We cannot control everything: the philosophical dimensions of life

April 9, 2020

Pär SegerdahlLife always surpasses us. We thought we were in control, but then something unexpected happens that seems to upset the order. A storm, a forest fire, a pandemic. Life appears as a drawing in sand, the contours of which suddenly dissolve.

Of course, it is not that definitive. Even a storm, a forest fire, a pandemic, will pass. The contours of life return, in somewhat new forms. However, the unexpected reminded us that life is greater than our ability to control it. My question in this post is how we balance the will to control life against the knowledge that life always surpasses us.

That life is greater than our ability to control it is evident not only in the form of storms, forest fires and pandemics. It is evident also in the form of nice varying weather, growing forests and good health. Certainly, medicine contributes to better health. Nevertheless, it is not thanks to any pills that blood circulates in our bodies and food becomes nourishment for our cells. We are rightly grateful to medicine, which helps the sick. However, maybe we could devote life itself a thought of gratitude sometimes. Is not the body fantastic, which develops immunity in contact with viruses? Are not the forests and the climate wonderful, providing oxygen, sun and rain? And consider nature, on which we are like outgrowths, almost as fruits on a tree.

Many people probably want to object that it is pointless to philosophize about things that we cannot change. Why waste time reflecting on the uncontrollable dimensions of life, when we can develop new medicines? Should we not focus all our efforts on improving the world?

I just point out that we then reason as the artist who thought himself capable of painting only the foreground, without background. As though the background was a distraction from the foreground. However, if you want to emphasize the foreground, you must also pay attention to the background. Then the foreground appears. The foreground needs to be embraced by the background. Small and large presuppose each other.

Our desire to control life works more wisely, I believe, if we acknowledge our inevitable dependence on a larger, embracing background. As I said, we cannot control everything, just as an artist cannot paint only the foreground. I want to suggest that we can view philosophy as an activity that reminds us of that. It helps us see the controllable in the light of the uncontrollable. It reminds us of the larger context: the background that the human intellect does not master, but must presuppose and interact with wisely.

It does not have to be dramatic. Even everyday life has philosophical dimensions that exceed our conscious control. Children learn to talk beyond their parents’ control, without either curricula or examinations. No language teacher in the world can teach a toddler to talk through lessons in a classroom. It can only happen spontaneously and boundlessly, in the midst of life. Only those who already speak can learn language through lessons in a classroom.

The ability to talk is thus the background to language teaching in the classroom. A language teacher can plan the lessons in detail. The youngest children’s language acquisition, on the other hand, is so inextricably linked to what it is to live as a human being that it exceeds the intellect’s ability to organize and govern. We can only remind ourselves of the difference between foreground and background in language. Here follows such a philosophical reminder. A parent of a schoolchild can say, “Now you’ve been studying French for two hours and need a break: go out and play.” However, a parent of a small child who is beginning to talk cannot say, “Now you’ve been talking for two hours and need a break: go out and play!” The child talks constantly. It learns in the midst of playing, in the midst of life, beyond control. Therefore, the child has no breaks.

Had Herb Terrace seen the difference between foreground and background in language, he would never have used the insane method of training sign language with the chimpanzee Nim in a special classroom, as if Nim were a schoolchild who could already speak. Sometimes we need a bit of philosophy (a bit of reason) for our projects to work. Foreground and background interact everywhere. Our welfare systems do not work unless we fundamentally live by our own power, or by life’s own power. Pandemics hardly subside without the virus moving through sufficiently many of our, thereafter, immune bodies – under controlled forms that protect groups at risk and provide the severely ill care. Everywhere, foreground and background, controllable and uncontrollable, interact.

The dream of complete intellectual control is therefore a pitfall when we philosophize. At least if we need philosophy to elucidate the living background of what lies within human control. Then we cannot strive to define life as a single intellectually controllable foreground. A bit of philosophy can help us see the interplay between foreground and background. It can help us live actively and act wisely in the zone between controllable and uncontrollable.

Pär Segerdahl

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Proceed carefully with vaccine against covid-19

April 4, 2020

Pär SegerdahlPharmaceutical companies want to quickly manufacture a vaccine against covid-19, with human testing and launch in the market as soon as possible. In a debate article, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist at CRB warns of the risk of losing the larger risk perspective: “Tests on people and a potential premature mass vaccination entail risks. It is easy to forget about similar situations in the past,” she writes.

It may take time for side effects to appear. Unfortunately, it therefore also takes time to develop new safe vaccines. We need to develop a vaccine, but even with new vaccines, caution is needed.

The article is in Swedish. If you want to Google translate: Proceed carefully with vaccine against covid-19

Pär Segerdahl

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What is a moral machine?

April 1, 2020

Pär SegerdahlI recently read an article about so-called moral robots, which I found clarifying in many ways. The philosopher John-Stewart Gordon points out pitfalls that non-ethicists – robotics researchers and AI programmers – may fall into when they try to construct moral machines. Simply because they lack ethical expertise.

The first pitfall is the rookie mistakes. One might naively identify ethics with certain famous bioethical principles, as if ethics could not be anything but so-called “principlism.” Or, it is believed that computer systems, through automated analysis of individual cases, can “learn” ethical principles and “become moral,” as if morality could be discovered experientially or empirically.

The second challenge has to do with the fact that the ethics experts themselves disagree about the “right” moral theory. There are several competing ethical theories (utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics and more). What moral template should programmers use when getting computers to solve moral problems and dilemmas that arise in different activities? (Consider self-driving cars in difficult traffic situations.)

The first pitfall can be addressed with more knowledge of ethics. How do we handle the second challenge? Should we allow programmers to choose moral theory as it suits them? Should we allow both utilitarian and deontological robot cars on our streets?

John-Stewart Gordon’s suggestion is that so-called machine ethics should focus on the similarities between different moral theories regarding what one should not do. Robots should be provided with a binding list of things that must be avoided as immoral. With this restriction, the robots then have leeway to use and balance the plurality of moral theories to solve moral problems in a variety of ways.

In conclusion, researchers and engineers in robotics and AI should consult the ethics experts so that they can avoid the rookie mistakes and understand the methodological problems that arise when not even the experts in the field can agree about the right moral theory.

All this seems both wise and clarifying in many ways. At the same time, I feel genuinely confused about the very idea of ​​”moral machines” (although the article is not intended to discuss the idea, but focuses on ethical challenges for engineers). What does the idea mean? Not that I doubt that we can design artificial intelligence according to ethical requirements. We may not want robot cars to avoid collisions in city traffic by turning onto sidewalks where many people walk. In that sense, there may be ethical software, much like there are ethical funds. We could talk about moral and immoral robot cars as straightforwardly as we talk about ethical and unethical funds.

Still, as I mentioned, I feel uncertain. Why? I started by writing about “so-called” moral robots. I did so because I am not comfortable talking about moral machines, although I am open to suggestions about what it could mean. I think that what confuses me is that moral machines are largely mentioned without qualifying expressions, as if everyone ought to know what it should mean. Ethical experts disagree on the “right” moral theory. However, they seem to agree that moral theory determines what a moral decision is; much like grammar determines what a grammatical sentence is. With that faith in moral theory, one need not contemplate what a moral machine might be. It is simply a machine that makes decisions according to accepted moral theory. However, do machines make decisions in the same sense as humans do?

Maybe it is about emphasis. We talk about ethical funds without feeling dizzy because a stock fund is said to be ethical (“Can they be humorous too?”). There is no mythological emphasis in the talk of ethical funds. In the same way, we can talk about ethical robot cars without feeling dizzy as if we faced something supernatural. However, in the philosophical discussion of machine ethics, moral machines are sometimes mentioned in a mythological way, it seems to me. As if a centaur, a machine-human, will soon see the light of day. At the same time, we are not supposed to feel dizzy concerning these brave new centaurs, since the experts can spell out exactly what they are talking about. Having all the accepted templates in their hands, they do not need any qualifying expressions!

I suspect that also ethical expertise can be a philosophical pitfall when we intellectually approach so-called moral machines. The expert attitude can silence the confusing questions that we all need time to contemplate when honest doubts rebel against the claim to know.

Pär Segerdahl

Gordon, J. Building Moral Robots: Ethical Pitfalls and Challenges. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 141–157 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-019-00084-5

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Herb Terrace about the chimpanzee Nim – do you see the contradiction?

March 23, 2020

Pär SegerdahlHave you seen small children make repeated attempts to squeeze a square object through a round hole (plastic toy for the little ones)? You get puzzled: Do they not see that it is impossible? The object and the hole have different shapes!

Sometimes adults are just as puzzling. Our intellect does not always fit reality. Yet, we force our thoughts onto reality, even when they have different shapes. Maybe we are extra stubborn precisely when it is not possible. This post is about such a case.

Herb Terrace is known as the psychologist who proved that apes cannot learn language. He himself tried to teach sign language to the chimpanzee Nim, but failed according to his own judgement. When Terrace took a closer look at the videotapes, where Nim interacted with his human sign-language teachers, he saw how Nim merely imitated the teachers’ signs, to get his reward.

I recently read a blog post by Terrace where he not only repeats the claim that his research demonstrates that apes cannot learn language. The strange thing is that he also criticizes his own research severely. He writes that he used the wrong method with Nim, namely, that of giving him rewards when the teacher judged that he made the right signs. The reasoning becomes even more puzzling when Terrace writes that not even a human child could learn language with such a method.

To me, this is as puzzling as a child’s insistence on squeezing a square object through a round hole. If Terrace used the wrong method, which would not work even on a human child, then how can he conclude that Project Nim demonstrates that apes cannot learn language? Nevertheless, he insists on reasoning that way, without feeling that he contradicts himself. Nor does anyone who read him seem to experience any contradiction. Why?

Perhaps because most of us think that humans cannot teach animals anything at all, unless we train them with rewards. Therefore, since Nim did not learn language with this training method, apes cannot learn language. Better methods do not work on animals, we think. If Terrace failed, then everyone must fail, we think.

However, one researcher actually did try a better method in ape language research. She used an approach to young apes that works with human children. She stopped training the apes via a system of rewards. She lived with the apes, as a parent with her children. And it succeeded!

Terrace almost never mentions the name of the successful ape language researcher. After all, she used a method that is impossible with animals: she did not train them. Therefore, she cannot have succeeded, we think.

I can tell you that the name of the successful researcher is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. To see a round reality beyond a square thinking, we need to rethink our thought pattern. If you want to read a book that tries to do such rethinking about apes, humans and language, I recommend a philosophical self-critique that I wrote with Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleague William Fields.

To philosophize is to learn to stop imposing our insane thoughts on reality. Then we finally see reality as it is.

Pär Segerdahl

Segerdahl, P., Fields, W. & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. 2005. Kanzi’s Primal Language. The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language. Palgrave Macmillan.

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What shall we eat? An ethical framework for food choices

March 16, 2020

To reflect ethically on what we eat has been part of Western culture for centuries. In pre-modern times, the focus was mainly on the consumption of food, although it varied whether the emphasis was on the amount of food one should eat (as in ancient Greece) or on what kind of food one was allowed to eat (as in the Old Testament).

Modern food ethics has instead focused on the production of food, emphasizing aspects of animal ethics and environmental ethics. In a new article, I take a broader perspective and discuss both the production and consumption of food and further incorporate the meal as an important part of my food ethics analysis.

I identify four affected parties in relation to the production and consumption of food, namely, animals, nature, producers and consumers. What ethical values can be at stake for these parties?

For animals, an important value is welfare; not being exposed to pain or stress, but provided opportunities for natural behavior. For nature, important values are low negative impact on the environment and sustainable climate. For producers, ethical values at stake concern fair salaries and safe working conditions. For consumers, finally, important values are access to healthy food and the right to autonomous food choices. Apart from that, food can also be seen as an important value in pursuit of a good life.

Evidently, several ethical values are at stake when it comes to the production and consumption of food. Furthermore, these values often conflict when food choices are to be made. In such situations, a thorough weighing of values must be performed in order to find out which value should be given priority over another.

A problem with today’s food debate is that we tend to concentrate on one value at a time, without putting it in the perspective of other aspects. The question of how our food choices affect the climate has gained a lot of interest, at the expense of almost all other aspects of food ethics.

Many have learned that beef production can affect the climate negatively, since grazing cattle give rise to high levels of methane. They therefore choose to avoid that kind of meat. On the other hand, grazing animals can contribute to biodiversity as they keep the landscape open, which is good for the environment. Breeding chickens produces low levels of methane, but here the challenges concern animal welfare, natural behavior and the use of chemicals in the production of bird feed.

To replace meat with vegetables can be good for your health, but imported fruits and vegetables can be produced using toxins if they are not organically farmed. Long transports can also affect the climate negatively.

For these reasons, it can be ethically problematic to choose food based on only one perspective. Ethics is not that simple. We need to develop our ability to identify what values are at stake when it comes to food, and find good reasons for why we choose one sort of food instead of another. In the article, I develop a more comprehensive food ethical outlook by combining four well-known ethical concepts, namely, duties, consequences, virtues and care.

Duties and consequences are often part of ethical arguments. However, by including also virtues and care in my reasoning, the meal and the sense of community it gives rise to appear as important ethical values. Unfortunately, the latter values are at risk today when more and more people have their own individualized food preferences. During a meal, relations are developed, which the ethics of care emphasizes, but the meal is also an arena for developing virtues, such as solidarity, communication and respect.

It is hard to be an ethically aware consumer today, partly because there are so many aspects to take into account and partly because it is difficult to get reliable and trustworthy information upon which we can base our decisions. However, that does not mean that it is pointless to reflect on what is good and right when it comes to food ethical dilemmas.

If we think through our food choices thoroughly and avoid wasting food, we can do a lot to reach well-grounded food choices. Apart from that, we also need brave political decisions that can reduce factory farming, toxins, transports and emissions, and support small-scale and organic food production. Through such efforts, we might all feel a little more secure in the grocery shop, when we reflect on the question: What shall we eat?

Anna T. Höglund

Höglund, Anna T. (2020) What shall we eat? An ethical framework for well-grounded food choices. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. DOI: 10.1007/s10806-020-09821-4

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Artificial intelligence and living consciousness

March 2, 2020

Pär SegerdahlThe Ethics Blog will publish several posts on artificial intelligence in the future. Today, I just want to make a little observation of something remarkable.

The last century was marked by fear of human consciousness. Our mind seemed as mystic as the soul, as superfluous in a scientific age as God. In psychology, behaviorism flourished, which defined psychological words in terms of bodily behavior that could be studied scientifically in the laboratory. Our living consciousness was treated as a relic from bygone superstitious ages.

What is so remarkable about artificial intelligence? Suddenly, one seems to idolize consciousness. One wallows in previously sinful psychological words, at least when one talks about what computers and robots can do. These machines can see and hear; they can think and speak. They can even learn by themselves.

Does this mean that the fear of consciousness has ceased? Hardly, because when artificial intelligence employs psychological words such as seeing and hearing, thinking and understanding, the words cease to be psychological. The idea of computer “learning,” for example, is a technical term that computer experts define in their laboratories.

When artificial intelligence embellishes machines with psychological words, then, one repeats how behaviorism defined mind in terms of something else. Psychological words take on new machine meanings that overshadow the meanings the words have among living human beings.

Remember this next time you wonder if robots might become conscious. The development exhibits fear of consciousness. Therefore, what you are wondering is not if robots can become conscious. You wonder if your own consciousness can be superstition. Remarkable, right?

Pär Segerdahl

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Exactly when does a human being actually come into existence?

February 18, 2020

Pär SegerdahlThe one who prepares the food may announce, “The food is ready now!” when the food is ready. However, when exactly is the food actually ready? When the kitchen timer rings? The potatoes are cooked then. Or when the saucepan is removed from the stove? The cooking ends then. Or when the saucepan is emptied of water? The potatoes are separated from the cooking medium then. Or when the potatoes are carried to the table? The food will be available to the guests around the table then. However, is the food actually available for eating before it is on the plate? Should not each guest say, “The food is ready now,” when the food is on the plate? However, if the food is too hot, is it actually ready? Should not someone around the table say when you no longer burn your tongue, “The food is ready now”?

Yes, exactly when is the food actually ready? You probably notice that the question is treacherous. The very asking, “exactly when, actually?” systematically makes every answer wrong, or not exactly right. The question is based on rejecting the answer. It is based on suggesting another, smarter way to answer. Which is not accepted because an even smarter way to answer is suggested. And so on. Questions that systematically reject the answer are not any questions. They can appear to be profound because no ordinary human answer is accepted. They can appear to be at a high intellectual level, because the questioner seems to demand nothing less than the exact and actual truth. Such extremely curious questions are usually called metaphysical.

However, we hardly experience the question about exactly when the food actually is ready as important and deep. We see the trick. The question is like a stubborn teenager who just discovered how to quibble. However, sometimes these verbally treacherous questions can appear on the agenda and be perceived as important to answer. In bioethics, the question about the beginning of a human being has become such a question. Exactly when does a human being actually come into existence?

Why is this question asked in bioethics? The reason is, of course, that there are ethical and legal limits to what medical researchers are permitted to do with human beings. The question of what counts as a human being then acquires significance. When does a fertilized egg become a human? Immediately? After a number of days? The question will determine what researchers are permitted to do with human embryos. Can they harvest stem cells from embryos and destroy them? There is disagreement about this.

When people disagree, they want to convince each other by debating. The issue of the beginning of a human being has been debated for decades. The problem is that the question is just as treacherous as the question about exactly when the food actually is ready. In addition, the apparent depth and inquisitiveness of the question serves as intellectual allurement. We seem to be able to determine exactly who is actually right. The Holy Grail of all debates!

The crucial moment never comes. The Holy Grail is constantly proving to be an illusion, since the question systematically rejects every answer by proposing an even smarter answer, just like the question about food. The question of the beginning of a human being has now reached such levels of cleverness that it cannot be rendered in ordinary human words. Philosophers earn their living as intellectual advocates who give debating clients strategic advice on metaphysical loopholes that will allow them to avoid the opponent’s latest clever argument. Listen to such metaphysical advice to debaters who want to argue that a human being comes into existence exactly at conception and not a day later:

”Given the twinning argument, the conceptionist then faces a choice between perdurantist conceptionism and exdurantist conceptionism, and we argue that, apart from commitments beyond the metaphysics of embryology, they should prefer the latter over the former.”

Do you feel like reading more? If so, read the article and judge for yourself the depth and seriousness of the question. Personally, I wish for more mature ways to deal with bioethical conflicts than through metaphysical advice to stubborn debaters.

Pär Segerdahl

Efird, D, Holland, S. Stages of life: A new metaphysics of conceptionism. Bioethics. 2019; 33: 529– 535. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12556

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