Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Fifth Way, remixed even more

In the previous two posts (here and here) I offered interpretations or remixes of Aquinas’s Fourth and Fifth ways read as ways of showing how a theistic Aristotelianism solves a pressing problem that the basic Aristotelian metaphysics cannot solve.

Here I want to do again for the Fifth Way, but now I will depart further from the text, and so while the previous two posts might have been interpretations, this one is much more of just a remix of the Fifth Way, with some ingredients from my version of the Fourth Way thrown in.

On Aristotelian metaphysics, each substance aims at its own good. The good of a substance is defined by the substance’s form, and the form points the substance at that good. But this good is just an internal good of the substance. Think of this internal good as akin to MacIntyre’s internal goods of a practice. The directedness at the internal goods is largely a matter of a priori metaphysical reasoning about substance. But now let’s go back to the things themselves—for, after all, the Five Ways are supposed to be empirical. If we do that, we come across two facts I want to stress.

First, the internal goods of substances tend to be intelligible to us as goods independently of the forms of these substances. Squirrels grow and reproduce. We understand growing and reproduction as valuable features. Imagine that squirrels instead characteristically scratched themselves to near-death. Even if their nature specified such self-scratching as their end, without a further more comprehensive story such self-scratching wouldn’t be intelligible to us as a good. Now, it is true that we tend to judge things by ourselves: it is also our human good to grow and to reproduce, and so it is easy for us to recognize that as good in squirrels. But I do not think we should say that when we judge squirrels’ growth and reproduction as a good thing independently of the form of the squirrel we are simply mistaken—and yet if we were just imposing merely human standards, we would be mistaken.

We might make the point as follows. It is good for a squirrel to fulfill its form by growing and reproducing. But it is also good, in a different sense of “good”, that the squirrel’s form includes growth and reproduction. This different sense of “good” is missing from basic Aristotelianism, a point central to my reading of the Fourth Way.

So we have something that calls for an explanation: Why is the squirrel’s form aimed at something that is actually good in this further sense?

And here is a related and but less abstract question. The teleology of a squirrel harmonizes to a significant extent with the goods of other species. We have an ecology. A “circle of life”.

The squirrel’s activity, thus, is not only directed at its internal good, and that internal good is intelligible as a good apart from its internal form, but the pursuit of that internal good harmonizes with the goods of other things in nature. This coordination between the ends of different species is something that basic Aristotelianism has a serious difficulty explaining.

There are thus two senses in which there are external goods found in nature: first, the internal goods are themselves typically intelligible as goods independently of the forms that define them; second, the end-directed activities of the organisms are good for the ecology at large. Both of these call for an explanation, and Aquinas’ suggested explanation seems excellent: “Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end.”

Note that the ecological dimensions might be explained evolutionarily, as long as we have an explanation of the coincidence between the normative and the statistical, a coincidence that forms the heart of my previous reading/remix of the Fifth Way.

The Fifth Way, also remixed

Thomas writes:

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

Central to Aristotle’s thought is the normative thesis that all substances have proper functions or ends defined by their immanent forms. Moreover, Aristotle makes the statistical claim that for the most part things things function correctly—they function to fulfill their ends.

The statistical claim is epistemologically important: that an activity or structure is usually exhibited by members of a kind is a central piece of evidence for that activity’s or structure’s correctness. But logically the statistical facts and the normative facts are independent: it is logically possible for all sheep to be three-legged, or for only a few pecan trees to produce pollen.

To see that we are committed to the connection between the normative and the statistical facts, consider the ridiculousness of the hypothesis that one of the ends of salmon is to prove theorems about high-dimensional topology. The utter unsuitability of the salmon brain to that end is conclusive evidence against the hypothesis. But this is only if we think there is a connection between the normative and the statistical facts—without such a connection, we could simply suppose that all salmon fall short of their topological researcher nature.

Note, too, just how massive the coincidence between the normative and statistical facts is: we see it across millions of species.

As Aquinas concedes, in intelligent substances we have some hope of an explanation of the coincidence: the intelligent substance consciously aims at its self-fulfillment. (Though leaning on this may be too much of a concession, because we still need to explain why this aiming isn’t futile, like a crank’s attempts to trisect angles.) But why do unintelligent substances’ activities in fact harmonize with their self-fulfillment, and do so massively, across all the millions of species we have? Why is it that we do not salmon-like fish with mathematical activity as their purpose, snake-like reptiles with flying as their end, and apes whose primary purpose is turning their bodies into gold by exposure to solar radiation?

A theistic explanation of the massive coincidence is compelling, and it provides another theistic solution to the shortcomings of a pure Aristotelian system.

The Fourth Way, remixed

I’m playing with a reading—or perhaps remix—of Aquinas’ Fourth and Fifth Ways as giving a theistic solution to a problem that non-theistic Aristotelianism has no solution to. In this post, I will discuss the Fourth Way, and in the next, the Fifth.

The Fourth Way starts with the principle that degreed predicates, predicates where it makes sense to talk of “more” and “less”, are predicated in comparison to a maximal case. Infamously, however, given modern science, Aquinas’ down-to-earth illustration of that principle, namely that heat is predicated in comparison to the maximal case—allegedly, fire—is not not an example of the principle, but is actually a counterexample to it. There just is no such thing as maximum heat.

But nevermind heat. Aquinas wants to apply the Fourth Way to goodness. Now, the Aristotelian system that he has adopted already has an account of the good: a thing is good to the extent that it fulfills its proper function, a proper function that is defined by the thing’s form. Note that this account, too, does not match Aquinas’ gradation principle: unlike in Plato, forms are not self-predicating, so rather than the Form of the Sheep being the most ovine thing possible, the Aristotelian form of the sheep is immanent in each sheep, directing each sheep to an ovine perfection that no object actually meets.

But the Aristotelian account of the good is incomplete. While it allows us to compare the goodness of things within a kind—the four-legged sheep better fulfills its form than a three-legged one—there are also meaningful value comparisons between kinds. When Jesus says that we are “worth more than many sparrows” (Mt. 10:31), what he is saying is entirely commonsense. The human has much more good than the sparrow. The sparrow has more good than the worm. And the worm has more good than a mushroom. There really is a something like a great chain of being in reality. These comparisons, however, are not simply grounded in the immanent forms of things. The form of the worm need make no reference to mushrooms, nor that of a mushroom to worms.

Note that these interspecies value comparisons not only cannot be read off from the immanent forms, but sometimes they are in a kind of tension with the immanent forms. An earthworm’s form limits the neural development of the worm. Were the worm to grow a brain as big as a dog’s, it wouldn’t be able to burrow as well. And a mushroom that walked around would fail to be properly rooted as a mushroom ought.

Interspecies value comparison is a genuine problem that Aristotelianism faces, though some Aristotelians are willing to bite the bullet and deny the meaningfulness of such comparisons. Platonism did not face this problem—it could just talk of varying degrees of participation in the Form fo the Good—but Platonism lacked a satisfactory solution to the problem of intraspecies comparisons (Platonism’s solution would be to posit a self-exemplified Form for each species, which would involve the absurd idea that there is a perfect Sheep, which somehow manages to be both a sheep and immaterial, and we have all sorts of silly questions about whether it is male or female, what color it is, whether it has an even or an odd number of hairs, etc.)

A theistic Aristotelianism, however, has a solution to the problem of interspecies value comparison, in addition to non-theistic Aristotelianism’s solution to the intraspecies’ problem. There is a great chain of being defined by the ways in which the various species participate in the being that has all perfections. The human exemplifies intellection, the sparrow approximates omnipresence through rapid movement and exemplifies a significant degree of intelligence, the worm approximates omnipresence less well and has a lower degree of intelligence, while the mushroom at least exemplifies life. What grounds the goodness of these qualities independently of the forms of the things they are found in, and what makes for their axiological directionality (more intelligence is better than less), is then comparison to the maximal case, namely God.

Note that while this gives something like a great chain of being, it need not exactly be a great chain of being. We should not seek after a strictly total ordering—a partial ordering matches intuition better.

I don’t have a knock-down argument that theistic Aristotelianism is the only good Aristotelian solution to the problem of interspecies comparison. But it is a very good solution, and so once we have accepted basic Aristotelianism, it gives us significant reason to adopt the theistic version.

An earlier, more compact, version of this argument is here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The General Composition Question

Peter van Inwagen distinguishes the General Composition Question (GCQ), which is to give necessary and sufficient conditions for the claim that the xs compose y without mereological vocabulary, from the Special Composition Question (SCQ), which is to give non-mereological necessary and sufficient conditions for the claim that there is a y such that the xs compose y again without mereological vocabulary. He thinks that he can answer the SCQ as:

  1. The xs compose something iff there is exactly one x or the activity of the xs constitutes a life.

But he doesn’t try to give an answer to the GCQ, and suspects an answer can’t be given.

It is now seeming to me that van Inwagen should give a parallel answer to GCQ as well:

  1. The x compose y iff the xs compose* y.

  2. The xs compose* y iff every one of the xs is a part* of y and everything that overlaps* y overlaps* at least one of the xs.

  3. x overlaps* y iff x and y have a part* in common.

  4. x is a part* of y iff x = y or x’s activity constitutes engagement in the life of y.

Here, (3) and (4) mirror the standard mereological definition of composition and overlap, but with asterisks added. The asterisked concepts, however, bottom out in non-mereological concepts.

One might worry that constitution is a mereological concept. But if it is, then van Inwagen’s answer to the SCQ is also unsatisfactory because it uses constitution.

I feel that (2)–(5) might have some simple counterexample, but I can’t see one (or at least not one that isn't also a counterexample to van Inwagen's answer to the SCQ).

By the way, there is a cheekier answer to the GCQ:

  1. The xs compose y iff the xs and y satisfy the predicate “composes” of the actual world’s late 20th century philosophical English language.

Note that here the response does not make any use of mereological vocabulary, since “‘composes’” (unlike “composes”) is not a piece of mereological vocabulary, but a piece of metalinguistic vocabulary.

Kantian antinatalism


  1. It is permissible to deliberately have children.

But there is a powerful Kantian antinatalist argument against (1). To decide rationally to have a child, one needs to have a purpose for the child’s existence. But to have a purpose for another person’s existence, no matter how good that purpose might be, is to treat that other person as a means rather than as an end. And that’s wrong.

Assuming the Kantian thesis that it is wrong to have an end for another person’s existence, the only way to block the argument against (1) is to find a way to rationally motivate having a child without having to have a purpose for the child’s existence. How can this be done?

So one needs a reason to have a child which is not grounded in having a purpose for the child. Such reasons can exist. For instance, if I promise you to make a scarf, my reason to make the scarf is grounded in my promise to make the scarf rather than in any purpose for the scarf itself.

This points to a way out of the Kantian antinatalist argument. A couple might have a duty, perfect or imperfect, to attempt to have a child. If so, they need not have a purpose for the child, but only a purpose to attempt having a child. Such a duty could come from a divine command or from some kind of natural law perspectives (both of which are compatible with the broadly Kantian opposition to treating others as mere means).

Few people, apart from Catholics, Orthodox Jews and optimistic utilitarians, think there is any duty to have children. But thinking that there is such a duty may be the best way to get out of Kantian antinatalism.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Divine command, natural law and arbitrariness

People often levy an arbitrariness objection against divine command theory:

  1. If God simply chooses what we ought, why did he choose to command kindness rather than cruelty?

It occurs to me that an advocate of theistic natural law probably cannot levy the arbitrariness object. For there is a structurally very similar question about theistic natural law:

  1. If God simply chooses which natures to create, why did he choose to create beings with our basic physical structure and a nature that requires kindness rather than beings with our basic physical structure but a nature that requires cruelty?

It might be retorted that logical space does not contain a nature that specifies cruelty and yet the same basic physical structure as ours. This is plausible to me, but the main reason to doubt that there could be such a nature is some theistic story such as that all natures are ways of imitating God, and it is incompatible with divine goodness that he be imitable in such a cruel way. And this, in turn, is quite parallel to the standard divine command response to (1), that it is incompatible with divine goodness that he command cruelty to beings like us.

I think theistic natural law does have advantages over divine command theory. But a better resolution to the arbitrariness objection does not seem to be one of these advantages.

The composition of a substance

Start with this plausible observation:

  1. Any part of me either is an accident of me or has an accident.

For consider this: my corporeal parts all have accidents of size, shape, color, etc. And my non-corporeal parts are my soul or form, as well as my accidents. My soul has accidents: such as the accident of thinking about this or that. And my accidents are my accidents.

Now, add this plausible thesis:

  1. Any accident of a part of me is identical with an accident of me.

Thus, my arm’s being tanned is identical with my being tanned-in-the-arm. Further:

  1. An accident of a thing is a part of that thing.

Given 1-3, we conclude the following:

  1. Any part of me has at least one accident of me as a part.

For suppose that x is a part of me. Then by (1), x is an accident of me or has an accident. If x is an accident of me, then x has an accident of me, namely x itself, as an improper part. If x has an accident y, then y is a part of x by (3) and identical with an accident of me by (2), so once again x has an accident of me as a part.

Now the standard definition of composition is:

  1. The xs compose y if and only if every part z of y has a part in common with at least one of the xs.

It follows from (4) and (5) that:

  1. I am composed of my accidents.

For every part of me has one of my accidents as a part by (4), and that accident is of course an improper part of one of my accidents.

But (6) seems really wrong!

Thomas Aquinas has a nice way out of (6). One of my parts is my esse, my act of being, and my esse has no proper parts, and no parts in common with any of my accidents. If Aquinas is right, then it seems (4) needs to be modified to:

  1. Any part of me is either my esse or has at least one accident of me as a part.

Replacing (4) with (7) in the argument, we get:

  1. I am composed of my esse and my accidents.

But that seems wrong, too. For the omission of form is really glaring.

One could get out of (8) if one supposed that my form has its own esse as a part of it. But that doesn’t seem right.

My own view is that (8) may actually be correct if we stipulate “compose” to be defined by (5). But what that points to is the idea that “compose” is not rightly defined by (5).

Distancing oneself from one's brain

It can be quite useful for someone suffering from a variety of brain conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, to deliberately distance themselves from their brain’s unfortunate doings, by saying to themselves things like: “That’s not me, just my brain.”

If physicalism is true, then brains are either identical with us or at least are the core of who we are. But “That’s not me, just me” is a contradiction while “That’s not me, just the core of my being” isn’t much of a distancing. A similar issue arises in second and third person contexts: if physicalism is true, one must admit brain problems to be grounded in that which is at the core of the other’s being.

The dualist, on the other hand, can pull off the distancing much more easily: “That’s not my soul, just my brain” makes perfect sense. An impairment in the brain is just an impairment of a body part, albeit one of the most important ones.

Of course, that something is a helpful way of thinking does not prove that it’s true. But it is an insight from the beginnings of Western philosophy that truth is generally better for us than falsehood, and so that something is a helpful way of thinking is some evidence that it is true. We may, thus, have some evidence for dualism here.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Being subject to a Dutch Book

I’ve periodically wondered why doing poorly when faced with a Dutch Book is supposed to be a sign of irrationality, but it’s not a sign of irrationality that rational people do poorly when faced with someone who hits all and only rational people on the head with a baseball bat.

This occurred to me today:

  1. One cannot get a rational person to act against their own interest except by force, luck or superior information.

  2. Putting a Dutch Book over someone with inconsistent credences does not require force, luck or superior information.

This seems to get at some of the intuition as to why being subject to a Dutch Book is supposed to be a sign of irrationality.

But I don’t know how much confidence we should have in (1). The exception clause already admits three exceptions. This sounds ad hoc. Would we be very surprised if more exceptions had to be added?

Still, there is some plausibility to (1), at least for self-interested rationality.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Consciousness of one's choices

Here is a plausible thesis:

  1. Consciousness of one’s choice is necessary for moral responsibility.

I go back and forth on (1). Here is a closely related thesis that is false:

  1. Knowledge of one’s choice is necessary for moral responsibility.

For imagine Alice who on the basis of a mistaken interpretation of neurosience thinks there are no choices. Then it could well be that Alice does not know that she is making any choices. But surely this mistake does not take away her moral responsibility for her choice.

Alice presumably still has consciousness of her choice, much as the sceptic still has perception of the external world. So Alice isn’t a counterexample to (1). But I wonder if (1) is very plausible once one has realized that (2) is false. For once we have realized that (2) is false, we realize that in Alice’s case the consciousness of her choice is not knowledge-conferring. And such consciousness just does not seem significant enough to matter for moral responsibility.

Against digital phenomenology

Suppose a digital computer can have phenomenal states in virtue of its computational states. Now, in a digital computer, many possible physical states can realize one computational state. Typically, removing a single atom from a computer will not change the computational state, so both the physical state with the atom and the one without the atom realize the same computational state, and in particular they both have the same precise phenomenal state.

Now suppose a digital computer has a maximally precise phenomenal state M. We can suppose there is an atom we can remove that will not change the precise phenomenal state it is in. And then another. And so on. But then eventually we reach a point where any atom we remove will change the precise phenomenal state. For if we could continue arbitrarily long, eventually our computer would have no atoms, and then surely it wouldn’t have a phenomenal state.

So, we get a sequence of physical states, each differing from the previous by a single atom. For a number of initial states in the sequence, we have the phenomenal state M. But then eventually a single atom difference destroys M, replacing it by some other phenomenal state or by no phenomenal state at all.

The point at which M is destroyed cannot be vague. For while it might be vague whether one is seeing blue (rather than, say, purple) or whether one is having a pain (rather than, say, an itch), whether one has the precise phenomenal state M is not subject to vagueness. So there must be a sharp transition. Prior to the transition, we have M, and after it we don’t have M.

The exact physical point at which the transition happens, however, seems like it will have to be implausibly arbitrary.

This line of argument suggests to me that perhaps functionalists should require phenomenal states to depend on analog computational states, so that an arbitrarily small of the underlying physical state can still change the computational state and hence the phenomenal state.

Functionalism and pain-likeness

Say that a functional property F is pain-like provided that a human is in pain if and only if the human has F.

Assuming functionalism, there is a functional property F0 which is pain. Property F0 will be pain-like, but it won’t be the only pain-like property. For there will be infinitely many ways of tweaking F0 to generate functional properties F1, F2, ... that in humans are instantiated precisely when F0 is, but that differ in instantiation among aliens. For instance, F1 could be F0 conjoined with the property of not currently thinking a thought that has seventeen levels of embedding (I take it that humans can’t think a thought with more than about three levels of embedding), while F2 could be F0 conjoined with the property of not consciously exercising magnetic sense, and so on.

There will thus be infinitely many pain-like properties that differ in when different aliens instantiate them. One of these pain-like properties, F0, is pain. And now we have a difficult question for functionalism: What grounds the fact that this particular pain-like property is pain? Why is it that having F0 is necessary and sufficient for hurting but having F1 isn’t? What’s so special about F0? Why is it that F0 picks out a phenomenally unified type, but the other properties need not?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Fading knowledge of qualia

I am one of those people who do not have vivid memories of pains.

Suppose I stub my toe. While the toe is hurting, I know what the toe’s hurting feels like. After it stops hurting, for a while I still know what that felt like. But I know it less and less well as my memory fades, until eventually I know very little how it felt like. The whole process might take only a few minutes.

Thus, that mysterious “knowing what it’s like” involving qualia is something that comes with a parameter that varies as to how well you know it.

This should worry physicalists. Thin physicalists should worry because it doesn’t seem that the fading corresponds to any knowledge of the underlying physical reality. Thick physicalists who think that Mary just acquires a new recognitional concept when she sees red should worry, because it does not seem that there is any gradual loss of a concept. I continue to have the same “that experience” concept (the demonstrative “that” points to the same past experience, and does so in a first-personal way) and the recognitional abilities it enables (I can tell if another pain is like that one or not), even as my knowledge of what “that experience” is like fades.

It’s also not completely clear what a dualist should say about the fading of the knowledge. Normally, when knowledge fades, what happens is either that we lose details (as when I forget much of what I once learned in school about the Metis uprising), or we find the dispositional knowledge harder to make occurrent. But the fading is neither of these. Maybe what is happening is that our present knowledge becomes a less good representation of what it is the knowledge of.

Monday, September 20, 2021

A posteriori necessities

The usual examples of a posteriori necessities are identities between kinds and objects under two descriptions, at least one of which involves a contingent mode of presentation, such as water (presented as “the stuff in this pond”, say) and H2O.

Such a posteriori necessities are certainly interesting. But we should not assume that these exhaust the scope of all a posteriori necessities.

For instance, Thomas Aquinas was committed to the existence of God being an a posteriori necessity: he held that necessarily God existed, but that all a priori arguments for the existence of God failed, while some a posteriori ones, like the Five Ways, succeeded.

For another theistic example, let p be an unprovable mathematical truth. Then p is, presumably, not a priori knowable. But God could reveal the truth of p, in which case we would know it a posteriori, via observation of God’s revelation. And, plausibly, mathematical truths are necessary.

For a third example, we could imagine a world where there is an odd law of nature: if anyone asserts a false mathematical statement, they immediately acquire hideous warts. In that world, all mathematical truths, including the unprovable ones, would be knowable a posteriori.

A defense of probabilistic inconsistency

Evidence E is misleading with regard to a hypothesis H provided that Bayesian update on E changes one’s credence in H in the direction opposed to truth. It is known that pretty much any evidence is misleading with regard to some hypothesis or other. That’s no tragedy. But sometimes evidence is misleading with regard to an important hypothesis. That’s no tragedy of the shift in the credence of that important hypothesis is small. But it could be tragic if the shift is significant—think of a quack cure for cancer beating out the best medication in a study due to experimental error or simply chance.

In other words, misleadingness by itself is not a big deal. But significant misleadingness with respect to an important hypothesis can be tragic.

Suppose I am lucky enough to start with consistent credences in a limited algebra F of propositions including q, and suppose I have a low credence in a consistent proposition q. Now two friends, whom I know for sure to speak only truth, speak to me:

  • Alice: “Proposition q is actually true.”

  • Bob: “She’s right, as always, but the fact that q is true is significantly misleading with respect to a number of quite important hypotheses in F.”

What should I do? If I were a perfect Bayesian agent, my likelihoods would be sufficiently well defined that I would just update on Alice saying her piece and Bob saying her piece, and be done with it. My likelihoods would embody prior probability assignments to hypotheses about the kinds of reasons that Alice and Bob could have for giving me their information, the kinds of important hypotheses in F that q could be misleading about, etc.

But this is too complicated for a more ordinary Bayesian agent like me. Suppose I could, just barely, do a Bayesian update on q, and gain a new consistent credence assignment on F. Even if Bob were not to have said anything, updating on q would not be ideal, because the ideal agent would update not just on q, but on the facts that Alice chose to inform me of q at that very moment, in those very words, in that very tone of voice, etc. But that’s too complicated for me. For one, I don’t have enough clear credences in hypotheses about different informational choices Alice could have made. So if all I heard was Alice’s announcement, updating on q would be a reasonable choice given my limitations.

But with Bob speaking, the consequences of my simply updating on q could be tragic, because Bob has told me that q is significantly misleading in regard to important stuff. What should I do? One possibility is to ignore both statements, and leave my credences unchanging, pretending I didn’t hear Alice. But that’s silly: I did hear her.

But if I accept q on the basis of Alice’s statement (and Bob’s confirmation), what should I do about Bob’s warning? Here is one option: I could raise my credence in q to 1, but leave everything else unchanged. This is a better move than just ignoring what I heard. For it gets me closer to the truth with regard to q (remember that Alice only says the truth), and I don’t get any further from the truth regarding anything else. The result will be an inconsistent probability assignment. But I can actually do a little better. Assuming q is true, it cannot be misleading about propositions entailed by q. For if q is true, then all propositions entailed by q are true, and raising my credences in them to 1 only improves my credences. Thus, I can safely raise my credence in everything entailed by q to 1. Similarly, I can safely lower my credence in anything that entails ∼q to 0.

Here, then, is a compromise: I set my credence in everything in F entailed by q to 1, and in everything in F that entails ∼q to 0, and leave all other credences for things in F unchanged. This has gotten me closer to the truth by any reasonable measure. Moreover, the resulting credences for F satisfy the Zero, Non-negativity, Normalization, Monotonicity, and Binary Non-Disappearance axioms, and as a result I can use a Level-Set Integral prevision to avoid various Dutch Book and domination problems. [Let’s check Monotonicity. Suppose r entails s. We need to show that C(r)≤C(s). Given that my original credences were consistent and hence had Monotonicity, the only way I could lack Monotonicity now would be if q entailed r and s entailed ∼q. Since r entails s, this would mean that q would entail ∼q, which would imply that q is not consistent. But I assumed it was consistent.]

I think this line of reasoning shows that there are indeed times when it can be reasonable to have an inconsistent credence assignment.

By the way, if I continue to trust the propositions I had previously assigned extreme credences to despite Bob’s ominous words, an even better update strategy would be to set my credence to 1 for everything entailed by q conjoined with something that already had credence 1, and to 0 for everything that when conjoined with something that had credence 1 entails ∼q.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Medical recommendations and informed consent

It is widely accepted that medical treatments require informed consent from the patient. This requires medical professionals to educate patients, to a reasonable degree, on the relevant scientific aspects of the treatment.

Interestingly, I have been told by a medical ethicist that it is not widely accepted that medical recommendations, whether from one’s individual physician or from a government body, are governed by similar informed consent standards. Thus, before giving you an injection, the physician is required to give you both the medical pros and cons of the injection, but if the physician recommends exercise to you, there is no such education requirement (e.g., the physician is not required to tell a clueless patient that exercise can result in joint pain).

This view seems wrong to me. The main reason for requiring informed consent is patient autonomy. But autonomy can be compromised just as much by recommendations omitting salient information as by actual treatment. Let’s say that Jeeves is annoyed by Wooster’s ugly mustache, and recommends to a Wooster the deliciousness of a particular brand of chocolate, having heard from the factory owner's valet that this brand has been contaminated with a chemical that makes one’s facial hair fall out. Jeeves has violated Wooster’s bodily autonomy through the recommendation almost as much as if Jeeves had shaved Wooster in the night.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

An ontological argument from the possible nondefectiveness of modality

  1. Necessarily, if it is necessary that there is no God, then modal reality is bad. (Making the existence of God impossible is terrible!)

  2. Necessarily, if something is bad, it is possible for it not to be bad. (The bad is a flaw in something that ought to be better than it is, and what ought to be can be.)

  3. So, if modal reality is necessarily bad, then it is possible for modal reality not to be bad. (by 2)

  4. So, if modal reality is necessarily bad, then modal reality is not necessarily bad. (by 3)

  5. So, modal reality is not necessarily bad. (by 4)

  6. So, possibly, modal reality is not bad. (by 5)

  7. So, possibly, it is not necessary that there is no God. (by 1 and 6)

  8. So, possibly, it is possible that God exists. (by 7)

  9. So, it is possible that God exists. (by 8 and S4)

  10. Necessarily, if God exists, it is necessary that God exists. (God is a necessary being and essentially divine.)

  11. So, it is possible that it is necessary that God exists. (by 9 and 10)

  12. So, God exists. (by 11 and Brouwer)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Two common intuitions

Here are two very common intuitions in the philosophy of mind:

  1. Our experiences of the same things are approximately qualitatively the same: your perceptual experiences of white, or squareness, or the beat of a drum are approximately like mine.

  2. It is metaphysically possible to remap all of one’s qualia, so that one could have had all the color perceptions in one’s life rotated by 120 degrees, say.

I find myself somewhat sceptical of each. Moreover, each claim makes the other less likely, so the probability that both are true is less than the product of the probabilities of each.

Of the two claims, the first seems fairly plausible to me, because I am attracted to the idea that the qualitative properties of my perceptions arise from typical interconnections (including, but perhaps not limited to, inferential ones) between them, and we all have roughly the same ones. But this line of thought, while supporting (1) also supports the denial of (2).

Moreover, our use of the same word “red” for your and my experiences of red tomatoes suggests that (1) is a part of our ordinary pre-theoretic beliefs. And I am inclined to trust our ordinary pre-theoretic beliefs.

On the other hand, it could turn out that (1) is false because it could turn out that how red things look is partly a function of features of brain organization that differ from individual to individual (and in the same individual over time). If so, then we might want to disambiguate ordinary language’s “looks the same” relation to mean either having the same qualitative experience or having an experience with the same representative content, so that we could continue to say that when you and I are looking at a red tomato, it looks the same to us in the representative but not qualitative sense.

But in any case all this is deeply mysterious stuff. I am strongly inclined to the idea that we should try to figure out the best theory of mind and perception we can, and then use that to figure out if (1) and (2) are true, rather than using (1) and (2) as constraints.

An ontological argument from justice

Buras and Cantrell have given a very clever ontological argument for the existence of God based on a desire for happiness. Here is a variant of their argument based on justice.

  1. Ought implies (metaphysical) possibility.

  2. There ought to be justice for humans.

  3. Necessarily, if there is justice for humans, it is possible that there is a human who has happiness.

  4. Necessarily, if there is a human who has happiness, God exists.

  5. So, possibly God exists. (1-4 and S5)

  6. So, God exists. (S5 and as God is essentially divine and necessarily exists.)

I want to expand a little on 3 and 4.

In any world where there is justice for humans, there is (a) a practical possibility of a human being innocent, and (b) a system that reliably rewards innocent humans with happiness. Items (a) and (b) taken together plausibly imply a practical, and hence metaphysical, possibility of happiness. That gives us (3).

Buras and Cantrell defend claim (4). My favorite defense of claim (4) is that human happiness, when we think through our deep desire for eternal life as well as the danger of boredom in eternal lfie, requires some sort of friendship with God.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Virtue ethics and peer disagreement

Aristotelian ethics is committed to the claim that the virtuous person knows what actions and habits are virtuous and is justified in holding on to that knowledge, and indeed should hold on to it. There is a deep stability to virtue. This means that an Aristotelian virtuous person ought not adopt a conciliationist response to those who disagree as to what is virtuous, suspending judgment over the disagreed-upon items.

Indeed, one imagines that Aristotle’s virtuous person could say of those who disagree: “They are not virtuous, and hence do not see the truth about moral matters.” Aristotle’s virtuous person would reject the idea that someone who disagrees with them about virtue could be an epistemic peer. Virtuous habits give epistemic access to moral (and not only moral) truth.

Of course, the disagreer may think themselves virtuous as well, and may think the same thing about the virtuous person as the virtuous person thinks about them. But that does not shake the Aristotelian virtuous person.

This means that if Aristotelian virtue ethics is correct, there is a clear thing that a Christian can say about religious disagreement. The Christian thinks faith is a virtue, albeit an infused rather than natural one. As such, faith gives epistemic access, and someone lacking faith is simply not an epistemic peer, since they lack a source of truth. The fact that a person lacking faith thinks they have the virtue of faith should not move the person who actually has the virtue.

Of course, one might turn all this around and use it as an argument against virtue ethics. But I think Aristotle’s picture seems exactly correct as to the kind of firmness of moral knowledge that the virtuous person exhibits, the kind of spine that lets them say, without pride or vanity, to vast numbers of others that they are simply wrong.

Moral bindingness and levels of jurisdiction

In the US, you are sometimes told that something “violates federal law”, and it is said in a way that suggests that violating federal law is somehow particularly bad.

This raises a moral question. I will assume, contrary to philosophical anarchists, that valid and reasonable laws are in some way morally binding. Other things being equal, is it morally worse to violate the laws that operate at broader levels of organization. In the US, an affirmative answer would imply that federal law is morally worse to break than state law, and state law than county law, and county law than city law.

One might think this: the power to make laws belongs to more local levels of organization by delegation from broader levels of organization, and hence violating the laws of a more local jurisdiction is less morally bad. But this argument does not fit with what I understand is the US consitutional system’s idea that sovereignty starts with the states which permanently delegate some of their authority to the federal system. And, in any case, it is not clear why it would be less bad to go against the laws of a more delegated authority: if x delegates some authority to y, then relevant disobedience to y is also disobedience to x.

A perhaps more plausible argument in favor of the laws of broader jurisdictions being morally more strongly binding is that in violating a law, one offends against the body of citizens. With a broader jurisdiction, that body of citizens is larger, and hence the offense is worse. But this can’t be right. It is not morally less bad to commit federal tax fraud in Canada than in the US just because in Canada the population is smaller! (This observation perhaps suggests that if we do adopt the view that violating the law offends against the body of citizens, we should not view the “offense against the body of citizens” as meaning an offense against the citizens taken severally—to offend against a body is different from offending against the body’s constituents taken severally, or else punching a bigger person would be a worse thing than punching a smaller, just because the bigger person’s body has more cells. Or, perhaps, we have to say that the offensiveness of a law breaking is diluted among the citizenry, so that in a larger body, each citizen is less offended against.)

I want to suggest that the idea that it is worse to offend against broader jurisdictions is backwards for multiple reasons:

  1. An offense against a narrower jurisdiction is an offense against a body of citizens who are more closely related to one, and hence is a greater breach of the duties of civic friendship.

  2. The laws of narrower jurisdictions can be reasonably expected to be on the hwole better fitted to the community, because there is less variation in circumstance within a narrower jurisdiction.

  3. One has a greater say in the laws of the laws of the narrower jurisdiction, and hence they better fit with the autonomy of the governed.

  4. It is typically less burdensome to choose which narrower jurisdiction one lives under than which wider one: it is easier to move to a different city than to a different country. Therefore, any implied consent to local laws is greater than to wider laws.

These considerations suggest that offending against a narrower body is worse. Interestingly, (3) suggests that in my earlier example of tax fraud in the US and Canada, it is even worse to commit tax fraud in Canada, because doing so violates laws one has a greater say in. That actually sounds right to me, but I do not feel the difference in moral badness is a very big one, so (3) is probably not a major factor (of course, in the special case of tax fraud, a lot of the immorality comes from the immorality of lying, which precedes law).

(These same considerations support the principle of subsidiarity.)

So far I have been thinking about geographically defined jurisdictions. But consider a very different jurisdiction: the body of a profession, such as physicians or lawyers or electricians. The standards of such a body have a great deal of moral force. When a doctor says that disclosing some information about a patient violates medical ethics, that carries a great deal of moral force. And yet it really is “just” a violation of the law of a body, because there would be no such moral duty of confidentiality without the standards of the body of physicians (there would be more limited duties of confidentiality, say when the doctor specifically promised the patient not to disclose something). The laws of the professional jurisdictions have a lot of moral force, and it is not implausible that 1-4 are at least partly explanatory of that force.

Saturday, September 11, 2021


It feels like I am constantly fixing computer mice. The most common issue is the wires breaking near the mouse, requiring me to shorten the cable and resolder it to the PCB. I usually also add some glue or heat shrink tubing as strain relief if I haven’t done so already. Switching the household to wireless mice would solve the problem, at the expense of having yet more batteries to deal with.

I started off today with a new fix: the plastic axle from a mouse wheel broke off. I drilled through the mouse wheel and put a toothpick in instead. We’ll see how long that holds up. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to see if I can find a screw or nail of the right diameter instead.

Likely near future task: my daughter complains of a mouse double clicking. When it earlier had that problem, it seemed to me that it was generating an extra click on release, which sounds to me like a debouncing failure. But then I took it apart and put it back together and the problem disappeared, so I didn’t have a chance to fix it. Apparently the problem has come back, but I can’t duplicate it. If and when I duplicate it, I plan to hook it up to an oscilloscope, and play around with capacitors to debounce the release.

I wonder if problems would decrease if we bought more expensive mice.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Comparing the epistemic relevance of measurements

Suppose P is a regular probability on (the powerset of) a finite space Ω representing my credences. A measurement M is a partition of Ω into disjoint events E1, ..., En, with the result of the experiment being one of these events. In a given context, my primary interest is some subalgebra F of the powerset of Ω.

Note that a measurement can be epistemically relevant to my primary interest without any of the events in in the measurement being something I have a primary interest in. If I am interested in figuring out whether taller people smile more, my primary interest will be some algebra F generated by a number of hypotheses about degree to which height and smiliness are correlated in the population. Then, the measurement of Alice’s height and smiliness will not be a part of my primary interest, but it will be epistemically relevant to my primary interest.

Now, some measurements will be more relevant with respect to my primary interest than others. Measuring Alice’s height and smiliness will intuitively be more relevant to my primary interest about height/smile correlation, while measuring Alice’s mass and eye color will be less so.

The point of this post is to provide a relevance-based partial ordering on possible measurements. In fact, I will offer three, but I believe they are equivalent.

First, we have a pragmatic ordering. A measurement M1 is at least as pragmatically relevant to F as a measurement M2, relative to our current (prior) credence assignment P, just in case for every possible F-based wager W, the P-expected utility of wagering on W after a Bayesian update on the result of M1 is at least as big as that of wagering of W after updating on the result of M2, and M1 is more relevant if for some wager W the utility of wagering after updating on the result of M1 is strictly greater.

Second, we have an accuracy ordering. A measurement M1 is at least as accuracy relevant to F as a measurement M2 just in case for every proper scoring rule s on F, the expected score of updating on the result of M1 is better than or equal to the expected score of updating on the result of M2, and M1 is more relevant when for some scoring rule the expected score is better in the case of M1.

Third, we have a geometric ordering. Let HP, F(M) be the horizon of a measurement M, namely the set of all possible posterior credence assignments on F obtained by starting with P, conditionalizing on one of the possible events in that M partitions Ω into, and restricting to F. Then we say that M1 is at least as (more) geometrically relevant to F as M2 just in case the convex hull of the horizon of M1 contains (strictly contains) the convex hull of the horizon of M2.

I have not written out the details, but I am pretty sure that all three orderings are equivalent, which suggests that I am on to something with these concepts.

An interesting special case is when one’s interest is binary, an algebra generated by a single hypothesis H, and the measurements are binary, i.e., partitions into two sets. In that case, I think, a measurement M1 is at least as (more) relevant as a measurement M2 if and only if the interval whose endpoints are the Bayes factors of the events in M1 contains (strictly contains) the interval whose endpoints are the Bayes factors of the events in M2.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

What question should I ask?

Epistemology is heavily focused on the question of evaluating a doxastic state given a set of evidence: is the state rational or irrational, is it knowledge or opinion, etc. This can be useful to the epistemic life of an agent, but there is something else that is at least as useful and does not get discussed nearly as much: the question of how we should go about gathering evidence or, equivalently, what experiments (broadly understood) we should perform.

[The rest of the post was based on a mathematical error and has been deleted. The next post is an attempt to fix the error.]

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Has cultural relativism about norms of etiquette really been established?

Imagine a philosopher who argued that the norms of assertion are relative to culture on the grounds that in England we have the norm:

  1. Only assert “It’s snowing” when it’s snowing

while in France we have the norm:

  1. Only assert “Il neige” when it’s snowing.

This would be silly for multiple reasons. Foremost among these is that (1) and (2) are mere consequences of the norm of assertion:

  1. Only assert what it is true.

(Of course, you may disagree that truth is the norm of assertion. You may prefer a knowledge or justified belief or belief or high credence norm. But an analogous point will apply.)

It is widely held that while the norm of assertion is essentially the same across cultures, norms of etiquette vary widely. But the main reason people give for believing that the norms of etiquette vary widely is akin to the terrible argument about norms of assertion I began the post with. People note such things as that in some countries when one meets acquaintances one bows, and in others one waves; or that in some one eats fish with two forks and in others with a fork and knife.

But just as the fact that in England one should follow (1) and in France (2) is compatible with the universality of norms of assertion, likewise the variation in greeting and eating rituals can be compatible with the universality of norms of etiquette. It could, for instance, be that the need to eat fish with two forks in Poland and with a fork and knife in the USA derives simply from a universal norm of etiquette:

  1. Express respect for your fellow diners.

But just as one asserts the truth with different words in different languages, one expresses respect for one’s fellow diners with different gestures in different cultures.

Indeed, presumably nobody thinks that the fact that in France one says “Merci” and in England “Thank you” implies a cultural relativism in etiquette. In both cases one is thanking, but the words that symbolize thanks are different. But what goes for words here also applies to many gestures (there may turn out to be universal gestures, like pointing).

One object that among the norms of etiquette there are norms that specify which gestures signify, say, respect or thanks. But a specification of what signifies what is not the specification of a norm. That “Merci” signifies gratitude and that eating fish with two forks signifies respect are not norms, because norms tell us what to do, and these do not.

  1. “Merci” signifies thanks

is grammatically not a norm but a statement of fact. We might try to make it sound more like a norm by saying:

  1. Signify thanks with “merci”!

But that is bad advice when taken literally. For thanks are not to be signified always, but only when thanks are appropriate. A more correct norm would be:

  1. When a service has been done for you, signify thanks with “merci”!

But this is just a consequence of the general norm of etiquette:

  1. When a service has been done for you, signify thanks!

together with the fact (5).

So, we see that the mere variation in rituals should not be taken to imply that there is cultural relativity of norms of etiquette.

If there is to be a cultural relativity of norms of etiquette, it will have to be at a higher level. If in some cultures, etiquette requires one to show respect for all fellow diners and at others to show disrespect for some—say, those from an underprivileged group—then that would indeed be a genuine relativity of norms of etiquette.

But it’s not clear that me that in a culture where one is expected to show disrespect to fellow diners in some underprivileged group that expectation is actually a norm of etiquette. Not all social expectations, after all, are actually norms of etiquette, or even norms at all. A norm (of behavior) gives norm-based reasons. But an expectation that one show disrespect to members of an underprivileged group has no reason-giving force at all.

We can imagine a culture where there is no way to symbolize respect for members of an underprivileged group when dining. On the view I wish to defend, such a lack would not exempt one from the duty to show respect to all one’s fellow diners—it would just make it more difficult to do so, because it would require one to create new ways of showing respect (say, by adapting the forms of showing respect to members of privileged groups, much as in some European languages the polite forms of address are derived from forms in which one used to address nobility in less democratic times).

I am not sure if there is cultural variation in norms of etiquette. But if there is, that variation will not be proved by shallow differences between rituals, and may not even follow from deeper variation, such as a culture where it is not appropriate to thank one’s subordinates for work well done. For in the case of deeper variation, it could simply be that some in some cultures violation of certain norms of etiquette is nearly universal, and there are no accepted ways to show the relevant kind of respect.

In fact, it could even be the case that there is only one norm of etiquette, and it is culturally universal:

  1. Signify respect to other persons you interact with in ways fitted to the situation.

If this is right, then social rules designed to show disrespect, no matter how widespread, are not norms of etiquette.

Reasons from the value of true belief

Two soccer teams are facing off, with a billion fans watching on TV. Brazil has a score of 2 and Belgium has a score of 0, and there are 15 minutes remaining. The fans nearly unanimously think Brazil will win. Suddenly, there is a giant lightning strike, and all electrical devices near the stadium fail, taking the game off the air. Coincidentally, during the glitch, Brazil’s two best players get red cards, and now Belgium has a very real chance to win if they try hard.

But the captain of the Brazilian team yells out this argument to the Belgians: “If you win, you will make a billion fans have a false belief. A false belief is bad, and when you multiply the badness by billion, the result is very bad. So, don’t win!”
Great hilarity ensues among the Belgians and they proceed to trounce the Brazilians.

The Belgians are right to laugh: the consideration that the belief of a billion fans will be falsified by their effort carries little to no moral weight.

Why? Is it that false belief carries little to no disvalue? No. For suppose that now the game is over. At this point, the broadcast teams have a pretty strong moral reason to try to get back on the air in order to inform the billion fans that they were mistaken about the result of the game.

In other words, we have a much stronger reason to shift people’s beliefs to match reality than to shift reality to match people’s beliefs. Yet in both cases the relevant effect on the good and bad in the world can be the same: there is less of the bad of false beliefs and more of the good of true beliefs. An immediate consequence of this is that consequentialism about moral reasons is false: the weight of moral reasons depends on more than the value of the consequences.

It is often said that belief has a mind-to-world direction of fit. It is interesting that this not only has repercussions for the agent’s own epistemic life, but for the moral life of other parties. We have much more reason to help others to true belief by affecting their beliefs than by affecting the truth and falsity of the content of the beliefs.

Do the Belgians have any moral reason to lose, in light of the fact that losing will make the fans have correct belief? I am inclined to think so: producing a better state of affairs is always worthwhile. But the force of the reason is exceedingly small. (Nor do the numbers matter: the reason’s force would remain exceedingly small even if there are trillions of fans because Earth soccer was famous through the galaxy.)

There is a connection between the good and the right, but it is quite complex indeed.

Two spinners and infinitesimal probabilities

Suppose you do two independent experiments, A and B, each of which uniformly generates a number in the interval I = [0, 1).

Here are some properties we would like to have on our probability assignment P:

  1. There is a value α such that P(A = x)=P(B = x)=α for all x ∈ I and P((A, B)=z)=α2 for all z ∈ I2.

  2. For every subset U of I2 consisting of a finite union of straight lines, P((A, B)∈U) is well-defined.

  3. For any measurable U ⊆ I2, if P((A, B)∈U|A = x)=y for all x ∈ I, then P((A, B)∈U)=y.

  4. For any measurable U ⊆ I2, if P((A, B)∈U|B = x)=y for all x ∈ I, then P((A, B)∈U)=y.

  5. The assignment P satisfies the axioms of finitely additive probability with values in some real field.

Here is an interesting consequence. Let U consist of two line segments, one from (0, 0) to (1, 1/2) and the other from (0, 1/2) to (1, 1). Then every vertical line in I2 intersects U in exactly two points. This is measurable by (2). It follows from (1) and (5) that P((A, B)∈U|A = x)=2α for all x ∈ I. Thus, P((A, B)∈U)=2α by (3). On the other hand, every horizontal line in I2 meets U in exactly one point, so P((A, B)∈U|B = x)=α by (1) and P((A, B)∈U)=α by (4). Thus, 2α = α, and so α = 0.

In other words, if we require (1)-(5) to hold, then the probability of every single point outcome of either experiment must be exactly zero. In particular, it is not possible for the probability of a single point outcome to be a positive infinitesimal.

Cognoscenti of these kinds of arguments will recognize (3) and (4) as special cases of conglomerability, and are likely to say that we cannot expect conglomerability when dealing with infinitesimal probabilities. Maybe so: but (3) and (4) are only a special case of conglomerability, and they feel particularly intuitive to me, in that we are partitioning the sample space I2 on the basis of the values of one of the two independent random variables that generate the sample space. The setup—say, two independent spinners—seems perfectly natural and unparadoxical, the partitions seem perfectly natural, and the set U to which we apply (3) and (4) is also a perfectly natural set, a union of two line segments. Yet even in this very natural setup, the friend of infinitesimal probabilities has to embrace a counterintuitive violation of (3) and (4).

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Naturalism and lovability

  1. If naturalism is true, Stalin is not lovable.

  2. Everyone is lovable.

  3. So, naturalism is not true.

Here, by “lovable”, I don’t mean that it is possible to love the person, but that it is not inappropriate to do so.

Premise 2 follows the intuition that it is permissible for every parent to love their children. It also follows from the more controversial claim that everyone should love everyone.

The intuition behind premise 1 is something like this: Stalin’s actions were so horrible that the only plausible hypotheses on which he is lovable are that there is some deeply mysterious and highly valuable metaphysical fact about his being, such as that he is in the image and likeness of God, or that his Atman is Brahman, a fact incompatible with naturalism. For if all we have are the ordinary naturalistic goods in Stalin, these goods are easily outweighed by the horrors of his wickedness.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Impairment and saving lives

Bob and Carl are drowning and you can save only one of them. Bob is a human being in the prime of life, physically and mentally healthy, highly intelligent, and leading a happy and fulfilling life as a physicist committed to lifelong celibacy. To look at him, Carl is Bob’s identical twin. Carl has the same physical and mental powers as Bob, and leads a very similar happy and fulfilling life as a physicist committed to lifelong celibacy.

But there is one crucial difference that you know about, but Carl does not. Carl is actually a member of a superintelligent humanoid alien species. However, due to an unfortunate untreatable genetic condition, Carl suffers from a severe intellectual impairment, having merely the intelligence of a highly intelligent human. In order that Carl might avoid the stigma of the impairment, his parents had some highly sophisticated surgery done on him to make him fit into human society, and arranged for him to be adopted by a human family and raised as a human. No one except for you on earth will ever know that Carl isn’t human. You know because you happened to see the aliens arranging this (but you haven’t told anyone, because you don’t want people to think you are crazy).

Should you save Bob or Carl from drowning? My intuition is that if the above is all that you know, you have no reason to prefer saving one over the other. If one of them is slightly more likely to be saved by you (e.g., they are slightly closer to you), you should go for that one, but otherwise it’s a toss-up.

But notice that if you save Carl, there will be more natural evil in the world: There will be a severe intellectual impairment, which won’t be present if you choose to save Bob instead. It seems pretty plausible that:

  1. If you have a choice between two otherwise permissible courses of action, which result in the same goods, but one of them results in exactly one additional evil, you have a moral reason to choose the course of action that does not result in the evil.

Thus, it seems, you should save Bob.

So there is something paradoxical here. On the one hand, there seems to be no reason to pick Bob over Carl. On the other hand, the plausible general ethical principle (1) suggests you should pick Bob.

How can we get out of this paradox? Here are two options.

First, one could say that impairment is not an evil at all. As long as Carl leads a fulfilling life—even if it is merely fulfilling by human standards and not those of his species—his impairment is no evil. Indeed, we might even take the above story to be a reductio ad absurdum of an Aristotelian picture of species as having norms attached to them with it being a harm to one to fall short of these norms.

Second, one argue that principle (1) does not actually apply to the case. For there is a difference of goods in saving Carl: you are saving a member of a superintelligent species, while in the case of saving Bob, you are saving a mere human. For this to fit with the intuition that it’s a toss-up whether to save Bob or Carl, it has to be the case that what the superintelligence of his species adds to the reasons for saving Carl is balanced by what his abnormally low intelligence subtracts from these reasons.

Of these options, I am more attracted to the second. And the second has an interesting and important consequence: "mere" membership in a natural kind can have significant value. This has important repercussions for the status of the human fetus.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Models of libertarian agency, and some more on divine simplicity

Here is a standard libertarian picture of free and responsible choice. I am choosing between two non-mental actions, A and B. I deliberate on the basis of the reasons for A and the reasons for B. This deliberation indeterministically causes an inner mental state W(A), which is the will or resolve or intention to produce A. And then W(A) causes, either deterministically or with high probability, the extra-mental action A.

Now notice two things. First, notice that my production of the state W(A) is itself something I am morally responsible for. Imagine that I have resolved myself to gratuitously insult you. If it turns out that my vocal chords are paralyzed, my resolve W(insult) is itself enough to make me guilty.

Second, note that that my production of W(A) could involve the production of a prior second-order state of will or resolve, a willing W(W(A)) to will to produce A. For there are times when it’s hard to resolve ourselves to do something, and in those cases we might resolve ourselves to resolve ourselves first. But at the same time, to avoid an infinite regress, we should not adopt a view on which every time we responsibly produce something, we do so by forming a prior state of willing or resolve or intention. In light of this, although my production of W(A) could involve the production of a prior second-order state W(W(A)), it need not do so. In fact, phenomenologically, it seems more plausible to think that in typical cases of free choice, we do not go to the meta level of producing W(W(A)). We only go to the meta level in special cases, such as when we have to “steel” ourselves to gain the resolve to do the action.

Thus we have seen that, assuming libertarianism, it is possible for me to be responsible for indeterministically producing a state of affairs W(A) without producing a prior state of willing or resolving or intending in favor of W(A). The state W(A) is admittedly an inner mental state. But the responsibility for W(A) does not seem to have anything to do with the innerness of W(A). We are responsible for W(A) because our deliberation indeterministically but non-aberrantly results in W(A).

Here is a question: Could there be cases where we have libertarian-free actions where instead of our deliberation indeterministically non-aberrantly resulting in W(A), and thereby making us responsible for W(A) as well as A, our deliberation directly indeterministically and non-aberrantly results in the extra-mental action A, without an intervening inner mental state W(A) that deterministically or with high probability causes A, but with us nonetheless being responsible for A?

Once we have admitted—as a libertarian has to, on pain of a regress of willings—that we can be responsible for producing a state of affairs without a prior willing of that state of affairs, then it seems hard to categorically deny the possibility of us producing an extra-mental state of affairs responsibly without an intervening prior willing. And in fact phenomenology fits quite well with the hypothesis that we do that. We do many things intentionally and responsibly without being aware of a willing, resolve or intention to do them. If we stick to the initial libertarian model on which there must be an intervening mental state W(A), we have to say that either the state W(A) is hidden from us—unconscious—or that these actions are only free in a derivative way. Neither is a particularly attractive hypothesis. Why not, simply, admit that sometimes deliberation results in an extra-mental action that we are responsible for without an intervening willing, resolve or intention?

Well, I can think of one reason:

  1. It seems that you can only be responsible for what we do intentionally, and we cannot do something intentionally without intending something.

But note that if this reason undercuts the possibility of our responsibly directly doing A without an intervening act W(A) of intention, it likewise undercuts the possibility of our responsibly directly producing W(A) without an intervening W(W(A)) act, and sets us on a vicious regress.

I actually think (1) can be accepted. In that case, when we directly responsibly produce W(A), the intentionality in the production of W(A) is constituted by the non-aberrant causal connection between deliberation and W(A), rather than by some regress-engendering intention-for-W(A) prior to W(A). And the occurrence of W(A) means that we are intending something, namely A.

But what would it be like if we were to directly responsibly produce A, without an intervening act of intention W(A)? How would that be reconciled with (1)? Again, the intentionality of the production of A would be constituted by the non-aberrant causal connection between deliberation and A. And the content of the intention would supervene on the actual occurrence of A as well as on the reasons favoring A that were instrumental in the deliberation. (There are some complications about excluded reasons. Maybe in those cases deliberation can have an earlier stage where one freely decides whether to exclude some reasons.)

Call the cases where we thusly directly responsibly produce an extra-mental action A cases of direct agency.

A libertarian need not believe we exhibit direct agency. Perhaps we always have one level of resolve, willing or intention as an inner mental state. But the libertarian should not be dogmatic here, given the above arguments.

Our phenomenology suggests that we do exhibit direct agency, and indeed do so quite commonly. And if God is simple, and hence does not have contingent inner states, all of God’s indeterministic free actions are cases of direct agency.

In fact, independently of divine simplicity, we may have some reason to prefer the direct agency model in the case of God. Consider why it is that sometimes we go to the meta level of W(W(A)): we do so because of the weakness of our wills, we have to will ourselves to will ourselves to produce A. It seems that a perfect being would never have reason to go to the meta level of W(W(A)). So, the remaining question is whether a perfect being would ever have reason to go to the W(A) level. I think there is some plausibility in the idea that just as going to the W(W(A)) level is a sign of weakness, a sign of a need for self-control, going to the W(A) level is also a sign of imperfection—a sign that one needs a tool, even if an intra-mental tool, for the production of A. It seems plausible, thus, that if this is possible and compatible with freedom and responsibility, a perfect being would simply directly produce A (where A is, say, the action of the being’s causing horses to exist). And I have argued that it is possible, and it is compatible with freedom and responsibility.