Friday, December 15, 2023

Corruptionism and justice

Corruptionists hold that our souls survive death, but we are not our souls, and we do not survive death. All the corruptionists I know are Christians, and hold that eventually there comes a resurrection of the body, and then the soul regains its body, and our existence resumes.

A standard argument against Christian corruptionism is that on the view, it is our soul after death that suffers punishment or enjoys reward, while it is unjust that something that isn’t oneself should suffer punishment for one’s deeds.

A corruptionist response that I don’t ever remember seeing is this: only persons can be subject to injustice, and the soul is not a person, so no injustice happens to the disembodied soul.

While this does solve the problem of the injustice of the punishment, it does so at a cost. For if injustice cannot happen to a non-person, then by the same token, justice cannot be done to a non-person. Now it is only appropriate to punish x if the punishment is an instance of justice. If justice cannot be done to a non-person, then punishment cannot be appropriately imposed on a non-person.

This lead to a direct new version of the argument against Christian corruptionism: only persons can be appropriately punished, disembodied souls are not persons, and hence it is not appropriate to punish a disembodied soul. This version of the argument has an advantage over the standard argument, namely that it is irrelevant whether one’s sins belong to one’s soul or not.

How plausible this dialectics is depends on how plausible is the thesis that only persons can have justice or injustice done to them. I find the thesis plausible.

Remark 1: Of course, we talk of punishing and rewarding dogs and other non-human animals. But I think that is an analogical sense of the words "punish" and "reward."

Remark 2: Although noting that the soul is not a person solves the problem of injustice, it doesn't by itself resolve the problem of the imposition of suffering. Even though it is not unjust to kick one's dog when the dog did nothing wrong, it is wicked to do so.

Our sharp existence

This argument is fairly well trodden, but I still have to say that I find it quite compelling:

  1. If physicalism is true, then there was no sharp time at which I came into existence.

  2. There was a sharp time at which I came into existence.

  3. So, physicalism is false.

Why think (1) is true? Well, if physicalism is true, there is nothing more to me than an arrangement of particles. And which exact arrangements count as sufficient for my existence seems quite vague. And why think (2) is true? Well, if there is no sharp time at which I came into existence, then there will be worlds where it is vague whether I ever exist at all. For instance, if it is vague whether I already existed by time t1, then imagine a world just like ours up to t1, but where immediately thereafter everything is annihilated. If it is vague whether I existed by time t1 in our world, then it that world it will be vague whether I ever exist. But it can’t be vague whether I ever exist—vague existence is an impossibility.

Objection 1: There are many entities very much like me, each of which comes into existence at a sharp time, sharing most of their particles, and I am one of them. None of these entities is privileged, but as it happens I am only one of them. The entities differ in fine details of persistence and existence conditions.

Response: If none are privileged, then all these entities are persons. And so in my armchair there are many persons, and likewise wherever any human being is, there are many persons. Now, notice that there is more room for such “slight variation” when an individual is physically larger (i.e., has more particles). So it follows from the view that where there is a larger person, there are more persons. All the persons co-located with me have presumably the same experiences and the same rights (since none are privileged). So it follows that if you have a choice between benefiting a larger and a smaller person, you should benefit the larger. This sizeism is clearly absurd.

Objection 2: A Markosian-style view on which there are brute facts about composition can say that there is only entity where I am, and the other clouds of particles do not compose an entity.

Response: Yes, but while that counts as materialism, it doesn’t count as physicalism. It adds to the fundamental ontology something beyond what physical science talks about, namely entities that are brutely composed. Moreover, presumably persons are causes. So the story adds to physicalism additional causes.

Objection 3: Nobody can say that there was a sharp time at which I came into existence.

Response: It’s easy for the dualist to say it. I come into existence when my soul comes into existence, joined to some bit of matter. There is no vagueness as to when this happens, but of course the details are not empirically knowable.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The inappropriateness of matter explanation of death

A standard Aristotelian explanation of when an organism dies—when its form separates from the body—is that this happens precisely when the organism’s body is no longer “fit” for the form, say because it completely fails to support the basic functions of the type of organism that the form specifies.

If I am right in my series of posts about pointy beginnings and ends (starting with this one), this is a problematic idea. For according to the arguments in the posts, in almost every reference frame, towards the very end of my life, my form (which is my soul) informs a tiny subatomic bit of matter. But no subatomic piece of my matter is supportive of the distinctive functioning of a human being: it is equally supportive of an oak tree, a frog, a human, or just a particle. If I survive until a moment when I am reduced to such a tiny organism, then the “fitness” criterion seems rather meaningless or at best trivial—for as far as this criterion goes, I could survive even if everything was destroyed in me other than a subatomic piece of my left little toe, since the subatomic pieces of my left little toe are no different from the subatomic pieces of any other part of me.

I still suspect that fitness of the body for the form plays some sort of a role in determining the time of death. Plausibly the causal powers of an organism, grounded in the form, are such that when the body stops being capable of supporting the functioning of the organism, the organism’s power to sustain its existence starts to fade, and the organism shrinks (as per my pointiness posts) and dies. However that shrinking is gradual, and not necessitated simply by the unfitness of the matter, but by the unfitness of the matter and the form’s causal powers which explain how quickly the unfitness of the matter is followed by death.

But maybe there is a way out of this argument using this line of thought.

Aquinas's embryology and the theory of relativity

Aquinas famously thinks that there is a succession of forms in utero, with first a vegetable form, then an animal form, and then a rational animal (human) form. No two of these forms are had simultaneously.

But if a three-dimensionally extended object that has form A comes to be a three-dimensionally extended object that has form B, with no other forms intervening, then, in every inertial reference frame except for at most one, there is a time at which some of the matter has form A and some of the matter has form B. So unless there is a privileged frame, Aquinas’s story doesn’t work.

In the following diagram, the slanted dashed line indicates a reference frame where some of the matter has form A (red) and some has B (blue).

Here is a variant that could work, but does not seem very plausible. We could imagine that when we have a transition from A to B, the matter of A, except at one point, passes to B through one or more other forms, indicated by the yellow portion of the diagram. These might be forms of mere particles, or they could be some special forms. In other words, A dies off into a point, with the dead matter acquiring transitional forms, and then B starts growing from the last point of A, incorporating the transitional forms. Where the A and B substances meet will be a point either of A or of B, but not of both. The narrowing of A and the growth of B happen at the speed or light or less.

On this variant, no inertial frame contains both A and B points. (If light moves at 45 degrees from horizontal in the diagram, then inertial frames correspond to lines like the dashed one making a less than 45 degree angle with the horizontal.)

But there is something rather weird going on here. Suppose that A is the vegetable form and B is the animal form (a similar argument will apply if A is the animal form and B the human form). Then close to the pointy meeting between A and B, the yellow stuff contains the vast majority of what biology would call “the embryo”, and a fairly well-developed one, since it’s on the cusp of becoming an animal. Yet the vast majority of that “embryo” is the yellow stuff—neither the vegetable nor the animal, but something else, maybe mere atoms. Indeed, once we get close enough to the meeting point, the yellow will materially function just like an embryo, since a tiny subatomic hole makes no difference to material functioning. This is very odd, and gives us reason to reject Aquinas’s story.

Of course, the main alternative to Aquinas’s story is that the gametes change into a human being. That faces some of the same difficulties. However, I think the difficulties are less if the gametes are not themselves a substance, but a plurality of substances, perhaps particle-substances. In the diagram below, the gamete-stuff is in yellow, and the blue indicates the human being. We still have the problem that early on most of what we have will need to be biologically very close to a functioning zygote, and yet it is in yellow, except for a small blue hole corresponding to where ensoulment is spreading out from a single point. But I think this is less problematic, because at this juncture the yellow stuff is something that is less obviously an organism. (Admittedly, the blue stuff is less obviously an organism when it is nearly a point. But what makes it an organism is that while its matter has little going for it, it’s got the right form.)

So, relativity makes it hard to hold on to Aquinas’s embryology. Which is a nice thing for pro-life Thomists who want to defend ensoulment at conception and hence deny Aquinas's embryology--or Catholic Thomists who find the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception incompatible with that embryology.

Maybe there is some way of getting out of this by using the considerations from yesterday’s post, though.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Pointy endpoints and internal space and time

In a series of recent posts, starting with this one, I argued that relativity theory gives us good reason to think that at the start and end of our lives we are pointlike in spatial extension. Crucial to these arguments was the idea that there is no privileged reference frame.

The conclusion is, of course, rather counterintuitive. While it is plausible that we start as a cell and that we shrink with old age, in neither case are we pointlike.

However, in some earlier posts, like this one, I explored the idea that substances may have internal space and internal time, in addition to the external spacetime of the universe.

Here is a suggestion that could save the intuition that we are not spartially pointlike at the beginning and end of life. We have internal space and time, and our internal space and time has an absolute simultaneity relation. With respect to internal time, at the first and last moments of our lives (I’m simplifying by assuming there are such moments), we have significant non-pointlike spatial extension. Of course, most external frames of reference do not agree with our internal simultaneity relation, and in most of them, we are pointlike at the beginning and end of our lives. But that’s fine: our intuition relates to our internal space and time.

The above suggestion is inspired by Rob Koons’ suggestion that our rest frame could be the privileged frame with respect to which we could have spatially non-pointlike endpoints of life. That suggestion doesn’t work for the technical reason, which Koons also noted, that there doesn’t seem to be a well-defined notion of a privileged frame of a squashy organism. (One might try to go with the rest frame of the center of mass. But an organism’s center of mass can move faster than light—e.g., in a fast amputation. And faster than light motion doesn’t define a reference frame.) But even if there isn’t a well-defined rest frame, there is a family of “approximate rest” frames that are intuitively close to what we would expect the rest frame to do. And then we could suppose that the internal simultaneity relation is pretty close to these approximate rest frames.

Note that we should not expect the internal simultaneity relations to align neatly between substances (except in the special case of substantial change where we might reasonably suppose that the old substances’s later internal simultaneity relations approximate the new substance’s earlier ones), and hence they do not define a global privileged simultaneity relation that would threaten relativity theory.

So now I think that my argument about spatially pointy endpoints of life gives us a choice between three options:

  1. Accept spatially pointy endpoints.

  2. Accept a global privileged reference frame.

  3. Accept privileged reference frames specialized for individual substances.

In the last option, I think the best way is the way of internal space and time, but I suppose one could also think there are privileged external reference frames specialized for individual substances.

Accepting privileged reference frames specialized for individual substances could also help materialists deal with the problem of the unity of consciousness for a spatially extended brain.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Against the necessary unity of consciousness

Consider this unity of consciousness thesis:

  1. Necessarily, if x at time t has phenomenal state A and phenomenal state B at time t, then x at t has a phenomenal state that includes both A and B.

(Note that (1) seems incompatible with time travel. But that is perhaps fixed by specifying that we are talking about internal time in (1).)

Christians have special reasons to be dubious of (1).

Start with this quick thought. Around 30 AD, the Logos was suffering pain on the cross and comprehensively experiencing his infinite divinity. But the Logos did not have a phenomenal state that subsumed these two phenomenal states. For orthodox Chalcedonian theology has it that the Logos had two minds: a divine mind and a human mind. Only in the divine mind can one have a mental state that subsumes the comprehensive experience of divinity. But no state subsuming suffering can be found in the divine mind.

This argument is suggestive but not conclusive. For we might say that it is not correct to say that the Logos has the divine experience around 30 AD, because God is outside of time.

But as we learn from Aquinas, once we accept that one incarnation of the Logos is possible, we should also accept that two simultaneous ones are possible. There are no further conceptual difficulties in two than in one, and if omnipotence allows for one, it should allow for two. But if the Logos had two simultaneous incarnations, then the Logos would have, in addition to the divine mind, two temporal creaturely minds. And if one of these minds houses unmitigated joy and the other sorrow, then none of the three minds of the Logos would house a state that includes both the joy and the sorrow, and hence the Logos would not have such a subsumptive state.

Further, if (1) is true, surely so is:

  1. Necessarily, if x timelessly has phenomenal state A and phenomenal state B, then x timelessly has a phenomenal state that includes both A and B.

And now imagine that the timeless Logos engages in an analogue of the incarnation but as a timeless conscious being. Then the timeless Logos would have a divine phenomenal state and a human one which would not be unified.

Here is another thought against (1). Suppose that in heaven, Peter enjoys the beatific vision of God while enjoying Paul’s singing. A subsumptive phenomenal state that includes both the beatific vision and Paul’s singing would then be greater than either one of the included states. But no phenomenal state that Peter has is greater than Peter’s beatific vision.

There is a metaphysical version of this argument. The beatific vision has God directly as its content, rather than merely having a representation of God as its content. A state that included the beatific vision and Paul’s singing would have to have as its content God himself plus a representation of Paul’s singing. But there is no way to have a whole of which God is a proper part (Aquinas considers this to be a part of divine simplicity; but we might also think it follows from Anselmian theology—there cannot be anything greater than God).

Of course, even if (1) is false in general, a non-modal version may be true restricted to ordinary human phenomenal states, and we still will need an explanation of that fact. And it may be that some of the arguments people make from (1) against various materialist theories of consciousness would apply against the restricted thesis.

Lying in politics

Consider this reductio ad absurdum argument:

  1. It is permissible to lie to achieve what one reasonably thinks to be practically necessary to save multiple innocent lives. (Assumption for reductio)

  2. In typical elections to the highest political offices in a country, at least one candidate reasonably thinks that their winning the election is practically necessary to save multiple innocent lives.

  3. In typical elections to the highest political offices in a country, at least one candidate is such that it would be permissible for them to lie to win the election.

  4. But it would not be permissible for candidates for the highest political offices in a country to lie to win the election, except perhaps in atypical cases.

  5. Contradiction!

  6. So, it is false that it is permissible to lie to achieve what one reasonably takes to save innocent lives.

The thought behind (2) is that serious candidates tend to reasonably think that their policies would make a significant positive difference to the well-being of people. Given the tens of millions of people in a typical country, a fairly intelligent candidate will realize that this positive difference saves lives, by such factors as improving medical care, and decreasing stress, suicide and drug-abuse rates. And typical serious candidates are at least fairly intelligent. Additionally, in many countries abortion is relevant at election time, and these countries will often have candidates who reasonably think that abortion kills innocent people.

The “except perhaps in atypical cases” qualifier in (4) is to take care of the intuition that some people will have that lying is permitted to defeat someone with literally genocidal policies (which is fortunately an atypical case).

The above argument gives one reason to be dubious of the idea that it is permissible to lie to save lives. But I can also see an interesting answer. The most relevant kinds of lies of politicians would be lies to the public. But you might have this view: While it is permissible to lie once to save a life, it is not permissible to lie once in order to have a 0.1% chance of saving a life, nor to lie a thousand times to have a certainty of saving one life. For a lie is pretty bad, and too much lying outweighs the value of saving a life. Now, when you lie to a large group of people, you count as lying once to each member of the group. Thus, it would be wrong to lie to all the members of a population in order to save 0.1% of them or less. And in typical electoral cases, one would be unlikely to save more than 0.1% of the population!

I am not sure about this line of response. I am not sure the wickedness of a lie linearly multiplies with the number of people lied to. Imagine this. You are on the phone trying to dissuade a friend who has a large YouTube following from lying to their million followers. You see that you have a consideration they will think decisive, and are about to offer the consideration, but then you see a child drowning. If you jump in the water to save the child, you’ve lost your moment of influence and your friend will lie to a million. You should, typically, go and save the child. (Unless your friend’s lie would influence someone to commit murder.) So the disvalue of lying does not increase linearly with the size of the victim audience.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Some quantum semiholisms

I’ve been naively thinking about what a reductive physicalist quantum ontology that matches the Hilbert-space formalism in the Schroedinger picture might look like.

My first thought is something like this. “Space” is (the surface of) a sphere in a separable Hilbert space, with an inner product structure (perhaps derived from a more primitive linearity and metric structure using the polarization identity) and “the universe” is a point particle walking on that sphere.

But that description is missing crucial structure, because when described as above, all the points on the sphere are on par. Although the universe-particle was at a different location on the sphere 13 billion years ago than where it is now, there is nothing to distinguish these two points in the story, and hence nothing to ground the vast changes in the universe between then and now. What we need to do is to paint the sphere with additional structure.

There are multiple ways of having the additional structure. Here are two.

Option I. Introduce a number of additional causally impotent “point particles” living on the sphere but not moving around as “markers”, and define the rich intuitive structure of our universe from the inner-product relationships between the universe-particles and the marker-particles. Here are two variants on this option.

  • (Ia): There are countably many point particles corresponding to basis vectors in some privileged countable Hilbert space basis, and these “marker-particles” are then located at a set of points on our sphere that form an orthonormal basis. For instance, if we “think of” the Hilbert space for a system of N particles as L2(R3N), we might have a different static marker-particle for each 3N-dimensional Hermite polynomial.

  • (Ib): There are uncountably many marker-particles, and they are located at a set of points of the sphere such that the closure of their span is the whole Hilbert space, but they are not orthogonal. For instance, in our N-particle case, we might think of each marker-particle as corresponding to a normalized indicator function of a subset of R3N with non-zero Lebesgue measure, and require them to be located on our Hilbert space sphere in places which give them the “right” inner product relationships for normalized indicator functions.

Note that since what is physically significant are the inner products beween the positions of the marker-particles and the universe-particle, we need not think of the particles as having “absolute positions” on the sphere—we can have a “relationalist” version where all we need is the inner-product relationships between the particles (marker and universe). Or, if we want something more like the Heisenberg picture, we could suppose absolute positions, keep the universe particle static, and make the marker particles move. There are many variants.

Option II. We enrich the structure of our “space” (i.e., the surface of the Hilbert space sphere) by adding fundamental binary relations between points on that sphere that correspond to some privileged collection of operators (e.g., normalized projections onto subsets of R3N with non-zero measure).

Anyway, here is an interesting feature of these two stories. On none of them do we have Schaffer-style holism. On Option I, we have an infinite number of fundamental “particles” in “space” (i.e., on our infinite-dimensional sphere), though only one of them is moving, and we may or may not have the “space” itself. On Option II, we have the two fundamental entities: the universe-particle and the sphere itself, with the universe-particle having merely positional structure, while the sphere has a complex operator structure.

We might call these stories semiholistic. Of course, there are fully holistic stories one can tell as well. But one doesn’t have to.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Fields and finetuning

Here is an interesting fine-tuning issue, inspired by a talk I heard from Brian Cutter at the 2023 ACPA meeting.

It seems likely that physical reality will involve one or more fields: objects that assign values to points in space (“ordinary” space or configuration space), which values then govern the evolution of the universe.

The fine-tuning issue is this. A plausible rearrangement principle should allow any mathematical assignment of values of the field to the points in space as metaphysically possible. But intuitively “most” such assignments result in a configuration that cannot meaningfully evolve according to our laws of nature. So we want to have an explanation of the fine-tuning—why are we so lucky as to have an assignment that plays nice with the laws of nature.

For a toy example, consider an electric field, which is a vector field E that generates a force F = qE on a particle of charge q. Intuitively, “most” vector fields will be nonmeasurable. But for a nonmeasurable electric field, we have no hope for a meaningful solution to the differential equations of motion. (OK, I’m ignoring the evolution of the field itself.)

For another example, suppose we think of the quantum wavefunction as a function over configuration space rather than as a vector in Hilbert space (though I prefer the latter formulation). If that function is nonmeasurable—and intuitively “most” are nonmeasurable—then we have no way to use quantum mechanics to predict the further evolution of this wavefunction. And if that function, while measurable, is not square integrable (I don’t know if there is a sense of “most” that applies here), then we have no way to use the Born rule to generate measurement predictions.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Metaphysical semiholism

For a while I’ve speculated that making ontological sense of quantum mechanics requires introducing a global entity into our ontology to ground the value of the wavefunction throughout the universe.

One alternative is to divide up the grounding task among the local entities (particles and/or Aristotelian substances). For instance, on a Bohmian story, one could divide up 3N-dimensional configuration space into N cells, one cell for each of the N particles, with each particle grounding the values of the wavefunction in its own cell. But it seems impossible to find a non-arbitrary way to divide up configuration space into such cells without massive overdetermination. (Perhaps the easiest way to think about the problem is to ask which particle gets to determine the value of the wavefunction in a small neighborhood of the current position in configuration space. They all intuitively have “equal rights” to it.)

It just seems neater to suppose a global entity to do the job.

A similar issue comes up in theories that require a global field, like an electromagnetic field or a gravitational field (even if these is to be identified with spacetime).

Here is another, rather different task for a global entity in an Aristotelian context. At many times in evolutionary history, new types of organisms have arisen, with new forms. For instance, from a dinosaur whose form did not require feathers, we got a dinosaur whose form did require feathers. Where did the new form come from? Or suppose that one day in the lab we synthesize something molecularily indistinguishable from a duck embryo. It is plausible to suppose that once it grows up, it will not only walk and quack like a duck, but it will be a duck. But where did it get its duck form from?

We could suppose that particles have a much more complex nature than the one that physics assigns to them, including the power to generate the forms of all possible organisms (or at least all possible non-personal organisms—there is at least theological reason to make that distinction). But it does not seem plausible to suppose that encoded in all the particles we have the forms of ducks, elephants, oak trees, and presumably a vast array of non-actual organisms. Also, it is somewhat difficult to see how the vast number of particles involved in the production of a duck embryo would “divide up” the task of producing a duck form. This is reminiscent of the problem of dividing up the wavefunction grounding among Bohmian particles.

I am now finding somewhat attractive the idea that a global entity carries the powers of producing a vast array of forms, so that if we synthesize something just like a duck embryo in the lab, the global entity makes it into a duck.

Of course, we could suppose the global entity to be God. But that may be too occasionalistic, and too much of a God-of-the-gaps solution. Moreover, we may want to be able to say that there is some kind of natural necessity in these productions of organisms.

We could suppose several global entities: a wavefunction, a spacetime, and a form-generator.

But we could also suppose them to be one entity that plays several roles. There are two main ways of doing this:

  1. The global entity is the Universe, and all the local entities, like ducks and people and particles (if there are any), are parts of it or otherwise grounded in it. (This is Jonathan Schaffer’s holism.)

  2. Local entities are ontologically independent of the global entity.

I rather like option (2). We might call this semi-holism.

But I don’t know if there is anything to be gained by supposing there to be one global entity rather than several.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Arguments for theism

How one met someone can significantly affect the shape of one’s relationship with them for years to come. Therefore, we can imagine that what reasons convinced one to believe in God can significantly affect the shape of one’s relationship with God. If this is right, and if God has a plan for a particular kind of relationship with a person, then God might have reason to keep the person from being convinced by some evidence for the existence of God, in order that the person might instead come to be convinced by reasons that will set the stage for the particular shape of relationship God wants.

In particular, it would not be surprising if some of the more abstract philosophical arguments for the existence of God, while perfectly fine as arguments, might not be fitting for leading a particular individual into a deeply interpersonal relationship. And if so, we could imagine that God could keep the person from being convinced by such arguments, in order that the person might come to belief in a different way.

But it all could depend on the person. We are broken in different ways, and God has different plans for us all.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

A personalized argument from need

In the case of certain kinds of transformational experiences—such as meeting the love of your life—you have the realization that this is something you really needed for flourishing, but didn’t know it. Further, in many cases of these kinds of experiences, part of that realization is not just that you need the subjective experience for flourishing, but that what you need for reality the flourishing. For instance, if it turns out that your experience of meeting the love of your life was a hallucination, it would be a part of your realization not just that you need an experience of meeting the love of your life, but that you need the reality.

Now I think this kind of realization is a part of the life of many theists in connection with the experience of a relationship with God: they come to realize that they have always needed both this experience and the reality of it. But then the theist has this argument:

  1. What is needed for the flourishing of a human being is in principle possible.

  2. A relationship with God is in principle possible only if God exists.

  3. A relationship with God is needed for my flourishing.

  4. So, God exists.

An interesting thing about this argument is that for a number of people, the full realization of the truth of premise (3) only comes about once they believe in God. The argument thus has a circularity of sorts: it works best for those who already believe the conclusion. This is an innocent circularity: the relationship with God, of which belief in God is a part, makes available significant evidence for that belief.

This is a bit like Kierkegaard’s “argumentum Spiritus Sancti” which is only available to those who believe. It sounds paradoxical, but I do not think it is actually all that paradoxical. Imagine you have a friend who is accused of some crime, but refuses to show you evidence of their innocence unless you believe in their innocence first. Then, your belief is needed for you to have the evidence, but the evidence can be perfectly genuine and unparadoxical.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Even more on pointy beginnings

In a recent post I argued that in Aristotelian substantial change, given special relativity, the resultant substance starts as basically a point—it is arbitrarily small.

I think the argument doesn’t actually require much in the way of Aristotelian assumptions, but works for any caused extended substance, or at least any ordinary one.

Suppose that a substance B is caused to exist by A (which might be a single entity or a plurality) and initially (at least) at distinct points in spacetime. There is a reference frame according to which one of these points is earlier than the other (this is true in all frames if the points are timelike-related and some frames if they are spacelike-related). Let F be a frame where this happens, and let z1 be the F-earlier and z2 the F-later point. From now on, work in F.

Let ti be the time of zi. Now B is at least partly present arbitrarily close to z1, and hence arbitrarily close to t1, and since t1 < t2, it follows that B already existed before t2. Therefore, any causal influence of A sufficiently close to time t2 is irrelevant to B’s existence. In fact, B wasn’t even partly caused by A to exist at times close to t2, since it had already existed for a while before this. And this contradicts our assumption that A caused B at both z1 and z2.

A crucial assumption here is that nothing that happens later than a time t is relevant to whether a substance B exists at t.

What if there is backwards causation? If so, then this argument fails. But even if there is backwards causation, it is rare and extraordinary. It is still true that in ordinary cases, substances are caused to exist at a single point.

What if B is uncaused? Again, the argument fails. But even if there are uncaused extended substances, they are not the norm. So, again, the argument still works in ordinary cases.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The fundamentality of souls

Some dualists say that the soul is a fundamental entity.

I think we’re not in a position to think that. Compare this. We have no reason to think electrons are not elementary particles. They certainly aren’t made of any of the other particles we know of, so they are, we might say, “relatively elementary” with respect to the particles we know. But we would not be very surprised if electrons turned out to be made of other particles.

Similarly, we have good reason to think the soul is not grounded in any of the other things we know of (matter, accidents, etc.) But we should not be really surprised if a finer-grained analysis would reveal the soul to have a grounding structure beyond our current knowledge. We should be cautious and say the soul is “relatively fundamental” with respect to the entities we know.

Another argument that we likely start small

In a number of recent posts, I argued that mid-sized objects like ourselves start microscopic. All my arguments so far relied on relativity. Here is one that doesn’t.

  1. Biological entities are unlikely to have a perfectly flat macroscopic geometrical face (biological things tend to be rounded, rough, pointy, but not perfectly flat).

  2. We are four-dimensional.

  3. We are biological entities.

  4. If we don’t start microscopic and we are four-dimensional, then we have a perfectly flat macroscopic geometrical face at our temporal beginning.

  5. So, probably, we start microscopic.

Why the restriction to macroscopic faces? Two reasons. First, if space is discrete and grid-like, then it may be that all objects have perfectly flat sides at the grid-spacing level. Second, if we are made of point particles, then our geometry likely includes perfectly flat triangles between three outer point particles.

Relationship without belief

Consider this fairly standard version of the argument from hiddenness:

  1. If God exists, he produces everything that is necessary for a personal relationship with every nonresisting person.

  2. Belief in the existence of x is necessary for a personal relationship with x.

  3. So, if God exists, every nonresisting person comes to believe in God.

  4. Some nonresisting person does not come to believe in God.

  5. So, God does not exist.

I noticed today that (2) is just plain false. My example is a skeptic about other minds. You can take seriously the hypothesis that you are the only real person around, seriously enough that you do not believe the hypothesis false, and still have a personal relationship with other people. Surely Unger, in his phase of believing that people don’t exist, had personal relationships with them!

A perhaps even better counterexample to (2) was given by one of my students. You can have a long-standing Internet-based personal relationship while taking seriously the possibility that the other person doesn’t exist (e.g., maybe you are interacting with a chatbot).

This observation doesn’t destroy the hiddenness argument. One might, for instance, replace (2) with:

  1. A personal relationship with x is incompatible with consistent disbelief in the existence of x

and then replace (4) with:

  1. Some nonresisting persons end up consistently disbelieving in God (e.g., due to their reasonable evaluation of the problem of evil, or due to low priors for theism).

But now (7) is less plausible than (4). One might well think that the evidence against theism is insufficiently strong to make it possible for a nonresister to disbelieve in God.

Alternately, one might replace the deductive hiddenness argument with a probabilistic one by noting that it’s a lot harder to have a personal relationship without belief in the other person, and it’s unlikely that a loving God would make it this hard. I think that’s not a very strong argument, but it is an option for the defender of hiddenness.

Relativistic Aristotelian beginnings

From purely geometrical facts, it follows that every spatially extended entity is arbitrarily small at its beginning and at its end in almost every reference frame.

A stronger result is possible in the special case of the beginnings of substances in simple Aristotelian substantial change. In simple Aristotelian substantial change, substance A wholly changes into a new substance B by having all of the terminal matter of A be the proximate matter of B without any temporal gap. I claim that then substance B comes into existence at a single point in every reference frame (i.e., the temporal bottom of B fits into a light cone).

For suppose that in some frame F, substance B comes into existence at two F-simultaneous and distinct spacetime points z1 and z2 (these could be points at which there is still A but arbitrarily close to points of B or these could be points at which there is B but that are arbitrarily close to points of A). Then there is another frame F′ at which z1 is earlier than z2. Let ti be the time of zi in F′. Because of how the terminal matter of A is the proximate matter of B, there is matter of A arbitrarily close to z2. Hence, arbitrarily close to time t2, we will have A still existing. However, arbitrarily close to time t1 we will have B already existing. Since t1 < t2, it follows that according to F, we will have A still existing after B has already come to exist. So the cause is partly later than the effect, which is absurd.

Maybe there is a way around this in more complex cases where multiple substances result in one new substance. I am not sure.

But here is another way to see the pointiness of the beginnings of substances if one accepts the Aristotelian idea that substances are individuated by their initial matter and we take matter to be infinitely subdivisible. Suppose in frame F, substance B begins at distinct and simultaneous points z1 and z2. Let F as before be a frame where z1 is earlier than z2. Then according to frame F, substance B already exists before its matter close to z2 exists (I am assuming matter is infinitely subdivisible, and in this case a relevant division happened). So its matter close to z2 cannot be essential to its individuation. And there is a third frame, F, where z1 is later than z2, and so the matter close to z1 cannot be essential to B’s individuation. It follows that none of the matter can be essential to the individuation of the substance if the substance starts at two or more places at once. Thus, a substance must start at a single point.

What happens in substantial change then? It seems that if we are to preserve relativity, we have to say that the new substance comes into existence at a single point z out of one or more preceding substances. If matter individuates (which I am dubious of), then the matter immediately around z is what does the individuating. The substance’s form then spreads out from z, perhaps incorporating more and more of the stuff around z, at the speed of light or less.

Of course, all these problems disappear if we allow for faster-than-light causation in substantial change. But that should be a last resort.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Gratuitous evil and compensation

In the last couple of decades, the most prominent argument from evil is base on the idea that God couldn’t allow a gratuitous evil. Here is one way to define a gratuitous evil, paraphrasing Rowe:

  1. E is gratuitous if and only if there is no greater or equal good G that is only obtainable by God if God permits E or something equal or worse.

(For simplicity, I am taking the prevention of an evil as itself a good.)

By (1), if E is any earthly evil, it’s too easy to show that for all we know E is not gratuitous.

To see this, observe that for all we know, the persons suffering from E are compensated in an afterlife by God bestowing on them a greater good G0. Now let G be the good of receiving G0 in compensation from God for suffering E. Then G is a good, and is at least as good as G0 itself. But G0 is greater in magnitude than E. Thus, G is greater than E. Moreover, God’s permitting E is a necessary condition for God’s compensating someone for suffering E, since God cannot compensate someone for something that didn’t happen. Therefore, G is obtainable by God only if God permits E.

So we don’t want to go for (1), since it’s too easy to find goods that are only obtainable given E if there is an afterlife.

The problem with this example is that while it is impossible for God to give G0 as compensation for E without E, God can give G0 gratuitously, and that seems to be just as good as giving it as compensation. The atheist who wants to argue for the existence of God should modify (1) as follows:

  1. E is gratuitous if and only if there is no greater or equal good G such that something at least as good as G is only obtainable by God if God permits E or something equal or worse.

But given (2), it is implausible to say that God couldn’t allow a gratuitous evil. Consider a case where Alice makes a slightly mean joke at Bob’s expense. She then repents, and asks Bob for forgiveness, who forgives. It is easy to imagine that the value of the repentance and forgiveness is greater than the disvalue of the joke, but just as the joke was a minor evil, the repentance and forgiveness are minor goods. It seems intuitively clear that the case of Alice’s slightly mean joke does not require any theodicy beyond what has just been said. Yet Alice’s joke appears to be a gratuitous evil according to (2).

For the goods in the previous paragraph are all minor goods. But God could create a major good without permitting any evil at all. For instance, God could create an infinite number of happy mathematicians who eternally enjoy the search for truth and who do not have the freedom to choose between good and evil, but must do good. That infinity of happy mathematicians would be a major good. But surely any minor good is less than any major good. Thus, if we let G be the minor goods of repentance and forgiveness in the previous paragraph, then something greater than G—namely, the infinite number of happy mathematicians—is obtainable by God without any evil at all. And hence the story in the previous paragraph isn’t enough to provide a theodicy, if (2) is the right account of gratuitous evils.

Maybe the solution is a very strong doctrine of incommensurability, on which the good of the infinitely many mathematicians is incommensurable with the goods of repentance and forgiveness even when the latter two are minor. But given such a strong doctrine of incommensurability, we can go back to my original compensation story. The problem I saw with that original story is that God could give G0 gratuitously and not as compensation, and I said that that would be at least as good. But given a strong doctrine of incommensurability, giving G0 gratuitously will be incommensurable with giving G0 as compensation for E. And, plausibly, any good that isn’t and instance of compensating for E or something at least as bad will be incommensurable with the good of compensating for E with G0. Thus, mere compensation will suffice for theodicy.

I am not comfortable with saying that mere compensation suffices for theodicy. But there is something to this idea.

Literature and science

I think we learn at least as much about ourselves as persons from literature as from science. This is surprising if physicalism is true.

Against the incredulous stare objection to our coming into existence at conception

There are two main kinds of arguments against abortion: Those based on the idea that we begin existing at conception and those based on the idea that personhood begins at conception.

One of the main objections to thinking that our existence begins at conception is the incredulous stare: How can that single cell be me?!

Here my recent geometrical observations about how I will be very small in almost every reference frames become relevant. Exactly the same argument establishes that in almost every reference frame, I start out really small. In almost every reference frame, I start out less than a nanometer in size (any non-zero size can be substituted here), and hence much smaller than a single cell.

Thus, it seems we are simply stuck with a counterintuitive result about what we are like at our beginning. Even if we don’t begin at conception, in almost all reference frames we begin as something much smaller than a single cell.

Can the geometrical observations show that personhood begins really small, too, and thereby undercut the incredulous stare at the idea that a single cell is a person?

Now, if we are essentially persons, given that by the previous argument we begin smaller than a cell, then indeed something smaller than a cell is a person.

So the remaining case to consider is views on which we are only accidentally persons, and we pre-exist our personhood. A typical view in this family will say that we are animals that come into existence at conception or implantation, and that about 1.5-2 years after our beginning, we come to have the property of personhood.

In the previous argument, I looked at the set K of all the spacetime locations of my body, and it followed that for almost every reference frame F, there was a time t in F and near my beginning such that the t-slice of me was really tiny. The obvious analog is to look at the set K* of all spacetime locations of my personal body—i.e., of my body at times at which I am a person—and repeat the argument. The problem with this move is that whether a spacetime location is within my body is intuitively independent of reference frame, but whether a spacetime location is within my personal body could more plausibly depend on the reference frame, if my 4D personal body is not all of my 4D body.

So at this point, I don’t have a version of my smallness argument against the view that to be a person I have to be big, when that view is coupled with the idea that I can exist without being a person.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

God's hiddenness

If God is closer to me than I am to myself, how can he be hidden from me?

But don't I learn from Hume that my self is also hidden from me?

Sunday, November 19, 2023

A variant on an argument of Unger

  1. In some ordinary reference frames, there are times at which I am less than a nanometer in size. 
  2. If I am fully material, I cannot ever be less than a nanometer in size in an ordinary reference frame.
  3. So, I am not fully material.
The same argument applies to dogs, fish and trees, and not just people. And I embrace that conclusion, since I think they all have form, and form is not material. But it is less of a bullet to bite to deny the existence of dogs, fish and trees than to deny one's own existence.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

I will be very small

I have a counterintuitive view that our bodies can be extremely defective, to the point that we can exist with a body that’s just a couple of atoms. But counterintuitive as this view is, I have an argument for it.

Start with this little geometric result about Minkowski spacetime. Think of a reference frame F as a maximal set of spacelike hyperplanes called F-times. If T is an F-time, and K is a region of spacetime, then the T-slice of K is the intersection of K and T.

Proposition. Let K be a bounded non-empty region of spacetime. The following is true for almost every reference frame F. For every ϵ > 0, there are F-times T1 and T2 less than ϵ apart, with the properties that (a) all of K is temporally before T2 (according to F), (b) the T1-slice of K is non-empty, and for any F-time T between T1 and T2 inclusive, and any two points w and z in the T-slice of K, the F-distance between w and z is less than ϵ.

(This follows from the result here. We can identify a reference frame with wthe future-facing unit normal vector of its times, and then “almost every” is understood with respect to the Lebesgue measure on the unit sphere.)

For simplicity, and as the approximation is surely appropriate, assume that special relativity is right. Let K be the four-dimensional region occupied by my body during my life. Assume K is bounded, which sure seems intuitively plausible (there are some quantum issues here which I will ignore for now). Then it follows from the Proposition that, according to almost every reference frame, there is a time T2 within a nanosecond of my death such that the T2-slice of my body (or the region K occupied by it) is less than a nanoneter in size.

So not only can I be really small, but I will be really small, according to most reference frames.

Autonomy and God

We have much in the way of autonomy rights against other people. Do we have autonomy rights against ourselves? I think so. There are ways of constraining our future selves that are contrary to our dignity.

Here is a thesis I find plausible:

  1. We have no autonomy rights against God.

Of course, and importantly, God has reasons for action based on the value of our autonomy. But I think it’s still true that these reasons are not going to be conclusive in the way that they would be if we had autonomy rights. (They might be conclusive in some other way, say if God promised us autonomy in some area. I take it that a right to have a promise fulfilled is not an autonomy right, perhaps pace Kant.)

Claim (1) seems to be a thesis about God’s authority. It paints a picture of God as an authoritarian being with infinite normative power, and the picture is not so attractive to modern sensibilities.

But I think there is a different way of thinking and feeling about (1). We can, instead, think of (1) as consequence of the ways that

  1. God is infinitely close to me—closer than I am to myself.

There are many ways in which I am “not that close to myself”. I am ignorant of much that goes on in me, even in my mind. I don’t love myself as much as I should. My future is murky and my past is fading. And, above all, I don’t have being in myself, but being by participation in another, God. God is closer to me than I am to myself. And a consequence of this closeness is that I have even less in the way of autonomy rights against God than I do against myself.

Related to (1) is an interesting hypothesis. Everyone agrees:

  1. God has infinite power.

It intuitively sounds plausible that:

  1. God has infinite normative power.

I am not sure what exactly (4) means, or how it is true. But doesn’t it sound right?

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A tweak to Bohmianism

I think there is a sense in which it is correct to say that:

  1. Bohmian quantum mechanics is only known to work empirically if we suppose that the initial configuration of the particles is fine-tuned.

Yet there are famous results that show that:

  1. For typical initial configurations, Bohmian quantum mechanics yields standard quantum Born rule predictions, which we know to work empirically.

It seems that (1) and (2) contradict each other. But that is not so. For the typicality in (2) is measured using a typicality measure Pψ defined in terms of the initial wavefunction ψ of the universe (specifically, I believe, Pψ(A) = ∫A|ψ(q)|2dq for an event A). And a configuration typical relative to Pψ1 need not be typical relative to Pψ2. In fact, if ψ1 and ψ2 are significantly different, then a Pψ1-typical configuration will be Pψ2-atypical.

The fine-tuning I am thinking of in (1) is thus that the initial configuration of particles needs to be fitted to the initial wavefunction ψ: a configuration typical for one wavefunction is not typical for another.

I think there is an interesting solution to the Bohmian fine-tuning which I haven’t heard discussed, either because it’s crazy or because maybe nobody else worries about this fine-tuning or maybe just because I don’t talk to philosophers of quantum mechanics enough. Suppose that the wavefunction of the universe (or, more precisely, the aspect of physical reality that is representated by the mathematics of the wavefunction) has a special causal power in the first moment of its existence, and only then: an indeterministic power to produce a particle configuration, with the power’s stochastic propensities being modeled by Pψ.

This adds a little bit of metaphysical complexity to the Bohmian story, but I think significantly increases the explanatory power in two ways: first, by giving us a proper stochastic ground for the statistic probabilities and, second, by unifying the cause of the initial particle configuration and the cause of the dynamics (admittedly at the expense of a complexity in that in that cause there is a causal power that goes away or becomes irrelevant).

(Maybe this is not necessary. Maybe there are, or can be, some typicality results that don’t require fine-tuning to the initial wavefunction. Or maybe I just misunderstand the framework of the typicality results. I don’t know much about Bohmianism.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

A curious but common art form

A curious art form that blends nature with artifice is endemic in our culture, and likely a cultural universal. Many people modify their bodies (e.g., muscle building, hair-styling, etc.) and then combine them in harmonious ways with other physical objects attached to the body, such as paint, clothing, jewelry, etc., deliberately to create a work of art that is a hybrid of a living thing and typically (but not always) non-living accessories.

A large proportion of our population engages in this art form on a daily basis, but I don’t know a good name for the works of this art in the languages I know. We have two English words that come close, “fashion” and “cosmetics”, but both are specific to aspects of the art rather than the work as a whole. We might try to explain this odd lack by saying that there is a sense in which the work is the person (for, after all, normally when we imagine a person, we imagine them accoutred). We might call the art form "anthropocosmetique", using the archaic spelling to hearken back etymologically to earlier English uses (evoking shades of Bulwer's use of "cosmetique" and his specific contexts) that may be closer to the Greek roots, but also emphasizing the human component in the work.

An interesting feature of the works of anthropocosmetique art is their diachronic character. They are often created for a specific occasion—a day, a party, a liturgical celebration—and disassembled into their constituents afterwards, typically without any feeling that one has destroyed something of great value in disassembly.

At the same time, some people engage in a larger art form, one spread over multiple occasions, consisting of sequences of the anthropocosmetique art, with similarities and differences from occasion to occasion in the particular works of each occasion being aesthetically relevant perhaps in something like the way that themes and variations are the warp and weft (not respectively) of music.

Sometimes there is a melding between the anthropocosmetique and other art forms, especially performance arts like dance.

And another curious fact is that many of the most famous works of fine art are actually meta-art: they are themselves portrayals of the works of the anthropocosmetique art.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Aquinas on per se and accidentally ordered causal series

Famously, Aquinas thinks that an accidentally ordered infinite causes is possible, but a per se ordered one is not. The difference is that in a per se ordered series ..., A−2, A−1, A0, item An − 1 (for n <  − 1) is not only the cause of An, but is the cause of An’s causing of An + 1. But in an accidentally ordered series, An − 1 is not the cause of An’s causing of An + 1. Aquinas illustrates the distinction with a sequence of an infinite sequence of fathers and sons, since a grandfather is not the cause of the father’s conceiving of a son.

Now suppose we replace the people in Aquinas’s example with self-reproducing robots (von Neumann machines), each programmed by its predecessor to reproduce. Then we have a per se ordered series.

The following seems to me to be very plausible:

  1. If a backwards infinite reproductive series of humans is possible, a backwards infinite reproductive series of robots is also possible.

Yet this seems to be something that Aquinas is committed to by his example of the accidentally ordered series.

Suppose one bites the bullet and denies (1). What is the relevant difference between the humans and the robots? It is presumably the determinism in the robots. Very well, then let’s suppose that each of the robots has a little hidden switch whose position is permanently set at the time of manufacturing. When the switch is in the D position, the robot is determined to reproduce at specific points in its life; when it is in the N position, at those points in its life, the robot performs an internal indeterministic quantum coin flip, reproducing on heads but not on tails.

It seems absurd to suppose that one could have a backwards infinite reproductive series of robots with the switches in the N position, but not in the D position. Yet that implausible conclusion seems to be what Aquinas’s position commits him to.

Here a suggestion for what Aquinas could do.

Aquinas thinks there is a very good metaphysical argument for rejecting backwards infinite per se ordered series. Suppose that argument is sound. Then Aquinas could say that this argument does not apply to the accidentally ordered case. But nonetheless there is a good argument based on a rearrangement principle or a principle of modal uniformity that:

  1. If a backwards infinite series of robots with the switch in the N position is possible, so is a backwards infinite series of robots with the switch in the D position.

  2. If a backwards infinite series of humans is possible, a backwards infinite series of robots with the switch in the N position is possible.

Given the impossibiliy of the series with the switch in the D position, it follows that the the backwards infinite sequence of humans is impossible. Aquinas can then simply say that he was wrong about his example (something that he is willing to concede anyway, due to an argument from al Ghazali specifically against an backwards infinite sequence of humans). But nothing in Aquinas’s theory commits him to the claim that every describable accidentally ordered backwards infinite sequence is possible. (An accidentally ordered backwards infinite sequence of square circles is not possible.)

At this point, Aquinas can do one of three things. First, he can say that while the backwards infinite sequence of humans or N-robots is impossible, we should remain agnostic whethere there are some backwards infinite accidentally ordered sequences are possible.

Second, he can give a plausibilistic argument that if the backwards infinite sequence of N-robots is impossible, probably all accidentally ordered backwards infinite sequences are impossible as well. (One might think this would require Aquinas to reject the possibility of an infinite past. This is not clear. He might still hold that an infinite past is possible as long as it doesn’t generate a backwards infinite causal sequence—imagine that every day in the past God creates a rock so far apart from all the other rocks that the rocks never interact).

Third, Aquinas could try to construct a new example of a backwards infinite accidentally ordered series that is possible. My intuition is that the best bet for trying to do this would be to construct a backwards infinite sequence where each item gets only a very slight causal contribution from its predecessor, and most of the explanation of the item’s existence involves God or some other single timeless being.

I myself like the second option.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

It's official! Fastest mile on a climbing wall (male) record

 Guinness has just approved my record from July for fastest mile on an indoor climbing wall (male), officially at 1:42:57.95. For technical details and links to video, see my writeup from July.

Thinking about this made me realize just how much this was a team effort. I am grateful to everyone who made this possible, especially:

  • My family for encouragement and patience with me over the summer as I trained for this.
  • Benjamin Sadler doing the official measurements of the route, correcting for the angle of inclination.
  • Mitchell Minyard and Libby Regnerus for being witnesses for the route measurement.
  • Madelyn Hayden, Dominic Pruss and Gabriella Williams for being in charge of my safety during the attempt and/or outside-of-regular-Rock-hours training sessions.
  • Rock staff for watching out for my safety during regular hours, for extending the route so that 112 climbs would be enough for a mile, and constant encouragement.
  • Rich Eva and Libby Regnerus for spending 1¾ hours of their Saturday holding stopwatches to provide an official time.
  • Mitchell Minyard and Gabriella Williams for witnessing the attempt and working hard to log the start and end times of each of 112 climbs. 
  • Gym management staff Rachel Burduroglu, Zac Huston and Cody Schrank for much encouragement, practical help, patience with many requests, and especially allowing me to use the facility outside of hours.
  • The audience (notably including President Linda Livingstone and First Gentleman Brad Livingstone) for their great encouragement.
  • All the members of the Baylor rock climbing community for being such a welcoming community over the past eight years, and having taught me pretty much all I know about climbing.
  • Baylor Moody Media Lab for lending me equipment for recording the attempt.
  • And Guinness World Records for patiently answering all my nitpicking questions and taking the time to review a massive amount of evidence in a fair and trustworthy way.

Exhibiting character flaws

Take a science fiction movie scenario. Carl is trapped near a device set to explode, and cannot be freed until too late. However, it is possible to go and defuse the device. Unfortunately, getting to the bomb requires going through a tunnel where one will get a dose of radiation that will result in severe injury within a day.

Alice and Bob are bystanders with no special obligations to the trapped people. They also know what effects the radiation would have on them. If Alice went, she would permanently lose her eyesight. If Bob went, he would lose his eyesight and his mobility. In both cases, their life would be worth living, and both agree that the injuries would be better than dying. I assume (if not, ratchet up their prospective injuries) that it would be be praiseworthy but not obligatory for either Alice or Bob to go rescue Carl.

Alice then puts enormous effort into trying to persuade Bob to go and defuse the device, vividly describing to them the terror that Carl is feeling, the joy on the faces of Carl’s children if he are rescued, and gives an excellent account of how the exercise of heroic virtue is the most important thing in life, far more valuable than sight and mobility. All of this falls a little bit flat given that Alice has no inclination to go herself, which would be even better objectively speaking. When asked by Bob the natural question of why she doesn’t do it herself, she just says: “I am not obligated to, and while I could, I choose not to sacrifice my life for this guy I don’t know. But it would be really good if you did.”

What Alice is doing seems to be the second best of three options. The best thing would be to go defuse the device herself. The least good would be to do nothing. Persuading Bob to go is second best, since if Bob goes, instead of a person dying, a person loses sight and mobility.

Yet I feel that even though Alice isn’t doing anything wrong, her actions are a manifestation of a particularly bad character. While there is nothing immoral about trying to persuade someone else to make a greater sacrifice than one you are willing to make, there is some kind of a serious character flaw here, and that flaw is being exhibited in the action, even though the action is a good one.

Cases like this make me suspicious of virtue ethics. Manifesting character flaws is different from acting wrongly.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Types of reasons

There are two ways of drawing a distinction between moral and epistemic reasons:

  1. What kind of value grounds the reasons (epistemic or moral).

  2. What kind of thing are the reasons reasons for (e.g., beliefs vs. actions).

If we take option (1), then there will be epistemic reasons not merely for beliefs, but for actions. Thus, the scientist will have epistemic reasons for doing a particularly informative experiment and the teacher may have epistemic reasons for engaging the students in a certain didactically beneficial group activity—i.e., in both cases, epistemic goods (to self and/or others) justify the action.

I like option (2). Moral reasons are reasons for action, while epistemic reasons are reasons for having a belief or credence or the like.

Here are some reasons for not drawing a distinction between reasons for action in terms of the kind of value as in (1).

First, we would morally admire someone who sacrificed a well-paying and easy career option to become a science teacher at an inner city school in order to pass the gift of knowledge to students. In other words, our admiration for someone who at significant personal cost promotes an epistemic value (by otherwise morally upstanding means) is moral.

Second, if we distinguish moral and epistemic reasons for action, consider conflicts. We would have to say that a scientist may have moral reasons to come home on time to feed her hungry children, and epistemic reasons to complete an experiment that cannot be done at another time. But now whether it is right to come home on time or to complete the experiment depends on the details. If the information gained from the experiment is unimportant while the experiment will take hours, and the kids are very hungry, coming home on time is right. But if the children are only very slightly hungry, and the experiment would only protract this hunger by a few minutes, while being extremely illuminating, staying a few minutes may well be the right thing to do.

Right in what way? Well, I think once again the kind of praise that we would levy on the scientist who balances their epistemic goals and their children’s needs well is moral praise. But then the moral praise does not always align with what I have been assuming are moral reasons for action. For we would not morally praise the scientist who neglects a short but extremely illuminating observation in order to make their children dinner a few minutes earlier. Such a scientist would have an insufficient love of epistemic goods. The scientist who hits the right balance is morally praiseworthy. Yet it is very odd to think that one is morally praiseworthy for subordinating moral reasons to non-moral ones!

If you’re not yet convinced by this case, consider one where the moral and non-moral goods are to the same person. A parent is explaining some very interesting matter of science to a child. The child would rather eat a few minutes earlier. If there really is a moral/epistemic reason distinction in actions, then the parent’s reasons for explaining are epistemic and the reasons for feeding are moral. But it could be morally praiseworthy to finish out the explanation.

Third, there are multiple kinds of non-epistemic good: health, virtue, appreciation, friendship, etc. The heterogeneity between them does not appear to be significantly less than that between all of them taken together and the epistemic goods. It seems that that if we are cutting nature at the joints, there is no reason to posit a particularly significant cut between the epistemic and non-epistemic goods. Instead, we should simply suppose that there is a variety of types of good, such as maybe health, virtue, beauty, friendship and understanding (and almost certainly others). All of these are alike in being goods, and different from each other as to the fundamental kind of good. To give the honorific “moral” to all of the ones on this list other than understanding seems quite arbitrary.

On the other hand, the distinction as to the type of thing that the reasons are reasons for does seem quite significant. Reasons for action and reasons for belief are quite different things because we respond, or fail to respond, to them quite differently: by willing and by believing, respectively.

It is interesting to ask this question. If the will has moral reasons, and the intellect has epistemic reasons, are there other faculties that have other reasons? Maybe. We can think of a reason R for ϕing in a faculty F as something that has a dual role:

  1. it tends to causally contributes to ϕing within F

  2. its presence (and causal contribution?) partially grounds ϕing counting as an instance of proper activity of F.

(Thus, reasons are causes-cum-justifiers.)

Are there things like that for other faculties F than will and intellect? Yes! The presence of a certain bacterium or virus may be a reason for the immune system to react in certain way. Humans thus have moral, epistemic and immune reasons, distinguished respectively by being reasons for the will, the intellect and the immune system. And there are doubtless many more (e.g., I expect there are reasons for all our sensory systems’ identifications of stimuli).

Some of these reasons are tied to specific types of goods. Thus, epistemic reasons are tied to epistemic goods, and immune reasons are tied to health goods. But moral reasons are different, in that action has a universality about it where any type of good—including epistemic and health ones—can ground a moral reason. And both epistemic and moral reasons tend to be different from immune reasons in that in the normal course of immune functioning we do not process them intellectually, while both epistemic and moral reasons are intellectually processed in normal use.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A slight tweak to the at-at theory of change

The at-at theory of change says:

  1. Change is things being one way at one time and another way at another time.

McTaggart complained that this was like saying a poker changes because it’s hot at one and end cold at the other. It seems that (1) just fails to capture the “dynamism” in change.

A slight modification to (1) takes care of these, and some other, problems.

  1. Change is things being one way at one time and another way at a later time.

You might think there is no real difference, because if there are two times, one must be later than the other. First, that’s not obvious, actually. In a Minkowski space-time, a time from one reference frame will be neither earlier nor later than a time from another reference frame.

But in any case, even if it were true that one time must be later than another, putting it in the definition makes a difference. First, McTaggart’s poker: one end isn’t earlier than the other! Second, dynamism: you can put all the dynamism you like in the “later”. You can say that t2 is later than t1 just in case at t1, t2 is future, is impending, is approaching, is a time of the actualization of a potential found at t1, etc. The dynamism all goes into the “later”.

Open futurism does not save free will

In yesterday’s post, I showed that if an open-futurist is impressed by a certain plausible-sounding logical fatalism argument based on bivalence, and hence opts for truth gaps, then they should also be impressed by another logical fatalism argument based not on bivalence but on truth gaps.

However, there was a weakness to my logical fatalism argument. It was based on the principle:

  1. If something true now is incompatible with it’s being true that p, then p is not within your power.

But perhaps our open futurist will deny (1) on the grounds that a present action can be within our power, even though it is presently true that we will do it. (I think this is a problematic concession for the open futurist to make, but let’s bracket that.) Such an open futurist will instead run arguments based on:

  1. If q is a past-tensed truth, and q is incompatible with p, then p is not within your power.

Well, here is perhaps a truth value gap counterexample to (2).

  • Alice freely ϕs at 5 pm.

  • At 1 pm it is true that no indeterministic events will happen between 2 and 4 pm.

(To get the second part, we can suppose that the laws of nature are such that they only allow indeterministic events after 4:30 pm each day, or maybe God just promises not to allow any indeterministic events between 2 and 4 pm.)

So, consider the following complicated past-tensed statement, which is true at 3 pm:

  • q: Two hours ago [i.e., at 1 pm], it was true that no indeterministic events would happen between an hour ago [2 pm] and an hour from now [4 pm], while half an hour ago [2:30 pm], it was neither true nor false that Alice freely ϕs at 5 pm.

Now, on the open futurist’s view, time-indexed propositions can only gain truth value as the result of indeterministic events. It logically follows from the ban on indeterministic events between 2 and 4 pm that any time-indexed proposition that was neither true nor false at 2:30, is also neither true nor false at 3 pm. Or to put it in a tensed way, q entails:

  1. It is neither true nor false that Alice ϕs at 5 pm.

But (3) is logically incompatible with Alice ϕing at 5 pm, since, necessarily, if Alice ϕs at 5 pm, then it’s true that Alice ϕs at 5 pm. Since q entails (3), it follows that:

  1. q is logically incompatible with Alice ϕing at 5 pm.

Hence it follows from (2) (since q is a past tensed truth) that at 3 pm it is true to say:

  1. It is not within Alice’s power that Alice ϕs at 5 pm.

Now, I said that “perhaps” this was a counterexample to (2). Besides objecting to the Tarski T-schema, there is one powerful response an open futurist can make. They can just embrace (5) and say: it’s only at 5 pm, or shortly prior to it, that it comes to be within Alice’s power to ϕ.

But I think the open futurist’s intuitions behind (2) also support:

  1. If q is a past-tensed truth and p is time-indexed, and q is incompatible with p, then p will never be within your power.

(The reason for the restriction to time-indexed p is to avoid this counterexample. Let q be the proposition that there was no wine in the world a minute ago. Let p be the proposition that you are drinking well-aged wine. Then p and q are incompatible. But if you make wine, and age it, then it can come to be the case that drinking well-aged wine is in your power.)

And now (4) and (6) imply:

  1. It will never be within Alice’s power that Alice ϕs at 5 pm,

which is just false in our story, since she does ϕ at 5 pm! (Alternate phrasing: replace “within Alice’s power” with “up to Alice”.)

What about open futurists who instead of supposing a truth value gap think that statements about contingent future events are all false? Well, such open futurists will not accept q (at 3 pm). But they will accept:

  • q′: Two hours ago [i.e., at 1 pm], it was true that no indeterministic events would happen between an hour ago [2 pm] and an hour from now [4 pm], while half an hour ago [2:30 pm], it was false that Alice freely ϕs at 5 pm.

Again, on their view, time-indexed propositions only change truth value when indeterministic events happen. Thus, q entails that presently (i.e., at 3 pm) it is still false that Alice freely ϕs at 5 pm. And the rest of my argument goes through.

So it pretty much seems like I’ve shown that the only person who can accept a principle like (6) is someone who doesn’t believe in the possibility of free will.

Maybe what this is really an argument for is that the open futurist needs to deny the T-schema, which I had used to argue that if something is incompatible with it’s being true that Alice will ϕ at 5 pm, then it’s incompatible with Alice ϕing at 5 pm. Some open futurists do do that (Keith DeRose, for instance; I wonder now: do they do it because of an argument like this one?)

I have to confess a nagging suspicion of an error somewhere. I already found one that I just corrected—I had to restrict (6) to time-indexed truths, which forced me to remove an argument that would work even without the T-schema.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Does denying bivalence get us out of the logical argument for fatalism?

Consider this seemingly standard argument for logical fatalism.

  1. It is true that you will ϕ or it is true that you will not ϕ.

  2. If something true now is incompatible with it’s being true that p, then p is not within your power.

  3. If you are free with respect to ϕing, then it is within your power that you will ϕ and it is within your power that you not ϕ.

  4. That you will ϕ and that you will not ϕ are incompatible.

  5. So, if it is true that you will ϕ, then it is not within your power that you will not ϕ. (2, 4)

  6. So, if it is true that you will ϕ, then you are not free with respect to ϕing. (3, 5)

  7. Also, if it is true that you will not ϕ, then it is not within your power that you will ϕ. (2, 4)

  8. So, if it is true that you will not ϕ, then you are not free with respect to ϕing. (3, 7)

  9. So, you are not free with respect to ϕing. (1, 8)

Many open futurists want to refute arguments for logical fatalism by supposing that in cases of freedom, that you will ϕ is indeterminate (and hence neither true nor false), and that you will not ϕ is also indeterminate, which allows them to deny premise 1 of the above argument.

But now consider this argument.

  1. It is now indeterminate that you will ϕ.

  2. Necessarily, p if and only if it is true that p.

  3. So, it is true that it is now indeterminate that you will ϕ. (10, 11)

  4. That it is indeterminate that you will ϕ and that it is true you will ϕ are incompatible.

  5. That it is indeterminate that you will ϕ and that you will ϕ are incompatible. (11, 13)

  6. If something true now is incompatible with it’s being true that p, then p is not within your power.

  7. If you are free with respect to ϕing, then it is within your power that you will ϕ.

  8. So, that you will ϕ is not within your power. (10, 14, 15)

  9. So, you are not free with respect to ϕing.

Premise 15 of this argument is the same as premise 2 of the first argument. Premise 16 is an even less controversial version of premise 3. So anybody who is impressed by the first argument will be impressed by premises 15 and 16. Premise 13 is obviously true, and is an immediate consequence of the fact that a proposition that is indeterminate is neither true nor false.

Premise 11 is the plausible Tarski T-schema (necessitated, because we can think of the T-schema as an axiom). It has been questioned, but it is still very plausible.

Finally, premise 10 is a commitment of our open futurist.

So, unless our open futurist denies the T-schema, the supposition of indeterminacy leads to fatalism just as determinacy did!

Suppose we deny the T-schema. Nonetheless, even without the T-schema to back them up, 12 and 14 are still plausible as they stand, and so we still have a pretty plausible argument for fatalism, at least one that should be plausible by the open futurist’s lights.

I am not an open futurist. I just get out of the arguments by denying 2 and 15. Easy.