Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Bizarre consequences in bizarre circumstances

In strange physical circumstances, we would not be surprised by strange and unexpected behavior of a system governed by physical laws.

Under conditions a device was not designed for, we would not be surprised by odd behavior from the device.

Nor should we be surprised by bizarre behavior by an organism far outside its evolutionary niche.

Therefore, it seems that we should not be surprised by how an entity governed by moral or doxastic laws would behave in out-of-this-world moral or evidential circumstances.

In particular perhaps we should be very cautious—in ways that I have rarely been—about the lessons to be drawn from the ethics or epistemology in bizarre counterfactual stories. Instead, perhaps, we should think about how it could be that ethics or epistemology is tied to our niche, our proper environment, and we should be suspicious of Kantian-style ethics or epistemology grounded in niche- and kind-transcending principles, perhaps preferring a more Aristotelian approach with norms for behavior in our natural environment being grounded in our own nature.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Internally eternal life

Suppose that starting this year (2019), I and all people who are important to me will do the following: We will live for 20 years on a delightful planet, and then travel through spacetime both 20 years back and to another delightful planet, and repeat ad infinitum.

Then, we won’t exist after the year 2039. But notice that this needn’t matter to us! Indeed, we are no worse off than if we skipped the time travel, and lived forever, moving between delightful planets every 20 years.

This is yet another thought experiment showing that what is important to us is internal and not external time.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Trinity, sexual ethics and liberal Christianity

Many Christians deny traditional Christian doctrines regarding sexual ethics while accepting traditional Christian Trinitarian doctrine. This seems to me to be a rationally suspect combination because:

  1. The arguments against traditional Christian sexual ethics are weaker than the arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity.

  2. A number of the controversial parts of traditional Christian sexual ethics are grounded
    at least as well in Tradition and Scripture as the doctrine of the Trinity is.

Let me offer some backing for claims 1 and 2.

The strongest arguments against traditional Christian sexual ethics are primarily critiques of the arguments for traditional Christian sexual ethics (such as the arguments from the natural law tradition). As such, these arguments do not establish the falsity of traditional Christian sexual ethics, but at best show that it has a weak philosophical foundation. On the other hand, the best arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity come very close to showing that the doctrine of the Trinity taken on its own terms is logically contradictory. The typical Christian theologian is the one who is on the defensive here, offering ways to resolve the apparent contradiction rather than giving rational arguments for the truth of the doctrine.

There are, admittedly, some arguments against traditional Christian sexual ethics on the basis of intuitions widely shared in our society. But we know that these intuitions are very much shaped by a changing culture, insofar as prior to the 20th century, one could run intuition-based arguments for opposite conclusions. Hence, we should not consider the arguments based on current social intuitions to be particularly strong.
But the intuition that there is something contradictory about the doctrine of the Trinity does not seem to be as dependent on changing social intuitions. The merely socially counterintuitive is rationally preferable to the apparently contradictory.

Neither the whole of the doctrine of the Trinity nor the whole of traditional Christian sexual ethics is explicit in Scripture. But particularly controversial portions of each are explicit in Scripture: the Prologue of John tells us that Christ is God, while both Mark and Luke tell us that remarriage after divorce is a form of adultery, and Paul is clear on the wrongfulness of same-sex sexual activity. And the early Christian tradition is at least as clear, and probably more so, sexual ethics as on the doctrine of the Trinity.

I am not saying, of course, that it is not rational accept the doctrine of the Trinity. I think the arguments against the doctrine have successful responses. All I am saying is that traditional Christian sexual ethics fares (even) better.

Thursday, July 25, 2019


Suppose two quantum systems, A and B, are perfectly entangled in such a way that for any measurement of one system, the other system must have an exactly corresponding (for simplicity) measurement.

Here’s one causal story that can be given about this that is compatible with both special relativity insofar as it presupposes no preferred reference frame and yet respects the commonplace intuition that there is no backwards causation.

The story assumes that quantum systems can communicate with each other faster than light, but not absolutely temporally backwards. Specifically, if system A at point a in spacetime is not in the future light cone of point b, then system A at a can send a signal to a system at point b. This saves much of the intuition that there is no backwards causation.

Here is what happens in entanglement cases. Suppose you are one of the two systems and you are being measured.

  1. You uniformly choose a random real number x between 0 and 1, and send out a superluminal message “I am being measured and I picked x” to the other entangled system to arrive at the time of the other system’s measurement—unless the other system’s measurement is in your future, in which case your message doesn’t arrive.

  2. You check for receipt of a superluminal “I am being measured and I picked y” message from the other twin.

  3. If you don’t get the message, then you are designated the Boss of the Measurement.

  4. If you do get the message, then you are designated the Boss of the Measurement if and only if x > y.

  5. If you are designated the Boss of the Measurement, then you now collapse your own state according to the Born rule probabilities, and send a superluminal message “I am the Boss and I collapsed to state z”.

  6. If you are not designated the Boss of the Measurement, then you are almost sure to receive a message of the form “I am the Boss and I collapsed to state z”, so you collapse to the entangled state corresponding to the other system’s state z.

The sequence of tasks 1-6 either happens super-fast or they are all temporally simultaneous but explanatorily sequential. Furthermore, the messaging is hidden from us: the choice of the real numbers x and y, the messages sent and Boss status are all hidden variables.


A. The setup has a possibility, but with zero probability, of failure—namely, if both systems randomly chose the same number (i.e., x = y), then neither is Boss of the Measurement and collapse doesn’t happen.

B. According to some but not all reference frames the superluminal messaging will result in messages arriving before they are sent (i.e., the receipt is spacelike separated from the sending). But if the superluminal messaging is limited to the above kinds of messages, hopefully one can ensure that causal loops are ruled out, and so no paradox ensues. And there is no absolutely-backwards causation.

C. Locality is violated by the superluminal messaging, of course. But having a causal explanation is more important than ensuring locality.

D. With more than two systems entangled, things get much more complicated.

E. If the entanglement isn’t perfect, things get much more complicated.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Energy conservation

On a Humean metaphysics, energy conservation implies a vast conspiracy in the arrangement of things throughout spacetime, somewhat like this:

  1. Wherever there is a change in energy in one region there is a corresponding balancing change in another region.

In an Aristotelian causal powers metaphysics, energy conservation implies a fact like the following about every physical substance x:

  1. Every causal power of x whose content includes an effect on the energy of one or more substances also includes a balancing reverse effect on x’s own energy.

That no physical substance simply has a power to affect the energy of another substance, without the content of that power having to include a balancing effect on one’s own energy, is deeply surprising. It is a conspiracy almost as surprising as (1).

These conspiracies strongly suggest that neither the Humean nor the Aristotelian metaphysics is the whole story about energy conservation. The conspiracies desperately call for explanation. I know of two putative explanations: an optimalist one (on which reality strives for value, and mathematically expressible patterns are a part of the value) and a theistic one. Both of these explanations, however, really do great violence to the spirit behind Humean metaphysics. But Aristotelian metaphysics with optimalism or theism explaining the conspiracy in (2) works just fine.

Of course, the problem can also be solved by a different metaphysics, one on which the behavior of objects is explained by pushy global laws. But it is harder to fit human freedom and agency into that metaphysics than into the Aristotelian one.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Distributive promises

Suppose I promise my class to grade all the weekly homework within three days. In week four, I fail and am late with grading. If the content of my promise was simply the proposition

  1. that I grade all the homework within three days,

then after week four, then no matter how speedy I am with grading the homework, proposition (1) is just plain false. And this means that my promise no longer generates any reason for me to grade the homework in weeks five and onward within three days, which seems wrong. I should, instead, apologize for failing in week four, and work even harder in the succeeding weeks.

I think this is because the promise was distributive. It wasn’t a promise to make proposition (1) true. It was a promise that for each week of homework generated a separate promissory reason to grade that week’s homework within three days.

The normative force of the promise is rather like making a separate promise for each week of class:

  1. I promise that in the first week, I will grade the homework in three days. I promise that in the second week, I will grade the homework in three days. … I promise that in the 15th week, I will grade the homework in three days.

But other cases of distributive promises aren’t as neatly handled. Suppose I promise my class:

  1. If you come to office hours, I will try to answer any question you might have about logic.

Again, this is distributive. If I refuse to answer a question out of laziness, it doesn’t let me off the hook with regard to the next question. But if I analyze this as a sequence of separate promises, then that sequence has to be infinite:

  1. I promise that if you ask me q1 at t1, I will try to answer. And if you ask me q2 at t1, I will try to answer. … And if you ask me q1 at t2, I will try to answer. …

where the list goes through all the possible questions about logic and all the possible times that fall within office hours. Have I really made an infinite number of promises? This seems implausible. Moreover, normally, we think that one cannot make a promise without knowing that one has done so. But I might not know that q8 is a question about logic or that t3 is a time within office hours (in fact, I might not even know that t3 exists—I might think that there are no intervals finer grained than a Planck time, but there might be).

Or I could make a promise to God regarding my treatment of all future as-yet-unconceived persons who have some property. Again, this is distributive: failure in one case does not excuse me from trying in other cases. But if analyzed as a collection of promises about actual future persons, we get the weirdness that what I have promised depends on what I will do. So it would have to be a collection of promises about possible future persons. And it’s not clear that this makes sense except given some controversial metaphysical assumptions, such as the existence of haecceities.

So, I think distributive promises don’t reduce to non-distributive ones.

Maybe, though, one can try to handle the cases with some sort of a doctrine of approximate truth. Perhaps when I promise a proposition, if I am no longer in a position to make the proposition true, I am required to make it as approximately true as I can? I think this kind of a principle will lead to counterintuitive results. For suppose that there is some benefit to you from having p be exactly true, while close approximations to p are harmful to you, while some way of making p very false is much better for you. Then I shouldn’t strive for a close approximation to p. (Think of cases of medicinal dosage, perhaps.)

Knowing how fast to change

Imagine two objects, M and H, where M has the intrinsic causal power of emitting some sort of a pulse once per minute and H has the intrinsic causal power of pulsing once per hour, and suppose M and H are causally separated from the rest of the universe. How do M and H “know” how quickly to pulse?

The problem seems to me to be particularly pressing on Aristotelian theories of time on which time is defined by the changes of objects. Let’s imagine that in addition to M and H there are a thousand identical clocks running in the universe, with all objects causally isolated from each other, and that there is nothing else that is changing besides what I have described. Presumably, then, the changes that define time are the changes in the positions of the clock hands. Then on our Aristotelian theory, to say that H pulses every hour just means that H pulses once per revolution of the minute hand on a typical clock, and to say that H pulses every minute means that H pulses once per revolution of the seconds hand on a typical clock.

But, first, how do M and H know about the movement of the hands of the clocks, so as to keep in sync with them, if all the objects are causally isolated?

And, second, let’s imagine this. God speeds up the clocks one by one by a factor of two: today he speeds up clock C1, tomorrow he speeds up clock C2, and so on, until eventually all the clocks have been sped up. After a week, seven clocks, C1, ..., C7, have been sped up. This doesn’t matter for the definition of time: seven clocks out of a thousand are negligible, and the time standards are set up by C8, ..., C1000. According to C1, ..., C7, M pulses once per two rotations of the seconds hand, and H once per two rotations of the minutes hand. But according to C8, ..., C1000, M pulses once per rotation of the seconds hand and H once per rotation of the minutes hand, since these rotations correspond to real minutes and real hours.

However, after 993 days, clocks C1, ..., C993 are running at the same rate and setting the time standards. The clocks C994, ..., C1000 are the outliers. So, now, M pulses once per rotation of the seconds hands and H once per rotation of the minutes hands of C1, ..., C993. And M pulses twice per rotation of the seconds hands of C994, ..., C1000, and H twice per rotation of their minutes hands. So at some point in the process of speeding up clocks C8, ..., C1000, M’s pulses go from once per two rotations of the seconds hand of C1, ..., C7 to once per rotation, and similarly for H. But how can the speeding up of clocks other than C1, ..., C7 affect the correlations between H and M when everything is causally isolated?

(Note that talk of “speeding up clock Cn” makes sense even if the clocks jointly define time. If n = 1, we can understand it as speeding it up relative to clocks C2, ..., C1000. If n > 1, we can understand it as bringing clock Cn in sync with clock Cn − 1. What may be a bit ambiguous is what “day n” means, but nothing hangs on the details of how to resolve that.)

But even without an Aristotelian theory of time it is puzzling how M and H “know” how quickly to pulse.

I think there is a nice solution that lets one keep a part of the Aristotelian theory of time: (external) time is not just the measure of change, but the measure of change in causally interconnected things. There is no common timeline between M, H and the clocks when there are no causal connections between them. This, I think, requires the rejection of any theory on which there is a metaphysically deep “objective present”.

Another move is to deny that there can be intrinsic causal powers that make reference to metric external time.

Continuous choices

Suppose at at noon, Alice is relaxed in an armchair listening to music, but at any given time she is capable of choosing to get up, walk over to the kitchen and make herself a sandwich for lunch, which it’s time for. For fifteen minutes she continues listening to the music and then gets up at 12:15. It seems that she is continually responsible for her continuing to sit until 12:15, and then she is responsible for getting up.

Here is one realistic question about what happened between 12:00 and 12:15:

  1. Did Alice make a vast number of choices, one at every moment until 12:15, to remain seated, and then at 12:15 a choice to get up?

In favor of a positive answer, it is difficult to see how she could be responsible for not getting up at a given time if she did not choose not to get up.

But a positive answer seems psychologically implausible. Indeed, it doesn’t seem like Alice would be enjoying the music if every moment she had to positively choose to stay.

Also, let’s think about what the reasons weighing in on each choice would be. On the one hand, there is a very weak reason to get up now. It’s a weak reason because getting up the next moment would be just as good hunger-wise. On the other hand, there is a very weak reason to keep sitting in order to enjoy music between this moment and the next. It’s a weak reason because the amount of music involved is very small. Choices on the basis of such very weak reasons are hard to make. These reasons would be hard to weigh. And when making choices between hard to weigh reasons, it seems that the chances of going for either option should be of the same order of magnitude. But if Alice were to make a vast number of choices between getting up and staying between, say, 12:00 and 12:10, with each choice having roughly the same order of magnitude of probability, then it was very unlikely that all these choices were choices to stay.

I find the responsibility argument pretty persuasive, though. Maybe, though, the right story that balances psychological plausibility with intuitions about responsibility is this: Alice made a small number of choices between 12:00 and 12:15. Most of these choices were a choice whether to think harder about whether to get up or just let the status quo continue “for a while”. Most of the time, she chose just to let the status quo roll on. At a time t during which the status quo was “just rolling on”, Alice’s responsibility for not getting up was derivative from her choice to stop thinking about the question. Sometimes, however, Alice decided to think harder about whether to get up. Finally, she thought harder, and got up.

Since the number of choices is smaller on this story, it doesn’t interfere as much with the enjoyment. There is some interference, but that’s realistic. And since the number of choices is smaller, the probabilities of each option can be of the same order of magnitude without this creating any problems.

Now, prescinding from the realism behind the discussion of (1), we can ask the also interesting question:

  1. Could it be that both (a) time is continuous and (b) Alice literally makes a choice to remain seated at every single moment of time between 12:00 and 12:15?

The answer, I think, is negative. For consider a choice at t. Alice would be choosing between the good of slightly more music and the good of slightly earlier relief of hunger. But how long as the “slightly more” and “slightly earlier”? Zero temporal length! For if time is continuous, and Alice is choosing at every moment, zero length of time elapses between choices. Indeed, there is no sense to the idea of “between choices”. So Alice would be choosing between zero-value goods. And that doesn’t make rational sense.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Probabilistic propensities and the Aristotelian view of time

Consider an item x with a half-life of one hour. Then over the period of an hour, it has a 50% chance of decaying, over the period of a second it only has a 0.02% chance of decaying. Imagine that x has no way of changing except by decaying, and that x is causally isolated from all outside influences. Don’t worry about Schroedinger's cat stuff: just take what I said at face value.

We are almost sure that x will one day decay (the probability of decaying approaches one as the length of time increases).

Now imagine that everything other than x is annihilated. Since x was already isolated from all outside influences, this should not in any way affect x’s decay. Hence, we should still be almost sure that x will one day decay. Moreover, since what is outside of x did not affect x’s behavior, the propensities for decay should be unchanged by that annihilation: x has a 50% chance of decay in an hour and a 0.02% chance of decay in a second.

But this seems to mean that time is not the measure of change as Aristotle thought. For if time were the measure of change, then there would be no way to make sense of the question: “How long did it take for x to decay?”

Here is another way to make the point. On an Aristotelian theory of time, the length of time is defined by change. Now imagine that temporal reality consists of x and a bunch of analog clocks all causally isolated from x. The chances of decay of x make reference to lengths of time. Lengths of time are defined by change, and hence by the movements of the hands of the clocks. But if x is causally isolated from the clocks, its decay times should have nothing to do with the movements of the clocks. If God, say, accelerated or slows down some of the clocks, that shouldn’t affect x’s behavior in any way, since x is isolated. But an Aristotelian theory of time, it seems, such an isolation is impossible.

I think an Aristotelian can make one of two moves here.

First, perhaps the kinds of propensities that are involved in having an indeterministic half-life cannot be had by an isolated object: such objects must be causally connected to other things. No atom can be a causal island. So, even though physics doesn’t say so, the decay of an atom has a causal connection with the behavior of things outside the atom.

Second, perhaps any item that can have a half-life or another probabilistic propensity in isolation from other things has to have an internal clock—it has to have some kind of internal change—and the Aristotelian dictum that time is the measure of change should be understood in relation to internal time, not global time.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Emotions and naturalism

On occasion, I’ve heard undergraduates suggest that naturalism faces a problem with emotions. They feel that a mere computational system would not have emotional states.

One might take this to be a special case of the problem of qualia, and I think it has some plausibility there. It is indeed hard to see how an emotionless Mary would know what it’s like to be scared or in love. Is it harder than in the case of ordinary sensory qualia, like that of red? I don’t know.

But I think it’s more interesting to take it to be a special case of the problem of intentionality or content. Emotions are at least partly constituted by intentional (quasi?) perceptual states with normative content: to be scared involves perceiving reality as containing something potentially bad for one and being in love involves perceiving someone as wonderful in some respects.

The standard materialist story about the content of perceptual states is causal: a perception of red represents an object as reflecting or emitting light roughly of a certain wavelength range because the perception is typically triggered by objects doing this. But on standard naturalist stories do not have room for normative properties to play a causal role. Post-Aristotelian scientific explanations are thought not to invoke normative features.

There is, of course, nothing here to worry an Aristotelian naturalist who believes that objects have natures that are both normative and causally explanatory.

Over the past year, I’ve been coming to appreciate the explanatory power of the Aristotelian story on which the very same thing grounds normativity and provides a causal explanation.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Is the past changing all the time?

The past is unchangeable. But if the A-theory is true, then past events constantly objectively get older and older. That seems to be a kind of objective change. So, the A-theory is false.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Unreleasable promises would be useful

Alice promises Bob to impose on him some penalty should Bob do a certain wrong. Bob does the wrong, and points out to Alice that imposing the penalty is some trouble to Alice, and that Bob is happy to release Alice from the promise.

If the promisee can always release the promiser from a promise, then in a case like this Bob may be exactly right. Deterrence thus would sometimes work better if one can make a promise that the promisee cannot release one from.

Of course, the fact that a normative power would be useful does not mean that the normative power exists. I doubt one can make a promise to another that the other cannot release one from.

One might, however, be able to vow the deterrent penalty to God. Or maybe just promise it to a third party (society?) who has no incentive to release one from the promise.

Punishment is not a strict requirement of justice

There is no strict duty to reward a person who has done a supererogatory thing. Otherwise, engaging in generosity would be a way of imposing a duty on others.

But punishment is the flip side of reward. Hence, there is no strict duty to punish a person who has done a wrong.

Of course, supererogatory action makes a reward fitting, and likewise wrong action makes a punishment fitting. But in neither case is the retributive response strictly required by justice.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A problem for some views of a temporal God

Among those who think that God is in time, there are two views:

  1. God has existed for an infinite amount of time

  2. God came into time a finite amount of time ago when he created the world.

The second view is held by William Lane Craig. On this view, God isn’t essentially temporal: he wouldn’t have been in time if he didn’t create time or temporal beings.

It’s occurred to me that those who accept the first view have the serious problem of getting out of the time-of-creation problems: Why did God create the world when he did, instead of earlier or later? And why did he wait an infinite amount of time before creating?

St Augustine’s answer that time starts with creation doesn’t work for those who accept (1).

Supposing creation itself to be omnitemporally eternal only solves the problem with (1) if one additionally accepts a relationalist B-theory of time. For otherwise there is still the question why God’s omnitemporally eternal creation process isn’t all shifted temporally by a year forward or backward in time.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Theories of time and truth-supervenes-on-being

Truth supervenes on being is the thesis that if two worlds have the same entities, they are otherwise the same. I just realized something that should be pretty obvious. One cannot hold on to all three of the following:

  • A-theory

  • eternalism

  • truth supervenes on being.

For according to eternalism, at any two different times, the facts about what exists are the same. So if truth supervenes on being, at any two different times, all facts are the same—and in particular the facts about what time is objectively present will be the same, which contradicts A-theory.

In other words, just as the best version of presentism (that of Trenton Merricks) rejects that truth supervenes on being, so does the best version of the moving spotlight theory. Moreover, closed-future growing blockers—and, in particular, classical theist growing blockers—will also want to reject that truth supervenes on being since substantive truths about the future won’t supervene on being given growing block.

All this suggests that we are left with only two major theories of time available to those who accept that truth supervenes on being:

  • B-theoretic eternalism

  • growing block with an open future.

Presentism, change and ontology

Presentism says that only present things exist. This by itself cannot explain the nature of change.

For assume an ontology on which, necessarily, everything that exists is either a concrete substance or a necessary abstract object. Consider a world w1 where all the concrete substances exist for all time, but some of them are changing their properties, e.g., shape. Notice that the presentist, the growing blocker and the eternalist all agree about what exists at w1, since no entity comes into or out of existence on this ontology, and hence the differences between the three theories are irrelevant to w1. Yet, w1 is a world with change.

Hence presentism by itself cannot explain change.

Perhaps someone who thinks that presentism is needed to explain change should opt for a trope ontology rather than a substance-and-abstracta or substance-only ontology. For then they can say that at w1, entities—namely, tropes—come into and out of existence.