Existential Uncertainty

Uncertainty ahead, written on road surface

Introduction

Uncertainty, in common parlance, is a state in which an individual is unsure whether some proposition is true or not. It ultimately, therefore, arises from a lack of information. If we knew everything, like God, if he existed, or had access to a super-AI, like that some technophiles dream about, we would never find ourselves in a position of uncertainty. Moreover, if we could make decisions from a position of absolute certainty, we would be able to eliminate the suffering and/or anxiety that sometimes accompanies our decision-making.

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Marx’s Alienation – An Existentialist Perspective

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In this article I want to look at what exactly the 19th century philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx had in mind when he talked about alienation, and then examine how this concept might make sense within an existentialist framework (drawing specifically on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre).

Alienation

As we use it in everyday speech, ‘alienation’ means to be isolated or separated from a group or activity. While this isn’t completely removed from the way Marx uses it, we do need to get a little more specific than this. For Marx, alienation describes the situation in which workers become separated from their humanity through forced participation in a capitalistic mode of production and that humanity then appears before the individual as something alien in nature, something barely even recognisable anymore.

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Philosophy and Reality

This article was inspired by Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #120 in which he talks with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein (whom I’d never heard speak before but who was very impressive) and physicist Max Tegmark about the different ways science and philosophy approach reality. While I obviously recommend the podcast itself and although I constantly refer to Goldstein and Tegmark throughout, if you don’t have the time or inclination, it isn’t necessary to have listened to the podcast in order to follow what I discuss in the article.

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Mind Upload

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This is a follow-on article from an earlier one I wrote entitled A Case Study in Personal Identity: Altered Carbon, where I argued that a person’s mind/consciousness could not be ‘stored’ in a digital medium, and even if it could, transferring that stored information into another body wouldn’t grant the original mind/consciousness immortality. After writing this, I came across an Australian RN Radio podcast (on a program called The Philosopher’s Zone) called Mind Upload. In it, the host, David Rutledge, discusses with Max Cappuccio, a philosophy professor from the United Arab Emirates University, whether it will ever be possible to upload the mind into some type of digital environment. Cappuccio turns out to be as sceptical as I am about this and while his argument was similar to the one I originally put forward, it was different enough that I felt compelled to spell it out in this separate article.

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The Narrative Self

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When you think about your life, does it take the form of a narrative, a tale told with you as the protagonist? Is there an arc to your life, an account that makes some overall sense of the things you have done and the things that have happened to you? Philosopher Galen Strawson doesn’t see his life in this way and neither do I.

The idea of the narrative self is the claim that “we constitute ourselves as selves by understanding our lives as narrative in form and living accordingly” (Schechtman, 2011), although there is not necessarily a need to explicitly formulate that narrative. The position I will be arguing against in this article is the one that claims that all ‘selves’ are narrative in form and everyone is therefore constantly narrating their lives in order to construct their ‘selves’. Indeed, if you didn’t narrate your life in this way, the claim goes, you wouldn’t even have, or be, a self.

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In Search of Reality – Trust the Maths

This is my second article related to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #124, a discussion with physicist Sean Carroll, about reality, physics, freewill, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. In this article I want to critically examine the tendency among physicists these days to base their understanding of reality on mathematical models they construct about that reality.

 

The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

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The many worlds interpretation, first suggested by Hugh Everett in 1957, is an attempt to make some sense of the quantum mechanical assertion that unmeasured, or unobserved, quantum systems don’t actually exist in any particular state. Rather, they exist in multiple possible states at the same time and it is only once the system is measured, or observed, that one of those possibilities becomes actual. The many worlds interpretation holds that, at the moment of measurement, rather than one of these possibilities becoming actual, the universe splits into multiple branches, so that each possibility actually actualises, just in different universes.

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In Search of Reality – It’s all just Particles

The two topics I discuss in this article, downward causation and panpsychism, both come from Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #124 in which he sits down with physicist Sean Carroll to discuss… well, reality. Rather than working through these ideas in any detail, what I will mainly do is respond to Carroll’s criticism of them as “…attempts to wriggle around basing reality in stuff obeying the laws of physics [which] don’t quite hold together”.[1]

 

Downward Causation

Early on in the podcast, Carroll brings up downward causation, which is the idea that activity at a macroscopic level can somehow feed back and affect behaviour at the microscopic level in a way you wouldn’t understand if you were only studying the microscopic. With this, he is taking aim at the idea that consciousness can affect any of the ‘real’ physical constituents and processes from which it emerges. Now, if you start with the idea that the ‘real’ is the world as described by physics, which, by definition, means elementary particles and the physical laws that govern their behaviour, then Carroll is obviously right. But is this apparently reasonable claim as reasonable as it seems?

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