Saturday, July 11, 2009

Democracy 2.0 Revisited

I came across this article on an idea to improve the US Constitution, and it seemed fairly good to me. I continue to be quite interested in ideas to fix fundamental structural problems in our government, and I'm still waiting to see the California Constitution get rewritten.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

In Which I Argue Science Fiction Philosophy

Well, I let this site get a bit behind after feeling a bit out of it for the last two to three weeks. However, I'm dragging myself back to health now, and would like to finish off this half-written post.

Realizing I've spent too much time arguing politics here, I wanted to write about something else and look at a philosophical question commonly raised in science fiction. An argument I often had with my friend Pfau, was regarding the hypothetical situation of whether or not one would be willing to use a Star Trek style transporter where a body is scanned, the data is transmitted and a copy of one is built in a different location. This, to some people, raises the objection that the original person/consciousness/soul/self/etc. is lost. Dollhouse raises several similar questions, as do all the science fiction that involves uploading people's brains to computers. Yes, this is all freshman philosophy, but as I'm still arguing with my friends over it, I wanted to have my say.

The crux of this debate, in my mind, is whether or not the concept of a singular identity, a soul, is valid. Many people imagine a person's identity to be continuous, singular and undivided. A person has a soul when they are born (or conceived, whatever) and that soul is them for the entirety of their life (and after, if you take that school of thought). Ignoring some of the finer points, this is generally how it is in all cases. We don't have transporters or uploading to make things complicated and we can get away with thinking of identities or souls that way. Our ethics, laws and customs assume that it always must be that way, but often the current concept is imperfect. A person's identity changes throughout their life; their mind, their body, all are different at different times, but because the change is continuous, we assume a singular, continuous identity or soul.

That's all well and good, but when we get into this hypothetical question involving technology that hasn't been invented yet, our concepts fair less well. The reason that some people would not want to be transported is because that break of continuity in space makes them feel that continuity would be broken in their identity or soul, and as that isn't allowed in their conception of identity or soul, they believe that they would have died. Some people, on various Star Trek forums, argue that continuity of self is maintained in Star Trek transporters because the new person is built with the old atoms, but I view this as completely irrelevant. We have already hypothetically given up continuity in space, and we are maintaining continuity of form, so I feel that continuity of matter is not important. Oddly enough there aren't many ethical questions raised by a lack of continuity in time, though I suppose this is an issue in some science fiction where they have to rework the definitions of death and inheritance law when people start cryogenically freezing themselves. Anyways, the question is, what forms of continuity are important for continuity of self?

As I would like to live in a world where such questions become relevant, I would like better answers. Should I be OK with being transported? If there is a copy of me, should I be afraid of death? If there is a copy of me, who gets my stuff? If my mind is copied into a computer, what rights should it/I have?

I believe that to answer this we should be prepared to recognize the continuity of identity as the convenient convention it is and not as an absolute. The person I am now exists at one moment in time, with some memories of the past. One's 'self', as an absolute in one moment of time, is constantly dying, as it does not exist from one time to the next. As no identity is perfectly continuous, then the issue of 'dying' or 'losing one's self/consciousness/soul' when being transported becomes much more irrelevant, and issues of what do with duplicates, or large discontinuities of time, become more issues of practicalities. This certainly doesn't answer the question, but it makes it much simpler.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Income and Democracy

Recently, I seem to have seen rather frequently the idea that democracy requires an average midlevel of income in a country. Of course, when I started writing this post and looking for evidence supporting that, the details seemed rather vague, and the main source I found for this was Fareed Zakaria.

However, assuming that this concept is somewhat accurate, that democracy generally isn't stable and self-sustaining in a country until GDP per capita hits about $5000 to $6000 a year, this raises a question for me. The real GDP per person back when the United States was founded was far below this, apparently approximately $917. We didn't have what we would consider a full democracy at the time, with only people with a certain amount of property or who paid a certain amount of taxes were able to vote.

This leads me to wonder if, with countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of promoting full democracy, should we instead have put into place a system where only the more well to do are allowed to vote, perhaps at the range that Zakaria mentions?

Of course, by the time all property requirements were dropped in 1850, average GDP was still only $1888, and this seems to disprove the initial assumption. More importantly are the ethical questions around this, as many would find property requirement as bad as requirements based upon race or sex. Still, it does make me wonder about how we are trying to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan.