Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Imagination and dreams

When I visualize a car in my imagination, the experience is obviously different from seeing a car. It's not even close. Similarly, if I imagine a sound, the experience is obviously different from hearing it. In part this is due to shortcomings of my imagination. But I suspect it's not just that. Rather, imagined experiences are qualitatively different from actual experiences. This isn't the difference disjunctivists get at between hallucinations and veridical experiences. I am willing to concede that a hallucination and a veridical experience could be phenomenally the same, but then both would be different from imagined experiences. There are, of course, structural analogies. Imagining a red triangle is related to imagining a blue square much as seeing a red triangle is related to imagining a blue square. And there may be some resemblance between imagining a red triangle and seeing a red triangle.

Here's a hypothesis about dreams: The "visual" experiences in dreams are phenomenally more like the ones in visual imagination than like seeing, but one's ability to tell the difference is suppressed.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Avoiding gerrymandering

Occasionally a philosopher tries to avoid some gerrymandered counterexamples to a theory by specifying that some sentence s involved in the theory must be atomic. But every sentence is equivalent to an atomic sentence. After all, the sentence s is equivalent to the atomic sentence "s is true". So it's a move we should beware of. I guess we do better if we restrict to first order sentences. But even so, one can always just stipulate a new predicate. Thus, "The sky is blue or snow is white" is equivalent to "CreatedBlueSkyOrWhiteSnow(God)". So not only must one restrict to first order atomic sentences, but probably to first order atomic sentences with perfectly natural terms.

Lying and norms

I want to explore an argument against the moral permissibility of lying. Start with this thought:

  1. To assert p contrary to one's beliefs violates a genuine norm.
I don't, of course, mean the norm to be a moral one: that would beg the question against those who think lying is morally permissible. Rather, I am thinking that there is a norm at least partly constitutive of assertion which is violated when one asserts contrary to one's beliefs. It seems that a speech act just isn't an assertion if it's not governed by a norm that makes (1) true. (But if one thinks the norm of assertion doesn't require anything like belief but only truth, then I can modify my argument to work with that.)

Next, I want to bring in this thesis which generalizes Aquinas' idea that legislation that commands immoral activity is null and void, an empty gesture, and not a law:

  1. No genuine norm requires one to do something immoral.
All authority is limited by morality, after all. A theist might say that all authority is either God's authority or an authority that flows from God's, and derivative authority has no force against God's authority, whereas God forbids all immoral activity (I am not affirming a divine command theory, just the weaker claim that immoral activity is in fact forbidden by God).

Finally, let's add an uncontroversial observation:

  1. If lying is sometimes morally permissible, then lying is sometimes morally required.
After all, the main motivation people have for affirming the permissibility of lying is the thought that you should lie to the murderer at the door inquiring whether her intended victim is in your house (when the victim is indeed there). But what gives force to the thought that this is permissible is the thought that it is required in this case. If we think lying is never morally required, then the view that lying is sometimes permissible is left largely unmotivated.

Now, let's see what follows from (1)-(3). For a reductio, suppose lying is sometimes permissible. Then it's sometimes required by (3). Suppose then you're in a situation where lying is morally required. But when you lie, you assert contrary to your beliefs. So by (1), when you lie you violate a genuine norm. Hence a genuine norm requires you to do something immoral, namely to refrain from lying in this case. But that contradicts (2). So, it can't be the case that lying is sometimes permissible.

I worry that the argument proves too much. Suppose that you're playing cards with a tyrant. If you win, innocents go free; if you lose, they are killed. Surely you should cheat. But cheating violates the norms of card-playing, so a parallel argument shows it's wrong to cheat.

I say that the rules of the game lack normative force in this case, and indeed that, as we would say, this is not a game anymore. I don't know exactly how to characterize games, but it seems essential to a game that, roughly, they be a bit of fun. Russian roulette is not a game, and its rules have no normative force. Just as property rights cease in cases of grave need according to Aquinas, so too when so much is at stake it's not a game, and if it's not a game, the person who pulls cards out of her sleeve to save lives isn't cheating in a game because she isn't playing a game.

Could one, then, say the same thing about the person who says to the murderer at the door regarding the intended victim: "He's not at home"? The parallel claim would be that the norms of assertion don't apply, and hence the words aren't an assertion at all. The murderer is deceived into taking the words to be an assertion, but they aren't one at all. There is something attractive about this view, in that it would allow one to maintain the traditional Christian view that lying is always wrong while allowing one to solve the murderer-at-the-door problem. But I think this doesn't work. Unlike playing cards, asserting isn't a game, something that ceases when there is too much at stake. It isn't even like the institution of private property, which dissolves according to Aquinas in cases of grave need since it's ordered to the preservation of life. Assertion is ordered to a different good than the preservation of life: truth. Moreover, it just seems quite implausible to say that the person saying "He's not at home" to the murderer isn't making an assertion.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A puzzle about being and being-caused

These claims are really plausible:

  1. I exist because I was caused by my parents.
  2. My having been caused by my parents is a fact about me.
  3. My existence is explanatorily prior to all other facts about me.
  4. There are no loops of explanatory priority.
But they seem to be contradictory. My being caused by my parents is explanatorily prior to my existence, but my existence is explanatorily prior to that, and that surely looks like a loop.

But actually there is no contradiction. To get the claim that my existence is explanatorily prior to my being caused out of (3), we need to add the premise that my being caused is a different fact about me from my existing. But why add a premise that makes for a contradiction? We should instead conclude that the fact of my existence is the same fact as my being caused by my parents.

But if it's the same fact, then we have an interesting ontological conclusion: My existing is my being caused by my parents (and presumably by all the other causes cooperating with them, including especially God). I've argued for something like this conclusion here, but this is a much neater argument.

There may be another corollary. It seems that my esse, my existence, is modally essential to me--I couldn't exist with a different esse. But if my esse is my being caused by my parents, then I couldn't have had other parents.

Objection 1: We should restrict (3) to facts about the present time. But my having been caused by my parents isn't like that.

Response: Run the argument in the first moment of my existence (assuming there is one; if not, run it for some creature which has a first moment of existence; presumably if the ontological thesis I am arguing for is true for some creature, it's true for them all).

Objection 2: If my existing is the same as my being caused by my parents, how can (1) be true: isn't (1), then, a claim that I exist because I exist?

Response: Even if the fact (or state of affairs or event--there are multiple ways to formulate the argument) of my existence is the same as the fact of my being caused by my parents, the proposition that I exist is not the same as the proposition that I am caused by my parents.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Value-of versus value-for

Some people distinguish the (non-instrumental) value of an individual's feature from the (non-instrumental) value for the individual of that feature. Ockham's razor, on the other hand, suggests we identify them. There is an interesting kind of argument from the nature of love for such an identification. Love has at least three aspects: benevolence, appreciation and pursuit of union. (For more on this, see One Body.) Love isn’t merely a conjunction of these aspects. The aspects are tightly intertwined, with each furthering the others. And the identification of (non-instrumental) value-of with value-for gives us a particularly elegant account of part of this intertwining. Appreciation is appreciation of what is valuable. When I appreciate the value of an individual, I seek to preserve and promote that value. Now when I act benevolently for an individual, I seek to preserve and promote what is of value for the individual. If the value-of and value-for are the same, then this appreciation motivates the benevolence and the benevolence is an expression of the appreciation. And a benevolence that is an expression of appreciation is a benevolence that escapes the danger of being patronizing and condescending.

On the other hand, if value-of and value-for were different, then not only would we lack this elegant intertwining, but there could be a real conflict between appreciation and benevolence. For appreciation would naturally lead me to promote the value of the beloved, which would take time away from the benevolent promotion of the value for the beloved, and conversely. The identity of value-of and value-for makes it possible for love to have an intrinsic unity between the appreciative and benevolent aspects. And union can then flows from these, since through benevolence one unites oneself to the beloved in will and through appreciation one unites in intellect.

Self-causation, persistence and presentism

Fido exists now because of various things Fido did a couple of minutes ago, such as breathe, pump blood with his heart, etc. So, it seems, Fido's existence is caused by Fido. But self-causation is absurd. So what's going on? Well, that depends on the theory of persistence.

Perdurantists and exdurantists have no problem at all. One temporal part causes another. There isn't even a whiff of absurd self-causation, either. Four-dimensionalist worm-theorists who don't believe in temporal parts can say that Fido doesn't cause his existence, but only aspects of his spatiotemporal dimensions. So on four-dimensional theories, we don't have absurdity.

But what about three-dimensionalist theories? Suppose Fido wholly exists at this time. Then it seems that all of Fido (now) is caused by Fido (five minutes ago), and that would be absurd. But that's not quite right. The eternalist or growing block three-dimensionalist can distinguish. Fido doesn't cause Fido's existing simpliciter. Fido only causes Fido's existing now. If we want more precision, we can say that Fido in virtue of existing five minutes ago causes himself to exist now. No problem, again.

That leaves the other three-dimensionalist option: presentism. And now we have a problem. According to presentism, to exist is to exist presently. Fido's present existence is (was? -- the tenses are hard to get right) caused by Fido. But that just means that Fido's existence is caused by Fido. And that's self-causation.

But perhaps we should take account of the sorts of things presentists say about the problem of transtemporal causation. Maybe it's not quite correct to say that Fido's existence is caused by Fido, but rather that Fido's existing is caused by Fido's having existed five minutes ago. Plus, talking like this makes causation a relation between states of affairs, and some will prefer that. But we still have a problem. For Fido's having existed five minutes ago is a state of affairs involving Fido. But it's absurd for Fido's existing to be caused by any state of affairs involving him, since Fido's existing is explanatorily prior to any state of affairs involving Fido.

Perhaps, though, the presentist can bring in Fido's haecceity H. Fido's existing is caused by H's having been instantiated five minutes ago. That is, I suspect, the presentist's best bet here. But there is a problem for that. For it sure seems like the state of affairs that caused Fido's present existence isn't a state of affairs of his haecceity having had something happen to it (say, being co-instantiated with respiration), but but it is the state of affairs of Fido having done certain things five minutes ago, like breathing. If it is states of affairs about haecceities that are causally relevant, then it looks like the things that are fundamentally involved in causation aren't particulars like Fido but are are abstracta like haecceities. And that's not right.

There is a direct argument here against presentism, too.

  1. Fido's presently existing is caused by Fido's having existed five minutes ago.
  2. If presentism is correct, Fido's presently existing is Fido's existing.
  3. Fido's having existed five minutes ago is a state of affairs of which Fido is a constituent.
  4. No state of affairs of which Fido is a constituent causes Fido's existing.
  5. So, if presentism is correct, Fido's existing is caused by Fido's having existed five minutes ago. (1, 2).
  6. So, if presentism is correct, Fido's existing is caused by a state of affairs of which Fido is a constituent. (3, 5).
  7. So, presentism is not correct. (4, 6)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A "Freudian" argument against some theories of consciousness

  1. The kinds of computational complexity found in our conscious thought are also found in our unconscious thought.
  2. So, consciousness does not supervene on the kinds of computational complexity found in an entity.
Of course, (1) is an empirical claim, and it might turn out to be false, though I think it is quite plausible. If so, then we have the backup argument:
  1. The kinds of computational complexity found in our conscious thought possibly are all found in unconscious thought.
  2. So, consciousness does not supervene on the kinds of computational complexity found in an entity.

If birds aren't reptiles, maybe people aren't animals?

Some biological taxa are clades: a clade is a taxon that contains a descendant of every included organism. For instance Mammalia is a clade, while Reptilia is not, since birds aren't reptiles but are descendants of reptiles. There are biologists that wish that we used a phylogenetic classification scheme, one where all taxa are clades. But that's not what is traditionally done. Let's consider the hypothesis that the traditional approach is right in the sense that it cuts nature at joints. Then a taxon can change from being a clade to being a non-clade. I assume that Reptilia changed in this way when birds evolved. And whether such a change has occurred is a substantive question.

In principle, then, it is possible for the kingdom Animalia, which I understand is normally taken to be a clade, to change into a non-clade. And it is a substantive question, then, whether such a change occurred when humans evolved. It could be the case that sapience marks such a departure that we are a new kingdom, and Animalia is no longer a clade. I think a close relative of this thought--albeit without evolutionary connections--is behind the ordinary person's (as opposed to a philosopher's) resistance to the idea that we are animals: personhood is such a transformative feature that it marks a completely new kind of organism.

But while the question is substantive, it's not tenable to say we aren't animals. If we are not animals, it seems we aren't mammals. (Maybe more can be said, though?) But if we aren't mammals, then various natural kind-based explanations fail: we can't say, for instance, that we have complex bones in the inner ear because we have mammals.

Note, too, that the question raised in this post is orthogonal to the question that animalists are concerned with. For all that we animalists need for our positive theory is that we are organisms--whether the particular kind of organism we are is an animal, a plant, a fungus or something else is not very important for the theory.

Monday, February 1, 2016


I just had a really naive thought. Let's imagine what a definition of animals would be like. It would say something like this: Animals are things that maintain homeostasis, take in nutrients and grow, reproduce, initiate and control a large variety of types of motion in response to changing environmental features, etc. It's not very easy to come up with details of the definition, but it seems like it would go something like this. Well, it's pretty clear that we do these things, as well as doing any plausible items we'd want to add to the definition. So we're animals. Case closed.

What could an anti-animalist say? I guess her best hope would be: The definition is close to the truth, but not quite. Rather, animals are things that non-derivatively maintain homeostasis, take in nutrients and grow, etc., etc. But it seems to me that there is a natural dilemma. Derivative homeostasis (say) either is or is not a case of homeostasis. If it is, that seems all we need for animalhood (along with analogous other qualities). If it is not, then the anti-animalist can't say that we have homeostasis, and that's absurd.

Deep Thoughts XLII

No one speaks about what cannot be spoken about.

A secondary brain and computational theories of consciousness

There is an urban myth that the Stegosaurus had a secondary brain to control its rear legs and tail. Even though it's a myth, such a thing could certainly happen. I want to explore this thought experiment:

At the base of my spine, I grow a secondary brain, a large tail, and an accelerometer like the one in my inner ear. Moreover, sensory data from the tail and the accelerometer is routed only to the secondary brain, not to my primary brain, and my primary brain cannot serve signals to the tail. The secondary brain eavesdrops on nerve signals between my legs and my primary brain, and based on these signals and accelerometer data it positions the tail in ways that improve my balance when I walk and run. The functioning of this secondary brain is very complex and are such as to suffice for consciousenss--say, of tactile and kinesthetic data from the tail and orientation data from the accelerometer--if computational theories of consciousness are correct.

What would happen if this happened? Here is an intuition:

  1. The thought experiment does not guarantee that I would be aware of data from the tail.
  1. If a computational theory of consciousness is correct, the thought experiment guarantees that something would be aware of data from the tail.
Suppose, then, a computational theory of consciousness is correct. Then it would be possible for the thought experiment to happen and for me to be unaware of data from the tail by (1). By (2), in this scenario, something other than me would be aware of data from the tail. What would this something other than me be? It seems that the best hypothesis is that it would be that it would be the secondary brain. But by parity, then, the subject of the consciousness of everything else should be the primary brain. But I am and would continue to be the subject of the consciousness of everything else and there is only one subject there. So I am a brain.

Thus, the thought experiment gives me a roundabout argument that:

  1. If a computational theory of consciousness is correct, I am a brain.
Of course (3) is fairly plausible apart from the thought experiment, but it's always nice to have another argument.

So what? Well:

  1. My hands are a part of me.
  2. My hands are not a part of any brain
  3. So, I am not a brain.
  4. So, computational theories of consciousness are false.

The thought experiment is still interesting even if computational theories of consciousness are false. If we had such secondary brains would we, or anything else, feel what's going on in the tail? I think it metaphysically go either way, depending on non-physical details of the setup.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

God's surprisingness

God is very surprising. (a) Facts about God's nature are surprising. Who would have expected the being who is one and indivisible to also be a Trinity? (b) Facts about what God does are surprising. Who would have expected him to choose insignificant Israel, or... to die for us!?

Surprisingness isn't entailed by incomprehensibility. A text in a language I don't know can be utterly incomprehensible and utterly unsurprising. But on the other hand, insofar as God has surprises for us we do not comprehend him.

Surprisingness implies that not only are there facts about God that we can't figure out, but there are facts about God which our present evidence would lead us to deny--surprising facts. A focus on God's surprisingness may lead to a sceptical thought that we cannot expect to know anything about God. But that's not at all true. For mathematics is continually surprising, and yet is an area where we continue to know more and more. (And this is more than an analogy, since mathematics is a kind of branch of theology, if Augustine is right about mathematical objects existing in the mind of God.)

There some connection between God's holiness and God's surprisingness. God's surprises aren't just like particularly thoughtful birthday presents. They are the surprises of a mysterium tremendum. "Surprise" is thus too weak a word, yet it also correctly suggests a certain whimsy that is a part of God's nature if the whimsical surprises of mathematics and biology are a guide to the mind of God. Humor may be a form of theology, too.

The beauty of mathematical facts

Some mathematical proofs are beautiful, for instance the classic proof of the infinitude of the primes (if there are only finitely many primes, multiply them together and add one; the result isn't divisible by any prime, but that's absurd). Some mathematical objects are beautiful, like certain fractals. But additionally, it is striking that some mathematical facts are beautiful. Often they are particularly surprising. The Euclid-Euler theorem states a lovely and surprising connection between Mersenne primes and even perfect numbers. It is very surprising that there are only five Platonic solids, and the fact that it is is beautiful.

Grammatically, though, there is something a little odd about a fact being beautiful. Facts don't seem to be the right sorts of things to be beautiful. It is rather the things that the facts are about that are beautiful. So perhaps it is the mathematical objects that make true the facts that are the real beauties?

But some lovely mathematical facts are facts that something doesn't exist, like a certain kind of decision procedure or a finite noncommutative division ring.

There is a nice theistic story here. The truthmaker of mathematical truths is God (say, God's mind or God's power). So the beauty of mathematical facts is more properly the beauty of God. Isn't it striking that a theistic account of mathematics can account for the ontology, epistemology and aesthetics of mathematics?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pro tanto epistemic reasons and Bayesianism

I've been thinking about whether a Bayesian can make sense of the concept of pro tanto epistemic reasons. The idea is that p gives us a reason to believe q, though in the light of our full evidence it may no longer support q. In other words, the idea is that p is pro tanto evidence for q there is a reduced set of evidence relative to which p supports q.

But on a Bayesian picture it can't be just any reduced set of evidence, or else we have too many pro tanto reasons. Let p be the proposition that the sky looks blue and q be the proposition that the sky is red. Let r be some exceedingly unlikely fact, say the fact that when I asked random.org to generate a sequence of 16 random bytes, it generated 52 e2 57 4d 6d 16 c9 dd 12 9e b4 63 27 7e 86 53. Then I believe that (p&~r)→q, where the conditional is material. I believe it, because I believe the antecedent to be false. But if my background consists only of (p&~r)→q, then given reasonable priors p strongly supports q.

So what we want, I think, is to say that p is pro tanto evidence for q provided that there is a privileged reduced set of evidence relative to which p supports q. But what reduced sets of evidence are privileged? There is only one such set that stares one in the face: the empty set. So, the suggestion is: p is pro tanto evidence for q if and only if p supports q relative to an empty background, i.e., according to the absolute priors.

This, I think, offers a way to make some progress on the problem of priors. If we have independent sufficient conditions for something to be a pro tanto reason, then we have a constraint on our absolute priors, namely that if p is pro tanto evidence for q, then P(p & q) > P(p)P(q).

Could we have some such independent sufficient conditions for pro tanto reasons? I think so. For instance, around here, Trent Dougherty has been pushing phenomenal conservatism, which can be taken to be the view that seemings are pro tanto reasons for their contents. If the above Bayesian account of pro tanto reasons is correct, then this puts a constraint on prior probabilities, and that's a good thing.