Monday, July 31, 2017

Self-consciousness and AI

Some people think that self-consciousness is a big deal, that it’s the sort of thing that might be hard for an artificial intelligence system to achieve.

I think consciousness and intentionality are a big deal, that they are the sort of thing that would be hard or impossible for an artificial intelligence system to achieve. But I wonder whether if we could have consciousness and intentionality in an artificial intelligence system, would self-consciousness be much of an additional difficulty. Argument:

  1. If a computer can have consciousness and intentionality, a computer can have a conscious awareness whose object would be aptly expressible by it with the phrase “that the temperature here is 300K”.

  2. If a computer can have a conscious awareness whose object would be aptly expressible by it with the phrase “that the temperature here is 300K”, then it can have a conscious awareness whose object would be aptly expressible by it with the phrase “that the temperature of me is 300K”.

  3. Necessarily, anything that can have a conscious awareness whose object would be aptly expressible with the phrase “that the temperature of me is 300K” is self-conscious.

  4. So, if a computer can have consciousness and intentionality, a computer can have self-consciousness.

Premise 1 is very plausible: after all, the most plausible story about what a conscious computer would be aware of is immediate environmental data through its sensors. Premise 2 is, I think, also plausible for two reasons. First, it’s hard to see why awareness whose object is expressible in terms of “here” would be harder than awareness whose object is expressible in terms of “I”. That’s a bit weak. But, second, it is plausible that the relevant sense of “here” reduces to “I”: “the place I am”. And if I have the awareness that the temperature in the place I am is 300K, barring some specific blockage, I have the cognitive skills to be aware that my temperature is 300K (though I may need a different kind of temperature sensor).

Premise 3 is, I think, the rub. My acceptance of premise 3 may simply be due to my puzzlement as to what self-consciousness is beyond an awareness of oneself as having certain properties. Here’s a possibility, though. Maybe self-consciousness is awareness of one’s soul. And we can now argue:

  1. A computer can only have a conscious awareness of what physical sensors deliver.

  2. Even if a computer has a soul, no physical sensor delivers awareness of any soul.

  3. So, no computer can have a conscious awareness of its soul.

But I think (5) may be false. Conscious entities are sometimes aware of things by means of sensations of mere correlates of the thing they sense. For instance, a conscious computer can be aware of the time by means of a sensation of a mere correlate—data from its inner clock.

Perhaps, though, self-consciousness is not so much awareness of one’s soul, as a grasp of the correct metaphysics of the self, a knowledge that one has a soul, etc. If so, then materialists don’t have self-consciousness, which is absurd.

All in all, I don’t see self-consciousness as much of an additional problem for strong artificial intelligence. But of course I do think that consciousness and intentionality are big problems.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Death, harm and time

For the sake of this post, stipulate death to be permanent cessation of existence. Epicurus famously argues that death is not a harm to one, because the living aren’t harmed by death while the dead do not exist.

As formulated, the argument appears to require presentism—the view that only presently existing things exist. If eternalism or growing block is true, the dead would exist, albeit pastly. This would give us a nice little argument against presentism:

  1. If presentism is true, the Epicurean argument is sound. (Premise)

  2. The conclusion of the Epicurean argument—namely, that death is not a harm—is absurd. (Premise)

  3. So, presentism is false.

But things aren’t quite so simple, because one can reconstruct an Epicurean argument without presentism.

  1. One is intrinsically harmed by x iff there is a time t at which one is intrinsically harmed by x. (Premise)

  2. One is intrinsically harmed at t by x only if one exists at t. (Premise)

  3. One is not intrinsically harmed by death at any time at which one exists. (Premise)

  4. One is not intrinsically harmed by death at any time. (5 and 6)

  5. One is not intrinsically harmed by death. (4 and 7)

This argument distinguishes intrinsic from extrinsic harm. Here’s an illustration of the distinction I have in mind: if I lose a finger, that’s an intrinsic harm; if people say bad things about me behind my back, that’s an extrinsic harm—unless it causally impacts me in some negative way. Epicurus didn’t seem to think there was such a thing as extrinsic harm, so he formulated his argument in terms of harm as such. But, really, his argument was only plausible with respect to intrinsic harm, in that a no longer existent person certainly could suffer extrinsic harms, say by losing reputation or having loved ones suffer harm. And the conclusion that death is not an intrinsic harm is implausible enough. Death seems to be among the worst of the intrinsic harms. (In particular, I think my little argument against presentism remains a good one even if we weaken the conclusion of the Epicurean argument to say that death is not an intrinsic harm.)

Of course, the conclusion (8) is still false! So which premise is false?

Here is a pretty convincing argument for (5):

  1. One is intrinsically harmed at t by x only if has or lacks an intrinsic property at t because of x. (Premise)

  2. One does not have or lack any intrinsic properties at times when one doesn’t exist. (Premise)

  3. So, (5) is true.

Premise (6) is also pretty plausible.

Premise (4) is also plausible.

But there is a way out of the argument. If four-dimensionalism is true, we have a good way to reject (4). Consider first the spatial analogue of (4):

  1. One is intrinsically harmed by x if and only if there is a point z in space at which one is intrinsically harmed by x.

But (12) is implausible. Consider a spherical plant that suffers the harm of being made cylindrical. To be distorted into an unnatural shape seems to be an intrinsic harm. But it need not an intrinsic harm locatable at any point in space. At any point in space where the plant is not, surely it’s not harmed. At points where the plant is, it might be harmed—say, by the stresses induced by the unnatural shape—but it need not be. We could, in fact, suppose that the plant is nowhere stressed, etc. The harm is simply the intrinsic harm of being deformed. For another example, suppose materialism is true, and consider an animal in pain. The pain is an intrinsic harm, plausibly, but there is no harm at any single point of the brain—only at a larger chunk of the brain.

What the examples show is that spatially extended objects can be intrinsically harmed in respect of properties that cannot be localized to a single point. If four-dimensionalism is true, we are also temporally extended. We should then expect the possibility of being intrinsically harmed in respect of properties that cannot be localized to a single instant of time, and hence we should not believe (4). And death seems to be precisely such a case: one is harmed by having only a finite extent in the temporally forward direction. This could be just as much an intrinsic harm as being spatially distorted.

In fact, once we see the analogy between harm not located at a point of space and harm not located at a point of time, it is easy to find other counterexamples to (4). Consider a life of unremitting boredom. Suppose someone lives from t1 to t2 and is bored at every time. At every time t between t1 and t2 she suffers the intrinsic harm of being bored; but she has the additional temporally non-punctual intrinsic harm of being always bored. Or suppose that materialism is true. Then just as pains do not happen in respect of properties at a single spatial point, they probably do not happen in respect of properties at a single instant either: pain likely requires a sequence of neural events.

In fact, the multiplication of examples is sufficiently easy that even apart from the more abstruse question of the harms of death, someone whose theory of time or persistence forces her to endorse (4) is in trouble.

But on reflection, the moves against three-dimensionalism and maybe even presentism were too quick. Maybe even the presentist can say that we have intrinsic properties which hold in virtue of how we are over a temporally extended period of time.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Life in the interim state and the nature of time

Assume this thesis:

  1. We go out of existence at death and return to existence at the resurrection.

Suppose, further, that:

  1. There is a last moment t1 of earthly life and a first moment t2 of resurrected life.


  1. If there are no intervening moments of time between t1 and t2, one is never dead.

  2. Whether there are any intervening moments of time between t1 and t2 depends on what happens to things other than one.

  3. So, whether one is ever dead depends on what happens to things other than one.

  4. So, whether one is ever dead is extrinsic to one.

But that’s absurd in itself, plus it implies the absurdity that death is only an extrinsic harm. So, we should reject 1. We exist between death and the resurrection.

There are two controversial assumptions in the argument: 2 and 4. Assumption 4 follows from an Aristotelian picture of time as consisting in the changes of things. Since one doesn’t exist between t1 and t2, those changes would have to be happening to things other than oneself. If one doesn’t accept the Aristotelian picture of time, it’s much harder to argue for 4.

Assumption 2 is obviously true if time is discrete. If time is continuous, it might or might not be true. For instance, it could be that one lives from time 0 to time 100, both inclusive, in which case t1 = 100, but it could also be that one lives from time 0 to time 100, non-inclusive, in which case t1 doesn’t exist. Similarly, one could be resurrected from time 3000, inclusive, to time infinity, non-inclusive, in which case t2 = 3000, but it could also be that one is resurrected from time 3000, non-inclusive, in which case t2 doesn’t exist.

However, even in the continuous case the argument has some force. For, first of all, it’s obvious that death is an intrinsic harm to us, and that obviousness does not depend on obscure details about whether the intervals of one’s life include their endpoints. Second, it is at least metaphysically possible for 1 to hold. But then in a world where 1 were to hold, our death would be merely an extrinsic harm to us, which would still be absurd.

AI and ontology

  1. Only things that exist think.

  2. Only simples and living things exist. (Cf. van Inwagen and Aristotle.)

  3. Computers are neither simple nor alive.

  4. So, computers don’t think.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Computer consciousness and dualism

Would building and running a sufficiently “smart” computer produce consciousness?

Suppose that one is impressed by the arguments for dualism, whether of the hylomorphic or Cartesian variety. Then one will think that a mere computer couldn’t be conscious. But that doesn’t settle the consciousness question. For, perhaps, if one built and ran a sufficiently “smart” computer (i.e., one with sufficient information processing capacity for consciousness), a soul would come into being. It wouldn’t be a mere computer any more.

Basically the thought here supposes that something like the following is a law of nature or a non-coincidental regularity in divine soul-creation practice:

  1. When matter comes to be arranged in a way that could engage in the kind of information processing that is involved in consciousness, a soul comes into existence.

Interestingly, though, a contemporary hylomorphist has very good reason to deny (1). The contemporary
hylomorphist thinks that the soul of an animal comes into existence at the beginning of the animal’s existence as an animal. Now consider a higher animal, say Rover. When Rover comes into existence as an animal out of a sperm and an egg, its matter is not arranged in a way capable of supporting the kind of information processing involved in consciousness. Yet that is when it acquires its soul. When finally the embryo grows a brain capable of this kind of information processing, no second soul comes into existence and hence (1) is false. (I am talking here of contemporary hylomorphists; Aristotle and Aquinas both believed in delayed ensoulement which would complicated the argument, and perhaps even undercut it.) The same argument will apply to those Cartesian dualists who are willing to admit that they were once embryos without brains.

Perhaps one could modify (1) to:

  1. When matter comes to be arranged in a way that could engage in the kind of information processing that is involved in consciousness and a soul has not already come into existence, then a soul comes into existence.

But notice now two things. First, (2) sounds ad hoc. Second, we lack inductive evidence for (2). We know of no cases where the antecedent of (2) is true. If we were to generate a computer with the right kind of information processing capabilities, we would know that the antecedent of (2) is true, but we would have no idea if the consequent is true. Third, our observations of the world so far all fit with the following generalization:

  1. Among material things, consciousness only occurs in living things.

But a “smart” computer would still not be likely to be a living thing. If it were, we would expect there to be non-“smart” computers that are alive, by analogy to how just as there are conscious living things, there are unconscious ones. But it is not plausible that there would be computers that are alive but not “smart” enough to be conscious. One might as well think that the laptop I am writing this on will be conscious.

This isn’t a definitive refutation of (2). God has the power to (speaking loosely) provide an appropriately complex computer with a soul that gives rise to consciousness. But inductive generalization from how the world is so far gives us little reason to think he would.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Informed organs surviving the death of an individual

In my last post, I offered a puzzle, one way out of which was to accept the possibility of informed bits of an animal surviving the death of the animal. But the puzzle involved a contrived case--a snake that was annihilated.

But I can do the same story in a much more ordinary context. Jones is lying on his back in bed, legs stretched out, with healthy feet, and dies of some brain or heart problem. How does the form (=soul) leave his body? Well, there are many stories we can tell. But here's one thing that's clear: the form does not leave the toes before leaving the rest of the body. I.e., either the toes die (=are abandoned by the form) last or they die simultaneously with the rest. But in either case, then Special Relativity and the geometry of the body (the fact that one can draw a plane such that one or more toes are on one side of the plane, and the rest of the body is on the other) imply that there is a reference frame in which the form leaves one or more of the toes last. Thus, there will be a reference frame and a time at which only toes or parts of toes are informed. It is implausible to think that one is alive if all that's left alive are the toes. So organs can survive death while informed by the individual's form.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Snake annihilation and partial death

The following five principles seem to be rationally incompatible:

  1. Every part of a living organism is informed by its form.

  2. If any part of an organism is informed by its form, the organism is alive.

  3. An snake would be dead if everything but the tailmost one percent of its length were annihilated.

  4. Simultaneity is relative, as described by Special Relativity.

  5. Being informed by a form is not relative to a reference frame.

To see the incompatibility, consider this case. A snake of ordinary proportions is lying stretched out in a line and is then instantaneously completely annihilated. Notice an interesting fact about this snake:

  1. Every bit of this snake is informed by the form of the snake whenever it exists.

This follows from (1) and the setup of the situation. Note that (6) will not be true in the case of snakes that meet a more ordinary end than by complete instant annihilation: those snakes leave behind parts that are no longer informed (they may be parts only in a manner of speaking, but I think nothing in my argument hangs on this). It is to make (6) true that I supposed the snake annihilated instantaneously.

Now, by (4), the claim that the snake is must have been said with respect to some reference frame F1. But it follows from Special Relativity and the geometry of linear snakes that there will be a reference frame F2 relative to which the snake is annihilated gradually from the head to the tail rather than simultaneously. There will thus be a time t2 such that relative to F2 at t2 the snake has been annihilated except for the tailmost one percent. At t2 relative to F2, that tailmost one percent is informed by the form of the snake by (5) and (6). By (2), the snake is alive at t2 relative to F2. But by (3), it is dead at t2 relative to F2. So, the snake is both alive and dead at t2 relative to F2, which is absurd.

I am not sure what to do about this argument. I feel pushed to deny (2). Perhaps something could be dead simpliciter but still have living parts. But that’s an uncomfortble position.

Life and non-life

Assume a particle-based fundamental physics. Then the non-living things in the universe outnumber the living by many orders of magnitude. But here is a striking fact given a restricted compositionality like van Inwagen’s, Toner’s or mine on which all there are is in the universe are particles and organisms: the number of kinds of living things outnumbers the number of kinds of non-living things by several orders of magnitude. The number of kinds of particles is of the order of 100, but there are millions of biological species (they may not all correspond to metaphysical species, of course).

Counting by individuals, living things are exceptional. But counting by kinds, physical things are exceptional. Only a tiny portion of the universe is occupied by life. But on the other hand, only a tiny portion of the space of kinds of entities is occupied by non-life.

I am not sure what to make of these observations. Maybe it is gives some credence to an Aristotelian rather than Humean way of seeing the world by putting the the kinds of features as teleology that are found in living things at the center of metaphysics.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Preponderance of evidence

I do formal epistemology, but I am no legal scholar, so this could be a complete misunderstanding. It is my understanding that in civil cases a preponderance of evidence standard is used on which the evidence needs to support the conclusion with a probability merely greater than 1/2. This seems ridiculous in cases where one is seeking compensation for damages that may or may not have occurred.

Suppose I run a business, and I treat my staff somewhat shabbily but not actionably. One day, hundreds of dollars worth of damage occurs in the server room. Review of blurry security camera footage, building security logs and other data proves beyond reasonable doubt the following facts:

  • A thin stocking was put over the camera, hence the blur.

  • There were five employees in the offices at the time, all of whom had a similar build and appearance: Alfred, Bill, Carl, David and Edgar.

  • Three of the employees went to the bathroom and returned with buckets full of water which they poured over the servers.

  • The other two employees did their best to stop the three, including calling 911 and heroically trying to block the door to the server room. As a result of the scuffle, everybody’s fingerprints are on the buckets and everybody is wet.

  • Each employee claims with equal credibility that he was one of the two trying to stop the attack. Moreover, everybody claims to be unable to identify who the “other” employee trying to stop the attack is. The video footage shows a scene of such confusion that this inability to identify is unsurprising.

So, I fire all five employees and then sue each of the five individually for damages. I argue in the case of each employee that the evidence clearly yields a 3/5 probability that he was responsible for damage, and remind the court that 3/5 > 1/2.

But surely it would be a serious miscarriage of justice for all five to be held liable for damages that two of the five sought to prevent.

I wonder if cases like this get their force solely from the fact that the probabilities involved—namely, 3/5—are low, or if there is something else going on. Suppose I had a thousand employees, and 999 were damaging company property while one was trying to stop it. Should I be able to sue all 1000, correctly claiming a probability of 999/1000 of responsibility in each case, while knowing for sure that a judgment in my favor in all 1000 cases will place a severe financial burden on exactly one innocent person?

That is an uncomfortable conclusion, but perhaps we should bite the bullet and say that this is no different from a court knowing that over the run of many cases, there will be a small minority where innocents are burdened with grave burdens—and the risk of suffering such burdens is just part of the cost of membership in the society, much as being subject to the draft is.

But it seems much more uncomfortable to say something like this in the 3/5 case—or a 51/100 case—than in a 999/1000 case.

Naive intuition: The evidence needed should scale with the burden to the defendant in the case of a finding against them. Maybe the evidence requirements do thus scale in practice. Like I said, I am no legal scholar.

Love and happiness

Could perfect happiness consist of perfect love?

Here’s a line of argument that it couldn’t. Constitutively central to love are the desire for the beloved’s good and for union with the beloved. A love is no less perfect when its constitutive desires are unfulfilled. But perfect happiness surely cannot be even partly constituted by unfulfilled desires. If perfect happiness consistent of perfect love, then one could have a perfect happiness constituted at least partly by unfulfilled desires.

When this argument first occurred to me a couple of hours ago, I thought it settled the question. But it doesn’t quite. For there is a special case where a perfect love’s constitutive desires are always fulfilled, namely when the object of the love is necessarily in a perfectly good state, so that the desire for the beloved’s good is necessarily fulfilled, and when the union proper to the love is of such a sort that it exists whenever the love does. Both of these conditions might be thought to be satisfied when the object of love is God. Certainly, a desire for God’s good is always fulfilled. Moreover, although perfect love is compatible with imperfect union in the case of finite objects of love, perfect love of God may itself be a perfect union with God. If so, then our happiness could consist in perfect love for God.

I am not sure the response to the argument works but I am also not sure it doesn’t work. But at least, I think, my initial argument does establish this thesis:

  • If perfect happiness consists of perfect love, it consists of perfect love for God.

Of course none of the above poses any difficulty for someone who thinks that perfect happiness consists of fulfilled perfect love.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Special Relativity and physicalism

There is, I think, an underexplored argument against physicalism on the basis of Special Relativity and the unity of apperception.

The unity of apperception seems to imply that there is always a non-relative fact of the matter whether two perceptions are co-perceived: whether I am feeling cold at the same time as I am seeing a red cube, say. (Einstein’s own definition of simultaneity presupposes this: he defines the simultaneity of two distant events in terms of the co-perception of light beams from them.) When two perceptions are co-perceived, they are simultaneous. So there must be a non-relative simultaneity in the mind. But it is very unlikely that all co-perceived perceptions are grounded in exactly the same place in the brain. And simultaneity between physical events happening at different locations is always relative. So perceptions aren’t physical events.

I don’t think this is a very strong argument, though. It’s open to the physicalist to say that perceptual time is different from physical time, and perceptual simultaneity need not correspond to physical simultaneity. The best version of physicalism is functionalism. Now imagine embedding a causally isomorphic copy of Napoleon in a universe with four spatial and one temporal dimension, but in such a way that all of the four-dimensional life of Napoleon is realized within the four spatial dimensions, at a single temporal instant. The three spatial dimensions of Napoleon would be realized within three spatial dimensions, and the temporal dimension of Napoleon would be realized within the fourth spatial dimension. All the diachronic causation in the life of our world’s Napoleon becomes simultaneous causation in the new world. All of the life of the Napoleon-copy is then lived at a single instant of physical time, but it has all of the causal richness that Napoleon’s life had, and it is causally isomorphic to Napoleon. It is plausible, then, that the functionalist will say that Napoleon-copy has the same mental life as Napoleon. But Napoleon-copy’s mental life is all at once physically. So the functionalist can say that mental time is not the same as physical time—without budging from physicalism.

Now, I think some people will find this kind of a separation between physical time and mental time to be unacceptable. If so, then they shouldn’t be physicalists. I myself am not a physicalist, but I find the separation between physical and mental time quite plausible. After all, don’t we say that sometimes time runs faster than at other times?

Monday, July 10, 2017

Permissibility of the natural

The usual way to argue that an action is permissible is to argue that the arguments against the action’s permissibility fail. But it would be really nice to be able to give a more positive argument for an action’s permissibility. Sometimes one can do so by showing that the action is obligatory, but (a) that doesn’t help with the permissibility of non-obligatory actions, and (b) often an argument for the obligatoriness of a positive action presupposes the action’s permissibility (e.g., the obligation to kill a dog that is attacking one’s child when no other means of defense is available presupposes the general permissibility of killing dogs with good reason).

Here is a place where Natural Law (NL) can provide something quite useful, namely this principle:

  1. If A is a natural action, then normally A is permissible.

This principle could, for instance, be used to generate intuitively compelling positive arguments for such controversial theses as:

  1. It is normally permissible to eat animals.

  2. It is normally permissible for us to reproduce.

  3. It is normally permissible for us to prefer those more closely related to us.

In addition to Natural Lawyers, theists in general might have reason to endorse (1), on the grounds that our nature comes from God.

Of course, there is always going to be a difficulty in determining whether the antecedent of (1) is true.

Non-theistic non-NL theories are unlikely to endorse (1) except as a rule of thumb. And it will be an interesting explanatory question on those theories why then (1) is true even as a rule of thumb.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Infima species

There is a classic controversy in interpreting Aristotle: Is there one form per individual or one form per species?

One of the main arguments for individual forms is that the form of the human being is the soul, and it would be crazy to think that you and I have the same soul.

But what if—though this is surely not what Aristotle thought—the truth were this: There is one form per species, but humans, unlike other organisms, are each their own species (much as Aquinas thought the angels were).

This creates a discontinuity between non-human and human animals. This discontinuity is in itself a disadvantage of the view—it makes things more complicated.

However, at the same time the discontinuity would correspond nicely with some ethical intuitions. It wouldn’t be reasonable for a human to sacrifice her life for a Komodo dragon. But it could be reasonable for her to sacrifice her life for the Komodo dragon species. The view also fits with the widespread, though far from universal, intuition that it is permissible to kill non-human animals for food, but that the killing of a human being is a morally far weightier thing. Moreover, the idea that humans are infima species seems to capture important things about human individuality (I am grateful to Richard Gale for this observation), including the idea that while there is a teleological commonality between human beings, it is also the case that individual humans have individual vocations, telè that are their own only.

The main disadvantage of the view is theological. In Athanasian soteriology, it is crucial that Christ is metaphysically same species as we are. But one might hope that a Christology could be modified where being of the same genus would play the same role as being of the same species does for St Athanasius—or perhaps one where what plays the role is just the fact of a shared rational animality (which we also share with any non-human rational animals outside of the Solar System).

I don’t think the view is true, because the radical discontinuity the view posits between non-human and human animals just seems wrong. But I think there is more to be said for this view than is generally thought. And for those who think that they are not animals—for instance, people who think that they are constituted by an animal—the view seems even better.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Immaterial body parts

Here’s a difficult question: Does an artificial heart literally become a body part of the patient?

And here’s a line of thought suggestive of a negative answer.

  1. Necessarily, all our body parts are material.

  2. If one could have an artificial heart as a body part, one could have an immaterial artificial heart as a body part.

  3. So, one cannot have an artificial heart as a body part.

Why accept 2? Because presumably what makes an artificial heart suitable for being a body part is that it does the job of a heart. But we could imagine an immaterial being which does the job of a heart. For instance, an angel could move blood around the body, and do so in response to electrical activity in the brain stem. Perhaps one could say that an angel couldn't be a body part, because it is already an intelligent being. But we could then imagine something that moves blood around like the angel but doesn’t have a mind.

I am not so confident of premise 1, however. One could, I suppose, turn the argument around: An artificial heart could be a body part, so possibly some of our body parts are immaterial. And if that’s right, then given a view on which body parts are informed by the form of the person, we would have the further interesting conclusion that a form can inform something that isn’t matter.

Minds don't think

  1. Only things with minds think.

  2. Minds don’t have minds.

  3. So, minds don’t think.

Corollary: We think with minds, hence we are not minds.

There might be an exception to (2) in the case of God. By divine simplicity, God is his own mind. So God's mind has a mind, namely itself.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Against nihilism

Argument A:

  1. Necessarily, if there is nothing, it is impossible that anything exists.

  2. Something exists.

  3. So, by Brouwer Axiom, necessarily possibly something exists.

  4. So, the consequent of (1) is impossible.

  5. So, it is impossible that there is nothing.

The most controversial premise in this argument is (1). Premise (1) follows from a picture of modality on which possibility is prior to necessity, and the possibility of non-actual things is grounded in possibilifiers. Absent possibilifiers, nothing is possible. But suppose that instead we like a picture of modality as grounded in necessitators. Then instead we have this argument.

Argument B:

  1. Necessarily, if there is nothing, no proposition is necessary.

  2. It’s necessary that it’s necessary that 2+2=4. (Obvious, or else a consequence of S4 and the fact that it’s necessary that 2+2=4.)

  3. So the consequent of (6) is impossible.

  4. So, it is impossible that there is nothing.

And finally we have:

Argument C:

  1. Necessarily, if there is nothing, either it is impossible that anything exists or no proposition is necessary.

  2. Necessarily possibly something exists. (Premise (3))

  3. It’s neccessary that it’s necessary that 2+2=4. (Premise (7))

  4. So, the consequent of (10) is impossible.

  5. So, it is impossible that there is nothing.

Everything is beautiful

Consider something visually ugly, say one of my school painting projects. The colors are poorly chosen and the lines don’t do a good job representing what it’s meant to represent. (I am not being modest.)

But now suppose we live in an infinite universe or a multiverse, so that every possible intelligent species is realized. It is very likely that there will be some intelligent species whose electromagnetic spectral receptivities are such that the colors in the lines look gorgeous to it, and harmonize in a wonderful abstract way with the shape of the lines. This is, of course, a chance matter—I wasn’t making the painting for that mode of visual receptivity. Let’s say that the species is the xyllians. We can still say that what I made is an ugly work of art, but it is also a part of the natural world, and considered as a part of the natural world it is visuallyx (i.e., as seen with the electromagnetic reception apparatus of xyllians) beautiful while being visuallyh (i.e., as seen with human electromagnetic reception apparatus) beautiful.

Moreover, it is irrelevant whether the xyllians and humans exist. Whether they exist or not, my painting is visuallyx beautiful and visuallyh ugly. All that’s needed is that the xyllians and humans could exist. Thus, my painting really is both beautiful and ugly, even if we are the only intelligent species. And it is just as objectively beautiful as it is objectively ugly. I wasn’t supposing that the xyllians misperceive: just that they have a different pattern of spectral receptivities. We can suppose that xyllian visual perception is just as accurate in reflecting the world, including my unhappy artistic productions, as ours is.

This means that an argument from particular beauty for the existence of God must be run cautiously. Sure, sunsets and goldfish are beautiful. But so is any child’s scrawl, and quite likely any physical object is beautiful with respect to some possible sensory apparatus. Particular instances of beauty are easy to find and should not surprise us. What could surprise us, however, is:

  1. That the particular sensorily beautiful things around us—such as sunsets and goldfish—are in fact beautiful with respect to the sensory apparatus of the intelligent species that dwells near them.

We might also attempt to mount arguments from beauty to God on the basis of these remarkable facts:

  1. That there is such a property as (objective) beauty at all.

  2. That we are able to perceive beauty.

  3. That we enjoy beauty.

  4. That we are able to make correct judgments of beauty.

And bracketing the question of arguing for the existence of God on the basis of beauty, the realization that all material things are beautiful should lead us to glorify God. For while I said that it’s chance that my poor attempts at painting are visuallyx beautiful, that’s only so loosely speaking. God is omnirational, and that the paintings are visuallyx beautiful is a redeeming quality that surely God did not fail to intend.