Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Presentism, promises and privation

It appears that the presentist (and maybe even growing blocker) may not be able to accept either the privation theory of evil, which says that every evil is the lack of a due good, nor the privation theory of evilmaking, which says that every evil either is the lack of a due good or is made evil by the lack of a due good.

For suppose I promise you that one unspecified day I will do A for you. But it turns out that I never do it. That’s an evil, and intuitively it is an evil because of the lack of fulfillment of the promise, which sure sounds like a privation. But when do we have this evil? Either when I make the promise or at some later time. The nonexistence of future promise fulfillment isn’t the lack of a due good given presentism or growing block. For the nonexistence of future action A is automatic given presentism or growing block, and something automatic like that can’t be an evil. Another way to put the point is that something that would have to be future can’t be such as to be due to exist. Suppose, now, the evil is at some later time. But no later time is such that I ought on that day to do A, since the day for doing A was not specified, so on no day is my failure to do A a lack of a due good.

The growing blocker might at least say that at the last moment of my life the nonexistence of A during the present and past is the lack of a due good—but even that won’t work if I live forever and never do A.

The eternalist, on the other hand, can say that the non-existence of A throughout a finite or infinite interval of times can count as the lack of a due good, regardless of whether these times are past, present or future.

Another argument that qualia aren't fundamental

I once gave a theological argument against qualia (or at least all qualia) being fundamental properties. Here’s a non-theological one.

  1. Temporal Purity: that x has a fundamental temporary property F at t is a fact solely about x at t and not at other times.

  2. Essential Consciousness: it is impossible to have a quale without the corresponding awareness.

  3. Temporal Resolution: no ordinary state lasting less than a nanosecond (say) can consciously experienced by us.

Now consider an ordinary quale Q (e.g., of pain) and a time t. Obviously, ordinary qualia are temporary properties. For a reductio, suppose Q is fundamental. By Temporal Purity and a plausible rearrangement principle, it is possible that I have Q only during a half-nanosecond interval of times. By Essential Consciousness, I have the corresponding awareness during that interval. By Temporal Resolution, I don’t have the corresponding arrangement. Contradiction!

As a friend of distributional properties, however, I am somewhat worried about Temporal Purity. Couldn’t there be a temporary property that isn’t had at a time but at an interval of times?

Why the restriction to ordinary qualia? Well, the Temporal Resolution thesis might not apply to something supernatural, like the beatific vision.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A solution to the problem of cross-time causation for presentism

Here is a controversial thesis that might, nonetheless, turn out to be true:

  1. A is causally prior to B if and only if A ≠ B and it is impossible that B exist and A not exist.

If so, we get an account of causal priority in terms of purely modal notions. Rob Koons has explored such accounts. Of course, this requires strong essentiality of origins, and will also have controversial mereological consequences. But it’s really nice to get causation out of modality.

Here is another nice result. One of the main difficulties for presentism is the problem of cross-time relations, and especially of causation. But (1) with a presentist paraphrase avoids the problem of cross-time relations:

  1. A is causally prior to B if and only if A ≠ B and it is impossible that B have existed, exist or will exist and A neither existed, exists nor will exist.

I guess my main problem with (1) and (2) as accounts of causal priority is that I think they get the order of explanation reversed: the reason it is impossible to have B without A is that A is causally prior to B.

Monday, April 27, 2020

On two knowledge arguments

There is a structural similarity between the main reasons for adopting the A-theory of time and the knowledge argument against physicalism. In both cases, it is claimed that there is some information that we know but which is left out of the reductive theory:

  1. I know that Alice is sitting now


  1. I know what it feels like to be sitting.

The first piece of knowledge cannot be derived from data about tenseless reality and the second cannot be derived from data about physical reality, or so it is claimed.

The similarity between the two arguments suggests that there should be a correlation between dualism and adherence to the A-theory of time: for if one is convinced by one argument, one is more likely to be convinced by the other, and if one is unconvinced by one, one is less likely to be convinced by the other. Speaking for myself, I am a B-theorist dualist, and while I am unconvinced by the time argument, I go back and forth on the mind one.

It is interesting, though, to see if we can go beyond superficial similarity. One way to do that is to see if the best responses to one of the arguments can generate plausible responses to the other.

The best response to the time argument seems to be the Kaplan story that “now” is a mere indexical, and that the content of “Alice is sitting now” is the proposition that Alice sitting is at t1 (if t1 is now), though the character or linguistic meaning of “Alice is sitting now” is something different from the character of “Alice is sitting at t1” (specifically, a character is a function from world-utterance pairs to propositions, and this character assigns to an utterance of “Alice is sitting now” at t in w the proposition that Alice is sitting at t).

Is there a similar story about mind argument? It’s not so clear to me. Perhaps a start would be to say that what makes me it true that I know what it feels like to be sitting is that:

  1. I know that sitting feels like this.

The physicalist analogue to the Kaplan story would then be that “Sitting feels like this” expresses the proposition that sitting feels like ϕ where ϕ is some physical state of affairs, but the character or linguistic meaning of “Sitting feels like this” and “Sitting feels like ϕ” are different. I don’t think this works, however. There are two ways of taking this approach:

  1. ϕ is a specific neural state that I have when I feel like I’m sitting (say, S-fibers firing)


  1. ϕ is a complex functional state that anything has when it feels like it’s sitting, a state implemented by different neural or other physical states in different beings.

On (a), we have an analogy to the time case, for we can take the character of “Sitting feels like this” to be a function that assigns to world-utterance pair the proposition that sitting feels like ϕ where ϕ is the physical state that is the feeling for the utterer in that world. But there is also a serious disanalogy: for in the time case, the B-theorist knows (or can claim to know) the character, since the B-theorist knows a priori the specific rule by which a referent is assigned to “now” at a world-utterance pair. But the physicalist does not know a priori the specific functional story which assigns a referent to “like this” at a world-utterance pair.

On (b), we have a disanalogy, since the character is constant: at every world-utterance pair, the same proposition is assigned as the content of “Sitting feels like this.”

Still, maybe there is still a fundamental analogy, in that the time case teaches us (if we accept the Kaplan story) that one proposition can be expressed by two sentences s1 and s2 such that it is correct to say “I know s1” but not correct to say “I know s2”. Thus, I know that I am sitting now but I don’t know that I am sitting at t1. And similarly, maybe, I know that sitting feels like this but I don’t know that sitting feels like ϕ.

What if we go the other way around, and see if the best answer to the mind argument helps with the time argument?

I guess what is generally thought to be the best answer to the mind argument is something like this: there is a conceptual difference between the “like this” of the feeling and the physical or functional state ϕ, but ontologically they are the same. And this seems very close to Michelle Beer’s defense of the B-theory.

Another prominent answer to the mind argument is to deny that the knowledge claim expresses factual knowledge, as opposed to something like know-how or imaginative mirroring. It seems to me that a know-how story could be told about the time argument: to know that Alice is sitting now is to have certain kinds of know-how concerning dealing with Alice’s sitting. The “imaginative mirroring” case might be harder.

Friday, April 24, 2020

More on presentism and decisions

You have seven friends, isolated from each other for a week. And you have a choice between these three options:

  1. In four days, all of your friends will experience an innocent pleasure P at the same time.

  2. Over the next week, each day a different one of your friends will experience P.

  3. You presently experience an innocent pleasure whose magnitude is twice that of P.

It seems like a good idea to go for options 1 or 2 over option 3. But there is very little reason to prefer 1 over 2 or 2 over 1.

On eternalism, the parity between 1 and 2 makes perfect sense: in both cases, reality will contain seven copies of P, and the only difference is between how the copies are arranged in spacetime. And it also makes perfect sense that 1 or 2 is a better choice than 3: reality on 1 or 2 contains 3.5 times as much innocent pleasure.

But on presentism, I think it is difficult to explain these judgments. First, it’s difficult to explain why the sacrifice of 3 is worth it: a real, because present, pleasure is being sacrificed for a bunch of unreal, because future, pleasures. (Growing block has this problem, too.)

Now, if the choice is between 1 and 3, then at least the presentist can say this:

  • On option 1, there will be an occurrence of 3.5 times the pleasure that would have occurred on option 3.

I am dubious that it makes sense to compare the future pleasure to the present one on presentism, but let’s grant that for the sake of the argument.

But now suppose the choice is between 2 and 3. Then, one cannot say there will be 3.5 times the pleasure. Rather:

  • On option 2, on seven occasions, there will be half of the pleasure of option 3.

But the locution “on seven occasions” is misleading. For it makes it sound like there will be seven of something valuable. But there won’t be seven of something. Rather:

  • There will be one of P to friend 1, and there will be one of P to friend 2, and so on.

But one cannot conjoin these “will be” claims into a single:

  • There will be one of P to friend 1 and one of P to friend 2, and so on.

For that will never happen.

The deep point here is this. Cross-time counting on presentism is logically quite different from synchronic counting. In fact, in a sense it’s not “counting” at all, for there won’t be and has not been that number of items. One way to see the point is to compare the logical analysis of synchronic and cross-time counting claims on presentism:

  • “There are (presently) two unicorns”: There exist x and y such that x is a unicorn and y is a unicorn and x ≠ y and for all z if z is a unicorn, then z = x or z = y.

  • “There are (cross-time) two unicorns”: It was, is or will be the case that: There exists x such that x is a unicorn and it was, is or will be the case that there exists y such that y is a unicorn and x ≠ y, and it was, is and will be the case that for every z if z is unicorn, then z = x or z = y.

These are logically very different claims.

(I am also a little worried about the technical details of the cross-time identity claims on presentism, by the way.)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The pursuit of perfection and the great chain of being

Consider the following two plausible Aristotelian theses:

  1. A substance naturally pursues each of its own perfections.

  2. Every natural activity of a substance is a perfection of it.

This threatens an infinite regress of pursuits. Reproduction is a perfection of an oak tree. So by 1, the oak naturally pursues reproduction. But by 2, this natural pursuit of reproduction is itself a perfection of the oak. So, by 1, the oak naturally pursues the pursuit of reproduction. And so on, ad infinitum.

So, 1 and 2, though plausible, are problematic. I suggest that we reject 1. Perhaps the oak tree pursues reproduction but does not pursue the pursuit of reproduction. Or perhaps it pursues the pursuit of reproduction, but doesn’t pursue the pursuit of the pursuit of reproduction. How many levels of pursuit are found in the substance is likely to differ from substance to substance: it is one of those things that the substance’s form determines.

We might say that there are more levels of pursuit in a more sophisticated substance. Thus, perhaps, non-living things only have first order pursuits. To use Aristotle’s physics as an example, the stone pursues being in the center of the universe. But the stone does not pursue the pursuit of being in the center of the universe. But in living things, there are multiple levels. The oak tree grows reproductive organs with which it will pursue reproduction, and in growing the organs it pursues the pursuit of reproduction.

Here is an intriguing hypothesis: in human beings, 1 and 2 are both true. Thus there is thus a kind of (potential?) infinity at the heart of our pursuits. For we are capable of forming a mental conception of our perfection as such, which enables us to pursue our perfections as perfections. If an angel offers a dog food, the dog will take it, since it can conceive of food, and thereby become perfected. But even an angel cannot offer a dog perfection as such, since the dog cannot conceive of a perfection as such. However, we can: if an angel says: “If you ask for it, I will make you perfect in some respect or other, without any loss of perfection in any other respect”, that’s a deal we can understand, and it is a deal that is attractive to us, because we pursue perfection as such.

If the above is right, then we have a kind of deep teleological differentiation between three levels of being:

  1. Non-living substances pursue first order perfections only.

  2. Living substances have at least one meta-level of pursuit: they pursue the pursuit of some or all of their first order perfections.

  3. Rational substances have infinitely many meta-levels of pursuit, at least potentially.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Presentism and adding up pains and pleasures

A year of moderate pleasure is worth paying a second of intense pain for.

An eternalist explains this in the obvious straightforward way: the total pleasure you experience on this deal is more than the total pain.

But for the presentist, at any time during the pain, you just have the pain. You will have the pleasure, but it’s not a part of reality and hence of your life. And at any time during the pleasure, you just have the moment of pleasure, but because it’s moderate, it’s not enough to offset the past pain.

What we want is an explanation of why it makes sense—as it obviously does—to add up the pains and pleasures over a lifetime. For the eternalist, since all of them are a part of reality, adding seems to make a lot of sense. But for the presentist, it is really unclear why you should add unreal things to real things to get a “total benefit” or “total cost”.

Virtue, deliberation and contemplation

Is it better to be virtuous or simply to deliberate about each case as one comes to it, making the right decision?

I worry about this: the virtuous person often acts from an internalized habit, without deliberating about the reasons, as these reasons have been internalized. She skillfully comforts a friend without consciously deliberating whether to do it. But by not deliberating, she misses out on things of moral worth. For in deliberating, we consciously contemplate the goods that provide reasons for action. Deliberating about what to do in light of a friend’s needs is a crucial instance of contemplating the worth of one’s friend. The more the virtuous person has internalized the reasons that arise from this worth, the more she misses out on these instances.

Of course, there are other occasions for conscious contemplation of the worth of one’s friend. But it seems to me that when the contemplation is tied to action via deliberation, it is particularly valuable.

And the same applies to other virtuous and other goods.

Is wrongdoing an evil?

In my previous post, I said that murder is a counterexample to the privation theory of evil. For a murder is an evil, but a murder is not a privation. It may be that what makes a murder be an evil is a privation—say, the privation of justice in the agent—but the murder itself is not a privation.

But I wonder if one could save the privation theory of evil by severely narrowing the scope of what counts as an evil, so that instances of sin, suffering, error, natural disasters, etc. are not actually evils. Instead, the real evils are what I called “evilmakers” in earlier post. Thus, a murder is not an evil, but the privation of justice in the agent is the evil. An erroneous belief is not an evil, but the evil is its erroneousness, which is a privation of truth.

I don’t think I like this. It departs too far from ordinary language to say that murder or torture aren’t evils, but the privations of justice are. Here is one reason not to like it. Some evils cause direct harm to their victim, and torture is a paradigm example. But when we think of the paradigm harms of torture—namely, intense suffering as well as psychological and psychological damage—then these harms are not caused by the privation of justice. They are caused by the electric shocks, etc. So on the view that it is only the privation of justice that is an evil, the stuff that actually causes most of the suffering isn’t an evil. And while sometimes something can cause suffering without being an evil (e.g., when your well-meaning friend’s advice annoys you), torture doesn’t seem to be a case like that. It’s the torture as a whole that seems to be evil, not simply its injustice. Thus, it seems to me to be truer to say that the injustice is an evilmaker (and evilmakers are also evils), and the torture is an evil.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Two privation theories

The privation theory of evil says that:

  • If E is an evil, then E is a lack of a due good.

Here is a quick counterexample: Brutus's murder of Caesar. A murder is an evil but it is not a lack of a due good. It causes a lack of a due good (life) and it is caused by a lack of a due good (the virtue of justice), but the murder is not itself a lack of a due good. For a part of Brutus's murder of Caesar is the stabbing motion of his arm. But a lack is not the sort of thing that can have a stabbing motion as a part of it!

But there is a closely related theory that is not subject to the murder counterexample. We might call it the privation theory of evilmaking:

  • If E is an evil, then E either is a lack of a due good or E is made evil by the lack of a due good.

Now, murder is not so clearly a counterexample. An act of murder is an act of killing, but plausibly what makes this act of killing be an evil is a lack of justice.

I am now suspecting that some people who have taken themselves to be upholding the privation theory of evil have in fact been upholding the privation theory of evilmaking.

But it is worth noting that the privation theory of evilmaking doesn’t accomplish everything Augustine needs from his privation theory. What Augustine needs to do is to save the idea that God doesn’t create evils. But if E is not itself a lack but is something that exists and is made evil by a lack, and God creates everything that exists other than God, then it follows that God creates an evil.


Can you be entitled to a gift from someone?

  1. Gratuitousness Intuition: Gifts are gratuitous, and if you’re entitled to receive something from value, then it’s a payment or award rather than a gift.

But there is one kind of case where you are entitled to a gift: when the gift has been promised to you.

So how to reconcile the promise case with the Gratuitousness Intuition? Presumably something like this: while the gift is owed you, the promise wasn’t. So, how do we now formulate the principle that gifts are gratuitous? We could proceed disjunctively:

  1. For any gift g, you are either not entitled to g or you are entitled to g in virtue of being promised it without having been entitled to the promise.

But that’s not quite right, either. For suppose Bob gratuitously promises to promise a gift to Alice, and then fulfills this promise by promising the gift, and then fulfills the last promise by giving the gift. The gift is still a gift, even though the gift is the fulfillment of a promise that was itself required. But note that the gift is not the fulfillment of the first, gratuitous promise, so it’s not a counterexample to (2). Of course, we rarely promise to promise, but sometimes we do: a marriage engagement is a promise to issue a vow.

Perhaps we can replace (2) with something messy:

  1. For any gift g, you are either not entitled to g or you are entitled to g in virtue of a chain of promises the first of which you weren’t entitled to.

But that doesn’t fix the other problem with (2), namely that it doesn’t fully capture the idea of gratuitousness. For something can be a fulfillment of a promise you weren’t entitled to and yet not be gratuitous. For suppose out of the blue I promise to pay you $400 if you mow my lawn. You mow my lawn. And now my $400 is a payment, not a gift. But you weren’t entitled to the promise.

We might get out of this by restricting (2) or (3) to unconditional promises. But something can be a gift while being a fulfillment of a conditional promise. For instance, I may promise you a gift should you reach the age of 90. It seems that that’s still a gift.

This is turning into a mess.

One possible solution is to go back to (1) and simply insist on it and bite some bullets. If I promise you a gift on your birthday, then what I give you on your birthday is not really a gift. The true gift was the promise. (But what if I make the promise and don’t fulfill it? Then it seems right to say that you haven’t got anything of value from me. But that may just be because broken promises turn out not to have been of value!)

Maybe even better we should give an Aristotelian story. There is the focal sense of a gift, and it satisfies (1). It is the first unowed promise that is a gift in the focal sense. But then the fulfillment of the promise is a gift in a derivative sense.

But gratuitousness is not sufficient for being a gift.

While we talk of business gifts as gifts, I think that if they are given in the hope of future gain, they aren’t really a gift. Similarly, if I promise you $40 to mow my lawn, then my promise is gratuitous, but it is given in the hope of future gain, namely your mowing my lawn.

And something can be partly a gift. If I promise you a million dollars to mow my lawn, then my promise is mostly, but not entirely, a gift.

Gifts are really hard to analyze.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Supererogation on Aristotelianism

The cheetah whose maximum speed is 40 mph is subnormal. The cheetah whose maximum speed is 58 mph is merely normal. The cheetah whose maximum speed is 80 mph is supernormal. An Aristotelian can accommodate these three judgments by saying that the form of the cheetah sets two things for the cheetah’s speed: a norm and a comparison. The norm specifies what is needed for being a healthy cheetah, and the comparison specifies what is a better speed than what. And the comparison can hold among instances that meet the norm, in which case the better instance is supernormal, and it can hold among instances that fail to meet the norm, too.

Having both a norm and a comparison for a type of good is especially important in the case of open-ended goods with a lower limit but no upper limit. Thus, no matter how much a human knows, knowing more would be better (in respect of knowledge). But there is such a thing as knowing enough to be a flourishing human knower. But we can also have a norm and a comparison in the case of things where there is an upper limit. Thus, a heart that is too small or too big is unhealthy. But is a range of healthy heart sizes (specified by the norm), and some of those sizes are healthier than others (specified by the comparison). Somewhere in that range there could even be (though vagueness and multidimensionality of comparison make that unlikely) a single optimal heart size.

What is true for dispositions (maximum speed) and physical arrangements is also true for operations. There is a normal cheetah running operation, a subnormal and a supernormal one. (Note that in some cases the supernormal one will be slower than the merely normal one, since sometimes energy needs to be conserved.)

The central Aristotelian insight I want to have in ethics is that just as there is proper function in the operation of the legs, there is proper function in the operation of the will. If so, then we would expect there to be a norm and a comparison: some instances of the will’s operation are normal and some are subnormal. And among the normal ones some will be better than others. Thus, in a case where multiple operations of the will are possible, that operation that is normal but better than another normal operation is supererogatory, while an operation that is normal but not better than another normal operation is merely permissible.

There is metaphysically nothing special about the supererogatory or the obligatory on the Aristotelian picture. They are just the instances of a general phenomena in the special case of the operation of the will.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A defense of McTaggart

This argument is valid:

  1. An object that really changes from being F to being G first exists at a time at which it is F and then exists at a time at which it is G. (Premise)

  2. An object that exists at a time t is present then and not purely past. (Premise)

  3. Suppose O changes from being present to being purely past.

  4. If O really changes from present to purely past is real, then O first exists and is present and then exists and is purely past. (By 3)

  5. O does not exist when it is purely past. (By 2)

  6. So, O’s change from being present to being purely past is not real change.

In other words, change from present to (purely) past is Cambridge change. And the same argument goes for change from (purely) future to present. So, nothing really changes with respect to being past, present and future. That much McTaggart was right about.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Reality is strange

The doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation and transubstantiation initially seem contradictory. Elaborate theological/philosophical accounts of the doctrines are available (e.g., from St. Thomas Aquinas), and given these, there is no overt contradiction. But the doctrines still seem very strange and they feel like they border on contradiction, with the accounts that remove contradiction sometimes looking like they are ad hoc designed to remove the contradiction from the doctrine. This may seem like a good reason to reject the doctrines.

But to reject the doctrines for this reason alone would be mistaken. For similar points can be made about Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics. To say that simultaneity is relative or that a physical object has no position but rather a probability distribution over positions borders on contradiction, and the philosophical moves needed to defend these seem ad hoc designed to save the theories. If we’ve learned one thing from physics in the 20th century, it is that the true physics of the world is very strange indeed.

Nor are theology and science the only places where things are strange. Similar things can be said about the mathematics of infinity, or even just common sense claims such as that there is change (think of Zeno’s paradoxes) or that material objects persist over time (think of the Ship of Theseus and the paradoxes of material composition).

We can, thus, be very confident that created reality is very strange indeed. And hence, shouldn’t we expect similar strangeness—indeed, mystery—in the Creator and his relationship to us?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Racquet sports

With the gym shut down, my teenage son and I have been exploring the world of racquet sports, including some more obscure ones. We love badminton, but we’ve been having too much wind (and pretty much any wind is too much for semi-serious badminton), so we also got a crossminton set. That was fun, though after the recent storms the wind is too high even for crossminton. Tennis has also worked for us, and is much more wind-tolerant, but I can't do it as often due to the danger of injury. We sometimes play ping pong on our kitchen table, but the table is a bit too small for a really good game (and the kitchen a bit too small for a larger table).

I also made wooden paddles for Goodminton / Jazzminton for light play with our seven-year-old. Sadly, it’s harder than advertised, at least for her, but I have been enjoying solo play, rallying with myself, one paddle in each hand. They could easily have been cut by hand, but I used my CNC router. The build instructions, with links to stl and svg files, are here.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Online teaching

In case anybody is curious how I am teaching right now, it’s like this. When we were first informed we would be teaching online, I emailed my students whether they had any strong preference for video vs. written modes of presentation. Nobody responded, so I took it that there is no strong preference, and went with what was more convenient, namely written.

I recorded one video mini-lecture for each of my classes just to be friendly, but beyond that all my teaching works as follows. I break up a lecture into 3-6 pieces, and then post each piece on a discussion board as a separate thread. I require each student to comment at least once for each lecture (but not for each thread). The result is entirely asynchronous, and I hope easy on the students’ timetables (my students are scattered across multiple timezones now, I expect, and have various new responsibilities).

I am teaching two classes: Philosophy of Love and Sex (an intro-level class) and Metaphysics (an upper-level undergraduate class). Here is what I am finding so far:

  • the discussion is better in both quantity and quality than when we were meeting in person, and this is especially visible in the intro-level class; while all I require is a substantive comment/question of two sentences, most comments are a well thought-out paragraph

  • not everyone is participating, but more people are participating than were in person, probably as a result of the fact that the participation is required

  • my two video mini-lectures were also posted as threads, but one thread generated a single comment and the other none; I don’t think the quality or intrinsic interest of the topics for the two video ones was lower, so I have some evidence that written mini-lectures are at least as effective at generating discussion, and of they are more time-efficient for both production and consumption

  • it’s easier to just stand and talk than to write a careful mini-lecture, because in speech I was often sloppy in my formulations, while in writing I try not to be sloppy while at the same time aiming for accessibility, which is a difficult combination

  • the amount of time spent on teaching is greater, largely because there is more discussion

  • whereas previously I had my teaching concentrated on two days each week, I now participate in the online discussion forums for the classes five days a week

  • the amount of out-of-classroom interaction with students, which used to be office hours plus email and is now email only (I think I offered to teleconference if anyone wanted), is about the same as before (alas, it’s not much)

  • one class (metaphysics) has weekly papers; the quality of these is typically on par with the quality from when we were meeting in person, except in the case of a few papers that seem more rushed, perhaps because the students are struggling with family and personal hardship.

I am currently scheduled to teach intermediate logic in the second summer session, which is currently still planned to be online-only. If we get enough enrollment to make that go, I won’t be able to be asynchronous in that class, since logic requires much live back-and-forth demonstration.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

What if my kidney got smart?

Suppose the cells in my left kidney mutated, and the kidney grew neurons and started engaging in the same sorts of computations that my brain consciously does. (The idea is not as outlandish as it may seem. We will no doubt one day be able to make replacement kidneys in the lab. And if so, why not replacement kidneys with neurons?)

Question: Would I come to have a new mode of kidney-based consciousness on top of my brain-based consciousness?

I don’t know the answer to this as a genuine hypothetical question. But I have a strong intuition that there is no metaphysical guarantee that I would have a new mode of kidney-based consciousness. The mere fact that my kidney functions computationally like a brain doesn’t guarantee that I think with it.

It’s an interesting question which views about persons and mind can agree that there is no guarantee of my consciousness through kidneys.

Brainists, who think that we are brains, will happily agree. I think with my brain because I am my brain. The kidney would, perhaps, think, but it wouldn’t be me thinking, because the kidney isn’t even a part of me.

Dualists of all sorts can agree: for there is no guarantee that kidney-based computation gives rise to consciousness, since the connection between neural function and mental function on dualism can be contingent.

Some non-dualist animalists, however, will have a problem. For a non-dualist animalist will identify us with the animal, and then many of them will presumably want to say that the animal thinks provided that it has an organ that engages in certain kinds of neural behavior. But now it seems like I would have to be thinking through the kidney if it were to engage in this neural behavior.

But it’s not quite so simple. For it could be that the neural behavior that defines thought has a normative component. Thus, to think may require the neurons to appropriately engage in certain behaviors. But neurons in the kidney would not have proper function.

Thus, perhaps, the no-guarantee constraint only rules out one of the views I’ve considered: non-normative non-dualist animalism.

Robert Garcia coming to Baylor

I’m very happy that Robert Garcia, an excellent metaphysician from Texas A&M, has accepted a tenured position in our department at Baylor, and will be joining us this fall.

The puzzle of engagements

The idea of a marriage engagement is kind of weird. On its face, it seems to be a promise to make a promise: the two people promise each other to exchange marriage vows. But if you’re promising to promise X, why don’t you just promise X right away?

I think there are two ways to save the idea of engagement given the above. One can raise the level of the marriage commitment or one can lower the level of engagement commitment.

The first approach would be to say that the marriage vows aren’t mere promises: they are vows, a covenant. A vow has a different, qualitatively higher--even sacred--binding force than a mere promise. If this is right, then we can learn something from the cultural practice of engagement, something about the higher level of normative commitment in marriage.

The second approach would be to demote engagement. Perhaps we can look at an engagement as akin to what the business world calls a “non-binding agreement in principle”.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Sex as an iconic partially self-representing gesture

“Iconic representational gestures” are like a gestural onomatopoeia: their physical reality resembles in some way what they signify. For instance, blowing a kiss signifies a kiss, running a finger across a throat signifies a killing, and a baptism signifies cleansing from sin.

An interesting special case of iconic representational gestures is one where the physical reality of the gesture itself itself accomplishes a part of what it represents. A slap in the face is an iconic gesture that represents the punishment that the other party deserves for bad behavior and is itself physically a part of the punishment. Intercourse is an iconic gesture that signifies a union of persons and its physical reality constitutes the physical part of that union. And, on views on which Christ’s body is present in the Eucharist, the reception of the Eucharist is also such an iconic gesture representing union with Christ and physically effecting an aspect of that union. We can call such gestures partially self-representing.

Now, normally meaning gets attached to symbolic acts like words and gestures through other symbolic acts (you point to a “zebra” and say “Let’s call that ‘zebra’”). This threatens to lead to a regress of symbolic acts. The regress can only be arrested by symbolic acts that have an innate meaning. Now, while there is often an element of conventionality even in iconic representational gestures, just as there is in onomatopoeia, nonetheless I think our best candidate for symbolic acts that have an innate meaning is iconic representational gestures. Moreover, if the gesture has an innate meaning, it is plausible that it was used at least as long as humankind has been around.

If we think about the best candidates for such gestures, we can speculate that perhaps pointing or punching has been around as long as humans have been around. But that’s speculation. But it’s not speculation that sex has been around as long as humans have been around. Thus, sex is an excellent candidate for a gesture that has the following features:

  • iconic representational

  • partially self-representing

  • innate meaning.

Moreover, given that the physical aspect of sex is a thorough biological union, it is very reasonable to think that this innate meaning is a thorough personal union. But, as Vincent Punzo has noted in his work on sex, a thorough personal union needs to include a normative commitment for life. And that is marriage. Thus, sex signifies marriage.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Deflating particular normative states of affairs?

Some actions lead to a future normative state of affairs. A promise or valid command leads to a future state of affairs of my or someone else’s being obliged to fulfill it. A wrongful action leads to a state of obligation to repent. And so on.

Here are two views of these states of affairs:

  • Deflationary: There is nothing more to these states of affairs than general conditional moral normative facts, such as the facts that you should keep your promises, together with the fact of the triggering action, such as that you’ve promised to ϕ.

  • Non-Deflationary and Causal: These states of affairs are metaphysically irreducible aspects of reality that are caused into existence by their triggering actions.

In fact of the deflationary view is that it’s deflationary, and hence supported by Ockham’s Razor.

But I think there are some reasons to accept the non-deflationary view. First, suppose you now come to the time where the normative state of affairs obtains: you must now fulfill your promise or you must now repent. Then the deflationary view implies an odd sort of “tyranny of the past”. What obliges you is not anything about the present, but something about the past. Your present obligations, on the deflationary view, do not supervene on the present state of the universe. This might especially bother presentists, but I think it’s also a bit worrying to eternalists like me.

Second, the “general conditional moral normative facts” the deflationary approach deals with will have to have extremely complex antecedents. For instance, for a command, there will be a fact of the form:

  • If you were validly commanded to ϕ, and you have not yet fulfilled the command, and the command wasn’t changed by a higher authority, and circumstances have not relevantly changed, and …, then you should ϕ.

My worry about this is that there might be an infinite number of possible ways for a command obligation to disappear that would have to be put in the “…”. But perhaps not. Perhaps all I’ve said above is enough.

However, there is some reason not to be persuaded by this consideration. It is reasonable to think that human beings have normative powers: our actions can create reasons and obligations for ourselves and others. But one way for the obligation from a promise or command to disappear is for the non-normative circumstances to change. For instance, if I promised to do a minor errand, and a giant herd of yaks blocked my way, so that I could only do the errand via an unreasonably large detour, I might be off the hook normatively. But it seems implausible that a herd of yaks has the causal power to annihilate normative facts. So, it seems, even the non-deflationist may want the normative states of affairs to be conditional: “I should do the errand unless it becomes unreasonable.”

Third, the phenomenology of being released from an obligation—say, by being forgiven or a promisee’s releasing you—is an experience as of a load being removed. That “load” felt like a real thing which was annihilated.

Fourth, being forgiven changes your obligations by removing your guilt, at least assuming repentance. But it seems that God could forgive you a sin without announcing the forgiveness in any way, or in any other non-normative way changing the world. In such a case, God’s forgiveness would have a contingent normative effect. But God is simple, and hence all contingent facts about God are grounded in necessary truths about God and contingent facts about creation. But then if there is no non-normative change in creation due to the forgiveness, there must be a normative change in creation due to it.

On the non-deflationary causal view, divine forgiveness consists in God’s destroying the normative state of affairs of your being guilty. On the deflationary view, it’s got to be grounded in something like a divine “I forgive you” speech act, whether specific to your case (e.g., God telling you in your heart that you’ve been forgiven), or general (e.g., God’s announcing that anything the Apostles forgive is forgiven by God in John 20:23). But in the case of our forgiving someone the speech acts are announcements of a contingent state of affairs of forgiveness that goes beyond the announcements. That state of affairs, in the case of a simple God, cannot be internal to God. And it seems like it’s normative.

I find the last two considerations fairly powerful, but not conclusive. Of course, I accept divine simplicity, but the claim that God can forgive without any announcement isn’t completely obvious. Divine forgiveness could be like a Presidential pardon, which must be promulgated.

For us non-naturalists, it would be cool if we could argue for the non-deflationary view. For on this view, naturalism is false: we have causal powers that go beyond those described by the sciences, namely the causal power to produce normative states of affairs.

Update: Here's an argument in favor of deflation. While a particular obligation feels like a something ("a load"), what we cite as reasons for action is often not a resultant normative state but the original triggering action: "You promised!" or "I need to make it up to her given what I did." But on the causal non-deflationary view, the original triggering action is not even a part of the reason for action: it is, rather, a cause of the normative state, and the normative state itself is the reason. Of course, this isn't conclusive, because it could be that we mention the triggering action as evidence for the resultant reason. We likewise say: "I need go home because I left the kettle on." That I left the kettle on is no reason to go back home. That the kettle is still on is a reason to go home, and that I left the kettle on is evidence that that the kettle is still on.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Paddles for classic video games

I made some Atari 2600 style USB game paddles for use with Atari emulators and Pong. They're mostly 3D printed with a little bit of electronics (STM32F103CxT6 board, two switches and two potentiometers) and emulate the Stelladaptor's paddle mode (you can also use them as a two-button mouse, with each paddle controlling one axis).  Build instructions are here.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Humeans should be (Kenneth-)Pearceans

I have long thought that Humeanism leads to strong inductive scepticism about the future—the thesis that typical inductive generalizations about the future aren’t even more likely than not—roughly because there are a lot more induction-unfriendly worlds with our world’s history than induction-friendly ones.

But this argument assumes that there isn’t some extra-systemic explanation of why we have an induction-friendly physical reality. If there is, then the mere counting of worlds does nothing. Now, standard theism provides such an extra-systemic explanation. But standard theism is incompatible with Humeanism, because God-to-world causation is incompatible with the Humean understanding of causation.

However, it’s occurred to me today that there is a non-standard theism that could furnish the Humean with an escape: Kenneth Pearce has advocated a theism on which God explains the contingent world in a non-causal way.

I don’t know of another option for the Humean in the literature. I know of three candidates for extra-systemic explanations of physical reality:

  1. there isn’t one

  2. there is one, and it’s theistic

  3. there is one, and it’s necessitarian (e.g., Optimalism).

The Humean can’t take the necessitarian way out, because Humeanism is strongly opposed to such necessities. The first option leads to inductive scepticism. That leaves 2. But Humeans cannot accept causal theism. So that leaves them non-causal theism.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Plagiarism and causation

Suppose I write a paper and you write a paper of the same length. But then I plagiarize your paper using the following procedure. I look at the first character in our papers, and if it’s different, I erase (unless it’s a space) the character in my paper and write down the character you had in its place. And then I repeat for the second, third, and so on. I then submit the paper for publication.

It seems clear that I’ve plagiarized your paper in its entirety, even though some of the letters in my paper weren’t erased as by coincidence I originally had the same letter in the same place as you did—this will happen more often with more common letters like “e”.

But what if, by chance, your paper and my original paper were verbatim the same, and I never noticed this? Then the paper I submit for publication depends for all of its content counterfactually on the paper you wrote, but not a letter was changed from the paper that I wrote. If authorship is defined by causation, then the paper I am submitting is my own. If it’s defined by counterfactual dependence, it’s yours.

I don’t know which is the right answer.

If we're not brains, computers can't think

The following argument has occurred to me:

  1. We are not brains.

  2. If we are not brains, our brains do not think.

  3. If our brains do not think, then computers cannot think.

  4. So, computers cannot think.

I don’t have anything new to say about (1) right now: I weigh a lot more than three pounds; my arms are parts of me; I have seen people whose brains I haven’t seen.

Regarding (2), if our brains think and yet we are not brains then we have the too many thinkers problem. Moreover, if brains and humans think, then that epistemically undercuts (1), because then I can’t tell if I’m a brain or a human being.

I want to focus on (3). The best story about how computers could think is a functionalist story on which thinking is the operation of a complex system of functional relationships involving inputs, outputs, and interconnections. But brains are such complex systems. So, on the best story about how computers could think, brains think, too.

Is there some non-arbitrary way to extend the functionalist story to avoid the conclusion that brains think? Here are some options:

  1. Organismic philosophy of mind: Thought is the operation of an organism with the right functional characteristics.

  2. Restrictive ontology: Only existing functional systems think; brains do not exist but organisms do.

  3. Maximalism: Thought is to be attributed to the largest entity containing the relevant functional system.

  4. Inputs and outputs: The functional system that thinks must contain its input and output facilities.

Unfortunately, none of these are a good way to save the idea that computers could think.

Computers aren’t organisms, so (5) does not help.

The only restrictive ontology on the table where organisms exist but brains do not is one on which the only complex objects are organisms, so (6) in practice goes back to (5).

Now consider maximalism. For maximalism to work and not reduce down to the restrictive ontology solution, these two things have to be the case:

  1. Brains exist

  2. Humans are not a part of a greater whole.

Option (b) requires a restrictive ontology which denies the existence of nations, ecosystems, etc. Our best restrictive ontologies either deny the existence of brains or relegate them to a subsidiary status, as non-substantial parts of substances. The latter kind of ontology is going to be very restrictive about substances. On such a restrictive ontology, I doubt computers will count as substances. But they also aren’t going to be non-substantial parts of substances, so they aren’t going to exist at all.

Finally, consider the inputs and outputs option. But brains have inputs and outputs. It seems prejudice to insist that for thought the inputs and outputs have to “reach further into the world” than those of a brain which only reaches the rest of the body. But if we do accept that inputs and outputs must reach further, then we have two problems. The first is that while we are not brains, we could certainly continue to think after the loss of all our senses and muscles. The second is that if our inputs and outputs must reach further into the world, then a hearing-aid is a part of a person which appears false (though recently Hilary Yancey has done a great job defending the possibility of prostheses being body parts in her dissertation here at Baylor).