Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kind relative predication

It is a broadly Aristotelian doctrine that many predicates apply to individuals in a kind-relative way. Call such predicates k-predicates. (We can stipulatively say that God is the sole member of a kind membership in which is identical with himself, or something like that.) For a k-predicate F, what exactly it is for an x to be F depends on what kind of an entity x is. If it is the same thing for x to be such that Fx as for y to be such that Fy, then kinds of x and y are either the same or have something in common (e.g., a higher genus).

Examples of k-predicates are easy to find. To determine whether a given individual "has legs", we first have to see what counts as legs for an individual of that kind. Thus, Peter has legs in virtue of a particular pair of limbs. Which limbs count as legs? That is defined in part by his human nature, or maybe more generally his nature as a member of Tetrapoda. What it would be for an amoeba to have legs is a different, and more poorly defined, question. What it is for a table is fairly well defined in terms of the nature of the table (we could imagine a table with four upward projecting horns at the corners; the nature of a table being to stand on solid ground on its legs, if it has any, would prevent these from counting as legs).

Whether an entity is n inches tall is even more clearly kind-relative. It depends on which axis counts as the "vertical" axis—remember that the entity might be lying on its side for much of the day.

Another kind of predicate is an r-predicate. An r-predicate is a predicate that can only be had by members of one particular (perhaps higher level) kind. Thus, "is a mammal" is an r-predicate, since it can only be had by mammals. And "is Socrates" is also an r-predicate, since it can only be had by a human.

We can perhaps form complex predicates that are neither k- nor r-predicates. Thus, "is not Socrates" is not an r-predicate (all horses and chairs, and most humans satisfy it) and may not be a k-predicate either. Though on the other hand, it may a k-predicate: maybe for non-humans, it holds in virtue of kind difference, while for humans, it holds in virtue of numerical difference within a kind.

There are also some non-contentful predicates, like "is a substance" or "is self-identical" that are neither k- nor r-predicates.

Thesis: All simple, contentful predicates are either k- or r-predicates.

I don't know if the thesis is true. There seem to be counterexamples. Having a particular shape does not seem to be a k- or r-predicate. Likewise, having a certain mass does not seem to be such, either. I suspect such apparent counterexamples can be overcome—but that may be matter for another post.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Adequacy of language

What does it mean to say that language M is at least as "adequate" as language L? One option would be to say that any proposition that L can express is a proposition that M can express. This, I think, is too strong a requirement. For sometimes one language cannot express exactly the same proposition as another language does, but in some sense loses nothing thereby in adequacy, or at least the language is at least as good for theology, ethics, science and ordinary life (that's what I mean by "practically"!) For instance, suppose that L is English and M is a restriction of English to those sentences that end with the conjunct "and each thing is identical to itself". Then M cannot express the proposition that there are horses. But the speakers of M do just as well with respect of theology, ethics, science and ordinary life any way: M is just as good as L for theology, ethics, science and ordinary life. Where a speaker of L would say that there are horses, the speaker of M will say that there are horses and each thing is identical to itself.

I do not have a clear notion of "adequacy" here—suggestions are welcome. Here, for what it is worth, are two interesting examples of how the notion might be useful.

1. Detensing: It is well known that tensed sentences like "I am now in pain" cannot be translated into token-reflexive sentences like "My pain is simultaneous with this utterance" (for instance, the latter sentence entails the occurrence of an utterance). But perhaps one can say, more weakly, that a tenseless language that makes use of token-reflexive forms like this is just as adequate as the tensed language. Certainly, it is just as adequate for ethics, science, ordinary life and probably theology. Instead of saying a sentence of ethics, science, ordinary life and theology like "It is now time for me to partially fulfill my duty of thanking God for the nomic orderliness of the universe", we just say: "This utterance is simultaneous with the time for the partial fulfillment of my duty of thanking God for the nomic orderliness of the universe." In saying this, we are saying something different. Different, yes, but in practice just as useful for ethhics, science, ordinary life and theology.

2. Indicatives: Maybe

  1. "If the Queen visits me today, I will be prepared"
does not just mean
  1. "I will be prepared for the Queen's visit or the Queen won't visit me today or both."
Nor does it just mean
  1. "P(I will be prepared | the Queen visits me today) is high"
(claim (3) does not give modus ponens). In fact, plausibly, there is no paraphrase of the indicative conditional except in terms of indicative conditionals (including ones involving "unless" and other variants). Fine. But one can still say that all indicative conditionals could be dropped from English, and the resulting language would be just as adequate. I would not be saying the same thing as (1) if I affirmed the conjunction of (2) and (3), but I would lose nothing by doing so.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Two kinds of scientific accounts

Science can provide two kinds of accounts in response to our observations:

  1. Sometimes, science explains why it is that the things we observe are as we observe them.
  2. At other times, science will explain why it is that we make the observations we do despite these observations not matching reality.
I think there ought to be a strong preference for the first kind of scientific account. Thus, we should prefer a story on which the universe evolves from a Big Bang to a story on which the universe comes into existence full-blown five minutes ago with false memories of a longer past. Likewise, we should prefer a story on which other people are conscious to a solipsist story explaining why we ascribe consciousness to others.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A false principle concerning desire

I am not the first to discover this particular fallacy—in fact, part of this post is based on ideas I got in conversion from somebody who got them from something he read. But the ideas are no less fun for being mainly not mine.

Consider the following argument for psychological hedonism, the doctrine that the only thing we pursue is pleasure:

  1. Whenever we pursue something other than pleasure, we pursue it because it gives us pleasure. (Premise)
  2. Therefore, what we really pursue is the pleasure it affords to us.
Not only is (1) false, but (2) does not follow from it. The following inference is invalid:
  1. We pursue x because it gives us y.
  2. Therefore, what we really pursue is y.
In fact, taken literally, (4) contradicts (3), since if "what we really pursue" is y, and y is not x, then we are not pursuing x (to pursue is the same as to really pursue). But even if we weaken (4) to:
  1. Therefore, we pursue y
the inference is still invalid. If I am trying to find a woman who offers water to my camels (cf. Genesis 24), it does not follow that what I am really pursuing is water for my camels. Perhaps I just want the kind of woman who gives water to my camels. Likewise, one might want a particular fig tree in the garden because it yields figs, not because one wants the figs, but because yielding figs is largely constitutive of the health of a tree, and one wants only healthy trees in the garden.

Perhaps the inference works better if we replace (1) by:

  1. Whenever we pursue something other than pleasure, we pursue it only because it gives us pleasure.
It's easier to see how (2) might be thought to follow, but (6) now begs the question against the non-hedonist. In any case, the inference is still logically invalid.

In fact, it is even incorrect to conclude from the claim that I seek x solely because it yields y that I want y at all. Suppose that, whimsically, I desire a magical hat that yields rabbits. I only want the hat because it yields rabbits—my whim is that I want to have rabbits pop into existence out of a hat. I can want such a hat for such a reason without having any desire for the rabbits. The rabbits themselves are a nuisance, and I would have no interest at all in rabbits that come into existence in any way other than out of a hat.

It might be objected that then I don't want the hat just because it yields rabbits, but I want the hat because it is a hat that yields rabbits, and so this isn't a counterexample to the inference type. But if so, then the non-hedonist need only say that she doesn't want x just because it yields pleasure, but she wants an x because it is an x that yields pleasure.

The fallacy here also occurs in the Lysis in the argument that if I am friends with x because x yields y, then what I am really friends with is y.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hedonistic utilitarianism

George is 20 years old and Jake is 50. Neither has friends, or is very likely to make a significant contribution to the pleasure of others, in George's case because of anti-social tendencies, and in Jake's because of severe disability. George hates Jake and pushes him overboard. As Jake flies overboard, George loses his balance and falls in, too. Both call to us for help. We can only pull out one. What should be done?

Here is a hedonist utilitarian answer (it makes a lot of assumptions, but the assumptions are not crazy). We should pull out George, and have him tried and convicted of murder. Then we should publicly sentence him to a lifetime of pain. We then need to hook him to electrodes in a cell, for the rest of his life. But unbeknownst to the public, the electrodes will deliver intense pleasure for the rest of his life. George will never tell anyone this, because he will be enjoying the pleasure too much. We need to tell George about this before he is sentenced to the lifetime of pain, so that he doesn't get too scared of the sentence.

On hedonist utilitarian grounds shouldn't pull out Jake, because (a) Jake is probably not going to agree to being hooked up to the pleasure-machine, and (b) even if he did, he wouldn't have as long left to live, and hence as much pleasure to experience, as George would, since George is younger. To satisfy the public, we might need to lie that we couldn't pull out Jake. George will support us in that lie. Since contortions of pleasure don't look too different from contortions of pain, we can exhibit George to the public, and this will have a significant deterrent effect on murder.

Yes, I know that hedonist utilitarians will cavil at this and at that in the story. But of course the real reason the story is all wrong is that it is surely wrong to save the life of the murderer while letting his victim drown (unless maybe the victim requests that we save the life of the murderer instead—for instance, if the victim is the murderer's parent).

Monday, September 22, 2008

Conditionals, Adams' Thesis and Molinism

The Theorem below is surely known. But the consequence about Molinism is interesting. It is related to arguments by Mike Almeida.

Definition. The claim AB is a conditional providing AB entails the material conditional "if A, then B".

Remark: This is of course a very lax definition of a conditional (B counts as a conditional, as does not-A), so the results below will be fairly general.

Definition. AB is localized provided A&B entails AB.

Remark: Lewisian and Molinist subjunctives are always localized.

Definition. Adams' Thesis holds for a conditional claim AB providing P(AB)=P(B|A).

Definition. The claim B is (probabilistically) independent of A provided P(B|A)=P(B). (If P(A)>0, this is equivalent to P(A&B)=P(A)P(B).)

Theorem 1. Suppose AB is a localized conditional. Then Adams' Thesis holds for AB if and only if AB is independent of A.

Proof. First note that if AB is a localized conditional, then, necessarily, A&(AB) holds if and only if A&B holds. Therefore P(AB|A)=P(A&(AB)|A)=P(A&B|A)=P(B|A). Now P(AB|A)=P(AB) if and only if AB is independent of A. ■

Remark: It follows that Molinist conditionals do not satisfy Adams' Thesis. For in Molinist cases, God providentially decides what antecedents of conditionals to strongly actualize on the basis of what Molinist conditionals are true, and hence A is in general dependent on AB (and thus AB is in general dependent on A).[note 1]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Omega Nebula and Horseshoe Nebula

It's always fun when a philosophy examples comes up in real life. Last night, I first saw the Omega Nebula in one part of the sky. About an hour or so later, I saw the Horseshoe Nebula in another part of the sky. It was only today that I realized that horseshoes and omegas have the same shape, and checked, and found that in fact the two are the same (the sky had rotated during that hour, so the (relative) locations were different). Of course, it is a necessary truth that the Omega Nebula = the Horseshoe Nebula (necessarily x=x). But it was a truth I only discovered on comparing the Messier and NGC catalogs on my PDA. :-)

Astronomy log

I had a really good time last night (i.e., the night of 9/19/2008) observing with a colleague: M25, M18, M8, M22, M28, C16, Omega Nebula, Ring Nebula, Jupiter with Great Red Spot, and maybe barely NGC6717 with averted vision. And a small asterism or open cluster at or near 18 38 11 +40 11 07 not listed in any of the catalogs I have.

[Edited: Initially, I logged the Omega Nebula twice, once as Omega and once as Horseshoe, because I found it twice, using different catalogs, not noticing it was the same object. I also saw the International Space Station, and an unidentified satellite.]

Deep Thoughts XIV

Every tautology is true.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Compositional universalism and monotheism

Compositional universalism says that any collection of non-overlapping beings makes up a whole. (We might restrict this to material objects, but that would be an ad hoc restriction that would make the doctrine not be a true universalism.) Here, "non-overlapping" should, I think, be read not in the spatial sense, but in the mereological sense.

Here is an interesting problem for theists who embrace compositional universalism: It seems to follow that there are wholes of which God is a proper part. Thus, there would be a whole consisting of God and the Empire State Building as its parts. Call this whole x. We can get to a reductio in more than one way from this.

1. God and only God is infinite in the fullest sense. But anything that has a part that is infinite in the fullest sense is infinite in the fullest sense. Therefore, x is infinite in the fullest sense. But x is not God, since God is a proper part of x. This contradicts the claim that only God is infinite in the fullest sense.

2. God and only God has within him perfect goodness. But so does x. Which is absurd.

3. The whole is at least as great as its part. Thus, x is at least as great as God. Which is absurd.

4. Every being other than God is wholly created by God. Therefore, x is wholly created by God. But if y is wholly created by God, then every part of y is wholly created by God. Therefore, every part of x is wholly created by God. Therefore, God is wholly created by God, which is absurd.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Colocationism and the Incarnation

According to abundant forms of colocationism, where I sit, there sit an infinity of other individuals. One of these individuals is a human-shaped mound of flesh and blood. Another is a philosopher. Yet another is something one might call a "rigid human figure" (which I will explain below). These individuals are all related to me in having the same matter. Their distinctness can be seen from the fact that they have different persistence conditions. Thus, the mound of flesh and blood can survive my death, while the philosopher came into existence significantly after I did. The rigid human figure does not survive changes in the orientation of bodily parts. According to sparser forms of colocationism, we may have a more limited number of individuals present here—only the objects that fulfill some philosophically explanatory role will be posited. Thus, the sparse colocationist will probably admit the human-shaped mound of flesh and blood, but probably will not admit the philosopher or the rigid human figure.

Colocationism, whether abundant or sparse, multiplies individuals where there is a multiplicity of what one might with significant propriety call "natures". This creates a prima facie problem for the Incarnation. For if such things as being a human and being a mound of flesh and blood count as individual-defining natures, surely so will being a human and being divine. But then the colocationism seems to imply that where Jesus is, there are two distinct individuals, one of whom is human and the other of whom is divine. This is Nestorianism. (We are used to formulations of Nestorianism that use the word "person" instead of "individual". But we could also have used "individual" as our gloss on "hupostasis"—the Greek does not have the personal implications of the Latin. In any case, both of the individuals will be persons, so there will be two persons.)

This is a prima facie problem for colocationism (I assume, of course, that the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation is true). Colocationism's multiplication of individuals seems to multiply Jesus into at least two individuals. One attempted solution to the problem might be to say that there is only one nature there, maybe "Godhumanhood". But that, of course, threatens monophysitism, unless one can argue that the sense of "nature" here is sufficiently different from that of the Council of Chalcedon. Maybe if one makes the right distinctions, one can get out of this problem. But it's going to be hard (every account of the Incarnation is hard, but here there seems to be an additional difficulty).

Abundant colocationism has a further problem. There will be an infinitude of individuals where Jesus is. A human, a teacher, a carpenter, the King of Israel, the Messiah, etc. Even if somehow we manage to collapse the human and the divine individuals into one—if not, we get Nestorianism—what do we say about all these other individuals? Are they, for instance, individuals worthy of our worship? Presumably not all—for only three individuals in existence are worthy of worship (in the sense of latria): the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The carpenter, the teacher, the King of Israel, the Messiah and the mound of flesh and blood all share the matter of the (incarnate) Son, but are distinct from the Son, and a fortiori from the Father and the Holy Spirit. But there is something more than a little odd about saying that the Messiah is not to be worshiped. Moreover, while this particular multiplication of individuals may not violate the letter of the Council of Ephesus, it seems to be very much in the Nestorian spirit. If it was bad to have two individuals, having an infinitude surely is also problematic. We want to be able to say that the individual that Jesus' disciples were taught by was the Son of God. But when Jesus' disciples were taught by the teacher (whom else do we attribute teaching to in the primary sense but the teacher?), then it seems they were taught by someone other than the Son of God on the colocationist view.

The sparse colocationist has less trouble, perhaps. She might only have the flesh and blood and the human being to deal with. To avoid literal Nestorianism, she will say that the human being is the same individual as the Logos. The mound of flesh and blood will still be problematic, though, in light of the fact that we are told by Scripture that the Logos became flesh. We do not want to leave the flesh and blood too far outside the bounds of the Incarnation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Approximation in mathematics

The New York Times has an interesting article arguing that imprecise approximational intuitions--the ability to quickly and roughly reckon things--are crucial to success at abstract mathematics.

To someone whose mathematical work was in real-number based areas--analysis and probability theory--this is very plausible on introspective grounds. But I wonder how true it is in more algebraic fields. I've never been very good at higher algebra--things like the Sylow theorems were very difficult for me (I still passed the algebra comp, but it came noticeably less naturally to me than the analysis comp), perhaps in part because my approximational intuitions were close to useless.

Anecdotal data suggests to me that there are two distinct kinds of mathematical skills. There are the skills involved in analysis, skills tied to problems that are real-number based (complex numbers are real-number based, of course, since C is just the cross product of R with itself), often visualizable, and where approximation and limiting procedures may be relevant. And then there are the skills involved in more algebraic fields, where (as far as I can) approximation gets you nowhere, and while visualization is helpful, the visualization is much more symbolic (visualizing a path of a brownian particle is pretty straightforward, one visualizes quotient groups either explicitly in symbols like "A/H" or perhaps in some strange and highly abstract diagrams). I don't know where to put the combinatorial--it may somewhat straddle the divide (a lot of visualization is involved), but I think is very algebraic in nature.

It is quite possible for a person to be really good at one of these, without being very good at the other. There are fields of mathematics that call upon both sets of skills. And there is an asymmetry: I think the analysis-type skills may be of very little use to mathematicians working in very algebraic areas, but just about every mathematician working in an analysis-type area needs to be able to do algebraic manipulation (though I have a strong preference for proofs in analysis-type fields where the algebraic manipulation is just a way of making precise what is intuitively obvious).


You ask me: "Did Owen tell you in confidence that he is looking for another position?" He didn't, and in fact Owen and I have never talked about the question. What can I say? It seems I can truthfully and with a clear conscience answer: "No." After all, Owen never confided in me, so I owe him no duties of confidentiality.

But if I make it a policy to answer such questions honestly in cases where Owen has reposed no relevant confidence in me, then I make myself into a non-intentional betrayer of secrets. For you can then tell whether Owen has shared a relevant confidence in me simply by asking me about it—if I answer, then he has not, and if I do not answer, then he has. Moreover, in typical cases you can also deduce, with some probability, what the confidence was. For it is more likely that Owen would take the trouble to request confidentiality about his looking for a new position than about his being satisfied with his present post.

By answering in the negative when no confidence has been reposed in me, then, I decrease my ability to keep confidences on other occasions. It seems, then, that a good thing to say is: "If he did tell me so, I wouldn't be able to share it with you. And if he did not tell me so, I still shouldn't tell you that, since then you'd be able to tell when confidence has been reposed in me."

But what is kind of tricky is that there are cases where this response does not seem satisfactory from Owen's point of view. Suppose that Owen never committed a certain pecadillo, but I am such a close friend of his, that had he done it, he would have immediately told me about it in confidence. If I am asked whether Owen confessed the pecadillo to me, and he had not, then it seems the very best thing for Owen's reputation is a clear denial from me. But a policy of such denials makes me a poorer keeper of confidences for my friends. So there is a bit of a dilemma here.

Presumably, the thing to do is to say that the duty to remain an effective keeper of confidences when one has not had a secret confided to one is only a prima facie duty. It is, simply, a good thing to be an effective keeper of confidences, but sometimes we need to act in ways that makes us less effective at keeping secrets, just as sometimes we need to act in ways that will make us less good racketball players (a philosopher I know gave up a professional racketball career to go into philosophy). To be an effective keeper of secrets is a genuine good, but there are incommensurable goods that might justify becoming a less effective keeper of secrets. There is nothing surprising here. In fact, examples are easy to find. Learning to keep a poker face, for instance, makes one a more effective keeper of secrets, but increases one's temptations to dishonesty.

What is kind of interesting to me about this case is that it seems one has prima facie duties of confidentiality towards people whose confidences one does not actually possess. I think this is because one has good reason to be ready with the offices of a friend (understood broadly—we should be a friend or neighbor to all), and hence to act in ways that make one a more effective friend. Maybe we should see this reason as grounded in what one owes fellow human beings, or maybe in what one owes oneself, or maybe in what one owes God.

And confidentiality is not the only such case. For instance, one likewise has reason to avoid budgeting one's money and time in such a way that one has no margin to help friends in need.

There is nothing earthshaking or deeply surprising here. I just wanted to think through these issues, and as often, my way of thinking them through is by writing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Could it contingently be the case that the laws of nature hold necessarily?

Here is a nice cautionary tale about being careful with scope and modality. A friend asked me whether one could argue from the possibility of the laws of nature being necessary to laws of nature being actually necessary. I answered in the affirmative, thinking about S5, and imagining the following argument:

  1. Possibly, the laws of nature hold necessarily. (Premise)
  2. If possibly necessarily p holds, then necessarily p holds. (Premise: S5)
  3. Therefore, the laws of nature hold necessarily.

But the argument is badly fallacious. One way to see the fallacy is to note that in (2) the proposition p is referred to rigidly, while in (3) "the laws of nature" are a definite description. Compare the fallacious argument:

  1. Possibly, what I will write on the board holds necessarily. (Premise)
  2. If possibly necessarily p holds, then necessarily p holds. (Premise: S5)
  3. Therefore, what I will write on the board holds necessarily.
Claim (4) is true: it is possible that I will write on the board something that holds necessarily (e.g., "5+7=12"). But one cannot conclude to (6), since after all I might also write something that holds merely contingently or not at all.

Another way to see the fallacy is to see it as a scope ambiguity in (4). For (6) to follow, (4) must be read as saying that possibly p holds necessarily, where p is what I will write on the board. But that claim is unjustified. All I am justified in saying is that possibly I will write something that holds necessarily.

And in fact we can see that it is prima facie possible that it a merely contingent fact that the laws of nature hold necessarily. Suppose that the laws of nature come in two classes. Some laws of nature are metaphysically necessary and some are not. For instance, prima facie, it might be a metaphysically necessary law that electrons have electric charge, but a metaphysically contingent law that opposite charges attract. Then it might turn out that there is a world w where there are no metaphysically contingent laws. It would then be true at w that all the laws of nature hold necessarily. But this would be only contingently the case, because there are worlds that have some of the contingent laws as well.

Interestingly, we can make the argument from (1) and (2) to (3) work if we add the following premise:

  1. Necessarily: (For all p, either it is a law that p is a law, or it is a law that p is not a law).
For then, by (1), suppose that w1 is a world where the laws hold necessarily. Suppose now that w2 is any world and p is any law in w2. Then, p either is or is not a law in w1. If p is a law in w1, then it is a law in w1 that p is a law. But the laws in w1 hold necessarily, so it follows that p holds necessarily. And if p is not a law in w1, then it is a law in w1 that p is not a law. Since the laws in w1 hold necessarily, p is not a law in w2, which is absurd. Hence, every law of w2 holds necessarily.

Note: The above argument assumed that "p is a law" entails p, and that the claim "law p holds necessarily" entails that p holds necessarily (I did not additionally assume that "law p holds necessarily" entails that necessarily p is a law, though that does follow from (7)).

[I fixed some typos, and more importantly edited (2) and (4) in response to Comment #1 below. The original version of the post had "p" instead of "necessarily p" in the consequents of (2) and (4), which made the arguments not work. This emphasizes again the first sentence of the post.]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Almeida on moral status of fetuses and newborns

Mike Almeida has posted a very interesting argument on prosblogion to the effect that fetuses and newborns have the same moral status as adults. There is lots of good discussion there. He then posted an interesting follow-up argument.

Reformed Christianity and sufficient grace

Scripture promises that:

  1. For any temptation, the faithful Christian will receive a grace sufficient to withstand that temptation.
The phrase "the faithful Christian" here has a meaning that differs depending on the interpretation of various texts, but suggests a Christian in God's good graces, as it were. In a Catholic setting, we can precisify this as: "a Christian in a state of grace." In a Reformed setting, we can take the phrase as coextensive with "one of the Elect after gaining faith". The following also seems true:
  1. Some faithful Christians succumb to temptation.
There are some small groups of Christians that deny (2). I take the denial of (2) to be quite implausible, unless one just defines a "faithful Christian" as one who withstands temptation, in which case (1) is hard to make non-trivial sense of, or unless one has a very narrow notion of sin (e.g., transgression of one of the Ten Commandments, understood in a narrowly literal way).

But (1) and (2) are in apparent conflict. For it follows from (1) and (2) that:

  1. Some faithful Christians fall to a temptation that they have received a grace sufficient to withstand.
This immediately implies that "a grace sufficient to do A" is not a grace the presence of which suffices to ensure that one does A. But now it is really puzzling what "sufficient" could mean in this context.

Incompatibilist Christians, such as many Catholics, have a story to tell here. They can say that what (1) says is that the faithful Christian receives a grace sufficient to make withstanding the temptation be within one's power or maybe even well within one's power (this could happen by supernaturally augmenting that power, or by decreasing the force of the temptation, or both). In other words, these Christians say that "sufficient" in "sufficient grace" does not mean "sufficient for withstanding" but "sufficient for the (reasonable?) possibility of withstanding". This is a perfectly fine use of the word "sufficient". It seems imaginable that the doctor gives me medication that is "sufficient" to remove a headache, but the effects of the medication are negated by the ingestion of alcohol. What we mean by saying that the medication is sufficient to remove a headache is that it puts the removal of the headache within one's power, if only one follows the doctor's instructions.

But the puzzle is greater for Christians of a more Reformed bent, who normally see a grace sufficient for A as in fact a grace that necessitates A. This is, after all, the standard Reformed view of salvific grace: anybody who has received the grace sufficient for salvation is one of the Elect, and because of the receipt of the grace is necessarily going to be saved.

The question now is whether a Reformed Christian can give a different story about sanctifying grace, so that a person can receive a grace sufficient to withstand temptation and yet fall to that temptation. If not, then Reformed Christianity is not tenable in the light of (1) and (2).

It is possible for a Reformed Christian to have the following moderate view: While salvation is a matter of divinely determined predestination, and faith is necessitated by grace, nonetheless faithful Christians have libertarian freedom in respect of things that do not affect whether they are saved. In particular, then, if the Reformed Christian does not think sins rule out salvation, she may then given the same account of how (1) and (2) can be both be true as more generally incompatibilist Christians do. She can say that we get a grace sufficient to make it possible for us to overcome temptation.

But what about a Reformed Christian who denies that we have any libertarian freedom, e.g., because of a strong view of divine sovereignty or because she is convinced by Jonathan Edwards' and Hume's arguments against libertarianism[note 1]? Then the problem presented by (1) and (2) may be insoluble. In what sense has God given George the grace to withstand the temptation to get drunk if God in his sovereignty has placed George in a position where George cannot but get drunk?

Perhaps, though, the determinist Reformed Christian can give the following story. Many compatibilists think that if we understand "capable" appropriately, we can still say that if George freely does A, he was capable of refraining from doing A. The sense of "capable" here would be a lack of physical or mental compulsion to do A, say (the details are hard to work out), a lack that is compatible with the claim that the agent's character determines the agent to do A. Maybe, then, the compatibilist can give the familiar answer above: God gives the faithful Christian a grace sufficient to make the Christian in this sense capable of withstanding the temptation. Except that now "capable" must be understood in the compatibilist sense. In other words, grace removes the physical and mental compulsion to fall prey to the temptation, but does not necessarily repair one's character in such a way that one would withstand the temptation.

But this answer, I think, fails. First of all, if we include threats of suffering and pain under the head of "physical compulsion", and a habitual attraction to something under the head of "mental compulsion", then on this broader reading of physical and mental compulsion, God's grace does not always remove the compulsion. On the contrary, in the cases of martyrs or people overcoming addictions, the threat of suffering or the habitual attraction remain present, and grace enables one to overcome the threat or habit.

So for the answer to have any hope of working, we must understand "compulsion" fairly narrowly. But then we have the following problem. If I am compelled, in that narrow sense, to do something, then I am not responsible for that action. If I am physically compelled in a narrow sense to throw a rock, e.g., by electrodes implanted in my brain, then I am not sinning by throwing the rock. But temptation in this context is, by definition, temptation to sin. So on this view, the grace to withstand temptation is what actually makes the sin possible, since without the grace one would be compelled, in the narrow sense, to do the bad thing, and while the action would be bad, it would not be a sin (technically speaking, it might be a material but not a formal sin). The view that the grace of withstanding temptation that faithful Christians are promised is what makes sin possible seems deeply unsatisfactory. Moreover, on such a view the grace is quite pointless, since without the grace one would be guaranteed not to sin, as one would be acting under compulsion.

Maybe there is some further story the determinist Reformed Christian can give that would reconcile (1) and (2). But at least absent such a story, we have good reason not to be determinist Reformed Christians.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Of corals, fetuses and the law

My three-year-old son wanted a bunch of books about sea creatures from the library. One of these was a pretty children's book about corals and what lives among them. The book contains a thorough description of coral reproduction. After talking of the sperm and egg uniting, the book says: "With fertilization, a new life begins." This, I take it, is a quite uncontroversial claim. That is precisely when a new coral's life begins.

And there does not seem to be very good reason why there should be any more controversy in the case of humans. Corals reproduce sexually, and typically[note 1] so do we. Sperm and egg unite in very much the same way. It seems that if the new coral comes into existence at fertilization, we should say exactly the same thing about a new human, without any controversy.

Of course, I know about the alleged distinctions between being a human organism and being a human person, and all that. But these seem both implausible and not scientifically grounded.

Here is something more like a policy argument, albeit a conditional one. If we do not wish our jurisprudence to rest on controversial "comprehensive" philosophical or religious views (not that there is anything wrong it resting on such a basis, but a lot of people don't like it), we should have a strong preference for formulating our laws in terms of concepts derived from science. Thus, our laws should not make reference to race, if it turns out that race is not a scientifically respectable category. (But note that it could be that although race is not a respectable category of any natural science, being socially classified as a member of race R could still be a respectable category of a social science, and could function as a concept in a law.) As much as we can, then, our laws should understand death in whatever way biologists do, with whatever fuzziness biologists see in death. Similarly, we should not use the non-scientific concept of a "person", since that is a concept tied to controversial metaphysical or ethical views, but in our formulations should divide things up scientifically, presumably using the fairly respectable concept of a "human being" or "human organism" instead. To draw a line between those human organisms who are persons and those who are not would, then, be something we should avoid. Presumably, then, we should legally protect the life of all human organisms (or at least the innocent ones). At least if we don't want the law to rest on controversial "comprehensive" philosophical or religious views.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A thought experiment regarding abortion

The luckies are a species of intelligent beings, very much like humans intellectually, a species that has produced a culture of about the same level as we have. Luckies reproduce sexually, and their intellectual development proceeds at the same pace as that of humans. Thus, they begin their organic existence as a unicellular organism, and then grow quickly. Initially, they have no intellectual life to speak of. After a couple of weeks, just as a human embryo, a lucky develops a brain, and eventually becomes conscious. At nine months from fertilization, a lucky is quite helpless, just as a newborn human infant is. Up to around 21 months from fertilization, a lucky is just starting to catching up to the intelligence of an average dog, just as humans do at around 12 months after birth. At around 27 months from fertilization, luckies begin to recognize themselves in mirrors, and around five years after fertilization they become capable of uttering sentences involving embedded conditionals.[note 1]

But there is a crucial difference between the luckies and us. The luckies are fortunate enough to live in a natural environment empty of predators that could eat a small lucky, on a planet covered with vegetation whose nutrition a lucky for the first nine months from conception can absorb through the skin, and after that the lucky can easily suck the nutrition out of the vegetation. The fertilization of luckies, thus, happens externally to the body of both parents, and the resultant unicellular lucky, which will double in bulk every twelve hours for the first couple of days, is simply left on the vegetation in the parents' garden, to grow. Eventually, at about 8-10 months after fertilization, the parents start playing with the lucky, because although the lucky doesn't have any physical needs that call upon the parents, nonetheless its emotional and intellectual development from that point on starts to require interaction with other luckies.

My argument now has three stages:

  1. Killing human infants is murder.
  2. Therefore, killing luckies at any stage of their development is murder.
  3. Therefore, killing humans at any stage of their development is murder.
And, of course, murder is by definition wrong.

Stage 1: I shall simply take it for granted that killing human infants is murder. There is no real controversy about this, except in the case of some philosophers who don't know when they have a reductio ad absurdum on their hands. In fact, we tend to think that there is something particularly barbaric about killing infants, and we do not think there is anything irrational in a parent sacrificing his or her life to save an infant, in a way in which it would be irrational to sacrifice one's life for one's dog.

Stage 2: Plainly, if to kill a human infant is murder, it is equally murder to kill a lucky from about nine months from fertilization on. For the lucky nine months after fertilization has the same kinds of actual and potential agentive and intellectual abilities that the human infant does. The difficulty is whether we can push this judgment back to the time of a lucky's fertilization.

Suppose we deny this. Then, while it is murder to kill a lucky at the nine month point, it is not murder to kill a lucky at the beginning. At some point a transition occurred, a transition from a lucky not being the kind of thing that has a right not to be killed (or, maybe, a right not to be killed unless one has done something to deserve it—the details here won't affect the argument much, I think), to a lucky being that sort of thing. What makes for that transition? Remember that in the developmental history of a lucky, there is no such thing as birth—luckies live autonomously from fertilization.

I see two possible transition points other than fertilization. The first is the coming into existence of the lucky's brain (or whatever the equivalent in a lucky is), and the second is the beginning of consciousness. I think neither transition point is plausible, for the following reasons. First, the mere existence of a brain that isn't actually thinking consciously gets you little of moral significance, unless one thinks that the brain is the individual or something like that, so that the individual comes into existence when the brain does. This is implausible. It is not my brain that is the thinker. It is I who think, at least in part, with my brain. Moreover, once one admits that a barely existent brain of a lucky is sufficient to ground a right not to be killed, I think one has admitted that things gain moral significance from what they naturally develop into it. For initially the brain of a lucky is, presumably, a poor affair (I assume it is like the brain of a human embryo), of less actual computational ability than the brain of an adult chicken, and I take it that adult chickens do not have a right not to be killed. What makes the brain of the lucky at all significant is that it has a natural propensity to develop into a brain capable of the kinds of intellectual skills that are distinctive of luckies and humans. But once such natural propensities are seen as sufficient to confer a right to life, then we have to say that a lucky has a right to life at fertilization, since the lucky at fertilization already has such a natural propensity. Consciousness is no more helpful as a transition point. It seems plausible that all mammals have consciousness, but not all mammals have a right not to be killed. By itself consciousness cannot have the relevant kind of significance, unless perhaps one takes a Cartesian view on which we are essentially conscious, so that consciousness is a necessary condition of our existence. But then we have to say, with Descartes, that all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, no matter how deeply we are asleep, we are conscious—else we cease to exist. This is implausible.

So we cannot mark a transition point in the life of a lucky between fertilization and nine months where a lucky would gain a right to life. Thus, we need to suppose that the lucky has always had that right, perhaps in virtue of its natural propensity to develop into an intelligent adult lucky.

Step 3: Observe that luckies and humans for the first nine months after fertilization do not seem very different intrinsically. The only difference is that the luckies find themselves in a natural environment that is much more friendly than the natural environment on earth. Thus, humans can currently only survive for that part of their development in a controlled environment in utero, luckies have that kind of an environment out in their parents' garden. Granted, the human embryo is more dependent on the mother than the lucky at the same stage of development. But the lucky is no less dependent—it's just that the dependence is not on the mother, but on the vegetation, the air, and other aspects of the environment. That, however, should not make for a difference in the lucky's moral status, just as, if we engineered an environment (e.g., an artificial womb) where humans could develop for the first nine months from fertilization, a human in this environment would not have any different moral status from a human in a womb.

If we had any reason to think an embryonic or fetal human was a mere part of the mother on whom it depended, maybe we could try to build an argument for the permisibility of killing it on that basis. But, first of all, embryonic and fetal humans are not a part of the mother, since their development has different goals from the mother's—they do not subserve the mother in the way a part does.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It is not good for a man to be alone

Christ is in heaven, with a glorified body. Glorification does not destroy what is essentially human. A glorified body, thus, has a mouth, eyes, ears, and all that. There is more to it than that. But what normal human beings have, Christ has in heaven. But there would be something unnatural, something lacking in the glorification, if Christ had a mouth and ears, but there was no fellow human being there for him to talk to. Our bodies exist in large part for interaction with others (that our bodies are signs of our being-for-others is a central insight of John Paul II's theology of the body). A single embodied human being just does not make all that much sense.

But if there is a fellow human being in heaven for Christ to be in human communion with, then who is this fellow human being? It is right and proper to confer honor upon our parents. Thus, his mother is a very plausible candidate. There would be something unfitting about his conferring that honor on someone other than his mother, and not on his mother, given the commandment of filial devotion, unless his mother were not a disciple of his—which, the Christian tradition insists, she was. (Indeed, I think it is right to read the New Testament as presenting her as the paradigmatic disciple.)

Objection 1: This argument proves too much. For a glorified body also includes reproductive organs, and so a parallel argument would show that to live a full, glorified human life requires reproduction.

Response: Probably, reproduction is only a natural function of a human being for a limited portion of the human being's life. Moreover, there is a way in which we can transcend the physically reproductive life through spiritual reproduction—through devoting our lives in celibacy to spreading the Gospel. But some form of bodily interaction with other human beings—whether through talking or hugging or just looking in another's eyes—seems essential to a naturally fulfilling human life at just about all its mature (and maybe even immature) stages.

Objection 2: The need for bodily communion is satisfied through Christ's giving of himself to us bodily in the Eucharist.

Response: Christ's giving of himself to us in the Eucharist does not seem to make use of any of the natural faculties of his glorified body. There is a kind of natural bodily communion with others that is called for.

Objection 3: Mary survived at least some time past Christ's ascension into heaven. So if Mary is the only one assumed into heaven, for a while Christ was bodily alone in heaven, only surrounded spiritually by the souls of those he brought out of Sheol.

Response: Maybe then we have to say that more people were assumed bodily into heaven. Moses and Elijah are good candidates on Scriptural grounds. But the argument that it would unfitting for Mary not to be assumed as well if anybody is, given the special honor to be paid to parents, still remains. Or, maybe, we should say that there is nothing deeply unnatural in a human being's being alone for a while, even for a couple of years. But to be alone for a significantly greater amount of time would be unnatural.

Objection 4: Maybe time runs at a different rate in heaven, and it'll only be five minutes of heavenly time between Christ's ascension into heaven and the Last Judgment.

Response: Could be. I think such a difference in the rate of time, though, weakens the way in which Christ is in human communion with us. But I acknowledge that the different-rate hypothesis is a viable one, and hence weakens the argument.

Fittingness arguments, like the one I offer, are not meant to be conclusive. But they do increase the probability of the claim. Or, at least, the argument could help explain why it is that the doctrine of Mary's assumption is not something weird, unexpected and ad hoc, if the doctrine actually can be seen as helping to solve a genuine problem, the problem of Christ's bodily aloneness.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

We're hiring

BAYLOR UNIVERSITY, Waco, TX announces a tenured or tenure-track position in the department of philosophy beginning in the fall of 2009. Rank: Assistant or Associate Professor. AOS and AOC: Open. Salary is competitive and related to experience. Teaching load and scholarly expectations are consistent with those of a research university. Review of applications will begin immediately and will continue until the position is filled. To ensure full consideration, the completed application should be received by November 1, 2008. Baylor, the world's largest Baptist University, holds a Carnegie classification as a "high-research" institution. Baylor's mission is to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community. Baylor is actively recruiting new faculty with a strong commitment to the classroom and an equally strong commitment to discovering new knowledge as Baylor aspires to become a top tier research university while reaffirming and deepening its distinctive Christian mission as described in Baylor 2012. The letter of application should respond to Baylor's "2012 Vision Statement" (available on the web at http://www.baylor.edu/vision) and include an account of the applicant's own religious views. Candidates should submit a CV, a professional writing sample, three letters of recommendation, and transcripts. Baylor is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and as an AA/EEO employer, Baylor encourages minorities, women, veterans, and persons with disabilities to apply. Send applications to Robert Baird, Chair, Search Committee, Department of Philosophy, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97273, Waco, Texas, 76798-7273.

Relativity Theory and abortion

In an earlier post, I offered the principle that just as the laws of physics should be invariant under change of reference frame, so should the laws of morality. One consequence of that is that various inside-outside distinctions are not going to be significant of themselves. Here is an interesting little consequence of that: Any argument that abortion is permissible based on the fact that abortion takes place inside the body of the woman cannot be right, since the claim that the fetus is inside the woman's body is not invariant under coordinate transformations.

This doesn't mean that the argument is thoroughly refuted. But it does mean that the mere geometrical fact that the fetus is within the woman's body is insignificant. There may, however, be more significant related invariant facts about dependence, burden, etc. The invariance move does not, thus, settle the discussion, but moves it forward, by forcing the pro-choicer arguer to give a fuller story about the distinction in invariant terms, which terms non-coincidentally are going to be descriptively richer, thereby deepening the debate.

Of course, one doesn't need relativity theory to show the problem with the principle that one can do what one likes as long as it is within the confines of one's body. One can also proceed by counterexample. If one accidentally swallowed Whoville, one would not be permitted to follow that up with a drink of something intended to kill all the Whos.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A hypothesis about the origins of homophobia

Here is a hypothesis that, if correct, would explain many instances of male homophobia. Heterosexual men often objectify women, and they believe (often correctly) that other straight men do likewise. Consequently, they believe that men generally objectify those persons to whom they are sexually attracted. Therefore, such a man may believe that homosexually oriented persons objectify men, and in particular are apt to objectify him. But he has an aversion to being objectified, or at least to being objectified by persons he is not himself sexually interested in. Therefore, such a man exhibits a certain kind of aversion or even fear of men who are sexually attracted to men—he does not want to be lusted at.

The hypothesis would suggest the following predictions:

  1. Homophobia is more often directed at men by men than at men by women, women by men, or women by women.
  2. The incidence of homophobia is correlated with the incidence of the objectification of women (both individually and in a social circle; thus, even if x does not himself objectify women, if his friends do, this may correlate with increased homophobia).
  3. Homophobic heterosexual men are likely to be averse to having a very unattractive women being sexually interested in them.
  4. A significant amount of homophobia is also directed at sexually abstinent homosexual men.
I don't know if the predictions are true. I suspect on anecdotal grounds that (1) and (4) are true. I do not know if (2) and (3) are.

I should note that I do not equate homophobia with a moral disapproval of homosexual activity or with a disgust at homosexual actions, and hence I can consistently say that homophobia is irrational (or even that some homosexual actions are disgusting—just as some unnatural heterosexual actions are), while still holding that homosexual activity is wrong. It is, after all, possible to strongly disapprove of an action, but to have no aversion or fear towards the persons who perform the action. Thus, orthodox Catholics strongly disapprove of contraception, but I think are unlikely to feel an aversion or fear towards the large majority of fellow citizens who contracept. (The case is chosen carefully: The Christian tradition classifies homosexual activity and the heterosexual use of condoms in the same moral category of "unnatural acts", and both Catholics and Protestants traditionally called both sets of acts "sodomy".) Nor can one identify disgust at an action with an aversion to the person who does it. Thus, everyone on a daily basis does disgusting and morally unexceptionable things in private, but being disgusted at these actions is not equivalent to aversion to oneself and one's fellow man. Disgust at an action can sometimes give rise to an aversion to the doer, but the disgust and the aversion are still distinct.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Telekinesis and the unreality of artefacts

Telekinesis is not within our power. How can we formulate this fact? Well, it's a bit tricky. The natural way of formulating is to say that no human thought has a physical effect outside the body except through an extra-mental bodily movement (this formulation leaves open the possibility that the mind is a part of the body). However, we can, just by thinking about it, change the positions of needles on gauges on a neural scanner. And if Christians are right, it is possible to pray mentally for a physical effect, and have the physical effect occur by a divine intervention. Moreover, we want to insist that just as one person can't do telekinesis by herself, so too a dozen can't do it together.

One way to handle the neural scanner concern and to extend to the case of multiple agents is to say that whenever human thoughts have a physical effect in virtue of their content, they do so through causing at least one an extra-mental bodily movement. The case of miracles can be handled, perhaps, by adding a qualifier "except for miracles".

Now, suppose that tables, chairs and other artefacts exist. Then, I think, the existence of an artefact depends crucially on what people think: it depends on the intentions of the artificer and what other people plan to use it for. We could imagine a physical object just like a chair but which can survive the loss of all of its legs, because its purpose is quite different from the purposes of a chair. Whether that object exists or whether a chair exists in its place depends on what people made the object for, and/or what they plan to use it for. Likewise, whether one is making a palisade—a single object—or a series of upright pointed sticks tied together depends on one's intentions for the project. If, for instance, one is planning to untie all the sticks and use them as spears as soon as the enemy approaches, then what one has made is a bunch of spears tied together for ease of storage, and one has not made a palisade. Thus, the number of artefacts depends on the contents of our thoughts.

Facts about what artefacts exist depend crucially on the content of what people think. Since many artefacts, including the ones in the above examples, are physical objects outside of human bodies, it follows from the above, that if there really are artefacts, then the contents of thoughts can affect what kinds of and how many physical objects exist outside of human bodies. Moreover, this happens without any miracles, in the ordinary course of things. Hence, if there really are artefacts, there is something very much like telekinesis.

Of course, nobody really thinks there is some miraculous multiplication or aggregation, respectively, of objects when a bunch of spears tied together or a palisade, respective, is made. The reason for that is that we realize, perhaps inconsistently, that artefacts are not real things.

There is a way out of this argument, and this is to assume compositional universalism. But that faces at least one serious problem, as an earlier post has shown.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A problem of the many

Assume compositional universalism, the doctrine that any bunch of non-overlapping objects have a whole which they wholly compose. Unger's problem of the many is that there seem to be too many people who think my thoughts. After all, if I think my thoughts, so does the guy composed of the same parts as I have, plus one additional particle near me, as does the guy composed of the same as I have, minus one flake of skin. There are solutions to this problem, however. For instance, it might be that for some reason only one of the composites is a person—maybe a person has to be maximal in some way, including all the parts. Or maybe persons are souls, or matter connected with a soul (and there is a metaphysical fact as to which particles are connected to a soul).

The only consistently unrestricted universalism that has any hope of truth, however, is what one might call modal universalism. I will give the four-dimensionalist version, but a three-dimensionalist version is just as easy. Modal universalism says that for any function f from worlds to sets of objects, such that all the f(w) are non-overlapping, and such that for at least one w the set f(w) is non-empty, there is an object Of such that:

  1. For all w, Of exists at w if and only if f(w) is non-empty.
  2. For all w, if f(w) is non-empty, then Of is composed precisely of the members of f(w) at w.
(For the three-dimensionalist version, replace worlds with world-time pairs.) Bald claim: Anything more restrictive than modal universalism will either not yield all the objects of common sense, such as organisms and artefacts, or else will be ad hoc.

Modal universalism, however, gives a particularly serious problem of the many. Here is a rough-and-ready thesis:

  1. Whether x is a person in the actual world thinking about p depends only on what x is up to at w and at worlds sufficiently close to the actual world.
To make this precise, one would need an account of categorical properties to spell out the "is up to".

Anyway, for any at all reasonable story about what "sufficiently close" means, according to modal universalism, there will be infinitely many entities that are composed of the same parts as I am in all the sufficient close worlds, but that differ in some odd way in the further worlds. (There is a being that has the same parts as me in all sufficiently close worlds, but in all further worlds is composed of number seven, assuming the number seven is an object.) By (3), they will be thinking about the same thing as I am. And hence we get too many thinkers thinking my thoughts. Moreover, to make things worse, if there are no empty worlds, some of these thinkers will be necessary beings (e.g., the Pruss/Number-7 being of my previous paranthetical remark).

Now something like a maximality condition, or bringing in souls, may help with Unger's original problem. But there would still be this version to tackle.

Maybe introducing some story about naturalness will help. Maybe only the more natural entities think, and an entity that is composed of the same parts as I at all close worlds and of the number seven at all other worlds isn't natural. However, at some distant worlds, there will be multiple, equally natural (at least if natural is linked with simplicity of law and that sort of thing), choices for f(w), even if we constrain that f(w) = { me } at all close worlds. Unless, of course, naturalness is some kind of metaphysical primitive, having nothing much to do with simplicity of law and so on. So that's a way out, but I doubt it will appeal to many modal universalists.

Let me end with a note about a different topic. I suspect that the only ontology that will support a psychological theory of personal identity will be a universalist one. Thus, this might yield an argument against psychological theories of personal identity.

[Minor errors fixed.]

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Metaphysically light existence

In the previous post, I argued that artefacts do not exist in a "metaphysically serious way". The notion of metaphysically serious existence is a foggy one. But I think I can give two sufficient conditions for it. The trivial one is that Fs don't exist in a metaphysically serious way if there just are no Fs. The non-trivial one is that Fs don't exist in a metaphysically serious way provided that whenever "x" is the name of an existent F, the proposition that x exists is a proposition that holds in virtue of the truth of some proposition that does not make reference to the x.

For instance, if x is a particular hole in a wall, the claim "x exists" holds in virtue of a proposition reporting a certain area's being surrounded by the wall but not itself containing any parts of the wall. Likewise, if x is a waltz that George and Sally are dancing, then the claim "x exists" holds in virtue of George and Sally waltzing at a certain time in a certain way (the "certain" encode the amount of precision to ensure that we're talking of this waltz rather than another waltz). Thus, holes and waltzes don't exist in a metaphysically serious way.

Note that the "in virtue of" relation here is more than just "being entailed by."

On my view claims like "This table exists" may be true in virtue of facts about arrangements of particles and/or fields as well as the intentions and/or practices of agents and/or communities. Or, alternately, such claims are false as they stand, but they are close approximations to true claims which hold in virtue of facts about arrangements of particles and/or fields as well as the intentions and/or practices of agents and/or communities.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


There are no artefacts, at least not in any metaphysically serious way. To see this, consider some puzzles that face those who believe in artefacts.

You come across a stump in the woods. You sit down. Has the stump become a seat? It seems so. Even though you haven't actually changed the stump, you have given it the function of a seat. An artefact does not, after all, need multiple pieces. I could manufacture wooden seats by taking logs and carving them into seats, or by spending a lot of time in the woods and finding pieces of wood that already have the right shape and bringing them back. Or perhaps it's not enough just to sit on a stump to have a seat.

But actually, if I manufacture seats, the stuff I make does not become a seat when someone sits on it—it is a seat when the manufacturing process is complete. Likewise, then, it seems that the stump has already become a seat when I intend to sit on it. Or if giving something the function of being sat on once is not enough to make it a seat, maybe it becomes a seat as soon as I intend to take it home and put it in my living room. But this is really spooky: by simply intending to treat a stump a certain way, I have made a new object—a seat—with new persistence conditions. Very strange, that.

You buy a chair. Dust settles on it. The dust is not part of the chair. But you then make a tag: "Dusty Chair II". You put the tag in front of the chair. Oh, I "forgot" to say—your home is an art gallery. When you put the tag in front of the chair, with the right intentions, you created a work of art, an artefact with certain complex persistence conditions. One of the persistence conditions is that while the dust is not a part of the chair, it is essentially a part of Dusty Chair II. So, simply by putting a tag in front of the chair, I have brought it about that a new artistic artefact comes to exist. The token tag is not, however, a part of the work of art. (The signs in a gallery are printed by the gallery, and need not travel with the works of art.) So I created a new entity, without in any way causally interacting with it—just by putting a tag in front of it. And of course the tag is unnecessary. If I just stand in front of the chair telling all the visitors to my home that this is Dusty Chair II, that's just as good.

The case of the stump-seat and Dusty Chair II violate the principle that one cannot bring about the existence of a new object without a relevant[note 1] causal interaction with the object. Artefacts are simply too easy to make.

The above arguments assumed that what defined the identities of artefacts were maker's intentions. The alternative is social practices. But it is no less weird to suppose that a bunch of people by getting together can create an object without relevantly causally interacting with it.

It is clear that the persistence conditions for artefacts are defined by the makers and/or users and/or the community. But let us say that a careful study of our language shows that half of the users of English understand "chair" as an essentially four-legged artefact, and the other half think of a "chair" as surviving the loss of one of its four legs. Does that mean that my dining room chairs are coincident objects, colocated chair(1)s and chair(2)s, where a chair(1) cannot survive loss of a leg and a chair(2) can? Or is the question whether I have chair(1)s or chair(2)s settled by figuring out what the majority of the folks in the chair factory thought (suppose my chairs were made in an English speaking country)? Or is it settled by what the bosses thought? Or by what I thought? But I have no opinion on the question. So is there no fact of the matter whether one of the things in my dining room would survive loss of a leg? These questions seem insuperable.

Now one way to get out of all of these puzzles is to be enough of a compositional universalist: any bunch of parts with coherent persistence conditions and interworld identity conditions defines an object.[note 2] Thus, when I come upon the stump, whatever my intentions towards the stump, there is an object there with the persistence conditions of a stump, and an object there with the persistence conditions of a seat. Perhaps, then, I do not bring about the existence of the latter object with my intention, but I simply bring it about that it is appropriate to call the object a "seat". Likewise, while artistic intention is needed to transform the dusty chair into Dusty Chair II, even if I didn't have this intention, there would be a nameless object there with the persistence conditions that Dusty Chair II has.

But the main reason to save the existence of artefacts is to save common sense. And this kind of universalism departs far from common sense. It posits that there is an object sitting in the same chair as me, with the same shape and physical properties as me, but with the counterfactual property that were I to yell "Abracadabra!", it would instantly (faster than light!) move to the Amazon rain forest, where it would be wholly composed of a poison-dart frog. To embrace this kind of compositional universalism to save artefacts seems too costly.

Of course, this denial of the existence of artefacts needs come along with some kind of a paraphrase story that allows ordinary sentences like "She sat on a chair" to be at least approximately true. Presumably, the story will involve particles or fields having chair-wise arrangements, and so on. Moreover, I think we are going to have give such a story even if we admit tables and chairs into our ontology—just not for tables and chairs.

For there are always going to be artefact-like cases where almost nobody—not even the compositional universalist—will want to posit an object. The person whose home is a museum can make a work of art "composed" of shadows, by simply placing a tag on a blank wall with an interesting shadow pattern. But shadows don't exist. Or one could have an earring that is made entirely of the concentration in some kind of a field (maybe a magnetic one—the earring then could be seen by aliens who have a magnetic sense). But while fields might exist, it seems unlikely that concentrations of them do. Just as one can use a nail, it seems one can use a hole (one can put something in it, or one can sell it to an art gallery), but holes don't seem to exist.

Authors write books, and programmers write software. And it seems that, more and more, the most valuable artefacts are of this sort, artefacts that are the subject matter of intellectual property law rather than of tangible property law. These books and pieces of software seem type-like, abstract, rather than object-like. It is the book-type that we care about the author's writing. But what is odd is that if we take these type-like creations seriously, we have to depart from the common-sensical idea that the author causes them to exist. For surely we don't cause type-like things, abstracta, to come into existence.

But suppose we insist that the book the author writes is the manuscript. Where is this manuscript, these days? On a CD sent to the publisher, let us say. The CD is not the manuscript, though. There might be several manuscripts on a CD. The manuscript, it then seems, is made of colored pieces of dye on the CD (assuming a consumer CD-R). Maybe that can be counted an object. But suppose that instead of using a CD, we use some medium where all the data is encoded as the state of some field. Unless we reify states of fields, the data won't be an entity. Or, more simply, let suppose that I put several manuscripts on a CD, and then archive, compress and encrypt them in such a way that it is impossible to single out the bits of one manuscript from the bits of another, but it is possible to decrypt and decompress the archive, and extract the manuscripts. (For instance, the compression may ensure that words and phrases that appear in multiple manuscripts get listed only once in full. The encryption might end up shuffling the bits of all the manuscripts together before applying the encryption function.) Then perhaps there is no plausible way to identify the manuscript with a bunch of colored patches on the CD, but the manuscript is still "there", on the CD.

In other words, unless we are going to have a really bloated ontology, we are anyway going to end up with artefacts that we don't admit in our ontology, artefacts such that we will need some kind of a paraphrase for sentences that treat them as if they were substances. So the kind of story the person who denies the existence of artefacts will need to give about tables and chairs is one that needs to be given anyway about shadows, holes, books and manuscripts. The cost of the story is, therefore, low.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On forgiving and forgetting

Somewhere in his diaries, Kierkegaard thinks forgiveness by an omniscient being is paradoxical. (Of course, that's no reason to deny either divine forgiveness or divine omniscience, for Kierkegaard—paradox here is good.) One way of filling out the paradox is that forgiveness is a kind of forgetting, and an omniscient being can't do that. There is a story, quite possibly anecdotal, of a girl who claimed to have visions of Jesus. Eventually she has an audience with her bishop, who to check if the visions were genuine, asked her to ask Jesus what he (the bishop) confessed in his last confession. Next week the girl comes back: "Jesus said he forgot." And of course our language has the phrase: "Forgive and forget."

However, forgiveness is actually very different from forgetting. First of all, forgetting is insufficient for forgiveness. Forgiveness (when valid) has a crucial normative consequence—there is something that the forgiven malefactor no longer owes her forgiving victim. Forgetting has no such normative consequence. I may be glad that my misdeed has been covered over by mist in your memory, but I am in no way off the hook. If anything, I am in a tougher place once you have forgotten, because the only way I can get forgiveness from you is by reminding you of what I have done, and that might be undesirable (it might cause pain to you again).

Moreover, forgetting has no place in ideal cases of forgiveness. For if you have forgetten the ill I have done you, you surely have likewise forgetten that you have forgiven me that ill, unless your logical skills have gone haywire. But now it is possible that you will come across evidence of what I did to you, without at the same time coming upon any evidence of your forgiveness. And if you do not know that you have forgiven me this offense, you may well experience the kind of resentment towards me that you had put away when you forgave me, and even seek vengeance. Forgiveness includes an objective and a subjective component: the objective component is a certain normative canceling of debt (as it were?), while the subjective is a putting away of resentment and a surrender of the desire for vengeance. But if you do not remember having forgiven, the resentment may return, until you go through the subjective component of forgiveness again.

In the ideal case, when you have forgiven me, you keep track of your new commitment not to resent such-and-such a deed and of my new normative status as "forgiven former malefactor".

This, however, carries a danger with it. For if you keep track of what you have forgiven me, then surely you run the danger of your priding yourself on your moral superiority in not holding me bound. To dwell on having forgiven is dangerous—forgiveness does, after all, put us in a position of superiority, and there is a danger that our forgiveness will be haughty and humiliating to the one forgiven. The cure for this is love, and we sinners have an additional help, which is meditation on our own sinfulness—we do not forgive haughtily, but we forgive as we wish to be forgiven.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Catholic dissent

Many American Catholics disagree with Church teaching on matters such as contraception, pre-marital sex and lying. Moreover, while in the case of lying, the disagreement might be attributed to ignorance of the Church's teaching, in the case of contraception and pre-marital sex, the media ensure that almost everybody basically knows what the Church teaches in this area (albeit not why).

I want to argue that the dissent should worry even those liberal theologians who themselves disagree with the Church's teaching. Why? For I suspect, albeit without scientific data, that the following are true of typical dissenting American Catholics in the case of disagreement with the Church's moral teaching:

  1. They are unaware of the best theological and philosophical arguments given for the Church's teaching, both historically and presently.
  2. They do not know the degree to which they themselves relies on Catholic tradition in the case of the teachings she does accept (such as those on the Trinity, or those against targeting civilians with nuclear weapons).
  3. Their reason for dissent is not due to having a knock-down theological or philosophical argument for their position, but rather their disagreement with the Church can be explained by a combination of the following factors: (a) certain perceived benefits of acting not in accord with Church teaching, (b) the fact that the surrounding society sees the Church's teaching on this matter as absurd, and, let us charitably suppose, (c) the individual conscience's failure to prohibit the activity which the Church prohibits.

Now let us say that the liberal theologian agrees with the typical dissenting American Catholic on the concrete matter—they both think, say, that contraception is not wrong. Nonetheless, the liberal Catholic theologian should not be pleased about the dissent. For if dissent is ever permissible, surely it is only permissible after one has reviewed the very best arguments in favor of the Church's teaching. There is, after all, a presumption that the Church is right—surely to accept such a presumption is essential to Catholicism—and to overcome that presumption, a very strong argument is needed. This strong argument requires an examination of the arguments to the contrary, unless the argument against the Church's teaching is a knock-down argument, which it is not (point (3)). Hence, (1) is going to be a serious problem.

Dissent from the Church's teaching is a serious decision. It should be important to the liberal theologian that the decision be made on the right grounds, in a sufficiently knowledgeable way, on consistent principles. Point (2) is a problem here. The liberal theologian may have a story as to why she accepts the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity and the impermissibility of targeting civilians in war, while rejecting the impermissibility of pre-marital sex, even though the rejected teaching is about as well supported by tradition and Scripture as the accepted teachings. The story may involve a sophisticated account of what is central to the Christian life. (I doubt that in the end such an account would do the job here, but the liberal theologian may think it will.)

Finally, observe point (3), which should particularly worry the liberal theologian. According to the liberal theologian, the typical dissenting American Catholic rightly thinks pre-marital sex is permissible. But in light of (3), this rightness is merely a matter of good luck. As the liberal theologian will be among the first to argue, there are often things that a society takes for granted as permissible, and opposition to which society thinks absurd, that are in fact wrong. Until recently, many racist and sexist behaviors were like this. Currently, many Americans think it is obvious that they have no duty to give up some of their property to feed the starving. It is seen by many as obvious that one can do with one' s property as one wills, as long as one does no positive harm.

Insofar as the dissent from the Church's teaching on, say, pre-marital sex is driven by conformity to the views of surrounding society, the liberal theologian should be very concerned. Nor should the liberal theologian allow for dissent on the grounds that someone's conscience is silent on an issue. After all, it is a sad fact that the individual's conscience often does fail to condemn activities whose permissibility our society takes for granted. Here it is important to note that one cannot attribute to conscience the statement that something is permissible. Conscience speaks in a "stern voice", to use Cardinal Newman's phrase: it says what one must do or not do, but not what one may do. What we call conscience's permission is really conscience's silence. And the argument from silence is always weak. We should always be prepared for the possibility that our conscience is insufficiently sensitive. (A complication is that in some cases, a liberal Catholic might there is a positive duty to contracept or use pre-marital sex, in which cases conscience might affirm this duty. Such cases are, I think, rare, given the availability of alternatives.)

And the mere fact that benefits can be listed for the prohibited activity is not sufficient reason to dissent, since we are not utilitarians. One can likewise easily list the benefits of targeting the civilians in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in that doing so terrorizes the population into surrender, but to target the civilians was or would have been clearly wrong (I suspect civilians were in fact targeted, but that is a historical question).

Thus, the liberal theologian should be deeply concerned about the fact that the widespread dissent among U.S. Catholics is insufficiently informed, and is largely a reflection of the views of surrounding society, rather than of a theologically or philosophically deep rethinking of the issues.

There is an asymmetry here between dissenting from and agreeing with the Church's teaching. If a Catholic dissents, even if the dissent is permissible, the onus is her to justify her dissent. If she agrees with the Church's teaching, she simply goes along with the presumption that the Church is right. Thus, while may be in some ways unfortunate, it is not a serious problem if someone agrees with the Church's teaching without much knowledge of the issue. But to disagree, if it is permissible at all (I suspect not), one has to have much knowledge. After all, one has to think that one knows better than the Church does.

[Edited: Fixed a typo--thanks, David.]