Thursday, September 21, 2017

Promising to sing infinitely many duets

Suppose you and I are going to live forever in heaven. I promise you that I will play sing a duet with you infinitely many times. Is this a valid promise?

Here is an argument that it is not. It seems that if the promise is valid, it generates reasons to sing duets with you. But it doesn’t. The reasons generated by a promise are reasons to do things that contribute to the fulfillment of the promise. But singing a duet with you does not contribute to the fulfillment of the promise. Here is one way to see this. Suppose I am considering whether to sing the duet with you on Wednesday, September 1, 2060. Consider now these two potential promises that I could imagine myself to have made:

1. I will sing a duet with you on infinitely many of the days that are not September 1, 2060.

2. I will sing a duet with you on infinitely many days.

Then singing the duet with you on September 1, 2060 does nothing to promote the fulfillment of promise (1). But (2) is logically equivalent to (1)! For I sing a duet with you on infinitely many days if and only if I sing a duet with you on infinitely many days that are not September 1, 2060. So my singing the duet on September 1, 2060 will no more promote the fulfillment of (2) than it will promote the fulfillment of (1). So, the promise doesn’t generate reasons to sing duets.

But things aren’t so simple. For while it doesn’t generate reasons to sing duets, it could generate reasons to do other things that bring about my singing duets with you on infinitely many days that are not September 1, 2060. For instance, here is something I could do: I could promise you to sing a duet with you every Wednesday for eternity. Making that promise will promote both (1) and (2). For the promise to sing duets on Wednesdays does unproblematically generate a reason to sing a duet on every Wednesday, and this generation of reasons is likely to contribute to my singing a duet with you on infinitely many days.

Of course, there are other promises I could make you that would make (1) and (2) likely. I could promise to sing a duet with you every January 1. Or every January 1 of a prime-numbered year. It’s a difficult question which of these promises I should make. But I have reason to make some such promise, or do something else that is likely to motivate me infinitely often, say inculcate a habit in myself.

So the answer to the initial question is plausibly positive. But it is only plausible if there is something other than singing duets that one can do in fulfillment of the promise. If all I am facing are the individual daily choices whether to sing a duet or not, without any habituation, I cannot validly promise to sing the duet on infinitely many occasions, as it would not generate any reasons.