Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Darwinian evolution and determinism

Once I was looking at an old issue of a journal, probably the Review of Metaphysics from the 1950s or 60s, and I came across an intriguing paper arguing that evolution does not help explain the complex structures we find in organisms. The paper tacitly presupposed determinism and in effect noted that there was an exact correspondence between the possible states of the universe now, call it t1, and the possible states of the universe before the advent of living things, call that time t0. There is then an exact correspondence between the possible states at t1 that exhibit the sort of complexity C we are trying to explain and the possible states at t0 that would, over the course of t1t0 units of time, give rise to C. Therefore, if the direct probability of C arising at t1 at random is incredibly low, the probability of getting a state at t0 that would give rise to C at t1 is exactly the same, and hence also incredibly low, and evolution has made no progress. Consequently, evolution does nothing to undercut design arguments for the existence of God.
Now, the argument as it stands has two obvious holes. First, it assumes not only determinism, but two-way determinism. Determinism says that from any earlier state and the laws, the later states logically follow. Two-way determinism adds that from any later state and the laws, the earlier states logically follow. Fortunately for the argument, actual deterministic theories have been two-way deterministic. Second, the argument assumes that the exact correspondence between states at t0 and at t1 preserves probabilities. This need not be true. If we consider the set [0,1] (all numbers between 0 and 1, both inclusive), and the function f(x)=x2, then f provides an exact correspondence between [0,1] and [0,1], but if X is uniformly distributed on [0,1], then the probability that X is in [0,1/4] is 1/4, while the probability that f(X) is in [0,1/4] is 1/2 (since for f(X) to be in [0,1/4], X need only be in [0,1/2]). But, again, in the kind of classical physics setting that underlies classical thermodynamic results like the Poincaré recurrence theorem, the transformations between states preserve phase-space volume, and it is very plausible that if you preserve phase-space volume, you preserve probabilities.
Once we add two-way determinism and phase-space volume preservation, which are reasonable assumptions in a classical setting, the argument is in much better shape. (Actually, if you can still have something relevantly like phase-space volume preservation, you could drop the determinism. I don't know enough physics to know how helpful this is.) The argument is now this. Let S be the set of all possible physical states of the universe. For any real number t, the two-way deterministic physics defines a one-to-one and onto function ft from S to S, such that by law the universe is in state s at time t0 if and only if it is in state ft(s) at time t0+t. Let C1 be the subset of S containing all states the exhibit the complexity feature C. Let C0 be the subset of S containing all states that would result in a state in C1 after the passage of t1t0 units of time. In other words, C0={s:ft(s) is in C1}, where t=t1t0. Then the probability of C0 is the same as the probability of C1. Hence, if our world's present state's being in C1 was too unlikely for chance to be a reasonable expectation, then the Darwinian explanation in terms of the world having been in a state from C0 at t0 is no better. In particular, if a theistic design hypothesis would do better than randomness if it were a matter of generating a state in C1 from scratch, Darwinism hasn't done anything to weaken the inference to that theistic hypothesis since C0 is just as unlikely as C1. Even if the evolutionary theory is correct, we still need an explanation of why the universe's state was in C0 at t0.
This argument is on its face pretty neat. One weakness is the physics it relies on. But bracket that. The kind of measure-preservation that classical dynamics had is likely to be at least a decent approximation to our actual dynamics. But there is a more serious hole in the argument.
The hole is this. If what evolution was supposed to explain is why it is that the universe is now in a state exhibiting C, the argument would work. But that isn't what evolution is supposed to explain. Suppose C is the existence of minded beings like us. Then it seems that we are puzzled why C is exhibited at some time or other, not why
  1. C is exhibited now.
Sure, evolution can't do a very good job explaining why C is exhibited now, as opposed to, say, 10 million years ago.
So perhaps the explanandum is not that C is exhibited at t1 but that
  1. C is exhibited at some time or other.
But we can predict (1) with unit probability without any posit of evolution simply by assuming that the dynamical system is ergodic: an ergodic system will exhibit C infinitely often from almost every starting point, given reasonable assumptions on C. Thus, if (2) is the explanandum, and we have the classical setting, we don't need evolution. We just need enough time. And, by the same token, (2) is no basis for a design argument.
Maybe the puzzle is not about (1) or (2), but about:
  1. C is exhibited within 14 billion of the beginning of our universe.
Ergodicity makes (2) all but inevitable, but it is puzzling that C should be exhibited so soon. After all, 14 billion years is not that much. It's only about three times the age of the sun. This account of what it is that evolution accomplishes in respect of C seems to turn on its head Darwin's emphasis on the "countless ages" that evolution required—in fact, evolution accomplished its task very quickly, and that speed is what the theory explains. Ergodicity without the selective mechanisms would very likely take much longer.
One problem with this as the account of what evolution does to explain C is that currently we do not have very good mathematical estimates of how long we can expect evolutionary processes to take to produce something like C, where C has any significant amount of complexity. So perhaps we do not really know if evolution explains (3).
Another move that one can make is to say that evolution does explain (1), and it does so by giving a plausible genealogical story about C, but the evolutionary explanation does not confer a non-tiny probability on (1). If so, then the evolutionary explanation may be a fine candidate for a statistical explanation of (1), but it will not be much of a competitor to the design hypothesis if the design hypothesis confers a moderate probability to (1).
In fact, we can use the above observations to run a nice little design argument. Suppose that C is the existence of intelligent contingent beings. Then for an arbitrary time t, the hypothesis of theistic design gives at least a moderate probability of the existence of intelligent contingent beings at t, since God is at least moderately likely to fill most of time with intelligent creatures. (And Christian tradition suggests that he in fact did, creating angels first and then later human beings.) Therefore, evolutionary theory assigns incredibly tiny probability to (1)—equal to the probability of getting C from scratch at random—but the design hypothesis assigns a much higher probability to (1). We thus have very strong confirmation of theism.[note 1]
But that assumes an outdated dynamics. Whether the argument can be made to work in a more realistic physics is an open question.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Explanation of action and naturalism

Here are some premises:

  1. If x did A because s, and either (a) it is false that s or (b) the fact that s is not a part of any explanation of x's doing A, then x's doing A because s is defective.
  2. If naturalism is true, then a human's doing something is a natural state of affairs.
  3. If naturalism is true, then moral facts do not explain any natural state of affairs.
  4. That something is morally required is a moral fact.
  5. Some human being non-defectively did something because it was morally required.
And here is the conclusion:
  1. Naturalism is not true.

Premises 2 and 4 are hard to dispute. Premise 5 seems plausible: it would be very odd indeed if every case of acting from duty were defective, assuming of course morality is an objective fact. Premise 3 is a bit tougher. If moral facts reduce to natural facts, then there is no reason to assert 3. For instance, one might reduce "A is required" to "A maximizes utility" and then reduce utility to natural facts about desire or pleasure. Neither step in the reduction seems plausible to me, though both have been defended. Now, naturalism doesn't want there to be non-natural explanations of natural facts. Natural facts either have no explanation or have only a natural explanation, according to the naturalist. So, unless there is a reduction of moral facts to natural ones, 3 is pretty plausible.

That leaves premise 1. I may have a counterexample to premise 1. Suppose I know that it will rain tomorrow, so today I buy an umbrella. It seems that I bought the umbrella because it will rain tomorrow, but the fact that it will rain tomorrow is not a part of any explanation of my buying the umbrella. If this case is non-defective, then 1 is false. However, perhaps, there is something rationally defective in this case. For, perhaps, my reason for buying the umbrella shouldn't be tomorrow's rain, but that the forecast predicts rain.

Currently, I am inclined against 1.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Naturalist theories of mind and corporate personhood

All theories of mind need to do justice to the multiple realizability intuition:

  1. Conscious beings in general, and persons in specific, could have a physical constitution very different from ours (e.g., silicon, plasma cloud, etc.), with the computational algorithms being significantly different as well.
On a naturalist theory of mind, all there is to a person or a conscious being is the physical constitution together with external connections. Therefore, on naturalism, what (1) says is that there could be persons radically different from us in their overall constitution. This means that the naturalist theory of mind must have a very flexible account of what it is to be a person or a conscious being. Presumably, this account is going to be something like this: Conscious beings are ones that represent the external world in certain ways—the best stories about this are causal in nature—and respond in other ways (or at least are of a kind to do this). The specification of the ways in which representation and response are done is not going to be too specific—it must be at a high enough level of generality to do justice to (1). And then persons are going to be the subset of conscious beings tha have (or at least are of a kind to have) a particularly sophisticated form of representation and response—perhaps the right kind of representation of the internal patterns of response together with a self-directed response to those patterns.

Here, now, is my hypothesis. Any naturalist story that does justice to (1) will be apt to count many human social groups as both conscious and as persons. Social groups do represent the environment and themselves, and respond to such representations in various sophisticated ways, including self-reflection analogous to that which persons engage in. Social groups have corporate representations that are not the same as individual representations and corporate desires that are not the same as individual desires. To a very rough first approximation, a social group believes p provided that a majority of the members believes p in a way that is appropriately explanatorily connected with their group membership (e.g., their belief is in the right way explained by or explains their group membership), and desires p provided that it has the right kind of tendency to pursue p. Anything that can design an airplane is likely conscious and a person. But an airplane can be designed by both an individual human, and a social group such as two brothers.

  1. If naturalism holds, then many human social groups are conscious and a number of these are persons.
Notice that the computational sophistication in human social groups can be very high. For human social groups contain a number of human brains. Think of a computating cluster: a cluster while having some ponderousness can compute anything its parts can.


  1. Human social groups, other than perhaps the Church, are not persons.
(The naturalist is unlikely to worry about the exception.) If this won't do as a direct intuition, then we can argue for it on ethical grounds in the case of many social groups. For instance, an academic Department will often be such as to force the naturalist who does justice to (1) to count it as a person. But a respect is due to a person which is not due to an academic Department. A University administration should not dissolve a Department willy-nilly, but the gravity of dissolving a Department is not nearly comparable to the gravity of killing a person.

The dualist does justice to (1) without falling into an assertion that social groups are persons in a very simple way: a necessary condition for being conscious is having a soul or something like that, and a plasma cloud could have that, and social groups, at least other than the Church, in fact don't have that. (I am not saying that social groups couldn't have that, though I think they couldn't. I am inclined not to consider the Church literally a person, either.)

Objection 1: The naturalist can make it a condition of personhood that one not have persons as proper parts.

Response: If naturalism is true, the nerves in my shoulder could so grow that they would engage in the kind of computation characteristic of persons, and then a person would be a proper part of a person.

Objection 2: Social groups don't exist.

Response: It would be tough for a naturalist to hold that social groups don't exist and human beings do—both are appropriately posited by developed special sciences.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Consequence argument against Calvinism

  1. (Premise) If p is true, and I can't prevent p from holding, and p entails q, then I can't prevent q from holding. (cf. Finch and Warfield's modified beta)
  2. (Premise) If Calvinism is true, and God sovereignly wills p, then I cannot prevent God from sovereignly willing p.
  3. (Premise) If Calvinism is true, then I do A only if God sovereignly wills that I do A.
  4. That God sovereignly wills p entails p.
  5. Therefore, if Calvinism is true, and I do A, then I can't have prevented my doing A. (1, 2, 3 and 4)
  6. (Premise) I am not responsible for what I can't have prevented.
  7. Therefore, if Calvinism is true, I am not responsible for anything I do.
  8. (Premise) I am responsible for something I do.
  9. Therefore, Calvinism is false.

Action in and out of character

This post is obviously overgeneralized, but I think it is still heuristically useful.

The compatibilist has trouble with out of character action. The incompatibilist has trouble with in character action.

It is obvious that we sometimes are responsible for out of character action, and that we sometimes are responsible for in character action. Thus, to evaluate a particular compatibilist proposal, it's worth checking whether it allows for responsibility for out of character action, and to evaluate a particular incompatibilist proposal, it's worth checking whether it allows for responsibility for in character action.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Agent and substance causation

Some people think that events are never causes, except in a derivative sense.  It is substances that are causes (and when one or more substances are cause because they stands in some relations, then their standing these relations is an event, and we can derivatively count it as a cause).  It seems very natural for someone who takes a substance-theory of causation to take an agent-causal theory of action.  Doing so does not carry the cost that agent-causal theories of action normally carry, namely the cost of supposing two kinds of causation.  So a substance-theory of causation would seem to be a great match for an agent-causal theory of action.

However, I think that the substance-causal theorist may lose one of the benefits of agent-causal theories of action.  The traditional agent-causal theorist can make a neat distinction between my voluntarily doing something and my "doing" something in the non-agential way in which I depress the grass when I lie on it or circulate the blood throughout my body.  The non-voluntary "doing" is a matter of event-causation, while the the voluntary doing is a matter of agent-causation.  But on the substance-causal view, both the non-voluntary and the voluntary cases are instances of substance-causation, with one and the same cause--namely me.  Granted, the substance-causal theorist can distinguish the voluntary doings from the non-voluntary "doings" by saying that reasons enter in a certain way into the explanation of the former but not into the explanation of the latter, but this is exactly the sort of thing the event-causalist would say--an advantage of agent-causation has been lost.

This isn't really an argument for or against any theory.  The loss in this regard is balanced by a greater overall theoretical simplicity in having only one kind of causation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Scientific realism

Despite having a pretty good Pittsburgh education in the philosophy of science, I never before read Ernan McMullin's "A Case for Scientific Realism". I was especially struck by one thing that I had never noticed before, which Fr. McMullin briefly notes in one context: things are different, realism-wise, in regard to fundamental physics and other areas of science. The rest of this post is me, not McMullin.

Observe that the pessimistic meta-induction works a lot better for fundamental physics than for the special sciences. The meta-induction says that past theories have tended to be eventually refuted, and hence so will the present ones be. (It's really hard to make the statement precise, but nevermind that for now.) But it is false that the special sciences' theories have tended to be eventually refuted. Some, like the geocentric and heliocentric theories in astronomy and the phlogiston theory of combustion, have indeed been refuted. But many theories have stood for millenia. Here is a sample of these theories: (a) there are seasons that come in a cycle, and the cycle is correlated with various botanical phenomena; (b) tigers eat humans and deer; deer eat neither tigers nor humans; (c) rain comes from clouds; (d) herbivores run from apparent danger; (e) much of the earth's energy comes from the sun. And so on. We do not think of these as scientific theories any more because they are so venerable and well-confirmed. This means that we sometimes mistakenly assent to the inductive premise of the meta-induction because those venerable scientific theories that have not been refuted have often become common-sense and hence we exclude them from the sample.

Nonetheless, the pessimistic meta-induction seems to have some force in regard to fundamental physics: there, the change is much more rapid, and very little remains of past theories. We do sometimes get results like the "classical limit" theorems for Quantum Mechanics where we can show that the earlier theory's predictions approximated the predictions of the newer theory, but this approximation in prediction does not typically yield the approximate truth of the earlier theory. The one kind of exception we sometimes get is that sometimes a part of what used to be a fundamental theory survives, but no longer as fundamental—atoms, for instance.

Non-fundamental concepts—such as cell or season—can survive significant shifts in fundamental theories, but obviously fundamental concepts like force or particle find it much more difficult to do so. There is a kind of multiple realizability in the concepts of the special sciences (not along the metaphysical but the conceptual dimension of a two-dimensional modal semantics) which makes them more resilient.

Van Fraassen proposes we be realists about the observable claims of science and non-realists about the unobservable. This is, I think, really implausible. Van Fraassen would have us believe in ova but not in sperm, just because the ovum is large enough to be seen with the naked eye while a sperm is not. But I think there is a view in the vicinity that is worth taking seriously: that we should be realists about non-fundamental science and at least somewhat skeptical of fundamental science.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Impeding the progress of science

We were considering the following argument in my Metaphysics class:

  1. Scientific realism impedes the progress of fundamental physics.
  2. If a theory impedes the progress of a science, it's probably false.
  3. Fundamental physics is a science.
  4. Therefore, scientific realism is probably false.
Anyway, after class Alina Beary, one of our grad students, gave a really cool counterexample to (2), and she gave me permission to blog it: The theory that there is such a thing as pain impedes the progress of biology. Just think of the progress we could make if our experimental practices weren't limited by worries about causing pain! Yet, the fact that the existence of pain impedes biological progress does not provide any significant evidence against the existence of pain.

There are other arguments involving (2). For instance, one might (perhaps incorrectly) think that dualism impedes the progress of neuroscience. But (2) is false, so that wouldn't give us significant evidence for the falsity of dualism.

I suppose one might try to distinguish between ways in which a theory can impede the progress of a science, and then some qualified version of (2) would still be true. That would be interesting, but I don't know to do this.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The character of God in the Bible

The Old Testament has a picture of its central character, God, that is on its surface inconsistent, with apparently contradictory features. But a deeper reading shows a deep consistency: a consistent but from our point of view complex character displayed in a variety of circumstances, from a variety of points of view, and also reflected in the emotions of narrators and interactions of other characters.

I shall not try to defend this reading of the Old Testament here. It cannot be done in a post, and maybe not even in a book, and certainly not by me. One must drink in the texts. Personally, I have found very helpful our Department Bible study in this regard. We are doing Book III of the Psalms (Pss. 73-89), and this has been one of the things that has led to this post.

Now, there come to mind four prima facie plausible explanations for the portrayal of a single character across a large body of literature by a large set of authors.

  1. Imitation by a number of authors of a canon of primary texts or stories originally by a single author.
  2. Harmonization by selection of texts and/or editorial work on particular texts.
  3. Cooperative authorship.
  4. A modeling of the character on an actual person with whom the diverse set of authors all interacted "in real life."

If (4) is the right explanation, then the fact that the authors wrote over a period of many centuries, in different social circumstances, together with the essential otherness of central character of the texts, makes it most unlikely that any mere human was the model. And the simplest explanation is that the authors were in fact interacting with the person they claim to be describing—Y*WH, the God of Israel. Therefore, if (4) is true, then we have strong evidence that God exists. Observe that it is not uncommon for the same person to have apparent surface differences as seen in different contexts and by different people—we call this "complexity" in the person and it lends reality to the person (which character complexity in the case of God is, I think, compatible with ontological simplicity, but that's a different question).

Note that the deep consilience not only suggests that the various authors interacted with the same person, but that they did not do so in a shallow way. It is possible to have portrayals of the same person by different people who were acquainted with the subject where there isn't such a consilience—I feel this way in the case of Plato and Xenophon's respective portrayals of Socrates, though I could be wrong (I have not drunk in the Xenophon texts sufficiently).

If (1) were the right explanation, we would expect shallow consistency in the portrayal of the character, and quite likely some deep inconsistencies, whereas we observe the opposite. It is hard for one author to take another author's character and portray that character in a consistent way, and the likely result of an attempt to portray that character is that one will have a similarity of outward mannerisms, but to a careful reader (or viewer) it just won't be the same character but an impostor. For instance, the Sherlock Holmes of the "New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" TV series from the '50s is a case in point (this is the most absurd example from the seires). But when two authors portray different surface detail with a deep consistency, then we have something quite unexpected on a copying hypothesis. Granted, this could result from literary genius combined with depth of appreciation of another's work on the part of the copyist, but such a combination is rare. Most literary geniuses create characters on their own, often even when the character bears the name of some historical figure. And the Hebrew Scriptures weren't just written by two or three authors, but by a much greater number. Thus, explanation (1) does not fit the phenomena very well.

As for (2), again harmonization might explain doctrinal agreement and agreement as to surface features, but unless the harmonization takes the form of a rewriting of the whole body of texts by a literary genius, it would not produce a deep consilience in the central character. And no such unified rewriting in fact happened: the Hebrew Scriptures retain a great diversity of genres and styles. Another striking feature is that at least as regarding texts from before around the 4th century BC, it does not appear that there was much in the way of centralized selection. It seems that the main criterion for canonicity in the first century—to the extent that the concept of canonicity existed—was not deep consilience in the character of God, but something more extrinsic like Hebrew-language authorship combined with venerable age.

Option (3) could work with a small number of contemporaneous authors—but certainly not with the great number of authors of the Hebrew Scriptures strung out across centuries.

So that leaves option (4), and so we have good reason to think that at least a number of the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures had encountered the character of God in reality.

What does the New Testament add to the argument? I think the deep consilience with apparent surface difference continues. So the argument is strengthened. And another point emerges. Jesus Christ, although typically not explicitly portrayed as God, is portrayed in a way that gives him a deep consilience of character with the Y*WH of the Old Testament. Just to give one example, he appropriates, in a credible way, God's desire to gather the Israelites to himself like a mother hen.

May we be thus gathered to him.

Of course, I do not claim originality for this argument. It is inspired by similar arguments seen in various places. Nor do I promote this argument as a way of convincing atheists. Because the evidence of the deep consilience needs to be gathered over years of drinking in the Scriptures, and maybe this can only be done while living the life of the community that has produced the Scriptures (i.e., the life of the Church or of the Synagogue), this argument, while of significant epistemic weight, may only be evidentially useful to Christians. Yet, God can help someone not living the life of the community to see the consilience, so it could have some value outside the community, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More on science and theism

One of the puzzles in the scientific explanation literature is how it is that one can genuinely have explanation in the special sciences—chemistry, biology, geology, etc.—given that the facts in the purview of the special science in question appear to reduce to facts of physics, and hence it seems that only physics-based explanations are appropriate. One strategy is to resist the reduction move. I am happy to resist the reduction move for biology, but to me reduction seems exactly right for geology and probably for chemistry.

The theist, however, has a neat story, like the one in my previous two posts. The patterns that the special science identifies are valuable. They are valuable intrinsically—they exhibit an aesthetic good (and scientists talk of the beauty of theories, though admittedly they do so less in the special sciences)—and they are valuable instrumentally as they make it possible for us to make predictions and organize our knowledge. Because these patterns are valuable, God intends them and their presence is causally explicable. This holds whether or not the given generalization in the special sciences rises to the level of laws or not.

What happens, though, when one pattern is subsumed into a wider pattern? As long as the narrower pattern is still there, it can be correctly used for explanation. But explanation in terms of the wider pattern is better, because the wider pattern is more valuable, and hence more explanatory of God's creative action. Thus, early on we may have learned that all mammals have hearts, and later on we learned that this is true of all vertebrates. It is still correct to explain the presence of the heart in Socrates by his mammality, but better to do so by reference to his being a vertebrate.

A similar move explains why it is that when there are two formulae that equally fit all the data, the simpler is the one to be preferred in explanation. This is relevant to both the curve-fitting problem and the problem of which of two mathematically equivalent formulations is the more explanatory.

Furthermore, that some simple theory approximately fits a body of phenomena is also of value. Hence, theories that are mere approximations can yield genuine explanations. And that is how it should be. In particular, Newtonian mechanics continues to be explanatory, and not simply because of classical-limit stuff in quantum mechanics.

The theistic story also explains why it is that Lagrangian mechanics was genuinely explanatory, despite not fitting well in the mechanistic model of explanation. This is, of course, an application of Leibniz's discussion of teleological explanation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Non-theistic unificationist accounts of explanation

Here is a problem for non-theistic unificationist accounts of explanation. Suppose that in world w1, I arrange a large sequence of n perfectly round stones (where n is large enough that the unification of the data on these n stones calls invites a unifying explanation) according to the rule that I place the kth stone at a distance f(k) from the Washington Monument, where f is some moderately complex mathematical function that I have picked for the occasion. Suppose there are no other perfectly round stones in the world. Then we can neatly unify the data: there are n perfectly round stones, where the kth is placed by me at distances f(k) from the Washington Monument.

Suppose, further, that as it happens there is another mathematical function, g, with the properties that (a) g is simple, and in fact significantly simpler than f, (b) g(k)=f(k) for k from 1 to n, and (c) g(n+1) is not equal to f(n+1). Then we don't want to say that the fact that the kth round stone is placed at distance g(k) for k between 1 and n explains the placement of the stones. For it is the function f, not the function g, that I am using. (If we want to go in for counterfactuals, we might say that if there were an (n+1)st stone, it would be at distance f(n+1), not g(n+1).) It is a mere coincidence that f equals g in this limited range.

The unificationist either can or cannot accept the claim that it is f, not g, that explanatorily unifies the stone placement. If she cannot, then unificationism is false (unless perhaps we have here a theistic unificationism on which God causes me to arrange things g-wise, even though I think of the arrangement as f-wise). Suppose, then, that she can. Presumably, this is because she notes that the f-based unification unifies not only the placement of the stones, but unifies my activity with it. Now, suppose a world w2 where the stones have the same arrangement as in w1, but where I don't exist and the stones causelessly appeared where they did. Then, in w2, g, because it is significantly simpler than f, provides the better unification. Thus, in w2, the fact that the distances of the stones obey g explains the stone placement.

But this is weird. For by moving from w1 to w2, we took away that which explained the placement of the stones—my activity governed by f—and, if theism is false, we put nothing in the place of the explanation. (If theism is true, then God had to have some reasons for arranging the stones as he did. More on that later.) The g-based arrangement of the stones in w2 is also present in w1, and is not explanatory there. It should not become explanatory in w2 just because a cause was taken away. Therefore, unificationism says that in w2 the stones' placement is explained by g, while the correct thing to do is that the one and only explanation that was present in w1 is removed in w2 if theism is false, and hence the stones' placement is unexplained. Thus, if theism is false, unificationism is false.

The theistic unificationist can say, along the lines of my previous post, that in w2, the stones are placed by God, and not by me. And since God always acts on all the (unexcluded) good reasons that favor his action, and since g-arrangement exemplifies the good of orderliness (as g is a simple function) and hence provides a good reason for God to arrange the stones g-wise (and maybe a weaker reason for him to arrange the stones f-wise), we can say that God arranged the stones in w2 in a g-wise way (and under that description, as well as to a lesser degree under the f-wise description), and thus the g-arrangement is, indeed, explanatory.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Unification accounts of scientific explanation and theism

According to unificationist accounts of scientific explanation, scientific explanations are bodies of propositions and/or schemata that unify a large variety of phenomena. But why think that a unification is an explanation at all? Why not think it is just the statement of a universal accidental generalization? And shouldn't explanations of contingent events be causal? The firm unificationist may reject these worries, of course, as question-begging. But a theist who is a unificationist can solve both of them.

God is omni-rational in the following sense: when he strongly actualizes a state of affairs, he does so on account of all the good (nonexcluded—this condition won't be relevant in the cases I want) reasons in favor of strongly actualizing that state of affairs. Unification under a natural description is a genuine value—it is an aesthetic value—and hence that a collection of phenomena can be unified under a natural description is a reason to produce that collection of phenomena. And because God is omni-rational, if he in fact strongly actualizes that collection of phenomena, he does so in part because the phenomena can be unified under that description. Hence, the unifiability of a collection of phenomena, by virtue of God's will, partially explains the obtaining of that collection of phenomena. Consequently, unificationist explanations can, in fact, be expanded into theistic causal explanations while doing justice to their unificationist character, in a way that takes care of my two objections to unificationism.

A theist who rejects Molinism, Calvinism and Thomism about indeterministic events, however, cannot run this line in cases where the unifying patterns are entirely the result of creaturely randomness, as in those unlikely worlds where coins flipped always (it's possible, just unlikely) land heads. In those cases, my story above disagrees with the unificationist, because that the arrangement was all heads is not God's reason for producing the arrangement, since God did not determine this detail. However, it is precisely cases like this which are least plausible for the unificationist.

Observe, also, that the theistic story adds something explanatory to the basic unificationist story. It unifies the unificationist explanations. Thus the unificationist would do well to be a theist. That's the intellectually satisfying way of being a unificationist.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The theistic theory of truth and the Euthyphro dilemma

Here is a theory of truth for propositions:

  1. p is true if and only if God believes p.
And here is one for sentences:
  1. s is true if and only if God believes what s says.
If traditional theism is correct, these theories of truth are necessarily extensionally correct. So what's wrong with them? In a post from last fall, I mentioned (2) but wasn't too happy with it. But now these theories seem rather good.

The standard tool for probing theistic analyses is the Euthyphro dilemma. Is p true because God believes it or does God believe it because it's true? But unlike in the case of the Euthyphro dilemma, I submit that there is no cost to taking the first horn.

Granted, it is initially tempting to say: "Surely, a knower's beliefs (at least in central cases[note 1]) reflect reality, and so (at least in central cases) God believes p because p is true." But this temptation should disappears once we see that in central cases of our knowing p, it is false that we believe p because p is true.

Here is a central case. Let p be the proposition that there is a computer in front of me. And let Bp be the proposition that I believe p. What explains why I believe that there is a computer in front of me is that there is a computer in front of me (and that it reflects and emits light to my eyes and puts pressure on my hands). Thus, p (partly) explains Bp. But observe that Tp, the proposition that p is true, does not explain Bp. Light reflects from the computer, not from the abstract proposition p. The proposition Tp is a second order proposition about p, and this second order proposition does not enter into the standard causal explanation of my believing p. It is the first order proposition p that does that.

The following seems correct: p explains Tp. It is true that there is a computer in front of me because there is a computer in front of me. Likewise, plausibly, God believes that there is a computer in front of me because there is a computer in front of me. Thus, Tp and the that God believes p have the same explanatory relation to p, and there does not appear to be any need to suppose that <God believes p> is explanatorily posterior to Tp, though in at least some cases there is reason to suppose that <God believes p> is explanatorily posterior to p. The Euthyphro dilemma, thus, is not an issue here. And the same goes for (2).

One could try to define truth as what God knows. But because truth may be a part of an analysis of knowledge, this could be circular in a way in which (1) and (2) don't seem to be.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

History is a ripping good yarn

  1. If x has a great plot, then it is probably not the case that either (a) x was produced by no authors or (b) x was produced by a largely unstructured committee of authors.
  2. Human history has a great plot.
  3. Human history is produced by God or by no authors or by a largely unstructured committee of authors (= all of us).
  4. Human history is neither produced by no authors nor a by largely unstructured committee of authors. (1 and 2, non-deductive)
  5. Human history is produced by God. (3 and 4)
Evidence for (2) is just how good plotwise history books are even when accurate. If one disputes that human history has a great plot as a whole, one might take some smaller portion of human history, but nonetheless one big enough that an analogue of (4) holds for it (so, not a part of human history dominated by a single figure like Napoleon).

[Edited for clarity.]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Here is a thought. Suppose that I know that if I cause A, then either B or C will eventuate. Suppose that each of B and C furthers my plan, and neither of them furthers it better than the other. Then it does not seem that sovereignty would require me to know or decide prior to my decision to cause A which of B and C would eventuate. Sovereignty perhaps requires that nothing happens that is contrary to God's plan, but it does not require that God's plan should determine every detail.

Here is second try at a notion of sovereignty built on this:

  1. x sovereignly executes plan P iff if we let Q be what x strongly and knowingly actualizes in executing P, and we let K be all that x knows explanatorily prior to x's decision to strongly actualize Q, and we let W be the set of all worlds at which both Q and K hold, then no world in W better fits the goals of P than any other.

In other words, x is sovereign in the execution of a plan provided that, given what x does and knows, he can't be disappointed in respect of the quality of the plan's execution.

One way to ensure sovereignty in the execution of a plan is to strongly and knowingly actualize every little detail. This is a Calvinist or Thomistic way. Another way is to know exactly how the details would turn out. That's a Molinist way. Another way is the "chessmaster way" (not my terminology or original idea; I think the view has been developed by W. Matthews Grant and Sarah Coakley): to choose a plan in such a way that no matter how things turn out, the goal wouldn't be any the less well achieved. One can do this in two ways: setting one's goal appropriately (so that whatever turns out, fits—that's not how chessmasters do it) or choosing the plan very carefully. Or a combination.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A theory of responsibility

The causation and explanation literature is big on contrastivity. But the responsibility literature is not big on contrastiveness. However, it seems to me that contrastiveness is essential to understanding respnsibility. Responsibility is contrastive. Consider two cases. Jones is brainwashed in such a way that he continues to be informed by the standard moral reasons not to cause suffering, but no longer by any reasons not to kill. He is brainwashed into having reasons to kill Kowalski. He has two means available for killing Kowalski, and both are poisons: A is painless and B is painful. Jones chooses to administer poison A to Kowalski. Smith, on the other hand, is a normal person, who has the standard moral reasons not to cause suffering and not kill. Smith chooses to administer poison A to Kowalski. (I guess we have two Kowalskis or overdetermination.)

Both Jones and Smith are responsible for killing Kowalski with A. Smith certainly is. But Jones also made a free choice between A and B. However, there is a crucial difference. Jones is responsible for killing Kowalski with A rather than killing Kowalski with B. Smith is responsible for killing Kowalski with A rather than not killing Kowalski. The bare statement that both are responsible for killing Kowalski with A hides the true structure of their responsibility. And the contrastive responsibility structure is important. Jones is praiseworthy in his contrastive responsibility for administering A in place of B. Smith is blameworthy in his contrastive responsibility for administering A in place of doing nothing.

It might be tempting to say that because of the brainwashing, Jones is not responsible for administering A. But to say that is to fail to give credit where credit is due. Jones is to be praised for using A rather than B, though he is not to be praised (or blamed, given the brainwashing) for using A rather than doing nothing. This is especially clear if A was more expensive, or made it more likely that Jones would be detected, but Jones nonetheless did it in order to reduce suffering.

One might try to handle cases like this non-contrastively, by having more sharply delineated actions: Smith is responsible for (a) administering a lethal substance. Jones is responsible for (b) not administering a painful substance. But in at least some cases, it may be a mistake to slice the actions up. Both Smith's and Jones' action was the administering of the lethal substance A to Kowalski. There was just one action each of them did, and there may have been one and the same description under which the action was intended (we may suppose that Smith also didn't want to give the painful poison). If there was one action, then neither (a) nor (b) was precisely what the agent intended. What both agents intended was to administer the lethal substance A to Kowalski. One could, I suppose, say that the one action, intended under the same description, could be such that one person is responsible for it under one description and the other under another. But I think contrastivity more neatly picks out what one one is responsible for.

Moreover, we could imagine a case like this. Jones doesn't have a general belief that it's bad to cause pain. He only has the belief that it's bad to cause a painful death. Smith also has the same belief, and he also has the standard belief that murder is wrong. Smith then is responsible for killing Kowalski painlessly and Jones is responsible for killing Jones painlessly: in both cases, the painlessness and the killing are essential to the intentions. But Jones is not responsible for the killing, but only the killing painlessly. And it seems that the best way to put it is that Smith is responsible for killing Kowalski painlessly rather than either killing painfully or not killing at all. But Jones is responsible only for killing Kowalski painlessly rather than killing him painfully.

And, I submit, the contrastivity in the responsibility matches up exactly with the contrastivity in the choice. Jones did not choose to kill Kowalski rather than not to kill him. To kill Kowalski rather than not wasn't a choice—it was a shoo-in, given that Jones had reasons for it and no reasons against it. What Jones chose to do was to kill Kowalski painlessly rather than kill Kowalski painfully. And this he chose freely, despite being brainwashed, because the brainwashing did not take away this freedom. (We could even imagine cases where the brainwashing bestowed this freedom. Maybe previously Jones did not believe pain to be bad, but did believe murder to be wrong, and the brainwashing made Jones have a belief that pain is bad but murder is not wrong.) Smith, on the other hand, freely chose to kill Kowalski painlessly rather than not killing him at all or killing him painfully. Jones' choice is on the whole to be praised, though we do not praise the having of a character that sets up such a choice. Smith's choice is on the whole not to be praised, except in respect of the painlessly rather than painfully alternative, though we somewhat praise his character for not making killing Kowalski a shoo-in.

Actually, things are slightly more complicated than the above indicates. For the evaluation of one's responsibility requires a specification of reasons. If Jones believes that pain is a good thing (suppose that Jones has never experienced pain, but uses the word "pain" in good Kripkean fashion for whatever quality was originally baptized with the word, and then Jones has been reading certain radical Greek philosophers who think pain is good), then Jones may not be to be praiseworthy for what he is responsible for. For in that case what he is responsible for may be killing Kowalski painlessly in order to take away a good from him rather than killing Kowalski painfully in order to bestow a good on him. And now what he is responsible for is bad.

I take it that statements of non-derivative responsibility are thus of the form:

  1. x is directly responsible for doing A for reasons R rather than doing B for reasons S or ....
There is also derivative responsibility.

With all of this machinery in place, I can give a simple theory of direct responsibility, freedom and choice:

  1. The following propositions are logically equivalent: (a) x is directly responsible for choosing A for reasons R rather than choosing B for reasons S or ... ; (b) x freely chose A for R over B for S or ...; and (c) x chose A for R over B for S or ....
  2. The following propositions are logically equivalent: (a) x is directly responsible for doing A for R rather than doing B for S or ...; (b) x freely did A for R rather than doing B for S or ...; and (c) x did A for R and x's doing A for R was a causally non-aberrant development of x's choosing A for R over B for S or ....
  3. A finite being x is responsible for doing A if and only if there are relevant R, B, S, ... such that x is responsible for doing A for R rather than doing B for S or ....
  4. x is derivatively responsible for X if and only if there is something relevant that x is directly responsible for and which relevantly contributes to the explanation of X.
The relevance condition in (4) is typically deeply contextual. At least sometimes (e.g., if X is non-contrastive), the relevance conditions in (5) will be contextual as well.

To put it briefly, once we go contrastive and understand actions thickly (i.e., with reasons attached), direct responsibility, choice and free choice all collapse. There is one particularly notable gap in the theory: I only affirm (4) in the case of finite beings. God, who is his own essence, can perhaps be directly responsible for doing something without there being a contrasting action.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Colors and time

I am inclined to think we are four-dimensional (or, more precisely, (n+1)-dimensional, where n is whatever number of dimensions space turns out to have) beings, but that we do not have temporal parts. So what do I say about apparently monadic properties that one can change in respect of, like being red? My preference is to say that these properties are, in fact, non-monadic. For instance, "I am beige" (or whatever color term correctly indicates the current typical shade of my skin) expresses the fact that I beigely occupy the present, where the present is a spacelike hypersurface.

Presentists can say, more simply, that "I am beige" expresses my being beige simpliciter. So it seems that on theoretical simplicity grounds, presentists win out. But I think this is mistaken. For whereas presentists need to posit two properties—a monadic being beige and a binary beigely occupying—eternalists of my sort need only posit a single binary property of beigely occupying. (Of course, the presentist could analyze her being beige in terms of beigely occupying the present, but then the presentist loses the advantages of the theory.)

Here is a reason why the presentist needs a binary beigely occupying. I am beige on my left half. (I am also beige on my right half, but nevermind that.) Given a relational beigely occupying, I can let L be the region of spacetime occupied by my present left half, and analyze "I am beige on my left half" as "I beigely occupy L." But this uses the relation of beige occupation.

I do not think this can be done with mere monadic beigeness. The best way I know of rendering "I am beige on my left half" in terms of monadic beigeness is something like "My left half is beige." But there is no such object as my left half. Cutting me in half is not cutting nature at its seams, and if there are such things as parts at all, they are obtained by cutting nature at its seams. But it's worse than that. Suppose there were such an object as my left half. It wouldn't be beige! For one of that object's surfaces—the one where the object meets my right half—would be mainly bloody red.

One might try to talk of the left half of my surface being beige. But a surface has two sides, which can have different colors, and so we would still need a non-monadic property: being beige on the outside/inside. Or at least a pair of monadic properties. But not just the plain monadic being white. Besides, I don't think we have surfaces. Those would be weird things in the case of beings whose material components are made up of particles or that have blurred wavefunctions.

So, the presentist also needs beige occupation in addition to beigeness. But isn't it simpler to just analyze the latter in terms of the former?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Multiple simultaneous sexual relationships

A reader wanted to know if I knew of any secular arguments against multiple simultaneous sexual relationships. I don't have anything fully worked out. But I think my strategy would be first to argue that sexual relationships ought to be love relationships, with the sexual aspect being unitive.

I would then express the following worry about multiple simultaneous sexual relationships. Suppose Sally has ongoing sexual relationships with Sam and Matt. If these are not both love relationships, then they are problematic for that reason. So suppose they are both love relationships. Then I would query: What happens to Sally's union with Sam while Sally is engaging sexual relations with Matt? Either that union persists then or it does not.

If the union with Matt persists then, then Sally is not giving herself fully to Sam, and her sexual activity with Sam is not expressive to the comprehensive self-giving nature of sexual congress.

If the union with Matt does not persist, then Sally is being unfaithful to her ongoing sexually-consummated love for Matt. She has become united with Matt, but then has severed that union in favor of a union with Sam.

To make this into a full argument, one would need to argue that one ought to be faithful to love, that sexual relations are supposed to be unitive, and that sexual activity outside the context of a love relationship is morally inappropriate.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

There is something other than simple substances, I think

I do not see any way to avoid the conclusion that the correct ontology includes more than just simple substances. This is depressing and exhilarating. I think there are modes of substances. Very weird. I entertained the thought that it might come to this, but didn't expect it to be so soon (I didn't disbelieve in modes, but I also didn't believe in them). But I had to either believe in modes of substances, or parts of substances, or regions of spacetime, and modes of substances seem the most innocent. I need either parts or regions to make sense of claims like: "This person is red on his left side and green on his right side." But the kinds of regions I need—thanks to an argument by Josh Rasmussen—are regions that travel with a substance, because the person who is red on his left side and green on his right side doesn't change color as he moves through space. And the only way I see to define such regions is with the parts or powers of substances. So I had to believe in parts or powers. But parts are very mysterious, while I already believed that substances were powerful. So to believe in their powers seems the better move. And powers are modes. This makes Eucharistic theology a touch more straightforward, too.

Causal decision theory and determinism

The basic intuition underlying causal decision theory can, I think, be put like this. Imagine Fred, an almost omniscient being who knows everything except what you're going to choose and what is causally downstream from your choice, and who has only your interests in mind. What you ideally would like to do is to make the decision that Fred would be most pleased to hear that you made.

Let K be everything Fred knows, and suppose you're deliberating between options A and B. Then Fred expects you to get U(AK)=E[V|AK] from your choosing A and U(BK)=E[V|BK] from your choosing B, where V is a random variable expressing value-for-you and E[...|...] is conditional expectation.[note 1] If you knew for sure that U(AK)>U(BK), then you would be (self-interestedly—I will omit this from now on) rational in choosing A. In many cases, you don't know for sure which of U(AK) and U(BK) is bigger, either because you don't know K or even its relevant parts[note 2], or because the math is too hard. But if Fred told you, you'd know, and then you could choose it.

There is, however, one family of cases where you know which of U(AK) and U(BK) is bigger: these are cases where domination holds, so that you know that for each of the serious candidate K* for a maximally specific proposition describing everything except your choice and what is causally downstream from your choice (K* is a "dependency hypothesis", in Lewis's terminology) it is the case that U(AK*)>U(BK*) or for each serious candidate K* it is the case that U(AK*)<U(BK*). Thus you should two-box in Newcomb cases, and you get the right answer in medical Newcomb cases.

Now, in practice, you don't know for sure which of U(AK) and U(BK) is bigger (in real life, they're almost certain not to be equal). Moreover, it is a little bit more tricky than just trying to find out what is the most likely ordering between these two unknown numbers. For instance, there are safety issues. If it's 51% likely that U(AK)=U(BK)+1 and 49% likely that U(AK)=U(BK)−1000, even though by choosing A you are more likely than not sending good news to Fred than by choosing B, nonetheless it is safer to choose B; in that case more likely than not you're sending bad news to Fred, but it's only slightly bad news.

What we now have is a Kantian regulative ideal for decision theory:

  1. Try to choose A over B if and only if U(AK)>U(BK).
And more vaguely:
  1. Choose between A over B on the basis of your best estimates as to the difference U(AK)−U(BK).
We can look at causal and evidential decision theory as offering rival ways of choosing in light of these maxims when we are ignorant of K. Standard Lewis decision theory just averages U(AK*) over all relevant dependency hypotheses K*, weighting the average by the unconditional probability of K*. Evidential decision theory does much the same thing, except the weights are conditional probabilities. In both cases, ratification may be added, which is another weighted average comparison.

Medical Newcomb cases show that evidential decision theory's method doesn't always work. Egan cases show that causal decision theory's method doesn't always work. But the cases leave intact the basic intuitions (1) and (2).

Now we are in a position to offer an argument and a suggestion. The argument is this. If determinism holds, then either K—the true dependency hypothesis—is not compatible (barring miracles—there is some technical stuff to take care of in that regard) with A or K is not compatible with B. But if K is not compatible with (say) A then U(AK) is not defined, as it is a conditional expectation on the impossible condition AK. So if determinism holds, then at least one of the values U(AK) and U(BK) is undefined. Therefore, if determinism holds, the maxims (1) and (2) don't make sense. If determinism holds, Fred knows, by knowing everything causally upstream of your choice, what choice you will make, and the question of what choice will be better news to him no longer makes sense. If I am right about the basic intuitions of causal decision theory (and they may even be right if evidential decision theory is on the right track, since as we've seen, evidential decision theory can also be seen as giving us estimates of U(AK) and U(BK)), then in a deterministic world, in deciding one is trying to get estimates of two unknown values one of which is undefined. Consequently, the agent who is sure that determinism holds cannot consistently deliberate, as the regulative ideals make no sense. Moreover, as long as she takes seriously the possibility of determinism holding, we have a problem, as she needs to take seriously the possibility that the dependency hypothesis is such as to make the choice not make sense, and there does not appear to be any way to take that possibility seriously. Therefore, decision theory—or at least causal decision theory—requires agents who disbelieve in determinism.

This does not show that determinism is incompatible with making rational choices. But it does show that determinism is incompatible with making informed rational choices, and it does show that if determinism holds, only those who are wrong about the basic structure of reality can rationally choose. If one adds the anti-skeptical premise that it is possible for us to choose rationally without being wrong about the basic structure of reality, we conclude that determinism is false.

Now, let me say a little bit more about Egan cases and causal decision theory. Causal decision theory, for instance in Lewis's formulation, urged us to compute the unconditional expectations E[U(Ak)] and E[U(Bk)] where k is a random variable ranging over all relevant dependency hypotheses, and the probability space for this expectation is epistemic. (U(Ak) is defined as E[V|Ak], where this expectation is computed via the objective probabilities implied by k.) It should not be surprising that merely averaging the possible values in this simple way isn't always going to generate the best decision. There is, I think, some plausibility to thinking it will generate the best decision if ratifiability holds. So the best we now have may be an incomplete causal decision theory: A is the rational option if (but not necessarily only if) E[U(Ak)]>E[U(Bk)] and E[U(Ak)|A]>E[U(Ak)|A]. In cases where there is no option that satisfies both conditions, like Egan cases, (1) and (2) still apply, and we can muddle through trying to make a decision in light of these vague maxims, and we will, I think, get the right answer. But we don't have a precise procedure for those cases.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The causal theory of knowledge

According to the causal theory of knowledge, I only know p if my belief in p, or my evidence for that belief, is caused by the worldly state of affairs that p reports. Thus, I only know that I won the lottery if my belief that I won the lottery, or my evidence for that belief, is caused by my lottery win.

If the causal theory of knowledge is true, then I don't know that I now have two hands. For even though I can see my hands, my evidence of my having two hands and my belief in my presently having two hands isn't caused by my present having of two hands. Rather, it is caused by my very near past having of two hands. Information travels from my hands to my brain at most at the speed of light, after all.

But I know that I now have two hands. Hence the causal theory of knowledge is false.

The argument extends to any case of our knowledge that some external physical event is now occurring.

Objection 1: A temporally extended present event can be causally observed, because its past parts can cause us to perceive it.

Response: If E is such an event, then the causal theory of knowledge may allow us to know that E occurs tenselessly, but not that E is now occurring.

Objection 2: In ordinary language, "now" refers to a temporally extended period of time that reaches somewhat back. So the very close past existence of my hands is enough to make "I now have two hands" true.

Response: If it turned out—as in some world it does—that my hands ceased to exist in the interval between the light bouncing off the hands and my forming the belief that I have hands, we would say that my belief was mistaken. Hence the content of my belief that "I now have two hands" requires the literal present existence of two hands, not just a very close past one.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Voting and conflict of interest

Isn't it odd that the usual conflict of interest restrictions on corporate decision-making don't apply in voting situations? If we were hiring, and a candidate was a close relative of mine, I would be expected to recuse myself. However not only is it considered acceptable to vote in elections for a close relative, but even for oneself. Moreover, voters whose stand to benefit from a particular candidate's being elected—e.g., because that candidate promises a tax break to some class of which they are a member—are not expected to recuse themselves from the election.

I think some of these things can be justified. In hiring, the primary question isn't which candidate's hire would most benefit the individual members of the organization. Rather, the question is which which candidate would best further the mission of the organization. When significant private interests that are not aligned with the interests of the organization come into play, one's decision-making runs the danger of becoming skewed, and one may well need to recuse oneself. But it is not always necessary to recuse oneself when one has significant private interests when these interests are aligned with the goals of the organization. Thus, if I think a candidate would make a good research partner for me, and hence I have a significant interest in the candidate's being hired, this interest typically need not force a recusal (though one can imagine circumstances when it would). Now, in voting, one is making decisions for the good of the polis. But the good of the polis includes many of one's own goods. Therefore, many of one's own interests are automatically aligned in the interest of the community. It is in my interest to eat in order to preserve my life, and if I am a member of the community, then the preservation of my life is included in one of the primary goals of the community—the preservation of the lives of the members. However, if it is obvious to one that one's own interest conflicts with the on-balance interest of the community, recusal might still be appropriate, as far as this argument goes.

It may even be justifiable to vote for oneself. For, maybe, one isn't really voting for oneself, but for one's policies. And these policies one has, presumably, thought carefully through, and one did not adopt these policies because they were one's own, but because they seemed right. But this does not, I think, justify voting for close relatives other than oneself. For there, there is apt to be a bias which, paradoxically, may not be present in one's own case. While it at least borders on incoherence to adopt a position because it is one's own, it is easy and coherent (and sometimes rational) to adopt a position because it is that of someone close to us.

Agent-causation and God

In us, it is a different thing for an event to be caused by our internal psychological makeup and for it to be caused by us simpliciter. Causation by internal psychological makeup is event-causation while causation by us simpliciter is agent-causation. But in the case of God, the distinction seems to disappear, given divine simplicity. For God's internal psychological makeup is God.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Art, food and drink

The following seems very plausible to me. Even if I enjoyed Sheckley's fiction more than Tolstoy's, I have reason to read Tolstoy's novels because they are better aesthetically, and my greater enjoyment of Sheckley would simply poorly reflect on my tastes. (There are also aretaic reasons, in that Tolstoy's work is more likely to lead to the kinds of insights into the human condition that help make one be a better person.) Likewise, even if I enjoy Star Trek episodes more than Kurosawa films, I have reason to watch the Kurosawa films because they are better aesthetically.

But is the same true in respect of food and drink? Suppose I enjoy sweet tea more than a fine wine. Do I have aesthetic reason to drink the fine wine, simply because it is aesthetically better, even though I don't enjoy it as much? Or suppose I enjoy the taste of a Big Mac over an artfully prepared steak. Do I have aesthetic reason to eat the steak? Here, I want to bracket reasons of health, social justice and the like, and even reasons having to do with the potential for developing a future enjoyment: I just want to focus on the immediate aesthetic reasons.

Here is a conjecture: the analogue of the Tolstoy/Sheckley and Kurosawa/Star Trek thesis is much less plausible in the case of food and drink. It seems plausible that if I really prefer a Big Mac over the fine steak, and they are equally (un)healthy, etc., I have no reason to shell out the money for the steak. This is puzzling.

Here is a possible resolution. If I enjoy a Big Mac more than a fine steak, maybe this is because my sensory apparatus lacks acuity, and so I am unable to experience those respects of the steak which make it aesthetically better than the Big Mac. And so I have no aesthetic reason to eat the steak in place of the Big Mac, just as the deaf person has no aesthetic reason to have Mozart playing in her room. But assuming I am of normal intelligence and literate, I have the relevant acuity of sensory apparatus to experience those aspects of Tolstoy that are superior to the work of Sheckley, even if I do not have a particular enjoyment of these aspects. I find this resolution implausible on the Big Mac side: why couldn't it be that I do experience those aspects of the steak that make it superior to the Big Mac, but I simply don't appreciate them?

Maybe I should bite the bullet and conclude that I have aesthetic reason to prefer the steak to the Big Mac, and the fine wine to the sweet tea, even though I do not like them as much? This would be an uncomfortable conclusion for me, as I don't want to live by it. Maybe I could still say that I have non-aesthetic defeaters (the steak and the wine are more expensive; the wine might be addictive).

(In case anybody wants to know, I do actually enjoy Kurosawa more than Star Trek and Tolstoy more than Sheckley, but I enjoy Star Trek and Sheckley a lot, and they can be more relaxing on many occasions. I prefer a really good chicken fried steak to a Big Mac. I do not know if I've ever tasted a fine wine, but I suspect I'd prefer a decent sweet tea.)