Can philosophy give us Truth? Probably not, but I still enjoy it. At its best, philosophy knocks my perceptions off kilter and helps me see the world anew. Sometimes, it makes me smile. And that brings me to philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel. I first encountered his work in 2015, after I posted a critique of integrated information theory, a theory of consciousness with crazy implications. Someone pointed me toward a position that Schwitzgebel calls “crazyism,” which holds that a theory of consciousness is likely to sound, well, crazy. A year later, at an N.Y.U. conference on “The Ethics of AI,” I heard Schwitzgebel give a witty talk on whether artificial intelligences should be designed to be “cheerfully suicidal.” I have also enjoyed, and cited (here and here), Schwitzgebel’s investigations into whether moral philosophers are more moral than other folk. In short, I’m a Schwitzgebel fan. Looking for respite from the world’s troubles, I e-mailed him some questions.– John Horgan

Horgan: Why philosophy? Any regrets?

Schwitzgebel: No regrets yet!

Here’s why I love philosophy: For all X, you can do philosophy of X, just by diving down deep and long into the most fundamental questions about that topic. That’s what I enjoy, and I’ll do it for any topic that catches my attention—whether it’s the nature of jerkitude, garden snail cognition, robot rights or the moral behavior of ethics professors. What could be more fun?

Horgan: Why do you write fiction? Doesn't that mean philosophy isn't really that fulfilling for you?

Schwitzgebel: Wait, writing fiction can’t be a way of doing philosophy? Sartre, Rousseau, Zhuangzi, Voltaire, Nietzsche and Borges might disagree! Is anyone currently doing better work on the ethics of technology than the TV series Black Mirror?

For instance, weirdly implemented group minds feature both in my science fiction stories and in my expository philosophy. Under what conditions could there be real thought and consciousness at a group level? In an expository essay, I’ve argued that most philosophical theories of consciousness imply that the United States, as it currently exists, literally has a stream of conscious experience over and above the conscious experiences of its citizens and residents. (It has, for example, abundant complex information processing, self-monitoring, and strategic reactivity to its environment.) In a series of fictions, I’ve explored possibilities of group consciousness and cognition hypothetically, imagining cases of group cognition via hypnotic memory induction, via millions of monkeys trading gold foil, and via evolutionary processes among an infinitude of randomly constituted computers.

Think of it this way. A philosophical thought experiment is a mini-fiction. As a fiction, it engages the imagination and emotions better than purely abstract propositions do. It meets the human mind where it’s strongest. Should we act on a maxim that we can will to be a universal law? Should we try to maximize good consequences? Who knows? We can barely solve simple logic puzzles like the Wason Selection Task when they’re presented abstractly. We need to sink our teeth into specific examples. We need to imagine scenarios, work out cases, engage our social and emotional cognition. A fully developed fiction simply carries the thought experiment further, making it richer, more immersive, more engaging—and potentially more illuminating for those reasons.

Horgan: Is having a strong sense of humor, and irony, a liability for a truth-seeker?

Schwitzgebel: I’ve never really understood humor or irony. I simply say what’s on my mind in all sincerity and for some reason people think I’m joking. [See Postscript.]

Horgan: Nietzsche said all great philosophy consists of “involuntary and unconscious autobiography.” Was he right?

Schwitzgebel: The better the philosopher, the more so.

Horgan: Marianne Moore suggested that if you read poetry with “perfect contempt,” you might find something “genuine” in it. True of philosophy, too?

Schwitzgebel: Great philosophical work shines with something genuine—a personality, a worldview you’re invited to, a characteristic spirit and angle of approach. Immerse yourself in a great philosopher for a while and you learn to see the world through a different lens. By doing so, maybe you can, as Moore suggests, get a real toad from an imaginary garden. But I doubt contempt is a helpful first step.

Horgan: I’ve argued that philosophy’s chief value consists in “countering our terrible tendency toward certitude.” Comment?

Schwitzgebel: Ah, John, now I feel certain why you’ve chosen to interview me, among the many wonderful philosophers you might have selected! We have a similar perspective on this, and much of my work is directed toward exactly that end (sometimes covertly).

Here’s a way of expanding that thought. At its best, philosophy opens you to seeing things differently. It reveals possible ways the world could be, possible ways of living or valuing things or organizing society, even possible general structures of the cosmos, that might otherwise never have crossed your mind. To achieve this, it needn’t provide definitive answers. For me, the greatest philosophical rush comes from realizing that something I’d long taken for granted might not be true. The world opens up into new spaces of weirdness and complexity.

Horgan: Has moral philosophy gotten anywhere over the past 2,500 years?

Schwitzgebel: Aggressive warfare, slavery and bigotry are bad. It’s kind of amazing to me how few historical philosophers fully appreciated this. It seems so obvious now!

Some ethical disputes might forever elude resolution by the human mind, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make some progress.

Horgan: Why aren’t modern philosophers—especially Americans, who live in the most warlike nation on earth—more concerned with the moral problems posed by war?

Schwitzgebel: Academic philosophy, like most academic disciplines, favors the nerd. A nerd, as I’ve defined it, is someone who loves an intellectual topic, for its own sake, to an unreasonable degree. It’s hard to write a successful dissertation unless you’re the kind of weirdo (and I intend that word as a compliment) who for some inexplicable reason genuinely wants to spend a full three years puzzling out one tiny corner of, for example, what Kant says in part two of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. When you think about it, that’s a really strange thing to want to do!

Consider a nerd who loves the original Star Trek series. You can tell her that there are more useful ways to spend her time than watching Shatner and Nimoy do their thing over and over. But this is not news. She knows that already. Consider a nerd who loves 19th-century trains. You can remind him that people suffer across the world while he studies the history and politics of the narrow gauge. All of that intellectual energy, you might urge him, could be going instead toward something useful, like advocating world peace. Yes, he is perfectly aware of that. But maybe he wouldn’t be so good at advocating world peace? And those old trains are so beautiful! Hopefully, he thinks, someone else can take care of the world peace thing….

Consider also the demand side. It’s not like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are begging academic philosophers to share their thoughts on the ethics of war.

This isn’t to excuse U.S. philosophers, exactly, for our relative neglect of the ethics of war. But in philosophy as in science there’s a kind of beautiful nerdiness in the passionate commitment to what captures your heart, regardless of its application.

Horgan: You’ve written a lot about jerks. Do you worry that you are one? If you worry you’re a jerk, does that mean you’re probably not one? And vice versa?

Schwitzgebel: I’ve defined a jerk as someone who culpably fails to appreciate the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. The picture-perfect jerk sees himself as surrounded by fools whose interests he can ignore and whose opinions don’t concern him—the pompous ass at the staff meeting who’s sure he’s right and doesn’t give a hoot about others’ projects, or the guy who cuts to the front of the line not for any good reason but just because he can get away with it and he sees the other shoppers as faceless nonentities.

I think we all have a bit of the jerk in us, sometimes. I include myself. My essays on the inner life of the jerk are based partly in my own experience of that inner life.

But here’s the twist: As soon as you genuinely worry that you might be acting like a jerk, you become less of one. Worrying about how you are treating others is exactly what the jerk doesn’t do. That sting of self-disapprobation when you confront your jerkitude is a moral treasure, because that very sting is what makes it less so.

Horgan: Owen Flanagan told me that philosophers are “more ill-formed than your average person.” Do you agree?

Schwitzgebel: I’d suggest this instead: Academic philosophers are no better formed—no wiser and no more ethically astute in their personal lives—than others of similar social background. On average, they’re about average.

Already, though, this should be disappointing. We philosophers read and think about ethics and the meaning of life. We study the great wisdom traditions of the world. Shouldn’t we be at least somewhat improved by that? Somewhat wiser? Somewhat more ethically insightful? I regard philosophers’ personal and ethical mediocrity as one of the greatest puzzles in all of moral philosophy and moral cognition.

Admittedly, most people don’t seem to be as puzzled by this as I am. There’s a kind of easy cynicism that is tempting here. However, I would recommend trying to resist that easy cynicism.

Horgan: Christof Koch has proposed building a device that can detect and measure consciousness in humans and other things. Do you think a “consciousness-meter” is possible? If not, isn’t it pointless to debate whether smart phones or snails are conscious?

Schwitzgebel: Philosophical, psychological and neuroscientific theories of consciousness span the entire range from panpsychism, according to which consciousness is ubiquitous in the universe, even in very simple systems, to highly restrictive theories on which consciousness requires such sophisticated cognition or such specific biological processes that it’s reasonable to doubt whether even apes and dogs have conscious experiences. Unless the range of defensible possibilities soon narrows radically, and I see no reason to think it will, any purported consciousness-meter will be regarded as a failure by the majority of well-informed researchers. It will be too theory-specific.

But it’s still worth thinking about the question of whether garden snails are conscious! Garden snails are fascinatingly bizarre. Their brains are mostly clumps of ganglia in a ring around their esophagus, and they’ve got these huge neurons that resemble our neurons in some ways and differ in other ways; and they have far more neurons in their tentacles than in their brains; and despite their limited central nervous system, they have these fascinatingly complicated mating dances. Nifty theories of consciousness come crashing down around your toes when you try to apply them in a principled way to the case of the garden snail.

Earlier, you suggested that philosophy’s chief value is countering our certitude. Of course we don’t need the right theory for that. What works better is showing how weird, wondrous, complicated and incomprehensible even ordinary things, like garden snails, can be. Maybe garden snails are conscious. Maybe they’re not. There’s a mystery of the universe, right there in your own garden, eating the daisies!

Horgan: I’ve argued that our inability to find a single, universal solution to the mind-body problem gives us more freedom to explore many possible ways of being human. Comment?

Schwitzgebel: There are so many ways the world could be, and there are so many ways we could fit into it. This is true not only of the mind-body problem but also of ethics and basic cosmology. We are like fleas on the back of a dog, watching a hair grow and saying, “Ah, so that’s the nature of the universe!”

We needn’t be disheartened by our failure to converge on final, correct answers to the biggest philosophical questions. Instead of being disheartened we can be awed and inspired by the mystery, and we can celebrate the diverse ways still open to us of viewing and confronting the world.

Horgan: Do you believe in God? Why/why not?

Schwitzgebel: My credence in the existence of a god or gods fluctuates from about 1 percent [to] 10 percent, depending on my mood and depending on what I’ve been reading and thinking about recently. I don’t think we know very well what the origins of the universe are or how we fit into it. Here’s one vision of a god: He’s a sadistic teenager running the universe as a giant computer simulation for his entertainment, and you’re just a little AI who exists primarily to provide an amusing reaction when he releases disasters. Or were you thinking of a more benevolent entity?

Horgan: What’s your utopia?

Schwitzgebel: Imagine a planet on the other side of the galaxy—one we will never see and never interact with. What might we hope for on that planet?

Would we hope that it’s a sterile rock? I wouldn’t. I’d hope for a planet with life. Moreover, I’d hope for interesting life—not just bacteria (although bacteria can be interesting in their way), but something richer and more complex than that. I’d hope for all kinds of animals and plants, in strange and wild forms, doing complex and intriguing things. I’d hope for intelligence, and social relationships, and art, and philosophy, and science, and sports competitions, and passionate lovers. I’d want heroes and tragedies, and great things, and terrible things—and manifold interests and conflicts and catastrophes and triumphs, diverse kinds at diverse scales, with a generally improving trajectory over time. That’s the world I’d hope for over there, even more so than I’d hope for a bland world of happy angels.

The tragedies and catastrophes are harder to hope for here, though. Wouldn’t I rather that we and our descendants have only the good with as little as possible of the bad, even if the result is bland?

I’m still trying to figure that one out. When I’m ready, if ever I’m ready, I’ll write it both as an essay and as a story.

Postscript: I asked Schwitzgebel if he was joking when he said, “I’ve never really understood humor or irony...,” and he replied with the “backstory” of his response: Eating lunch after one of my talks, a fellow philosopher expressed envy that I was able to put so much humor in my talks. I was surprised by this remark, since in fact I rarely put humor intentionally in my talks (though I do enjoy finding cute and clever ways of saying things sometimes), and I didn't think that the talk I'd given had a single humorous part. However, on reflection, I did recall that the audience had sometimes chuckled. So I told him what I told you, that I just say what's on my mind in complete sincerity and people think I'm joking. I said that completely sincerely. Predictably enough, he thought I was joking. So when you asked a similar question, I went to the same answer. On reflection, I think the answer is in fact, in this particular context, partly joking and partly ironic—though maybe less so than it seems.

Further Reading:

Is Self-Knowledge Overrated?

What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 1 (Hint: It's Not Discovering Truth)

See Q&As with Scott Aaronson, David AlbertDavid ChalmersNoam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, David DeutschGeorge Ellis, Marcelo GleiserRobin Hanson, Nick Herbert, Jim Holt, Sabine Hossenfelder, Sheila JasanoffStuart Kauffman, Christof Koch, Garrett Lisi, Christian List, Tim Maudlin, James McClellan, Hedda Hassel Mørch, Priyamvada Natarajan, Naomi Oreskes, Martin Rees, Carlo Rovelli, Chris Search, Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Shor, Lee Smolin, Sheldon Solomon, Amia Srinivasan, Paul Steinhardt, Philip Tetlock, Tyler Volk, Steven Weinberg, Catherine Wilson, Edward Witten, Peter Woit, Stephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available as Kindle e-book and paperback)