Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Mind Experiments

It is something quintessentially characteristic of me that I desire to talk about or indeed write about the things that I happen to learn and the lateral thoughts which sprout, this is going to be one of those posts. I make no claim at interestingness so feel free to jump ship, as it were, at this stage with due impunity.

John Rawls in his book 'A Theory of Justice' conducts what can only be described as a mind experiment. He wanted to ascertain what were the basic principles that people would agree on if they were completely unaware of their status. In this hypothetical forum people would be under a 'veil of ignorance' without knowledge of themselves, anything that would lead them to distort their principles so that they would not work only to serve their own ends. Ignorance would extend to their age, sex, class, colour, religion, where they lived or the status of their society, ignorant even of the degree of their own intelligence. Rawls reasoned that with all these restraints on their knowledge that the agreements they would come to, their conceptions of justice if you will, would protect the least advantaged in society because under that veil of ignorance, one could never know if that were a position in society reserved for oneself. This was Rawls' 'basic position' and one could sit and pick holes both in his method and his conclusion but that's for another time, it got me to thinking about the other 'mind experiments' philosophers are prone to.

Descartes, in his 'Meditations on First Philosophy', conducts what he calls a 'project of pure enquiry' and invokes the notion of a malign being, the devil if you are of a Judeo-Christian bent, who could be tricking him into believing in his own existence. Following on with the theme of philosophical scepticism Bertrand Russell asks whether we are not a brain in a jar in some mad scientist's experiment with the 'knowledge' we have of ourselves and the world around us, beamed directly into our brain.

Bertrand Russell had other unusual mind experiments which he used as philosophical tools, one was a teapot. Russell is what you can call a teapot atheist, he noted that many people believed in God because they had not been shown enough evidence to refute his existence. Russell argued that there was perhaps a teapot orbiting the earth, a small teapot, too small to be picked up by the most powerful of telescopes. Whilst you cannot prove the existence of the teapot you also cannot prove that it doesn't exist. There has been an updating of the teapot argument and that is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the argument works just the same but the imagery is that bit funnier. When I studied philosophy at a-level my tutor used an argument along these lines but she argued for the existence of a perfect pizza chef, it was an ontological argument of sorts. a) I have an idea of a perfect pizza chef in my head, b) it is more perfect to exist than not exist, c)for my pizza chef to be perfect he must exist, c) my pizza chef is perfect therefore exists. The argument is flawed for all the same reasons the ontological argument is flawed but it made me laugh.

When you challenge the dictates of common-sense as philosophers are prone to do, things like belief in one's own existence, you place yourself in the awkward position of coming up with other ideas and solutions. The result is a body of work rich enough mental imagery to compete with the most abstract fantasy novel. I'm not saying that if you dig manga then you should go pick up Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics because the chances are you will be disappointed. But if you enjoy journeying within your mind; philosophy could be a discipline for you -- consult your nearest philosopher for advice.