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Category Archives: Philosophy

Time travel doesn’t exist in the sense that most people/sci-fi writers want it to. But the incredible Sean Carroll, science blogger extraordinaire, leaves open the possibility of parallel universe time travel, the kind they use in the new Star Trek movie.

As I was watching the movie, the thought of parallel universes rocked my ethical foundations. I remember in my intro to philosophy course we discussed a thought experiment (I think by Derek Parfit) in which there’s this fabulous new technology that scans your body, molecule-by-molecule, disintegrates it, and transmits the information at the speed of light to another super-appliance, which builds you back up, at the exact molecular state you were at in the first location. Anyway, the point of the thought experiment is that the whole thing gets messed up if the first machine doesn’t disintegrate you, and all of a sudden there are two yous, with different perspectives and memories, and it gets you thinking about A) the special nature of subjective experience and B) how carelessly you gave yourself up for disintegration when you were sure that your molecular structure would instantiate somewhere else in the universe, when that doesn’t ensure a continuity of consciousness. It would just be like all of a sudden having a twin.


But it seems to me that parallel universes lessen the moral gravitas of large-scale civilian deaths, like the demolition of planet Vulcan. Because most planet-destroying events are relatively quick and painless for the inhabitants of the unfortunate planet. See Star Wars or the new Star Trek. It’s not comparable to a modern-day genocide in terms of suffering and indignation that the victims experience. What Earth genocides and sci-fi planet-destructions have in common: the intensely evil intent of the perpetrators, and the tragedy that a culture has been wiped from existence.

What the existence of a parallel universe does, however, is qualify that second part of the evil of planet-destruction. The destruction of planet X is not as tragic if in some parallel universe planet X has not been destroyed, and therefore the cultures and ways of life of the citizens of planet X (hereafter referred to as Xians) goes on.

Some assumptions I’m going off of:

  • Our moral judgments aren’t limited by space, time, or the confines of our own universe.

One might object: It’s possible that events in parallel universes are so far removed from our reality – more like fiction than something happening on the other side of our planet – that they should cause us no grief or consolation. To that, I answer: we didn’t make it up. If parallel universes actually exist, then things might actually be flourishing or suffering. And that’s what we need to consider in our moral reasoning, not where/when the suffering/flourishing things are.

  • It doesn’t matter if Xians can procreate and return to parallel universes in which they’ve been wiped out, it just matters that they exist in any universe.

If you agree that you don’t have to know a culture personally to be happy that its extinction, then you should also agree that you don’t have to be in the same universe as the Xians to be content that their way of life continues in some form.

This argument is limited to the cases in which we have two parallel universes, A and B, and in A a planet, X, is destroyed and in B, planet X is not destroyed. Even with an infinite number of parallel universes, it isn’t always the case that you get that case. It’s possible that planet X being destroyed is a necessary characteristic of any universe, and in which case we (and the Xians, I suppose) can at least take consolation in the fact that the Xians’ total annihilation was a cosmically necessary tragedy that couldn’t have gone any other way.


There are 390,000 self-identified followers of the Jedi faith in Britain, according to the new census. Setting aside the question of what an army of British Jedi means for international security, also setting aside the question of what a truly practicing Jedi would look/act like, and setting aside the question of whether or not Jedis are a little bit fascist, let’s focus on this: what’s the difference between a fake religion and a real one?

First, the difference between a cult and a fake religion: not all fake religions are cults. It’s the difference between the Jedi and the Heaven’s Gate crowd. A cult might be a fake religion, though. Or it could be a young religion that doesn’t have an evolutionarily sustainable strategy. Like having all your members kill themselves every time a comet passes near Earth.

One way to separate the Jedis and the Scientologists from the Christians and the Muslims would to require religious sources to be separate from science fiction literature. If a danger of young religions/cults (they’re generally indistinguishable at the beginning, which is not to say they’re the same thing) is that they are marketing schemes concocted by charlatans to make a lot of money, then that criticism is particularly potent when the religious founder has established herself as a talented storyteller and marketer.

This criticism is different from Hume’s attack on religious belief, which was that the likelihood of a mistaken perception or a lie is always greater than that of a miracle (defined as breaking the laws of nature, which have been tested by centuries of human experience and experiment). I’m afraid that Hume’s argument boils down to: miracles are inordinately unlikely, and it’s not good policy to believe that inordinately unlikely things are true. I have problems with the mechanics of this argument and its implications. The talented storyteller/marketer criticism focuses more on the problem of being used instead of the problem of believing a false proposition.

Let’s take a Wittgensteinian tour of religious propositions just to show why I would focuse on used-ness rather than truth. First off, lots of religious language isn’t propositional, it’s imperative. Peace be with you. God bless you. Love your neighbor. Such sentences are meant to influence lives, not to describe the world, and so they don’t have truth values. Of the relatively few religious claims, like Christ is risen, Jesus loves you, We’re all God’s children, or God set the universe in motion, some look like historical claims, but I believe that, properly understood, they are actually extra-scientific. Like expressing views on the origins on the universe, or moral attitudes. Areas where science has no methods for generating truth.

This isn’t to say that religion and religious language are always properly understood by believers. People who claim that the earth is really 6,000 years old or that Jesus rode dinosaurs are offering claims that land squarely in the jurisdiction of science/history, and claims that happen to be contrary to all kinds of evidence. That is an example of religion overstepping its bounds. But when religion is within its bounds, discussing human dignity and the good life, judgment, and c., there’s no direct way for science to contradict the statements, because they’re more generating and sustaining attitudes than describing states of affairs. And then all’s right in heaven and on earth.

A chunk of wisdom from Greenwald:

Whatever else one might say, the rule of law, the Constitution, and core civil liberties are the centerpiece of a healthy and well-functioning government, and nothing justifies an assault on those safeguards.  That was the argument most progressives made throughout the Bush presidency, and the more Obama continues on the Bush/Cheney path in this area, the more solid the progressive consensus against his actions becomes.  

No matter how cool and good-natured and -willed I think Obama is, I’d always rather be ruled by law than by a person. Laws stay the same in war and peace, they don’t discriminate (if you write them right), and they’re transparent to all.

As concerned as I am with animal welfare, I hope the pig you just ate was strictly confined.

An NYT op-ed describes a study which shows that 2 of 600 free-range pigs tested had trichinosis, which is bad news.

It’s a good reminder that “natural” things don’t always lead to better health, and hints at the possibility that it’s a fuzzy, useless category.

The conclusion is sound: “After all, if clean and humane methods of production cannot be developed, there’s only one ethical choice left for the conscientious consumer: a pork-free diet.”

So technology has huge effects on society, and I think it’s pretty naive to take for granted that all the effects will be wonderful. One instance I’m still figuring out is Google. So you get a machine that sends you to an authoritative(?) source on any subject. So instead of having to wade through pools of useless information (called context in eras past), you get the bit you want and you get out. Also, instead of forcing people to congregate in their geological communities, it allows them the option to cocoon into ideological communities. The perils of perpetual entertainment are probably a tale for another post. Let me finish Infinite Jest first.

Enter twitter. What are all these journalists and politicians doing on twitter except for embracing a trend for trend’s sake? Not analyzing or sharing useful information, that’s for sure. At the risk of soundy geezerish at 23, I’ve never found anyone’s twitter page interesting or funny. I coming to a nuanced and valid conclusion regarding technology and culture requires doing a lot of social science that I haven’t done. But with my reading of the philosophy of language, I’ll render a verdict on twitter right here: language-use and thought are intimately connected. The logic of thinking and the grammar of writing/speaking are parallels, and if you take away the nuances of language, sophisticated thinking inevitably follows.

So I’m not alone in my feelings of contempt, frustration, and intrigue towards Brooks’s NYT piece.


Moreover, it’s not clear why the facts Brooks cites about how we make moral judgments in normal life imply anything about the role that reason might play in answering these questions. Some of the researchers I’ve read on this topic seem to think that they do because they conflate two very different questions: (a) what role does reasoning play in our everyday moral judgments? and (b) what role does reason play in the justification of those judgments?


The very obvious fact is that no amount of description of how we actually tend to make moral judgments is going to resolve the question whether those moral judgments are right or not. To answer that question, we’re going to have to engage in good old fashioned philosophical reasoning and argumentation about moral principles.

David Hume (from beyond the grave):

Disputes with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity superior to the rest of mankind.

David Brooks in today’s NYT:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that.

Really? My, what a strange sort of nihilist you are, David Brooks. I mean, first, there’s the argument that not even food-tasting is like that. Appreciating fine art or wine takes some training and effort.  I suspect this might be a trap to make his interlocutor say something snobbish and elitist. Oops. 

But anyway, I’d compare moral judgments to musical, or better yet, literary criticism, where the texts/problems are complex, and there are many possible perspectives, but reason is central to the enterprise and there is clearly good criticism and bad criticism.

So he argues that emotion plays the primary role in morality, so moral reasoning is really just ad hoc justification of our moral views, which were shaped by natural selection. I guess it’s nice to hear a conservative grant the strength of the Darwinian theory of evolution. This approach pleases him because it shows how people are reliant on religion, culture, and history for their moral views. Notwithstanding the underdetermination of religion/culture/history on one’s moral views (does being white, black, Jewish, or Christian mean you will or won’t have specific moral intuitions?), he contradicts, or qualifies to the point of banality, his thesis at the end of his piece. He notes near the end of his piece that “There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions.”

He is right about the most primitive and atavistic tendencies that are closely linked with personal and genetic survival, such as a fear of death and an affinity for life. But if you take a stock moral quandary, like abortion or world hunger, any normal moral agent will be ambivalent. What do we do when we’re faced with a complex moral problem where evolutionary theory sheds no light? The answer is plain and simple: think.