It combines all my favorite things: Philosophy, sci-fi, and technology.
Seasons 1-4 always made me think. In fact, while at Yale Institute for bio-ethics, a bunch of students got together and had an informal discussion on the ethical issues in the episode The Entire History of You.
Thus when I discovered season 5 was out, I knew I had to binge watch it.
Sadly season 5 of Black Mirror was disappointing.
In my opinion, the only thought-provoking episode was Striking Vipers.
As I watch Striking Vipers, I couldn’t help but wonder if Black Mirror producer, Charlie” Brooker, intended to say something profound about porn and love. Let me explain.
Synopsis of Black Mirror’s episode Striking Vipers.
There are three main characters. Danny and Karl are best friends from college. Danny has a girlfriend, Theo, who he eventually marries. Since starting a family with his wife, Theo, Danny has become estranged from Karl. On Danny’s birthday, Karl gives Danny a gift, Striking vipers, a game similar to Mortal Combat. This game is played in Virtual Reality. The game allows the players to take on different avatars. Karl takes on the female avatar Roxette and Danny takes on the persona of Lance.
That is when things start to get weird!
Danny and Karl enter into a sexual relationship in the virtual reality game. Lance (Danny) has sex with Roxette (Karl).
I am not sure what it means for each person’s sexuality. Are Danny and Karl homosexual? Is Karl living out transgender fantasies? Maybe, the Virtual reality game is no different than porn?
The show leaves these questions primarily open-ended. Yet it does suggest that both Karl and Danny are not homosexual.
What’s interesting to me is what the game does for Danny and Theo’s relationship. Danny becomes more addicted to having sex in virtual reality. He pulls away from his wife and family. She eventually finds out why.
Their solution is to have one night where they both get sexual gratification. Danny gets to play the game and Theo gets to go to the bar without her wedding ring.
Black mirror’s commentary
The premise of Black Mirror is to use technology as a commentary on societal issues.
I believe VR technology reflects the issue of porn in modern society. Porn gives us unrealistic expectations. Thus, the reality is no longer satisfactory.
While playing the game, Danny can no longer be satisfied by his wife. He gets his satisfaction from the unrealistic avatar in the game.
The show seems to say that playing the game is similar to the wife picking up a man. Both people are not faithful. When someone watches porn, they also are not faithful. They are using someone else for their own gratification.
Black mirror: Happy ending?
Some people cite the ending as happy. Both parties were able to compromise. Yet they ignore what Theo, Danny’s wife, said,
If I wanted to I could have anyone I wanted..but I’m loyal. I make sacrifices because it is a partnership. Does marriage get boring and dull, yes, even I find it boring. So tell me if I’m not wanted.
In modern society, we tend to equate love with the warm feelings we get or how attracted we are to a person. Karl embodies this philosophy in the show. He chases after Danny because it is the “best sex he has ever had” Karl tells Danny that he loves him. This makes Danny realize that they must face the reality of their feelings. Yet in reality, it isn’t love. We need to reclaim the ancient philosophical notion of love
Aristotle’s Notion of Love
Aristotle says that in order to love the other, we must love ourselves. If we truly love ourselves, we will not use anybody else for our own gratification. Rather love is doing for the other’s stake. In other words, if we love ourselves, we will want to pursue a virtuous life. As part of the virtuous life, we should extend unearned love to others. Likewise, one needs the community to be virtuous. This notion of love can also be seen in Catholic teachings.
Catholic Church on Love
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,
The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: “so they are no longer two, but one flesh.”153 They “are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving.”154 This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony. It is deepened by lives of the common faith and by the Eucharist received together. (CCC 1644)
For Catholics, Love is giving of oneself to another. This includes sacrifice. We are called to lay down our lives for our spouse. This is hard work. We don’t do it alone. We do it with the grace of Christ.
Black Mirror shows the consequences of our modern hedonistic lifestyle when given the right technology. Maybe we should reinterpret love as the act of self-giving.
Basically, the scientist decided to test the hypothesis that brain death is irreversible. They took 32 pig’s brains from slaughtered pigs. They waited for four hours. Then the pig’s brains where plugged into BrainEx for six hours. (if you want a detailed description on how the system works please see here). The study concludes that certain brain cells were alive. The cells were not communicative with each other. Yet, they were performing basic functions. Thus, the scientist created all sorts of problems for ethicists.
I spent most of my undergrad philosophy career studying death and dying issues. When we die is a fascinating question. One that has implications for us spiritually.
Life After Death
Catholics define death as a separation of the soul from the body. So do we have a soul? Certain people are blessed to have an experience of what life is beyond the grave. For the rest of us, we have this inner longing for something more than biological. It is this inner longing that points to the Catholic understanding of the soul. There are 7 reasons to “believe in a soul. One is the philosophical idea that the existence of one thing necessitates the existence of another. For example, the existence of a male dog necessitates the existence of a female dog. The desire for something more than our biological self necessitates an actual immortal existence.
What is the Soul
Ok, so we have proven that an immortal soul exists in humans. My question has always been where and what is it? I always assumed consciousness was the location of the soul.
I was wrong
The soul according to Catholic thought is the life force of the body. It does not just reside in one part but animates the whole. For this reason, the soul is unquantifiable. Thus, science has had to resort to other philosophical meaning about death.
There are 3 different views on when we die. The views are whole-brain death, the essence of the human person, and circulatory-respiratory standard. All three fail to pinpoint when you die.
Death occurs when either circulatory and respiratory functions stop working. Death also comes when the whole brain including brain stem has stopped working. Two problems with this definition. First, the brain is not responsible for the integration of bodily functions. A brain dead patient can still perform the functions of life. This includes healing wounds and digesting food. Second certain individuals with lock-in syndrome are considered brain dead. Yet these individuals actually are aware. Thus it appears one can be alive even when brain dead.
Essence of a Human Person
For these people, it matters not that an organism performs biological functions. What matters is what makes us human. If we lose what makes us human, we are dead. Proponents argue that what makes us human is the capacity for consciousness.
The problem with this view is that it ignores humanity’s biological nature. We are more than mere minds. Common sense tells us that we still exist even if we lose our mental capacity.
Death occurs when circulatory-respiratory functions stop working. It explains the difficult cases such as locked-in syndrome and prenatal humans. Yet it fails to account for the importance of mental life. Humans are more than body’s that can pump blood and breathe. Second, it creates problems for organ donation. The dead-donor rule only allows organs to be donated from dead persons. If respiratory function still exists then under the Circulatory-respiratory standard the person is still alive. It is better to get organs from a patient on a ventilator. Yet this would be illegal under the dead donor rule.
What About the Pigs
The revival of the pigs begs two philosophical questions. First, was the experiment to revive an animal ethical? Second, What does this imply for those undergoing brain death? If cells in the brain can be revived, can we really say a person with no brain functioning is dead? If such a person is not dead, can we ethically procure organs from them? It calls for a new standard of death. One that recognizes that death is a gradual progression. We are not minds trapped in an organic body. Nor are we mere organic bodies, but we are both.
that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time.Romans 8:22
I love Twitter.
Catholic twitter is regular twitter except for all the people you follow are Catholic. It is a happy place mostly. Occasionally you will get people riled up about something. I still have not forgotten the dancing priest outrage. Last month, an article, Nature Is Ensouled written by the Center for Action and Contemplation had people talking.
People were accusing Father Rohr of being heretical. Intrigued, I took a look. Skimming the article, my eyes fell on this statement,
I’m not saying God is all things (pantheism), but that each living thing reveals some aspect of God. God is both greater than the whole of our universe, and as Creator inter-penetrates all created things (panentheism). No exceptions.
Father Rohr seems to be suggesting Panentheism is compatible with Christianity. Now to the average person, what Father Rohr is saying may sound appealing even correct. I wasn’t so sure. Not satisfied I sought to research.
In my research, I learned that New Age focuses on harmony and communication with nature1. This sounds good on paper. Even I can understand the appeal. I have always felt that nature had a deep inner beauty.
I value knowledge.
Thus I understand the appeal of a lounging to discover some inner connectiveness. Yet there are three problems with this.
The Christian God is relational. God wants a relationship. If Father Rohr is correct then I need to “discover the soul in other things to live in union with the source of all being.” 2 Yet discovering some hidden soul is completely opposite of Christian values. I don’t need to become one with nature, rather, I need a relationship with Jesus Christ.
2. Searching in vain
The Bible is just one big love letter from God. The stories in the Old and New Testament show how God is pursuing humanity. I typically don’t give into romantic sentiment. Yet I love the idea of being pursued by the Divine creator. I don’t get that with new age religion. Rather New Age teaches that I have to search for the divine.
3. Who is God?
I am made in God’s Image.
I have a rational soul.
God is my creator.
Ultimately. New Age Mysticism challenges me to define these three fundamental truths. Yes, both New Age and Christianity believe animals do have souls. The difference is a matter of degree. In Christianity, animals have material souls. These souls decay and die. Yet New Age insists that animals and God are intertwined 3.
It is so easy to fall into error. It is easy to be taken in by the longing for interconnectedness. I understand the appeal of wanting a deeper connection with the divine. Yet I would not trade in a relational deity for an impersonal essence. I am sad that an institution with Catholic roots would fall far from the truth. The earth’s redemption may come (Romans 8:22), but let us focus on growing deeper with Christ.
So I stumbled on a Q & A video from Lizzieanswers. One of the questions asked Lizzie to share her thoughts on Relativism. She was asked at 5:15 of the video, why she did not believe in relativism and what was philosophically wrong with it? She answers that relativism is self-refuting. Is she correct? Perhaps relativism is not a truth claim at all, but rather a critique of how humanity comes to know the truth.
In the media and in society, you hear people say all the time, you do you or who am I to judge another’s belief. In fact, I used to be the same way. I embraced moral relativism in my undergrad philosophy courses. My chief reason was that different societies accepted different practices. Most people argue that murder is universally wrong. Yet there are tribes that practice ritualistic cannibalism. I had assumed that differences in morals across cultures meant that there was no objective moral truth. In those same courses, I wrestled with philosophers, who stood for objective truth.
Section II: What is Relativism?
Before I can explain whether Moral Relativism is true or false, I have to break down what relativism is. It turns out that relativism is much more nuanced then it first appears.
A. Global relativism
Global relativism is captured by the oft-repeated slogan “all is relative”. The claim is that all beliefs, regardless of their subject matter, are true only relative to a framework or parameter. This type of relativism first appeared in Plato. Greek philosophers liked to write as if they were having a debate with someone else. They create a pseudonym to represent an argument that they don’t agree with. Plato created this guy named Protagoras. He argued that all truth depended on the belief of individuals. Plato, being the smart individual that he is, pointed out that if all truth is relative to the individual then nothing is true. Protagoras cannot establish the truth of his claim. (Baghramian, Maria and Carter, J. Adam, "Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/relativism/.)
B: Local relativism
Relativists have attempted to avoid Plato’s critique by still holding on to objective truth in certain areas. For example, they may wish to say that claims based on sensory information are still objectively true. Modern relativists typically target a self-contained area. For example, a modern relativist might say that the area of morals is relative to the individual. Being relativist about a certain area makes you a local relativist. As a local relativist, your arguments are not logically inconsistent. For example, the statement, all moral claims are relative to an individual, is not itself a moral claim. Thus it is not self-refuting. This statement can be defended objectively.
Section III: Arguments in favor
So why might someone want to be a relativist? I know for myself I was guided by the principle of tolerance. As the world gets smaller, you get to connect with some pretty awesome people. Yet these people may have a different belief system or a different set of values from you. Out of respect for them, you may be reluctant to think that their viewpoint is wrong. Thus out of respect, you may think, hey, maybe we are both correct. We just have a different framework.
Yet, does tolerance require us to accept all people’s opinions as correct? Perhaps we can respect each other without acknowledging all views as correct. Otherwise, why bother having disagreements at all.
Section IV Arguments against
A. Self refuting
Anytime relativism is brought up, the self-refuting argument is always mentioned. In fact, Lizzy makes the same argument in her video. The idea is that if all truth is relative, then the claim is not objective, but is also relative. If it is relative, then I don’t need to accept it. If it is absolute, then there are claims that are objective and not all truth is relative. Thus relativism is false. This argument works against global relativism.
In some cases, Local relativism may also fall into the trap of being self-refuting. Local relativism relies on frameworks. If local relativism tries to justify one framework over another, it runs into the same problem. So If you are a local relativist, you must either conclude that relativism is false or conclude that no framework is absolutely right.
B. The Other Problem with Local Relativism
Now, maybe you are fine with concluding that no framework is morally superior. Yet such a conclusion has philosophical implications. One of my favorite questions to study is why do we believe what we believe or what justification do we have for our beliefs. Yet if relativism is true, there would be no reason to ask these questions. The ability to provide good reasons depends on conceptual ties to a higher truth.
Disagreements are a part of human nature. When you and I disagree, we usually believe that the other is incorrect. We use assertions to persuade the other of our viewpoint. Relativism ignores this fundamental truth.
Relativism attempts to be tolerant of other cultures. Yet, what would happen if I was from two very different cultural backgrounds? I would have to choose the one I thought was correct. Relativism offers me no guiding principle. I will have to make an arbitrary choice.
If you know anything about me, you know that I love deep philosophical conversations. I love debating moral theology. Connecting with people different from you gives you a chance to rearticulate what you believe. It does not require you to abandon the pursuit of truth and declare everything is arbitrary. Yet, relativism requires exactly that. Otherwise, relativism becomes self-refuting.
In September I stumbled upon the writings of Mark Schaefer. I found an excerpt God is a metaphor. This excerpt is from The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue. This piece intrigued me and I began to think of ways to respond. I argue that Christianity locates God in a singular human being, Jesus. This avoids the metaphorical nature of God. Thus, if Schaefer is correct, without Jesus, humanity cannot understand God.
He opens with the question, “what does God mean?” Schaefer suggests that a person can only give descriptive statements when discussing God. For example, I might say God is the creator. Yet that only describes what God does, not who he is. Fictional characters act in a similar way. One can only mention Huckleberry in relationship to other characters. God, mathematical principles, and fictional characters all cannot point to actual individuals.
Schaefer differentiates between God and a person in the following scenario.
Imagine two Christians are having the following conversation about war. Christian A says that my God does not believe in war. Christian B says, no my God does support a war. Yet replace the term God with Steve and the sentences make no sense. Steve cannot both be in favor of and against war. Yet Christian A and B can use God interchangeably for contradictory ideas.
Schaefer concludes that God cannot be self-evident. In isolation, a person cannot understand God. Rather God is a metaphor for the ultimate reality of existence. How one understands this reality is up to the person. In other words, God is a metaphor for a yet unidentified process that effects some change in the world. How does this philosophical take on God fit the Christian framework of God?
God in the Old Testament
God first introduces himself to Abram (Genesis 12:1). God never gives a name, but rather introduces himself based on promises he makes. He tells Abram that he will make him a great nation. After Abraham has kids, God continues to speak. God greets Issac as the God of Abraham (Genesis 26:24). Once again, God references himself in relation to someone else. This continues throughout the Bible until Moses.
The Burning Bush: Exodus 3:2-14
In this iconic scene, Moses encounters God. Moses receives a call from God to free the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery. Once again God introduces himself as the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. This fails to satisfy Moses. Moses wants to know God’s name. God then says that his name is “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Yet I am is not a proper name. Rather it merely indicates an entity that exists. According to Catholic study bible, the I am name refers to the cause of all things to be. The lack of a proper name for God changes at the incarnation.
Unlike God, Jesus is a historical person. We can point to and know of Jesus. Jesus is not a metaphor but is flesh and blood. Jesus is the person that encompasses the metaphorical conception of God. Some have argued that the historical Jesus is not the same as the metaphorical God. Yet there are certain events in the Bible that point to Jesus as God. I’m not interested in proving the Bible reliable. I merely wish to show how Jesus could equal God and fix the metaphorical conception problems. Jesus’ authority over nature, sin, and death strengthens his claim of divinity.
Authority Over Nature
He got into a boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came upon the sea so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” Mathew 8:23-27
Here in this story, Jesus demonstrates his control over the wind and waves. This act amazes the people in the boat. They know that a mere man cannot control nature. Now a common criticism is that this story never happened. Yet when the Bible was written, people close to the original sources were consulted. St. Paul writes, “After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (1st Corinthians 15:6). Most historians would consider St Paul’s writing as authentic. They were letters written to the early church. Historical letters are considered primary sources. St Paul suggests that witness to Christ were still around. The church would have consulted these witnesses. They would have corroborated the later gospel accounts.
Authority Over Forgiveness
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”— he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. Mark 2:5-12
Here Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic man. The scribes rightly recognize that this authority over sins belongs to God. Jesus also heals the man in response to their doubt. The healing occurs to demonstrates that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins. This bolsters his claim to be God.
Authority Over Life and Death
Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” John 11:38-44
Here Jesus calls God, father. He also says that the father sent him and hears him. He wants the crowd to believe that God sent Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus proves his relationship with the father by raising Lazarus from the dead. Having authority over life and death is commonly thought to be a characteristic of God.
Mark Schaefer argues that God is nothing more than a metaphor. God represents the ultimate reality of existence. Thus one cannot understand God. One cannot have self-evident knowledge of God. Yet that changes when we accept that Jesus is God. In light of the incarnation, God ceases to be a metaphor and becomes a flesh and blood person. Just like any other person, Jesus doesn’t just stand for anything. Rather if two people claim to be followers of Jesus, they must confess the same beliefs. We know Jesus is God because of the authority he displays in the gospel stories. He has authority over life and death, nature, and sin. The bigger and more important question will you accept his authority?
For as long as I can remember my family has always been into sports. Destiny deemed it so. My mom was a high school cheerleader and my dad was a high school football player. They took me to college basketball games in an infant carrier. My dad coached little league football and dragged me to those football games. As my brother grew up, My parents would drag me to his baseball games. I never played organized sports due to my disability. My parents still instilled in me a deep appreciation for sports. Some of my favorite moments in college basketball involve a good Cinderella story.
I remember my dad and I watching the George Mason versus UConn game on March 26, 2006. We ripped up our very wrong brackets and rooted for George Mason all the way until their loss to Florida. The most memorable moment has got to be the VCU final four run in 2011. My parents are VCU alumni. They attend all the home games and took my brother and me with them. Thus my parents had traveled to Texas to watch VCU play. I remember the Florida State game, which set VCU up to face Kansas. At the time of the game, I was in the hospital alone. I had been suffering from back pain and numbness in my hands. Nobody could find out what was wrong with me. As I watch VCU play Florida state, It reminded me of humanity’s capacity to fight. I believe the appeal of sports touches our innermost belief that we can conquer all obstacles. We are obsessed with a good underdog story. This shows that we desire to see the little guy take on Goliath with nothing more than a slingshot and three stones. Sports remind us of human dignity.
What is Dignity
I have argued that the concept of dignity is multifaceted. Humans have inherent dignity by virtue of being members of Homo sapiens. Yet they also have a fuller dignity. This dignity comes from not who we are, but what we do. People refer to this definition when they say, “The person is behaving in a dignified way.” The Catholic Church agrees with me. The Catechism of The Catholic Church states,
The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2).
Humanity has dignity because humanity has God-likeness in them. Humanity receives their being directly from God,
then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7 NABre).
God gave humanity his breath of Life. This means that we receive our being directly from God. Yet dignity is not inherently a religious concept, but a philosophical one.
A person can derive at the concept of dignity by asking what is the measure of a human being? At first, we refer to Aristotle and say that humanity is different due to our rational soul. However, we still consider vegetative persons human. Most people would concede that even babies born without rational capacity deserve respect. This respect forms the basis for our inherent dignity. Yet people also recognize that we lose something when we lose our ability to reason. What a person loses is the ability to fulfill their potential as human beings. This is what I mean by the term fuller dignity.
Is Autonomy enough
Steven Pinker in the article The Stupidity of Dignity wants to eliminate dignity all together in favor of autonomy. He says, “ because it [dignity] amounts to treating people in the way that they wish to be treated, ultimately it’s just another application of the principle of autonomy.”[^1] Pinker sees no difference between autonomy and dignity. I purpose the following thought experiment.
Imagine a world where every athlete has the option to take a drug that will make them stronger and faster. There are no side effects. They get put in a special league for people on the drug. Thus the competition is fair. Would you watch these sporting events?
Most people would not watch the league of super people because when it comes to sports we want to see human achievement. We want to see raw talent unaided by chemical processes. We intuitively feel there is something wrong with the special league of super people. Yet autonomy is never violated in the above scenario. Thus we need something more than autonomy to protect against unnatural enhancements. The concept we need is dignity.
One potential objection is that the drug is no different then external equipment. Yet in certain sports like swimming, the equipment is already regulated. Elite swimmer, Michael Phelps has spoken against whole-body polyurethane swimsuits because these swimsuits are, “distorting the sport.”[^2] Sports become distorted when it becomes more about equipment and less about human achievement.
Sports teach important life lessons. It teaches teamwork, good sportsmanship, and how to face defeat. More importantly, it shows us what humans endowed by their creator can achieve. We watch sports to see the capacity of humans. Human capacity matters because there exists something special about human nature. Catholics know that this specialness comes directly from God. We look up to athletes. They remind us that humans are amazing creatures destined for something greater. They remind us that every so often David can defeat Goliath. The next time you watch sports, let it remind you of the capacity for greatness that we all share.
[^1]: Pinker, Steven, “The Stupidity of Dignity” The New Republic (May 28, 2008), https://newrepublic.com/article/64674/the-stupidity-dignity
[^2]: Barrow, John D, “Why Ban Full-Body Olympics Swimsuits? A Scientist Explains Polyurethane” Daily Beast (July 25th, 2012), https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-ban-full-body-olympics-swimsuits-a-scientist-explains-polyurethane?ref=scroll
From 2008-2011, I studied at the University of Virginia. I majored in philosophy with a minor in bioethics. I fell in love with the discipline of philosophy. I loved asking deep questions. One summer, I drove my mom crazy. I had been reading these deep philosophical books. I desperately wanted someone to discuss these big ideas. For example, I read, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book tackles deep issues such as cloning, organ donation, and the meaning of life.
I never considered myself a good philosopher. Thus, I was completely shocked when I was nominated Most Outstanding Philosophy student. The award comes with a prize. The prize was a book titled The Retrieval of Ethics, by Talbot Brewer. I had promised to read his book. Yet life got in the way. The summer of my graduation I had neck surgery. Reading in a neck brace is no easy task. After my surgery, I entered law school and divinity school at Regent University. Needless to say, the heavy course work left little time for leisure reading. In 2018, I dusted off the book from my bookshelf and began to read. Admittedly, I struggled to understand the deeper philosophical arguments. Often I would re-read pages over and over underlining what I thought were the key points. In the end, Talbot Brewer says something interesting about our desires.
Three Dogmas of Desire
Brewer argues that modern philosophy needs to reconsider the nature of human agency. Brewer shows that the below argument is insufficient to explain human behavior.
Desires are attitudes towards propositions
Desires are distinguished from other propositional attitudes by the proper direction of fit between the world and mind
Can formulate a rational explanation of any action by tracing it to it a belief/desire pair consisting in a belief that action will bring the world into conformity with some proposition and a desire takes the same proposition as an object[^1].
Brewer calls these three statements The Dogmas of Desire. He denies that statement 3 is true. Belief/desire pairs are not necessary or sufficient to provide a rational explanation. Belief/desire pairs are insufficient. There may be some object in which it may be impossible to determine how it could be good or worthwhile[^2]. Likewise, desires are not necessary. It is possible for an object to be intrinsically good and not desired by the actor.
Propositionalism is the idea that all action is a species of production. Thus it cannot explain why an action might be chosen for its own stake[^3]. According to the third dogma of desire, all desire action is calculated. This calculation produces some state of affairs in accordance with the idea in the actor’s mind. For example, I desire a pumpkin pie. Thus my actions would be calculated to make pumpkin pie come into existence. Yet according to Brewer, there is a certain type of actives that do not fit this model.
Brewer coins the term dialectical activities. This term describes the type of activity propositionalism cannot easily explain. He defines dialectical activities as all those activities whose point lies in any intrinsic goodness that is opaque to those who lack experience[^4]. His first example is our desire for God or a divine entity
Desire for God
Brewer argues that desires are not merely a set of movements towards different goals. Rather there exists a unifying principle. Brewer states that “The most comprehensive dialectical activity is the activity of living a good life.”[ ^5]. He turns to Augustine’s Confessions. in order to support this statement. Brewer describes how Augustine’s earlier desires were not substituted by his longing for God. Rather all of his earlier desires were a futile attempt to fulfill the longing he already had. Thus Brewer concludes that dialectic desires exceed a desirer’s articulation of it[^6]. Yet a desirer may arrive at a fuller articulation after experience[^7]. Brewer coins this attribute as perfectibility.
Brewer furthers his argument with references to Gregory of Nyssa and Plotinus. The former described the desire for God as a memorizing attraction to a good wholly present[^8]. This cannot fit the propositional framework since the desire is directed at a person, not an object[^9]. Plotinus described the human encounter with the Good. It was not as an intellectual exercise, but rather the response to an attraction. Furthermore, Plotinus thought that goodness comes not from striving. Rather it comes from “a loving desire oriented towards a divine mind”[^10]. Brewer uses these examples to make a philosophical statement on human agency. Yet philosophy is not the only area which needs to reclaim dialectical activities. Religion also needs to emphasize the dialectical nature of a desire for God
Impact on Religion
If Brewer is correct, then our desire for God is best oriented towards encountering a person. We cannot desire God out of a desire to be good or a desire to be one with God. This has implications for religious formation. The church has emphasized programs and parish’s renewals. These help to stem the tide of those leaving the church. Yet these programs and renewals aim at education or community building. Very few programs offer opportunities to encounter God.
I volunteer with the youth. I can get bogged down with teaching the information. I forget that encounters with God are really important. Youth encounter God through the Bible, sacraments, and adult leaders. Faith formation programs need to show how God satisfies our the longing. They need to show why other desires will be futile attempts. Philosophically speaking, humans need an overarching desire to unify their life. If they cannot find it in the sacred, they will turn to the secular.
[^1]: Brewer, Talbot. The Retrieval of Ethics. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 16.
One of my goals for last year was to meet new people. I achieved that goal by joining some meetups with random strangers. One of my favorites has been TAGS, Tidewater Area Gaming Society. They meet monthly and play strategy board games. Another favorite of mine has been the Philosophy club. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. When the leader of the philosophy club stepped down, I felt called to take over. Ancient Greek philosophers made me realize the commonality they have with Christian metaphysics. In fact, theology needs philosophy to defend and advance the theological positions. Until 1920’s logical positivism, philosophers created logical arguments for the existence of God.
Before I studied philosophy, I had never really grappled with the hard questions of life. I was generally agnostic regarding God’s existence. The class, History of Philosophy Modern, introduced me to ontological arguments. We as a class focused on Descartes’ ontological argument for God. This argument impacted me. It made me realize that belief in God can be logically justified. It opened me up to experience a real encounter with God. The latter made me the Christian I am today.
Descartes’ main purpose was to establish how do our minds know. He sought this information by crafting a thought experiment. In this experiment, Descartes asks the reader to imagine that an evil demon is tricking them. Thus everything that they sense is an illusion. What information would a person be able to know beyond their senses? Descartes concludes that beyond a doubt we possess an intellectual perception. This results in the famous phrase, “ I think, therefore I am.” In order for an intellectual perception to be true, it must be clear and distinct.
Descartes argues that he clearly and distinctly perceives God as an infinite being. This idea of God must have a cause. The cause must exist in objective reality. Thus God exists in reality. If God is infinite then he is also supremely perfect. A supremely perfect being would not deceive. If that is the case then God would plant the same set of innate ideas in all finite minds.
Why Ontological Arguments Are Important
Atheists typically object that the above argument does not endorse religious sentiments. I would agree. The logical arguments only proves that a supremely perfect being exists. For me, the notion that God’s existence is self-evident made me question my own denial. Philosophers caring about God made me ask why I did not question God’s non-existence.
When I enter divinity school at Regent University, I took systematic theology. I loved the class because it attempted to systematize theology in a logical way. The professor and I debated about whether a belief in God can come independent of experience. I do concede that faith is a gift from God. Faith comes from a radical encounter with the divine creator. Yet religious faith does need rational justification. We are not called to blind faith. Philosophical arguments can help provide a rationalization for faith experienced.
Meister, Chad. “Philosophy of Religion.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://www.iep.utm.edu/, 1/23/19
So recently I stumbled upon a philosophic metaphysical claim that we are living in a simulation. This argument intrigued me because unlike other philosophical theories of existence, this one seemed to allow for a “god of sorts.” Afterall, if our world is a computer program, then there must be a higher being functioning as a programmer. It is important to note that this programmer need not have the characteristics of the traditional Christian theistic deity. In fact, it is more likely that the programmer is not omniscient, nor infinite. Thus if the simulation theory is true, then it will radically change our perception of God.
The Simulation Argument
So the argument that I will be working with is based on Nick Bostrom’s 2003 paper, “Are we living in a computer simulation.” In this paper, Bostrom makes three propositions:
the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage
any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
Bostrom argues that one of these propositions must be true. He assigns probabilities to each of the propositions. “If there is a possibility that our civilization will make it the posthuman stage and they will run ancient simulations, how can we guarantee that we are not one of those simulations.” In order to build his argument, Bostrom makes two assumptions.
Mental states can supervene on physical substrates (The Assumption of substrate-independence)
Current empirical information about computers indicates that at some point in the future we will have computers fast enough to convert planets into enormously powerful computers.
It is these two assumptions that I would like to explore and challenge.
The Response to the substrate-independence assumption
So I define mental states as the beliefs, desires, knowledge, thoughts, mental images, emotions, moods, perception, and sensations that occur in the mind. Bostrom wants to assume that these states that occur in the mind are entailed by the physical brain. In other words, if an identical copy of your physical brain could be made, then that copy would give rise to the same mental states. Therefore, a computer can stimulate the same mental states that a human brain creates. I deny this assumption and argue that mental states do not supervene on physical substrates.
I begin my argument by demonstrating that physical substrate cannot establish mental states. In order to establish this claim, I will be using the thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson.
Imagine that you have spent your whole life in a black and white room. You have been told what colors are and you have been told that certain things have color. For example, you have been told that an apple is red, but you have never seen an apple. You also have all the physical knowledge regarding how the mind works. You know that certain c-fibers when activated produce ‘red,’ but this knowledge is all you have. Do you know what red is?
Most people intuitively know that you in the black and white room do not know what red is. Rather the knowledge of ‘red’ or any mental perceptions requires something more. This something more is subjective experiences. The idea that mental states contain some sort of subjective state is expressed in the philosophical term qualia. So qualia properly defined refers to the introspective nature of the mental phenomenon. The thought experiment above shows that even the most exact physical replica could not tell us what it was like for us ourselves to experience it. Since physical models cannot give rise to the qualia of a mental state, the substrate independence assumption is false. If this is false then our consciousness, as we understand it, cannot be stimulated. Since we want to retain that we are conscious beings, then our world cannot be a computer simulation.
Chalmers’ zombie argument is another way of disproving the idea that mental states can logically supervene on the physical.
A zombie is a creature that is physically & behavorallly similar to you, but has no concious experience
If mental states logically superviene on physical states, then zombies would not be conceivable
Zombies are conceivable
Thus mental states do not logically superviene on physical states
Mentals states are something above physical phenomena
If mental states are something above the physical, then, replicating the physical structure of the brain into a computer program will not create mental states. Thus it is impossible to replicate consciousness on a computer program. If this is impossible, then our brains cannot be simulated by a computer. Thus simulation theory is false.
One objection to the above argument is that the idea that we have phenomenological experiences (qualia) is illusionary. We only have the psychological experience ( Awakeness, introspection, reportability, self-consciousness, attention, voluntary control, knowledge, awareness”). However, the idea that our subjective mind is an illusion is counterintuitive to what people claim to experience, and thus the burden of truth is upon the person, who argues for its nonexistence.
Having attacked the first underlining assumption, the conclusion should follow that simulation theory is false. However, for those who accept the substrate-independence assumption, there is another assumption that one can attack. This argument attacks both 1. the idea that there can be a computer fast enough to convert the world, and 2. that we can make ontological statements from mathematical equations.
The assumption about computers.
In order to understand why computers will never be able to truly stimulate the physical world, we must have a surface level understanding of quantum mechanics and Bells theorem. The first thing to understand is the difference between a particle and a wave. Particles, when thrown towards two slits, will either travel through one or the other slit. Waves, on the other hand, when encountering two slits travel through both. We can imagine throwing a stone into a lake of water. This action creates waves. Furthermore, we can imagine that these waves head toward a wall with two slits. The waves that emerge from each slit interfere with each other. This interference creates a series of peaks and valleys. Now imagine that there is a detector on the other side. This detector can reproduce this pattern. It is called the interference pattern and looks like this:
We can also imagine that a person shooting multiple projectiles on the wall would create two strips on the back wall. Scientist performed such an experiment with electron particles. This experiment is the double split experiment. However, the electrons did not create a two strip pattern like you would expect from a particle, rather the electrons created the interference pattern like a wave. The experiment was repeated, but this time the gun shot the electron particle one at a time. However, even then, the particle manages to behave like a wave and make an interference pattern. This would mean that the one electron is somehow going through both slits and interfering itself. The experiment was repeated, but measuring devices were placed at the beginning of the slits to determine which slit the electron traveled through. The electron started to behave like a particle and no interference pattern was observed. This seems to indicate that the behavior of an electron particle depended on observation.
If electron particles behave like water or sound waves, then they can be measured mathematically. A wave function is a solution to the mathematical equation that can tell you the probability of the location of an electron before it is measured. It can never tell you the precise location of the electron particle since the particle has wave-like properties. One consequence of the wave function is that it gives rise to the idea that prior to measurement the particle can be in two or more places at once. This is known as quantum superposition. A second consequence is entanglement. A wave function has the ability to describe a system of particles. When these systems of particles cannot be broken down into individual particles, the particles are said to be entangled or linked together. When two particles are linked together, they have opposite values. So if particle A and B are entangled, when particle A is up, particle B is down. When we measure particle A, we can know B without measurement. This holds true even if the particles are separated long distances. For example, imagine particle A is on the earth and particle B was on the moon. There is a scientist that measures particle A and finds that it is up, Particle B is measured as down every time. It was suggested that, rather than the particles sending information faster than the speed of light, thus falsifying relativity, there must be some hidden code within the electron that makes the entangled pair have opposite values.
Bell’s theorem disproves the idea of hidden values. Bell uses mathematical probability come up with Bell’s inequality. It states that when dealing with photon particles at different angles through a polarized lens, the likelihood that the angle would match is 33% if there are hidden values. If Quantum Mechanics is right, the likelihood would be 25%. For example, if we have three angles A, B, C and we measure a single photon through both A and B, the likelihood that they match is at least 33%. However, when an experiment was conducted, the matches occurred 25% of the time. This means that there are no hidden values governing the behavior of quantum particles.
Proponents of the simulation theory claim that since electrons and other quantum particles do not exist until measurement, it functions similar to a video game. In most video games, the graphics do not render until the player is in the location. They argue that the fact that electrons do not have precise locations until measurement shows the actions of a computer saving disk space by not rendering until observed.
My objection is that computer systems have hidden values or codes that tell the computer when to render the graphics. Quantum particles, on the other hand, do not have hidden values as proven by Bell’s theorem. Therefore, in order to duplicate our world accurately, a computer would have to produce all possible quantum superpositions and then collapse those superpositions upon observation without hidden values. Bostrom acknowledges this, “Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible unless radically new physics is discovered.” (Bostrom, Nick). Since Quantum physics cannot be simulated, it seems very unlikely that we are in a simulated world.
Lastly, Bostrom makes the mistake of making a metaphysical claim based on mathematical principles. The Wave Function is a very accurate mathematical solution able to predict the behavior of quantum particles, but the mathematical equations does not entail anything about reality. It does not entail an idealist metaphysical claim on reality. There have been plenty of quantum interpretations that support realism. Just because the Wave Function appears to collapse upon measurement does not mean that reality only exists through observations.
The simulation theory, while intriguing, fails to support the various assumptions that it relies on for its argument to be sound. Thus, God remains still a mystery.
“A Ridiculously Short Introduction To Some Very Basic Quantum Mechanics | Plus.Maths.Org.” Plus.Maths.Org, 2018, https://plus.maths.org/content/ridiculously-brief-introduction-quantum-mechanics.
Bostrom, Nick. “Are We Living In A Computer Simulation?.” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol 53, no. 211, 2003, pp. 243-255. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1111/1467-9213.00309.
Halvorson, Hans. “What Does Quantum Mechanics Suggest About Our Perceptions Of Reality?.” BQO, 2018, https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2015/02/24/what-does-quantum-mechanics-suggest-about-our-perceptions-reality/.
lacewing, Michael. “The Philosophical Zombie Argument.” S3-Euw1-Ap-Pe-Ws4-Cws-Documents.Ri-Prod.S3.Amazonaws.Com, 2018, http://s3-euw1-ap-pe-ws4-cws-documents.ri-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/9781138793934/A22014/dualism/The zombie argument.pdf.
Nida-Rümelin, Martine. “Qualia: The Knowledge Argument.” Plato.Stanford.Edu, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/.
“Physics In A Minute: The Double Slit Experiment | Plus.Maths.Org.” Plus.Maths.Org, 2018, https://plus.maths.org/content/physics-minute-double-slit-experiment-0.
Schneider, David. “Bell’s Theorem With Easy Math.” Drchinese.Com, 2018, http://drchinese.com/David/Bell_Theorem_Easy_Math.htm.