Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Knowing permissibility

Some moral permissibility facts are logically trivial: it permissible to eat a morally appropriate breakfast. And maybe some moral permissibility facts permit something negative where the permissibility derives from the impermissibility of the opposed positive action: it is permissible to refrain from murder.

But a non-gerrymandered, logically non-trivial permission of a positive action is always something contingent fact (assuming it is a fact), and depends on empirical knowledge of the world or revelation. It is never a priori. The reason is simple. For any non-gerrymandered, logically non-trivially permission claim about a positive action A, we can find a logically possible situation in which A has some horrible consequences down the road, consequences so horrible as to make A impermissible (I am not here assuming consequentialism—even the anti-consequentialist has to allow that an action can become impermissible due to its having disproportionately bad non-intended consequences) such that we only know empirically or by revelation that these consequences do not obtain.

Therefore, while one can perhaps engage in purely armchair discernment of obligations, one cannot engage in purely armchair discernment of permissions (except in gerrymandered, logically trivial or negative cases). Data about the world around us is always needed, either obtained empirically or by revelation.

In particular, unless one's knowledge of a non-gerrymandered, non-trivial permission of a positive action comes from divine revelation, such knowledge suffers from the kind of defeasibility that all empirical knowledge suffers from. We're not going to be dealing in the self-evident when we make these permissibility claims.

This should lead to a certain epistemic modesty when making claims such as that eating meat or engaging in homosexual acts or lending at interest is permissible, unless one has apposite divine revelation (I think in the eating meat case, we do in fact have divine revelation that sometimes the eating of meat is permissible; but it does not follow that in our day, affluent Westerners who can get nutrition from other sources are permitted to eat meat).

Monday, March 30, 2009

Final version of Mark Murphy's letter to the APA

Mark Murphy has closed the comments period on his letter to the APA (which follows a petition and a counterpetition), and he is collecting signatures by email. The final version of his text, together with a link to email him a signature, is here.

I would like to quote from the final paragraph of his letter:

The APA is a diverse association marked by deep pluralism. Its members can rightly expect that the APA will respect the deep differences among them in judgments about how it is reasonable for individuals to live and for communities to organize themselves, and it is far from clear that the suggested change in course does respect those differences. It has been correctly claimed by some who argue for the change in policy that any such respect has its limits: the APA of course would not respect colleges the common life of which was built on racist norms. In our view the appeal to this argument highlights what is involved in excluding or marking as beyond the pale the job advertisements from these Christian colleges. There is no serious reasoned disagreement on racist norms; the APA can rightly feel free to speak on behalf of its members to condemn any such. What would be involved in changing the APA's policy with respect to these Christian colleges is that the APA would be taking an official stand, speaking on behalf of all of its members, on what are still matters of deep and reasoned controversy among them: whether so-called traditional marriage has any privileged normative status and whether sexual activity outside such marriage is morally suspect. For the APA to take such a stand would be a grave error and an injustice.

Deniers of qualia

Do deniers of qualia have qualia? Suppose I believe in qualia (I am not committed either way). If Martha is a denier of qualia, can I argue that Martha has qualia, just because I do? I can use an argument by analogy to argue that she has beliefs, thoughts, etc.: she behaves like I do who has beliefs, thoughts, etc., and has the same kind of brain structure as I do (the latter is kind of fishy, because we say this so confidently even without actually scanning Martha's head and my head). But what about qualia? I could say that she behaves like she has qualia. That's only going to be very plausible as an argument for qualia if qualia are causally efficacious, but I think that if there are qualia, they are causally efficacious. However, does she really behave like she has qualia? After all, unlike me (who, we are supposing, believes in qualia), when Martha has been aware of a red object, she denies that she has had a quale of red, and so on in other cases. Isn't that enough to sink the analogical argument?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Causally inefficacious qualia

The following question is probably very naive: If qualia are causally inefficacious, then how can I know that I experience any qualia, that I am not in fact a qualia-deprived semi-zombie who falsely believes himself to experience qualia? (I say "semi-zombie" because maybe one can be qualia-deprived and yet conscious in a qualia-free way. Maybe even folks who believe in qualia will say that when one is conscious of certain mathematical or moral or modal truths, there are no qualia.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mary's knowledge of red

Take Jackson's story: Mary is raised in a black and white setting, never experiencing red. She learns all there is to know about the physical constitution of the world. She leaves her black and white setting. She sees something red. She then comes to know something about the world which she didn't know before: she learns something about the experiences that other people have had. Hence the knowledge about the physical constitution of the world doesn't exhaust the possible knowledge about the world. Hence, the world is more than physical.

The standard objection to this is that this equivocates on "knowledge". Mary gains an ability, an ability to recognize and imagine red experience, say, after coming out of the black and white setting. Jackson has a rather nice answer to this, though. He supposes that Mary, after coming out of the room, toys with scepticism about other minds. But then she rejects the scepticism. In rejecting the scepticism, she does not gain any know-how. But she does gain the knowledge that others have that kind of experience, which she now has when she is looking at a tomato.

Here is a response to Jackson that has occurred to me. If Mary, before she saw red, really knew all there was about the physical world, she also knew that she will come out of her black and white setting, and that she will experience red. Before she has experience red, she can prospectively refer to that experience of red, the experience that she knows she will have (she can use "that" to ostend to that experience she will have). She also already knows that other people have had that experience. When she first sees red, she now "knows what that experience is like." But the only relevant fact in the vicinity, the fact that others have that experience, is a fact that she already knew. She now has a new way of pointing to "that experience" of hers: she can point to it introspectively, while before she could only point to it verbally ("dthat experience which I will have at t7 upon looking at a tomato"). When she toys with scepticism about other minds, she temporarily loses the belief that others have that experience, and then she regains that belief when she rejects the scepticism. So Jackson is right in thinking that Mary loses something that isn't just know-how through scepticism and regain it. But perhaps he is wrong that what Mary loses through scepticism is what she learned about the experiences of others when she saw red. What she learned by seeing red stays there—it's just a new ability to refer to an experience of hers. What she loses is a belief that doesn't bother a physicalist.

I don't know whether the response stands up. I think it depends on the synonymy relations between indexical sentences. If I stand near near x and say "This is a tetrahedron" and you stand far from x and say "That is a tetrahedron", have we said the same thing? (Or, better yet, we both say "This is a tetrahedron", but your "This" gains reference through your pointing with your eyes, and my "This" gains reference through my pointing with my nose (with me closed-eyedly smelling the tetrahedron).) If so, then I think the response to Jackson goes through—we just have two different ways of fixing an indexical. If not, then it needs more work. But even so, if the difference between what Mary knew before she saw red and after she saw red is like the difference between a "this" belief and a "that" belief about something, it might not be a difference that should bother a physicalist.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Knowledge that and knowledge how

Here is an argument for the generally accepted thesis that knowledge-how is different from knowledge-that. Knowledge-that comes has two poorer cousins, true-belief-that and justified-true-belief-that. Knowledge-how does not seem to have such cousins.

In fact, knowledge-how seems more akin to true belief or justified true belief than to knowledge-that. Actually, it is possible to have knowledge-how in an area where one only has true beliefs. Suppose Georgina has all the skills and true beliefs that an automotive mechanic needs to have, but has very little in the way of knowledge. In fact, she has acquired her true beliefs about automotive repair from a fake psychic who, in a series of drug induced trances, uttered lots and lots of noises that happened to sound just like a series of lecture on automotive repair. Furthermore, Georgina has never actually touched a car. However, completely by chance, lightning has induced in her brain all the structures and motor memories that an experienced car mechanic would have. I am inclined to say that Georgina knows how to fix cars. The evidence of know-how is reliable execution, and she can do that. Suppose Georgina fixes your car. One can still question whether she knew how to do it. But if she reliably fixes cars, and does so consciously, with the right beliefs about how to do it, then she knows how to fix cars, no matter what source she got her know-how from.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Phaedo equality argument

I've never quite got the Phaedo 75 "equality" argument. The point is made that whenever we have two equal things in the physical world, they are never simply equal, but are always only equal in some respect. From this we are supposed to infer that we do not get the concept of equality from the two things. Here are two readings that build arguments out of the text. Whether they're faithful to what Plato is saying is a different question.

Reading 1: Take two sticks. They are related in many respects. In one respect, they are equal. In another, they are not. Their may be equal length, but not in their width. Moreover, the length of the one is certainly not equal to the width of the other. (I include that remark in case one is tempted to say: "Why not just consider the same stick twice over, and then it'll surely be equal to itself?" But no, it, too, will only be equal to itself secundum quid—its length will be equal to its length, but not to its width, say.) The two sticks are related in all kinds of ways other than equality. Among these many relations that they stand in (such as inequality in width, difference in color, similarity in value, etc.), there is equality, in repect of length. To recognize the equality, in respect of length, among the many relations that they stand in, requires that we already have the concept of equality so that seeing it in the crowd of relations will pick it out from that crowd.

Objection: We can't do it just with two sticks, but if we have enough items, we can abstract equality from them. For it might be that a1 and b1 stand in a multitudinous set M1 of relations including equality, and a2 and b2 stand in a multitudinous set M2 of relations, and so on. But maybe the intersection of M1,M2,...,Mn contains only equality.

Response: There are so many relations that things stand in, that it is very unlikely that the intersection will be a mere singleton.

Objection: We can get to equality as long as we specify "in respect of length". So we do get the concept of equality from the sticks—"the relation in which their lengths stand to one another."

Response: First, the lengths of the sticks stand in infinitely many relations, equality being but one of those relations. (To give a non-Platonic example, the two lengths stand in the relation of being equal or the same color. Or the two lengths stand in the relation of being observed by the same observer.) So the problem reappears. Second, "length" must be defined in some respect—from which exact point on one end of the stick do we measure to which exact point on the other end do we measure? And, note, that almost surely we cannot really exactly specify points—the Cartesian coordinates are triples of real numbers, and almost no real numbers can be exactly specified (there are uncountably many real numbers, but only countably many can be exactly specified by us), so almost surely the ones here cannot be.

Reading 2: The two sticks are only equal in some respect R. But even the claim "the two sticks are equal in respect R" only holds in some further respect. And so on. Hence, we never get to equality itself. Concretely, let's start with: they are equal in respect of length. But that only holds in respect of one time—at some later time, one of the sticks will slightly oscillate and they won't be equal. So, they're equal in respect of length in respect of some time. But now, their length has one value in respect of one way of defining lengths, and another value in respect of another way of defining lengths. (There are probably little whiskers of wood fiber sticking out both ends. Do we measure them, or not? Which ones do we measure? Where in the atoms do we start measuring? And of course we have the uncertainty principles to contend with.) Moreover, in what way do we compare the lengths? Do we take a measuring stick to the one, and then to the other? But equality then only holds in respect of measuring sticks that don't change their lengths. And how do we define the measurement with the measuring sticks? Let's say they have tick marks. Where in the tick mark is the relevant point? It is not impossible that these questions go on ad infinitum. But even if they don't, they go further than we can answer them—and so we didn't get the concept of equality from the sticks.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


This post is based on a slight expansion of an analogy I once read in the New Oxford Review. Consider three cases:

  1. Fred throws seed on a normal, fertile field. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
  2. Fred throws seed on an infertile field. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
  3. Fred covers up his field with a giant plastic sheet. (Why? Maybe because the seed has some kind of parasite that he doesn't want to reach the ground, or maybe because he doesn't want the bother of having any plants come up.) Then he walks on the sheet, and throws seed on it. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
I think that in cases (1) and (2), Fred really is sowing the field. But not in case (3). Moreover, while one can symbolically participate in God's creative activity in sowing in an infertile field (think of how the Gospel also is sometimes appropriately preached to an audience who refuses to pay attention—the seed of the Gospel can fall on rocky ground), one does not do so by covering up the field with a giant plastic sheet and throwing seed on that (imagine covering up someone's ears, and then preaching the Gospel). The covering up of the field has an anti-creative symbolism. So the last bit of Fred's motivations in (3) in fact is mistaken.

In case (3), I think we would say that Fred is not sowing the field, though we might say that he is sowing the plastic. He is engaging in an activity different from that in (1) and (2). This is true whether we consider the symbolic theological meaning or not.

Suppose we do not see the difference between (3) and the first two cases. Then consider:

  1. Fred puts a garbage bag in the middle of the field. He then tosses the seed, one by one, into the garbage bag. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
But that's absurd. There is no symbolism of participating in God's creative activity—quite the opposite. And even if we do not consider the symbolism, it is clear that what Fred is doing in case (4) isn't sowing—it's throwing seed into a garbage bag. But (3) is not relevantly different from (4)—in (3), it's just as if the garbage bag were stretched flat over all of the field.

If this is right, then it is plausible that "sex with a condom" is not at all the same kind of activity as sexual intercourse. Just as in (3) and (4), the relevant kind of causal interaction between Fred and the soil was lacking, so in "sex with a condom" the relevant kind of causal interaction between the persons' reproductive systems is lacking.

This, of course, coheres well with the Catholic canonical view that intercourse with a condom fails to consummate a marriage. And if one adds the premise, accepted by the Christian tradition, that climactic sexual activity is only permissible in the context of intercourse, we get the conclusion that sex with a condom is not permissible, since it is a different kind of sexual activity (more like what the tradition calls "unnatural acts"). Moreover, this is true even in the case where the condom is used not for contraceptive purposes, but to prevent the transmission of disease (see my remarks in (3) on Fred's possible motivations).

Some remarks on Hume on miracles

1. Let's suppose for simplicity that miracles would violate of laws of nature. Consider then a "modernized" version of Hume's argument against miracles: The laws of nature have always been scientifically observed to hold. Whatever the merits of Hume's original argument, this version is really weak. It is, in fact, not uncommon for scientists to get data that does not fit what is predicted from the laws. When this data can be reproduced, it is taken seriously. But when the data cannot be reproduced, unless it is in some way spectacular, it will, I think, be dismissed as experimental error, an artifact of the particular experimental setup, etc. If only one scientist saw something on one occasion, and repeats do not show it, and no one else sees it, then it will not be taken seriously. The one scientist who saw the effect might investigate and try to find the source of the deviation, estimate to see whether the deviation falls within experimental error. But sooner or earlier, I think, the problem will be put aside, unless the data point was spectacular. However, miracles are not supposed to follow any rule—God is not a vending machine who produces a miracle when the right coins are put in. (God does answer prayers; however, he does not always answer them in the way expected; I think when we sincerely pray in Jesus' name, we will either get what we asked for, or we will get something as good or better.) So bringing science in does not help Hume's case.

2. Much of my knowledge of the sorts of regularities that miracles would go against is in fact through testimony. For instance, take the case that interests Hume most: the observation that dead people stay dead. I have never actually seen anyone die. I am sure Hume did. But unless one is a medical professional, a soldier or a witness to tragedy, one is unlikely to have seen very many people die. Moreover, one typically personally only observes a particular dead body for a fairly short time. Observe that once a body is buried, one no longer has direct observational data for the claim that the person stays dead. It could be, for all that one has directly observed, that the person came back to life, clawed at the coffin, and then asphyxiated again. Thus, one has very little direct observational data for the claim that dead people stay dead. But the bulk of our data for the claim that dead people stay dead comes from putting together the testimony of others.

Granted, we may have some indirect observational data. I have never seen graves opening when I visited a graveyard, nor have I driven by a funeral parlor and seen staff running out and screaming, with a formerly dead person walking out after them. However, in the case of most graves in a graveyard, it is through testimony that we know that there is someone in fact buried there. The indirect observational data depends on testimony, too, then.

Our knowledge of the regularity that dead people tend to stay dead depends largely on testimony. However, we only get the universal claim which Hume needs, the claim that all dead people always stay dead, when we dismiss some of the testimony available to us, namely the testimony for cases of resurrection. But it is no surprise that if we dismiss the testimony to the deviations from a regularity, what remains is testimony to the universality of the regularity.

3. In fact, miracle reports are very common, across many cultures. This should undercut one's confidence in any kind of Humean argument that miracles are apparent violations of universally holding regularities. For the sheer volume of miracle reports is strong evidence against the claim that the regularities always hold.

4. Hume himself thought that the ubiquity of miracle reports was evidence against their truth, because he thought that miracles should be confined to the true religion, and at most one of the religions could be true. However, I think we can now have a more ecumenical view of miracles. Moreover, I think we can distinguish between miracles that bear witness to a particular proposition and miracles that do not. A healing can simply be an act of divine love for the person healed and her friends/family, and there is no reason to deny that such miracles might hold quite universally.

But some miracles very clearly bear witness to a particular proposition. Thus, in the fifth century, apparently about sixty Catholics had their right hands and tongues cut out at the roots by an Arian heretic for espousing the doctrine of Nicaea. But these Catholics continued to speak, and presumably to preach the Nicaean doctrine. This seems to be a miracle that is a witness to a particular doctrine. Bishop Victor, writing two years after the alleged event, says:

If however any one will be incredulous, let him now go to Constantinople, and there he will find one of them, a sub-deacon, by name Reparatus, speaking like an educated man without any impediment. On which account he is regarded with exceeding veneration in the court of the Emperor Zeno, and especially by the Empress.
In the case of miracles that bear witness to a particular doctrine, when the doctrines conflict, one has a harder time making the ecumenical move. However, I do not know that there really are that many cases of reliable miracle reports that bear witness to incompatible doctrines. The case of the tongueless sub-deacon is very remarkable, and I do not know of any similar miracles reported on the part of the Arians. It is an interesting bit of religious history that at the time of the Protestant Reformation, one of the arguments adduced by the Catholic side was that claims as sweeping as those of the Reformers should be backed up by miracles—but none, the Catholic apologists alleged, were offered.

So Hume cannot dismiss ubiquitous miracle reports that are not tied to a particular doctrine. He could say something about mutual cancelation in the case of miracles that bear witness to a particular doctrine, but it is not clear that there is actually all that much in the way of reports of such miracles, of equal reliability, bearing witness to incompatible doctrines. And even if there were, it seems to me that the hypothesis that both reports are unreliable is less probable on its face than the hypothesis that only one of the reports is unreliable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Teaching logic

While teaching logic for the first time (I am teaching to graduate students, but I haven't taught any logic before), I've finally realized how much I like constructive proofs. I gave a completely constructive proof of weak propositional completeness, by giving a simple proof algorithm that underlies this perl prover program. Basically, you start by proving excluded middle for each atomic. Then you just do proof by cases on all possible combinations of truth values of atomics. This only works for a finite number of atomics, so it only gives weak completeness. But the proof method is entirely constructive, simple enough that one can use it oneself (e.g., I used it myself when proving one of the De Morgan directions in class). I am not claiming it's at all new—it's not—but I had fun rediscovering it.

Then, today or Thursday (depending on whether time allows), I'll give a semantic proof of propositional compactness in the case of countably many atomics. (I am sure this proof has a name attached to it, but it's easier to make up than to look up.) Again, it's going to be entirely constructive, and pretty simple. It just uses induction and the lemma that if A is f-satisfiable (i.e., every finite subset of A is satisfiable), and Q is an atomic, then either A plus Q is f-satisfiable, or A plus not-Q is f-satisfiable. As it stands, this only works for countably many atomics, but in fact it also works for any case where there is a well-ordering on the atomics (and hence by the Axiom of Choice, it extends to the general case; but it is kind of nice to note that once one fixes the well-ordering on the atomics, it's entirely constructive). I'm not a logician. None of this is at all new. But I'm having lots of fun, hopefully of an innocent variety.

But I have also made an interesting sociological discovery: Students find set theory harder than first order logic. They seem to think of set theory as more abstract and strange. This was really weird to me at first, but that's just because I've been using sets for the larger part of my life, and only got to rigorous first order logic recently. Next time I teach the material, I will have to move more slowly through the beginning of set theory to make it clear that "member of" is not transitive but "subset of" is, that {{1,2,3}} has only one member, and so on. (Why, oh why, don't they teach computer programming starting with Grade 2 in all schools, so one could suppose familiarity with various kinds of abstract data structures by the time of college, which would allow for a nice stock of common concepts? It's a more useful intellectual and practical skill than, say, cursive handwriting.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Inspiration and inerrance

Some people prefer to talk of divine inspiration of Scripture instead of Scriptural inerrance, because they think this way they can avoid affirming inerrance and hence being subject to the apparent counterexamples to inerrance. However, I think the right concept of divine inspiration will make God a full author of the text (so is the human author, of course; I am not here addressing the interaction of the two authorships). Sometimes it happens to an author that the text asserts something that the author did not assert. I doubt this can happen in the case of an omniscient and omnipotent author. If it cannot, then anything that the text asserts is asserted by God. Moreover, it seems central to Christianity and Judaism that God does not lie. Hence, the text only asserts propositions that God believes to be true. But the only propositions that God believes to be true are propositions that in fact are true. Hence, anything the Biblical text asserts is true. If we add some plausible counterfactual robustness to this story (a hard question exactly how to do this—cf. this post), we get inerrance. So inspiration, understood the way I want to understand it, entails inerrance.

I don't mean for the above argument that inspiration entails inerrance (which is basically an expansion of the enthymematic argument for inerrance in Vatican II's Dei Verbum, section 11) to convince those who don't believe inerrance. Rather, I am here interested in a different point. Even if we believe in inerrance, as indeed the Christian Tradition does, nonetheless we have at least two good reasons to focus on inspiration as the basic concept.

First, if we can argue from inspiration to inerrance, but not from inerrance to inspiration, then inspiration is likely to be the more basic concept. If something like the strategy in the first paragraph of this post goes through, we can argue from inspiration to inerrance. But we cannot argue in the opposite direction. Inerrance is a negative doctrine, namely that a text does not contain any false assertions, plus a bit of counterfactual robustness. Such a doctrine could be made true by all kinds of positive realities, of which inspiration is only one. For instance, an uninspired text would be inerrant if, say, God resolves to paralyze the person at the first sign of writing a false. For a more extreme case, God could make a text be inerrant simply by resolving to preventing the human author of the text from setting down any assertions (thus, the text might contain questions, commands, nonsensical rhymes, etc.)

Second, inspiration is a doctrine about all of Scripture. Inerrance is only a doctrine about the truth of assertions in Scripture. An assertion can be true, and intentionally both deeply misleading and spiritually harmful. And there are important portions of Scripture, of varying length, where the main business is is not the making of assertions—but the offering of prayers (especially in the Psalms), the making of commands, the giving of advice ("Go to the ant, O sluggard, and consider her ways, and learn wisdom" is not an assertion), and so on. Inerrance says nothing about those portions. Inspiration does.

Presumably, there is some analogue to inerrance in the case of those portions of Scripture (perhaps, the analogue to inerrance in the giving of proverbial advice is that the advice is helpful when appropriately applied by a phronimos). But these are analogues to inerrance, not inerrance itself, and it is to the doctrine of inspiration that we turn to find out what these analogues would be.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Computers and questions

Consider the following BASIC computer program:

input a
input b
print a+b
I run the program, and it pauses for input. I press "5" and "enter". Then it pauses for input again. I press "7" and "enter". It then displays "12".

Intuitively, the computer has answered the question: "What is 5+7?" But that's projection. From the marks on the screen and one's memory of the input, one can deduce that 5+7=12. But the computer program can be interpreted in a variety of ways. We could, for instance, take the program to answer a different question, the question of what an inscription of the decimal number equal to 5+7 looks like. In this case, the program's answer shouldn't be interpreted as a number, but as a numeral. Or we could take the program to answer the question of what the result of converting 5 and 7 (or maybe the ASCII codes 53 and 55) to binary, then adding the results together, and then converting back to decimal would be. And so on. There is an infinity of questions we could take this program to be answering.

All of these questions are different, and which one we take the computer to be answering is completely up to us. For, in fact, it is not the case that the computer is answering a question. Rather, we are using the computer to find an answer to some question or other, and there is an infinite number of questions we could be using the program to find an answer to. (We could be using the program to find an answer to the question whether the "enter" key works or not!)

It seems very implausible to suppose that there is any way of adding complexity to this program in such a way that it will become determinate which question the program is answering. Therefore computers simply cannot answer determinate questions.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Deep Thoughts XX

There is something to be said for an irrefutable theory: It can't be refuted.

[This isn't quite a tautology, because "There is something to be said for" has a valuative component that does not tautologously follow from irrefutability. Anyway, I am always amused when I see the move made against Intelligent Design in public debate: "It's irrefutable. And besides, the evidence is against it." It seems to be like the case of the man who complained that the food was revolting and the portions too small. (I am assuming that "refutable" means something weaker than "can be apodeictically disproved", since coherent scientific theories tend not to meet that standard of refutability.)]

Friday, March 20, 2009

Identity theory of mind

Here is a quick, and no doubt well-known, argument that mental states are not token-token identical with brain states. The argument makes assumptions I reject, but they are assumptions that, I think, will be plausible to a materialist. The idea is this. It is possible to transfer my mind into a computer, while preserving at least some of my memories, and with my brain being totally destroyed in the process (I reject this myself, but I think the materialist should accept Strong AI, and her best bet for a theory of personal identity is some version of the memory theory, which should allow this). Were such a transfer to be made, then I would have some of the numerically same token mental states (e.g., a memory of a particular embarassing episode) as I do now. But if these mental state tokens are now identical with brain state tokens, then it follows that it is possible that some of my brain states can survive the destruction of my brain, without any miracle, just by means of technological manipulation. But no brain state token of the sort that is correlated with memories[note 1], can survive the destruction of the brain, perhaps barring a miracle.[note 2] Hence, the mental states are not identical with brain states.

Of course, one might try a four-dimensionalist solution, supposing some temporally extended entity that coincides with the brain state prior to the destruction of the brain and with the electronic state after the destruction of the brain. But that won't save identity theory—it will only yield the claim that the mental state is spatiotemporally coincident with a brain state, or constituted by the brain state, vel caetera.

Maybe, though, what the identity theorist needs to do is to disambiguate the notion of a "brain state". In one sense, a brain state is the state of the brain's being a certain way. Call that an "intrinsic brain state" (note: it may be somewhat relational—I am not worried about that issue). If identity theory is understood in this way, the above argument against the identity theory works (assuming materialism, etc.) But a different sense of "brain state" is: a state of the world which, right now, as a matter of fact obtains in virtue of how a brain is.

Thus, consider the following state S: Alex's brain being gray, or there being a war in France. State S now obtains in virtue of how my brain is. But state S obtained in 1940 in the absence of my brain, since I did not exist then; instead, it obtained in virtue of there being a war in France. The state S is now a brain state, though earlier it wasn't. Call such a thing a "jumpy brain state": it can jump in and out of heads.

The identity theorist who accepts the possibility of mind transfer had better not claim that mental state tokens are identical with intrinsic brain state tokens but rather must hold that they are identical with jumpy brain state tokens. Put that way, the identity theory is much tamer than one might have thought. In fact, it is not clear that it says anything beyond the claim that the present truthmakers for mental state attributions are brain states.

Also, consider this. Presumably, for any jumpy brain state S, there is an intrinsic brain state S*, which right now coincides with S, and which is such that S obtains in virtue of S*. Thus, corresponding to the jumpy state Alex's brain being gray, or there being a war in France, there is the intrinsic brain state Alex's brain being gray. There is now a sense in which our identity theory is not faithful to its founding intuition that mental states are the states that neuroscience studies. For neuroscience certainly does not study jumpy brain states (neuroscience as such is not about wars in France, or information on hard drives). Rather, neuroscience studies intrinsic brain states. The identity theorist's mental state is identical with some jumpy brain state S, but it is S* that neuroscience studies.

And so there is a sense in which the identity theory is a cheat, unless it is supplemented with a non-psychological theory of personal identity that bans mind transfer between brains and computers. But the latter supplementation will, I think, also ban AI, since if computers can be intelligent, minds can be transfered between computers (think of a networked computation—the data can move around the network freely), and it would be weird if they could be transfered between computers but not from a brain to an appropriately programmed computer. Moreover, once one bans AI, one has made a claim that intelligence requires a particular kind of physical substrate. And then it becomes difficult to justify the intuition that aliens with completely different biochemical constitution (even an electronic one—cf. the aliens in Retief's War) could have minds.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Deep Thoughts XIX

No matter how much we strain our eyes, we will not see the invisible.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Penal substitution

The penal substitution theory consists of two claims:

  1. Christ's sufferings are a substitute for our justly deserved punishment.
  2. Christ's sufferings are a punishment of Christ.
Here is something that to me is interesting. Claims (1) and (2) appear to be logically independent. It is possible to hold (2) without holding (1), though this would be a rather pointless theory. It is also possible to hold (1) without holding (2).

The gravest objection—the inappropriateness of Christ's being punished—to the penal substitution theory is an objection not to (1) but to (2). At the same time, the Biblical evidence for the penal substitution theory is largely evidence only for (1), not for (2). Consequently, it seems like one would do well to simply adopt (1), while rejecting (2). The resulting theory would be a theory of Christ's substitutionary sacrifice, but it would be penal only on our side, not on Christ's side. (This idea is inspired by a paper Adam Pelser gave at the SCP meeting in Niagara last year; Pelser was advocating a particular theory that entailed (1) without committing him to (2).)

I am not claiming that holding on to (1) while rejecting (2) solves all the problems of the atonement. The major difficulty of just how (1) manages to be true—just how Christ's sufferings manage to substitute for our punishment—remains.

I think (1) is plausible in some cases. Suppose I raped Captain Smith and tortured him to within inches of his life while I was working for a terrorist organization that captured Captain Smith. Later, Captain Smith jumped on a grenade to save my life, yelling that he forgave me what I did to him. Even if the death penalty were appropriate for my rape and torture of Captain Smith (I think rape and torture deserve the death penalty, though I also think we have a duty of mercy which prohibits us from employing the death penalty unless it is necessary for the protection of society), if I've accepted Captain Smith's forgiveness (and thus repented—it's not a real acceptance of forgiveness otherwise, I think), I think there would be something inappropriate about executing me for what I did to Captain Smith—there is a way in which his suffering death on my behalf substitutes for the punishment owing me. (This does not solve all of the problems with the atonement. One of the difficulties is with the way Christ's sufferings atones for sins we committed not just against God—there, I think we need to say something about how all sins are primarily against God. But it is enough to show that (1) is not in and of itself absurd.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Early embryos

It is often argued that the early (pre-implantation, human) embryo does not have a right to life because it is capable of twinning. The question is important, because if such an embryo does have a right to life, then embryo-destructive research (such as stem cell extraction) at this stage is wrong, and forms of birth control that can prevent implantation (e.g., the IUD, and perhaps hormonal contraception) are problematic.

I am going to try to reconstruct the best argument for this position, and then shoot it down. As an initial attempt, consider this:

  1. Early embryos can split in two.
  2. Something that can split in two lacks a definite identity.
  3. Something that lacks a definite identity lacks a right to life.
  4. Therefore, early embryos lack a right to life.

This argument is unsound. Each of us can split in two, for instance if we find ourselves victims of the guillotine. Yet we have a definite identity. So (2) is false. (It wouldn't help to add "naturally" to "split in two". First, we don't know that the embryo's splitting is "natural"—it might be an accident of some sort. Second, we can easily imagine critters that have a definite identity, but die by breaking up into two pieces.)

To fix the argument, we need to improve on premise (1) by saying something more about how early embryos can split in two. They do simply split in two: they twin. One way to formulate this is by saying that an embryo can split into two "entities" (I will use the term "entity" very widely, to include non-substances, heaps, etc.) of the same kind as it. But that won't be enough. For suppose that George is a member of a species that reproduces by growing a new member of the species as a bud on the shoulder. Then George can twin, but the ability to bud in this way is no threat to his definite identity or his right to life (if it's a species of persons). The issue, rather, seems to be with symmetric splitting.

So now our first premise is:

  1. Early embryos can symmetrically split into two entities of the same kind as themselves.
This premise, however, is ambiguous. To see that, consider the following argument: "Human beings can lactate; only female mammals can lactate; therefore, human beings are female mammals." The issue is that phrases like "Human beings can" and "Early embryos can" are ambiguous between a "some" and an "all" reading. Let's first try the "some" reading. Then the claim is that some early embryos have a capability for the right kind of symmetric splitting. But then the rest of the argument only leads to the conclusion that those early embryos that have a capability for splitting lack a definite identity and hence lack a right to life. One might try to paper over the difficulty by strengthening (2) to:
  1. Anything of the same kind as an entity that can symmetrically split into two entities of the same kind lacks a definite identity
and adding the auxiliary premise:
  1. All early embryos are of the same kind.
However, it is not clear what argument can be given for (7) if one thinks that the capability for splitting is of such great importance as the defender of this argument thinks. So I think this is a non-starter.

Thus, the quantification in our initial premise needs to be over all early embryos. Or, maybe, all "normal" early embryos, allowing for the possibility that some early embryos might suffer from a splitting-disability. The argument now is:

  1. Every normal early embryo can symmetrically split into two entities of the same kind as itself.
  2. Something that can split into two entities of the same kind as itself lacks a definite identity.
  3. Something that lacks a definite identity lacks a right to life.
  4. Therefore, a normal early embryo lacks a right to life.

Indeed, (11) follows logically from (8)-(10). So the question is whether (8)-(10) are true.

Now, a glaring problem is that we do not at present know (8) to be true. There are two parts of this problem. The first part is that, last time I checked, we did not actually know that embryonic splitting is in fact symmetric. If it turns out that embryonic splitting proceeds by budding, the argument falls flat. Thus, the argument rests on an empirical hypothesis which is merely speculative. This is a problem: obviously, if the case for the lack of a right to life on the part of some organism is based on a merely speculative hypothesis, we should treat the organism as if it had a right to life until that speculative hypothesis is checked.

The second part of the problem with (8) is that we do not in fact know that all normal early embryos have the capability for splitting. The alternative view is that only some early embryos have a special characteristic in virtue of which they are capable of splitting (and there is no particular reason to think that this subclass of early embryos exhausts all the normal ones). As far as I know, we do not at present have enough empirical information to decide this issue. So, once again, (8) is up in the air empirically, and if this is what the case against the right to life of an early embryo is based on, we should treat the early embryo as if it had a right to life.

One might think that (8) could be defended by saying that even if naturally splitting isn't symmetric, or if only some early embryos can naturally split, still all early embryos could be surgically split. Maybe. But then (9) must be understood in a way that includes artificial splitting as well. And I think (9) understood in this way, conjoined with (10), is implausible. For it seems likely that one day it will be possible to destroy all of your body outside of your brain, so that you would be reduced to a functioning brain in a vat. If you were thus reduced to a functioning brain in a vat (say, as a radical treatment for an otherwise untreatable cancer—a rest-of-body amputation), you would surely still have a right to life. But a brain in a vat could, probably, be artificially split into two hemispheres in their own separate vats. And the split versions would seem to be the same kind of entity at the original, namely persons. So this would be a symmetric splitting of a person into two persons. But the mere possibility of such splitting surely neither threatens your identity nor removes your right to life, whether it is remote (as it is now, when you are not yet a brain in a vat) or near (as it would be were you to have the misfortune of being a brain in a vat).

So if (8) is understood to be only about natural splitting, our empirical knowledge does not give us (8). And if (8) is understood to be about artificial splitting, we should deny the conjunction of (9) and (10) under the appropriate interpretation of (9).

But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that in fact (8) is true, and even true as regards natural splitting. Why should we believe (9)? It is tempting to say something like this:

  1. If x symmetrically splits into y and z which are of the same kind as x, then either: (a) x=y and not x=z; or (b) x=z and not x=y; or (c) x=y=z; or (d) x ceases to exist and y and z are new entities; or (e) x lacks a definite identity.
  2. Options (a)-(d) are absurd.
  3. Therefore, x lacks a definite identity.
But there are several problems with this form of argument. First of all, there is a serious technical problem. The argument as it stands only shows that those early embryos that in fact are going to split are lacking in a definite identity. But that is only a very small minority of early embryos, and so the argument at most establishes that some very small minority of early embryos lacks a right to life. To get around this, one needs to add something like the following premise:
  1. If x is capable of doing something such that, were it to do it, it would lack a definite identity, then x lacks a definite identity.
Now (with a bit of modal work) we can probably show that (9) follows from (15) and a version of the subargument (12)-(14).

But is (15) plausible? Suppose I am able to split my brain in half, through programming a robot to do it, or maybe through a feat of auto-neurosurgery. Perhaps a split brain patient lacks a definite identity. But even if it were true that a split brain patient lacks a definite identity, it would not follow that my capability of turning myself into a split brain patient makes me already lack a definite identity. So I think (15) is very much problematic.

Moreover, I reject (13). First of all, if dualism is true, then the kind of symmetry we are dealing with is only physical symmetry. It is quite possible that the physical facts are symmetric but the facts about the soul are asymmetric. Thus, (a) or (b) might be true. There might be some law specifying which of y and z gets x's soul, either in terms of some minor asymmetry (nobody thinks the asymmetry is total, with each half having the exact same number of molecules, in exactly the same positions) or stochastically (maybe it's random where the soul goes), with the other output entity getting a new soul. Or it might be that God decides where x's soul goes. So if dualism is true, (a) and (b) are not absurd.

Moreover, whether or not dualism is true, (d) is not absurd. It seems very plausible that this is the right thing to say about an amoeba's splitting: the old amoeba perishes in the act of reproducing into two new ones. If I cut a sculpture in half, symmetrically, I have very plausibly made two new sculptures out of the one old one, which perished in the cutting. And, of course, the fact that something has a capability of perishing does not imply it lacks a definite identity, since all the non-human organisms on earth have a capability of perishing.

In fact, the case of the amoeba shows directly that we should deny (9). An amoeba has the capability of splitting into two amoebae. But surely it exhibits a perfectly definite identity at least when it is not actually splitting. If the amoeba in my microscope slide hadn't split over the last 12 hours, and hasn't yet started splitting, then I now have the same amoeba I had 12 hours ago. That seems perfectly definite.

Moreover, it would be very surprising if there couldn't be intelligent aliens who reproduce like amoebae. And if there were such aliens, they would be a counterexample to the conjunction of (9) and (10): for they would be capable of symmetric splitting, but would, nonetheless, have a right to life.

Perhaps, though, the conclusion of the argument should be more modest. Instead of concluding that normal early embryos lack a right to life, maybe the argument should only conclude something like this: Don Marquis' argument against abortion does not apply to normal early embryos. For, Don Marquis' argument requires an identity between an embryo or fetus and an adult, so that killing the embryo or fetus is depriving it of a future like ours. I am not sure Marquis actually requires identity here (what he says about sperms and eggs suggests that he is talking of a relation weaker than identity). But nevermind—suppose he requires identity. Then one might argue that if the early embryo is capable of splitting in the near future, then it is not identical with a future adult. More precisely:

  1. If x is capable of symmetrically splitting into two entities of the same kind in the near future, then x is not identical with any far-future entity.
But I think (16) is clearly false. If x in fact is going to symmetrically split in the near future, then maybe x is not identical with any far-future entity (but see my discussion of (12a) and (12b), above). But the mere capability of such splitting is surely irrelevant. Imagine Fred, an amoeba-like critter that every day, at noon, has a 2% chance of splitting symmetrically. Suppose that Fred in fact hasn't split during the past week (quite likely). Then Fred is the very same entity that he was a week ago. If he were to have split, we would perhaps be uncertain as to what we should say about his identity. But if he hasn't split, surely we should say that we have been dealing all along with the same entity. The mere possibility of symmetric splitting is not a threat to diachronic identity.

Monday, March 16, 2009

More on evolutionary theories of mind

According to evolutionary theories of mind, that we have evolved under certain selective pressures not only causally explains our mental functioning, but in fact is essential to that very functioning. Thus, if an exact duplicate of one of us came into existence at random, with no selection, it would not have a mind. The reason is that components of minds have to have proper functions, and proper functions in us are to be analyzed through natural selection.

Of course, there could be critters whose proper function is to be analyzed in terms of artificial selection, or even in terms of design by an agent. But as it happens, we are not critters like that, says the evolutionary theorist of mind. Nonetheless, it is important that the account of proper function be sufficiently flexible that artificial selection would also be able to give rise to proper function (after all, how would one draw the line between artificial and natural selection, when artificial selectors—say, human breeders—are apt themselves to be a part of nature?). Moreover, typically, the evolutionary analysis of proper function is made flexible enough that agential design gives rise to proper function as well. The basic idea—which is more sophisticated in the newer accounts to avoid counterexample—is that it is a proper function of x to do A if and only if x-type entities tend to do A and x-type entities now exist in part because of having or having had this tendency. Thus, a horse's leg has running fast as one of its proper functions, because horse's legs do tend to run fast, and now exist in part because of having had this tendency. A guided missile has hitting the target as a proper function, because it tends to do that, and guided missiles exist in part because of having this tendency (if they didn't have this tendency, we wouldn't have made them).

Whatever the merits of these kinds of accounts of proper function, I think it is easy to see that such an account will not be satisfactory for philosophy of mind purposes. To see this, consider the following evolutionary scenario (a variant on one that the ancient atomists posited). Let w0 be the actual world. Now consider a world w1, where at at t0 there is one super-powerful alien agent, Patricia, and she has evolved in some way that will not concern us. Suddenly, at t0, a rich infinite variety of full-formed organisms comes into existence, completely at random, scattered throughout an infinity of planets. There are beings like dogheaded men, and beings like mammoths, and beings like modern humans, behaving just like normal humans. On the evolutionary theorist's view, these are all zombies. A minute later, at t1, Patricia instantaneously kills off all the organisms that don't match her selective criteria. Her selective criteria in w1 happen to be exactly the same ones that natural selection implemented in w0 by the year 2009. Poof, go the mammoth-like beings in w1, since natural selection killed them off by 2009 in w0. However, humanoids remain.

At t1, the survivors in w1 have proper functions according to the evolutionary theorist. Moreover, they have the exact same proper functions as their analogues in w0 do, since they were selected for on the basis of exactly the same selective principle. This was a case of artificial selection, granted, but still selection.

But it is absurd that a bunch of zombies would instantaneously become conscious simply because somebody killed off a whole bunch of other zombies. So the evolutionary account of proper function, as applied to the philosophy of mind, is absurd.

Maybe our evolutionary theorist will say: Well, they don't get proper functions immediately. Only the next generation gets them. Selection requires a generation to pass. However, she can only say this if she is willing to say that agency does not give rise to proper function. After all, agency may very well work by generating a lot of items, and then culling the ones that the agent does not want. Pace Plantinga, I do not think it is an absurd thing to say that agency does not give rise to proper function, but historically a lot of evolutionary accounts of proper function were crafted so as to allow for design-based proper functions. Moreover, it would seem absurd to suppose that a robot we directly made couldn't be intelligent at all but its immediate descendant could be.

I think the above shows that we shouldn't take agential design to generate proper function (at least not normally; maybe a supernatural agent could produce teleological facts, but that would be by doing something more than just designing in the way an engineer does), at least not if we want proper function to do something philosophically important for us. Nor do I think should we take evolution to generate proper function (my earlier post on this is particularly relevant here). Unless we are Aristotelians—taking proper function not to be reducible to non-teleological facts—we have no right to proper function. And thus if the philosophy of mind requires proper function, it requires Aristotelian metaphysics.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Evolutionary theories of mind

An evolutionary theory of mind is not just a theory that minds have in fact evolved. Rather, it is a theory that it is essential to mindedness that one be the product of selection (natural or artificial). For instance, one may be an evolutionary theorist of mind because one thinks that intentionality must be understood in evolutionary terms, or because one is a functionalist and thinks that the notion of "proper function" that functionalism needs must be grounded in selective facts, or because one thinks that mental states have normative conditions (e.g., "neural state n is a believing that p only if it is the case that n should occur only if p"). An evolutionary theorist of mind is already willing to bite quite a bullet. Take Davidson's swampman: lightning strikes a swamp, and an exact physical duplicate of Davidson by chance comes out. Since there was no selection, the swampman is not a person, though he is exactly like Davidson physically. Of course if one were a dualist, one wouldn't be surprised by this, since the swampman could differ from Davidson in respect of soul, but the evolutionary theorist of mind doesn't believe in souls. The evolutionary theorist of mind is willing to bite the bullet on the swampman.

Here is an argument against evolutionary theories of mind. As it stands it is an argument against theories on which selection is metaphysically necessary for mindedness, though one might be able to do more with the argument. Moreover, the argument may well apply to other evolutionary analyses of concepts.

The argument is a reductio. Start with the following two theses:

  1. (Evolutionary theory of mind.) If none of the physical entities existing in a spacetime region U are the products of selection, there are no physical minds in U.
  2. (Almost global supervenience of physical minds.) Suppose worlds w1 and w2 are exact physical duplicates, except in an impotent region R of spacetime. Then w1 contains a physical mind outside of R if and only if w2 contains a physical mind outside of R.
Here, a "physical mind" is a mind entirely constituted or implemented by a purely physical system. A region R of spacetime is "impotent" provided that no event or substance in R can affect anything outside R.

Now for our clever construction. Imagine a world w1 which contains a planet much like earth, where history looks pretty much like it looks on earth, and which also contains a Great Grazing Ground (GGG), which is an infinite (we only need: potentially infinite) impotent region. Moreover, by a strange law of nature, or maybe the activity of some swampaliens, whenever an organism on earth is about to die, it gets hyperspatially and instantaneously transported to the GGG, and a fake corpse, which is an exact duplicate of what its real corpse would have been, gets instantaneously put in its place on earth. (I will call it "earth" for convenience but I shan't worry about its numerical identity with our world's earth.) Furthermore, there is no life or intelligence outside of earth and the GGG. Moreover, the organism dies as soon as it arrives in the GGG.

Our world's earth has minds, and the earth in w1 has a history that is just about the same. The only difference is that all the deaths of organisms occur not on earth but in the GGG, because they get transported there before death. But this does not affect any selective facts. Thus, the evolutionary theorist of mind should say that the situation in w1's earth is similar enough to that on our earth that we should say that w1's earth contains minds.[note 1]

The hard work is now done. For imagine a world that is exactly like w1 outside of the GGG, but inside the GGG, immortal and ever-reproducing aliens rescue each organism on arrival, fixing it so it doesn't die, and even make the organism capable of reproduction again. Furthermore, they do the same for the organism's descendants in the GGG. The GGG is a place of infinite (at least potentially) resources, with everybody having immortality and reproduction, with the aliens shifting organisms further and further out to ensure their survival.

Now in w2, there is no selection: Nobody ever dies or ceases to reproduce.[note 2] Thus, by (1), there are no physical minds outside the GGG in w2—all the earthly critters are zombies. But by (2) there are physical minds outside the GGG in w2, because w2 is an exact duplicate of w1 outside of the GGG. Hence we have absurdity.

Suppose our evolutionary theorist of mind denies (2). Then we have the following absurdity: It is up to the aliens in the GGG to determine whether or not there are physical minds outside the GGG, by deciding whether to rescue the almost dead organisms that pop into the GGG. But how can beings in an impotent region bring about that there are, or are not, physical minds outside that region? That would be worse than magic (magic is presumably causal).

Furthermore, while the numerical identities of the organisms on earth in w1 and w2 might depend on their history, they surely do not depend on what happens in the GGG, since the GGG is impotent. So we may actually suppose that the earthly organisms are numerically the same between w1 and w2. Thus, outside the GGG, w1 and w2 are exactly the same physically, and have exactly the organisms, but some of these very same organisms (say, Fred or Martha) have physical minds in w1 and do not have physical minds in w2.

This is truly absurd. Hence, evolutionary theories of mind should be rejected.[note 3]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Let's have good clean sophistical fun. Consider the sentences:

  1. He can not come to the phone right now.
  2. He cannot come to the phone right now.
They obviously mean something else. If he is both free to come and to not come, then (1) is true, and (2) is false. (Oftentimes, of course, (1) is a misspelled version of (2). That's annoying. I once came across this misspelling in Kant. I couldn't make sense of the "can not" claim. I had to go back to the German—even though I didn't know German—and then it became obvious there was just a typo in the translation.) Therefore:
  1. Claims (1) and (2) are different.
  1. Two things that differ by nothing are the same.
  2. Claims (1) and (2) differ by a space.
  3. A space is nothing.
  4. Therefore, claims (1) and (2) are the same and different.
  5. Therefore, the sky is green. (By Explosion)

(The lesson, of course, is that one shouldn't identify symbols with physical objects, though some symbols are implemented by a kind of physical object.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Causal theories of mind

Suppose we have a causal theory of mind, like Lewis's. In this theory, states get their nature from the way they tend to causally interact. Now, suppose that Black, our faithful neurosurgeon with his neuroscope, observes Freddy's brain for all of Freddy's life. Moreover, Black has a script for how every neural event in Freddy's life is to go. As soon as there is a deviation from the script, Black blows up Freddy. Now, all of the counterfactuals about Freddy's neural states are destroyed. For instance, assuming it's not in Black's script that Freddy ever is visually aware of a giraffe, then instead of having the counterfactual: "Were a giraffe in Freddy's field of vision, Freddy would likely form such-and-such a belief", we have the counterfactual: "Were a giraffe in Freddy's field of vision, Freddy would explode." But suppose that all goes according to script. Then the neurosurgeon doesn't interfere, and so Freddy thinks like everybody else—despite all the counterfactuals being all wrong. If the causal theory is defined by counterfactuals about the mental states, this refutes the causal theory.

OK, that was too quick. Maybe the idea is to look at the counterfactuals that would hold of Freddy in a "normal environment" to define the states. But that won't do. Consider the mental state of seeing that things aren't normal. We can't define that simply in terms of normal environments I bet. Moreover, even supposing we can somehow abstract Freddy from his environment, we could make Black be a part of Freddy. How? Well, make Black be a little robot. Then give this robot one more function: it is also a very reliable artificial heart. Then implant the robot in Freddy's chest in place of his heart. It no longer makes sense to ask how Freddy would act in the absence of Black, since in the absence of Black—who is now Freddy's artificial heart—Freddy would be dead.

Maybe you think that Freddy is just a brain, so the heart is just part of the environment. Fine. Take some part of the brain that is important only for supplying nutrition to the rest of the brain, but that is computationally irrelevant. Replace it by Black (a robot that fulfills the functions of that part, but that would blow up Freddy were Freddy to depart from the script). And again we've got a problem.

We can perhaps even put Black more intimately inside Freddy. We could make Black be a mental process of Freddy's that monitors adherence to the script.

So the causal theory requires a counterfactual-free account of causal roles. The only option I see is an Aristotelian one. So the prospects for a causal theory of mind that uses only the ingredients of post-Aristotelian science are slim.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Using body parts and other natural human systems

While I'm inclined to agree that

  1. it's wrong to use a natural human system (body part, aspect of the soul, naturally grounded activity, etc.) contrary to one of its natural purposes,
I am less sure about the stronger thesis that
  1. it's wrong to use a natural human system in a way that isn't contrary to any of its natural purposes, but is also not in accord with any of its natural purposes.

I've been thinking about (2) today, and thought of an argument in favor of it. The human person is a closely unified whole (I actually do not think the human person has any actual proper parts). To use a part is to use the whole in respect of that system. Likewise, the telos of the system is a telos of the whole in respect of that system. Thus, to use one's system in a way that is not in accord with any telos that it has is to use oneself as a mere means, unless somehow one can create a new telos for one's own natural systems. Therefore if we keep the Kantian thesis that we shouldn't use ourselves as mere means, and supplement it with the metaphysical thesis that we cannot create a new telos for a natural system (this thesis seems anti-Kantian in spirit, but I think the historical Kant might well be friendly to it, given the Natural Law components in his ethics—say, his discussion of euthanasia or the solitary vice), we have an argument for (2). This would be a Kantian theory with a significant injection of Natural Law. Perhaps this kind of injection of Natural Law also helps with the problem of Kantianism being too formal to apply to concrete situations.

I wonder if (2) could be defended in the case of non-human natural systems. On the face of it, not: after all, it's perfectly acceptable to ride a horse, and carrying a burden doesn't seem to be a natural telos of its back. But I am inclined to think that it may be a telos of every non-human living creature on earth to serve human beings (maybe with some proportionality constraint built in). That may be why we may kill and eat at least some of them (it's uncontroversial that we may kill and eat edible plants and fungi). If this is right, then if one uses an animal for a purpose that is not a good, say by riding out on a horse to an unjust war, one not only does wrong by pursuing something that isn't a good, but one also does wrong by misusing the animal.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A method of prayer

I just got a letter from my Aquinas teacher. It ends with a postscript that, I think, he will not mind my quoting:

A method of prayer: Meditate on a mystery of religion so as to be penetrated with the knowledge that God loves us. Then remain in His presence.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Mark Murphy's Letter to the APA

First we had the petition, then the counterpetition. Now Mark Murphy, of Georgetown University, has drafted a sedate and carefully argued draft letter to the APA, also opposing the original petition. Murphy is asking for comments and criticisms by March 31 by email (see the link at the bottom of his post), at which point he will freeze his draft and collect signatures. (I am not enabling comments on this announcement--comments should be directed directly to Mark Murphy.)

Two problems of multiple realizability for functionalists

Problem 1

Functionalism can best be seen as a response to the multiple realizability argument against physicalism: the same kinds of mental events can happen in carbon-based brains, silicon-based chips, plasma-based alien minds, etc., but if a belief that 2+2=4 is a particular configuration of neurons in a brain, then no critter without neurons could believe that 2+2=4. So the functionalist says that there is a functional isomorphism between states that all of these could have, and that's all that's needed for mental sameness. At the same time, the functionalist, unlike the behaviorist, is interested in lower-level functional states than just inputs and dispositions to outputs.

I am now thinking that functionalism is subject to a higher level multiple-realizability worry. Start with the intuition that the same computational results can be obtained through different, non-isomorphic algorithms (think of insertion sort and quick sort algorithms). Very plausibly, the same behavioristic states—relations between inputs and dispositions to outputs—can be obtained through different, non-isomorphic functional arrangements. Imagine, then, an alien being, a product of natural selection in a different environment from ours, that has a mind that is not functionally isomorphic to ourself, but where the alien is basically behavioristically isomorphic to us. Why wouldn't this be possible? (That question is not much of an argument, I know.) We would, I think, rightly assume that this being is in fact a person, and has beliefs, feelings, etc., despite the lack of functional isomorphism. But the functionalist must deny that such an alien would have beliefs, feelings, etc. since those kinds of states are defined by their functional connections, and the alien doesn't have those functional connections.

Epistemically, we seem to be behaviorists. Maybe this is only pragmatic—we don't want to mistreat someone who might turn out to be a person (this suggestion is due to Todd Buras). But suppose it's more than that. Then functionalism is in trouble, unless it can supply an argument that only systems that are (approximately?) functionally isomorphic to us could be (approximately?) behavioristically isomorphic to us.

The theistic dualist can do well here. Because of the great value in rational beings, there is good reason that God bestows souls on any natural kind of being whose behavior is sufficiently sophisticated to be compatible with a mental life.

Problem 2

Two states are functionally isomorphic provided that they give the same map between inputs and outputs. In particular, the states must be connected up with isomorphically corresponding modules. But it is very unlikely that a pain in a mouse and a pain in a human are functionally isomorphic. The pain in the human is probably connected into modules (such as higher level judgment modules) that have no corresponding modules in the mouse. Consequently, if functionalism holds, it is improbable that mice feel pain. The non-naturalist theist can get a nice disjunction out of this: Either functionalism is false (in which case, probably, some form of dualism is true, since I think that's the best alternative to functionalism), or else the problem of animal pain is not a problem at least in regard to less smart mammals.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Consider these statements:

  1. Polluted air is bad for a tree.
  2. Polluted air is bad for a ladybug.
  3. Polluted air is bad for a mouse.
  4. Polluted air is bad for a dog.
  5. Polluted air is bad for a human.
As far as I know, these are all true. Moreover, it does not appear to me that "bad for" is used equivocally in all the cases.

Furthermore, the reasons for the truth of the items higher on the list remain in the case of the items lower on the list, but new reasons are added. Thus, pollution harms the growth and survival of a mouse just as it does a tree. But the mouse can get sick and feel pain, while the tree cannot. Thus, there is an additional reason for why pollution is bad for a mouse that does not apply in the case of the tree. And a human being can have various higher level goals be frustrated by pollution. However, the reasons for why polluted air is bad for a tree, a ladybug, a mouse or a dog are all reasons for why it is bad for a human as well.

This has obvious implications for a theory of human well-being. Since the reasons for why (1) is true have nothing to do with actual or counterfactual desires of trees, likewise, at least one of the reasons for why (5) is true obtains least in part independently of any actual or counterfactual desires of humans. And this shows that desire-fulfillment theories of human well-being are false: some things, such as health, are valuable for humans regardless of how humans feel about them, for the very same reasons for which they are valuable for trees.

The opponent will, I expect, either deny (1) and (2) (and maybe even (3)), saying that nothing is good or bad for trees or ladybugs, or else claim that I am equivocating on "bad for". Neither, though, seems that plausible.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Second-order desire fulfillment theories of well-being

According to second-order desire fulfillment theories (2DF), A is bad for me if and only if I desire that A not occur, and my desire that A not occur is either endorsed (the stronger variant) or not disendorsed (the weaker variant). A desire is "endorsed" if and only if I have a desire to have that desire. A desire is "disendorsed" if and only if I have a desire not to have that desire.

Here is a counterexample to 2DF. Joey is not a Stoic. He fears torture as much as you and I do, and desires that he not be tortured. However, Joey desires to be a Stoic. In particular, he desires that he not have a desire not to be tortured. Suppose Joey is being tortured. He intensely desires that the torture come to an end. But he also consistently desires that he not have that desire. According to both variants of 2DF, the torture is not bad for him. But isn't that absurd?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pursuing as an end and pursuing as a means

One might think that to pursue (desire, hope for) something is to pursue it either as a means or as a final end. But that is false. Here is a nice case. Let us say that you don't know whether symmetry is worth having for its own sake. An omniscient being (or just an axiological expert) tells you that you will be better off for ensuring the existence of large symmetrical patterns on your walls. You ask whether this will be good in and of itself for you, or whether it is merely instrumentally good. The being declines to answer. You now have good reason to pursue the large symmetrical patterns on your walls (and desire and hope for them). But notice that you are not pursuing the patters as either a means or as an end. You are not pursuing the patterns as a means, because you do not believe that they are a means to anything valuable. You are not pursuing them as a final end, because you do not believe that they are intrinsically valuable. Instead, you believe the disjunction of the two value claims, and that is enough to justify your pursuit (and desire and hope).

In fact, this sort of thing is quite common. We have good reason to think that something is valuable, say because friends we respect pursue it, but we sometimes don't know whether it is valuable merely as a means or as an end. But this ignorance doesn't stop us from pursuing it. Thus, one may well pursue good reputation without having settled whether it is intrinsically or instrumentally worth having.

It is common to divide up pursuit (desire, hope) into the instrumental and non-instrumental. If so, then this case counts as non-instrumental, simply because it is not, in fact, instrumental. However, the term "non-instrumental" is often used as if it were more than just the denial of "instrumental". A "non-instrumental desire" is thought of as a desire for the thing itself, for instance. The above shows that this is mistaken, because it makes one think that there is a dichotomy where in fact there is a trichotomy: the instrumental, the intrinsic, and that which is neither instrumental nor intrinsic.

I've for a while been bothered by the phrase "non-instrumental value", which makes it sound like it's a derivative notion with the basic notion being that of instrumental value. And now I see that I have good reason to avoid the phrase. For non-instrumental value corresponds to non-instrumental pursuit. And the category of non-instrumental pursuit is not a natural way to slice things up: it is a disjunction of final pursuit and neither-final-nor-instrumental pursuit.

Interestingly, though, while the phrase "non-instrumental desire" is extensionally problematic given the kinds of cases I've been talking about, "non-instrumental goods" does manage to be extensionally right: it slices axiological nature along its joints, because the third category that arises for pursuit, desire and hope arises from subjective considerations, and hence does not apply to the good itself. But, nonetheless, it is better to avoid the phrase. "Intrinsic" or "basic" is better.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Why do we need bodies?

The following scenario is adapted from Keith Laumer's story "The Body Builders": Technology reaches the point that our brains, while still in our natural bodies, can be remotely connected to a synthetic body, which would be as manipulable and would provide as much and as good sensory input as our real bodies. The natural bodies, with brains in their skulls, can be kept in municipal storage, where they will be carefully maintained, exercised and kept trim and healthy, without us being aware of it, because the sensory connections between the brain and the rest of the natural body are severed. It seems the synthetic body could do all the tasks that the natural body could, but would provide two advantages: (a) it could technologically improve on the capabilities of the natural body, say, by providing more strength, agility or sensory data, and (b) one will avoid danger, since one's brain and natural body are safe in municipal storage while the synthetic body goes out into the world of whizzing cars, disease, and all that. Very quickly, one starts to feel about the synthetic body as if one were there, in it—as if it were one's own body.

Question: In a scenario like this, what would we lose? What couldn't we do in this scenario if we did everything through the synthetic body?

One class of activities that we would lose out on are various hobby and sport activities where the contingent limitations of our bodies are important. If various drugs are contrary to good sportsmanship (though, on the other hand, consider the case of Oscar Pistorius), obviously this will be. There can be sports that are played with synthetic bodies. They would in some way akin to remote control car racing. But they would, indisputably, be essentially different sports from the ones we have. (That's part of the point of the Laumer story.)

A second class of acitvities that we would lose out on are ones where physical danger appears to be central to meaning of the activity. Climbing Mt. Everest is a paradigm example. I am inclined to think activities where danger is courted are contrary to the virtue of prudence, since danger is a bad thing. If one could climb Mt. Everest while ensuring safety (e.g., by having a button which, if pressed, would teleport one to a medical facility), one should.

But both of the above classes of activities are pretty much optional to human life. We could get along pretty much fine without bodily sports or mountain climbing: we could still have video games, and cases where non-physical courage is exercised. We would lose out, but we would not lose out on all that much.

In thinking about this, the only cases of activities crucial to the good of humanity that I can think of which could not be done through the synthetic bodies would be:

  1. Basic survival functions. (Those would need to be done in municipal storage.)
  2. (a) Sexual union and (b) reproduction.
  3. The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, ordination and annointing of the sick.

One might think (2a) could be done remotely, and (2b) could be done technologically in municipal storage (extracting sperm and egg, combining them, etc.) But this is mistaken. Sexual union is essentially embodied: the remote "union" would only illusorily be a physical union. And doing (2b) apart from (2a) is immoral—human beings should be the fruit of marital union.

It's interesting that apart from basic survival functions, all of the activities that are both crucial to the good of humanity and that require the natural body are sacraments or closely tied to sacraments ((2) is obviously closely tied to the sacrament of matrimony, as its consummation). It's also interesting that two sacraments are left off the list in (3): reconciliation and matrimony. While currently reconciliation is normally done through in-person confession, I do not think this is essential to the sacrament—I think the Church could change this (I am not saying it would be wise to change it) to confession, say, by telephone. (If general absolution is valid, remote absolution would probably be valid, too, if the Church allowed it.) And while matrimony essentially requires the exchange of consent, this consent need not be given in spoken words (Canon 1104.2), and it is permissible for the two parties to be present only by proxy (Canons 1104.1 and 1105). Still, the consummation must be happen in person for the marriage to be indissoluble.

That, apart from basic survival, all the most important non-survival functions for which a natural body is essential are religious ones or closely tied to religious ones neatly refutes the popular idea that the Christian Church thinks poorly of the human body.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


The following argument is valid:

  1. If naturalism is correct, then there are no mysteries, only puzzles, pseudo-problems and brute facts.
  2. There are mysteries (subjectivity, free will, intentionality, existence, etc.).
  3. So naturalism is incorrect.
Is it sound?