Thursday, September 30, 2010

A lie with no deceit

Let's say you and I believe that there is life outside the solar system. But you're overconfident. So I tell you that there is no life outside the solar system, in order to reduce your confidence. I am not trying to get you to believe that there is no life outside the solar system. I am not even trying to get you to believe that I believe there is no life outside the solar system. I am only trying to reduce the probability you assign to the claim that there is life outside the solar system to a more reasonable level. I am acting epistemically benevolently.

This is still a lie, and so a lie does not require an intention to deceive. A lie can be epistemically benevolent.

And it's still wrong.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Probabilities of propositions and beliefs

Start with this thesis:

  1. A random belief of a random person is at least as likely true as not.
To deny (1) would be overly pessimistic, as (1) seems pretty innocuous. But I shall argue that, given two additional theses, (1) implies a substantive Principle of Credulity, namely that the mere fact that someone believes p is significant evidence for p.

Now observe this:

  1. A random atomic proposition is significantly more likely false than true.
This is somewhat surprising and counterintuitive, so I shall argue for it. First, consider unary atomic propositions: the attribution of a property to an object. Now, it is plausible that most of the properties we have terms for are at least somewhat natural. And natural properties tend to have a number of relevant alternatives to them that are in some intuitive taxonomic sense "on the same level". For instance, being a horse has as relevant alternatives being an F where F ranges over all biological species, plus it has a number of alternatives whose level is harder to gauge like being an electron or being a number. Since there are lots of species, without any specific information about how many critters there are in each species, it is reasonable to think that the probability that Sam is a horse, with no specific information about Sam or horses, is quite low. Or take the way that many of the basic properties are determinates of determinables for which there is an infinite number of options: e.g., having mass exactly 17.3 kg. (I am grateful for discussions with Trent Dougherty on this point.) The low probability point is less obvious for relations. But, first, one might think that there are a lot more natural properties than relations, and so the case of properties swamps that of relations. Second, it does seem prima facie plausible that typical natural n-ary relations only relate a small subset of the n-tuples. E.g., relatively few events are related by causation. The closest to an exception is earlier than, which we would expect to relate about half of the pairs of events. But actually, it relates less than half: for The closest to an exception is earlier than, which we would expect to relate about half of the pairs of events. But actually, it relates less than half. For every pair (E,F) related by earlier than there is a pair (F,E) related by later than, but there are also pairs related by neither earlier than or later than, namely those that are simultaneous (or spacelike separated).

I now claim:

  1. A random proposition is significantly more likely to be false than true.
My plausibility argument for (3) proceeds by considering the special case of the propositions that are expressed by sentences of propositional logic with natural predicates. I suspect that the claim extends to quantified sentences and even modalized ones, but right now I can only prove it for propositional logic. For the proof, we need a reasonable account of a random proposition. I shall do this by generating random grammatically correct sentences of propositional logic.

The method is this. I shall suppose that the basic connectives are "and", "or" and "not", and that we have a stock of basic predicates and names for all objects, one name per object. We first randomly choose an item from the set of basic connectives and basic predicates. If the item is an n-ary predicate P, we randomly choose a sequence (n1,...,nn) of n names, and write down the sentence P(n1,...,nn). If the item is a unary connective (i.e., "not"), we write down the connective followed by a random sentence (we recurse here). If the item is a binary connective, we write down a random sentence (recursing) in parentheses, followed by the connective, followed by another random sentence (recursing again) in parentheses. The recursion is not logically guaranteed to finish, but we can conditionalize on the recursion finishing (plus I think it's going to finish with probability one if there are enough predicates).

Now, let p0 be the probability that a random atomic sentence is true. Let N be the number of predicates. Let p be the probability that a sentence generated by the above procedure is true. Then:

  1. p=p2/(3+N)+(1−(1−p)2)/(3+N)+(1−p)/(3+N)+Np0/(3+N).
The first term comes from the fact that we have a 1/(3+N) chance of initially generating an "and", in which case we have a probability p2 of truth since both random conjuncts will have to be true; we have a 1/(3+N) chance of generating "or", and then a probability 1−(1−p)2 that at least one disjunct is true; a 1/(3+N) chance of generating "not" and probability 1−p that the operand of it will be false; and then an N/(3+N) probability of generating an atomic sentence, which has probability p0 of truth. Solving (4) for p we get:
  1. p=(Np0+1)/(N+2).
It is easy to verify that if p0<1/2, then p<1/2. Moreover, for large N (recall that N is the number of predicates), and surely N is in fact large, p is going to converge to p0. We can conclude to (3) in the special cases of propositions expressed by randomly generated sentences of propositional logic, and this provides significant support for (3) in general.

Now an interesting result follows from (1)-(3). The seemingly innocuous claim (1) commits us to assigning a pretty substantive amount of weight to a Principle of Credulity. For the fact that someone believes a proposition raises the probability from something that according to (3) was significantly less than 1/2 at least to 1/2. Thus the mere fact that someone believes something is significant evidence for its truth, even if it does not suffice for making the conclusion reasonable to believe.

In fact, I suspect that p0 is very small, maybe as small as 1/100 or even much smaller. In that case, the probability of a random proposition being true might be very small. And yet we have (1). So belief is significant evidence.

Causation and entailment

From time to time, one reads the sentiment that if E causes F, then that E occurs does not entail that F occurs. Here is a counterexample. God in a reverberating voice announces that you're going to be terrified. This causes you to be terrified. But that God announces something entails that the announced event will happen.

Here's another example, perhaps less compelling.  I just figured out, by induction, that I'm not going to be silent all day today.  But I am also the sort of the person who can't keep his mouth shut about what he knows.  So I tell you: "Today I am not going to be silent all day."  Then, my knowing that today I wasn't going to be silent all day caused me not to be silent all day.  But it also entailed it.  (Objection: Belief, not knowledge, enters into causal explanations.  Response: We certainly use knowledge talk in causal explanations.  In any case, this is why this example is less compelling than the first.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Actualities, Possibilities and Worlds

The book manuscript is all finished, submitted, and is about to move into production at Continuum.  Some of the material in the book was written this summer, some was written back when I was a graduate student, and some was written in between.  Memorably to me, some of the material on Spinoza was written in the hospital while my wife was asleep in labor with our first child.

The base for the manuscript was my dissertation, though a lot of new material was added, especially on a Spinozistic-Tractarian account of possibility that should be taken much more seriously than it is.  And this summer while revising I cut a number of passages, especially some technical ones, which looked to me like "the author is just trying to impress his dissertation committee."

Amusingly, as I was revising the manuscript I found that in it I had given and endorsed an argument against divine command theory that recently I criticized in print, where I attributed the argument to Wes Morriston.  When I wrote my critique, I completely forgot that I had once made the argument myself!  I actually find my own version of the argument fairly convincing, but not being able to decide if the argument or the critique was better, I cut the argument from the manuscript.

Responsibility origination and transmission

Certain happenings in the world are transmitters of responsibility. For instance, if at t1 Helga sets a bomb to go off at t2, and at t2 the bomb goes off causing harms, the explosion of the bomb is a transmitter of responsibility: it transmits Helga's being responsible for the bomb being set into Helga's being responsible for the harms. At t1 Jim buys a pig, and at t2 the pig rips up his neighbor's cactus garden. The ripping up of the cactus garden transmits Jim's general responsibility for the pig's actions into a specific responsibility for damage to the neighbor's cacti. Transmitters of responsibility don't create responsibility ex nihilo: they simply take something that one is already responsible for, and work out one of the possibilities in that line of responsibility.

Some happenings in the world originate lines of responsibility, rather than merely transmitting responsibility from one thing to another. Barring further information, we would say that it was at t1 that Helga originated a line of responsibility for harms coming from the bomb (with three different kind of responsibility respectively for intended, foreseen and unforeseen harms), and it was at the very same time that Jim assumed responsibility for the pig's actions. I said: "barring further information." For we might find out that at t0, Helga had paid someone to hypnotize her[note 1] to set up a bomb at t1 (maybe she was afraid that when it came to the task, she would be too scared). In that case, the origination of the line of responsibility that included her setting off the bomb at t1 and the harms at t2 was in fact at t0.

One might be tempted to think that in the case of self-originated hypnosis, it as at t1, when she does the action of setting up the bomb, that Helga assumes responsibility for the harms. But this is mistaken as we can see when we compare the case to one where Helga hires someone to hypnotize Sally to set up the bomb. For it is when Helga hires someone to hypnotize Sally that she assumes responsibility for the harms of Sally's bomb. And why should this change if we replace Sally with Helga herself? (We can add an intermediate case where Helga hires someone to hypnotize the person who matches some description, but is unaware that she herself is the person who matches it.)

The distinction between responsibility origination and transmission is an important one. For instance it is the mental states of the agent at the time of the origination of a line of responsibility that are typically most relevant to ascertaining exactly how responsible the agent is.

Now, in principle, the compatibilist and incompatibilist could give exactly the same story about responsibility transmission. It's not an easy task to give a good story of how responsibility transmission works, and it would be good for compatibilists and incompatibilists to pool their mental energies to work on this task. The unavoidable difference between the compatibilist and incompatibilist will be in responsibility origination.

The starkest case of responsibility origination will be when the agent transitions from a state of not being responsible for anything to a state of being responsible for something, presumably at some point in childhood. But presumably there will be less stark cases later on. There will also be cases where we have at the same time both transmission and origination of responsibility. For instance, we might have an existing responsibility for a character trait, and the injection of new responsibility for that trait by a new voluntary self-identification with it.

The compatibilist is committed to the claim that either (a) responsibility origination can happen without any action or decision on one's part, or that (b) an action or decision can originate responsibility despite being the direct deterministic outcome of states one is not responsible for. If (a) is the story about the first case of responsibility origination, then presumably this is a case of internal and external factors that one is not responsible for causing one to be responsible for, say, some character trait or pro-attitude. If (b) is the story about the first case of responsibility origination, then the agent becomes responsible for a choice flowing deterministically from circumstances and mental states that she was not responsible for.

The incompatibilist will typically say that the first case of responsibility origination is one where one is not responsible for the mental state from which one makes the choice, but because the mental state leaves enough genuine options, and includes enough in the way of reasons for the different options, that allows the agent to originate the responsibility. Kane has a more complex story on which the first free choice is made from a mental state that one is compatibilist-responsible for, and that bootstraps one into a higher kind of responsibility. I think this is needlessly complex. There is no need to be responsible for the state from which one acts if that state allows enough flexibility and rationality.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A consequence argument for incompatibilism

Say that p "nomically entails" q if and only if the conjunction of p with the laws L of nature entails q. Say that p and q are nomically equivalent if and only if p nomically entails q and q nomically entails p.

Determinism is the thesis that the complete state of the universe (the sum total of all material things) at any earlier time t1 nomically entails the complete state of the universe at any later time t2.

If L is a proposition, write NL for the claim that L is a law or conjunction of laws and L is true.

Say that the laws L are "deterministic" if NL entails determinism.

Let NL be the claim that L is a law and L is true.

Definition. x is nomically bound (at a world w) if the proposition that x exists entails NL where L is the conjunction of the laws (of w).

Definition. An nbc-agent is an embodied person who (a) has not always existed, (b) is incapable of controlling material states of affairs prior to her existence ("nbc" stands for "no backwards causation") and (c) is nomically bound.

Definition. An entity x is amenable (to my argument) provided that x is an nbc-agent, and there is a time t0 prior to the existence of x such that x's existence entails the existence in the universe of a nomically bound entity at t0.

The last part in the definition of an amenable entity is a very technical assumption, but it holds for us if essentiality of origins holds and if both we and our parents are nomically bound.

I will need a transfer principle. This one appears very plausible:

  1. Necessarily, if p and q are logically equivalent, then p is within x's control if and only if q is within x's control.

I shall argue for this claim:

  1. If the laws L are deterministic, x is amenable, and p is a proposition reporting what happens at some time t1 and entailing the existence of x, then p is not within x's control.

The argument is basically this. Let t0 be a time prior to the existence of x such that the existence of x entails the existence in the universe of a nomically bound entity at t0. Let L be the (conjunction of the) laws. Let W be the set of all worlds at which p happens. Since x is nomically bound and p entails that x exists, NL holds at every world in W. If w is a world in W, let pw report the complete state of the universe in w at t0. Let p0 be the disjunction of all the propositions pw as w ranges over the worlds in W. Since each of the worlds in W contains a nomically bound entity, and L is a law at each world in W, it follows that pw entails NL for w in W. Likewise, since x is nomically bound p entails NL. Moreover, pw&L entails p, and p entails the disjunction of all the pw. Therefore, p0 is logically equivalent to p. But because x is amenable, p0 is not within x's control, since it says what happens at t0, prior to x's existence. By (1), p is not within x's control.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Getting below the hood on belief and desire

For the past couple of days I have been thinking hard about a bunch of puzzling but common kinds of mental states:

  1. I think it's more likely that there are fewer rather than more universes.
  2. I don't ever want to have physical pain.
  3. Don Juan wants every woman.
Cases (2) and (3) sound like ordinary propositional desires: I desire that I never have physical pain and Don Juan desires that he have every woman. But they are not ordinary propositional desires as far as I can tell. For, obviously, (2) motivates me to ensure that I take an aspirin when I have a headache. However, taking an aspirin when I have a headache is not an effective means to the end of never having any physical pain, because some physical pain is unavoidable, so even if I prevent this one, the proposition <I never have any physical pain> will still be false. Likewise, (3) motivates Don Juan to seduce Elvira, but seducing Elvira is not an effective means to having every woman, since the end of having every woman is unattainable (and a good thing, that).

Case (1) could be a case of ordinary propositional belief: either a belief about objective or about subjective probabilities. However, I don't mean it this way. I mean (1) to entail that I think it more likely that there are 17 universes than that there are 177.

Mark Murphy suggested to me that in cases like (2) and (3), what we have is a disposition or tendency to form a desire. Thus, (3) says that when Don Juan meets Elvira, he is disposed to form the desire to have Elvira. I think this unduly complicates things, especially in the case of (2). If I am about to undergo a dental procedure, I do not need to posit a new desire to explain my motivation that the dental procedure be painless: (2) is enough. Moreover, a dispositional reading leads to the prediction that if I find out I must have a pain in a month, either at noon or at 1 pm (these are the two slots available in the dentist's schedule), I will desire not to have a pain at noon and I will desire not to have a pain at 1 pm, which desires will be conflicting. But it does not appear correct to think of my decision whether to have the pain at noon or at 1 pm as a resolution between two conflicting desires. Rather, it seems correct to say that in regard to (2), the decision as to the time makes no difference (unless there are additional facts, like that I feel pain more keenly at lunch time). Moreover, dispositions can be frustrated. If so, I might have (2) but fail to develop a desire to fail to have a pain at t. Nonetheless, surely, a pain at t would frustrate the mental state reported by (2).

I likewise do not think (1) simply expresses a disposition to assign a credence in a particular way.

Another option is to suppose that (1)-(3) summarize an infinite number of mental states, maybe like this:

  1. For all n, I assign credence 2n to the proposition that there are exactly n universes.
  2. For all t, I desire not to have a pain at t.
  3. For all x, if x is a woman, Don Juan wants x.
I think there is something to this suggestion, but it errs in two ways. First, there are only finitely many numbers and times that my mental states directly refer to. Second, there are many women that Don Juan has never heard of, and cannot have formed a de re desire for. Third, there is a modal problem. If a non-actual woman were to be actual, Don Juan would be motivated to seduce her by (3), but none of the desires reported by (6) would motivate him to seduce her. Fourth, obviously (4) is just much too precise as compared to (1).

Let's start over with a different tack. Consider the List Model of belief and desire. According to the List Model, the mind contains something like a list of propositions, some of which have a credence written beside them and some of which have a utility written beside them. The above considerations that unless the list is infinite, and maybe even if it is infinite, the List Model is not adequate to modeling all our mental states.

Here is a reason to deny the List Model given a brain view of the mind. Our brains are efficient. They don't need to store a separate desire not to have a pain at t for every different t. Surely, the brain compresses data.

Here is another idea, which I got from Trent Dougherty. Plausibly, our minds keep beliefs in bins. For instance, Trent says he's got a bin of mathematical claims told to him by me. All of these have basically the same credence. Now, I think that when Trent gets some evidence that reduces his belief in my reliability, he does not go through a whole bunch of items on his mental list, erase the credence there, and write in a new one. He simply changes the credence for the bin as a whole.

The data compression and binning considerations by themselves show that the List Model is inadequate. They show that beliefs are not fundamental. Of course, naturalists already thought that: there are, they thought, non-mental states that constitute beliefs. However, when we combine the compression and binning considerations, with cases like (1)-(3), we may be led to the interesting view that not only are beliefs and desires not fundamental simpliciter, but they are not mentally fundamental: there are more basic mental states that constitute beliefs and desires. More generally, I suspect that no propositional attitudes are fundamental.

Here is the direction in which I am exploring this suggestion. Introduce two kinds of mental states: doxins and orektins. These encode constraints, respectively, on assignments of credence and utility (or pro-attitude or value) to propositions. But they are not propositional attitudes themselves. One way to represent a doxin or an orektin is with a jussive sentence like "The credences/utilities shall be such that..." They are mental states because they have a logical complexity. Claims about credences/utilities then reduce to to claims about doxins and orektins.

The simplest kind of doxin or orektin constrains a single proposition to have a particular credence or utility. This doxin or orektin, at least when not contradicted by any other doxin or orektin, then makes it be true that the proposition has that credence or utility (it is not just a tendency to form a credence or utility; the jussive "The utility of p shall be +7" is more like a performative than an imperative).

But there are more complex doxin and orektins. For instance (1)-(3) correspond respectively to:

  1. My doxin: "The credence of <There are n universes> shall be strictly monotone decreasing in n."
  2. My orektin: "The utility of <I have a physical pain at t> shall be negative."
  3. Don Juan's orektin: "The utility of <I have woman x> shall be positive for every woman x."

There are various neat technical definitions one can make. I have many details to work out. We need a notion of a credence- and/or utility-function fitting with a set of doxins and/or orektins (and fit may come in internal and external varieties). We need the notion of a set of doxins or orektins determining a particular credence or utility value (basically: every function that fits the set of doxins or orektins assigns that value). We can then say that an agent is committed to a credence or utility value for p if some set of doxins or orektins that she has determines it. We can say that she accepts or has the credence or utility value if the determination is obvious enough, maybe. There is tricky stuff here.

Three interesting fruits of this. The first is that we have a neat solution to the Pierre problem. Recall that Pierre believes that Londres est belle, while thinking that London is ugly. Well, here is what we say about this: Pierre has two doxins:

  1. "The credence of the proposition expressed by 'Londres est belle' shall be high"
  2. "The credence of the proposition expressed by 'London is beautiful' shall be low".
While the proposition is the same in both cases, the doxins are different. The first doxin (externally) commits Pierre to the proposition that London is beautiful having high credence, while the second (externally) commits him to the proposition having low credence. Similarly, Pierre has two orektins:
  1. "The utility of the proposition expressed by 'Je suis en Londres' shall be high"
  2. "The utility of the proposition expressed by 'I am in London' shall be low.

A second fruit of this may be an account of vague beliefs and desires. Maybe my belief that Jones is bald can be represented by some vague doxin like:

  1. "The credence of Jones has at least n hairs is low for high n and high for low n."

A third fruit is that it may help explain how the Christian can believe everything taught by the Church. For the Christian can have the orektin:

  1. "The credence of anything taught by the Church is high."
And so in some sense he believes even doctrines he hasn't heard.

There is a ton of detail work needed.


The human striving for beauty is really quite amazing. I was looking at a household hints book that my wife got, no doubt in part for my edification. Quite a significant percentage of these (40% or so?) have to do with making things look better. The sheer amount of effort that goes into looks is amazing. In fact, just about every non-consummable ready-made good that I can see around me has been made at least in part with a view to looking good, say by choice of color or choice of shape. There is a pretty ugly hard drive enclosure to the right of my laptop. But it is obviously made with a view to looking good—it has a shape and color choice that someone thought to be futuristic or modern or whatever. No doubt, a few cents could have been lopped off the production costs, and some environmental benefits realized, by just having a plain monochromatic box in whatever shade of gray the plastic would be if no dye were added. Even the really, really cheap goods I order directly from China via ebay or DealExtreme tend to have decorative elements. My digital calipers, for instance, have some lines sticking out in the plastic element that seem to be designed for largely aesthetic purposes. The incremental cost per item is very small, no doubt, but the mould must have been a little slightly more expensive to design than a plainer design would have been, and probably a bit more plastic is used per item than necessary for engineering reasons.

So we value beauty greatly. Now unless we take a sceptical line here (and if we do, I doubt we can arrest the scepticism before it takes away all much of our knowledge), we need to say that beauty is indeed valuable, and we have an ability to recognize this value. This should trouble naturalists. It is difficult to see what evolutionary benefit there is in recognizing and pursuing beauty, since beauty does not appear to correlate with survival/reproduction benefits (apples are beautiful, but so are tigers). Of course, one might say that the recognition of beauty is a spandrel. But it is still a great coincidence that this spandrel should have hit on the genuinely valuable property of beauty. Probably, if one has the spandrel view of our recognition of beauty, one has to say that beauty is not an objective good that we observe (and down we go on the slippery slope of scepticism). Moreover, causal theories of reference—which seem to be the best bet of the naturalist—seem to have a difficulty with beauty. For beauty as such does not appear to be a causally efficacious kind of property.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

An objection against Aristotle and Aquinas, and a response

Before today, I would have said that the following objection to Aristotle and Aquinas' view that our actions should always have our happiness as an end is fatal: Surely it is permissible to do something good for someone solely in order that they receive the good; granted, such an act is a virtuous act, and hence a component of happiness, but it need not be done for the sake of one's happiness.

I now wonder if the following isn't a good answer. All virtue is a form of love. True love is not literally selfless. It includes unitive, benevolent and appreciative aspects. The unitive aspect cannot leave out the self. To act in love requires, among other things, that the lovingness of the action be a part of one's intention. Thus, the true lover does not merely bestow a benefit on the beloved. The true lover bestows a loving benefit on the beloved—a benefit that not only is intended to benefit the beloved, but also to bring one and the beloved closer together. This is what keeps the love of neighbor from being a cold philanthropy.

It goes similarly with virtues that are subspecies of love. When one does a kindness for another, one does not merely intend that a kindness befall the other, but one intends to do her a kindness. In a genuine intellectual community, one not only intends that the other should come to believe a truth that one takes oneself to have, but one intends to share the truth with her. When acting in courage, one does not merely intend to stand firm, but to stand courageously. In each of these cases, the exercise of the virtue itself enters into the intention. In fact, in each case, what one intends just is a particular case of the exercise of a virtue. A consequence is that "the exercise of virtue" is a success term. If one does someone a kindness or shares the truth, then a kindness is done to the other or the other receives the truth, respectively. Now happiness is multiform, and each form of it is an exercise of a virtue. Hence each virtuous actions involves precisely the intending of an exercise of a virtue, and hence is the intending of a facet of one's happiness.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Instrumental desire

Let NORID be the thesis that there is no instrumental desire (NID) or instrumental desire reduces (RID) to non-instrumental desire plus belief about what is a means to what (e.g., an instrumental desire for jogging reduces to a non-instrumental belief that jogging promotes health and a non-instrumental desire for health).

One argument for NORID is something I got from Mark Murphy. Desires explain actions. But if M is a means to an end E, we do not need to posit any desire for M to explain the pursuit of M—all we need to posit is a belief that M promotes E and a desire for E.

Here are two more arguments, perhaps unoriginal.

Argument 1: Inertia. Start with this premise:

  1. If x has an instrumental desire for M, then x believes that M is a means to something that x desires.
Suppose I have a non-instrumental desire D for M, which I believe is a means to E and to nothing else I desire, and suppose the desire does not reduce to non-instrumental desire and belief. Now, suppose I lose the belief that M is a means to E. There may be connections between desires and beliefs, but unless the kind of reduction that RID envisages holds, a mere change of belief does not immediately result in the loss of a desire. There is an inertia in the mental life. Therefore, after I have lost the belief that M is a means to E, my irreducible desire for M continues. Moreover, the same inertia makes it plausible that the desire does not immediately change in nature, from instrumental to non-instrumental. (This assumes that the difference is intrinsic. That might be a point worth questioning.) But if so, then for a while I have an instrumental desire for M and no belief that M is a means to anything that I desire. Which contradicts (1).

Argument 2: Rationality. Suppose I am perfectly rational and I non-instrumentally desire E with strength dE. Suppose I know with certainty that M is a necessary and sufficient means to E. Then, rational as I am, I will be motivated to pursue M at least with strength dE. Now suppose that I instrumentally desire M with strength dM. Surely a desire that does not reduce to non-instrumental desire and belief adds to motivation. So, now, I will be motivated to pursue M with strength greater than dE (maybe dE+dM?). But it is irrational to be motivated to pursue a means with a strength beyond one's perfectly rational desire for the end, and that was dE. So, NORID is true of a perfectly rational being. But it is plausible that NORID is also true of imperfectly rational beings. First, it would be odd if a basic kind of desire—instrumental desire—were never rational. Second, we can say the following. The above argument shows that if I have an irreducible instrumental desire for M, that desire adds to the motivational force of my desire for E combined with my certainty of the necessity and sufficiency of M. But whatever it adds to that motivational force goes over and beyond the merely instrumental motivation for M, since the merely instrumental motivation for M is fully accounted for by the motivation in favor of E combined with my certainty of the necessity and sufficiency of M.

I am grateful to Dan Johnson for showing me that my arguments do not show that there are no non-instrumental desires, but only that either there are none, or they are reducible.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How Frankfurt's example refutes compatibilism

  1. (Premise) Frankfurt's example shows that if compatibilism is true, then the Principle of Alternate Possibilities is false.
  2. (Premise) The Principle of Alternate Possibilities is true.
  3. Therefore, compatibilism is false.
Of course, Frankfurt's example was meant to show that whether or not compatibilism is true, the Principle of Alternate Possibilities is false. But because, as has been shown for instance by Widerker, the example assumed the existence of a sign that determines one to engage in a particular action, the argument failed. (There are variants on Frankfurt's example that have been proposed that fix the problem, but whether they succeed is controversial.) However it is easy to see that Frankfurt's example has refuted compatibilist versions of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (e.g., Hume's version on which if x freely does A then had x wanted not to do A, x would not have done A).
It is worth noting that (2) was accepted by classic compatibilists like Hume and Ayer (with a compatibilist reading of "able to do otherwise"). Of course, they might well have abandoned the Principle of Alternate Possibilities given Frankfurt's example. But perhaps they shouldn't have. For the Principle is deeply plausible. Instead, they should have abandoned compatibilism.
A potential response is to modify the Principle in a flicker-of-freedom way. This is open to compatibilists as well as incompatibilists.

Monday, September 20, 2010


  1. (Premise) If one has done a wrong, one ought to ask someone for forgiveness of it.
  2. (Premise) If God does not exist, there are some wrongs (e.g., the murder of someone who has no friends or relatives) that one cannot appropriately ask anyone for forgiveness of.
  3. (Premise) If one ought to do something, then one can appropriately do it.
  4. Therefore, if God does not exist, there are some things one ought to do but cannot appropriately do. (By 1 and 2)
  5. Therefore, God exists. (By 3 and 4)

Friday, September 17, 2010

What is the essential harm in murder?

Murder is wrong because it harms the victim in a particularly serious way. But what sort of harm does it impose on the victim? Some will say: takes away consciousness, severs connections with loved ones and interrupts projects. However, that on balance there is such a harm is far from obvious, while it is obvious that murder is wrong. For most people in our culture believe that the dead are conscious, and that many of the dead enjoy a life of bliss that include contact with many loved ones, and the continuation of at least the central project of one's life, namely the relationship with God. The wrongness of killing had better not be based on the controversial—and false!—thesis that there is no afterlife.

Now, one might say: Even if there is an afterlife, death interrupts many projects that involve other living people. Maybe. Yet on some views of the afterlife, the dead contribute at least as significantly to the lives of the living as they did when they were alive, for instance by praying for them. And even if death does interrupt many projects that involve other living people, that can't be central to what makes murder wrong. For consider Joe. He is a nice guy and has below average intelligence. Joe has no close friends, but he does have acquaintances. He lives a decent day-to-day life, but has no significant earthly projects that would be interrupted by death. He longs for heaven, but enjoys his daily life. By nobody's standards is he a candidate for euthanasia. Killing him would be a clear case of murder. But one cannot ground the wrongness of killing Joe in terms of projects involving other living people, because Joe just does not have enough such projects to yield the kind of moral weight that the wrongness of killing him has.

If this is right, then we should not look at the central harm in murder as involving a loss of the goods distinctive of the good human life. Rather the central harm in murder is the loss to a human being of the good of life itself—it is the destruction of the human's living body.  And hence to kill a permanently unconscious human being is wrong for the same central reason as it is wrong to kill a conscious human being.

Objection: But then the central good lost in killing the human is apparently of the same sort as the central good lost in killing a mosquito, and hence it should be just as wrong to kill a mosquito as to kill a human.

Response 1: Who loses a good can be morally relevant, over and beyond the question of what the lost good is.

Response 2: While in some sense for the mouse to breathe and for a human to breathe are the same thing, even the non-instrumental value of the mouse's breathing is not the same as the non-instrumental value of the human's breathing. For the mouse's breathing does not have as its telos the support of distinctively human activity, while the human's breathing does have as its telos the support of distinctively human activity. This value in the human's breathing is present even when, in fact, the human is unable to engage in any distinctively human activity. For there is a value in a striving for an end even when the end is not expected to be achieved, and that value derives from the value the value of the end (this is related to issues in sexual ethics), and the human's breathing strives for the end of distinctively human activity.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The value of unconscious human life

Some think that the life of a human being who has permanently and irreversibly lost consciousness has no value. Here are three arguments against tying human value and human dignity to consciousness.

Argument 1: Leibniz and Freud have taught us that much of our mental life is unconscious. If we just look at a typical person's conscious episodes what we get is a disconnected life, a series of short film clips, rather than the rich story that a typical human life is. It would be strange, then, to make the conscious life be the sole locus of value. This argument is there just to move one's intuitions away from an excessive focus on consciousness. It won't, for instance, be relevant in the case of brain damage so severe that there is good reason to think there are no unconscious mental processes (though in practice it does caution one; we know that medical personnel can be mistaken about whether a patient is conscious, and it seems to be even more difficult to determine whether there are unconscious mental processes).

Argument 2: Some living things, like trees, exhibit metabolic activity. Other living things, like earthworms, exhibit significant movement. Other living things, like geckos (I assume), exhibit conscious awareness. Yet others, like dogs, exhibit significant and flexible problem-solving skills. And others yet, of which the only example we are empirically sure are humans, exhibit the kind of sophisticated intellectual functioning and interaction that is characteristic of persons. But the later entries in this list also exhibit the activities of the earlier ones. Earthworms not only move, but also metabolize. Geckos not only are consciously aware, but also move and metabolize. Dogs not only solve problems, but are conscious, move and metabolize. And humans do all of these—and exhibit sophisticated cognition on top of it. The life of a tree, a worm, a gecko and a dog has value, and the good that is found in each of these is found in the typical life of a human. Not all of these goods require consciousness: the good of metabolism and movement is present in many animals without, as far as we know, consciousness. Thus the life of a human who does not exhibit consciousness nonetheless exhibits a number of other goods. To deny this is basically to deny that humans are animals, or to take the implausible view that the life of a tree or a worm has no value.

Argument 3: Consider the attitude one might have towards someone that one loves who has fallen dreamlessly asleep—say, one's child or one's spouse. One may fondly kiss the beloved's head, recognizing the beloved's present value—fondness always involves an element of taking the beloved to have value. If the value of humans essentially requires consciousness, there is either a mistake here or else the value is entirely constituted by the expected future consciousness. It is implausible to say that a mistake is being made, so let us consider the future-consciousness hypothesis. Suppose that the beloved is going to be executed by a tyrant as soon as she about to regain consciousness. Then there is no future consciousness (except in the afterlife, and I do not think the attitude depends on beliefs about the afterlife). But the tragic absence of a future consciousness does not make one less fond—it does not make one value the person less—but the very opposite. Nor is one's attitude as it is towards a corpse. In the case of the sleeping person who will be executed, one dreads and mourns a future loss; in the case of the corpse, one mourns an already present loss.

Final remarks: The above establishes a weak conclusion: that there is intrinsic value in an unconscious human life. One might think that this weak conclusion avails little. But I think it establishes one thing: It is a mistake to think that one can be bestowing a good on an unconscious patient by killing her. An unconscious patient is not suffering. The evils that have befallen her are evils of privation (maybe the evil of suffering is also an evil of privation, but that is more controversial)—she lacks consciousness, speech, complex two-way interaction, etc. But she still exhibits the kinds of goods that oak trees exhibit. And to kill her is to deprive her even of these goods. (A religious person might say: "It will hasten her happiness in the next life, and that is of value." But rarely do we know that a person's afterlife will be free of suffering. Besides, the hastening is not much of a benefit, because when one is unconscious, one is not waiting. According to her subjective time, she will get the goods of the afterlife just as quickly if she is killed now as when she is allowed to live for another ten years of unconsciousness.)

One might think that it is an indignity for a human to be active only at the level of plants. That, I think, is too high a view of humans. We all begin with a life of purely metabolic activity after conception, and most of us end with a life of purely metabolic activity (if only for a few seconds).

An important question (Trent Dougherty asked me about this today), but one that is not required for my weak conclusions above, is whether the metabolic life is intrinsically more valuable in the human than in the oak tree. The answer is, I think, positive, but it is a hard question. (One argument for a positive answer comes from the hylomorphic view of the human soul—our metabolic life is energized by our rational soul.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Writing about propositions

After reading up on the truth literature last fall, I've discovered some embarrassing problems in my past writing, which I've also seen in student writing, when propositions are used. Now when I see these, I cringe. It's mostly just a matter of grammar. Here are some cases of the sort of error I mean:
  1. "If p is a true proposition, then someone could know that p."
  2. "Given the truth that p, we can ask whether p is contingent or necessary."
  3. "If p explains q, and p explains r, then p explains (q and r)."
  4. "If someone knows that p, then p is true."
The easy way to see that these are ungrammatical is to substitute "that snow is white" and the like for variable letters that range over propositions and to substitute "snow is white" for variable letter that abbreviate sentences or that should be understood via substitutional quantification. If one does that, one gets ungrammaticalities:
  1. "If that snow is white is a true proposition, then someone could know that that snow is white."
(The antecedent is fine, but the consequent is ungrammatical.) And sometimes one realizes that one doesn't know how to interpret a variable letter. For instance, in (4) we could take p to be a substitutionary sentence variable, in which case the antecedent would be fine ("If someone knows that snow is white") but the consequent would be ungrammatical ("then snow is white is true"), or we could take p to be a proposition, in which case the antecedent is ungrammatical.
Many cases of this grammatical error are easy to fix. For instance, in (1) and (4), one should simply change "knows that p" to "knows p". (This introduces an ambiguity between knowing p in the "to be the case" sense, and being acquainted with the abstract proposition p, but context should take care of that.) In (2), one changes "the truth that p" to "the truth p". Alternately, in (1), (2) and (4), one can use sentential variables instead, perhaps changing p to s to mark this, and making the requisite changes ("If that s is a true proposition..."; "... whether it is contingent or necessary that s"; "then it is true that s").
However, (3) is trickier to fix up. The problem is that "and" is a sentential operator, while q and r are propositions, so we get "(that snow is white) and (that grass is green)", say. An easy thing is to use sentential variables, and then say a little more verbosely:
  1. If that s explains that u and that s explains that v, then that s explains that s&v.
However, this limits the generality of (3) to those propositions that can be expressed by a sentence. Maybe that's all propositions, but this is not obvious. (This is a general problem with using sentential variables instead of propositional ones.) Another move is to replace "p and q" with "the conjunction of p and q". This fine in this case, and may be stylistically the best solution, but it won't work well with more complex logical forms.
I think the right move to take is to make "&" not be a connective, but a function that takes a pair of propositions and returns their conjunction. If one uses this convention, then one can replace "p and q" with "p & q", and all is well. One may not even need to be explicit about using this convention.
Poor writing as in (1)-(4) may lead to philosophical problems, though hopefully usually it doesn't. Here is a somewhat more serious issue. One way that some authors—and I am pretty sure I've done this myself—handle the problems in (1)-(4) is by using truth. Thus, they might replace (4) by:
  1. "If someone knows that p is true, then p is true."
This neatly avoids the ambiguity of "knows p". However, (6) does not say that if someone knows a proposition p, then p is true, which is what (4) was intended to say. Rather, (6) says that if someone knows the second-order proposition that p is true, then the first-order proposition p is true. This is, of course, true, but does not capture (4). For instance, from (4) one should be able to derive:
  1. If someone knows that snow is white, then it is true that snow is white.
But this does not follow from (6), since someone who knows that snow is white might not know that the proposition that snow is white is true (e.g., a small child or a philosopher). In general, one cannot in a non-extensional context replace a first order proposition p with the second order claim that p is true.
This is all obvious, but somehow it wasn't taught to me when I was in grad school.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rites of initiation and the problem of evil

As an initiation rite, Brazil's Satere-Mawe people make gloves with hundreds of bullet ants woven in, stinger pointing inward, and the boy who wants to become a man is expected to wear them for ten minutes, and the incredible pain lasts for hours. According to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, the bullet ant sting is the worst of the Hymenopteran stings. Schmidt describes the experience of a single sting as follows: "Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel." (Here is a man dedicated to science.)

Now, consider this. The boy suffers horribly for a large part of a day, but then he's a man for half a century. The memory of having stood up to close to the worst pain that nature fling at him has a deep value. How much value? It need not be so great, actually, for the ordeal to be worth it. Let us suppose that the disvalue of the suffering is 10,000 units. Then as long as he gets a mere four units of value from the suffering for every week of his life (say, he remembers the experience four times a week, and it gives him one unit of value each time), it is worth it. The longer his future life as a man, the greater the value. (This is just for priming intuitions. In fact, we need to contend with incommensurability.)

Now, maybe, in this case the pain is just much too great to pay off sufficiently in added meaningfulness over a future 50 years. Having skimmed (too painful to read carefully!) the description of the pain, I myself doubt it is worth it. Though it has to be noted that unless the adult men of that community are by and large sadists, in their judgment it is worth it, and they're better judges than wimpy I! Still, let us grant that it's not worth it.

But still, maybe a minute of wearing the ant-gloves would be worth it, if it made more meaningful a future manhood of fifty years. Scaling, ten minutes might be worth it if it made more meaningful a future manhood of five hundred years.

The point here is that a painful initiation ritual will be worthwhile if it makes more meaningful a future state of sufficient length. But now suppose that I am going to live for a million years. Then it does not seem absurd to say that a year of quite severe suffering could be worthwhile as an initiation ritual. Suppose I am going to live for a billion years. Then a hundred years of suffering might well be worthwhile, given the added value over the course of the subsequent 999,999,900 years.

But in fact if theism is true, then very likely we will live forever, since it is very likely that a good God would want persons to live forever. If so, then a suffering-filled initiation ritual that lasts for about a century would surely be justified, even if it only added a little value to each subsequent day (as long as the value did not quickly tend to zero in the limit as time goes to infinity).

Let's put it this way. It seems not improbable that if God made a person that was going to blissfully exist for a year, God could have justification to allow that person to suffer intensely for a second first. If he made a person that was going to blissfully exist for a ten years, he might easily find justification to allow that person to suffer for ten seconds first. And, by the same reckoning, if the person were to exist for three billion years, he might find justification to allow her to suffer intensely for about 90 years. After all, 90 years is to 3 billion years as a second is to a year.

Or consider it this way. Suppose you're going to live for three billion years, but every year you will experience a second of intense suffering, in a way that contributes to the meaningfulness of the rest of your life. It does not seem absurd to suppose that God could have a reason to arrange things so. But if so, then it likewise should not seem absurd to suppose that God could arrange it so you'd suffer 90 years, and then live out 2,999,999,910 years of bliss. And if we live not just for three billion years, but forever, this is even easier to imagine.

In the face of eternity, a finite amount of suffering is just a blip.

But does it not beg the question to suppose eternal life in responding to the problem of evil? Not at all. The problem of evil is an argument against theism. Theism makes eternal life for any created persons very likely. Thus, if the problem of evil is to make a significant dent in the probability of theism, the problem of evil has to work even if there is eternal life, or else a good argument against eternal life is needed.

Internet Explorer 8 problems

One or two users reported problems accessing my blog with Internet Explorer 8.  I use Google Chrome (highly recommend!) or Firefox on all the x86 systems I use regularly, so I wasn't seeing any problems.  IE 7 is also fine.  I downloaded IE 8, and the problem was with the tag cloud.  So I had to replace it with a list, not wanting to learn javascript to debug it.  But it should be fine.  I've also decreased the number of posts that show up when you just go to  This might be helpful with respect to decreasing load time for users who are viewing with phones.  Please comment with any other usability changes you'd like.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Backwards causation

It is commonly thought that a cause C metaphysically cannot have an effect in its past. I see two simple ways of making sense of this principle in a relativistic framework:
  1. A cause can only have effects in the future half lightcone centered on it.
  2. A cause cannot have effects in the past half lightcone centered on it.
But I think neither of these is a plausible candidate for a metaphysical principle. Consider what (1) and (2) respectively say in a flat spacetime:
  1. A cause at (x,t) can only have an effect when the effect is at a spacetime location (y,u) such that |xy|<c(ut).
  2. A cause at (x,t) cannot have an effect at a spacetime location (y,u) when |xy|<c(tu).
But these just don't seem to be plausible candidates for a metaphysical principle, though I suppose one might think that they could be consequences of a physical principle. The same applies to the more complicated versions we'd need in a non-flat spacetime.
If we want (1) or (2) to be non-trivial metaphysical principles, we need to replace the references to lightcones by something of more metaphysical than physical significance. A plausible approach is to define the future half lightcone of a as the set of spacetime points states of affairs at which can be affected by a cause at a. But then (1) becomes simply the claim that causes can have effects only in spacetime, which is controversial and fails to capture the backwards causation intuition.
Now (2) is the claim that that a cause at a spacetime location b cannot affect anything at a spacetime location a when a is such that something at a could affect something at b. This is, in effect, a principle tailored to rule out causal loops. But if that's the intuition behind it, we might as well just say there are no causal loops, and be done with it. And if we do that, then we will have ruled out some, but not all, instances of backwards causation.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gratuitous evils

  1. (Premise) There are no gratuitous evils.
  2. (Premise) If there is no God, some evils are gratuitous.
  3. Therefore, there is a God.
Here, a gratuitous evil is one that doesn't serve some greater purpose, or something like that. Now, one might think this is question-begging: that the only reason to believe (1) is that one believes (3). But I think not. A lot of people have the intuition that "there is a reason for everything". And they don't mean by that that there is an explanation for everything—they aren't just asserting the standard Principle of Sufficient Reason. They mean that there is a justifying reason—that the evils in their lives contribute in important ways to the value of the lives, etc.

Here is a hypothesis. For some (a few? many? I have no idea) atheists, the conviction that there are gratuitous evils is a consequence of, not reason for, atheism. There is the natural intuition that there is a reason for everything, but a belief in atheism is rationally incompatible with that intuition, so the intuition is abandoned.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do I believe the multiplication table?

Most entries, like 8x8, in the multiplication table I know off the top of my head. But some may require a quick calculation. If you ask me what 7x8 is, I may do 49+7=56, and if you ask me what 6x9 is, I might do 70-6=54.

But is there really an important distiction here? You ask me what 8x4 is. Just about right away, 32 comes to mind. But what if, in fact, my mind (or brain?) unconsciously calculated it: 64/2=32? After all, I am more confident of my knowledge of 8x8 than of 8x4, and I think it comes to mind faster and more naturally. And even in my 7x8 calculation, there were unconscious elements. I don't have to consciously think: 7x8 = 7x(7+1) = 7x7 + 7x1 = 49+7 = 56. I just consciously think: 7x7=49, 49+7=56. So along with the conscious processing, there is unconscious application of the distributive law. And hence it is quite a reasonable hypothesis that when I am asked about 8x4, I might indeed be making a quick unconscious calculation. And that would help explain why I can call to mind 8x8 faster than 8x4. Furthermore, if the brain is at all like a computer and if the brain is where memories are housed, information is stored in some encoded and maybe even compressed form. There will thus always be a computational process of some sort when making stored data usable.

Actually, in the above I wasn't completely correct. I think I actually do have 7x8 and 6x9 memorized. But normally (though not now, since the examples are fresh in mind) recalling them from memory takes more time and effort, and I feel it is less reliable than doing the quick calculations. However, one could easily imagine that I don't have them memorized at all, and in the following I will counterfactually assume that.

Now, it is tempting to say that I don't believe that 7x8=56 if I have to actually compute it. But if computation is involved in almost all processes of recall, then it seems we believe very little at all, except the things we're occurrently thinking. And that's absurd. For one, it seems plausible that beliefs are needed for justification, and so if we have so few beliefs, and yet many of our beliefs require many other beliefs for their justification, then fewer of our beliefs end up justified than is right.

Perhaps, then, we should say that there is a difference between calling and recalling to mind. But that distinction is going to be hard to draw.

So maybe what we should say is this. When calling something to mind would involve an unconscious process, then we have a case of belief, but when the process would be conscious, there is no belief until the proposition is called to mind. Now the idiot savant who can do very big arithmetical calculations unconsciously counts as believing all the answers ahead of calculation. That doesn't seem intuitively right. However, whether we call it a belief or not, I do think we should not in any important way distinguish the case of unconscious arithmetical computation from more ordinary cases of recall. And once we realize that unconscious computation can be very complex, we really shouldn't distinguish conscious from unconscious computability in any normatively important way.

Here are some potential consequences. First, we might be pushed to some sort of reliabilism, perhaps of a proper function sort. For there ought to be a distinction between justified and unjustified belief, and if we do not distinguish belief from what one has a skill to compute, then we need a similar account of the justification of the outputs of that skill. But that account, very likely, will involve the reliability of the skill. Second, if we want to maintain some distinction between non-occurrent belief and skill at generating occurrent belief, this distinction is likely to be a vague one, involving the amount of computation. In particular, I suspect that the distinction may not match up with what we want to say about knowledge. So it may be that knowledge doesn't entail belief—maybe knowledge merely entails the possession of a skill of calling to mind.

I am not particularly attached to the conclusions. I just want to provoke some discussion about the phenomena.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Do Aquinas and Scotus disagree on univocal predication of God?

Duns Scotus defines univocal predication as follows: P is univocal provided that Px&~Px is always a contradiction, and hence P can be used in multiple lines of a syllogism. Famously, Aquinas says that no positive term can be univocally predicated of a creature and of God, while Scotus says that some can be univocally predicated, for instance "being". I suggest, however, that the disagreement could be merely verbal, due to the two philosophers using the word "univocal" differently.

For here is a way of developing Aquinas' position. When I attribute wisdom to God and when I attribute wisdom to Socrates, the truth grounds of my attribution are different but related. In the case of God, the truth ground of my attribution is the simple God, who is identical with wisdom. In the case of Socrates, the ground is Socrates' accident of wisdom inhering in Socrates. We have a ground or truthmaker heterogeneity here: the same claim is true for different reasons. If the grounds were completely different, the word "wisdom" would be equivocal. However, the grounds are not different but analogically related, and hence "wisdom" is analogical.

Now, let us plug this into Scotus' definition. "Wisdom" will be univocal in Scotus' sense if and only if it is a contradiction to suppose of x that x is wise and that x is not wise. But on Aquinas' view, as I read him, this is a contradiction. For either x is God or x is not God. If x is God, then "x is wise" and "x is not wise" are claims that are true if and only if, respectively, x is or is not identical with wisdom, and hence x cannot both be wise and non-wise. If x is not God, then "x is wise" and "x is not wise" are claims that are true if and only if, respectively, x has or does not have wisdom, and hence x cannot both be wise and non-wise. In either case, a contradiction ensues from supposing that x is wise and not wise.

The analogy thesis on my reading is about the grounds of the predication. What grounds there must be for the predication to be true differs depending on whether the subject of predication is divine. But this does not allow for a contradiction.

Consider the following predicate H: "if ___ is an animal, then it is a healthy animal, and if it is urine, then it is indicative of health, and if it is food then it is productive of health, and ..." This is meant to be an expansion of Aquinas' and Aristotle's favorite example of an analogical predicate, "is healthy". But now notice that while the grounds of "x is H" differ depending on what x is, nonetheless no x can both satisfy H and not satisfy H. That a horse is healthy and that its urine is healthy tell us different things about the horse and urine, respectively, but in the case of the horse, only one thing is said by attribution of H, and in the case of urine, only one thing is said by attribution of H.

Granted, we might expand the example and allow that there are two senses of "The horse is healthy". In the primary sense, it means that the horse is in good physical condition, while in the secondary sense, it means that if the horse were made into food, that food would be healthy. I am not aware of Aquinas allowing such a case, however. So it is quite possible that Aquinas thinks that in analogical predication, only one kind of ground is allowed for each particular subject of predication. And if so, then the predicate satisfies Scotus' definition of univocity, and can be used as the middle term in a syllogism.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tensed propositions and conversation

According to the doctrine of Tensed Propositions (TP), which is accepted almost all presentists, when I say "It is night" at noon and when I say it at midnight, I express the same proposition, which is true at midnight and false at noon. The opponents of TP are apt to say that "It is night" is indexical, and as said at noon and at midnight expresses different propositions. TP is compatible with there being untensed propositions, like <It is night at t7>, but typical tensed sentences in English express tensed propositions.

Here is an argument against tensed propositions:

  1. (Premise) To be in agreement with what someone has said is to accept the proposition that she expressed.
  2. (Premise) If p is a tensed proposition, then x's accepting p at t1 and y's accepting p at t2, where t1 and t2 are different, does not constitute agreement between x and y.
  3. There are no tensed propositions.

Argument for (1): To agree is to accept what was said. But what was said was the proposition that was expressed.

Argument for (2): Suppose I say: "It is now exactly 7 p.m." and twenty seconds later you sincerely say: "It is now exactly 7 p.m." If there are tensed propositions, then both of our utterances express the same tensed proposition. But surely your assertion expresses a disagreement with me. The point generalizes to all tensed propositions. Granted, sometimes, especially if t1 and t2 are within a relevant time period (say, on the same day, and p is about "today") x will be right in believing p if and only if y is right in believing p, but nonetheless x and y's agreement does not consist in mutual acceptance of p.

Even if one does not think that (1) is always true, it is very plausible that typically in communicating we are trying to communicate a proposition. But also typically, our sentences are tensed. So if TP is true, then typically we are communicating tensed propositions. But it seems essential to communicating a proposition that agreement should be constituted by mutual acceptance of that proposition. But in the case of tensed propositions that isn't what agreement is constituted by (maybe it's constituted by accepting the second-order claim that the proposition was true when it was expressed). So it can't be that our typical communication involves tensed propositions. Hence, TP is false.

Josh Rasmussen said that arguments along these lines came up independently in conversation with Peter van Inwagen.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Unconsciousness and the problem of evil

Suppose there is no afterlife, and God offers you a deal. He'll put you in a coma for a year, but give you two extra years of conscious life to compensate. Pretty good deal, you go for it. Moreover, God surely has the right to do the year of coma plus two years of conscious life thing even without asking you. We have no rights of autonomy before God. He may need a good reason to do it, but it does not have to be a very serious reason. Your family's learning to appreciate you a little might easily suffice.

Elevate this to a principle:

  1. God does not need a very serious reason to make you unconscious for a year when he gives you two years of conscious life to compensate.
Suppose now that God has already promised you eternal life in part to compensate for various evils that might befall you. In that case, it seems to follow that he does not need a very serious reason to make you unconscious for a year. This makes the task of theodicy for comas much easier. We can just partition the infinite number of years in the afterlife in such a way that different bits of it compensate for different bits of unconsciousness in this life.

Here's another way of putting the point. If you are going to have an infinite conscious future, your infinite conscious future is no less for your sleeping through a year. Granted, that exact year that you slept through has been missed. But the subsequent years are different for your having slept, and you wouldn't have had those years had you not slept through that one.

Now, one might think: Therefore we have the right to make others unconscious without a very serious reason, if we think everybody has eternal life. But that does not follow. First, we can have rights of autonomy against each other that are not rights against God. Second, by making a person unconscious for a year, we typically do decrease the amount of her conscious earthly life. Of course, so does God if he makes a person be unconscious for a year. But what is most problematic in decreasing the amount of someone's conscious earthly is that it decreases the time available for the tasks that God calls the person to. But God can easily take all that into account (e.g., by increasing the intensity of grace during the other years).

If this is right, it makes it much easier to generate a theodicy for comas. But I think the same reasoning may apply to anything that is less bad than being unconscious for life. For instance, it is clearly better to be conscious but mentally challenged than to be unconscious for life. And many pains are better than being unconscious for life.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Haecceities and presentism

The following argument is valid:

  1. (Premise) If there are no haecceities, then there are no propositions de re about non-existent individuals.
  2. (Premise) If presentism is true, then Seabiscuit is a non-existent individual.
  3. (Premise) That Seabiscuit was essentially a horse is a proposition de re about Seabiscuit.
  4. Therefore, if presentism is true, there are haecceities.
If we add that there are no haecceities, we can conclude that presentism is false.

However, I think (1) is false, because I think contingent entities are wholly individuated by the histories of their origins, where their histories are described in wholly general terms (i.e., without de re reference to any individuals). Consequently, if H is such a history of Seabiscuit, the proposition in (3) can be expressed: "Necessarily, if H is instantiated, it is instantiated by a horse."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Best Friend

I just finished watching My Best Friend while running on the treadmill. I really liked it. It's like a romantic comedy, but about philia, not eros. Touching.

Non-cognitivism and probability

I was looking at a paper of Pruss in the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy, and he ends it with an interesting remark. He says that probabilities are in general a problem for non-cognitivist accounts. For instance, he says, that if emotivism is right, then it's hard to assign a sense to abortion's being wrong having such-and-such a probability.

I was thinking about this, and it could make a useful template for anti-non-cognitivist arguments. For instance, suppose you think that necessity claims are an expression but not assertion of ungiveupability. But what sense, then, would there be in saying that the evidence indicates with moderate probability that necessarily freedom requires alternate possibility?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Acting under the guise of the good

Suppose you pay me a thousand dollars to do something evil, and I lie to a friend to earn that thousand dollars. Why did I lie? Because it was evil. Why was I doing something evil? Because it would earn me a thousand dollars. This shows that it is possible to do something evil because it is evil. However, note also that this example does not challenge the doctrine that one always acts under the guise of the good. For one lies because it is evil, yes. But, if we give more detail, we need to say: because the evil of the lie is instrumentally good. So, interestingly, the doctrine that one acts under the guise of the good is quite compatible with intending something under the description "is an evil", and choosing it because it is an evil, as long as that is not a description of the ultimate end.