The fact that you can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is manifestly wrong, just logically wrong. Facts in — facts out, values in — values out. By rules of deductive logic you can’t derive conclusions about properties that did not initially appear in your premises. Deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is like adding two even numbers and obtaining an odd one. There is no description of the universe which contains oughts, descriptions of the universe only contain facts. So oughts stay on the one side, facts stay on the other. Right? Well, not so fast.

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David Hume, the guy who started it all


Even on Hume’s own terms, you can’t derive an ought from an is without making further assumptions. If you make further assumptions, you can derive as many oughts as you please. So, for example, you may find it reasonable to assume that you should avoid unnecessary pain. Granted this, you can then logically derive that you ought not stick your hands in boiling water without having a good reason for doing so. …

Mundane virtual worlds

Our everyday lives do not usually seem incredible to us. Most of the time we follow familiar routines, meet people we already know, do things we have done before. Mundane is the word, this much is clear. What may be less clear though is that this world of everyday mundane things is, in a sense, a virtual world. It consists of things that we made labels for and imbued with properties that matter to us, which is at best just a tiny subset of properties that stuff out there actually has and at worst just plain nonsense. In this way, things that we perceive and name around us are not actual things but virtual things. It may even be correct to say that the existence of separate things is just a reifying effect of language, as Nietzsche insisted. And it is certainly true to say that before scientific revolution we identified things around us mostly by how we subverted them to our needs. …

Our greatest illusion is to believe that we are what we think ourselves to be. — Henri-Frédéric Amiel


The Blind Watchmaker is the title of Richard Dawkins’ 1986 book where he explains how the process of natural selection gives rise to living beings which appear to have been designed. Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology. Writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Paley held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence for the existence of a divine creator. He vividly made his point by drawing an analogy — the existence of an intricately designed watch compels belief in a conscious intentional watchmaker in the same way as existence of complex life forms compels belief in God. Then along came Darwin and showed us how the process of reproduction and natural selection can give rise to artifacts that appear to be intricately designed. There indeed is a creator, a watchmaker, and it is the process of biological evolution. But evolution is not conscious, has no foresight and no goal in mind, no purpose. …

I have a confession to make. I don’t have free will. The problem has been boggling my mind for ten years now. I’ve read numerous books, from classics to modernity, from David Hume to Daniel Dennett. I thought about it long and hard. My mind twisted itself like a DNA strand, in on itself, over and over again. Not only could I not figure out where I stand on the issue. I couldn’t figure out what the issue was.

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Free will is supposed to be our most intimate experience. Noam Chomsky says we can’t abandon believing in it since it is our most immediate phenomenologically obvious impression. Yet I don’t have this impression. David Chalmers once asked us to imagine a philosophical zombie that acts and speaks exactly like a human would, with one important difference — it would have no consciousness at all. …

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Free or constrained? Suspended a hundred feet in the air in Bobur’s wooden probosces in Nikola-Lenivets — you feel both.


Compatibilism is the position that freedom of the will is compatible with natural laws and biological organization of the human brain. Dan Dennett constructs for us one such free will worth wanting. Key elements of free will thus conceived are rationality and self-control. We consider both in turn and arrive at some unexpected conclusions.

Empirical studies show that human rationality is very limited. Not only it can go haywire during the most simple of choices, but irrational forces guide us in actions of great consequence. Degree of rationality depends heavily on the cultural background, on the thinking tools and fictional constructs that one acquires. Language is often thought of as the enabler of human rationality, but it has a dark side too — it allowed as to be responsive to reason but it also allowed us to create fictional bloodthirsty entities that started ruling our lives. Rationality varies greatly not only between different people but also throughout human history, and even within a single person. Thus rationality is not an ability that we have as a matter of our biology, like that of language, or of walking upright. Rather it a skill that we acquire and perfect but never master. …

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Classical thinking about Fermi paradox may have as much relevance to extraterrestrial civilizations as this Soviet-era sports arena to giant invading robo-crabs.

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars and entire careers listening to signals from outer space. Longing for first contact is ingrained in our culture and seems like a real possibility. But so far the universe shows no signs life.
Thinking about it more carefully, we may extrapolate forward the path of our own civilization and see that the mode of future existence quickly becomes unrecognizable to our current selves. This means that the universe teeming with advanced civilizations may look to us exactly as it does now. Fermi’s paradox is only a paradox of stretching our parochial thinking over the entire cosmos.
This parochial thinking stems from the hidden assumption about our own cognitive universality — the ability to recognize and understand everything there is to understand, given enough time and resources. On a more close examination we see that this assumption falls apart — in all probability we are cognitively closed creatures, our thinking is bound by our biology.
Because we are cognitively closed, for us to encounter extraterrestrials millions of years ahead in evolution is like for an ant to encounter a human being. We explore this analogy and arrive at an unexpected conclusion — there are no highly advanced alien civilizations out there at all. “Civilization” is just our parochial concept that fails to capture what we are after. …


Valery Latyshev

Mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur.

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