Friday, October 31, 2008

Friends and future selves

According to Jennifer Whiting, our relation to our future selves is like that to our friends. But this view is subject to a particularly clear form of the self-sacrifice objection. For suppose that I can rescue a stranger from a bear, but I foresee that in doing so I will acquire fatal wounds that will cause death within a few hours. If I had no conflicting duties, e.g., to my children, this would be a heroic and laudable thing to do. But if Whiting is right, then it seems this action is analogous to sacrificing the life of a friend for that of a stranger, without having asked the friend, since the future self who will die in a few hours is like a friend. But it's surely wrong to sacrifice the life of a friend, without special permission, to save a stranger.

Objection: The future self has the same values as I do, and hence if it were the case that I am such that I would choose to die for the stranger, I can assume that he, too, would choose to die for the stranger.

Response: There are several problems with this objection. First, the relevant future self is the one who is going to be dying from the fatal wounds. Can I really be sure that at that time there will be no regrets, but consent? Second, this answer assumes that anybody with the same values as me would have chosen the same thing. But that assumption is plausibly false. I have certain values which imply that it would be a fine thing to give up my life for the stranger. But it is not certain that each time I would act on those values. It could well be that I would only sometimes choose to act on those values. But that fact would not affect the permissibility of acting on the values. Third, consider this. What if in fact I do not love my future self as much as I love myself? Plausibly, the self-sacrifice would still be permissible. But in that case, it cannot be presumed that my future self would choose to have himself be sacrificed—for, presumably, he loves himself more than I love him. Fourth, when it comes to sacrificing the life of a friend to save a stranger, more than merely knowing that the friend has values that make the sacrifice likely is needed. The choice has to be made by the friend.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"If... then..." and material conditionals

I will argue that if the indicative "If p, then q" in English has mind-independent truth value (a somewhat vague phrase, admittedly), then this truth value is the same as that of (not-p or q) (i.e., the material conditional). The way I shall argue this is as follows. Assume that "If p, then q" has mind independent truth value. Now, I will show that (i) if (not-p or q) is false, then "If p, then q" is false, and (ii) if (not-p or q) is true, then "If p, then q" is true. Claim (i) is easy. For if (not-p or q) is false, then p is true and q is false, and it clearly cannot be the case that "If p, then q" (modus ponens would be violated).

I now argue for (ii). The easiest way to do this is to specialize to the case where p and q and their denials do not tell us anything about what beliefs and credences people have (the proposition that there are dogs satisfies this constraint; the proposition that nobody believes anything does not satisfy this constraint). If (ii) holds for propositions satisfying this constraint, it will hold in general, surely (assuming "If... then..." has mind-independent truth value). Suppose that you rationally assign a probability very close to 1/2 to p as well as to q, and neither believe nor disbelieve either of these, and rationally assign a probability very close to 1 to the claim that (not-p or q), and, moreover, you know this disjunction to be true. Given the constraint on p and q, it should be quite possible to have a set of evidence that makes one have these probability assignments, and having this set of evidence should not affect the truth values of p, q or the indicative "If p, then q".

You then reflect on the following valid argument:

  1. p (premise)
  2. not-p or q (premise)
  3. Therefore, q.
You want to summarize what you've learned from this argument. You know (2) to be true, and you assign very high probability to it. You don't know (1) or (3) to be true, and you in fact do not have a belief either way about either of these. It seems quite right to summarize your current position as: "If (1) holds, then (3) holds." After all, you've got a valid argument from (1) to (3) given an auxiliary premise, namely (2), which you know to be true. But once we agree that "If (1) holds, then (3) holds", surely we likewise have to agree that "If p, then q." Hence, if the disjunction (2) is known with probability close to 1, and neither p nor q is known or has high or low probability, then "If p, then q" is true. But if "If... then..." has mind-independent truth value, then the assumptions about knowledge and probability are irrelevant to its truth value, and hence we can simply conclude that if (2) holds, then "If p, then q."

The conclusion might be taken as a reductio of the claim that "If... then..." has mind independent truth value.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Instantaneous stages

Perdurantism holds that we either are four-dimensional entities, stretching like worms through spacetime, or temporal stages of these. Most worm-theorists also believe in temporal stages—they just do not identify us with the stages, but with the whole. (I myself am attracted to stageless worm theory.)

Now here is something that strikes me as a bit interesting. The founding intuition of four-dimensionalist theories is that there is a very close analogy between space and time, and four-dimensionalists pay a lot of attention to science. But, then, positing stages goes against the spirit of four-dimensionalism. For if we pay heed to the space-time analogy intuition, we would have to posit something analogous to temporal stages, stretched out through time the way temporal stages are stretched out through space. While temporal stages are three-dimensional (maybe with a bit of thickening), spatial stages would be one-dimensional (maybe with a bit of thickening), stretched out through time—basically cores cut from the worm along timelike curves. And just as the four-dimensional worm is made out of temporal stages, we would have to think of it as made out of the spatial stages.

But that would be mistaken. The only plausible way in which we could be composed of spatial stages would be if we were made of particles, and we could trace the trajectory of each particle through spacetime. But even if there are particles, the uncertainty principle makes the possibility of such tracing dubious. And quite possibly, physics will dispense with localized particles altogether.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Happiness, friendship and eternity

When one is not tired of a friend, the expected approaching loss of union with the friend makes one miserable. To be tired of a friend would not be compatible with full human happiness, and neither would it be compatible with full human happiness to have no friends. Full human happiness is grounded in truth—it is not full happiness when one's delight depends on ignorance. Therefore, when one is not tired of a friend, an approaching loss of union with the friend one is not tired of is not compatible with full human happiness, whether the loss is expected or not. But neither is it compatible with full human happiness to be tired of friends or lack them. Thus, in full human happiness, one never approaches the loss of union with a friend. But if one were to cease existing, one would thereby lose all union with one's friends.

It follows that full human happiness requires unending life with at least one friend. Moreover, it requires a well-grounded security in this unending life (this point I learned from Todd Buras).

We can conclude from this that naturalism is false if we add the premises:

  1. People have a natural desire for full human happiness.
  2. What people have a natural desire for is possible.
  3. If naturalism is true, then it is not possible to have well-grounded security in unending life.
One might think this argument can be simplified by arguing that if naturalism is true, unending life is impossible. But if the universe goes on expanding forever and quantum indeterminism holds, unending life is not impossible, just highly improbable (it gets less and less probable as the universe gets colder and colder). But such an unending life is insecure because of the improbability of its continuation.

Monday, October 27, 2008

New blog on abortion

Here is a new blog on abortion, by a physician and a friend of mine.

Profession of faith and oath

In Canon 833, the Catholic Church requires various categories of persons to make a formal profession of faith and, by a later rule enacted by John Paul II, some of these are required to make an oath of fidelity to the magisterium. The text of the profession and oath is here.

Among the categories of persons required to make the profession and take the oath are "teachers in any universities whatsoever who teach disciplines pertaining to faith or morals [docentes qui disciplinas ad fidem vel mores pertinentes in quibusvis universitatibus tradunt]." It is striking that this is not restricted to professors in Catholic universities. Nor does this appear to be restricted, in the way that the requirement of the Mandatum is, to those who teach as theologians. For "disciplines pertaining to faith or morals" surely includes, at least, those who teach moral philosophy, and perhaps those who teach philosophy of religion as well.

But what is most striking to me is the title, which I assume is official, for the text of the profession and oath: "Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity on Assuming an Office to be Exercised in the Name of the Church". This implies that the Catholic professor may never teach disciplines relating to faith or morals on her own, even if she is at a non-Catholic university. What pertains to the Gospel must always be taught by her in the name of the Body of Christ. This is formalized for professors, but I think is true in everyday life, too. This is scary—but the flip side of this is that if we are speaking in the name of the Body of Christ we can draw on the Church's resources, intellectual and spiritual (and especially sacramental), and trust in the Holy Spirit when teaching, not worrying so much about what we are going to say (cf. Mt. 10:19—not that students are very much like Roman torturers!).

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sexual ethics talk

Today I am giving this talk on sexual ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quiz on "If... then..."

I am holding out to you my two closed fists. Let us suppose that I know that you know that I know which, if any, of my fists are empty and which are full (for simplicity, I take "full" to be the denial of "empty"). You don't know which, if any, of my fists are empty and which are full. In which of the following cases would I be telling you a lie if I said: "If my left hand is full, then my right hand is full" while competently using English? (Choose "depends" if you think the answer depends on factors that I didn't include in the description of the case.)

  1. In fact my left hand is full and my right hand is full: lie not a lie depends don't know
  2. In fact my left hand is empty and my right hand is full: lie not a lie depends don't know
  3. In fact my left hand is full and my right hand is empty: lie not a lie depends don't know
  4. In fact my left hand is empty and my right hand is empty: lie not a lie depends don't know

What language am I speaking?

Suppose I have speech impediment where whenever I try to say a sentence s of English, what comes out of my vocal apparatus is something that sounds just like a semantically unrelated sentence h(s) of Hittite. Suppose that h is a one-to-one map between sentences of English and what sound like Hittite sentences. Thus, when I try to say "Snow is white", it sounds just like Hittite for "I would like to sell you a square circle." I also have an associated hearing defect. If the sound of h(s) occurs in my environment, what I hear is the sound of s. Thus, if you speak Hittite around me and say "I would like to sell you a square circle" in Hittite, it sounds to me as if you said in English "Snow is white". As a result of the hearing defect, it sounds to me as if I were just speaking English normally—my hearing defect cancels out my speech defect.

Suppose, now, that you have the same pair of defects. Then we can communicate with one another just fine. Question: What language are we speaking with one another? Are we speaking Hittite or English or something else?

Surely, we are speaking English, but mispronouncing. But this means that we had better not understand languages in terms of the sounds made, but at most in terms of the sounds intended to be made.

We may further suppose that as it happens, the sentence h(s) of Hittite has the property that it is appropriate to assert whenever s is appropriate to assert, but has a different meaning. If that hypothesis is correct, then one cannot read off what people are saying from their behavior.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Relativity theory, promises and promulgation of laws

In one earlier post, I suggested the principle the basic laws of morality, just like those of physics, should be reference frame invariant. In that post, I offered some examples of the application of this theory, albeit ones that were not of much interest. In a later post, I have offered an application of the principle to the abortion debate, but the principle did not really decide any issue, but simply deepened the discussion. But now I have what is to me a much more interesting pair of applications.

I promise you never to sit on your late wife's favorite bench which happens to be on my front lawn. I thus create an obligation for myself (an amazing power, isn't it, the power to create obligations?). A while later you release me from the promise. Your release destroys the obligation (so a part of my power of promising was a power to give you the power to make the obligation cease to obtain).

But when did these things happen? When did the obligation not to sit on the chair come into existence? When I promised I wouldn't, or only when the promise reached you? And when did the obligation cease? When you said you release me, or only when the release reached me? Of course, if we're speaking face to face, the question is only of theoretical interest—but, still, it is a genuine interest, I think. But what if you live four light-years away, and we speak by radio? Then, did I become bound when I made the promise, or only four years later, when you heard the promise? And did I become released when you uttered the words releasing me from the promise, or only four years later? In such a case, the question is not just of theoretical interest.

It turns out that there is a very natural way to decide this question when we apply invariance, assuming that making promises and releasing from them is a matter of basic laws of morality. Suppose that we said that the obligation comes to exist when you hear my promise. But then the law would not be invariant. For five minutes after I have sent my words to you over the radio, it will be true in some but not all reference frames that you have already received the message. So, it will depend on reference frame whether I may sit on the bench then or not. Invariance will be violated. (Note that it will not help much to say that what is relevant is my reference frame. For extended substances do not in general define a unique reference frame. Besides, if my reference frame matters so much then, absurd, I'll be able to affect when the obligation applies simply by running really fast in some direction or other.)

If, on the other hand, I say that the promise is binding on me as soon as I have made it, then this rule is invariant. For the rule, basically, says that the obligation obtains when I am in the forward light-cone of the promise-making, and this is a reference-frame invariant relationship.

One might think that just as I am bound as soon as I sent the promise, so too am I released as soon as you sent the release. But here things are quite the opposite. For if I were released as soon as you sent the release, invariance would be violated—for, we would have to ask, in which reference frame is the "as soon as" measured. But invariance will obtain if I specify that my obligation ceases as soon as the release gets to me.

So we have a pretty good argument, based on invariance, for when promises come to bind and when we are released from them. The obligations, as it were, exist at the site of the promiser, and hence come to exist when the promiser speaks, and cease to exist when the promisee's release arrives at the promiser. Of course, further questions can be asked—when is the exact moment of sending, for instance. But those questions, I think, do not concern the basic practice of promise making/keeping itself—maybe answers to those questions can be left to custom or the prudent legislator.

Here is a different application. When a legislature passes a law, when does the law become morally binding on me? (I don't care about the question when it becomes legally binding, since only moral normativity matters in the end.) When the law is passed? Or when the law is promulgated? Or when the promulgation arrives? Intuitively, it would seem unfair if I were bound as soon as the law were passed, since I would have no way of knowing about the law as soon as it were passed, and surely the law is to be a guide to my rational deliberation. I think Aquinas makes something like this argument. But it would be nice to have an argument without so much that is controversial. Well, that's easy. The rule that the law is binding morally on me when promulgated violates invariance (imagine that the law is one of the Galactic Empire, and there is no faster than light travel, so it can take years and years to reach me), since we would have to ask: "In which reference frame?" The same problem obtains for the question: "When the law is promulgated?" (e.g., when the legislature radios it out to the subjects). But "When the promulgation arrives to me" is invariant, since it is a question of my being bound.

Now there is a problem with this answer. Generally, it is taken that ignorance of the law is no excuse. So, it seems, I can be bound by laws that were never communicated to me. Three answers are available. The first is that the "ignorance" saying only applies to legal binding—morally, ignorance of positive law is a perfectly fine excuse. The second is to modify my initial formulation: I am bound at the first time at which it was reasonably possible for me to have found out about the legislation had I set my mind to it. This, too, is invariant. The third is to combine the first two answers. Certain basic laws, such as laws proclaiming the constitution of a new nation, only become morally binding when the subjects hear of them. As part of the proclamations of these laws, the subjects hear how and where they can find out about additional laws. But then further laws becoming binding when one can reasonably find out about them. This, too, is invariant.

In any case, the answer "When the legislator makes the law" is not a good one. So we have an argument for Aquinas' thesis that promulgation is essential to the bindingness of a law. Secret treaties do not bind those ignorant of them, at least not morally.

I think it's pretty cool that one can get such fairly specific answers to difficult normative questions simply out of relativity theory. I think one could probably also get similar answers if one had a causal theory of time (whether it was relativistic or not). And that is not a coincidence because I think the relativistic theory of time is, basically, a causal theory of time.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Reflections on presentism

The presentist seems to claim that:
(*) Only things that are present exist.
This threatens triviality or implausibility. Either the underlined occurrence of "exist" is to be read in the present tense, as "exist now", or it is to be read in some tenseless sense not tied to the present. On the tensed reading, (*) says that only things that presently exist exist now, which no eternalist will dispute. On the untensed reading, the claim is implausible—it contradicts the fact that in the tenseless sense we are quite willing to say that among historical events there exists the Battle of Waterloo.

Let's slow down.

Take first the untensed horn of the dilemma. One way to go for this horn is crazy. The tenseless "exist" is some disjunction like: "existed, exists now, will exist or exists outside of time" (maybe we omit the fourth disjunct, maybe we don't). But on this view, (*) is looney: it commmits one to the claim that the Battle of Waterloo not only doesn't exist, but never existed. No sane presentist wants to be an irrealist about past-tensed statements.

The other way to defend the untensed horn is more interesting. On this approach, the presentist needs to defend the idea of a basic, tenseless existential quantifier (or basic, tenseless existence property), and then claim that, as a matter of (necessary?) fact, all the things that this quantifier quantifies over are presently existent. In doing this, the presentist will depart from common sense, for she will be using the tenseless "exists" while denying the common-sensical claim that if there is a tenseless "exists", then past things "exist" in that sense. But that is far from a decisive objection.

Here is a more worrisome objection: How do we motivate the claim that all and only the things that exist now exist in the tenseless sense? Consider a rival view: All and only the things that existed exist in the tenseless sense. Or: All and only the things that existed exactly 17 seconds ago exist. Why think that the present is special ontologically?

One answer that won't work: We perceive present things, so that we'd be as bad as the sceptics if we were pastists. For in fact the things we exist are always also past things—there is always a delay in the perceptual process.[note 1] Indeed, to be strictly correct, we can be more sure that what we perceive existed than that what we perceive exists. But even if this weren't true, we could parallel the claim that we perceive present things with the claim that we perceived past things.

A better answer might be that the present has a special iterativeness property. If an event E is present, then the being-present of the event is also present. Being 17 seconds in the past doesn't: if E is 17 seconds in the past, then E's being 17 seconds in the past is present, not 17 seconds in the past. However, if E is in the past, and the past is dense, then E's being past is also past. But this does depend on the density of time, and one can argue against density. Another response to the iterativeness response is that it is a mistake to take iterativeness as decisive: it is to be balanced against stability—while what is present won't ever be present again, what is past will always be past.

Here is another approach. Focus on the iterativeness. A proposition holds if and only if it holds at present. Thus, it seems natural to say that present-truth is ontologically prior to past-truth and future-truth. After all, when p will be true, then it is presently true that p will be true.

Perhaps, then, the presentist should take the first horn of the dilemma: the underlined "exist" in (*) is present tensed. Then, (*) is trivial. But the presentist can still make other claims that will be non-trivial: she can, for instance, hold that there is no single tenseless "exists"—all there is is the disjunction of "existed", "exists" and "will exist" (and maybe of "exists outside of time"). However, if she says this, then it becomes somewhat mysterious why she calls herself a "presentist". The thesis now is that there are three existence predicates: "existed", "exists" and "will exist" (or three quantifiers or three properties or whatever). But why is that any more a presentist claim than a pastist or a futurist one?

Maybe the presentist can claim that the present has a special priority. But what kind of priority? The future has a teleological priority. The past has a causal and epistemic priority (the events we observe are always at least in part past).

So perhaps the presentist should just become a tensist, recognizing three co-primitive existential quantifiers, say. But actually it's worse than that. For why should we lump together "existed five minutes ago" and "existed ten minutes ago" as a single kind of quantifier? Shouldn't we replace the single "existed" with "existed t seconds ago", and the single "will exist" with "will exist in t seconds". If so, then the view comes to be that there is a sequence of quantifiers, one for each place in the A-series.

But it is simpler just to accept a single quantifier and be a B-theorist.

I am not entirely convinced by all these arguments.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hobbies and male/female domination

Some occupations are male-dominated, and some are female-dominated. The fact that some occupations are male-dominated tends to give rise to worries about discrimination, overt or covert, present or past. The fact that some occupations are female-dominated tends to give rise to fewer such worries, though it may give rise to some. But as far as I know, very few people worry about the fact that some hobbies are male-dominated and some hobbies are female-dominated.

If the reason we worry about male-domination in an occupation is that we are concerned that women miss out on opportunities for living a particular meaningful form of life, then we should be equally worried in the case of male- and female-dominated hobbies. After all, for most people in the world, one's occupation is primarily of instrumental value—any other occupation of no greater irksomeness and no lesser earning potential would be just as good. But hobbies are of non-instrumental value—they directly give value to life. So if the worry is that the individual woman loses out by being discouraged by society from taking up a particular occupation, we should also worry about the individual woman or man losing out by being discouraged by society from taking up a particular hobby.

A different reason to worry about male-domination in an occupation, however, is that society loses out by this domination, either by losing out on the distinctive contributions of women, or by losing out on almost half of potentially qualified candidates. This worry, however, I think is only going to be very strong in the case of those professions that both provide significant social benefit, and where the benefit provided depends, in existence, kind and/or degree, to a large extent on the individuality of the worker, or in cases where there is a shortage of workers. Thus, mass-production of buses provides a significant social benefit, but the benefit does not significantly depend on the individuality of the line worker—any other line worker who does his or her job decently would do just as well—and as far as I know there is no significant shortage of autoworkers. On the other hand, the writing of novels or the provision of medical care provides a significant social benefit, where the existence, kind and degree of benefit all depend strongly on the individuality of the worker.

Insofar as it is these kinds of social contribution things that worry us, we are not so much concerned about the injustice to the particular woman kept out of an occupation, but the loss to society of her distinctive potential contribution. And this kind of worry does not occur in the case of a hobby, since hobbies, with some notable exceptions (e.g., the production of open source software, or the writing of poetry—both of which could just as much be occupations as hobbies), tend not to be of great social benefit, important though they are to the individuals.

I suspect in practice we have both kinds of worries about male-domination, to different degrees in different cases.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Becoming charged

Suppose I become negatively electrically charged. I then acquire a bunch of dispositional properties, such as the property of repelling electrons and attracting positrons. But have I gained any basic dispositional properties?

One could take one of two views here:

  1. In becoming charged, I took on new basic dispositional properties characteristic of charge.
  2. Prior to being charged, I already had the dispositional property of being such as to repel electrons and attract positrons when negatively charged.
On the first view, charge is a dispositional property. On the second view, charge is not a dispositional property per se, but a triggering condition for a dispositional property I already had. An advantage of the first view is that it helps explain why it is that charge makes anything that has it be ceteris paribus attractive to electrons and repellent to positrons. On the second view, it is just a coincidence or a matter of divine arrangement that all the material things there are have the dispositional property stated in (2). On the other hand, the second view is slightly neater in a different way, because it allows one to say that all dispositional properties are grounded in the essences of things. I suspect that only a generalization of the first view lets one preserve the Catholic view that pursuit of the supernatural end of human life is something graciously superadded on top of our nature.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Transworld identity without haecceities

Haecceities are individual essences, even of non-existent beings. Necessarily, entity exists iff its haecceity is instantiated. Some folks think we need haecceities to make sense of alien individuals—i.e., individuals that exist in other worlds but not in ours. We don't, as long as we are willing to be Leibnizian in denying the identity of indiscernibles. Here, then, is a simple theory of identity across worlds that entails the essentiality of origins. The theory applies both to substance-like and event-like individuals.

I will give the simplest version of the theory, for beings in an absolute time who do not engage in any time travel and without backwards causation. A general version of the theory requires the replacement of times by "causal (or maybe even explanatory) points"—points in the causal history of an entity. This is a bit tricky, and so I won't bother with it.

Let e be an entity and w a world. Say that H is a qualitative history of e up to t in w provided that e exists at t in w and H is a proposition giving an at least partial description of w such that:

  1. H is purely qualitative except respect of e and t: i.e., the only particulars that are de re involved in H are e and t;
  2. H states that e exists at t and gives a complete description of the intrinsic properties of e at t, subject to the restriction in (1);
  3. For any state of affairs reported in H, any and all the causes in w of that state of affairs are also reported in H;
  4. H reports that e exists at t;
  5. H is a minimal proposition satisfying (1)-(4).
Now, let w1 and w2 be two worlds such that e1 exists in w1 and e2 exists in w2. Then e1=e2 if and only if there are times t1 and t2 and histories H1 of e1 up to t1 in w1 and H2 of e2 up to t2 in w2, such that H1's description of e1 and t1 coincides exactly with H2's description of e2 and t2.

To put it roughly, e1 and e2 are identical if and only if there are points in the existence of each one, such that their respective histories up to these points are the same.

This view entails essentiality of origins. It also implies that there cannot be two entities which, along with their causal histories, have been indiscernible up to some time. Thus, there cannot be completely identical twins. This consequence is counterintuitive, but may be but a small price to pay for avoiding haecceities.

Given this view, we can form something like a haecceity from the disjunction of all the histories of an entity in a world.

The view can be varied by relaxing or tightening the conditions (1)-(5) on histories. I do not yet know which is the optimal version.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The danger of mixing moral philosophy with coffee: Pride

From How I Found Livingstone, by Sir Henry M. Stanley:

We drew our canoe ashore here, and, on a limited area of clean sand, Ferajji, our rough-and-ready cook, lit his fire, and manufactured for us a supply of most delicious Mocha coffee. Despite the dangers which still beset us, we [presumably, Stanley and Livingstone] were quite happy, and seasoned our meal with a little moral philosophy, which lifted us unconsciously into infinitely superior beings to the pagans by whom we were surrounded—upon whom we now looked down, under the influence of Mocha coffee and moral philosophy, with calm contempt, not unmixed with a certain amount of compassion.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reasons and beliefs

Question: Assume A is in fact right. Is there a difference between my doing A because A is right, and my doing A because I think A is right?

Answer: If that A is right (call this reason R) and that I think A is right (call it TR) are distinct reasons, then there is a difference between doing A because of R and doing A because of TR. But R and TR are distinct reasons. An easy way to see the distinction is that there are actions that TR, when it obtains, justifies directly which R, when it obtains, does not directly justify. Specifically, TR, whenever it obtains, directly justifies me in asserting "I think A is right", while R, even when it obtains, does not directly justify me in asserting "I think A is right." After all, R might obtain without my knowing about it, in which case I would not be justified in asserting "I think A is right" (if I asserted that, I would be lying). And even if I know that R obtains, it is not R that justifies my assertion "I think A is right", but it is TR. If two reasons directly justify different actions, the two reasons must be distinct.

Remark: There is something wimpy about thinking of oneself as doing A because one thinks (or even knows) that A is right. Surely, under normal circumstances, the reason one thinks of oneself as having is not that one thinks that A is right, but that A is right. This is, of course, a standard point.

Friday, October 10, 2008

More on conjunctive characterization

In an earlier post, I had argued that there is something generally fishy about conjunctive characterizations of non-stipulative concepts, such as defining a murder as an act that is both a killing and morally wrong. Natural concepts just don't have conjunctive analyses, and so one can typically find counterexamples to conjunctive analyses simply by looking at cases where the conjuncts are coincidentally satisfied (e.g., something might be a killing but be morally wrong for a reason independent of its being a killing, such as because it is also an instance of promise-breaking, and this does not make it a murder). In a post on prosblogion today, I use this fact to refute a particular argument against Molinism.

What I want to offer here is two hypotheses about why conjunctive definitions sound so plausible to us. The first hypothesis, stated in the prosblogion post, is is that conjunctive claims often carry an implicature of relevant connection between conjuncts. If someone tells me that he went to the store and bought a pound of butter, I assume that he bought the pound of butter at that store (order matters here: "I bought a pound of butter and went to the store" carries an implicature that the pound of butter was not bought at that store; in that case, the connection is a negative one). If I am told that Fred intended to meet George and Fred did meet George, I tend to assume that Fred intentionally met George, though that does not strictly follow.

The second hypothesis is that our minds are designed for finding connections. When we read a set of statements, or see a bunch of evidence, we tacitly assume a relation between them. It is not a matter of implicature, because the phenomenon is more than just a linguistic one. I see an open garbage can, and I smell a stink. I assume that what I see and what I smell are the same thing. Often this is justified. But this habit of mentally inserting connections can be pernicious. When we see a bunch of conjoined statements, it is our natural reaction to imagine a situation where they are co-satisfied in a related way. It was the genius of Gettier to show us that in philosophically evaluating a conjunctive characterization we need to look at cases of unrelated co-satisfaction.

At the same time, it may be that some conjunctive characterizations are close to the truth—to get the truth, all we need to add is that the conditions are satisfied in relevantly related ways. It could be that knowledge will be justified true belief once we understand that it must be justified, true and believed in relevantly related ways. (I wonder if what counts as relevantly related might be contextual.) Of course this is not satisfying to the philosopher—we want to make explicit the relevant relation, but perhaps this just cannot be done.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The puzzle of change

There seems to be a difference between change and replacement. Sperm and egg unite, and are changed into a new organism. While the sperm and egg perish in being united, it seems that they do not simply perish, replaced by the new organism. Rather, they turn into the new organism in some sense. It is this "in some sense" that is puzzling here—what does it mean? It seems to mean more than just that the sperm and egg have a causal role in producing the new organism—that would be to reduce material causes to efficient causes, and would be unsatisfactory. If an artist created a sculpture and happened to cease to exist just as the sculpture was completed, we wouldn't say that the artist turned into the sculpture.

A traditional solution to the puzzle is to suppose that matter survives substantial change. The matter of the sperm and egg loses its old forms, and takes on a new form, that of the new organism. But the artist does not turn into the statue, because the statue is not made of the artist's matter. Now, on my preferred view of matter (and my reading of Metaphysics Z), matter does not survive substantial change.

So it seems that there is a good argument against my view of matter: if matter does not survive change, then one cannot distinguish change and replacement.

But I have a response. If there is in fact no difference between change and replacement, then the above is no objection to my view of matter. Suppose then there is a difference between change and replacement. Then we will want to say that in transsubstantiation the bread and wine are not replaced by, but changed into, the body and blood of our Savior. But the matter of bread and wine do not survive transsubstantiation. Hence it cannot be the case that the only way to distinguish between change and replacement is through the persistence of matter.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Elections question

Stalin and Mother Teresa are running for Prime Minister of Canada. Stalin has a well-publicized plan to murder all the Ukrainians, of whom there are a million. Moreover, his economic policies are stupid, resulting in the impoverishment of the middle class, and no improvement for the needy. Mother Teresa is not only virtuous, but also extremely well-informed about economics, and has policies that promise great economic improvement for the needy, and no loss for the rich. So far, the choice seems easy. The night before the elections, an omniscient and perfectly truthful being tells you—and you know that this is true—that if Stalin is elected, he will succeed in all his plans—a million Ukrainians will be murdered, and the economy will be destroyed. But the being also tells you that if Mother Teresa is elected, earthquakes will destroy Toronto and Montreal, directly killing two million people, and despite Mother Teresa doing the best that can be done, the country will be plunged into an economic depression, whose net effect is the same as that of Stalin's economic policies. If Stalin is elected, the earthquake will happen in an uninhabited area (maybe the military parades will redistribute the geological stress). Oh, and neither Mother Teresa, nor Stalin, nor anybody other than you knows about the earthquake issue--and nobody will believe you if tell them.

The results of electing Stalin are, thus, better than of electing Mother Teresa: a million die, while on Mother Teresa's watch, two million die. Whom should you vote for?

I am not claiming that this has any significant resemblance to the upcoming Canadian or U.S. or other elections.

[Edited: Added lack of others' knowledge of earthquake condition. Also, fixed a typo.]

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Desire and disposition

According to a standard view of desire, if one desires that p, then one is disposed to bring it about that p. But suppose I desire that p be brought about without my being in any way causally responsible for it. That is a recognizable desire. But it is not one that it is coherent to be disposed to bring about, is it?

Or is it perhaps just a wish?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Personal identity and identity

Consider claims like this:

  1. What it is for a person x at t0 to be identical with a person y at t1>t0 is for y at t1 to have a chain of memories leading back to x at t0 (and maybe: and there is no other competitor).
  2. What it is for a person x at t0 to be identical with a person y at t1>t0 is for y at t1 to have a body that has continuously developed from that of x at t0 (and maybe: and there is no other competitor).
I think claims of this sort are incredible, not just because of particular entailments or details, but simply because identity is surely ontologically more basic than facts about chains of memories or continuous developments of bodies. Each thing is identical with itself and with nothing else. That is surely more basic to its thinghood than having memories, or having a continuously developing body. Only because x is a thing can it have properties like memories or bodily development. But x is a thing only because it is identical with itself. So to explain x's identity with itself in terms of such properties x has seems absurd.

I think that people who are attracted towards (1), (2) and claims like them don't really think of diachronic personal identity as identity, maybe because they don't think of persons as really entities (or maybe they just don't think of persons as substances).

It might be thought that a stage-theorist need not be worried about this. The stage-theorist, after all, may think that x at t0 and y at t1 are different entities, being different stages of a greater whole, and that (1) and (2) give a good account of what makes them be stages of the same whole. But I think this is only somewhat more plausible, because the parthood relation (which the stages stand in to the worm), if there is such a relation, is surely almost as ontologically basic as identity.

This does not mean that the discussion of criteria of personal identity is puerile. For one can take identity to be genuinely primitive, but still look for truths such as:

  1. Necessarily, a person x at t1 has a chain of memories going back to every time prior to t1 at which this person existed.
  2. Necessarily, there are no such chains of memories between distinct persons.
But even if there are such truths (I deny both of these two examples), one will no longer take such truths to be constitutive of identity.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

One problem for a moving present

Suppose that we think that the present moves, ever pushing into the future. Now the present is within a Friday. Tomorrow the present will be within a Saturday. On this theory, it is the same thing, the present, that today is within a Friday and tomorrow it will be within a Saturday.

It follows that the present is something that has always existed and will always exist. After all, if a rock will tomorrow be found in one cave, and today is present in another cave, then the rock exists both today and tomorrow. The present on this view has the same temporal extent as whole time sequence.

But this is absurd. Clearly, the present does not extend back to the Battle of Waterloo. Hence an A-theory on which the present relentlessly moves forward must be rejected.

Moving spotlight theorists should, thus, not reify the spotlight. So what should they do? Well, maybe they can say that events that are presently occurring have a special property, let's say L, for being lit up. And which events have this special property changes with time. Right now the writing of this post has L. In an hour, the writing of this post will no longer have L. This, I think, leads to the McTaggart paradoxes. Here's how. Let's ask: Is having L intrinsic or extrinsic to the writing of this post? If extrinsic, then there will be something else that has an L-like property in a more basic way, and we have failed to account for the present in terms of events having L. Let W be the event of the writing of this post. Suppose then that W intrinsically has L. But in an hour, W will not intrinsically have L. I think this is what triggers the McTaggart paradoxes: the idea that events change in respect of what intrinsic properties they have. Anyway, in an hour, the writing of this post will have L1, the property of having been lit up an hour ago. The writing of this post will gain L1 only at a time when W no longer exists. Hence, while L is intrinsic to W, L1 is not intrinsic, since only extrinsic properties can be gained when one does not exist. Therefore, we need to define L1 in terms of L and a B-relation of some sort.

OK, that's all I want to do in the way of helping moving spotlight theories.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


In response to a question from a student, I explained S5 as the claim that modal truths don't vary between worlds—a modal truth, we might say, is a proposition of the form "Possibly p" or "Necessarily p" that is true. But actually, that's incorrect as an account of S5. S5 is compatible with there being modal truths in some worlds that do not obtain in others.

To see this, we need to make Robert Adams' distinction betwen truth at a world and truth in a world. On Adams' view, a proposition making de re reference to a particular only exists in a world where that particular exists. Consequently, propositions that reference contingent particulars de re are not necessary beings. Since there are modal truths involving contingent particulars, such as that possibly I will yell "Hurrah!" in five minutes, it follows that some modal truths exist in some worlds but not in others.

Adams' distinction, then, is basically this. We take as the primitive notion being true at a world. We might gloss this as follows: a proposition p is true at w provided that the state of affairs it reports obtains in w. We can then define being true in a world counterfactually: p is true in w iff it is the case that were w actual, p would be true. Since a proposition can only be true if it exists, it follows that p is true in w iff p is true at w and p exists in w. And if we like, we can say that p exists in w iff it is true at w that p exists.

On Adams' view, the proposition that Socrates either does not exist or is human is true at every world. But it is only true in those worlds in which Socrates exists.

Let us then follow Adams in allowing that some propositions exist in only some worlds. Then, in some worlds there will be modal truths that are not true in the actual world simply because they do not exist in the actual world. We now have two ways of defining modal operators. I'll just define possibility, M, since necessity is dual to it (Lp iff ~M~p). We say that M1p iff there is a possible world w such that p is true at w. We say that M2p iff there is a possible world w such that p is true in w. These give different results. For instance, if Adams is right about propositions about particulars, then M1(Socrates never existed) is true but M2(Socrates never existed) is false.

The modal logic we get with M2 is no good. According to that modal logic, necessarily Socrates exists, but possibly there are no humans. So the modal logic we want is the one defined by M1. But this modal logic is just fine for S5: it is basically just a restriction of a Plantingan modal logic with no scruples about non-actual particulars to those propositions that do not reference non-actual particulars de re.

Now we have a picture of modal logic that satisfies S5, even though there are modal truths in other worlds that are not modal truths in our world (because they do not exist as propositions in our world).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Eddington's Two Tables

As far back into my childhood as I remember thinking about such things, I thought of the physical objects around me as made up of particles. I learned last night, in talking to various philosophers, that this attitude in childhood is not universal. In fact, apparently, many educated people have Aristotelian intuitions that material objects are solid and continuous through and through, and while they can think the particle hypothesis, it does not come naturally to them.

This is an interesting case of how theory-laden the "intuitive" can be. To me, it is entirely intuitive to see an object as a bunch of particles, though I wouldn't say that I have a positive intuition that it is so—just a pervasive belief. At the same time, this is a belief I need to think myself out of (and into a suspension of judgment) because I do not think current physics gives one good reason to think there are particles.

This little case study is kind of scary to me. For instance, right now it seems entirely intuitive that space-time be a four-dimensional manifold, with time being ontologically on par with other dimensions. In fact, I've gotten to the point where a philosophical statement that says something like "substance S has accident A at time t" seems clearly incomplete: I want to know which reference frame this is in, and how the accident is spread out in a space-like hypersurface.

But since these intuitions are highly dependent on a physics that might turn out to be wrong (quantum theory and relativity theory are not both true, since they are incompatible), I need to be more open to three-dimensionalist ideas, which I find kind of scary. Three-dimensionalist ideas induce a kind of conceptual vertigo in me—the thought that I am this three-dimensional object in some kind of flow of time is weird, though I do of course think such metaphors sometimes.