Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 124

Aztec sacrificeHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Why moral relativism is both incoherent and immoral.

The Infernal Library: books written by tyrants big and small.

We may disagree about morality, but not all the way down. Which means there is always room for dialogue.

The consciousness deniers, a natural history.

Sorry, but Hawking’s final paper is utterly unremarkable, and does not give us a way to prove the existence of parallel universes.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!


115 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 124

  1. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: whether you think something is immoral has nothing to do with whether it will become so widely seen as such that it will lead to a dominant cultural zeitgeist that will see it as having been a “barbarism.” That’s all I was speaking to, not to the merits of the issue, which I also disagree on, but which is not what my point was in offering the bet.

    Socratic: your comparison is inapt. There is nothing analogous between making an eons length prediction on the basis of fundamental physics and one based on some people’s current moral attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author


    “For one thing, being epileptic, one of the primary medical recommendations is a fairly high protein diet. … Also, having grown up on a farm where we ate creatures we raised, I am doubly cursed.”

    Medical conditions are a very good reason. Being used to something, not so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Massimo Post author


    ” whether you think something is immoral has nothing to do with whether it will become so widely seen as such that it will lead to a dominant cultural zeitgeist that will see it as having been a “barbarism.””

    If one thinks there is such thing as moral progress, the two issues are related, not quite so independent as you make to be. Do you think the abolition of slavery is a case if moral progress?

    As to the issue itself, I’m curious as for your reasons to disagree. Tradition? Hedonism?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: Certainly I think that slavery is a case of moral progress. That’s because I think slavery was wrong even when it was accepted in parts of the country. So, obviously given my views, the fact that history moved in a direction with which I agree is something I’d view as progress.

    But I don’t agree that it is immoral to eat meat. I also don’t think that most people will come to think that in the future. And so (a) I don’t think the prediction you made is going to come to pass and (b) if it did, I wouldn’t view it as progress. And I am so sure about this — for myriad reasons that have to do with my perception of the culture and its future direction — that I was willing to bet and give you very favorable odds.

    As for your last question, you and I have already discussed the question of meat eating at substantial length, both in a video dialogue and in numerous exchanges in print. I’ve also written quite a bit on the subject. So, I don’t know that I have anything to add beyond what I’ve already said with respect to the matter on all of those occasions. Perhaps we should take up the issue again in another dialogue, if you think there are things we haven’t already covered over the history of our exchanges on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. brodix


    I remember once reading that if aliens came down to earth and flew around it, they would assume cattle are the dominant species, given the amount of land and crops devoted to raising them. So if we were to do away with eating meat, the necessary process would require eliminating most of this effort and the cattle.

    While it might be ecologically healthy, if the resources and land were devoted to more diverse species and land preservation, I’m not sure the cattle would agree.


  6. Robin Herbert

    My own prediction is that withinn five years, slavery apologetics will hit the mainstream.

    It will take the form of a claim that we shouldn’t discriminate against companies who have slave labour in their supply chain because such industries are helping to grow the economies of poor countries.

    They may even call slavery a necessary transitional phase to a modern economy (such as serfdom in England) and that the USA became a modern economy through slavery and that modern economic woes in the US can be traced back to this transitional phase being distributed by abolitionists and abruptly brought to a close rather than being allowed to gradually fade away.

    They will say that authoritarian regressive liberals who call for boycotts against such practices are condemning people to unnecessary poverty.

    Anyone care to say I am wrong in that prediction?


  7. brodix


    Within five years, isn’t it already being made?

    One of the arguments in favor of slavery was similar, that owners of their labor would take better care of it, than those who only rented it.


  8. Massimo Post author

    So, Dan, you are not saying that the moral issue and my prediction are unrelated; you are simply saying that I am wrong about the moral issue, and that is why my prediction, in your opinion, will not come true. But this has nothing to do with reading the zeitgeist. I’m prtty sure people two thousand years ago would have said with just as much conviction that anyone predicting the abolition of slavery on the basis that it is wrong to engage in a ludicruous misreading of the zeitgeist.


    I think Tegmarks is not onto anything other than unsupported speculation:


    “While it might be ecologically healthy, if the resources and land were devoted to more diverse species and land preservation, I’m not sure the cattle would agree.”

    The cows don’t get a saying, because they are not capable of arguing, or of engaging in moral reasoning.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: No, actually, I doubt that will become the dominant ethos regardless of whether you are right or wrong about it.

    So, yes, I think you are wrong on the merits, but that’s not the reason why I think your prediction won’t come true. My reason for thinking that has to do with my perception of the zeitgeist and the future.


  10. SocraticGadfly

    Per Massimo’s comment on Tegmark, the older i get, the less I care for Platonism, or Platonists, in any form. That’s probably also why, as I realize he is a big one, my take on Wittgenstein has moved closer to where Massimo had his on Rationally Speaking four or five years ago. (That new book on the Vienna Circle has further reinforce this for me.)

    Liked by 2 people

  11. brodix


    I fully agree. They really are not terribly bright. My opinion of herbivores is they are much more spatially aware, than temporally organized, as food is usually abundant, but predators might be lurking, so the eyes more on the sides of the heads and good reactions.

    I think a significant part of our intellectual evolution is a consequence of being hunters, not only for the nutrition, but the strategizing. It doesn’t take much of a stone tool to smash open a nut. Though we necessarily didn’t originate as predators, but the physical qualities of evolving in trees gave us both manual dexterity and bifocal vision. It’s a short step from swinging between branches, to throwing pointed sticks at targets.

    Will we ever drop being omnivores and go back to being herbivores, for moral reasons? I’m afraid I’m probably with Dan on that one, though not because there isn’t a pretty good moral reason for doing so, but that human morality is more ideal, than compulsion. We all want a perfect world. We can empathize with other humans, thus anti-slavery has strong advocates, but cattle really are obnoxious brutes. The people who actually raise them are not evil, but understand they are not pets. For sympathy and health, I would argue for grass fed, over feedlot. Though it takes a fair amount of land to do so well.


  12. SocraticGadfly

    If one thinks one is correct about whether or not a behavior is moral, but may not actually be correct about it being moral (for growing numbers of people) would a prediction about the Zeitgeist related to that not, not, not … be subject to a Bayesian probability critique?



    Otherwise, no, my analogy is not totally, or close to totally, inapt. I already have noted that sociology is not as exact as physics. But it IS a social science. It’s NOT astrology or phrenology. Per the sociological analogy Massimo used about slavery (and we could bring out others like human sacrifice, or even standard working day), making probabilistic predictions is … reasonable.

    If I were to fully extend the analogy, I would look for a sociological equivalent, to this situation, of Russell’s Teapot.


    I agree with Massimo on more than just moral grounds.

    At some point, I expect not just a carbon trade, but a carbon tax-and-tariff system to be implemented by some country or group of countries. (Tariff is the key part; gotta force the whole world on one page.) Between that and other pricing issues, continued population growth in the world and other issues, I expect a move away from meat-eating to occur for a variety of reasons. And, to the degree environmental issues are moral ones, it will still be moral, just broader than animal welfare morality.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. brodix

    As I see it though, we have a world civilization and environment heading for catastrophe, because of deeply conceptual and philosophical reasons, that I’ve tried to elucidate here repeatedly, from siphoning notational value out of the system creating it, with no regard for the health of that system, based on the assumption of money as a commodity, rather than social contract.
    To linear assumptions about reality, which serve to support extremisms of all variety.
    To top down theologies, supporting absolutist belief systems and autocratic rule.
    Yet very few seem to see how society is guided by such assumptions and how and why they could be changed. Meanwhile you are vehement on saving overfed animals, of very limited perception, from an early but fairly painless death.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. wtc48

    Robin: “I am looking forward to an article in the NY Times by a neuroscientist about how things don’t really seem, they just seem to seem, a caricature of seeming, so to speak.”

    Shakespeare comes close to this in “Twelfth Night”, when Feste the Fool confronts Malvolio, who is locked up in a dark room as a madman:

    Fool: “But tell me true, are you not mad indeed? or do you but counterfeit?”

    Malvolio: “Believe me, I am not; I tell thee true.”

    Here Malvolio (not the subtlest of characters) overlooks the ambiguity of the Fools question, which could be paraphrased “Are you seeming to be mad? Or just seeming to be seeming?”


  15. wtc48

    Brodix: “cattle really are obnoxious brutes. The people who actually raise them are not evil, but understand they are not pets. For sympathy and health, I would argue for grass fed, over feedlot. Though it takes a fair amount of land to do so well.”

    I believe cattle grazing is regarded by many as one of the worst uses of arable land. One of the first to convince me of this was Frances Moore Lappe, in “Diet for a Small Planet.” (But I still eat meat)


  16. Philip Thrift


    Where in the “Mathematical Universe? I Ain’t Convinced” link (and as I stated above, I think Tegmark’s MUH makes no sense) is there any discussion of his “Consciousness as a State of Matter” paper from 2015?


  17. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Zerk,

    Good questions, and I thank you for appearing to take Dennett seriously and for making an effort to understand where he’s coming from. I don’t expect I will change your mind on whether he is right, I’m just trying to explain how the view shouldn’t be dismissed as silly.

    but with consciousness there seems to be nothing left over if one denies the what-is-it-likeness aspect.

    From a functional perspective, I think consciousness is not a discrete category in nature but basically a term for “something that processes and integrates information in a manner analogous to that of an alert human”. Properly understood, it’s much like the term “life”. Whether something is alive or not is not really a discrete category. We are more likely to describe something as alive if it behaves similarly to us in certain respects (growing, reproducing, responding to its environment etc), but there is no real fact of the matter on whether some self-replicating molecule or system of molecules is really alive or not. It’s a matter of convention or definition. So too with consciousness. Trying to find the secret ingredient missing from functional accounts of consciousness is like trying to isolate the élan vital. It doesn’t exist.

    Take away the phlogiston/élan vital/aether/qualia and you’ve still got an objective phenomenon to describe. In the case of consciousness you’ve still got the functional or objective side of how human brains process information. You’ve got beliefs (functionally understood), desires (functionally understood), self-awareness (functionally understood) and at least the functional seeming of qualia.

    such and such ‘experiences’ are present because they are the same thing, the question is (for me), how are they the same?

    It’s not easy to see how they are the same thing because the objective description of a functional state and the subjective experience of actually being in that state are not the same thing, even though the two functional states are the same thing. To allude to Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment, for Mary the colour scientist, knowing everything about the functional state of experiencing the quale “red” does not mean she is actually in that state herself, nor can she enter that state by an act of will alone. She has to be in that state to actually experience red. There is no way to get to the subjective experience from the objective description because in general no description is sufficient to put you in the functional state being described (NB: this is not how Dennett himself answers this thought experiment but I disagree with him on this point). This is why the objective description always seems unsatisfactory, but it doesn’t mean that anything is missing from the description. That something is missing is the illusion Dennett is talking about.

    To assert simply that they are gives us no intuition

    I don’t think anyone is simply asserting. I would say there are arguments to back up Dennett’s line of thinking. But sometimes one must make assertions in order to simply explain what the view is in the first place.

    no principled way of predicting the presence or lack thereof of consciousness in physical systems

    If you’re looking for objective evidence that will settle this question finally one way or another, I don’t think we will ever have it. In my view this problem is purely conceptual. This is unsatisfactory to a lot of people who think science will provide the answers, but I think this is the situation we are in.

    such that one’s conclusions regarding what is conscious and what is not is rendered circularly dependent on presupposing one’s pet theories.

    It’s not entirely circular if there are reasons for preferring one theory over another on grounds such as parsimony, coherence etc. I think Dennett’s view wins on these grounds. For more on the motivation read this:

    what makes anyone think that qualia are supposed to be a model of experience, rather than basically just a word for raw feelings themselves?

    They are both. Dennett (and I) would deny that raw feelings exist as anything more than the belief that we are experiencing raw feelings. There is no such thing as raw feelings themselves. There is only the seeming. The illusion that Dennett claims we are falling victim to only causes problems when we try to analyse and introspect regarding our conscious experience, as in when we try to answer questions such as whether a computer simulation would actually be conscious or only have the appearance of consciousness. Dogs are not under any such illusion. A dog has no concept of qualia, and would surely regard a sufficiently lifelike robot dog as a peer. But when we try to model our conscious experience, we introduce such concepts, and these models and concepts are not only wrong but incoherent according to Dennett.

    The notion that everything everywhere should be amenable to the same kind of investigation (3rd person) is actually a rather strong claim, I think.

    I agree. So, again, the motivation is grounded for me in parsimony. We don’t need actual qualia to explain reports of and belief in qualia. So it’s more parsimonious to dispense with them, especially since they don’t appear (to me) to be particularly coherent as a concept.

    Would you agree with this characterization?

    It’s not a bad characterisation, but I think I would add something about parsimony and coherence. I don’t think it’s merely an aesthetic preference. In any case, I’m not really trying to say that all reasonable persons are obliged to accept Dennett’s view. I’m just trying to help you understand it and see that it isn’t silly.

    a kind of pragmatic attribution we make to other agents, like belief, or desire, once they get complicated enough

    Close. But it’s not as if anything complicated enough is conscious. As I was saying, I think consciousness is a term for information-processing analogous to that of a human mind. If it’s doing something completely different then I wouldn’t describe it as conscious no matter how complicated it is. But I would agree that there is no fixed determinant as to whether something is conscious or not.

    It sounds more like he’s just trying to smuggle behaviourism in through the back door,

    Maybe. Or you could see it as a reworked/patched behaviourism that can successfully address the flaws of behaviourism. The key difference is that it’s not about how something behaves externally but about how it processes information internally. Conscious things can certainly behave like unconscious things, and unconscious things can certainly to a point mimic conscious things (e.g. the rudimentary AI we get in video games). But I suspect the only way to pass a really rigorous Turing Test is to be process information in a manner analogous to a human and so to be conscious.


  18. Robin Herbert

    I don’t care for Mr Tegmark’s version of Platonism, but Messrs Rovelli and Smolin have convinced me that some kind of Platonism is inescapable. I wrote rhe Library of Babel on a post-it note and pinned it to my workstation wall to remind me what a trivial undifferentiated space looks like.

    However I believe that Tegmark’s “consciousness as a state of matter” is more related to Integrated Information Theory, which I also don’t think much of.


  19. Robin Herbert

    I don’t mean I have the words “Library if Babel” written on the post-it note, I mean I have every possible book of every possible length written on the post-it note. I am hoping that someone can send me a similar post-it note with M (as Rovelli defines it) written on it.


  20. Robin Herbert

    I don’t see much take up for vegetarianism in my neck of the woods. I only know two vegetarians, including myself, and no vegans. In many restaurants the vegetarian option is a plate of lettuce (laughingly called “Vegetarians Delight”). I am only a vegetarian because I detest meat and not for any strong moral conviction.


  21. Massimo Post author


    sorry, that link wasn’t specific to the paper. I have addressed the “consciousness as a state of matter” (i.e., panpsychism) on this blog. Tegmark just likes crazy ideas. Smart guy, but bizarre ideas with no empirical foundation. At all.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Massimo Post author


    “but Messrs Rovelli and Smolin have convinced me that some kind of Platonism is inescapable”

    Interesting, considering that both make very good, yet different, arguments for why mathematical Platonism is an illusion. I guess they managed to convince you of the opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Massimo Post author


    ” don’t see much take up for vegetarianism in my neck of the woods. I only know two vegetarians, including myself, and no vegans.”

    Yes, in some neck of the woods slavery was never going to end either. And yet.


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