Friday, May 29, 2015

The Immortal's Dilemma

Most of the philosophical literature on immortality and death -- at least that I've read -- doesn't very thoroughly explore the consequences of temporal infinitude. Bernard Williams, for example, suggests that 342 years might be a tediously long life. Well, of course 342 years is peanuts compared to infinitude!

It seems to me that true temporal infinitude forces a dilemma between two options:
(a.) infinite repetition of the same things, without memory, or
(b.) an ever-expanding range of experiences that eventually diverges so far from your present range of experiences that it becomes questionable whether you should regard that future being as "you" in any meaningful sense.

Call this choice The Immortal's Dilemma.

Given infinite time, a closed system will eventually cycle back through its states, within any finite error tolerance. (One way of thinking about this is the Poincare recurrence theorem.) There are only so many relevantly distinguishable states a closed system can occupy. Once it has occupied them, it has to start repeating at least some of them. Assuming that memory belongs to the system's structure of states, then memory too is among those things that must start afresh and repeat. But it seems legitimate to wonder whether the forgetful repetition of the same experiences, infinitely again and again, is something worth aspiring toward -- whether it's what we can or should want, or what we thought we might want, in immortality.

It might seem better, then, or more interesting, or more worthwhile, to have an open system. Unless the system is ever-expanding, though, or includes an ever-expanding population of unprecedented elements, eventually it will loop back around. Thus, given any finite error tolerance, eventually events will have to get more and more remote from the original run of events you lived through -- with no end to the increasing remoteness.

Suppose that conscious experience is what matters. (Parallel arguments can be made for other ways of thinking about what matters.) First, one might cycle through every possible human experience. Suppose, for example, that human experience depends on a brain of no more than a hundred trillion neurons (currently we have a hundred billion, but that might change), and that each neuron is capable of one of a hundred trillion relevantly distinguishable states, and that any difference in even one neuron in the course of a ten-second "specious present" results in a relevantly distinguishable experience. A liberal view of the relationship between different neural states and different possible experiences!

Of course such numbers, though large, are still finite. So once you're done living through all the experiences of seeming-Aristotle, seeming-Gandhi, seeming-Hitler, seeming-Hitler-seeming-to-remember-having-earlier-been-Gandhi, seeming-future-super-genius, and seeming-every-possible-person-else and many, many more experiences that probably wouldn't coherently belong to anyone's life, well, you've either got to settle in for some repetition or find some new range of experiences that include experiences that are no longer human. [Clarification June 1: Not all these states need occur, but that only shortens the path to looping or alien weirdness.] Go through the mammals. Then go through hypothetical aliens. Expand, expand -- eventually you'll have run through all possible smallish creatures with a neural or similar basis and you'll need to go to experiences that are either radically alien or vastly superhuman or both. At some point -- maybe not so far along in this process -- it seems reasonable to wonder, is the being who is doing all this really "you"? Even if there is some continuous causal thread reaching back to you as you are now, should you, as you are now, care about that being's future any more than you care about the future of some being unrelated to you?

Either amnesic infinite repetition or a limitless range of unfathomable alien weirdness. Those appear to be the choices.

References to good discussions of this in the existing literature welcome in the comments section!

[Thanks particularly to Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin for discussion.]

Related posts:
Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence, Scrambled Sideways (Oct. 31, 2012)
My Boltzmann Continuants (Jun. 6, 2013)
Goldfish-Pool Immortality (May 30, 2014)
Duplicating the Universe (Apr. 29, 2015)

[image source]

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Leading SF Novels: Academic Library Holdings and Citation Rates

Among the most culturally influential English-language fiction writers of the 20th century, a substantial portion wrote science fiction or fantasy -- "speculative fiction" (SF) broadly construed. H.G. Wells, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin, for starters. In the 21st century so far, speculative fiction remains culturally important. There's sometimes a feeling among speculative fiction writers that even the best recent work in the genre isn't taken seriously by academic scholars. I thought I'd look at a couple possible (imperfect!) measures of this.

(I'm doing this partly just for fun, 'cause I'm a dork and I find this kind of thing relaxing, if you'll believe it.)

Holdings of recent SF in academic libraries

I generated a list of critically acclaimed SF novels by considering Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy award winners from 2009-2013 plus any non-winning novels that were among the 5-6 finalists for at least two of the three awards. Nineteen novels met the criteria.

Then I looked at two of the largest Anglophone academic library holdings databases: COPAC and Melvyl, and counted how many different campuses (max 30-ish) had a print copy of the book [see endnote for details].

H = Hugo finalist, N = Nebula finalist, W = World Fantasy finalist; stars indicate winners.

The results, listed from most held to least:

16 campuses: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (H*W)
15: George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (HW)
15: China Mieville, The City & the City (H*NW*)
12: Cory Doctorow, Little Brother (HN)
12: Ursula K. Le Guin, Powers (N*)
12: China Mieville, Embassytown (HN)
12: Connie Willis, Blackout / All Clear (H*N*)
11: Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (HN*)
11: G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen (W*)
10: Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (HN*)
8: N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (HNW)
8: N.K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon (NW)
8: Jon Scalzi, Redshirts (H*)
8: Jeff VanderMeer, Finch (NW)
8: Jo Walton, Among Others (H*N*W)
7: Cherie Priest, Boneshaker (HN)
7: Caitlin Kiernan, The Drowning Girl (NW)
5: Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death (NW*)
3: Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon (HN)

As a reference point, I did a similar analysis of PEN/Faulkner award winners and finalists over the same period.

Of the 25 PEN winners and finalists, 7 were held by more campuses than was any book on my SF list, though the difference was not extreme, with two at 24 (Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad; Joseph O'Neill, Netherland) and five ranging from 18-21 campuses. In the PEN group, just as in the SF group, there were nine books held by fewer than ten of the campuses (3, 5, 6, 7, 7, 7, 9, 9, 9) -- so the lower part of the lists looks pretty similar.

References in Google Scholar

Citation patterns in Google Scholar tell a similar story. Although citation rates are generally low by philosophy and psychology standards (assuming as a comparison group the most-praised philosophy and psychology books of the period), they are not very different between the SF and PEN lists. The SF books for which I could find five or more Google Scholar citations:

53 citations: Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
52: Doctorow, Little Brother
27: Martin, A Dance with Dragons
26: Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl
9: Priest, Boneshaker
8: Robinson, 2312
5: Okorafor, Who Fears Death

The top-cited PEN books were at 70 (O'Neill, Netherland) and 59 (Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad). After those two, there's a gap down to 17, 15, 12, 11, 10.

I continue to suspect that there is a bit of a perception difference between "highbrow" literary fiction and "middlebrow" SF, disadvantaging SF studies in some quarters of the university; but if so, perhaps that is compensated by recognition of SF's broader visibility in popular culture, so that in terms of overall scholarly attention, it appears to be approximately a tie.



So... hey! That makes me wonder about bestsellers. I've taken the four best selling fiction books each year from 2009-2013 (according to USA Today for 2009-2012, Nielsen Book Scan for 2013) and tried the same. (The catalogs are a bit messier since these books tend to have multiple editions, so the numbers are a little rougher.)

Top five by citations (# of campuses in parens):

431: Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (23)
333: Stephanie Meyer, Twilight (26)
162: Stephanie Meyer, Breaking Dawn (17)
132: Stephanie Meyer, New Moon (15)
130: Steig Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (12)

Only 4 of the 19 had fewer than 10 citations, and all were held by at least six campuses.

So by both of these measures, bestsellers are receiving more academic attention than either the top critically acclaimed SF or PEN. Notable: By my count, 8 of the 19 bestsellers are SF, including all of the top-four most cited.

Maybe that's as is should be: The Hunger Games and Twilight are major cultural phenomena, worthy of serious discussion for that sake alone, in addition to whatever merits they might have as literature.


COPAC covers the major British and Irish academic libraries, Melvyl the ten University of California campuses. I counted up the total number of campuses in the two systems with at least one holding of each book, limiting myself to print holdings (electronic and audio holdings were a bit disorganized in the databases, and spot checking suggested they didn't add much to the overall results since most campuses with electronic or audio also had print of the same work).

As always, corrections welcome!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Moral Duties to Flawed Gods

Suppose that God exists and is morally imperfect. (I'm inclined to think that if a god exists, that god is not perfect.) If God has created me and sustains the world, I owe a pretty big debt to her/him/it. Now suppose that this morally imperfect God tells me to wear a blue shirt today instead of a brown one. No greater good would be served; it's just God's preference, for no particular reason. God tells me to do it, but doesn't threaten me with punishment if I don't -- she (let's say "she") just appeals to my sense of moral obligation: "I am your creator," she says, "and I work to sustain your whole universe. I'd like you to do it. You owe me!"

One way we might conceptualize a morally flawed god is this: We might be sims, or model playthings, in a world that is subject to the whims of some larger being with the power to radically manipulate or destroy it, and who therefore has sufficient powers to be properly conceptualized as a god by us. Alternatively, if technology advances sufficiently, we ourselves might create genuinely conscious rational beings who live as sims or playthings, and then we would be gods relative to them.

It is helpful, I think, to consider these issues simultaneously bottom up and top down -- both in terms of what we ourselves would owe to such a hypothetical god and in terms of what we, if we hypothetically gained divine levels of power over created beings, could legitimately demand of those beings. It seems a reasonable desideratum of a theory that the constraints be symmetrical: Whatever a flawed god could legitimately demand of us, we, if we had similar attributes in relation to beings we created, could legitimately demand of them; and contrapositively, whatever we could not legitimately demand of beings we created we should not recognize as demands a flawed god could make upon us, barring some relevant asymmetry between the situations.

Here are three possible approaches to God's authority to command:

(1.) Love of God and/or the good. Divine command theory is the view that we are obliged to do whatever God commands. Christian articulations of this view have typically assumed a morally perfect God, whom we obey out of love for him, or love of the good, or both (e.g., Adams 1999). A version of this view might be adapted to the case where God is morally flawed: We might still love her, and obey her from love (as one might obey another human out of love); or one might obey because one admires and respects the goodness of God and her commands, even if God is not perfectly good and this particular command is flawed.

(2.) Acknowledgement of debt. Other approaches to divine command theory emphasize God's power and our debt as God's creations (for example, Augustine: "Unless you turn to Him and repay the existence that He gave you... you will be wretched. All things owe to God, first of all, what they are insofar as they are natures" [cited here] and the conclusion of the Book of Job). A secular comparison might be the debt children owe to their parents for their creation and sustenance, for example as emphasized in the Confucian tradition.

(3.) Social contract theory. According to social contract theory, what gives (morally flawed) governmental representatives legitimate authority to command us is something like the fact that, hypothetically, the overall social arrangement is fair, and we would agree to it if it were offered from the right kind of neutral position. God might say: Universes require gods to create, command, and sustain them -- or at least your universe has required one -- and I am the god in that role, executing my powers in a manner that would be antecedently recognizable as fair. Surely you would agree, hypothetically, to the justice of the creation of your world under this general arrangement?

Now when I consider these possible justifications of a morally imperfect God's authority to command, what strikes me is that all three seem to justify only rather limited power. To see this, consider three types of command: (a.) the trivial and arbitrary, (b.) the non-trivial and arbitrary, and (c.) the non-arbitrary and non-trivial.

It is perhaps legitimate for a god to make trivial, arbitrary demands -- like to wear a blue shirt today rather than a brown -- and for a created being to satisfy them, in recognition of a personal relationship or a debt. Similarly legitimate, it seems, are non-arbitrary demands that God makes for excellent reasons, justifiable either interpersonally or through social contract theory.

My own sense, however -- does yours differ? -- is that arbitrary but non-trivial demands should be sharply limited. Suppose, for example, that God says she wants me to go out to the student commons and do a chicken dance -- not for any good reason but just as a passing minor whim, because she wants me to. I'd be embarrassed, but no serious consequences would ensue. My feeling is that God would not be in the right to make this sort of demand of me; nor would I be in the right to demand it of my creations, were I ever to create genuinely conscious beings over whom I had divine degrees of power.

It seems to me that would be wrong in the same way that it would be wrong for my mother or wife to ask this of me for no good reason: It would be a matter of someone's treating her own whims as of greater importance than my legitimate desires and interests. It would violate the principle of equality. But if that's correct -- if an imperfect god's whims don't trump my interests for that type of reason -- then in the relevant moral sense, we are God's equals.

You might say: If a god really did create us, our debt is enormous. Indeed it would be! But what follows? My parents created me, and they raised me through childhood, so my debt to them is also enormous; and my government paid for my education and my roads and my protection, so in a sense my government has also created and sustained me, and my debt to it is also enormous. However, once I have been created, I have a dignity and interests that even those who have created and sustained me cannot legitimately disregard to satisfy their whims. And I see no reason to suppose this limitation on the morally legitimate exercise of power is any less for gods than for fellow humans.

A morally perfect god might be different. Necessarily, such a god would not demand anything morally illegitimate. But I think a sober look at the world suggests that if there is any creating or sustaining god of substantial power, that god is far from morally perfect. If that god tells me never to mix clothing fibers or never to work on the sabbath, she had better also supply a good reason.

Related posts:

  • Our Possible Imminent Divinity (Jan. 2, 2014)
  • Our Moral Duties to Artificial Intelligences (Jan. 14, 2015)
  • [image source]

    Monday, May 11, 2015

    Network Map of Philosophical SF Authors

    Andrew Higgins has done one of his beautiful network maps for my Philosophical SF authors list:

    [click to see full size] Andrew writes:

    This graph represents a network of science fiction authors and philosophers, with the authors linked to philosophers just in case the philosopher listed that author as philosophically interesting. Authors are labeled, and label size corresponds to the number of philosophers mentioning them. Label colors and positions are rough indicators of similarity. Colors represent groups of authors; as an intuitive gloss, if authors A1-An are the same color that means the connections between the As is ≥ their connections to authors in other groups. Author positions are determined by a combination of three forces - gravity, attraction, and repulsion - applied to the network until it has settled into a stable position (a local peak in the space of possible positions). All nodes gravitate to the center and repulse one another, and nodes are attracted just in case they are connected. So, positions and colors can be seen as weak indicators of similarity, whatever kind of similarity is highlighted by philosophers' choices.

    But, given the relatively small sample size and lack of strong modularity in the network, we should be cautious in inferring anything about these authors (or philosophers) based on their relative positions or colors.

    Friday, May 08, 2015

    Competing Perspectives on the Significance of One's Final, Dying Thought

    Here's a particularly unsentimental view about last, dying thoughts: Your dying thought will be your least important thought. After all (assuming no afterlife), it is the one thought guaranteed to have no influence on any of your future thoughts, or on any other aspect of your psychology.

    Now maybe if you express the thought aloud -- "I did not get my Spaghetti Os. I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this." -- or if your last thought is otherwise detectable by others, it will have an effect; but for this post let's assume a private last thought that influences no one else.

    A narrative approach to the meaning of life seems to recommend a different attitude toward last thoughts. If a life is like a story, you want it to end well! The ending of a story colors all that has gone before. If the hero dies resentful or if the hero dies content, that rightly changes our understanding of earlier events. It does so not only because we might now understand that all along the hero felt subtly resentful, but also because private deathbed thoughts, on this view, have a retrospective transformative power: An earlier betrayal, for example, now becomes a betrayal that was forgiven by the end (or it becomes one that was never forgiven). The ghost's appearance to Hamlet has one type of significance if Hamlet ends badly and quite a different significance if Hamlet ends well. On the narrative view, the significance of events depends partly on the future. Maybe this is part of what Solon had in mind when he told King Croesus not to call anyone happy until they die: A horrible enough disaster at the end, maybe, can retrospectively poison what your marriage and seeming successes had really amounted to. Thus, maybe the last thought is like the final sentence of a book: Ending on a thought of love and happiness makes your life a very different story than does ending on a thought of resentment and regret.

    The unsentimental view seems to give too little significance to one's last thought -- I, at least, would want to die on a positive note! -- but the narrative view seems to give one's last thought too much significance. I doubt we're deprived of knowing the significance of someone's life if we don't know their last thought in the way we can't know the significance of a story if we don't know its last sentence. Also, the last sentence of a story is a contrived feature of a type of work of art, a sentence which the work is designed to render highly significant; while a last thought might be trivially unimportant by accident (if you're thinking about what to have for lunch, then hit by a truck you didn't see coming) or it might not reflect a stable attitude (if you're grumpy from pain).

    Maybe the right answer is just a compromise: The last thought is not totally trivial because it has some narrative power, but life isn't so much like a narrative that it has last-sentence-of-a-story-like power? Life has narrative elements, but the independent pieces also have a power and value that isn't hostage to future outcomes.

    Here's another possibility, which interacts with the first two: Maybe one's last thought is an opportunity. But what kind of opportunity it is will depend on whether last thoughts can retrospectively change the significance of earlier events.

    On the narrative view, it is an opportunity to -- secretly! with an almost magical time-piercing power -- make it the case that Person A was forgiven by you or never forgiven, that Action B was regretted or never regretted, etc.

    On the unsentimental view, in contrast, it is an opportunity to think things that, had you thought them earlier, would have been too terrible to think because of their possible impact on your future thoughts. (Compare: It's also an opportunity to explore the neuroscience of decapitation.) I don't know that we have such a reservoir of unthinkable thoughts that we refuse to make conscious for fear of the effects of thinking them. That sounds pretty Freudian! But if we do, here's the perfect opportunity, perhaps, to finally admit to yourself that you never really loved Person A or that your life was a failure. Maybe if you thought such things and then remembered those thoughts the next day, bad consequences would follow. But now there can be no such bad consequences the next day; and if you reject the narrative view, there are no retrospective bad consequences on earlier events either. So it's your chance, if you can grab it, to drop your self-illusions and glare at the truth.

    Writing this now, though, that last view seems too dark. I'd rather die under illusion, I think, than dispel the illusion at the last moment, when it's too late to do anything about it. Maybe that's the better narrative. Or maybe truth is not the most important thing on the deathbed.

    [image source]

    Thursday, May 07, 2015

    List of Philosophical Science Fiction / Speculative Fiction

    I've just updated my list of "philosophically interesting" SF -- about 400 total recommendations from 40 contributors, along with brief "pitches" for each work that point toward the work's philosophical interest. All of the contributors are either professional philosophers or professional SF writers with graduate training in philosophy.

    The version sorted by author (or director, for movies) is organized so that the most frequently recommended authors appear first on the list. What SF authors are the biggest hits with the philosophy crowd? Now you know! (Or you will know, shortly after you click.)

    There's also a version sorted by recommender. If you scan through to find works you love, then you can see which contributors recommended those works. Since you have overlapping tastes, you might want to especially check out their other recommendations.

    Tuesday, May 05, 2015

    Momentary Sage

    My newest piece of short speculative fiction, Momentary Sage, has just come out in The Dark. I wanted to do two things with the story.

    First: I wanted to envision the aftermath of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the main plot of Shakespeare's play, Lysander and Hermia want to marry, but Hermia has been promised to Demetrius whom she loathes. The problem is resolved with a fairy love spell: Demetrius is tricked into loving Helena, to whom he had previously been engaged and who still loves him. All ends happily, with Lysander marrying Hermia and Demetrius marrying Helena. But dear poet Willy, that's too cheap a fix! Demetrius can't just stay permanently tricked into love, happily ever after, can he? Midnight fairy magic always causes more problems than it solves, for that is the unbreakable law of fairies. (Just ask Susanna Clarke.)

    Second: I wanted to explore a certain simplistic parody of Buddhism. Demetrius's love spell ends the next day. But his revenge is this: Hermia's child, Sage, is a philosopher baby who believes that non-existence is preferable to suffering. Since he disbelieves in the reality of an extended self, to determine whether life is worth living at any moment, Sage simply weighs up his total joy and suffering at that moment. As soon as his current suffering outweighs his current joy, he attempts to commit suicide, employing a sharp magic tusk he was born with for just that purpose. Hermia and Lysander must thus keep constant watch on Sage, physically pinning him down the moment he starts feeling frustrated or colicky.

    Though drawn in starker colors, this is just the predicament confronting all parents when their children would rather cast away future interests than accept a little short-term suffering. Is there a rational argument that can convince someone to value the future, if they don't already? Sage and Lysander have a go at it, but Sage always wins. He is the better philosopher.

    It's a piece of dark fantasy, verging on horror -- so if you don't enjoy that genre, stand warned.

    [image source]