Friday, November 28, 2008

Knowledge and belief

"I know that p, but I just can't get myself to believe it." On standard accounts of knowledge, this is self-contradictory. But I think the sentence gets at a very interesting phenomenon.

Here are two potential real life cases of the phenomenon, with names changed (we can't really discuss genuine real-life cases, because we can't read people's minds). George for years has been convinced by the apologetic arguments for Christianity. But he couldn't get himself to believe it. We would be tempted to say that he knew Christian doctrine to be the truth, but didn't believe it.

A second case is this. When we look at Dr. Schmidt's experiments at Auschwitz and try to explain his behavior, we are tempted to say: "His actions show that he did not believe Jews to be human beings." But in a juridical context, we are tempted to say something like this: "Moreover, the fact that he had no qualms about the application of the results of the experiments on Jews to non-Jewish Germans shows that he knew full well that Jews were human beings."[note 1] Odd, isn't it?

There are a couple of ways of understanding the phenomenon. One way is to say that sometimes we say "x knows p" simply to mean "x is in full possession of conclusive evidence that would suffice for knowing p". But I think this misses something in the phenomenon.

A different way, suggested to me by Bob Roberts, is that there are different senses of "belief" in play: one kind of belief—some kind of full-blooded, felt belief—is missing, and another kind of belief—the kind that "knowledge" requires—is present. One can parallel the two kinds of "belief" with two kinds of "knowledge".

Moreover, this issue connects, Bob suggested, with Socrates' doctrine that you necessarily do what you "know", a doctrine that requires a stronger sense of "know" than that which is used when we accusingly say that Dr. Schmidt knew the Jews he was experimenting on were human beings.

Maybe the stronger sense of "knowledge" is something almost visual (compare how Socrates in the Protagoras supposes that there is no knowledge when one is in the grip of a quasi-perceptual illusion, as when a temporally far-off bad seems lesser).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The more you know...

Some things sound like tautologies, but aren't. Here is one:

  1. The more you know, the less you are ignorant of.
Obviously, if you come to know p, you cease to be ignorant of p. But it may well be that coming to know p brings it about that you no longer know some things that you used to know. For, p might be a defeater for things you knew, or p might be a conjunction of unrepresentative cases that destroys some inductive argument you had (previously you knew that most mice have tails; but, completely by chance, over the past year, each day you've come across a different tailless mouse; now, you no longer know). So learning a new thing might make one cease to know a number of other things one used to know.

Is knowledge of p then a good thing, all things considered, or would one be better off not knowing that?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Vagueness about the existence of substances

For me, the most implausible kind of non-epistemic vagueness is vagueness about the existence of substances: on the kind of hylomorphic view of substances that I like, it is very difficult to make sense of the claim that there can be any non-epistemic vagueness as to how many substances there are, for instance.

But there are reasons for thinking that there is vagueness as to the existence of substances. George is a deer and deer are substances. George is dying. Is it very plausible that for every time t during the process of dying there is a fact whether George is already dead or not? After all, George's bodily state at t and t+e for a very small e will be extremely similar.

I find interesting here that the B-theorist can say something helpful here that the A-theorist cannot. Vagueness as to when exactly George perishes need not be taken to be vagueness about existence for the B-theorist: George exists in the primary sense of "exists", namely the tenseless sense. Rather, it is vagueness about which parts of space-time are occupied by George. (One can say this whether one is an endurantist or a perdurantist.) But of course for the A-theorist, to be non-existent now is to be non-existent. There are some complications here in that some A-theorists are committed to the existence of past and future substances. But I am convinced by considerations similar to those in Zimmerman's piece on the A- and B-theories that the A-theorist should affirm truth simpliciter to the proposition that, say, George is now non-existent, where the "is" is present-tensed, while the B-theorist will make this be some kind of relative or derivative truth.

One might think that vagueness as to when a substances comes to be can generate vagueness about existence even for a B-theorist. Plausibly, there is vagueness as to when George came into existence (presumably, it was when the gametes united, but the precise point at which the gametes count as having united may be vague). But then we can ask which time t is such that were all biological material in the universe destroyed at t, then it would be the case that George never existed. And there seems to be vagueness about that.

But perhaps vagueness about that can be vagueness about counterfactuals rather than vagueness about existence?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Potential book title

The Napoleon of Faith and the Bonaparte of History — a book title jokingly proposed by one of our grad students.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Every day, at a significant expense of time and effort, George engages in activity E. We ask him whether he does E because he is morally required (whether absolutely or prima facie) to do so? He denies it. We ask him whether he does E because he desires to do E or desires something else which the doing of E promotes? He denies it. We suggest to George that perhaps he simply sees E or something promoted by E as good, whether instrumentally or not, and that's why he does it. George responds that whether E has value or not, that value is not why he engages in it. Finally, we query whether George does E because it is pleasant. George denies it, emphasizing that E is only sometimes pleasant.

Assuming George's answers are correct, and not merely a reflection of insufficient insight into himself, it seems that George is being irrational in engaging in E. In fact, we may even think that too many questions are given above since we may think more simply that if someone does something not for the sake of a good, then she is not acting rationally. (We may even go one step further and say that this situation is impossible, and hence the conditional is a per impossibile one.)

But now suppose that E is the activity of living one's doxastic life in accordance with epistemic norms. If the above judgments are right, then unless one does E out of moral duty, or for the sake of a good, or to fulfill a desire or for pleasure, then I act irrationally. But of course to engage in E is a paradigm of rationality, and to fail to engage in E is a paradigm of irrationality. It would not be plausible to explain the rationality of people in engaging in E by means of desire or pleasure. Whether it is rational to engage in epistemically rational practices does not depend on one's desires or pleasures, and one shouldn't engage in E merely out of desire or for pleasure.

So the appropriate reason for engaging in E is a moral duty or a good. Now I submit that genuine norms (as opposed to, say, the norms of SS officer practice) are reasons for acting on the norms. Thus, if epistemic norms are genuine norms, they are reasons for E. But the appropriate reason for E is moral duty or a good. Therefore, epistemic norms are moral duties or express goods.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My odd intuitions

I have a hard time not thinking of myself as a being that is extended in four dimensions or fully present at multiple times. After all, any time I look at myself, I see myself in motion. Moreover, not just in motion, but in a multiplicity of states occupied over an interval of times. I never see myself just at one time—I always see myself at multiple times, i.e., as either existing at multiple times (the endurantist reading of my intuition) or as existing in a way that extends between multiple times (the perdurantist reading of my intuition). Presentism just plain doesn't fit with my intuitions about myself. But this is just autobiography.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Duties of conscience

Suppose that one affirms:

  1. One ought always to do what conscience requires.
  2. Conscience is fallible.
Then, I think, one ought also affirm:
  1. It is possible for one to be obliged to do A and to be obliged to do B, where doing both A and B is logically impossible.
  2. It is possible for one to be obliged to do something logically impossible.
The argument is plausibilistic. A conscience that can err is not going to be infallible about detecting logical incompatibilities and impossibilities. As a result, it should be possible for it to erroneously recommend something impossible, or to recommend two incompossible actions.

We can even give examples. Suppose I have a justified belief that I promised to draw a triangle, and another justified belief that I promised never to draw a figure whose angles add up to 180 degrees. A fallible conscience need not detect the incompatibility between the content of these two promises. And if it does not, then conscience will require me to do both things, even though it is impossible. Similarly, if I do not know that it is impossible to construct a 20 degree angle with straightedge and compass, and I have promised to construct a 20 degree angle with straightedge and compass, then conscience will require me to construct a 20 degree angle with straightedge and compass. But it is logically impossible (assuming that part of the concept of "construct" here is an assumption of the axioms of Euclidean geometry) to construct a 20 degree angle with straightedge and compass.[note 1]

Some may take this to be a strong argument against the conjunction of (1) and (2). Others may take this to be just an interesting consequence of it. I don't myself know what to do with this.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The pill

I will use the phrase "using oral contraception" (and cognates) to abbreviate the complex state of affairs of being a woman of normal fertility and using standard contemporary (not the older higher dose pill) oral contraception as the only form of contraception for the period of at least a year while being sexually active at an average sexual frequency. The following argument is sound when implicitly conditionalized on the present state of medical knowledge and technology:

  1. Someone who prevents the implantation of an embryo that he or she is a parent of causes the death of his or her innocent child. (Premise)
  2. It is wrong to act in a way that carries a significant risk of one's causing the death of one's innocent child without very grave reason. (Premise)
  3. Using oral contraception carries a significant risk of one's causing the death of an embryo that one is a parent of. (Premise)
  4. It is wrong to use oral contraception without very grave reason. (By (1)-(3))
  5. Very grave reason to use oral contraception is exceedingly rare if it ever occurs. (Premise)
  6. It is wrong to use oral contraception except perhaps in exceedingly rare cases. (By (4) and (5))
The same goes for the IUD. I do not know if the argument holds for implantable or injectable hormonal contraception, but at least unless one has very good reason to think that it does not, one has good reason to avoid that, too. I should add that I think marital direct contraception is always wrong, but the present conclusions are is controversial enough.

The argument has a formal feature that complicates things. The terms "significant risk" and "grave reason" are not defined explicitly. Rather, they must be taken to be partially interdefined by (2).[note 1] Thus, in defending (5), one needs to argue that what is exceedingly rare is the sort of reason that would fit into the exception in (2), where "significant risk" is the risk we get from the medical literature supporting (1).

I will not argue for (1) and (2). I think (2) is uncontroversial, and (1) will generally be accepted by pro-life folks.

We do not know exactly how often the use of oral contraception causes a failure to implant. A survey of data is given by Larimore and Stanford (2000). Hormonal contraception has three main modes of operation according to references (including product inserts in at least some cases): (a) prevention of ovulation, (b) modification of uterine environment that makes it inhospitable, and (c) modification of cervical mucus to make it harder for sperm to reach the ovum. The data in Wildt, et al. (1998) strongly suggests that sperm can travel through thick mucus. So (c) isn't a very effective method. Studies show that ovulation still occurs in 1.7-65% of cycles (see Larimore and Stanford, 2000; unfortunately, I don't know if this is for perfect use or typical use). Assume, conservatively, a not unrealistic fertilization rate of about 10% per cycle in which ovulation occurs.[note 2] Assuming independence (which isn't exactly right, admittedly), this gives us an annual fertilization rate of 2%-55% (assuming 12 cycles per year). But the established pregnancy rate for oral contraception is significantly lower than most of this range (the perfect use pregnancy rate is 1% or lower; the typical use pregnancy rates are higher), where an established pregnancy is one where implantation has occurred. So there is good reason to think that there are probably significantly more fertilizations than established pregnancies, and hence there is good reason to think that using oral contraception carries approximately a 1% to 50% chance (this will be a combined epistemic and nomic probability) per year of preventing a fertilization, and thereby causing the death of the embryo.

This will yield (3), assuming 1% to 50% counts as "significant risk" in the sense used in (2). But I think it clearly does count. A quick way to see this is to imagine that the risk is not to one's child, but to the user. The FDA would not approve a form of contraception which had a 1% to 50% annualized chance of resulting in the death of the user, and medication with that fatality rate would only be approved if the condition it treated was very grave indeed. If such a risk to the user would be unacceptable absent a very grave reason, a fortiori it would be unacceptable when the risk was to another party.[note 3] In fact, I doubt that we would approve of life-saving medication that had a 1% to 50% chance of causing the death of a bystander (imagine that it gives off noxious fumes or something).

That leaves (5) to be argued for. But that's easy. Given that the "very grave reason" would have to be one that would justify taking an annualized 1% to 50% risk of being the cause of one's innocent child's death, it seems clearly that only extreme circumstances will yield such a reason. If using oral contraception is needed to save someone's life, a case might be made (though note the caution at the end of the previous paragraph). But remember that I defined "using oral contraception" as including sex at a normal sexual frequency and with no other contraception being used. So that would have to be a case where having sex at a normal sexual frequency was needed to save a life and no other contraception was possible. Maybe if a woman had to have sex with a dictator for a year or he else he would kill her (or someone else), and if pregnancy would result in the woman's death, and if the use of non-abortifacient contraception were impossible, this could be argued to be a case like that (in the end I deny it, because it is wrong to commit adultery even to save a life). But such cases are, indeed, exceedingly rare. Perhaps saving someone from serious disability would qualify. Could "saving a marriage" qualify? I doubt it. Would it be permissible for a couple to undergo a "marriage saving treatment" that had a 1% to 50% chance of killing one of their children? And the case would have to be such that the consequences of pregnancy would be very grave, and that no other contraception was possible. (And even then it would be wrong if, as I think, marital direct contraception is always wrong—but that requires a different argument.) So I think (5) is very plausible.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Raz on egalitarianism

Raz has criticized egalitarianism as follows: equality is not in and of itself the sort of thing that can be good for anybody, but anything that is of intrinsic value "can benefit people."

I'm going to argue that either (a) Raz's critique also applies to act utilitarianism, or (b) there are views that are appropriately characterized as egalitarian that escape Raz's critique. Both options are interesting. Which one we take depends on how we read the phrase "benefit people".

Consider the following family CONSEQ of consequentialist views: We can describe the utility-state of the world as a vector U=(u1,...,un) of utilities, where n is the number of persons in history and ui is a real number. There is a combination function C that assigns a real number C(U) to each such vector U (it's a multigrade function) and that satisfies two formal conditions:

  1. If U' is any permutation of U, then C(U')=C(U).
  2. If U and U' are n-dimensional vectors, and every component of U is less than or equal to the corresponding component of U', and for at least one of the components equality does not hold, then C(U)<C(U').
Then, according to the view, the right thing to do on any occasion is to act so as to maximize C1(U) where U is the utility-state of the world.

Standard act utilitarianism is a member of CONSEQ—just let C(U)=u1+...+un. But there are other views taht are members of CONSEQ. For instance, suppose that we believe that utilities cannot be negative (life is always worth living). Then we can define p-utilitarianism, for any positive real number p, by means of the combination function Cp(U)=(u1p+...+unp)1/p (this is just the Lp norm on Rn, assuming the ui are non-negative).

Now, let's ask whether Raz's critique applies to act utilitarianism (i.e., to 1-utilitarianism). Can it "benefit people" to maximize C1(U)? I think there is at least a good prima facie case for a negative, and if so, we have a powerful critique of utilitarianism. Of course, if I am the ith person, it benefits me to maximize ui. I am not benefited by maximizing C1(U) in and of itself, unless this increase happens to be accompanied by an increase of ui. And the same is true for every individual. Hence, maximizing C1(U) is of no benefit to anybody.

On one interpretation of the "can benefit people" criterion, this has shown that utilitarianism fails the criterion, and hence (a) is true. I don't think this is the best reading of the "can benefit people". For instead, to release a virus that kills exactly one person "harm people" even if the concept of releasing such a virus does not entail of any specific person that she is killed.

Here seems to be the way to argue that utilitarianism escapes Raz's condition. That U' and U are such that C1(U')>C1(U) entails that at least one of the u'i is greater than the corresponding ui. Hence, it is better for somebody if we maximize C1(U).

But now note that what I just said holds not just for 1-utilitarianism but for any theory in CONSEQ (the crucial condition is (2)). In particular, it holds for p-utilitarianism for all positive p. But p-utilitarianism is, in a precise sense, an egalitarian theory if 0<p<1. Why? Because the combination function Cp(U) favors more equal distributions when 0<p<1. Here is an easy exercise for the reader (just use the concavity of f(x)=xp): if every component of U' is equal to the arithmetic mean of all the components of U, and equality does not reign among the components of U, then Cp(U')>Cp(U), assuming 0<p<1. Moreover, Cp(U) increases if we equalize any subset of the components of U (by equalizing a set of components, I mean replacing it by its arithmetic mean).

I suppose Raz could ask: What reason would we have for picking p-utilitarianism, other than our valuing equality in and of itself? And if we do value equality in and of itself, don't we fall prey to the "cannot benefit people" argument? But I think the response can simply be: We do not on this view separate out equality as a value to be added on—rather, we have a combination function which fits our intuitions better than C1.

Do I think p-utilitarianism is plausible in the final analysis? Not at all. We would still have to answer the question of which value of p is the right one to choose, and the answer to that would seem to be ad hoc. One might think that clearly one should choose p=1 as that gives the simplest and most natural theory. But to a mathematician, p=2 (which is anti-egalitarian, in that it disfavors more equal distributions) is at least as natural, on the assumption that utilities can't be negative, since C2 is just the Euclidean norm on a quadrant of Rn. This, I think, is a fine argument against 1-utilitarianism (I blogged a version of it before).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fun with counterfactuals

In the 3rd-4th century AD joke book, the Philogelos, we meet a son arguing with father, and exclaiming:

Don't you know how much injury you have done me? Why, had you not been born, I should have inherited my grandfather's estate.
(The translation here is taken from a quote or paraphrase in Clouston's Book of Noodles; excerpts from the Philogelos can be found here, here and here.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Leibniz's doctrine of mirroring

Leibniz held that each monad mirrored all the others, namely that by knowing all there is to know about each, you knew all there was to know about all. If essentiality of origins holds, then we get Leibniz-like theses quite easily.

1. If essentiality of origins holds, then each thing mirrors everything in its causal history in the strong sense that the proposition that x exists entails the whole causal history of x's coming into existence.

2. If essentiality of origins and determinism holds, and if we add the further postulate that all of the initial conditions for the whole universe are a part of the causal history of every item in the universe's coming into existence, then for every item x in the universe, the proposition that x exists conjoined with the laws entails the whole past, present and future history of the universe.

3. If to the assumptions in (2) we add the postulate that no item in the universe could have existed with the laws being different, then we get the stronger claim that no item in the universe could have existed in any other world—i.e., that the items in the universe are world-bound individuals.

This might make Leibniz's doctrine of mirroring more plausible to some. But I am not a determinist myself.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Equality and creation

If inequality in respect of the possession of goods is intrinsically bad, then by creating the world, God necessarily produced something bad, since, necessarily, no creature can have all the goods that God does. But it is absurd that creation necessarily involves a bad. Hence, inequality in respect of the possession of goods is not intrinsically bad.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Equality and leveling down

A common popular criticism of valuing equality in and of itself is that one can achieve equality, say in utility, simply by bringing down everybody who is above the level of the least happy member of the community, which is plainly undesirable. I am ashamed to say that I've used this criticism myself in the past.

But the criticism only applies to a naive view where equality is considered in a binary way—you either have it or you don't, and there is a value in having it and a disvalue in not having it. But of course on any non-naive view, equality is valued along a continuum—a minor inequality has small disvalue, while a large inequality has large disvalue. If one takes this into account, it's easy to come up with ways of weighing the value of equality, or equivalently the disvalue of inequality, that are not subject to the above criticism.

For instance, suppose we have n persons, with utilities: u1,...,un. Standard consequentialism calculates an overall value of u1+...+un. But there are many ways of modifying this so that one (a) takes equality into account, and (b) avoids the popular criticism. Now, the intuition behind the popular criticism is, I think, based on the following intuition:

  1. It is good if the utility of some is increased and the utility of none is decreased.
So what we need to do is to combine utilities in such a way that equality is valued, but (1) is maintained. Here is one very simple way of doing this. Just model the total good as u1+...+uncn(|u1a|+...+|una|), where a is the arithmetic average (u1+...+un)/n, and cn is a constant such that 0<cn<1/2. You get a different model, with different normative consequences, for different values of cn. It's easy to check that increasing any one of the ui increases the total good on this model[note 1] and so we have (1) and (b). It is never the case that on this valuation, decreasing the utility of some without increasing the utility of any will improve total good—thus, leveling down is not something to worry about. Moreover, equality is taken into account—a more equal distribution is, ceteris paribus, preferable even if it decreases u1+...+un (but not preferable if it decreases each individual utility, or even some individual utilities without increasing others).

All that said, I think such numerical models are not something to take very seriously. Here's one reason. While we might think that there is an objective answer to the question: "What is the mass of the electron?", and that this might be some number, the idea that there should be an objective answer to the question: "What is the true value of cn in the above total-good formula?" is very implausible to me. And all such additive formulae assume commensurability of goods between people, which I deny. But the models may still be useful, say for showing how an advocate of equality might avoid the leveling-down criticism.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tense and action

Consider a version of John Perry's argument that action needs tense. You promised to call a friend precisely between 12:10 and 12:15 and no later. When it is between 12:10 and 12:15, and you know what time it is, this knowledge, together with the promise, gives you reason to call your friend. But if this knowledge is tenseless, then you could have it at 12:30, say. Thus, absurdly, at 12:30 you could have knowledge that gives you just as good a reason to call your friend.[note 1]

Here, however, is a tenseless proposal. Suppose it is 12:12, and I am deliberating whether to call my friend. I think the following thought-token, with all the verbs in a timeless tense:

  1. A phone call flowing from this deliberative process would occur between 12:10 and 12:15, and hence fulfill the promise, so I have reason that this deliberative process should conclude in a phone call to the friend.
And so I call. Let's see how the Perry-inspired argument fares in this case. I knew the propositions in (1) at 12:12, and I could likewise know these propositions at 12:30, though if I were to express that knowledge then, I would have to replace both occurrences of the phrase "this deliberative process" in (1) by the phrase "that deliberative process." However, this fact is in no way damaging.

For suppose that at 12:30, I am again deliberating whether to call my friend. I have, on this tenseless proposal, the very same beliefs that at 12:12 were expressed by (1). It would seem that where I have the same beliefs and the same knowledge, I have the same reasons. If this principle is not true, the Perry argument fails, since then one can simply affirm that one has the same beliefs and knowledge at 12:30 as one did at 12:12, but at 12:30 these beliefs and knowledge are not a reason for acting, while they are a reason for acting at 12:12. But I can affirm the principle, and I am still not harmed by the argument. For what is it that I conclude at 12:30 that I have (tenseless) reason to do? There is reason that the deliberative process should conclude in a call to the friend. But the relevant referent of "the deliberative process" is not the deliberative process that occurs at 12:30, call it D12:30, but the deliberative process that occurs at 12:12, call it D12:12. For (1) is not about the 12:30 deliberative process, but about the 12:12 one.

The principle that the same beliefs and knowledge gives rise to the very same reasons may be true—but the reason given rise to is a reason for the 12:12 deliberative process to conclude in a phone call. But that is not what I am deliberating about at 12:30. At 12:30, I am deliberating whether this new deliberative process, D12:30, should result in a phone call to the friend. That I can easily conclude that D12:12 should result in a phone call to the friend is simply irrelevant.

There is an awkwardness about the solution as I have formulated it. It makes deliberative processes inextricably self-referential. What I am deliberating about is whether this very deliberation should result in this or that action. But I think this is indeed a plausible way to understand a deliberation. When a nation votes for president, the nation votes not just for who should be president, but for who should result as president from this very election. (These two are actually subtly different questions. There could be cases where it is better that X be president, but it is better that Y result as president from this very election. Maybe X promised not to run in this election.)

[I made some minor revisions to this post, the most important of which was to emphasize that (1) is a token.]

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ridiculous laws

We are clearly not morally required to obey laws that tell us to do something immoral. But what about laws that, while not requiring anything immoral, nonetheless have ridiculous consequences?

Here is a fun Texas example. According to Chapter 1702.104 of the Texas Occupations Code:

(a) A person acts as an investigations company for the purposes of this chapter if the person:
(1) engages in the business of obtaining or furnishing, or accepts employment to obtain or furnish, information related to: [...]
(D) the cause or responsibility for a fire, libel, loss, accident, damage, or injury to a person or to property; [...]
And according to 1702.101,
Unless the person holds a license as an investigations company, a person may not:
(1) act as an investigations company;
(2) offer to perform the services of an investigations company;
Consequence: Without a PI license, a historian may not apply for or accept a postdoc at a Texas university to work on a book on the causes of the Great Fire of Rome of 64AD.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The semi-eternal itch

Let w be a world where there is only one finite being, George. George has always existed in w. Moreover, each day for George has been just like the previous. Each day, George is mildly happy overall—except he has a minor itch that he can't scratch. Let us suppose that the laws of nature in w are such that they allow one deviation from the endless cycle of repetition from day to day—the itch can disappear (and only in one way, at one particular time of day). After the itch disappears, each day will be mildly happy, and indeed happier than before, and each day, except the first post-itch day, will be just like the previous for George (George won't remember how many days it has been he has lost the itch), forever. Here is an intuition:

  1. It is better for George to have his itch disappear tomorrow than to have his itch disappear in a billion years.

But not all theories of time can do justice to this intuition. If time is relational (which also, I think, would imply that the B-theory holds), and we tell the details of the story right, then the world where the itch disappears today if the same as the world where the itch disappears in a billion years—both are worlds where there is an itch for an infinite number of years, and then there is no itch for another infinite number of years. Therefore, either time is not relational or else no situation like the above is possible. But the only good reason to think that no situation like the above is possible is if one thinks that there cannot be indiscernibles or one thinks that it is impossible to have existed for an infinite amount of time. Thus, either time is not relational or there cannot be indiscernible times or it is impossible to have existed for an infinite amount of time. Since I think time is relational, I conclude that either there cannot be indiscernible times or it is impossible to have existed for an infinite amount of time.

It's also not clear that presentism fits with (1). In both of the scenarios mentioned in (1), there is a present itch, and the future does not exist. So why should one of the scenarios be better than the other? If this argument, which I am less sure of, is right, then either presentism is false or it is impossible to have existed for an infinite amount of time.

It would be nice to do better than just getting disjunctive conclusions. For that, we'd need other arguments to rule out of more disjuncts.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Here are three levels of anti-Pelagianism:

  1. No fallen human being can attain personal union (i.e., union of the relevant sort—such as the beatific vision) with God by his own powers.
  2. No mere human being can attain personal union with God by his own powers.
  3. No mere creature can attain personal union with God by his own powers.
Here, a "mere F" is a being that is an F and that has no nature other than the F-nature. The main point of this qualifier is to exclude cases where God is incarnate as an F. For in those cases we are dealing with an F, but not a mere F. Claim (3) entails claim (2), and claim (2) together with the plausible assumption that in fact every fallen human being is a mere human being entails claim (1).

An interesting difference at least of emphasis between Catholics and Protestants is that Protestants see Pelagianism primarily as a denial of (1), and focus on (1) in anti-Pelagian polemic, while Catholicism, I think, has an emphasis not just on (1), but also on (2)—grace is not only needed now for fallen man, but Adam and Eve needed grace, too, to attain the beatific vision. And even (3) is probably pretty common in Catholicism. E.g., Aquinas would surely endorse (3). His view of the fall of Satan, if my shaky memory serves me, was that Satan wanted to get by his own powers the good that God was going to give to him by grace—i.e., that Satan was a practical Pelagian.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A consideration against Christian materialism

Christian materialism holds that the human being is a fully material entity, with no immaterial soul. Here is a problem for this view: What happened, on this view, when Christ died? After all, death is the destruction of the body.

Option 1: He ceased to exist. This option is distinctly unsatisfactory theologically—Christians have never believed that. On the contrary, Christians believed he descended into sheol to draw out the souls of those awaiting him there. And if God is omnitemporally eternal, it has the consequence that one of the persons of the Trinity ceased to exist, which is contrary to divine eternity.

Option 2: He ceased to exist qua human. But this simply means that the Incarnation ceased for the second person of the Trinity, and he was back to the state he was before the Incarnation. Since the Incarnation was not a gain for him, neither was this any loss. But then the sacrificial meaning of his death is undercut.

Option 3: He continued to exist, because a chunk, or the whole, of his brain was miraculously preserved, and then that brain piece or that brain descended into sheol to draw out the souls awaiting him. This seems implausible. Moreover, unless something like this happens for all of us (Peter van Inwagen played with this option), then his death was radically different from our deaths, which is theologically problematic. And if this is what happens to all of us, then death is not as evil as it seems—it's really just like an amputation of a lot of one's body, but not of all of it.

Option 4: He continued to exist, and so the Logos was the dead body of Christ. This view is similar to the orthodox view that the dead body of Christ was still united to the divinity. But do we really want to take the further step of saying that the Logos was a dead body?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Moral evil and naturalism

The only argument against theism that is worth considering at all seriously as an argument against theism[note 1] is the inductive problem of evil.

The inductive argument from evil holds that it is unlikely that God would have created a world containing the degree, kind and amount of evil that we observe.

Now, one might offer the inductive argument from evil as an argument for some supernaturalistic hypothesis, such as that there is an evil god (either alone or along with a good or neutral one), or that there is an indifferent god, or the like. In that case, what I will say below does not apply. But, among contemporary philosophers, the primary hypothesis competing with theism is not one of these unorthodox supernaturalistic ones, but naturalism. And then the philosopher offering the inductive argument from evil needs to show not just that the degree, kind and amount of evil that exists in the world is unlikely on the theistic hypothesis, but that it is more unlikely on the theistic hypothesis than on the naturalistic hypothesis.

But to show this is tricky. Much of this point comes from C. Stephen Layman (I am grateful to Todd Buras for letting me know of Layman's argument). Let us grant for the sake of argument that the conditional probability of the degree, kind and amount of evil that we observe is, say, 10−20 given theism. Denote theism by T and let E is the event of there being the degree, kind and amount of evil that we in fact observe. Then it's granted for the sake of the argument that P(E|T)=10−20. Do we know that the probability of the degree, kind and amount of evil that we observe is more than 10−20 given naturalism, i.e., that P(E|N)>10−20, where N is naturalism?

Many of the evils that we observe are of such a kind that they are only evil because of conscious life—pains are like that. Therefore, E entails the existence of conscious life, but says a lot more than that conscious life exists. Hence: P(E|N)<P(C|N), where C is the claim that there is conscious life. If P(C|N) is no greater than 10−20 then we do not have P(E|N)>10−20. Thus the naturalist to use the argument from evil against theism must be able to estimate P(C|N) as greater than 10−20. I do not think we are in a position to make that estimate. And without it, we are not in a position to know that the inductive argument from evil supports naturalism over theism.

Moreover, many of the evils that we observe are moral evils. That there are moral evils entails that there are morally responsible persons, and that there are moral truths. IF R is the claim that there are morally responsible persons and M the claim that there are moral truths, then in order to use the inductive argument from evil as an argument against theism and for naturalism, one would have to show that P(R and M|N) is bigger than 10−20. But I don't think we are in a position to know that. First, it may be very unlikely that persons would arise given N. Second, it seems quite plausible that for moral responsibility one requires persons who engage in a form of causation very different from the natural causation around them—if all we have is the kind of causation that ordinarily goes on in nature, we don't have moral responsibility. If so, then the likelihood of R given N is nil, or perhaps very small. Furthermore, these persons would have to have moral beliefs to be morally responsible. But to secure intentionality for moral beliefs is a tough task for the naturalist. It's hard enough to secure intentionality for empirical beliefs on naturalistic theories, but perhaps some kind of causal theory of content can be made to work. But it does not seem likely that in a naturalistic setting (except an Aristotelian one—and that's not what people usually mean by "naturalism") we could get intentionality for moral beliefs.

And while I do not know of an entirely convincing argument that the existence of moral truths is incompatible with naturalism, the existence of moral truths is not as prima facie likely given naturalism as given non-naturalistic hypotheses like theism. (In fact, theism entails the existence of moral truths.)

Moreover, among the evils that E reports, there are some truly horrendous moral evils. While bare-bones theism may have difficulties with explaining these, naturalism likely has a difficulty with explaining them, too. But theism, unlike naturalism, is at least compatible with positing a supernatural tempter, a devil, to help explain these horrendous moral evils. So, once again, it is not clear that naturalism does better.

Of course one can tell stories about the evolution of persons, responsibility and even the capacity for horrendous moral evil. But are these stories any better than stories that the theist can tell—stories about divine design, the value of human and demonic freedom, etc.?

If I am right, then the argument from evil does not support naturalism. The naturalist can still offer the argument as an ad hominem, but if she is serious about thinking that the argument is a good reason to reject theism, she needs to be open to the possibility that it is a good reason to abandon naturalism.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Artificial Intelligence and Personal Identity

Today at Baylor's Science and Human Nature conference I am giving a talk where I argue that absurdities follow from the assumption that a robot is a person. For a quick argument, note that the question of how many persons there are ought always to have an objective answer, but the question of how many robots there does not always have an objective answer. (Think of a larger robot made up of smaller ones, for instance.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Quiz on "... or ..."

I am holding out to you my two closed fists. Let us suppose that I know that you know that I know which, if any, of my fists are empty and which are full (for simplicity, I take "full" to be the denial of "empty"). You don't know which, if any, of my fists are empty and which are full. In which of the following cases would I be telling you a lie if I said: "My left hand is full or my right hand is full" while competently using English? (Choose "depends" if you think the answer depends on factors that I didn't include in the description of the case.)

  1. In fact my left hand is full and my right hand is full: lie not a lie depends don't know
  2. In fact my left hand is empty and my right hand is full: lie not a lie depends don't know
  3. In fact my left hand is full and my right hand is empty: lie not a lie depends don't know
  4. In fact my left hand is empty and my right hand is empty: lie not a lie depends don't know

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An argument against contraception

Suppose a couple uses contraception but conception nonetheless occurs. Then it is true that the couple have put obstacles in the way of their own child's life, indeed that they have engaged in activity directly opposed to their child's life. To stand to one's child in the relation of having directly opposed Johnny's life fits poorly with having an unconditional love for Johnny, unless one has repented of having opposed Johnny's life. But if the act of contraception was morally unproblematic and rational, then one cannot repent of it, since a part of repenting of an act is recognizing that the act was not to be done.

Therefore, contracepting couples take the risk (for surely there is always a chance of pregnancy) of standing in an inappropriate relation to their child—in the relation of having striven against that child's life.

I don't know how much this argument establishes. In the case of 100% effective contraception (e.g., complete removal of the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus), the argument is silent. In the case of typical contraception, whose effectiveness is less than 100%, the argument either establishes that the contraception is wrong, or that at least there is a very strong moral presumption against it.

Does the argument say anything about the couple who uses natural family planning (NFP)? Well, there are two ways conception can occur despite NFP. One way is because the couple engage in marital union despite the fact that the NFP method tells them that there is a significant chance of conception. If Johnny is conceived in this way, then the couple has not done anything that hindered or opposed Johnny's conception. (One might think that by abstaining on other days they hindered Johnny's conception. But Johnny could not have been conceived on those other days—they abstained from conceiving other children then.) In fact, in this case, it is right to say that the couple wasn't using NFP on the relevant day.

The other, and apparently rarer, case is where the couple mistakenly believe that they are infertile on a given day, but in fact they are fertile (either because they incorrectly used the NFP method or because the NFP method made a mis-prediction). In this case, I do not think we can say that the couple hindered Johnny's coming into existence. But we can say that they hoped Johnny would not come into existence, and that they would have refrained from bringing Johnny into existence if they knew there was a significant risk. The relation of having hoped one's child would not come into existence, and of its being the case that one would have refrained from bringing the child into existence, is not an ideal one. Thus there is a presumption against risking being in such a position, and hence there is a presumption against using NFP (which is closely related, I suppose, to the Catholic claim that a couple needs to have serious reasons to use NFP). But this is not a relation that is as morally problematic as the relation of having actively tried to hinder one's child's coming into existence. It is one thing not to have striven to further a child's life and another to have striven to hinder it.

But could one perhaps say that the NFP-using couple in the second case was trying to abstain from the act that would have produced Johnny, and trying to abstain from conceiving is an active opposition to life? But it seems to me that if it is an opposition to life at all, it is a much lesser one than active hindrance—just as it is one thing to try to abstain from giving an extraordinarily burdensome medical treatment (this may be hard—it may require a struggle for a conscientious health professional to refrain from offering the treatment) and another to kill. And perhaps the intention in abstaining is not to prevent Johnny from existing, but to prevent oneself from acting against the virtue of prudence (by having potentially fertile marital relations when one has grave reasons to the contrary).

Monday, November 3, 2008

Perfection and purgatory

Our Department's (unofficial) weekly Bible study is on 1 John. We meet for about 55 minutes every week. The last three weeks, we've been struggling through 1 John 2:28-3:10 (last week we "covered" only two verses). The dilemma is that the text seems to be telling us that if we are children of God, then we do what is right and love our brother, and if we do not do what is right or fail to love our brother, then we are not children of God. This makes it seem that unless we are perfect, we have no hope of salvation. But we are not perfect (or at least, I am not, and none of my colleagues wanted to claim perfection)—and, besides, 1 John begins by warning us against claiming we are perfect.

I am beginning to wonder if this isn't the right place to bring in the notion of purgatory.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Unique sermon

The first part of today's sermon was quite unique (actually, so were the second and third parts, but it's only on the first that I want to comment). It was on All Souls'. I can't remember any noteworthy All Souls' sermons ever before. I am guessing that they were warm and comforting. But our pastor was quite blunt. The souls we commemorate on All Souls' are the souls who are in purgatory because they loved something other than God more than they loved God (I would add the qualifier: in some respect). They are not to be emulated. We should look forward to meeting them in heaven, but should try to avoid their purgatorial route.