Monday, March 30, 2020

Causation through another's free will

Some people think that causal chains cannot go through other people’s exercises of free will. Thus, if I ask you to do something, and you freely do it, I am not the cause of the action. I think this is mistaken.

Start with this. Suppose I want to stamp out an irregular texture in a piece of aluminum foil. I put the aluminum foil on a soft backing on my CNC router’s bed, and I generate a program for the router by randomly choosing an angle, moving an inch in the direction indicated by the angle (stopping at the edges of the foil) pressing a wooden stick down into the foil, lifting it up, and repeating for a thousand presses. At the end, I will have an irregular texture in the foil. And, clearly, I caused the texture, despite there being randomness in the middle of the causal chain. Nor does it matter for the statement that I caused the irregular texture whether this is pseudorandomness or genuine quantum randomness.

Now, suppose that I replace the random number generator with code that robo-posts trolling comments on people's blogs, reads the responses, and generates random numbers from their hashes. Now, troll-feeders' free actions are an essential part of the causal chain leading to the irregular texture. But surely I have caused the irregular texture just as much as in the previous cases.

Accidents and truthmakers

It is difficult to hold (a) Aquinas’ idea that in transubstantiation the accidents of bread and wine continue existing after the bread and wine have perished together with (b) the idea that accidents are truthmakers for predications.

For if the accident of the whiteness of the bread is a truthmaker for the proposition that the bread is white, then it is (absurdly) true to say that the bread is white even after transubstantiation, since when the truthmaker exists, the proposition it makes true is true.

So, if one wants to hold on to the logical possibility that accidents could outlast their substance, one has to modify the thesis that accidents are truthmakers for predications. Instead, perhaps, one could say that the truthmaker for the proposition that x is F is x’s Fness together with x. This solves the problem of the bread being white after transubstantiation, since after transubstantiation there is no bread, and so if the truthmaker is the accident of whiteness together with the bread, then after transubstantiation the bread part of the truthmaker doesn’t exist. So all is well.

But here is a further puzzle. Intuitively, if God can detach the bread’s accidents from the bread when the bread ceases to exist, why can’t God detach the bread’s accidents from the bread while the bread continues to exist? But if God could detach the bread’s accidents from the bread while the bread continued to exist, then God could detach, say, the whiteness W of a bread from a bread B, and then the bread could be dyed black. Were that possible, it couldn’t be true that W and B are a truthmaker for the proposition that the bread is white, since W and B could continue to exist without the bread being white any more.

So, holding that the substance and its accident is a truthmaker for the predication, while accepting the logical possibility of Aquinas-style transubstantiation, requires one to hold that God can only detach the bread’s accidents from the bread while annihilating the bread. That seems counterintuitive.

Another move is this. Posit an “attachment” trope. Thus, when x is F, there are three particular things: x, x’s accident of Fness, and an attachment trope between x and x’s accident of Fness. Further, posit that in transubstantiation the ordinary accidents continue to exist, but the attachment tropes perish. And now we can say that the truthmaker of “The bread is white” is B, W and the attachment trope between B and W. (There is no infinite regress, since we can suppose that the attachment trope cannot exist detached.) But God can make W exist without the attachment trope, and either with or without B.

But it is an unpleasant thing that the attachment trope is a metaphysical ingredient posited solely to save transubstantiation. Moreover, the attachment trope would be a counterexample to the Thomistic principle that God can supply whatever creatures do. For it is essential to the story that the attachment trope cannot possibly exist in the absence of bread.

Probably, the Thomist’s best move is to deny that accidents (whether with or without the underlying substance) provide truthmakers for predications. If we did that, then a nice bonus is that we can have accidents moving between substances, which would provide a nice metaphysical account of why it is that flamingos turn pink after eating pink stuff.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

DIY projects for hunkering down

This is a time of tragedy. But I've been very fortunate, having steady employment, and (so far) a healthy family. And lately I've had the opportunity to do a lot of fun DIY projects.

I'm teaching online. Mostly, I'm doing it by writing short notes, broken up into discussion-thread-sized bits, and posting them on a discussion forum. But I also recorded some short video segments today, which reminded me that our one camera tripod had a broken hub. So I designed and 3D printed a new one. (Design files are here.)

It's been bothering me for a while that one of our bathroom faucets had rounded knobs that had to be grasped firmly by the fist to turn. This means that you get the knobs dirty when you start the water with dirty hands, and then after you wash up you get your hands dirty from the knobs when you turn off the water. Levers are way better: you can either move them with elbows or you can ensure that you push on one side with dirty hands and on the other side with clean hands. I printed some lever attachments that slide over our rounded knobs. (Design files here.)

The grocery store was out of toilet paper. So we ordered some giant commercial-establishment bathroom rolls. Of course, they don't fit our toilet paper holders in the bathrooms, so I made this one out of some scrap wood and a handlebar from a broken-down scooter:

My usual form of exercise--the climbing wall--has been shut down. So, I've had to switch to tennis. I found out that it's hard to move around playing tennis in long pants, and I didn't own any shorts, so I found some old khakis in my scrap cloth box, and cut them down and hemmed them:

And, finally, I sewed a mask for myself and one for my wife for when we go to the grocery store. Mine used this design and the one for my wife used this one, except that I added some heavy gauge insulated copper wire to shape the nose ridge area. (I used cotton T-shirt material as per this article, layered with some microfiber for one of the masks.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A puzzle about supererogatory actions

Roughly speaking, when one acts supererogatorily, one does more than one is obligated to. A typical case looks something like this:

  1. It would be permissible to bestow a benefit x1 on an individual A at a personal cost of z1; instead, you permissibly bestow a larger benefit x2 on A at a larger personal cost z2.

It’s important here that both x2 > x1 and z2 > z1. If x2 isn’t bigger than x1, then one isn’t doing anything more. And it’s also important that the alternative be permissible.

Now, here is an interesting case. Assuming—as I think we should—that we have self-regarding moral duties, there will be cases where bestowing a benefit on A at a personal cost will be impermissible because the cost to self outweighs the benefit to A by too much. Thus, it is wrong to sacrifice one’s life to save someone from losing a toe. Now suppose that in (1), x2 is only slightly bigger than x1 while z2 is much bigger than z1, so that we are close to the permissibility boundary: a slightly larger personal cost or a slightly smaller benefit would mean that we have an action that violates our self-regarding moral duties. In that case, it could be the case that bestowing x1 on A at a cost of z1 is easily permissible while bestowing x2 on A at a cost of z2 is barely permissible.

In such a case, we shouldn’t say that the action is supererogatory, though it is both permissible and more self-sacrificial than another permissible option. Why not? Because in this case the barely permissible action is not as good qua action (even if better for A) as the easily permissible action. In other words, we should think of supererogatoriness in terms of the value of the action than in terms of how much sacrifice there is or how much good we do to others.

But this in turn suggests an oddity. Suppose that you have a choice between two actions:

  • Action X bestows a small benefit on A at an enormous cost to you, such that X is barely permissible.

  • Action Y bestows a great benefit on yourself at a tiny cost to A, such that Y is easily permissible and nearly obligatory.

Then it seems that action Y is a better action. And it seems that an action that is better than a permissible action is superogatory. So, Y seems to be supererogatory. But it sounds very strange that a supererogatory action would be one that benefits you over another.

Here is an inchoate thought on this. Supererogatoriness compares two actions in toto. But such comparisons are fraught and maybe a little arbitrary. Saying that an action is impermissible or permissible or obligatory is non-arbitrary. But assigning an overall value to an action is problematic, except in some clear cases. In general, when we are dealing with two permissible actions, all we can say is that one action is better than the other in this or that respect. Thus, X is better in respect of benefits to others and Y is better in respect of benefits too self. Maybe there is some overall evaluation which makes Y overall better, but that may be rather arbitrary. And it’s not surprising that when dealing with somewhat arbitrary things that sometimes we have to say things that sound strange.

Repentance and Satan's Apple

Suppose Alice is an misanthropic immortal who lives in a universe of happy people. Suppose, too, that Alice is an immortal. Then one day Alice does a really bad thing. She is unreasonably annoyed at all other people and instantly freezes everything besides herself.

What ought Alice to do? Well, she ought to unfreeze everything.

But when? If she delays unfreezing the universe by a week, she gets to enjoy a week without the annoyance of other people. And nobody will be any the worse for it. So, why not? But if a week, why not a month, or a millennium?

There seems to be nothing wrong with procrastinating when the action is just as well done later. So, why can’t Alice just continue procrastinating for eternity?

Maybe the thing to say is this. Alice ought to repent now. It is wrong to live unrepentantly, so one should repent as soon as possible. And repentance requires an intention to repair the damage that one has done insofar as one can.

But it is true that when the damage can be equally well repaired later, the repentant person does not need to do it immediately. We can even tweak the case so that the repair is better done later. Perhaps Alice will be slightly less grumpy each day, and so if she unfreezes people later, they will be better off as they will have a slightly less grumpy Alice to live with (this makes the case more like Satan’s Apple). And it’s clear that when the damage repair is better done later, it may be left for later.

I think what we need to say is this: The intention needs to have a reasonable level of specificity. When one is able to specify how and when one will do the repair, one needs to intend that. One cannot simply have the intention to do one of infinitely many things (unfreeze tomorrow or unfreeze the day after or …). Intentions, either in general or in the special case of the intentions of restitution that repentance calls for, must come with a plan of action. And so Alice needs to set herself a plan, rather than just vaguely leaving things for the future.

But can’t she just procratinate, even so? When I have an intention to do something, and a better idea comes along, there is nothing wrong with switching to the better idea. So, take the case where the repair is better done later. It seems that Alice can permissibly form the intention to unfreeze tomorrow, and tomorrow change her mind, and so on. But that would allow Alice to get away with never unfreezing, and yet without violating any further moral obligations (besides the ones she violated by the initial freezing).

It seems to me that to get out of this, one needs some way for making intentions be morally binding. Perhaps repentant Alice needs to promise herself or vow to God to unfreeze people on a particular day.

It seems that from our outlandish freezing scenario we can get some interesting conclusions:

  • intentions of restitution need a significant amount of specificity; and

  • there are ways of moral self-binding, such as self-promises or vows to god.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Theism and qualia

The following six premises are logically incompatible:

  1. Pain is intrinsically bad.

  2. Pain is a quale.

  3. Qualia are real entities.

  4. All real entities are God or created by God.

  5. God isn’t intrinsically bad.

  6. Nothing created by God is intrinsically bad.

A theist could turn this into an argument against qualia.

I myself am inclined to deny premise (1).

Community norms

One of our grad students brought to my attention a question I never thought about: Which communities have genuine authority? (Furthermore, this needs to be fine-grained as the question of which communities have genuine authority in which respect.)

If I move to a neighborhood with a home owners’ association, and the neighborhood tells me that zip lines are forbidden, that is presumably an authoritative norm. But if I move to neighborhood without any such association, and all my neighbors come and tell me that zip lines just aren’t done around here, and that I am not to build one, the command not to build a zip line is just bluster. I may have reasons of peaceful coexistence or prudence not to build a zip line, but the command does not constitute an authoritative norm.

The question of what conditions a state-like entity has to satisfy (say, not being radically unjust) to have authority has been very widely discussed. This isn’t my area of philosophy, but I feel that the question of which non-state communities have authority is much less discussed. Here, think of clubs, committees, religious congregations, families, neighborhoods, Internet forums, etc. And it’s not just a question of when, say, a neighborhood is being unjust. There may be nothing unjust about having a standard that forbids zip lines, but nonetheless if the community lacks authority, that standard is not an authoritative norm, and has no reason-giving force (beyond reasons of peaceful coexistence or the like).

And of course the question needs to be more fine-grained. Even with a home owners’ association, the authority of the neighborhood only applies to a limited number of things—it cannot, for instance, govern the content of private conversations inside the house.

The problem is particularly pressing for anyone who is a social relativist about some domain and thinks that norms of some sort (e.g., moral, aesthetic, or epistemic) come from community standards. For intuitively not every community standard is authoritative.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The four causes and supertasks

Suppose I make a geologist’s hammer out of a chunk of steel and break a rock with the hammer. Then the chunk of steel is the material cause of the hammer, and the hammer is the efficient cause of the rock breaking.

The hammer then is explanatorily prior to the rock breaking and the chunk of steel is explanatorily prior to the hammer.

Admittedly these are different kinds of explanatory priority. But they do nonetheless combine: it is clearly correct to say that the chunk of steel is explanatorily prior to the rock breaking. (I am not claiming that transitivity holds across all the kinds of explanatory priority, though I suspect it does, but only here.) But now notice that this instance of explanatory priority does not correspond to any of the four causes: in particular the chunk of steel is neither the material nor the efficient cause of the rock breaking (it is only insofar as the chunk was shaped into a geologist’s hammer that it broke the rock). Hence, the four causes do not exhaust all the types of explanatory priority.

Other examples are possible. I push a rock with my hand, and consider the conjunctive state HM of there being a hammer and a rock moving. Then HM is explained by the chunk of steel and my hand. But the chunk of steel and my hand constitute neither a material or not an efficient (nor any other) cause of HM. Thus, again, we have explanatory priority not corresponding to one of the four causes.

The above examples do, however, permit one to hold the following view:

  1. All fundamental instances of explanatory priority are instances of the four causes.

Thus, the four causes would be like Aristotle’s four elements or three types of friendship: they combine to provide all the cases.

But now an interesting bit of heavy-duty metaphysics. Suppose that dense causal sequences are possible, i.e., causal sequences such that between any two items in the sequence there is an intermediate one. Then no instance of causation in the dense sequence will be fundamental. And hence (1) won’t tell us as much as it seems to. Indeed, given dense causal sequences, weakening the four cause thesis to (1) eviscerates the four cause thesis.

Thus we have an argument that if we want to take the four cause thesis seriously, we need to accept (1), and hence we need to reject dense causal sequences.

But if supertasks are possible, it seems like dense causal sequences should be possible. So, if we want to take the four cause thesis seriously, we need to reject supertasks.

It is, by the way, interesting to think about supertasks where the items in the task alternate between different types of causation.

Note that the above point applies to other sparse pluralisms about causation besides the four-cause one.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Against an argument against Platonism

Consider this familiar argument:

  1. We cannot know about the sorts of things that don’t causally affect us.

  2. Abstract objects are the sort of thing that doesn’t causally affect us.

  3. So, we cannot know about abstract objects.

But note that if it were possible for something to non-causally affect us, that could well be good enough for us to know about it. So, unless we have independent reason to think that the only way things can affect is is causally, instead of (1) we should only affirm:

  1. We cannot know about the sorts of things that don’t affect us.

But to argue against abstract objects, we then need:

  1. Abstract objects are the sort of thing that doesn’t affect us.

However, on heavy-weight Platonism, abstract objects do affect us. Coldness makes us cold, being in pain makes us hurt, etc. So, the heavy-weight Platonist will reject (5).

Do all positive truths have truthmakers?

Consider this thesis:

  1. Every positive true proposition has a truthmaker.

This seems plausible. But I think it is only reasonable to accept (1) if one accepts:

  1. Any plurality of objects has a mereological sum or fusion which essentially has the members of the plurality as parts.

To see this, consider some plurality, the xs of existing things. Then, surely:

  1. The proposition, E!xx, that the xs exist is positive.

But what object is suited to be the truthmaker of E!xx? The truthmaker of E!xx will have to be some object o with the property that, necessarily, if o exists, so do all the xs. Our best candidate for that object is some object that has all the xs as essential parts. But we also don’t want to include irrelevancies in the truthmaker, so we shouldn’t include in o anything that overlaps none of the xs. In other words, o will very plausibly be the mereological sum of the xs.

Since I don’t believe in fusions, I have to deny (1). But at least I may be able to accept:

  1. Every positive true proposition has a plural truthmaker,

where a plural truthmaker of p is a plurality of objects that collectively make p true. Note that pluralities need not in general be objects themselves, so we do not have the same problem as above.

Uncontroversial examples of truthmaking?

I used to think that the following would be an uncontroversial example of truthmaking:

  1. Any elephant is a truthmaker for the proposition that there are elephants.

But that’s only true if every elephant is essentially an elephant, i.e., couldn’t exist without being an elephant. For if x is a truthmaker for p, then x’s existence has to entail p. If Jumbo were accidentally an elephant, then Jumbo’s existence wouldn’t entail that there are elephants.

Given that essentialism is controversial, it seems that if we are to give uncontroversial examples of truthmaking, they have to be something like;

  1. Jumbo is a truthmaker for the proposition that Jumbo exists.

  2. Alice is a truthmaker for the proposition that at least one of Alice, Bob and Carl exists.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Sincerity and promises

It seems that for a promise to be sincere, you have to intend to keep it.

But this is false. Suppose you offer to lend me a microscope upon my promise to return it to you when you ask. I know that if I make the promise, then as soon as you ask me for the microscope’s return, your request will remind me of the promise, and I will fulfill it. So, I make the promise. Given that I know I will keep it, I am being sincere. But I don’t need to clutter my mind by forming any intention to keep the promise or to return the microscope.

So perhaps for a promise to be sincere, you need to believe you will keep it.

But this, too, is false. Suppose you’re my accountability partner and I promise to stop drinking, and suppose this is a promise I have broken so many times that I believe that I won’t keep it. But I intend to keep it. And you know my track record, so there is no deception. Again, I think there is no sincerity.

But if sincerity in promising needs neither the intention to keep the promise nor the belief that one will do so, what does it need? Perhaps the disjunction: I need to believe or intend (or, best, both). But normally I prefer to avoid disjunctive accounts.

Let’s think some more and go back to the accountability partner case. If you know my track record, you won’t count on my not drinking. For instance, you aren’t going to vouch for my sobriety to others, you won’t trust me around your liquor cabinet, etc. But suppose you didn’t know my track record. You just heard my promise and counted on it, vouching for me to others, etc. In that case, if I drink, you have two grounds for resentment: that I broke my promise and that I deceived you, leading you to count on good behavior I did not actually expect.

Here is what I think is going on. Normally, when I make you a promise, I do two things:

  1. I obligate myself to you to perform the action, and

  2. I testify to you that I will perform the action.

And I can betray you in either or both respects: I can break my obligation and I can testify falsely.

In the accountability partner case, in the presence of shared knowledge of my track record, the testimony about future behavior that normally comes along with a promise is canceled. In that case, all I do is I obligate myself to you. I expect to break that obligation, but I have good reason to undertake the obligation, namely that the probability that I will stay sober increases (though not enough to justify belief) because I will have an additional reason—my promise to you—to do so. (I think one needs the Principle of Double Effect here. My intended effect is an increased chance of staying sober. The unintended—indeed, counterintended—but foreseen effect is my breaking a promise to you.)

That still doesn’t answer the question of what the sincerity conditions are.

Here is one suggestion. Sincerity only concerns (2), the testimony aspect. In cases where the testimony is canceled, whether explicitly or implicitly (say, in light of shared knowledge), there is no sincerity condition on promising at all. There is only the creation of an obligation.

That doesn’t sound quite right. It seems that if I make a promise to an accountability partner who knows the dismal track record of such promises, I am still being insincere if I don’t intend to keep the promise. But what if the case is really weird, so that I am more likely to keep the promise if I don’t intend to do so when making it? (E.g., maybe I know that there is a neuroscientist who is going to observe my brain and if she detects that I am intending to keep the promise at the moment of making it, she will erase my memory of the promise, while if I don’t intend to keep it, the promise will still come to mind in my moments of temptation and make it less unlikely that I will stay sober.)

Maybe what is going on is this. When the testimony to future performance is canceled, it is normally replaced by an implicit testimony to the intention of future performance (or perhaps an implicature of such an intention?). So in the special case of promises to accountability partners who expect failure, one is deceiving the other party if one lacks the intention to keep the promise. And in the contrived cases where the intention would make it less likely that one would keep the promise, one should take the further step of informing the other party that one is not even intending to keep the promise.

I like the way that this story makes the accountability partner case be different from the standard case of a promise. I also like the modularity on this story. Promises normally have two ingredients, the exercise of a normative power to create an obligation, and testimony to future actions. We already knew that the second ingredient can occur without the first—mere predictions of one’s future actions are like that. It’s rather nice, then, that the first ingredient can also occur without the second.

I don’t know if the above story can be reconciled with the promise account of assertion. If not, so much the worse for the promise account of assertion.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Upbringing and responsibility

Consider these two stories:

  1. Alice grew up in a terrible home. Her mother abused her. Her father taught her by word and deed that morality is the advantage of the stronger. Her parents forced her to join them in their manifold criminal enterprises. Alice lacked good role models. When Alice turned 17, she grew wings and flew away.

  2. Bob grew up in a terrible home. His father abused him. His mother taught him by word and deed that morality is the advantage of the stronger. His parents forced him to join them in their manifold criminal enterprises. Bob lacked good role models. When Bob turned 17, he rebelled and turned away from the life of crime.

The first story is unlikely and unbelievable. The second is unlikely but believable. This suggests that we don’t literally think that a really bad upbringing makes it literally impossible to do the right thing.

As an argument against determinism, this is rather weak, though. For even the determinist will say that there are many factors left out of story (2), and it could be that one of those left out factors that caused Bob to rebel.

A responsibility asymmetry

Discussion of my previous post has made me realize that, it seems, we’re more apt to be skeptical about the culpability of someone whose evil actions arose from a poor upbringing than of the praiseworthiness of someone whose good actions arose from a good upbringing.

This probably isn’t due to any general erring in favor of positive judgments. We’re not that nice (e.g., think of the research that shows that people are going to say that the CEO who doesn’t care about the environment but institutes profitable policies that happen to pollute is intentionally polluting, while the CEO who doesn’t care about the environment but institutes profitable policies that happen to be good for the environment is not intentionally helping the environment).

Here are two complementary stories that would make the apparent asymmetry reasonable:

  • Virtue makes one free while vice enslaves.

  • The person raised badly may be non-blameworthily ignorant of what is right. The person raised well knows what is right, though may deserve no credit for the knowledge. But non-blameworthy ignorance takes away responsibility, while knowledge gained without credit is good enough for responsibility for the actions flowing from that knowledge.

The noise from this asymmetry suggests that we may want to be careful when discussing free will and determinism to include both positive and negative actions evenhandedly in our examples.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

A curious story about becoming just

Alice is a supervillain and Bob is a mad scientist. Alice wants Bob’s device to destroy the world. Bob makes Alice a deal: gain the virtue of justice and get the device. Alice isn’t smart enough to realize that once she gains the virtue of justice, she won’t want to use the device. She reads the best in ancient and modern wisdom, works hard, and gains the full virtue of justice, all in order to destroy the world.

Let’s suppose that when you have the full virtue of justice, you have to act from justice (at least in actions where justice is relevant). At some point Alice lost the motivation to destroy the world. Let’s suppose that as it happened, she lost that motivation at the same moment at which she gained full justice.

Alice now possesses justice, but it seems she is not praiseworthy for being just. All her just actions are ultimately explained by her former desire to destroy the world. They are not to her credit.

Now, here is what I think is rather odd about this story: Precisely by becoming fully just, Alice has lost all possibility for getting moral credit for acting justly. She is now locked into a non-praiseworthy justice.

I don’t know how this story bears on other philosophical questions or what interesting conclusions to draw from it.

In practice, I suspect, it would be unlikely that Alice would lose the motivation to destroy the world just as she gained full justice. There would likely be an intermediate time when she is no longer motivated to destroy the world, but has incomplete justice and hence is capable of choosing between virtue and vice, and hence can praiseworthily gain full justice.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Another variant of the knowledge argument

Let P be the pain center of the brain.

Suppose you knew all of physical reality and nothing else. Then you would know that stimulating P would cause squirming, shrieking and avoidance. But it seems you wouldn’t know that it’s bad for one to have P stimulated. Then, upon having one’s P stimulated, one would learn that it’s bad for one to have P stimulated. So, there are facts that go beyond physical reality.

Yet another simple argument for incompatibilism

  1. If you have always done the morally best you could, you are not culpable for anything.

  2. If determinism is true, you have always done the only thing you could.

  3. When you do the only thing you can, you do the morally best you can.

  4. So, if determinism is true, you are not culpable for anything.