Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ability and probability

You find a ticking bomb which will go off in five seconds. There is a pad on it, and if you enter the right five digit number in the time remaining you will defuse the bomb. You frantically enter "12345", "54321" and "91101", and none of these work. The bomb goes off. As it happens, had you entered 88479, a number that didn't occur to you, the bomb would have been defused. You surely could have entered 88479. Are you responsible for failing to defuse the bomb?

Of course not. But why not? You were in some sense able to.

In cases like this, a natural suggestion is one made by Gerald Harrison: you were unable to do it "because ... doing so is contingent upon something highly improbable happening, namely ... entering the right combination."

But I don't think this has much to do with improbability as such. Suppose I'm a habitual criminal and I come across a sure opportunity to steal a million dollars with almost no chance of being caught, and sure enough I avail myself of the opportunity. The probability that I refrain from this was nonzero, but it was very small—perhaps no bigger than the probability of entering the right combination in the above case. Yet despite the low probability, I am responsible.

Or vary the bomb case. There is time to enter only one combination. And you know it's either 12345 or 54321. You try 12345, and fail. You are not responsible for the failure to defuse, even though your defusing the bomb was not "contingent upon something highly improbable happening".

So why aren't you responsible in the two bomb cases? It sounds right to me to say that both in the original case and the bomb case you did your best, while in the criminal case, I failed to do my best. And neither the probabilities of success (low in the first bomb case and in the theft case, but moderate in the second bomb case) nor those of trying to do one best (high in the bomb cases but low in the theft case) seem to settle any of the cases either way.

This suggests the following principle:

  • If you always tried to do the best you could as hard as you could, you are not culpable for the bad outcomes of any of your actions.
But if determinism rules out alternate possibility—as I think, pace Lewis and Hume and others—and if determinism is true, then we have always tried to do the best we could as hard as we could. For there never was anything else we could do, nor any other way of trying we could engage in.


Heath White said...

I would say, rather, that responsibility for not doing X requires that you be able to do X intentionally. You can of course enter 88479 intentionally, but you cannot intentionally enter the combination that will stop the bomb.

Doing one’s best entails doing whatever you do intentionally, but not vice versa. And I think there are lots of cases where we can be responsible for an outcome, and blameless, even though we did not do our best, because there was no particular need to do our best.

On a somewhat tangential note, your final suggested principle sounds like Pelagianism to me. (A lot of incompatibilism sounds like Pelagianism to me.) All one needs is the claim that S is not saved entails that S is at least partly responsible for this bad outcome. Then that S is not saved, plus your principle, entails that S did not try their best. Contrapositively, to be saved, all you have to do is try your best, and grace is unnecessary.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"You can of course enter 88479 intentionally, but you cannot intentionally enter the combination that will stop the bomb."

Maybe, but you can intentionally stop the bomb. For if you enter 88479 with the intention of stopping the bomb, you intentionally stop the bomb.

"I think there are lots of cases where we can be responsible for an outcome, and blameless, even though we did not do our best, because there was no particular need to do our best."

I agree. That's why I said that doing one's best is a sufficient condition for non-culpability.

"your final suggested principle sounds like Pelagianism to me"

We think that non-culpability is insufficient to deserve heaven. There is nothing we can do on our own to deserve heaven, just as there was nothing Adam and Eve could have done to deserve heaven. Heaven is a joy that exceeds our natural fulfillment, and by our own natural powers we can only merit natural fulfillment.

Heath White said...

I have been thinking about the Pelagianism issue all day, and I think it is an important point so let me try to put this carefully. Your view is that entrance to heaven is like a backstage pass at a concert, which we cannot deserve no matter what we do. Grace in the sense of unmerited favor, a free gift, is necessary to get the pass. That seems right to me.

Here is a separate question. If a human being does not receive grace in the sense of divine assistance, or extra moral energy, but simply tries their best “on their own” (slippery notion, that) can they avoid sinning, always? Or, alternatively, if a human being does not receive grace in the sense of pardon and forgiveness of sins, can they simply try their best and not need any pardon or forgiveness? You are saying ‘yes’, as a logical matter, since if they try their best they are, ipso facto, not sinning. (I think) I disagree here.

I have always taken the point of the Pelagian controversy to involve the latter set of questions, not the former. You disagree I take it?

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's helpful. So we have two questions:

1. Is it possible to enter heaven without supernatural grace?

2. Is it possible to avoid all sin without supernatural grace?

There is also a third question:

3. Is it possible for someone who has already sinned to be saved from all sin without supernatural grace?

The Council of Orange answers in the negative to 1 (canon 19) and probably to 3 as well (canon 13).

The Council of Trent answers in the negative to 2 (canon 23), teaching that a special grace (presumably even over and beyond the graces ordinarily given to those God has redeemed) is needed to avoid all sin, though only in the case of the avoidance of venial sin (i.e., in that canon Trent leaves uncondemned the possibility that one might be able to avoid all mortal sin without a special grace).

At the same time, we need to be cautious about 2. It is a commonly held belief among Christians, both Catholic, Arminian and Calvinist, that children do not sin prior to a certain level of intellectual development ("the age of reason"). This belief has never been condemned as heretical. Yet this belief strongly suggests that those children who die prior to the age of reason do so without having sinned. It seems unlikely that Trent intended to condemn this widely held belief.

One could say that a child's dying before the age of reason could be counted as a special grace, but that seems a stretch.

This suggests that some implicit qualifications are needed for a negative answer to 2.

One might try an ad hoc modification: It is impossible to avoid sin if one lives into the age of reason. But that would seem to suggest the implausible thesis that one's first choice at the age of reason has to be sinful.

A less ad hoc qualification might be that it is not *normally* possible to avoid all sin, but the case of a small child is an abnormal case.

It is also not completely clear what sense of "possibility" or "ability" or "can" is involved in the negative answers. We say things like "It's impossible to put Humpty Dumpty together again" and "No one can get an undergraduate degree in math without making a mistake somewhere."

But of course it is metaphysically possible, and even nomically possible, for the pieces of Humpty Dumpty to quantum tunnel back to their original locations. But this is so beyond the ordinary course of affairs that it's practically impossible. Ditto for constant avoidance of mistakes.

It's a general principle of conciliar interpretation that one prefers ordinary senses of the words to the technical senses that the words have in particular philosophical theories. Thus, unless we have good reason to think the contrary, we need not read the modal language as talking of metaphysical or even causal modality.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Also, one needs to distinguish between avoiding committing sins and avoiding being guilty of sins. Thus, one might hold the following view: Without God's grace, fallen humans cannot (barring some qualifications, like those who receive special graces or those who die very young) avoid committing sins, i.e., performing actions that are in fact contrary to duty. But they can avoid being *guilty* of sins. Not every action contrary to duty is an action one is guilty of.