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.