Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sola fide and evidential decision theory

Plausibly, there is a strong correlation between good deeds and salvation. Both are the fruit of God's grace. If evidential decision theory is correct, then the fact that good deeds correlate with salvation makes it rational to do good deeds. Thus, if evidential decision theory is correct, then it makes rational sense to do good deeds for self-interested reasons, even if the good deeds in no way causally contribute to salvation.

What conclusions could be drawn from this? Well, this means that even if sola fide were true, and good deeds in no way contributed to salvation, nonetheless it would be self-interestedly rational to do good deeds for the sake of salvation. This in turn means that those Protestants whose motivation for embracing sola fide is that the doctrine makes it not make sense to do good deeds for the sake of salvation either need to reject either evidential decision theory or their motivation for sola fide. Or one might draw a more ecumenical conclusion. If we all accept evidential decision theory, then our stance on the metaphysical question of sola fide need not affect our practices and motivations: Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics and Pelagians can all consistently do good deeds for the sake of salvation.

The above argument would be particularly interesting if it turned out that causal decision theory requires indeterminism. For the above argument might give my Calvinist friends reason to reject evidential decision theory, and hence to embrace causal decision theory, and hence to reject determinism. (A Calvinist does not need to be a determinist. She could embrace the position that W. Grant Matthews attributes to Aquinas in a fairly recent issue of Faith and Philosophy.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Newcomb and medical Newcomb

Leaving aside Egan's counterexamples to causal decision theory, which I need to think about more before I say anything, it seems to me that one way to view the debate between the causalist and the evidentialist is whether one should make the medical Newcomb cases or the standard Newcomb cases drive one's intuitions. Here is a reason to make the medical Newcomb cases drive one's intuitions: medical Newcomb cases are much closer to reality. While it is hard to imagine reliable prediction of choices, it is much easier to imagine factors that simultaneously affect behavior and other outcomes. Our intuitions are more reliable about cases that happen in worlds closer to ours, and medical Newcomb cases happen in worlds closer to ours.

In fact, medical Newcomb cases might very well happen in the actual world. Imagine the following story. There is a disease D that in its late stages horribly painful, incurable and fatal. In early stages it is very hard to detect. It has only one cure: regular jogging in early stages can cure it 20% of the time. This has resulted in the following evolutionary adaptation. Early stage sufferers from D are more likely to jog regularly. I am now trying to decide between regular jogging and regular biking. Suppose both are equally healthy in all other respects. Surely I should say to myself that jogging has the added benefit of reducing the risk of D, and go ahead and jog. But if I am an evidentialist, and the correlation between jogging and early stage D is strong enough, it can be the case that the expected value of jogging is lower than the expected value of not jogging. So evidential decision theory then leads me to act contrary to a very sensible evolutionary adaptation by avoiding the one and only thing that could cure D, and to do this in the name of avoiding D. That is perverse. (There is a way in which this case is a kind of reverse of the Egan cases. This fact may be important for figuring out what to do with the Egan cases.)

(Regular jogging is somewhat complex here, because it's a policy or habit rather than single act. We can replace jogging with eating unripe pears, or something like that.)

It would be quite unsurprising if there were such evolutionary adaptations. It would be surprising if there were actual Newcomb cases. It is more important for our decision theory to give us what are intuitively the right answers in these medical cases than in the standard Newcomb cases.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Charity and God

Last night, I led an Honors Colloquium on C. S. Lewis's Four Loves. Lewis's main point is that Affection, Friendship and Eros all run the danger of falling into a whole host of problems which he describes with great insight. There is only one solution: charity. It is charity that orders all the loves, keeping them faithful to themselves—keeping Friendship from usurping the role of Eros, keeping Affection from imposing on those close to one, keeping Eros from becoming a tyrant, and so on. Note that this is an empirically informed claim: it is informed by the universal human experience of the difficulties of love, and centuries of Christian experience in finding charity to be a remedy for these ills. Suppose that these quasi-empirical[note 1] claims are correct. Then we have the following plausible argument, which Lewis does not himself make in this book:

  1. (Premise) Ordering one's loves in charity is a good solution to the ills of love.
  2. (Premise) Ordering one's loves in a love for an imaginary being is not a good solution to the ills of love.
  3. (Premise) Charity is a love for God.
  4. (Premise) Either God is imaginary or God exists.
  5. Ordering one's loves in a love for God is a good solution to the ills of love. (1 and 3)
  6. God is not imaginary. (2 and 5)
  7. God exists. (4 and 6)

This argument is closely related to this one.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Compatibilism and punishment

  1. Necessarily, a punishment of x is only just if the occurrence of the punishment is at least partly explained by something x is culpable for. (Premise)
  2. Necessarily, if x is guilty of having committed a horrific crime, x is unrepentant and unforgiven, and we believe on overwhelming evidence that x is guilty of the crime, then it is ceteris paribus just to punish x on the basis of the evidence. (Premise)
  3. If compatibilism holds, it is possible to believe on overwhelming evidence that x is guilty of having committed a crime, without that belief or evidence being even partly explained by anything x is culpable for. (Premise)
  4. If compatibilism holds, it is possible to justly punish x without the punishment being even partly explained by anything x is culpable for. (Premise, justified by 2 and 3 and some uncontroversial modal intuitions)
  5. But the consequent of (4) is false. (By 1)
  6. Therefore, compatibilism is false. (By 4 and 5)

The intuition behind (1) is that the punishment needs to be a result of the crime. Part of the intuition behind (2) is that what matters for justice is that the evidence be good, not what sort of evidence it is. But (3) observes that if compatibilism were true, we could have cases where our overwhelming evidence for a crime is the state of the world prior to the agent's coming into existence.

One might want to modify (1) by subjectifying it: justice only requires that one believe that the punishment would be a result of the crime. That's fine—the rest of the argument adapts to that version of (1).

This argument has an interesting consequence. It implies that one could not be criminally culpable for an action if that action follows with overwhelming probability from a prior state that one is not culpable for. This means that not only does the full causal determination of a wicked deed by an earlier state one is not culpable for take away culpability, but overwhelmingly strong probabilification will significantly decrease culpability.

The argument also rules out some Molinist views (I am grateful to Trent Dougherty for pointing out basically this)—namely those on which the truth values of the conditionals of freedom are never explained by the truth values of the consequents.

If I were a compatibilist, I think I'd deny (2). I'd insist that at least some of the evidence of the crime be explanatorily posterior to the crime. Not for epistemological reasons, but to ensure the "resultingness" of the punishment. This would, however, have the odd consequence that a person might become justly convictable by a piece of evidence that lowers the probability that she committed the crime. For suppose that all the evidence that has been given was about the state of the universe long prior to the defendant's crime, and that this evidence made it 99.99999999999% likely that the defendant committed the crime. We could now imagine a piece of testimony by an eyewitness to the crime that simultaneously defeats some of the evidence from the previous state of the universe and replaces it with slightly weaker evidence that is, nonetheless, explanatorily dependent on the crime, so that now the evidence makes it only 99.9999999998% likely that the defendant committed the crime. Since that's a probability high enough for conviction (at least in a non-capital case), and since now we have the explanatory connection requirement satisfied, it follows that this evidence which lowered the probability of guilt has made the criminal justly convictable.

Another sloppy way to define compatibilism

One might say:

  1. Compatibilism is the doctrine that some deterministic world contains a free agent.
But some libertarians will agree with (1). For suppose, as many libertarians do, that choices are instantaneous, and suppose that simultaneous causation is possible. Then we can imagine a world that comes into existence at time t0, and at time t0 there comes into existence Fred, an agent who in the first moment of his existence freely chooses to do A, and suppose that the choice simultaneously effects the existence of a deterministic process that will lead to A. We can imagine that everything unrolls deterministically in this world from t0 on, and that Fred is the only free agent in this world. Then this world contains a free agent, and that free agent's action is not determined, but nonetheless determinism holds. For determinism says that later states are determined by earlier states. It does not say that the initial states are determined by anything.

What this means, I think, is that we want to define compatibilism in something like this way:

  1. Compatibilism is the doctrine that some deterministic world contains a free agent whose beginning is posterior to the beginning of that world.
Or, perhaps:
  1. Compatibilism is the doctrine that some world contains an agent all of whose choices and actions are strongly causally necessitated but who performs at least one free choice or action.
(For "strongly causally necessitated", see the previous post.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010


The following is a standard form of argument, but I've been trying to get to what I think is the most easily defensible, and least open to counterexamples, principle to base it on:

  1. If x is responsible for an event E and E is causally necessitated without overdetermination, then x is responsible for at least one event causally upstream of E.
(Here, read "x is responsible for E" as "x is to some degree responsible for E".) Suppose now x is responsible for an event. Then unless x has an infinite history, there must be a first event x is responsible for. Let E be that first event. It follows from (1) that either E is not causally necessitated or E is overdetermined. Say that an agent is "like us" if the agent has a finite history that does not begin at the beginning of the universe's existence. Then:
  1. Responsibility in an agent like us requires either (a) that the first event the agent is responsible for is overdetermined; or (b) causal determinism is false.
I think it is also plausible that:
  1. Compatibilisms do not require overdetermination.
Given this, we can conclude that compatibilism (with respect to causal determinism) about agents like us is false.

It would be nice if we could handle the overdetermination option more neatly. Here is one way to do it. Say that an event E is strongly causally necessitated provided that it is causally necessitated, and if it is overdetermined, then each of the sets of overdeterming causes causally necessitates it. For instance, E's being strongly causally necessitated rules out the hypothesis that E is overdetermined by A and B, where A causally necessitates E while B causes E without causally necessitating E. If causal determinism holds, then every non-initial event is strongly causally necessitated. Then, we can replace (1) with:

  1. If x is responsible for an event E and E is strongly causally necessitated, then x is responsible for at least one event causally upstream of E.
It follows from (5) (with some work) that if an agent like us is responsible for E, then causal determinism is false.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Suppose an action is necessitated by the agent's beliefs and motivational states. Under what conditions is the agent responsible for this action? Most people, compatibilists and incompatibilists alike (Frankfurt is an exception), will say that when the agent's psychological states in relevant respects came from brainwashing, then the agent is not responsible for the action. But of course brainwashing is not the only option here. Compatibilists have to work really hard to say what sorts of histories of the agent's psychological states exclude the agent's responsibility for the action resulting from the states, and there is always the worry that they missed out some particular freedom-cancelling effect.

Step back from the details of particular compatibilist proposals (I think the best one is Mele's compatibilist sheddability condition). What are compatibilists trying to rule out by giving their conditions? It seems to me that, even though they will deny this, what they are trying to rule out is cases where the necessitating psychological states are ones that the agent is not relevantly responsible for. Stipulatively, take an action not to be a psychological state. Then there is a simple principle that we should be able to agree on:

  1. An agent is responsible for her action necessitated by the agent's psychological states if and only if the action is caused non-deviantly by the psychological states and the agent is responsible for relevant features of the psychological states.
If you don't think what I've listed is sufficient for responsibility, delete the "if and". My suggestion now is that what the compatibilist really should be searching for are necessary or sufficient conditions under which the agent is responsible for relevant features of the psychological states. Bracket the question whether the compatibilist is likely to be successful. We now have the following logical consequence of (1):
  1. An agent is responsible for an action necessitated by the agent's psychological states only if the agent is responsible for some feature of these psychological states.
Now add the following principle, inspired by Galen Strawson:
  1. An agent is responsible for a feature of a psychological state only if the agent is responsible for some action causally upstream from that psychological state.
From (2) and (3) we conclude that if every action of Sabina is necessitated by her psychological states, and Sabina has performed only finitely many actions, and there are no causal circles, then Sabina is not responsible for any of her actions.

A technical trickiness in the above is that maybe it's not correct to speak of an action as necessitated by psychological states. For it may be that an action also requires external causes: shooting an arrow requires also a bow. I suppose I could replace "action" by "choice" in the above. Or I could stipulate what I mean by "necessitated by psychological states" in such a way as to allow that there can be external enabling conditions.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Promises to non-existent people

The bindingness of promises after the death of the promisee is debated by philosophers, mainly I think because of the intuition that one can't owe anything to someone who doesn't exist (if I promise something to the Tooth Fairy, I don't need to keep to it). But in fact it seems quite obvious that it is possible to be bound by a promise to someone who doesn't presently exist. Sam is about to go on a trip, traveling until the beginning of next month. He has me promise to take care of his pet rat until his return. It surely does not matter for the bindingness of my promise whether Sam is planning on traveling by car, plane, donkey cart... or time-machine. But if he travels by time-machine to the beginning of next month, then as soon as he has departed it will be true to say that he doesn't presently exist. Yet, surely, he will be right to blame me for breaking my promise if five minutes after his departure I let his rat out to be eaten by the cats, possums and maybe snakes that roam our neighborhood.

If time travel is impossible, I can run the argument with gappy existence. Maybe you don't exist when frozen. Sam has himself frozen until next month. Etc.

Still, the idea that one can't owe something to someone who doesn't exist is plausible. If we are eternalists, we simply say that this principle holds when we talk about existence simpliciter, but not when we talk about present existence. Promises to those who currently don't exist may, however, make trouble for presentists.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Graduate school admissions

I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea for US philosophy graduate schools to switch from the GRE to the LSAT. At Georgetown, before my time, my colleagues once did an informal study of what information available at admission-time correlated with graduate school success. They found only two statistically significant correlations:

  1. scores on the analytic scale positively correlated with success; and
  2. the number of undergraduate courses in philosophy that the student had taken negatively correlated with success.
I think (2) can be ignored. It could, for instance, be an artefact of the fact that the mini-study was done on admitted students, and admitted students with few undergraduate courses would probably have to be really good in other ways to get admitted, or would be less likely to have simply naturally drifted into graduate school as a continuation of undergraduate classes.

But (1) strikes me as important. And the GRE has eliminated the analytic section, replacing it with an analytic writing section. The analytic writing scores have low resolution (0-6, in intervals of 0.5). Anecdotal evidence suggests that differences in the analytic writing component do not correlate with the philosophical quality of the student—one knows of really impressive undergraduate students whose scores were pretty low, say 4. The LSAT, on the other hand, continues to have questions that test reasoning skills in the way the old analytic section of the GRE did, and even some that, from the samples that I've seen, combine logical reasoning with reading comprehension in a way that intuitively would very nicely reflect important aspects of philosophical abilities.

Furthermore, there are claims that I've seen that philosophy majors do better on the LSAT than other majors. This suggests that the LSAT is measuring something relevant to philosophy.

Alas, this is not a switch that any one Department can do on its own, and there may be university-wide policy problems. It would need to be done by the profession at large. Though, perhaps, some Departments could make the move of encouraging students to submit LSAT scores in addition to or, if the administration allows, instead of the GRE.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

St. Augustine's alternative to the use-mention distinction

  1. Man consists of three letters.
  2. Man is a rational animal.
Both (1) and (2) are perfectly fine sentences of spoken English, and they are true. But we don't want to conclude from (1) and (2) that:
  1. Some animal consists of three letters.
The standard contemporary solution is to say that "man" in (1) is only mentioned, while in (2) it is used, and in writing to distinguish by using quotation marks.

St. Augustine was aware of the difficulty, but his solution was, at least on its surface, different. He posited that the word "man" (or at least "homo") has two meanings. One of its meanings is something like rational animal, while the other meaning is something like the word consisting of the sequence of letters M, A and N. We have a systematic ambiguity running through our language: each word, in addition to its dictionary meaning, also means itself. (An interesting consequence which Augustine I think did not note is that each verb is also a noun.)

We could imagine accepting Augustine's solution, and then when necessary marking the distinction by the use of subscripts: man1 is a rational animal and man2 has three letters.

But perhaps we have accepted Augustine's solution? Instead of subscripting a "2", we superscript a quotation mark before and after when we mean the word, and instead of subscripting a "1", we leave the word unadorned. Thus, man is an animal, but "man" is not.

So, is there any difference between Augustine's proposal and the use-mention distinction? Maybe this much: Identifying the concept of the mention of a bit of language saves us from multiplying our vocabulary indefinitely by having to introduce the infinite set of nouns "'man'", "'a man sits'", "'a man sits or floats'", "'a man sits or floats or sits'", and so on.

But since "'a man sits'" surely is a noun denoting "a man sits", we still have introduced an infinite number of nouns. However, we did so by means of a quotation-functor which systematically takes any bit of language and returns a new bit of language denoting that bit of language. So all that the use-mention distinction comes down to is that sometimes bits of language are in the scope of a quotation-functor and sometimes they're not. And it is an accident of the quotation-functor of English, both spoken and written, that the sounds of the denoted bit of language are contained in the noun denoting the bit of language, and this accident we describe by talking of the "use-mention distinction". We could have had a different kind of quotation-functor, for instance using the Goedel number of a bit of language in golden ink to denote that bit of language, and forbidding the use of golden ink for anything else. And then it wouldn't make much sense to talk of use-mention. So the fundamental phenomenon here isn't use-mention, but meta-language.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Open theism and divine error

  1. (Premise) If p is overwhelmingly probable on the balance of God's evidence, then God believes p.
  2. (Premise) If open theism is true, then some of the propositions that are overwhelmingly probable on the balance of God's evidence are false.
  3. Therefore, if open theism is true, God believes some falsehoods.
  4. (Premise) God believes no falsehoods.
  5. Therefore, open theism is false.
I think (2) is not that hard to argue for on the assumption that there will be infinitely many approximately independent free choices made in the future. Here is a plausibility argument for that assumption: at least some persons will live forever (this follows from divine goodness), and it is plausible that they will always be choosing freely (this follows from the value of freedom). To argue from this to (2), I will make the simplifying assumption that by law the choices are always between options A and B, and that the nth choice occurs exactly n years from now. For any prime number k, let pk be the proposition that the choice made k years from now, or the choice made k2 years from now, or the choice made k3 years from now, ..., or the choice made k100 years from now will be A. The probability of pk is 1−2−100 given the setup. Then pk will be overwhelmingly probable on the balance of God's evidence if open theism is true. But it is also all but certain that at least one of the propositions pk, where k is a prime, is false. For they are independent, and given infinitely many independent propositions of probability 1−2−100, it is all but certain that at least one is false. Hence some overwhelmingly probable proposition is false.
What about (1)? This is tougher. It is false that rationality requires us to believe everything that is overwhelmingly likely. We have to be careful not to clutter our minds with junk beliefs, because our minds are limited. But this concern does not apply to God. But, maybe, we could say that God should be very careful to avoid false beliefs. However, it would be a sign of irrationality, of an undue punctiliousness, to withhold belief simply because there is some tiny non-zero probability of the belief being false. God is not irrational. So God will believe what is overwhelmingly likely.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Towards a necessary being

Start with these premises:

  1. It is a contingent fact that there are contingent beings.
  2. No one can believe that there is nothing.
  3. Necessarily, if p, then it is possible that someone believes that p.
It follows from (2) and (3) that:
  1. It is not possible that there is nothing.
For if it were possible that there is nothing, then at some world there would be nothing, and it would follow by (3) and S4 that it is possible that someone believes that there is nothing, contrary to (2). But (4) is equivalent to:
  1. Necessarily, there is something.
But by (1), there is a possible world with no contingent beings. Since (5) assures us that there is something at that world, it must be something necessary. Hence:
  1. Possibly, there is a necessary being.
And by S5:
  1. There is a necessary being.

We can do one better. Replace (2) with:

  1. No one can believe there are no thinkers.
It follows from (3) and (8) that:
  1. It is not possible that there are no thinkers.
By (1) it is possible that there are no contingent beings. Therefore:
  1. Possibly, there is a necessary being who is a thinker.
And by S5:
  1. There is a necessary being who in at least some worlds is a thinker.

That said, I don't know if (2) and (8) are true.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Apparently, students often have a difficulty accepting that 0.999... = 1.  Here is a really neat paper explaining that maybe they are not being stupid.

Two kinds of responsibility

I hire Jack the mad brainwasher to capture a random Wacoite and brainwash the victim into burning up a local hardware store's stock of ramin dowels.[note 1] Jack captures Bob and brainwashes him into this, and as a result Bob promptly burns up the local hardware store's stock of ramin dowels. I am responsible for several things, notably:

  1. my hiring Jack to fulfill such-and-such purposes
  2. Jack's brainwashing the victim
  3. the victim's burning of the dowels
  4. the dowels' ceasing to exist.
Of these four things, however, only (1) is an action of mine. Items (2) and (3) are actions, but not my actions: I don't brainwash the victim or burn the dowels, but I have the victim be brainwashed and have the dowels burned. However, (2)-(4) are intended and foreseen consequences of my action, and indeed my hiring Jack to fulfill such-and-such purposes is my having the victim brainwashed and my having the victim burn the dowels. Thus, I am fully responsible for (1)-(4). But the responsibility involved in (1) differs in kind from that in (2)-(4). For in (1), I am responsible in a normal first-person-action sort of way. I am not merely responsible for the occurrence of Jack's being hired: I freely and with responsibility hire Jack. And it is by freely and with responsibility hiring Jack that I assume responsibility for (2)-(4).

Actions (2) and (3) are ones I am responsible for, but I am responsible for them in the way one is responsible for occurrences or events, and not in the way one is normally responsible in a first-person-action sort of way. And of course (4) is not an action at all. We might call my responsibility for (2)-(4) "event-responsibility", while my responsibility for (1) is "agency-responsibility". Observe also that Jack is agency-responsible for (2) and event-responsible for (3) and (4), while (unless there is some further backstory) Bob is not responsible in any way for any of (1)-(4).

Now, I think it plausible that agency-responsibility is intrinsically a different kind of responsibility from event-responsibility. For instance, event-responsibility does not essentially depend on my mental state during the event I am responsible for, but agency-responsibility does essentially depend on my mental state during the action I am agency-responsible for. I could be dead by the time the event I am event-responsible for occurs. There is even a little tense difference. If I am event-responsible for an event E at t2, by virtue of an action of mine that I undertook at an earlier time t1, the better thing to say at t2 is that I was responsible for E. (This is particularly clear in backwards-causation cases. If in the year 2020 Smith sends a bomb backwards in time in a time-machine, and it explodes in the year 2009, in 2009 we could correctly say: "Smith is not yet responsible for this explosion." He will be responsible for it in 2020.)

Normally, I have agency-responsibility for my actions and event-responsibility for their consequences. But it is also possible for me to have event-responsibility but not agency-responsibility for my own actions. For suppose that the Wacoite that Jack randomly kidnaps happens to be me. I think I am no more agency-responsible for the burning of the dowels than Bob was in the original story. I am in exactly the same boat as Bob was. (We can even tweak the story so I am just as surprised as Bob was. For I could have my memory of my hiring Jack wiped as soon as I've hired Jack so that I wouldn't give my part in the plot away.) While the action of burning the ramin happens is done by me, it is not done by me in such a way that I would be agency-responsible for it. But I am event-responsible for it, exactly as I was in the case where Bob did it.[note 2]

If I am right about this, then some examples in the literature (e.g., in Randolph Clarke's response to van Inwagen's omission-centered versions of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities) in which one is responsible even though at the time of the action or omission one cannot act otherwise, where one is responsible for the action or omission because one is responsible for the impaired mental state that led to it, conflate two distinct kinds of responsibility. In cases where one's action or omission results from a severely impaired mental state that one has freely and responsibly produced, one may be agency-responsible for the production of the mental state, but one is only event-responsible for the action or omission flowing from the mental state. As far as one's responsibility goes, that action or omission could just as well have been done by a third party in whom one produced the mental state.

A more difficult question is about cases where with responsibility I produce a normal mental state that then constrains me to do something. Do I then bear only event-responsibility, or do I bear agency-responsibility? Do the souls in heaven bear agency-responsibility for acting rightly (as such) or only event-responsibility? (There is also the divine case, but I think divine simplicity complicates that case further, so it might go different from the souls-in-heaven case.) My incompatibilist inclinations based on the above discussion push me to thinking that even when one induces a normal mental state that determines an action, one only has event-responsibility for the resulting action. But the case in heaven might be different, because there could be miracles involved. It could, for instance, be the case that just as, plausibly, Christ's sacrifice of the Cross is really present at Mass[note 3], so too our graced earthly decision to follow Christ is present in our heavenly life and the heavenly decision to act rightly is numerically identical with our conclusive earthly decision.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Frankfurt, incompatibilism and finking

Some dispositions are deterministic, or nearly so. In normal conditions, in the presence of the trigger, they do their one thing. Sugar at room temperature in water dissolves. Some dispositions are indeterministic. The electron in a mixed up/down state sent through a magnetic field will go up or down; it might go up but it might also go down. We now know better than to try to define dispositions in terms of conditionals, unless perhaps we are fond of ceteris paribus or "normally" clauses, and even then defining dispositions in terms of would-conditionals is problematic. For the dispositions can be finked. Sugar is not such that it would dissolve at room temperature in water if there were a counterfactual intervener who would vaporize it as soon as it was dipped in water.

For exactly the same reason, to define a disposition as indeterministic by means of might-conditionals is problematic, and we should know better than to try. Let's say that flipping a coin has an indeterministic disposition to result in heads or in tails. But we can imagine Black, a counterfactual intervener who, as soon as the coin flies in the air, can tell which way it's going to land if it's not interfered with, and if it's not heads, he takes away the coin's disposition and makes it land heads. In the presence of Black, it's false that the coin might land tails. But the coin still has an indeterministic disposition in the presence of Black, even if it exhibits not even the least flicker of freedom (e.g., take the case where Black has access to divine middle knowledge about how the coin would go) and worries about counterfactual interveners should not talk us out of the useful notion of an indeterministic disposition.

The Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) is closely analogous to a might-conditional characterization of an indeterministic disposition. And just as we now know we should not try to characterize indeterministic dispositions by means of "if ... might ..." (at least not without a dollop of "normally"), likewise we should not try to characterize freedom by means of "could have" or "might". But just as the realization that dispositions can be finked should not make us abandon the idea that some dispositions—say, quantum mechanical ones—are indeterministic, so too Frankfurt cases should not make us abandon the idea that something indeterministic is going on. It is reasonable in the face of worries about finking simply to take dispositions to be primitive, and in particular to take the notion of an indeterministic disposition with multiple outcomes (and maybe with probabilistic tendencies) to be primitive. And then it is reasonable to take it to be a necessary condition on a free choice that it is an exercises of an indeterministic disposition.

There are some pretty strong intuitions behind PAP—between Hume (inclusive) and Frankfurt (exclusive), compatibilists tended to feel the need to do justice to it, despite it being very difficult to do so satisfactorily. If a formulation of PAP can be given that is not subject to counterexamples and appears to capture a good deal of the intuitions behind PAP, there will be good reason to believe it. And I think there is such a formulation: The agent free to choose A in circumstances C has an indeterministic disposition to choose A or to choose something else in C. This seems to capture some of the intuition behind PAP, and also captures the intuition that some libertarians have that Frankfurt examples are missing something important. The down side of this formulation of PAP is that it directly denies that all dispositions are deterministic, and hence isn't going to be neutral ground. But that's fine. The neutral ground now shifts from PAP to the idea that "something like PAP is true".

Interestingly, fairly recently some compatibilists have started to try to rehabilitate PAP using dispositions (see, for instance, the references in this paper as well as this one). So the incompatibilist who makes this move will have to see if her proposed revamping of PAP is more plausible than the proposed compatibilist ones. But a revamping of PAP should be done, as PAP attempts to capture something central to our intuitions about freedom. And my point remains: to see Frankfurt examples as destroying the idea of alternatives as central to freedom is like seeing C. B. Martin's work as destroying the idea of dispositions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What is the determinism that threatens free will?

Determinism, as standardly understood, says:

  1. The state of the universe at any time, together with the laws, entails the state of the universe at later times.

Start with a world w with libertarian free will but where everything other than libertarian free actions is deterministic. In other words, free actions are the only loci of indeterminacy. Moreover, the laws of nature in w entail that exactly one finite agent ever makes a free choice, and there is exactly one free choice made by her and it is between a good and a bad option. Finally, the laws are such as to entail a finite age to the universe and to entail that the the one finite agent comes into existence some time after the beginning of the universe.

Now, consider a new world w* made by starting with w and appending an isolated part of the universe and some new laws. The new laws say that if the one finite agent chooses rightly, this backwardly causes the isolated part of the universe, from the beginning of the universe's existence, to contain exactly one riggle, a new kind of fundamental particle, while if the one finite agent chooses wrongly, this causes the part of the universe to contain exactly one wroggle, also a new kind of fundamental particles. Moreover, the laws prohibit riggles and wroggles from ever ceasing to exist, and from coming into existence in any other way. Moreover, riggles and wroggles, by law, don't cause any significant effects in any other matter, and in particular cause no effects that could lead to a causal circularity, and they behave deterministically.

If w was deterministic except for free choices, w* will be fully deterministic: the state of w* at any time, together with the laws at w*, entails everything that happens at later times. For the only possible place where there is indeterminacy is with regard to the agent's choice, but what the agent chooses is entailed by whether the isolated part of the universe contains a riggle or a wroggle at an earlier time.

However, introducing backwards causation and a riggle/wroggle does nothing to render the agent unfree. Hence, it is possible to have free will and determinism.

Note that time travel seems coherent, and if time travel is coherent, a fortiori so is backwards causation.

Now, does the above settle the question of compatibilism? No. For even though the above does make it very plausible that free will is compatible with determinism in sense (1), this only shows that the question was poorly phrased. For the relevant kind of determinism that threatens free will is not (1), but something like:

  1. Every action or choice A by every finite agent is causally necessitated by a state of affairs E that does not include in itself the agent or any of her intrinsic properties.
I don't have a definition of causal necessitation. A good start is:
  1. A causally necessitates E only if (a) A is causally prior to E and (b) the proposition that A occurs conjoined with the laws entails that E occurs.
However, I don't want to make (3) be the definition of causal necessitation because of the following example. Sam has a tendency to jump almost all the time when he hears a loud noise, but his jumping is not necessitated by the loud noise. God causes a loud voice to trumpet into Sam's ear "You will jump" in a context that makes this be an assertion, and this action of God's causes Sam to jump. This is not causal necessitation, even though that God caused the loud voice to trumpet into Sam's ear "You will jump" in a context that made this an assertion entails (because God cannot lie) that Sam would jump. In this example, that in the causing event that does the causing is the loudness, and that which does the entailing is the content and the identity of the speaker. In this case, (a) and (b) hold merely coincidentally. So to make (3) into an account of causal necessitation we would need to say that (a) and (b) do not hold coincidentally—that A's causal contribution is what is doing the nomic entailing. I suspect this cannot be precisely defined, but I am hoping that the jumpy Sam example of lack of causal necessitation together with (3) manage to convey the concept.

A different approach would be to keep (1) as the definition of determinism and then define compatibilism as the view that the following are compossible:

  1. A finite agent is free.
  2. Determinism holds.
  3. The laws rule out backwards causation.
I prefer not bringing in backwards causation and focusing on (2).

Alternate possibilities and forcing someone to choose something

Standard counterfactual-intervener Frankfurt stories require two ingredients: (i) a sign telling the intervener what the agent would choose were she not interfered with and (ii) a way for the intervener to make the agent choose what the intervener wants. There has been a lot of discussion in the literature on the first ingredient and not enough on the second.

For one might argue as follows:

  1. (Premise) If x freely chooses A over B, then x could have chosen B over A instead.
  2. (Premise) If it is possible to force someone to choose A over B, then (1) is false.
  3. Therefore, it is not possible to force someone to choose A over B.
Here, (2) follows from the Frankfurt cases, assuming there is some solution to the sign problem (I think the best bet might be to insist that the sign does not need to be infallible to rule out an ability-entailing "could-have"—cf. this piece by Harrison). And (1) is a reasonable version of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP). It is worth noting that PAP is really very plausible. Testimony to its plausibility is that for several centuries even compatibilists tried very hard to preserve it.

Now, most people working on free will accept that it's possible to force someone to make a particular choice. But I think this may be mistaken.

As a warmup, observe that ordinary threats don't do the job if one understands the contrastive nature of choices—that a choice is a choice of one option over one or more others. Suppose I am deliberating between Pad Thai and Green Curry Chicken. I love both, and it's a hard (but insignificant) choice. Now, threatening my life can make me choose Pad Thai. But it doesn't make me choose Pad Thai over Green Curry. Rather, it makes me choose Pad Thai and life over Green Curry and death. So it doesn't force me to make one of the two choices open in the original choice situation—it replaces those two options with a new pair of choices that is much easier to choose between.

Now, one might think that brainwashing could force me choose Pad Thai over Green Curry Chicken. But I am not so sure. Brainwashing could make me be utterly disgusted at Green Curry Chicken and unable to consider eating it. If it did that, however, I wouldn't be choosing Pad Thai over Green Curry, because Green Curry wouldn't be an option for me. (When I choose to wear a shirt in the morning in the summer, I don't choose a shirt over a fur coat—the latter option does not enter into the deliberation.) A less extreme form of brainwashing could make me very likely to choose Pad Thai over Green Curry Chicken, by accentuating my liking for the former or creating an intense dislike for the latter. But I see no reason to think this would make it impossible for me to choose Green Curry Chicken, unless it made me not see any value in choosing Green Curry Chicken over Pad Thai. And if I saw no value at all in Green Curry Chicken over Pad Thai, I wouldn't be choosing between the two. It would not be choice, but a shoo-in. If I went for Pad Thai, it would no more be a case of my choosing Pad Thai over Green Curry Chicken than in this world I choose to eat Pad Thai over eating a chopstick. Similarly, God and the saints in heaven do not choose good over evil.

Maybe you're not convinced by what I've just said, but it's at least not absurd. And I think the folk do have some intuitions in favor of (3). That no one can make you choose something is prima facie a pretty plausible sentiment. We are willing to abandon it when we think about threats and brainwashing, but if those cases can be handled—and I think they probably can—then (3) remains ultima facie plausible. And (1)-(3) provides additional reason to believe (3).

I think (3) is fairly plausible if choices are necessarily exercises of a non-natural causality. But, interestingly, (3) could be true even if naturalism is true. Suppose, along the lines of Kane's view, that a choice of A over B is constituted by the collapse of a quantum state a|A>+b|B>, mixed between a state |A> favoring A and a state |B> favoring B, with both a and b non-zero. The state can collapse into the pure state |A> or into the pure state |B>, and which way it collapses determines which intention you form. Now, there is a difference between a mixed quantum state collapsing into a pure state, and a mixed quantum state being changed into or replaced with a pure state. A physical process can perhaps force a change of a mixed state into a particular pure state, but likely that change wouldn't count as a collapse, just as a non-gravitational process can make a particle be attracted to another, but it wouldn't count as gravity. As far as I know, it is quite reasonable to say that no physical process could force a particular mixed state to collapse into a particular pure state. Could a non-physical process force a mixed state to collapse in a particular way? I doubt it. It seems essential to the nature of the collapse of a|A>+b|B> that its probabilities be governed in the right way by the weights a and b, while if some non-physical process forced a transition from a mixed state to a particular pure state, the probabilities of the transition wouldn't seem to come from the weights a and b of the mixed state in the way they do in collapse, but from the nature of the forcing process.

The question whether God could force a quantum state to collapse in a particular way is a difficult one. But it's not obvious that both: (a) God's causing a transition from a mixed to a pure state would count as determining or forcing or the like (here a very insightful paper by W. Matthews Grant is relevant); and (b) the transition would still count as a collapse.

Even if free choices are not naturalistic or are naturalistic but are not collapses, nonetheless the collapse case gives us a picture, I think, of how something could be such that it couldn't be forced without destroying its nature. Someone can force me to transition from a state of being undecided between A and B to being decided for A, but not all such transitions are choices, and on the view I am defending, none of the forced ones can be choices.

If the above is right, then (1) can be strengthened by omitting "freely" in its antecedent. All choices have alternate possibilities. I once heard Nuel Belnap remark, after a talk on free will by a job candidate, something along the lines of: "I always thought the matter was simple. To make a choice, you have to have choices."

If (1) holds without "freely" in its antecedent, this leaves the interesting question whether all choices are free, or is it merely that all choices have alternate possibilities. I think the claim that all choices are free may be correct, but needs to be correctly understood. Some choices have severely constricted alternatives, and choices are contrastive in such a way that the alternatives need to be mentioned to fully describe what was chosen. The ordinary murderer can choose to shoot x over leaving x alone. The person brainwashed into murder may only be able to choose to shoot x over stabbing x. Both are in some sense freely choosing to shoot x, but what they are responsible for depends on the fuller story about what they are choosing over. (If shooting x is less cruel than stabbing x, then the brainwashed person may actually be praiseworthy for shooting x—for he is shooting x instead of stabbing x.) And I am inclined to say that what they are doing is different. I should also add that a fuller description of the choice would be that one chooses to do A for R over doing B for S, where R and S are bunches of reasons that one is impressed by.

Note: I am not claiming here that choices are the only thing one is responsible for. Though they may be the only cases in which one assumes responsibility.

Monday, October 11, 2010

McGrew's SEP entry on miracles

Tim McGrew emailed me that his SEP entry on miracles is up.

Threats of self-torture

This post is inspired by the (public domain) story "Warrior Race" by Robert Sheckley (of whom I am a big fan).

Suppose I want a hundred dollars from you, but have no claim on it. So I resolve to torture myself in a way that would have significantly more disvalue than whatever good you can do with a hundred dollars on the condition that you don't give me the money, and convince you of my resolve. I also ensure you have no way of stopping me except by paying up. Or perhaps, if you're not sure of my resolve, I set up a machine that will torture me until you pay up. I also convince you that (a) I won't do this again, and (b) I will ensure nobody will ever find out about it. (If there are worries about the epistemic appropriateness of your trusting me, suppose that I have a little device implanted in my brain which will kill me if I am about to violate these rules.)

If you're a consistent utilitarian, you will pay up. Utilitarians, thus, are open to this particularly odd sort of blackmail.[note 1] Intuitively, I think, there is no duty for you to pay up. You could just say: "You made your bed, now lie in it." And so this is an argument against utilitarianism.

But why is it that non-utilitarians don't have to pay up? After all, it seems plausible independently of utilitarianism that if a moderate expenditure can prevent an immense amount of suffering, one has a duty to do that.

Or if that's not right, other forms of threat might work. You wanted to vote against Smith's getting tenure. But Smith informs you that if you vote against his tenure, he'll literally torture himself for the rest of his life to an intensity far disproportionate to the values involved in a fair tenure process. It is plausible that something like the proportionality condition from the Principle of Double Effect is a necessary condition on the permissibility of an action with a foreseen bad effect: the bad effect cannot be disproportionate to the good effect. But here the bad effect seems to be disproportionate to the good effect. (If causation doesn't filter through others' decisions, then suppose Smith set up a machine to torture him if you vote against him.) If this is right, then we don't have an argument against utilitarianism. We just have the observation that threats of self-harm will be effective against virtuous people.

One might think that anybody who would issue such threats of self-harm is insane, and maybe it is not so implausible to suppose that an insane person could get you to do whatever (within very broad limits) she wants by means of threats of self-harm. But if you're known to consistently act by a moral theory, like utiltiarianism, that requires you to give in to the demand, then it is not insane to threaten self-harm in this way, as the threatener knows that she won't have to carry out the threat. It can, indeed, be narrowly self-interestedly rational.

I think there may be a move available to the non-utilitarian. She could insist that your suffering the torture involves goods of justice. There are (at least) two kinds of punishment: imposed and natural. And justice is involved with both. It does seem plausible that if two people are drowning, and only one can be rescued, and one is there because she murderously pushed the other in and in the process toppled in with her victim, the innocent has a call on us that the other does not.

Notice, though, that in these sorts of cases as individuals we have no right to impose a punishment on the person other than public disapproval. As individuals certainly we have no right to impose torture on someone who threatens self-harm and no right to impose death on the drowning attempted-murderer. So if the right story involves natural punishment, and "You made your bed..." suggests that, then we will still need a doing/non-doing or foreseeing/intending distinction. Actually, doing/non-doing won't work in the tenure case, since there Smith threatens you with self-harm if you vote against him, and voting is a doing. So it seems one needs a foreseeing/intending distinction to make this work out: you foresee that Smith will suffer, but because the suffering would be a good of justice, that shouldn't sway you from your vote against him.[note 2]

Furthermore, the concept of punishment without a punisher appears incoherent. So to make the "natural punishment" line go through, one may need a God behind nature. Maybe one could try for "natural consequences" that aren't punishment. But if they aren't punishment, it's not clear how the threatener's suffering the torments is a good of justice. If they aren't punishment, all we can get is that it's not unjust that the threatener should suffer. But that could leave intact the argument that you shouldn't vote in such a way that will cause this disproportionate suffering as, plausibly, that wasn't an argument from justice but from non-maleficence.

So it could well be that supporting the "You made your bed..." line in these cases requires fair amount of philosophical doctrine: justice and natural punishment, foreseeing/intending and maybe even theism.

Of course, it could be that the hard-nosed "You made your bed..." intuitions are wrong.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The sacrifice of Isaac

None of us are called to sacrifice our children on Mount Moriah. But some of us are called to forgive horrendous evils done to our children. It is interesting that the two kinds of acts have important features in common. In both cases, the actions are difficult precisely because of the agent's virtue, and if they are not difficult, then that is evidence that the agent is morally corrupt. There is a significant way in which forgiving the evil done to one's child is a way of sacrificing the child—of letting go.

We do have the intuition that an obligatory or supererogatory action is the more valuable the more difficult it is. But a further thing seems to be true: the obligatory or supererogatory action is even more valuable when the difficulty derives (in the right way) from one's virtue. Thus, if Abraham had a friend who was asked to sacrifice her car, and it was just as difficult for her to sacrifice her car as for Abraham to sacrifice his son, nonetheless Abraham's sacrifice would be the more valuable one, though the sacrifice of his friend would have significant value, too. Likewise, it may be just as difficult for someone to forgive damage to her property as it is for another to forgive harm to her child, but the latter forgiveness has the greater value.

I think a partial theodicy focusing on exercises of virtue which are incredibly difficult precisely because of the agent's virtue has promise. It has been suggested that God could have, say, created a world of utterly non-violent inquirers where the main virtues are things like perseverance and intellectual integrity, which do not require horrendous evils. But I am not sure such a world would have much of the kind of exercises of virtue I am talking about. In fact, it is plausible that cases where virtuous action is made very difficult precisely by virtue are going to have to be cases where one is facing grave evil.

(I am also reminded of Aristotle's remark that the virtuous man fears death more, for the death of a virtuous man is a greater evil. This point might be relevant, also, to the death of Christ.)

Saturday, October 9, 2010


I've been making myself more of a nuisance than usual. I've been asking people whether ice and steam are water. Does it matter? Well, if ice or steam isn't water, then water is not just H2O. And that is good to know. But the question sort of grew on me, as questions often do.

The result of my informal survey is that there is simply no consensus on the question. A number of people told me that ice that is frozen water, and hence it's water. On the other hand, my five-year-old son thought that ice is frozen water, and hence it's not water. At issue here, I suppose, is whether "frozen" is an alienans adjective like "fake" in "fake silk" (fake silk isn't silk). After all, as a colleague pointed out, a vaporized human isn't a human. The best argument I heard for the "ice isn't water" position was that if someone gives you a glass of just ice, and you say "I'd like some water in it", nobody will say "There already is water in it." But, still, there is no consensus.

So this is interesting. The case of water and ice is not a far-fetched case, like many cases in metaphysics. It's an entirely familiar, day-to-day case. And yet, as far as I can tell, our use underdetermines our meaning. Scary. If that's what happens with water, what about substance and simultaneity?

My linguistic intuitions are so polluted that they're barely worth asking about. But my inclination is to say that "water" is ambiguous in the way "man" is: there is water in the generic sense and water in the specific sense, and the water in the specific sense is the liquid phase of water in the generic sense. But the informal discussions make me unsure about this.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lewis on what we can do

In "Are we free to break the laws?", David Lewis denies the principle:

  1. If I can do A, and were I to do A, B would be the case, then I can make B happen.
On his view, if determinism is true, then I can act otherwise; were I to act otherwise, I would violate the laws of nature; but it does not follow that I can make a violation of the laws happen. To this end, Lewis writes:
Let us say that I could have rendered a proposition false in the weak sense iff I was able to do something such that, if I did it, the proposition would have been falsified (though not necessarily by my act, or by any event caused by my act). And let us say that I could have rendered a proposition false in the strong sense iff I was able to do something such that, if I did it, the proposition would have been falsified either by my act itself or by some event caused by my act.
The Lewis's point is that the strong sense is what captures our intuition that we can't make law-violations happen.

But now consider this case. Somebody offers me a hundred dollars for an electrical impulse going from my brain to my toes. I quickly realize: this is easy—all I need to do is to wiggle my toes, since when I wiggle my toes, a nerve impulse will have been sent from the brain to the toes.

Now we can extend Lewis's definition to the ability to render a proposition true by replacing "false" with "true" and "falsfied" with "made true". I obviously have the ability to send the electrical signal in the weak sense: I can wiggle my toes, and were I to wiggle my toes, the signal would be sent.

Question: Do I also have the ability to send the electrical signal in the strong sense? At least prima facie, no. For my wiggling of my toes does not cause nerve impulses to go from the brain to the toes. Nor does the wiggling of my toes itself make it true that an electrical signal is sent along the pathway.

But notice that the sense in which I can make it be so that an electrical signal goes from my brain to my toes is pretty robust—I can in fact make the sending of the signal a means towards further ends of mine. So if I cannot make the signal go from brain to toes in the strong sense, the strong sense is too strong—it doesn't capture our intuitions about making something happen.

Perhaps, though, we can take "the wiggling of my toes" to include everything involved in that intentional action, starting from the intending, including the sending of electrical impulses to the toes, and culminating with the motion of the toes. If so, the wiggling of my toes under these circumstances (not under circumstances where I have some non-electrical prosthesis replacing the nerves going to the toe muscles) does seem to make it true that a signal goes from the brain to the toes.

But now we have a problem. For if we take action in this expansive sense, then it will include various neuron firings as well. (If it doesn't, we can change the example: someone offers you a hundred dollars for when such-and-such a neuron fires, and you figure out that it fires when you raise your arm, so you raise your arm.) But, on Lewis's scenario, in the counterfactual world where you violate the (actual world's) laws, it's pretty likely that one of these neuron firings will be the violation of the laws. Hence it is the action—or at least a part of it (and here Lewis must allow a part-to-whole inference, or else the wiggling of the toes case comes back)—that is a violation of the laws.

But Lewis still has one more move. If L is the laws, a miraculous firing of a neuron does not by itself falsify L. For the firing of the neuron is consistent with L. What is not consistent with L is that the firing should have occured in prior conditions C. To falsify the laws, one would need to not only bring about the firing of the neuron, but also the prior conditions C, since the violation of the laws logically requires the two. But if Lewis insists on this point, then he has failed to capture what we mean by "break the laws" in his account. For suppose Samuel is an Uruguayan citizen by birth, and perhaps contrary to fact let us suppose that it is not possible to renounce Uruguayan citizenship. Suppose, further, Samuel fails to vote in the elections. I understand it is illegal to fail to vote in Uruguay. We would say that Samuel's failure to vote violates the laws. However, Samuel's failure to vote is not logically sufficient for a violation of the relevant law. What is logically required for there to be a violation of the law is that (a) one fail to vote, and (b) one be an Uruguayan citizen. But Samuel did not bring about (b). So to break a positive law it is not required that one do something that is or causes something logically sufficient for a violation of the laws. When in circumstances C the laws require A, to fail to do A is to break the laws. By the same token, when in circumstances C the laws of nature require that a neuron not fire, the firing of the neuron in C is a breaking of the laws.

In sum: One can send an electrical signal from brain to toes in a robust sense, a sense in which we cannot break the laws. But an account of "can" that allows this will also allow that one can fire neurons, say when raising an arm. And an account of "can" that allows this will also allow one to say that if determinism is true and yet one can act otherwise, then one can break the laws. And so, I suspect, Lewis is wrong.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A fallacy in non-deductive reasoning

If we think about the large variation of appearances among donkeys, it is very probable that:

  1. Some donkeys look very much like horses.
Now we run this argument:
  1. D is a donkey that looks very much like a horse. (Existential instantiation on 1)
  2. D looks very much like a horse. (By 2)
  3. D is a horse. (Probabilistic inference from 3)
  4. Some donkey is a horses.
We might make the inference from (3) to (4) more explicit by making use of:
  1. If D looks like a horse, probably D is a horse.
I think this is related to Rowe's argument from evil.

Curiosity and qualia

The standard objection to Jackson's Mary argument (in a monochromatic room she learns all that science can offer, but then she comes out into the larger world and learns what's like to see red—so what science can offer does not exhaust reality, since if it did, one couldn't learn anything more if one knew all that science can offer) is that "knowing what an experience is like" uses "knows" in a sense different from that in sentences like "Bill knows who won the World Series in 1973".

Here is a response. The object of curiosity is knowledge. But curiosity can both make one try to find out who won the World Series in 1973 (or some other bit of trivia) and make one try to find out what it's like to be stung by a scorpion (here you can substitute a whole host of things). Both are paradigmatically the sort of silly things that curiosity makes people want to find out. Thus if we are equivocating on "knows", we are either equivocating on "curiosity" or curiosity has a disjunctive object. The latter seems implausible. And it really seems like when we are talking of "curiosity" in the World Series and scorpion cases, we're talking about the same thing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Catholic Church: infallible, liar or lunatic

It has hit me (and no doubt I am not the first) that the Lord/liar/lunatic argument can be adapted to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church claims immense dogmatic and practical authority over Christians. She claims infallibility. She is, thus, either infallible, or liar, or lunatic.

Is she a liar? Then we have the puzzle that she has done so well at preserving early Christian doctrines in the face of heresy after heresy. In our time this is particularly clear, I think, in the case of her teachings on sexuality and the protection of human life, her unyielding insistence on the infallibility of Scripture, and the central preaching of the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.

Is she a lunatic? Then we have the puzzle that lunacy would be the domain of the Church of such men and women as Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Descartes, Pascal, Terese de Lisieux and John Paul II. The Church with the most intellectually seriously worked out intellectual tradition that the Christian world has known (and probably that the world has known) would then be a lunatic. That is not so plausible.

So the most plausible story is that she is infallible.

We may supplement this argument as follows. Paul talks about the Church as the pillar and bulwark of truth (1 Tim 3:15). Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit's guidance for the Church. All this at least suggests that there is a Church which is a reliable guide. But which Church has a plausible claim of being a reliable guide over the centuries? In the end, I think only the Catholic Church, though a case (I believe in the end somewhat weaker) can also be made for the Orthodox Church. But if the Catholic Church is a reliable guide, it is implausible that she is also a liar or a lunatic. And so she's infallible.

If I am right in this post, then earlier, less ecumenical Protestants, in their condemnations of papistry, may have been onto something important: one can't be ambivalent towards the Catholic Church, just as one can't be ambivalent towards Christ. For if the Catholic Church is not infallible as she claims, she is a liar or a lunatic.


I want to open a combination lock, but I don't know the combination. Can I do it? There is some sequence of numbers which I can enter, and which is such that if I enter them it will open. So it seems I can. On the other hand, I can't fly a plane. Yet there is a sequence of button presses and movements of levers which I can make, and which is such that if I enter them the plane will fly.
It seems, thus, that the thing to say is that there is something which I can do, which is such that if I did it, the lock would open, and would open as a result of what I did, but nonetheless I can't open the lock.
But now suppose that I try to open it. I enter a sequence of numbers at random. And I get lucky: the sequence is right, and the lock is open. But if what I said above is correct, then it seems that I should say: "I opened it, even though it wasn't the case that I was able to open it." And that sounds weird.
Dan Johnson suggested to me that "can" is context-sensitive, and the context shifts when you open it. Maybe I should say: "Yes, I was able to open it, given my luck"?
Or maybe the thing to say is this. The subjunctive conditional
  1. Were I to try to open the lock, I would happen to enter the correct combination
is true at some worlds and not true at others. At the worlds where it's true, I can open the lock, by using the obvious method for opening the lock: trying. At the worlds where it's false, I can't open the lock. The world where I do enter the correct combination when I try to open the lock is always a world where (1) is true. If subjunctive conditionals have non-trivial truth values (which basically means: either Molinism or determinism holds), then some of the worlds where I don't try to open the lock are worlds where (1) is true and some of them are worlds where (1) is false. So at some worlds I can open it and at others I can't, and before I try, I can't tell which world I'm in. On the other hand, if subjunctive conditionals don't have non-trivial truth values, and my choice of numbers would be indeterministic, then in the worlds where I don't try, (1) is not true (either false or nonsense), and in those worlds I can't open the lock.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Can" and the five minute mile

It used to be fashionable for compatibilists to analyze "x can A" as something like:

  1. x would A if x wanted to
(or even worse: "x could A if x wanted to"[note 1]). Here's a sentence we can imagine a coach encouraging x by saying:
  1. You would run a five minute mile if you really wanted to.
The coach might back this up by saying that she is sure that you would run a five minute mile when chased by a hungry bear. We should not take (1) to entail:
  1. You can run a five minute mile.
To go from (1) to (2), we would need to know that you are capable of inducing in yourself, in the absence of a hungry bear, the kind of motivation that would be required for you to run a five minute mile. In other words, (1) only yields (2) if we suppose that you can get himself to "really want" to run. We all know that there are things that people in ordinary psychological situations can't do, but that they could do in motivationally extraordinary ones, and we do not attribute these things as abilities simpliciter to them.

I submit that for the same reason that (1) does not entail (2), (0) does not entail that x can A. Just as (1) raises the question whether you could get yourself to really want to, so too (0) raises the question whether you could get yourself to want to.

Objection 1: There is a difference between conditioning on "wanted to" and conditioning on "really wanted to". The latter condition requires a particular degree of desire while the former simply attributes the desire. One cannot infer "x can A" from "x would A if x wanted to with degree D", but one can infer it from "x would A if x wanted to".

Response: Actually, the "wanted to" in (0) has to say something about the degree of desire, or else "x can A" would not entail (0). For it can be true that x can A and x wants to A, but x does not A, because x does not sufficiently want to A. So the "wanted to" in (0) has to rule out, for instance, the case where x wants to A, but only just a little.

Objection 2: Claim (0) is a straw man. What really should be said is something like:

  1. x would A if x wanted to A more than x wanted any alternative.

Response: But now the bear case comes back. For among the alternatives to running a five minute mile, for someone who does not habitually do so, there is the avoidance of severe exhaustion and pain. It could well be that only a threat like a hungry bear could make one want to run a five minute mile more than one wants to avoid these kinds of alternatives. And in that case, (3) could be true, because if one wanted to A more than one wanted any alternatives, that was because one's reason for Aing was at least as motivating as a hungry bear. But it could still be false to say that one could run the five minute mile sans hungry bear (or equivalent).

I should end by saying that I am not that happy with my response to (3). I fear it is finkish.[note 2]

Monday, October 4, 2010

Theism and flourishing

  1. (Premise) No life centered on love of someone who never exists is a flourishing life.
  2. (Premise) Some people lead a flourishing life centered on love of God.
  3. Therefore, it is false that God never exists.
  4. (Premise) God either always exists or never exists.
  5. Therefore, God always exists.
(I use "always" and "never" in such a way that a timeless being would count as existing always.)
One thing that is interesting in this argument is that it makes it harder to be a "sympathetic atheist/agnostic"—someone who, while not believing in God, can positively evaluate the lives of theists.
It's also interesting that there does not seem to be a parallel argument for atheism. One might try:
  1. (Premise) No life centered on the denial of someone who exists is a flourishing life.
  2. (Premise) Some people lead a flourishing life centered on the denial of God.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.
But I deny (7). The denial of God is a merely negative attitude, and as such is not fitted out for being the center of a flourishing life, regardless of whether God exists. Those atheists who lead a flourishing life make their life be centered on something other than the denial of God—friendship, the pursuit of truth, etc.
This points out an important asymmetry between theism and atheism. If theism is true, one's life should be centered on theism. But if atheism is true, one's life should not need be centered on atheism, but on valuable things like friendship and understanding.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The perils of intra-Christian apologetics

Here is a fascinating post by my colleague Frank Beckwith.  I can certainly theoretically see the danger, though I am not sure that as empirical matter of fact it's that common.  I suppose the danger is a species of the general thesis that arguing for p can convince one's interlocutor of ~p or of even worse things.