Thursday, January 31, 2008

An argument against materialism

  1. The best physics tells us that material reality consists of one or more non-local fields. (Premise)
  2. Therefore, material reality consists of one or more non-local fields. (Probabilistic inference from 1)
  3. I do not consist of one or more non-local fields. (Premise)
  4. I am a substance. (Premise)
  5. A substance does not exist in virtue of one or more other things having certain properties. (Premise)
  6. If x is a material entity, and material reality consists of one or more Fs, then x either consists of one or more Fs, or exists in virtue of one or more Fs having certain properties. (Premise)
  7. I exist and have a mind. (Premise)
  8. If I am a material entity, then I consist of one or more non-local fields, or exist in virtue of one or more non-local fields having certain properties. (By 2 and 6)
  9. If I am a material entity, then I exist in virtue of one or more non-local having certain properties. (By 3 and 8)
  10. If I am a material entity, then I am not a substance. (By 3, 5 and 9)
  11. I am not a material entity. (By 4 and 10)
  12. Therefore, I am an existent being who is not a material entity and yet has a mind. (By 7 and 11)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

About these posts

A graduate student told me that sometimes I say crazy things, and suggested that I do so to get a reaction. I plead guilty to both. However, I have to say that I mean the crazy things that I say to get a reaction. I am punctilious about the duty not to lie, and if something from me has the form of assertion, and isn't explicitly disclaimed or plainly in some non-assertive context like play-acting or joke-telling, I really do mean it. In particular my posts, though sometimes written in a tongue-in-cheek style and espousing seemingly absurd doctrines, are quite sincere. (That said, it may be that a back post no longer reflects my current views--perhaps a commenter has persuaded me out of some view I held, in which case I owe her my gratitude.)

At the same time, what I say may sometimes need to be read carefully, and one cannot rely on ordinary-language implicature. If I simply entitle something "An argument for p", I am not claiming that what is offered is a sound argument for p, or even an interesting argument, but only that it is an argument (of course if I don't think it's an interesting argument, then I'm not that likely to post it, am I?) If I label something a "valid argument", then my only claim is that it is valid--I am not affirming the premises or the conclusion, nor am I even claiming that the premises are coherent. If I call something a "sound argument", then I am endorsing the premises and the conclusion, and committing myself to the argument's validity, but I am committing myself to no claim about the argument's usefulness.

Finally, as a general rule of interpretation, I never mean to contradict any teaching of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, be the magisterium extraordinary or ordinary, infallible or fallible (even where the magisterium is fallible, I am much more fallible). I am committed to repudiating any view of mine should it be shown to have contradicted the teaching of the Church.

A contribution to the phenomenology of seeing a wall

I see a wall. What do I see? Something white. But not just something white. Something white and not to be walked into. I do not infer from seeing something white that I am facing something solid, or from facing something solid that I am facing something not to be walked into. On the contrary, I directly see something not to be walked into, and I demonstrate my perception by navigating around the wall. Moreover, seeing something not to be walked into may happen independently of seeing the color. Solidity may come later, after seeing that something is not to be walked into—after all, "Don't walk into me" is the wall's urgent demand on me, something I must act on right away. Moreover, if I should hesitate about following that demand, I am apt to see the truth of the counterfactual Were I to walk into the wall, I would get a bump (and if I still hesitate, then I get a bump).

So we perceive both normative and counterfactual states of affairs. Moreover, phenomenologically, we often see the normative and sometimes the counterfactual aspects of a situation first, before we see the non-normative categorical ones.

Furthermore, our perceptions are directly motivating. I see something not to be walked into, and so I do not walk into it. And just as this is true of perceptions, it is true of beliefs. My belief that moving a king two squares diagonally in chess "just isn't done" is directly motivating. Hume was wrong about beliefs not being directly motivating.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Theology versus philosophical theology

When I was a mathematics graduate student, a mathematical physicist described to me the difference between mathematical physics and theoretical physics roughly as follows. The mathematical physicist is a mathematician who re-does the work of the theoretical physicist, about 10-15 years later, but with full mathematical rigor. So, wanting to make sure that all the mathematics is precise and right comes at the cost of being behind the state of the art. The theoretical physicist, typically, does not worry about rigor. She makes approximations as needed, assumes as needed that differential equations have solutions (after all, if they describe a physical situation, how can they not, she might—fallaciously[note 1]—ask?), and so on. The mathematical physicist is worried about all the assumptions, wanting them all to be laid out on the table. The physicist does not worry. And typically the physicist is right not to worry—her physicist's intuition, or whatever, is sufficiently reliable in the appropriate area, and she knows what area is appropriate.

I wonder if there isn't a similar relationship between the theologian and the philosophical theologian (at least of the analytic variety). For instance, the theologian may not worry about cashing out details of metaphors. She might talk about the Church as the body of Christ without wondering whether this means that the Church is a substance. She can talk about forgiveness without wondering about its metaphysics (a fascinating question for a later post). Of course, she also can ask whether the Church is a substance, and wonder about the metaphysics of forgiveness. But the point is that she doesn't have to. Likewise, the theoretical physicist presumably can stop and be utterly rigorous, and sometimes she does, but much of the time she doesn't and doesn't have to. But the philosophical theologian wants to get as clear as we can on what is behind the metaphor, eschewing metaphorical language as much as possible. She wants to be able to formulate the theological theses as rigorously as possible. And there is a price to be paid for this rigor, much higher than the price for mathematical physics which was just being behind. Many aspects of Revelation are, likely, essentially metaphorical in the sense that there is no non-metaphorical way of putting them without loss. So insisting on putting things more rigorously, she is not able to say much of what her theologian colleague can. But the work of the philosophical theologian is valuable, just like that of the mathematical physicist.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Confidentiality and the value of truth

There are people who by default want to tell you everything they can. If there is something they're required to keep back, they find this difficult. For such a person, a special reason is needed not to say something, a reason such as confidentiality, not boring the listener, decency, etc. These kinds of people are annoying—they are apt to tell you more than you want to hear, to spill secrets, to gossip and to offend. That's the kind of person I am. On the other hand, there are people whose default mode is silence, who require a special reason to disclose something. These people are great if you want to run a conspiracy, but their value is found in many other circumstance—they won't bore you by telling you what you don't want hear, their speech is more apt to be modest, and they will only offend if they choose to. On the other hand, it is easier for them to be deceptive.

In a sense the first attitude is the right one. The argument for this is simple. Knowledge of the truth is intrinsically good. It is intrinsically good to bestow a good on another. Hence, it is intrinsically beneficent to tell someone what one knows. But if an action is intrinsically beneficent, then the presumption is in favor of doing it. One doesn't need any additional reason to disclose what one knows other than the fact that the listener will gain a piece of knowledge she lacks.

Of course the attitude of those who like to disclose has its dangers, namely that there are many defeaters for disclosure. And the danger of being a person of the sort who has a presumption to disclose is that one will neglect the defeaters. These defeaters are almost all, and perhaps all, grounded in human fallenness. When one needs to keep quiet about something, it's generally because something has gone wrong or is likely to go wrong. But in a fallen world, things go wrong quite often. Actions are likely to have unintended consequences that could have been foreseen with more thought. In a fallen world one might need to have a presumption in favor of measuring twice and cutting once. Moreover, in a fallen world, we need to be careful when speaking, because we may simply be mistaken, and we have a special responsibility when saying something to ensure we're not speaking falsely.

If so, then there is something right about both attitudes. The discloser is right that there is a presumption to disclose knowledge. But the non-discloser is aware that in our fallen world some of what we think is knowledge isn't, and the world is full of defeaters for intrinsically good actions. The discloser may get right the axiological structure, the rule to tell what you know is indeed generally right, but the non-discloser gets right the fact that defeaters are very common—the presumption for disclosing is quite weak.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Robotic persons?

If functionalism is true, a robot could be, or could constitute, a person. Suppose, then, a robot is or constitutes a person, Robby. Assume that the robot's memory state persists when he's turned off until the next time he's turned on, for instance because everything is stored in non-volatile memory or on a hard disk.

Question: Does Robby exist when turned off?

In favor of a yes:

  1. If the robot is a person, rather than just constituting a person, then Robby exists when turned off, since robots, like vacuum cleaners and television sets, do exist when turned off.
  2. If Mary Anne Warren in her defense of abortion piece is right that persons are beings with a developed capacity for agency, then the robot plainly has such a developed capacity even when off. Moreover, some pro-life opponents of Warren will agree that a developed capacity for agency is sufficient for personhood, though not necessary since an undeveloped capacity will also do.
  3. Plainly, Robby exists when he is turned on, and when he is turned off and then on again, Robby will exist again. If it is impossible to have temporal gaps in one's existence, then Robby exists when turned off, too.
  4. What does it mean to be "turned off"? When I turn my Palm PDA "off", it has a clock that keeps on ticking, and that will wake it up next time an alarm goes off, or a user pressed a key. Is it "off"? The official terminology for a state like that is "sleep" or "standby". (The only way to really turn off a Palm device is to remove or run out its battery.) We can imagine that Robby, to conserve power, can turn everything off but a timer that will turn him on in a second.[note 1] Surely, he still exists when he's turned off but the timer is running. But the distinction between what is and what is not a part of a robot is kind of arbitrary. Suppose we take a robot that doesn't have that ability, but we use rubber bands to attach to it a contraption involving a big analog alarm clock rigged to press the robot's power button after five minutes. We could set things up so the alarm clock attached to the robot is set up so that when we press the power button, it starts running, and then five minutes later it presses the power button. It seems that we should say that the person persists when turned off when there is such an alarm clock. (There is an alternate supposition, which is that there are two robot persons there: Robby and Robby-plus-alarm. But then we'll be multiplying persons absurdly--there is Robby, Robby-minus-foot, Robby-plus-alarm, Robby-plus-dust, etc.) But it shouldn't make a difference to whether Robby exists while off if we remove the rubber bands and just hold the alarm in place. And it also shouldn't matter whether we take the alarm away for a minute, and then bring it back in time to ring. And there is little difference between that and our just being resolved to turn Robby on. But surely whether Robby exists does not depend on what our plan is--on whether we are resolved to turn him on. So, Robby exists when turned off, even if there is no alarm or resolution.

In favor of a no:

  1. It does not seem possible to draw any distinction between removing batteries and turning off. After all, turning off is disconnecting the batteries from the rest of the robot. It shouldn't matter for Robby's existence whether one is turning off the robot by removing the batteries physically from the battery holder, or disconnecting the contacts touching the batteries, or inducing a disconnection in the wires leading to these contacts. So Robby continues to exist even if his batteries are removed. But the story about the batteries can be modified further. It shouldn't make any difference vis-à-vis Robby's persistence status whether the power switch disconnects just the wires leading to the battery, or disconnects the wires elsewhere, e.g., around the CPU. We could imagine that the circuit is arranged in such a way that whenever the switch is pressed, the CPU is popped out, and this interrupts the circuit. Details of how turning off is implemented in the hardware surely should not matter, certainly not if one has the kind of functionalistic intuitions that are the main consideration in favor of thinking that there could be robot persons. But if so, we can imagine a radical case where the power switch disconnects all the major components of the robot. But again, there should be no difference between an electrical disconnect (especially on functionalist grounds) and an unplugging of a component. So, if Robby survives being turned off, he also survives all of his components being disconnected, as long as they could be put back together. It seems that the only functionalistically-acceptable constraint we can put on the taking apart is that the memory can be recovered. This leads to two absurdities. First, you can cut Robby up into small pieces and he will survive if the memory modules aren't destroyed. That doesn't seem right. (Certainly it isn't right if Robby is identical with the robot, but also doesn't seem right if Robby is constituted by the robot.) Second, if so, then we will survive as long as our memory modules aren't destroyed. But it is plausible that our brain's memory data persists a while after we're dead by any of the standard medical criteria--persists in the sense that future scientists will be able to recover it (after all, one can with sensitive instruments recover overwritten data from a hard drive). But at that time we're dead, and unless there is a soul (as I believe, but the functionalist likely denies), we don't exist when dead, so this is absurd.
  2. If we didn't have souls, we wouldn't survive while not alive. But being turned on seems analogous to being alive. (If this is right, then people in cryogenic storage are dead.) And Robby doesn't have a soul. So, Robby doesn't survive being turned off.

Conclusion: If Robby were turned off, he would exist (by the first set of considerations) and not exist (by the second set). Hence, a robot can't be or constitute a person. Thus, functionalism is false.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Endurantism and perdurantism

For a long time, I was a B-theoretical endurantist. As a B-theorist, I did not believe there was an objective difference between past, present and future--only a difference relative to the speech act or mental act. I still hold to this. As an endurantist, I believed that I was wholly present at every given time at which I existed. Not a part of me, a slice of me, but the whole of me.

But now I see that I don't really have a very good objection to a perdurantism that says I am a four-dimensional entity, transcending particular times. Most perdurantists believe that there are temporal parts, slices of the four-dimensional entities that we are. But there is no need to believe that. Certainly, I don't believe that we have horizontal or vertical parts. If I have parts at all, they are parts like heart, leg, brain hemisphere, not neat slices along planes such as "my left half" or "my bottom third". I have no idea what the persistence conditions for "my left half" or "my bottom third" would be. Likewise, if I have temporal parts, they're going to be cut along natural cutting hyperplanes. But in fact, I doubt there are any natural cutting hyperplanes for temporal parts, except perhaps death where the soul separates from the body.

So if I opted for perdurantism, I would not believe in temporal parts or slices. I would think of myself as a single organic entity, stretched out in time.

There is something attractive about this view. It makes us be in time but also transcend particular times, since we're not contained in any time slice.

Moreover, this view escapes the following objection against endurantism: If we're wholly present at every time at which we exist, there is not much to that "whole". It's very "thin"--it's merely three-dimensional. But insofar as we're merely three-dimensional, we don't do very much--the lesson of Zeno's paradox of the arrow is that on a (three-dimensional) time-slice the arrow doesn't move, and there perhaps isn't much to us except insofar as we're moving. I think a presentist endurantist can overcome this worry, but an eternalist endurantist will have some trouble with it. But maybe I am confusing motion with activity here--contemplation is an activity which does not involve motion. So perhaps a three-dimensional entity can have activity without having motion, and then there will be a lot to it (there still won't be a lot to the arrow, but that's OK).

On the other hand, the perdurantist view may have some trouble with transsubstantiation. (That's just a hunch.) If the trouble can't be overcome, I'll stick to endurantism.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Grim Reaper Paradox

Here is a version of the Grim Reaper paradox. Say that a Grim Reaper is a being that has the following properties: It wakes up at a time between 8 and 9 am, both exclusive, and if you're alive, it instantaneously kills you, and if you're not alive, it doesn't do anything.[note 1] Suppose there are countably infinitely many Grim Reapers, and before they go to bed for the night, each sets his alarm for a time (not necessarily the same time as the other Reapers) strictly between 8 and 9 am. Suppose, also, that no other kind of death is available for you, and that you're not going to be resurrected that day.

Then, you're going to be dead at 9 am, since as long as at least one Grim Reaper wakes up during that time period, you're guaranteed to be dead. Now whether there is a paradox here depends on how the Grim Reapers individually set their alarm clocks. Suppose now that they set them in such a way that the following proposition p is true:

(p) for every time t later than 8 am, at least one of the Grim Reapers woke up strictly between 8 am and t.
Here's a useful Theorem: If the Grim Reapers choose their alarm clock times independently and uniformly over the 8-9 am interval, then P(p)=1.

Now, if p is true, then no Grim Reaper kills you. For suppose that a Grim Reaper who wakes up at some time t1, later than 8 am, kills you. If p is true, there is a Grim Reaper who woke up strictly between 8 am and t1, say at t0. But if so, then you're going to be dead right after t0, and hence the Grim Reaper who woke up at t1 is not going to do anything, since you're dead then. Hence, if p is true, no Grim Reaper kills you. On the other hand, I've shown that it is certain that a Grim Reaper kills you. Hence, if p is true, then no Grim Reaper kills you and a Grim Reaper kills you, which is absurd.

The above argument shows that some arrangements of Grim Reaper alarm clock times, namely the ones that make p be true, are impossible, because they result in your being dead and not dead at the same time. But no such objection can be made to other arrangements of Grim Reaper alarm clock times. For instance, if Grim Reaper 177 wakes up at 8:05 am, and all the other Grim Reapers happen to wake up later, there is no difficulty--Number 177 kills you, and you're dead at 9 am.

Now we have a trilemma. Either all mathematical combinations of Grim Reaper alarm clock times strictly between 8 and 9 am are possible in the above story, or some but not all, or none (in the last case, the story above is impossible whatever the times are). The hypothesis that some but not all are possible seems unlikely. Look: it's midnight, say, and we have all of these Grim Reapers setting their alarm clocks. It would be really, really odd if they were somehow compelled by the metaphysics of the situation to set their times in one of the privileged ways, unless it turns out that there are only finitely many moments of time between 8 and 9 am, so that p cannot be true. (Indeed, by the Theorem given above, these privileged ways of setting times are very unlikely if the Reapers are choosing independently, assuming that all real-numbered times between 8 and 9 am exist, which the Theorem assumes.) That leaves two hypotheses: That all the combinations are possible or none. If all the combinations are possible, so will be the ones that make p true (e.g., Reaper 1 waking up at 8:30:00, Reaper 2 at 8:15:30, Reaper 3 at 8:07:30, Reaper 4 at 8:03:45, and so on). And that's not possible.

So either there are only finitely moments of time between 8 and 9 am, or no combination of Grim Reaper alarm clock settings is possible. In the latter case, it basically follows that it's just impossible to have infinitely many Grim Reapers, whether their wakeup times are arranged so as to result in a paradox or not. So why can't there be infinitely many Grim Reapers? It seems that the only reason to suppose there can't be infinitely many Grim Reapers, even in cases where no paradox is generated, is if one thinks there can't be an actual infinity of objects in existence. And if there can't be an actual infinity of objects in existence, then there can't be an actual infinity of times in the past, since if there were an actual infinity of times, surely a new object could come into existence at each of those times.

So either there are only finitely moments of time between 8 and 9 am, or there are only finitely moments of time in the past. But if there are only finitely many moments of time in the past, there were only finitely many moments of time yesterday between 8 and 9 am, and today is no different. So in either case, a bounded interval of times contains only finitely many moments.

I am not fully convinced by this argument, but I don't have a very good response.

[This post is revised. I am grateful to Bill Craig for pointing out some sloppiness in the original.]

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Let us suppose that there is a proper part P of me such that every part of me beyond P could perish, while P would remain. Some think the soul is such a part. Others think the brain is. Yet others might think that the head, or the head plus soul, or my upper half are such. Suppose now that at t0, this part P is a proper part of me, but later, at t1, everything making me up outside of P perishes, and no new stuff accretes, so that P is my only part, at least not counting the subparts of P. Maybe I am a brain in a vat or a disembodied soul at t1.

What is my relationship to P at t1? It cannot be identity. For if I were identical to P at t1, then by transitivity, I would also be identical to P at t0, and thus at t0 I would be a proper part of myself, which is absurd. Yet at t1, there is a sense in which there is nothing to me but P.

It seems that if identity is not the relation, then the relation is constitution, or some other such relation that falls short of identity. Thus, I am constituted by P at t1. This is pretty standard. But it bothers me. Here's why. At t1, P is still a part of me--it didn't cease to be a part of me just because all the other parts of me have gone away (e.g., if I have a brain, then a brain is a part of me, even if nothing beyond it is). Is P a proper or improper part? If a proper part, then there ought to be other stuff beyond P making me up. But ex hypothesi, at t1, P is all that's left of me. So P is an improper part. But the only improper parts of something are the thing as a whole and, on some views, nothing (or an empty or trivial part). Plainly P is not nothing. So then P is the whole of me, which we've already seen isn't true. Either way, we have a problem.

To rephrase, suppose:

  1. Everything excepting some proper part of me could perish with nothing new accreting to me, and with that part not coming to be beyond me.
  2. If a part x of y survives and y survives, and x does not come to be beyond y, then x will still be a part of y.
  3. Identity is transitive.
  4. If x is a proper part of y, then there is stuff beyond x in y.
Then a contradiction follows. (I may have forgotten some assumption here from the informal argument. But the basic idea is here.)

A slightly different argument is to note that at t0, both P and I are parts of me in the same sense--one a proper and the other an improper part. (One might question this: maybe proper and improper parts are "parts" by analogy or equivocation.) This shouldn't change at t1: both P and I should still be parts of me in the same sense. But it doesn't seem categorially right to suppose that x and y can both be parts of z in the same sense when x constitutes y (the atoms of my heart and my heart are parts of me in different senses).

I am inclined to say that these arguments push one to reject (1)--the idea that I have a proper part such that everything beyond that part could perish while I survived with that one part. However, I also think that if any object has proper parts, surely there will be some object with a proper part that is such that the object could survive being "reduced to" that part. Indeed, very plausibly, if any object has proper parts, likewise my mind is a proper part of me, and I could surivve being "reduced to" just the mind (regardless whether the mind is a brain or a soul).

And so we have another argument for the denial of the thesis that some objects have proper parts.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Free will and evil

Consider the following alternative scenario: God creates free creatures, but he ensures that whenever they make a choice between good and evil, the evil is only minimally attractive, i.e., attractive only to such a minimal degree that it is just barely possible to choose the evil. (If one thinks that it is possible to choose what is completely unattractive, then evil in that world will have no attractiveness at all.) We could even imagine that in that world we have vivid images of the sufferings in hell that would result from a sin whenever we contemplate the sin. It seems probable that there would be a lot less evil in such a world than in ours. Yet it is a world where there is genuine, morally significant free will.

This raises the question: Why did God create our world, where evil is sometimes very attractive?

I think an answer might be this. To find something attractive is to see it as in some way good. Indeed, the evils that we are tempted to are evils that we see, and often correctly, as in various ways good. Robbing a bank in a profitable way is in various ways good, because the profits can be used for many a good. An evil is attractive to the extent that we see goods in it. Suppose we see very clearly these goods, and still choose to act virtuously, to fail to rob the bank, say. Then we are not only manifesting love of the good promoted by the virtuous action, but we are loving that good over other goods. The more vividly these goods associated with the evil are presented to us, the greater the love of the good promoted by virtue is when we choose that good over the goods associated with the evil. And if we had vivid images of the sufferings to us resulting from the evil choice, then our choice of the good would not manifest much love of the good, but only a hatred of personal suffering.

Thus, in order to allow a greater love, God calls on us sometimes to choose the good over not just an evil, but over an attractive evil, an evil bound up with goods that sparkle.

But couldn't God get the same comparative love out of us by making it possible for us to choose greater goods over lesser ones, without the greater ones being obligatory, in the way in which he presents Christians with the choice between celibacy and marriage, with celibacy being better, but marriage still being good? Then if we chose the greater good, we'd be loving the greater good over the lesser one, but there would be no possibility of evil, since even if we chose the lesser good, we'd be acting rightly. And wouldn't that be a better arrangement than the one we in fact have?

Not necessarily. For there is a special value in not just choosing the good, but choosing the good dutifully. Such choice reflects the humility of a creature under the moral law. Probably the better world is one that contans both kinds of choices: sometimes choosing between a greater good and a lesser one where both choices are permissible, and sometimes choosing between a greater obligatory good and a lesser good that is associated with something impermissible. And that is how our world is.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pleasure and pain

In experiencing a pleasure (or pain, but let's start with the nice side), one is aware. But what is one aware of in the pleasure? We could say that one is aware of the pleasure. However, that seems mistaken. For there is indeed such a thing as being aware of a pleasure--a second order perception--and that second order awareness need not be pleasant at all. One might with horror realize that one is taking pleasure in the sufferings of another, for instance. So an awareness of a pleasure need not be pleasant. But a pleasure is, of course, always pleasant. This suggests that a pleasure is more than the awareness of a pleasure. Now maybe it is a certain kind of such awareness, say a particularly vivid one. But I don't think this is going to work.

Let's try a different tack. Pleasure isn't some kind of unitary mental ingredient. Rather, there are different kinds of pleasure, and there is no single common feel between them. There is the pleasure of solving a difficult mathematical problem and the pleasure of eating a chocolate cake. It would be really odd if one had these two feelings reversed! Moreover, one takes pleasure in something, such as an activity.[note 1] It is quite possible to take pleasure in something unreal, for instance being glad that someone has done one a good turn, when in fact the person has sneakily betrayed one.

So in pleasure we are taking pleasure in something distinct from the pleasure itself, and pleasure comes in different kinds corresponding to the kinds of things we take pleasure in. What, then, are we aware of in having a pleasure? It is the thing we take pleasure in. But to be aware of something is to be aware of it as a something. So in having a pleasure, we are aware of some x as an F. Often, x is an activity. But what is F? If we say "something pleasant", we have gone in a circle in trying to understand pleasure. Rather, I suggest, we are aware of an x as a particular kind of good. When we take pleasure in camping we are aware of the camping as a particular kind of good. Is this the whole story? Maybe not--maybe we need to say something about the sort of awareness this is, the kind of awareness that is involved in perception rather than in figuring out that something has some property. But we've got, I think, at least a part of a story.

Nor is this story very new. It is not very far from Aristotle's account of pleasure as completing a good in the Nicomachean Ethics, and is the view of pleasure that we get by analogy to Socrates' account of fear in the Protagoras.

This story has several merits:

  1. The account is uniform between spiritual or psychological pleasures and physical pleasures. It is clear that spiritual or psychological pleasures are the taking of pleasure in something--that they have intentionality. This is less clear for physical pleasures. But it seems implausible that some pleasures would be intentional mental states and some would be non-intentional mental states.
  2. The account neatly explains what an "empty pleasure" is. An empty pleasure is one divorced from the good being taken pleasure in. I could inject myself with chemicals, perhaps, that will make me feel the satisfaction of having done a job well, but if I do so when I've botched the job, my pleasure will be empty.
  3. The account explains why it is that taking pleasure in bad things (e.g., bad things happening to others) is particularly bad. It is particularly bad because it is self-deceptive: one is having oneself perceive something bad as good. And this kind of deception makes one deficient at love, since love requires getting right what is good and what is bad for others.
  4. The account explains why it is that many instances of pleasure are good. They are good because they are veridical perceptual states.

There is an analogous story about pains: pains are perceptions of something as bad in a particular way. However, some of the advantages of the account of pleasure are harder to see in the case of pain. One consequence of this account of pain is, after all, that veridical pain--i.e., pain in which we see something as bad in a particular way which is indeed bad in that particular way and where we are rightly connected to that bad state of affairs--is intrinsically good. And it might strike us as odd to suppose that some pains are intrinsically good. But observe that this is the right thing to say about many spiritual pains. As Johannes de Silentio says in the Sickness unto Death, the worse sickness is not to have that sickness. Many spiritual pains are such that it would be a defect not to have them. To fail to feel guilt for a bad action and to fail to grieve for a friend's suffering is bad: conversely, to feel guilt when one has done ill and to grieve rightly are intrinsically good. The uniformity between spiritual and physical pains seems a theoretical merit. And for a theist the fact that the question why God allows there to be pain is not intrinsically a problem--that it is good that God allows there to be pain--is definitely an advantage of the account.

But we still need to explain why it seems to be a good thing to relieve even veridical physical pains (pains that correctly represent an injury as bad), even though these pains according to the theory are intrinsically good. At least things can be said on this point. First, even if something is intrinsically good, it can be instrumentally bad. Pains often distract us, drawing our attention to facts that we do not need our attention drawn to. If we have a gaping wound, and have seen a doctor, we don't need further reminder of the wound, though the reminder is veridical. Second, I wonder whether our physical pains are often veridical even in cases where a genuine injury is causing the pain. They might be excessive, disproportionate vis-a-vis the injury, especially in light of our eternal destiny. I suspect that we tend to underappreciate moral bads and overappreciate physical bads, so we tend not to suffer enough spiritually and to suffer too much physically (on the other hand, Christ on the Cross had both a full appreciation of moral bads, and our excessive, fallen pain perceptions, so he suffered doubly). This seems to be a part of the Fall.

I also suspect we tend not to take enough pleasure in things; if we saw God manifested in everything around us, every pleasure would be heightened. But while excess renders a pain non-veridical, shortfall does not automatically render a pleasure non-veridical. This disanalogy is due to the fact that even if we do not see all the good in a state of affairs, the good that we see in it is there, and as far as the pleasure goes, it is veridical--though more pleasure would also be veridical.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Consequentialism and counterfactuals

According to standard act consequentialist theories, an action is right if and only if that there is no alternate action within one's power do that would in fact have better consequences. Focus on the words "would in fact". Here we have a counterfactual. Moreover, it is a counterfactual where the consequent depends indeterministically on the antecedent. But suppose that one denies Molinism, and more generally denies that there can be any non-trivial counterfactuals where the consequent depends indeterministically (either via libertarian-free actions or through quantum randomness) on the antecedent. Then the act consequentialist theory cannot work.

One might say that our actions concern a subset of the world that we may assume is deterministic. But remember that standard consequentialist theories involve also the weighing of distant consequences. It is highly likely that between the present and a distant future, indeterministic events will have some quite significant consequences. It seems pretty likely that over a long enough period of time, for instance, there will be some car crashes for indeterministic causes (e.g., indeterministic effects in the brains of drivers, or quantum effects in defective engine-control electronics, or the like). Moreover, we surely shouldn't assume something false. If we accept quantum indeterminism, then strictly speaking all the stuff around is indeterministic, though it may have extremely high probability. But extremely high probability won't help those worried about whether there are non-trivial counterfactuals involving stochastic dependence.

Suppose one bites the bullet. One denies that there are any true counterfactuals about future results, but one accepts the analysis of rightness. Then one gets the result that every action is right. For no action is such that there is an action that would have better consequences, since there are not enough facts to make such a "would" true.

If we take this criticism seriously, we will either abandon consequentialism, or define rightness not in terms of what it is true to say "would happen", but in terms of expected values of actual and counterfactual outcomes. There is still a problem, though, whether it makes sense to talk of the expected values of counterfactual outcomes when one believes that there is no such thing as a "counterfactual outcome", as the typical Molinist does. One might be able to define the expected values in terms of present tendencies, but now the theory is sounding less and less like consequentialism.[note 1]

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Natural Family Planning versus contraception

Patricia and Marcus are a married couple. Each day, they prudently decide whether or not to engage in marital union. To make that decision, they weigh all the relevant factors they can, gathering information relevant to the decision ahead of time when appropriate. They do nothing to intentionally decrease the fertility of their bodies, and when they decide to unite maritally, they do nothing to intentionally decrease the likelihood of conception.

What I have described is not a contracepting couple. What may not be immediately obvious is that I have described a couple practicing Natural Family Planning (NFP). One way to look at NFP is precisely as the gathering of some of the information relevant to a prudential decision whether or not to engage in marital union at a given time, and then making the decision in part in light of that information. For, plainly, the probability of conception is information relevant to a prudent decision whether or not to engage in marital relations. The way the information is relevant will depend on other information. If, for instance, the couple is suffering from severe financial distress, the learning that the probability of conception is high will make the decision to engage in marital relations less prudent than these relations would be if the probability were low. On the other hand, if the couple is in good personal, financial and relational health, learning that the probability of conception is high will make the decision to engage in marital relations more even more prudent than it would be if if the probability were low. ("Prudence", here, is Aristotelian phronêsis, of course.). It is clear, by the way, how NFP is useful not just to the couple for whom conception would be imprudent, but also to the couple trying to conceive.

Information relevant to the decision whether to engage in marital relations includes how tired the two persons are, what privacy is available to them, what their feelings about each other are, what potentially time-consuming duties they may have, whether there are any relevant medical considerations, and so on, all enter into the decision. That this kind of information needs to enter into the decision is clear and uncontroversial. But likewise, information about further consequences of an action is relevant to deciding whether to engage in the action or not, and hence fertility information is likewise relevant.

Seen in this way, it is clear that one cannot object in principle to every instance of NFP without being committed to at leat one of two implausible views:

  1. It is wrong for a couple to engage in sexual relations when the likelihood of conception is low.
  2. It is wrong for a couple to refrain from engaging in sexual relations because the likelihood of conception is high.
For unless one holds one of these two views, one cannot object to a couple deciding to engage in sexual relations when the likelihood of conception is low, and one also cannot object to a couple deciding not to engage in sexual relations because the likelihood of conception is high. Nor can one fault a couple for making the decision whether to engage in sexual relations or not in the light of all relevant information. But making such decisions on a day-to-day basis is all that NFP need consist in. Catholic tradition rejects both (1) and (2). Hence, the Catholic tradition does not contain a prohibition against NFP. Moreover, the prohibition against contraception is a prohibition against intentionally rendering the body or act less fertile than it would otherwise would be, and does not imply either (1) nor (2). Hence there is a relevant difference between NFP and contraception.

Objection 1: Although (1) is clearly innocent, what the couple is doing is not just deciding to engage in sexual relations when the likelihood of conception is low, but because the likelihood of conception is low.

Response: Consider the sense of this "because". It is not so much that the low probability of conception is their reason for having sex--after all, there are many uncontroversial activities other than sex that have much lower probability of conception, say sharing ice cream. Rather, the low probability of conception may imply the absence of a defeater to their independent reason to unite maritally, this defeater being the bad consequences of conception in their special situation (e.g., one of financial hardship). When deciding whether to engage in any action that isn't an all-things-considered duty, we need to consider potential defeaters. So if (1) and (2) are innocent, it must also be innocent to take into account the presence or absence of defeaters, since one must always do that in the case of a decision whether to engage in marital relations.

Objection 2: Over and beyond the daily decision between engaging and not engaging in marital union, there is the "plan of action as a whole", which in the case of a couple who uses NFP to avoid conception involves the timing of intercourse so as to avoid conception, and it is this plan of action as a whole that is analogous to contraception.

Response: There need not be any such overarching plan of action. When I described Patricia and Marcus, I did not attribute any such plan to them. Rather, it is possible that the couple is deciding, on a day to day basis, whether sexual union on that day is prudent in light of all the relevant information they have gathered. Granted, there may be an on-going condition (say, financial) which renders sexual union imprudent when it has a non-low probability of conception, and they need not think through the details of that condition each day, but can simply be on the lookout for when, if ever, the condition comes to an end. But it is quite possible to decide day after day on the same grounds--and yet for it to be a genuine decision, though it may become somewhat habitual. The fact that it is a genuine decision is evidenced by the data that at times NFP couples do decide to have sexual relations even when it is imprudent to do so, apparently without a significantly prudentially relevant change in circumstances (this is probably the main source of pregnancies among couples using NFP to avoid conception).

That said, one can imagine a couple who instead of deciding on a daily basis decides that over the next six months they will try to avoid conception. Still, it seems to me that they are likely to be making a daily decision whether they ought to keep to their earlier resolution. That said, I do not need to defend the actions of such a couple. To argue that NFP is morally permissible, I need to argue that there is some set of circumstances and motives under which NFP is permissible. It is false that NFP is permissible under all circumstances and with all possible sets of motives, and I actually suspect that a married couple's decision to refrain from conception ahead of time, without reference to changing circumstances, is morally problematic. Note that it is different to decide once for six months not to conceive, and another simply to expect that over the next six months one will each day have all-things-considered reason to avoid conception, but to still be making the decisions on a daily basis, since after all the reason to avoid conception might go away.

Summary: One way for NFP to be practiced, and it is this one way that I am defending here, is to think of it as the gathering of certain information relevant for the decision (I talk of "daily", but that is just a convenience--it could in principle be hourly) whether or not to engage in marital union at a given time. The information in question is fertility information. The prudent couple, of course, will also gather other information, and take that into account. Seen this way, NFP is not only clearly morally permissible, both in light of reason and of the Catholic tradition, but is positively virtuous, involving the virtue of prudence, as well as, when abstinence is called for, the virtue of self-control. What is the alternative? To fail to gather relevant information?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Oeconomic necessity

A theological concept that I haven't seen much recent discussion of, but that strikes me as important, is what I will call "oeconomic necessity" (together with the related "oeconomic possibility": p is oeconomically possible iff not-p is not oeconomically necessary), referring of course to the "economy of salvation" rather than the sort of stuff economists talk about. The concept is not entirely clear. Paradigm cases are claims like the following claims (all of which I accept):

  1. It is oeconomically necessary that if an unbaptized person after the time of Christ's resurrection repents of her sins and has water poured over her by another along with the other's saying the words "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit", with the relevantly right intentions on the part of both, the sins are forgiven.
  2. It is oeconomically impossible for an adult of at least normal intellectual capacities to be saved without at least implicit faith.
  3. It is oeconomically necessary that whatever the bishop of Rome teaches all Catholics definitively in a matter of faith and morals is true.
Metaphysical necessity entails oeconomic necessity, but not conversely. Oeconomic necessity supports counterfactuals:
  1. Had Patricia begged God to forgive her sins, she would have eventually entered heavenly life.

A simple-minded account of oeconomic necessity is that p is oeconomically necessary iff the content of divine revelation entails p. But this doesn't quite capture the concept. Revelation might at least in principle contain oeconomically contingent claims. God might reveal that in January 15, AD 26, one of Jesus's customers complained unfairly about the quality of a table that Jesus had made for him. This claim would then be found in revelation, but wouldn't be oeconomically necessary--it wouldn't be necessary in light of the plan of salvation. It is oeconomically necessary that (de dicto) whatever God reveals is true, but it can be oeconomically contingent that God reveals p.

The best characterization I have of oeconomic necessity is entailment by God's commitments (e.g., covenants or promises) and salvific plans.

The concept lets us distinguish some views. Thus, the standard universalist probably thinks:

  1. It is oeconomically necessary that everyone is saved.
But one could imagine a moderate universalist who thinks
  1. As a matter of oeconomically contingent fact, everyone will be saved.
One way to read the von Balthasar thesis about the possibility of hoping for everybody to be saved is that one can deny (5) while hoping for (6). One can similarly have anti-universalist views which distinguish between the following two claims:
  1. It is oeconomically necessary that someone will be damned.
  2. As a matter of oeconomically contingent fact, someone will be damned.
There is a real difference here. Someone who believes in double predestination and who thinks that the damnation of some is an important part of God's plan of salvation may affirm (7). On the other hand, I incline towards (8).

Another application is that a Catholic who believes that Anglican ordinations are typically invalid is committed to the claim that there is no oeconomical necessity that the bread and wine at a typical Anglican liturgy change into Christ's body and blood, but might nonetheless think that this could happen as an oeconomically contingent matter of fact ("by special divine dispensation"). We should not, however, count on what is oeconomically contingent.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Deep Thoughts IV

What was will never not have been.

(One might think that a simpler variant would do: "What was will always be." However, it could be argued (I do not know how successfully) that the simpler variant has the substantive entailment that now is not the last moment of time, and perhaps even the entailment that time has no end, thereby making the thought far from tautologous. These kinds of departures from tautology are easy to fail to notice but can be important in some philosophical contexts. Deep Thinking requires care.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Once we have the evidence, we will pull the trigger"

The quote in the title is from 2004, and concerns a city's plan to shut down an adult business, once evidence of illegality is gathered. This sounds funny, but to be charitable, the quote is only funny if "evidence" means epistemic evidence, but in context it probably means "legally admissible evidence"--the speaker is a lawyer after all.

At times, people have a near-certainty that future scientific findings will vindicate a view that they hold. One meets this in contexts related to naturalistic assumptions. Thus, some have a near-certainty that future neurophysiology will find evidence that there is no physically inexplicable influence on the brain of a sort that could be reasonably attributed to a soul. And some have a near-certainty that future biological research will fill in present-day explanatory gaps without having to posit any radically different kinds of processes from the ones the current neo-Darwinian synthesis posits. An example from the past would be 18th century folks who might think that all the fundamental things we are ever going to discover in the future course of physics is more forces, and that this will fill in the currently unexplained phenomena (cf. this post of mine).

I want to suggest that to justify a view by reference to the expected future findings of science is epistemically unacceptable. For there are, I think, two sources of evidence for the expectation. The first is independent evidence for the view in question. Certainly, there can be times where one has evidence that a view is true, and evidence that the view is likely to fall within the competence of a future science, and then one can conclude that future science will likely vindicate the view. However, in that case the prediction about future science is a fifth wheel and does no justificatory work. Here the invocation of future science is no more than a rhetorical device, an attempt to apply the prestige of science to one's view.

But there may be times when one actually has reason to think that science will conclude to a particular view, and one's reason to think this is independent of evidence for that view. For instance, one might have an inductive argument from "the direction a science is heading" as to where it will end up. There are two ways of understanding this. One way is that we are simply extrapolating from past data. In that case we are not actually basing anything on future science. We are doing science now by taking past data and extrapolating from it--this is standard scientific practice. Again, future science is a fifth wheel epistemically. And if this is what we are doing, we have to be careful to adhere to all of the standards of the science in question--basically, our extrapolatory work has to be of a sort to count as good statistical work in the relevant field in order to invoke the authority of science for the findings.

There is, however, one remaining way to understand "the direction a science is heading." The sciences are human enterprises, and as such are appropriately studied by sociology and anthropology. One can thus make sociological and/or anthropological predictions about where a science is going. But these predictions, when made sociologically or anthropologically, unless they embody the sort of extrapolation that I discuss in the previous paragraph, do not justify one's believing that the predicted conclusions of the science are true. Thus, one might have anthropological reasons for thinking that future neurophysiologists are going to be by and large naturalists and are not going to accept any explanations involving non-physical processes. But this anthropological prediction yields no additional evidence for the claim that non-physical processes have no impact on neurophysiological functioning. One can equally well make the sociological prediction that future scientists will by and large focus on theories for defending which one can get good grant money, but this sociological prediction does not justify belief that theories for defending which one can get good grant money are more likely to be true. Basically, the sociological/anthropological prediction is based on our knowledge of the biases of scientists in the field.

In summary, invoking future science as evidence for one's view is epistemically irresponsible. One can make predictions about the future progress of science in three ways:

  1. Having independent evidence of a view and evidence that it falls within the purview of science
  2. Doing good science now in extrapolating past data
  3. Doing good sociology or anthropology of science
But on none of these approaches does the prediction about future science carry independent epistemic weight. Typically, I submit, it is just rhetoric. I also suspect that often the source of a near-certainty about where science is going is (3), which is the most epistemically objectionable as evidence for the truth of a view.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A bad argument against the Catholic teaching against contraception

Fairly frequently, one hears the following argument against the orthodox Catholic view that the use of marital[note 1] contraception is wrong: If Catholics were consistent, they would also prohibit Natural Family Planning (NFP), because there is no morally significant difference between NFP and contraception. One reason that this is a bad argument is that, as many authors have argued at length (here is my version), there really are significant differences between NFP and contraception, for instance grounded in the doing/permitting distinction.

But I think there is a simpler reason why this is a bad argument. For what is the conclusion of the argument? It is that if one rejects contraception, one should likewise reject NFP. Suppose that the argument succeeds in establishing this (it doesn't). Now the Catholic has to choose between two views:

  1. Marital contraception and NFP are both wrong.
  2. Marital contraception and NFP are both sometimes right.
But if that is the choice, it is completely clear what the Catholic should choose--namely, option (1). After all, the Catholic's biggest reason for being opposed to contraception is the Tradition of the Church, and until the early 20th century, it has been the unanimous teaching of Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) that contraception is wrong. Now there has been some fallible papal teaching, starting with the late 19th century, allowing NFP. But the doctrinal weight of this teaching is of a much lesser order than the combination of the even more definite papal teaching against contraception coupled with the unanimous agreement of the Christian Tradition. If the Catholic has to choose, the right choice by orthodox Catholic lights is clearly (1) rather than (2).

The argument is a bad one for the following reason. The proponent of contraception believes that (a) marital contraception is sometimes right, and, presumably, that also (b) marital NFP is sometimes right. The well-informed orthodox Catholic denies (a) but accepts (b). But the argument, if it succeeds, will shift the well-informed orthodox Catholic to denying both (a) and (b). Nor will this shift affect much else in the orthodox Catholic's web of beliefs. While the teaching that contraception is wrong is interwoven with significant amounts of other Catholic beliefs, the teaching that NFP is right lacks that sort of interweave, simply because the teaching on NFP is of such recent date. Hence, the argument, if it succeeds, will increase disagreement. And surely that is not what the proponent of contraception wants. Indeed, since the proponent of contraception typically believes that unlimited reproduction is bad for people and the world, by offering the NFP-contraception argument to a well-informed orthodox Catholic, and thus convincing the orthodox Catholic that NFP is wrong, she is apt to contribute to the very problem she is trying to counter.

There is a general structure to this criticism. Suppose A believes p and q, and B believes p and not-q. A wishes to convince B of q. So A offers B the argument that p and not-q are logically inconsistent. This is not going to be a good argument if B's main reasons for holding not-q are much stronger than her main reasons for holding p, and if denying p does not force the denial of much else that B is committed to. If the argument succeeds in showing the inconsistency, it is more likely (at least if we limit ourselves to rational persuasion) to move B to believing not-p and not-q, which A believes is further from the truth.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

To thine own self be true?

We sometimes hear people justifying not doing an action by saying: "I am just not that sort of person." Taking this literally, and perhaps we shouldn't, the idea is that the speaker is a certain sort of person, and she should be true to that.

But why? Why be true to ourselves? How is the fact that I have a character that inclines me to act in a certain a good reason for acting in that way? There is, indeed, a danger of an is-ought slide here. I am a certain way, but ought I be that way? Yes, it may be easier to act in accordance with character, so there may be a reason of convenience there. But when people say "I am just not that sort of person", they do not mean that the action is inconvenient.

One might think that if we have a theistic picture on which we have vocations from God, the idea of acting in accordance with our character makes sense, since that is surely our vocation. But that seems an unjustified leap. If I am inclined to be a loner, is my vocation therefore more likely to be a solitary one? Or is it not more likely that God might pull me out of my solitude, give me the cross of having to interact with other people? If I am good at dealing with people, is it not unlikely that God might call me to solitude, to learn how to be without people given that I already know how to be with people? (One might think that God would want to use one's talents. But God is omnipotent--he does not need us.)

Perhaps, though, we have some picture of how we shape ourselves into a particular kind of character, and so we should act out of a conception not of what sort of character we have, but of what sort of a character we choose for ourselves. But that is a serious mistake. For it is not up to us to choose what we are called to. God is the potter and we are the clay. God is making a great work of art through the diversity of human character--he needs the ornery Jeromes, the passionate John of the Crosses, the scholarly Aquinases, the courageous Joans, the sensible and firm Thomas Mores, and so on. But just as we may not be much like what he wants us to be, so too we might not choose to be what he wants us to be. We may want to be like Thérèse de Lisieux, but be called to be like Dominic. Here I think of the Curé d'Ars, running away to join a monastery, but brought back by God (or his parishioners).

There is, however, one way in which the maxim to be true to oneself is correct. We are human, and thus need to be true to our humanity. There, there is no doubt--we not only are human, but are called to be human. It is our job to do that well, to be human well, to fulfill our human duties. And it is up to God to mould us into the kind of human he wishes.

This does not mean that self-knowledge is unimportant. Far from it: we need to know our weaknesses in order to come to be human well.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Eating animals and the existence of God

Consider the following thesis:
(*) It is permissible to kill an animal primarily for food only in special circumstances such as where other food is not reasonably available, affordable or sufficiently nutritious.
According to (*), there is a presumption against killing animals for food. If (*) is true, then everyday meal situations for middle and upper class people in Western countries are not going to count as "special circumstances"--other nutritional sources are available to us. I shall also take it that if it is impermissible to kill animals for food apart from special circumstances, it is also impermissible to buy parts or wholes of animals killed for food, again apart from special circumstances.

I think (*) is false. I also think that if (*) is false, then theism is probably true. In this post I will do two things. First, I will summarize an argument for (*) by Andrew Tardiff (published in Faith and Philosophy, some time in the 90's, I think). Second, I will show that some theists have a way out of this argument. Third, I will suggest that probably this is the only way out, and hence if (*) is false, then probably theism is true.

Tardiff argues that (*) is true because it is bad to destroy highly organized entities without proportionate reason. Animals, especially higher animals, are highly organized. Our survival would count as a proportionate reason for destroying an animal. But our gustatory preferences do not count as a proportionate reason, nor do the minor inconveniences of preparing nutritious vegetarian meals count. Special circumstances that do not obtain for us in the affluent West these days would be needed to justify eating animals. Tardiff is a Catholic, and neatly harmonizes his view with the Christian tradition which permits eating animals by saying that eating animals is not intrinsically wrong, and indeed was permissible in past centuries where it was more difficult to get adequate nutrition apart from animals. (I am going by memory here, but I think I'm faithful to Andy's paper.)

But there is an answer available. Suppose that non-human animals live for our sake and were made for us to eat. Certainly, it seems natural for us to eat animals, and if God has coordinated all of nature, it would be plausible that he would have made it natural for the animals to be eaten. On such a view, it is a telos of some animals' lives to be food for humans. Such a view is coherent, and there are aspects of the Christian tradition that imply it. Unless one has disproved this kind of a hierarchy of life view, one has not shown that it is wrong to eat meat under ordinary circumstances. (I can't remember what, if anything, the paper says about this sort of an answer.) In fact, on a view like this, not only is there no presumption for vegeterianism, but there is a presumption for eating meat--if it is one of the telê of the life of a deer that it provide humans with food, we have prima facie reason to fulfill that telos.

And I think something like this is the only objection available. For if it is not a telos of a boar to be eaten by humans, then to kill a boar for human food, apart from special circumstances, is to do a harm to the boar--its death is contrary to its telê on this view--without proportionate reason. Thus, unless it is a telos of at least some animals to serve us, even to the point of our eating them, (*) is true. Granted, there are also some consequentialist considerations--maybe there would be fewer individuals of some species if we didn't raise them for food--but these probably aren't going to amount to a good defense of the negation of (*).

Thus, probably, if (*) is false, then it is a telos of some animals to be eaten. But, probably, the only way that the benefit of one species can be the telos of the functioning of another is in cases of reciprocity, e.g., in symbiosis, unless that telos has a source in the plan of some agent who arranged the system. But reciprocity need not hold for humans to be permitted to eat animals under ordinary circumstances. There may be some reciprocity with domestic animals, but I think we should likewise deny (*) in the case of wild animals. It seems implausible that there should be a biologically-mandated telos in deer and boars that they be eaten by humans. Thus, the telos in question has a source outside the biological system.

Moreover, a merely extrinsic telos, e.g., a purpose that an agent has for the entity, will not justify the killing of animals for food. For instance, that we bred some set of animals for food does make the feeding of us be an extrinsic telos of them, but is not itself sufficient to justify our killing them, because an extrinsic telos of an animal does not affect what is good or bad for the animal. (That my parents had some purpose for my life does not constitute it as being good for me to fulfill that purpose, though I may have reasons of gratitude or prudence to fullfill that purpose.) There is no presumption in favor of acting in accordance with an extrinsic telos: I can equally well use a sword for fighting as for a plowshare.

Thus, in order to justify our ordinarily eating animals, their telos to be eaten by us needs to be an intrinsic telos. But the only account available of a non-biological source of intrinsic telê is the account that God, who is the Ground of Being, can determine which essences, and hence which telê, are instantiated.

Thus, probably, if (*) is false, God exists.

Hence, most middle and upper class American atheists should be, for consistency's sake, vegetarian. A number, of course, are.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Deep Thoughts III

It is never wrong to do what is right.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Baptism of desire and closeness of description

Baptism is, in New Testament times, necessary for salvation. Scripture is clear on this. However, from the early centuries, the Church has recognized that baptism need not involve water--the martyr is baptized by blood even if she has not been baptized with water. This idea has been generalized into the notion of a baptism of desire. Someone who wants to be baptized but has been unable to receive the sacrament (e.g., because she is imprisoned apart from anybody willing to baptize her) is incorporated into the mystical body of Christ through her desire (when? at the hour of death? at the time when she desires it? I don't know).

A later development is that of an implicit desire for baptism (see this article by Cardinal Dulles). One philosophical difficulty, however, is in making precise sense of an "implicit" desire. One approach is to use counterfactuals. George implicitly desires baptism if it is the case that were George fully informed, he would desire baptism. This approach, however, seems to require Molinism to work if what we desire is in part dependent on our free choices. Besides, this suffers from many of the standard problems that come up in the case of hypothetical desire satisfaction accounts of welfare.

The better approach is to say that George implicitly desires baptism provided that he actually desires baptism but under some relevantly close other description. If memory serves, me this is the approach Msgr. Van Noort uses to account for the possibility of the salvation of the heathen in his superb Dogmatic Theology, though I do not recall his developing it with sufficient theoretical detail.

The problem now is of what counts as a "relevantly close" description. Van Noort's example, if memory serves, was of the non-Christian who concludes that there is a God and that he is a sinner, who is sorry for his sins and who desires God's means of forgiveness, trusting that God has such means. Unbeknownst to him, baptism is God's means of forgiveness, and so he desires baptism.

"God's means of forgiveness" is a sufficiently relevantly close description of baptism. But it does not seem true that any description will do. Suppose George, on a whim, desires to have happen to him the events described on page 113 of some random book he sees on a shelf but has never opened, so he has no idea of what is on page 113. That book happens to describe a baptism on page 113. Plausibly, that description doesn't count as relevantly close (though we could also imagine George having a religious experience that tells him that what is on page 113 is desirable, and then there might be relevant closeness, though the description will shift: what he really wants to have happen to him are "the events described on page 113 as recommended to him by God"). One reason, maybe the reason, that that description doesn't count as relevantly close is that no element of faith, hope or love need be involved if that is the description. It is just an accident--at least as regards his will (Providence can never be discounted)--that the object of desire is identical with baptism. As far as his will goes, he might as well have whimsically desired to have happen to him what is described on page 187, which let us suppose is a Satanic ritual.

So on this account, the problem of implicit desire for baptism is the problem of closeness of description. This is a problem that comes up in other contexts--it comes up in the context of love (do I really love Patrick if I "theoretically" love the smartest person in New York and Patrick is the smartest person in New York) and of double effect (if I intend to kill the first mammal I see in the zoo, and the first mammal I see and kill in the zoo is the zookeeper, did I intentionally kill a human being?) The problem of closeness of description is difficult in all of these contexts. But the fact that the problem comes up in other contexts suggests that we should not abandon the implicit desire account just because of this problem.

My earlier mention of faith, hope and love is suggestive. Desiring baptism under some descriptions is tied to faith, hope and love. Desiring it under others is not. Maybe it's not so much a question of the content of the description as of the spirit in which one desires. What makes a description relevantly close may be that it is a description of desire such that one is desiring under the description in faith, hope and love. It is necessary that the description in fact be a true description of baptism (or maybe something close enough?), but closeness is measured not in terms of content. Can such a solution be given to the other two closeness problems?

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Now" and other indexicals (Language, Part IV)

In English, the pitch and rate at which one speaks typically do not affect the types of the tokens that one is using. Whether you say "home" quickly or slowly, with a low or a high pitch, your utterance is a token of one and the same type. But this need not be a universal truth. One can easily imagine a language where an utterance of "home" means one thing when spoken quickly and another when spoken slowly. In that case, there are two word types here, and which type one's token falls under will be partly determined by the sequence of phonemes and partly by the rate at which one speaks. (We might represent the two word types in writing as "home" and "h-o-m-e" if we wish.)

A language provides a mechanism for classifying linguistic tokens under linguistic types. There are very few restrictions on how the classification scheme can work, except contingent ones derived from our recognitional abilities. Imperceptible differences between tokens will not do the job.

It is quite possible, then, to have a language where the classification system is time-dependent. Thus, "home" at odd-numbered hours of the day means a tank, and at even-numbered hours it means an F-16. There are, thus, two word-types with the same phonemes, and to distinguish between them you have to check what time it is. Such a language might well be useful for confusing an evesdropping enemy.[note 1]

Imagine now a language L1 where the sound "chow" when uttered at a time t denotes the time equal to t+7minutes, when t is during an even-numbered hour, and denotes the time equal to t-7minutes, when t is during an odd-numbered hour, and where the type of the word is identified by both the sound "chow" and the time of utterance. This language can be understood as containing continuum many word-types, identified partly by the time at which the word-type is tokened and partly by the phonemes. This is a very odd language, but a possible one.

Observe that in L1 no utterance of "chow" is the utterance of an indexical. What an indexical refers to depends on both the token's type and on the context of utterance. But what "chow" refers to does not depend on the context of utterance, but only on the token's type. The token's type depends on the time of utterance, but that is a different matter.

Consider now a language L2 where the sound "fow" when uttered at a time t denotes the time t, and where the type of the word is identified by both the sound "fow" and the time of utterance. Just as no utterance of "chow" in L1 was an indexical, so no utterance of "fow" in L2 is an indexical. Rather, it is the utterance of a fine, upstanding, context-free referring term.

But now a question: How do we know that utterances of "now" in English are utterances of an indexical? Why not analyze utterances of "now" in English precisely the way utterances of "fow" are to be analyzed in L2? There are, I submit, no facts of linguistic practice (normative or not) that allow us to distinguish between English's "now" and L2's "fow". If linguistic facts supervene on facts of linguistic practice, there is no fact of the matter whether an utterance of "now" should be read as an indexical whose type is identified by the phonemes or as a non-indexical whose type is partly identified by the phonemes and partly by the time of utterance.

If we understand "now" along the lines of "fow", then any argument for the A-Theory of time based on our use of "now" is likely going to fail. For "fow" is perfectly at home in the eternalist world of the B-Theory. And what I said about "now" goes for tenses as well.

This strategy is closely parallel to the old failed B-theoretic attempt to translate "now" into the time of utterance. That attempt failed because when one translated "It is now 11:56 am", it translated into "It is 11:56 am at 11:55 am", and hence a sentence that one could reasonably be wrong about got translated into one that no one could be reasonably wrong about, which is absurd. On the present strategy, an utterance of "now" at 11:56 am does refer to the 11:56 am, indeed is rather like a proper name for it. In a sense "It is now 11:56 am" may be a tautology, but it is not a trivial tautology. Rather, it is like "Cicero is Tully" or "London is Londres."

If all this is right, then no deep facts about language hang on the distinction between indexicals and non-indexicals. There may be more than one way of classifying bits of utterances into types, and for any way of classifying that makes a bit of utterance into a token of an indexical, there is a way of classifying that makes that bit of utterance into a token of a non-indexical identified in some non-phonemic way. Each classification should give rise to the same proposition as expressed by the utterance as a whole.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The verb "to cause" and its tenses

Here is an odd feature of the verb to cause. When Jen is lighting the fuse, we say:
(1) "Jen's lighting the fuse will cause the firework to go off."
When the firework is going off, we say:
(2) "Jen's having lit the fuse caused the firework to go off (or to be going off)."
So, we would expect that there should be some time in between the lighting of the fuse and the firework's going off when we should say:
(3) "Jen's having lit the fuse is now causing the firework to go off."
When would we say (3)? It's kind of odd, isn't it? The problem is that it seems to me we can't say (3) while the firework is going off, for then (2) is appropriate, and before the firework goes off, the appropriate thing to say is (1) or perhaps:
(4) "Jen's having lit the fuse will cause the firework to go off."

The one time I can think of where (3) is appropriate is at the time of the transition between the firework's not going off and the firework's going off; that seems to be "when the causation is happening". But for (3) to be appropriate, it has to be the case that at the transition point the firework is not actually going off. So (3) will never be appropriate if the firework goes off exactly at noon, and at no time prior to noon was it going off. For then the only transition point is noon, but at noon it is (2) that is appropriate, not (3).

Does any of this matter, except as a curiosity about the verb to cause? Perhaps the verb just has this odd feature that its future tense tracks the time of the object and its past tense tracks the time of the subject and we have a convention as to how we switch between these two? And don't we expect grammatical oddity in regard to a verb that spans times?

Maybe. But those philosophers of time who think that our language's tense matters very much, and who therefore think that the present is somehow objectively very different from the past, should also take the tense of to cause seriously. For the fact expressed by this verb in cases where there is temporal distance between cause and effect appears never to be a present fact. And that puts into question the idea of the present as ontologically primary.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Liberal theology

Consider a revealed religion, say Christianity. I will use "the Sources" for the locus or loci where revelation is believed to be discursively embodied. In the case of Catholic Christianity, the Sources are Scripture and Tradition, in the case of Protestant Christianity, the Sources might be just Scripture, and in the case of Islam, the Sources will be the Qur'an and various traditions. The liberal theologian does not believe that any part of the Sources is infallible in matters of faith or morals. I will take this to be part of the definition of a liberal theologian, and will argue that liberal theology is untenable.

As an adherent of a revealed religion, the liberal theologian has to accord some authority to the Sources. And so she has to decide when to follow the Sources and when not to. Since no part of the Sources is taken by her to be infallible, she has to make that decision by the light of her reason.

Thus we get our first conclusion: The liberal theologian, to be consistent, must have a high view of reason. I suspect that some liberal theologians, in the thrall of postmodern thought, do not have a high view of reason. But then they are inconsistent. For there to be any hope of a liberal theology, reason has to be capable of trumping the Sources.

Let us, then, suppose that our liberal theologian has a high view of reason. She rejects claims from the Sources when she takes them to conflict with reason. But what does it mean to conflict with reason? There are two kinds of deliverances of reason: (1) apodeictic ones are justified by a logically impeccable argument from self-evidently true premises, and (2) plausibilistic fall short of that, either by employing inductive or probabilistic argumentation, or by relying on premises that are not self-evidently true. Now I am not planning to offer any argument against in this post against being a liberal theologian in whose theological practice only the apodeictic deliverances of reason trump the Sources. But I just don't think there are any liberal theologians like that. The typical disagreements with the Sources rely on plausibilistic arguments. There are, for instance, no available apodeictic arguments for claims like:

  • salvation apart from Christ is possible
  • any non-reproductive role that a man can appropriately play, a woman can appropriately play as well
  • same-sex sexual relations are permissible
  • marital contraception is permissible
  • miracles do not happen
  • we are the product of a random, unguided, natural process
  • everyone achieves salvation
  • all the major religions tell us the same truth about God
While there certainly are arguments for these claims, these arguments either rely on premises that are plausible but not self-evident, or somewhere the argument makes a plausible and not logically strict step, or both. I do not think any self-conscious liberal theologian should deny that. Consider, for instance, the second example claim. That claim presumably has to rely on empirical data about men and women, as well as on a non-self-evident normative interpretation of that data. The liberal theologian should not be ashamed of using plausibilistic arguments--we use them all the time in our daily lives--but she should be aware that that is what is she is doing.

So our liberal theologian now not only has a high view of reason, but also believes that some merely plausibilistic arguments trump the Sources. But now we have a problem. Merely plausibilistic arguments can be wrong, no matter how strong they are. That is what distinguishes them from apodeictic ones. Now, if the Sources have some authority, it cannot be that every merely plausibilistic argument trumps the Sources.[note 1]

Thus, we get our second conclusion: The liberal theologian needs to distinguish between those plausibilistic arguments that are strong enough to trump the Sources and those that are not strong enough. (The degree of strength required may depend on which part of the Sources is contradicted by the argument.)

From this it follows: The liberal theologian's methodology closes the door to the possibility that we be corrected by divine revelation when there is a sufficiently strong plausibilistic argument for a false conclusion. After all, no matter how great a degree of strength we require in a plausibilistic argument, an argument could have that strength and still lead to a false conclusion. That is because it is plausibilistic and not apodeictic. And if the argument is strong enough, it will trump anything in the Sources. This is an unfortunate conclusion, and one that should worry the liberal theologian, given the possibility of very strong plausibilistic arguments for false conclusions.

On the other hand, revelation often concerns things beyond our experience and beyond the powers of our reason. If one takes somewhat seriously the authority of the Sources and the fallibility of reason, one will be very cautious about the idea of reason trumping the Sources. Thus: The liberal theologian needs to accept that the Sources trump reason in many of the areas of revelation, because these areas go beyond reason's competence. Thus a liberal theologian with a realistic view of reason's limitations cannot be too liberal. And, in fact, I think a realistic view of reason's limitations in regard to plausibilistic arguments makes the project of liberal theology implausible.

Let me end with what I think is one of the most serious in-practice objections to certain moral aspects of liberal theology. Many of the plausibilistic arguments in the liberal theologian's repertoire at most establish a presumption in favor of the conclusion, and thus have the form: "In light of such-and-such facts, there is a presumption in favor of claim p, absent considerations to the contrary." But surely arguments of that form should not trump the Sources--the Sources, after all, are a consideration to the contrary. Let me explain what I mean here by way of example, using an idea from this old post of mine. Take, for instance, a liberal Christian theologian who wants to argue that some form of sexual activity (e.g., same-sex sexual relations) that the Sources say is wrong is in fact acceptable. But in fact there really aren't any very strong positive arguments for the permissibility of a form of sexual activity apart from a presumption of permission, i.e., a view that if we can't find an argument against A, then we should assume A to be permissible. Granted, there might be some arguments based on considerations of autonomy, but Christians who believe that God is in charge of us--and it is hard not to believe that even if one is a liberal theologian--are surely going to be suspicious of that. Nor are there any very strong positive arguments against the claim that God in his omniscience might see some bad consequences of an activity that we do not see--this happens quite often. The most reason can say in favor of the form of activity is something like: "As far as we can tell by reason, there are no strong considerations to the contrary." Yes, but a judgment like that will certainly be trumped by the Sources, unless one has such a low view of the Sources that one is not really considering them to be Sources anymore.

This post is inspired by discussions with Trent Dougherty, but he should not be thought of as endorsing anything here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Promises and the future

Suppose I find out that tomorrow I will make you a certain promise (maybe God tells me; or maybe I know this by induction, having made you that promise on the second Wednesday of every year for as long as I remember). Moreover, when I think about it, I realize that I can only keep the promise if I do some preparatory work today. What sort of a reason do I have to do the preparatory work today? If I had to do some preparatory work to fulfill a past promise, I would have a reason grounded in the promise--in promising to do something, I become obliged (at least prima facie) to do what it takes to do what was promised. But does this obligation extend backwards in time?

I clearly have some reason to do the preparatory work. I do, after all, have reason to be a keeper of promises. This is, however, a self-interested reason (though the self-interest here is of the unsordid, Aristotelian virtue ethics sort), and is a different kind of reason from the kind of reason I have to keep a promise. I keep a promise to you because I owe it to you, rather than to be a certain kind of person.

Suppose now one of my children makes you a promise, and I know that she will be unable to keep it unless I do something. I then have some reason to do that, and my reason now does concern you. I owe it to you insofar as I am responsible for my children's actions. It seems to me that my reason for doing the preparatory work for keeping my future promise to you is similar to my reason for doing what makes it possible for my child to keep her promise to you. In both cases, the promise is made by someone for whose actions I am responsible. But in both cases, the reason that I have for acting seems different from the reason I have when I have made you a promise in the past.

Does analysis of promises thus show that there is some metaphysical asymmetry of time, with the past metaphysically different from the future? Maybe not. For it may be that promises bind us over the time period over which they are intended to bind us. Promises create consented-to obligations. Typically, when we make a promise, we are not consenting to bind ourselves in the past, because we typically have no way of communicating the fact of the promise to the past. If backwards causation were possible to us, however, then maybe it would not be so absurd to suppose that a promise could pastly bind. Suppose I have a transtemporal communicator. In the morning I come across a note from the future: "Alex: Send George a check for $100 per the promise of February 16, 2043. Best wishes, Alex". Maybe I really would be bound?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Mike Almeida's blog

Mike Almeida, who is Professor of Philosophy at UT San Antonio, and who has been kind enough to post a number of useful comments here, has his own blog now (actually, has had it for a week), and has some rather interesting philosophy of religion posts there.

What's so bad about species extinction?

A couple of weeks ago, an article in BMC Biology argued that there may be six reproductively isolated species of giraffes: "By analyzing mitochondrial DNA sequences and nuclear microsatellite loci, we show that there are at least six genealogically distinct lineages of giraffe in Africa, with little evidence of interbreeding between them." Reproductive isolation is, of course, the primary feature of species as defined in a modern biological way. Let's grant, for the sake of the argument, that the geneticists did their job correct, and that there are six biological species of giraffes (if not, the following will be hypothetical, but the same conclusions will follow).

So far, then, so good. But the The BBC says:

Mr Brown [the first author of this study] also highlighted the conservation implications of this study: "Lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the brink.
"Some of these populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection."
Here is one place where things get philosophically interesting. The idea is that once we find out that, e.g., the Nigerian giraffe, of whom the BBC says "[t]he last 160 individuals are found in West and Central Africa", is a species, we have strong reason to prevent the extinction of the Nigerian giraffe.

Let K be a kind, natural or not, of organism. For some kinds K, we do not think picture of a spotthere is anything bad about the extinction of Ks. Granted, the deaths of the individual members of K may be bad, but whether a kind K goes extinct or not, each individual has exactly one death to die (the last point I got from a comment by Jeff Schloss at a workshop we both attended; he may not endorse the use I make of the remark). Suppose K is the kind Dalmatian with exactly one spot shaped like in the diagram on right. There really is nothing bad about K ceasing to have members, over and beyond the individual members' deaths (note that one way for K to go extinct would be for the descendants of Dalmatians that have exactly one such spot to have two such spots, and there never again be any Dalmatians with exactly one such spot). Or maybe for diversity reasons, we think that in the best of all possible worlds all non-bad kinds are realized, and so there is something bad about the Ks dying out over and beyond the individual deaths, but it is a very minor bad.

I suspect what is going on here is that there is an equivocation between two senses of species: an intuitive non-scientific one (at least in the post-Aristotelian sense of "scientific") that understands a species as a kind of organism distinguished in a significant way from other organisms (the normative term "significant" is what marks this as non-scientific in the modern sense), and the modern scientific one in terms of reproductive isolation. For while there is something bad about a species in the intuitive sense going extinct, it is not at all clear what is so bad about a species in the reproductive-isolation sense going extinct. In particular, it is not clear why one of the giraffe species going extinct would be worse than Dalmatians with exactly one spot of some precise shape going extinct.

All this suggests that there is a need for a notion of species going distinct from the biological one. I rather hope that the Aristotelian notion of species as defined by qualitative identity of essence will do the job here.

Let me end with a question: Suppose that some kind of subatomic particle were to cease to exist forever, with no way of bringing it back. Would there be any non-instrumental bad in that (there might be an instrumental bad, if there is some use for the particle, or if studying it empirically might help with the progress of science)? (I am inclined to say yes.)