Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Excluded Middle and an Open Future

Some people deny the Law of Excluded Middle (LEM--for all p, p or not-p) because they are convinced it leads to fatalism. But they really shouldn't deny LEM.

Suppose Helga is convinced that utilitarianism is true. You offer Helga a reductio argument against utilitarianism on the assumption that the hedonistic theory of happiness holds and another reductio argument against utilitarianism on the assumption that the hedonistic theory of happiness does not hold. Helga accepts both reductios and comes to deny hedonistic utilitarianism and non-hedonistic utilitarianism, but continues to accept utilitarianism. Pressed on how Helga's new position squares with logic, Helga asserts that based on her belief that utilitarianism holds, and her new beliefs that if hedonism holds, utilitarianism is not true, and if hedonism doesn't hold, utilitarianism is not true, she has concluded that LEM does not hold. There seems to be something irrational about this. Surely, she should either find fault with at least one of the reductios or abandon her belief in utilitarianism. It is hard to imagine premsies whose plausibility should trump LEM.

Arguments the depend on LEM are not, I think, uncommon in philosophy. If Molinism is true, evil and the existence of God are compatible (by Plantinga's free will defense). If Molinism is not true, evil and the existence of God are compatible (by Adams' free will defense). Hence, evil and the existence of God are compatible. It is pretty likely that Helga uses LEM-based arguments in other contexts, and it is pretty likely that the defender of the Open Future who denies LEM also uses LEM in other contexts.

Could they both say that LEM applies in some contexts (e.g., non-normative ones in Helga's case, or in ones that do not involve the future in the freedom case) but not others? Yes. But once we denied the plausible view that LEM follows from the meaning of the words "or" and "not", and denied the general intuition that between p and not-p tertium non datur, it seems that we have undercut the grounds we could have for thinking LEM holds even in those contexts in which it is supposed to hold in. Besides, the defender of the Open Future who denies LEM presumably does so on the basis of something like a temporalized modal logic according to which if p already holds, then not-p is no longer possible. But surely the principles of classical non-temporal non-modal logic are more plausible and more deeply embedded in our thinking than those of temporalized modal logic.

Anyway, it seems much better to hold on to LEM, and just deny the principle that if not(will(p)), then will(not-p), where "will(p)" means p will hold. The principle that if not(will(p)), then will(not-p) is a dubious one if we see "will" as a modal-type operator, maybe akin to "would" except for being a one-place operator, and that is precisely how we will see "will" if we have presentist or growing-block intuitions. Moreover, it is a principle that is less central to our thinking than LEM, particularly because it applies only to our thinking about the future, while LEM applies to all our thinking. It seems clear to me that this is what the person impressed by the argument for logical fatalism should say, boldly holding that there is a fact of the matter whether Jones will mow the lawn tomorrow: it is false that Jones will mow the lawn tomorrow, just as it is false that he will fail to mow the lawn tomorrow. And God's omniscience will be unrestricted: he knows that it is false that Jones will mow the lawn and that it is false that he will not mow the lawn.

Of course, it's best to hold on to both LEM and if not(will(p)), then will(not-p).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Distinguishing the A- and B-theories

It is not so easy to state a clear distinction between the A- and B-theories of time. One says things like: "According to the A-theory, there is an objective past, present and future". But although I've used formulations like this, I've cringed when doing so, because of various problems.

So, let me propose a different characterization: The A-theorist holds that at different times we inhabit different possible worlds, while the B-theorist denies this.

This formulation makes the A-theory seem implausible--according to the A-theory, interworld travel is possible, since if we wait, we will end up in a different world from the one we're in. Nonetheless, I think this formulation is right, follows from the "objective past, present and future" formulation insofar as we can understand it, and the A-theorist should agree with it. Consider that a world includes or encodes everything that is objectively the case, and if something is objectively the case at w1 but not at w2, then w1 and w2 are different worlds. According to the A-theorist, the difference between some event's being future or past is objective. So, if we consider the world we'll be in in ten minutes, there will be objective differences--some events that now are future will then be past. Hence, it's a different world.

Another reason the A-theorist should embrace this is that it allows one to neatly characterize the difference between A-theories with an open future and A-theories without an open future. On A-theories with an open future, for a future time t, there is a minimal set W(t) of worlds such that it is a fact that the world at t will be one of the members of W(t), and typically W(t) has more than one member. On A-theories without an open future, for any future time t, there is a unique world wt such that it is a fact that the world at t will be wt.

There is, however, an alternative to the above approach for the A-theorist. The argument for my characterization of the A-theory depended on the claim that possible worlds do not change. The A-theorist could deny that. But I think it would be an implausible denial. Possiible worlds are like propositions. They are abstracta, not spatiotemporal entities. They do not change. There is change in a possible world, just as there is change in a novel (i.e., in what the world or novel describes), but the world itself does not change, just as a novel itself need not change (it might, if it gets revised or destroyed, but that's a dififerent change from the change in the novel).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Emotions and the spiritual life

To say that love is a feeling and the like is really an un-Christian conception. This is the esthetic definition of love and therefore fits the erotic and everything of that nature. But from the Christian point of view love is the work of love. Christ's love was not intense feeling, a full heart, etc.; it was rather the work of love, which is his life. - Soren Kierkegaard, Journal X.1 A 489 (1849)
If you make use of your reason, you are like one who eats substantial food; but if you are moved by the satisfaction of your will, you are like one who eats insipid fruit. - St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, 46.

The view that feelings, emotions and desires are irrelevant to the moral life has fallen on hard times. Defenders of Kant go out of their way to argue that Kant held no such view (and are probably right to do so), as if holding such a view were a terrible disqualification. The idea that on some moral view it is better to visit a friend out of a consciousness of duty than out of friendly feeling is taken as a reductio of that view. Typical utilitarians ground the moral life in feelings, emotions and desires (happiness is taken to be pleasure or the satisfaction of desire). Aristotelians see the process of moral growth as in large part a process of making one's feelings, emotions and desires conform to moral reality--feeling to do virtuous deeds and all that.

On the other hand, there are significant strands of the Christian spiritual tradition that say that feelings, emotions and desires are irrelevant at least for those who are no longer beginners in the spiritual life (e.g., St. John of the Cross), or bad since they distract us from purely spiritual contemplation (e.g., many but not all the Desert Fathers). And much of the Christian spiritual tradition recognizes feelings, emotions and desires as often dangerous and distracting. It is tempting to dismiss these pronouncements as flowing out of a mistaken view of human nature, out of neo-Platonic intellectualism, and sometimes these pronouncements do indeed thus flow, but it is worth remembering that many of the spiritual writers are very empirical. They see in their own lives and the lives of others around them what works and what does not work in the task of submitting every deed and every thought to God, of doing everything out of love alone.

I do not dispute the claim that human perfection includes perfection of the emotions, feeling and desires, that it is good to feel compassion for the suffering, that it is good to desire what is good and to desire to avoid evil, that it is good to enjoy virtuous activity, and all that. But I think we need to be careful to hold on to the truths contained in the parts of the spiritual tradition that are much more cautious in approaching to the emotional life, especially in light of how empirically grounded the wisdom of this tradition is. The Desert Fathers were not theoreticians--they lived in the desert, they weaved baskets, they struggled with temptation, they guided and were guided.

In our fallen state, our feelings and desires do lead us astray. Making a habit of visiting friends out of the pleasure of their company, rather than out of the duty of friendship, may well make it more probably that we will not visit them when the visit is not pleasant. The six lesser deadly sins--lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath and envy--are all grounded in particular emotions. And at least some instances of pride are so as well. Now it is possible to fight these deadly sins by developing a more balanced emotional life, fighting gluttony with a deep emotional appreciation of moderation, fighting sloth by developing a balanced appreciation of good work, and so on, and indeed in the state of human perfection the virtues opposed to the deadly sins would have such emotional components, it is far from clear that this is the most effective way of fighting the deadly sins. It may be for some of them--thus, developing an appreciation of goods happening to others might be the best way to fight envy. But for others, something like the ideal of ataraxia, being unmoved by feelings and pleasures, might be rather more effective.

And then there is the wisdom of John of the Cross. Popular stereotype would not make one think of this passionate Spanish mystic as a defender of the centrality of reason to the Christian life. But in five separate Sayings of Light and Love, St. John indicates that what is most pleasing to God is that we act in accordance with reason, regardless of our feelings. And this is essential once one recognizes--as the lives of holy men and women like John of the Cross and Teresa of Calcutta abundantly show--that a dark night is a crucial part of spiritual maturation, a night in which most of the feelings that move the beginner in the spiritual life are absent. In the dark night, if one is to survive, one has no choice but to do what is right by reason, which reason is enlightened by the dark light of faith.

Feelings, emotions and desires are useful to the beginner in both the spiritual and the moral life. In the spiritual life, they make easy sacrifices that need to be made, which sacrifices one is not yet mature enough to make on the grounds of reasonable love alone. Love, of course, is not a feeling, emotion or desire--it is a committed determination of the will towards the good of and union with the beloved. There are emotions characteristic of love, but they are not always present with love. In the moral life, we may need moral feelings to help us come to the truth about things. Our repulsion at killing may help us come to accept that we ought not to commit murder. Altruistic helpfulness may help us to come to accept that we have duties towards neighbor. But once we have the truth about the moral life, this helpfulness is radically diminished, and the fallible emotions may in fact often be more harm than good, at least in this earthly life. (And, of course, if we have the Catholic faith, then we basically have the truth about the central aspects of our moral life, and we can derive many other truths from that.)

So I think that the Desert Fathers who embraced ataraxia--"affectlessness", we might translate it--as an ideal were wrong about human nature as it is ultimately meant to be, but it is far from clear that they were wrong, or at least far wrong, about the best way to proceed given what fallen nature is like.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Love and benevolence

There are two fairly standard claims about love:

  1. benevolence--willing the good--towards the beloved is an essential component of love, and
  2. love gives one the reason par excellence to benefit the beloved.
Now this may be obvious to some readers, who will simply reflect on my ignorance when reading this, but it is only today has it occurred to me that the two claims stand in some tension. Nothing can cause either itself or an essential part of itself (my body can cause my teeth to grow, because teeth are not essential parts of the body). Likewise, how can an attitude justify an essential part of itself?

As usual in the case of such a tension, there are four options available. Discarding both (1) and (2) is implausible.

Frankfurt in effect discards (1)--it is care, but not benevolence, that is an essential part of love on his view, and this care justifies the benevolence. But this is implausible, as it seems to imply that one could love someone and at the same time will the worst evils for one's beloved. Even if one adds a claim that justice towards the beloved is a component of love, still the idea that one could fail to will anything for one's beloved, despite the opportunity to do so, and still count as loving is implausible. Also, such a view is incompatible with the Christian idea that love fulfills the law--a love that does not imply some benevolence does not fulfill the moral law.

One could discard (2) but keep (1). On this view, I think one will end up saying that it is not love that justifies benevolence, but whatever it is that justifies the love likewise justifies the benevolence that is a part of this love. Another attractive feature of this view is that if one explains why one made some sacrifice for Bobby, and one says: "Bobby is my son and I love him", the "and I love him" is one thought too much--it is the sonship that justifies both the love and the sacrifice that is a part of the love. If one hates Bobby, one still has reason to make that sacrifice. I like this view a lot.

One could just be careful and hold on to both (1) and (2). Thus, some benevolence will be an essential part of love, and the love will then justify further benevolence. But what justifies the bit of benevolence that forms an essential part of love, and why does it not also justify all the benevolence by itself? Suppose our proposal is that the initial bit of benevolence is justified by the fact that we're all children of God, or that if something is good for x then it is good and hence it is worth promoting, or some other general claim like that. But such a fact seems to equally give one a reason for unlimited benevolence. Moreover, let "love*" be the aspects of love beyond the bit of benevolence that is an essential part of love (maybe love* is appreciation and/or a desire for union). Then, ex hypothesi, love* plus the little bit of benevolence justifies more benevolence. But it is not clear how a little bit of benevolence can help justify more benevolence. So, then, it seems it is love* that justifies the extra benevolence. But if so, then it is not love, properly speaking, that justifies the extra benevolence, but love*.

Perhaps one can combine the best of the last two views. Whatever it is that justifies the love justifies all the benevolence involved in the love. However, the love creates an additional reason for continued benevolence, and after the initial moment of love, the benevolence is rationally overdetermined. Thus, "Bobby is my son and I love him" correctly states two distinct reasons for making a sacrifice for Bobby, but is felt to be one thought too many because of an implicature that if one did not love Bobby, one wouldn't have the reason. This seems to be the best view.

Disinterested love

Someone sent me a link to this really nice discussion by John Crosby of disinterested love and von Hildebrand. The idea is that it is a misunderstanding of the nature of the person to think that our love should seek no return. (Of course, in a way, this should be obvious to a Christian, since God's love is the paradigm of love, and God's love for us is precisely manifested in the lengths to which he goes to--including death on the cross--in order to get us to reciprocate.)

What does a duty to love imply?

Suppose x has a duty to love y. Suppose A is an action such that if x loves y, then x is obligated to A. Does it logically follow x is obligated to A from the fact that x ought to love y?

In general not (this is a basic pattern of argument in Mark Murphy's divine authority book). After all, "x ought to G; if x Gs, then x ought to H; therefore x ought to H" is logically invalid. Besides, if x loves y, then x ought to say that x loves y when asked about it by y. But it is false that if merely ought to love y, then x ought to say that x loves y when asked about it by y; x should only say that if it is true.

But there may be particular cases where the inference is valid. For instance, it may be that if x has a duty to G, and H* is incompatible with and opposed to G, then x ought not to H*. Getting clear on the idea of how actions or attitudes can be opposed to one another is a non-trivial task, but there seem to be clear cases. Willing a basic evil to someone (say, death or stupidity or vice) seems to be opposed to love. So if x has a duty to love y, then x ought not to will a basic evil to y.

Are there some positive duties that logically follow from x's being obliged to love y? Consider the notion of a strongly loving action as a loving action that entails the presence of at least some love and that is such that whenever it is done, it is at least partially constitutive of love. The motivation is going to be essential to a strongly loving action (e.g., giving someone a glass of water can be a strongly loving action if guided by some motives, but not if it is guided by other motives). It seems that if x is obliged to love y, then because love is tied to action, x is obliged to engage in some strongly loving actions (what if x can't? but x always can--we can always at least wish well to people, and wishing is a kind of action, too).

Switching around quantifiers to get a stronger claim: Are there maybe some strongly loving actions that x is obliged to engage in? Presumably, yes--those actions refraining from which would be opposed to the love which is obligatory. What are those? It may depend on the kind of love that is obligatory between x and y. If y is God, and x is not God, obedience might be like that.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Does evolutionary theory exclude miraculous divine intervention?

I shall argue that current evolutionary theory (ET) is compatible with the Intervention Claim (IC) that some biological facts about the development of species are explained by one or more miraculous divine interventions at some point in evolutionary history. This implies that evolution is compatible with at least some of the controversial conclusions of interventionist ID.

Now the argument. We can take "evolutionary theory" to have two parts: a concrete and a general part. The concrete part consists of a constantly growing number of specific evolutionary histories explaining the development of particular features of particular organisms, of their geographical distribution, etc., each history having a particular template, in which natural selection tends to play a prominent, but not exclusive, role. The general part will be discussed below.

Two independent arguments now show that IC is compatible with the concrete part of current ET. First, IC merely claims that some biological facts are explained by divine intervention. But the concrete part of current ET does not give evolutionary histories for all features of all organisms. Thus, even if all of the evolutionary histories that form the concrete part of current ET are correct, nonetheless IC might be true, because it could be that an organism or feature for which an evolutionary history is not given by the concrete part of current ET in fact developed through divine intervention. (By the way, in case it is tempting to run an inductive argument from the concrete part of current ET for the claim that every biological feature can be explained without divine intervention, that temptation should abate after thinking about my duct tape parable.)

Secondly, the evolutionary histories involve mutation and recombination, but are mostly agnostic about the precise causes of mutation and of particular recombinations. ET is compatible with determinism, so the histories do not include the claim that mutation and recombination was random or unexplainable. We now know some of the sources of mutation and some of the causal processes involved in recombination, but we would not be so rash as to say that we know all of these sources and processes, and neither would ET be falsified by finding new ones, nor do particular evolutionary histories identify particular causes of mutation or recombination (this particular molecule was hit by this particular cosmic ray, which was emitted by this star, etc.) Therefore, the evolutionary histories are compatible with miracles being involved in the explanation of a particular mutation or recombination event, miracles such as God shifting a molecule around. Certainly, even if some very rare evolutionary history identifies the cause of, say, a mutation event as, say, the impact of a cosmic ray, the history is surely not going to say anything about the particular source of this cosmic ray, and hence will be logically compatible with the claim that, say, God miraculously redirected a cosmic ray to hit this particular molecule at this particular angle.

So we have two arguments for the compatibility of the concrete parts of ET with IC. What about the general part of ET? This makes some sweeping claims, such as that all living things on earth have developed from a single ancestor organism. Now this general claim is compatible with IC, which simply claims that some aspects of the development involved miracles. Now, if ET claimed that all of the biological development from the ancestor organism can be explained in terms of natural selection, then ET would be incompatible with IC. But ET makes no such claim. Indeed, opponents of evolutionary theory are sometimes accused of conflating evolution with natural selection. In modern evolutionary theory, adaptive explanation plays a prominent role, but not an exclusive one. There are other mechanisms involved. To give just one example, one might explain something's arising as a spandrel.

The general part of current ET does not claim to list all of the kinds of processes that were involved in the development from the single ancestor organism to the present biological population on earth. It probably does claim that natural selection was one of the most explanatorily prominent, or maybe even the most prominent one, of these processes. But that claim does not conflict logically with IC, since IC does not claim that miraculous divine intervention was the most important force in biological history. IC does not claim that there was miraculous divine intervention in every organism's history, but even if it were to claim that, this would be compatible with the claim that it is not the explanatorily most prominent part of the development. (Consider a view: God had a plan, and he occasionally made minor tweaks so that things would come out as he wanted.) Thus, IC is not incompatible with the general claims of current ET, if we read these charitably as not including an exhaustive list of the explanatory mechanisms involved.

Objection 1: The general part of ET does include a restriction on the mechanisms involved--it says that these processes are naturalistic.

Response: ET is a scientific theory. It is not a part of a scientific theory to say things like:
(*) "Event E happened by means of some natural cause or other."
It is the part of a scientific theory to say things like:
(**) "Event E happened by means of at least one of the following natural causes: C1, C2, C3."
We can see what kind of evidence is relevant to (**) (e.g., evidence that a random sampling of events like E had them all caused by C1, C2 and/or C3). We cannot see what sort of evidence would be relevant to (*), apart from the bare fact that E happened. Scientific theories have some specificity--they do not simply say that something happened due to some cause or other, and neither do they simply say that something happened due to some natural cause or other. In fact, it seems to me that a decisive argument against calling Intelligent Design in general a scientific theory lies in its lack of specificity:
(***) "An intelligent agent (of some sort or other) intervened (somewhere) in the history of the world (on account of some set of motives or other) to bring about event E."
But (*) is worse than (***) in respect of specificity. We should not, thus, take claims like (*) to be a part of ET.

Objection 2: An axiom in evolutionary theory is that there is no positive correlation between the occurrence of a mutation and the resulting fitness of an organism. This implies that IC is false, since if IC were true, then mutations more likely to make the organism more fit would be more probable, since God would be more likely to miraculously produce them.

Response: Intuitively, there will be more mutations that decrease fitness than those that increase it. (Think of a computer program, and changing a bit of code randomly. Most of the time, it'll either have no effect or the program will crash.) The number of mutations in the history of the world is very, very large. I could estimate this with some data about mutation rates per basepair per generation, but rather than tracking down that data, let's just say it's 1015--it's going to be much higher than that. IC only claims that there are some miraculous interventions. Let's say there are seven (I am only arguing for logical compatibility of IC and contemporary ET, so I can make up a number here). That is going to be such a tiny fraction of the mutations in the biological history of our planet, that it will still be true that the majority of mutations that make a difference make a negative difference to fitness, and hence it will still be true that there is no positive correlation between fitness and mutation.

Moreover, this will be such a tiny fraction of the number of mutations in the history of the world that any effect it has on overall statistics of mutations is going to be well within very narrow error bounds, so any statistical claims about mutations will still be true. I take it we make no statistical claims of the form "exactly x percent of mutations have property P", but rather ones like "approximately x percent of mutations have property P", and variation of seven out of, say, 1015 mutations, given that the total is so great, is not going to affect the truth of such claims.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cosmological Argument

The notes for my last graduate lecture on the Cosmological Argument are available here. I am posting this link here because I think these notes might be useful to other people--they summarize where I think the state of the art is at.

Duct tape and naturalism

A parable

Fred buys a used car in terrible shape. Off the top of his head, he can see a dozen problems with it: the window is cracked, the engine doesn't start, the window washer liquid line is leaking, the steering is gone, etc. He knows little about how cars work, but some things are obvious. He takes a roll of duct tape, and immediately fixes three problems: puts lots of tape on the window to keep the glass in place, patches the window washer liquid line, etc. With a bit more thought, he can find three more of the twelve problems that, with some ingenuity, he can fix with duct tape. While doing this, he discovers two new problems with the car. He then struggles and struggles, and with a great deal of cleverness manages to fix a steering shaft broken in half with just duct tape. He is really proud of his solution--it involved stretching the duct tape very, very thin, then put down many thin layers of duct tape over the break, and finally melt the layers together, with that the resulting shaft having almost the strength of unbroken steel.

So now Fred knows of 14 problems with his car, of which he's fixed seven with duct tape. Question: How much reason does Fred have to think that he can fix all the remaining problem--the seven he knows of plus whatever ones he would discover while fixing those--with duct tape as his only material? Answer: Very little (particularly if he notices that the reason the engine doesn't start is because there is no spark plug). One might try an inductive argument: all of these particular seven problems were solvable with duct tape, and hence so are the others. But this argument fails due to an egregious bias in sampling: the seven problems just are the problems that Fred found himself capable of solving with duct tape. They were selected for their solvability. The other problems are ones that Fred couldn't see how to solve with duct tape.

Likewise, if we ask whether Fred has much reason to think that of the remaining solvable car problems, the solutions all involve only duct tape, the answer is negative, for exactly the same sampling bias problem. We may, however, have some inductive data that of the remaining car problems solvable by Fred, the solutions will all be based on duct tape, since it seems that Fred doesn't know any other way to solve problems.


Consider this argument for naturalism: We've been able to solve many, many explanatory problems naturalistically. Hence, the many remaining explanatory problems which we do not at this point know the answer to are also solvable naturalistically if they are solvable at all, and naturalism is true.

The same reason that the argument for Fred's ability to solve the other problems with duct tape was bad shows that this is a bad argument. The set of problems that we've solved naturalistically is not a random sampling of the explanatory problems. Rather, it just is the set of problems that we've solved naturalistically.

One might try to strengthen the argument for naturalism by adding that no explanatory problems we know of have non-naturalistic solutions, and concluding, inductively, that all the explanatory problems that have solutions have naturalistic solutions, which could be enough to make naturalism plausible. But this argument becomes question-begging against typical non-naturalists who claim that they have non-naturalistic solutions to a number of vexing problems (intentionality, free will, normativity, the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, the origin of space-time, the origin of mass-energy, the origin of contingent things, etc.) Moreover, even if all of those can be argued not to work, it could well be the case that the problems that have non-naturalistic solutions are much harder to solve, perhaps even are not solvable by humans; nor is this some ad hoc posit, but simply comes from the that fact non-naturalistic things are not amenable to empirical study. Thus even if it were true that all the explanatory problems that we have solved have naturalistic solutions, it would not give us much reason to believe that all explanatory questions that have answers--including those that have answers that are beyond our capabilities--have naturalistic answers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Might Intelligent Design turn out to be right?

I am going to argue that for all anybody knows, evolutionary science might develop in such a way that an Intelligent Design (ID) argument would be plausible. Hence, while one might well be justified in saying that ID arguments right now do not work, one is not justified in saying that future ID arguments won't work given a fully developed evolutionary science. Moreover, our current state of biological knowledge, interpreted in an uncontroversial and friendly way, gives us relatively little, if any, reason to accept the claim that ID arguments won't work given a fully developed evolutionary science. (In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I do not think any extant ID argument succeeds in establishing the existence of a designer.)

I shall understand a successful ID argument for a design hypothesis H (say, that God has designed the world) to be an argument that starts with some biological fact F about the world going over and beyond the mere existence of life, a fact such as that the world contains intelligent life, or that the world contains the mammalian eye, or that the world contains highly complex organisms, and then argues:

  1. F is very unlikely to happen if the only processes in play are those of evolutionary biology.
  2. F is not unlikely to happen on the relevant design hypothesis H.
  3. Therefore, F provides significant evidence for the design hypothesis over and against the hypothesis that the only processes in play are those of evolutionary biology.

Assuming that before we give the argument our probability for our design hypothesis (say, that God exists and has created the world) is not too low, we're going to get a successful ID argument as soon as we can find a biological fact F satisfying (1) and (2). My claim, now, is that the present state of evolutionary science gives us little reason to believe that we will not find such a fact F. Note that the above is not the only way of formulating an ID argument. But if we are not in a position to know that no ID argument of this sort is successful, then we are likewise not in a position to know that no ID argument of some sort or otheris successful.

Let's start by considering the fact that evolutionary science gives a statistical explanation of events. It is not shown that, given an earlier state of affairs, bipeds had to evolve. All that is done in an evolutionary explanation is that an evolutionary pathway is traced out and it is argued that that pathway had a certain probability.

Next observe the fact that for most high-level biological states of affairs, we have very little in the way of estimates of estimates of the objective probability of the states of affairs arising. It would be a very, very difficult task, for instance, to estimate the probability that winged vertebrates would exist on earth given the state of things a billion years ago. Thus, although evolutionary explanations are in a significant respect statistical in nature, the statistics have by and large not been worked out.

Now, even if evolutionary science is the whole truth about biology after the initial beginning of life, there will surely be biological features of the world whose objective probability given the initial conditions is tiny. Gould talks of how if we turned the clock back and re-ran the evolutionary processes, we would get something completely different from what we have. That may or may not be true, but surely there are some biological features the probability of whose arising was tiny. For instance, consider the precise kind of pattern that a copperhead snake has on its skin. It may well be that there are myriads of patterns that would do the same job as this pattern does. It may well be that the probability that a snake-like animal would arise with that precise pattern, given the initial state of things, is tiny. (Presumably, if we conjoin enough features, we easily get cases where the probability is about as small as we like.)

Now I have two arguments for my conclusion.

Argument 1: Take a particular feature, intelligence, intelligence of the sort humans have. I think it is far beyond the current state of the art in biology to give estimates of the probability that intelligence would arise given how things were a billion years ago. Intelligence was a solution to certain evolutionary problems, but had things gone somewhat differently, these problems might not have arisen and, for all we know, many, many other solutions are possible. Moreover, we have very little in the way of estimates of the sort of organismic complexity that is needed for intelligence. All in all, we have little reason to assert that intelligence is not very unlikely given how things were a billion years ago. We just don't know how to estimate such a probability, and, unless evolutionary computing ends up yielding experimental data that shows that the evolution of intelligence is easy, it may be quite a while before we know how to estimate such a probability.

A developed evolutionary science will, presumably, assign some probability to the arising of intelligence. But I have argued we have little reason to think that this probability is not going to be very low. Suppose that this probability will in fact be very low, and developed evolutionary science discovers this. Then, a design argument, where the fact in question is the existence of intelligent life (or intelligent life on earth?), will be a good one. For we will have (1). That, by itself, is not enough. Even if it is very unlikely that the precise pattern on a copperhead should arise through evolutionary processes, there being too many other patterns that could do the job, there is no good ID argument based on this pattern, because we do not have reason to believe that a designer would not be unlikely make precisely that pattern.

However, in the case where the fact F is intelligence, and if our design hypothesis is that the world is created by the God of traditional monotheism, then the fact F is not unlikely given the existence of God, since the God of traditional monotheism is perfectly good and generous, and hence it is not unlikely that he would want to create intelligent beings (on earth? that might be an issue to consider) to bestow his goodness on. Hence, we have (2).

Thus, if we do not have much reason to deny that (1) holds of intelligence--and the present state is such that we do not--we neither have much reason to deny that a design argument based on the existence of intelligence will work. Instead, we should just suspend judgment on this. Hence, for all we know, at least one ID argument will be successful.

Argument 2: There is a myriad of biological facts, such as the precise pattern on a copperhead, each of which satisfies (1). This is no evidence at all against evolutionary biology, but just a fact about probabilistic processes like those of mutation, recombination, selection, etc. A priori improbable things happen all the time. Bob wins a lottery. A dart lands within 0.000000000001 mm of point x (this is extremely improbable whatever the point x is, but of course the dart has to land somewhere, so whenever a dart is thrown, it lands within 0.000000000001 mm of some point, and hence always something improbable happens). No surprises there. Let S be the set of very unlikely biological facts like that.

Now to have reason to hold that no ID argument for some relevant design hypothesis will be successful, one would have to have to reason to judge that none of the facts in S satisfies (2). First note that this judgment would go beyond the competence of biological science. Biological science does not estimate the probability that God, if he existed, would design a snake with such-and-such a pattern on its back. So biological science by itself would not be sufficient to establish the unavailability of an ID argument.

Now in the case of the pattern on the back of the snake, we have little reason at present to think that God would design that pattern rather than any of the many others that the snake could have had. Now in the unlikely case that we might discover that the pattern encodes some text in some natural way, the relative probability of that pattern over the others might rise. But we don't expect that to happen.

Nonetheless, I do not think we have much reason to believe that none of the facts in S satisfies (2), and we even do not have much reason to believe that none of the facts in S will be discovered to satisfy (2). So, once again, we have little reason, if any, to believe that a working ID argument won't be discovered in the future.

Conclusions: Being sure that ID will be unsuccessful is unjustified. But there is a proviso that I have to add, which was implicit in my assumption that (1) and (2) are all one needs for ID's success: unless there is good independent reason to deny the conclusion of the ID arguments (this was the assumption that the probability for H before the ID argument isn't too low).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The deposit of faith

Consider the following objection to the Catholic faith (this is based on something I got by email): Catholicism includes a large number of detailed and substantive doctrines that do not seem to be derivable from God's revelation as completed by around the time of death of the Apostles, even though the Catholic Church herself claims that revelation was completed by around the time of death of the Apostles.

Consider, after all, something like the doctrine that Mary was free of original sin from the first moment of her conception. This is a detailed and substantive doctrine that seems to go far beyond the information given in Scripture and what we know about the faith of the first century Church from non-Scriptural sources. The objection is an incredulous stare at the possibility that such doctrines could be derived from revelation as completed by around the time of death of the Apostles. But:

1. Twenty simple axioms of Euclidean geometry generate an infinity of detailed and substantive theorems. These theorems are such that there is no prima facie way to see that they would follow from the axioms. It can take centuries and centuries for humankind to discover that they can be derived. It should, thus, be no surprise at all that we can derive from a set S of propositions new propositions that are details and substantive, and that seem to go far beyond S. This is particularly true when S is not a list of twenty axioms, but includes about 27,570 verses of the Old Testament, about 7956 verses of the New Testament, as well as decades of Apostolic preaching which Catholics think became embedded in the tradition of the Church, particularly in her liturgy.

2. Furthermore, unlike the development of geometry which is as far as we know is typically done by the unaided human intellect, the development of Catholic doctrine is claimed to be done by the human intellect guided by Holy Spirit.

3. Moreover, the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church not only contain particular doctrinal axioms from which we can derive further propositions, but contain ways of reasoning or rules of inference that embody an understanding of how God deals with the world. Prominent among these is typology. In the New Testament and the Church's liturgy, we learn that God works through parallels. The people of Israel pass through the sea; Christians pass through baptism. Adam sins and from his sin comes death; Christ conquers sin and from his conquering sin comes life. The New Testament (Luke 24:27) says that all of the Old Testament scriptures tell us about Christ. Thus there may be substantive ways of reasoning embodied in Scripture, liturgy and theological practice, ways of reasoning that include typological reasoning. These ways of reasoning are, plainly, more than just formal rules of logic. They are based, rather, on an understanding of God as acting in certain ways (maybe with certain motives), as producing a certain kind of deeply interconnected history.

And new insights might well come from this. Christ corresponds in an important way to Adam; but Mary in the Church's understanding corresponds in an important way to Eve. Just as Eve was created without sin, so, too, Mary was created without original sin. Now it is true that prima facie one might have tried different typological correspondences--one might, for instance, make Mary's being conceived in sin be parallel-by-contrast to Eve's being sinless (as Christ's raising us is parallel-by-contrast to Adam's bringing death on us). Working out a deep understanding of the typology here, and connecting it with many other aspects of Christian doctrine, is going to be difficult. It may take centuries, thus, for the Church to settle on a particular understanding, e.g., to see that the parallel between the new creation in Christ and the old creation in Adam does in fact call not just for Christ the new Adam to be without original sin, but Mary the new Eve as well, but of course with her freedom from the weight of original sin flowing from Christ's redemption, just as our Church's freedom from the weight of original sin does.

Conclusion: It should be no surprise if from a very large body of axioms, which includes substantive rules of inference, one could derive many doctrines that one is individually surprised by.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Cohabitation, marital quality and resistance to reason

Some background

Progressive folk in the second half of the twentieth century thought that cohabitation would improve the prospects for marriage, and eventually significant segments of the public have come to agree (e.g., in 1984, 77% of Canadians were accepting of cohabitation for those couples that "want to make sure that their future marriage will last"). Practice makes perfect, after all, and through cohabitation a couple might find that they are not "a good fit", so such cohabitation, they thought, would be a good thing for marital quality and duration. (Of course these arguments have defeaters: practice at cohabitation is not the same thing as practice at marriage, and close proximity might blind one to whether someone is a good fit.)

Then in 1988, Booth and Johnson published a study showing a strong correlation between premarital cohabitation and divorce--over the three-year course of their study 5% of those who had not cohabited divorced while 9% of those who had cohabited divorced. Moreover, while controlling for demographic factors decreased the disparity, it did not remove the disparity. Since then, a stream of sociological publications confirmed the correlation between cohabitation and subsequent divorce, as well as between cohabitation and poorer marital interaction style (lest one think that this is all an artifact of the fact that duration is a poor measure of marital quality).

There is no controversy that correlation is a fact. But correlation does not show causation. Although there are some studies that suggest causation (e.g., apparently the strength of belief in the permanence of marriage decreases with the length of cohabitation), and although several mechanisms have been proposed (e.g., the mechanism of drifting into a marriage with people whom one would not have married had one not cohabitated with them), we are not in a position to say that cohabitation causes poorer marital interaction or divorce.

However, we are in a position to see that there is no reason to believe the view that cohabitation in general improves marital prospects. That is just not what the data show.

My students

In my Philosophy of Love and Sex class at Georgetown, I would have my students read some of the sociological papers on the correlation between cohabitation and marital problems. Now, here is something interesting. Even after we have read and discussed all of that research, I would still hear a student saying that they couldn't marry someone they hadn't lived with, because it would be too risky.

Now, I could understand not being convinced by the case for cohabitation causing these problems (I am not completely convinced myself). But that one would continue to think that cohabitation helps with marriage after having seen the data is rather disappointing.

I think one thing this shows is just how resilient deeply ingrained social beliefs, especially ones supported by plausible-seeming arguments (the practice and test-for-fit arguments), are in even quite intelligent people (my students were generally very smart). No surprise there.

Another potential mechanism could be a dismissal of the idea that statistical data on behavioral patterns has a bearing on one's own decisions. We have free will, after all, so we might think that the fact that the statistics do or do not show something about patterns of behavior is irrelevant--we can, with our own free will, choose to be exceptions to the statistics. Now, I believe in incompatibilistic free will, but I also accept the indubitable fact that our behavior is influenced by all kinds of factors, some of them amenable to statistical study--the free-will argument just isn't very good here. Moreover, the free-will argument would equally undercut the idea of cohabiting for the sake of improving future marital success--for if our behavior is all really up to us, with no external influence, then whether the couple cohabits or not, marital success is in the hands of the couple.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Double Effect

In case anybody's thought that the trolley problem is made-up, here it is, for real, with even higher stakes.

Frankfurt and functionalism

We learn from Frankfurt counterexamples to the Principle of Alternate Possibility that we should not use counterfactuals and nomic modality to characterize intrinsic features of things. What Frankfurt cases show is that it is frequently possible to modify counterfactual and nomic modal properties of a thing, event or process without actually causally affecting the thing, event or process in itself.

This is a useful lesson. Here is one interesting application: standard functionalist theories of mind cannot be right. I will give the roughest sketch of the argument. Start with two observations:

  1. Functional characterizations of a system depend crucially on the system's counterfactual properties. (An and-gate is a system of which it is true that it would produce a 0 given two 0's or one 0 and one 1, and would produce a 1 given two 1's, even if in the course of the system's functioning it is actually only fed one of these options.)
  2. That a system exemplifies a functioning mind is an intrinsic property of the system.

Now, what we learn from Frankfurt cases is that we can radically alter the counterfactual properties of a system in just about any way we wish without actually causally interacting with the system, and hence without altering its intrinsic properties. It follows from this observation and (1) and (2) that whether a system exemplifies a functioning mind cannot be a matter of the system's functional characterization. (We can, for instance, make sure that a given logic gate could never have produced a different output from what it actually produced, because someone watching the system would have intervened and forced it to produce the output it actually produced, had this watcher seen the inputs being different. But if this were done, then this would not be an and-gate, as it would not have the counterfactual properties of the relevant kind of logic gate.)

I should say that there is a way out of this argument, and it is to embrace an Aristotelian functionalism that instead of characterizing functions counterfactually, characterizes them teleologically. But that is not what "functionalism" means in the context of the theory of mind. (One might also try to do the Aristotelian move and define the functionalism evolutionarily. But not hard to see that this fails [e.g., see this, or this, or just extend the argument here].)

Or maybe we could try to get out of the argument by supposing that we can cut a system away from its environmental context and characterize the functioning of the system by looking at how the system would function apart from its environment, thereby isolating the system from the kind of purely counterfactual interference that a Frankfurt-style watcher would impose on it. But that simply doesn't work. How does the human body work absent its environmental context? It simply dies, pretty quickly, when not supplied with air, food and water.

Of course one might try to define a notion of an appropriate environment and then calculate the counterfactuals relative to that. But if we are allowed to be completely free in choosing what environment counts as appropriate, then just about everything is up for grabs. And if there is an objectively appropriate environment for the system, then again we get some version of Aristotelian teleology, which is not what functionalism wants.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Circles of justification

This is a fun little riddle, coming from a discussion with Dan Johnson. At t2 Mary believes q because she believes p. At t1 (t1<t2), she had come to believe p because she had believed q. No new evidence came in after t1 for p. Yet her beliefs that p and q are both justified and, indeed, knowledge. How could this be?

One solution: p and q are mathematical theorems. At t0 (t0<t1), Mary saw a proof of q. At t1, she saw that p easily follows from q. Between t1 and t2, Mary forgot all about q, the proof of q, and the fact that she derived p from q. She continued to know p, since we know mathematical theorems that we once had known the proofs of even if we do not remember these proofs. At t2, Mary realized that q easily follows from p, and came to believe q. Since she knew p, she now has knowledge of q.

Comments: This appears to involve a circularity in the order of justification, but only if we confuse the contents of beliefs with believings (or types of belief with belief tokens). Mary has three relevant, believings: (1) her believing between t0 until after t1 that q, (2) her believing starting at t1 that p, and (3) her new believing that q starting at t2. Here, (1) has independent justification; the justification of (2) depends on the justification of (1); the justification of (3) depends on the justification of (2). There is no real circularity.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Communication boards and indexicals (Language, Part I)

This is the first in what may be a series of posts developing a view of language that erases the distinction between language and context. The view may self-destruct before it's fully developed. I'm having fun here. No originality is claimed.

Some disabled people communicate with a communication board. A communication board is a board with printed pictures, some representing objects like shoes and chairs, some representing verbs like sitting, and some representing emotions like happy or sad. One communicates with a communication board by pointing to a sequence of pictures. High-tech communication boards will say the word, but it's important to my argument that I be talking of a low-tech one, which is just a pre-printed board. If a communication board is sufficiently large and extensive, and there is sufficient syntactic structure in the order in which one points to the pictures, this will be a language.

Let's say that the pointing is done with a finger. Now, what are the words or other linguistic units in this language?

Here is a really bad suggestion: The words are constituted by pointings with a finger and two token pointings count as of the same type if and only if the finger directions in the two pointings have the same relationship to the natural axes of the speaker's body (within some measure of precision; I will use the word "speaker" regardless of whether a language is spoken or not). The pictures on the board, on this suggestion, are simply context.

What's wrong with this suggestion? Well, for one, it means that if the speaker points to parent, fruit and happy, expressing (let's suppose) the proposition that the parent is happy with the fruit, and I shift the board over by an inch, and the speaker again points to parent, fruit and happy, then the speaker has used different word types, because her pointings are now in different directions. That is absurd--surely the speaker has said the same sentence.

Another way to see the absurdity of this view is that it will be impossible to give a story about the syntax of the language in terms of the arrangement of word types, since whether a given sequence of finger pointings, identified by direction relative to the speaker's body, is syntactically correct depends crucially on what the pictures pointed to are, and not just on the angles (again, think of a case where the board gets shifted over). But we don't want context to be the primary determiner of syntax!

One might think that the mistake in this story is that it is not the angles relative to the speaker body that matter for identifying the word type, but rather the direction of the finger as measured in some natural coordinate system based on the configuration of the board. (E.g., run the x-axis along the horizontal side of the board, the y-axis along the vertical side, the z-axis upward from the board, and then specify the cartesian coordinates of the tip of the finger and the finger's big joint.) But that's silly, too. Suppose that the speaker's board gets upgraded by getting a few new pictures, and with existing pictures moved a bit to accommodate the new ones. The speaker's language, thus, becomes extended. But now if we identified word types in terms of the coordinates of the finger relative to the board, the same sequence of finger positions as before would now be expressing something completely different. More seriously, previously syntactically correct sequences of word types would no longer be syntactically correct. In other words, we have a completely new language. But that is surely a hamfisted way of describing what happened in the board upgrade. There is something that is obviously wrong with the previous two accounts. The crucial thing to note is that the pictures that are pointed out are not mere context. They are crucial for the syntax: whether a sequence of three pointings is syntactically correct depends precisely on what parts of speech the pictures represent. Clearly, the thing to do is to either identify word-types with the pictures that are pointed out (more precisely: picture-types, in order to allow for upgrades of the board), or with pointings-at-x, where x ranges over the pictures (or picture-types) on the board.

Hypothesis: What happens with the communication board is also what happens with demonstratives. The thing pointed to is not context: it either is a part of the sentence (much as some folks think that items referred to de re are parts of the proposition) or a pointing at (de re) it is a part of the sentence. And something like this happens with all indexicals. At this point I am offering no argument, except the suggestive analogy of the communication board language.

Apparent disanalogy: In the communication board language, it is not the the picture tokens that function as word types (or, equivalently, it is not the pointings-at-picture-tokens), but the types of pictures (or the pointings at a type of picture). But in true demonstratives, there is no similar type/token distinction on the side of the things pointed out. One simply points at Alexander, not at something of the sort of Alexander.

This disanalogy is due to the fact that in a typical communication board, none of the pictures refer to the picture-token there, and that in typical demonstratives, we are trying to refer to particulars. But I submit that these are mere accidents. We could imagine that some of the pictures indicate particulars, like George, Socrates, etc. And there would be nothing absurd about a picture that indicates the picture-token that it is. (Maybe it's a very a beautiful and emotionally significant picture, so it's worth talking about as an individual. When a board is upgraded, it gets scraped off the old board and pasted on the new one.)

Moreover, we do in fact have cases where demonstratives point to a type, it's just that we don't use them quite as much as ones where we point to particulars. We've learned this from Kripke. Point to water and say: "We will call this 'water'." The "this" refers to the natural kind, not the particular bunch of water.