Outsider Test for Philosophy

Here is Thomas Crisp’s new “Evolutionary Objection to the Argument from Evil” [via ex-apologist]. It’s a clever argument, and has persuaded at least one of ex-apologist’s readers that the Problem of Evil (PoE) is not a good reason to be an atheist.

The objection goes roughly like this:

P1) PoE depends on the premise that there are probably no good reasons for the observed evil in the natural world
P2) Determining whether there are good reasons for natural evil is a “recondite”, extremely difficult, philosophical problem.
P3) If our intellectual capabilities evolved, they evolved to track mundane matters of reality that are necessary for survival.
P4) There is no obvious reason that evolution would select for ability to reliably solve recondite philosophical problems
C1) Therefore, given evolution, there is no reason to trust our philosophical musings about observed evil
C2) Given that we can’t trust the key premise of PoE, then PoE is not a good reason to be an atheist

There are some obvious ways to attack Crisp’s argument. For example, we could deny that the key premise of PoE is recondite. Or we could argue that generally evolved truth-tracking mechanisms actually do apply to recondite philosophical problems (Crisp acknowledges that we could have developed such an ability as a “spandrel”, and I think there are plausible arguments for this, but I think an even stronger argument could be made for our ability to tackle recondite problems).

Crisp seems to sense this weakness in his argument, and he tries to strengthen his claim that judgments on recondite matters are unreliable. I laughed out loud at this part:

I don’t experience any emotion of ridicule when I entertain the possibility that my cognitive faculties are unreliable with respect to abstruse philosophical matters far removed from the everyday concerns of life. That possibility doesn’t strike me as crazy or ridiculous. I don’t notice any powerful seeming or seeing to be true when I consider the proposition that my philosophical faculties are reliable; it doesn’t strike me as just obvious that they are. In fact, when I consider the multitude of crazy views philosophers have defended over the centuries and the rampant disagreement among philosophers over almost of everything of substance, I find it wholly unobvious that we humans, myself included, have reliable philosophical faculties.

This is like the “Outsider Test for Philosophy”. It’s like saying, “When you realize why you reject all of the other contentious philosophical positions, you’ll understand why I reject yours”. IOW, the fact that there are multiple competing positions is taken as evidence that nobody really knows — that everyone is just mistaken or making things up.

This is shockingly sloppy thinking, whether it’s done by a Christian philosopher at Biola or by an atheist shyster like John Loftus. In this case, though, it’s especially funny. Winning a philosophy argument by claiming that philosophy is unreliable, is quite bold. Well played, Mr. Crisp! Well played!

When I Was a Retard

Several years ago, a medical accident left me with severely impaired cognitive function for about 12 hours. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

My IQ couldn’t have been more than 30, and my working memory was tiny. I couldn’t form full sentences, and had very few words. I could respond to very simple questions and state simple desires “Yes”, “No”, “Go”, and some curse words. My ability to form thoughts was better than my ability to speak, but not by much. My speed of thinking slowed to a crawl, and it took intense concentration to form thoughts containing more than a few predicate clauses. Many thoughts were simply impossible, because they took too long to form, and portions of the thought would be dropped from working memory before I had a chance to finish forming the thought. I would just get confused and give up.

It took some time for me to become aware that I was stupid, and I initially became alarmed. My anxiety wasn’t very sophisticated; it was basically “something went wrong”, “I’m stupid”, and “people are looking at me strange”. I knew those things were bad, but I couldn’t follow the implications far enough to know why they were bad. It was extremely hard work, and I had to give up.

As time went on, the anxiety at being stupid faded away, like some forgotten memory from a life that was no longer mine. I literally couldn’t concentrate long enough to figure out why stupidity was bad, so it stopped being bad. Same for the way that people reacted to me. I couldn’t possibly figure out why I used to think people’s strange looks were bad, so it stopped being bad.

I was definitely able to feel annoyance at environmental irritants, but the annoyance faded as soon as the source of irritation was removed, or as soon as I attenuated. I probably would have reacted violently if someone had provoked me physically, but my field of consciousness shrunk to a very small sliding window of time. As I got used to functioning this way, something very strange happened. Anxiety and unhappiness became memories of a distant past. I was aware enough of the strangeness of this to feel mildly pleased about it.

By the next day, I was back to full mental function. IQ, working memory, and speed of thought were all back. However, it was a few days before I returned to the habit of caring about things beyond a small window of time.

This experience was a puzzle that has fascinated me for many years. Here is a random brain-dump of some questions that have stemmed from this experience for me:

1) When you are cognitively impaired, you honestly don’t care, and you’re pretty happy. But success in modern life requires that you care about a lot of things. If you want to be able to form and execute multi-step plans, you need a certain level of neurotic obsession with details. You have to care. But how much should you care? What’s the “right” balance? That’s a fascinating problem.

2) It seems that, when cognitive function is impaired enough, you very quickly learn to not care, but it takes longer to start caring after function is restored. Why is there a mismatch? I don’t have any guesses, but I think the answer could have important implications.

3) While cognitively impaired, I could maintain a fairly reliable history of all of my thoughts and mental states. That is, my history was not impaired. My long-term memory was not impaired. What was impaired was my ability to pull multiple long-term memories into working memory and process them quickly to calculate implications. Once my cognitive function was restored, I continued to remember the historical details from when I was impaired, but could now integrate and process them to consider the implications. This raises a whole slew of interesting questions.

4) Living “in the moment” is about thwarting your working memory and your processing power (working memory and processing speed are inextricably linked). Thwarting these essentials probably makes you happier, but also makes you more like an animal. We hypothesize that a superhuman intelligence will have a far vaster working memory than we have, and also a far faster processing speed. So any God or demi-God who vastly exceeds us in these two capabilities will be able to experience suffering that vastly exceeds the suffering that we human “retards” could ever hope to experience. I suspect that suffering is directly correlated with working memory and processing speed.

5) Animal suffering. It seems popular to place animal suffering on the same scale of suffering with humans. In my experience, though, I was well above animals, but still quite free of suffering. My experience leads me to suspect that suffering requires self-conscious intentionality. Animals don’t have that. We humans can suffer on behalf of others, even where those others are incapable of suffering. Extrapolating this beyond humans, to superhuman intelligence, is a fascinating exercise.

6) What exactly is the link between memory and suffering? General anesthesia typically induces both paralysis and amnesia, and there have been cases where the paralysis part works, but the patient experiences and remembers the pain. It seems that there is a close link between the amnesia and the pain elimination. Anterograde amnesia is roughly opposite to what happened to me. In anterograde amnesia, the patient cannot form long-term memories, but has perfectly good working memory and speed of thought. This TED talk from Dan Gilbert explains that people with anterograde amnesia are capable of remembering emotional dispositions that form after onset of the disease, even if they don’t remember how the associations are formed. This is probably some form of operant conditioning, but also points more firmly to working memory as the culprit — loss of long-term memory does not prevent suffering. I really want to see more research performed to test theories like this.

7) If the theory holds true about suffering, does it also hold true for happiness? Or is there any asymmetry? Here is another TED talk, this time from Daniel Kahneman, about the way that our long-term memories of being happy are often very different from our actual self-reported happiness during the event. It’s absolutely fascinating.

In conclusion, I think that many of our folk intuitions about joy and suffering are hopelessly flawed, and a lot of our philosophical considerations on the topic are equally flawed. We need more experimental research to help us start forming a firm empirical foundation before further discussions.

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human-made place of worship yet discovered. The site was constructed 11,000 year ago, and has only recently been excavated.

Our parents and grandparents didn’t even know about this site; it was buried for thousands of years. If you know your Old Testament and comparative religion, you will see the significance. These are amazing times to be alive! Göbekli Tepe will be a mandatory pilgrimage for my family sometime in the next few years. Perhaps I’ll take along a few PDEs to bury when I’m there. If I were a science fiction author, I would definitely have the singularity set up headquarters at an underground facility in Göbekli Tepe.

Machines of Loving Grace

The British documentary, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace“, is fantastic. The story it tells continues to be the most important story of our current age, and it’s not science fiction:

This is a story about the rise of the machines
And how they made us believe
We could create a stable world
That would last forever

The documentary simplifies tremendously and leaves out all of the juiciest parts, but is an exciting orientation. “Machines of Loving Grace” is to the information economy as “Left Behind” was to dispensationalism.

One of my favorite parts is where the document tries to blame the Californians for creating this all-devouring beast, as if the British had no part in it. The documentary would have you believe that this is all the result of a “California Ideology” created by followers of Ayn Rand. There is something deliciously hypocritical about one group of Anglo-Saxons accusing another of trying to manipulate the world. Of course, the real story starts with Lord Byron’s romanticism, and the inspiration of his daughter Ada Lovelace (which I mentioned briefly here). But shortly before Rand, we have British Occultist Aleister Crowley, with his philosophy of “do what thou will, shall be the whole of the law”. He visited California, where he spent some of his inheritance on heroin, and spent time with people like L. Ron Hubbard and the founder of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Briton John Maynard Keynes also preceded Rand, and preached the life of an “immoralist”, with an economic system driven by “desire”. Both men were deeply influential with the California technocrats, and we can trace an ongoing incestuous back-and-forth between British and American technocrats ever since.

You’ll Understand When You’re Older

This is a post about how I do exegesis. When I was three or four, I would often ask my mother “Why” questions. Often they were questions about math, but sometimes about other topics. Her stock answer was, “You’re too young to understand. You’ll understand when you are older”.

Much later, I realized that she was just blowing me off, and simply didn’t want to say “I don’t know”. I asked her about this after I was 30, and she confirmed. But I now realize that her dismissal tactic was genius; whether intentional or not.

When you’re three or four, you believe everything your mother says. So when she said, “You’ll understand when you’re older”, I believed it. For the problems that I really cared about, I would sometimes demand that she tell me what age I would be when I understood. Sometimes she would say 10; sometimes she would say 12. I vividly remember a number of occasions where I panicked upon hearing this, thinking, “What if I forget to answer the question on my tenth birthday?!?” I would repeat the question to myself every single day, multiple times, so that I would be guaranteed to remember the question. I eagerly anticipated my 10th birthday, where I envisioned myself repeating all of the questions to myself and having the answers magically appear in my mind.

Of course, I never asked the questions on my tenth birthday, and I forgot some of the questions. Answers came when they came, and my childlike credulity was quickly replaced by the skepticism of an accomplished liar. But those early experiences shaped the person I became:

  1. I learned very early to train my long-term memory. I was desperate to know the answer, and the only way to know the answer was to remember the question until I was “old enough”. If my mother had given me some glib bullshit answer, I might’ve believed it and not even bothered remembering. If she had said, “I don’t know”, I might’ve decided that it was OK to stop caring.
  2. It’s worthwhile to believe that there is an answer, and that you will one day understand. Many times, I solved problems that others failed to solve, for no other reason than that I was certain “There is an answer, and it will feel good to discover it.” Throughout my life, I watched as people gave up and failed to see things that were right in front of their faces, because they convinced themselves that there might not be an answer, or that they would never be able to figure it out. In my experience, this is how the vast majority of people think, and it’s absolutely tragic. Nobody should think that way. If you don’t understand something, it’s only because you’re not old enough, and it’s that simple. If you have unanswered questions, you have something to look forward to. Of course, if you prove conclusively that some specific question is impossible to answer, that just means that you understand it, and that’s great! Until you’ve proven that there is no answer, you have no business saying that you will never know.
  3. Remembering the problem and being able to recognize when the answer is available is more important than stubbornly trying to brute force an answer. Things will happen when the time is right.
  4. Half of the answer is in formulating the problem. To remember the questions, I had to repeat the question subvocally over and over again. Some of the questions I had, I couldn’t even properly articulate in words, and therefore I couldn’t remember them by rote repetition. These problems vexed me greatly, because I could see the problem clearly at the moment, but I knew I would lose it. I still encounter problems like this, and they are motivation to get better at defining and articulating problems.
  5. Even if you have an answer that’s perfectly valid, you never have the answer. There were times when I thought I understood an answer, but I wasn’t yet 10, so I wasn’t sure if I had the full answer. There were other times when I gained a new understanding that replaced an old (albeit, useful) understanding, confirming my suspicion that I hadn’t fully understood. This means that there is always something to look forward to.


I’ve read a few child psychologists who say that attention-starved children ask “Why?”, because they’ve learned that this is the question that receives the most verbose answers. And when a parent has finished answering, the child can just say, “But, why?”, and trigger another long interaction. If you believe this theory, you should respond to every “why” question with long bullshit answers that make your children feel like you’re paying attention.

In my experience, though, the theory is wrong. Kids actually want to understand things, and you should encourage that desire. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that you should tell your kids, “You’ll understand when you’re older”. I suspect that technique is a total crap-shoot.