Category Archives: Philosophy

On qualia and free will

Since the QT3 community splintered, I find that I’ve been spending more time on the erstwhile refugee forum, Broken Forum, recently. While QT3 isn’t exactly dead, it does feel that Broken Forum has more interesting stuff now and the Politics & Religion subforum feels more pleasant and less pointlessly antagonistic. Anyway, the subject of mind/body dualism popped up the other day, I felt inspired to write some short posts in response. It’s been a while since I last participated in a philosophical discussion so I thought I’d clean up my posts and expand on them here.

I’m not going to go into a complete description of the topic. If you need to, Wikipedia offers a perfectly good summary of the basics. Or if you feel up to it, David Chalmers has a good overview of the entire topic, though he is of course probably the leading proponent of dualism in modern philosophy. Instead, I’m just going to examine two of the most interesting objections to physicalism I’ve seen in the thread. Neither of the objections are very strenuous. I guess physicalism and the scientific worldview are too well entrenched by now. So they’re more like niggling doubts rather than outright objections, but here we go anyway.

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The Passion of Ayn Rand

Strangely enough, I first discovered the existence of this film while browsing through a video rental store in the Solomon Islands. There was no way in hell that any of my colleagues would be the least interested in it so I didn’t manage to watch it then but I do wonder sometimes at whoever thought to bring it into that country. Since my wife recently procured a Chinese version of Atlas Shrugged from Taiwan and read it, I thought it would be a good idea to finally get around and watch this film.

First of all, there’s nothing that’s really new to me in this film as I’ve long known how much of a mess Ayn Rand’s life was. Michael Shermer’s article The Unlikeliest Cult in History is a pretty good summary. The main thing about this account that particularly stood out for me is how sympathetically it portrays Barbara Branden’s role in the events. This is hardly surprising as the film was based on the book by Barbara Branden but it’s notable how manipulative and cynical both Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand are shown to be while Frank O’ Connor¬† is a doddering hanger on who’s too stupid to understand anything. Barbara Branden by contrast is shown as an intelligent woman who simply makes the mistake of allowing herself to be dragged along by the odd ideas of her husband and Rand.

Another thing is how astonishingly different Helen Mirren looks in this film compared to say, her performance that is probably best known today as the title character in The Queen. Everything about her including her demeanor, her accent and the way her hair curls at one side, combine perfectly to make her a believable Ayn Rand. In fact, all of the actors do a great job and names like Peter Fonda and Julie Delpy are hardly run of the mill television fare. It’s a made for tv movie but its production values are high enough that it could almost pass as film made for theatrical release.

Still, the subject matter is so esoteric that I can’t really imagine it being the least interesting to anyone who doesn’t already know about Ayn Rand and her work. The film makes no attempt to explain Rand’s philosophy so I would imagine that the motivations and rationale of the different characters must have been mystifying to those unfamiliar with it. Where it does succeed is in communicating that Ayn Rand was indeed a woman and a fiercely passionate one at that. It also shows how difficult it was for her to finish writing Atlas Shrugged and implies that her relationship with Nathaniel Branden was instrumental towards that end.

Overall, this film probably isn’t worth watching unless, like me, you’re one of those whose lives have been greatly impacted by reading her work. Even so, I think I would have preferred to watch a film of her early life, detailing her flight from the Soviet Union to her early success with The Fountainhead. The Passion of Ayn Rand begins with her as a writer who is already established and successful and focuses exclusively on the unconventional relationship between the four main characters. As an author whose work continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year even today, I think her life deserves a more complete and complex film than this one.

Philosophical machines

Someone on QT3 linked this earlier this month. It’s a website with instructions to build what is billed as the “most useless machine ever”. Based on a design by Claude Shannon who is known as the founder of information theory, it’s a machine whose sole function when switched on is to switch itself off. Here’s the embedded video showing it in action:

Just today, I discovered something along the same lines, a machine that perpetually tries to sell itself on Ebay. Basically it’s a solid black box with a basic computer inside that can be connected to the Internet. Once every week, if it is able to connect to the Internet, it lists itself as being for sale on Ebay following the hard-coded instructions in its software. Its creator has written a comprehensive contract that goes along with the machine, mandating that every owner must allow it to connect to the Internet and must accept that the machine will sell itself one week after it comes into their possession.

The FAQ also states that in accordance with Ebay’s rules, the current owner cannot bid on the auction himself so he must allow the machine to be sold to someone else. The original creator, Caleb Larsen,¬† however promises that he will be around to provide maintainance for the device and to update its software if necessary. For example, if Ebay goes out of business, the software will be altered so that the machine will list itself for sale on an alternative platform. Its creator has named it “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter”.

Consensus in modern philosophy

For a website that started out with philosophy as its primary topic, I’ve been writing precious little on the subject. I suppose that this is because over the years I’ve become more and more set in my beliefs and ways so I’ve had no reason to want to read or write more on it. In any case, this tidbit is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the field in many years. It’s a survey on modern philosophers’ views on a large number of controversies in philosophy, including various thought experiments and ethical dilemmas.

The surprising thing about this is that there appears to be a clear consensus in quite a few areas, which goes against the traditional complaint about philosophy being a talking shop where no one can ever agree with anyone else. Of course, one possible reason why there’s such a consensus is that most of the respondents are English speaking. According to the demographic breakdown given, out of the sample size of 3,226 respondents, 1,405 are Americans, 381 are British and 199 are Canadians. Of the non-English speaking countries, Germany is the highest with 115 respondents.

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Roman Polanski and the Ugliness of Talent

My view of the Roman Polanski case is the conventional one: he has admitted to having sex with a girl who was under-aged at the time, plying her with drugs and alcohol to do so, and is a fugitive from justice. Nothing else matters to me including the amount of time that has passed, how much he has suffered before and after the event and how great a talent he is as a film director. Incredibly, despite what seems to me to be a fairly clear cut case, the man still has defenders, even on QT3. I am also absolutely flabbergasted by the French government’s response to the arrest.

The reason for this post however pertains not with the case directly. I’ve been thinking about Ayn Rand’s books again recently, prompted by my wife’s discovery that Chinese translations of her books now exist. Her parents are currently on an extended trip to China and she’s asked them to buy copies of those books if they can find them. I’m very curious what they would be like in Chinese.

Anyway, the connection here is that Ayn Rand has always believed that values and virtues are absolute, hence the name of her philosophy “Objectivism”. This extends to aesthetics as well. According to her worldview, only a person of virtuous character could create or even admire a great work of art and conversely, all works of art that are great must by definition have been created by someone of unimpeachable virtue. Naturally, this leads to amusing consequences. For example, Rand believed that homosexuality is morally wrong and therefore every thing that a homosexual does or creates is tainted. This means that anyone who professes to admire a work created by a homosexual must be flawed in some way as well.

I don’t pretend to be enough of a film buff to be able to competently judge Polanski’s work but I see no reason to doubt the overwhelming consensus that he’s a great director. This, of course, contrasts rather spectacularly with his moral failures as a human being. I’m sure everyone can find many other examples of great talent, especially in entertainment, that have a less than perfect character. So this serves as one example, amongst many others, why Rand’s philosophy isn’t a particularly robust one. I do note that the ancient Chinese shared similar views in this regard. They believed for example that a person’s virtue could be demonstrated through his calligraphy or his paintings. This just goes to show how seductive the idea is that skilled people should also be moral people and how shallow it is to hold up someone as a general role model just because of high achievement is a narrow field.

Married without children

This post was prompted by a recent thread on QT3 which quickly spiralled into a decidedly heated discussion about the sometimes condescending attitude that some have towards others, especially married couples, who choose not to have children. Someone also linked to an excerpt of a pretty interesting article on the subject which seems to have attracted a great deal of comments. My wife and I have been married for three years now and we happen to be one of those couples who have decided not to have any children ever.

Personally, I can’t say that we’ve gotten the level of grief that some similar couples on QT3 seem to have had over this decision, but I can certainly say people often seem befuddled when we tell them about our decision. At the very least, this tends to open a gap between ourselves and friends of our age who have gone on to found families of their own with children. As I posted on QT3, children are the main topics of conversation in many social circles and not having children of our own means other people have a hard time relating to us and inevitably leads these friends to drift away.

I don’t care to go into the details of our personal reasons for not wanting to have children. But I do want to point out that I feel that this is a very personal issue over which no one has the right to judge anyone else over. While few people would go to the extreme of accusing childless couples of shirking from their responsibility of replenishing the human race (though some do, even on QT3), many more seem to insinuate that not having children automatically means leading less fulfilling, less worthy lives and that is something to be pitied.

I don’t really have the energy to reiterate through the myriad arguments of why not having a child can be a good thing (you can read through that QT3 thread and the comments on the above-mentioned article for that), other than to note that it’s probably the single most environmentally friendly decision a person can make if you’re one of those green types (which I’m not). I do want to note that ultimately, from a moral dimension, none of that should matter. Having a child is a personal and private decision that should have no bearing on whether or not you’re a good or a bad person. Unfortunately, many people don’t seem to agree with me.

When suicide is the right choice

This Foreign Policy blog post chose to highlight the cost of assisted suicide in Switzerland, but what struck me most about this news item was really how dignified the couple’s choice was and indeed how touching. The wife was aged 74 and suffering from terminal cancer with only weeks left to live. The husband was aged 85, going blind and deaf (which must have been especially painful given that he was a prominent conductor) and simply did not want to live without her, after having been together for 54 years.

This isn’t terribly surprising coming from someone like me, but I most definitely would want this option to be available to me. I can imagine few other cases that would serve as a better example than this one of why choosing to take one’s own life can sometimes be just the right one.