Friday, April 15, 2011

Puzzle of the self-torturer?

Look at this passage from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on dynamic choice.

Suppose someone — who, for reasons that will become apparent, Quinn calls the self-torturer — has a special electric device attached to him. The device has 1001 settings: 0, 1, 2, 3, …, 1000 and works as follows: moving up a setting raises, by a tiny increment, the amount of electric current applied to the self-torturer's body. The increments in current are so small that the self-torturer cannot tell the difference between adjacent settings. He can, however, tell the difference between settings that are far apart. And, in fact, there are settings at which the self-torturer would experience excruciating pain. Once a week, the self-torturer can compare all the different settings. He must then go back to the setting he was at and decide if he wants to move up a setting. If he does so, he gets $10,000, but he can never permanently return to a lower setting. Like most of us, the self-torturer would like to increase his fortune but also cares about feeling well. Since the self-torturer cannot feel any difference in comfort between adjacent settings but gets $10,000 at each advance, he prefers, for any two consecutive settings s and s+1, stopping at s+1 to stopping at s. But, since he does not want to live in excruciating pain, even for a great fortune, he also prefers stopping at a low setting, such as 0, over stopping at a high setting, such as 1000

This passage as stated states that the increments to be increased are of the devices settings (i.e. amount of electric current). But the "puzzle" seem to arise when we consider increments of degrees of pain.

But pain is dependent not simply on one factor such as external stimulation from electric currents. It is a function also of psychological factors. Psychological experiments over the years have shown that individual's pain tolerance and subjective evaluation of the degree of pain vary considerably based on the individual's state of mind at the time. People may experience more pain and tolerate more pain such as electric shocks or having their hand immersed in ice water simply by changing a state of mind either self-induced or by the experimenter or through some uninduced capricious change of the state of the mind. Thus the agent may experience two shocks with very small differences in electric current as drastically different in subjective pain.

So the agent may not be able to predict when his state of mind changes for the worse making him vulnerable to experience an intransitive and unbearable rise in pain in that incremental series of electric current. When it does happen it will be experienced as a pain that is noticeably greater than the pain resulting from the shock administered immediately before.

I think that many philosophical puzzles of rational choice such as Slote's "Satisficing maximizer" can also be solved by appealing to principles of unpredictability and context instability like I have here.

Ubiquitous fictionalism

In a previous post, I talked about the possibility of moral fictionalism and the skepticism this possibility may justify. But fictionalism is not restricted to the moral realm. All kinds of metaphysical fictionalism is possible and the live possibility that there is much truth to them is the history of philosophy itself which has always butted heads against our most common notions of what exists, even the most commonly acknowledged objects are not safe from the existence of good reasons against their existence. Many metaphysicians are monists, many are atomists, and some are even nihilists. All these positions often deny the existence of chairs, basketballs, cars, and even people and claim that they are mere fictions we conjure to make sense of our world. They often claim that normal objects we encounter daily are begotten through abstraction and are not really there, objectively, mind independently, in the sense we may think or assume they are.

Take monists. They believe that there is just one thing that really exist and usually that one thing they believe is just the whole cosmos or "blobject" (some priority monists believe that only one thing exists concretely while everything else is abstract while existence monists believe that nothing else exists exist for that one thing, whatever it is). Now monists give very good reasons for why they believe what they believe. They can show contradictions and inconsistencies in positing normal everyday objects such as chairs, basketballs, cars, persons, molecules, etc. Monists have summoned arguments from mereology and modern physics (Jonathan Schaffer's argument from quantum field theory e.g.) among other resources to argue their case.

Now take atomists. Many of these folks only believe in the existence of atoms, whatever they may be (quarks or maybe strings or something even more fundamental). All other objects are collections of atoms with some relationship holding among them and obtained through arbitrary abstractions and thus there existence is mind-dependent in a sense. Atomists also have good reason to argue their case.

(Pure) Nihilists don't believe in the existence of any object. Many of them believe that there is gunk all the way down and all the way up. Again, nihilists have good reasons for their beliefs and their beliefs are conflicting much like the other positions with pluralism, the common sense view that all everyday objects like chairs, cars, basketballs, persons, etc exist. They often point to contradictions and inconsistencies in the belief in common objects or in the belief in any object qua object in the way philosophers think of them as existing with their internal properties mind independently, etc.

So it might be the case that our belief that everyday objects like chairs, cars, basketballs, and people are mere fictions. And furthermore, our belief in atoms and the cosmos might be fictions. Furthermore, any belief that assumes, posits, and is built on such beliefs may be in turn fictions. Fictions multiply on other fictions and we would need to invent more and more fictions in ever more ingenious ways familiar to philosophical construction to make sense of our world in ad hoc ways just to keep things coherent. That ad hoc constructionism only to run into further problems down the road sounds like the history of philosophy! This would entail, if true, that we live in a world of our own creation in a profound sense, a world of our fictions with reality far different and weirder than we can imagine. This induces a very Taoist sensibility in me. Something exists, that it is The One, but we cannot know its exact nature except in very general, abstract and ineffable terms, and all conceptualizations on this The One goes wrong from the start seems like a Taoist's skepticist view.