Part 3; an excerpt:
Last fall, I attended “Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” at which speakers pondered whether we must grant rights to sentient sex robots; whether super-smart robots will be nice to us; and whether we should let a trolley kill a dumb human rather than a smart robot. (If the human was a trolleyologist, I'd save the robot.) Everyone was having fun until Thomas Nagel, that killjoy, reminded us that millennia of philosophizing have yielded no consensus on ethical questions. [See Post-postscript.]
A few brave souls insist that “moral truth” is not an oxymoron, and moral philosophy still matters. Peter Singer, mentioned above, presents arguments for altruism—more specifically, for giving money to the poor instead of spending on stuff you don’t need--that I find disturbingly persuasive. [See Post-post-postscript.]
Derek Parfit, who died earlier this month, strove to prove the existence of objectively true moral laws. In a 2011 profile for The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar writes: “Parfit believes that there are true answers to moral questions, just as there are to mathematical ones.” But Parfit is admired less for being right than for being “brilliantly clever and imaginative” (as Bernard Williams put it in a review of Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons).
Part 4; an excerpt:
Last year my philosophy salon pondered “Cognitive Homelessness” by Timothy Williamson. It’s a strange essay, crammed with what struck me as willfully obscure terms and assertions. It features an arcane argument, based on the so-called Sorites paradox, that you cannot know whether you are hot or not.
Or as Williamson puts it: “Feeling hot does not imply being in a position to know that one is hot.” Williamson concludes that we are “cognitively homeless,” by which he means that “nothing of interest is inherently accessible” to our knowledge.
Whoa. I wasn’t sure what Williamson’s aim was. A parody of philosophy? A demonstration that so-called rational analysis is futile, because if you’re sufficiently clever you can defend any crazy conclusion?
The more I pondered the paper, the more I liked it. I began to see—or think I saw—the world through Williamson’s eyes. The view fascinated me, in part because it’s odd. The paper also seemed ironic in the literary sense, seething with possible meanings. Then, an epiphany: Philosophy is poetry with little rhyme and lots of reason.
Mr. Horgan also replies at the end to a comment by Aaron Preston from our earlier thread.