The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind 14: Pascal’s Wager

Posted in Arguments on October 26th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

  God exists God does not exist
Wager for God Gain all Status quo
Wager against God Misery Status quo

The Life of the Mind 13: Thought Experiment Descriptor

Posted in Thought Experiments on October 19th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

Thought Experiments is a category belonging to The Life of the Mind that contains mental exercises in which the reader is asked to think about things from a particular perspective. The perspective could be anchored in a context, story, or could simply be a question that the reader was unlikely to consider before the experiment. Thought experiments are often found inside larger arguments as a means of priming the mind in a particular direction, but they are distinct from arguments in they don’t try to force you to a particular conclusion. They are also different from “traps and intuitions” in that they are not trying get the reader to experience tension between ideas. A thought experiment is more like ringing a bell and listening carefully.

The Life of the Mind 12: The Trolley Problem

Posted in Traps and Intuitions on October 12th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

The general form of the problem is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

The Life of the Mind 11: Argument Descriptor

Posted in Arguments on October 5th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

Arguments is a category belonging to The Life of the Mind that contains stories, scenarios, and problems that are used to make the case for a particular idea.

The Life of the Mind 10: The Simulation Argument

Posted in Arguments on September 14th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

Many works of science fiction as well as some forecasts by serious technologists
and futurologists predict that enormous amounts of computing power will be
available in the future. Let us suppose for a moment that these predictions are
correct. One thing that later generations might do with their super‐powerful
computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their
forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great
many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as
they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine‐grained and if a certain
quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it
could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the
original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an
original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be
rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than
among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are
currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we
will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears.

The Life of the Mind 9: The Sad Case of Ronald Opus

Posted in Traps and Intuitions on August 3rd, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

On March 23, 1994, a medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a gunshot wound of the head caused by a shotgun. Investigation to that point had revealed that the decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-story building with the intent to commit suicide. (He left a note indicating his despondency.) As he passed the 9th floor on the way down, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, killing him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety net had been erected at the 8th floor level to protect some window washers, and that the decedent would most likely not have been able to complete his intent to commit suicide because of this.
Ordinarily, a person who starts into motion the events with a suicide intent ultimately commits suicide even though the mechanism might be not what he intended. That he was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below probably would not change his mode of death from suicide to homicide, but the fact that his suicide intent would not have been achieved under any circumstance caused the medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands.
Further investigation led to the discovery that the room on the 9th floor from whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. He was threatening her with the shotgun because of an inter-spousal spat and became so upset that he could not hold the shotgun straight. Therefore, when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife, and the pellets went through the window, striking the decedent.
When one intends to kill subject A but kills subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject B. The old man was confronted with this conclusion, but both he and his wife were adamant in stating that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. It was the longtime habit of the old man to threaten his wife with an unloaded shotgun. He had no intent to murder her; therefore, the killing of the decedent appeared then to be accident. That is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.
But further investigation turned up a witness that their son was seen loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to the fatal accident. That investigation showed that the mother (the old lady) had cut off her son’s financial support, and her son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that the father would shoot his mother. The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.
Now comes the exquisite twist. Further investigation revealed that the son, Ronald Opus himself, had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to get his mother murdered. This led him to jump off the ten-story building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a 9th story window.
The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.

The Life of the Mind 8: Pia’s Green Leaves

Posted in Arguments on June 22nd, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

Consider Pia who owns a Japanese Maple tree, with russet leaves. Thinking that the leaves should be green. Pia paints them, and having finished, she says “The leaves on my maple tree are green.”—apparently truly. Shortly afterwards, Pia receives a phone call from a friend, a botanist looking for green leaves for a study of green-leaf chemistry. Pia offers him the leaves from her Japanese Maple tree. This time, when she utters “The leaves on my maple tree are green.” she says something false. The same tree is referred to both times, and the tree’s leaves have not changed color between the first utterance and the second. Is what “counts as” being green different in the two contexts?

The Life of the Mind 7: The Veil of Ignorance

Posted in Thought Experiments on May 11th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

If you were to decide the rules of a social order without knowledge of your own talents, race, gender…any of your natural attributes, and you also didn’t know what position you would be put into in a society, which rules would you decide on for the society?

The Life of the Mind 6: Triple Threat

Posted in Traps and Intuitions on March 30th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

Suppose we agree that everyone has a right to life, but that a person forfeits this right when he threatens the life of another — in that case it’s permissible to kill him.
Now consider three people, A, B, and C. A aims a gun at B, B aims a gun at C, and C aims a gun at A. When A takes aim, he’s threatening another person, so he loses his own right to life. Normally in that case C would be justified in killing him, since this defends B. But B is aiming at C, which means he forfeits his own right to life … which means that A can kill him, and that C can’t kill A.

The Life of the Mind 5: Traps and Intuitions Descriptor

Posted in Traps and Intuitions on February 16th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

Traps and Intuitions is a category belonging to The Life of the Mind that contains what are often referred to as thought problems. They create a story or choice in which the reader experiences conflict between ideas, or one that reveals the reader’s deeper intuitions. Intuitions that one might not be ready to acknowledge when asked directly.

The Life of the Mind 4: The Chinese Room

Posted in Arguments on January 5th, 2015 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

The Chinese Room argument begins with this hypothetical premise: suppose that artificial intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that this computer performs its task so convincingly that it comfortably passes the Turing test: it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a live Chinese speaker. To all of the questions that the person asks, it makes appropriate responses, such that any Chinese speaker would be convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese-speaking human being.
The question is this: does the machine literally “understand” Chinese? Or is it merely simulating the ability to understand Chinese?
If you think the computer understands Chinese, then suppose that a man is in a closed room and has a book with an English version of the computer program, along with sufficient paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. He could receive Chinese characters through a slot in the door, process them according to the program’s instructions, and produce Chinese characters as output. If the computer had passed the Turing test this way, it follows, that he would do so as well, simply by running the program manually.
There is no essential difference between the roles of the computer and the man in the experiment. Each simply follows a program, step-by-step, producing a behavior which is then interpreted as demonstrating intelligent conversation. However, the man would not be able to understand the conversation he is mediating. Therefore, neither does the computer in the original example.

The Life of the Mind 3: Newcomb’s Paradox

Posted in Traps and Intuitions on November 24th, 2014 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

A person is playing a game operated by the Predictor, an entity somehow presented as being exceptionally skilled at predicting people’s actions. Predictor’s predictions are “almost certainly” correct.
The player of the game is presented with two boxes, one transparent (labeled A) and the other opaque (labeled B). The player is permitted to take the contents of both boxes, or just the opaque box B. Box A contains a visible $1,000. The contents of box B, however, are determined as follows: At some point before the start of the game, the Predictor makes a prediction as to whether the player of the game will take just box B, or both boxes. If the Predictor predicts that both boxes will be taken, then box B will contain nothing. If the Predictor predicts that only box B will be taken, then box B will contain $1,000,000.
By the time the game begins, and the player is called upon to choose which boxes to take, the prediction has already been made, and the contents of box B have already been determined. That is, box B contains either $0 or $1,000,000 before the game begins, and once the game begins even the Predictor is powerless to change the contents of the boxes. Before the game begins, the player is aware of all the rules of the game, including the two possible contents of box B, the fact that its contents are based on the Predictor’s prediction, and knowledge of the Predictor’s infallibility. The only information withheld from the player is what prediction the Predictor made, and thus what the contents of box B are. Question: do you take two boxes or one box?

The Life of the Mind 2: Inequality

Posted in Traps and Intuitions on October 13th, 2014 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

You have two groups of people. The people in group A have $1,000 each and the people in group B have $1,000,000 each. The only options available to you are to take away money from people in group B, so they each have $1,000, or to do nothing. Which would be the better course of action?

The Life of the Mind 1: The Ship of Theseus

Posted in Traps and Intuitions on September 1st, 2014 by buzzing wire – Be the first to comment

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
— Plutarch, Theseus