Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Bizarre consequences in bizarre circumstances

In strange physical circumstances, we would not be surprised by strange and unexpected behavior of a system governed by physical laws.

Under conditions a device was not designed for, we would not be surprised by odd behavior from the device.

Nor should we be surprised by bizarre behavior by an organism far outside its evolutionary niche.

Therefore, it seems that we should not be surprised by how an entity governed by moral or doxastic laws would behave in out-of-this-world moral or evidential circumstances.

In particular perhaps we should be very cautious—in ways that I have rarely been—about the lessons to be drawn from the ethics or epistemology in bizarre counterfactual stories. Instead, perhaps, we should think about how it could be that ethics or epistemology is tied to our niche, our proper environment, and we should be suspicious of Kantian-style ethics or epistemology grounded in niche- and kind-transcending principles, perhaps preferring a more Aristotelian approach with norms for behavior in our natural environment being grounded in our own nature.


Heath White said...

I think this thought is, in general, very healthy. For example, it seems obvious that if we reproduced asexually, marriage would not exist, and if children matured in a short period rather than a long one, marriage need not be lifelong.

On the other side, many of the niches or environments that norms evolve to govern are social or cultural, rather than aspects of our nature. For example, the idea of land as property makes much more sense for stable farming societies than for nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.

But this raises the worry that we are likely to confuse norms dependent on widespread social/cultural factors with norms dependent on our nature. For example, Locke thinks property is a *natural* right. And we might ask whether developments like reliable contraception or antibiotics change some other norms that are often taken to be natural.

SMatthewStolte said...

Maybe, but consider this. Point masses, frictionless surfaces, and the like, would be extremely bizarre circumstances if they were ever encountered in real life. It might turn out that, if we were ever to encounter a real point mass, its effects would be very different from what we would expect from a Physics 101 textbook. If that were the case, then observing the behavior of objects near a point mass would not be helpful for predicting the behavior of objects near extended masses. Nevertheless, thought experiments drawing on these bizarre circumstances turn out to be very useful for predicting the behavior of real objects near extended masses.

When bizarre moral circumstances come up in philosophy, it is never because we have made experimental observations of holy beings responding to these bizarre circumstances. It is always because we are running thought experiments.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I said we shouldn't be *surprised* if things behave bizarrely in bizarre circumstances. This doesn't mean that we should be confident they would behave bizarrely. They might not.

For examples, think about the fact that if you have a frictionless surface, an object once pushed moves for eternity. That's bizarre. If you have a point mass, it has infinite density, which is bizarre.

Walter Van den Acker said...


"think about the fact that if you have a frictionless surface, an object once pushed moves for eternity. That's bizarre" I don't see what's bizarre about that. The opposite would be far more bizarre, I guess.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, the bizarre is relative to one's experience. Our experience is that all linear motion comes to an end. :-)

SMatthewStolte said...

Initially, I was thinking of bizarre consequences as consequences which were not predicted by our models. For example, if it turned out that a real point mass was possible but its gravitational pull no longer dropped off in the way we would expect, I might think, “well, that’s bizarre, but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, because two minutes ago, I thought point masses were just idealizations.” In that case, it would make sense to be very cautious about drawing a lot of lessons from the effects of this real point mass.

But if we are talking about bizarre consequences that our models predict (e.g., the motion of an object on a frictionless surface), then it seems we are often able to draw a lot of lessons from them. Obviously, I don’t want to say we shouldn’t be cautious, but the model spells out the things we need to be cautious about (the effects of friction, etc.). Running the bizarre (in this sense) counterfactual story is very important for understanding what is really going on in ordinary cases. Maybe the same should hold for our ethical or epistemological models.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah. I was thinking of the common philosophical trope: If p, then Bizarre Consequence. Hence, not p.