Monday, June 14, 2021

The unity of consciousness

I am now simultaneously aware of the motion of my fingers and of the text on the screen. Call this co-awareness. Co-awareness is not the same thing as awareness by the same subject. For if I type with my eyes closed and then stop typing and open my eyes, the tactile and visual experiences still have the same subject, but there is no co-awareness. Perhaps co-awareness is awareness by the same subject at the same time. But experiments on split-brain patients suggest that it is possible to have one subject with two simultaneous awarenesses that are not co-awarenesses.

Consider this very simple theory of co-awareness: it is not possible to have co-awareness between two distinct awarenesses. The case I started this post with was poorly described. Strictly speaking I had a single awareness of the conjunctive state of affairs of my fingers moving and there being text on the screen. I did not have an awareness of my fingers moving, nor did I have an awareness of text on the screen, but only of the conjunction.

On this view, rather than my co-hosting a quale of moving fingers and a quale of black markings on a white background, I am hosting a conjunctive quale of moving-fingers-and-black-markings.

All this, however, seems implausible. It certainly doesn’t fit with how we talk: everyone would say that I was aware of my fingers moving.

Similarly, I note, if Alice were to tell me that Bob was lazy and stupid, I would be correct to report that Alice told me that Bob was lazy, even though Alice did not in fact express the proposition that Bob was lazy, but only the conjunctive proposition that he is lazy and stupid. It is good use of ordinary language to attribute the statement of a conjunct to someone who stated a conjunction containing that conjunct. The same is true of awareness: we can attribute the awareness of a conjunct to someone who is aware of a conjunction. Maybe the right way to talk about this is to distinguish non-derivative and derivative, or focal and non-focal, senses of assertion and awareness. Alice non-derivatively asserts that Bob was lazy and stupid, and derivatively that Bob was lazy. I am non-derivatively aware of the conjunctive state of affairs of motion of my fingers, the text on the screen and a variety of other things, and derivatively of each conjunct.

With this distinction, we can build on the simple theory of co-awareness:

  1. It is not possible to have co-awareness between two distinct non-derivative awarenesses.

  2. Co-awareness occurs between two derivative awarenesses A and B provided that there is a non-derivative awareness C such that I count as having A and B in virtue of C being an awareness of a conjunction that includes the object of A as well as the object of B as a conjunct.

In a way, this simply shifts the difficulty of figuring what makes it be the case that an awareness is an awareness of a conjunctive state to the difficulty of figuring out what makes a non-derivative awareness of a conjunction be an awareness of a conjunction. That is, indeed, a tough problem. But it is a problem that is just a special case of a general problem that we would need to solve even if we had solved our original co-awareness problem in some other way: the problem of the logical structure of the objects of perception. If I see a shape in the distance that looks like a dog or fox, what is it that makes me have an awareness of a disjunction between a dog or a fox? If I see something that looks like it’s not a dog, what is it that makes me have a negative awareness of a dog?

It may seem puzzling how there can be a logical structure to qualia. I don’t see why not. But then I am strongly inclined to a representationalism that holds that the differences in the qualitative properties between conscious states are determined by the differences between the states’ representative properties. And representative properties have a logical structure.

An argument against naturalism from the concept of the numinous

  1. If naturalism about our minds is true, then the correct account of intentionality is causal.

  2. On a causal account of intentionality, our possession of an irreducible concept is caused by something which falls under that concept.

  3. The concept of the numinous is irreducible.

  4. Therefore, if naturalism about our minds is true, our possession of the concept of the numinous is caused by something numinous. (1–3)

  5. If there is anything numinous, then naturalism in general is false.

  6. If naturalism about our minds is not true, then naturalism in general is false.

  7. So, naturalism in general is false. (4–6)

What do I mean by “the numinous”? Since I claim it to be irreducible, I had better not try to define it. But I can point to it by means of our experiences of the holy, the uncanny, etc.: see Rudolf Otto’s book on the holy.

I think the best objection to the argument is to say that numinous can be reduced to the negation of the natural. But that objection seems to me to be mistaken. Imagine some simple particle-like thing that doesn’t interact with anything else in a way that is governed by the laws of nature. That thing wouldn’t be numinous. Likewise, not all magic is numinous: quite a bit of the magic in the Harry Potter stories is not numinous at all (there is nothing numinous about the chocolate frogs).

Friday, June 11, 2021

Do we need Anarchist Islands?

Suppose that the right account of state authority requires the consent of the governed. A standard view is that this consent is presumed in virtue of the resident’s choice not to leave the territory of the state. This would have worked when world population was lower, and there were places where one could live close to the “state of nature”, with all the freedoms and costs entailed by that. But nowadays if someone is living in a democratic state, there really is no way to get significantly more freedoms: one can move to a different democratic state, which only provides an alternative with respect to relatively minor matters of detail, or one can move to an undemocratic state, where one only has fewer freedom.

I told a version the above story to two of my kids, and one of them suggested that in order to ensure the legitimacy of governments we need “Anarchist Islands”. (There was also the suggestion of settlements on Mars. But because Mars is so inhospitable, I think it is not possible to live in the “state of nature” there.)

I think it would be really interesting if it turned out that for a while we had legitimate goverments, but once unpopulated land disappeared, the legitimacy went with it, and now in order to ensure legitimacy, we need to sacrifice a significant amount of resources, leaving aside land to open the possibility of choosing not to live under a government.

All that said, I don’t agree with views on which the consent of the governed is essential.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Reid's critique of Aristotelian accounts of perception

Reid thinks that the Aristotelians make the same mistake as the Lockeans and Berkeleians: they all think that the phenomenal qualities or “ideas” (in the Lockean sense) in our minds are similar to the properties of physical objects. Thus, the sensation of hardness when I press my hand on the table is supposed to be similar to the physical hardness of the table. But Reid thinks that a bit of reflection shows that the mental entity is quite different from the physical entity.

Presumably, the reason the Aristotelian is accused of this mistake is that the Aristotelian is supposed by Reid to think that a single objectual quality, such as hardness, is found in the table and in the mind (presumably in different ways).

However, I think the criticism of the Aristotelian fails. Let’s take the Aristotelian theory to be as Reid seems to think of it. We still have a choice as to what item in the Aristotelian view we identify with the phenomenal qualities. There is

  1. the hardness itself


  1. the sort-of-but-not-quite-inherence relation between the mind and the hardness.

Which one of these is the phenomenal quality or “idea”? The difficulty here is that Reid seems to accept two claims about Lockean “ideas”:

  1. we always have immediate awareness of “ideas”


  1. “ideas” are the states of awareness.

On the Aristotelian view in question, (1) satisfies (3) and (2) satisfies (4). But (1) does not satisfy (4), and I don’t think the Aristotelian should allow that (2) satisfies (3).

The Aristotelian can now give this story in response to Reid. If we identify (1) as the phenomenal quality, the “what I feel”, then there is nothing absurd about saying that what I feel—namely, hardness—is what is in the extramental table. If we identify (2) as the phenomenal quality, on the other hand, then the Aristotelian will agree with Reid that the phenomenal quality is not found in the extramental object, because the inherencish relation is only found in the mind.

In fact, the Aristotelian’s refusal to accept that there is a single sense of “ideas” that satisfies (3) and (4) is a very good thing. For if we accept both (3) and (4), then for anything we are aware of, our state of awareness will itself be something we are aware of, and any awareness will immediately imply infinitely many levels of higher-order awareness, which is empirically false.

I am not a Reid scholar, however. I might be badly misreading Reid.

Unfelt pains

Here is something everybody should agree on: there are no unfelt pains.

The obviousness and clarity of this strongly suggests:

  1. Pain is the very same concept as awareness of pain.

But if (1) is true, then we should be able to put “awareness of pain” wherever we have “pain”. Thus:

  1. Awareness of pain is the very same concept as awareness of awareness of pain.

And we can repeat the substitution:

  1. Awareness of awareness of pain is the very same concept as awareness of awareness of awareness of pain.

This leads to an endless regress. I won’t worry about that. Instead, I will worry about the fact that from 1–3, the following follows:

  1. Anyone who is in pain is aware of awareness of awareness of awareness of pain.

But 4 is empirically false. It is especially false in the case of intense pains that are so overwhelming as to make the multiple levels of awareness in 4 impossible.

So, we should reject 1. How, then, do we explain why there are no unfelt pains?

I think the answer is to say that “x feels a pain” or “x is aware of a pain” can be understood in two ways:

  1. x is aware of their state of paining

  2. x is paining.

I think that in ordinary usage of “feels a pain”, 6 is the right understanding even if 5 is a more literalistic translation. Given that to be aware of a pain just is to pain, it’s trivial that there are no unfelt pains, since anyone who is in pain is paining just as anybody who is engaged in a dance is dancing.

(If instead we opted for the unordinary sense of 5, then it would be false that everyone who is in pain feels a pain, since one might have the first-order pain without the second-order awareness of that pain.)

So far this sounds like the familiar adverbial theory of perception. But I don’t like the adverbial theory of perception. After all, to feel is to be aware, and to be aware is to be aware of something. What is one aware of when one is feeling pain? The natural answer is that one is aware of pain. But that gets us back to 1–4.

So if it’s not pain we are aware of, and yet we don’t want pure adverbialism for pain, what are we aware of? Thomas Reid noticed that we have a word for the hardness of a physical object, namely “hardness”, but not one for the corresponding phenomenal state. In the case of pain, it seems to me we have the opposite predicament: we have a word for the mental act of sensing, namely “pain”, but no word for the property that the act of sensing represents. (Reid's account here is that pain is a mere sensation, without anything represented, but I don't like that.)

But we have a word that comes pretty close. Anyone who feels pain feels unwell. And to feel unwell is to sense (one’s) unwellness (in a non-factive sense of “to sense”). So to feel pain is to sense a particular kind of unwellness (there are other kinds of unwellness, like the ones sensed in nausea or itching). We don’t have a word for that particular kind of unwellness, though we can describe it as the kind of unwellness that is properly sensed in pain. (By the way, the word for the genus of sensations of unwellness seems to be “discomfort”. Every pain is a discomfort, but nausea and itching are discomforts that aren’t pains.)

Sunday, June 6, 2021

A fun little argument against four-dimensionalism

  1. Spinning a rigid object cannot affect its shape.

  2. If four-dimensionalism is true, spinning a rigid object can affect its shape.

  3. So, four-dimensionalism is not true.

The easiest way to see that 2 is true is to imagine that space is two-dimensional. Then if objects are considered to be extended in time, as the four-dimensionalist says, an object intuitively thought of as a rectangle that stays still is really a rectangular prism, while if that rectangle is spun by 90 degrees, it looks like a twisty thing.

I don’t think it’s too costly to deny 2. And perhaps one can make sense of some notion of internal shape that doesn’t change no matter how a rigid object moves around.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Chrome extension: Blacker Text

Web design has opted for dark grays as opposed to blacks. For a middle-aged person like me, this makes things less pleasant (and perhaps harder, but I don't have the empirical data to show that) to read: the grays not only look dimmer, but also fuzzier to me. So I wrote a simple Chrome extension that automatically snaps near-black colors to black (and near-white to white, for use on dark-mode sites) on all websites, except within links. You can adjust how close you have to be to black (or white) to snap. 

Update: Here is the FireFox version.

The result of using this extension for the last week has been a pleasanter web experience: a lot of sites look crisper, more like reading a book printed with high quality ink on high quality acid-free paper. I miss it on my phone since mobile Chrome doesn't support extensions (I am tempted to switch to a mobile browser that does support extensions, but haven't done so yet).

Eventually, if there is any actual interest in the extension from people other than myself, I may add some per-site options in case some site is broken by this. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Ill-suited matter, form, and immortality

A question I haven’t seen explored much by contemporary neo-Aristotelian metaphysics is that of matter ill-suited to the form. Is it metaphysically possible for a bunch of molecules arranged like a normal oak tree to have the form of a pig? It would be, of course, a very unfortunate pig. Or is some minimal amount of match between the actual arrangement of the molecules and the form needed?

On light-weight neo-Aristotelianism, on which forms are simply structural properties, the answer has got to be negative.

But on heavy-weight neo-Aristotelianism, on which forms are irreducible entities, it seems like there should be no such restrictions. Why couldn’t God unite the form of a pig with a body as of an oak tree, or the form of an oak tree with a body as of a human?

However, supposing that we take such a liberal view on which there is no such thing as matter metaphysically incompatible with a form (presumably pace historical Aristotelians), we then have a puzzle. If it would be metaphysically possible for a pig form to be united to a bunch of organic gases, why is it that when pigs are vaporized, they (we assume) invariably die? Here is my story. Assume for simplicity time is discrete. At each time t, a pig—in virtue of its form—has a causal power to continue existing at the next time. But causal powers have activation conditions. The activation condition for the causal power to continue existing at the next time is an appropriate arrangement of the pig’s body. When the pig’s body becomes so distorted that this activation condition is no longer satisfies, the pig loses the power to go on living. And so it dies. However, of course, God could make it keep on living by a miracle: a miracle can supply what the causal powers of a thing are incapable of.

This account has one somewhat implausible prediction. Suppose that some powerful being instantaneously scatters the molecules of an ordinary pig across the galaxy, so that at t1 we have an ordinary pig and at the next time, t2, the pig molecules are scattered. Because at t1 the pig has a causal power of continuing to exist conditionally on its molecules being appropriately arranged at t1, and this condition is indeed satisfies at t1, the pig will live one moment in scattered condition at t2—and then perish at the next moment, t3.

On this account, external causes do not directly destroy an object. Rather, they destroy the activation condition for the object’s power to continue existing. When that activation condition is destroyed, the object (barring a miracle) ceases to exist. But it has that one last existential hurrah before it falls into nonbeing.

Does it follow that on a heavy-weight Aristotelianism with my story about death, a pig metaphysically could survive the annihilation of its body? I am not sure, but I am inclined to think so. Indeed, I am inclined to think that if we had a normal pig at t1, and then at t2 the matter of the pig were annihilated, the pig would still exist—reduced to an abnormal immateriality—for that one instant of t2, and then, barring a second miracle, it would slide into non-being at t3.

What about us? Well, Aquinas argues for our soul’s natural immortality on the grounds that the human soul has a proper operation that does not depend on the matter, namely pure thought. I have never before been impressed by the move from a proper operation independent of matter to natural immortality, but in my above (neo-Aristotelian but not very Thomistic) setting I see it having significant force. First, we have this question: What are the activation conditions for the human’s power-to-continue-existing? It makes sense that for a being whose only non-existential operations are material, the activation conditions should be purely material. But if a being has a proper operation not dependent on the matter, then it makes perfect sense for the activation conditions of its power-to-continue-existing not to include material conditions. In fact, something stronger can be said. It seems absurd for a thing to have a power to continue thinking whose activation conditions outstrip its power to continue existing. It would be like a power to play soccer without a power to move. So, it seems, if Aquinas is right that we have an immaterial operation, then we have the power to continue existing even absent a body. Of course, God can stop cooperating with any power we have, and if he stopped cooperating with our power-to-continue-existing, then we would stop existing (unless God miraculously sustained us in existence independently of that power!), but naturally we would continue to exist. Assuming, of course, Thomas is right about us having a proper operation that does not depend on matter, which is a different question.

(And unlike Thomas, I think we have immortality, not just our souls.)

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Hermes in the marble

A substance’s existence does not ontologically depend on the state of anything beyond the substance. But a typical artifact depends on absences of materials beyond itself. A classic example is a statue that comes into existence when the surrounding marble is removed. The statue’s existence is grounded in part in the absence of the surrounding marble. Similarly, even if a knife blade is made by forging rather than by removal of material, one can destroy the blade by encasing it in a block of steel: the existence of the knife is grounded in part in the absence of surrounding steel.

Thus, it seems, typical artifacts are not substances.

But this argument was too quick. What if the laws of nature are such that the following is true? When the sculptor chips away the surrounding marble to make the Hermes, a non-physical component, a form, of the Hermes comes into existence. That form is united with the Hermes’ matter. And what makes the statue be itself is not the absence of surrounding matter, but the presence of the form. It may be that by the laws of nature the form only comes into existence as a result of the removal of material, but it would be logically possible for the form to come into existence without any removal: the statue causally but not ontologically depends on the absence of surrounding material. God could make the statue within the block of marble, without any removal of material, simply by creating a form for a Hermes-arranged subset of marble molecules.

(One could also have a non-Aristotelian version of this account in terms of Markosian’s brute theory of composition.)

I think the above Aristotelian story is implausible. One reason is that the story conflicts with our intuitions as to the survival conditions for artifacts. A statue is essentially a statue. But the Hermes-shaped bundle of atoms in the block marble, even if distinguished by a metaphysical union with a form, are not a statue. Maybe God could make a form for these atoms, but it wouldn’t be the form of an artifact.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Riots and textualism

I keep on wondering about how it is that legislators seem to be completely oblivious to obvious counterexamples. Take the definition of a riot in Texas law:

For the purpose of this section, “riot” means the assemblage of seven or more persons resulting in conduct which: (1) creates an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons; (2) substantially obstructs law enforcement or other governmental functions or services; or (3) by force, threat of force, or physical action deprives any person of a legal right or disturbs any person in the enjoyment of a legal right.

Note some curious things. First, there is no restriction in (1) to unauthorized damage to property. Thus, a team of seven demolishing an old building or a party of seven friends eating up a pizza constitute a riot, no matter how sedately they go about their business.

Second, neither is there a restriction to reasonably expected danger to property or persons. Thus, it counts as a riot when seven people walk on an unsound bridge, even when they do not know the bridge to be unsound. Fortunately, in this case, although the definition of a riot is satisfied, such participation in a riot is not an offense, since according to the what comes later, it’s only an offense when one “knowingly participates in a riot”.

There are counterexamples to (2) as well. Thus, consider a team of seven building inspectors who inform a local government office that the office walls are full of black mold. As a result, the office closes for a week while relocating to a temporary location. The conduct of the building inspectors substantially obstructed “governmental functions or services”.

Maybe governments should have bug trackers for laws, aimed solely at cases where the law’s wording does not match the intent.

Or maybe this is just an argument for originalism over textualism in legislative interpretation. One assumes that the Texas legislature did not wish to criminalize the consumption of a meal by seven or more people, even if the plain sense of the words classifies such consumption as a riot. (Though there is a potentially tricky interpretive question in the “knowingly participates in a riot”. Is it enough to know that one’s conduct satisfies conditions (1), (2) or (3), or does one have to know explicitly that it satisfies the definition of a “riot”. A typical group of seven people eating a meal do know that the food they eat is property that is being destroyed, but unless they are lawyers or law geeks, they don’t know that the law classifies such destruction as a riot. Perhaps the legislature wished to outlaw meals had by seven or more lawyers or law geeks?)

Friday, May 28, 2021

Behaviors that look like risk aversion but aren't

Technically, risk aversion is the phenomenon of valuing risky propositions at a value lower than their expected value. But I think in ordinary use of the phrase “risk averse”, we mean something different.

I consider myself a pretty risk-averse individual. Not infrequently, when I consider the possibility of myself or a child engaging in some activity, I spend a significant amount of time looking up the data on the risks of that activity, and comparing those to risks of other activities. And I spend time worrying about bad things that might happen. Thus, even though deaths from brain-eating amoebae are very rare (one per 1.2 years in Texas), if I were to swim with head submersion in a Texas lake or river, I know I would worry for the next week and a half (especially if I had anything approximating the symptoms of an amoeba infection, say a crick in the neck) in a way that would make the swim not have been worth it.

But while both my risk-investigation and risk-worrying make me “risk averse” in the ordinary sense, neither makes me clearly risk averse in the technical sense.

For risk-investigation behavior to count as risk averse in the technical sense, it would have to be that the expected value of the results of the investigation is lower than the value of the time I am willing to invest in the investigation. Whether this is true is a difficult to say. Sometimes at least the investigation concerns an activity that, if engaged in, would likely be engaged in repeatedly. In such a case, it might well be worth-while to devote a fair amount of time to investigating the risk-profile of the activity. If my child were to play soccer, they would likely be playing soccer for multiple years, each time undertaking the concussion risks from heading the ball (I would not allow a child of mine to play soccer unless I knew they were willing to consistently stand up to their coach and refuse to head the ball). The cost of spending an hour or two looking at sports-medicine research does not seem to be excessive as compared to the expected value of making a less-informed versus a more-informed decision. Moreover, the investigation itself is often interesting—I learn things that are interesting to know that offset much if not all the cost of the investigation. Finally, if the investigation leads to the conclusion that the risks of an activity are low, my future worries will be less.

Risk-worrying, on the other hand, does not even prima facie classify one as risk averse in the technical sense. Positive and negative emotional outcomes of a decision are simply a part of the utilities. Suppose that I am willing to pay $10 in order to avoid a situation where I have a 0.5 chance of losing $1000 and a 0.5 chance of gaining $1000, because if I don’t pay, I will worry that I will lose $1000. In that case, paying the $10 has an expected disvalue of $10, while not paying has an expected disvalue of $0 plus the disvalue of my negative emotional state. That emotional state might well be worth paying $10 to avoid, but if so, there is nothing risk averse in the technical sense about this decision.

So, some of the behaviors that intuitively would classify one as risk averse do not in fact show one to be risk averse in the technical sense. It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between those behaviors, however, and risk aversion in the technical sense. There might be.

A related interesting empirical question is how to tell technical risk aversive behavior apart from simply taking worry-like states into account in one’s expected utility calculations. I think it can be done. For instance, if my main reason for avoiding risks is the disvalue of worrying, then I will be less willing to take risks that are resolved in the distant future than to take risks that are resolved in the near future. For with the distant risks, I have more time to worry, while the near risks will be resolved quickly, so the total amount of worry should be rather less. Interestingly, most people aren’t like that: they are more risk-avoidant in the case of immediately resolving risks than in the case of risks with temporally distant resolution. Hence, their risk avoidance is not based on simply rationally weighing the disvalue of worrying.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

What I think of ontological nihilism

A commenter asked me what I thought of ontological nihilism, the view that there are no subjects. Here’s what I think: Everybody who accepts this view is wrong.

  1. Ontological nihilism is true or false.

  2. If ontological nihilism is true, nobody exists.

  3. If nobody exists, then there is nobody who accepts ontological nihilism.

  4. If nobody accepts ontological nihilism, then everyone who accepts ontological nihilism is wrong.

  5. So, if ontological nihilism is true, then everyone who accepts it is wrong. (2-4)

  6. If ontological nihilism is false, then everyone who accepts it is wrong.

  7. So, everyone who accepts ontological nihilism is wrong. (1,5,6)

Monday, May 24, 2021


In his famous critique of the ontological argument, Kant said that existence is not a property. Frege and Russell gave a very influential response to Kant (though not framed as such): the existence of an object is not a property of the existent object, but it is a second-order property of an abstract object. Thus, the existence of Biden is the second-order property of being instantiated possessed not by Biden himself but by the abstract object Bidenness.

But now consider this very plausible principle:

  1. The existence of an object is explanatorily prior to all the (other) properties of that object.

The parenthetical “other” is included to make (1) acceptable both to Frege-Russell and to “pre-Kantians” who think existence is a property of the existent object.

But combining (1) with the Frege-Russell account leads to an explanatory priority regress:

  • Biden’s maleness is posterior to Biden’s existence.

  • Biden’s existence is Bidenness’s being instantiated.

  • Bidenness’s being instantiated is posterior to Bidenness’s existence.

  • Bidenness’s existence is Bidennessness’s being instantiated.

  • Bidennessness’s being instantiated is posterior to Bidennessness’s existence.

  • Bidennessness’s existence is Bidennessnessness’s being instantiated.

How can we arrest this regress? A natural move is to restrict the Frege-Russell view of existence to contingent entities. Thus, Biden’s existence is the instantiation of Bidenness, but Bidenness is a necessary entity, and its existence is not the instantiation of some further entity. Indeed, perhaps, the pre-Kantian view holds of Bidenness: Bidenness’s existence could just be a property of Bidenness.

Note that if the pre-Kantian view holds of necessary beings, then Kant’s critique of the ontological argument falls apart, since God is a necessary being.

But let’s think through the pre-Kantian view a little bit. Suppose that x is an object and e is its existence, and suppose e is a property of x. But how can x possess e without already existing prior to having e? (I.e., surely, (1) is true with the parenthetical “other” removed.) There seems to be one possible move here: perhaps x = e. That would be a view on which some objects are identical with their own existence—a view very much like St. Thomas’s, who held that God, and God alone, was identical with his own existence.

So, interestingly, thinking the Frege-Russell view through leads fairly naturally to a view like Thomas’s.

I am attracted to this variant of the Thomistic view:

  1. Uncaused objects are identical with their existence.

  2. The existence of a caused object is its being caused.

The worry that an object cannot possess a property without “already” existing does not appear pressing when the property in question is being caused.

Moreover, we might even more speculatively add:

  1. An object’s being caused is its cause’s causing of it.

On this view, a contingent thing’s existence, like on the Frege-Russell view, is a property of something other than the thing: it is a property of the cause (perhaps an extrinsic property of the cause, when the cause is God, so as not to violate divine simplicity).

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Contrast, Serif and Justify

I was trying to read Locke online, but was annoyed by the fact that the font was dark gray instead of black and sans serif, neither of which is great for extended reading. So I made two bookmarklets: Contrast and Serif. Just drag them to your bookmark bar and click on them to run them on a page. The Contrast one snaps all fonts to white or black (depending on background color) or blue (if it's a link) and adjusts near-black/white page backgrounds to black/white.

Update 1: Justify may also help. And, finally, Reader combines all three functions.

Update 2: Sepia is sometimes nice.

Update 3: See also my Blacker Text extension.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Cartesian-style ontological arguments

Cartesian-style ontological arguments run like this:

  1. God has all perfections.

  2. Existence is a perfection.

  3. So, God exists.

These arguments are singularly unconvincing. Here is a simple reason they are unconvincing. Suppose we are undecided on whether there are any leprechauns and, if so, whether they have a king, and someone tells us:

  1. The leprechaun king is very magical.

This sure sounds plausible in a certain frame of mind, and we may accept it. When we accept (4), while remaining undecided on whether there are leprechauns and, if so, whether they have a king, what we are accepting seems to be the conditional:

  1. If the leprechaun king exists, he is very magical.

By analogy, when the agnostic accepts (1), it seems they are accepting the conditional:

  1. If God exists, God has all perfections.

Given premise (2), we can conclude:

  1. If God exists, God exists.

But every atheist accepts (7).

It seems to make little difference if in (2) we replace “existence” with “necessary existence”. For then we just get:

  1. If God exists, God necessarily exists.

That’s not quite as trivial as (7), but doesn’t seem to get us any closer to the existence of God.

The above seems to perfectly capture why it is that Cartesian-style ontological arguments are unconvincing.

Even if the above is adequate as a criticism of Cartesian-style ontological arguments, I think there is still an interesting question of what sort of a conditional we have in (5)–(8)?

It’s not a material conditional, for then (5) would be trivially true given that there are no leprechauns, while (5) is non-trivially true.

Should it be a subjunctive conditional, like “If the leprechaun king existed, he would be very magical”? I don’t think so. For suppose that in the closest possible leprechaun world to ours, for some completely accidental reason, the leprechaun king is very magical, but in typical possible worlds with leprechauns, leprechaun kings are are actually rather a dud with regard to magicality. Then it’s true that if the leprechaun king existed, he would be very magical, but that shouldn’t lead us to say that the leprechaun king is very magical.

Perhaps it should be a strict conditional: “Necessarily, if the leprechaun king exists, he is very magical.” That actually sounds fairly plausible, and in light of this we would actually want to deny (4). For it is not necessary that the leprechaun king be very magical. But if we take it to be a strict conditional, we still have a triviality problem. Imagine an atheist who thinks that God is impossible. Then the strict conditional

  1. Necessarily, if God exists, God has all perfections

is true, but so is:

  1. Necessarily, if God exists, God has exactly 65% of the perfections.

But while it seems that our atheist would be likely to want to say that God has all perfections (indeed, that might be a part of why the atheist thinks God necessarily does not exist, for instance because they think that the perfections are contradictory), it doesn’t sound right to say that God has exactly 65% of the perfections, even if you think that necessarily there is no God.

I think the best bet is to make the conditional be a strict relevant conditional:

  1. Necessarily and relevantly, if God exists, God has all perfections.

It is interesting to ask whether (11) helps Cartesian-style ontological arguments. Given (11), if all goes well (it’ll depend on the modal relevance logic) we should get:

  1. Necessarily and relevantly, if God exists, God exists.

That sounds right but is of no help. We also get:

  1. Necessarily and relevantly, if God exists, God necessarily exists.

Again, that sounds right, and is less trivial, but still doesn’t seem to get us to the existence of God, barring some clever argument.