Some philosophical thought experiments #2

Here are some more thought experiments I found on the Internet::

Sustainable development

The Green family realised that their success was exacting a high price. Their country farmhouse included their home and their business premises. But while their enterprise was creating a healthy profit, the vibrations caused by the heavy machinery used on site was destroying the fabric of the building. If they carried on as they were, in five years the building would be unsafe and they would be forced out. Nor were their profits sufficient to fund new premises or undertake the repairs and structural improvements required. Mr and Mrs Green were determined to preserve their home for their children. And so they decided to slow production and thus the spread of the damage. Ten years later, the Greens passed away and the children inherited the family estate. The farmhouse was falling to pieces. The builders said it would cost £1m to put right. The youngest of the Greens, who had been the accountant for the business for many years, grimaced and buried his head in his hands. “If we had carried on at full production and not worried about the building, we would have had enough money to put this right five years ago. Now, after 10 years of underperformance, we’re broke.” His parents had tried to protect his inheritance. In fact, they had destroyed it.

The famous violinist

This one involves a famous violinist falling into a coma. The society of music lovers determines from medical records that you and you alone can save the violinist’s life by being hooked up to him for nine months. The music lovers break into your home while you are asleep and hook the unconscious (and unknowing, hence innocent) violinist to you. You may want to unhook him, but you are then faced with this argument put forward by the music lovers: The violinist is an innocent person with a right to life. Unhooking him will result in his death. Therefore, unhooking him is morally wrong. However, the argument does not seem convincing in this case. You would be very generous to remain attached and in bed for nine months, but you are not morally obliged to do so. The parallel with the abortion case is evident. The thought experiment is effective in distinguishing two concepts that had previously been run together: “right to life” and “right to what is needed to sustain life.” The foetus and the violinist may each have the former, but it is not evident that either has the latter. The upshot is that even if the foetus has a right to life (which Thompson does not believe but allows for the sake of the argument), it may still be morally permissible to abort. [

Nature the artist

Daphne Stone could not decide what to do with her favourite exhibit. As curator of the art gallery, she had always adored an untitled piece by Henry Moore, only posthumously discovered. She admired the combination of its sensuous contours and geometric balance, which together captured the mathematical and spiritual aspects of nature. At least, that’s what she thought up until last week, when it was revealed that it wasn’t a Moore at all. Worse, it wasn’t shaped by human hand but wind and rain. Moore had bought the stone to work on, only to conclude that he couldn’t improve on nature. But when it was found, everyone assumed that Moore must have carved it. Stone was stunned and her immediate reaction was to remove the “work” from display. But then she realised that this revelation had not changed the stone itself, which still had all the qualities she had admired. Why should her new knowledge of how the stone came to be change her opinion of what it is now, in itself?

The Chinese Room

The Chinese Room argument, devised by John Searle, is an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence. The argument centres on a thought experiment in which someone who knows only English sits alone in a room following English instructions for manipulating strings of Chinese characters, such that to those outside the room it appears as if someone in the room understands Chinese. The argument is intended to show that while suitably programmed computers may appear to converse in natural language, they are not capable of understanding language, even in principle. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. Searle’s argument is a direct challenge to proponents of Artificial Intelligence, and the argument also has broad implications for functionalist and computational theories of meaning and of mind. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.

The poppadom paradox

As life-transforming events go, the arrival of poppadoms at the table hardly counts as the most dramatic. But it gave Saskia the kind of mental jolt that would profoundly alter the way she thought. The problem was that the waiter who delivered the poppadoms was not of Indian descent, but a white Anglo-Saxon. This bothered Saskia, because for her, one of the pleasures of going out for a curry was the feeling that you were tasting a foreign culture. But the more she thought about it, the less it made sense. Saskia thought of herself as a multiculturalist: she positively enjoyed the variety of cultures an ethnically diverse society sustains. But her enjoyment depended upon other people remaining ethnically distinct. She could only enjoy a life flitting between many different cultures if others remained firmly rooted in one. For her to be a multiculturalist, others needed to be monoculturalists. Where did that leave her ideal of a multicultural society?

Here is a previous post: Some philosophical thought experiments #1

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