Friday, May 29, 2009


One of the fun games some ontologists like to play is to define substance. Here is one of my attempts. And now here comes another:

  1. x is a substance in the strong sense if and only if x is not dependent on anything
  2. x is a substance in the weak sense if and only if x is not non-causally dependent on anything.
Only God is a substance in the strong sense. It may seem that (2) does not describe a natural characteristic: it seems gerrymandered. I think that objection is compelling. It would help if one had a better account to put in of what non-causal dependence is like.

Notice that if the above definition is right, then an object that is dependent for its existence on its parts is not a substance even in the weak sense. One should be able to use this to argue for the Aristotelian axiom that no substance has parts that are substances.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Virtual reality and ontology

Consider a vorpal sword in a multiuser game. Does it exist? I think not. The computer simulates a sword, but there is no simulated sword.

Suppose you disagree and think there were such an object. The object then seems, prima facie, to be both a non-defective sword and an immaterial object unable to cut any chunk of matter. This seems to be a contradiction. To get out of the contradiction, you probably need to say that the vorpal sword is not a sword—it's a virtual sword. And it can virtually cut some virtual chunks of matter. For many positive material properties that a non-virtual sword would have to have, the virtual sword has a virtual counterpart. But not for all of them. While a real sword would have to either be made by a human smith or not made by a human smith, if the game designers failed to specify the sword's history, then it will neither be true that the sword was virtually(made by a human smith) nor that the sword was virtually(not made by a human smith). There is no violation of excluded middle here.

But there may, nonetheless, be some properties that the virtual sword shares with real swords. The virtual sword may be owned by Jane, who also owns a real sword. The virtual sword may be beautiful, just as a real sword. And, of course, on the view in question, just as the real sword has existence, so does the virtual one.

But now consider this puzzle about identity. Suppose two people playing the game have vorpal swords with exactly the same identities. They put them down in a box. They close the box. They shake the box. Then they each take a vorpal sword out of the box. Do they get their own swords back, or have they swapped them? Suppose the game designers failed to specify the physics of what happens in the box—that's, after all, always possible in the case of virtual reality (it may not be specified just how long the intestines of the dragon are, though it may be specified that it has intestines). There is no entity without identity. If the virtual swords were real, there would be a fact about whether they went to different owners or not. I suppose we could say that after the swap they each come to have the same future properties as the other: virtual sword A has the property of virtually being owned by Jim or by Susan but not both, and so does virtual sword B, and neither has the property of virtually being owned by Jim or of virtually being owned by Susan. Each sword has the property of virtually having different present properties from the other sword, but neither sword actually has any different present properties from the other, after the swap.

Now, you might think, and you would I think be right, that all this is absurd. You might think that while there virtually are vorpal swords there are no virtual vorpal swords. But why not? One reason is that there are puzzles about identity. But there equally are puzzles about the identity of real swords. Another reason, and perhaps a more compelling one, is that whether Jim has a vorpal sword might just be a matter of the value of a single bit in the attributes of Jim (probably more in a sophisticated game) along with context. But likewise a real sword seems to be just a matter of the positions of particles, or maybe just of values of a field. Social constitution goes into virtual reality. But likewise into artifactual reality. And so on.

Conversely, various reasons for believing in real swords apply to virtual ones. The real swords enter into explanations of phenomena. So do the virtual ones. ("Why did George lose the fight? Because his opponent wielded a vorpal sword.") The real swords are thought of and felt about as if they were real. So do the virtual ones after people have been playing the game long enough. The real ones are apparently perceived. So are the virtual ones.

What does this mean? I think this will push in one of two directions. One way is if one holds on to the intuition that something whose existence is "a matter of the properties of other things" does not count as a thing. Thus, the vorpal sword is constituted by bits in the owner's attributes along with context is not a thing. But neither is a real sword if it turns out that its existence is a matter of the properties of particles or fields. Then one will conclude that artifacts, as such, do not exist. Given the undeniability of our own existence, we will have to conclude that we are different in some important sense from swords and bicycles—our relation to the underlying physical world is different.

Alternately, one might conclude that virtual items exist. But where will one draw the line, then? Once one allows virtual items to exist, one will almost surely have to allow fictional items to exist. Sherlock Holmes will exist. Will his gall bladder? Where will one stop? This way lies mad ontological profligacy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Peter van Inwagen argued: "science is an outgrowth of western Latin Christianity, connected with it in much the same way as Gothic architecture". His claim is plausible historically. The non-Christian theistic scientist can claim that the aspects of Christianity that led to science are also found in her religion—say, the belief that the world is created by a God who would be unlikely to give us a thirst for knowledge that we could not possibly have satisfied. But the historical fact should give pause to the non-theistic scientist. She should ask herself whether the dependence of science on theism was merely historical or whether there is not an deeper dependence as well.

Consider this. Assuming one has good reason to be a theist, one has good reason to believe that simpler theories are more likely to be true and (perhaps equivalently) that induction is a good way of getting at truth. Moreover, connections like this between theism and scientific practice were in fact important to scientists like Leibniz and Newton. Now, the contemporary non-theist (except maybe an optimalist like John Leslie—but whether he counts a non-theist is unclear) does not in fact have anything to put in the place of theism that would give good reason to believe that simplicity and induction are good guides to truth. It would seem, thus, that one has to say one of two things: Either (1) the theistic underpinning of science did no real epistemic work in bolstering science in the first place, or (2) the non-theistic scientist's hope in science should be significantly lower than that of the theistic scientist.

Can one uphold (1)? I doubt it. It seems very plausible that there is something right about the idea that theism gives one a significant reason to have a hope in science as a guide to truth. But if so, then it is true that the non-theistic scientist has less reason for such hope.

Does the non-theistic scientist have any reason for such hope? That is a further question.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A transcendental constraint

I think we should impose something like the following constraint on metaphysics, science, etc.:

  1. For each particular member A of the set { ethics, science, external world, other minds, mathematics, the past, ... }, one's views should render objectively unlikely the disjunction of all possible general sceptical hypotheses about A, conditioned on the existence of beings appeared to roughly like human beings generally are (whatever exactly that means—we might not hold fixed the precise content of the appearance, but the manner of the appearance, and the kinds of things that appear).
I don't know exactly what to put in the "..."—I want to leave it open ended. I also don't have a characterization of what counts as a general sceptical hypothesis, but a paradigm example is Descartes' deceiver in regard to all five areas, a brain in a vat hypothesis in regard to science, external world and other minds, the five minute hypothesis in regard to the past, certain evolutionary biological hypotheses in regard to ethics, etc.

This is a pretty strong constraint. I am not merely requiring that no general sceptical hypothesis about one of the privileged areas be likely true. I am requiring that they be objectively unlikely. As far as I know, the only overarching views that satisfy my constraint are theism and optimalism (the view that, necessarily, everything is for the best). Moreover, if Nicholas Rescher is right, optimalism entails the existence of God (it is better that there be a God than that there not be a God).

At present I do not have a good defense of this constraint, other than that it seems intuitively right to me, nor do I have a very good formulation, though there are special cases of it that I can probably put moderately precisely.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thomson's lamp

Thomson's lamp has an on-off switch. It begins in the "off" position. At noon the switch is toggled, and the lamp comes on. Half a minute later, the switch is toggled, and the light goes off. A quarter of a minute later, the switch is toggled again, and the light comes on. And so on. There are no other switch flippings than these, and the switch survives at least until 12:01 pm. At 12:01 pm, is the switch on or off?

As paradoxes go, this one seems really flimsy. As best I can see, the argument to a paradox is something like this:

  1. Time is actually infinitely subdivided.
  2. If time is actually infinitely subdivided, the story of Thomson's lamp is possible.
  3. Necessarily, if the story is true, then the switch is either on or off at 12:01.
  4. Necessarily, if the story is true, then the switch is not on at 12:01.
  5. Necessarily, if the story is true, then the switch is not off at 12:01.
The argument for (4) is, presumably, that after every time the switch is on, there is a next time when it is off, and the argument for (5) is similar.

There are a couple of ways of showing what's wrong with the argument. Here is one. In order to argue for (4) and (5), it needs to be a part of the story that

  1. At each time t after noon, the position of the switch is the result of the last switch-flipping event prior to t.
For suppose that we deny this. Then we can allow that the switch is on at 12:01, but not due to any switch-flipping event. Or we can allow that the switch is off at 12:01, but not due to any switch-flipping event. After all, perhaps, the switch, instead of being flipped, just undergoes a quantum leap from one position to another.

Fine, then, says the paradoxer: Add (6) to the story.

However, now (2) becomes false. The defender of actually infinitely subdivided time can simply deny (2), since the story is plainly inconsistent: the position of the switch at 12:01 is determined by the last flip before 12:01, but there is no last flip before 12:01. It is a story as plainly inconsistent as this one: "Whether there is an obligatory side of the street to drive on is determined by the content of the will of the king of France. And France is a monarchy." The question of the position of the switch is rather like asking: "If atheism were true, would God want us to be atheists?"

Perhaps the paradoxer will say that that was her whole point, but nonetheless the defender of actually infinitely subdivided time has to affirm that this inconsistent story is possible. But why? It is an easy game to construct inconsistent stories by including a stipulation that something is sufficient to determine something, and then adding to the story something that denies the existence of the determiner. In addition to my present king of France story, consider this one:"A lamp with an on-off switch that can only have two positions, on and off, is produced ex nihilo by God at t0. The position of the switch at any time is fully determined by how it has last been flipped." Then ask: What is the position of the switch at t0? Obviously, we have an inconsistency in the story—if the lamp came into existence ex nihilo at t0 it came into existence with the switch in a particular position, but that position was not determined by a flipping.

But does not the defender of actually infinitely subdivided time think that a lamp switch's being flipped in the supertask way is possible? Certainly. But she has to hold that this is only possible in those worlds in which either something other than the last flip determines the position of the switch at 12:01 or the Principle of Sufficient Reason is violated (I don't think there are any such) or both.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

An odd puzzle about eternal life

Suppose I am going to live forever. I promise you that I will one day sing Yankee Doodle to you. But I never do. It seems like in the world where this happens, I do something wrong, namely broken my promise to you (if it is acceptable to break promises with good reason, then in all of my examples add the proviso that there is no good reason). But when do I break the promise or do this wrong? At any given time t, I am in compliance with the promise (i.e., my actions are compatible with the fulfillment of the promise).

I can run the same puzzle on a finite interval. Suppose I have the superpower of singing Yankee Doodle at any exact given time I wish, and I promise you that before noon I will start to sing Yankee Doodle. But I don't. I've done something wrong. But when? At any time before noon, I am still in compliance with the promise, so I haven't done anything wrong yet. At noon, it's too late to comply, so I have an excuse for not starting to sing at noon—it wouldn't be the fulfillment of the promise. So when have I done wrong?

There are a couple of moves one could make in response:

  1. We can say that the above paradoxes tell us something about the nature of time or action, such as that it is impossible for one to have an infinite number of choices.
  2. We can deny the principle that if you do wrong, you do wrong at some time. Denying this principle may push one towards four-dimensionalism, though perhaps the denial is less radical in the case of omissions than of commissions.
  3. We could conclude that certain kinds of open-ended promises are invalid. We could try to say that it is a necessary condition on the validity of a promise that the promise could (in a contextually relevant sense of "could") give one a reason to act on pain of violating it. Thus, I cannot validly promise you that the weather will be nice tomorrow, because the weather is not up to me, so I cannot (in the ordinary sense) get a reason to act on pain of violating the promise. In the Yankee Doodle cases, while I have a reason to sing Yankee Doodle at many different times, at no time do I have, or can have, a reason to sing Yankee Doodle on pain of violating the promise (because there is always more time). So the promise is not valid. This is an ad hoc restriction on promising: it is of the very nature of promises to give rise to reasons to do something on pain of violation of the promise.
I think (3) is probably the best way out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Here is something I've sometimes wondered about. If I have a gun, and someone is attempting to steal something (either belonging to me or another), am I permitted to point the gun at her and command her, at gunpoint, to refrain from stealing. To fill out this case, suppose that I know the thief is not a physical danger to any person: I know the thief is unarmed and gentle. I am not interested in the legal question—that differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and depends on what official role one plays. But can I morally use a threat of lethal force to prevent theft, assuming the law permits me to?

I assume that generally it is wrong to use lethal force to prevent mere theft (there are exceptions, such as cases where what is being stolen is something necessary to someone's survival). Now, pulling out the gun is offering a threat of force. Is it permissible to offer a threat that it would be immoral to carry out?

If one thinks deception is always wrong, the threatener is in the wrong. If she intends to carry out the threat, she is in the wrong since it is a threat that it is wrong to carry out. If she does not intend to carry out the threat, the threat is deceitful. However, while lying is always wrong, deceit is not. (There is nothing wrong with hanging a hat on a stick behind a bush to draw enemy fire.)

If deception is not always wrong, then one might think that with good reason it is permissible to make the threat. However, there is another consideration. It is wrong to blacken a person's reputation. But by making a threat it would be immoral to carry out, one is blackening a person's reputation—one is blackening one's own reputation, by making the other person think that one is the kind of immoral person that would use lethal force to protect property.

Still, the blackening of reputation is, perhaps, not intentional. (One may not be intending that the other person believe that one would carry out the threat, but only that the other person take herself to have reason to believe it.) So by Double Effect, the threat could, perhaps, be permitted in some cases.

If so, then it could in principle be permissible for a country to point nuclear weapons at enemy civilian centers as a deterrent, as long as the country could be sure that those weapons would not in fact be used against civilians. On the other hand, how could one be sure of that? Actually, even in the theft case, a similar danger exists: by making the threat, one creates a temptation in oneself to carry it out, and one should avoid temptation to do something immoral.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I find the concept of winning in a game really puzzling. Consider two games: checkers and kechers. In checkers, you win by the opponent having no legal move (this can happen two ways: all of the opponent's pieces are captured, or all of the opponent's pieces are blocked). In kechers, you win by not having a legal move. All the other rules of checkers and kechers are exactly the same. A legal game of checkers looks exactly like a legal game of kechers, and vice versa. Wherein the difference?

There are many possible answers: players' intentions, social context, language, etc. I think some of the answers end up being circular. Others fail because they fail to explain why it is the case that whenever x and y are playing checkers, they each have a prima facie reason to bring it about that the other has no legal move.

Here is a suggestion. We have a God-like power of creating ends (of course, like every power of ours, it is exercised only by the concurrence of God). When I come to participate in a game of checkers, I create a new end for myself, the end that the other have no legal move. Its objectively being an end of mine, I have reason to pursue it, and others have reason to wish me well in the pursuit of it. To be an end is not just to be pursued, of course: it is to be such that one have reason to pursue it.

Kantians, of course, will not be at all puzzled by the idea that we can create new ends for ourselves. But they will be puzzled by my next move. This next move is one that I make in response to the following second question: "How do we distinguishes cases where an end that we create is a victory condition for a game, from cases where it is not? How are games distinguished from other pursuits?" On the suggestion I want to explore, the answer to this question is very simple: We do not distinguish these. All and only the ends we create for ourselves are victory conditions for games. To play a game is to strive to win (so someone who throws a match is not really playing), and to strive to win is to pursue a self-created end. So now we have a story about what games are and how they differ from other pursuits: A game is a pursuit of an end that I have created for myself.

But aren't there other cases of ends that we can create, besides games? Can we not, say, set ourselves the end of becoming a great biologist, or an amateur astronomer, or the fastest draw in the West? In each case, I will say this: To the extent that the goal is valuable independently of our end-creation (it is valuable to understand living beings, to study the heavens even if only in an amateurish way, or to be able to defend the innocent), to that extent one is not playing a game. But insofar as the end achieves additional value through our making it our end (it is valuable for anyone to be a great biologist, but perhaps especially so for those who set out to become such), thus far we are playing a game, perhaps a solitary one.

But games don't matter deeply, while some ends we set for ourselves do matter deeply! Take love: If I choose to marry one person rather than another, then I make this person's happiness into an end of mine. I create an end for myself here, surely. Or take art: I accept a genre, and I work within it—I thereby create a genre-relative end, but that end is surely not just a game! However, these worries are mistaken. Consider love. First, I already ought to pursue the happiness of every human being—I ought to love my neighbor as myself. Second, insofar as I come to pursue a special marital end, it is because I am called to it—or at least, I come to be called to it when I undergo the sacrament of matrimony. If I weren't called to it (either generally, in the way I am called to love all neighbor, or more specifically), it would be a game—or a self-deception. Now consider art. Here, I am quite willing to say that insofar as one isn't pursuing some end independent of one's creation (beauty, truth, etc.), thus far one is playing a game. But it is important to note that while games may not matter deeply, they do in fact matter.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The higher level regularity of nature

It just struck me that while it is very puzzling why there is law-like regularity at the bottom level—in fundamental physics—the puzzle about why there are law-like regularities at higher levels—in astronomy, psychology, biology, chemistry and non-basic physics—is a separate puzzle. In other words, even if we had an explanation of regularity at the bottom level, we would not thereby have an explanation of why there are higher explanatory levels where there are also regularities, albeit somewhat more approximate ones. Thus, when we are puzzled by the laws of nature, there are two things to be explained:

  1. Why there is regularity at the level of fundamental physics.
  2. Why this regularity, together with the initial conditions, gives rise to regularities at multiple higher levels of organization.
Notice that our intuitions about the power of induction are just about all based on the higher level regularities.

This gives rise to what one might call a generalized fine-tuning argument. The standard fine-tuning argument asks why the laws of nature (and especially the constants in them) are such that life arises. The generalized fine-tuning argument asks why it is that the laws of nature and initial conditions are such that multiple explanatory levels (either left unspecified like that, or enumerated: astronomy, psychology, biology, chemistry, etc.) arise from these laws and conditions.

Whether the generalized fine-tuning argument is good argument for the existence of God depends on two things: (a) how likely it is that apart from the theistic hypothesis that such multiple levels should arise, and (b) how likely it is on the theistic hypothesis that they should arise.

As for (b), I think in Aquinas and Leibniz we find compelling accounts of how an infinite but simple deity would have good reason to create a world that images his infinity via a diversity of elements and his simplicity via a unity running through these diverse elements. Unity at multiple explanatory levels allows even more of that diversity and unity.

What about (a)? I don't know. I think the question is easier when the levels are enumerated, as then the considerations from the standard fine-tuning arguments can be used. But the general question is quite interesting, too.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Is time a continuum?

The following argument is valid:

  1. (Premise) If one compressed all the events of an infinitely long happy life into a minute, by living a year of events in the first half minute, then another year of events in the next quarter minute, and so on, then one would be exactly as well off as living the finite life as the infinite one.
  2. (Premise) If supertasks are possible, then the antecedent of (1) is possible for any infinitely long happy life.
  3. (Premise) If time is an actual continuum, supertasks are possible.
  4. (Premise) There is a possible an infinitely long happy life that would make for full human well-being.
  5. (Premise) A finitely long life could not make for full human well-being.
  6. (Premise) If a life makes for full human well-being, then so does any life that makes one exactly as well off.
  7. Therefore, if supertasks are possible, there is a finitely long life that would make for full human well-being (1, 2, 4, 6).
  8. Therefore, supertasks are impossible. (5, 7)
  9. Therefore, time is not an actual continuum. (3 and 8)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Here is a valid argument:

  1. (Premise) On the fine-grained view of events, if "A" and "B" are non-synonymous descriptions, then A's shining is distinct from B's shining.
  2. (Premise) If A is identical with B, then A's shining is identical with B's shining.
  3. (Premise) The morning star is identical with the evening star.
  4. (Premise) "Morning star" and "evening star" are non-synonymous descriptions.
  5. Therefore, the morning star's shining is identical with the evening star's shining. (2 and 3)
  6. Therefore, the fine-grained view of events is false. (1, 4 and 5)
The essential controversial premises are (1) and (2). (If (4) is challenged, the example can be easily changed.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Evil and utopian fiction

If the following proposition were true, we would have made some progress in answering the deductive problem of evil:

  1. The actual world is better for beings of our sort than any world that has no evil in it.
Is (1) true? Here is one possible piece of evidence for it: Utopian fiction does not present compelling evil-free worlds where one would like to live.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Intention and understanding

George, who is quite happy thinking that he has just aced his logic exam (actually, he failed miserably) sees a first-order logic proposition on a board:

  1. (x)(~toothache(x) → ~(x = George))).
On a whim, he desires that this be the case. He rubs a lamp, the genie appears and George says to the genie: "Make it be the case that (x)(~toothache(x) → ~(x = George)))." To George's surprise, he immediately gets a toothache. The surprise isn't at the fulfillment of the wish—he fully expected the wish to be fulfilled—but at the toothache, since George did not see that (1) is logically equivalent to:
  1. toothache(George).

Did George get what he intended? Well, yes: he wanted (1) to be true, and the genie did make (1) be true. But while George got what he intended, he also got a toothache, which he clearly did not intend to get. Thus, one can intend (1) without intending (2). Intention cuts more finely than logical equivalence.

Suppose George were better at logic, so it was obvious to him that (1) and (2) are equivalent? Could he intend (1) without intending (2)? I am inclined to answer affirmatively. Belief does not automatically affect intentions—intentions are a matter of the will, not of the intellect. Of course, if he were better at logic, the toothache would not be a surprise.

Once we admit that intentions can cut this finely, we have to be really careful with Double Effect, lest we end up justifying the unjustifiable. We don't want to allow Janine to get away with murder by saying that she asked the genie to bring it about that either Fred is dead or 2+2=5, and so she never intended Fred to be dead. My way of doing that is to introduce the notion of accomplishment. As long as George intended (1), whether or not he knew that (1) entailed (2), George accomplished his toothache: the toothache was a part of the accomplishment of the action. As long as Janine intended the disjunction, the disjunct (or, more precisely, the truthmaker of the disjunct) which she (through the genie) accomplished is a part of her accomplishment.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Objective probabilities


  1. W is a set of possible worlds (or maybe situations?)
  2. L is a first-order language suitable for talking about what is going on at a member of W, and with a finite symbol-set
  3. S is the set of strings, of finite or countably infinite length, but with a starting point (i.e., "ababababab..." is acceptable, but "...ababababab" is not) in the symbol-set of L
  4. e(s) is the proposition expressed by a sentence s of L
  5. BW(s) is the claim that s is a member of S such that e(s) is true at exactly one member of W
  6. r is a random variable whose values range over the members of S and have the following property: P(r=s)=(n+1)−(l(s)+1), where n is the number of symbols in the symbol-set of L and l(s) is the length of s; thus, r simply chooses a random string in S, letter by letter, with an equal likelihood of any particular letter or of ending the string there.

Then it seems we can define a probability of a first-order[note 1] proposition p relative to the worlds in W as follows: PL,W(p)=P(e(r) entails p|BW(r)).

If the language L is somehow natural for describing the members of W, then it makes sense to think of PL,W as defining a natural probability measure for what goes on in members of W. If p is W-impossible, i.e., if p holds at no member of W, then PL,W(p)=0.

What is particularly nice about PL,W is that it favors worlds with simpler laws. Thus, it is a probability measure particularly well-suited to making scientific inferences.

A serious technical difficulty with the above definition is that PL,W(p) will not be defined for all p, but only for those p for which the set of sentences r such that e(r) entails p is measurable. One can avoid this difficulty by restricting the ps for which PL,W(p) is defined, or by replacing the Axiom of Choice with the axiom that all subsets of the reals are measurable.

A second technical difficulty is that P(BW(r)) might be zero. This difficulty will be avoided if we have at least one finitely simple world, where a world w is finitely simple if and only if there is a finite sentence r such e(r) is true at w and only at w. I suspect (again, I haven't written out the proof) that in that case we get the following interesting theorem: With probability one, we are in a finitely simple world. This suggests that the measure P might be useful for inductive purposes—it seems to be a measure that prefers simpler worlds.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Distinguishing multiple universes from design

One way to respond to certain design arguments, including both fine-tuning arguments and arguments from apparent biological design, is to make use of a multiple universe (MU) hypothesis. If there are enough universes (say, infinitely many), and there is the right kind of latitude in the random parameters, it is unsurprising that there be a world exhibiting just about kind of complexity you like, including intelligent life. And there is no further puzzle about why our universe exhibits this complexity, because there is a selection effect—only universes that have observers can be observed.

One might think that MU and Design hypotheses cannot be distinguished. That's why some design arguments are formulated with a disjunctive conclusion. But they can be distinguished: they have distinct predictions. The MU hypothesis basically says that we should expect to see just enough complexity and tuning needed to produce observers. The Design hypothesis makes it moderately probable that there would be more complexity and tuning because of the value of living beings that are non-observers. More genearlly, the difference is that the MU hypothesis involves only a tropism towards intelligence, while the Design hypothesis involves a tropism towards the instantiation of values. So in theory the two hypotheses could be distinguished.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


One might think that all there is to an object's being red is that object's appearing red to one in standard circumstances. Here is a potential counterexample. I gave my four-year-old son some red gelatin dessert (probably not of the Jell-O brand) and asked him what color it was. He said: "It looks red" (his slight emphasis). Now, he wasn't expressing a doubt about whether the circumstances were standard. Rather, because he is red-green colorblind, he knows there is a gap between an object's appearing red to him in standard circumstances, and its actually being red. (He agreed later that it looked "reddish green" to him. But once I told him that it was actually reddish orange, he accepted that, and from then on was very firm that it was reddish orange.) I suppose "standard circumstances" could include "standard observer", in which case there is no counterexample. In any case, the point here is that color terms for my son have a serious intersubjectivity, and perhaps objectivity, to them.

Interestingly, I think that occasionally my son bridges this gap inferentially—the object looks more like red objects do than like green objects do, so it's probably red—and sometimes he bridges it non-inferentially through an internalization of stereotyped colors. Thus, when asked about a green leaf or green grass what color it is, he instantly responds that it's green—I think he may be seeing it as green in the way in which I can see a person as old. Does he have the quale of green in the case of the green leaf or green grass, when he sees it (visually!) as green? I have no idea. If to have a quale of green is just to be non-inferentially visually appeared to greenly, then he does, since he is visually appeared to greenly, except that in his case the green appearance of the leaf depends also on shape. If the green appearance depends also on shape, it's hard to say that it has the quale of green. But maybe it does. (Suppose I heard an object as green—maybe because I could hear the molecules vibrating as they reflect green light—would that have the same quale as seeing it as green?)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The PSR and inference to best explanation

Sam Cole, one of the students in my upper level metaphysics class, wrote an interesting paper (I am writing this with his permission) where he argued that if we do not accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), then the following question will be unanswerable:

  1. Under what circumstances should we accept a given explanatory hypothesis instead of the hypothesis that the phenomenon in question simply has no explanation?

I think this is a really neat question. We have some idea of the sorts of criteria we employ in choosing between alternate explanatory hypotheses: simplicity, prior probability (perhaps I repeat myself), etc. But if we do not accept the PSR, then the no-explanation hypothesis is going to be, presumably, always available. On what grounds do we judge between our best explanatory hypothesis and the no-explanation hypothesis?

It is tempting to say: If the best explanatory hypothesis is pretty good, then we go for it. But the evaluation of the quality of hypotheses seems to be innately comparative. So this "pretty good" does not seem like it should be absolute. But if it is relative, then what is it relative to? If it is relative to other explanatory hypotheses, then its being "pretty good" seems irrelevant when comparing it against the no-explanation hypothesis. The hypothesis that JFK was shot by a bunch of gorillas escaped from the zoo is pretty good as compared to the hypothesis that JFK was killed by a rifle-toting clam, but that is irrelevant when we compare the gorilla hypothesis to the Oswald hypothesis. So what we need to know is whether the explanatory hypothesis is "pretty good" as compared to the no-explanation hypothesis. But we have no criteria for that sort of comparison!

Another tempting suggestion is this: Whenever any narrowly logically coherent explanation has been offered (asking for more than that may run into Kripkean problems), we should reject the no-explanation hypothesis. This is a more promising answer to (1). Note, however, that an opponent of the PSR who takes this route cannot oppose the use of the PSR in the Cosmological Argument. For in the context of the Cosmological Argument, the PSR is employed to claim the existence of explanations for phenomena for which narrowly logically coherent explanations—namely, theistic ones—have indeed been offered.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The recalcitrance of matter

When I work with material objects, I am sometimes annoyed at things just not working. The cord of the mower gets caught on a bush. The wood I am drilling into splits. The phenomenology of annoyance is no doubt complex, but I think the following is right: when one is annoyed at x doing A, one is (emotionally) treating x as if x were functioning improperly in doing A. Consider, then, the following argument:

  1. (Premise) It is sometimes appropriate to be annoyed at matter failing to serve one in some way even when no human being designed the matter to serve us in this way.
  2. (Premise) It is only appropriate to be annoyed at something insofar as it is functioning improperly.
  3. Therefore, matter can be functioning improperly in failing to serve us in some way even when no human being designed the matter to serve us in this way. (1 and 2)
  4. (Premise) If x functions improperly in failing to do A, then it is a function of x to do A.
  5. Therefore, matter sometimes has the function of serving us in some way even though no human being designed it to do so. (3 and 4)

All of this coheres with, and suggests, the Christian story of the Fall: matter does have the function of serving us in all kinds of ways, but after the Fall it fails to do so.

But now this failure can be understood in two mutually non-exclusive ways: (a) the matter fails to do "its job" narrowly defined; and (b) we fail to make use of the matter in the way we should thereby making it impossible for the matter to do "its job" broadly defined (it can't serve us if we don't use it rightly). The argument above fits well with (a), but it may well be that (b) is the right story in a lot of cases, and maybe even in all of them. Now, if (b) but not (a) is the right story in a given case, then premise (1) will not exactly be true in that case: annoyance might be appropriate, but not annoyance at the matter. The annoyance should be directed at oneself, or at humankind, or at Adam and Eve. However, this objection presupposes that to be annoyed at x doing A entails being annoyed at x. But I do not know that this entailment holds. It may be that there is a difference between being annoyed at x doing A and being annoyed at x for doing A. If there is such a difference, then one can hold that (1) is compatible with (b) being the right story even in all cases. (Perhaps there is an argument similar to the above that can be formulated that fits with this. The conclusion will be that we are sometimes appropriately annoyed with ourselves for not having skills for working matter, skills that it is not our function to have unless some story about how we were given mastery over matter but then fell is true.)

Actually, theologically, I find both (a) and (b) plausible. The Fathers do think the Fall extends both to the human being and to the rest of nature. If so, then (1) is true, and the argument is probably sound, but of course to base the soundness of (1) on the theology of the Fathers would beg the question.

For a better justification of (1), I would note that I am drawn to the thesis that every basic distinct kind of emotion is sometimes appropriate, but I do not know how to make that precise, not knowing how to define "basic" and "distinct". If the thesis is true, and if there is a basic distinct kind of annoyance at "dumb matter" (i.e., at matter not designed by a human being for anything), then we will be able to have (1) be true.

In any case, the argument I gave strikes me as not very strong. It is very easy to deny (1) by saying that in the cases of annoyance at dumb matter, one has misplaced the proper object of annoyance. Nonetheless, that move is a sceptical move, and sceptical moves should be epistemically costly. So while one can get away with denying (1), this adds to the cost of any position that forces that denial.

The post is triggered by frustrations with converting the Coulter 13.1" telescope that I bought into a split tube (else it wouldn't fit in our Taurus, and would break my back). Or, more precisely, frustrations with reassembling it. Alas, I've learned that plywood splits and that cross dowels need to be pretty close to exactly at right angles to the bolt. Fortunately, there is always JB Weld, my favorite adhesive for projects where Duck tape just isn't good enough. Hopefully the scope will be ready for the Philosophy Department Star Night tonight, assuming the weather cooperates (oddly, though, I don't get annoyed at the weather in the way I get annoyed at objects).

Friday, May 1, 2009

Unenforced laws

Consider the following argument:

  1. (Premise) A law that is unjust is defective.
  2. (Premise) A law that places a special burden on those who possess some virtue is unjust.
  3. (Premise) An unenforced law places a special burden on the more law-abiding.
  4. (Premise) Law-abidingness is a virtue.
  5. Therefore, unenforced laws are unjust and defective.

Example of such a law: the laws, present in most states, that use tax must be paid on all purchases from out-of-state retailers, including Internet ones. (This law is a big nuisance, too. We have a notebook where we record every Internet purchase, and every year I need to add up all the purchases, and send a form and a check to the state.)

In regard to the argument, I am worried that "burden" is equivocal: in (3) it is only what one might call a de facto burden, in the sense that only the law-abiding feel the burden. However, perhaps, in (2) it should be a de jure burden—one that the law intentionally imposes. (None of this is technical legal terminology. I am no legal scholar. And probably I am just exposing my ignorance of philosophy of law here. But, I'm still having fun with the arguments?)

Still, maybe there is some way of making (2) and (3) be unequivocally true. Perhaps we can make (2) hold for de facto burdens. (Or at least if we qualify (2) and (5) with "apart from a really good justification for the difference of burden"?) While I think (2) is very plausible in the case of virtue, because I see virtue as part of the common good that the state should (cautiously) promote, I think there are parallel arguments one might make. For instance, if the legislators know, or ought to know, that local law enforcement officials will enforce some law only on minories, then perhaps the legislators are acting unjustly, barring a really good justification?

Here is a second argument against unenforced laws, based on my wife's affirming something like (7) after I told her about that Texas law which says that as soon as you make three private, non-commercial sales—e.g., selling one's kids' used toys on craigslist—in a given twelve month period, you thereby become a retailer, must obtain a sales tax permit, and must collect sales taxes starting with the third sale:

  1. In a representative democracy, a law imposing a significant burden on people, which burden they do not already bear, should carry a significant political cost on the legislators for the sake of their accountability.
  2. Unenforced laws, even ones imposing significant burdens, typically do not carry a significant political cost.
  3. Therefore, unenforced laws that impose significant burdens fail a requirement of representative democracy.

I used to think there was nothing wrong with unenforced laws. I am still inclined to think that might be able to have unenforced laws against intrinsic wrongs, such as the breaking of private promises, because the burden of such laws is already in place by virtue of their moral normativity.

[Fixed a nasty typo in (1).]