Top Ten Philosophical Demons

In thought experiments to do with philosophy and science, a hypothetical "demon" is often imagined, with special powers made solely for exploiting the matter in hand. Although not all strictly go by the name of a demon, they still qualify as a supernatural being in the mind of the philosopher. They are used to explain questions which often could not be expressed without their presence. Here are some of the most compelling of these intellectual and supernatural beings.
The Top Ten
1 Maxwell's Demon In the philosophy of thermal and statistical physics, Maxwell's demon is a thought experiment created by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell in which he suggested how the Second Law of Thermodynamics could hypothetically be violated.

James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest 19th century pioneers of physics, was one of the developers of modern thermodynamics, and the first to offer a way to "break" the second law. Maxwell imagined a demon who could keep track of all the items in an isolated system and their entropic microstates, but also manipulate them.

Consider a cylinder of gas, divided into two sections by an open gate. On one side of the gate, there is a much hotter gas, whose particles move much more rapidly than the colder gas on the other side. With the gate open, the particles shall naturally dissipate on either side of the gate up to the point of thermal equilibrium. The total number of possible microstates of the combined gas is greater, but less distinguishable on a macroscopic scale. The total entropy of the system has increased.

Naturally, the reverse process is universally improbable. It would be highly unexpected for the momenta of each particle to take them back to each side of the box with the same kinetic energies; it would be the equivalent of having the milk un-mix itself from your coffee. But Maxwell's Demon, the bouncer at the gate, would leave the gate open only for fast particles moving to the hot region, and slow particles moving to the cold region. The demon has taken the bull by the horns and actively reduced its entropy. But the second law of thermodynamics does not allow the entropy of a system in isolation to fall. It has thus been broken, as far as we can tell.

In order for the demon's ability to maintain itself, however, it needs to retain information about the system. Analogous to having a list of all of the particles and their corresponding states, the demon retains more information the more it accumulates each gas on each side of the gate. This relates to all low-entropy systems, in which information is required to retain its order. If you, reading this now, had suddenly morphed into being from inanimate particles, it would be universally... more

2 Laplace's Demon

Laplace imagined an entity which would know everything about the universe over its lifetime, all due to its knowledge of the precise location and variable momentum function of every object in the universe. This was before the days of computers, the thermodynamic laws and the Uncertainty Principle, so it was an extraordinary thought experiment for its time, and still is today. It is this that first brought us the idea that we could depict the earlier and later stages of the universe from its current stages.

Laplace's demon, when redeveloped on the frontier of human knowledge, would potentially be able to measure the initial states of a physical process from its current state, and predict its future states. This covered all universal scales, from atomic interactions to cosmological evolution, and at the aspirational level which Laplace had in mind, it would be a theory of everything.

The concept of Laplace's demon is thought of in context is certain areas of physics, such as reconstructing structures from high-speed collisions, but on a fundamental level, the concept has various flaws. This includes the knowledge that some processes in science are not reversible, even in ideas which are purely mechanical, and it is not possible to reconstruct the image of the system which preceded it. Later studies of CPT Theory found that parity in space could not be symmetrical in nature, and this meant that no transformation could be achieved to allow information to be conserved for some phenomena. It is this which is responsible for the matter-antimatter problem.

The basis of modern quantum theory is also based around instabilities of mechanical systems, most notably the uncertainty principle, which limits the knowledge which we have of simultaneous momentum and position of quantum objects. The measurements taken in quantum mechanics are probabilistic, and so, the classical-based proposal cannot be applied to a quantum system. Additionally, the computational... more

3 Nietzsche's Demon

The being imagined in Nietzsche's "The Gay Science" has no official name, but it does have great significance in science and philosophy's links. The idea is that this demon governs all events in the timeline of the universe, such that all events, big or small, will repeat themselves for all eternity. In social philosophy, the demon brings despair to those who have lived troubled lives, and joy to those who have lived worthwhile lives. We, as its tools to recreate the world again and again, have no choice but to comply; whether or not we would choose to. It also means that what we have seen and what we haven't yet experienced in our current lives are no different to what has already happened, and will happen. The past, our past, is no different from the future on large scales.

In science, this demon is used in context in Poincare's mathematical recurrence theorem, which states that certain isolated systems have a tiny but finite probability of recurring, given an appropriate length of time. In statistical physics, a flow of objects, classical or quantum, will intersect its own open set infinitely often, provided it occupies a fixed, finite volume. Harmonic oscillations are an example of this. However, there are certain cases in which an object may leave this phase, and may not necessarily be contained in periodic recurrence. This leads to a mathematical interpretation of chaos theory, which Poincare was already on the point of pioneering with the three-body problem. But to confirm chaos theory eventually required the computer simulations and interpretations of Lorenz.

4 The Darwinian Demon

Although never imagined by Charles Darwin, evolutionary biologists often use the concept of a being which can maximise its genetically superior traits simultaneously, which would thus be above the gradual, constrained evolution of natural beings such as ourselves. This evolutionary stage may be used in a specific context, perhaps at a stage in which an organism has evolved specifically to adapt to an environmental factor, but no such organism has been shown to physically exist. If it did, it would hypothetically be eternally reproducing directly after birth and living without physical demise, which violates the phenomenon of aging as governed by thermodynamics.

5 The Predictor (Newcomb's Entity)

This is the character which plays a key role in Newcomb's Paradox, in which the predictor can accurately predict the decisions of others. The problem considers a game in which the player has to choose either one or two boxes of money, only the prediction of the predictor decides the contents of one of the boxes; none if the prediction is both boxes, but a million if not. Since it only has the power to change one of these boxes, the most profitable option is always to take both boxes. The problem, however, lies in the assumption that the predictor is never wrong. If the predictor is never wrong, it would be more profitable to only take one box.
Not only is this problem a hot debate topic in decision theory, but also chaos theory. Chaos states that the prediction made by the demon, despite its extreme accuracy, will corrupt the result of the experiment dramatically with the person's thought processing. Just as neural impulses are unpredictable by the principles of quantum mechanics, so are our choices, and it's what makes us unpredictable in our nature.

6 Descartes' Evil Demon

Living up to the common denotation of the name, this demon is an evil, manipulative, omnipotent genius by name and nature, who makes one's reality an illusion for the purpose of misleading them. Some forms of this Cartesian philosophy involves control of all of one's senses and thoughts, others see the demon as a power which bends the rules of universal systems such as mathematics to handicap one's intuition.

The demon plays a role in the concept of Cartesian skepticism, which is a method of philosophy itself in which doubting the truth of all aspects of knowledge and belief would confirm which of them are true and which are not. This was a revolutionary method of thinking, which differs from the non-methodical philosophical questioning by allowing a path through knowledge, and not by tackling the sole idea of knowledge. It is this technique which has allowed followers of Descartes to tackle problems of a methodical uncertainty in various areas of scholary.

The demon plays a role as a metaphysical agent, by introducing doubt into the most simple of propositions, such as mental arithmetic. With the demon clouding the deduction that two plus two equals four, one's knowledge is reduced to being only equipped with what is known with absolute certainty. Everything we thought we knew before was an illusion made by the demon, and it is by breaking down these confirmed truths and using intuition towards smaller issues that we can tackle this. But there is a limit to how much the demon can deceive someone; most notably, the notion that that someone's thoughts are being manipulated cannot detract from any doubt that the person is thinking at all, or existent. The famous quote, "I Think, Therefore I Am", is thus immune to doubt, and it symbolises the freedom of will which the thinker has, regardless of the demon's presence.

7 Astrochicken (Dyson's Entity)

The character in the late 80's arcade game Space Quest III owes its name to this. The thought experiment made by Freeman Dyson links artificial intelligence with biotechnology, to create a self-replicating spacecraft, and so called because it could be born in space, coming after the egg that was its carrier ship. This could potentially make space exploration not only more efficient, but more advanced as the being develops itself. However, like all forms of artificial intelligence, there would be no control over this. Only with this form of A.I. being designed for exploring new worlds, it could serve as an invader on other worlds, or our own.

8 The Utility Monster (Nozick's Entity)

This was Nozick's criticism of utilitarianism, or the belief that the most moral ideology is one which maximises one's pleasure and lack of struggle, referred to as utility. Quantifying utility, a utility monster is a being which obtains an unassailable level of utility from a single factor which would bring a natural being such as a human some degree of utility, but not comparable with the demon's. This reflects on the idea that sharing resources equally does not necessarily constitute social equality. Where capitalist politics and economics are concerned, the utility monster is said to be weak, as resources are obtained from free markets and the citizens of this system have freedom of speech and rights, which would otherwise leave them bypassed by other authorities. In a country where group A are considered superior to group B, and group A are much better off by law, the utility of speech is large to group A but small to group B. However, its flaw is that people of a certain class and income still benefit less in the economy based on this idealism.

9 Morton's Demon

Morton's demon is used in analogy regarding confirmation bias, by saying that there is a force which filters information and sources as a person studies them, allowing them only to recall information which agrees with their thoughts. A psychological effect which is more effective when that person is under emotional pressure, or whether the subject matter contradicts something they firmly believe. This involves retaining only the information from sources which supports their view and inadvertently searching only for sources which they believe will support them, as well as interpreting a denotation from insufficient evidence to confirm it, and misinterpreting a source which may lead people of a different belief to a different conclusion. Even when they do recall disagreeing information, they have selective recall, leaning towards the information which they believe is valid. The result on this person's behaviour often intensifies their one-sided views with less tendency to consider further information, regardless of its side, and often encourages quick and ill-advised decisions.

10 Roko's Basilisk

The idea of this is a superintelligent being in the future which can retroactively punish beings which do not follow its wishes, but only if they knew of the being. It is said to have originated from the AI-Box Experiment, in which a superintelligent entity is released from captivity but with no way of controlling it once it is released. The two need not coincide in time; the Basilisk would be able to reconstruct the necessary data about the punished being in order to manipulate it. Thus, once you know about the being, you are its slave.

From a religious stance, this is similar to the proposal of Pascal's wager, which states that one must pledge oneself to God, regardless of whether we believe He exists. The finite probability of there being a God does not compare with the certainty of eternal reward or punishment which would follow if there was a God. The basilisk is different as it does not offer reward, however spares one from punishment. The basilisk will punish according to how it perceives human values, whereas a God will punish according to personal values, and so, respecting the authority of the basilisk respects the bigger picture. The basilisk, unlike God, will blackmail others into supporting it by promising to end their suffering. Nevertheless, the only benefit from the basilisk is being spared from punishment, which skews the argument towards considering costs and not benefits.

The many worlds theory, which is derived from quantum physics, says that a multiverse exists for every possible outcome, a universe in which one event occurs, and another in which it does not. This opens a "gamble" against the AI-Box experiment which created the basilisk, opening a branch in which it never came into being, but also a branch in which the basilisk does exist and has already been disobeyed, with consequences.

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