Useful Concepts – #9 – Experience Machines

Quite possibly the first use of the adjective “superduper” in philosophical literature occurred in the mid-1970s in this paragraph by Robert Nozick:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences of, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Nozick gives three answers:

  1. We want to do certain things, rather than just have the experience of doing them. (But even Nozick asks, but why?)
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain person. If we plug in, we’re just an “indeterminate blob.” Nozick asks, is the person in the tank courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? How could we know? How could they be?
  3. Plugging in “limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”

The experience machine has created a whole literature, not to mention any number of sci-fi films. People have worked out variants, for example where you never emerge from the machine until your biological death, in order to get rid of the idea that you could ever become conscious of spending a lot of time just being a body in a tank, and so on.

People argue over whether Nozick got the right reasons to reject the machine. Some people may also take pleasure in the intellectual bravado of saying that they would plug in, that they see no reasons not to. That would be a typically annoying undergraduate posture to take up. (I’d know, I did for a whole afternoon. It was many years ago.)

The ongoing discussion just shows how great a concept the experience machine is. But the rejection of it, for most people who aren’t undergraduates in philosophy, is immediate and from the gut. (Not every belief or conviction that is instinctive and intuitive is necessarily right, though this one is.)

Experience machines exist, of course, and many of us plug ourselves in quite willingly. Some of those superduper people, for example, can help us flood our brains with a  bitter, white crystalline purine, a methylxanthine alkaloid that is chemically related to the adenine and guanine bases of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. This blocks the action of adenosine on its receptor in the brain and stimulates the autonomic nervous system. It makes us less drowsy, more alert, physically faster and better co-ordinated. It can increase our heart rate and pulse. You’ll be aware of course, that we don’t have to plug into electrodes and float in a tank for this. And the superduper people aren’t neuropsychologists, but more likely baristas. This experience machine is just a regular cup of coffee.

But physical symptoms and mental states are a two-way street. Research has shown, for example, that, even when you feel you have no reasons to, you can smile for a while and your mood will improve, or you can clench your fist for a while and that can make you more aggressive. And so this experience machine can give us the impression that we’re well rested and refreshed (not in any way drowsy or tired) or that we’re facing an amazing, interesting experience (alertness, fast pulse) or a fight-or-flight type situation (heart beating faster, sudden alertness) even when it’s just a routine Monday morning and we’re on our way to the day-job.

There is, of course, also the type of organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. This is an experience machine that can give us the desirable experience of being socially less inhibited, much more certain that other people find us entertaining and generally convinced that we’re all round great people. It can be ingested in pleasant-tasting drinks like wine and beer.

And anyone who has ever seen a small child on a sugar rush may also find it easy to believe that sugar provides a desirable experience of enjoyment and mental energy, not least by activating dopamine in the brain in a way that is similar to stronger drugs.

I’ll call things like coffee or alcohol  “mini experience machines.” After all, the effect lasts a much shorter time than a session in the superduper neuropsychologists’ floatation tank experience would. And it gives us not so much a whole set of new experiences that are wholly separate to what we’re doing and who we are, but it puts a little layer of, say, additional (alternative) reality, over and above that reality.

I’m not saying that coffee, alcohol and sugar are therefore bad things or that we need to reject them with the instinctive vehemence with which we would reject the idea of plugging into an experience machine. But it probably helps to be aware of the “experience machine light” effect of such things.

I also find some of the tools some of us work with are a bit like experience machines in that they give us an interface to interact with the world in a way that, as much as possible, reduces reality to things that pop up on a screen. So I know that people want to give me some information or want me to do something in something like the following way (that’s not my real inbox, by the way):

I  can have conversations and exchanges with lots of people and all the while I’m just “plugged in” to a screen.

So, in fact, there may be lots of mini experience machines that interact in various ways to put layers of differing experiences across “real” life on a day-by-day basis. And although we may not have the same reasons to reject these mini experience machines – after all, they are more time-limited, localised in terms of their effect and less intrusive in the way we can link up to them – maybe we should aim to be suspicious of them, particularly if we’re veering to more extended use (both in terms of timing or in terms of range of experience), so if one or more of the following are true:

  1. We use them in high doses, frequently or on a daily basis.
  2. They give us experiences that we worry we wouldn’t otherwise have enough of in our lives – excitement, connection, attention, confidence, mental energy.
  3. We would be forced to live our lives differently, if we didn’t have them.
  4. We couldn’t function properly in our daily lives without them.

But since I’ve declared so many things mini experience machines, would we even know whether we’re using them too much?

First of all, it is possible to take stock of the mini experience machines we use. We can then try not using them. Or, if that is too difficult, we could ask, what would the consequence be for the way I live my life, if I didn’t plug into this experience machine? How would I have to deal with the tiredness or the lack of challenges in my reality if I didn’t have coffee to simulate alertness? Why am I so inhibited when meeting people that I need alcohol to have its effect? What energy rush or feelings of enjoyment would I like that I currently take from sugar rushes?

And presumably, finding out about these things is what lots of people do these days when they sit down and pay attention to their breathing, to their mind and their thoughts with minimal stimulation from mini experience machines or communication technologies (particularly first thing in the morning when the body has processed all the ingested experience machines from the previous day). Maybe then they can listen to the real experience and find out if the like it, or not.

Or it may be away from screens in green spaces and in nature surrounded by other life forms who are less prone to plug into experience machines. Or it may be something we do while deeply involved in community, voluntary or religious activities. (These practices, by the way, have all been demonstrated to increase wellbeing.) They may also all help us to access the things in Nozick’s three reasons for rejecting experience machines:

  1. We may gain a better understanding of what we are doing in our lives, rather than just having the experience of doing them.
  2. We can ask ourselves and learn about what kind of person we are or want to be (rather than being an indeterminate blob).
  3. And we may even access a world that is deeper or more important “than that which people can construct.”

 

 

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Why Do Philosophers Not Make The News?

Why do philosophers not make the news?

Maybe it’s because Empedocles was so misunderstood by his contemporaries that he jumped into a volcano, Socrates was sentenced to death by the good citizens of Athens, Seneca was driven to suicide by the mad emperor Nero and in more modern times Heidegger became a Nazi.

But let’s rewind…

Derek Parfit, the most influential moral philosopher of our time, died on 1 January 2017. It wasn’t reported in the news. This  caused some consternation and sadness among professional philosophers. If “fake news” weren’t enough to worry about, an absurd selection and prioritisation towards the hysterical (“ISIS bomb plots!”) and the trivial (“Is this the year Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle?”) rather than the actually important (I know, according to whom?) would still be a problem.

The New Statesman recently published an article by David Herman lamenting the passing of the days when Isaiah Berlin’s death made front page news, Mary Warnock and Bernard Williams were on Royal Commissions and government committees for this, that and the other, radio and television took an interest in A. J. Ayer and publishers spent serious money on academic philosophers.

(Don’t say: “but what about Alain de Botton? He’s still on telly? He still sells lots of books?” Yes, but he’s not an academic philosopher. Many of them would say that if doing philosophy is like drinking double espressos, his stuff is what you get when you spoon off the top of a cappuccino. You know, the bit that has all the chocolate powder on it. It may taste milky, frothy and sweet but it has never been in touch with a molecule of caffeine.)

In the New Statesman article a number of philosophers and commentators are quoted as blaming any number of things for the demise of the philosopher as public intellectual among which:

  • The Research Assessment Exercise, a quality assurance process the Government imposes on universities, which drives philosophers to publish articles in journals rather than talk to the public;
  • the end of deference and distrust of experts meaning that people don’t want someone out of a cosy college in Oxford telling them what to think
  • The media, dumbed down and driven to sensationalism and by the need to make money from advertising
  • Politicians who are not as interested as their predecessors (“Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott…” When Tony Blair was asked in the weekly Parliamentary Questions to the Prime Minister to briefly outline his political philosophy, he was completely stumped. None of this is meant to be evidence that an interest in philosophy is good for a Prime Minister.)

You’ll have noticed, a lot of the blame goes to things other than philosophers or the academic discipline of philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong: I think an update on the latest developments in philosophy should be reported in every news bulletin. I think leading philosophers should be consulted on every bit of government policy. I think there should be reality TV shows in which a group of philosophers are sent to a five star beach resort to debate the meaning of life and no one should ever be voted off by the public. I think every new Doctor of Philosophy should be able to publish his or her doctoral thesis to the commercial success of de Botton’s greatest hits, or even J. K. Rowling’s. I think television networks should use the kind of budgets they use for Game of Thrones to make a television drama series of Plato’s Republic.

But I also think that philosophy needs to acknowledge its own role in raising its public profile and should have to work a bit harder. I’d like to acknowledge here the work that lots of philosophers do in international governance committees, in human rights advocacy, teaching, lecturing, giving seminars, making podcasts, tweeting or writing articles for popular consumption. But clearly that isn’t quite enough yet to get philosophers into the news, even when they die.

So here are some alternative reasons why philosophy may not have a higher public profile that look more to the role of philosophers in all of this:

  • Philosophy attracts for the most part introverts (I assume) who would rather study on their own with some books  for company, rather than be out there among people explaining what they’re doing. They are also maybe keener to spend time thinking, than broadcasting.
  • Philosophers are too modest to  talk publicly about the progress being made within the discipline. They are humbled everyday by the really big questions they deal with and the limits of the human mind to comprehend things. Humility is fine. The dirty flip side of that coin is that some philosophers jealously denounce anything that has commercial success or aspirations as “not the real thing.” That makes it more difficult for good communicators and non-academics to make a contribution on behalf of the discipline.
  • There is also a stance of “well, if it takes this to be read, heard and seen by wider sections of the public, I don’t want to be influential or popular. I just want to be seen as brilliant and wonderful by my peers in academic philosophy.” That retreat back to your own clique smacks a bit of a lack of confidence. It could be compared to re-living a traumatic “nerdy vs. cool and popular kids” trauma.
  • Philosophers are careful about the language they use and the way they make their arguments. They spend time defining their terms. They have learned to put three concessive clauses after every positive statement and to anticipate a few arguments that could be made against what they’re saying. They give the views of the people they disagree with the most charitable interpretation before they take them apart. That doesn’t make for the most impactful communications.
  • There is no premium on people working together to find common ground and reach consensus on a question in philosophy. Working alone to demolish everything that has been thought before is just as valuable, if not more so, than putting forward a positive proposal, than showing where there is a high level consensus. (Thanks, Socrates!) But what if people were genuinely interested in where philosophy has progressed towards insights, rather than where it has gone back to the drawing board?
  • Philosophers are perhaps genuinely traumatised by the history of unsuccessful to catastrophic interactions between philosophers and the public realm. Socrates got killed. Plato got too close to the tyrant of Syracuse which ended badly for him. Seneca got too close to Nero which harmed his reputation and ended badly for him. Heidegger got too close to Hitler. Sartre too close to Stalinism. (And Michael Ignatieff – Isaiah Berlin’s biographer – led his party to its worst electoral defeat in Canada. There are lessons there!
  • And in return, philosophers who want to be politicians have to disavow any knowledge of philosophy. Julian Baggini writes the following about two British politicians:

 

[Former Minister and member of the Cabinet] Oliver Letwin, for instance, has a PhD on the subject but when I asked him if that was a disadvantage in politics he answered, “massive”, without hesitation. “I do my best to conceal it.” Another brainy MP, Tony Wright, once found himself quoting Mill in a parliamentary debate, “and I just realised how odd that was, and how embarrassing it was.”

Given these challenges, what could philosophers do? Starting from the non-reporting of Parfitt’s death, it would be sensible to adopt the principle that if you want to make the news when you die, you have to make yourself known while you’re alive. You can’t just rely on having strategically placed disciples in politics and the media who will ensure the eternal afterlife of your fame and ideas. (That worked only for Leo Strauss.)

  • Don’t do down those who communicate philosophy well as not doing the real thing. Even if they provide journalistic surveys of the history of philosophy, rather than engage in academic philosophy, their activities could be the entry-level drug for the mind that hooks people on philosophy so they can be sold your harder stuff.
  • Paint a picture of real progress in philosophy coming up with real answers to big questions around which consensus is being built. Then explain how these answers affect human life. For example, tell the story about how philosophers were in court rooms explaining the writings of Plato and Aristotle to help settle questions around gay rights (at least Martha Nussbaum was). Peter Singer’s campaign for animal liberation can be traced back to the writings of Mill and Bentham.
  • Make the communication of philosophy a greater part of academic activity. Scientists embrace the “public understanding of science” as a part of what they do. They put some of the best and brightest in charge of it. They make them professors and Fellows of the Royal Society and President of the Royal Institution. Google “Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy” and you get one person: Professor Angie Hobbs at the University of Sheffield. She seems very active but I’m not sure she can do it on her own.

In his New Statesman article, David Herman concludes that if you care, you should:

go to your local library or bookshop or follow debates online: be your own border guard and wear a black armband for an era that has passed.

Sadly, retreating to the local library or bookshop to mourn for previous better times may be tempting. Philosophy was always tempted to retreat to a more private place: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Peripatos, Epicurus’ garden.

An alternative would be for it to be out in the market place (Socrates’ Agora) making its case.

Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts

This post starts with a discussion between philosophers. That’s not as bad as it might sound to some. One of the philosophers involved is Bernard Williams (who made a cameo appearance in my previous post about psychopaths). The other one – to whom I owe this useful concept – is Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher who thinks and writes about things not many philosophers find worthy of great thought. His bestseller is the book “On Bullshit” which has made him a sought after authority in recent political discourse. But he also has published articles and books about love, not a topic that philosophers naturally gravitate towards.

But back to the discussion… Continue reading Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts

The Secret of Happiness

I had this canvas poster made as a present for my son though my wife says it’s more of a present to myself. It would certainly take him a very long time to read all the letters at his current pace, let alone understand it. But it’s definitely a present for him. The quote is from James Rhodes’ book Instrumental. 

“I want him to know the secret of happiness. It is so simple that it seems to have eluded many people. The trick is to do whatever you want to do that makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting those around you. Not to do what you think you should be doing. Nor what you think other people believe you should be doing. But simply to act in a way that brings you immense joy. To be able to say a gentle and kind ‘no’ to things that don’t please you, to walk away from situations that don’t fulfil you, to move towards things that delight you. And there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that.”

There was a time when I read a lot about the secrets of happiness and the not so secret theories. I don’t know whether it was just the focus of my attention or whether there was an explosion of interest in happiness in the earliest years of this century. My journey at the time took me to each of the following:

  • The ancient Greek  concept of eudaemonia (happiness or flourishing)

“happiness – the human good – is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

  • Neo-aristotelian virtue ethics

“Alternatively (…) we could stick with what we have – those facts about human nature and the way human life goes that support the claim that the virtues (…) benefit their possessor…” Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics

  • The happiness trend in economics (e. g. Richard Layard’s Happiness)

“There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. (…) This devastating fact should be the starting point for all discussion of how to improve our lot.”

  • Positive psychology

“If you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfilment: meaning and purpose.” Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness

  • There was also amongst all of this also a book actually called “The Secrets of Happiness”  which discusses the history of ideas on happiness in various religions and philosophies.

“If the lives of Epicurus, Seneca and Ghazali, the stories of Buddha and Prince Arjuna, and the mystery of Job tell us anything, they tell us that the seeking of happiness flows into the finding of it, just as the rushing waters of a river pour out effortlessly into the calm ocean depth, and so cease to rush.”

But nothing I read in this “happiness literature” touched and moved me as much as the paragraph from James Rhodes’ book.

Perhaps that’s because it caught me by surprise. His book is an autobiography describing his journey from suffering sexual abuse over years as a young boy through drug addiction and recovery to becoming a professional pianist. Interwoven into this narrative of horrible experiences are snippets of – often bleak – biographies of great composers and descriptions of their work. These illustrate the idea that great art and beauty can come from the miserable, painful circumstances of human life and can help lift us out of it, even if only momentarily.

“In 1770, a child is born into difficult, violent, terrifying circumstances. His family is riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence, abuse and cruelty. (…) Totally deaf, wracked with pain, emotionally [messed up], [Beethoven] composes his thirty-second and final piano sonata in 1822, a few years before his death. (…) it manages, somehow, to transcend the level of human existence we inhabit and take us somewhere higher…”

Apart from not expecting the “Secret” in this context, I think it is also the understated way in which Rhodes launches it that makes it particularly moving. He doesn’t say, “hey, everyone, I’ve discovered the secret of happiness and this is it…” Instead he just presents it as something he wants his son to know. And ultimately, the promise – “there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that” – is very touchingly generous.

I had to think a few things through before I had the paragraph printed for my son:

First, I wondered whether there was a problem with circularity. “The Secret of Happiness is to do what makes you happy.” Ok, but don’t we need to know the Secret of Happiness in order to know what “happy” means? On further reflection, I didn’t find it that much of a problem. Rhodes isn’t trying to define the term “happiness.” And he is actually giving us quite a lot in terms of unpacking the concept of happiness. For example, he tells us that it’s about doing things that make us happy. In other words it’s not an intellectual exercise to understand happiness and then aim for it. It’s about doing things, taking action and undertaking activities from which happiness emerge. And if it doesn’t, try something else. So his is a very pragmatic secret.

Second, I wondered whether there was a problem with vagueness or lack of definition. Would someone who wasn’t initiated into the Secret of Happiness already be able to judge what makes him or her happy? Couldn’t they just think they’re happy but be mistaken?  Particularly in the context of Rhodes’ biography of addiction, for example, couldn’t human beings fall too easily for the idea that it is a drug that makes them happy? Here we can probably trust in the idea that deep down we always know that something that fulfils an immediate desire may not make us happy in the long term. The addict knows that although he thinks he needs the drug, it doesn’t make him happy. He may also know that his behaviours connected with the drug are hurting others.

Rhodes’ Secret of Happiness is one for the long term. It suggest trial and error and a bias to action over a lifetime in pursuit of happiness.

Third, I wondered whether it was foolish of me to give this “Secret” to my four year old son? Won’t it backfire on me? Will he tell me that doing something I want him to do (homework, tidying, …) just doesn’t please him and that he’s moving to do something I don’t want him to so much (play with the iPad, …) as that fills him with delight?  This, I’m still worried about. But I will argue with him. I’ll tell him that I don’t always have to be consistent in my views regarding his happiness.

Ultimately – again in the longer term – I think it is better for him to have a Rhodes-like view of happiness – working out what you want to do and who you want to be and not doing what you think others believe you should be doing – than being too obedient or too willing to be defined by others. Even if I am one of these others. And I’d rather feel a bit of pressure to ensure that the things I want him to do are connected to his happiness, not to mine. And it will be a good discipline for me to have to convince him of that.

So maybe my wife is right. The present is a little bit for me.