Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Moorean reason not to believe in an open future

Let A be the best valid argument that has been given for an open future. But I have really excellent reasons to think that it's true that my ears won't turn to diamond over the next hour, reasons clearly stronger than my reasons to think that all of A's premises are true. But if there is an open future, then it's not true that my ears won't turn into diamonds over the next hour (since that depends on indeterministic quantum phenomena). So I have on balance reason to think A is unsound.

Of course, there are other arguments for an open future. But I can pair each one with a fact about the future that I have reason to be a lot more confident in than the truth of the argument's premises.


Martin Cooke said...

I would love to know what those reasons are, because I suspect that were you clearer about what they are, it would be clear that they do not justify a belief that your ears will definitely not turn to diamond. (I mean, you believe that God might turn them to diamond (although I have no idea why He might, and suspect that nor do you).)

Martin Cooke said...

I would reply to myself like this: Borel's Law of Probability was that very unlikely things do not happen; and Borel was a great mathematician, so he would know. (Joke:)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, I have good reason to think that nobody has ears made of diamond.

But that my ears won't turn to diamond over the next hour is less likely than that there exists some unknown villager or other somewhere in the world whose ears have turned to diamond over the past hour. (Less likely, because there is just one of me, and loads of unknown villagers. The reason I say "unknown", because if someone famous had her ears turn to diamonds, I might hear about it in less than an hour--maybe an excited colleague would tell me.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or just think of all the vast numbers of different materials other than diamond that God could turn my ears to.

Martin Cooke said...

That your ears won't turn into diamonds in the next hour is very unlikely indeed, according to quantum mechanics.

Indeed, I suspect that if it happened, then everything in local space would probably be exploding very shortly afterwards. (I mean, how would it happen?) We have extremely good reasons to believe that that has not happened! Consequently the belief that no one has ears of diamond is little evidence that your ears won't become diamond. It is like this: The world might end at any moment, and the fact that you are still here does not mean that it won't.

Also, I wonder if your logic is flawed in this way: You have good reason to think that nobody has ears of diamond, but that is not a good reason to think that there is absolutely no chance at all of anyone having ears of diamond. The chance of your ears becoming diamond may well be less, but that does not make it zero.

Also, there is an even better Moorean reason to believe in an open future: You have lived all your life as an agent or doer, determining what will be, if only your own thoughts. It is such a basic part of being a person, that the future might be one way but also might be another, that I just cannot believe that you are more sure that your ears won't turn to diamond over the next hour. Would you take absolutely any bet that they won't? What about a bet that you are a deterministic brain with no moral responsibility to speak of? Incidentally, I think that the argument from being fundamentally an agent is more of a Moorean argument (e.g. more like the argument from one's direct acquaintance with an external world) than is your argument.

More importantly, your argument is not against an open future, but against standard quantum mechanics. If there is a God, there may be no chance of such absurd things happening, even while quantum mechanics governs the mundane stuff within reason. Free will is a non-random sort of indeterminism, quantum mechanics has the random sort. Furthermore, there is some chance of quantum indeterminism giving rise to very misleading data-sets in the physical sciences, so that there is probably a lot of uncertainty over whether it even says that your ears might turn to diamonds, or only that it is probable that such is not impossible.

Unknown said...

Douglas Adams famously played on the idea of quantum indeterminacy (and the possibility of highly improbable events happening to an absurd degree).

I believe people need a degree of absolutism in their lives. Most expect the sun to rise every morning, gravity to continue pulling. Not expecting these things to happen is great for a thought experiment, though I can see taking this to an extreme would be maddening.

I believe as people experience things empirically they build probabilistic mental models and expectations.

One of my favorite thought experiments goes like this: Based on the changes in the above mental models the meta-model that governs everything below it changes dynamically. For example, if you were to learn more about the nature of the given universe you are living in (in an absolute way, for at least one particular subsystem), the laws of that universe adapt to that new model, changing the behavior of some other unknown subsystems in a way that cannot be- or is not observed--simply because you have not determined the state or nature of all of the other subsystems. (Is there a name for this?)

I think the same principals can be applied to theism- and hopefully I can bring this back full-circle.

I like this as a thought experiment because:
1. It makes you question everything for just a moment
2. It makes you appreciate that you don't have to question everything every day.

If God were described to be a similar nature, God could never be fully known because of the infinite nature which changes dynamically based on absolute assertions on an infinite set of subsystems.

Unknown said...

I also forgot to mention in that last comment, but questioning things that are accepted with a certain degree of confidence (e.g., the sun rising every day, and not having spontaneously expensive ears) sometimes competes directly with building a more encompassing and complete model.

The law of diminishing returns here is a subconscious factor may be why some people automatically assume that it is nonsense/insane/beyond rationality to question or believe anything incongruous to their belief model.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe things would be exploding, maybe not. After all, a smaller modification is more likely than a bigger one. Perhaps the most likely way for it to happen is for the non-carbon atoms to tunnel away, and then the carbon atoms to tunnel into a crystalline array. If so, there would be a small rush of air, but nothing big.

Martin Cooke said...

Yes, maybe they would, maybe not. So maybe your good reason to think that nobody has ears made of diamond says absolutely nothing against the nonzero possibility of yours becoming diamond, maybe not. But, your argument was based on "reasons clearly stronger" than that (So I win anyway :)

Incidentally, it is not really that a smaller modification is more likely than a bigger one. Events with bigger overall probabilities are more likely, in the absence of anything other than quantum mechanics, but that is never the case, and the overall probabilities are complex conjunctions of the atomic bits.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I bet that if you did an approximate QM calculation of how probable it is that your ears would turn to diamond, you'd get something of the order of much less than, say, 10^-20. But there is no way that a rational person would have credence greater than, say, 0.9999999999999 in the conjunction of the premises for an open future. Probably no more than 0.999.

Martin Cooke said...

Credence is by the by though, is it not? A nonzero probability, however small it is, is not a zero probability. Boral's Law is false.

Perhaps it is possible for Kim Il-sung to be saved, to convert to Christianity. It does not matter how unlikely that is, when it comes to various moral calculations; the main thing is whether it is possible at all. Maybe there is no objective chance, e.g. because God has hardened his heart, or because he was predestined to Hell. And maybe you have a credence in such things, all put together, that is greater than the nonzero chance would be, were there one. But what difference does that make, to the question of whether there is one or not?

Martin Cooke said...

there is no way that a rational person would have credence greater than, say, 0.9999999999999 in the conjunction of the premises for an open future

Way: I am absolutely certain that I am an agent, with agent-causality, and hence that there is an open future. I might say: "I think, therefore the future is open." If you must give that a number, it is the number 1.

Why is that not rational? It is rationalist and true, like Descartes' "I think, therefore I am." If there is a problem with it, it is that numbers are not always the best way to think about credences, as shown by the problem of reference classes: The best number to give to absolute uncertainty is 0/0.

Martin Cooke said...

I just thought of (what I take to be) a really neat analogy (although I recognise that I am commenting a lot) so...

Fictionalist or eliminativist behaviourism! Russell I think it was who said that Descartes should have said "I think therefore there is thinking."

Concurrently with the later Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle, there was a thought in lesser minds that "I think therefore I am" was wrong because we do not really exist. The idea is that we are our brains; and then there are arguments from split brains and Eddington's chair and such that we exist no more fundamentally than do tables and chairs. The idea has its roots in (its context is) materialist science (and all those numbers).

This is a neat analogy, I think, because I seem to recall you, Alex, arguing that there are not really any such things as tables and chairs; that is to say, although there clearly are tables and chairs, in the ordinary sense, they are not logical objects or metaphysical individuals or however such things are put (you know what I mean).

One could argue, from such a self-styled 'Naturalist' stance, that no-one has very strong credences in the premises of any good argument for our existence as logical objects. Such premises might involve introspection, for example, as compared with the precise objective measurements of neuroscience. We are, such 'Naturalists' would say, more sure of the nonexistence of psychic powers and other things that might be associated with a ghost in a machine. But of course, I am absolutely certain that I exist (and I think that you think this way too, about people, if not tables and chairs). It does not matter one hoot to me (or to you?) what probabilities some materialist scientists can construct, when it comes to such philosophical questions. Descartes did and does refute the materialist interpretation of science.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"I am absolutely certain that I am an agent, with agent-causality, and hence that there is an open future."

I can see being absolutely certain of the first part, but that the first part entails an open future seems far from certain.

Martin Cooke said...

I think, therefore I am; that has only one premise, because if you did not really exist then you could not really think. There are arguments that there are more premises, there implicitly, but those arguments can be refuted. And since they can be, the refutations of those arguments are not really extra premises.

There may well be something like a computer calculating, where that computer is a vague object, and what it is doing is called "thinking" by the professionals. But that is not, in fact, what "I think" means in natural language. There is a clarity of thought that philosophers strive for which makes "I think, therefore I am" a valid argument with one premise. How could some professionals defining "thinking" differently change that?

Now, were it not the case that you really could be having one thought and that you really could be having another, with the choice being yours, then you would not really be thinking. You might be hypnotised, or very neurotic, and believe that you are thinking; but, that is not what "I think" means to us. There is a freedom of thought that philosophers strive for that makes "I think, therefore the future is open" a good description in natural language of a valid argument with one premise.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see how it follows from "I think therefore I am" that "if I have free will and agency, then there is no fact of the matter how I will act."

Heath White said...

I take it that EnigMan's inference is supposed to be "I think, therefore there is no fact of the matter about how I will think." I will grant him the odd (to my ears) use of 'think'. But as he points out, one could be very neurotic or hypnotised, such that one was inclined to affirm the premise while the conclusion was false. Another possibility: one might be determined in some other fashion, in which case one would be inclined to affirm the premise while the conclusion was false. So I don't think the argument can be both sound and have an intuitively obvious premise.

Martin Cooke said...

But I do not think that it does follow, what Alexander said. I think that "I think therefore I am" and the eliminativistic objections are analogous to "I think therefore the future is open" and Alexander's reasoning. (I should have made that clearer.)

I agree with Heath that my use of "think" is off. Should I have said "deliberate"? This sort of argument was defended well by Nicholas Denyer (Time, Action & Necessity), so the best terminology would be his, I guess.

Still: I deliberate, so my future is open.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It seems very hard to see how one could be completely certain that deliberation entails an open future.

At the most, I can see claiming that deliberation entails alternate possibilities.

But that alternate possibilities entails an open future doesn't seem to be something one can be legitimately certain of.

Martin Cooke said...

Such doubts as you express well enough just make me think of eliminativistic behaviourism, sorry.

There are lots of sorts of possibilities, and with many of them, you are right. And if I define the sort I mean, in such a context, then again, you are right about this not being a simple argument. That is why I simply think of eliminativistic behaviourism. But, let me try and do better...

Suppose that I can deliberate well, by making the effort, or not bother. Then there are 2 possibilities (and more): I get a good result, or a different (and worse) result.

Further suppose that my making the effort or not is a moral issue, that I can be properly blamed for ending up with the latter instead of the former. It would be odd if there was in reality only the one future, say, the latter, and that I was blameworthy.

That argument involves morality; I think that the experience of deliberation, and of taking oneself seriously as one does it well, involves a direct acquaintance with the openness of the future that by-passes the complexities that talk of morality introduces.

Of course, that last thought presupposes that the future is open...

Martin Cooke said...

...I suppose I am thinking that agent-causation, in the particular case of making the effort to deliberate well because I would blame myself if I did not, implies that there is as yet no fact of the matter of what I will be thinking because to make such an effort is to force the future away from a state that it would otherwise be in. For me to think of that state as already unreal would undermine my motivation, and for me to make no such effort would be for me to care little for the quality of my thoughts, which would be a sort of irrationality. So I find it to be a rational implication.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"because to make such an effort is to force the future away from a state that it would otherwise be in"

That seems a line of thought quite open to someone who accepts a closed future. It's only about counterfactuals.

Martin Cooke said...

You're right; that was more a poor description of an argument than a good argument.

The argument that I was trying to describe does have just one premise, though: When you are passionately deliberating you must, logically, assume an open future. The argument shows that you can, rationally, be certain that the future is open; it does not change the mind of Hume in his study.

Like a photo of a lovers' kiss that is compatible with their being deeply in love and with their being good players, it proves nothing. Furthermore, to make too much of the photo might indicate that one was not one of the former pair.

Thinking "It's only about counterfactuals" changes the counterfactuals. Although you're right, it would still be odd were one blameworthy and it only counterfactual; or rather, it would be odd unless morality is also only a matter of counterfactuals.