Saturday, December 31, 2016

Necessary Existence

Josh Rasmussen's and my Necessary Existence book is now complete. We just sent the final manuscript to Oxford. We're both quite happy with the book.

Freezing a hard drive

I had a hard drive that's around 15 years old fail to start a couple of months ago--I tried many times with no luck. Most but not all of the stuff was backed up, but not all (though what wasn't backed up wasn't very important). So yesterday I stuck the drive in a freezer, in two freezer bags without much air. Today I plugged it into an IDE-USB adapter. It didn't start up at first, but after a few minutes of warming it up, it started and I got all the data off without any difficulty.  This is the second time in my life that I've rescued data from an old hard drive using a freezer.

(Of course, there is always the chance that this time it would have worked without the freezer. I didn't actually check yesterday if the drive was still not working.)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Use 3D printer as a plotter/cutter

My 3D printer is fun, but I like to extend functionality, so I designed some additional snap-on parts that lets me also use it as a pen plotter and cutter. For instance, I had it draw a butterfly coloring sheet on a blank T-shirt for our four-year-old to color with fabric markers. Here are instructions.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Some weird languages

Platonism would allow one to reduce the number of predicates to a single multigrade predicate Instantiates(x1, ..., xn, p), by introducing a name p for every property. The resulting language could have one fundamental quantifier ∃, one fundamental predicate Instantiates(x1, ..., xn, p), and lots of names. One could then introduce a “for a, which exists” existential quantifier ∃a in place of every name a, and get a language with one fundamental multigrade predicate, Instantiates(x1, ..., xn, p), and lots of fundamental quantifiers. In this language, we could say that Jim is tall as follows: ∃Jimx Instantiates(x, tallness).

On the other hand, once we allow for a large plurality of quantifiers we could reduce the number of predicates to one in a different way by introducing a new n-ary existential quantifier ∃F(x1, …, xn) (with the corresponding ∀P defined by De Morgan duality) in place of each n-ary predicate F other than identity. The remaining fundamental predicate is identity. Then instead of saying F(a), one would say ∃Fx(x = a). One could then remove names from the language by introducing quantifiers for them as before. The resulting language would have many fundamental quantifiers, but only only one fundamental binary predicate, identity. In this language we would say that Jim is tall as follows: ∃JimxTally(x = y).

We have two languages, in each of which there is one fundamental predicate and many quantifiers. In the Platonic language, the fundamental predicate is multigrade but the quantifiers are all unary. In the identity language, the fundamental predicate is binary but the quantifiers have many arities.

And of course we have standard First Order Logic: one fundamental quantifier (say, ∃), many predicates and many names. We can then get rid of names by introducing an IsX(x) unary predicate for each name X. The resulting language has one quantifier and many predicates.

So in our search for fundamental parsimony in our language we have a choice:

  • one quantifier and many predicates
  • one predicate and many quantifiers.

Are these more parsimonious than many quantifiers and many predicates? I think so: for if there is only one quantifier or only one predicate, then we can collapse levels—to be a (fundamental) quantifier just is to be ∃ and to be a (fundamental) predicate just is to be Instantiates or identity.

I wonder what metaphysical case one could make for some of these weird fundamental language proposals.

Life science and physical science

I've been thinking that in a nutshell one could put much of the distinctiveness of Aristotelian philosophy as follows: life science is at least as fundamental as physical science.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Double Effect in daily life

The Principle of Double Effect is often introduced in terms of weighty cases of killing, like bombing military installations or redirecting trolleys. But the importance of the distinction between intended and unintended but foreseen harms can be seen even more clearly in everyday cases.

Yesterday, my wife went grocery shopping, while I was home with some of the kids. My son asked to be taken for a bike ride. The thought flashed into my head: “If I go, I probably won’t be home when my wife comes back with the groceries, and hence I won’t be able to help with unloading them.” There are three possible attitudes I could have with respect to this observation:

  1. I shouldn’t take my son for a bike ride now.

  2. Not being able to help my wife is an unfortunate side-effect of taking my son for a bike ride.

  3. Being able to get out of helping my wife is a reason to take my son for a bike ride.

In cases (2) and (3), the foreseen effects are the same. There are no deontic issues (I didn’t promise my wife to be home). But clearly if I take attitude (3), and hence intend not to be there when my wife comes back, I am being a bad husband, while if I go for (1) or (2), my behavior is defensible. (In fact, I never got around to taking my son for the bike ride.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What is this?

Consider the black item to the right here on your screen. Is it a token of the Latin alphabet letter pee, the Greek letter rho or the Cyrillic letter er? The question cannot be settled by asking which font, and where in the font, the glyph is taken from, because I drew the drawing in Inkscape rather than using any font, precisely to block such an answer. Nor will my intentions answer the question, since I drew the thing precisely to pose such a philosophical question rather than to express any one of the three options.

There are two interesting questions here. The first is an ontological one. Is a token on screen something different from the pattern of light? If it's the same as the pattern of light, then there is at most one token, there being at most one relevant pattern of light (perhaps none, if our ontology doesn't include patterns of light), though this token is a token of pee, and a token of rho and a token of er. If a token is not identical with a pattern of light, then we might as well keep on multiplying entities, and say that there is a pattern of light and three tokens, of pee, rho and er, respectively, with the first entity constituting the latter three.

The second one is a philosophy of language one. What determines whether or not the pattern of light is or constitutes a token of, say, rho? Is it my intentions? If so, then indeed we have tokens of pee, rho and er, as making these was my intention, but we do not have a token of the Coptic letter ro or a token of the letter qof in 15th century Italian Hebrew cursive, since I didn't think of these when I was doing the drawing. Is it the linguistic context? But then it's not a token of any letter, since a displayed png file in an analytic philosophy post is not a the kind of linguistic context that determines a token.

Or is it that the pattern of light is or constitutes tokens of all the letters it geometrically matches, whether or not it was intended as such? If so, then we also have a letter dee (just turn your screen). But now suppose a new alphabet is created, and it contains a letter that looks just like the drawing. It would be odd to say that if a new language were created on another planet this instantly would multiply the entities on earth (at the speed of light? faster?). So it seems that on this view, we should say that the pattern of light is or constitutes tokens of all the letters in all the alphabets that will ever exist. But future actions shouldn't affect how many things there now are. So on this view, we should be even more pluralistic: the pattern of light is or constitutes tokens of all the letters in all possible alphabets.

We thus have two questions: one about ontology and one about what is being tokened. Both questions have parsimonious and profligate answers. The parsimonious answer to the ontology question is that there is one thing, which can be a token of multiple things. The profligate one is that we have many tokens. The parsimonious answers to the language question are that intentions and/or context determines what's been tokened. The profligate answer has an infinite amount of tokening.

We probably shouldn't combine the two profligate answers. For then on your screen there are infinitely many physical things, all co-located (and some perhaps even with the same modal profile). That's too much.

That still leaves three combinations. I think there is reason to reject the combination of ontological profligacy with parsimony on the philosophy of language side. The reason is that tokens get repurposed. Consider a Russian who has a Scrabble set and loses an er tile. She then buys a replacement pee tile, as it looks pretty much the same (I looked at online pictures--both have value 1 and look the same). Then it seems that a new entity, a token of er, comes into existence if we have ontological profligacy and linguistic parsimony. Does a mere intention to use the tile for an er what magically creates a new physical object, a token? That seems not very plausible.

That leaves two combinations:

  • ontological and linguistic parsimony
  • ontological parsimony and linguistic profligacy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bestowing harms and benefits

A virtuous person happily confers justified benefits and unhappily bestows even justified harms. Moreover, it is not just that the virtuous person is happy about someone being benefitted and unhappy about someone being harmed, though she does have those attitudes. Rather, the virtuous person is happy to be the conferrer of justified benefits and unhappy to be the bestower even of justified harms. These attitudes on the part of the virtuous person are evidence that it is non-instrumentally good for one to confer justified benefits and non-instrumentally bad for one to bestow even justified harms. Of course, the bestowal of justified harms can be virtuous, and virtuous action is non-instrumentally good for one. But an action can be good for one qua virtuous and bad for one in another way—cases of self-sacrifice are like that. Virtuously bestowing justified harms is a case of self-sacrifice on the part of the virtuous agent.

When multiple agents are necessary and voluntary causes of a single harm, the total bad of being a bestower of harm is not significantly diluted between the agents. Each agent non-instrumentally suffers from the total bad of bestowing harm, though the contingent psychological effects may—but need not—be diluted. (A thought experiment: One person hits a criminal in an instance of morally justified and legally sentenced corporal punishment while the other holds down the punishee. Both agents are equally responsible. It makes no difference to the badness of being the imposer of corporal punishment if instead of the other holding down the punishee, the punishee is simply tied down. Interestingly, one may have a different intuition on the other side—it might seem worse to hold down the punishee to be hit by a robot than by a person. But that’s a mistake.)

If this is right, then we have a non-instrumental reason to reduce the number of people involved in the justified imposition of a harm, though in particular cases there may also be reasons, instrumental and otherwise, to increase the number of people involved (e.g., a larger number of people involved in punishing may better convey societal disapprovat).

This in turn gives a non-instrumental reason to develop autonomous fighting robots for the military, since the use of such robots decreases the number of people who are non-instrumentally (as well as psychologically) harmed by killing. Of course, there are obvious serious practical problems there.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Intending material conditionals and dispositions, with an excursus on lethally-armed robots

Alice has tools in a shed and sees a clearly unarmed thief approaching the shed. She knows she is in no danger of her life or limb—she can easily move away from the thief—but points a gun at the thief and shouts: “Stop or I’ll shoot to kill.” The thief doesn’t stop. Alice fulfills the threat and kills the thief.

Bob has a farm of man-eating crocodiles and some tools he wants to store safely. He places the tools in a shed in the middle of the crocodile farm, in order to dissuade thieves. The farm is correctly marked all-around “Man-eating crocodiles”, and the crocodiles are quite visible to all and sundry. An unarmed thief breaks into Bob’s property attempting to get to his tool shed, but a crocodile eats him on the way.

Regardless of what local laws may say, Alice is a murderer. In fulfilling the threat, by definition she intended to kill the thief who posed no danger to life or limb. (The case might be different if the tools were needed for Alice to survive, but even then I think she shouldn’t intend death.) What about Bob? Well, there we don’t know what the intentions are. Here are two possible intentions:

  1. Prospective thieves are dissuaded by the presence of the man-eating crocodiles, but as a backup any that not dissuaded are eaten.

  2. Prospective thieves are dissuaded by the presence of the man-eating crocodiles.

If Bob’s intention is (1), then I think he’s no different from Alice. But Bob’s intention could simply be (2), whereas Alice’s intention couldn’t simply be to dissuade the thief, since if that were simply her intention, she wouldn’t have fired. (Note: the promise to shoot to kill is not morally binding.) Rather, when offering the threat, Alice intended to dissuade and shoot to kill as a backup, and then when she shot in fulfillment of the threat, she intended to kill. If Bob’s intention is simply (2), then Bob may be guilty of some variety of endangerment, but he’s not a murderer. I am inclined to think this can be true even if Bob trained the crocodiles to be man-eaters (in which case it becomes much clearer that he’s guilty of a variety of endangerment).

But let’s think a bit more about (2). The means to dissuading thieves is to put the shed in a place where there are crocodiles with a disposition to eat intruders. So Bob is also intending something like this:

  1. There be a dispositional state of affairs where any thieves (and maybe other intruders) tend to die.

However, in intending this dispositional state of affairs, Bob need not be intending the disposition’s actuation. He can simply intend the dispositional state of affairs to function not by actuation but by dissuasion. Moreover, if the thief dies, that’s not an accomplishment of Bob’s. On the other hand, if Bob intended the universal conditional

  1. All thieves die

or even:

  1. Most thieves die

then he would be accomplishing the deaths of thieves if any were eaten. Thus there is a difference between the logically complex intention that (4) or (5) be true, and the intention that there be a dispositional state of affairs to the effect of (4) or (5). This would seem to be the case even if the dispositional state of affairs entailed (4) or (5). Here’s why there is such a difference. If many thieves come and none die, then that constitutes or grounds the falsity of (4) and (5). But it does not constitute or ground the falsity of (3), and that would be true even if it entailed the falsity of (3).

This line of thought, though, has a curious consequence. Automated lethally-armed guard robots are in principle preferable to human lethally-armed guards. For the human guard either has a policy of killing if the threat doesn’t stop the intruder or has a policy of deceiving the intruder that she has such a policy. Deception is morally problematic and a policy of intending to kill is morally problematic. On the other hand, with the robotic lethally-armed guards, nobody needs to deceive and nobody needs to have a policy of killing under any circumstances. All that’s needed is the intending of a dispositional state of affairs. This seems preferable even in circumstances—say, wartime—where intentional killing is permissible, since it is surely better to avoid intentional killing.

But isn’t it paradoxical to think there is a moral difference between setting up a human guard and a robotic guard? Yet a lethally-armed robotic guard doesn’t seem significantly different from locating the guarded location on a deadly crocodile farm. So if we think there is no moral difference here, then we have to say that there is no difference between Alice’s policy of shooting intruders dead and Bob’s setup.

I think the moral difference between the human guard and the robotic guard can be defended. Think about it this way. In the case of the robotic guard, we can say that the death of the intruder is simply up to the intruder, whereas the human guard would still have to make a decision to go with the lethal policy in response to the intruder’s decision not to comply with the threat. The human guard could say “It’s on the intruder’s head” or “I had no choice—I had a policy”, but these are simply false: both she and the intruder had a choice.

None of this should be construed as a defence in practice of autonomous lethal robots. There are obvious practical worries about false positives, malfunctions, misuse and lowering the bar to a country’s initiating lethal hostilities.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The sharpness of the Platonic realm

I feel an intellectual pull to a view that also repels me. The view is that all contingent vague truths are grounded in contingent definite truths and necessary vague truths. For instance, that Jim is bald might be grounded in a contingent definite truth about the areal density of hair on his scalp and a necessary vague truth that anyone with that areal density of hair is bald.

On this view, any vague differences between possible worlds are grounded in definite differences between possible worlds.

But the view also repels me. I have the Platonic intuition that the realm of necessary truth should be clean, unchanging, sharp and definite. Plato would be very surprised to think that fuzziness in the physical world is grounded in fuzziness in the Platonic realm.

Epistemicism, of course, nicely reconciles the Platonic intuition about necessary truths with the intellectual pull of the grounding claim. For it is no surprise that there be things in the Platonic realm that are not accessible to us. If vagueness is merely epistemic, then there is no difficulty about vagueness in the Platonic realm.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Knowledge of vague truths

Suppose that we know in lottery cases—i.e., if a lottery has enough tickets and one winner, then we know ahead of time that we won’t win. I know it’s fashionable to deny such knowledge, but such denial leads either to scepticism or to having to say things like “I agree that I have better evidence for p than for q, but I know q and I don’t know p” (after all, if a lottery has enough tickets, I can have better evidence that I won’t win than that I have two hands).

Suppose also that classical logic holds even in vagueness cases. This is now a mainstream assumption in the vagueness literature, I understand.

Finally, suppose that once the number of tickets in a lottery reaches about a thousand, I know I won’t win. (The example can be modified if a larger number is needed.) Now for each positive natural number n, let Tn be the proposition that a person whose height is n microns is tall but a person whose height is n−1 is not tall. At most one of the Tn propositions is true, since anybody taller than a tall person is tall, and anybody shorter than a non-tall person is short. Moreover, since there is a non-tall person and there is a tall person, classical logic requires that at least one of the Tn is true.

Hence, exactly one of the Tn is true. Now, some of the Tn are definitely false. For instance, T1000000 is definitely false (since someone a meter tall is definitely not tall) and T2000000 is definitely false (since someone a micron short of two meters tall is definitely tall). But if anything is vague, it will be vague where exactly the cut-off between non-tall and tall lies. And if that is vague, then in the vague area between non-tall and tall, it will be vague whether Tn is true. That vague area is at least a millimeter long (in fact, it’s probably at least five centimeters long), and since there are a thousand microns to the millimeter, there will be at least a thousand values n such that Tn is vague.

Moreover, these thousand Tn are pretty much epistemically on par. Let n be any number within that vague range, and suppose that in fact Tn is false. Then this is a lottery case with at least a thousand tickets. So, if in the lottery case I know I didn’t win, in this case I know that Tn is false.

Hence, some vague truths can be known—assuming that we know in lottery cases and that classical logic holds.

Of course, as usual, some philosophers will want to reverse the argument, and take this to be another argument that we don’t know in lottery cases, or that classical logic doesn’t hold, or that there is no vagueness.

Doing things fast

I was thinking about deadlines--papers and exams to grade--and realized that doing things fast is a similar kind of challenge to making things small. Companies try to fit phone electronics into as spatially thin a region of spacetime as possible, while runners try to fit a run of a particular distance into as temporally thin a region of spacetime as possible. (And while sometimes small spatial and temporal size has "utilitarian value", as in the case of getting my grades in, in the phone and running cases, the reasons are mainly of the aesthetic variety.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Vague propositions

Suppose Jim says, in English, “2+2=4”. Then:

  1. What Jim said is such that it is contigent that it is true, because it is contingent that “4” means four rather than five


  1. What Jim said is a necessary truth, because it cannot but be true that 2+2=4.

Here the apparent contradiction is resolved by disambiguating “what Jim said” between the uttered sounds and the expressed meaning.

But when talking about vagueness, this straightfoward point can be a bit less clear. Suppose that it’s vaguely true that “4” in Jim’s dialect means four, rather than five, and Jim says “2+2=4” (and suppose that all the other relevant stuff is definite). Then:

  1. What Jim said is vaguely true, because it’s vaguely true that “4” is four.

  2. What Jim said is not vaguely true, because what Jim said is definitely true or definitely false, depending on what “4” means.

Again, make the same move as in (1)-(2): in (3), “what Jim says” is the uttered sounds or words and in (4) it’s the proposition.

This line of thought suggests one of two possibilities. Either, propositions are never vague, or there are two interestingly different kinds of vagueness. If propositions are never vague, then in the proposition sense of “what was said” it is never correct to say that what was said is vague. That’s a bit counterintuitive, but some counterintuitive things are true.

But if some propositions are vague, then it seems that we have two interestingly different kinds of vagueness an utterance could suffer from. It could be vague which non-vague proposition an utterance expresses or it could be definite which vague proposition an utterance expresses—or one could have combinations, as when it’s vague which vague proposition is expressed. In the case above, I claimed that it was vaguely the case that Jim expressed the non-vague proposition that 2+2=4. But presumably if there are vague propositions, there will be one that has the kind of vagueness that makes the non-vague propositions that 2+2=4 and that 2+2=5 be its admissible precifications.

So now we would have this interesting question: What determines whether Jim’s case was a case of vaguely expressing a non-vague proposition or non-vaguely expressing a vague proposition or some combination? Maybe there is a good answer to this question, but I have some doubts. In light of these doubts, I think that the proponent of vague and non-vague propositions should say is something like this. There are at least three senses of “what was said”: the sounds or words (and that makes for two, but I won’t be interested in this distinction in this post), the non-vague proposition and the vague proposition. What Jim said is vaguely true in the first and third sense, but not in the second. This is sufficiently complicated that one might prefer to go back to the less intuitive option, that in the proposition sense “what was said” is never vague.

I am dreadfully confused.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Actions that are gravely wrong for qualitative reasons

Some types of wrongdoing vary in degree of seriousness from minor to grave. Stealing a dollar from a billionaire is trivially wrong while stealing a thousand dollars from someone poor is gravely wrong. A poke in the back with a finger and breaking someone’s leg with a carefully executed kick can both be instances of battery, but the former is likely to be a minor wrong while the latter is apt to be grave.

On the other hand, there are types of wrongdoing that are always grave. An uninteresting (for my purposes) case is where the gravity is guaranteed because the description of wrongdoing includes a grave-making quantitative feature as in the case of “grand theft” or “grevious bodily harm”. The more interesting case is where for qualitative reasons the wrongdoing is always grave. For instance, murder and rape. There are no trivial murders or minor rapes.

Of course, even if a type of act is always seriously wrong, the degree of culpability might be slight, say due to lack of freedom or invincible ignorance. Think of someone brainwashed into murder, but who still has a slight sense of moral discomfort—although her action is gravely wrong, she may be only slightly culpable. My interest right now, however, is in the degree of wrongness rather than of culpability.

We can now distinguish types of wrongdoing that are always grave for qualitative reasons from those that are always grave merely for quantitative reasons. Here is a fairly precise characterization: if W is a type of wrongdoing that is always grave for qualitative reasons, then there is no sequence of acts, starting with a case of W, and with merely quantitative differences between the acts, such that the sequence ends with an act that isn’t grave. Grand theft and grevious bodily harm are examples of types of wrongdoings that are always grave merely for quantitative reasons.

On the other hand, it is intuitively plausible that murder and rape are not gravely wrong for merely quantitative reasons. If this intuition is correct, then we get some very interesting substantive consequences. In the case of rape, I’ve explored some relevant issues in a past post, so I want to focus on murder here.

The first consequence of taking murder to be always gravely wrong for qualitative reasons is that there is no continuous scale of mental abilities (whether of first or second potentiality) that takes us from people to lower animals. An unjustified killing of a lower animal is only a minor wrong (take this to constrain what “lower” means). If there were a continuous scale of mental abilities from people to lower animals, then murder would be gravely wrong only for quantitative reasons: because the victim’s mental abilities lie on such-and-such a position on the scale. So once we admit that murder is gravely wrong for qualitative reasons, we have to suppose a qualitative gap in the spectrum of mental abilities. This probably requires the rejection of naturalism.

A second consequence is that if killing a consenting adult in normal health is murder—which it is—then euthanasia is gravely wrong. For variation in health and comfort is merely quantitative, and one cannot go from a case of murder to something that isn’t gravely wrong by merely quantitative variation, since murder is always gravely wrong for qualitative reasons.

I suspect there are a number of other very interesting consequences of taking murder to be gravely wrong for qualitative reasons. I think these consequences will motivate some people to give up on the claim that murder is gravely wrong for qualitative reasons. But I think we should hold on to that claim and accept the consequences.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Love and reasons

Humans are fundamentally loving beings. This is more fundamental than their being rational, because the nature of reasons, and hence of rationality, is to be accounted for in terms of the nature of love.

A sketchy approximation to a love-based account of external reasons is this:

  • A fact F is an external reason for ϕing if and only if F partially grounds ϕing being in some respect loving towards something or someone or not ϕing being in some respect unloving towards something or someone.

  • A plurality of facts is a conclusive external reason for ϕing if and only if the plurality grounds its being unloving not to ϕ.

If I am right that love has the three fundamental aspects of benevolence, appreciation and union, these probably also provide the three basic kinds of reasons. There are reasons to do good and to prevent bad: these come from the benevolence aspect. There are reasons to, e.g., admire and be grateful that come from appreciation. Interestingly, I think appreciation also provides reasons for things like criticism and punishment. In criticism and punishment we appreciate someone or something qua someone or something that ought to do better: we appreciate nature over actual activity. And finally there is union, which needs to be appropriate to the love (I develop this at greater length in One Body).

Internal reasons are occurrent beliefs that are in some sense about what there is external reason to do and that enter into the right way into choice. These beliefs come in a broad variety, and are not always explicitly about reasons as such.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

3D-printable cookie cutters with Inkscape and OpenSCAD

We thought that our 4-year-old would enjoy a Pikachu cookie cutter for Christmas, but I didn't like the existing designs on Thingiverse. So I wrote a Python script, eventually packaged into an Inkscape extension, that generates a 3D-printable OpenSCAD file from a color-coded SVG path file. Instructions are here.


Monday, December 5, 2016

A Trinitarian structure in love

In One Body, I identified three crucial aspects in every form of love: benevolence, appreciation and unity. But I did not have an argument that there are no further equally central aspects. I still don’t.

But I now have some suggestive evidence: There is a Trinitarian structure to these three aspects. The Father eternally conferring his divine nature—the nature of being the Good Itself—on the Son and, through the Son, on the Holy Spirit. The Son in turn eternally and gratefully contemplates the Father. And the Holy Spirit joins Father with Son. This makes for benevolence, appreciation and unity, respectively, all perichoretically interconnected. That there are only three Persons in the most blessed Trinity is thus evidence that these three aspects are what love is at base.