Thursday, November 29, 2007

An argument against psychological identity theories: accuracy and reliability of copying

According to the psychological identity theorist, if the contents of your mind (e.g., brain or soul) are copied into another mind (brain or soul), with the original mind destroyed, you will survive and come along with the copied contents. Now, plausibly, perfection is not needed in the copying. If one digit in the memory of your phone number is not copied over, and everything else is, then surely you will survive that, if you would survive any such copying operation at all. But some fidelity in copying is needed.

We can measure a copying operation in several ways. For any portion of the information to be copied (think of a 0/1 value or a continuously variable value, for instance), we can talk of the accuracy of the copying, which says how similar is the output of the copying procedure in fact was to the input, and the reliability of the copying, which is a measure of how likely it was that the output would have a given accuracy. (We can come up with various ways of quantifying this, but it doesn't matter.) Now, for a mind-copying to at all plausibly move a person from one mind to another, there has to be both overall accuracy and overall reliability. One won't do without the other. One could, after all, have very high reliability in copying, i.e., a high probability of accuracy, but be unlucky so that the the output is completely unlike the original. The psychological identity theorist would not say the person was moved then, since few of the memories and character traits would have survived. Nor would high accuracy with very low reliability transfer a person. Take a limiting case of low reliability where the output is entirely random and independent of the input. Nonetheless, one might be lucky, with the output by chance being just like the input. That wouldn't result in person-transfer, either. After all, if my mind is destroyed, and completely by chance a man arises randomly after lightning hits a swamp in Transylvania and that many by chance has the same mental states as I did, that man wouldn't be me.

So, we need both high accuracy and high reliability for person-transfer to occur. But now note that reliability is in part an extrinsic criterion. It measures the probability of accuracy. Suppose that you're undergoing a mind-content transfer procedure, and Dr. Black, the evil neurologist, after having starred in Frankfurt's Neurologist, XIII, happens to be sitting around in the lab. Now, almost all of the time when Dr. Black is in a lab when a mind-content procedure takes place, he hijacks the procedure, and ensures that while the subject's original mind is destroyed, the data transfered to the output mind in fact is a very poor copy of the subject--in fact, it is a copy of Dr. Black's vicious mind. This time, however, Dr. Black is distracted, and forgets to hijack the procedure, and only remembers once the operation is done. The reliability of the copying process is very low--Dr. Black was very likely to hijack it.

This leads to the following absurd conclusion. If person-transfer through copying of content is possible, then whether Dr. Black is in the room when the procedure happens determines whether the subject survives the procedure--even if Dr. Black in fact is distracted and in no way causally interacts with the process. Since this absurdity comes from psychological identity theories, we should reject psychological identity theories.

But what if one bites the bullet and says that whether Dr. Black is in the room when the procedure happens does determine whether one survives. Now I have a second move. What happens in copying is a causal process whereby an earlier mind causes a later mind to have the same content. The same thing is happening in us all the time. Our brain's having a certain neural state at t1 (e.g., a state correlated with a belief that 2+2=4) will often cause that brain to have the same state at t2. Our brains are always in a state of flux, and the brain's preserving of information is relevantly very much a process of copying. (Plato says something like this in the Symposium.) Suppose now that you live your ordinary life, but Dr. Black keeps on shadowing you, with his neurological equipment, and he keeps on planning to subvert your brain's data preservation processes, but whenever he is about to do so, by a very small chance, he is distracted and does not. In fact, Dr. Black does not interact with you causally. But his presence makes the reliability of the transmission of data from the past to the future in your mind be very low. By the same reasoning as above, it follows that the mere presence of Dr. Black kills you--even though he in fact does not interact with you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I recently read, and very much enjoyed, Eifelheim (can be bought from amazon, or downloaded for free in pdf format from the author's literary agency), Michael Flynn's novel of aliens landing outside a Black Forest village in the 14th century. The best parts--from my point of view--of the novel were the interactions between the village's pastor, a man of formidable Parisian education (yes, this might seem unlikely, but there is a story there) and a friend of Ockham, and the aliens. Flynn captures cutting-edge 14th century scientific and philosophical thinking with great sympathy and surprising fidelity, and shows how a smart 14th century scholastic with Ockhamist tendencies would interact with 21st (or later) century science. We see the flexibility of scholastic categories, a flexibility that is going to be of interest to those of us still interested in a reconciliation between contemporary science and scholastic metaphysics.

I did not expect to read a novel that alludes to an Ockhamist argument against the possibility of nested accidents. (This is in support of an argument that the pastor gives against light having a velocity. The idea is that light is an accident of fire, so if light had a velocity, that velocity would be an accident of an accident, which is impossible.)

The medieval and alien characters are well-drawn and develop over the course of the novel. I was somewhat less happy with the portions set in the 21st century, but they were relatively briefer (and they may have been written first). All in all, quite an excellent piece of science fiction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A defense of an ontological argument

Given an appropriate notion of maximal greatness, maximal greatness entails maximal greatness in all worlds. By the S5 axiom of modal logic, it follows that that if possibly there is a maximally great being, there is a maximally great being. Thus discussion of the modal ontological argument focuses on the possibility premise, the claim that possibly a maximally great being exists.

  1. If a belief that p is within the center of the motivational life of a person or community, and that life is generally flourishing, then, probably, p is possible. (Premise)
  2. There have been persons and communities that have led generally flourishing lives within the motivational center of which there was the belief that a maximally great being exists. (Premise)
  3. Possibly, a maximally great being exists. (By 1 and 2)
  4. A maximally great being exists. (By 3 and S5, as per opening remarks)

The idea behind (1) is that a life within whose motivational center there was an incoherent proposition would be unlikely to be flourishing. It would be a life that would, most likely, come apart. The flourishingness of a life is evidence of the coherence of the concepts by which that life is lived. And coherence is either identical with or evidence for possibility. In favor of (2), I cite such people as Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Vanier or Thomas Aquinas, and perhaps such communities as the first generation Franciscans. And I even think the synchronic and diachronic Christian community over the ages, despite sins of many individuals, qualifies.

One might try to come up with parallel arguments for incompatible premises. For instance, deeply committed pantheists like Ghandhi appeared to live flourishing lives, and if pantheism is possibly true, it is true, a conclusion incompatible with (4). Two responses can be made. First, pantheists may well believe that a maximally great being exists, and think that the whole of existence is necessarily identical with it. So maybe what is at the motivational center of their lives is just the belief that a maximally great being exists, and the further claim that the whole of existence is necessarily identical with it is less central. This may not be very plausible, though. It seems that the divinity of everything is motivationally crucial to them.

A second response is to admit this. Yes, the existence of pantheists leading flourishing lives at whose motivational center pantheism was found give evidence for the truth of pantheism. So we have evidence for theism and evidence for pantheism. And maybe as far as this goes, the evidence is balanced. But, note that both the evidence for theism and the evidence for pantheism is evidence against atheism. We have evidence for theism and evidence for pantheism. Now we need to see what independent considerations we can bring against theism and against pantheism. (Note, for instance, that the problem of evil is more pressing given pantheism, if the world-deity is good.)

I doubt that there are people living flourishing lives at whose motivational center lies atheism. I do not here deny that atheists may lead flourishing lives, but I deny that if they do, their lives have atheism at their motivational center. For one (this suggestion is due to a grad student here), atheism is a negative doctrine, and lives centered on negative doctrines are unlikely to be flourishing. More likely, the motivational center is morality, love of fellow man, loyalty to friends, etc. In the committed theist or pantheist, these things are closely tied to the theism or pantheism. But in the atheist, these things are, I think, largely independent of the atheism, except maybe in the case of a kind of tragic loyalty in the face of the terrors of the unfeeling world, as in Russell, which I think is not going to lead a fully flourishing life, falling short in respect of the joyous aspects.

[Note added later: This was, of course, written before the revelations about Jean Vanier's abusiveness. I would certainly have chosen a different example if I were writing this post now.]

Monday, November 26, 2007

Every fact is normative

A sufficient condition for a fact to be normative is that it is a reason to do or not to do something. But a fact F is a reason not to deny that F obtains. Hence, every fact is normative.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Parts and ownership

Some Aristotelians believe the following thesis: When a bit of matter comes to be a part of a substance, it ceases to exist. I.e., the bit of matter comes to be a part of a substance in the way in which a horse comes to be a corpse--the horse and the corpse are distinct entities, the corpse originating in the horse. If they believe this thesis, they have to give some explanation of why particles ingested can still be scientifically detected. They will do this either by saying that the particles no longer exist literally, but "virtually" do, or by saying that new particles just like the old ones come to exist out of the old ones, except the new ones have the essential property of being a part of substance that they have joined. There are two different reasons why one might believe such an outlandish thesis: (1) because one doesn't believe in parthood (Patrick Toner and Alexander Pruss incline in this direction), or (2) because one thinks that parts receive their identity from the whole (there is some textual basis in Aristotle for this).

I want to offer two arguments for this thesis, one metaphysical and Aristotelian, the second ethical and eccentric. I find the first plausible, and much less so the second, but the second is kind of neat, so I'll give it, too:

  • Matter receives its identity--that which makes it be the entity that it is--from the substance that it makes up. Therefore, if a bit of matter x is a part of substance A and a bit of matter y is a part of substance B, then if A is distinct from B, it follows that x is distinct from y. Therefore, no bit of matter can be a part of two substances. But everything that exists is a substance or a mode, relation, trope, accident or the like. A proper part of a substance is not a mode, relation, trope, accident or the like. Hence, if a substance has a proper part, that proper part is a substance. But the matter of a proper part A of a substance B would then be a part of both substance A and substance B, which contradicts the thesis that a bit of matter can't be a part of two substances.
  • This argument uses two main assumptions:
    1. Without receiving special normative power from you or some higher authority, the only way I can by myself make an item x that you presently literally own to cease to be literally owned by you is by destroying x.
    2. It is impossible for one person to literally own a part of another.
    Suppose now you literally own a carbon atom x (e.g., it's part of a steak that you own), and I without having received any special normative power eat the atom x so that it becomes a part of my body. By (2), I have made it happen that you no longer own x. But by (1), it follows (assuming I have received no grant of authority or the like), the only way I could have done this is by destroying x. Hence, when an atom becomes a part of my body, it is thereby destroyed.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Evil, privation and disability

Theism entails that evil is not a positive reality, since all positive reality either is God or is continually sustained in existence by God. Augustine thinks that evil is a privation of good. A privation is more than a lack. Leglessness in a dog is a privation, but in a snake is just a lack. If evil were just a lack, then the problem of evil would be easily solved by the consideration that, of necessity, everything other than God is lacking, since only God is infinite. I want to suggest that seeing evil as a privation of good still helps vis-a-vis the problem of evil. This argument continues two earlier posts of mine on prosblogion which discuss an Augustinian theodicy (Part I; Part II).

Imagine two closely related alien species, the flerts and the grents. Both are four-legged, and have basically the same habits. Flerts and grents are solitary and reproduce asexually, never knowing their parents (e.g., the parents produce spores which mature away from them), but the flerts have wings in addition to their four legs and can fly away from predators, while the grents are confined to the ground. Suppose now that Gribby is a normal grent, while Flibby is a flert that, due to a genetic defect, never developed wings.

Winglessness is a lack in Gribby and a privation in Flibby, but unless Gribby and Flibby observe their conspecifics, they are not going to know this. It is not an evil that Gribby is stuck on the ground, but it is an evil that Flibby can't fly. But Gribby and Flibby look and behave in pretty much the same way. They eat the same food, they have to run from predators and cannot fly from them, and so on. They have the same joys and the same pains, and they live pretty much the same lives. All this makes plausible the following:

Claim: Flibby is not worse off than Gribby.

I think this claim is plausible. One might think that Flibby is worse off because he suffers from an evil from which Gribby does not suffer. But "suffers" here is a tendentious choice of word. There is no conscious suffering here, we may suppose. We could imagine that when Flibby is faced with a predator he feels an urge to fly and the inability to fly is painful to him; but we can also suppose--and let us do so--that Flibby also has a second privation, namely that his instincts to fly are missing. Flibby suffers from an evil merely in the sense that he is subject to an evil. But his life is just like Gribby's, and the concrete goods that Gribby's life instantiates are also instantiated by Flibby's life. Another way to see this is to imagine some minor concrete good that Flibby has but Gribby does not. Maybe, Flibby happens to be a slightly better at fishing than Gribby is. Then, if per impossibile we were choosing whether to be Flibby or to be Gribby, we would be very reasonable in choosing to be Flibby. But if Flibby is worse off than Gribby, he is significantly worse off--winglessness is not a minor evil. So if Flibby is worse off than Gribby, it wouldn't be all that reasonable to choose to be Flibby just for some minor concrete good.

Still, it's undeniable that Flibby is subject to an evil, while, as far as the story goes, Gribby is not. We now have two conflicting intuitions: first, that Flibby is no worse off than Gribby, and, second, that Flibby is worse off than Gribby, because Flibby is subject to an evil that Gribby is not subject to. I want to argue that the second intuition is mistaken. For Flibby has a more distinguished nature--by nature he has the dignity of being a winged creature. This good that he possesses, the good of being by nature winged, is a good that Gribby does not have. Because he has this good, he is capable of being subject to an evil that Gribby is not--viz., the evil of being deprived of wings. The additional good outweighs or cancels out the additional evil. Hence, we can consistently say that Flibby is no worse off than Gribby even though Flibby is subject to an evil that Gribby is not.

I want to suggest, now, that if Gribby would have no right to complain to God about being created a grent, likewise Flibby would have no right to complain to God about being created a flert without wings.

Evil is not just a lack but a privation. However, possessing an evil also means one possesses a certain good, namely the dignity of being such as to naturally have the good that the evil deprived one of.

In particular, it follows that while an adult whose intellectual functioning is like that of a child thereby is subject to an evil, the developmentally challenged adult is not thereby less well off than the child. (She may be thereby worse off if she compares herself to others, or if others treat her poorly.)

How far one can take these thoughts in the direction of a theodicy, I do not know.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Taking up into language (Language, Part III)

We can take items in the world up into language. An easy, though very unlikely, example would be if I came across a bunch of rocks randomly deposited by an avalanche, and noticed that they were arranged into the shape of the word "here". I then took more rocks and added to the left of the ones already there "There was an avalanche" and then to the right of them I put a period. The resulting production would count as my inscription of the sentence "There was an avalanche here." That one of the words in the sentence was not shaped by me is irrelevant. I took something in nature which wasn't a word though it was shaped like a word, the word "here", and made a token of the word "here" out of it, without actually touching it. The bunch of rocks thus got taken up into a linguistic item, much like a stump can be taken up into being a chair just by my treating it as a chair--which can happen without my even touching it (e.g., I can treat it as a chair by trying to sit on it, but tripping forward accidentally).

Likewise, word tokens from one language can be taken up into linguistic items in another language. I can write a note by gluing in words cut out from newspapers, including foreign newspapers, and I can do so with no regard for what meaning the snippets had in their original language. Thus, I can take a German newspaper story about a poison, and cut out the word "GIFT" (which means "poison") from the headline, and then take some words from an English-language newspaper, and put together the note "YOU HAVE BEEN A GREAT GIFT IN MY LIFE." And, no, I wouldn't be saying that you've been a poison! The snippet would thus have been taken up into a new linguistic item. The original meaning of the snippets I use is irrelevant. New linguistic items are made of them.

We could say that the rocks in my initial example already were a token of the English "here" even before I got to it, and the token "GIFT" in the German headline was already both a token of the German "Gift" and the English "gift". I suspect this is mistaken. It makes sense to ask of a sentence token in isolation what language it is in, even if the orthographically or phonologically same sentence could figure in more than one. So that won't do. My suggestion is that we are mistaken in identifying the token with just the inscription. The token includes the inscription, but includes the context--and hence the intentions of the speaker--into which that inscription was taken up. If this is right, then once again linguistic tokens are more than just inscriptions and sounds, but include context, as in my earlier posts on language.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Church of Christ "subsists in the catholic Church"

Vatican II's Lumen Gentium 8 says:

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other Apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.
(I changed the capitalization to match the Latin.) Much discussion has been expended on the claim that the Church in the world "subsists in" the Catholic Church. Some interpreters took this as a weakening of the traditional teaching that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church. On this reading, the Church of Christ is a larger entity, and the Catholic Church is a part of it. A fairly recent Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) statement states that "subsists in" indicates "full identity".

I want to argue that the CDF is right on textual grounds (though the CDF is presumably also drawing on non-textual information about the intentions of the Council Fathers).

What does the mysterious phrase "subsists in" mean? Here we have to remember that at the time of Vatican II, the lingua franca of Catholic thought was Thomism. Even those who did not philosophically or theologically agree with St. Thomas would use thomistic vocabulary to express their views. The phrase "subsists in" is a scholastic phrase that Aquinas uses a number of times. Here are the claims I've found in my search of a lot of Aquinas' works (admittedly in English, but I am trusting the translators):

  • God subsists in his essence
  • The divine understanding subsists in itself
  • The essence of the Father subsists in the Son
  • Human beings subsist in their essences
  • Christ subsists both in a human and a divine nature
  • Things subsist in their being
  • A substance subsists in its species
  • The form of the angel or the separated soul subsists in the being
The first thing to note is that "subsists in" is linguistically compatible with identity; the divine understanding subsists in itself, and it is Aquinas' doctrine that God is identical with his essence. Most of Aquinas' uses of the phrase state the relationship between an entity and its essence or existence. A thing exists in and through its essence and existence, deriving its essential operations from that essence, and, except in the case of God, is wholly dependent on that essence and existence, incapable of existing apart from it. So, it seems, the Council is saying that the Chruch of Christ is either identical with the Catholic Church or exists in and through the Catholic Church, wholly dependent on the Catholic Church, incapable of existing apart, and deriving its essential operations from the Catholic Church, not as one thing from another, but as a human derives intellectuality from being human.

The phrase, thus, is compatible with identity as well with a very intimate relationship that isn't quite identity. We need to turn to context now. First, take the paragraph as a whole. The first sentence says that the "one Church of Christ" is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic". To read the text as saying that the Church of Christ is not identical with the Catholic Church is to attribute to the text the absurdity of saying that the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic" Church is not the catholic Church. One might try to distinguish between "catholic" in the sense of "universal" and "catholic" in a sense that indicates the Roman Catholic Church, but the text makes no such distinction, and it is fair to assume that the same word is used in the same sense in the same paragraph.

Next, take the phrase "although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure", which elements are described as "gifts belonging to the Church of Christ". This text, I think, does not fit well with the idea that the Church of Christ is the larger entity that includes the Catholic Church as a part of it. For if the Church of Christ were the larger entity, there would be no need to emphasize that the elements of sanctification and truth (I assume these are the many true and good things found in non-Catholic congregations) do in fact belong to the Church of Christ.

Moreover, the preceding paragraph introduced a distinction between the Church as a "society structured with hierarchical organs" and the "mystical Body of Christ", which two natures it says are not separate but form a complex entity, and are like the two natures of the incarnate Christ. The "society structured with hierarchical organs" surely is the Catholic Church. It cannot refer to some alleged larger Church of Christ that includes Protestants, since Protestants do not have hierarchical organs as Lumen Gentium understands them (Lumen Gentium understands the hierarchy as constituted primarily by the Pope and Bishops). But at the same time, this discussion of the Church as a structured society surely is the same entity as the Church of Christ "constituted and organized in the world as a society". Lumen Gentium's overall understanding of organic structure is hierarchical: the Pope is the principle of organic unity, and from him proceeds the unity of the Bishops.

So, the context leads us to accept that in the thought of Lumen Gentium the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church. But why, then, the use of "subsists in"? Here is a suggestion that may be completely wrong: Some of the operations of the Catholic Church (e.g., the sacrament of baptism) extend beyond the Catholic Church. Yet they always are the operations of the Church of Christ, and derive their efficacy from Christ's promises to the Catholic Church. It is not that the Church of Christ extends beyond the Catholic Church, but the operations of the Church of Christ do. And the use of "subsists in" makes possible such a distinction. This fits with the CDF's explanation, I think.

Free philosophy ebooks

Yesterday, I came across a link to wowio. They have a catalogue of free ebooks, including ones from major publishers. The ebooks are in PDF format, and come with an advertising page at the beginning and end. You can download three a day. Their philosophy catalog includes a handful of good OUP titles, by authors like Thomas Nagel, Terence Irwin, Philip Kitcher and Roy Sorensen. They also have Aquinas' De Malo. Other goodies, outside the philosophy section, include Hawking's The Theory of Everything. A good way to get to good books is to go to different subject areas, and then choose "Oxford University Press" as the publisher.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"We want to live forever"

We want to live forever. What does that mean? First suggestion: I want it to be the case that at every future time I exist. But that's not enough. For suppose that time itself will come to an end in five minutes, and I will live for the next five minutes. Then at every future time I will exist, but my desire to live forever will surely not be satisfied by living for five minutes.

Second suggestion: I want it to be the case that at every future time I exist, and that the future be infinite. But that may be too much. My desire to live forever could, perhaps, be satisfied by the following scenario: I live in a universe with infinitely many very, very widely separated inhabitable stellar systems. After a year, I enter into a spacetime machine that can move me to an arbitrary point in spacetime, and this transports me back in time exactly one year (relative to some single reference frame) and moves me to another inhabitable planet, far from anywhere that I've lived before. I live there for a year, and this repeats. If t is a time two years from now, I do not exist at t on this scenario. However, I do live forever in subjective time--I have an infinitely long life, though it is all wound in on itself within a single year. Granted, it's a nuisance to have to get to know a new place every year, even though I do get to keep memories from the other places I've been. But this nuisance has nothing to do with the satisfaction of my desire to live forever. But I could live forever in the ordinary way, and have that nuisance happen to me--I could be every year transported to another planet, far away from where I have ever been before, but not transported back in time.

I want to suggest that it doesn't really matter whether I'm transported back in time every year or not. Third suggestion: What we want is an infinite future life, regardless of how that future life is arranged in spacetime. On this suggestion, it is subjective or personal time that matters vis-a-vis living forever. I think much the same is true with respect to many other temporally charged ethical matters--when only one individual matters, it is her personal time that matters, and when there are multiple individuals mattering, it is their group interpersonal time that matters (imagine a group of individuals all zigzagging back and forth across spacetime).

And if we have the idea that we should take as ontologically more basic what is more significant to us as persons (taking ethics as first philosophy, or something like that), then we will adopt personal time as the focal or primary sense of temporality. If we do this, we will be B-theorists, because we will have little need or room in our ontology for an objective impersonal moving present. I suspect this approach is faithful to both Einstein's notion of the relativity of time and to the basic insight in the Aristotelian idea of time as the measure of change (just take time to be the measure of change within each given substance, but do not insist on embedding these changes within a single temporality).

A related issue is discussed here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Evolution and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

One of my graduate students recently suggested in discussion that if one rejects the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), our knowledge of evolution may be undercut. We can use this insight to generate an ad hominem argument for the PSR. Most atheists and agnostics, and some theists, believe that there is a naturalistic evolutionary explanation of the development of the human species from a single celled organism. I claim that they are not justified in believing this unless they accept the PSR. But I also think (though I shan't argue for it here) that if the PSR is true, then the cosmological argument works, and God exists.

For consider what the argument for thinking that there is such an evolutionary explanation could be. We might first try an inductive argument. Some features of some organisms can be given naturalistic evolutionary explanations. Therefore, all features of all organisms can be given naturalistic evolutionary explanations. But this argument is as bad as inductive arguments come. The error in the argument is that we are reasoning from a biased sample, namely those features for which we already have found an explanation. Such features are only a small portion of the features of organisms in nature—as always in science, what we do not know far exceeds what we know.

Once we admit the selection bias, the argument becomes: “All the features of organisms for which we know the explanation can be explained through naturalistic evolutionary means.” There are at least two things wrong with this argument. The first is that it might just be that naturalistic explanations are easier to find, and hence it is no surprise that we first found those explanations that are naturalistic. But even if one could get around this objection, it would not obviate the need for the PSR. For the argument at most gives us reason to accept the claim that those features that have explanations have naturalistic evolutionary explanations. The inductive data is that all the explanations of biological features that we have found are naturalistic and evolutionary. The only conclusion that can be drawn without the PSR is that all the explanations of biological features that there are are naturalistic and evolutionary, not that all biological features have naturalistic evolutionary explanations.

A different approach would be to suppose that natural occurrences have naturalistic explanations, and evolution is the only naturalistic form of explanation of biological features that we know of, so that it is likely that the development of the human race has a naturalistic evolutionary explanation. But what plausibility is there in the claim that natural occurrences have naturalistic explanations if one does not accept the PSR for contingent propositions? After all, if it is possible for contingent propositions to simply fail to have an explanation, what reason do we have for confidence that at least those contingent propositions that report natural occurrences have explanations? If “natural occurrence” is taken as entailing the existence of a naturalistic explanation, the argument for an evolutionary explanation of the development of the human race becomes question-begging in its assumption that the development was a natural occurrence. But if “natural occurrence” is taken more weakly as a physical event or process, whether or not it has a natural explanation, then the naturalness of the occurrence does not give us reason to think that the occurrence has an explanation, much less a naturalistic one, absent the PSR. If we had the PSR in play, we could at least tryt o use some highly defeasible principle about the cause being ontologically like the effect, so that if the effect is natural, the cause is likely such as well.

Consider a final way to justify the evolutionary claim. We have good inductive reason to think that everything physical obeys the laws of physics. But everything that is governed by the laws of physics has a naturalistic explanation. Hence, the development of the human race has a naturalistic explanation, and an evolutionary one is the best candidate we have.

The claim that everything that obeys the laws of physics has a naturalistic explanation, however, has not been justified. The claim was more plausible back when we thought that everything could be explained in a Newtonian manner, but even then the claim could be falsified. Consider John Norton’s ball-on-dome example. We have a rigid dome, on the exact top of which there sits a perfectly round ball, and the dome is in a constant downward gravitational field of acceleration g. The dome’s is rotationally symmetric, and its height as a function of the distance r from its central axis is h=(2/3g)r3/2. It turns out to be consistent with Newtonian physics that the ball should either remain still at the top of the dome or start to roll down in any direction whatsoever, in the absence of any external forces. One might wonder how this squares with Newton’s second law—how there could be an acceleration without an external force. It turns out, however, that because of the shape of the dome, in the first instant of the ball’s movement, its acceleration would be zero, and after that it would have an acceleration given by the gravitational force. The physics would fail to explain the ball’s standing still at the top of the dome or the ball’s moving in one direction or another; it would fail to explain this either deterministically or stochastically. Thus, even Newtonian physics is not sufficient to yield the claim that everything that obeys the laws of physics can be explained in terms of the laws of physics.

And I doubt we do any better with non-Newtonian physics. After all, we do not actually right now know what the correct physics is going to be, and in particular we do not know whether the correct physics will make true the claim that everything that obeys the laws of physics can be explained in terms of the laws of physics. Besides, surely it would be an implausible claim that justification for the claim that the human race developed through evolutionary means depends on speculation about what the final physics will be like.

I do not have an argument that there is no other way of arguing for the evolutionary claim absent the PSR. But, intuitively, if one weren’t confident of something very much like the PSR, it would be hard to be justifiedly confident that no features of the human species arose for no reason at all—say, an ape walked into a swamp, and out walked a human, with no explanation of why.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

An ontological argument

  1. The best accounts of what it is to be a perfection all define perfection in terms of God: e.g., that to be a perfection is to be an intrinsic property of God, or that to have a perfection is to be like God, or that to have a perfection is to be God or to participate in God. (Premise)
  2. Therefore, the true account of what it is to be a perfection defines perfection in terms of God. (Probabilistic inference from 1)
  3. Either there is no definition of God or God is defined in a way dependent on the concept of a perfection (e.g., as the being that has all perfections). (Premise)
  4. If God is defined in terms of perfection, then an account of perfection in terms of being had by God is a circular and (hence) false account. (Premise)
  5. Therefore, God is not defined in a way that is dependent on the concept of a perfection. (By 2 and 4)
  6. Therefore, there is no definition of God. (By 3 and 5)
  7. If x does not exist and has no definition, then an account of a natural (i.e., non-gerrymandered) or ethically significant concept does not involve x. (Premise)
  8. The concept of a perfection is natural or ethically significant. (Premise)
  9. Therefore, if God does not exist, then the true account of what it is to be a perfection does not involve God. (By 6, 7 and 8)
  10. Therefore, God exists. (By 2 and 9)

The best way to challenge this argument is, of course, to come up with an account of perfection that does not involve God. This argument is also closely related to Aquinas' Fourth Way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Materialism and personal identity

It's becoming more and more clear to me that the concept of a person as an entity which is always the agent of personal activity is rationally incompatible with naturalism for personal identity reasons. If naturalism is true, multiple instantiation considerations are just about undeniable, and so computers can be persons. But there really is no way of maintaining a viable concept of persons as well defined entities once we consider the vast array of manipulation that can happen with computing machines. Consider an intelligent system built up as a decentralized swarm of flying, mutually communicating simpler devices exhibiting rational agency collectively but not individually. The idea that there is an entity, a person, under such circumstances is implausible. Think of a community consisting of a number of such swarms which routinely exchange components. Sometimes two swarms fly through each other, and out come two swarms with the member devices being different, and sometimes out comes one bigger swarm. Is there going to be a fact of the matter as to identity conditions?

If I'm right, and if materialism is right, then "personhood happens", but there being a special kind of entity, a person, there where personhood is happening is not going to be a necessary condition for "personhood to happen". I think this conclusion is absurd (for one, it would mean that such a swarm would be wrong if the thought occurred: "I think, therefore I am"), and so materialism is false.

But suppose we don't think the conclusion absurd. Would it make sense to say that there is such a thing as a person in our own case? Or should we still then say that "personhood happens"? I suspect the latter, unless we just identify the "person" with the animal in whom personhood happens. But the latter isn't going to be that plausible, I think, once we realize that one and the same animal brain could in principle, by parallel processing, support more than one stream of rational agency.

If all this is right--and there are a lot of promissory notes here--then if materialism is true, there are no persons, and hence I do not exist.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Can conscience command something immoral?

Consider the following claim:
(*) It is never immoral to do what conscience commands.
It would be nice if (*) were true. For instance, it would allow us to defend the duty to obey conscience against the objection that sometimes it is immoral to follow conscience. (Another way to defend the duty to obey conscience is to allow, with Mark Murphy, that sometimes one can both have a duty to do something and a duty to refrain from doing it.) It seems on the face of it that there are only two plausible views on which (*) comes out true. The first is (individual) relativism on which morality is defined by the dictates of one's conscience, which is thus infallible. The second is a version of disjunctivism according to which some beliefs about what one ought to do come from conscience and others come from merely apparent conscience, which are two distinct sources of moral belief (the second may actually be a mess of different sub-sources), with conscience being infallible. Unless the disjunctivism comes along with an infallible criterion for distinguishing the two sources, it's not going to be very useful in practice, since one then won't be able to tell if a given moral belief is a dictate of conscience or only seems to be so.

However, even if one rejects relativism and disjunctivism, (*) is not quite as absurd as it may seem. The main reason to reject (*) is due to counterexamples, but I am actually not able to come up with clear counterexamples against (*) once one takes into account Thomistic/Kantian insights about the importance of maxims to the individuation of action types. The maxim of an action is a description of the action which includes the end, means and reasons for the action; it is something from which it is clear why the action is done. Let's now try two apparent counterexamples to (*):

  • Hauptsturmfuehrer Mueller believes he is obliged to kill Jews. But what is Mueller's actual maxim--what is the description under which the actions are seen as obligatory, and which explains why the action is being done by him? Mueller does not wish to kill Jews because the word "Juden" has five letters or because Jews are descendants of Abraham. He wishes to kill Jews because, let's say, he believes Jews are diabolical subhumans. If so, then the action he believes himself to be obliged to do is something like: kill Jews who are diabolical subhumans in order to improve the world. But now that we have attended to the maxim conscience commands Mueller to act under, we see that what he is commanded by conscience to do is impossible, but not actually immoral. If, per impossibile, there were a diabolical subhuman Jew killing whom would improve the world, to kill him would be permissible, indeed laudatory. But it is logically impossible for there to be such (since no subhuman can be Jewish, as only humans can be Jewish). Suppose, then, Mueller moved by his maxim kills a Jewish neighbor. Then, Mueller has indeed done something immoral. But he has not done what his conscience commanded. For his conscience commanded him to kill someone who is a diabolical subhuman, and in killing his neighbor he did no such thing, though he thought he did.
  • Dr. Smith believes she should do non-consensual dangerous medical experiments on George for the greater good of humankind. The difference between the case of Smith and that of Mueller is that the hauptsturmfuehrer was acting from the basically correct moral principle that dangerous subhumans should be killed, a principle we affirm when we kill a tiger leaping at us, but was misapplying the principle. The ruthless doctor, however, is a utilitarian, and while her principle that the welfare of one may be sacrificed for the greater good of many is mistaken, her application of it is correct. However, I think a variant of the move made in the preceding case can be made here. Dr. Smith recognizes the fact that George loses out in the transaction. (If she doesn't, the case becomes very similar to that of Mueller.) Now she is acting in conscience. Thus she is not merely acting in a way that harms George because she doesn't care about George, the way an akratic agent might. Rather, she recognizes that she is harming George, but believes that the harm is justified by the greater benefit to humankind. If so, then the maxim is really something like this: do medical experiments on George whose danger to George is morally outweighed by the greater good of humankind. But once again, were the danger indeed morally outweighed by the greater good of humankind, Dr. Smith's actions would be right. But in fact the danger is not outweighed, because serious bodily harms to one person are not morally outweighed in the relevant sense by benefits to another (in the way in which an inconvenience might be morally outweighed by benefits to others; it would be perfectly fine for Dr. Smith to inconvenience George, say by making him wait for an appointment, while trying to find a cure for cancer), and so what Dr. Smith does in fact once again does not fall under her own maxim, even though she thinks she does. What conscience commands her to do is not immoral, though under the circumstances it may be impossible, and what she does is immoral, but is not what conscience commanded her.
    Objection: The maxim does not say that the danger to George is morally outweighed, but simply that it is outweighed in the utilitarian sense, in that the expected disutility to George is less than the expected utility to others.
    Response: Maybe. But if so, then Smith's real maxim will include the truth of utilitarianism--it will be something like: do medical experiments on George whose expected disutility to George is outweighed by the expected utility to others and thereby partially fulfill the duty to maximize total utility. And this maxim, once again, does not command something immoral, but something impossible, since it is impossible to partially fulfill the duty to maximize total utility since there is no such duty. Once again, what Smith does is immoral, but does not accord with her maxim.
It's also worth noting that the objection that this is not how Mueller and Smith explicitly formulate their maxim to themselves is beside the point. For as we can learn from Kant or Freud (or maybe Leibniz or Spinoza as well), we frequently do not know which motives we act on.

Now one might say that the above interpretations are somewhat strained. Maybe. But there is a good argument for thinking something like them is true. The argument goes as follows: if (*) is true, and both relativism and disjunctivism are false, then some such interpretation must be right. One might ask why we should believe (*). But there is very good reason to believe (*), namely the plausibility of the following argument:

  1. It is always immoral to refrain from obeying conscience.
  2. It is never immoral to refrain from doing something immoral.
  3. Therefore, to obey conscience is never something immoral.
That said, I still need to bite the bullet in one respect if I accept this argument. The interpretations of maxims that I gave imply that sometimes conscience requires me to do something impossible, and hence that ought does not imply can. And there I do need to bite the bullet, after having softened it slightly by noting that although one can be obliged to do something impossible, one cannot be culpable for failing.

Let me end with a last objection. Can't we likewise say that it is a duty to try to follow conscience, and that Mueller and Smith are doing something obligatory which they succeed at, namely they really do try to follow conscience? But this generates a problem. For is not their trying to follow conscience the same action as their murder or medical experiments, so that the same action is obligatory and yet wrong? No! The action of trying to follow conscience starts before they start the immoral actions, since trying to follow conscience includes an attempt to discern which of the options before one is in accord with conscience, an attempt that fails.

Note 1: I am not claiming (*) is true, just that it is not as absurd it may seem.

Note 2: I think my suggestion is rather in the spirit of Spinoza's account in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect of how all that we call error is just confusion. I am certainly not claiming that Spinoza is right about that, but that, too, is not quite as absurd as it seems.

Do changes in belief change the mind?

[According to St. Augustine] nor do our sense perceptions come about because physical objects cause changes in our souls; material things cannot causally affect the soul. The human body is the instrument of the soul, and when it experiences the influence of external bodies, the soul turns towards what is happening in its body, and in this way comes to know the material world. Thus the soul is always active in our acts of cognition. - Leszek Kolakowski, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, p. 58
Hence, acquiring beliefs, at least about material things, does not change any intrinsic property of the mind. And this strikes me as an idea well worth resurrecting in general for several reasons.

First, and least importantly, this would allow a dualist not to worry about the slightly harder half of the mind-body causation problem, the problem of how matter has the power of affecting the soul. (I don't find mind-body causation to be much of an issue at all--as Hume has shown, it's no less a mystery how one billiard ball makes another move than how a mind moves a body--so this consideration is not a big one.)

Second, this has to be basically how God's knowledge has to work given divine simplicity (otherwise God is going to have different intrinsic properties in different possible worlds, corresponding to the different knowledge he has there), except that instead of God's being turned towards what is happening in his body, he is turned towards what is happening in the created world of contingency. So a traditional theist must give some account like this at least in the case of God.

Third, this would let dualists give a greater role to the body and the brain, and indeed would let brain states enter into the truthmakers of claims such as that x believes p. This is good, since it might help with integrating dualism with neuroscience.

Fourth, the idea that x's believing p is grounded at least in part in an intrinsic property that x has and which she typically would lack if she didn't believe p is something that internalists and typical externalists agree on, something that is not a point of dispute between materialists and substance dualists. Now that most philosophers, even ones who widely disagree in an area, agree on a doctrine is not evidence for the falsity of that doctrine. But it is evidence that the doctrine should be examined!

And, as a bonus, this might lead to an argument for the natural immortality of the soul.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nicholas Rescher

Nicholas Rescher was just awarded the Aquinas Medal of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. Here is the introduction I gave for him on this occasion.

Introduction of Nicholas Rescher for the Aquinas Medal

It is my great honor to introduce Professor Nicholas Rescher to receive the highest honor of this Association, the Aquinas Medal. Professor Rescher is University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been the President of both the American Catholic Philosophical Association as well as of the American Philosophical Association. He is an honorary member of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and is an elected member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada and the Institut International de Philosophie, and the recipient of eight honorary doctorates.

Nicholas Rescher was born in Germany in 1928, and in 1938 his family emigrated to the United States, after his father’s law practice was ruined by his opposition to Nazis. He did his undergraduate studies at Queens College in Flushing, right after the Second World War, graduating at the age of 21. He immediately enrolled as a graduate student at Princeton, where he completed the first draft of his doctoral dissertation on Leibniz—on whom he had not taken any classes—by spring of the same academic year, and got his Ph.D. a year later, in 1951, at the age of 22. For a year he held an instructorship at Princeton.

Then the Korean War interrupted his academic career. Von Neumann’s attempts to ensure his talents be better utilized by the military notwithstanding, Dr. Rescher was drafted into the Marine Corps. Fortunately, he was able to get work with the Marine Corps Institute’s correspondence education program, among other things grading calculus exams. Next, from 1954 to 1956, Dr. Rescher worked for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, and notably was a co-inventor of the Delphi Method of forecasting.

In 1957, at age 28, Dr. Rescher resumed his university career, first teaching at Lehigh University, and then, starting in 1961, at the University of Pittsburgh, which had just begun its legendary project of creating a top philosophy Department, having just hired Adolf Gruenbaum, with Dr. Rescher’s hiring being followed by those of Kurt and Annette Baier, Nuel Belnap and Wilfrid Sellars. Professor Rescher has remained on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh to this day, though starting in the 1970s, he also began visiting Oxford in the summers.

Professor Rescher’s prodigious academic output is legendary. Indeed, a colleague offered me the following argument to prove that Rescher wrote an infinite number of books: However many of his books you have read, there are some you haven’t.

Actually, the number is finite, though the mistake is easily excused. Between 1955 and 2006, Professor Rescher has published approximately 110 books and over 350 articles, averaging to about 2.3 books and 6.7 articles per year.

Like Leibniz, Rescher believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Best in what way, we may ask? Through the optimal balance between diversity and unity. And Professor Rescher’s scholarly work is a microcosm of the world in this regard, unique in contemporary philosophy in regard to both aspects individually and in combination.

First, diversity. Professor Rescher has written books in epistemology, metaphysics, pragmatism, process philosophy, philosophy of science and technology, ethics, social philosophy, logic and metaphilosophy. In the history of philosophy he has published books on figures including Galen, Alexander of Aphrodisias, al Kindi, al Farabi, Leibniz, Kant, Pascal and Peirce.

But what is most noteworthy is not quantity and diversity by itself, but the deep unity underlying the work. The thread joining all of it is an pragmatic world view that places our human concerns at the forefront. However this pragmatism is not technological in nature. For our human concerns are not just to survive, but to live deeply: to know, to feel, to act. The more we know, the more questions we can ask, and so the human task is in principle one that cannot be brought to completion. Nor is the pragmatism dogmatic, but methodological and at one remove from first order epistemic considerations. Truth is not defined by pragmatic concerns, nor do we simply assume something to be true because it is useful to do so, but pragmatic concerns guide our choice of epistemic practices—we engage in those practices of inquiry that in fact are useful for prediction and control.[1] What Rescher has produced is a grand philosophical system, pragmatic in nature, and comprehensive in outlook, like that of his great hero and the subject of a significant portion of his scholarship, Leibniz.

But unlike in Leibniz’s approach, a down-to-earth, humble, bottom-up approach keeps Professor Rescher from invoking God in his philosophical work when this can be avoided. Ultimately, however, Professor Rescher was drawn, in his words, toward the community of the world’s “theistically committed Platos and Plotinuses, its Anselms and Aquinases, its Leibnizes and Hegels [—] those who saw humanity as subject to transcendent aspirations and obligations—and for whom forms of worship and religious styles of thought really mattered.”[2] And so he is not only the most catholic with a lowercase ‘c’ in his interests among his philosophical contemporaries, but he is a Catholic with a capital ‘C’, a man radiating a serenity tied to a loving and diligent search for truth in communion with others, both his contemporaries and the Aquinases and Leibnizes of the past.

His catholicity makes it possible for students and colleagues to discuss anything whatsoever with him. He combines personal warmth with an old-fashioned courtesy that comes naturally to him, both offering and automatically inviting respect. It would not occur to us as graduate students to call him anything but a formal “Dr. or Professor Rescher”. But then, after a successful doctoral defense, we would be told—and here I quote the last line of an email from him which I will always treasure—“P.S. At this point, do please call me Nick.”

I would like to end with a quote from the last section of Nick’s 2002 autobiography, and express my wish and prayer for the continued truth of it in his case:

The ennui of the accustomed explains not only why elderly people like to travel, but also why they incline to live vicariously in the doing of the young. However, this is far less of a problem with someone whose life is dedicated to learning, for there lies before one an endless horizon of more things to learn about. To be sure, it might seem that, very abstractly considered, learning and thinking themselves are "more of the same." But that is altogether false because, concretely considered, the idea at issue is always something new, something fresh.

I give you Nick Rescher, Aquinas Medalist, who will give us something new, something fresh. [1] Rationality in Pragmatic Perspective, pp. 21-22. [2] “In Matters of Religion”, p. 132.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The scholarly life: Two views

The pessimist:

I HAVE, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.
Magister, doctor styled, indeed,
Already these ten years I lead,
Up, down, across, and to and fro,
My pupils by the nose,--and learn,
That we in truth can nothing know!
That in my heart like fire doth burn.
'Tis true I've more cunning than all your dull tribe,
Magister and doctor, priest, parson, and scribe;
Scruple or doubt comes not to enthrall me,
Neither can devil nor hell now appal me--
Hence also my heart must all pleasure forego! (Goethe, Faust, Part I)

The optimist:

The ennui of the accustomed explains not only why elderly people like to travel, but also why they incline to live vicariously in the doing of the young. However, this is far less of a problem with someone whose life is dedicated to learning, for there lies before one an endless horizon of more things to learn about. To be sure, it might seem that, very abstractly considered, learning and thinking themselves are "more of the same." But that is altogether false because, concretely considered, the idea at issue is always something new, something fresh." (Nicholas Rescher at age 73, Enlightening Journey, p. 266)
One should also, I think, supplement the quote with Rescher's idea that as one learns more, the knowledge makes possible new questions, and so the quest for knowledge is, in principle, without end for finite knowers.

I think Rescher gets right what Faust gets wrong. It may be true that the more one knows, the more one realizes what a small fraction of the questions there are one knows the answer to. But that is not reason for despair--for one can, after all, know more and more, both more facts and more questions.

I sometimes have suffered from a fear of the ennui of eternity in heaven. I realize that this is an irrational fear--the vision of God, our infinite lover and beloved, can unchangingly satisfy us forever. But it does seem plausible that growth, progress and change are important aspects of human nature (that's one reason I don't like the account of heavenly life as timeless--another reason is the apparent nonsensicality of saying "after this temporal life, there will be a timeless existence"). I was thinking about these ideas from Rescher yesterday, and I think they did much to take away the fear of the ennui of eternity. Here's the argument: I can see the life of ever increasing inquiry, truth leading to questions leading to truth, synoptic view leading to new questions leading to a wider synthesis, as a life worth engaging in for eternity. But what God has prepared for us, which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, either includes that or--quite likely--includes something even more satisfying. So the idea that eternity would produce ennui is mistaken--at least if one loves truth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Psychological connectedness/continuity and self-sacrifice

At least if I have no dependents, it would be praiseworthy, supererogatory and hence permissible to sacrifice my life to save the life of a stranger. It is permissible to take actions to save a stranger's life that I foresee (but do not intend) will cause my immediate death, and I equally have the right to take actions to save a stranger's life that will result in my dying in 20 years (e.g., because to save the stranger's life I need to brave some radiation hazard which will eventually kill me.

This is true even if I foresee that my character will shift in significant ways over the next 20 years, that I will then not have many memories of how things are for me now, and so on. In other words, I have the right to sacrifice the life of my future self for a stranger even if my future self will not be very much psychologically connected to me. On the other hand, I have no right to sacrifice the life of my friend for a stranger without my friend's permission, and the closer the friend is to me, the worse such a sacrifice would be. This shows that my relationship to my future selves is significantly unlike my relationship to my friends. It does not matter how psychologically close to or distant from my future self I am--I have the right to make the sacrifice. But the closer I am to my friend, the worse it is to sacrifice the friend for a stranger without the friend's permission.

Thus, sometimes, identity matters, and psychological connectedness is largely irrelevant. Could one replace identity with psychological continuity in these considerations? No. For suppose that I know that next week I will fission into two individuals. I will have psychological connectedness and continuity with them. But I have no right to sacrifice their lives to save the lives of two strangers, e.g., by exposing myself now to a dose of radiation that will result in the two descendant individuals dying in two weeks. It would be like sacrificing the lives of two children of one's own to save two strangers. The psychological connectedness and continuity are insufficient for permissibility here. And even if it were permissible, it would hardly be praiseworthy.

Or consider the following scenario. Rescuing the stranger will result in a dose of a substance to oneself that will first induce amnesia and then death. On psychological continuity theories, the person who dies is the person who inhabits your body after the amnesia and this is not you because of lack of psychological continuity (one might add that one has no plans for this person if need be). And so you have sacrificed the lives of two people to save the stranger--for you will die through the amnesia (on psychological continuity theories, amnesia is a cessation of existence), and then the new person who will come to exist in your body will die. So this is imprudent (sacrificing two to save one) and immoral (one of the sacrificed has not been consulted). But that is absurd--surely it makes no difference whether the substance directly causes death, or causes amnesia followed by death.

(In fact, the latter consideration seems a nice independent argument against psychological theories. Suppose that you're dying. Treatment A will give you 100 days of life. Treatment B is slightly less painful, and will result in 100 days of life, followed by amnesia, followed by an hour of life, followed by death. It seems permissible to opt for Treatment B. But if Treatment B means two people die--one through amnesia and another after--it may not be permissible to opt for it just because it is slightly less painful.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Evolution and moral knowledge

Consider this argument for moral scepticism (this formulation is based on a comment by Christian Lee). The existence of our moral beliefs can be given an evolutionary explanation which makes no reference to the truth of these beliefs, so that:
(*) If there were no moral truths, we'd still believe in moral truths.
This, the argument continues, is an undercutting defeater for our moral beliefs even if in fact there are moral truths.

I'm going to argue that at least on four metaethical views, (*) is false. But first note a complication. On many theories of morality, moral truths are necessary truths. But then (*) is a counterfactual with necessarily false antecedent and hence on Lewis semantics trivially true. However, this can't be how the evolutionary moral sceptic understands (*), since then (*) is going to be equally trivially true if one replaces moral claims with mathematical ones, and I take it that the moral sceptic isn't trying to argue for scepticism simpliciter. Rather, in the case of those theories of morality which make morality a necessary truth, the sceptic understands (*) to be a true per impossibile counterfactual. Now on to considering four moral theories.

1. Kantianism. On Kantian ethics, morality is very closely tied to practical rationality. If, per impossibile, there were no moral truths, there would be no practical rationality. If there were no such thing as practical rationality, there would be no agents or even potential agents. It is not clear whether on a Kantian view there could be any beliefs if there were no agents. If not, (*) is a false per impossibile counterfactual. Suppose that non-agents could have beliefs. Well, still, they wouldn't be our beliefs, because we really are agents, and being the sort of entity that has at least a potential for agency is essential to who we are.

2. Natural law. On natural law ethics, morality is grounded in the teleological features of our nature. If those features were other than they are, or if they were absent altogether, the nature would be significantly different, and the beings with that nature would be essentially different from us--they wouldn't be human. Thus, on natural law ethics, were there no moral truths, or even were the moral truths different from what they are, we wouldn't exist, and hence (*) is false.

3. Divine command metaethics of the divine-will variety. On this view, the right thing is what God wills us to (arbitrarily on some versions, or out of the goodness of his nature; the will in question is the antecedent will). Now, presumably God's deliberation as to what kinds of a universe to create was tightly intertwined with what actions, if any, he willed his creatures to do. It is very likely true that if there were no moral truths, i.e., if God had not willed any actions, then God would have created a significantly different universe (perhaps one in which finite agents would not have arisen), and similarly it is likely that if he had willed different moral truths, he would have set up evolutionary processes or intervened (or whatever is the right story about God's cooperation with evolution) to produce different creatures from the ones he had. In particular, it is unlikely that we would exist then, and hence (*) is probably false.

4. Divine nature metaethics. On this family of theories, the right is grounded in God's nature. For instance, the right may be imitation of God, or it may be a certain kind of participation in the Good which might be identified with God. But now consider the counterfactual. Were there no moral truths or were moral truths different, then God's nature would be different from what it is (e.g., it wouldn't be good). But God created us out of the goodness of his nature. Thus, likely, we wouldn't exist were God's nature different in moral respects from what it is. Hence, (*) is probably false, once again.

Note that on theories 2-4, I've also argued that the following variant of (*) is probably false:
(**) If moral truths were significantly different from what they are, our moral beliefs would be no different.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Participation in divine goodness

According to St. Thomas, we only have properties like goodness, wisdom and being by participation in divine goodness, divine wisdom and divine being, respectively. Divine goodness, divine wisdom and divine being are the focal cases of goodness, wisdom and being, respectively. We have these qualities only insofar as we are dependent on God's having their focal cases. Our goodness, our wisdom and our being are mere shadows, as Plato would say, which is why Jesus said that only God is good (Mark 10:18), and St. Catherine of Siena reports God as having told her: "I am he who is and you are she who is not."

I suspect that if we reflect on this, we will find an answer to the question of why it is that we add nothing to the value of God--the world, given that God exists, is in an overall sense no better for having us in it. God's moral goodness is no greater if he creates us than if he does not. This had better be true--what God has chosen to do for us is pure grace, and is in no way necessitated. (And if one thinks that to be truly good, one needs some kind of generation of good, the a-causal timeless begetting of the consubstantial Son by the Father, and the a-causal timeless procession of the consubstantial Holy Spirit from the Father through the Son, should help.)

All this should provide ample ammunition against Rowe's argument that God doesn't exist, because if he did, then for any world he created, he could have created a better, and hence he could be morally outdone. For God's moral worth is not dependent on what he creates; this worth is, simply, infinite, no matter what.

Logical fatalism, compatibilism and theism

In my previous post, I discussed logical fatalism and the options available. One of these options I labeled as "compatibilism" which I defined as the denial of the principle:
(1) If it is now necessary that I will do A, then I will not be freely doing A.
I was wrong to label the denial of this "compatibilism". It is possible to deny (1) and still hold that free will and determinism are incompatible, as long as one holds:
(1*) If a present state of affairs outside of me deterministically causes me to do A, then I will not be freely doing A.
Someone who denies (1) but accepts (1*) will still be an incompatibilist as long as we assume that in a deterministic system earlier states of affairs not only determine later ones but deterministically cause the later ones, so that if determinism holds, the state of the universe prior to my conception would deterministically cause all my actions, and hence vitiating my freedom. (C deterministically causes E provided C causes E and the occurrence of C cannot but cause E.)

Thus, there is a nice variant of the option I called "compatibilism" available: deny (1) but hold on to (1*). It is also worth noting that theists have independent reason to do this. It is necessarily true that God does not choose evils. We then need to deny (1) (or its variant for non-actions, but the same goes for it) in order to hold on to the idea that God is responsible for not choosing evils. And we can hold on to (1*), because nothing external to God causes his actions.

So while I find (*) implausible, denying (1) but holding on to (1*) may be the best solution since by holding on to (1*) one gets to maintain most of our incompatibilistic intuitions about free will.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Logical fatalism -- the options

This post is just an attempt by me to work something out for myself. Maybe it doesn't interest anybody else.

People who accept an Aristotelian open future because of concerns about logical fatalism do so on the strength of the intuition that if I freely do something, it was possible for me not to do it, and that:
(*) If it is now the case that I will do A, then it is now necessary that I will do it.

So, the question is: What are the options for getting out of the argument from logical fatalism. One option is just to deny (*). This, I think, is by far the best option. Call someone who accepts (*) an "Open Futurist". What logical options does an Open Futurist have?

Well, to see that, let's sketch a logical fatalism argument based on (*):

  1. If it is now necessary that I will do A, then I will not be freely doing A. (Premise, justified via Principle of Alternate Possibilities)
  2. If it is now necessary that I will not do A, then I will not be freely refraining from doing A. (Premise, same justification)
  3. If it is now necessary that I will do A, then I will not be freely refraining from doing A. (Premise)
  4. If it is now necessary that I will not do A, then I will not be freely doing A. (Premise)
  5. If it is now necessary that I will do A, then I will not be freely doing A and I will not be freely refraining from doing A. (By (1) and (3) and the principle that if p→q and p→r, then p→q&r.)
  6. If it is now necessary that I will not do A, then I will not be freely doing A and I will not be freely refraining from doing A. (By (2) and (4) and the principle that if p->q and p→r, then p→q&r.)
  7. If I will do A, then I will not be freely doing A and I will not be freely refraining from doing A. (By (5) and (*).)
  8. If I will not do A, then I will not be freely doing A and I will not be freely refraining from doing A. (By (6) and (*).)
  9. Either it is the case that I will do A or it is not the case that I will do A. (By Law of Excluded Middle)
  10. If it is not the case that I will do A, then I will not do A. (Premise)
  11. Therefore, either it is the case that I will do A or it is the case that I will not do A. (By (9) and (10) and the principle that if p or q, and q→r, then p or r.)
  12. Therefore, I will not be freely doing A and I will not be freely refraining from doing A. (By (7), (8) and (11), together with the principle that if p→r and q→r and (p or q), then r.)
So what are the at all plausible options if we accept (*) (which we shouldn't)?
(I) Compatibilism: Deny (1) (and (2)--they are surely in the same boat).
(II) Intuitionistic Logic: Deny the Law of Excluded Middle, thereby allowing the denial of (9).
(III) Not-will / will-not distinction: Deny (10), holding on to Law of Excluded Middle.
(IV) Deny the principle that if p→r and q→r and (p or q), then r.
(V) Deny one of the other rules of inference used.

I think (V) is not attractive--all the other rules of inference seem really hard to deny. Option (IV) is pretty radical. It means that we will no longer accept arguments like: "If Bob is telling the truth, George is guilty. If Fred is telling the truth, George is guilty. Either Bob or Fred is telling the truth. So, George is guilty." The principle denied in (IV) follows from the axioms of intuitionistic logic, and I think is also going to hold in supervaluationist settings.

If this is right, then an exhaustive list of our at all plausible options with regard to the logical argument for fatalism is:

  1. Denial of free will
  2. Denial of (*)
  3. Compatibilism
  4. Denial of excluded middle
  5. Denial of the claim that not-will implies will-not
I rank the attractiveness of these as follows, in order of most to least attractive: 2, 3, 5, 4, 1. Why list 1 last? Because free will is central to the things that matter most in life. How to justify the rest of the ordering? Well, we should be least willing to give up general rules of all reasoning, like excluded middle. We should be more willing to give up rules about particular kinds of reasoning, such as the tensed logic rule that not-will implies will not. We should be more willing yet to give up intuitions about modal or concrete concepts, since there things get difficult by everybody's lights, and so 2 and 3 are even more attractive as options than 5, 4 and 1. Why take 2 as more attractive than 3? Well, that's a judgment call on my part--I find compatibilism deeply implausible, and I suspect that most people who find (*) plausible find the denial of compatibilism even more plausible.

Counting on people

It seems to me that there is an epistemological asymmetry when relying on the good or bad actions of others. Karla has a sterling character, and is an expert on the relevant topic, and he says p. I conclude that p. Patrick has a horrible character, and is an expert on the relevant topic, and it would clearly be in his interest to lie about this to me, and he says q. I conclude that not-q. The two conclusions may have extremely high probability based on the evidence about Karla's and Patrick's past behavior, but it is plausible to me that only the inference in Karla's case gives knowledge. Why? Because we have a right to count on someone's good character but have no right to count on someone's bad character, even if the probabilities of acting out of character are equally small.

Similarly, given past behavior, I think sometimes we are justified in believing that a particular person will do the right thing in some circumstances, not just that she will very likely do the right thing. But we are never justified in believing of a person that she will do the wrong thing in some circumstances, though we may be justified in believing that she will very likely do the wrong thing. It would be uncharitable to do so--she might reasonably complain that we shouldn't have formed such a belief, given her free will.

One might think the second case, and maybe the first, confuses moral justification with epistemic justification. But morality governs every aspect of our lives (this is clearest from a Jewish or Christian standpoint--we are to love God with every aspect of our lives), and in particular governs our believings.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Syntax and context (Language, Part II)

To resume my attempt to erase the distinction between utterance and context, I shall argue that to judge whether a sentence is syntactically correct can require information about what looks like "context".

First, note that the fact that a given uttered sequence of sounds is in language or dialect L1 rather than in some other language L2 is surely very much a contextual feature, and one that has to be known in order to judge syntactic correctness. It may be that the speaker announced which language she was speaking, or that she is assumed to be speaking the same language as her interlocutor previously was speaking, or that she is speaking the majority language in the culture. Often one can guess from the words said, or the accent with which they are said, what language is being spoken. Often, but not always. Consider a case where we have two closely cognate languages. Then, one will sometimes have a case that the same set of sounds could be parsed either as a correct sentence of one language or as a somewhat mispronounced sentence of the other language. Which is the right interpretation depends on which language was contextually established as the one in which this utterance is being, and this in turn will answer the question whether the utterance was syntactically correct. So, if we recognize such a thing as context at all, we should likewise recognize as part of the context the fact that a givien language was in play, and hence we should conclude that context is relevant to syntax.

Second, we can come up with some somewhat odd-ball cases. You say: "Jones was walking" and I add "under the bridge". Whether what I said was syntactically correct depends on what you had said--had you said nothing, my addition would have been nonsense. So, what you say helps determine syntactic correctness.

Third, it seems to me that in gendered languages to use the wrong gender in words that refer to the speaker is to make a syntactic mistake--but then whether a sentence is syntactically correct will depend on whether the speaker is male or female, an apparently contextual feature. We can imagine even more radical versions of this--we can imagine a language where, say, completely different word order is to be used by men and by women. Similarly, it seems a syntactic mistake for a collective to speak in the first person singular. However, I am aware that there are other ways of interpreting the gender/number case (one might say that all the sentences in question are syntactically correct regardless of who says them, but there is some other kind of error in them).

So what? Well, if we need to know what we normally think of as context to determine syntactic correctness, then it seems that the choice of the setting in which we utter a set of noises is just as much a linguistic choice as the choice of what noises to make, because the setting and the noises interact to produce a syntactically correct or incorrect sentence.