Take Home Final Exam for Philosophy 100

©2001 Zhan Huan Zhou

Question 1: Morals
Question 2: Artificial Intelligence
Question 3: The Problem of Goodness

Question 1: Morals

Depending on the circumstances, Feinberg and Mill may agree or disagree on the moral permissibility of buying a term paper for an elective subject, but their reasons for thinking so are quite different. According to Mill, the moral permissibility of buying the term paper would depend highly on the happiness created (utility) by doing so. If the utility of buying the term paper creates more overall happiness, then the paper should be bought. If, on the other hand, more happiness is brought about by not purchasing the paper, then it should not be bought. In contrast, Feinberg would suggest that buying a term paper is unacceptable regardless of the consequences. It is the action itself that should be judged, not the results. According to Feinberg, purchasing a term paper would be morally impermissible because it is the wrong thing to do.

Using Mill’s utilitarian view, the question of whether or not to purchase the term paper depends on the pleasures obtained from doing so. The utilitarian principle suggests that we weigh advantages and disadvantages of doing so by rating the pleasures derived. For the example studied in lecture, we examined the case where in two days, both a term paper for an elective course is due and there is a final exam in the major subject. The student has neither started the term paper nor started studying for the final. In this case, it may be morally permissible to purchase the term paper because it would allow more time to be spent on studying for the final exam. By performing better in the major subject, this can lead to the student obtaining a better job in the future that he enjoys and also pays well. There are minor consequences resulting from purchasing the term paper, such as the minute possibility of getting caught. Considering the substantial private utility in this case, there is no doubt in the utilitarian’s mind that the term paper should be purchased.

If however, circumstances were not as described above, the answer may not be as obvious. What if there was no final examination to study for? It would still depend on the happiness that can be derived from buying the term paper. If, for instance, there was a conference specifically in the field of interest of the student that was happening during the next two days, the utilitarian may suggest that buying the term paper is acceptable because it would allow the student to attend. It would result in a form of “higher” intellectual pleasure. However, if the paper was purchased so that the student could simply go out and drink and party, the utilitarian may disapprove of buying the term paper because the student is trading a “lower” pleasure of imbibing for the “higher” pleasure of intellectual advancement by writing a term paper. In summary, Mill would have us weigh the overall “higher” pleasures obtained by pursuing a course of action and making our decision based on qualitative and quantitative criteria.

Feinberg, on the other hand, would always disagree with the purchase of the paper. To him, the ends do not justify the means. Even if the end result of purchasing the paper would result in greater overall happiness for the student, the very fact that he purchased the paper is immoral. To Feinberg, a person should perform the right action simply because it is right. This is in contrast to psychological egoism, ethical egoism, and utilitarianism. Psychological egoism suggests that an agent performs actions are always selfish. Ethical egoism suggests that an agent ought to perform actions that are selfish. Utilitarianism, as suggested by Mill, says we should seek overall happiness. It can be seen that these three theories only deal with the end result of happiness. Feinberg disagrees with all of these theories because they justify morality by the results of the action, not the action itself. The morality of an action should not depend on the happiness created by the action, but by the intrinsic nature of the action itself. In the case of purchasing of the term paper, Feinberg would always disagree with doing so because the action itself is wrong, regardless of the happiness that may result.

It can be seen that Feinberg and Mill may or may not agree about purchasing a term paper for an elective subject, but their reasons for thinking so are radically different. To Mill, the action that produces the greatest “higher” pleasure should be pursued, whereas Feinberg suggests the course of action that is intrinsically right.

Question 2: Artificial Intelligence

It is evident that humans are creatures capable of thinking. Humans are also machines of a biological nature. It follows naturally that machines are capable of thinking. However, does it naturally follow that a computer is capable of thinking? I believe that it does.

The brain itself is a computer, albeit one of a very complicated biological nature that is not very well understood. If possible, designing a computer that mimics all the thinking functions of the brain and the nervous system should be sufficient to create one capable of thinking. Searle would have us believe that simulation of the brain is not sufficient to constitute thinking. He gives an example that a simulation of digestion does not actually digest anything. This statement is true, but misses the point. The critical component of digestion is the physical and chemical breakdown of substances into a usable form and waste products. However, the parallel for thinking would be to accept an input and respond with an appropriate output. For instance, if the input was the question “What is 1+1?”, the computer follows the standard rules for addition and outputs “2” somewhere. According to Searle, since the computer did not write down on a piece of paper “1 + 1 = 2”, it is incapable of adding. This is absurd. In the case the output is not mathematical, but a physical chore, all that needs to be done is attach the appropriate device to the computer and send it the appropriate commands to accomplish the task. It is still performing the correct input / output relationship. The synapses for this computer may be simulated without any physical neurotransmitters being fired, but the net effect is the same. A given input invokes a specific output based on a rulebook.

Given this fact, however, Searle believes that even if the input / output relation is correct this does not imply that the machine actually knows how to think. He describes a thought experiment in which a man is locked inside of a room with a basket of Chinese characters and a Chinese rulebook. The man has a slot to receive Chinese text from the outside world and can also return his answer. Since the man has no understanding of the Chinese language, the answer he gives is governed by the rulebook. The answer is always correct Chinese and indistinguishable from a response that would have been given by an actual Chinese speaker / writer. According to Searle, this “Chinese Room” system is representative of a computer system that can only recognize symbols and manipulate them accordingly. He argues that there are no semantics involved with system because the man does not actually understand Chinese so there can be no meaning to the symbols. In other words, the Chinese room is like a computer that understands the syntax but not the semantics so it does not actually understand Chinese. Searle is wrong here on two points. First, semantics can indeed be ascribed to the words. Based on the rulebook, certain attributes can be attached to the words such as recognizing a word as a noun or verb. Based on these attributes, a computer can have an understanding of the semantics by providing context and meaning to the words. The second objection to Searle’s argument is if semantics are even necessary to forming a thinking computer. The man may not understand Chinese neither does the rulebook, nor the basket of characters. However, the entire Chinese room as a whole understands Chinese. This is analogous to neurons in the brain. A single neuron does not understand Chinese or how to add one and one, but all the neurons together in the brain is capable of such function. These two objections render Searle’s argument invalid.

I contest that if a computer can be built to mimic the biochemical functions of the brain and nervous system and given an adequate rulebook, a computer could be capable of thinking. If it was put in a black box, the input / output characteristics of such a computer would be indistinguishable from that of a human. The brain itself follows a sort of rulebook, so there is no reason to think that we cannot create an artificial rulebook for the computer to follow. A problem, however, is creating a sufficiently accurate model of the brain and determining exactly what should be inscribed in the rulebook.

Artificial Intelligence resources - directory of Artificial Intelligence related websites.

Question 3: The Problem of Goodness

The problem of goodness, as described by Cahn, mirrors that of the problem of evil, as intended. By making a few modifications to Cahn’s points about the problem of goodness, we can state the problem of evil as follows:

  1. Assume there exists and omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who created the world.
  2. If God exists, there would be no evil in the world.
  3. But there is evil in the world.
  4. Therefore, God does not exist.

To refute the conclusion stated in 4), one must refute one of the three premises. Any theist would agree with 1), so the challenge is in attacking premise 2) or 3). Premise 3) appears evident in the world. There is theft, murder, and rape in this world. Clearly, evil does exist so premise 3) is adequately defended. Now, a theist can adequately attack premise 2). How can God allow evil to exist if he is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent? It can be argued that evil is necessary to promote the idea of goodness, for if everything was goodness, there would be no sense of evil. So, it was God’s intention to allow evil so that maximal goodness can be reached. Premise 2) must then be replaced with 2') as follows:

2') If God exists, then every evil in the world is logically necessary in order for this to be the most good world that God could have created.

Now, the original argument falls apart because the conclusion does not follow. It appears the theists have a scored a victory proving the existence of God. However, is every evil logically necessary to promote the most good? This presents another challenge to the theists.

  1. Assume there exists and omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who created the world.
  2. If God exists, then every evil in the world is logically necessary in order for this to be the most good world that God could have created.
  3. But there is strong reason to believe that not every evil in the world is logically necessary in order for this to be the most good world God could have created.
  4. Therefore, there is strong reason to believe that God does not exist.

Unlike the first argument, this claims that it is simply unreasonable to believe in the existence of God, not illogical. Acts of evil such as theft, murder, and rape, mentioned earlier, do not seem to enhance the goodness in the world.

But now let us turn our heads in a different direction. Let us divide the goods in the world into two sorts: moral good and physical good. Moral goods are those performed by humans between each other; physical goods exist in the environment.

Moral goods are tied to the notion of free will. It is conjectured that a good act performed freely is better than one done involuntarily. God could ensure that each one of us always performed good actions, but then these actions would not have been free. Since they were not free actions, they would not produce the greatest good since free individuals can produce greater good. God then, gave us free will to promote maximum goodness.

For the world of physical goods, let us consider a world of “soulmaking”. The contrast of good and evil in the world allows for the process of soulmaking. For example, the death of a loved one may seem to be an evil, but this contributes to the process of soulmaking, making you a stronger person. But let us now suppose a world in which nothing can go wrong because God is capable of such deeds. But then, the entire notion of ‘good’ would seem to disappear because there is no contrast of evils so such a world cannot promote maximum goodness.

This brings two interesting facts pointing to an afterlife. First, for every good that arises from an evil, many evils have arisen from the good in the world. It would suggest soulmaking extends to an afterlife to be a complete success. Second, the overall goodness of soulmaking must be so good as to counteract all evil encountered in the current life. If this is not the case, it must be done in the afterlife.

There is no evidence however, to support that free will ever promoted greater goodness or that the world be a better place without evils of the past. Nor is there any reason to believe in an afterlife. The argument for both the problem of evil and problem of goodness are not satisfactory in defending the existence of either a Demon or God. The most logical conclusion is that it is quite likely that neither exists.

With notes from "Reason at Work," Cahn et al, Third edition, 1996.


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