Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Harmonizing with nature

Living in harmony with nature can be understood in many ways. Here are two:

  1. Living in a way that protects and repairs non-human aspects of nature.

  2. Living in a way that harmonizes and accords with our own human nature.

The second mode of harmony with nature implies the first at least to some degree, because the nature of each organism—including humans—involves a degree of harmonization with the rest of the environment. But only to some degree. A species can do a great deal of damage to competing species by simply following out the dictates of its nature—its success can imply the failure of others. Still, our own nature probably calls on a fair amount of stewardship of surrounding nature, so the second mode implies quite a bit of the first mode.

The first mode of harmony with nature is more consequentialist than the second. While the second is focused on living a certain way that is not primarily defined in terms of consequences but in terms of accord with our own nature, the first is focused on consequences to non-human nature. Nonetheless, the first mode still implies a certain degree of the second, in that improving our natural surroundings often is an imperative of our nature.

At the same time, the second mode has implications the first does not. For instance, some forms of transhumanism fit very well with the first mode but none fit with the second mode. It might turn out that a version of the singularity—us all getting digitized and then run in a computer—is good for the non-human aspects of nature, because a computer simulation of our lives might turn out to have much lower energy costs than our meaty existence. Similarly, mass sterilization of humans might be good for non-human aspects of nature, but does not accord with our nature.

One might think of certain agrarian movements as instances of the second mode of harmony, though I do not think the second mode requires agrarianism.

Eucharist talk and other YouTube things

I just noticed that a talk I gave on the Eucharist is available on YouTube. And there is a convenient playlist of a number of talks I've given.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Asserting without intending to

Intention seems essential to assertion. Thus, it seems that a necessary condition for assertion is an intention condition like:

  1. I intended my utterance u to be an assertion to you.

But this is false. Suppose that I have promised to mail you my report on some matter. But now it has turned out that the matter is such that I want to keep it secret from you. I don’t want to lie or break my promise. So I identify the world’s least reliable postal service, determine that there is only a 15% chance that mail from there will get through, fly to that country, and mail my report. My promise is (legalistically) kept, and yet there is a 85% chance that the secret is safe. But, alas, the mail gets through. The contents of the report have, thus, been asserted to you. But if the report had not got through, then I wouldn’t have asserted the contents, and since that was my plan, I didn’t intend to assert.

The only solution I have is clunky. We might say that there are multiple necessary conditions for assertion. One is the intention condition, which we are right now trying to get clear on. Another is a transmission condition, namely that the assertion “get to you”. I am not quite sure what is required for that. The paradigmatic case is when you “hear the assertion as an assertion”. But what about edge cases, like when you speak to me, and I am distracted and don’t process it, or it’s in a letter which I tear up without reading? I am inclined to think that that could be an assertion. But not if I am in the next room and the noise level is such that any reasonable person would know I wouldn’t hear it, or if the letter was lost in the mail before “getting to me”.

It now seems like the intention condition for assertion would be something conditional like:

  1. I intended that if u satisfied the transmission condition on assertion to you, then u was an assertion to you.

All that said, while (2) may be true, it can’t be a part of the definition of assertion, since it uses “assertion” in the definiens.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Moral fetishism and intentional aiming

For a long time I’ve had an odd fascination with cases where you have to intentionally aim at something that is neither your end nor a means to your end. The first case to come to my mind was something like this: Let’s say you want to send a nerve signal from your brain to your forearm (e.g., maybe you are hooked up to a device that detects these nerve signals and dispenses chocolate covered almonds). What do you? You wiggle your fingers! Wiggling your fingers, however, is not your end. But neither is it a means to the sending of the nerve signals. On the contrary, the nerve signals are the cause of the finger motions. But you can’t directly aim at the nerve signals, so you have to aim at finger wiggling instead.

A more ordinary kind of case I’ve found is follow-through in racquet sports, where you continue racquet motion after hitting the ball (or shuttle), because your brain will make the swing weaker at the time of contact unless you’re trying to continue the movement after the swing. But there is no point to the movement after the time of contact—the ball isn’t somehow magically steered by the racquet once it no longer touches it. So the movement of the racquet after impact is neither means nor end.

Outside weird laboratory setups and some sports cases, it is hard to think of cases of this odd phenomenon where one takes aim at an action that one neither instrumentally or finally cares about. But I’ve just realized a very interesting application. There is a philosophical literature about what people call “moral fetishism”. Those who push this line of thought think that there is something wrong with aiming your actions specifically at rightness of action, instead of at the thick reasons (your friend’s need, your promise, etc.) that make the action right.

Now, I think there are cases where you need to aim at rightness. The cases that come to mind are ones where you need to rely on a moral expert to figure out what is the right thing to do and why. One family of cases is where you are a small child and are relying on parental authority. Another is when you are a medical professional, are dealing with a morally complex case, and are relying on the advice of an ethics committee. And probably the most common case is when you are a religious believer and you are relying on what you take to be divine revelation about what is right (a different case is where you are a believer and are relying on supposed revelation about what is commanded by God). One may take these cases to be a refutation of the objections to moral fetishism, since in these cases one may be driven to pursue rightness by genuine conscientiousness rather than by any fetishism.

However, over the last couple of days I’ve realized that there may be a way of acting in these cases in a way that gives the objectors to moral fetishism what they want—and that I actually rather like this way of acting in the cases. When an action is right, there are reasons why it is right. In straightforward cases, we can easily say what these are: it helps a friend in need, it fulfills a promise, etc. But the cases in the previous paragraph are ones where the agent cannot give these reasons. Nonetheless, these reasons exist, and the adviser is thought to have them.

We can now imagine that the agent aims at rightness not because the agent values rightness in and of itself, but because the agent values the thick but unknown reasons for which the action is right. This could be rather like the finger-wiggling and racquet-sport cases. For it could be that just as the agent doesn’t care about the finger-wiggling and follow-through as an end, and neither is a means to what the agent cares about, similarly the agent doesn’t care about the rightness, and the rightness is not a means to what the agent cares about, by aiming at rightness the agent gets what they do care about, which is acting in accordance with thick (but unknown) reasons. Furthermore, like in the finger-wiggling case, the thing one really cares about—the nerve signal or the satisfaction of thick reasons—is explanatorily prior to the thing one aims at. (The follow-through case is a bit more complicated; probably what aims at is a whole swing, of which the good hit is a part, so the good hit is a part of the whole swing and in that way prior to it.)

It may help to think about a specific moral theory. Suppose utilitarianism is correct, and one has a moral oracle that tells one what the right action is, and one acts on the deliverances of this oracle. One need not care about the rightness of these actions—but they are right if and only if they maximize utility, and it is the utility maximization one cares about.

Thus in the case where one relies on testimony to do what is right, but one cares about rightness because one cares about the values that rightness yields, one is no more and no less a rightness fetishist than the typical racquet-sport coach is a follow-through fetishist. But in any case, what is going on is not problematic.

All that said, I think caring about rightness as such to some degree is also appropriate. That’s because one should care about oneself, and acting rightly is good for one.

Monday, March 20, 2023

A flip side to omnirationality

Suppose I do an action that I know benefits Alice and harms Bob. The action may be abstractly perfectly justified, but if I didn’t take into account the harm to Bob, if I didn’t treat the harm to Bob as a reason against the action in my deliberation, then Bob would have a reason to complain about what my deliberation if he somehow found out. If I was going to perform the action, I should have performed it despite the harm to Bob, rather than just ignoring the harm to Bob. I owed it to Bob not to ignore him, even if I was in the end going to go with the benefit to Alice.

But suppose that I am perfectly virtuous, and the action is one that I owed Alice in a way that constituted a morally conclusive reason for the action. (The most plausible case will be where the action is a refraining from something absolutely wrong.) Once I see that I have morally conclusive reason for the action, it seems that taking other reasons into account is a way of toying with violating the conclusive reason, and that kind of toying is not compatible with perfect virtue.

Still, the initial intuition has some pull. Even if I have an absolute duty to do what I did for Alice, I should be doing it despite the harm to Bob, rather than just ignoring the harm to Bob. I don’t exactly know what it means not to just ignore the harm to Bob. Maybe in part it means being the sort of person who would have been open to avoiding the action if the reasons for it weren’t morally conclusive?

If I stick to the initial intuition, then we get a principle of perfect deliberation: In perfect deliberation, the deliberator does not ignore any reasons—or, perhaps, any unexcluded reasons—against the action one eventually chooses.

If this is right, then it suggests a kind of a flip side to divine omnirationality. Divine omnirationality says that when God does something, he does it for all the unexcluded reasons that favor it.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Paternalistically enhancing autonomy

Sometimes you are about to tell someone something, and they say: “I don’t want to hear about it.” Yet in some cases, the thing one wanted to tell them is actually rationally relevant to a decision they need to make, and without the information their decision will be less truly theirs.

Imagine, for instance, you have a friend who needs an organ transplant and is planning to travel to China to get the organ transplant. You start to tell them that you read that China engages (or at least recently engaged) in forced organ harvesting among executed prisoners, but they try to shut you up. Yet you keep on speaking. In doing so, you are being paternalistic, but your paternalism enables them to make a more truly informed, and hence autonomous, decision.

It sounds strange to think of paternalism as supporting autonomy, but if we think of autonomy in a Kantian way as tied to genuine rationality, rather than in a shallow desire-fulfillment way, then we will realize that a person can (e.g., through deliberate ignorance) act against their own autonomy, and there may be room for a healthy paternalism in restoring them to autonomy against their own desires. This kind of thing should be rare (except in the case of literal parents!), but it is also the kind of thing friends need to do for friends at times.

Defining deceit

A plausible definition of deceit is an action aiming to get someone to believe something one takes to be false.

But I wonder if that’s right. Here are two possible counterexamples.

  1. Socratic conversation: One of my students believes some proposition p that I take to be false. Through Socratic questioning, I attempt to get the student to draw the natural conclusion q from p. Even if I take q to be false, it doesn’t seem I am deceiving my student.

  2. Mitigation of error: Suppose that Alice believes Bob to be culpable for some enormity. You know that Bob never committed the enormity, but you also know it’s hopeless to try to convince Alice of this. But you think you have some hope showing Alice that instead of her evidence supporting the claim that Bob is culpable for the enormity, it only supports the claim that Bob has inculpably committed enormity. You show this to Alice, in the hope that she will come to believe Bob to have innocently committed the enormity, even though that is also false.

In both cases, one is working along with the evidence available to one’s interlocutor. It seems that deception requires one to get someone to believe something true by means of hiding or masking the truth. And here there is no such thing going on. There is nothing underhanded. In both cases, for instance, it would be quite possible for the other party to know what one is really thinking about the case. I need not hide from the student that I disagree with q and you need not hide from Alice that you don’t think Bob committed the enormity at all.

We can add an underhandedness condition to the account of deceit, but I don’t exactly know what underhandedness is.

It is well-known that defining lying is tricky. It looks like defining deceit is also tricky.

Highlighted outcome structures

In the previous two posts, I have been arguing that seeing action as pursuing ends does not capture all of the richness of the directed structure of action.

Here is my current alternative to the end-based approach. Start with the idea of a “highlighted outcome structure”, which is a partial ordering ≤ on the set O of possible outcomes together with a distinguished subset S of O with the property that if x ∈ S and y ∈ O and x ≤ y, then y ∈ S. The idea is that x ≤ y means one pursues y at least as much as x, and that one’s action is successful provided that one gets an outcome in S.

To a first approximation, directed action is action aligned along a highlighted outcome structure. But that doesn’t quite capture all the phenomena. For one might aim along a non-existent outcome structure. For instance, I may mistakenly think there is such a borogrove, and seek to know about borogroves, the more the better, but in fact the word “borogrove” is nonsense, and there is no set of outcomes corresponding to different degrees of knowledge about borogroves.

So, at least to a second approximation, direction action is action aligned along a conception of a highlighted outcome structure. Ideally, there actually is a highlighted outcome structure that fits the conception.

Note that this allows for the following interesting phenomenon: one can defer to another person with regard to a highlighted outcome structure. Thus, a Christian might pursue the structure that God has in mind for one, and do so as such.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

More on directed activity without ends

In my previous post I focused on how the phenomenon of games with score undercuts the idea that activity is for an end, for some state of affairs that one aims to achieve. For no matter how good one’s score, one was aiming beyond that.

I want to consider an objection to this. Perhaps when one plays Tetris, one has an infinite number of ends:

  • Get at least one point.

  • Get at least two points.

  • Get at least three points.

  • ….

And similarly if one is running a mile, one has an infinite number of ends, namely for each positive duration t, one aims to run the miles in at most t.

My initial worry about this suggestion was that it has the implausible consequence that no matter how well one does, one has failed to achieve infinitely many ends. Thus success is always muted by failure. In the Tetris case, in fact, there will always be infinitely many failures and finitely many successes. This seemed wrong to me. But then I realized it fits with phenomenology to some degree. In these kinds of cases, when one comes to the end of the game, there may always be a slight feeling of failure amidst success—even when one breaks a world record, there is the regret that one didn’t go further, faster, better, etc. Granted, the slightness of that feeling doesn’t match the fact that in the Tetris case one has always failed at infinitely many ends and succeeded only at finitely many. But ends can be prioritized, and it could be that the infinitely many ends have diminishing value attached to them (compare the phenomenon of the “stretch goal”), so that even though one has failed at infinitely many, the finitely many one has succeeded at might outweigh them (perhaps the weights decrease exponentially).

So the game cases can, after all, be analyzed in the language of ends. But there are other cases that I think can’t. Consider the drive to learn about something. First, of course, note that our end is not omniscience—for if that were our end, then we would give up as soon as we realized it was unachievable. Now, some of the drive for learning involves known unknowns: there are propositions p where I know what p is and I aim to find out if p is true. This can be analyzed by analogy with the the infinitely-many-ends account of games with score: for each such p, I have an end to find out whether p. But often there are unknown unknowns: before I learn about the subject, I don’t even know what the concepts and questions are, so I don’t know what propositions I want to learn about. I just want to learn about the subject.

We can try to solve this by positing a score. Maybe we let my score be the number of propositions I know about the subject. And then I aim to have a score of at least one, and a score of at least two, and a score of at least three, etc. That’s trivial pursuit, not real learning, though. Perhaps, then, we have a score where we weight the propositions by their collective importance, and again I have an infinite number of ends. But in the case of the really unknown unknowns, I don’t even know how to quantify their importance, and I have no concept of the scale the score would be measured on. Unlike in the case of games, I just may not even know what the possible scores are.

So in the case of learning about a subject area, we cannot even say that we are positing an infinite number of ends. Rather, we can say that our activity has a directedness—to learn more, weighted by importance—but not an end.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Of Tetris, ends, and the beatific vision

Suppose I am playing Tetris seriously. What am I aiming at?

It’s not victory: one cannot win Tetris.

A good score, yes. But I wouldn’t stop playing after reaching a good score. So a merely good score isn’t all I am aiming at. An excellent score? But, again, even if I achieved an excellent score, I wouldn’t stop, so it’s not all I am aiming for. A world-record score? But I wouldn’t stop as soon as my score exceeded the record. An infinite score? But then I am aiming at an impossibility.

A phrase we might use is: “I am trying to get the best score I can.” But while that is how we speak, it doesn’t actually describe my aim. For consider what “the best score I can get” means. Does the “can” take into account my current skill level or not? If it does take into account my skill level, then I could count as having achieved my end despite getting a really miserable score, as long as that maxed out my skills. And that doesn’t seem right. But if it does not take into account my current skill level, but rather is the most that it could ever be possible for me, then it seems I am aiming at something unrealistic—for my current skill level falls short of what I “can” do.

What is true of Tetris is true of many other games where one’s aims align with a score. In some of these games there is such a thing as victory in addition to score. Thus, while one can time one’s runs and thus have just a score, typical running races include victory and a time, and sometimes both enter into the runner’s aims. This is not true of all games: some, like chess, only have victory (positions can be scored, but the scores are only indicative of their instrumentality for victory).

It’s worth noting that a score can be either absolute, such as time in running, and relative, such as one’s place among the finishers. In the case of place among finishers, one may be aiming for victory—first place—but one need not be. One might, for instance, make a strategic decision that one has no realistic hope for first place, and that aiming at first place will result in a poorer placement than simply aiming to “place as well as one can” (bearing in mind that this phrase is misleading, as already mentioned).

Insofar as aims align with a score, we can say that we have directed activity, but there seems to be no end, so the activity is not end-directed. We might want to say that the score is the “end”, but that would be misleading, since an end is a state you are aiming at. But typically you are not just aiming at the state of having a score—in Tetris, you get a score no matter what you do, though it might be zero. In timed fixed-distance sports, you need to finish the distance to have a time, and for some endurance races that in itself is a serious challenge, though for “reasonable” distances finishing is not much of an accomplishment.

I think what we should say is that in these activities, we have a direction, specified by increasing score, but not an end. The concept of a direction is more general than that of an end. Wherever there is an end, there is a direction defined by considering a score which is 1 if one achieves the end and 0 if one fails to do so.

So far all my examples were games. But I think the distinction between direction and end applies in much more important cases, and helps make sense of many phenomena. Consider our pursuits of goods such as health and knowledge. Past a certain age, perfect health is unachievable, and hence is not what one is aiming at. But more health is always desirable. And at any age, omniscience is out of our grasp, but more knowledge is worth having. Thus the pursuits of health and knowledge are examples of directed but not always end-directed activities. (Though, often, there are specific ends as well: the amelioration of a specific infirmity or learning the answer to a specific question.)

(Interesting question for future investigation: What happens to the maxim that the one who wills the end wills the means in the case of directed but not end-directed activity? I think it’s more complicated, because one can aim in a direction but not aim there at all costs.)

I think the above puts is in a position to make progress on a very thorny problem in Thomistic theology. The beatific vision of God is supremely good for us. But at the same time, it is a supernatural good, one that exceeds our nature. Our nature does not aim at this end, since for it to aim at this end, it would need to have the end written into itself, but its very possibility is a revealed mystery. Our desire for the beatific vision is itself a gift of God’s grace. But if our nature does not aim at the beatific vision, then it seems that the beatific vision does not fulfill us. For our nature’s aims specify what is good for us.

However, we can say this. Our nature directs us in the direction of greater knowledge and greater love of the knowable and the lovable. It does not limit that directedness to natural knowledge and love, but at the same time it does not direct us to supernatural knowledge and love as such. As far as we naturally know, it might be that natural knowledge and love is all that’s possible, and if so, we need go no further. But in fact God’s grace makes the beatific vision possible. The beatific vision is in the direction of greater knowledge and love from all our natural knowledge and love, and so it fulfills us—even though our nature has no concept of it.

Imagine that unbeknownst to me, a certain sequence of Tetris moves, which one would only be able to perform with the help of Alexey Pajitnov, yields an infinite score. Then if I played Tetris with Pajitnov’s help and I got that infinite score, I would be fulfilled in my score-directed Tetris-playing. However, it would also be correct that if I didn’t know about the possibility of the infinite score, it wasn’t an end I was pursuing. Nonetheless, it is fulfilling because it is objectively true that this score lies in the direction that I was pursuing.

Similarly, our nature, as it were, knows nothing of the beatific vision, but it directs us in a direction where in fact the beatific vision lies, should God’s grace make it possible for us.

This also gives a nice explanation of the following related puzzle about the beatific vision. When one reads what the theologians say about the beatific vision, it appears attractive to us. That attractiveness could be the result of God’s grace, but it is psychologically plausible that it would appear attractive even without grace. The idea of a loving union of understanding with an infinite good just is very attractive to humans. But how can it be naturally attractive to us when it exceeds our nature? The answer seems to me to be that we can naturally know that if the beatific vision is possible, it lies in the direction we are aimed at. But, absent divine revelation, we don’t know if it is possible. And, trivially, it’s only a potential fulfillment of our nature—i.e., a good for us to seek—if it is possible.

Does this mean that we should reject the language of “end” with respect to the beatific vision? Yes and no. It is not an end in the sense of something that our nature aims at as such. But it is an end in the sense that it is a supreme achievement in the direction at which our nature aims us. Thus it seems we can still talk about it as a supernatural end.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Divine desire ethical theories are false

On divine desire variants of divine command ethics, necessarily an action is right just in case it accords with God’s what God wants.

But it seems:

  1. Necessarily, if God commands an action, the action is right.

  2. Possibly, God commands an action but does not want one to do it.

Given (1) and (2), divine desire ethics is false.

I think everyone (and not just divine command theorists) should agree about (1): it is a part of the concept of God that he is authorative in such a way that whatever he commands is right.

What about (2)? Well, consider a felix culpa case where a great good would come from obedience to God and an even greater one would come from disobedience, and in the absence of a command one would have only a tiny good. Given such a situation, God could command the action. However, it seems that a perfectly good being’s desires are perfectly proportioned to the goods involved. Thus, in such a situation, God would desire that one disobey.

This is related to the important conceptual point about commands, requests and consentings that these actions can go against the characteristic desires that go with them. In the case of a human being, when there is a conflict between what a human wants and what the human commands, requests or consents to, typically it is right to go with what is said, but sometimes there is room for paternalistically going with the underlying desire (and sometimes we rightly go against both word and desire). But paternalism to God is never right.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Another argument for animals in heaven

  1. All embodied humans are animals.

  2. Some embodied humans will be in heaven.

  3. So, there are animals in heaven.

But of course given the subject heading, you were likely interested whether there are non-human animals in heaven. That, too, can be argued for on the basis of the fact that we are animals.

  1. The complete fulfillment of an animal requires it to be in an appropriate ecosystem.

  2. Humans are animals.

  3. An ecosystem appropriate to humans includes plants and non-human animals.

  4. After the resurrection, the human beings in heaven will be completely fulfilled.

  5. Thus, the human beings in heaven will be among plants and non-human animals.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Are there animals in heaven?

This argument is not a complete answer to the question, but is a start:
  1. It is unlikely that all non-human earth animals will go extinct before the Second Coming.

  2. It is unfitting that the Second Coming be a time where all non-human earth animals go extinct.

  3. What is unfitting is unlikely.

  4. So, it is likely that some non-human earth animals will survive the Second Coming.

Thomism and presentism

According to Thomism:

  1. That I exist is explanatorily prior to all the other facts about me.


  1. That yesterday I safely crossed a street is explanatorily prior to the fact that I presently exist.

  2. If presentism is true, the fact that I presently exist is the same fact as that I exist.

  3. There are no circles of explanatorily priority.

  4. That yesterday I safely crossed a street is a fact about me.

It logically follows from these that:

  1. Presentism is not true.

(For from 2 and 3, if presentism is true, that I safely crossed a street is prior to the fact that I exist. But by 1 and 5 that I exist is prior to the fact that I exist. If presentism is true, we thus have a priority circle, so by 4, we don’t have presentism.)

Monday, March 6, 2023

More steps in the open future and probability dialectics

I’ve often defended a probabilistic objection to open future views on which either future-tensed contingents are all false or are neither true nor false. If T(q) is the proposition that q is true, then:

  1. P(T(q)) = P(q).

But on the open future views, the left-hand-side is zero, since it’s certain that q is not true. So the right-hand-side is zero. But then both q and its negation have zero probability, and we can’t make any predictions about the future.

An open futurist might push the following response. First, deny (1). Then insist that P(q) for a future contingent q is the objective tendency or chance towards q turning true. Thus, P(coin will be heads) is 1/2 for a fair indeterministic coin, since the there is an objective tendence of magnitude 1/2 for the coin to end up heads.

In this post I want to discuss my next step in the dialectics. I think there may be a problem with combining the objective tendency response with epistemic probabilities. Suppose that yesterday a fair coin was flipped. If the coin was heads, then tomorrow two fair indeterministic coins will be flipped, and if the coin is tails, then tomorrow one fair indeterministic coin will be flipped. Let H be the proposition that tomorrow at least one coin will be heads. If yesterday we had heads, then the objective tendency of H is 3/4. If yesterday we had tails, then the objective tendency of H is 1/2. But we need to be able to say:

  1. P(H) = (1/2)(3/4) + (1/2)(1/2) = 5/8.

Now note that we are quite certain that 5/8 is not the objective tendency of H. The objective tendency of H is either 1/2 or 3/4.

So the open futurist needs a more sophisticated story. Here seems the right one. We say that P(q) is the average of the objective tendencies towards q weighted by the subjective probabilities of these tendencies. This is basically causal probability. The story requires that there be a present fact about all the objective tendencies.

On the technical side, this works. But here is a philosophical worry. If P(H) = 5/8 neither represents the objective tendency of H (which is either 1/2 or 3/4) nor one’s credence that H is true (which is zero on open-futurism), why is it that we should be making our decisions about the future in the light of P(H)?

Friday, March 3, 2023

Having multiple sufficient causes

It would be useful for discussions of causal exclusion arguments for physicalism to have a full taxonomy of the kinds of cases in which one effect E can have two sufficient causes C1 and C2.

Here is my tentative list of the cases:

  1. Overdetermination: C1 and C2 overdetermine E

  2. Chaining: Ci sufficiently causes Cj which sufficiently causes E (where i = 1 and j = 2 or i = 2 and j = 1)

  3. Constitution: Ci sufficiently causes E by being partly constituted by Cj which sufficiently causes E (where i = 1 and j = 2 or i = 2 and j = 1)

  4. Parthood: Ci sufficiently causes E by having the part Cj which sufficiently causes E (where i = 1 and j = 2 or i = 2 and j = 1).

If parthood is a special case of constitution, then (4) is a special case of (3). Moreover (2)–(4) are all species cases of:

  1. Instrumentality: Ci sufficiently causes E by means of Cj sufficiently causing E (where i = 1 and j = 2 or i = 2 and j = 1).

Note that the above cases are not mutually exclusive. We can, for instance, imagine a case where we have both chaining and overdetermination. Let’s say I aim a powerful heat gun at a snowball. Just in front of the snowball is a stick of dynamite. The heat melts the snowball. But it also triggers an explosion which blows the snowball apart. Thus, we have overdetermination of the destruction of the snowball by two causes: heat and explosion. However, we also have chaining because the heat causes the explosion.

I wonder if we can come up with an argument that (1)–(4), or maybe (1) and (5), are the only options. That seems right to me.

Force-realism and simultaneous causation

If a charged particle is an electromagnetic field, the field exerts a Lorentz force F = qE + qv × B, where q and v are the charge and velocity of the particle, E is the electric field and B is the magnetic field. All of these quantities are taken at one location in spacetime. Thus, if realism about forces is correct, we have simultaneous causation: the electromagnetic field simultaneously causes the force.

Not everyone is a realist about forces, though. One might think that the electromagnetic field directly causes the subsequent change in velocity instead of causing a force which in turn causes the change in velocity.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Theism and the absolute present

Some people believe in an absolute present. An absolute present would define a privileged absolute reference frame. Suppose that there is an absolute present. Would we have any reason to think that the privileged absolute reference frame is anywhere close to our reference frame? If not, then for all we know, the things around us have an absolute geometry quite different from the one we think they have: that clock on the wall isn’t absolutely a circle, but an oval, say.

If the reason for accepting an absolute present is doing justice to common sense, then we not only need an absolute presnet, but an absolute present that defines a frame close to our frame. And that would be almost literally a version of anthropocentrism.

Of course, if we are in the image and likeness of God, the anthropocentrism may be defensible. And maybe only then.

If this is right, then the A-theory of time (which seems to require an absolute present) makes a lot more sense on theism. (Anecdotally, there is a correlation between being a theist and accepting the A-theory of time.) But on the other hand, the A-theory of time requires God’s beliefs to be changing.

Causing via a part

Assume this plausible principle:

  1. If a part x of z causes w, then z causes w.

Add this controversial thesis:

  1. For any x and y, there is a z that x and y are parts of.

Thesis (2) is a consequence of mereological universalism, for instance.

Finally, add this pretty plausible principle:

  1. All the parts of a physical entity are physical.

Here is an interesting consequence of (1)–(3):

  1. If there is any non-physical entity, any entity that has a cause has a cause that is not a physical entity.

For if w is an entity that has a cause x, and y is any non-physical entity, by (2) there is a z that x and y are both parts of. By (3), z is not physical. And by (1), z causes w.

In particular, given (1)–(3) and the obvious fact that some physical thing has a cause, we have an argument from causal closure (the thesis that no physical entity has a non-physical cause) to full-strength physicalism (the thesis that all entities are physical). Whatever we think of causal closure and physicalism, however, it does not seem that causal closure should entail full-strength physicalism.

Here is another curious line of thought. Strengthen (2) to another consequence of mereological universalism:

  1. The cosmos exists, i.e., there is an entity c such that every entity is a part of c.

Then (1) and (5) yield the following holistic thesis:

  1. Every item that has a cause is caused by the cosmos.

That sounds quite implausible.

We could take the above lines of thought to refute (1). But (1) sounds pretty plausible. A different move is to take the above lines of thought to refute (2) and (5), and thereby mereological universalism.

All in all, I suspect that (1) fits best with a view on which composition is quite limited.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Semantic determinacy and indeterminacy

There are arguments that our language is paradoxically indeterminate. For instance, Wittgenstein-Kripke arguments for underdetermination of rules by cases, Quine’s indeterminacy of translation arguments, or Putnam’s model-theoretic arguments.

There are also arguments that our language is paradoxically determinate. First order logic shows that there is a smallest number of grains of sand that’s still a heap.

In other words, there are cases where we want determinacy, and we find indeterminacy threatening, and cases where we want indeterminacy, and we find determinacy puzzling. I wonder if there is any relevant difference between these cases other than the fact that we have different intuitions about them.

If we are to go with our intuitions, we need to bite the bullet on, or refute, both sets of arguments, in their respective cases. But if we embrace determinacy everywhere or embrace indeterminacy everywhere, then it’s neater: we only need to bite the bullet on, or refute, one family of arguments.

I find embracing determinacy everywhere rather attractive.