Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bringing theology into metaphysical discussions

As readers of this blog know, I am not a big fan of the compartmentalization of knowledge, and specifically of a compertmentalization on which theological knowlege does not affect one's philosophical beliefs. Here I just want to note one thing. A lot of contemporary metaphysical arguments have some form rather like this:

Here's a phenomenon F. Look, it's puzzling. Here are three accounts of F. Look, they all fail. Here's a fourth account of F. Look, it doesn't fail for the reasons for which the three fail.
We're then supposed to accept the fourth account.

But of course such arguments are weak (there is nothing wrong with weak arguments, except that strong ones are preferable). Unless there is a further argument that any account must be one of the four, while such argument provides evidence for the fourth account, it should not give one very strong confidence in the fourth account. And at least in such a case, if the theology has a rational basis (e.g., in apologetic arguments), it seems clearly unproblematic to say, e.g., "Ah, but the fourth account fails, too, because it contradicts transubstantiation."

After all, if the fourth account of F contradicts transubstantiation, then the philosopher who accepts the fourth account and accepts transubstantiation needs to revise her beliefs. She could do so by rejecting transubstantiation. But assuming there is the kind of rational basis for her acceptance of transubstantiation that we might expect an intelligent Catholic to have (e.g., she is appropriately convinced by the apologetic arguments that show that Christ founded a Church whose basic beliefs would always be true and by the historical evidence that transubstantiation was, at least at one point in history, one of the basic beliefs of the Church), wouldn't it be silly for her to reject transubstantiation merely on the grounds of the fact that we have not yet found a satisfactory account of F that coheres with transubstantiation, but we have so far found an otherwise satisfactory account of F that does not cohere with transubstantiation? The confidence engendered by arguments of the form that was given for the fourth account of F is just too low to make it rational to reject transubstantiation.

Consider, too, that the revision to her web of beliefs in rejecting the fourth account of F is likely to be much smaller than the revision in rejecting transubstantiation if she is Catholic. (If she rejects transubstantiation, she will need to reject conciliar infallibility or else go Orthodox and deny that Trent was an ecumenical council. In either case, a lot of other beliefs would likely have to change.) It would be strange indeed if such significant transformation of one's belief system were to be made rational merely by the fact that three accounts of F are unsatisfactory and the only one we know of that doesn't fail in this way contradicts transubstantiation.

What is further typically true of these kinds of metaphysical arguments is that the fourth account, while not subject to the deficiencies of the first three, has some implausible consequences, too, which the author finesses. Even if in fact the author of the argument is right that these implausible consequences are less problematic than those of the first three accounts of F, it seems really clear that at least in such a case bringing in the theological consequences is entirely appropriate.

(I sometimes argue for a significantly weaker conclusion than the one I hold. This is certainly true in this post.)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Of minds, livers and the Incarnation

There is nothing absurd about that liver remaining a proper part of me while gaining a conscious mind. (Certainly this is true if materialism is true—cf. this post.) Then I would have two conscious minds as proper parts of me—the liver's mind and the one with which I now think. Plausibly, however, I would not be aware of what the liver is thinking. I can kind of imagine my liver being a homunculus of whose thoughts I am quite unaware. But, it seems, the liver's mind would be a part of me, and hence would be a mind of mine. And, surely, I should be conscious of what a mind of mine thinks.

So we have problem: if my liver gained a mind, it seems I would both be and not be conscious of what the liver was thinking. Now there is a way of embracing this paradox. I might distinguish as follows. In the hypothetical situation, I would have two minds, A and B. I would be aware of what both are thinking. But I would not be aware with A of what I am thinking with B, and I would not be aware with B of what I am thinking with A.

What is kind of fun is that the above considerations yield an argument for the disjunction of two controversial views, both of which I hold. Suppose you think it is absurd that I should gain a second mind and be unaware with this mind of what that mind is thinking. Then, I think, you need to stop my thought experiment from going through. I think your best bet for stopping my thought experiment from going through is to deny that my liver and my mind are parts of me. Maybe the best way to do this is to insist that I do not have proper parts. (Of course I also have a liver. But it does not follow that livers exist, just as it does not follow from my having had a fright that a fright existed.) If so, then the rejection of where my thought experiment leads to gives a plausible argument for the controversial thesis that I don't have proper parts.

But suppose one embraces the conclusion. Then, one accepts something else controversial that I hold, namely that it is possible for one person to have two minds, and to be unaware with one of what he is thinking with the other. The case I am interested in is that of Christ. He has a human mind and a divine mind. And with his human mind he, probably, cannot be aware of everything that he is divinely thinking. Of course, this may force a denial of the transcendental unity of apperception.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Philosophia Perennis

There is a new, and promising, Catholic philosophy blog out there--Philosophia Perennis. So far only one post, but they have multiple contributors, so more should be there soon.

Substances and artefacts

[Catapults]Let us suppose that I am playing a nice game of Xiangqi with my daughter. The pieces are wooden, with painted red or black characters. As we play, we notice that one of the red catapult pieces has the character on its surface half warn off. So, I grab a laser pointer, and some motors, and a little processor, and program the motors to move the laser pointer rapidly so as to trace out the missing half of the character drawn on the piece, indeed to do so so rapidly that it looks like the character is all in place without any flicker. Moreover, I add a little camera that tracks the wooden disc, and continually repoints the whole assembly to follow the disc, so that when I move the disc, the character drawn on it moves with it. As we keep on playing (maybe the paint on the piece is of very low quality), more and more of the character wears off, and I am continually reprogramming the motors to replace more and more of the paint by the laser beam. Eventually, the disc has no paint on it, but has a laser image of the catapult character on it. I then take a bite out of the wooden disc itself. (Maybe I'm a beaver.) And I keep on taking more bites, while reprogramming the laser beam not to track what's left of the wooden disc, but to track my finger motions. Finally, I finish eating the wooden disc. I can now finish the game of Xiangqi with my daughter, except that now one of the red catapult pieces has become a pattern of laser light.

Suppose we were tempted to say that the initial red catapult piece was a substance.[note 1] Now, surely, a pattern of laser light isn't a substance. Light-spots aren't even processes, but quasi-processes. They can, after all, "move" faster than light.[note 2] So then we have the oddity that a substance became a non-substance. But it is plausible, for the same reasons for which it is plausible to suppose that the Ship of Theseus survives the replacement of its parts, that the red catapult piece survives its replacement with a light spot. Thus, if the red catapult piece initially was a substance, then one and the same thing is an existent substance at t0 and an existent non-substance at t1. Moreover, this didn't take any kind of miracle—all it took was a bit of skill with motors and electronics. If this seems absurd to you, then you may wish to conclude that the initial red catapult piece was not a substance.

Similarly, a painting could be restored with new paint, or it could be repaired piece by piece by projected light. A chair could be replaced, piece by piece, with force-fields, perhaps, or maybe even with carefully aimed jets of air. A computer could be replaced, piece by piece, with an emulation of itself (just replace the parts one-by-one with emulations). If these things survive this kind of replacement, and if we do not wish to accept that there can be change between categories—that a substance can change into a non-substance, say—at least without a miracle[note 3], then the conclusion to draw is that Xiangqi pieces (and by the same token international chess pieces), paintings, chairs and computers are not substances. In fact, it seems plausible to generalize this: perhaps no artefact is a substance, unless perhaps it is wholly composed of one non-artefactual substance (such as Peter van Inwagen's example of the hammock that is made out of one snake, weaved into a hammock like a rope).

Some of us want to go one step further, and deny that artefacts, except perhaps if wholly composed of one non-artefactual entity, exist. For it is not implausible to say that spots of light don't exist, and anything that can change into a spot of light doesn't exist either.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Death and presentism

By "death" in this post, I shall mean the permanent cessation of the existence of a person. I do not know if death occurs (it does not occur among human persons), or even if it is metaphysically possible (it might be incompatible with divine goodness). Presentism is the view that only presently existent things and present events exist. Eternalism is the view that there are pastly and futurely existent things and past and future events. Growing Block is the view that there are pastly existent things and past events but no future ones (there are two versions of Growing Block, depending on what one says about the present).

The following argument is valid:

  1. Death in and of itself is tragic. (Premise)
  2. Existing within one region in space-time and being wholly absent from another region or set of regions in space-time is not in and of itself tragic. (Premise)
  3. If Presentism is false, then Growing Block or Eternalism is true. (Premise)
  4. If Growing Block or Eternalism is true, then a person's being dead at t consists in his existing in the region of space-time prior to t and being wholly absent from the region of space time spanning from t onward. (Premise)
  5. Therefore, if Growing Block or Eternalism is true, death in and of itself is not tragic. (By (2) and (4))
  6. Therefore, if Presentism is false, death in and of itself is not tragic. (By (3) and (5))
  7. Therefore, Presentism is true. (By (1) and (6))

Now, one might worry that some deaths are tragic, such as those of good or happy persons, while others, those of bad or unhappy persons, are not. I am inclined to disagree, but I think the argument can be modified to handle this, for instance by modifying (2) to say that existing within one region and being wholly absent from another while being happy and good in the first region is not in and of itself tragic.

This seems to me to be a powerful argument for Presentism, as long as the Presentist can tell us what on her view makes death tragic that does not succumb to a similar argument. And I think she can do that. To be presently dead is tragic in that one does not exist even though one had existed. (This is not an instance of occupying one space-time region rather than another.) And that one will be dead is tragic in that its being the case that something tragic will happen is already tragic.

But I am still an eternalist B-theorist. So what do I deny in the argument? I have to admit that I have intuitions in favor of each of (1)-(4). But I think we can distinguish the intrinsic tragedy of death in two ways. First, we can think of the tragedy of death for the dead person, and second, we can think of the tragedy of his death for others or for the universe. When we talk of tragedy-for-others, I think we have reason to deny (2). For, yes, the total absence of a person from regions of space-time can be tragic for others, since it can entail that they cannot futurely meet this person, etc.

But the "in and of itself" in (1) and (2) probably signals that we're talking of the tragedy-for-self. But then we can actually build an argument against Presentism:

  1. It is tragic for the dead person that she is now dead. (Premise)
  2. Nothing is tragic for someone who does not exist. (Premise)
  3. If Presentism is true, someone who does not now exist does not exist. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, if Presentism is true, nothing is tragic for someone who does not now exist. (By (9) and (10))
  5. Therefore, Presentism is false. (By (8) and (11))
Now we have true paradox. We have premises (1)-(4) which are all plausible and entail that Presentism is true, and premises (8)-(10) which are all plausible and entail that Presentism is false. We need to resolve this paradox. I do so, rather cautiously and not fully satisfied with this, by denying (1) and (8). What matters vis-à-vis the person himself is not so much the continuation of existence (death being its opposite), but an internal temporally infinite existence, as I have suggested in some past posts (e.g., see this one). Let me end by summarizing (perhaps in different form) some of the ideas from these posts.

Suppose that I live alone. It is, then, no better for me to live a hundred chronometric years of fulfilling and blissful spiritual and mathematical activity than it is to live fifty years of the same activity sped up by a factor of two. Well, then, it is no better for me to live for an infinite number of chronometric years, than to live the same activity at an ever increasing pace over the period of a hundred years, by having one's functioning sped up by a factor of two for the first fifty chronometric years, another factor of two for the next twenty-five, another factor of two for the next 12.5, and so on. That at the end of a hundred chronometric years I will be dead is no tragedy for me, if I have lived this life of infinite internal temporal length.

Or suppose that I have a space-time travel machine, an elixir of eternal youth and our universe is infinite spatially. In 2030, I will use my space-time machine to travel to the year 2000 in some other galaxy[note 1]. There I will live thirty good and meaningful years, and then in 2030, I will move to the year 2000 in another galaxy. And so on. Note that I do not exist in 2031 or at any later date. So I die before 2031. (Necessary truth: If I do not exist at t, but existed earlier, then I died before t.) But this death is no tragedy for me, because I am assured of an internally infinite span of good and meaningful life.

So, I cautiously deny (1) and (8) in the case of tragedy for the person. Therefore, I cannot accept either the first argument, which was for Presentism, nor the second, which was against.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Are associations entities exercising agency?

It seems that committees, corporations, clubs and countries can and do exercise agency. That a committee has done A is not a claim that all or most of the people on the committee have done A (in fact, one person might have been deputed), and some of the things that a committee can do seem to be things that no individual can do (e.g., collectively deliberate). Thus, there seems to be good reason to introduce the notion of collective agency.

Now, some people go one step further and say that the collective agency is exercised by an entity—the committee, corporation, club or country—that is an agent. Here is an argument for this further step. For x to exercise agency, x must think (deliberate, etc.) But if x thinks, then x is. (Otherwise the inference "I think therefore I am" is invalid.) Therefore anything that exercises agency must be. And to be is to be an entity, a something or other, (a tode ti, to use the terminology of Metaphysics Z).

So the move for positing an agent where there is collective agency is not unjustified. But the move has the following consequence: committees, clubs and countries are persons. For it seems to be a conceptual truth that only persons are agents. To be an agent, one must be a rational being, after all.

But if committees, corporations, clubs and countries are persons, then to dissolve a committee, corporation, club or country is to kill a person. Therefore, to dissolve a committee, corporation, club or country requires reasons that have the kind of gravity that killing a person requires. But that is absurd, at least in the case of committees, corporations and clubs. While it is wrong to kill a person because her work is more efficiently done by someone else, it is not wrong to dissolve a committee because its deliberations can be more efficiently subsumed under another head. And while it can be permissible for a state to dissolve a corporation or club that refuses to accept members of some minority group, this kind of discrimination does not rise to the level of a capital crime—we would not, for instance, think it acceptable to execute a sole proprietor who exhibited racism in hiring.

Therefore, it is absurd to say that committees, corporations and clubs are entities that exercise agency. And if the argument from collective agency to collectives being agents is sound, then it follows that committees, corporations and clubs do not exercise agency, except in an analogical sense.

Notice something, though. My argument above is carefully phrased to apply to committees, corporations and clubs. It might be argued not to apply to countries. For there is some plausibility to the idea that a country can only be permissibly dissolved for the gravest of reasons, reasons akin to those that justify execution (think of the partition of Germany after WWII as a form of capital punishment on the country). Still, I think this is mistaken. Reasons for two nationalities within a country to separate need not be as grave as the reasons for killing a person, if the separation can be done in a peaceful way (perhaps the separation of the Czechs and the Slovaks is an example?)

It could also be that there are some genuine collective entities. Thus, it could be that the Church is a genuine collective entity. Certainly the Christian is likely to say that to try to destroy the Church is worse than trying to kill a person (but, fortunately, destroying the Church is impossible). It could also be that a Christian marriage is a genuine collective entity, and that therefore to try to break up such a marriage is akin to attempted murder (again, fortunately, only death can actually break up a Christian marriage).

But even if there are such supernatural collective entities, it is clear that the phenomenon that gets analyzed by some as "collective agency" is not limited to them. Thus, if the argument from collective agency to collectives being agents is sound, one needs a different story about colelctive agency.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Eternal happiness and finitude

Let us think what full happiness would be like. This isn't just partial happiness, but it is a happy state involving nothing unfortunate for one, nothing unhappy. Full happiness need not be maximal happiness. It is prima facie coherent that one might be fully happy at t1, but happier yet at t2, though the lesser amount of happiness at t1 would not have to involve any kind of unhappiness at the fact that it is not yet t2.

Full happiness has both mental and extra-mental components. To be fully happy requires a certain level of awareness of the events that make one be happy. No one in a coma is fully happy. But purely subjective states are insufficient. Being loved by others is surely a part of full happiness, but thinking and feeling that one is loved by others is not enough. The falsehood in thinking and feeling one is loved by others when in fact they despise one is clearly something unfortunate for one. Both the subjective component and the objective are essential to full happiness.

Next, for the sake of the argument, let me assume that there is a finite number N such that there are at most N subjectively different conscious states that are possible to one of us. At this point, I want this assumption to be ambiguous between different senses of "possible" (practical, nomic, physical, causal, metaphysical, logical, etc.) For instance, it seems plausible that there is such a number if mental states supervene on brain states and there is a limit on the possible size of the brain of one of us (maybe brains just couldn't function—or at least couldn't function as our brains—if they were more than a light year across), since although an analog system like the brain possibly is can have an infinite number of states, states that are too close together would not be subjectively distinguishable.

Now, it seems to me that a part of the concept of being fully happy is that the state of being fully happy forever is desirable. Let us take that assumption.

I will individuate mental state types in terms of subjective difference (feeling hot and smelling wintergreen are subjectively different, but smelling synthetic wintergreen and smelling natural wintergreen need not be subjectively different).[note 1]

The following seems plausible: Every qualitatively normal human state—i.e., every state of the same qualitative type as our normal, everyday human states—is such that to be in that state forever would be somewhat unfortunate. When we find ourselves feeling really happy, we wish that the moment could go on forever. But in fact, in the case of normal human states, this would be unfortunate. The wish of the lovers to sit on the bench watching the autumn foliage forever might be romantic, but if a fairy froze the lovers in that subjective state for eternity, we would see the spectacle as deeply sad. We might see it as preferable to many other states, but it would not be a fully happy state.

Neither would it be a fully happy state for a person to oscillate, with or without a repeating pattern, between a finite number of normal mental states. Granted, if the person in the state may be unaware that she has already experienced the blissful state 10100 times, she may not feel any ennui in having the state for the (10100+1)st time. But remember that happiness involves not just a subjective state, but an objective one. It may or may not be good to unaware of the infinite repetition of states, but such repetition is itself unfortunate.

But if there is only a finite number of normal mental states (distinguished subjectively) possible to us, then anybody who experiences only normal mental states will either cease having mental states (due to death or coma) or will eternally oscillate (with or without a repeating pattern) between a finite number of states. Since it is unfortunate if happiness is not to last forever, the person who would cease to have mental states was not fully happy (whether or not she was aware of the impending end of consciousness). And the person eternally oscillating between a finite number of states is also undergoing something unfortunate.

Consequently, assuming what has been assumed above, such as that there is a finite upper bound on the number of mental states possible to us, it follows that full happiness is impossible to us if we are limited to normal human states. The sense of "impossible" here matches the sense of "impossible" in the claim that it is impossible for us to have more than N subjectively different mental states.

From the above, an argument could be constructed that our full happiness would require either a supernatural mental state (such as the vision of God) or our going through an infinite number of different mental states (e.g., due to unbounded growth in knowledge).

In either case, the following seems interestingly true: Full happiness is impossible as long as naturalism is true. This might yield a desire-based argument against naturalism if we add the theses that any rational desire is possible to fulfill, that the desire for full happiness is rational, and that if naturalism is true, then it is impossible for naturalism to cease to be true. This requires some kind of a physical causal or nomic sense of "possible".

The above is just a sketch. Working it out would require carefully examining the different modalities and trying to find one in respect of which all of the premises of the argument are plausible. Something like nomic modality might do the trick. But this is all left as an exercise to the reader.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Intuitions on lying and deception

My intuition that lying is significantly different from some other forms of deception is driven by an intuition I have about speech being special vis-à-vis the virtue of honesty.

Consider: "She told us she is going to go to Cracow, and she is an utterly honest person, so even though we are her enemies, we can rely on her going to some city named Cracow at least at some point in the future." This seems a reasonable thing to say.

But consider: "Her footprints at this intersection lead to Cracow. She is an utterly honest person, so she must be going to Cracow." That is surely mistaken reasoning. It is not a sign of dishonesty that one lays a false trail, unless one has promised (implicitly or explicitly) not to do so.

The tie with promises seems significant to me. An honest person only makes promises that she intends to keep.

Now, let us suppose that George prefaces every assertion with: "I promise that I will now only say something sincere." That would be dreadfully annoying (there are characters in fiction who do this kind of thing). Part of the reason for the annoyance is that it is quite unnecessary. The commitment to speak only sincerely is already there in the assertion that follows the preface.

As our Savior told us, our yeas should be yeas, and our nays, nays. Nothing more is needed, because our yeas and nays already include a commitment to speak sincerely. This commitment is part and parcel of making an assertion rather than musing out-loud, asking a question, making a promise, quoting a line of poetry, etc. Indeed, much or even all of what distinguishes an assertion from other speech acts is precisely this commitment to speak only the truth. (Actors on stage do not make assertions or promises.)

Granted, sometimes we emphatically do promise to speak the truth in some matter. I think that is not a sign that we ordinarily have no such commitment. Rather, the promise is a moral-gravity booster, in the way in which making an oath is a legal-gravity booster (if one speaks falsely under oath, one commits perjury, instead of merely hampering an investigation, etc.) One could similarly boost the moral gravity of ordinary promises by promising to keep the promise. To boost the moral gravity of an obligation is simply to bring it about that it would be a greater offense to go against the obligation.

If I am right that asserting p is normatively equivalent to promising to say only the truth or maybe to say only something one believes and then saying a sentence that expresses p, and if I am right that an honest person does not make promises she does not intend to keep, then an honest person does not lie. But various non-linguistic kinds of deceit involve no commitment, explicit or implicit, for the deceiver to be breaking, and hence under some circumstances will be compatible with honesty.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Deception and lying

There is good reason to think lying is always wrong. Lying is wrong on Kantian grounds: it treats the other person as a tool to one's ends rather than as an autonomous rational being, and the practice of lying would undercut itself if universalized. Lying is wrong on natural law grounds: it is clearly a perversion of the nature of assertoric speech, using speech for the opposite of its natural end of communicating truth. Lying is malevolent, except perhaps in outré cases: in lying, we act to bring it about that the other has a false belief, and it is surely intrinsically bad to have a false belief. Lying is wrong on personalist grounds: in making an assertion one solicits the other's trust, but in deliberately speaking falsely, one betrays that trust in the act of soliciting it. And lying is wrong on theological grounds: God is truth, and the Book of Revelation lists liars among the damned.

On the other hand, even those who are willing to agree that lying is always wrong are unlikely to think there is anything wrong with sticking one's hat out on a stick so that one's enemy might shoot at it while one sneaks away. It is hard enough to protect the innocent against unjust aggressors without lying (and, alas, sometimes impossible). But to do so without any deceit is nigh impossible.

But some people—even very smart people—do in fact consider lying and deceit to be the same thing. After all, in both cases, it seems, one is trying to do the same thing, namely to induce a false belief, and if so, then the malevolence argument would make deceit be wrong for one of the reasons that lying is.

I once found this very puzzling. And then a colleague gave me the beginning of an answer. In cases of deceit, one is trying to get the other to do something, rather than trying to get the other to believe something. I think this story can be filled out in a way that makes for a neat distinction between deceit and all but perhaps outr´ cases of lying (more on those later). On the face of it, one might argue that if I stick out my hat, my intention is to bring it about that

  1. my enemy will think I am under the hat, and will shoot, and the commotion will cover my escape.
It seems that the enemy's belief that I am under the hat is essential to the success of the plan.

But this argument is mistaken. What is essential is that the enemy should take herself to have evidence that I am under the hat. She does not have to believe that I am under the hat to shoot. She only needs to take herself to have more evidence for my being there than for my being in any other particular place. That is all that is needed to rationally justify her shooting under the hat. And her belief that she has this evidence is in fact a true belief—she indeed does have such evidence. Now, an epistemically less cautious enemy may actually form the belief that I am under the hat. But here I can apply double effect. She forms the false belief on the basis of the evidence. I intend her to have the evidence and to shoot. The evidence is sufficient to lead to her shooting. I do not have to intend her to form that false belief. I suppose things go better for me if she does, but I need only intend that

  1. my enemy will take herself to have more evidence for me to be under the hat than anywhere else, and will shoot, and the commotion will cover my escape.
(A lot of these ideas developed in conversation with the aforementioned colleague. In fact it may be that there is very little that is mine here.)

The same can be said when I lay a false trail at a cross-roads when I am pursued by the enemy. I only intend what is needed for the accomplishment of my plan. Belief that I've taken road A, when I've taken road B, is not needed. All that's needed is that my enemy have strong evidence that I've taken road A, since having strong evidence that I've taken road A is sufficient to justify her following road A. There is no evil in her having such strong evidence. The evidence consists, after all, of a truth—the truth that there are footprints leading A-ward.

The principle of double effect can justify some cases of deception—I may foresee the other's forming a false belief, but I don't intend that belief formation, either as an end or as a means. And, typically, I don't even foresee that belief formation—I only foresee the possibility of it, since I do not know how epistemically cautious the other person will be. All that I intend is for the other person to have evidence for a false belief, and to act on that evidence.

Of course, in some cases of deceit, one is positively intending that the other have a false belief. For instance, a student plagiarist might desire not merely that her parents have evidence of her innocence, but that her parents positively believe her innocent. If she then manufactures evidence for her innocence with the intention that her parents believe her innocent, the above will be no excuse.

If this story is right, and if it is not to justify well-intentioned lies every bit as much as deceits, then there must be a crucial difference between how assertions function and how evidence functions. Assertions cannot simply be intended as yet another piece of evidence. For if they are, then in affirming a falsehood, we are not trying to induce any false belief in the other, but we are simply manufacturing misleading evidence. And, indeed, I do think assertions directly justify beliefs, in ways that are not merely evidential.

We can now go back to the reasons for believing lying to be wrong, and see if they apply to cases of deceit where one is not intending false belief but only misleading evidence. The Kantian "using" argument may not work (I used to think it would work, but I am not so clear on that). Maybe one is not circumventing the other's rationality, but only ensuring that the other act on unclear evidence. Nor is it clear that the practice of generating misleading evidence is not universalizable. Even if everybody who has good reason to deceive generates misleading evidence, there will be enough cases where non-misleading evidence is generated unconsciously that the evidence will still have some weight. Making footprints or putting a hat on a stick are not actions that have a natural end that is being circumvented here in the way in which lying circumvents the natural end of assertion. So the natural law argument against lying fails to show deception to be wrong. If the double effect considerations above are correct, the malevolence argument fails. The personalist argument also fails, because when we take something as evidence, rather than as testimony, trust in another person need not be involved. I do not trust persons to leave footprints leading to them—I have no right to feel betrayed if they leave footprints pointing in other directions. God is truth, but the cases of deceit that I have defended are not directly opposed to truth, since they do not involve an attempt to cause a false belief.

Final comment: Twice I mentioned that there could be outré cases of lying where there is no intention of causing false belief. These would be cases where one does not expect to be believed. There could, for instance, be cases where one knows that the other person is expecting one to lie, and so one says something false, in order to lead the other to true belief. I don't know if this is really a betrayal of trust since there is no trust. I don't know if people would count this as lying—it doesn't, for instance, meet the Catholic Catechism's definition of lying as a false assertion intended to deceive. But if one wishes to count this as a case of lying, it is a form of lying that may be significantly morally different from the others.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Spock's "logic" has a theoretical and practical component. The practical component appears to be a utilitarianism to some extent constrained by deontological rules, in particular the duty not to kill the innocent and the duty to be faithful to commitments expressly undertaken, such as to the Federation. The other characters criticize him for lack of "emotion". In the theoretical context, this largely refers to the inability to predict the behavior of others (and occasionally maybe of self) due to a lack of emotional imagination (I am sceptical whether emotional imagination is needed to predict the behavior of others, and I think a psychopath could be very effective at predicting others' behavior). In the practical context, this seems to refer to a failure (and not a total one, since he is part human) to be moved by certain kinds of reasons, in particular reasons of friendship that go beyond commitments expressly undertaken.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Utilitarianism's deceptive simplicity

What I have always found most attractive about utilitarianism is its elegant simplicity. What according to the utilitarian is the obligatory thing to do? That which maximizes the good. What is the good? The total welfare of all beings capable of having a welfare. Thus, facts about duty can either be fully characterized in terms of welfare (normative utilitarianism) or will reduce to facts about welfare (metaethical utilitarianism). Moreover, we might further give a full characterization of welfare as pleasure and the absence of pain or as the fulfillment of desire, thereby either fully characterizing facts about welfare in terms of prima facie non-normative facts, or maybe even reducing facts about welfare to these apparently non-normative facts. Thus, utilitarianism gives a characterization (necessary and sufficient conditions) for duty in terms of apparently non-normative facts, and maybe even reduces moral normativity to non-normative facts. This is a lovely theory, though false.

But this illusion of having given a description of all of obligation in non-normative terms is deceptive. There are two ways of putting the problem. One is to invoke uncertainty and the other is to invoke ubiquitous indeterminism (UI) and anti-Molinism (AM). I'll start with the second. According to anti-Molinism, there is no fact of the matter about what would result from a non-actual action when the action is connected to its consequences through an indeterministic chain of causes. Thus, if Frank doesn't take an aspirin, and if aspirin takings are connected indeterministically to headache reliefs, there is no fact of the matter about whether Frank's headache would be relieved by an aspirin. And according to ubiquitous indeterminism, all physical chains of causes are indeterministic. The most common interpretations of quantum mechanics give us reason to believe ubiquitous indeterminism, while libertarianism gives us reason to believe in practically ubiquitous indeterminism (because human beings might intervene in just about any chain of causes.

Of course, this means that given UI and AM, duty cannot simply be equated with the maximization of the good. A more complex formula is needed, and this, I think, introduces a significant degree of freedom into the theory—namely, how we handle the objective probabilities. This, in turn, makes the resulting theory significantly more complex and less elegant.

But, perhaps, it will be retorted that there is a canonical formula, namely maximizing the expected value of each action. This, however, is only of many formulae that could be chosen. Another is maximizing the worst possible outcome (maximin). Yet another is maximizing the best possible outcome (maximax). And there are lots of other formulae available. For instance, for any positive number p, we might say that we should maximize is E[|U|p sgn U] (sgn x = 1 if x>0 and = -1 if x<0) or maybe E[(pi/2+arctan(U))], where U is utility.

But perhaps maximizing the expected value is the simplest of all plausible formula (maximax is implausible, and minimax is trivialized by the kind of ubiquitous indeterminism we have, which ensures that each action has basically the same set of possible utility outcomes, but with different probabilities). However, maximizing expected value leads to implausibilities even greater than in standard deterministic utilitarianism. It is implausible enough that one should kill one innocent person to save two or three innocent lives. But that one should kill one innocent person for a 51 percent chance of saving two innocent lives or for a 34 percent chance of saving three (which the expected value rule will imply in the case where the future happinesses of all the persons are equal) is quite implausible. Or suppose that there are a hundred people, each of whom is facing an independent 50 percent chance of death. By killing one innocent person, you can reduce the danger of death for each of these hundred people to 48.5 percent. Then, you should do that, according to expected value maximization utilitarianism.

Or let's try a different sort of example. Suppose action A has a 51 percent chance of doubling the total future happiness of the human race (assume this happiness is positive), and a 49 percent chance of painlessly destroying the whole of the human race. Then (at least on the hedonistic version—desire satisfaction would require some more careful considerations), according to expected value maximization utilitarianism, you should do A. But clearly A is an irresponsible action.

There may be ways of avoiding such paradoxes. But any way of avoiding such paradoxes will be far from the elegant simplicity of utilitarianism.

Exactly the same problems come up in a deterministic or Molinist case in situations of uncertainty (and we are always in situations of uncertainty). We need an action-guiding concept of obligation that works in such situations. Whether we call this "subjective obligation" or "obligation" simpliciter, it is needed. And to handle this, we will lose the elegant simplicity of utilitarianism. Consider for instance the following case. Suppose action A is 99% likely in light of the evidence to increase the happiness of the human race by two percent, and has a one percent chance of destroying the human race. Then, you might actually justifiedly believe, maybe even know, that A will increase the happiness of the human race, since 99% likelihood may be enough for belief. But plainly you shouldn't do A in this case. Hence a justified belief that an action would maximize utility, and maybe even knowledge, is not enough.

Friday, August 15, 2008

More on Molinism and stochastic processes

In earlier posts and comments, here and on prosblogion, Mike Almeida and I have been discussing problems with Molinism and stochastic processes.

Here's a way to put a variant of the problem (this may well duplicate some of Mike's ideas). Let C be the following set of circumstances: a fair indeterministic coin is tossed, with a machine set up so that if the coin landed heads, then laws of nature specify that the machine would cause all creatures in existence suffer excruciating and undeserved pain for eternity.

We can now do two different calculations. Let G be the claim that omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good God necessarily exists. On the one hand, P(Heads|C)=1/2 (because the coin is fair). On the other hand, P(Heads|C and G) is less than 1/2. For such a God would be unlikely to allow C to be actualized unless he knew that the counterfactual C→tails is true. He might of course be planning to miraculously intervene after the machine activates, and so P(Heads|C and G) is non-zero but it seems to be part of divine providential goodness to avoid having to intervene miraculously, but surely P(Heads|C and G) is less than 1/2.

But now we actually have a contradiction. For the probabilities in question seem to be objective probabilities, and when we're talking of objective probabilities, P(G)=1, since G is a necessary truth. Hence, 1/2 > P(Heads|C and G)=P(Heads|C)=1/2. In other words, 1/2 > 1/2, which is absurd.

Therefore, we must reject one of the two probability claims. In particular, it seems, we need to reject P(Heads|C)=1/2. But this means that given theism, we cannot consider the probabilities that come from empirical study to be the genuine objective probabilities governing the events. Granted, in the case above, we were talking of a catastrophic case. But presumably even if the consequences of heads are somewhat bad, P(Heads|C and G) will still be somewhat less than 1/2.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Magic, science and the supernatural

We take for granted that magic involves the supernatural and science does not. At the same time, we believe that there is no such thing as magic. Hence, we believe that magical claims are somehow different from merely false but scientific claims, such as that phlogiston makes things burnable. I want to argue that this belief is questionable.

Consider three different claims:

  1. Dancing a certain kind of dance typically causes rain.
  2. Shooting UV light into clouds typically causes rain.
  3. Shooting silver iodide into clouds typically causes rain.
Claim (1) certainly seems magical. Claim (3) is not a magical claim, because, I shall assume, it is true, and there is no magic. I shall assume that claims (1) and (2) are false.

But now here is the puzzle. Why is (1) supposed to be a supernatural claim (being on the face of it a claim of magic), while (2) is not?

There is, after all, another way of looking at this. We simply have three cause-and-effect claims, two of them false, and each claim is just as much a "scientific kind of claim" as the others. Observe, for instance, that each of the claims is just as much subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation as the others. Each of the claims posits a causal relationship between physical events.

Suggestion 1: Claim (1) is supernatural because it is presumed to be believed on non-scientific grounds, while (2) and (3) are presumed to be believed on scientific grounds.

Response: that a claim is believed on non-scientific grounds does not make it a supernatural claim. If Francine hallucinates Apollo telling her that the structure of benzene is a ring, the object of her belief about benzene is still a quite natural fact. Nor will talking about esoteric traditions be relevant, since purely natural scientific facts can be and in fact are passed through esoteric traditions (think of trade secrets through the ages up to the present). It is a variant of the genetic fallacy to think that a claim has a particular content because it comes from a particular source.

Suggestion 2: The person who believes (1) has a causal story connecting the dance to the rain by means of supernatural entities, while those who believe (2) or (3) either have no story as to the connection between the shooting of UV or silver iodide into clouds (they might simply have noticed, respectively, a spurious or genuine correlation) or else their story involves natural entities.

Response: One problem with this solution is the assumption that the culture that believes in a particular magical action, say a magical dance, needs to have a theory as to how the action produces its effect. But the culture need not have any kind of theory. They may simply believe that dancing a waltz causes rain to come, and that rain causes corn to sprout. We would not say that the second part of this belief involves the supernatural, and why should we say that the first part does? It is not uncommon for scientists to have no explanation for an effect, and so if the culture believes (1) but has no explanation for it, that does not suffice to make the claim supernatural.

Perhaps, though, the difference is that the scientist thinks there is a further explanation, and that this explanation is natural. But this is not characteristic of all science. A scientist may believe that a certain law, such as the law of gravitation, is basic and lacks any further explanation. Or a scientist may be agnostic on whether the law has any further explanation.

If I am right, then either magical claims need not involve the supernatural, or else what seem to be paradigmatic cases of magical claims are not always magical claims (claims such as that a dance causes rain, that a spell causes blindness, etc.).

Let us go a bit further, though, and consider the case where the proponent of (1) does have a further explanation. Do we have to conclude that then the claim is supernatural? Not at all—it surely depends on what that further explanation is. If the further explanation is that the dance stirs up the air, and the stirred up air stirs up the clouds, promoting condensation, then plainly the explanation is not magical. But let us take a more magical explanation. Maybe the idea is that the dance exudes a power that goes upward and pulls the clouds in. Again, though, this need not be a supernatural claim.

What if the claim sounds even more supernatural? Perhaps the people believe that the clouds are intelligent and respond to requests when these requests are made in a particular way. But why should that be a magical claim? Suppose Patrick believes that his goldfish is intelligent and responds to requests when these requests are made in a particular way. He need not thereby be attributing any supernatural qualities to the goldfish. In fact, we can go a bit further. Patrick either believes this of all goldfish or of just some. In the latter case, it may well be that he thinks these goldfish are special, supernaturally gifted, etc. But if he believes all goldfish are intelligent and respond to appropriately made requests, he most likely (though not necessarily) thinks that it is a natural feature of goldfish to be intelligent. Since the members of the culture I described probably believe all clouds, or all clouds of some specific type (maybe they think you need to be more wispy to be intelligent?), to be intelligent, they seem to be ascribing a natural property to the clouds.

But suppose that the folk have a story involving intermediate causes that are powerful beings like demons. Maybe the dance somehow binds demons to do their will, and the demons fly up to the sky and wring rain out of clouds. If that is so, we have more hope of thinking that the explanation involves the supernatural—but only if we have some reason to think that the demons which the folk believe in are supernatural (it would not be a supernatural explanation if the folk falsely believed vultures to be intelligent and to fly up to the clouds and wring rain out of them in response to a dance). If the folk believe they can bind the demons through dances, then they are likely to believe that causes within the realm of nature (a dance) affect the demons. Moreover, it seems likely that they think there are rules that govern demonic behavior, and the magician, by knowing these rules, is able to get the requisite results. But demons like that, manipulable demons, sound like are part of the natural realm, interacting with the natural realm in lawlike ways. What reason do we have for thinking that the laws that are alleged to bind their behavior should be thought of as supernatural laws as opposed to natural laws? Sure, some of these laws apply to the demons but don't affect birds, bees and mountains, and some of the laws that apply to birds, bees and mountains don't apply to demons. But there is nothing absurd about the idea of natural laws that govern only particles of a certain type—e.g., charged particles, or particles of dark matter.

So even fairly elaborate alleged explanations of (1) involving entities like demons or intelligent clouds do not render (1) supernatural.

Suggestion 3: Intelligence is supernatural, and explanations involving intelligent beings like demons are thus supernatural.

Response: If so, then we have to admit that at least one of the sciences—psychology—deals with the supernatural, and the distinction between the supernatural and the scientific falls apart. This suggestion seems a non-starter.

Suggestion 4: It would require a violation of a law of nature for dances to cause rain, and hence the mechanism behind (1) must be taken to be supernatural.

Response: I think something like this suggestion may be what is going on in our minds when we assume that (1) involves the supernatural. But I think here we have a serious confusion. Claim (1) is in fact false. Now if we found out that (1) is true, we might be tempted to posit a supernatural explanation for it. But that is beside the point. Consider claim (2) which is just as much contrary to the laws of nature as (1) is (I assume). We do not consider (2) to be supernatural because it is contrary to the laws of nature. Rather, we consider it to be false.

Final comments: I think (and this is by no means original) that one of the characteristics of magic is a lawlikeness. You do this, and that results. This lawlikeness of magic makes for a prima facie claim that claims of magic are not at all supernaturalistic. We read them as supernaturalistic simply because they violate the laws of nature we believe in, but they need not violate the laws of nature that the believers in magic believe in.

This shows a crucial difference between magic and monotheistic beliefs in miracles, creation, answers to prayer, etc. The monotheist (typically—there are some unfortunate exceptions) believes God acts freely. He creates as he chooses, not because he is bound to by some necessitating law. He is supernatural because he has a freedom to act that transcends nature. At the same time, the miracles are not forced on him by anything like a law of nature, in the way that someone might believe a dance forces a demon to cause rain. The more personal freedom, including freedom to act not in accord with the laws of nature, we attribute to the deity, the less magical the belief becomes.

Granted, on traditional monotheistic views, God must keep his promises. Thus, there is a kind of law that is binding on him. But it is a moral law, binding on him because of his perfect goodness, and in light of promises freely and knowingly undertaken.

If anything, then, typical magical beliefs are closer to scientific beliefs about nature than to monotheistic beliefs about divine action.

Molinist evolutionary theory

Molinist evolutionary theory (MET) holds that evolutionary theory is correct and based on genuinely random processes. Nonetheless, according to MET, these processes are guided by God. For each random transition (e.g., a random mutation, recombination or selection event) has associated with it a subjunctive conditional of the form "if circumstances C were to occur, then transition T would occur". God non-trivially knows the truth values of all such conditionals, and created the world so as to ensure a sequence of circumstances C that, given the conditionals he knew, would result in a sequence of transitions that fits with his plan.

I have argued elsewhere (a version of this has appeared in Philosophia Christi) that this story undercuts the statistical explanations that evolution needs. Here I want to point out a second issue. We know the probabilities of outcomes of processes in nature essentially by looking at frequencies of outcomes[note 1]. But, almost surely[note 2], a Molinist God can get any sequence of outcomes he wants by tweaking the circumstances appropriately. If a coin is to be flipped a million times, a Molinist God can make them all come out heads not by intervening in the flips, but by ensuring that the conditions C in which the flips happen are such as to make true appropriate conditionals of the form "C→heads".

Given the existence of a Molinist God, one might expect, or so Mike Almeida has argued, observed frequencies that do not match the probabilities involved in the processes. In fact, this might even give rise to an interesting prediction: given a Molinist God, we might expect the more needy to be disproportionately represented among lottery winners, since it seems not unlikely that God would want to choose initial conditions to favor them. If this line of reasoning is right, then given the existence of a Molinist God, the frequencies we observe should not reflect the probabilities of the underlying physical processes. But if so, then our knowledge of the probabilities of the underlying physical processes is undercut. And this is surely a problem for MET, not because it falsifies evolutionary theory, but because it undercuts it epistemically, making it impossible for us to know the probabilistic claims on which evolutionary theory is based.

Suppose, on the other hand, our Molinist rejects the Almeida argument, and holds that even given a Molinist God, the observed frequencies will match the probabilities of the underlying physical processes, perhaps because God would want them to match in order to be a self-effacing creator, or to let us engage correctly in inductive reasoning. In that case, the following is still true. The observed frequencies are not directly evidence for the probabilities of the underlying physical processes. They are only indirectly evidence given some assumptions about how one expects God to act.

Here is another way to put this. On the Molinist view, there is a defeater to our knowledge of probabilities on the basis of frequencies: the frequencies come from God's decision as to the antecedents of conditionals. A controversial thesis about how God chooses to act, if substantiated, would provide a defeater for this defeater. This makes knowledge of probabilities of physical processes rather more roundabout than we think it is. Moreover, I am not clear whether on this view an atheist can know any claims about these probabilities, since God's contingent decision to make the frequencies match the probabilities seems to play a central role.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Is Intelligent Design a scientific theory?

Intelligent Design (ID) can be thought of as having two parts: a negative part that claims that evolutionary explanations of various biological features of the world are unsatisfactory, and a positive part that says that these features are best explained by positing intelligent agency.

Is Intelligent Design a scientific theory? Not really, if only for the simple reason that the positive side has not been worked out with a sufficient level of detail to merit the term "scientific theory". If a corpse is found with a certain set of wounds, and scientific examination makes it very unlikely that the wounds were inflicted by non-agential processes because the wounds spell out a word, the conclusion "An agent did this" is a fine one for a forensic scientist to draw. But this conclusion, while scientific, does not seem to merit the term "scientific theory". Nor is the issue that this is an isolated case. If lots of corpses with such wounds were found, the claim that each of them is the result of intelligent agency is still not a scientific theory. I think one important reason for this is that there is a serious lack of detail here. Likewise, it would not count as a scientific theory to say that the deaths were the result of "natural causes", with no further specification of the cause. (The lack of detail is related to the accusation of unfalsifiability; obviously, the less detail is given, the harder it is to falsify a view.)

Now, individual proponents of ID might give more detail than the mere claim that agency is behind the biological processes. Thus, they may specify how many agents were involved (e.g., one), where the agents intervened (e.g., at boundaries between species, or maybe of some higher taxa) and how they intervened (e.g., by miraculously causing mutations). Once more detail is given, they have more hope that the claim will become a scientific theory.

But even if individual proponents of ID give more detail, it will still not be correct to say that ID is a scientific theory. Rather, ID will at best be a family of disparate scientific theories. Merely rejecting evolution and holding to agency is not sufficiently contentful to unify the family into a single theory, just as George who thinks the butler did it, Patricia who thinks aliens did it, and Hercule who thinks it was suicide do not hold a single theory, even though they all agree that the death was the result of agential design rather than an accident.

This is important vis-à-vis one political consideration. Some folks would like to have ID taught in school as a theory alternative to evolution (interestingly, I have been told that the Discovery Institute does not take this position). But if ID is not actually a single scientific theory, then it is not parallel to evolution. For neo-Darwinian evolution is much more of a unified theory, although of course individual evolutionary scientists hold to variants of it. Now, one particular positive theory falling under the ID might perhaps be an alternative (whether good or bad) to evolutionary theory. But no one particular positive ID theory has sufficient acceptance even in the ID community as far as I know.

At the same time, the claim that ID is not a scientific theory is compatible with ID being science, just as a particular conclusion of a forensic scientist may not have sufficient detail to count as a scientific theory, but may nonetheless be a scientific conclusion. For, science is more than just the production of scientific theories. (For instance, the criticism of scientific theories is also a scientific practice.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Intelligent Design theologically shallow?

Occasionally, one hears Intelligent Design (ID) accused of being theologically shallow. Now, no doubt, many of the advocates of ID are theologically shallow, as are many of the opponents of ID. But the question is whether there is anything theologically shallow about holding ID to be true. As far as I can tell, ID is something like the following two-part thesis:

(a) Some of the biological features of organisms are designed by non-human intelligent agency; and (b) this fact can be known on the basis of biological study of these features (together with the application of mathematical, conceptual and/or other tools).
The reason for the "non-human" qualifier is that otherwise (a) would be uninterestingly satisfied by artificially selected features in domesticated animals.

What, then, is theologically shallow about ID? Part (a) has always been accepted by Jewish and Christian theists, and does not appear at all shallow—indeed, it is connected with a depth of reflection on providential divine involvement in the world, creation, the problem of evil, and so on. Unless the claim is the implausible one that Judaism and Christianity are at root theologically shallow, the theological problem would seem to have to be not with part (a), but with part (b).

Now, if one has a strongly anti-rational theological stance, one might think that any attempt to argue to a conclusion about divine activity on the basis of empirical data is reflective of a shallow rationalism. If so, then one will think that (b) is indicative of a theological shallowness. But I do not think (b) is indicative of a theological shallowness. In fact, it seems to me to be a deeper view to say with Aquinas that God is both an unfathomable mystery and yet his existence and the fact of his creating the world can be known on the basis of observed data. (I am not saying Aquinas advocated ID—he did not—but he did think that we could get to the existence of God, and to some facts about God's creative activity, on the basis of philosophical reflection on things we have observed.) Maybe there is something particularly shallow in holding that science should be a part of one of the routes to knowledge about God's creative activity, but I do not see it. Indeed, it seems to me to be a rather deep view to think that God is imaged in our world in all kinds of ways, and since science tells us about our world, it is relevant to knowing about God.

Perhaps, though, it is not the bare statement of ID that is theologically shallow, but what is shallow is something else. Two options come to mind. One is that the motivations of ID proponents are shallow. Perhaps, ID proponents think that the only way to justify belief in God is through scientific data. That is, indeed, a shallow view. Or maybe they think that only by positing scientifically discernible divine involvement can one save the doctrine that God designed human beings. That might be a shallow view, unless there are some deep arguments behind it. But it does not seem to me to be right to call a view shallow just because the proponents of it are motivated by another view which is shallow.

The second option is that what is shallow is not so much the two-part claim of ID, but the way that ID proponents flesh out the claim, e.g., by asserting that there is evidence of miraculous divine interventions. Again, even if this fleshing out were shallow, it would not follow that ID itself is a shallow doctrine, but that it is fleshed out in a shallow way.

But I want to consider the latter criticism a bit further. Why would it be shallow to say that God created some organisms through miraculous interventions? Now, if one thinks that all claims of miraculous interventions are theologically shallow, one will say this. But that is a sweeping generalization that seems hard to justify. There does not appear to be anything particularly shallow to the idea that God's ways of manifesting his love in creation are not bounded by the laws of nature. Now, it might be shallow to claim that God could not do such-and-such non-miraculously. But it does not seem shallow to claim that he could do such-and-such miraculously, nor that he did. Granted, this view may be unattractive to those like Leibniz who think a good designer always makes something that runs just fine without him. But is denying this standoffish view of divine activity shallow? If anything, positing a world where God sometimes works in and through natural causes, and sometimes beyond them, seems to lead to a richer view.

None of this is an argument for ID. In an earlier post, I have argued that at least the Dembskian variety of ID fails, and I do not know any variety of ID to succeed. But it is important not to criticize views on spurious grounds, such as the accusations of theological shallowness.

In any case, I am not even sure that p's being is "deep" is any evidence for p, or that p's being "shallow" is any evidence against p.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Thick ends

In an earlier post, I offered the hypothesis that an action's end already includes the means under some description, perhaps specific or perhaps general. If this hypothesis is right, then we get an interesting simplification of moral evaluation. Traditionally, deontologists have had to evaluate both the end and its means. But if the means are built into the end, then one of the steps in moral evaluation is removed.

How might one do this? Well, one might say that regardless of what E is, the end "E by any means" is the wrong end to pursue. Why? Because the specified means include morally illegitimate means. If this is right, then a virtuous person only wills ends like "E by any legitimate means" or "E by means of morally licit training" or "E by means of pressing the seventh button on the left when this is permissible".

This has some interesting consequences. Suppose that x is a virtuous agent who erroneously believes that a particular means m to E is morally licit. Then, x being virtuous wills "E by the licit means m" or something like that, and hence when x executes m to gain E, she fails to achieve her end, since her end is not just E but "E by the licit means m". Hence, we can say something about what goes wrong when someone in good conscience does wrong, or at least does wrong in this way: she fails to achieve what she was trying to achieve.

In such cases, we get a different way of answering a puzzle that Cardinal Ratzinger raises: Why not count as fortunate people who in good conscience act wrongly? Aren't they lucky that their conscience leads them astray, since as a result they are non-culpable in their wrongdoing? (Ratzinger's solution was that errors of conscience are preceded by earlier sins that led to the errors.) The solution is that, at least in cases of inappropriate means, the virtuous person who in erring conscience does wrong is one who fails to achieve her ends, though she may erroneously think she succeeds. But a failure to achieve one's ends is surely an unfortunate thing, and hence we cannot count this person entirely lucky. True, it is better to fail innocently than to clearheadedly do wrong and be culpable, but it is clearly better yet to do clearheadedly succeed at doing right.

If one can extend the theory to include the circumstances in the ends, we achieve a further theoretical simplification.

Of course, as in all simplifications, one runs the risk of losing some important distinctions when one does these things.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A theory about counterpossibles

I suspect that non-trivial per impossibile counterfactuals, true subjunctive conditionals of the form "pq", where p is impossible and the conditional is not simply said to be true on account of the falsity of p, are in a way like poetry: They tell us things that are hard to express in more ordinary language and that, moreover, have a deeper resonance with us, and are more plausible, when put poetically.

But we can, I think, give a sufficient condition for the truth of a counterpossible: if the material conditional "if p, then q" is true in virtue of a fact explanatorily prior to or independent of not-p, then pq holds. This condition seems to me to also hold in the case of ordinary counterfactuals. Thus, the laws of nature are explanatorily prior to or independent of ordinary non-nomic facts. Thus, if it is a law of nature that if something is a raven, then it is black, we can say that if there were a raven in this room, it would be black, because the conditional "if something is a raven, then it is black"[note 1] is explanatorily prior to or independent of the absence of ravens from this room.

In particular, when the consequent of the material conditional is true and explanatorily prior to or independent of the antecedent, the subjunctive conditional holds trivially. For instance: "Were God not to have commanded respect to parents, there would (still) be a duty to respect parents." Here, the corresponding material conditional holds in virtue of the consequent's holding, and the consequent is (or so the asserter of the conditional claims) independent of or explanatorily prior to God's commanding respect to parents.

I don't know if the condition I have given is necessary for a conditional's truth. But at least sometimes, I think, we use a per impossibile counterfactual precisely to express a claim about explanatory priority or independence.

Here is a seemingly different sufficient condition for the subjunctive conditional pq. If the material conditional "if p, then q" is more strongly necessary than not-p, then pq holds. The idea of grades of necessity is perhaps best introduced by example: nomic necessity is stronger than practical necessity; metaphysical necessity is stronger than nomic necessity; narrowly logical (or conceptual?) necessity is stronger than metaphysical necessity.

We can combine the two conditions. Suppose that the material conditional "if p, then q" follows with a necessity of grade n1 from some fact F, and this fact F is (a) explanatorily prior to or independent of not-p, and (b) the truth of not-p is not necessary with a necessity of grade n1, then the subjunctive pq holds. I don't know if this is a necessary condition for a subjunctive to hold. Maybe it is.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Divine command metaethics

Divine command metaethics (DCM) says that

  1. the obligatory is defined as what God commands.
(Variants on which the obligatory is defined as what God wills can be handled in the same way.) The following question now seems to me to be quite important. How does the word "God" function in DCM?

Option 1: "God" is a proper name of a particular individual. Then, DCM licenses the following surprising per impossibile counterfactual:

  1. If the cosmos were created by an essentially omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly good, loving, unique, infinite, and necessarily existing (I will abbreviate such a list as "omni-omni") creator other than God, then there would be no duty to obey this creator.
This counterfactual is surprising, because it makes very puzzling why it is that we have a duty to obey God, even though we would have no duty to obey an omni-omni creator other than God. The answer cannot be grounded in any of the attributes of God, since (per impossibile) the omni-omni creator other than God would have all of the same attributes.

In other words, a DCM where "God" is a proper name is implausible.

Option 2: "God" is a definite description. Presumably, then, it is a description such that it is a conceptual truth that any omni-omni creator is God. (If not, just throw enough attributes into the "omni-omni" list to make that be true.) But if so, then the DCM claim is basically that the obligatory is what is commanded by a being who satisfies D, where D is some part of the "omni-omni creator" description. If so, then we have a problem identified in an excellent paper by MacIntyre: Exactly which attributes are a part of D? This problem is not unanswerable, perhaps, but it is very difficult.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Means-end reasoning

It is very plausible, and rarely disputed except by way of minor qualification (e.g., adding a knowledge condition), that:

  1. If one has a reason to pursue an end e, and m is a means to e, then one has a reason to pursue m.
(Of course, the reason to pursue m may not be an all-things-considered reason.) Now here is a philosophical puzzle. Why is (1) true? How does the fact that I have reason to pursue e give me reason to pursue m, just because if I achieve m, I will also achieve e?

Maybe (1) as it stands is false. After all, there is reason to eliminate educationally useless courses at a university. One means to doing this is to shut down the university. But does that mean that one has even a prima facie reason to shut down a university just because there are some educationally useless courses there? Speaking more generally, suppose there are two incompatible means, m1 and m2, each of which is a means to e. It is plausible that this gives me a reason for the disjunctive pursuit of m1 or m2, but why should it give me a reason for pursuing m1?

I think (1) can still be held up in the light of the above criticisms, but perhaps what these criticism push one to is accepting:

  1. If one has a reason to pursue an end e, and there are some means to e, then one has reason to pursue at least one of the means to e.
If m1 and m2 are the only means to e, then one has reason to pursue at least one of m1 and m2, but perhaps one does not have reason to pursue specifically m1 (or specifically m2). However, pursuing m1 (or m2) satisfies the disjunctive reason.[note 1]

Oddly enough, I think (2) can still be questioned. Suppose you are capable of achieving e directly, in addition to an indirect way. For instance, let's say that e is having one's arm be raised. Well, one can do this directly—one just raises one's arm.[note 2] But one can also bring it about that one's arm is raised by building a Rube Goldberg contraption that raises one's arm. Does one's reason to have one's arm be raised give one reason to build the contraption? I think it is rather plausible that it does not. And if not, then (2) is problematic in the same way that (1) was. Perhaps a clearer way to see this is to imagine a being like God who can act directly.

But something of (2) can survive. Let us say that m is a necessary means to e provided that e cannot be achieved but through m. The "cannot" can have different amounts of modal force, but I am not going to worry about this. Then:

  1. If m is a necessary means to e, and one has reason to pursue e, then one has reason to pursue m.
We get (2) out of (3) in those cases where e cannot be achieved directly, since then the disjunction of all means is a necessary means (here I think of a means as the whole intermediate process from action to end; one needs to be more precise in general, but not for the purposes of this post).

But whether what we accept is (1), (2) or (3), the question of why it is true remains. Here is one approach to a solution. Sometimes one has reason to pursue something solely by a particular means. Thus, ideals of sportsmanship give the Olympic runner reason to win by means of training and hard work, and give her no reason to win by means of drugs, disabling opponents, vel caetera, since a victory achieved by such means would not be a victory that satisfies the reasons of sportsmanship. (On the other hand, reasons of financial gain give one reason to win by any means possible that does not preclude the financial gain.) If this is right, then sometimes a reason to pursue an end includes in itself a specification of the appropriate means.

But we can simplify this. Rather than talking of the reason as including a specification of the ends, we can include the means in the end. Sportsmanship thus gives one reason to achieve victory by means of training and hard work.

Now what if we say that the means is always included in the end? Then some ends are of the form victory by any means or directly, others are of the form victory by any means, or directly, as long as this is compatible with one's survival, and so on. And then, I think, the mystery about why reason to pursue the end gives a reason to pursue the means is somewhat dispelled. If the end one has reason to pursue always carries a specification of how that end is to be achieved, then it seems plausible that doing anything that falls under that specification is doing something one has reason to do, or at least is doing something that satisfies a reason one has.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Sharp cutoffs in the moral life

Ted Sider apparently has an argument (I reporting second-hand) that there is a continuum in the degree of sinfulness, but there is no continuum in the heaven-hell welfare spectrum, since there is a sharp jump in welfare as one moves from an eternity of suffering to an eternity of joy. Therefore, he concludes, divine judgment cannot be just if the outcomes are heaven or hell.

Now one way to answer this is to say that there really are sharp cutoffs in the moral life, such as that between those in a state of mortal sin and those not in a state of mortal sin. The cutoffs would not be defined by some kind of a moral arithmetic[note 1], but by a qualitative fact about the state of the person's will. Thus, Aquinas defines the state of mortal sin in terms of the lack of charity. Now, charity is a fairly sharply defined state of friendship with God (which state is always the fruit of grace). The mortal sinner lacks charity entirely, though the charity will be restored in repentance and forgiveness. Now, there might be a continuum in the degree of charity, say from zero to a hundred, but the difference between zero charity and even the tiniest bit of charity is deeply significant. Even a tiny bit of charity makes one fit for eternity with God (but the more charity there is, the more blissful that eternity will be). But a complete lack of charity makes one fit for damnation.

Is it plausible that there should be such sharp cutoffs in the moral life? Well, what led me to this reflection was watching the excellent 1953 film Pickup on South Street. The central character, Candy (Jean Peters), is a woman who has lived somewhat on the wrong side of the law, and is now trying to leave that life behind, but has one last task of greyish legality. However, she finds that she is enmeshed in a situation of Soviet espionage. And then it becomes clear that she sees a yawning gulf between mere crime and treason, and she assumes, perhaps wrongly, that other people living on the wrong side of the law see it this way, too. It is one thing, in her mind to be a pickpocket (though she is not one herself), and quite a different to work for the Reds. The film makes it plausible that there is indeed a sharp cutoff between other crimes and treason. It's almost as if treason were an allegory for mortal sin. See the film—it is really good. (If you have Netflix, it's available from their Watch Instantly section—that's how I watched it.)

Friday, August 1, 2008

Contextualism: An argument in search of a conclusion

"You know you are a moderately competent art history graduate student. You are visiting a 15th century Italian church Professor Takayama, the world's foremost expert in Fra Angelico. You see a painting that you think is quite definitely not by Fra Angelico. Professor Takayama points to it and says: 'I am quite certain this is by Fra Angelico.' You conclude, on the authority of the great Takayama, that the painting must indeed be by Fra Angelico. Then Professor Takayama turns to you and asks: 'Do you agree?' You respond, quite honestly: 'Yes, quite certainly.'"