



Relevant Links

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Techno-Optimism: An Analysis, An Evaluation and A Modest Defence



Here's a new paper. This one was a bit of a labour of love. It is an analysis of what it means to be a techno-optimist and how one might defend a techno-optimistic stance. It is due out in Philosophy and Technology. I'll post the official version when it is available. For now, I've posted links to the final prepublication draft.


Title: Techno-optimism: an analysis, an evaluation and a modest defence

Links: Official; Philpapers; Researchgate

Abstract: What is techno-optimism and how can it be defended? Although techno-optimist views are widely espoused and critiqued, there have been few attempts to systematically analyse what it means to be a techno-optimist and how one might defend this view. This paper attempts to address this oversight by providing a comprehensive analysis and evaluation of techno-optimism. It is argued that techno-optimism is a pluralistic stance that comes in weak and strong forms. These vary along a number of key dimensions but each shares the view that technology plays a key role in ensuring that the good prevails over the bad. Whatever its strength, to defend this stance, one must flesh out an argument with four key premises. Each of these premises is highly controversial and can be subjected to a number of critiques. The paper discusses five such critiques in detail (the values critique, the treadmill critique, the sustainability critique, the irrationality critique and the insufficiency critique). The paper also considers possible responses from the techno-optimist. Finally, it is concluded that although strong forms of techno-optimism are not intellectually defensible, a modest, agency-based version of techno-optimism may be defensible.

 

The paper puts forward the following as an 'ameliorative' definition of techno-optimism:


Techno-optimism = A stance (set of beliefs, commitments, desires, intentions etc) that maintains that technology (broadly defined) plays a key role in ensuring that the good prevails over the bad.

 

I am a lot more precise about this in the paper, going on to argue that techno-optimism comes in a variety of different forms which vary along a number of dimensions. One of those dimensions is whether the techno-optimist is presentist or futurist in their outlook: i.e. thinks technology makes things good right now and/or will do so in the future.

One of key features of the paper is the argument template I map out for any defender of techno-optimism. In short, I claim that in order to defend a techno-optimistic stance one must defend an argument with five key premises:


  • (1) If (a) the good probably does or probably will prevail over the bad and (b) if technology probably plays a key role in ensuring this, then techno-optimism is the correct stance. 
  • (2) The probable current and/or future facts are F1…Fn [Facts Premise
  • (3) The agreed upon value criteria for determining whether the good prevails over the bad are V1…Vn [Value Premise
  • (4) The good probably prevails over the bad, given F1…Fn evaluated in light of V1…Vn [Evaluation Premise
  • (5) Technology probably plays a key role in ensuring that (4) is true [Technology Premise]. 
  • (6) Therefore, techno-optimism is the correct stance.

Different techno-optimists will flesh out these premises in different ways, particularly premises (2) - (4), which are the centrepiece of the argument.

Another key feature of the paper is a thorough review of some of the leading objections to techno-optimism and the possible replies that a techno-optimist could make. The table below summarises these objections and replies.




Obviously, I would encourage people to read the whole paper for a fuller picture.


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Darwin's Logical Argument for Natural Selection


One of the things I occasionally like to do is to re-read books that had an early influence on my thinking. It is an instructive exercise. Sometimes, when you read a book early in life you are easily impressed by its ideas and arguments. Oftentimes, this because so many of them are new to you. They have, as a result, an outsized influence on your worldview. When you re-read them, you often find them less compelling. You will have learned so much in the intervening years that the ideas and arguments start to seem obvious and stale.

There are some exceptions to this trend. One example of this, for me at any rate, is Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I first read it in my late teens. I loved it at the time. I was new to debates about Darwinism, its scientific basis, and its philosophical implications. I lapped up everything Dennett had to say. Re-reading it now, I still find it compelling. To be clear, a lot of it is not as impressive as I thought at the time. For example, I used to like Dennett’s somewhat imperious and bitchy style of writing -- so critical and dismissive of his peers -- but I don’t like that so much anymore. Nevertheless, I was pleased to find that the book is still full of interesting metaphors and thought experiments: universal acid, skyhooks and cranes, the Library of Mendel, the Two-Bitser machine and so on. All of these get you to think about the world in a new way and many of them still resonate to this day.

That’s a long introduction — a mini-book review of sorts — to what is going to be a very simple post that doesn’t really have anything to do with Dennett’s book.

One of the things I re-read in Dennett’s book was the summary passage from Darwin’s Origin of Species in which Darwin sets out the logical argument for evolution by natural selection. Typical of a lot writing — particularly 19th century writing — Darwin expresses the argument in a convoluted style. Here it is in all its original glory:


If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection. 
(Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st Edition, pg 127)

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my hobbies is to extract logical arguments from long prosaic summaries. Indeed, it is an exercise I often set for students in my classes. Reading through this passage, it seemed obvious to me that there is a much more straightforward and logically compelling way of expressing Darwin’s argument. I thought it might be interesting to show how to do this.

The first thing to note — which Dennett does in his book — is that the passage contains a series of ‘if…then…” statements (or conditional statements). As every first-year philosophy student knows, ‘if…then…’ statements are the building blocks of simple deductive arguments, such as:


(1) If X, then Y

(2) X

(3) Therefore, Y

 

Darwin’s argument consists of a chain of two “if…then…” arguments that build to his conclusion in favour of natural selection. Admittedly, some of the ‘if…then…’ statements that make up those two arguments are complex, and contain asides that are distracting, but it’s easy to see them in the text.

The first one is actually a double conditional statement contained in the first sentence. Here it is with the key bits highlighted:


If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being's own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man.

 

To put this a bit more simply:


  • (1) If there is variation in organic beings, and if there is a severe struggle for life, then there must be some variations that are useful to surviving that struggle.

I have changed the bit after the ‘then’ in order to capture the essence of what Darwin is trying to say. If I had my druthers I would amend it even further to match modern terminology (e.g. “variations will be fitness enhancing”). The asides in the text are the claims that both of the conditions (variation and struggle) are met in reality. So the first part of Darwin’s argument, with the logical inferences filled in, works like this:


  • (1) If there is variation in organic beings, and if there is a severe struggle for life, then there must be some variations that are useful to surviving that struggle.
  • (2) There is variation in organic beings.
  • (3) There is a severe struggle for life.
  • (4) Therefore, there must be some variations that are useful to surviving that struggle (from 1, 2 and 3).


This brings us to the second part of Darwin’s argument, which occurs in the next two sentences of the quoted passage. Here they are with the relevant bits highlighted:


But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

 

Okay, I highlighted a lot of that section because it is slightly less convoluted than the first sentence. But there is still a lot going on here. Tidying it up, here is what we get:


  • (5) If some variations are useful to surviving the struggle, and if there is a strong principle of inheritance, then useful variations will be preserved.
  • (6) There is a strong principle of inheritance (i.e. offspring are likely to resemble their parents) [implied not stated in the quoted passage]
  • (7) Therefore, useful variations will be preserved (from 4, 5 and 6).


And the preservation of useful variations is simply what Darwin calls ‘natural selection’.

In full, then, Darwin’s logical argument for natural selection, taken from the quoted passage, looks like this:


  • (1) If there is variation in organic beings, and if there is a severe struggle for life, then there must be some variations that are useful to surviving that struggle.
  • (2) There is variation in organic beings.
  • (3) There is a severe struggle for life.
  • (4) Therefore, there must be some variations that are useful to surviving that struggle (from 1, 2 and 3).
  • (5) If some variations are useful to surviving the struggle, and if there is a strong principle of inheritance, then useful variations will be preserved.
  • (6) There is a strong principle of inheritance (i.e. offspring are likely to resemble their parents) [implied not stated in the quoted passage]
  • (7) Therefore, useful variations will be preserved (from 4, 5 and 6).




There is a lot of detail packed into this argument. I have called it the ‘logical argument’ since no empirical evidence is adduced in the quoted passage in support of the key empirical claims (2, 3 and 6). The rest of the Origin of Species provides a lot of evidence in support of those claims. Darwin meticulously documents variation and inheritance in species and gives many examples of the struggle for life. Since Darwin’s time, the field of evolutionary biology has provided reams and reams of evidence in support of those claims, identifying, in much greater detail, the mechanisms of inheritance. In fact, one of Darwin's famous blindspots was the mechanism of inheritance: he knew it happened but didn't know why because he knew nothing about genetics. The amassing of evidence since the time of Darwin is one reason why the argument still holds up to this day.

If I were to make one amendment to the argument it would be to insist that the first premise include the phrase ‘if there is [a lot of] variation…”. Why? Because it seems obvious to me that if organisms vary only in one or two ways, an insufficient volume of variation will be produced to allow variations useful to the wide diversity of struggles for existence to arise. Fortunately, we know that there is a lot of variation in reality so this amendment is easily made.

Anyway, that's all I wanted to say in this post. I hope this logical reconstruction of Darwin's argument is of interest to some people.