Friday, February 27, 2009

Freedom and coercion

Martin was being mugged. His wallet was empty. He was told to get a hundred dollars from the ATM and give it to the mugger, or he'd die. He did so. I think most people would say that Martin didn't hand over the $100 freely. But here is the puzzle: We can also imagine that Martin in exactly the same circumstances refusing to cooperate despite knowing that this will cost him his life (maybe he could have acted on a motive of ensuring that crime doesn't pay).

An initial reaction to the imaginability of Martin not giving the hundred is that this shows nothing very interesting. It simply shows that there is a sense of freedom that goes beyond what one might call "alternate possibilities" kinds of freedom (and I mean that very loosely to be neutral between all libertarian options, including origination based ones; this may even include compatibilist kinds of freedom, as long as the compatibilist is willing to admit of a sense in which Martin acted freely in handing over the money). In the "alternate possibilities" sense, Martin acted freely in handing over the money. But in some meatier sense, Martin acted unfreely. Very familiar: one recalls Aristotle's discussion of the captain throwing cargo overboard.

But I still think there is something puzzling about the case. Focus in on that meatier sense of freedom, call it "freedom-plus". The idea is that Martin lacks freedom-plus when he hands over the hundred. But But now imagine the alternate scenario where Martin dies for refusing to cooperate. Did he act unfreely, in the sense of lacking freedom-plus, in refusing to cooperate? Surely not. His refusing to cooperate, while occurring in circumstances of coercion, was eminently not the result of coercion. The act of resistance was misguided, but not at all unfree.

So, when Martin was threatened, it was still up to him whether to act with freedom-plus. This means that freedom-plus does not supervene on the choice situation (the "choice situation" is easiest to describe in the libertarian case, where the choice situation is basically all the facts about the options available, the chooser's mental state, and so on, but not including what choice was made). Freedom-plus, rather, supervenes on the combination of choice situation with the actual choice (broadly understood).

This also means that Martin can actually deliberate over whether he should act freely or unfreely. That sounds paradoxical, but in the sense of "freedom-plus" it is entirely unparadoxical. In fact, we can imagine that the counterfactual Martin, who presumably sins against prudence by resisting[note 1]

So, oddly, cases of coercion, when they do not take "alternate possibilities" freedom away (they might in cases where the coerced agent panics and loses the ability to reason) are cases where it's up to the coerced agent whether she has freedom-plus.

Moreover, I wonder if it's not possible for coerced agents to have freedom-plus even if they cooperate. Suppose Martin thinks about refusing to cooperate. He likes that idea, and is quite willing to die to ensure that one does not profit from crime. He does not have any family to worry about. But while being very much attracted to that idea, he decides that to refuse to cooperate would be to sin against charity for the mugger. For he foresees that if he does not cooperate, he will very likely be shot. And if he is shot, then his life will be on the mugger's conscience. And it is a very bad thing to have someone's life on one's conscience. In acting from a set of motives like that, Martin is surely completely free in the freedom-plus sense. After all, in no sense is he acting out of coercion.

But what about a mid-way case? Martin thinks about refusing to cooperate. But then he reflects on the fact that the virtue of prudence calls for cooperation. Desiring to act virtuously, he cooperates. In this case, it seems he is acting out of coercion. But maybe not. Maybe a distinction must be made be in simply responding to threat by trying to save one's hide and thus cooperating (not that there is anything morally wrong with that in this kind of a case)—in which case one lacks freedom-plus—and responding to the threat by cooperating because that is the virtuous thing to do, all things considered, with the threat being one of the considered things. In the latter case, the decision-making process is mediated by virtue, and the action seems intuitively free in every sense that matters.

But if so, then this does not mean that when we initially judged Martin to be unfree in handing over the hundred, we were unfairly judgmental of Martin? For we had no right to assume that he wasn't moved by virtue.

On the other hand, perhaps the way out of all of these perplexities is simply to abandon any concept of "freedom-plus", and to say that our desire to call cases of coercion as cases of lack of freedom simply comes from a failure to acknowledge the freedom that we have (for whatever reason—maybe in order to hide the correlate responsibility from ourselves)?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

APA petition

There are hot discussions on other blogs on petition asking the APA to treat institutions that discriminate on the basis of sexual behavior as violators of the APA's policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. There is also a counter-petition to maintain current APA practice and arguing that there is a distinction between orientation- and behavior-based discrimination.

It seems obvious to me that one can discriminate on the basis of a behavior without thereby discriminate on the basis of the tendency towards that behavior. Consider three cases:

  • Institution A prohibits its employees from engaging in same-sex sexual activity, because on Christian religious grounds it believes such activity to be immoral.
  • Institution B prohibits its employees from having sex, because on gnostic religious grounds it believes sex to be always immoral.
  • Institution C prohibits its employees from having intercourse with members of the opposite sex, because they are convinced by Andrea Dworkin's arguments that opposite-sex intercourse is always wrong.[note 1]
Each of these three institutions has rules that differentially impact persons of different sexual orientations. Thus, it is easiest for asexuals and heterosexuals (I stipulatively use these terms, as well as "homosexual", to refer to orientation only) to follow the rules of A and hardest for exclusive homosexuals; it is easiest for asexuals to follow the rules of B, and hard for everybody else; and it is easiest for homosexuals and asexuals to follow the rules of C, and hardest for heterosexuals. (The asexuals have it easy all around!)

A policy is not discriminatory against a group G simply because it is harder, though still possible (and maybe even if impossible), for members of G to follow the rules, unless the rules were put in place precisely to make things harder for members of G. It is easier for those raised in an English-speaking family to speak English well. But requiring that faculty speak English well does not discriminate against those who were not raised in an English-speaking family, unless the rules on English speech were put into place precisely to make things harder for such people.

Now Institution B probably did not act in order to make things specifically harder for persons of non-asexual orientation. The concern seems very directly to be with behavior. Nor is Andrea Dworkin wishing to penalize heterosexuals; she just thinks that the geometry and social meaning of heterosexual intercourse is derogatory to women. Likewise, the traditional Christian arguments are not against homosexual orientation (while there are hints that some traditional Christian authors were aware of the phenomenon of homosexual orientation, they are much more concerned with behavior) but against behavior, and so, barring evidence of insincerity on the part of the institution, Institution A is probably not discriminating against people of homosexual orientation in this policy. (There may be discrimination based on homosexual orientation on an informal level, but that's a different question.)

So, none of the three institutions discriminates on the grounds of sexual orientation. There is a further question to ask, namely whether what they are doing is reasonable. But that would require examining the actual arguments against homosexual behavior, sex in general, and heterosexual intercourse, respectively. And the answer would not be directly relevant to the question whether there is discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Here is a quick test for whether x discriminates on the grounds of Y. If x's subjective reasons for her action would be no different were x not to know about the existence of Y, then x is not discriminating on the grounds of Y. Discrimination is an intentional behavior. Now, in Case A, it seems very likely that this test applies: the subjective reasons for discriminating on the basis of homosexual behavior would be equally present if the people running the institution didn't know about sexual orientation. Thought experiment: Would a Christian institution at a time when people didn't generally have the concept of sexual orientation be any less likely to discriminate on the basis of sexual behavior? Surely not. If anything, the contrary seems true.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Compatibilism vs. incompatibilism

For what it's worth, I think the upshot of my recent posts on regress arguments and free will is this: Whether compatibilism is true or not depends largely on whether

  1. It is possible that x is to some extent responsible for a deterministically caused state of affairs A even though x is in no way responsible for any of A's causes?
I am not completely wedded to every detail of the formulation (it might be better to use a non-disjunctive account of "responsible" and say: "even though x is neither identical with nor responsible for any of A's causes", and add the proviso that it is only by agent causation that x could be a cause), but the above gets the basic idea across. If (1) is true, then compatibilism is surely right. And if (1) is false, the incompatibilism is surely right. That is what matters.

Are the answers to (1) and (2) (which will be given at the bottom) positive? I think not. Here is something that is more a statement of intuitions rather than an argument.

  1. If (1) is true, then it is possible for a person to be intentionally produced fully formed, and for its character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances to immediately causally determine a choice that the person is at least somewhat responsible for.
  2. But the consequent of (3) is false.
  3. Hence (1) is false.
And so compatibilism is false.

Here is my intuition for thinking (3) to be true. If a choice is immediately causally determined by character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances that the agent (if one can even call her that) is in no way responsible for, then the only thing that matters for determining whether the agent is responsible for the choice is the extent, if any, to which the agent was responsible for this character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances. Nothing else about their causal history matters. The responsibility-relevant thing is the extent to which the agent is responsible for them.

My reason for thinking (4) to be true is even less developed and philosophical. It's one of those "arguments" by restatement of what is to be proved. It just seems right to say that if I choose the character, beliefs, desires and external circumstances so as to ensure that the person I produce in that state is thereby immediately caused to choose A, then that person is not free in that choice. (I should note, though, that at least one person who is very friendly to compatibilism—Mele—is committed to (4). So my intuition in (4) does not beg the question.)

Finally, since I think the real issue is about sources, not about determinism or even deterministic causation, I think the really interesting question is not so much whether (1) is true, but whether

  1. It is possible that x is to some extent responsible for a state of affairs A even though x is in no way responsible for any of A's causes?
If the answer to (2) is positive, probably the answer to (1) is positive as well, though this is a controversial conditional. And of course if the answer to (2) is negative, then the answer to (1) has to be negative.

I know, also, that Heath has a way of separating the responsibility question from (1) and (2) by vagueness about responsibility. I think that's mistaken, because more sophisticated versions of the 3-5 argument can be used to argue that responsibility does not increase in deterministic transactions. But that's rather more controversial. Anyway, I don't like non-epistemic vagueness when something important, like responsibility, is at stake.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is love a virtue?

The following claim is very plausible:

  1. When x loves y, the love creates the reasons for the central cases of x's acting lovingly towards y.
Christians, however, will also find very plausible:
  1. Love is a virtue.
What is odd is that (1) and (2) are in tension.

For consider how it is with other virtues. A person who is courageous does not have any more reason to stand firm in the face of danger than a coward. Indeed, the coward has just as much reason to stand firm as the brave person, and that is why it is no justification of running away to say: "But I am a coward." Thus, courage is a disposition to act on reasons antecedent to having courage. When we say: "Courage requires you to do A", it is no answer to say: "But I don't have courage." For the central cases of what courage requires you to do are things that it is virtuous to do, whether or not you are in fact courageous. The logical grammar of "Courage requires you to do A" differs from its surface grammar, in that the surface form suggests the actual existence of courage, but in fact courage would require us to stand firm in the face of danger, when reasonable, even if nobody was courageous. (Challenge: Come up with a good analysis of the logical grammar of "Virtue V requires you to do A".) The same is true of other virtues. One has reasons of generosity to act generously, whether one is in fact a generous or a stingy person. The central reasons of justice are independent of whether one in fact is just. And so on.

By analogy, then, if (2) is true, then the central reasons of love should be independent of whether one has love. I think that is actually true. It is almost certainly true of love in general. But it may to a large extent be true even of particular forms of love. "Filial love requires respect," one may say. But the respect is no less required if one does not actually have filial love. And the respect is a constitutive part of what it is to have filial love. If I am right, then the tension between (1) and (2) should be resolved by denying (1).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Deep Thoughts XVIII

Nothing is more like something than it itself.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

No man is an island

Who says that analytic philosophers can't talk about the depths of human life? We can not only give convincing arguments for really deep truths, but can even improve on them! An island is a land-mass, permanently attached, and larger than just a single rock. If x is an island, x is at least five meters in diameter. We have good empirical reason to think no man is that big. Hence, no man is an island. But we can improve on the maxim, by noting that although no man is island, a man could be an island. This would simply require an immoral, and perhaps not yet feasible, medical intervention to make him really large and sluggish, and then he'd have to be permanently rooted to the bottom of the sea.

Friday, February 20, 2009

An argument form in ethics

Consider the following argument form:

  1. It would be good if A were forbidden (respectively, permitted).
  2. Therefore, probably, A is forbidden (respectively, permitted).
For instance, it would be bad if one were forbidden to fail to fulfill (apparent) promises made under duress. For then people could place one under duress, and force one to promise to serve them for life, and one would be obliged to keep to that. So, probably, it is permitted to break such (apparent) promises. On the other hand, it would be good if one were obliged, ceteris paribus, to fulfill promises to self, since such promises would be a useful tool for self-mastery. Therefore, probably, one is obliged to keep such promises.

As a technical point, we probably want to boost the antecedent in (1) to say not just that A is forbidden (permitted) but that it is additionally known or at least believed to be such.

Consequentialists will be friendly to a version of the argument form, assuming that there is an inference to be made from something's being believed forbidden to its being less likely to be done.

The interesting question is whether there is anything non-consequentialists can make of this argument. I think divine command theorists can. A good legislator, makes prohibitions that are good for his subjects. So divine command theorists will accept this argument form, and this counts in favor of divine command theory.

Natural law theorists will have to accept the argument form when "good" is restricted to mean "good for the agent", because of the tight link between the right and the perfective of the agent. It takes a little bit more work for natural lawyers to accept the argument form when "good" is not restricted to the agent's own good. If the agents are people, some work can be done by the fact that flourishing in a flourishing community is one of the basic goods. But to get the argument form in all generality, one might need to add theism to natural law (and a sociological matter of fact, natural lawyers overwhelmingly seem to be theists)—for theism will give one reason to think that the natures of the existent beings are in some significant degree of harmony.

What about other non-consequentialist theories? Social contract ones will probably respect this argument form. Kantian ones? Here, things are much less clear. The historical Kant's theory is theistic or at least deistic, and Kantianism plus theism or deism does make this argument form plausible: it is likely that God would arrange things such in the Kingdom of Ends that acting well is connected with flourishing. But a non-theistic Kantianism might be unable to give us good reason to think the argument form is right. That is an argument against non-theistic Kantianism.

One worry. The argument form may suffer from some circularity. After all, as Socrates taught, it's bad to do what is forbidden, simply because it is forbidden. So in evaluating what is good in (1), one needs to avoid taking the mere fact of the action's being forbidden into account.

Observing log: February 19, 2009

Another nice, though short, session: NGC 2024, NGC 3371, NGC 3389, NGC 4394, NGC 2237, Tr 3, M 3, M 42, M 43, M 45, M 51, M 64, M 85, M 95, M 96, M 98, M 105, M 106, M 109, Saturn, Comet Lulin.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

An equivocating argument?

  1. If I am responsible for an event E, then I am responsible for at least one of the causes of E. (Premise)
  2. There are no infinite regresses or circles among the events I am responsible for. (Premise)
  3. Therefore, any event E for which I am responsible has among its antecedents a cause that I am responsible for and which is not an event. (By 1 and 2)
  4. All causes are either events or agents. (Premise)
  5. Therefore, any event E for which I am responsible has among its antecedents an agent that I am responsible for. (By 3 and 4)
  6. Therefore, if I am responsible for any event, agent causation occurs.

I think the argument is unsound because (4) is false. Causes can be events or substances. (Actually, I think only substances, but the weaker claim is all I need.) With this substitution, I get the conclusion that substance causation has occurs if I am responsible for any event. But then when we examine the substances I am responsible for, I think we will eventually get another regress. For substances other than myself, such as my dog (if I have any), I am responsible for only because I took on that responsibility. To avoid regress, I must arrive at a substance that I innately have responsibility for. And that's myself. Hence, there there is an agent who is a substance cause (namely I myself), and an agent who is a substance cause is an agent cause.

The equivocation is in (1), in that I am differently responsible for myself and for events. Maybe it's better to call it an argument from a disjunctive notion of responsibility rather than an equivocating argument.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Templates for relationships

I wonder if human nature might not come along with a finite number of more or less flexible normative templates for love-relationships. These templates would define the basic forms of love that are appropriate to us. An attempt to create new basic relationships, or to transcend the boundaries between these, would then be failures insofar as a relationship is defined normatively. Thus, two siblings might attempt to enter into a romantic relationship, and they might behave romantically together. But, nonetheless, they would not be having a romantic relationship, because the normative features of a romantic relationship would be objectively absent: thus, there would in fact be no obligation—but only a false belief in the obligation—to nurture the kind of intimacy that a romantic relationship calls for. We would say that the siblings are not in a valid romantic relationship, where we use "valid" in the technical sense in which we say that only an "invalid promise" (i.e., no promise at all, but only the appearance of one) results from coercion.

One way to make plausible such a story would be through a scepticism about the possibility of our creating new normative facts, other than by simply by making the antecedents of pre-existing conditional ones true.

Of course the difficulties then are epistemological: how do we know what all the templates are?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I wonder if B-theorists (either endurantists or perdurantists) can make sense of waiting for an inevitable future event or time?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Vague pain

I suspect that most theories of diachronic personal identity—the exceptions being the soul, further-unanalyzable-fact and no-diachronic-identity theories—have to admit of cases where there is a person in ten years who is only vaguely identical with me where it is definite that he exists and is a person. (Think of cases where people split, parts of brains get put in other heads, memories get recombined, etc.) Vague identity is a known problem given the indiscernibility of identicals (a problem one can get out of by abandoning classical logic—a heavy price to pay to avoid the three exceptional theories). But now consider the following way of making the problem vivid:

  1. In ten years there will be an x who definitely suffers pain but who is only vaguely identical with me. (Premise for reductio)
  2. Necessarily, for any given kind and intensity P of pain, if x and y have the same exactly alike, it is definitely intrinsically less bad for x that she only only vaguely suffers P than it is for y that she definitely suffers P. (Premise)
  3. Therefore, what will happen in ten years is definitely less bad for me than for x. (By 1 and 2)
  4. If y suffers from something definitely less bad than x (on some particular occasion), then x and y definitely differ in their properties. (Premise)
  5. If x and y definitely differ in their properties, then x and y are definitely non-identical. (Premise)
  6. Therefore I am definitely not x. Which contradicts (1).

I am thinking that (2) is the thing for the opponent to challenge. Maybe (2) slips between intuitions about vagueness in the pain (a vague pain is intrinsically less bad than a definite pain) and intuitions about attribution of the pain. But I think (2) is pretty plausible even if one thinks about this. Suppose that over then next 40 years we have a sequence of persons, x1,x2,...,x40, with the last one being definitely not identical with me, and with each only somewhat identical with the previous. It seems clear that I should not be concerned at all in a self-centered way about pains to x40, and that I should be less and less concerned as one goes down the sequence. And it seems that (2) is the best explanation here.

A different way out is to insist that whenever x and y are vaguely non-identical, it is only vaguely true that x and y are non-identical. I think one would end up with a view on which we have vagueness all the way down, so it's only vaguely true that it's vaguely truth that ... x is me (for any finite number of vaguelies). But I don't find this plausible. For one, it seems to me that if one has a sequence like the above one, at some point it should be non-vaguely true that there is only vague identity. For another, presumably it is only vaguely true that it's vaguely true that ... x is not me. But in the latter case, intuitively, x is very close to definitely being not me. And that should be enough for (2).

Quite possibly the previous two paragraphs beg the question against the defender of vague identity. As may the first premise of the following argument, which is nonetheless fun:

  1. If you're vaguely in excruciating pain, definitely you are at least in a somewhat bad state. (Premise)
  2. If you are definitely in at least a somewhat bad state, you are definitely in existence. (Premise)
  3. If vague identity is possible, then it is possible that you are only vaguely x at t and x is definitely in excruciating pain at t and you definitely are not identical with anybody at t other than x. (Premise)
  4. Suppose vague identity is possible. (Premise for reductio)
  5. It is possible that you are only vaguely x at t, and are definitely at least in a somewhat bad state at t, and you definitely are not identical with anybody at t other than x. (By (7)-(10))
  6. It is possible that you are only vaguely x at t, and definitely exist at t, and definitely are not identical with anybody at t other than x. (By (8) and (11))
  7. Necessarily, if you definitely exist at t and definitely are not identical with anybody at t other than x, then you are definitely x at t. (Premise)
  8. (12) and (13) contradict one another. So we reject (10).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The concept of marriage

I will give an argument that many people in our society are operating with a concept of marriage that differs in a central way from the traditional Western concept of marriage. I will then say a little on the same-sex marriage debate.

Entry into an institution is largely or wholly defined normatively by what participation in the institution makes permissible, obligatory or impermissible. Some of these normative features of institutions are central to the role that the institution plays and some may not be so central.

In the Western tradition, one of the normative features of the institution of marriage is that it bestows on the couple the permission to engage in sexual relations. Moreover, this normative feature has been quite central to the institution of marriage in the West. For instance, this permission to have sex has very often been one of the main reasons for a couple to marry (St. Paul certainly sees it this way). In fact, of the permissions that the institution of marriage bestows on a couple, it is hard to find any others that are of equal centrality. Marriage bestows a permission to call oneself "married", but that is mainly a word. Most of the other permissions, such as those involving taxation, visitation, living under one roof, etc. are clearly much more contingent in the Western tradition.

But presently, many believe that it can be permissible for unmarried people to have sex. Therefore, entry into marriage is presumably not seen by them as the bestowal of the permission to engage in sexual relations. It is hard to deny that this is a change in a central feature of the concept of marriage. In the past, marriage's normative impact in the sexual sphere of activity was that something previously impermissible—sexual relations—became permissible. Thus, marriage significantly expanded the options for sexual activity. In the present day, marriage's normative impact in the sexual sphere is seen by many as a contraction—rather than allowing previously forbidden sexual activity with a spouse, marriage forbids previously allowed sexual activity with others. This is a very significant change in how marriage works. (I shouldn't say that marriage in the past caused no new prohibitions. For instance, it implied a prohibition against flirting behavior with others than the spouse, etc. But in terms of sexual relations, marriage extended the options.)

I suspect that few advocates of same-sex marriage believe non-marital sex is always wrong. Therefore, they are already operating with a different concept of marriage from the traditional one. Moreover, if one sees marriage sexually as primarily constricting of permissions (prohibiting sex with persons other than the spouse), then it is no surprise that one will have less difficulty with the idea of same-sex marriage—after all, what is wrong, one may ask, with a couple voluntarily constricting what is permissible to them? Expanding what is permissible is a more serious issue.

Thus, I think it is very important that those who believe in the correctness of the traditional Western understanding of marriage not overfocus on the same-sex marriage issue. The issue of fornication—and of divorce for that matter—is probably at least equally important.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pleasure and same-sex sexual activity

  1. Each kind of deeply humanly significant pleasure is a way of affectively relating to an independent deeply humanly significant kind of good in which the pleasure is taken. (Premise)
  2. There is no deeply humanly significant good in same-sex sexual activity when the couple takes no pleasure in the activity. (Premise)
  3. Climactic sexual pleasure is deeply humanly significant. (Premise)
  4. Climactic sexual pleasure is a pleasure taken in sexual activity. (Premise)
  5. If a kind P of pleasure is a way of affectively relating to an independent kind G of good, and an instance of P fails in this way to relate to an existent instance of G, then that instance is empty. (Definition)
  6. It is wrong to deliberately induce an instance of a deeply humanly significant kind of pleasure when that instance is empty. (Premise)
  7. If there would be no deeply humanly significant good in an activity were the activity done pleasurelessly, then the activity fails to realize an instance of an independently deeply humanly significant kind of good. (Premise)
  8. Therefore, same-sex sexual activity fails to realize an instance of an independently deeply humanly significant kind of good. (By 2 and 7)
  9. Therefore, taking climactic sexual pleasure in sexual activity is empty when the partners are of the same sex. (By 1, 5 and 8)
  10. Therefore, climactic sexual pleasure between partners of the same sex is empty. (By 4 and 9)
  11. It is wrong to deliberately induce climactic sexual pleasure between partners of the same sex. (By 3, 6 and 10)

If this argument is sound, then heterosexual sexual relations intended to induce climactic sexual pleasure are wrong when they fail to realize a deeply humanly significant independent good. What could be that independent good? Well, if it's a deliberate attempt at reproduction, then sex is wrong whenever a couple isn't trying to reproduce. But I think the the pleasure in sex is not affectively associated with a voluntary and deliberate attempt to reproduce—there is too much of the animal in the pleasure. Likewise, the couple is not simply taking pleasure in their loving relationship—they are taking pleasure in sex. (If they were taking pleasure in their loving relationship, the sexual nature of the pleasure would be unexplained, since one can have just as deeply loving non-sexual relationships, or at best explained circularly.) Rather, it is that, I think, there is a completing of a biological whole in uncontracepted heterosexual intercourse, and that is deeply humanly significant. If this completing of a biological whole is what is deeply humanly significant about heterosexual sex, then oral sex, masturbation, and the like are ruled out. Contraception may not be immediately ruled out, but is still wrong since it is contrary to integrity: the couple is acting against the biological union which constitutes the deeply humanly significant good in which the climactic pleasure is being taken.


Here is a quick argument that sleep is bad in some respects. Sleep either involves unconsciousness or non-veridical experiences. Unconsciousness is bad, since it is the lack of consciousness, which is a good, and a good due to our nature as rational. Non-veridical experiences are clearly a bad. So, sleep always is bad in some respects.

Whether this argument succeeds or not (I think it doesn't; from our nature as rational beings it does not follow that it is our nature to always exercise rationality), it does raise a question about the value of sleep. Clearly, sleep is instrumentally good. Is it good non-instrumentally, though? And will we sleep after the resurrection of the body? As one of our grad students pointed out, Scripture considers sleep analogical to death. There are also positive portrayals of wakefulness. So when death is no more, will there be sleep? Aquinas thinks not.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Occasionally, the rhetorical question is asked of inerrantists: "What's the use of having an inerrant text, if your interpretation of the text is fallible?" Sometimes this question is asked by opponents of inerrance, and sometimes by those who think that those who accept inerrance don't go far enough—they should also accept an infallible exegetical authority. I've done this myself, as an argument for Catholicism.

But the argument implicit in the question is not a good argument without further work. It would be silly to ask: "Why do you care about having a calculator that makes no mistakes, given that you can punch the wrong numbers into it and read the answer off wrongly?" When using a fallible calculator, there are three sources of errors: the calculator, the data input, and the reading of the output. Surely it is a good thing to be able to eliminate one of the three, even if the other two remain.

Furthermore, there is the following advantage to having an inerrant text: progress in interpreting the text is apt to get us closer to the truth of the matter in the subject the text is about. But if the text is wrong on some point, it might be that the better we interpret it, the further from the truth we find ourselves (if we take the text to be authoritative). It is worth having this feature. We might be currently unable to tell what Scripture requires of us in some matter, but it is not unreasonable to devote significant effort into trying to figure it out—because it is likely true.

But let's go back to the rhetorical question and see if we can make it into any argument that can be defended. First of all, it's not clear how "What's the use of p?" even when met with no answer gives us reason to deny p. What's the use of the moon? I don't know, but my not knowing the use for it doesn't seem to significantly affect my confidence that it's there.

However, inerrance isn't like the moon. Inerrance is very unlikely without a miracle. And we might think that God doesn't work miracles except with good reason. So perhaps we could argue that if inerrance is of no use, God wouldn't bother with it. But that's going to be weak. How could we rule out all uses of inerrance? And in fact, surely there are some. The belief that Scripture is inerrant has inspired many people to obey various good commands in Scripture. Moreover, it is better be inspired by a true rather than false belief. So there is surely some use of inerrance. One might worry that the miracle is too great and the benefit disproportionately small. But I don't see why an omnipotent being can't do a great miracle for a small benefit (God helps me find lost objects sometimes—for all I know, he may even be miraculously transporting the lost objects to me, though somehow it seems more likely that he is simply directing my attention to the objects), nor do I see the benefit as small.

Still, there is, I think, some force in the argument of the rhetorical question. There are four sources of errors in information obtained from a text: errors in the original, errors in copying, errors in reading (decoding of words), and errors in interpretation. If it turns out that there are likely so many errors in interpretation that the benefit of lack of errors in the original is quite small, then there is something to be said for asking why God would have ensured a lack of errors in the original without ensuring an infallible method of interpretation. (If a measurement has two sources of error, one of the order of magnitude 0.001 units and the other of the order of magnitude of 0.020 units, a scientist would be unlikely to try to minimize the first error without trying to minimize the second.) But this would require a further argument that fallible interpretation would be quite unreliable—we couldn't just base the argument on the mere fact that interpretation is fallible. Moreover, I think this wouldn't so much an argument against inerrance, as an argument for an infallible method of interpretation (such as a magisterium or tradition or both).

Is it the case that errors in the interpretation of the Bible are so very common that there is something to the argument? I think it might be. Granted, there may be wide exegetical agreement on certain basic points. But if the point of inerrance is simply to preserve agreement on these basic points, we would not need full inerrance, but a more limited doctrine of preserving the truth in the basics (this point was made by one of our grad students in discussion today). So we might still argue: If we think God valued truth in such a way as to give us full inerrance in Scripture, we have good reason to think that he would also have ensured an infallible interpretative method, since that would serve the same value. This is an argumentum ex convenientia, an argument form well loved by medieval theologians.

So, yes, there is something to the argument in the original rhetorical question, but it would take significant effort to defend it carefully. I haven't put in that sort of effort in this post.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

More liar paradoxes

The standard way to run the liar paradox is with truth. But the family of liar paradoxes is wide, and I am trying to find a way of characterizing it. To that end, I am thinking about as many variants as I can. Here is one with desire satisfaction (it's not original to me): Annabelle believes that to have all of one's desires satisfied makes one soft. So, she has a desire to have an unsatisfied desire. One day, as it happens, all of Annabelle's other desires are satisfied. Is this one, too?

We can do this with action fulfillment, too. On Thursday, Patrick tells Annabelle that he will do whatever she asks of him on Friday. On Friday, she asks him to refrain from doing everything that he on Thursday said he would do. Patrick made no other statements on Thursday about what he will do.

These cases suggest that one isn't going to get a solution to liar paradoxes simply by restricting language to remove "truth" from it. For there are just too many concepts that can play the same role as truth does.

By the way, there is a joke I once heard about the sadist and the masochist together in hell. The masochist says: "Hurt me." The sadist says: "No."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dutch books

There is nothing philosophically new here, but I think this is kind of fun. If you click here, you will get a mathematical equation which you ought to have credence 1/2 in (at least immediately). Why? Because a visit to that link has a 50% chance of displaying a mathematical equation that is true and a 50% chance of displaying one that is false, and it's too complicated to see off-hand which it is (now if you have more time, you can do the calculation, and then revise your credence). So you click there, and you do the rational thing—you assign a credence of 1/2. And then, of course, there is a Dutch Book against you, since in fact the equation is either necessarily (and a priori) true or necessarily (and a priori) false.

If you'd like an equation you should be pretty sure about, click here—you'll have a 90% chance that the equation is true. And if you'd like something to speculate over, click here—you'll have a 10% chance of getting a true equation.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deep Thoughts XVII

What is not done cannot be undone.

[I am not the first to say this. I Googled it and found I was beaten to the punch by Matti Nykanen. But I like the line enough that I'll say it anyway. Some of my other Deep Thoughts aren't original either, I bet.]

Monday, February 9, 2009

Quiz on freedom

Here is another little foray into experimental philosophy. I would be very grateful if you answered out this very short three-question multiple choice quiz on freedom. It shouldn't take more than about one or two minutes. Feel free to forward the link. I'll eventually post some summaries, when I get enough data.

[The comments on this post are disabled, as discussion might disturb the results.]
[The quiz was down for two hours or so, due to a bug in the perl code, but is now back up.]

Friday, February 6, 2009

Liar-like dizziness without truth

Can one run the liar paradox without the concept of truth?

Suppose I write on my board: "At no point today do I believe anything written on this board", and know that nothing else will have been on the board today. Now there is no problem of inconsistent truth assignment: there is no logical contradiction in the sentence on the board being true (in which case I don't believe it) and there is no logical contradiction in the sentence in the board being false (in which case I do believe it). But while there is no contradiction, there is dizziness as I try to figure out whether to believe what is on the board.

The dizziness results from two plausible principles:

  1. I should avoid false beliefs.
  2. If the evidence conclusively points to p, I should believe p.

Principle (1) prohibits me from believing what is on my board. For I know ahead of time that were I to believe what's on the board, I would be believing something false. The case somewhat resembles the surprise exam. For, it seems that knowing myself, I may know that I won't violate norm (1) in this regard. I also know that not violating norm (1) entails not believing what's on the board. But then I know p, and I know that p entails q, but I don't know q even though I am, plainly, thinking about q. That is, surely, at least a very unstable situation.

Perhaps, though, (1) is mistaken. Maybe it's rationally acceptable to believe something even when one knows that the belief would be false, when the belief is self-referential? Is the norm that I should refrain from believing something when I know that believing it would be the having of a false belief, or is the norm that I should refrain from believing something that I know to be false? I do not know that what is written on the board is false, because I do not know what I will in fact believe. Still, (1) does seem very plausible.

Or is this a case where, whatever I do, I do something irrational?

Or should I say what I say about the liar, and deny that what is written on the board has meaning, even though an exactly similar token would have meaning?

Compatibilism and theism

I am just having fun in this post. I will make claims that seem to have established something interest, but I don't think I'm doing anything interesting. Compatibilism seems to be the doctrine that there is a possible world where determinism holds and some being is free. But God exists necessarily, and God is, plainly, free in every possible world. Therefore, compatibilism is true if and only if there is a world where determinism holds. But there is a world where determinism holds, if by "determinism" we understand the following doctrine: The total state of the world at any given time, together with all the laws, entails the state of the world at all given times. For, it is possible that an angel exists and that every time t, God instantaneously announces all of the history (past, present and future) of the world to the angel (maybe God creates a book that contains that history). Since God cannot lie, it follows that, necessarily, the total state of the world at any given time entails the state of the world at all other times. So, determinism is possibly true, and compatibilism is, hence, true.

Yes, but I've cheated here. While one might incautiously say that compatibilism is the compossibility of determinism with freedom, one really means something like the compossibility of physical determinism with an embodied person's being free. But if that's what compatibilism is, it's still probably true. For either a given form of physical determinism rules out the possibility of extra-physical interventions that deviate from the laws or it does not. If it does rule out that possibility, it is an impossible doctrine, being, apparently, incompatible with God's omnipotence. If it does allow for the possibility of extra-physical intervention, then it is possible for the extra-physical parts or aspects of an embodied being to intervene in the physical order. Since a determinism that allows for such a possibility is possible, and since a determinism that does not allow for such a possibility is impossible, it seems reasonable to take this interenable determinism to be what the doctrine of compatibilism is talking about. And then compatibilism is true.

But maybe I've cheated again. Maybe the question is whether physical determinism is compatible with the free will of purely physical persons. But there the answer is, I think, pretty simple: such a compatibilism is false, because there are no possible worlds containing purely physical persons.

Notice that on all of the above proposed accounts of compatibilism, I've settled the problem (assuming necessary theism or assuming a form of dualism, both of which are doctrines that I can argue for) without saying anything much about responsibility. That suggests that none of the above definitions of compatibilism got at what we really mean by the word.

It's not all that easy to get a definition of compatibilism that escapes the above. Here is a somewhat messy one that might do the trick: It is possible that there is an embodied and free person in a universe with deterministic laws which that person lacks the power to go against. However, this definition might be skewed towards incompatibilism. For the compatibilist may wish to say that one is not free if one lacks the power to act otherwise, but then account for "lacks the power" in a compatibilist way. But if "lacks the power" is understood in a compatibilist way, then the definition of compatibilism is probably not very good. I think the definition is still defensible, but it needs some work.

Basically, what I'd like to have is a definition of compatibilism where neither its truth nor its falsity follows from considerations that don't get at the heart of the real issues with responsibility. And it's not quite as easy as it at first seems to do that.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liar paradox: Another dead end?

One might (why? I don't know why, but I did think this at some point) think that a distinction between thought and language, together with the idea that the only meaning language has is speaker meaning expressive of a thought, would help with the liar paradox. After all, it seems that the liar sentence is a merely linguistic curiosity, and does not express a thought.

But a variant of the liar escapes this. I am going to describe this variant through a story that seems to make it very plausible that there is a thought being expressed. Frank has two diaries. A blue one for insightful ideas and a gray one for humdrum observations. He feels that his insights haven't been very good lately. He thus thinks to himself, on good empirical evidence, that today is a day on which nothing true gets written down in the blue diary. He then reaches for his gray diary, and writes down this pessimistic thought: "Today is a day on which nothing true gets written down in the blue diary." However, although he had reached for the gray diary, he ended up writing down his thought in the blue one, because he was rather absentminded. So now his blue diary contains the entry: "Today is a day on which nothing true gets written down in the blue diary." Moreover, let us suppose that he writes nothing else in the blue diary today.

What I like about this story is it makes the paradoxical sentence have a genuine use in our language, rather than just being an excrescence in the way the standard liar sentence is.

It seems that what is written in the blue diary expresses a genuine, and even epistemically justified, thought that Frank had. But what is written in the blue diary is true if not true and false if true, according to his intentions. So the move to speaker meaning doesn't help.

If we add the further assumption that what is in the blue book successfully expresses Frank's thought, then Frank's thought is true if not true and false if true. So unless we abandon classical logic, we need to say that Frank's thought was not expressed by what he wrote. But why not? Had he written it in the gray book, it would have expressed the thought. And he wrote the same thing in the blue book. So there doesn't seem to be a mismatch between word and thought—the words seem just the right ones to do justice to the thought. Maybe, though, some variety of future-based externalism is true: maybe what, if any, thought has been thought can depend on what will transpire (e.g., on whether Frank writes something or not). That's a weird idea, but even apart from the Hegelianism that was rampant where I did my PhD, there is independent reason to accept that. E.g., I might dub Kenya's next child "Patrick." And then I might think to myself what seems to be the thought that Patrick will be a girl. But if Kenya doesn't have another child, then I haven't thought anything. But this line of thought leads to the very disquieting conclusion that introspection is not a perfect guide to whether I am having a thought—and that undercuts the cogito.

It seems that in these cases we must go for the least paradoxical claim. Denying classical logic is most paradoxical. So we either need to say that the meaningfulness of the sentence depends on where I happened to write it down, or I have to say that the meaningfulness of the thought depends on future events. Oddly, my present intuitions pull me towards the second, though the first seems less weird. Epistemic akrasia?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Arguments and sincerity

When we write down a complex logical argument, it seems there is a pretty good chance that while writing down the proof, we will write down sentences that express propositions which we do not believe. Some of these sentences will be as part of a conditional proof, and those are not puzzling. But some of the sentences that express propositions which it seems we do not believe will be simply asserted. For instance, in the middle of our argument, we might make a claim that involves some complex logical or mathematical formula, which we then expand out using appropriate manipulation rules. But the expanded out claim may well exceed our mental capacities: we can handle it on paper, but it is just too complex for us to believe, it seems.

If this is right, then sincerity does not require that I believe what I say. (I assume the rules for sincerity do not depend on whether I am writing or speaking.) All that is required is that I believe that what I am saying is true. (What should I say about the speaker meaning in such a case?)

Or so it seems. But here is a curious test case. Politician reads a speech that her speechwriter wrote. She trusts her speechwriter to write only truths. The politician did not read over the speech ahead of time. She enunciates the sentences carefully, but she is distracted and pays no attention to what the text says. I think we would say that she is not being fully sincere. Maybe, though, our standards for sincerity are unfairly high in the case of politicians. Or maybe there are different kinds of sincerity—there is the bare sincerity which is one's duty in speech, and there is something that one might call "real sincerity" which entails conviction (where conviction is belief and more).

On the other hand, there is a different way of looking at the case of the complex sentence in an argument (this is inspired by some things that David Manley said based on his book with John Hawthorne). Maybe we can simply gain access to the proposition by means of the sentence, without having ourselves to understand or even parse the sentence.

Or maybe the things in the middle of proofs should not count as assertions. Perhaps making steps in proof is a mechanical procedure, akin to punching buttons on a calculator and likewise intrinsically devoid of propositional content, aimed at producing empirical evidence of the truth of some entailment. (That the evidence produced by a complex proof is empirical in nature is clear to me, weird as it may sound. One reason is that memory is intricately involved.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Material conditionals

Say that a proposition p is weakly earthly provided that for every pair of worlds w1 and w2 which exactly match one another in respect of all states of affairs localized within a thousand lightyears of earth and all entities and events capable of causally affecting states of affairs localized within a thousand lightyears of earth, p has the same truth value at w1 and at w2. It is very plausible that just about all propositions used in everyday speech are weakly earthly. A sentence is weakly earthly provided it expresses a weakly earthly proposition.

Now, suppose that "If p, then q" is weakly earthly. I shall argue that "If p, then q" has the same truth value as the material conditional. First, observe that if the material conditional is false, so is "If p, then q", since otherwise modus ponens wouldn't work.

For the converse, suppose the material conditional pq is true. Now imagine a possible world w* which is just like our world, but which also contains a one-way causally isolated island universe u, such that events in our universe can affect events in u but not conversely, and where u contains Frizzy, a being that knows the truth values of all weakly earthly propositions (maybe God has told them all to him), and that believes no contradictions. Moreover, Frizzy has the odd property that he always speaks sentences in pairs. First, he utters a claim with no regard for its truth. After that, if the first claim he had uttered turns out to be something he believes to be true, he utters a second claim that he believes to be true; otherwise, he utters another claim with no regard for its truth.

Now suppose Frizzy utters the pair of propositions a and b (in this order), and suppose a and b are propositions Frizzy knows the truth values of. Then, if a is true, so is b. And, hence, it is true that "if a, then b". But now as long as the material conditional pq is true, i.e., as long as we do not have both p and not-q, it is coherent with the above description of w* that Frizzy utters the pair p and q. So let us suppose that. Then, as noted above, it follows that it is true in w* that "if p, then q". But "if p, then q" is weakly earthly. Hence, if it is true in w*, it is true in the actual world.

What I have shown is that for any weakly earthly indicative conditional, the truth value of the conditional is equal to the truth value of the corresponding material conditional. Moreover, this argument can be run in any possible world (in some possible worlds, of course, the claim is close to trivial because there are no contingent weakly earthly claims). Therefore, necessarily, a weakly earthly indicative conditional holds iff the corresponding material conditional does. Now, assuming indicative conditionals have truth value it would, I think, be very unlikely that there would be something special in this way about weakly earthly indicatives. (The assumption is needed, because if indicatives don't have truth value, there are no weakly earthly indicatives.)

So, we have very good reason to think that either indicatives lack truth value or else indicatives are logically equivalent to material conditionals. I don't know which disjunct to choose.

Knowledge of past and future

We observe B, and have good evidence that 99.999% of the time B was causally preceded by A. We are, I think, pretty likely to say we know that A occurred. On the other hand, if we have good evidence that 99.999% of the time B is causally followed by C, a lot more people will be very cautious in affirming they know that C will occur.

The difference here does not, I think, depend on the mere fact that A is in the past and C is in the future. For, surely, if one is unwilling to say "I know I will fail to win the lottery" before the winner is picked, one will also be unwilling to say "I know I failed to win the lottery" after the winner has been picked but before one has heard who it is. It would be really weird to imagine someone sitting around in a closed room, watch in hand, and then as soon as noon comes, she says: "Now I know I failed to win the lottery", just because the winner is picked at noon.

It could be that this is just another example of widespread irrationality (when I wrote this post, which I am much less sure of now, I think this is what I would have said), but let us not have recourse to that immediately.

I am inclined to think the difference is not based on whether the knowledge claim is in the past or future, nor even on whether the knowledge claim is in the past or future of the evidence, but on the causal connection between the evidence and the event about which the knowledge claim is or is not made. We are, I think, much more willing to move epistemically from effects to causes than from causes to effects. If this willingness is not mistaken, then it follows that there can be probabilistically isomorphic epistemic situations in one of which one knows and in the other of which one does not.

Here is one line of thought on this. Perhaps we are confusing de re with de dicto knowledge. Suppose that Koons is right to say in Realism Regained that if D causes E, then it is possible to have D without E but not possible to have E without D. Then by knowing D de re, we cannot know E de re because many numerically different effects could follow the very same D. But by knowing E de re, we are in a position to know D de re, because no other cause could have produced this very E that we know de re.

And maybe this isn't just a confusion. For it may be that saying that I know that E occurs, or maybe implicates, that I de re know (am acquainted with?) E.

This is related to the scholastic idea that genuine knowledge is knowledge of the forms, and this is always by acquaintance.

A different line of thought on the asymmetry would be that one of our doxastic proper functions is gaining non-probabilistic beliefs about causes from effects, but we simply do not have a doxastic proper function of gaining non-probabilistic beliefs about effects from causes. A theist might even give an explanation of this: God hasn't designed us to gain non-probabilistic beliefs about effects from causes, as that would make miracles be deceptive.

[Corrected to fix typo pointed out in first comment below. Thanks, Tim!]