Thursday, June 28, 2018

Life and self-representation

Here’s another try at an account of life. Maybe:

  1. x is alive if and only if x has a non-derivative self-representation.

Consider: Anything that engages in reproduction must represent itself in order to reproduce (note: the growth of a crystal is not reproduction, however, because it does not make another crystal in the image of its own self-representation). Indeed, (1) covers all the organisms we are confident are organisms. And whether a virus represents itself non-derivatively or only derivatively in relation to the transcription mechanisms of a host is unclear, and (1) rightly thus rules that it is unclear whether a virus is alive.

Moreover, God and angels know themselves, and do so non-derivatively, so they count as alive according to (1).

It could be that (1) is a necessary truth, but nonetheless does not capture the concept of life. For there seems to be something more to life than just non-derivative self-representation, even if it turns out that necessarily all and only the non-derivative self-representers are alive. Aquinas thinks life needs operation or activity.

Here is a suggestion that expands on (1):

  1. x is alive if and only if x pursues an end for itself in the light of a non-derivative self-representation.

Thus something that merely thinks of itself, without having any ends, won’t be alive. On the other hand, anything that intentionally pursues ends that it non-derivatively represents itself as having satisfies (2). So, once again, God and angels count as alive. And so does any organism, since pursuit of reproduction always satisfies (2).

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Murder and theft


  1. To murder is to intentionally kill a juridically innocent person.


  1. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that belongs to another.

Here, I am bracketing questions of special divine authorization, starving persons taking food for themselves, etc. Instead, the question I am interested in is this: What is the scope of “intentionally” in the two accounts?

There are killings where the killer intends to kill a juridically innocent person. For instance, a particularly evil terrorist organization or invading army may specifically choose to kill children in order to more effectively terrorize their enemy by killing the innocent. Similarly, someone might rob an enemy not just in order to have the enemy’s goods at their disposal, but may do so maliciously in order to dispossess the enemy of something the enemy owns.

But in many cases, the juridical innocence of the victim is not a part of the murderer’s reasons. Suppose Alice kills her rich uncle Bob in order to inherit his property. If it turned out that Alice was an agent of the state and Bob a guilty party whom Alice was supposed to kill, Alice’s killing Bob would serve the end of her inheriting the property just as well. Thus, Bob’s juridical innocence is not relevant to Alice’s reasons.

In fact, even Bob’s personhood may be irrelevant to Alice’s reasons. Imagine that Bob snores so loudly that his neighbor Alice can’t sleep. So Alice fills Bob’s apartment with chlorine gas. If it turns out that Bob is just a dog, Alice was still successful in her action. Thus, Alice’s intention need only have been to kill Bob, not to kill a person.

Similarly, often a thief is interested only in acquiring some item but does not care about dispossessing its rightful owner. Imagine that when Alice is turned away, Bob swipes the apple that was lying in front of her and eats it because the apple looks so delicious and not out of any malice towards Alice. If it turned out that the apple did not belong to anyone, Bob would still have fulfilled his intention, because his intention was to appropriate the apple. Bob may have thought that the apple belong to another, but the fact that the apple belonged to another was irrelevant to his intentions.

In particular, it follows that while a murderer or a thief has to intend to kill or appropriate, they need not intend to murder or steal. And if to attempt to ϕ entails intending to ϕ, as seems plausible, it follows that a murder or theft attempt need not be an attempt to murder or steal. For the the attempted murderer or thief, just as the actual murderer or thief, need not intend murder or theft, but may simply intend to kill or appropriate, while believing, correctly or not, that the victim is innocent or an owner, respectively.

It seems more precise to say:

  1. To murder is to intentionally kill someone whom one believes to be a juridically innocent person.

  2. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that one believes to belong to another.

But I think that’s not quite right. If Bob takes the apple that he thinks belongs to Alice, but the apple is ownerless, then Bob hasn’t stolen. And if Alice kills Bob whom she believes to be a person but it turns out that Bob is a dog, then Alice hasn’t murdered. In both cases, the agent has done something wrong, something morally on par with theft or murder, respectively, but the thing wasn’t theft or murder.

Here is another suggestion:

  1. To murder is to intentionally kill someone who actually is a juridically innocent person.

  2. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that actually belongs to another.

But I am inclined to think that’s not right, either. If I take your pen thinking you’ve given it to me, I haven’t stolen. And if Carl intentionally kills Dave while thinking Dave to be a deer and not a man, Carl hasn’t murdered.

Perhaps we need to combine the above two suggestions:

  1. To murder is to intentionally kill someone whom one correctly believes to be a juridically innocent person.

  2. To steal is to intentionally appropriate something that one correctly believes to belong to another.

This is my best bet. But I don’t like its messiness. (Note that replacing “correctly believes” with “knows” will narrow things too much. If I take what I correctly believe to be your pen, but my reasons for believing that the pen is yours are fallacious, I am still a thief.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Preorders open on Infinity, Causation, and Paradox

Preorder here. Amazon lists a release date of August 30.

You can also look at the table of contents.

Causal countability

Say that a set S is causally countable if and only if it is metaphysically possible for someone to causally think through all the items in S. To causally think through the xs is to engage in a step-by-step sequential process of thinking about individual xs such that:

  1. Every individual one of the xs is thought about in precisely one step of the process.

  2. Each step in the process has at most one successor step.

  3. With at most one exception, each step in the process is the successor of exactly one step.

  4. The successor of a step causally depends on it.

Causal finitism then ensures that any causally countable set is countable in the mathematical sense. And, conversely, given some assumptions about reality being rational, any countable set is causally countable.

However, causal countability escapes the Skolem paradox, because of causal finitism and how it is anchored in the non-mathematical notion of causation.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Causation and memory theories of personal identity

Unlike soul-based theories, the memory, brain and body theories of personal identity are subject to fusion cases. There are four options as to what happens when persons merge:

  • Singleton: a specific person continues, but we don’t know which one

  • Double Identity: there was only one person prior to the fusion, wholly present in two places at once

  • Scattered: there was only one person prior to the fusion, half of whom was present in one location and half of whom was present in another

  • End: fusion causes the person’s demise and the arising of a new person.

The problem with Singleton is that it supposes there is a fact about personal identity deeper than facts about memories, brain-continuity and body-continuity, which undercuts the motivation for the three theories of personal identity.

Double Identity and Scattered are weird. Moreover, it leads to absurdity. For whether you and I are now one person or two depends on whether we will in fact fuse in the future, and we have backwards counterfactuals like: “If you and I fuse, then we will have always been one person.” This is just wrong: facts about your being a different person from me should not depend on what will happen. And consider that if you and I decide to fuse, thereby ensuring that we have always been one person J, either bilocated or scattered, then J exists because of J’s decision to fuse. But an individual cannot exist because of a decision made by that very individual.

That leaves End. I think End may be a good move for brain and body theorists. But it’s not a good move for memory theorists. For by analogy, we will have to say that fission causes a person’s demise, too. But then it is possible to kill a person without any causal interaction. For suppose you are unconscious and undergoing brain surgery under Dr. Kowalska. Dr. Kowalska scans your brain to a hard drive as a backup. A malefactor steals the hard drive from her as well as a blank lab-grown brain. If the thief restores the data from the hard drive into the lab-grown brain, that will result in fission and thus death. But the thief’s restoring of the data into the blank brain is something that can happen without any causal interaction with you. Hence, the thief can kill you without causally interacting with you, which is absurd.

Hence both Double Identity and End have causality problems on the memory theory: Double Identity allows someone to be literally self-made and End allows for killing without causation. It may be that if one is less of a realist about causation, these problems are less, but since memory itself is a causal process, it may be that memory theories of personal identity don’t sit well with being less of a realist about causation.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Language and specified complexity

Roughly speaking—but precisely enough for our purposes—Dembski’s criterion for the specified complexity of a system is that a ratio of two probabilities, pΦ/pL, is very low. Here, pL is the probability that by generating bits of a language L at random we will come up with a description of the system, while pΦ is the physical probability of the system arising. For instance, when you have the system of 100 coins all lying heads up, pΦ = (1/2)100 while pL is something like (1/27)9 (think of the description “all heads” generated by generating letters and spaces at random), something that pΦ/pL is something like 6 × 10−18. Thus, the coin system has specified complexity, and we have significant reason to look for a design-based explanation.

I’ve always been worried about the language-dependence of the criterion. Consider a binary sequence that intuitively lacks specified complexity, say this sequence generated by

  • 0111101001100111010101011001100111001110000110011110101101101101001011011000011101100111100111111111

But it is possible to have a language L where the word “xyz” means precisely the above binary sequence, and then relative to that language pL will be much, much bigger than 2−100 = pΦ.

However, I now wonder how much this actually matters. Suppose that L is the language that we actually speak. Then pL measures how “interesting” the system is relative to the interests of the one group of intelligent agents we know well—namely, ourselves. And interest relative to the one group of intelligent agents we know well is evidence of interest relative to intelligent agents in general. And when a system is interesting relative to intelligent agents but not probable physically, that seems to be evidence of design by intelligent agents.

Admittedly, the move from ourselves to intelligent agents in general is problematic. But we can perhaps just sacrifice a dozen orders of magnitude to the move—maybe the fact that something has an interest level pL = 10−10 to us is good evidence that it has an interest level at least 10−22 to intelligent agents in general. That means we need the pΦ/pL ratio to be smaller to infer design, but the criterion will still be useful: it will still point to design in the all-heads arrangement of coins, say.

Of course, all this makes the detection of design more problematic and messy. But there may still be something to it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Absolute relativistic simultaneity

If we accept relativity theory as providing a metaphysically correct theory of time, the folk concept of temporal simultaneity needs revision. The standard way to revise it has been to relativize it to a reference frame. Instead of simultaneity being a binary relation between events (A is simultaneous with B) it becomes a ternary relation between events and a frame (A is simultaneous with B in F).

But another revision of the folk concept is possible: We keep simultaneity a binary relation, and specify that two events are simultaneous if and only if they are colocated in spacetime (this is roughly the same as saying that they are simultaneous according to every frame). Spatially distant events, on this revision, are never simultaneous.

The downside of the absolute simultaneity revision is that a lot of first-order
simultaneity judgments become false. Leibniz and Newton were not developing calculus simultaneously. I am not typing this at the same time as my daughter is playing a game on another laptop. Etc.

The upside is that colocation is a much more fundamental concept given relativity theory than the concept of a reference frame.

So we have a choice: We can keep our ordinary first-order judgments as to what events are in fact simultaneous or we can preserve the arity of the simultaneity relation and the judgment about the fundamentality of simultaneity. I think cases of revision of ordinary concepts, preserving ordinary first-order judgments tends to trump other things. So I am inclined to think the standard revision is superior as a way of doing justice to the language.

But the absolute revision may be better as a philosophical heuristic. For we might think that fundamental philosophical concepts should be frame-invariant, like fundamental physical concepts are.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Might machine learning hurt the machine?

Machine learning has the computer generate parameters for a neural network on the basis of a lot of data. Suppose that we think that computers can be conscious. I wonder if we are in a position, then, to know that any particular training session won’t be unpleasant for the computer. For we don’t really know what biological neural configurations, or transitions between them, constitute pain and other forms of unpleasantness. Maybe in the course of learning, among the vast number of changing network parameters or the updates between them there will be some that will hurt the computer. Perhaps it hurts, for instance, when the value of the loss function is high.

This means that if we think computers can be conscious, we may have ethical reasons to be cautious about artificial intelligence research, not because of the impact on people and other organisms in our ecosystem, but because of the possible impact on the computers themselves. We may need to first solve the problem of what neural states in animals constitute pain, so that we don’t accidentally produce functional isomorphs of these states in computers.

If this line of thought seems absurd, it may be that the intuition of absurdity here is some evidence against the thesis that computers can be conscious (and hence against functionalism).

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Two open-ended cosmological arguments

First argument:

  1. There are no infinite causal regresses or causal loops.

  2. Every ordinary entity has a cause.

  3. So, there is an extraordinary entity.

Second argument:

  1. There is a causal explanation why there are any ordinary entities.

  2. Causal explanations are not circular.

  3. So, there is an extraordinary entity.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Yet another counterexample to Nicod's Principle

Nicod’s Principle says that the claim that all Fs are Gs is confirmed by each instance.

Here’s yet another counterexample. Consider the claim:

  1. All unicorns are male.

We take this claim to be true, albeit vacuously so, since there are no unicorns.

But suppose an instance of (1), namely a male unicorn, were found. We would immediately conclude that (1) is probably false. For if there is a male unicorn, likely there is a female one as well.

The problem here is that when we learn of Sam that it is a male unicorn, we also learn that there are unicorns. And as soon as we learned that there are unicorns, that undercut the reason we had for believing (1), namely that we thought (1) was vacuously true.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Slavery, forced marriage and unjust laws

Slavery is the ownership of one person by another. Since a person no more owns another than a thief owns the purloined goods, there has never been any slavery. But of course there have been institutions thought to be slavery: institutions in which a person was thought to be the property of another. These were not institutions of slavery in the above strict sense but forms of unjust imprisonment, kidnapping, etc.

This seems to be merely a point about words, and a mistaken one at that. “Of course, Alexander II ended serfdom in Russia while Lincoln ended slavery in the US. Words mean what they are used to mean, and to dispute historical claims like these is to be like the fusty grammarian who claims that ‘It’s me’ is bad English.”

I agree that the question of words is unimportant. But here is what is important. Institutions are defined in large part by their norms. It is a defining feature of the norms of slavery (and, with some differences, of serfdom) that one person has property-style rights over another who has onerous obligations corresponding to these rights. But in fact, nobody has such rights over another, and the supposed obligations do not obtain. The institution that the “masters” saw themselves as a part of did not in fact exist, because the rights and obligations that they took to be integral to the institution did not, and could not, in fact exist.

We can use the term “slavery” (and cognates in other languages) for that non-existent institution, just as we use the term “phlogiston” for the substance that chemists mistakenly believed in before oxygen was discovered.

But we could also use distinguish and use two terms. Maybe slaveryh is the historical form of social organization that actually (and deplorably) existed and slaveryn is the normative institution that the mastersh (and maybe some of the slavesh, as well) incorrectly thought to exist and thought to be coextensive with slaveryh.

Again, the words don’t matter, but it matters that there was a morally condemnable attempt to create a certain social institution which attempt failed because the norms that were attempted to be instituted were incapable of institution.

This is a pattern we find in many other cases. There is no such thing as a forced marriage, since the norms of love and sexuality that define marriage do not come into existence apart from the free consent of the parties. But of course over the course of history there have been morally condemnable attempts to force people—especially women—into the institution of marriage. These attempts always failed, and what the victims were forced into was a different institution, one subjecting them to such injustices as kidnapping, unjust imprisonment, rape, etc.

Thomas Aquinas, similarly, holds that there are no unjust laws. Of course, legislators may attempt to enact laws that would be unjust (or they may simply be exercising power and not even trying to legislate). But when they do so, they fail to enact laws. What they enact are mere demands masquarading as laws (philosophical anarchists think all “laws” are like that). Again, the question of words is unimportant, but what is important is the pattern: the legislator is deplorably attempting to create a social institution—a law—and failing to do so, but instead creating another institution.

The particular cases of this pattern are interesting, and so is the pattern itself. A central part of the pattern is an attempt to create an institution (or an instance of an institution) that misfires, and instead another institution is created that is widely but mistakenly thought to be the one that was the target of the attempt. But the cases of slavery, forced marriage and unjust laws also share another feature that not all the cases of misfiring do. For instance, suppose due to an honest mistake in the counting of ballots, there is a mistake as to who the mayor of a town is. The false mayor then attempts to legislate something quite just. The attempt fails, because the false mayor lacks the standing to legislate. But there need be nothing morally deplorable here, as there is in the slavery, forced marriage and unjust law cases.

Moreover, the three cases I started with are not just morally deplorable, but there seems to be an important connection between moral evil and performative misfire. Slaveryh is morally horrific, but slaveryn would be even worse, as the slavesn would be under genuine obligations to do the enforced labor required of them and not to escape. This would, as it were, make morality itself complicit with the master, and the properly formed conscience of the slave into a whip in the master’s hand. And the same holds in the other two cases: morality itself would be a tool of oppression.

There are, alas, times when morality is a tool of oppression. The duties that exist between relatives are frequently exploited by repressive regimes as a means of social control: If you are an Uyghur or Tibetan defecting to a free country and speaking out against the Chinese regime, your relatives back home will suffer, and this restricts your activity because of the duties you have to your relatives. But the kinds of cases where the wicked use morality as a lever against the righteous seem different and less direct from what would be the case if slavery, forced marriage and unjust laws had the normative force that they pretend to. It is a mere coincidental effect of duties to family when these duties make it morally impossible or difficult to stand up to a wicked regime. But it would be of the very nature of the norms induced by slavery, forced marriage and unjust laws—if these norms really came into existence—that they would oppress.

This still leaves an interesting puzzle, which different moral theories will answer differently: Why is it the case that morality does not innately oppress?

Objection: Maybe slaveryh does create norms, but not moral norms.

Response: I myself don’t think there are any non-moral norms. But in any case slaveryh does not create any kind of obligation on the slave to obey the master, whether moral or not, except in some, but not all, cases a prudential one.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The search for new truths

I know that I have two hands. With a bit of thought, I now know a number of truths that it seems no ordinary person has ever known before:

  • I have two hands or there is a palomino painted green and pink with someone in a Darth Vader costume on its back.

  • I have two hands or the number of pigs born in 1745 is odd.

  • I have two hands or Sir Patrick Stewart will consume a prime number of calories tomorrow.

  • I have two hands or Donald Trump issued a series of anti-Klingon tweets yesterday.

And so on, ad infinitum. The search for new truths is thus really easy. I just need to search for silly propositions that no one has thought about, and disjoin them with something I know.

External time as such doesn't matter to us

Suppose a deity threatened to move us all to a universe where everything is pretty much as in our world, except that electric charges are reversed and the laws of nature are tweaked to ensure that this reverse doesn’t affect our lives. Thus, in that world, we are based not on carbon atoms, but on anti-carbon anti-atoms (they will have six anti-protons and six positrons, etc.), but the laws are tweaked so that the anti-atoms would behave just like atoms.

Assuming we can survive the shift, it seems that except for sentimental considerations (maybe when Grandma’s old wedding ring is replaced by a ring of anti-gold, it’s no longer the same ring) it would make no difference to us.

Similarly, if the deity threatened to spatially rotate the world by 180 degrees around some axis, that would make no difference to us.

What if the deity offered to rotate our world in time by 180 degrees, with causation now running temporally backwards, with us being born in the future and dying in the past, but everything being kept intact. It seems to me that this would make no difference to us.

Similarly, it seems to me that if the deity offered to rotate our four-dimensional world so that the temporal dimension and a spatial dimension were swapped, so that we would be born and die at the same time, but in different places along a spatial axis, and causation would run unidirectionally along the spatial axis, again that would make no difference to us.

I think these thought experiments suggest that external time as such is not important. What matters is how the distribution of things interacts with the causal order.

To be honest, though, I am not completely confident that any of these thought experiments make sense. It could be that any dimension along which causation runs much as causation runs along the temporal direction in our world is therefore a time dimension. But if so, then I think it's still true that it is causation, not external time as such, that matters.

I am less confident of this in the case of internal time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Disembodied trees

Here’s an interesting thesis:

  1. If x has the ys among its parts, and for each z among the ys, x can survive losing z without gaining anything, then x can survive simultaneously losing all the ys without gaining anything.

There are obvious apparent counterexamples. A boat that has sufficient redundancy can survive the loss of any plank, but cannot survive losing them all. An oak tree can lose any cell but cannot lose all cells.

But counterexamples aside, wouldn’t (1) be a nice metaphysical thesis to have? Then essential parts wouldn’t be made of inessential ones. You can see all the nasty ship-of-Theseus questions that would disappear if we had (1).

I think an Aristotelian can embrace (1), and can get around the counterexamples by biting some big bullets. First, like some contemporary Aristotelians, she can deny that artifacts like boats (or bullets) exist. Second, she can say that oak trees can survive the loss of all their matter, becoming constituted by form alone, much as some philosophers say happens to human beings after death (before the resurrection). The second part seems a bigger bullet to bite, as one would need a story as to why in fact oak trees perish when they lose all their cells, even if they don’t have to. But perhaps that’s just contingently how it happens, though an all powerful being could make an oak tree survive the destruction of all its cells.

The big question here is exactly what philosophical advantages embracing (1) has.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Distinguishing between properties

Some philosophers worry about “principles of individuation” that make two things of one kind be different from another. Suppose we share that worry. Then we should be worried about Platonism. For it is very hard to say what make two fundamental Platonic entities of the same sort different, say being positively charged from being negatively charged, or saltiness from sweetness.

However, the light-weight Platonist, who denies that predication is to be grounded in possession of universals, has a nice story to tell about the above kinds of cases. For here is a qualitative difference between saltiness and sweetness:

  • saltiness is necessarily had by all and only salty things, but

  • sweetness is not necessarily had by all and only salty things.

But for the heavy-weight Platonist to tell this story would involve circularity, for what it is for a thing to be salty will be to exemplify saltiness.

Of course, this story only works for properties that aren’t necessarily coextensive. But it’s some progress.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Acting without existing (any more)

Thesis: It is possible for an object to be acting while it does not exist.


Imagine a rattlesnake that is ten light-years long, all stretched out. For all one hundred years of life it has been deliberately rattling its rattle. And then at the end of its hundred years, its head is destroyed, and I assume that the destruction of the head of a snake is sufficient for its death.

Rattling continues for at least about ten years even after the snake is dead, since the nerve signals the brain had sent while the snake was alive are continuing to rattle.

If this post-mortem rattle counts as the snake’s activity, the Thesis is established. But it is not clear that this ten years of post-mortem rattle is the snake’s activity.

But now consider the last year of pre-mortem rattling, call it R99 (since it starts in year 99 of the snake’s life). Whatever one says of the post-mortem rattling, clearly R99 is the snake’s activity. However, there is a reference frame—the way I set the length of the snake and the times in the story guarantees this—in which R99 occurs after the snake’s head has been destroyed, and hence occurs after the death of the snake. But R99 is the snake’s activity. Hence, there is a reference frame where an activity of the snake occurs after the snake is dead.


Obviously, only existent things can act. But while existence simpliciter is important for activity, existence-at-a-time does not have the same kind of significance. Obviously, often an actor’s action has a relationship R to some thing x that the actor itself does not have. For instance, an agent’s action may be known by me without the agent being known by me (here, R is being known and x is me).

Now, when we say that Elizabeth II exists as Queen of Canada, that is just an awkward way of saying that she has a monarchic relationship to Canada, rather than being a claim about that mysterious thing deep ontology studies: existence. I think we should think of existing-at-a-time as not really existence but simply as a particular kind of relationship—an occupation or presence relationship. It is not surprising in general that activities can stand in relationships that the agents do not. So, why can’t an activity stand in an occupation relationship to a time that the agent does not?

I think much confusion in philosophy comes from thinking of existence-at-a-time and existence-in-a-place as something special, somehow deeply ontologically different from other relations.