Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christian apologetics

A correspondent sent me a link to this really nice apologetics site with links to articles by good people (like John Earman and Fred Freddoso) on topics like miracles.


Here is the thesis I will argue for: that x intentionally kills y does not entail that x intended that y die.

I need a relevance principle for intentions:

(RPI) If x intends that p in an action A, then x takes the epistemic conditional probability of p on A to be higher than the epistemic conditional probability of p on some relevant alternative (such as refraining from A).

Now suppose that George is falling past Fred's balcony. Under the building there is a net spread out. George's fall is such that he is virtually certain to miss the net unless his path is modified, and it is virtually certain that he'll die if he misses the net. Fred has always wanted to kill George. It's not that Fred has wanted George dead, but Fred wanted to take revenge on George, to be the cause of George's death. Fred has a baseball bat. If he hits George on the head, George's downward path will be modified and George will land on the net. There is no other intervention within Fred's power that can stop George from hitting the ground. If Fred hits George on the head with the bat, George has a 90% chance of dying from the blow, and a 1% chance of dying from landing on the net. Fred knows all this. He hits George on the head, and George dies from the blow.

Fred has intentionally killed George. But by RPI, Fred did not intend George's death, roughly because the action of hitting George with the bat did not increase the conditional (epistemic) probability of George's death.

Clearly, Fred intended that George should die of Fred's blow. Therefore, that one can intend that George die of Fred's blow without intending that George die.

This shows that there isn't going to be any plausible entailment principle for intentions, even if entailment is going to be understood along the lines of any plausible relevant logic (for the entailment from George dying of Fred's blow to George dying had better be relevant). Interestingly, it is not even true that he who intends the conjunction intends the conjuncts. Suppose that if I do nothing, p has probability 0.7 and q has probability 0.7, but the probability of the conjunction is only 0.1. But if I perform A, then p has probability 0.6, as does q, and the conjunction of p and q has probability 0.55. I want the conjunction of p and q, and I don't care about each conjunct (maybe I get a payoff if the conjunction holds, but I get nothing for each conjunct on its own). I know all this. So I perform A. I do not intend p, since I lowered the probability of p. Likewise, I do not intend q. But I do intend their conjunction.

In particular, this implies that in the Principle of Double Effect, the condition that one not intend the evil has to be expanded. Consider this weird case. If a peanut is eaten and Fred is killed, ten innocent people are saved. If the conjunction does not hold, ten innocent people die. Double Effect advocates (like me) will not permit me to wave a magic wand that simultaneously causes Fred to die and the peanut to be eaten (maybe by Fred who is allergic to peanuts?). However, note that Fred's death is not intended here, either as an end or as a means. Only the conjunction of Fred's death and the ingestion of the peanut is intended.

The correct way to expand the condition that one not intend the evil is tricky, and what I sketch in this paper still seems to me to be the best way to go.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Unexpected" and "unplanned" pregnancies

The process of conception is very chancy, with a randomly timed act of intercourse having a significantly less than one in ten probability of conception and with the conception probability peaking at around 1/2 for an act occurring at around ovulation. Any couple who knows these facts, absent some further information (such as a private revelation from God) cannot rationally expect a pregnancy to result from a sexual act, nor can the couple rationally be said to plan the pregnancy in a sexual act, for it is presumptuous to have something so chancy be one's plan. Thus, if a couple is rational and knows the probabilities, a pregnancy's resulting from a particular sexual act will always be an unexpected and non-planned consequence, though perhaps a hoped for and intended one.

However, the probability of conception for regular sexual activity over a longer period of time, say a year, is higher, and better than even. If something has a better than even probability, then it can be expected. Nonetheless, unless that probability is pretty high, say 9/10, which over the period of a year it is not, then it still is presumptuous to talk of the outcome as planned.

Thus, pregnancy is too chancy an event for it to be rationally planned, though of course it always can be planned for—even very low probability events can be rationally planned for. The standard loose distinction between planned/unplanned pregnancies, and to a lesser degree that between expected/unexpected pregnancies, can be replaced by a distinction between pregnancies hoped for and not hoped for, intended and not intended. (Note that "unhoped for" is not the same as "not hoped for". We use "unhoped for" in the case of events that are evaluated by the subject in a positive way, but a pregnancy need not so be. Likewise, Ryan Wasserman has argued that "not intended" is not the same as "unintended".) Of course, it may be that this is what people have all along meant by the words "planned", "unplanned", "expected" and "unexpected", but in a conceptually confused way. But in a matter as important as this, conceptual clarity is needed.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Augustine on evil

The problem of evil that Augustine struggled with so mightily was neither the inductive problem of evil that so exercises contemporary philosophers of religion nor the deductive argument from evil that the ancients worried about. Augustine's problem of evil was a metaphysical paradox generated by four plausible claims:

  1. Evil exists.
  2. Everything that exists is God or created by God.
  3. God has not created evil.
  4. God is not evil.
Unlike the ancient and modern problems, this isn't a deductive argument against the existence of God. Nor was Augustine, as far as I can tell, ever drawn to a fully atheistic solution. The Manichean solution was to revise (2) to say that everything that exists is a God or created by a God, and to similarly modify (3) and (4): there is a God who has not created evil and there is a God who is not evil.

Augustine's famous solution was to deny (1). Evil is but a privation of good. Granted, this does not mean that evil is a lack of good, but a lack of a due good. Hence, a claim that some evil has occurred is ontologically reduces to a claim of the form: (a) a good g does not exist, but (b) g is due. To my knowledge, Augustine does not say quite enough about what grounds (b), but what grounds (b) is not the evil in question, since (b) hold even if g existed. Claim (a) is true not in virtue of a truthmaker but in virtue of there not being a falsemaker. To make all this go, we need to also say something about what "g" stands for—presumably, a definite description of some good.

Augustine in his solution was not addressing either the deductive or the inductive problem of evil. That he was not addressing the inductive problem is obvious. That he was not addressing the deductive problem is also clear from the fact that a crucial premise in the deductive problem of evil, viz., that God is omnipotent, is not present. We need not, thus, think that Augustine's solution tells us anything very helpful with regard to these two problems. However, the fact that it was this problem that Augustine found difficult, and not the deductive or inductive, may be significant. Why was he unmoved by the arguments from evil? He does, of course, address these arguments, but it is not a matter for existential struggle. His response is basically that if we do black deeds, God will use us to paint the mustache in the cosmic painting that he is painting. It is a kind of sceptical theist move, based on the fact that we are in no position to see the whole picture.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Entailment Thesis for truthmakers

The Entailment Thesis for truthmakers is that

  1. If x makes p true and p entails q, then x makes q true.
Mulligan et al. have the thesis, but it is surely false. For consider the following very plausible claim:
  1. If x is a fundamental entity—one such that facts about its existence do not reduce to facts about more fundamental entities—then x is a truthmaker for the proposition, p, that x exists, and every truthmaker of p is either identical with x or contains x as a part.
Now, let N be a fundamental necessary being, e.g., God, or maybe the empty set. Plausibly, N is not a part of Fred the electron. Now: let p be the proposition that Fred exists, and let q be the proposition that N exists. Then, by (2), Fred is a truthmaker for p, p entails q, but Fred is not a truthmaker for q.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Light pollution

When out observing at my sort-of dark location, I realized that when Scripture says that the heavens declare the glory of God, Scripture is not talking of the few pretty sparkles in a light-polluted modern city sky. The image presupposes a sky aglow with stars, with a glorious Milky Way stretching across it. My observing location is only an approximation to that, but is still pretty glorious. It's interesting how understanding certain texts requires that one know what certain created things look like, and first-person experience (or a really good simulation, like a good planetarium) is needed.

It was indeed a good night for naked-eye viewing. Two or three open clusters in Auriga were naked-eye, the Double Cluster was really obvious, and I might have even caught a glimpse of M 33 with averted vision, but I am not sure. I also got to try out my home-made travel telescope under decent skies. It nicely framed the M 31/M 32/M 110 galaxies in an about 1.7 degree field of view. And the Orion Nebula was really wonderfully detailed through my 13".

A theistic argument against (worldly) states of affairs

By "worldly states of affairs (WSOAs)", I mean existing states of affairs, say of the Armstrong variety. These are not the Plantingan more abstract states of affairs that exist whether or not they are actualized. I've sometimes called the WSOAs "concrete states of affairs", but as Jon Kvanvig has pointed out to me, that's inaccurate, because the worldly states of affairs include some concrete ones, like my writing this post, and some abstract ones, like two plus two being four.

  1. If WSOAs exist, there are some intrinsically evil contingently enduring WSOAs, such as my being sinful.
  2. It is wrong to freely and directly sustain in existence something that is intrinsically evil.
  3. God freely and directly sustains in existence everything that contingently endures.
  4. God does no wrong.
  5. Therefore, WSOAs do not exist.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A variant on the grounding objection to Molinism


  1. If there are any Molinist counterfactuals, there are ungrounded true contingent propositions.
  2. Propositions reporting divine beliefs are grounded.
  3. If p is a contingent truth (i.e., true proposition), then either God's belief is explained constitutively or causally by p, or p is explained constitutively or causally, or there is some third truth that explains both p and God's belief constitutively or causally.
  4. An ungrounded truth cannot be explained causally.
  5. An ungrounded truth cannot explain causally.
  6. When a truth p explains q constitutively, something that grounds p grounds q.
  7. God believes every truth.
It follows from (6) that an ungrounded truth cannot explain or be explained constitutively. It follows then (2)-(5) that no ungrounded contingent proposition is believed by God. It then follows from (7) that no ungrounded contingent proposition is true. It then follows that there are no Molinist counterfactuals.

Premise (3) is a way of working out the idea that God's beliefs are knowledge and cannot be merely contingently related to what makes them true.

[Edited. This is an improved version of the argument. -ARP]

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

St. Anselm on the magnitude of sin

St. Anselm believes that the least of our sins puts us in an infinite debt to God and is infinitely bad. Anselm's own argument for this thesis is uses some implicit premises. Here is my best reconstruction:

  1. (Premise) To sin is to oppose the will of God.
  2. (Premise) If it is not permissible to do A in order to preserve a good G, then A is at least as bad as the loss of G.
  3. (Premise) It is not permissible to oppose the will of God "even to preserve the whole of creation", even "if there were more worlds as full of beings as this", and even if "they increased to an infinite extent".
  4. (Premise) The badness of the loss of the whole of creation if the whole of creation consisted of planets as full of beings as Earth and increased to an infinite extent would be infinite.
  5. (Premise) If something is at least as bad as an infinite bad, then it's infinitely bad.
  6. To oppose the will of God is at least as bad as something infinitely bad. (2, 3 and 4)
  7. To oppose the will of God is infinitely bad. (5 and 6)
  8. Every sin is infinitely bad. (1 and 7)
  9. (Premise) To do something infinitely bad puts us in infinite debt.
  10. Every sin sin is infinitely bad and puts us in infinite debt. (8 and 9)

Probably the most obvious thing to worry about is the conjunction of (2) and (3). Premise (2) appears to be a consequentialist claim. Premise (3), on the other hand, is a premise that the Christian tradition does indeed endorse, but the Christian tradition is not a consequentialist tradition (witness St Augustine on lying and St Paul's insistence that we do not do evil that good might come of it). Thus the argument brings together premises that originate in two competing moral theories, and it is unsurprising that when you do that, you can derive surprising things from their conjunction.

But this is too quick. For there is a lot of plausibility to the consequentialist intuition that Anselm invokes in (2). When one thinks about Augustine and Kant on lying, it "feels right" to say that they value honesty over life. On the side of Kant at least, this is mistaken. Kant's objection to lying isn't that honesty is a greater good than life, because Kant's ethics is not centered on the good (at least not in a way that would make this statement work). So perhaps it is right to affirm the consequentialist intuition in (2) as well as the deontological intuition in (3). And if one does that, then one gets the view that certain actions are infinitely bad.

However, this approach is mistaken. For one does not do justice to both consequentialist and deontological intuitions by supposing that wrong actions are infinitely bad. For consider this situation: If you don't kill an innocent person, a hundred other people will each kill one innocent person. (How can you set this up? One way is statistical. You know that if a certain temptation T is given to people, one percent of people will commit a murder. So you're told that if you don't kill one person, temptation T will be offered to 10,000 people.) Clearly the hundred murders are worse than one murder, and yet it's wrong, according to the deontologist, to kill one innocent person. Moreover, this case is directly a counterexample to (2).

One might try to get out of this counterexample by denying that infinities can be compared. But if one does that, then one can no longer say things that mortal sin is worse than venial sin, and the like. Besides, one does want to be able to compare infinities. If I had a choice between preventing one stranger from committing one murder of a stranger and a hundred strangers from committing one murder apiece, obviously I should prevent the latter.

A different kind of objection to the argument would be that in (2), "at least as bad" should be read as "not less bad" (I am worried about cases of incommensurability). But if one makes the same replacement in (5), it is far from clear whether (5) remains true. For it may be that something is infinitely bad in an aesthetic way (say, an infinitely long bad novel) and something else is finitely bad in an incommensurable way (say, a toothache of finite length); the latter is not less bad than the former, but it does not follow that the latter is infinite.

Nonetheless, even though St Anselm's argument for the infinite badness of sin fails, I think there are alternate ways to make the thesis plausible. But that's a subject for another post (hopefully over the next couple of days).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Evil and eternal life

(Cross-posted on prosblogion.)

Let's say I climb Mt. Everest, and then enjoy a delightful view from the top. But as I climb the mountain, I undergo various horrendous sufferings. And after I get back down, I have to undergo extremely painful surgery. Suppose that, so far, the overall value assessment is negative. If that's all that is involved, then climb wasn't worth it. The view was nice, and the good of achievement was nice, but, by far, it just wasn't worth it.

But let me add a little more to the story. I did this when I was 20. I am not permanently traumatized by the suffering, and indeed by the time I am 30, my memories of the hideous pains are no longer unpleasant. But I continue to have memories of the beauty of the climb and of the camaraderie, memories of the grandeur of the epic struggle, and these memories continue to be fairly pleasant. Moreover, the feeling of accomplishment, of having overcome the pains, is nice to have. I then live on for fifty more years, continuing to have pleasant memories of that climb.

While the goods achieved at the time of the climb were not worth the suffering, when combined with the value of half a century's worth of memories, even when these memories are not particularly intensely pleasant, they may be worth it. Suppose you say the contrary. Well, then, replace the fifty years with five hundred or five million. Eventually, the cumulative value of enjoying these memories will overshadow the bads which were confined to one decade of one's life (the climb, plus about ten years during which the memories of pain were painful). (This of course reminds one of Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion. But I think there is nothing repugnant here.)

What this shows is that given a long enough life-span, our evaluations of whether some activity was worth doing can change as a result of the values of memories and of retrospective awareness of achievement. Of course, in principle, they can change in either direction. A pain might have been such that it by itself would have been worth it for the sake of an achievement, but if in fact the memories of the pain continue to be painful while the memories of the achievement fade, then it's no longer worth it.

Observe also that while it would be possible to have the pleasure of the memories of having climbed Mt. Everest without having ever had the pains, that pleasure would then be an empty pleasure, and hence either devoid of value or of much lesser value.

Suppose that in fact we live forever. There is no good argument to the contrary that doesn't presuppose the non-existence of God (here we can insert a discussion of arguments for materialism and of arguments against resurrection based on the need for causal continuity), so someone who offers an argument from evil against the existence of God cannot rely on the denial of the claim that we live forever. The above remarks show that remembering over a significant length of time can act as a value-multiplier, and when the length of time is long enough (and in particular when it is infinite), this can completely swamp the original assessment.

Moreover, memory is not the only such effect over an infinite life-span. A small change in character when prolonged over a very long time can make an enormous difference. Suppose that climbing Mt Everest, in my story, made me slightly more considerate. We might well question whether this was worth all the suffering. If I were to live in this more considerate way for five minutes, it perhaps wouldn't be worth it (Socrates will disagree). But again we have value-multiplication--if the difference remains over a sufficiently long interval, the increase in value, summed (actually, integrated) over that time, will swamp the pains of gaining it. In fact, that small difference, over an infinite amount of time, will make for an infinite good. Moreover, if virtue leads to virtue, we might here have compound interest at work.

Of course, God could produce the better character directly and maybe he could induce in us false memories. But the value of that infinite good having been produced in the right way may very well be quite high. (One thinks that the value of a good G's having been produced in the right way is proportionate to the value of G.)

These value-multiplication processes can be selective. Thus, God might very well ensure that our memories of pains not be painful to have (to do that God would need to heal traumas, etc.), while ensuring that our memories of goods be pleasant. Nor would there be anything dishonest in God's doing this. In fact, I think most of us have plenty of memories of pains where the memories aren't themselves painful, and this is no defect in this.

If this is right, then selective value-multiplication processes working in an infinite afterlife might very well, and in quite understandable ways, swamp the kinds of value assessments we get from this-worldly considerations. This possibility, which indeed is not merely a possibility but a fairly high likelihood if God exists, might not entirely undercut inductive arguments from evil, but I think it blunts them quite significantly.

And if one is worried that this undercuts our own reasons to prevent evils, all I can do is point one to this older post of mine.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is sex a basic human need?

Start with these premises:

  1. A (human) community is obligated to supply those of the basic needs of its members that can be met, unless perhaps these members have freely consented to not having these needs met.
  2. It is not permitted to require anybody to have sex, absent a free promise from the requiree.
  3. If a community is obligated to provide A to x, then it is permitted for the community to require one or more of its members to provide A to x.
  4. There is at least one community where there is at least one individual who (a) is capable of sex; (b) does not have sex with anyone; (c) has not consented to the state of affairs in (b); and (d) nobody has promised anything that entails having sex with this individual.
  5. Basic needs are the same for all members of all (human) communities.
  1. Therefore, sex is not a basic need.

Note 1: What if we replace "sex" with "companionship" or "friendship" or "the provision of food"? Then I think we should deny the analogue of (2).

Note 2: Plausibly, someone who sees sex as a basic need is thereby likely to see it as a right and entitlement, and hence to have a resentment towards the persons who do not fulfill that basic need when they "so easily could", as he or she might say. There is, thus, very good reason for society to attack the idea that sex is a basic need.

Note 3: In the above, I was thinking of basic individual needs. Might not sex be a basic need for the species as a whole? Yes, it is. But as the species is larger than the community, just as not every member of a community is individually obligated to provide for every basic need of the community, so too not every community is obligated to provide for every basic need of the species. Moreover, apart from God (see Note 4), there is no authority that coordinates what basic needs of the species each community needs to meet.

Note 4: The quantifiers in (2) are restricted to fellow human beings or at least to fellow creatures. God has the authority to command a particular couple to marry, and to consummate the marriage.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Beings of reason

Extend English by adding a new kind term "ersoh", and allowing quantification over ersohs. Now the following stipulations generate a semantics for ersohs as well as for a relation "horsesucceeds":

  1. Every ersoh horsesucceeds a unique horse.
  2. Every horse that dies at a time after which there are at least three minutes (i.e., at a time such that time does not come to an end in less than three minutes after the horse's death[note 1]) is horsesucceeded by a unique ersoh.
  3. If e horsesucceeds h, then e exists forever (if time has no end) or until the end of time (if time has an end) from the moment three minutes after the death of h.
  4. An ersoh e1 in w1 is identical with an ersoh e2 in w2 if and only if the horse that e1 horsesucceeds in w1 is identical with the horse that e2 horsesucceeds in w2.
  5. If P is a physical-property predicate (e.g., "has mass of 2kg") that it makes sense to apply to a physical object at particular time, then e satisfies P at t if and only if (a) e exists at t and the horse h that e horsesucceeds satisfies P at t*, where t*=f(t,td,tb) where td is h's time of death, tb is the beginning of h's existence, and f is some specified one-to-one function[note 2] that maps times from td+3min to times between tb and td.
  6. The only basic predicates that an ersoh satisfies are is an ersoh, horsesucceeds h and P where P is handled as in (5). All other basic predicates are unsatisfied by every ersoh. More complex predications to ersohs are to be reduced to these in some Tarskian way.

I may have omitted something needed for a complete semantics of ersoh-talk. If so, add it, keeping to the spirit of the proposal. The point is that we can easily generate a complete semantics for a language that supposes ersohs.

Now, surely, there are no ersohs in a strict sense of "are". But we can meaningfully talk about them in a way that reduces to talk about horses.

Here, then, is one of my major philosophical intuitions: Any entities talk about which reduces to talk about other entities have the same ontological status as ersohs. They don't really exist. Hence, if reductionism about persons is true, then in a strict sense of "are", there are no persons.

But what is this "strict sense"? Well, the above gives an ostensive definition of it: the basic entities are, while ersohs aren't.

[Minor typos fixed.]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mereological universalism and artifacts

One reason to believe in mereological universalism is that mereological universalism lets one's ontology include artifacts tables and chairs, without the weird consequence that what entities exist depends on what people have thought. For given any bunch of parts, there is a possible world where that bunch of parts was thus placed by a person with a unified purpose, and hence that bunch of parts is an artifact. But whether that bunch of parts thusly arranged is an object should not depend on what went on in the mind of that person. So, either the bunch of parts is an object in both the world where it is an artifact and the world where it is not, or it exists in neither world. Therefore, if artifacts exists, mereological universalism is true.

Here are some problems for this combined view—the view that accepts mereological universalism as a way of making sense of artifacts.

1. Hermes in the stone: In our world, the sculptor has made the marble statue of Hermes; in w2, he hasn't, and there is just the block of marble. But if our world's Hermes is identified with a mereological sum of bits of marble, he exists in w2 as well. (Moreover, he exists in our world even before he was sculpted—this consequence can be avoided by an appropriate four-dimensionalist move.) It is not the case that the artist has caused the Hermes to come into existence. So the approach only does justice to some of our intuitions about artifacts. (This problem can be eliminated by supposing a five-dimensional mereological universalism, where the "fifth-dimension" is worlds.)

2. suppose now that our most fundamental ontology does not include bits of matter. Instead, what we have are fields. It now is no longer clear that mereological universalism by itself yields the existence of artifacts. One might try to generalize mereological universalism to the situation by letting the parts be something field-points, where a field-point can be represented by a triple <x,F,v> where x is a spacetime point, F is a field type (e.g., electromagnetic), and v is the actual value that F has at x. Artifacts then would be four-dimensional mereological sums of field-points. But do field-points really exist? The abstract triples that represent them maybe do, but the field-points themselves are not identical with the triples because the triples are necessary beings, and hence so would their mereological sums be. Moreover, which field-points get included in the chair? This, I guess, is a species of a standard boundary problem like the one Unger uses to argue for his non-existence, but it seems to me even more problematic in the field setting. Suppose, for instance, that on a particle model the object's particles would have some wave-functions. The wave-functions may well be non-zero everywhere in space, though their values are very small outside a small region. So it seems that there is a sense in which an ordinary object should be thought of as existing almost everywhere in some sense, but particularly concentrated in some area. But the field-point-sum object can't exist everywhere, even if the associated wavefunctions are everywhere non-zero, because then there would only be one field-point-sum object—the one consisting of all the field-points there are—and all artifacts would be the same.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A hypothesis about marriage and friendship

Hypothesis: A society where romantic relationships and marriages are seen as primarily about emotional union between two adults is likely to be a society where non-romantic friendships are emotionally more anemic.

If this hypothesis is correct, then there is reason to promote a more embodied view of marriage not just for the sake of marriage, but also for the sake of friendship.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Epistemic normativity

Back when I was a graduate student, I learned explicitly from Nagel's The Possibility of Altruism that states of myself that are worth promoting (respectively, avoiding) are worth promoting (avoiding) as found in others, and for the same reason. This simple fact, the implicit grasp of which is largely constitutive of our moral maturation, has a rather important consequence:

  1. If my own belief that p is something that is worth my promoting, then your belief that p is something that is worth my promoting as well, and for the same reason.
This has obvious practical consequences for evangelization, participation in public debate, etc.

But (1) also has a very interesting theoretical consequence. My reason for promoting my belief that p is no different in kind from my reason for promoting your belief that p. But my reason for promoting my belief that p may well be what is normally considered a purely epistemic reason. Now, it is clear that I need not have a purely epistemic reason to promote someone else's belief that p (sometimes her believing p will help me epistemically, because she will use her intellect to help me; but this need not be the case). There will be cases where the only reason I have to promote someone else's belief that p is a moral reason, grounded in the value of the other's possession of the truth. But by (1), the reason for my promoting my own belief that p must then be of the same sort, namely moral or prudential. And indeed, moral, because prudential reasons are just a special case of moral reasons where the beneficiary is ourselves; the lesson of Nagel is that there is no difference between the two qua reasons. Because we can always tweak a case so that I derive no epistemic benefit from your believing p, it follows that I only have a moral or a prudential reason to promote my believing that p.

It follows from the above argument that epistemic reasons are a species of moral/prudential reasons.

However, there is a powerful objection. It could be granted that reasons to promote or bring about a belief in oneself are always moral/prudential. However, one might object that epistemic reasons are not reasons to promote or bring about a belief in oneself. Beliefs are not something one brings about in oneself—they are something one catches, like a cold, as the phrase goes.

This objection is mistaken. Sometimes when we see the overwhelming evidence for p, we immediately believe p. But sometimes we suffer from doxastic akrasia, and we need to push ourselves to believe—e.g., by forcing ourselves to think p, against long-standing habit. And while this may not be the normal case, it is very plausible that if R is an epistemic reason for my believing p, then R is a reason to promote my belief that p.

Moreover, we can imagine a scenario where my brain is so constructed that to come to believe anything that I previously disbelieved, I need to entertain the belief while stomping my left foot. And were my brain so constructed, the epistemic reasons would be reasons for entertaining-plus-stomping actions.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Immoral contracts

Disclaimer: Being neither a legal philosopher nor a lawyer, I ask that the following be taken with a grain of salt.

Start with this argument as background:

  1. There is never an on-balance reason to do something immoral.
  2. It is immoral to press someone to do something immoral.
  3. Therefore, there is never an on-balance reason to press someone to do something immoral.
Now, let's stipulate that a contract is performance-immoral if one of the contracted actions is immoral. There are other ways a contract could be immoral, of course. It could, for instance, be that one party contracts to do some work ignorant of the prevailing payscale while the other party severely underpays. But such a contract would not be performance-immoral—it would not be immoral to do the work and it would not be immoral to pay the money.

Now, add this observation:

  1. Enforcing a contract is at least partly constituted by pressing the parties to perform the contracted action.
This is consistent with the fact that contemporary American civil jurisprudence tends not to force performance, but only requires monetary compensation. For it is, nonetheless, the case that such requirements when they go beyond merely refunding moneys paid exert pressure to perform, and indeed the institution of the enforcement of contracts is intended to exert such pressure.

Finally, let us add a very weak and uncontroversial liberal premise:

  1. The exertion of pressure by the state on a citizen is only permissible given an on-balance reason to exert that pressure.

It follows from (1)-(5) that

  1. It is not permissible for the state to enforce a performance-immoral contract.
While there used to be a common-law doctrine of immoral contracts that said this—so, for instance, you couldn't sue a concubine that you had made an advance payment to but who refuses to live with you—I am told that in the case where the immoral action is legal, the doctrine is no longer a part of current American jurisprudence. Be that as it may, if the argument is sound, it clearly ought to be.

This doctrine of the unenforceability of performance-immoral contracts would have some interesting and far-reaching consequences. For instance, if you're a pornographer, many of your contracts would end up being unenforceable. This would not destroy the pornography industry, but would make it significantly harder for larger pornographic businesses to operate. (That said, despite the value of small businesses, I do not know whether small pornographic businesses are preferable to large ones.)

Another interesting consequence of the argument would be the conditional that if same-sex sexual activity (SSSA) is immoral, then the state is not permitted to recognize a same-sex marriage (SSM). For a marriage is, among other things, an agreement to engage in a shared life of a sexual nature.[note 1] But if SSSA is immoral, then to engage in a shared life of a sexual nature with someone of the same sex is immoral. And for the state to recognize a contract always involves a measure of enforcement at least by means of public opinion. Thus, the recognition of a SSM would be an enforcement of a performance-immoral contract, and that is not permissible to the state. Of course, this is all predicated on the assumption that SSSA is immoral, an assumption that the proponents of SSM will not grant. However, the conditional that if SSSA is immoral, then SSM ought not be recognized is itself an interesting conclusion, since people like John Rajczi have argued that even if SSSA were immoral, the state ought to recognize SSMs.

I think the best way to challenge my argument is to challenge the conjunction of (3) and (4) by using Double Effect kind of reasoning. The pressure in (3) is either intended or not. If the pressure in (3) is not intended, then (3) is false. For it is permissible to do things that put pressure on others to act immorally, if the pressure is not intended to do that. For instance, by asking someone to whom we've lent money for our money back, which we may well have a right to do, we might put some pressure on them to steal the money. So the pressure in (3) must be intentional. But then for the validity of the argument, the pressure in (4) must also be intentional. However, one might argue that the state's enforcement of contracts is not intended to press for performance. It is, instead, intended to press for the disjunctive state of affairs of performance or compensation.

I am not sure about this response. But it does seem that if we agree with this, then we should distinguish, strictly speaking, the state's recognition of a contract from the state's enforcement of it. The enforcement consists, then, in pressing for performance or compensation. But the recognition presses by means of public opinion—contract-breakers are not well thought of—for performance. There is, I think, some reason to distinguish recognition from enforcement. We should not recognize a contract with a graphic designer to draw a square circle—the contract is null and void on grounds of impossibility. However, we could press for performance or compensation. If this is right, then the argument would show not that it is wrong for the state to enforce a performance-immoral contract, but that it is wrong for the state to recognize one.

Thus the state could still enforce contracts between pornographers and their printing or DVD pressing shops, without recognizing these contracts. However, if SSSA is immoral, the state still could not recognize SSM, though it could enforce marriage-like contracts between persons of the same sex. But by calling it a marriage, it would be recognizing such contracts, and this the state has no right to do if the contracts are performance-immoral. This could make it possible for one to have a principled reason to disallow SSM while allowing the state to enforce the contractual aspects of "same-sex unions". (This post is also an experiment: will everyone be put to sleep by the stuff on contracts before they get to the sex stuff.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Aliens in the heavenly Jerusalem?

If Christianity is correct, there is at least a moderate probability that there are embodied intelligent persons other than humans. If so, will some of them be in the heavenly Jerusalem, too, available for us to interact with? I think that the value of unity between creatures gives a plausible affirmative argument. Over a finite amount of time, it might make sense that different intelligent species be sequestered, as inter-species communication has many difficulties. But given an infinite amount of time, it seems plausible that such contact would be appropriate. The heavenly choir, thus, may well include an intelligent gas cloud (not literally a gas cloud: a being of body and soul, whose body is composed of a gas cloud) slowly changing colors in a meaningful way, and chatting with St Thomas about divine simplicity.

Of course all such possibilities for wonder pale beside the simple wonder of union with God.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Science and theism

Suppose I am a theistic scientist, and I come up with a simple and elegant theory that fits the data. You ask me:

  1. But what reason do you have to believe that the theory is true?
I am likely to answer:
  1. There is a good God who created a world exemplifying genuine values like simplicity and beauty.
Indeed, if there is a good God, it is more likely that a simple and elegant theory that fits the data is true than if there is no God at all. Whatever one thinks about induction and inference to best explanation, it seems exactly right to say that:
  1. If (2) is true, its truth significantly raises the probability that a simple and elegant theory that fits the data is true.
But now imagine two scientists, one a theist and one an atheist, and they have together come with a simple and elegant theory that fits the data. It may very well be the case that the theist should assign a probability of 0.6 to the theory—after all, there may be other simple and elegant theories that fit the data that they have failed to discover, and which fit well with the world being the sort that is created by a God who loves lawlike simplicity. But if (3) is true, the atheist scientist's credence in the theory should be significantly lower. It seems likely, then, that if the theist assigns 0.6, the atheist scientist may very well need to assign something below 0.5.

If this is right, then you will have cases where a theist and atheist scientist agree on the scientific evidence, but the theist weakly assents to the theory but the atheist is more skeptical of the scientific theory.

In general, assuming rationality on both sides, we would expect atheists to be significantly more sceptical of scientific claims than theists who, in turn, should be bolder theorizers. But I think we do not observe this. Hence, on one or both sides, there is some irrationality—or else I am wrong about (3).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Serious" intellectual work

This morning, I had a look at a recent mathematics paper that I am a coauthor of. I was struck by how complex it is. The reasoning in a mathematics paper is extremely elaborate and complex. In philosophy, we tend to think that an argument with, say, twenty steps is very elaborate. But here the proof involves eleven lemmas, each of which has a proof consisting of several, and at times quite a large number of, steps, many of which are quite elaborate. I can see how one can look at a philosophy paper and a mathematics paper, and think: "The mathematics paper, that's really serious intellectual work. The simplicity of even the most complex philosophical arguments, with the exception of ones in philosophical logic, shows the lack of intellectual seriousness of the philosophical enterprise." I think it is not uncommon for scientists and mathematicians to have this attitude towards philosophy.

I think this attitude is mistaken. Anecdotally, writing good mathematics papers is not harder for me than writing good philosophy papers. Writing a mathematics paper takes me significantly longer than writing a philosophy paper. There is a lot more detail. But how long it takes to write a paper is not a good measure of intellectual difficulty or seriousness. Typically (though not always—I think the paper I was looking at is a counterexample) the main difficulty is coming up with the basic idea for the paper. The difficulty in coming up with the basic idea for a good mathematics paper is not very different from that of coming up with the basic idea for a philosophy paper. In both cases, one may spend years thinking about a problem, trying out solutions that fail, and finally the idea may just come—or it may be a series of progressive refinements. Once the idea comes, wrapping it up can be challenging, and in the mathematics case it may involve more tedium (or not—the tedium is different, in the one case there is tedium in getting all the details of the proof right, while in the other case there is a tedium in relating one's result to a vast literature). Of course, one might find that the details aren't as simple as they seemed once one works through them—but this can happen equally in a mathematics and a philosophy case.

Moreover, even in the mathematics case, the length and complexity of a proof is not the mark of intellectual quality. If one could find an elegant, quick proof—that would be all the more appreciated by the community.