Nozick's gedanken machine 
A propos of nothing, I've been thinking about Nozick's experience machine argument. In the SEP, Roger Crisp summarizes the argument in this way:
Imagine that I have a machine that I could plug you into for the rest of your life. This machine would give you experiences of whatever kind you thought most valuable or enjoyablewriting a great novel, bringing about world peace, attending an early Rolling Stones' gig. You would not know you were on the machine, and there is no worry about its breaking down or whatever. Would you plug in? Would it be wise, from the point of your own well-being, to do so? Robert Nozick thinks it would be a big mistake to plug in: "We want to do certain things ... we want to be a certain way ... plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality."
Crisp calls this a "weighty objection to hedonism of any kind." In context, it is clear that he takes it to be an important and decisive objection to hedonism.

When I first read Nozick as an undergrad, I was impressed by this argument. Nozick does not attribute the upshot of the argument to himself. He suggests that you, the reader, would not plug into the machine and that this is sufficient to defeat hedonism. This is a kind of rhetorical trick, though, because it is not obvious that we would not enter the machine.

I didn't notice this trick initially. I was discussing the argument with a non-philosopher friend who said she would certainly enter the machine. On reflection, I began to suspect that much of my disinclination to enter was due to worries about how it would work. We are told that the machine would provide us with whatever experience we would enjoy, but we know that technology has limitations and is prone to breakdown. I can easily imagine scenarios in which I get in the machine and it goes horribly wrong: A lightning strike zaps the machine and fries my brain. The mechanism damages my nervous system and ultimately turns me into a psychotic leper. Economic conditions require it to be unplugged in a couple of years, and I stumble out unable to cope with a world that has changed in my absence. And so on.

We can stipulate as part of the thought experiment that the machine is reliable, safe, and will continue to operate without interruption once I step inside. We can even stipulate that I know these things to be the case. But stipulating these things does not scrub my intuitions of such concerns. If I still feel disinclined to enter, my disinclination does not come with a ticket saying why I am disinclined. My suspicion of technology is part of the way that I think about machines and cannot be waved away so easily. And it would be unwise of me to alter my psychology so that I could it could. It is better for me to always distrust claims that a gizmo is "totally reliable" and "a sure thing", because commercials bombard me with such claims every day.

Nozick's objection that the machine merely gives us 'man-made reality' plays on similar worries. The natural world contains richness and depth that (I worry) would be left out of any virtual world. We can stipulate that the experience machine provides all the richness of the real world, but it is not clear that I can fully accept that stipulation.

At the time, I also thought that my disinclination resulted from worries about other people. My friends and family might be unhappy if I entered the machine, and if I stayed I would be able to make people on balance happier. We might stipulate that other people will all enter their own machines, but perhaps this strains the imagination too much. It suffices to note that this source of disinclination is an argument not against hedonism but against egoism. I am concerned for more than my own happiness, but that doesn't tell us whether the machine can provide happiness or not.

Crisp gives three examples of things I could do in the machine: writing a great novel, bringing about world peace, attending an early Rolling Stones' gig.

He insists that there is a difference between the experience of writing a great novel and actually writing a great novel, but this is ambiguous. He says, "the experience of really writing a great novel is quite different from that of apparently writing a great novel, even though 'from the inside' they may be indistinguishable." Certainly there is a difference between writing a novel which one merely thinks is great and writing a genuinely great novel, but writing a novel in the virtual environment provided by the machine would still count as writing a novel. If it were a great novel, then one would have written a great novel.

The example of attending an early Rolling Stones' gig is similarly problematic. If you have the experience of attending the gig, then it would count as an instance of the relevant performance type.

Of course, bringing about world peace in the machine would not be as good as really bringing about world peace. But this does not settle the question of whether world piece is desirable because of the terrible experiences that result from war or because of something else.

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Popping the stack 
Via daring fireball and makkintosshu, I learned that the URL now redirects to the Wikipedia entry for Hypercard. This is a counterpart to the more common sin of bloggers linking uncommon terms in their prose to the Wikipedia entry for that term.* So I'll talk about that first.

Suppose I am reading a post and come across a word or topic that I am not familiar with. I always have the option of opening a new tab and searching the web for more information; if I were so inclined, I could just start my search with the Wikipedia.

If the author of the webpage has bothered to include a hyperlink, however, it suggests that they are specifically recommending that I look at whatever source they've hyperlinked. Suppose they actually have looked at the Wikipedia entry and deemed it to be quality. They have thus used whatever expertise they have to vouch for the Wikipedia entry. Since the Wikipedia entry might have changed since they vetted it, I might or not be able to trust the present entry. So bloggers who really have looked at the entry to confirm its quality should link to the dated version of the entry that they read, rather than the always-current entry. Alternately, they might link to both. (This argument is part of my forthcoming paper.)

If the author of the webpage inserts the link without really looking at the Wikipedia entry, as seems too often to be the case, then what do they think they are doing? If I am puzzled by the term, then the link doesn't give me anything more than what I would turn up if I did my own web search on the topic. If I am not puzzled, then the link is an annoying distraction. I might waste time clicking on it, mistaking it for seem actual content.** The link is clutter in any case, and it adds no real functionality to the page.

The take home lesson for bloggers: Stop it!

For Apple: If the Wikipedia entry were edited to say that Hypercard assisted in the assassination of Robert Kennedy, then Apple would be somewhat complicit in the fib. At the same time, it is unclear how the redirect is any more helpful than a spartan page which says that Apple no longer maintains Hypercard. Anyone coming across such a page while actually trying to learn about Hypercard could easily go find the Wikipedia page on their own.

It seems that links to Wikipedia are to webpages in 2009 like Comic Sans was to allegedly-funny print outs in 1999.

* What I say about bloggers applies the authors of webpages more generally. Samuel Arbesman discusses the London Tube map in the contect of introducing his really neat map of the Milky Way and includes some gratuitous links to Wikipedia.

** One might change the stylesheet to include a type of link that looks about like ordinary text. At least then the gratuitous links wouldn't be distracting clutter.

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Another essence for existentialism  
[This post is part of a series; see pt 1. and pt. 2.]

In the previous installment, I discussed my favorite way of characterizing existentialism: Existentialists believe that human beings are importantly made up of both being (facticity, temporality) and becoming (transcendence, eternity), and understanding human existence requires understanding the tension between these two aspects.

The only real downside of this, as a defining criterion of existentialism, is that it leaves out Nietzsche. It is not really so much that Nietzsche thinks of humans as just being or as just becoming. Rather, he refuses to offer a fundamental characterization of human existence at all. For a perspectivist like Nietzsche, an ontological description of humans is just one story or way of talking about things.

Of course, Nietzsche was a great influence on 20th-century existentialists. So I felt justified in including some Nietzsche on the syllabus for by existentialism course, even though I didn't think he was an existentialist.

While teaching the course, however, I saw a way to think of 'existentialism' so that Nietzsche could come to the party (rather than merely standing on the front stoop and watching the festivities through the window.) Consider:
Existentialists believe that there is no value or moral significance prior to the appearance of valuing creatures like human beings. Humans invent rather than discover value.
This describes Sartre, de Beauvoir, Marcel, and many of the usual suspects. The reject the spirit of seriousness, the view that there are preexisting values that we are morally obligated to recognize.

The fact that values are invented doesn't make them unreal. The view is not nihilism or absurdism.

This characterization excludes writers like Hemingway (an absurdist, I think) and Emerson (a quirky kind of serious man).

It also raises some interesting conceptual issues. We can ask about the minimal conditions for being valuing creature. Can homo sapiens fail to be sources of value? What about dogs, emus, or dolphins?

We can ask whether you are the only source of values for yourself or whether you should recognize the values projected by other people, too. Sartre and de Beauvoir disagree on this: He says that we are each inevitably forlorn, but she insists that moral solipsism is an ethical shortcoming.

Yet, this characterization also suffers a categorical failure: Kierkegaard!

Kierkegaard's insistence that "truth is subjectivity" only means that the divine moral scene is not a systematic, rational thing. God might want us to do things like sacrifice our first born. If it was right for Abraham to kill Isaac, it wasn't just because Abraham freely structured the situation thus.

So now I have two characterizations of existentialism, each of which excludes one of the movement's 19th-century progenitors. Do you want the syphilitic German or the hunchbacked Dane? One might insist that both criteria are necessary conditions for being an existentialist, so that neither of them are included. One might chisholm the definition further to write the canon of existentialism in platonic ink, but I don't really see the point. I don't see anything wrong with having two definitions of existentialism, provided that they both reward reflection and disagree about categorizing only boundary cases.

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2008 in review 
Here's the bullet-point summary of my blogging in 2008. In accord with tradition, I've taken the first sentence from the first post of every month; cf. 2006 and 2007.

I: Three items related to papers and publication...

II: Bridget and Janet both made note of Blogroll Amnesty Day.

III: Last week I received the student comment forms from my teaching last term.

IV: I gave my Saturday over to the UAlbany Grad Student Philosophy Conference, and I am glad I did.

V: Yesterday was the last day of class, and so it was time for the usual debriefing.

VI: I've posted a new draft of my paper on epistemic significance and natural curiousity.

VII: Not long ago, I wrote a short paper on musical performance.

VIII: At dinner several weeks ago, I mentioned that the word 'broad' to describe a woman originally referred to pregnant cows.

IX: I was recently advising undergraduates as they registered for classes.

X: There's been some blog reaction to my fibs in Wikipedia paper.

XI: [n/a]

XII: 'Existentialism' has been a bit of vexed jargon in the 20th century.

Blogging has been lighter this year, so much so that there were no posts in November whatsoever. Content, such as it is, is a mix of philosophical research (4 months), teaching (4 months), and random other stuff. Only one month begins with a post discussing the blog itself. The blog has been less self-absorbed, perhaps only because there has been less of itself for it be be absorbed in.

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An essence for existentialism 
[This post is part of a series; see pt 1.]

Here is one concise way of characterizing existentialism:
Existentialists believe that human existence is characterized by a tension between being and becoming. The former is a matter of specific moments, facts, and actions. The latter is a matter of the personality that unifies the actions.
Sartre calls these two aspects facticity and trascendence; failing to reconcile them is bad faith. Kierkegaard calls them temporality and eternity; failing to reconcile them is despair.

With this definition in hand, we can sort the history of philosophy in a sensible way. Sartre, the paradigmatic existentialist, counts as one. So do most of the usual suspects: Kierkegaard, Marcel, Buber, Tillich, Frankl, and so on. The only fellow traveller left out in the cold is Nietzsche, who does not count as an existentialist by this definition.

The definition also excludes Hemingway, Emerson, and all the moody characters who ought to be excluded.

We can make sense of saying that early Heidegger (in Being&Time) is existentialist, but that later Heidegger is not. Similarly, that Sartre's later marxist writings are no longer existentialist. (We could not even sensibly say those things if existentialism was ostensively defined by pointing to the usual subjects or if the definition was so broad as to include anyone mopey.)

Characterizing existentialism in this way also has several nice conceptual consequences. Here are a few:

1. It raises the question of freedom in an interesting way. While you are still alive, there are further actions that you will perform. It is possible that, considered as actions of the same person, your further actions will change the meaning of past actions. Whether past actions were cowardly (to take a common example) is not yet a settled thing. In this sense, you are free. This is not the tired metaphysical question of libertarian free will.

2. It leads us to ask whether and how the tension between the two aspects of ones existence can be reconciled. For Sartre, 'authenticity' can be defined as resolving the tension; it does not seem as if resolution is possible, so inauthenticity is inevitable. For de Beauvoir, authenticity requires embracing what the tension (which she calls ambiguity); the tension cannot be resolved, but recognizing this is a precondition for authenticity. For Kierkegaard, the tension can be resolved by a leap of faith. For Marcel, it can be resolved by commitment to a human community.

3. It leads us to ask whether this description of human existence applies to all homo sapiens. For Sartre, the answer is yes. Everyone is necessarily an individual subject. As such, there is a kind of violence in interpersonal relations: As a subject, you make an object out of others, and they make an object out of you. For Marcel the answer is no. An ego can fail to be a person by not relating to others in mutually-recognizing trust. For Heidegger, no. One can fail to be an authentic individual by just being an anonymous anybody. This Heideggerian sense of inathenticity is not about mismanaging the tension between the two aspects of human existence, but rather about failing to be a real human self at all.

Finally, this definition provides a nice pedagogical lens for focusing the material. One could spend a whole semester on Being&Nothingness, but an existentialism course can only include selections. A definition of existentialism provides a way of picking parts that will connect to other readings and helps in cutting out other things.

To sum up: I have long had this definition of existentialism that works historically, conceptually, and pedagogically. So it was somewhat disconcerting to recognize another adequate definition.

Continuing the existentialist serial, I'll leave the other definition for another post: Can any definition save little Friedrich from the abyss? Find out in the next exciting episode!

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