I'm new too (David Olivier)

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I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby David Olivier » Tue Nov 25, 2008 11:16 pm

That is, new to this forum; otherwise, I'm getting older (in my fifties).

What should I say? I live in France (Lyon). My interests, apart from my engagement in animal rights:

— The mind/matter problem, that is the problem of sentiency as an objective fact.

— Ethics, the objective truth of ethical propositions, utilitarianism (hedonistic style) and its justifications.

— The issue of personal identity (and its non-existence).

— Physics and science generally. I work as a software developer but was trained as a physicist.

...

Well, no, I don't see much more to say. I was happy to stumble on this forum, and like the little I have found time to read. I hope to read more and participate when I get a bit more free time — right now I'm preparing for the arrival of my child who'se due sometime in December! :) :o

No, I don't like bridge. I used to play as a kid with my family, but I always lost. And got disagreeable remarks from my partner.

David
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby Arepo » Wed Nov 26, 2008 12:53 pm

Hey David, welcome to the good ship SS Felicifia. Lifeboats are to the top-right and top left of your browser :)

Good to see we have a physicistician (ahem) on board. You should be able to find a few people around here who'll be willing and able to talk physics with you if that's your thing ... personally I find it fascinating, but on a New Scientist rather than Journal of Synchrotron Radiation kind of level. So if you follow general interest physics news, I hope you'll post some of that here too. It would be great to get enough of that kind of discussion to justify creating a science subforum.

Out of curiousity, are you originally French? I've never come across a French utilitarian before - French philosophers, more than those any other nation I could name, seem committed to the Lacan/Foucault etc continental style of philosophy.

And congratulations on becoming a father! Planning to make a habit of it? :)
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby RyanCarey » Thu Nov 27, 2008 4:14 pm

Hi David Oliver,
Good luck with becoming a child (edit: parent)
I've had a brief look at your website. I share your interest in the fact of consciousness. I'm very interested in how you combine what we can experience with what we can learn from science to give us a full picture of the mind and brain.
You seem like a very intelligent fellow so I look forward to seeing you around. You're welcome to chat to us here whenver you like.
You can read my personal blog here: CareyRyan.com
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby David Olivier » Sat Nov 29, 2008 6:24 pm

Thanks to both for your kind welcome!

Arepo, don't expect too much from me concerning the current state of science, especially as regards physics. I did study up to the level of a specialisation in particle physics, but that was a long time ago and the state of knowledge has evolved, and my mastery of the concepts and of the math has become a bit rusty.

I but I also feel that distancing oneself from the particular details of physics can allow to take a larger perspective on things.

Arepo wrote:Out of curiousity, are you originally French? I've never come across a French utilitarian before - French philosophers, more than those any other nation I could name, seem committed to the Lacan/Foucault etc continental style of philosophy.


I'm both French and English. Born in London to a US American mother and a French father. I lived in London to the age of 12, then since then in France. And my wife is Italian, so I'm “a bit of a mutt” too, like the future US president...

I remember formulating and adopting what amounted to utilitarianism when I was 8 or 9 and living in London. I don't know exactly what it has to do with English culture vs. French, or a Protestant background vs. a Catholic one, but I have often wondered. However, in any case, the divide you mention in philosophy between the “Anglo-Saxon” and “continental” styles of philosophy is not that absolute. There is a Centre Bentham in France, that is organizing a conference next June — one I hope to contribute to, with a presentation on the issue of personal identity and the ideas of Derek Parfit. On the other hand, there is also an anti-utilitarian tradition in English-speaking countries, one that sometimes be just as violent as the French anti-utilitarians.

RyanCarey wrote:Good luck with becoming a child


Er... I don't know what you mean by that... in the German sense of “becoming”, perhaps? :D

I share your interest in the fact of consciousness. I'm very interested in how you combine what we can experience with what we can learn from science to give us a full picture of the mind and brain.


I certainly wish I could do that!

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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby Arepo » Sat Nov 29, 2008 11:42 pm

David Olivier wrote:I remember formulating and adopting what amounted to utilitarianism when I was 8 or 9 and living in London. I don't know exactly what it has to do with English culture vs. French, or a Protestant background vs. a Catholic one, but I have often wondered. However, in any case, the divide you mention in philosophy between the “Anglo-Saxon” and “continental” styles of philosophy is not that absolute.


Sure, I never imagined it being absolute. I'm more interested in the cultural implications of being an 'open' utilitarian in France. I have a mental image of it being quite stigmatized, since so many of the 'big names' of French humanities and social sciences are from the continental school. I found when I was at Melbourne uni (admittedly in the English dept) that being a util could be quite an isolating trait.

There is a Centre Bentham in France, that is organizing a conference next June — one I hope to contribute to, with a presentation on the issue of personal identity and the ideas of Derek Parfit.


That sounds very interesting... how did you come to be doing that? It seems an unusual activity for a software developer :)

I hope you'll bounce some ideas off us, although it sounds as though we might have reached a very similar view. I was both beguiled and repulsed by Reasons and Persons - beguiled because it asked some questions that I'd never thought to ask, repulsed because I found it frustrating that having asked them, Parfit makes such heavy weather of giving overly complicated answers to things whose answers are trivial once you've thought to ask the question, as long as you also clarify it.
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby David Olivier » Sun Nov 30, 2008 12:16 am

I'm interested in other's impressions of Reasons and Persons. After having read part of it years ago, and talked a lot about it since, I finally got around to finishing it a few weeks ago. It was quite a challenge. I feel frustrated too with something I can't define very well about it. Perhaps it has to do with his writing style, or perhaps it is his way of reasoning. Says some very radical things, and then comes to meek conclusions about them, relying on his intuition about some key points (like the rejection of the so-called “repugnant conclusion”), which is a sure way to reach only meek conclusions.

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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby Arepo » Sun Nov 30, 2008 12:31 am

I read it too long ago to remember in much detail, but I definitely felt (in my capacity as a semi-professional editor) that he could have easily made the book half the length, probably a quarter, without losing anything of substance.

He also, as I recall, overuses the word 'plausible', which seems to be how philosophers throw in the towel when they don't want to argue for a point, but don't want to admit that it might be false.

I was actually very impressed by his willingness to end without a real conclusion - to have the confidence to say 'I (think I)'ve disproved these points, but I have no idea what the alternative is.'
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"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby Arepo » Sun Nov 30, 2008 12:37 am

By the way, since you're preparing a paper on it, would you care to elaborate on what you mean by 'personal identity doesn't exist', so I can see if we agree as much as I suspect we do?
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby David Olivier » Mon Dec 01, 2008 2:27 am

Arepo wrote:By the way, since you're preparing a paper on it, would you care to elaborate on what you mean by 'personal identity doesn't exist', so I can see if we agree as much as I suspect we do?


You have done me a favour by asking that question, since it obliges me to start putting to words what I have in mind, and that is an excellent thing for me.

The difficulty is in explaining what that thing that I say doesn't exist — personal identity — is, that is what it is in the minds of those who believe in it. And actually, almost everyone believes in it, or at least acts, and emotionally reacts, as if ey believed in it.

I obviously do not deny that there is a strong connection between the mind that occurs in the body that is typing this text right now, and the mind that will occur in the body commonly identified as “mine” tomorrow morning. There is a strong causal connection, for instance in the production tomorrow morning of memories in that mind of what “I” am doing right now. What I believe, to borrow Parfit's expression, is that there is no further fact in that relation.

Sentience — the fact that there are sensations, emotions and so on — is I believe something that we cannot currently explain. Others believe it is within the scope of current science. But either way, sentience is just that: feelings — sentiency events — that occur in certain physical bodies at specific times. There is nothing in a sentiency event that implies a further object, an I, to which it should be ascribed. Such an I is an imaginary further fact, one we have no reason to believe in.

A few examples of this belief in personal identity that I am criticizing.

The first is from a short science fiction story by Theodore Sturgeon that I have read recently, called It Opens the Sky. The passage below is about a planet, Grebd, that offers its services to people who have commited some crime and wish to escape from the autorities:

Sturgeon wrote:Grebd was the name of a sun, a planet and a city in the Coalsack matrix, where certain of the inhabitants had developed a method of pseudosurgery unthinkably far in advance of anything in the known cosmos. They could take virtually any living thing and change it as drastically as it wanted to be changed, even from carbon-base to boron-chain, or as subtly as it might want, like an alteration of all detectible brainwave characteristics or retinal patterns, or even a new nose. They could graft (or grow?) most of a whole man from a tattered lump, providing it lived. Most important, they could make these alterations, however drastic, and (if requested) leave the conscious mind intact.


What is meant here by “leaving the conscious mind intact”? A fugitive wants to escape future identification by changing physically as completely as possible; but still wants the future entity to be him. He doesn't just want there to be some future being with sentiency events occuring in it; he wants those sentiency events to be his. The fact that the physical change may even involve replacing each and every molecule in his body (“from carbon-base to boron-chain” (whatever that may be! :D )), while leaving intact that object that is “him”, illustrates the non-physicality of that notion of personal identity. And the fact that this passage is so readily understood by the reader shows that we do generally believe that such an idea of personal identity makes sense.

The fugitive who goes to Grebd wouldn't be satisfied just to know that the future “boron-chain” entity will be made to remember the experiences that he is having. He wants the mind of the future entity to be his mind. If it wasn't his mind, but another mind, he wouldn't even believe that those memories are real memories, however undistinguishable they might be, from the point of view of that entity, from real memories. This shows that the notion of personal identity does not coincide with the existence of psychological continuities such as memory. It is seen as a further fact, something that does or does not hold, independently of such continuities.

That can also be seen through the idea of reincarnation. Some people who believe in reincarnation think that we keep, perhaps deeply embedded in our subconscious, memories of our past lives. But those memories are tenuous at best; and no doubt some believe in totally amnesic reincarnation, that is without any memory at all of our past. They believe that it is a fact that some future person is, or is not, the same as some past person, even in the absence of any physical or psychological continuities.

Instead of reincarnating, a lot of people believe that their souls will go to heaven or hell. In some forms of Catholic belief, particularly it seems in that of John Paul 2, the soul is seen as quite distinct from any stream of consciousness, that is of sentinecy events. It is seen as existing before sentiency appears at all; that is the justification of the opposition to abortion. The “human person” exists from conception, even if it is not, and has never been in its past, sentient.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a fine expression of the idea of personal identity:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2159 wrote:The name one receives is a name for eternity. In the kingdom, the mysterious and unique character of each person marked with God's name will shine forth in splendor. "To him who conquers . . . I will give a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it."


That's it: something mysterious and unique, that, like a stone, cannot be divided or fused with other entities of the same kind. I believe that Christian doctrine has in great part imprisoned us mentally in what Parfit calls a “tunnel”: the belief that there is something supremely particular in our relation to our future sentiency events, a relationship uncomparable to that between sentiency events in different persons.

Now it's getting very late in my timezone, so I'll stop here, and not go into the consequences I think the rejection of the concept of personal identity has for ethics — I mean, relatively to the fact that we seem to think it obvious that we should care for what happens to “us” tomorrow, but not at all obvious that we should care about what happens to “others”. I hope what I have written above is not too unclear, enough for you to recognize if it is indeed what you yourself believe on the matter.

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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby faithlessgod » Tue Dec 02, 2008 4:02 pm

Hi David and welcome

Excellent piece on personal identity. Thanks. Would love to see the rest of the paper.

I agree that personal identity is a metaphysical construct (following Buddha :) ,Hume and Parfit etc.). I am interested in your answer to the residual question, in terms of ethics, that is how this affects moral agency - that is moral agents?

(Maybe spin this out to a separate thread?)
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby Arepo » Wed Dec 03, 2008 1:26 pm

David Olivier wrote:Sentience — the fact that there are sensations, emotions and so on — is I believe something that we cannot currently explain. Others believe it is within the scope of current science. But either way, sentience is just that: feelings — sentiency events — that occur in certain physical bodies at specific times. There is nothing in a sentiency event that implies a further object, an I, to which it should be ascribed. Such an I is an imaginary further fact, one we have no reason to believe in.


I think that pretty much sums up my views. I think the Theseus' Ship 'paradox' highlights this pretty well. In that example, you have to be into some pretty religious metaphysics to think there's anything to say about what's going on besides swapping timbers. The human brain (and its effects) are another example of the same non-problem.

Sorry I can't offer better feedback here - I simply agree (and think it's quite obvious once you've thought to pose the question, though most people seem to disagree...). I'd like to hear what implications you think it has for ethics though, since while I have some views on that, they're less well developed.
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby David Olivier » Tue Dec 09, 2008 9:59 pm

Finally I have found some time to get back to this forum! Thanks for your answers. I'll open a separate thread now to continue this discussion.

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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby David Olivier » Wed Jan 19, 2011 4:23 pm

I'm back... hem... again! After two years of leave, largely spent tending upon the needs of my daughter Héloïse - who is now two!

I'm happy to see that there are now much more people on the forum, and a lot of interesting discussions. I hope to find some time to participate in the future, because I see that there are many themes that interest me a lot.
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby Arepo » Wed Jan 26, 2011 2:25 am

Hey David, I've been hoping you'd make it back. Two years? Are we even that old? I choose to believe you've miscalculated :P
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Re: I'm new too (David Olivier)

Postby David Olivier » Wed Jan 26, 2011 10:04 am

Thanks for your welcome. Yes, it's been two years. That surprised me too! But time passes, even if that's about all it does well!
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