Tuesday, October 19, 2021


I am planning in the future on deleting comments whose style falls short of academic standards of civility due to such things as sarcasm, insults, ungrounded accusations, or a general failure of a measured, calm and respectful tone. I would probably have already done so if other people than I were the targets of the violations of civility, but in the future I plan to do so even when I am the target, in the interests of discouraging uncivil discourse. Moreover, commenters should count on a high likelihood of being banned after about three violations, and earlier if the violations are more egregious. If your comment is deleted, feel free to re-post in better style. If you've been banned and want to be reinstated, email me.

Spacetime and Aristotelianism

For a long time I’ve been inclining towards relationalism about space (or more generally spacetime), but lately my intuitions have been shifting. And here is an argument that seems to move me pretty far from it.

Given general relativity, the most plausible relationalism is about spacetime, not about space.

Given Aristotelianism, relations must be grounded in substances.

Here is one possibility for this grounding:

  1. All spatiotemporal relations are symmetrically grounded: if x and y are spatiotemporally related, then there is an x-to-y token relation inherent in x and a y-to-x token relation inherent in y.

But this has the implausible consequence that there is routine backwards causation, because if I walk a step to the right, then that causes different tokens of Napoleon-to-me spatiotemporal relations to be found in Napoleon than would have been found in him had I walked a step to the left.

So, we need to suppose:

  1. Properly timelike spatiotemporal relations are grounded only in the later substance.

But what about spacelike spatiotemporal relations? Presumably, they are symmetrically or asymmetrically grounded.

If they are symmetrically grounded, then we have routine faster-than-light causation, because if I walk a step to the right, then that causes different tokens of x-to-me spatiotemporal relations to be found in distant objects throughout the universe.

Moreover, on the symmetric grounding, we get the odd consequence that it is only the goodness of God that guarantees that you are the same distance from me as I am from you.

If they are asymmetrically grounded, then we have arbitrariness as to which side they are grounded on, and it is a regulative ideal to avoid arbitrariness. And we still have routine faster-than-light causation. For presumably it often happens that I make a voluntary movement and someone on the other side of the earth makes a voluntary movement spacelike related to my movement (because there are so many people!), and now wherever the spatiotemporal relations is grounded, it will have to be affected by the other’s movement.

I suppose routine faster-than-light causation isn’t too terrible if it can’t be used to send signals, but it still does seem implausible. It seems to me to be another regulative ideal to avoid nonlocality in our theories.

What are the alternatives to relationalism? Substantivalism is one. We can think of spacetime as a substance with an accident corresponding to every point. And then we have relationships to these accidents. There is a lot of technical detail to work out here as to how the causal relationships between objects and spacetime points and the geometry of spacetime work out, and whether it fits with an Aristotelian view. I am mildly optimistic.

Another approach I like is a view on which spacetime position is a nonrelational position determinable accident. Determinable accidents have determinates which one can represent as values. These values may be numerical (e.g., mass or charge), but they may be more complex than that. It’s easiest in a flat spacetime: spacetime position is then a determinable whose determinates can be represented as quadruples of real numbers. In a non-flat spacetime, it’s more complicated. One option for the values of determinate positions is that they are “pointed spacetime manifold portions”, i.e., intersections of a Lorentzian manifold with a backwards lightcone (with the intended interpretation that the position of the object is at the tip of the lightcone). (What we don’t want is for the positions to be points in a single fixed manifold, because then we have backwards causation problems, since as I walk around, the shifting of my mass affects which spacetime manifold Napoleon lived in.)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Talk against privation theory of evil

I'm giving a Zoom talk against the privation theory of evil (with an alternative provided) for Liverpool University on Thursday at 9 am Central Time / 15:00 UK time. You need to register if you are interested in attending.

A potential explanation why we don't observe violations of the PSR

A standard puzzle for the opponent of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) is to explain why we don’t observe objects coming into existence ex nihilo. Here is a thought that I think hasn’t been explored enough. Maybe when an object comes into existence ex nihilo, it is unlikely that the object would end up being spatiotemporally related to things already in existence. In other words, perhaps the typical object coming into existence ex nihilo forms a new universe, not spatiotemporally related with any other universe.

If this is right, then the opponent of the PSR should take multiverse hypotheses very seriously.

That said, such random multiverse hypothesis lead to very compellingly sceptical scenarios.

Physicalism, persons, fission and eliminativism

People are philosophically unhappy about nonlocality in quantum mechanics. It is interesting to me that there is an eerily similar nonlocality on standard psychological theories of personal identity. For on those theories:

  1. You survive if your memories survive in one living person.

  2. You perish if your memories fission between more than one living person.

Now imagine that your brain is frozen, the data from it is destructively read, and then sent to two different stations, A and B, located in opposite directions five light minutes away from your original brain. At each station, a coin is simultaneously flipped (say, in the rest frame of your original brain). If it’s heads (!), the data is put into a freshly cloned brain in a vat, and if it’s tails, the data is deleted.

On a psychological theory, if both coins land heads you perish by (2). But if exactly one coin lands heads, you survive at that station. So whether you exist at one station depends on what happens simultaneously (according to one frame) at a station ten light minutes away.

Note, however, that this is not explicable via quantum nonlocality, because quantum nonlocality depends on entanglement, and there is no relevant entanglement in this thought experiment. It would be a nonlocality beyond physics.

I think one lesson here is that ostensibly physicalist or physicalist-friendly theories of persons or minds can end up sounding oddly dualist. For if dualism were true, it wouldn’t be utterly surprising if facts about where your soul reappears could have a faster-than-light dependence on far away events, since souls aren’t governed by the laws of physics. Similarly, on functionalism plus psychological theories of personal identity, you could move between radically different physical embodiments or even between a physical embodiment and a nonphysical realization. That, too, sounds rather like what you would expect dualism to say.

If I were a physicalist, I would perhaps be inclined to be drawn by these observations towards eliminativism about persons. For these observations suggest that even physicalist pictures of the person may be too deeply influenced by the dualist roots of philosophical and theological reflection on personhood. If these roots are seen as intellectually corrupt by the physicalist, then it should be somewhat attractive to deny the existence of persons.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Another problem with evolutionary accounts of teleology

The crucial thought behind evolutionary accounts of proper function or teleology is that organisms succeed in reproducing because they are fulfilling a function, and wouldn’t have reproduced otherwise. In a paper with Koons, I offer a Great Grazing Ground objection to all such accounts.

Here, I want to offer a perhaps neater objection. Imagine Twin Earth just like Earth, with a biological history just like ours. But there is an extremely powerful alien, akin to Frankfurt’s counterfactual intervener, who has a script for all the details of biological history on that planet. That script, completely by chance, matches all the events on both Twin Earth and Earth. But the counterfactual intervener has the following immovable policy: if there is any deviation from the script on Twin Earth, the alien restores conditions to the same ones that would have resulted according to the script. Moreover, the alien’s restoration would occur before there is any deviation in reproduction or survival. But, by good fortune, no intervention is ever needed: everything actually follows the script.

Imagine, for instance, that a bird is attacked by a predator. On Earth, it escapes on its wings and reproduces. The same happens on Twin Earth. But on Twin Earth, had the bird not flown, the alien would have intervened, moved the bird out of danger, and then restored everything to the post-flight situation in the script. Consequently, on Twin Earth, it is false that had the bird not flown, it wouldn’t have reproduced. Indeed, apart from trivial cases like “Had x not reproduced, it wouldn’t have reproduced”, on Twin Earth the counterfactuals allegedly defining proper function or teleology hold. Yet events on Twin Earth are just as on Earth, and the alien doesn’t do anything but watch. And it is deeply implausible that simply by watching the alien destroys proper function or teleology.

An asymmetry between physical and emotional pain

Here is a puzzling asymmetry. It seems that:

  • Typically, we should seek to remove serious physical pains, even when these pains are normal and we are unable to alleviate the underlying problem.

  • Typically, when emotional pains are serious but normal, we should not seek to remove them, except by alleviating the underlying problem.

Thus, if one has lost a leg in an accident, it seems one should be given pain killers, whether or not the leg can be reattached, and even if one’s degree of pain is proper to the loss. But if one has lost a friend, the grief should not be removed, unless it can be done by restoring the friend (there is, after all, more than one sense of “lost a friend”).

Structurally, it seems that leg and friend cases are parallel: In both cases, there is a harm, which it is normal to perceive painfully.

Solution 1: The difference is due to instrumental factors. In the case of the loss of a friend, the pain helps one to restructure oneself mentally in the tragic new circumstances. In the case of the loss of a leg, however, assuming one is already seeking medical attention, the pain is unlikely to lead to any further goods.

Solution 2: Due to the Fall, typically our physical pains are excessive. We feel more pain for a physical loss than we should given that our primary ends are not physical in nature. The appearance of asymmetry is due to an equivocation on “normal”: the kind of pain we feel at physical damage is statistically normal for fallen human beings, but is not really normal. On the other hand, when we talk of normal emotional pains, there the pains are either really normal, correctly grasping the tragedy of the situation, or else they are actually deficient. (A standard theological intuition is that Jesus suffered mentally more at evils than any of us, because his virtue made him more acutely aware of the badness of these evils.)

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Constructive presence

This morning, I was reading the Georgia Supreme Court’s Simpson v. State (1893) decision on a cross-state shooting, and loved this example, which is exactly the kind of example contemporary analytic philosophers like to give: "a burglary may be committed by inserting into a building a hook, or other contrivance, by means of which goods are withdrawn therefrom; and there can be no doubt that, under these circumstances, the burglar, in legal contemplation, enters the building."

Dualist eliminativism

Eliminativism holds that our standard folk-psychological concepts of mental functioning—say, thoughts, desires, intentions and awareness—have no application or are nonsense. Usually, eliminativism goes hand in hand with physicalism and scientism: the justification for eliminativism is the idea that the truly applicable concepts of mental functioning are going to be the ones of a developed neuroscience, and it is unlikely that these will match up our current folk psychology.

But we can make a case for eliminativism on deeply humanistic grounds independent of neuroscience. We start with the intuition that the human being is very mysterious and complex. Our best ways of capturing the depths of human mental functioning are found neither in philosophy nor in science, but literature. This is very much what we would expect if our standard concepts did not correctly apply to the mind’s functioning, but were only rough approximations. Art flourishes in limitations of medium, and the novelist and poet uses the poor tool of these concepts to express the human heart. Similarly, the face expresses the soul (to tweak Wittgenstein’s famous dictum), and yet what we see in the face is more complex, more mysterious than what we express with our folk psychological vocabulary.

There is thus a shallowness to our folk-psychological vocabulary which simply does not match the wondrous mystery of the human being.

Finally, and here we have some intersection with the more usual arguments for eliminativism, our predictive ability with respect to human behavior is very poor. Just think how rarely we can predict what will be said next in conversation. And even our prediction of our own behavior, even our mental behavior, is quite poor.

The above considerations may be compatible with physicalism, but I think it is reasonable to think that they actually support dualism better. For on physicalism, ultimately human mental function would be explicable in the mechanistic terminology of physics, and my considerations suggest an ineffability to the human being that may be reasonably thought to outpace mechanistic expressions.

But whether or not these considerations in fact support dualism over physicalism, they are clearly compatible with dualism. And so we have a corner of logical space not much explored by (at least Western) philosophers: dualist eliminativism. I do not endorse this view, but in some moods I find it attractive. Though I would like it to come along with some kind of a story about the approximate truth of our ordinary claims about the mind.

Disembodied existence and physicalism

Consider the following standard Cartesian argument:

  1. I can imagine myself existing without a body.

  2. So, probably, I can exist without a body.

  3. If I can exist without a body, I am not physical.

  4. So, I am not physical.

It is my impression that the bulk of physicalist concern about this argument focuses on the inference from (1) to (2). But it seems to me that it would be much more reasonable for the physicalist to agree to (2) but deny (3). After all, our best physicalist theory of the person is functionalism combined with a psychological account of personal identity. But on that theory, for me to exist without a body all that’s needed is for my memories to be transfered into a spiritual computational system which is functionally equivalent to my current neural computational system, and that seems quite plausibly possible.

The physicalist need not claim that I am essentially physical, only that I am in fact physical, i.e., that in the actual world, the realizer of my functioning is physical.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A pedagogical universe

Our science developed over milennia, progressing from false theory to less false theory. Why did we not give up long ago? I take it this is because the false theories, nonetheless, had rewards associated with them: although false, they allowed for prediction and technological control in ways that were useful (in a broad sense) to us.

Thus, the success of our science depends not just on a “uniformity of nature” on which the correct fundamental scientific theories are elegant and uniform. Most of our historical progress in physics has not involved correct scientific theories—and quite possibly, we do not have any correct fundamental theories in physics yet. The success of our science required low-hanging fruit for us to pick along the way, fruit that would guide us in the direction of truth.

We can imagine worlds where the ultimate physics requires an enormous degree of sophistication (much as we expect to be the case in our world) and there is little in the way of low-hanging fruit (except maybe for the lowest level of low-hanging fruit, involving the regularities needed to enable evolution of intelligence in the first place) in the form of approximately true theories that rewards us with prediction and control so that beings like us would just give up on science. Our world is better than that.

Indeed, our world seems to be pedagogically arranged for us, arranged to gradually teach us science (and other things), much as we teach our children, with intellectual and practical rewards. There is a design argument for the existence of God from this (closely related to this one).

Friday, October 8, 2021

Deceit and Double Effect

Suppose you inform me of something true, p, and as a result I come to believe it. Then very likely you’ve deceived me about something!

For there is surely some falsehood q that I believed previously with a high confidence. But presumably I did not believe the conjunction p&q before I got your information, since I didn’t believe p. But now that you’ve informed me of p, I am likely to believe p&q, and yet that is a falsehood.

Sometimes this argument doesn’t work (maybe sometimes I believed p&q when I didn’t believe q, and maybe sometimes my belief in p is sufficiently marginal that I still don’t believe p&q), but most of the time it does.

This means that we are typically deceiving people all the time in conversation! This sounds bad, unless we make a distinction between foreseeing and intending. You can foresee (now that you saw the above argument) that whenever you inform me of something this is likely to deceive me about something else. But merely foreseen deceit counts for very little morally as long as you don’t intend the deceit.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Could the PSR be contingent?

The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) says that every contingent truth has an explanation. Most people who accept the PSR think it is a necessary principle. And there is good reason, because it seems more like a candidate for a fundamental necessary truth than a merely contingent fact. And epistemically, if the PSR is contingent, it is hard to see why we should think ourselves lucky enough for it to be true.

All that said, it is interesting to investigate the question a bit more. So, let’s suppose the PSR is contingently true. Then according to the PSR, the PSR has an explanation, like every other contingent truth. What could the explanation of the PSR be like?

Since we’ve assumed the PSR to be contingent, the explanation can’t simply involve derivation of the PSR from necessary metaphysical principle.

The explain a contingent PSR is to explain why no contingent unexplained thing has happened.

Here is one suggestion. Perhaps there is a necessary being which has the power to prevent the existence of contingent unexplained events. This necessary being freely, but with good reason that the necessary being necessarily has, chooses to exercise this power. Thus, the explanation of why no contingent unexplained thing has happened is that the necessary being freely chose to prevent all such things. And the necessary being’s free choice is explained by reasons.

I am not sure what I think of the plausibility of a hypothesis of a being as having the power to prevent things from popping into existence causelessly if such popping is otherwise metaphysically possible.

Here is another much less metaphysically loaded attempt. It seems to me that whether one accepts the PSR or not, one should accept instances of the following kind of explanatory schema for contingent events E:

  1. Event E did not happen because there is no explanation of E.

If the PSR is necessarily true, then the fact that there is no explanation of E entails that E did not happen. However, I think we should accept instances of (1) even if the PSR is contingently true and even if it is not true at all. In those cases, that there is no explanation of E may not entail that E did not happen, but we shouldn’t think that explanations must entail the events they explain. (If we thought that, we would have to reject most scientific explanations.)

Now imagine we have an infinite list of all possible contingent events that could happen but did not happen, E1, E2, ..., and an infinite list of all contingent events that did happen, F1, F2, .... We can then say:

  1. The PSR is true because E1 did not happen, E2 did not happen, E3 did not happen, while on the other hand F1, F2, ... did happen.

And why did Ei not happen?

  1. Ei did not happen because there is no explanation of Ei.

And of course each of the Fi does have an explanation, because the PSR is, we have assumed, true.

This seems like an explanation of the contingent truth of the PSR.

Both options seem a bit fishy, though. I can’t say exactly what’s wrong with them, though.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A cosmological argument from a PSR for ordinary truths

Often in cosmological arguments the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) is cleverly applied to vast propositions like the conjunction of all contingent truths or to highly philosophical claims like that there is something rather than nothing or that there is a positive contingent fact. But at the same time, the rhetoric that is used to argue for the PSR is often based on much more ordinary propositions, such as Rescher’s example of an airplane crash which I re-use at the start of my PSR book. And this can feel like a bait-and-switch.

To avoid this criticism, let’s suppose a PSR limited to “ordinary” propositions, i.e., the kind that occur in scientific practice or daily life.

  1. Necessarily we have the Ordinary PSR that every contingent ordinary truth has an explanation. (Premise)

  2. That there is an electron is an ordinary proposition. (Premise)

  3. It is possible that there is exactly one contingent being, an electron. (Premise)

  4. Necessarily, if no electron is a necessary being, then any explanation of why there is an electron involves the causal activity of a non-electron. (Premise)

  5. Let w be a possible world where there is exactly one contingent being, an electron. (By 3)

  6. At w, there is an explanation of why there is an electron. (By 1, 2 and 4)

  7. At w, there is a non-electron that engages in causal activity. (By 4, 5 and 6)

  8. At w, every non-electron is a necessary being. (By 5)

  9. At w, there is a necessary being that engages in causal activity. (By 7 and 8)

  10. So, there is a necessary being that possibly engages in causal activity. (By 9 and S5)

So, we have a cosmological argument from the necessity of the Ordinary PSR.

Objection: All that the ordinary cases of the PSR show is that actually the Ordinary PSR is true, not that it is necessarily true.

Response: If the Ordinary PSR is merely contingently true, then it looks like we are immensely lucky that there are no exceptions whatsoever to the Ordinary PSR. In other words, if the Ordinary PSR is merely contingently true, we really shouldn’t believe it to be true—we shouldn’t think ourselves this lucky. So if we are justified in believing the Ordinary PSR to be at least contingently true, we are justified in believing it to be necessarily true.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Preliminary notes on Cartesian scoring rules

Imagine an agent for whom being certain that a proposition p is true has infinite value if p is in fact true. This could be a general Cartesian attitude about all propositions, or it could be a special attitude to a particular proposition p.

Here is one way to model this kind of Cartesian attitude. Suppose we have a single-proposition accuracy scoring rule s(r, i) which represents the epistemic utility of having credence r when the proposition in fact has truth value i, where i is either 0 (false) or 1 (true). The scores can range over the whole interval [ − ∞, ∞], and I will assume that s(r, i) is finite whenever 0 < r < 1, and continuous at r = 0 and r = 1. Additionally, I suppose that the scoring rule is proper, in the sense that the expected utility of sticking to your current credence r by your own lights is at least as good as the expected utility of any other credence. (When evaluating expected utilities with infinities, I use the rule 0 ⋅ ±∞=0.)

Finally, I say the scoring rule is Cartesian with respect to p provided that s(1, 1)=∞. (We might also have s(0, 0)=∞, but I do not assume it. There are cases where being certain and right that p is much more valuable than being certain and right that ∼p.)

Pretty much all research on scoring rules focuses on regular scoring rules. With a regular scoring rule, is allowed to have an epistemic utility −∞ when you are certain of a falsehood (i.e., s(1, 0)= − ∞ and/or s(0, 1)= − ∞), the possibility of a +∞ epistemic utility is ruled out, and indeed epistemic utilities are taken to be bounded above. Our Cartesian rules are all non-regular.

I’ve been thinking about proper Cartesian scoring rules for about a day, and here are some simple things that I think I can show:

  1. They exist. (As do strictly proper ones.)

  2. One can have an arbitrarily fast rate growth of s(r, 1) as r approaches 1.

  3. However, s(r, 1)/s(r, 0) always goes to zero as r approaches 1.

Claim (2) shows that we can value near-certainty-in-the-truth to an arbitrarily high degree, but there is a price to be paid: one must disvalue near-certainty-in-a-falsehood way more.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that (3) is not true for non-Cartesian proper scoring rules. There are bounded proper scoring rules, and then s(1, 1)/s(1, 0) can be some non-zero ratio. (Relevant to this is this post.) Thus, assuming propriety, going Cartesian—i.e., valuing certainty of truth infinitely—implies an infinitely greater revulsion from certainty in a falsehood.

A consequence of (2) is that you can have proper Cartesian scoring rules that support what one might call obsessive hypothesis confirmation: even if gathering further evidence grows increasingly costly for roughly the same Bayes factors, given a linear conversion between epistemic and practical utilities, it could be worthwhile to continue to continue gathering evidence for a hypothesis no matter how close to certain one is. I don’t think all Cartesian scoring rules support obsessive hypothesis confirmation, however.