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#030: Westworld and Philosophy (w/ Kimberly Engels and James South)

In this episode, there is plenty for us to doubt, because we’re talking about philosophy of mind with some moral and ethical philosophy thrown in like sprinkles on top. In what may well become a recurring theme on this podcast, we’re doing another philosophical deep-dive into a television series. This week, we’re analyzing HBO’s Westworld, a cerebral, high-concept series which explores the emergence of artificial consciousness in a theme park modeled after the American Old West and populated by highly sophisticated robots that look and act just like humans from that era.

Joining me for this journey into the maze are two philosophy professors, Dr. James South and Dr. Kimberly Engels, who together have edited an anthology of essays entitled Westworld and Philosophy, a fairly recent addition to the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series.

Are the hosts of Westworld conscious, and if so, what is their experience like? Would AI have a bias for consciousness? Does Westworld reveal your true self, or does it shape who you are to become? How might we apply moral luck, virtue theory, and the Sartrean concept of existentialism and freedom to the show’s characters? Do Westworld’s hosts possess self-consciousness, or merely phenomenal consciousness? These are just a few of the questions we explore in this episode.

Links:

Westworld and Philosophy book: https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Westworld+and+Philosophy-p-9781119437888

James B. South’s website: http://academic.mu.edu/southj/

Kimberly S. Engels’ website: https://ksengels.wordpress.com/about/

 

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: http://www.patreon.com/aleapofdoubt. Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, Chris Watson, and Kim Bojkovsky for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheNatheist.

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.

Check out our website: https://reasonrevolution.org.

Give us a like on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reasonrevolution.

 

#029: The Post-Fact Era and the Rise of Trump (w/ Nathan Bomey)

In this episode, we are applying our doubts and critical thinking toward the myth of “alternative facts” and other lies and fictions of our day that has infected our democracy, ushered in a post-fact era and the digital misinformation age, and helped propel Donald Trump into the White House. My guest for this episode, Nathan Bomey, the author of a new book titled After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump. Nathan Bomey is an award-winning business reporter for USA Today, and previously a reporter for the Detroit Free Press.

In this discussion, Nathan Bomey and I discuss the decline of the journalism industry and how its pivot toward sensationalism and partisanship has negatively impacted the public’s perception of truth and helped facilitate the rise of Trump. We also talk about the rise of social media and the ways in which the technological revolution in personal interaction might have contributed to a rise in tribalism and a decline both in empathy for others and in concern for truth and accuracy. We also talk about how social media has been and potentially can be used as a tool by people in power to bypass or circumvent the accountability of journalistic scrutiny, and why the threat of viral misinformation is a new crisis comparable to the Cold War race between the U.S. and Russia that should drive us as a society overcome partisanship to place a new emphasis in education on teaching critical thinking. Finally, we discuss ways in which we can each individually alter how we talk to each other in order to help disparate groups break through barriers and restore trust.

Doubter of the Week: Charles Mackay (1814-1889): Scottish poet and journalist, author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Links:

Nathan Bomey’s website: http://nathanbomey.com/

Nathan Bomey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NathanBomey

Nathan Bomey’s book “After the Fact”: http://nathanbomey.com/after-the-fact

David Weigel, “House Science Committee Chairman: Americans Should Get News from Trump, Not Media,” Washington Post, January 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7dha3ct.

 

Consider supporting me Patreon if you enjoy the show: http://www.patreon.com/aleapofdoubt. Thanks to Jeff Prebeg, Jeanne Ikerd, Torsten Pihl, Chris Watson, and Kim Bojkovsky for being my patrons!

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheNatheist.

The opening clip is an excerpt from the audiobook “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, courtesy of Hachette Audio. Text Copyright 2007 by Christopher Hitchens. Audio production copyright 2007, Hachette Audio. Used with permission.

The opening and ending music is “Jade” by Esther Nicholson and is used under license. The editing was done by Rich Lyons of the “Living After Faith” podcast.

Check out our website: https://reasonrevolution.org.

Give us a like on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reasonrevolution.

Recently I wrote on how I was disappointed by the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson dialogue produced by Pangburn Philosophy. Although I still remain fundamentally disappointed by it, a few things have been clarified for me by Matt Dillahunty’s reflections on the discussion.

The thing that made the discussion so interesting was that Matt Dillahunty was not interested in debating or strawmanning Peterson. His goal, and I take him at his word, was to have a good conversation, be open and honest, seek clarification, and see where they agree and disagree. He wasn’t even the slightest bit disappointed in the dialogue, thinking he succeeded on many fronts. Maybe so. I just want to clarify a few open questions Dillahunty has concerning Peterson’s positions. Although it is quite odd Dillahunty did so little research on Peterson before the discussion, not even aware, in this recent video, of Peterson’s decades-long work as a clinician, the interchange seemed to have happened in good faith, and I have faith that this conversation can now move forward.

Language Use, the True, and the Real

One issue Dillahunty has with Peterson is he thinks people who no longer believe in God but still find religious language useful need to say they’re using religious language idiosyncratically, because they’re not talking about the God people believe in, but the human condition, and the kinds of Gods people invent to cope with that. This point on the face of it appears to be about simply being clear. In Peterson’s view, this is is actually indicative of Dillahunty’s primarily Enlightenment over Darwinian influences.[1] For Peterson, you can’t be a post-Enlightenment rationalist thinker and a Darwinian at the same time because what the latter explicitly conceptualizes the former ignores; that is, you can structure your world according to different presuppositions, and different systems of thought have different purposes. Furthermore, from his Darwinism, Peterson concludes that what is “real” subjectively and objectively, though they may be distinguished for analytical purposes, cannot be ultimately separated in reality. They have amorphous and porous borders, and this point seems lost on the post-Enlightenment thinkers.

Peterson thinks American pragmatists figured this out. The pragmatic concept of truth articulates the meaning of truth as that which works. As a result, the only kind of knowledge we can have about our environment is knowledge that is sufficient: knowledge that allows us to survive. To abstract ideas from survival value and assume that facts as they pertain to belief about morality, the world, and ourselves exist in and of themselves, separate from how they serve or diminish life, is suspect for Peterson. The assumption of post-Enlightenment thinkers is that the knowledge gained by this reduction doesn’t diminish the possibility for genuine human flourishing. Peterson says, “I think it’s dangerous to consider truth independent of its effect upon us.”[2]

This brings us to the question of the real and the true. Peterson takes what he calls a Darwinian position on the question of the real. The real is that which is consistent and endures across time. This is why Peterson is so fixated on religious myths. Dominance and competence hierarchies are some of the oldest evolutionary structures: over 300 million years old, older than trees. The patterns that constituted the competence hierarchy is the place from which ethics derives. What religious myth does is distill the grammar of competence hierarchies. Therefore to know the meaning of religious belief is to understand the millenia long solution to the problem of suffering and chaos, and this, Peterson believes, grounds our ethics.[3]

The question of what is real is actually connected to the question of the true because what is true is what is real, and what is real serves life. This is Peterson’s basic Darwinian position. Some things are only true for one thing, some things are true for ten things. Some are true for thousands of things. And that truth which is more pervasive and most enduring is the most true. Because the true and the real are connected in the notion of that which serves life, and in Peterson’s estimation, when we try to reduce the truth to just facts we have left out the thing that connects truth to reality. It’s not correspondence, and it’s not coherence. It’s life.

Are True Atheists Murderers?

One idea that got online atheist communities in an uproar is a comment Peterson made about nobody being a true atheist. Dillahunty seemed to have taken great offense at this, and perhaps rightfully so, for Dillahunty certainly doesn’t believe in a supernatural being, and he can ground morality in self-interest, of all things. Why do we need a god to be good?

The problem is Peterson isn’t actually taking the typical Christian apologist position on this issue. He’s rather concerned about the consequences of what would happen if the   of our culture is lost.[4] For Peterson, the person who lives after this event is the true atheist. People in the west who call themselves “atheists” do not in fact live after this event, for atheists of the west still live within the metaphysical substrate established by the Christian  myth. Atheists of the west today are different, for instance, from atheists in Athens. Lack of belief is where their commonalities begin and end, for atheists before the west without the Christian mythical substructure did not have a belief in the inherent dignity of individuals, the value of self-interest, natural law (which grounded the first human rights language), and the like. Although, for instance, somebody like Socrates could have argued for natural law, and so it would seem the philosophers of Athens were in effect taking a modern stance on morality, they still believed that the ordering of nature, with its natural inequality, made women and slaves naturally inferior to citizens who could participate in the polity.[5]

Another way to conceptualize Peterson’s idea is in the way Joseph Campbell did in the popular Myths To Live By. In chapter four, “The Separation of East and West,” he begins

“It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet—and here is my second point—they are the truly great ‘new thing’ that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species.”[6]

He goes on to trace the history of cultures, to show that archaic civilizations operated according to a belief in a great cosmic law which left no room for the individual, and where one’s birth determined who one is, what one is to be, and what one can think. Indeed, strikingly Campbell points out that the “Sanskrit verb ‘to be’ is sati…and refers to the character of the devout Hindu wife immolating herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre.”

But the west (what he calls the “occident”) is different from the orient, and it is because of the myths it told. The God who judged an entire world for their sins and sent a flood to destroy them as a consequence implies that humans are not just cogs in a predestined universal machine. Especially in the Old Testament, as we see in Job,

“the focus of concern is the individual, who is born but once, lives but once, and is distinct in his willing, his thinking, and his doing from every other; in the whole great Orient of India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan the living entity is [rather] understood to be an immaterial transmigrant that puts on bodies and puts them off. You are not your body. You are not your ego. You are to think of these as delusory.”[7]

So what does this have to do with atheism in the west and, particularly, Dillahunty’s argument that from self interest he can establish a moral system that isn’t contingent on religion? Well, rationality is a recent invention, and Peterson thinks our concepts are abstractions from the myths we’ve told for millenia. This is why, for instance, the west is individualistic, democratic, tending to understanding justice in terms of liberty, whereas the east is susceptible to collectivism, communism, tending to understand justice in terms of social expectations. Our very sense that self interest is a viable candidate for moral belief in the first place is an outgrowth of the Christian myth.

This leads us back to the previous section: as Peterson said in the discussion, it is difficult to draw a bright line between what is real and what is useful. When you strip subjectivity from the world at the beginning of the analysis of the human condition or the world, Peterson thinks it creates two possible pathologies: totalitarianism and nihilism; neither of which fundamentally value life because they’ve separated vitality from mechanism, breath from logic.

The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than it appears in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content. I would like to see Dillahunty and Peterson discuss these issues more fully, and I think for this to happen we have to get beyond, as I’ve said, the full stop question as to the existence of God. With or without God, how does religion affect our modern landscape? With or without God, what does the language of myth provide that, say, pure-hard logic can’t (if anything at all)? I’m hopeful the conversation might turn more interesting on these points, given that it appears both Dillahunty and Peterson had a good faith dialogue last time. Next time we might be in for something special.

 


 

[1] See Peterson’s discussion on this difference in “04 – Religion, Myth, Science, Truth.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] See much more in “Why Tell the Truth: On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson.”

[4] See much more in the article above. The logic of “mythical substrate” is basically that our ideas and rationalities derive from our behaviors which are abstracted into myths which are further abstracted into concepts. The loss of the mythical substrate is essentially the loss of the behaviors that give rise to it.

[5] See Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism for a much fuller picture of what the claim that the west was founded on both Jerusalem and Athens (i.e., Christianity) means. Note that this is not a normative judgment, entailing that now all our values must revert back to some Christian theology to be grounded. It’s simply a description of history, and the acceptance of value derived from Christian thought doesn’t entail the acceptance of Christianity to be intelligible today.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By, 61.

[7] Ibid., 69.

 

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