Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

Consciousness, Free Will & God

3 Oct

I’ve been interviewed for a lot of podcasts recently. This episode of the CBC (Canadian public broadcaster) show Ideas focused on my work on consciousness and panpsychism. Founding publisher of Skepic magazine Michael Shermer and I solved the mysteries of consciousness, free will and God all in a one hour episode of The Psychology Podcast. The ‘Secrets of Consciousness’ debate I participated in at the How the Light Gets In music and philosophy festival at Hay on Wye, with Nicholas Humphrey and Susan Blackmore, has just come out as a podcast. And finally, I had a nice chat with philosopher Patrick O’Connor on his podcast Thales’ Web.

All good fun, but I’ve decided I need to speak a bit more slowly on these things…

Labour and the Definition of Anti-Semitism

4 Sep

I think there is a problem with anti-semitism in Labour, and the leadership was too slow to deal with it. However, I’m not convinced that they’re wrong on what has become the central issue: the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. Some people think that a state should not be defined on ethnic lines, and these people have a problem with Israel being defined as a state primarily for people of Jewish ethnicity. Here’s Joe Levine arguing for this. I’m not sure I agree with this view, but it’s clearly within the boundaries of acceptable political disagreement and not something we should dismiss as racist as the IHRA definition arguably does.

Many commentators are saying that it should be up to Jewish people to define what is or is not anti-semitic. Labour did concede that they should have consulted Jewish groups more. However, there are two ethnic groups relevant to this question. Some Palestinian citizens of Israel share Levine’s view that defining Israel as a Jewish state is racist towards them. Again, I’m not sure I agree, but I don’t think they should be dismissed as racist simply for stating this view.

I’ve been astonished by the lack of neutrality in media discussion of this. The BBC are always so concerned about balance. Why have there been no debates on the BBC about this question, with one side expressing something like the above view? Why have there been no Guardian articles defending the Levine-type position?

Having said all this, you have to pick your battles in politics, and I’m not sure this fight has been worth the cost…

Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy

11 Jul

The following is a guest post by Sophie Grace Chappell, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the Open University

Maybe we should think of it like this: Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents. There are disanalogies of course, and the morality of adoption is a large issue in itself which I can’t do full justice to here. Still, the analogies are, I think, important and instructive.

An adoptive parent is someone who desperately wants to be a parent but can’t be one in the normal biological sense. (At any rate usually–there are families with a mix of biological and adopted children. But here I’ll focus on the commoner and simpler case.) So society has found a way for her to live the role of a parent, and to be recognised socially and legally as a parent, which kind of gets round the biological obstacle.

“Kind of”: plenty of adoptive parents report an abiding regret that they aren’t biological parents, and there can be problems on either side of the adoptive relationship. It is clear that the existence of adoptive relationships creates psychological difficulties, both for the parents and for the children, that would not otherwise exist. But these problems are not big enough to make adoption a net bad thing.

One reason why not is that adoptive parents are, in the nature of the case, deeply committed to parenting. Unlike some biological parents, they aren’t parents by accident. And by and large–though unfortunately adoptive parents do suffer *some* sorts of discrimination–society recognises and values their commitment, and accepts them for many purposes as parents like any others, though of course there are contexts (blood transfusion, organ donation, testing for inherited illness) where the fact that they’re adoptive parents makes a difference.

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s all right, when you find out that someone is an adoptive parent, to get in her face and shout “Biology! Science! You’re running away from the facts! You’re delusional! You’re not a real parent!” That would be incredibly rude and insensitive. It would upset her family. It would be importantly false: there is a perfectly good sense in which an adoptive parent most certainly is a real parent. Yet since this aggressive accusation is also, alas, only too intelligible to the parent who is subjected to it, it would also be stamping up and down in the crassest and cruellest way on what anyone can see at once is very very likely to be a sore point for her. (Here I speak, I’m sorry to say, from personal experience of analogous shoutings.)

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s an infraction of Jordan Peterson’s human rights to impose on him a social, ethical, and sometimes even legal requirement that he call adoptive parents parents.

Nobody sensible thinks that, if you refer to an adoptive parent as a non-parent, then you don’t owe it to that parent, as a matter of basic courtesy, to retract, correct, and apologise.

Nobody sensible thinks that the existence of adoptive parents undermines our understanding of what it is to be a parent. On the contrary, it *extends* it.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are, typically and as such, a threat to other parents. Or that they only went in for adoptive parenting as a way to get their hands on vulnerable children or vulnerable parents. Of course it’s not impossible that someone who is an adoptive parent might be bad or dangerous in either or both of these ways, and of course it would then be right to protect ourselves and other potential victims from that person. But if that happened, it wouldn’t throw any shade on adoptive parenthood itself, as such.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s *automatically* a problem about having adoptive parents in parents-only spaces. There might be some special spaces that should indeed be reserved for biological parents only–pre- and post-natal groups, for instance, or a group like this that helped us when we had a still-born child in 1995 https://www.sands.org.uk/. We should be prepared to listen carefully and sympathetically to the case that might be made sometimes for biological-parents-only spaces. But in general, adoptive parents have similar enough concerns and interests to biological parents for it to be, in most cases, both natural and useful to include them in such spaces.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are necessarily buying into an oppressive ideological agenda of parenthood, and, by their choice to be parents, imposing that agenda on other parents. There are oppressive ideological agendas about parenthood; of course there are. But to be an adoptive parent is not necessarily to buy into them. It might even be a way of subverting them.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s just one right way to be a good adoptive parent, any more than there is a unique right way to be a good parent in general. Though there are some things that have to be in common between all good parents, there are lots of different ways of being a good parent. The broad schema of what parenthood is, adoptive or not, is set by biology and sociology. But sociology can certainly be challenged and often should be (fighting back is called politics), and even biology is not always just to be accepted (fighting back is called medicine). Within the general role of “a good parent”, there is all sorts of room and scope for creativity, self-expression, and imaginative invention and re-invention.

We don’t always know, on meeting some parent, whether she is an adoptive parent or a biological parent. Often there are visible clues and give-aways, or at least we can see things that make us strongly suspect an adoptive relationship. But in most contexts it would be rude and intrusive to ask. The implicit social convention is loud and clear: you don’t ask, you wait to be told. But when we know all the facts about any parent, we know which they are without any difficulty.

In our society the role of adoptive parent is almost completely uncontested. (Almost, though there can be some resistance, and it can be unreasonably hard to get into the role in the first place.) If you’re an adoptive parent, you’re a parent–for most purposes–and no one sensible scratches their head over that, or decrees that you can’t sit on school parents’ councils, or sees it as somehow dangerous or threatening or undermining of “real parents” or dishonest or deceptive or delusional or a symptom of mental illness or a piece of embarrassing and pathetic public make-believe. On the contrary, people just accept you as a parent, and value your commitment to parenthood as an important contribution to the well-being of our society that you could not have made if you didn’t have the psychological set-up that you do.

Philosophical Technicalities

“Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents”, I said. So is that a “subsetting relationship”, to use the philosophical jargon? Do I mean that transwomen are a subset of women, that being a transwoman is one way of being a woman? Or do I mean a relationship between two different categories–transwomen aren’t literally *women*, but they are something closely related, maybe analogically related as Aquinas would say (Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q13)?

Well, it depends what you want to talk about. For some purposes, sure transwomen are “really women”, just as adoptive parents are “really parents”. For other purposes the relation is indeed analogical rather than literal inclusion.

But maybe we could follow the philosopher Derek Parfit (Reasons & Persons circa p.262) and say that “once we know all the facts”, the further question “Are they really women?” is an “empty question”.

Or maybe we can say what I would want to say, which is related to Parfit’s move, but different: that the question is not empty at all, but it has different substantive answers for different substantive purposes. And provided we keep the score carefully in our language-game(s), there’s no reason at all why anyone should be confused about any of the semantic-logical ins and outs of “transwoman”. Any more than they are with “adoptive parent”.

 

“Secrets of Consciousness” Debate

26 Jun

Here is footage of a debate I did at the ‘How the Light Gets In’ Festival at Hay on Wye last month. It got pretty intense (in a nice way…) and was lots of fun. I was defending panpsychism against the illusionism of Nicholas Humphrey and the illusionist/panpsychist position of Susan Blackmore.

Panpsychism Discussed in the Swiss Press

31 May

There was a rather crude attack on panpsychism published last week in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It contained the usual cliched “arguments” – accusing panpsychists of being anti-science and really just seeking the comforts of religion – without really addressing the roots of the problem of consciousness and the merits of the panpsychist solution. On Friday there was an excellent reply by Godehard Brüntrup, Professor of Philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy.

It’s to be expected that a proposal that pushes at the limits of our scientific paradigm should meet resistance. The irony is, physical science was never designed to deal with consciousness; indeed it has been so successful precisely because Galileo kicked things off by taking consciousness outside of its domain of enquiry and thereby gave physical scientists a more manageable task (roughly formulating mathematical models to capture the behaviour of matter). We are currently going through a phase of history where people are so blown away by the success of physical science, and the technology that has resulted from it, that they have become inclined to place all of their metaphysical faith in it. But physical science was designed for prediction not metaphysics, and its failure to explain consciousness is just one symptom of this fact.

I guess the reaction panpsychists seem to be getting is evidence that we’re having some impact. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In academic philosophy, panpsychism has gone from being laughed at to becoming a respected minority position. My aim now, partly through the book I’m currently working on, is to put the arguments to a general audience. I have little doubt than in twenty years time, the idea that panpsychism can be quickly dismissed as “crazy” will be seen as, well, crazy.

A Change of Heart on Fine-Tuning

24 Apr

I’ve spent the last few months exploring an unorthodox explanation of cosmological fine-tuning, which I discuss in this article and this talk. Part of my motivation was dissatisfaction with the two more conventional alternatives: God and the multiverse hypothesis. And part of the my dissatisfaction with the multiverse hypothesis was rooted in Roger White’s intriguing article arguing that the multiverse hypothesis doesn’t even explain the fine-tuning. As I said in a couple of recent talks on fine-tuning, it wasn’t that I was happy with the theory I’d come up with; to paraphrase Churchill, the view I was considering seemed to me to be the worst explanation of fine-tuning apart from all the others.

However, I think I’ve just changed my mind on the White article. White’s essential point is that what we want explained is why this universe is fine-tuned, whilst the postulation of a multiverse only explains why a universe is fine-tuned (I’m sure many will right now be screaming “But what about the Anthropic Principle/selection effect????”…see my discussion in the talk from 17:50-24:50.). However, at a recent talk I gave on this topic at Rutgers University, a discussion with Eddie Chen made me appreciate that this distinction collapses if the laws of nature are not contingent, that is to say, if our universe had to have the laws it has (and I’m independently attracted to philosophical views in which this is the case). If our universe had to have the laws of nature it in fact has, then it had to be fine-tuned, so long as it exists. This doesn’t mean that the fine-tuning puzzle goes away; it just turns into a different question. The question is not “Why is our universe fine-tuned?” but “Why does our fine-tuned universe exist rather any of the many very similar universes that aren’t fine-tuned?” Crucially, the multiverse theory can explain this: If there is a high enough number of universes, then there is likely to be one which, like ours, is fine-tuned.

So I’m now back to thinking probably some form of the multiverse hypothesis, perhaps the quantum mechanical version, is the best explanation of the fine-tuning. But I don’t regret exploring my “middle way” hypothesis. It’s philosophically important to explore new theories and explanations, and to try things out. After all, philosophers are supposed to question everything. It’s a shame that our intellectual climate makes this difficult. We pride ourselves on being liberal and free thinking, but it was hard to talk about this stuff. I could feel myself been categorised as “religious” or “new age” just for trying out a view.

Of course, we shouldn’t get lost in flights of fancy, but we should examine the arguments without prejudice. This was the enlightenment aim, but somewhere along the way that aim was replaced by dogmatic adherence to an ideological view of what science is “supposed to look like”. I look forward to the day when the enlightenment ideal of rigorous objectivity overcomes, once and for all, such ideologies.

Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness

17 Apr

I’m pleased to announce that I now have publishing contracts in US and UK for my new book ‘Galileo’s Error: A Manifesto for a New Science of Consciousness’. The book will be highly accessible and will explore the problem of consciousness and why a growing number of philosophers and neuroscientists are coming to see panpsychism as the best hope for a solution. It will be published in Autumn 2019 by Pantheon in US and Rider in UK. All I gotta do now is write it…