Tag Archives: Philosophy

Is a Smarter World a Better World?

In a letter written to a friend in 1917 Ludwig Wittgenstein reported: ‘I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter. And these both are one and the same.’ The notion that being a smarter human being and a better person are in the end the same thing is one that Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize-winning economist who has made fundamental advances in welfare economics and the theory of social choice, finds appealing. Citing Wittgenstein’s assertion at the start of the first chapter of The Idea of Justice and referring to it at several points in the book, Sen suggests that reason can do more than help people to achieve their goals. It can also enable them to criticise their goals, and in this way make them better people.

In Sen’s view, a smarter world is sure to be a better world. Unlike some rationalists in the past, however, he does not think we need a conception of an ideal world in order to improve the one we live in. One of the recurring themes of The Idea of Justice is to contest the assumption that a theory of ideal justice is either necessary or desirable. Much of the book is a critique of the work of the late twentieth-century American liberal philosopher John Rawls. While Rawls’s work has shaped academic discussion for over thirty years, it has had a negligible impact on political practice, and one of the reasons may be that his theory leaves so little room for politics. For Rawls, justice is a unique set of principles that reasonable people would choose from an imaginary initial position that ensures impartiality. Once these principles have been chosen all that remains is to set the right institutions in place. Conflicts about the scope of basic liberties and the distribution of resources will then be settled by applying the theory, which is a legal rather than political process.

It is a far-fetched view of how any society could operate, but Sen’s objection is not to the lack of realism in Rawls’s theory. It is the very idea of perfect justice that he questions.()

* The Idea of Justice (Hardcover) by Amartya Sen


Can a machine change your mind?

Jane O’Grady on eliminative materialism:

Really? So we were wrong all the time about our memories and our passions? What sort of a world, I wonder, do these eliminative materialists envisage with their revised vocabulary about mental (or rather neural states). What exactly would be doing? What would be the point of training ourselves, or being trained, to report on our brain states?

The eliminative materialists may base their argument on the perspicuous fact that some mental terms do trail theories behind them, and can therefore be replaced, extrapolating from this the notion that such terms can be wholesale eliminated. ‘Depression’, ‘grief’, ‘melancholia’, ‘black bile’, ‘accidie’ are, it is true, not synonymous, nor do they, probably, refer to precisely the same phenomena; but does that mean that there are no such dark phenomena? ‘Dark’ is not just purple passagey – these, like many mental states, arent exactly describable except by pictorial and other metaphors. But I wonder how eliminative materialists would replace Macbeth’s description, or expression, of depression, melancholy, black bile or whatever in the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech, or George Eliot’s apercu on the insincerity of spontaneous feeling.

Metaphor bridges the gap between secluded mental states by invoking physical things that are open to all (whatever the likelihood of their being differently experienced). If indeed ‘folk psychology’ could be eradicated, along with all the metaphor and poetry that has grown up around it, then surely, with the irrepressibility of weeds, metaphor and poetry would spring up again around brain state terminology. But how would we be induced to abandon ‘folk psychology’ in the first place. Eliminativism seems to share the worst aspect of Cartesian dualism – its hopeless seclusion. Our brain states, although in principle open to anyone’s inspection, are in practice hidden. Why would we go the trouble of talking about our inner states, sensibly say objectors to dualism, unless in the context of sharable, palpable experiences? Even more ridiculous, by the same token, is the idea that we could be taught about, and discuss, brain states. Why would we ever dream of doing so?

Worse than this, would be the loss to morality and self-creation. Suppose, in a juxtaposition of eliminativism and Freudianism, a woman’s amygdala lighted up in the anger zone even as she was professing not to be angry. She is duly given the expert’s better-informed diagnosis of her state of mind. But is that an advantage, particularly if she accepts the diagnosis and acts on it. Denial of anger may sometimes be dishonesty or self-deception, but may also, even while being both, be part of the suppression of anger that is so imperative in civilised life. What about if a man objecting to a situation of social injustice were subjected to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to obliterate his present feeling of dissatisfaction and induce a feeling of pleasure? Surely what actually matters to him is the cognitive aspect of the dissatisfaction – the reason he was feeling it.