Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Augustine's view of evil

According to Augustine, a predication of an evil—say, the Sam is blind—is made true by a conjunction of two states of affairs. The first of these is a purely negative state of affairs, that the subject lacks a feature F. The second of these is a positive state of affairs, that the subject is of a sort that ought to exhibit F. Thus, Sam lacks sight but has the property of being of a sort that ought to exhibit sight.

If memory serves me (and if it doesn't, then it's still an interesting view), Augustine will then say this about Sam's blindness. Consider Sam*, a person much like Sam, except that he isn't of a sort that ought to have sight. Then, just like Sam, Sam* lacks sight. But Sam* also lacks the positive property of being of a sort that ought to exhibit sight. Therefore, Sam is better off than Sam*, despite the fact that Sam has an evil while Sam* does not. Now the problem of evil doesn't come up in regard to Sam* not having sight. And Sam is better off than Sam* in respect of sight, so why should it come up with regard to Sam?

Or let's put it differently. Take Sam*, and give him a new purely good property. How can Sam* become worse off simply by virtue of acquiring a new purely good property? Well, then, if we give Sam* the good property of being such that he ought to have sight, he doesn't become worse off. But then he's just like Sam. So the problem of evil shouldn't come up with regard to Sam.

Here's a problem with this reasoning. Suppose Sally believes that she lacks some very minor good G. Now, we give Sally the good G. By the above reasoning Sally should be better off. But perhaps not. For now Sally has a false belief that she previously didn't have. And the disvalue of that false belief may outweigh the minor good G.

However, we might distinguish between narrow and broad well-being. Things that do not causally interact with one or aren't intrinsic properties of one only belong to broad well-being. For instance, that my friends aren't saying bad things about me behind my back only contributes to my broad well-being. But that I am healthy is a part of my narrow well-being. So here is a suggestion. Now, narrowly, Sam* is narrowly no better and no worse off than Sam. And if Sally doesn't narrowly become worse off for being wrong about G. So maybe with regard to narrow well-being the principle that gaining a good by itself doesn't make one any worse off is true.

If this is right, then Augustine's arguments may work with regard to the problem of evil specialized to narrow ill-being. But that still leaves the problem of evil in the case of broad ill-being. However, maybe with the latter we may suppose that for all we know we really are very well off broadly speaking, because our broad well-being may include things very far beyond us.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reduction and translation

These are very rough notes for myself.

The translatability of B-talk to A-talk as either a necessary or a sufficient condition for a reduction of Bs to As is generally rejected. Translatability can be symmetric, so it obviously can't be a sufficient condition. And it is generally thought that translations are so hard to come by, even in cases where it is very plausible that there is a reduction, that we shouldn't ask the reductionist for a translation. As an example, it seems pretty plausible that being oval is not a fundamental property. But the hopes of a reduction of being oval to more fundamental geometric concepts are pretty slim. We can start: An oval is a convex domain with a twice differentiable boundary approximating a non-circular ellipse. But if we try to explain the respects in which the oval approximates the ellipse, I expect at some point we would have to throw up our hands and say: "In the way definitive of an oval!"

It should not surprise us if there were no good translations. Words are rarely precisely redundant, and I suspect that cases of non-trivial synonymy are pretty rare. Certainly, few of the things listed in a thesaurus are genuine synonyms, i.e. words expressive of the same concept. Similarly, translation between different languages is rarely exactly right. For instance, "Il neige" and "It is snowing" are unlikely to express the same proposition. Here is one reason to think this. The boundaries of "neiger" and "to snow" are vague, and the behavior of the corresponding concepts near the boundaries will be determined by use. But different linguistic communities occupy different physical and social environments, and it is unlikely that the boundaries will be exactly the same. The same is likely to be true for most ordinary sentences, though the effect is probably decreasing with globalization.

However, I think there is a somewhat neglected option for translation. Instead of translating to an actual language, one can translate to a counterfactual language. And for purposes of testing hypotheses about ontological commitment, that should be enough.

We could imagine a community that has practices that outwardly and normatively resemble our practices of artifact production, use and possession. But they never say anything that commits them to the existence of these. They have other ways of talking. Maybe they say "It is chairing here" in circumstances that correspond to those in which we say "There is at least one chair here." They also describe the intensity of a chairing with a non-negative integer: "It is chairing here with intensity three" corresponds to our "There are three chairs here." They have some ways of talking that correspond to our possession practices. "It is Smithly chairing here with intensity three" corresponds to our "Smith owns three chairs here." They also have ways of talking that correspond to our talk of clear identity. Thus, they say "It is t0ly chairing with intensity two at t1" correspondingly to our "Two chairs that existed at t0 exist at t1."

Now here is a move that I like. It might turn out that some of our sentences have no corresponding sentences in that community. This will be a problem for the reductionist, unless those very sentences are ones that lead to logical problems in our community. For instance, it might turn out that one cannot translate all diachronic identity sentences about chairs. But that could be an asset if the untranslatable sentences are precisely the ones that lead to ship of Theseus problems. And this could, further, provide an asymmetry that could help fix the direction of reduction: in our language we can get paradoxes, while in theirs maybe we can't. We could, then, simply say that the untranslatable sentences (or maybe now we should call them "quasi-sentences") in our language are nonsense.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tables and chairs

Like many philosophers, I don't believe that tables and chairs are fundamental objects. Like a much smaller number of philosophers, I like to say that I don't think tables and chairs exist. I have good reasons for my denial. For instance, it does not appear that there is an exact moment at which a table comes into existence. I take four wooden rods, each two feet long, and stand them on their ends outlining a rectangle. On this precarious perch, I put a sheet of plywood. That's not a table. I put some glue between the rods and the plywood. Initially that's still not a table, since the glue hasn't gripped. But once the bond is strong enough, what I have is a (poorly engineered and ugly) table. But then there must be a time such that a nanosecond before it the bond wasn't strong enough to make for a table and a nanosecond later it was strong enough.[note 1] This is very implausible.

So what should I say? Here are three options:

  1. Say in contexts both ordinary and philosophical that there are no tables or chairs (and hence if someone asks me if there are any chairs in a conference room, answer in the negative, and then explain further).
  2. Say in ordinary contexts that there are tables and chairs, but deny it in philosophical contexts.
  3. Say in all contexts that there are tables and chairs, but in philosophical contexts emphasize that they are not fundamental.
Option (1) would be practically the toughest and (3) would be practically the easiest. Option (3), however, is not satisfactory as the arguments against tables and chairs existing do not seem to be just arguments against their fundamentality.

In the absence of (3), it would be nice too be able to defend (2). But it seems like plain dishonesty. I think, though, it can be defended.

First of all, ordinary folk already make something like this distinction. If you ask someone: "Are there any potholes on your way to work?" they may answer in the positive. But if you press them and ask whether potholes are really existing, if they aren't rather a matter of there not being asphalt there, I expect you will be told something that sounds contradictory like: "Potholes don't exist, but they're there." If this is right, there is in ordinary language a distinction between real existence and just existence in a manner of speaking.

Suppose that a community of English speakers started saying "There is a xyzzy" whenever there was a full moon, and mosquitoes were biting somewhere in Minnesota, and there was a Democratic president in the US. And they even had identity conditions for xyzzies. They would say that there can only be one xyzzy at a time, and that a xyzzy at t0 is the same xyzzy as the one at t1 provided that either the same Democrat is president at both times or the two presidents are related by a chain of president to vice-president relations. If we were members of the community, we'd have to say that this summer there was a xyzzy. But I think we'd want to deny the existence of xyzzies. Why? Because the right thing to say is that the logical grammar of "There is a xyzzy" does not match its surface grammar. The surface grammar is "There exists an x such that x is a xyzzy." But the deep logical grammar is "There is a Democratic president, there is a full moon and the mosquitoes are biting somewhere in Minnesota."

I think the same sort of thing should be said about tables and chairs. The surface grammar can involve existence claims (and predications and the like). But the deep logical grammar is different. And in cases where the surface grammar does not match the real logical grammar, we do in fact have two usages: an ordinary usage and a philosophical usage that mirrors the deep logical grammar. This is what we do for holes and this is what we would do for xyzzies. We also do this for some claims that aren't existential. For instance:

  1. That overgrown graveyard isn't really spooky. It's just that you are spooked by it.
  2. Actually, nobody is annoying. It's just that we are annoyed by some people.
The second sentence in each pair is a way of noting that the deep grammar of "... is spooky" or "... is annoying" is in fact something like: "x is spooked by ..." or "x is annoyed by ...". The use of "really" or "actually", as well as the paradoxicality of the first sentence in each pair, signals that we are doing something other than going with the surface grammar.

Now, to make sense of this, one does, I think, need some view on which there is something like an Aristotelian focal sense of existence (in the tables and chairs case) or predication (in the spookingess and annoyance cases), and in philosophical senses we focus in on the focal sense. Here then would be an example based on Aristotle's own example of focality:

  1. There is no such thing as healthy food. There is only food that makes one healthy.
It's tempting to say that (6) is confused: "That's what I mean by healthy food, silly!" But (6) isn't a confusion. It is signaling that food isn't healthy in the focal sense of "healthy". That we can correctly speak of food as healthy in a non-focal sense is not being disputed. But it is denied that there is a property (in a sparse sense) that both the healthy woman and the healthy dinner have in virtue of both being healthy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A spin on the problem of evil

Here is a way of looking at the inductive problem from evil.

Start with this. Let E be the bare claim that there is at least one evil. Let T be theism and N be naturalism, and suppose those are the only two relevant options. Then, I think one can argue that P(E|T)>P(E|N). Why?

  • The existence of teleology or proper function is certain on T (at least God will have a proper function, viz., of being his perfect self). Plausibly, evil requires teleology or proper function (evil is a way of something's going wrong) and teleology and proper function are unlikely on N.
  • Alternately: evil requires consciousness, and consciousness is much more likely on T than on N.
  • It is likely that God would create a large number of significantly free persons, and it is likely, given a large number of significantly free persons, that at least one would do wrong in some way. On the other hand, it is not all that likely that there would be a morally responsible being if N were to be the case.
  • Many significant goods, like courage, forgiveness and perseverance, require at least some evil. Thus it is unlikely that God would strive to create a world where evils would be certain not to occur.
  • There is some plausibility in significant contrast stories on which experiencing a minor evil can enhance one's enjoyment of goods. On T, this renders evil more likely, while N doesn't care about us enjoying things.
These considerations do not yield a theodicy. But they do show that P(E|T) is not low while P(E|N) is low. Hence, the bare fact of evil is evidence for theism over naturalism.

This is how the inductive problem from evil should be seen. The mere fact of evil is evidence for theism, but we need to ask whether this evidence for theism is strengthened, left unchanged, weakened or even flipped the other way around when we look at the details of the sorts of evils we observe. For each of these four options is in general possible when we start with some general piece of evidence and then look at the specifics.

Nonetheless, it will make a difference to how we think of the specifics if we start with the idea that the general fact of evil supports theism, and we ask whether this support remains or flips when we look at the specifics.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Small talk

I've always found small talk challenging. Talking about anything other than technical or academic subjects is hard. I think I've just figured out small talk, though. The primary aim of small talk is not the communication of propositions. Rather, small talk for humans is like grooming for less verbal primates.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Assertion and belief: Another example

Either if N is a supermanifold, then there is a space ΠT*N of the cotangent bundle with reversed parity and it has a natural structure of a P-manifold, or it is not the case that if N is a supermanifold, then there is a space ΠT*N of the cotangent bundle with reversed polarity and it has a natural structure of a P-manifold.[note 1] I just asserted a proposition which I don't believe. Indeed, I don't even grasp this proposition. But, nonetheless, the proposition is surely true, because it is a tautology. (I suppose there is the possibility that the sentence doesn't make sense. There, I take it on Alexandrov's authority[note 2] that it makes sense.) I did not violate any duties of sincerity in asserting the sense.

Hence, sincerity in assertion does not require belief.

If s is the first sentence of this post, I can correctly say: "s but I do not believe that s." And so some Moorean sentences are unproblematic.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Are questions requests?

Until I came up with this argument, I used to think questions were just requests for answers. But I now think this is harder to defend than I thought. Take the question:
  1. What naturally stripy equine is not a zebra?
What request is made? A naive suggestion is:
  1. Please name a naturally stripy equine that is not a zebra.
But unless the speaker invokes relevant authority, it is intrinsically morally permissible to do something other than what is requested. So, if (1) is just the request (2), it should be intrinsically morally permissible to say "A donkey" or to do a hundred push-ups, just as it would be intrinsically permissible to say "A donkey" or to do a hundred push-ups when requested non-authoritatively to climb a wall. Of course, rules of etiquette require that when a reasonable request is made, a failure to fulfill the request be apologized for ("Sorry, I'll do push-ups instead" or "Sorry, I'll utter 'A donkey' instead.") But this is an easily defeasible duty, clearly more easily defeasible than the duty not to lie (which I think is not defeasible, though that's more controversial).
In fact, one can argue even further that (2) isn't actually, though it seems to be, a request for the naming of a naturally stripy non-zebra equine. For the duty not to lie applies to answers to it, too. Thus, rather than (2) being a more perspicuous way to say (1), it is (1) that is the more perspicuous.
Perhaps, instead, the request is this:
  1. Please assert a proposition stating what a naturally stripy equine that is not a zebra is.
And this creates a context in which the correct answer "An okapi" is an abridgment of the sentence "An okapi is a naturally stripy equine that is not a zebra", while "A donkey" is the lie "A donkey is a naturally stripy equine that is not a zebra." Of course, a non-authoritative request can be ignored. I could do push-ups instead of answering. But if I say something like "A donkey" or "An okapi", the context makes that be my assertion (just as when I am not standing on a stage, and am conversing with friends, the context makes my utterance of "Donkeys are equines" be my assertion), so the duty to avoid false assertions prohibits me from saying "A donkey", but allows me to say "An okapi".
I think (3) is a tenable move for the request account of questions. But the account may lead to something controversial. Suppose you incorrectly but justifiably believe that okapis are the only naturally stripy equines. Moreover, you don't know what the word "zebra" means. You are asked (1). You think to yourself: "The question presupposes that there is an answer to it. There is only one kind of naturally stripy equine—it's an okapi. So, whatever the word 'zebra' might mean, given the presupposition, 'An okapi' must be the correct answer." And so you say: "An okapi." But on account (3) of the answer, you are expressing the proposition <An okapi is a naturally stripy equine that is not a zebra>. But how can you express that proposition when you don't possess the concept of a zebra?
I don't think this is insuperable. Maybe it's perfectly fine to assert propositions that you don't grasp. If it is, then we have another argument that "s but I don't believe that s." But at least this is going to be controversial.
Another possibility is that we should instead take (1) to be:
  1. Please assert a proposition stating what entity, considered as a kind, verifies the open formula: 'x is a stripy equine that is not a zebra'.
So when you say "An okapi", without knowing what "zebra" means, you are asserting:
  1. The formula you just quoted is verified by an okapi.
It is, though, a bit awkward to take the answer to the simple question to be metalinguistic.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


The folk seem to think that science can "prove" things. I used to think this just meant that they were confused about how science works. But there is a more charitable reading, which I got from a comment by Dan Johnson on prosblogion. Rather than taking the folk to be confused about how science works, we can take seriously the idea that meaning is a function of use, and take the folk to simply use the word "prove" differently from how philosophers do. The legal sense of "prove", as in "prove beyond reasonable doubt", seems to prove the point. :-) For if it is not otiose to specify that a proof is "beyond reasonable doubt", it must be possible to prove in a way that admits doubt! And hence a "proof", in the ordinary sense of the word, does not mean what philosophers and mathematicians mean by the word.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An argument against four-dimensional mereological sums

Say that x is a four-dimensional mereological sum provided that x is a mereological sum with the property that not all of its parts exist at all the same times, i.e., x has parts a and b such that a exists at some time at which b does not. Mereological sums of stages will, typically, be four-dimensional mereological sums. Plausibly, a four-dimensional mereological sum exists at t provided that it overlaps the spacetime region of time t (times are spacelike hypersurfaces, I suppose).
  1. Without backwards causation, it is not possible to make it the case that an object did not exist yesterday.
  2. If there are four-dimensional mereological sums, then it is possible to make it the case that an object did not exist yesterday.
  3. Hence, there are no four-dimensional mereological sums.
The argument for (2) is simple. If four-dimensional mereological sums exist, then there could be a four-dimensional mereological sum that existed prior to t0 but that contains a particle a that comes into existence after t0. Then at t0 it would be possible, without backwards causation to make the sum not have existed by preventing the coming-into-existence of a—for if one prevented that, then the four-dimensional mereological sum would never have existed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Causal closure of the physical

If causal closure of the physical holds, then there are uncaused physical states of affairs. Thus, at least one of the following two theses is true:

  1. Some physical states of affairs have a non-physical cause.
  2. Some physical states of affairs have no cause.
Now, what I don't see is why (2) should be in any way preferable to (1). For instance, to the extent that some physical state of affairs lacks a physical cause, science has nothing to tell us about the explanation of this state of affairs. For all that science cares, that state might have a non-physical explanation or it might have no explanation. Allowing the first option need no more impede the progress of science than allowing the second. Granted, the first option may let one prematurely say when faced with difficulties that some state of affairs for which a physical cause has not been found has a non-physical cause. But the second option lets one say, equally prematurely, that it has no cause.

Imagine two worlds. In w1, there are non-physical causes for all the physically uncaused physical states of affairs. In w2, there are no causes for any of the physically uncaused physical states of affairs. Moreover, the physical parts of w1 and w2 are exactly alike, and match our observations. Is there very good reason to prefer w2 to w1 as a hypothesis accounting for our observations? Well, maybe sometimes: it depends on how weird the non-physical stuff in w1 is. But in general, no. Roughly, what w2 gains in parsimony it may lose in explanatory value.

So we do not have very good reason to believe (2) and deny (1). And (1) has a serious advantage over (2): unlike (2), (1) is compatible with our PSR-ish intuitions.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Haecceities, strong essentiality of origins and science

  1. (Premise) If essentiality of origins doesn't hold, then every particle has a haecceity.
  2. (Premise) A haecceity of x is an intrinsic property of x.
  3. (Premise) A haecceity of x isn't a physical property of x or a function of any physical properties of x.
  4. (Premise) There is a particle each of whose intrinsic properties is a physical property or a function of physical properties.
  5. Therefore, there is a particle that lacks a haecceity. (2-4)
  6. Therefore, essentiality of origins holds. (1, 5)
Why believe (1)? Because if there are no haecceities then the only plausible account of transworld identity is that x in w1 is identical with y in w2 if and only if x and y have the same origins. And this forces essentiality of origins.
I think the problematic premise is (4). But it is still somewhat plausible.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

More on childbirth and the problem of evil

Say that a "God-disproving evil" is an evil that God, if he existed, would have no justification in permitting. Here is an argument:

  1. (Premise) If there are God-disproving evils, then pain in childbirth is a God-disproving evil.
  2. (Premise) If a pain is a God-disproving evil, then probably significant numbers of theists who suffer this pain thereby become atheists.
  3. (Premise) Very few theists who give birth and suffer the pain of childbirth thereby become atheists.
  4. Therefore, probably, the pain of childbirth is not a God-disproving evil. (2 and 3)
  5. Therefore, probably, there are no God-disproving evils. (1 and 4)
I am not particularly impressed with this version of the argument, though I do think the argument is sound with the conditionals interpreted as material.

But if one wants more than soundness, I am not happy with (1). Maybe a better version would be: The sort of reasoning that makes one think that there are God-disproving evils makes one think that pain in childbirth is one. And then (2) and (3) serve to make one more suspicious of that sort of reasoning.

If one does like (1)-(5), we can add two fun steps:

  1. (Premise) Probably, if there is no God, there are God-disproving evils.
  2. Therefore, probably there is a God. (5 and 6)
Why accept (6)? Well, because if there is no God, and if a world somewhat like ours is actual (this is part of the background of the "Probably" in (6)), we would expect there to be nasty and pointless natural evils.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A modification to the Deductive-Nomological account of explanation

there is a deficiency in the standard formulation of the deductive-nomological (D-N) model of explanation. On the standard model, one explains by citing laws and initial conditions that jointly explain the explanandum. But in fact the explanans not only should state the laws but also that they are laws or at least consequences of laws. For suppose I wish to explain why Mappy liked one of my buttons. I cite three facts: Mappy is a magpie, all my buttons are shiny and all magpies like shiny things, and on the D-N model I am done. But knowing these three facts and justifiably believing that they explain why Mappy liked one of my buttons is not sufficient for my knowing why Mappy liked one of my buttons. For to know why Mappy liked one of my buttons, I need to know that it is a law or a consequence of a law that magpies like shiny things. Unless I know this, I do not know why Mappy liked one of my buttons. Imagine, after all, someone who knows all the three facts cited but who incorrectly justifiably believes that (a) it is a mere accidental generalization that magpies like shiny things and (b) it is a law of nature that all my buttons are shiny. Such a person knows each of the three facts, but does not know why Mappy liked one of my buttons. Therefore, we should take it as part of the explanans that it is a law that magpies like shiny things.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What I am up to

In case anybody is curious what I'm spending my time on this summer, my main project is finishing up my book on modality.  It's due at the end of September.  I have resolved to finish my proofreading by August 20.  I need to proofread or delete 28 pages per weekday for that to happen (if I add text, I have to proofread more, obviously).  Then I need to fill in some cross-references and bibliographic stuff.  Then I will hand it to a grad student I will pay to proofread it, and then off to the press it goes, in fulfillment of my contract.

Library of Historical Apologetics

This looks like an amazing resource, coordinated by Tim McGrew. Here is what they say about themselves:

At the Library of Historical Apologetics, our mission is to be the world’s leading resource for lay apologists, pastors, students, and scholars seeking historical apologetics materials for self-study, church classes, sermon preparation, and research. Our digital collection currently contains references to about 3,000 items with a focus on works in English from the 17th through the early 20th centuries.

Beyond simply providing access to these materials, our long-term vision is to create a digital learning environment that incorporates personal and collaborative reading, note taking, and study tools. We want to support a community in which more experienced scholars help newcomers find the material they need and construct secondary resources such as curricula, study guides, and course syllabi that can be shared by all users.

This project is directed by Dr. Timothy McGrew, who is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, where he has taught since 1995, serving as department chairman from 2005-2009. The Institute for Digital Christian Heritage is providing technical and administrative assistance in the form of project planning, implementation and evaluation.

Justice and taxation

No system of taxation currently in use distributes the financial burden in a completely fair way. I think this is something that just about everyone will agree on, though where exactly the unfairness is located is a controversial question. I do not mean that the unfairness is intentional or even foreseen by the legislators, but more like this: there will either be a pair of individuals A and B such that it would be fairer if A were taxed more and B less (it's also possible, but less likely, that (a) everybody is taxed more than justice allows or that (b) everybody is taxed less than justice requires; I'll neglect (b), and leave the extension of the arguments to (a) as an exercise).

This is not something we can complain about much. No legal system can cover all cases adequately. But here is an interesting consequence: An across-the-board increase in taxes is very likely to exacerbate some instances of injustice. For if fairness requires that A be taxed more and B less, then when we raise A's and B's taxes, we will likely be overtaxing B by a greater amount than before, and hence the injustice to B will very likely be the greater. (This can be controversial. One might think that what matters are the ratios, not the absolute amounts. I am inclined to disagree.) This means that we have a prima facie consideration of justice against across-the-board tax increases.

Moreover, I think the above considerations generate a prima facie consideration of justice against government spending. For if overall spending were even slightly lowered, a slight across-the-board decrease in taxes would be made possible, and that would slightly decrease the severity of the unfairness to B.

Of course, the reasons above are only prima facie and defeasible. Double Effect can permit the increase of spending and across-the-board increase in taxations when the injustices are not intended and a sufficiently serious good—perhaps itself a good of justice—is being pursued. So while the above considerations sound like they would generate fiscally conservative conclusions, in practice the effect of the considerations could be quite small or nonexistent. Or it could be large. I don't know. But it is still interesting to me that the defeasible reasons against spending and across-the-board tax increases are reasons of justice—I didn't think of them that way before I noticed the above arguments. And I suppose it would be healthy for legislators to think of them as reasons of justice, if they are indeed such.

A weakness, however, in the above arguments is that it is not clear whether it makes sense to talk of unintentional injustice. If I am convicted of a crime I did not commit, but on excellent evidence and with solid legal procedures, have I really suffered an injustice? If the answer is negative, then we may not be able to say, strictly speaking, that B has suffered an injustice by being taxed too much. Maybe, though, the thing to say is this. My conviction of a crime I did not commit is not an injustice; but justice requires that such convictions be minimized. Likewise, the allocation of too high a tax burden to B is not an injustice; but justice requires that such misallocations be minimized.

The incorrect conviction analogy also suggests that we have a prima facie reason of justice not to increases criminal sentences across the board. For each across the board increase of sentences is likely to result in some innocent serving an even greater sentence than otherwise. (However, there is a difference with the taxation case. For while justice does not intrinsically call for taxation (though taxation may be a necessary means to ends that justice requires the pursuit of), justice does intrinsically call for the punishment of the guilty.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Novels, art and collaboration

I am reading R. Austin Freeman's Eye of Osiris which so far is a pretty decent mystery. The quality of the writing is not bad, though not so great. It is unduly prolix at some times (I suppose one could say that that makes for some character development of the narrator, though, but that could still be done otherwise), and occasionally at the beginning there is a lack of clarity. This brought home to me the obvious fact that the skill of story-making is very different from the skill of story-telling. While there may be some correlation between the two skills, I do not know that the correlation is very strong. In any case, one would expect that there are a number of people who would be excellent at story-making but whose story-telling is subpar, and a number of people who would be great at story-telling but only if someone else made up the plot. But now the puzzling fact is that there are very few co-authored novels, and off-hand I can't think of any famous ones written by two authors working together (a number of works do draw on older texts or traditional elements, and maybe that should count co-authorship, but I don't want to count that as "working together").

There are artistic genres where collaboration is routine. Film, theater and music perforances are obvious cases. I do not know if Greek statues were carved by one person and painted by another, but it certainly would make sense to have that sort of division of labor. On the other hand, my sense is that painters, writers and contemporary sculptors tend to work alone.

Here is a hypothesis: The artistic vision tends to be hard or impossible to communicate except by means of the genre of art in which it is to be embodied. But collaboration would require communication of the artistic vision. And that artistic vision cannot be communicated except by the work being produced, which presents a vicious circularity in the case of collaborative works.

This argument can't apply always, because there are collaborative works. But maybe we can say something about these exceptional cases. I don't know if the painting and the sculpting were separate in Greece. But if they were, we might say that the sculpting was to some degree an independent work of art, which communicated its vision by itself. After all, most of the Greek statues we see in museums have lost their paint, and yet the sculptures appear to us to be complete works of art—so much so, that in times past people didn't seem to know they were originally polychrome.

The case of directors and conductors is a bit different. But there we can take the director or conductor as in some important sense the author of the performance as a whole. There is a communication between the director and conductor and collaborators, but in an important sense this communication is itself essentially a part of the genre (cases of films written, directed and starred in by one person are defective cases of the cinematographic art), in a way in which communication between authors is accidental to the novel. Moreover, note that the director and conductor only communicates to each individual collaborator a part of the artistic vision.

So this might explain why a superlative novel is unlikely to be produced by two or more authors. But still, a decent novel could be, and sometimes is.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Common descent

Is common descent a part of contemporary evolutionary theory? It sure seems to be. But here is an argument to the contrary that puzzles me. Start with this thought experiment:

  1. Organisms not based on DNA are found by a deep-sea vent or in some other hard to access isolated location on earth. Subsequent study reveals that they do not have a common ancestor with any of the DNA-based organisms that we know of but derive from a different abiogenesis.
Here is a surmise:
  1. Most biologists are very sure of evolution, but either not sure or not as sure that (1) won't happen.
It follows from (2) that:
  1. Either evolution is compatible with (1) or most biologists have inconsistent probabilities in this area.
If we deny the second disjunct, we get that evolution is compatible with (1). But (1) does not seem to be compatible with common descent. Hence we have an argument that evolution does not entail common descent.

I could be wrong about (2). But it does seem plausible. Here is one reason to think (2). Biologists are very sure of evolution. But (maybe) it would be unreasonable to be very sure (1) won't happen. So either biologists aren't very sure (1) won't happen or they are unreasonable in matters relevant to biology. Supposing they are not unreasonable in matters relevant to biology, we conclude that (2) is true.

Here are two ways out of the argument:

  1. Common descent is not the thesis that all earthly organisms have common ancestry. Rather, it is the thesis that all the presently known earthly organisms (Daphnia magna, Quercus alba, Homo sapiens, Cantharellus cibarius, ...) have common ancestry. Problem: Does that mean that whenever a new species is discovered, the content of evolution changes?
  2. "Evolution" is ambiguous between "the central aspects of the general picture that evolutionary theory gives" and "the currently best models of evolution". The former is what biologists are quite sure of. The latter is what entails common descent. Problem: If we asked biologists what the central aspects of the general picture that evolutionary theory gives are, common descent would likely be listed.

I am not happy with any of the ways out of the argument. Maybe (4) is the way to go? Or maybe we just need to suppose biologists are not entirely reasonable in their discipline (who is, after all?)? Or maybe my surmise (2) is false.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Are naturalists Pelagians?

Yes, they are: For they think that the central goals of human life are of a sort that can be achieved by natural powers alone.

No, they aren't: For they think that intimate union with God cannot be achieved by natural powers alone.

OK, so what's the right answer? In a sense, both yes and no. If we define Pelagianism by the natural achievability of the central goals of human life, then yes. If we defined it by the natural achievability of intimate union with God, then no. On Christian doctrine, the two definitions will come to the same thing. But on naturalism, they don't.

This might, however, yield a question-begging (but perhaps still useful) argument against naturalism. According to naturalism, the central goals of human life can be achieved by natural powers alone. But union with God cannot be. And union of God is a central goal of human life.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Is Leibniz an idealist?

I continue to be surprised why Leibniz gets described as an idealist. If Leibniz is an idealist, Dretske is committed to idealism, too, and that seems mistaken. Leibniz thinks everything has soul, and every soul has perceptions, but not all the perceptions are conscious, and some souls have no conscious perceptions. As far as I can tell, the claim that x has a soul with perceptions comes down to two things: (a) x has a substantial form, and (b) x has representations. Claim (a) holding for all x does not imply idealism: Aristotle surely does not count as an idealist. Claim (b) holding for all objects x is something that Dretske is committed to, assuming that we, reasonably, take having information to entail having representations (information surely represents; and on a Dretskean view it seems pretty easy to argue that everything that can be affected by something else carries information). We could take this to be an argument that Dretske is an idealist, but it is better to take it to be an argument that Leibniz is not.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Deep Thoughts XXVII

Only the eternal is forever.

[Actually, this is only a necessary truth on some readings of "forever" and "eternal". We need to read "eternal" as compatible with merely futureward eternity, but not pastward eternity. We need to read "forever" as implying infinite futureward temporal extent, so that existing at every time not count as sufficient for existing forever (imagine a world where the timeline has only a finite extent from beginning to end—we don't want to count a being that exists from the beginning to the end of time as existing forever in that world). It's worth noting that the converse of the above Deep Thought might not be a necessary truth. For a timeless being can be eternal, but I am not sure a timeless being counts as existing "forever", except of course in an analogical sense.]

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Crime and punishment

Justice demands a punishment proportionate to the gravity of the crimes. In particular, a greater punishment is called for for committing eleven instance of some type of crime than for committing ten of them. But we do not have much reason to think that the person who committed the eleven is a worse person than the one who committed the ten. Hence, pace Hume, punishment is not based solely on the character as evidenced by the crime.