Thursday, November 20, 2008

In honor of World Philosophy Day

Hell, I didn't know it was World Philosophy Day today, but the BBC News says it is so I will go with that. So I am stealing two of the four questions they pose in the article with some of the explanation that they give as they actually made me think quite hard. I really think that these questions are interesting to contemplate. I have no answers and so I am not posting them here. I am challenging you to think about what is being posed and then come to your own solutions. I do have opinions and if you want to hear them, than drop a line in comments or by email, but that is not the point for me here. The point is to make you think, something I rarely strive to do on my blog or at least don't do enough of, IMHO.

Suppose Bill is a healthy man without family or loved ones. Would it be ok painlessly to kill him if his organs would save five people, one of whom needs a heart, another a kidney, and so on? If not, why not? Consider another case: you and six others are kidnapped, and the kidnapper somehow persuades you that if you shoot dead one of the other hostages, he will set the remaining five free, whereas if you do not, he will shoot all six. (Either way, he'll release you.) If in this case you should kill one to save five, why not in the previous, organs case? If in this case too you have qualms, consider yet another: you're in the cab of a runaway tram and see five people tied to the track ahead. You have the option of sending the tram on to the track forking off to the left, on which only one person is tied. Surely you should send the tram left, killing one to save five. But then why not kill Bill?

Consider a photo of someone you think is you eight years ago. What makes that person you? You might say he she was composed of the same cells as you now. But most of your cells are replaced every seven years. You might instead say you're an organism, a particular human being, and that organisms can survive cell replacement - this oak being the same tree as the sapling I planted last year. But are you really an entire human being? If surgeons swapped George Bush's brain for yours, surely the Bush look-alike, recovering from the operation in the White House, would be you. Hence it is tempting to say that you are a human brain, not a human being. But why the brain and not the spleen? Presumably because the brain supports your mental states, eg your hopes, fears, beliefs, values, and memories. But then it looks like it's actually those mental states that count, not the brain supporting them. So the view is that even if the surgeons didn't implant your brain in Bush's skull, but merely scanned it, wiped it, and then imprinted its states on to Bush's pre-wiped brain, the Bush look-alike recovering in the White House would again be you. But the view faces a problem: what if surgeons imprinted your mental states on two pre-wiped brains: George Bush's and Gordon Brown's? Would you be in the White House or in Downing Street? There's nothing on which to base a sensible choice. Yet one person cannot be in two places at once. In the end, then, no attempt to make sense of your continued existence over time works. You are not the person who started reading this article.

1 comment:

Mauigirl said...

I don't think it's OK to kill Bill for his organs. The choice of the train conductor is not the same as the choice to kill Bill to save 5 other people. The train conductor has only two choices and both of them require someone to die. Bill vs. the other people is not the same choice; While the other 5 people will die without organs, Bill is not at risk at all. And, there are other ways to save the other people than by killing Bill. They may get organs from elsewhere, they may qualify for some other type of device to keep them alive, etc.

The second one is more complicated. It depends on whether one's brain is all that houses everything that one "is." I think it's something we don't know yet.