Monday, February 28, 2005

A Self Divided

Continuing on from my previous post on personal identity...

Consider split brain patients, who have their two hemispheres surgically disconnected. The evidence suggests that this gives rise to two independent spheres of awareness, each with access to only one half of the visual field, and controlling one half of the body. Parfit offers a simplified account (p.245):
One of these people is shown a wide screen, whose left half is red and right half is blue. On each half in a darker shade are the words, 'How many colours do you see?' With both hands the person writes, 'Only one'. The words are now changed to read: 'Which is the only colour that you can see?' With one of his hands the person writes 'Red', with the other he writes 'Blue'.

Carnivals

The tenth Philosophers' Carnival is now up at E.G. There are a lot of entries - 22 in fact! - and many of them are really interesting. I particularly liked Clark's one on common sense, Jonah's discussion of thought experiments, and Michelle's take on the technical-humanist divide.

Another recent carnival is Smijer's Carnival of the Godless #5.

Oh, and I just passed 20,000 visitors! Thanks for dropping by :)

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Vague Identities

In my previous post on Personal Identity, I suggested that the idea of a 'pure ego', independent of all physical and psychological facts, is just senseless. I presented Parfit's reductionist view as an alternative. According to Parfit, identity merely consists in physical and psychological continuity. It is not some 'further fact' to be discovered on top of these more mundane facts.

(I personally think psychological continuity is all that matters. You can test your own intuitions with this fun game at The Philosophers' Magazine.)

In this post and the next, I want to discuss some of the interesting thought-experiments Parfit presents in Reasons and Persons. The first shows that personal identity is a vague concept, so (remarkably!) questions like "am I about to die?" do not always have a determinate answer. The second shows that personal identity does not explain our unity of consciousness, because it is possible for one person to have two independent streams of consciousness simultaneously. The third shows that identity is not what matters. It doesn't matter if you die, so long as another person connected to you in the right way lives on.

Once we understand identity in terms of physical or psychological continuity, it should come as no surprise that we can have indeterminate results. After all, such continuities can vary widely, and it would be arbitrary to impose some particular threshold to specify what counts as 'identity' or not. This idea is illustrated by the following thought experiment.

Imagine a mad scientist could replace parts of your brain with someone else's. Now consider the spectrum of cases where he replaces none, 1%, 2%, ..., 99%, or 100% of your brain. It's clear in the leftmost cases, where the procedure has minimal effect, that the resulting person would still be you. It's equally clear in the rightmost cases that the resulting person is not you, for your entire brain has been destroyed and replaced by someone else's. But what about the middle cases in the spectrum? Where do you draw the line? Any decision would be arbitrary. Personal identity is supposed to be deeply significant, so it is implausible to claim that it could be affected by something so trivial as a couple of cells either way.

So to hold that personal identity is determinate, as non-reductionists must, is both arbitrary and trivializing. We should instead recognize that the concept is vague. There are some cases where there is no determinate answer as to whether a person's identity will persist. This is not because of ignorance - we can know all the facts about their physical and psychological continuity. Personal identity is not some 'further fact' on top of this. (See the Parfit quote in my earlier post.) It may simply be unclear whether 'identity' is the best description to give of these facts.

Lottery and Fallibility Paradoxes

The other day I thought of a paradox that arises from admitting fallibility. For each of my beliefs, I believe it to be true (that's just what belief is). So I believe that all my beliefs are true. But I don't believe this at all! Rather, I know I'm fallible - that I have some false beliefs. So we have a contradiction.

This reminds me of the lottery paradox:
The lottery paradox begins by imagining a fair lottery with a thousand tickets in it. Each ticket is so unlikely to win that we are justified in believing that it will lose. So we can infer that no ticket will win. Yet we know that some ticket will win.

(They go on to describe the 'preface paradox', which sounds equivalent to my fallibility paradox, though I had not heard of it before.)

In both cases, the problem involves joining many individual beliefs into one big conjunction. It seems plausible that if you believe that X and you believe that Y, then you believe that X and Y. But I think this general closure principle is mistaken.

The most obvious explanation for this is that belief comes in degrees. Of each individual lottery ticket, I believe with 99.9% sureity that it will lose. Join five of them together, and I believe the conjunction with only 99.5% sureity. Conjoin all 1000, and my 'belief' is zero - I am certain that not all of them will lose.

A similar solution will also explain my fallible beliefs. I will have more confidence in individual beliefs than in the conjunction of several of them. Make the group too large and my confidence level could fall so low that I wouldn't even affirm a 'belief' in the conjunction any more.

So, I've two general questions:
1) Are there any problems with this solution?
2) Are there any alternatives?

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Gangsta Philosizzle

Via UTI, I came across the hilarious Gizoogle. Feeding it my skepticism overview, it returned a translation that helps clarify the import of this philosophical debate:
The skeptic argues thiznat coz we is unable ta distinguish tha BIV scenario fizzle Realism, we is not justified in assum'n brotha one ta be tha case. Instead, tha skeptic argues, tha rational thing ta do is suspend belief.

In everyday life, this strikes us as a ratha implausible suggestion. As tha Humean response goes, we is 'naturizzles crazy ass nigga. No cracka tha philosophizzle force of skepticism, it is of shawty practical import ta help you tap dat ass.

So very true. (I think it makes my point more strongly than the original essay did!) I also liked their take on the contextualist's 'Gangsta standards':
although we may not kniznow we is not BIVs sippin' ta 'high standards' contexts, we can, contextizzles claim, know our everyday beliefs based on tha 'Gangsta standards' appropriate in those contexts.

Gangsta metaphysics is also pretty cool:
Metaphysizzle realists posit tha existence of universals - multiply-exemplifiable properties thiznat is shared by various particizzles objects . Real niggas recognize the realness.. Their existence is posited primarily ta explain three phenomena: attribute agreement, predicizzles n abstract reference to increase tha peace.
...
There is problems wit realism, motherfucka. These abstract objects seem very odd; it is difficult ta see precisely how - or where - tizzle is supposed ta exist... Presumably they exist outside of space n time (at least, so sez tha Platonist, who allows fo` tha existence of unexemplified universals, contrary ta tha Aristotizzles) but thizzay how do we interact wit them? This seems ta raise serious epistemic difficizzles.

Furthermizzle it could be argued tizzle tha very notion of unrestricted properties (univizzles) is inherently inconsistent. For bitch tha apparently meaningful property of Being Non-Self-Exemplify'n (BNSE) - tha property whizzich is held by all n only those properties tizzle do not exemplify themselves . Aint no killin' everybodys chillin'. We can ask: is this property itself self-exemplify'n?

Suppose it is. It thus has tha property of BNSE, so it is not (by tha definizzles of tizzle property). Conversizzle suppose it is not ridin'. It thus has tha property of being cruisin' - whizzich is of course precisely tha property required fo` us ta say thiznat it is self-exemplify'n! So gangsta way, there is a contradizzles.

The realist mizzle therefore deny tizzle there is any siznuch property as BNSE. Perhaps exemplifizzles is merely a 'tie', not a relation. But such responses seem implausibly ad hoc n shit.

Indeed they do.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Avoiding Nihilism

The Maverick Philosopher writes:
[M]any naturalists are morally decent people... but what justification could these naturalists have for maintaining the ideals and holding the values that they do maintain and hold? Where do these ideals come from if, at ontological bottom, it is all just "atoms in the void"? And why ought we live up to them? Where does the oughtness, the deontic pull, if you will, come from? If ideals are mere projections, whether individually or collectively, then they have precisely no ontological backing that we are bound to take seriously.

These are important questions - indeed, I've asked about 'deontic pull' (or 'normative force') before. But I don't see how any of these concerns are unique to naturalism.

Naturalists hold value to be reducible to natural facts (perhaps facts about human desires, and what would best fulfill them), rather than a distinct and irreducible ontological category. But why should that give them "precisely no ontological backing"? They are literally backed by their naturalistic 'reduction basis'. (Does the reduction of water to H2O make water any less real?)

BV asks why we should care about values that are merely part of the natural world. But if value is something apart from the world, why should we care any more about that? Why are non-natural values any more worthwhile than natural ones? Moreover, if we're causally isolated from values (being non-natural and all), how could we care about them? How could we even know of their existence?

Opponents of naturalism often claim that God grounds values and gives life meaning. My previous post on God-given Value disputes this, and I still haven't heard any satisfactory response. What difference does God make? What makes doing God's bidding any more meaningful than doing your own, or someone else's? Why obey divine commands at all?

I'm not sure I've understood him correctly, but BV hints that his only reason for behaving morally is a prudential fear of divine punishment:
If only naturalism were unmistakably and irrefutably true! A burden would be lifted: no God, no soul, no personal survival of death, an assured exit from the wheel of becoming, no fear of being judged for one’s actions.

Of course, just as the amoral theist behaves morally for fear of divine censure, so might an amoral atheist behave morally for fear of social censure. So the afterlife is not the only possible prudential reason to behave oneself (though it would provide the strongest one!).

More importantly, prudence is of little relevance to the broader debate. For one thing, it is distinct from ethics - I still don't see how religion gives us reasons to care about morality (as opposed to using it merely as a means to secure a pleasant afterlife). Further, it does not explain why we should care even about being prudent. If life is meaningless, what makes the afterlife any more meaningful? Surely extending worthlessness forever cannot make it worthwhile?

My questions aren't rhetorical - I'd genuinely like to hear theists' answers, if they have any. We hear a lot about how God gives your lives meaning, but how is that? What meaning or value does God provide that we would otherwise lack? I just don't see it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Carnivals, Comments, and Life

The next Philosophers' Carnival, to be hosted at E.G., is coming up Monday. Anyone with a decent philosophy-related blog post should consider submitting it!

In other news, I'm trying out the new pop-up comments, so let me know what you think. It's very easy to change back and forth, so if you preferred the old comments, just let me know.

[Update: I've tinkered with the template in the hopes of offering both options. The "X comments" link directly below each post should create a pop-up window. The "Post a comment" link (found at the end of the comments section on the item pages) should instead open the comments page in the current window.]

University has finally begun for the year. This may end up affecting my blogging. I've been on holiday since the start of November, and managed to average one post per day across all that time. But I'm a lot busier now, so I don't know if I'll be able to keep up this pace without driving myself to exhaustion. (I'm not used to having to wake up in the morning, dammit!) I'll see how things go...

Blog Review: Conservative Philosopher

My previous blog reviews have all been very positive. This one will break that trend. In fact, I'm about to remove the Conservative Philosopher group blog from my blogroll. It was never particularly good to begin with, but now Keith Burgess-Jackson (a.k.a. Anal-"Philosopher") has enacted a shameful 'zero tolerance for criticism' policy, removing all comments and trackbacks. This seems likely to worsen the uncritically indulgent character of the blog, and I have no desire to support KBJ's intemperate rants.

It's a pity, really, because the idea of a conservative answer to Left2Right is an intriguing one. KBJ boasted that "[e]ven liberals want to read what smart conservatives have to say." Unfortunately, the conservative philoegos philosophers did not live up to my expectations. It would have been nice to read some smart conservative commentary, as opposed to commentary about how smart conservatives are.

With few exceptions, CP posts lacked the insight and rigour found at Left2Right. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, as the latter blog boasts a truly first-rate cast. But the CP blog does seem overly prone to unreasonable rhetoric and straw manning. See the criticisms from Clayton Littlejohn, Brandon Butler (Hat-tip: Leiter), and Dadahead for examples.

Ex-contributor Max Goss explains why he left the blog:
* discomfort with being associated with a loose cannon [KBJ] of dubious conservative commitment;

* KBJ's sudden disabling of the blog's comments feature and his deleting of old comments without so much as a warning to readers or contributors;

* KBJ's evident contempt for both me and his readers (the latter was best seen in the now-deleted comments; I expect they will appear in Google's cache in the next day or so, however).

Matthew Mullins adds in the comments:
I should have pointed out to all of TCP's contributors that on two previous attempts at group blogging Keith behaved abominably. In both cases Keith locked out his fellow contributors without so much as a warning or even a notice. Unfortunately for me I was involved in the second fiasco. I suspect that Keith was the kid who took the bat home when the game did not go his way.

KBJ has not responded well to these criticisms. Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I've taken him to task before for his immature reactions to criticism. A while later, I offered a critique of one of his arguments. When I emailed KBJ, politely inviting him to respond, his one-line reply was: "I did not appreciate your nasty comments." Readers are welcome to judge for themselves whether my post contained anything 'nasty', or if KBJ is just so intellectually insecure that he cannot cope with criticism.

Anyway, all this suggests that the failure of the CP blog may be largely due to one man. This has been a very negative review so far. But - KBJ aside - the CP blog wasn't all bad. There were at least three interesting posts. The best was probably Max's own, on 'rootedness', which argues that anonymity breeds poor character, a problem that community can help remedy. I also enjoyed Jim Ryan's Three Views of the Nature of Morality, and Edward Feser's Quine as a Conservative.

Max is planning a new conservative philosophy group blog, which I await with interest. I have some hope for it. As the above considerations suggest, there is some quality there to build upon, and he'll be leaving the worst behind.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Is Immoral Value Possible?

In a comment to my previous post, David raised a very interesting question:
I'm curious: Do you think that my argument shows that consequentialists need to deny that value can depend on immorality? If so, that alone is an interesting result. For one thing, it may mean that consequentialists are committed to deny that a person can value immorality for its own sake. I wouldn't have expected that result.

I'm finding the entire discussion very interesting! But I agree that this result, if valid, sounds very surprising.

Firstly, I should point out that the problem only gets off the ground if we accept an objective desire-fulfillment theory of value. More subjective accounts, such as hedonism, would avoid these problems. So denying DF is an easy way out for consequentialists. To make things interesting, I will make two assumptions for the sake of this post: (1) that value can be identified with desire-fulfillment; and (2) that the morally right action is that which maximises value (desire fulfillment). But for the record, I do not subscribe to (2) exactly as stated. Now...

Thinking back to the liar paradox, it seems to have precise rather than general consequences. That is, there are certain self-referential sentences we must not allow, but other forms of second-order statements - even claims of falsehood - are unproblematic (e.g. "The statement 'grass is blue' is false").

I think the same applies to desires. It's fine to desire that other desires be thwarted, so long as you don't include the present desire. Recall the 'Adolf' example I presented as a (desire-based) variant of the liar paradox:
Adolf desires that more desires be thwarted than fulfilled. [A 'desire that P' is 'fulfilled' if P is in fact true, 'thwarted' if P is false.] Further suppose that - apart from this desire of Adolf's - there are in total an equal number of fulfilled and thwarted desires in the world. It follows that Adolf's desire is fulfilled if and only if it is not fulfilled.

The problem with Adolf is that he was put in a context where his desire became self-referentially paradoxical. This situation could potentially arise whenever you have a desire that refers to 'all desires'. But it's logically impossible that a desire could have its own thwarting as a fulfillment condition - that's equivalent to a statement having its own falsity as its truth condition! So I think we must hold all such desires to be impossible. (It would seem odd to say they are possible some times but not others, depending on the external context. Why should the existence of an internal desire depend on the external world? But maybe this could be argued as an alternative solution. [Update: I do so here.])

One might plausibly claim that morality is about all desires. If this were so, then the above considerations suggest that desiring immorality would be impossible. But perhaps this is not so. We can avoid self-referentiality by having a desire that refers not to 'all desires', but rather to 'all other desires'. So we might refine our understanding of morality so that, if appealed to in the content of a desire, it is instead understood to be about all other desires. This would solve our problems. According to this definition, we can value immorality without fear of logical contradiction.

If you don't like to redefine morality in such a way, then let us refer to my new (restricted) concept as 'schmorality'. I would then conclude that it is possible to value schimmorality, but logically impossible to value unrestricted immorality. This latter result sounds surprising, but I think it is actually fairly insignificant, because schimmorality is so similar that it can do all the work we previously required of immorality.

Monday, February 21, 2005

This Desire Is Thwarted

David at E.G. suggests a potential objection to consequentialism. Suppose that a painting, based on stolen photos, is considered a great work of art because of its immoral origin. That is, its aesthetic value depends upon the immorality of its creator. Great aesthetic value outweights the disvalue of petty theft, so according to consequentialism the creation of the painting was not immoral after all. But we have assumed the immorality to be an essential component of the painting's value; if it were created in a moral fashion, it would lose this value. Absent this resulting value, the theft is immoral. (So the value returns, and we spin round the circle again.) We are left with a contradiction: the painter is immoral iff he is not. This is impossible, so one of our assumptions must be false.

David suggests we hold consequentalism to blame. But I think this is a more general problem to do with second-order values. For imagine the following: Nasty Adolf desires that more desires be thwarted than fulfilled. Further suppose that - apart from this desire of Adolf's - there are in total an equal number of fulfilled and thwarted desires in the world. It follows that Adolf's desire is fulfilled iff it is not fulfilled. Again we have a contradiction, but this time without any mention of consequentialism. [Update: see also my post on contextual impossibility.]

So what is the real problem? It seems a lot like the liar paradox. A more direct analogue might be "I wish that this wish won't come true", or equivalently, "I desire that this desire be thwarted". But it should be clear that Adolf's desire is problematic in the same self-referential way, though by a more indirect route. The same is true of our painting's aesthetic value. (We might re-describe the situation as follows: The collectors are desiring that the painter thwarts more desires than he fulfils, where this is the deciding desire!)

It seems we must conclude that such desires and values are impossible, much as the statement that "this statement is false" is impossible. (A little voice objects: "But you just made that statement, so it mustn't be impossible after all!" But no, all I did was write some words, there's no guarantee that the sentence had any meaning. If it is just so much gobbledegook masquerading as English, then it does not in fact state anything at all.) This response is awfully ad hoc, of course. It sure seems possible to make such a statement, or for such desires and values to exist. But denying this possibility is one (possible) solution, at least.

Anyway, my main point is just that David's scenario reduces to the value-based variant of the liar paradox. The problem can be restated without appeal to consequentialism at all. So it cannot work as an objection to consequentialism. The problem lies elsewhere.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Carnival of the Godless #4

Welcome to the fourth Carnival of the Godless. There are several shiny and sparkly false idols on offer this week, vying for your worship. After exposing you to their corrupting influence, I hope to host a more detailed discussion of one particular thesis, called 'meta-atheism'.


Submitted Idols:

We begin with the (carnival) Creator himself, Brent Rasmussen of Unscrewing the Inscrutable:
I deconstruct new age author Philip Yancey's new book entitled "Rumors" and the vague, gosh-wow-isn't-life-so-great feel-good non-argument for the existence of a god and a spiritual plane.

Much like God, the post from Smijer & Buck on Ethics, Prejudice, and Theology does not (yet) exist. Unlike God, however, it will exist tomorrow. [Update: it's up!] So let me quote Smijer's preview:
It will suggest that all religions allow ethics, conscience, and sometimes prejudice to dictate doctrine despite their ostensible viewpoint that doctrine is "received" through scripture and serves as the sole source of ethical thinking.

An interesting post from Thinking Nurse contrasts Theistic and Humanistic Nursing:
For humanists, nursing at it's best is an activity conducted by one human being, in a human way, with another human being. The nurse is attempting to open dialogue with the person in front of them, find a way to connect, as one subjective human being with another. This is all. There is no ‘hidden agenda’ of seeking to find the divine in another human being, or to serve God through that human being – the agenda is simply to find, and be with that person, for who they are. This makes humanistic nursing achievable, realistic, rooted in the material rather than seeking to ask nurses or their clients/patients to rise above or reject their humanity.

Over at the UTI Annex, Peter Fredson offers a politico-religious satire entitled Don't Want To Intrude My Beliefs:
President Jet Fratboy was speechifying to an executive session of Christian Conservatives the other day and we were lucky enough to record some of his speech before we were handcuffed, flogged and thrown out bleeding on the street...

Peter has also been spotted over on Stupid Evil Bastard, guest-posting on the topic of What's a Judge to do? Elsewhere he explains his opposition to Aggressive Fundamentalists:
Fundamentalist Christians are nice, honest decent folks. I know this, because they tell me constantly that they are nice, honest and decent. And they are so nice that they want me to be exactly like them. They want me to pray their prayers, worship their god, and obey all their taboos. [...] Their agenda is total control. Total control of wealth, of influence, of speech, of behavior, of opinion. Nothing less will do.

James at Lab6 offers a tongue-in-cheek look at the intersection of Einstein vs. Islam vs. Toilets, which he describes as:
A short treatise on the fiendishly complicated procedures Muslims must go through in order not to offend Allah while on the bog. Intention: humorous. Probable interpretation: mind-bogglingly blasphemous.

A familiar problem for religious ethics is the Euthyphro Dilemma - is an act good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? The first option renders morality arbitrary; the second, independent from God. Well, it turns out that many religious conservatives overcome the dilemma by embracing the first horn and putting themselves in the place of divinity. Such is the lesson of Goddamn Liberal's post, Fundamentally Retarded:
The berserk, drooling morons of the unreality-based community have a simple tenet, so simple even their vestigial lizard brains can grasp it: we are the good guys, so we can do anything we want and it's good by definition. The sane people are the bad guys, so everything they do is infinitely evil.

Morality isn't the only thing religion tends to screw up - it's also rather notorious for getting in the way of science and logic. The Two Percent Company offer a diagnosis in New Year, Same Old Creationists:
After reading a typical exchange on the Evangelical Outpost in which evolution is challenged using assumptions that have no basis in fact, we followed the pattern of behavior by the religious believers as responses were posted in reply. It was remarkably similar to numerous straw man arguments and almost reflex responses on the part of the religious believers that we'd seen time and time again in attempts to debunk evolution. So, we wrote up this Rant as a sort of field guide to creationist behavior in arguments such as these, along with our speculation about why they react the way they do.

Our final entry is from Peter Thurley, a Christian willing to brave these Godless waters. His post at Dinner Table Donts discusses 'meta-atheism' - the topic to which I now turn...

Meta-Atheism

That ends the list of submitted entries. Before you begin your idolatry, let me raise a question. Is it possible that you don't really believe the above posts are divine? Might your worship be mere pretense? Now, I don't doubt your sincerity when you express faith in the One True Blog, but perhaps you are unaware of your actual beliefs; self-deception is not so uncommon a trait, after all.

This theory of meta-atheism is advocated by Prof. Georges Rey: "Despite appearances, not many people -- particularly, not many adults who've been exposed to standard Western science -- seriously believe in God; most of those who sincerely claim to do so are self-deceived."

Rey lists eight 'peculiarities' about religious belief which he thinks point towards this conclusion. Many of these at best imply that religious belief is merely unjustified (rather than, um, unbelieved), so are irrelevant to his thesis. But I think his points (1 & 2) and (6) warrant consideration.

Points (1 & 2) suggest that our "detail resistance" in response to religious stories is comparable to how we treat fiction. It strikes us as silly to ask which shoe Harry Potter puts on first; we recognise that there is no corresponding fact about this detail of the story. Rey argues that we treat religious details similarly:
Just how did God's saying, "Let there be light," actually bring about light? How did He "say" anything at all? (does He have a tongue?)... Leave Biblical literalism aside. Just answer: how does He do what believers say He does? Does anyone really believe that such questions have answers?
This may support the idea that religious 'beliefs' are not genuine beliefs after all, but merely belief-like imaginings.

Point (6) is that people's actions belie a belief in heaven. For example, the intense grief most people feel when a loved one dies is inconsistent with the belief that they live on, blissfully, elsewhere.

Will Wilkinson elaborates on this point, suggesting that genuine theists "ought to have higher rates of death by accident", since "[i]f I believe that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my maker." Fear of death is then further evidence that one does not really believe in the afterlife.

Tyler Cowen disputes this reasoning, suggesting that the theist would want to live in order to fulfill his role in "God's plan". This strikes me as a feeble response, for the theist cannot know whether God's plan is for him to live or die. Caution is thus uncalled for. He should instead live freely, take chances, and trust fate to see things right. Surely if God's plan is for him to live to a ripe old age, then he will survive any risky behaviour. If not, then he won't. Either way, God's will is done. (Tyler also argues that paradise "will come sooner or later in any case". But we are motivated to prefer bliss sooner rather than later!)

Brandon at Siris responds to all eight of Rey's points. To the sixth, he begins by pointing out that we can still be sad when a friend leaves us to go to a better place (e.g. overseas). But this response is insufficient because our response to death is so much stronger than a mere temporary separation could possibly warrant. More promising is his general suggestion that we don't always act as if our beliefs are true. Sometimes we're just irrational; perhaps the theist's grief and fear of death are such examples. Still, one would expect a genuine belief in the afterlife should have some behavioural consequences (beyond mere verbal assertions). But does it?

In the end, I disagree with meta-atheism. I get annoyed when theists claim that atheists are really believers ("deep down"), and it's no less uncharitable of our side to reverse the claim. Religious beliefs certainly have their 'peculiarities', but that doesn't make them any less genuine beliefs. (Though they may well be inconsistent, unjustified, and so forth.) But the issue is an entertaining and controversial one, so I encourage readers to chime in with their thoughts in the comments below. Do you agree with meta-atheism, or not? What are your reasons?

Next week...

That concludes this week's Carnival of the Godless - I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. The next one will be held at Smijer & Buck on Feb 27. (I note the tenth Philosophers' Carnival will be the day after that, for those who are interested.)

Submissions can be sent here, as per the instructions on the COTG homepage.

Blog Review: enwe's meta-blog

For those who don't already know, enwe's meta-blog offers a daily round-up of philosophy blog posts from around the 'sphere. So if any readers have an interest in philosophy but not enough time to check all the different philosophy blogs out there, a daily visit to enwe's site might help you out. It's especially useful now that she complements each link with a brief excerpt, so you can more easily judge whether the post is of interest. It's like a mini carnival, every day!

For those familiar with enwe's meta-blog, note that it has recently "moved" (from here), so you may need to update your bookmarks and blogrolls.

In addition to the daily overviews, enwe sometimes writes about philosophical naturalism, a priori knowledge, and related topics. Recent examples may be found here and here:
According to Quine, no statement is immune to revision. Many philosophers believe that this thesis is true. - Well, at least they use this thesis in order to argue against a priori knowledge. I don't understand why they all believe that Quine was right in this point. Just look at the basic laws of logic. It is simply not true that we revise this laws in the light of new experience. Perhaps we favour one logical system over another. We say for example: "Well, S5 corresponds to our intutions, but not S4. Therefore, we prefer S5." Or something like that. But we would never say that a basic law of logic is false.

The problem I have with the thesis that there are default reasonable beliefs ["reasonable in and of themselves, without any supporting justification"] is the following: I have the impression that the step from the first problem about how to justify our believing in some basic laws of logic on the one side and the threatening circularity on the other side to the conclusion that there are some beliefs who are default reasonable is too quick - and unjustified. It seems to be like a temporary solution, something with which you want to escape the threatening conclusion that our believing in some basic logical laws is simply unjustifiable.

I'm still partial to coherentism, myself...

Friday, February 18, 2005

More Free Charity

Via Jonathan Ichikawa:
Here's a really easy way to make the world slightly better. Every time someone clicks on the appropriate little button at povertyfighters.com between now and March 31, the website sponsors will contribute 25 cents to micro-credit poverty relief programs worldwide. It's way easy, and you can click twice a day.

See also Click to make a difference, and the hunger site 'click to donate free food' button which is at the bottom of each page of this blog.

Update: Leave a comment here within the next couple days and John Quiggin will donate $1 to charity on your behalf. How cool is that? See also my earlier discussion of indirect charity appeals.

Culturally "Offensive" Playdough

What is wrong with my country?

PC Free NZ points to this Herald article:
Playdough, potato stamps and the use of other food for art and play has been banned by some kindergartens because it is considered offensive to Maori and other cultures.

Pre-school teachers say the ban is out of respect to Maori beliefs that food should be respected for its nutritional qualities and not used "as a plaything".

This is just plain stupid. Having respect for other cultures does not mean letting them run roughshod over our own. As Dr Muriel Newman wrote in her emailed newsletter:
At the heart of this issue is whether or not it is right and proper that in a society which is increasingly culturally diverse, one minority group should be able to impose their will on the majority? Under normal circumstances minority views do sometimes take precedent over accepted ways, but such outcomes are normally achieved through persuasion not coercion.

In the playdough case, political correctness has been used as a weapon to silence and intimidate opposition. By claiming the use of food in play is culturally offensive to Maori, [they...] can call anyone who speaks out in opposition, a racist. It is a classic example of the modern-day tyranny that is constantly being wreaked by minority groups over the majority of New Zealanders, through the use of political correctness.

Now, I'd happily agree that children should not be forced to partake in activities that are offensive to their own culture (at least, not without good reason). I hope nobody is forcing Maori kids to play with playdough, if it's really that traumatic for them. But part of living in a multicultural society is co-existing with other cultures. We should be teaching kids to respect cultural differences, and not to force their own parochial values on others. And in my culture, there is nothing wrong with such play. Frankly, I find the contrary suggestion to be culturally insensitive. But hey, I don't have brown skin, so I guess my culture doesn't count, right?

[Psst, fellow leftists, what do you think of all this?]

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Preventing Unwanted Pregnancies

In my post on Abortion's Common Ground, I suggested that everyone should agree that it would be better if there were fewer unwanted pregnancies. However, it seems there remains disagreement over how best to achieve this.

Serge of Imago Dei writes:
It should be self evident that any effort to "Put Prevention First" should concentrate on the methods most effective in decreasing pregnancy... The most effective way to decrease pregnancy for those not wishing to be pregnant is to educate individuals on remaining sexually pure if they do not desire pregnancy.

I fully agree that we should be employing the most effective educational methods. That's precisely why I'm opposed to the abstinence-only approach: Serge's wishful thinking aside, all the evidence suggests that it simply doesn't work. After outlining a recent scientific study, Ed Brayton explains:
This is only the latest of multiple studies that have shown that abstinence-only programs, which are forbidden to mention condoms at all except to discuss failure rates, have little or no effect on whether students have sex or not. At best, abstinence only programs have been shown to delay having sex for a short time. But studies have also shown that those who go through such programs are much less likely to use birth control, especially condoms, when they do start having sex and that actually leads to an increase in teen pregnancy and STDs.

The relevance of this evidence to the sex-ed debate is clear. The same cannot be said of the statistics Serge cites in an attempt to discredit contraception. His first bit of evidence is that "a majority (53.7%) of women who had abortions in the years 2000-2001 used contraception". So what? No doubt the majority of people who die in car accidents were wearing seatbelts at the time. This in no way implies that seatbelts are ineffective. It is entirely irrelevant to the point at hand - as should be clear to anyone with an elementary understanding of statistics. (It would only be meaningful if accompanied by further information about the 'base rates', e.g. 'what proportion of the population uses contraception?' From that we could work out and compare the relative abortion rates of contraceptive users vs. others, which is the far more important statistic. But even then we might ask whether those who forego contraception are more likely to keep an unwanted child rather than seek an abortion, etc.) The bottom line is, this statistic alone tells us nothing about the reliability of contraception (except that it isn't perfect, but we already knew that!). But I'll grant it's an effective rhetorical device for those without a mathematical background - the phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics" springs to mind.

Serge cites two other statistics:
1. Women who had free access at home to emergency contraception had the same pregnancy rate as those who had to obtain from a clinic or pharmacy.

2. [T]he women in this study... had exactly the things that Reid believes should be the primary strategy in preventing pregnancy. What were the results? 8% of women became pregnant and 12% contracted a sexually transmitted disease!

The second result is disheartening but still rather empty because we have no basis for comparison. (If those women had instead been lectured on 'sexual purity', the results could well have been even worse.)

So really Serge has only provided one relevant statistic, which seems to show that making contraceptives commercially available is just as good as having home access to them. I guess that's good to know. But how that's supposed to support his case for 'sexual purity' over education, I'm not quite sure.

But enough evidence already, the rhetoric is much more fun:
The idea that increasing contraceptive use as the major strategy in reducing pregnancy is severely flawed. Pregnancy is not a pathological disease that indiscriminately strikes unsuspecting women. Pregnancy is the natural consequence of chosen human behavior [...] I suggest that we treat pregnancy like other behavior related issues, and concentrate not on the flawed pharmacological means of decreasing pregnancy, but on the behavioral aspects of human sexuality. In other words, our [best] way to decrease pregnancy is to discourage behavior that results in pregnancy.

Something needn't be an indiscriminate "pathological disease" for precautionary measures to be worthwhile. Let's return to the car analogy. Driving a car is, presumably, "chosen human behaviour". We all know the risks - if you drive, there's a chance you'll crash. We can take precautions to reduce the risk, such as wearing a seatbelt, but of course the only 100% safe method is to avoid roads entirely. Nevertheless, most people consider the benefits of driving to outweigh this risk, and if you told them to get off the road they'd be unlikely to listen. So, if we really care about their safety, we'd do better to educate them about transport safety - "flawed" though this may be. We should certainly discourage reckless behaviour. So, on the sensible reading of the claim that we should "discourage behavior that results in pregnancy", I entirely agree - we should discourage unsafe sex. As to the more extreme claim, that we should discourage all behaviour that has any chance whatsoever of resulting in adverse consequences, that doesn't seem nearly so reasonable.

Conservatives sometimes hint that sexually active women 'deserve' what they get - whether STDs or unwanted pregnancies. I think such rhetoric is reprehensible. It amounts to (thinly veiled) blaming the victim, at least for those who took reasonable precautions. Sure, they knew the risks - but so do you when you drive, and that doesn't make you 'deserve' to be in an accident. Some people behave recklessly, and we should do all we can to change this. But telling people to stay off the roads entirely just isn't realistic - regardless of whether we consider that a desirable end. If we want to prevent accidents, we should look past utopian ideology and do what the evidence suggests will do the most good in the actual world. In the case of accidental pregnancy, the answer seems to be comprehensive education and accessible contraceptives.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Blog Problems?

Enwe comments:
Hi Richard,

I have some problems with your weblog. It always takes very long to get from one post to the comments - or BTW to get to your weblog. Ten minutes ago I wanted to get from this post to the comment section and I had to wait three minutes... Has anyone [else had] the same problems?

Jonathan then confirmed this. If others could give me a bit more detail about the problems, that might help. Leave a comment here, or if the comments aren't working, send me an email.

I think Blogger comments in general may be having technical problems - they currently won't load for me either (unless I wait 5 minutes!), but it's not just this blog... I visited a couple of other blogs that use Blogger comments (including Jonathan's own), and they seemed just as bad. I wrote to the tech guys at Blogger.com, in case they didn't already know about it. Hopefully they'll fix things soon.

How long has this problem been going on? I thought things were fine yesterday, but I'm not sure if Enwe's "always" means "every time I try it now", or something more long-term?

Also, does the problem extend beyond the 'post a comment' page at all? Enwe seemed to be suggesting the main page was taking a long time to load too. If others have noticed the same, could you tell me what it loads before freezing up? I sometimes notice a delay when the sidebar gets to the 'site stats' section, because the TTLB ecosystem script doesn't always work. Other potential delayers might include the 'recent comments' or 'sideblog' scripts. Alternatively, you might find nothing loads at all; or else the entire sidebar loads but then delays before displaying the main section (i.e. blog posts).

If I knew which of these sections was causing the problems, then that could help me fix them, if need be. So, do let me know!

P.S. I did notice yesterday it was taking a long time to publish my new posts. Perhaps the entire Blogger database is having a bad day (or two).

Update: [8pm] Everything seems to be working again now (for me at least).

Complete Fiction, inside and out

David at E.G. has a very interesting post wherein he argues that fictions are complete; that is, for any proposition P, P is either true or false in the fiction. This claim supports the straightforward analysis of truth in fiction as simply being truth at a particular 'possible world' - namely, that world where the fiction is factual.

I don't think fictions are complete. If all we're told about Harry Potter's footwearing habits is that he puts on his shoes before flying away, there simply is no fact of the matter as to which shoe he put on first. That simply isn't part of the story. It's left unspecified. Quick poll: is that your intuition too, or are you inclined to think there must be some fact of the matter (in the fiction), even if we could never possibly know what it is?

David's main objection, if I've understood him correctly, is that such incompleteness would be too "logically strange". The disjunction 'P or not-P' is a logical truth, so presumably true in the fiction. But, according to classical logic, it follows from this that either P is true or not-P is true.

Of course, this assumes that classical logic applies to fictions, and I think this assumption is mistaken. It's fictionally possible to have 'P or not-P' true, despite there being no (fictional) fact of the matter as to which disjunct is the true one. As evidence for this I cite our intuitions above. This is only 'strange' insofar as it differs from non-fiction, which we take to be complete. But it should come as no great surprise if truth in fiction ends up being somewhat different from the genuine article. So long as we still have a coherent picture of what's going on - and by employing non-classical logics we can avoid any serious logical difficulties here - I don't see that there's any problem.

I think we do much better to understand fictions in terms of sets of possible worlds (if we must employ possible worlds in the analysis at all). To quote Chris Ragg's comment:
How can it be that the books only pick out one of these worlds? If you take the books to express a set of propositions, it is completely underdetermined which world is being discussed. The author herself cannot even decide between the worlds!

It seems to me that she is telling a partial story of all the possible worlds which are consistent with the propositions expressed in the book. That is, the books refer to the worlds in which Harry puts on his left shoe first, his right shoe first, ties double knots, single knots, etc. If we take the novels to express sets of propositions, then they are telling a partial story of all the worlds in which those propositions are true.

From this view, we can better understand the logical behaviour of fictional truth, and see why it is not so 'strange' after all. A proposition is true in a fiction iff it is true in all the relevant possible worlds. Clearly, 'P or not-P' is true in each world, so it is true of the fiction as a whole. However, suppose the individual worlds differ as to whether P is true or not-P is true. (In some worlds Harry puts on his left shoe first, in others his right.) Then there is not fictional fact as to which one of P or not-P happens to be true. And this result makes perfect sense. From the fact that 'P or not-P' is true in all worlds, it does not logically follow that either 'P' is true in all those worlds or 'not-P' is true in all those worlds.

So, given such an analysis, the logical behaviour (and incompleteness) of truth in fiction makes perfect sense. The problem only arises if we assume that truth in fiction should be analyzed in terms of a single possible world, giving us a 'complete' fictional world. But of course to make that assumption is to beg the question entirely.


Another interesting aspect of David's post is his distinction between 'internal' and 'external' explanations of fictional facts. I think it's a very useful distinction to make. The internal view tells us why a particular fact is true at a particular possible world. For example, perhaps Harry Potter put his shoes on before flying "because he did not want his feet to get dirty when he came down to land." The external view, by contrast - and here I depart slightly from David's own description - tells us not why a fact is true at a world, but rather, why the story is to be identified with that world. Given that there is a possible world wherein Harry puts his shoes on before flying away, what makes this world (as opposed to some other possible world) the world of our fiction? The answer to this question is external to the fictional world, of course, and instead involves facts about what is written in the text, and perhaps how the ideal reader would respond to it (what they would infer), etc. This, I think, is the crucial question for any analysis of truth in fiction.

Now, I think David actually misdescribes the 'external view' (and I hope it is not too presumptuous of me to suggest this, given that David came up with the idea in the first place!). He ties it specifically to the author - whether her explicit pronouncements or implicit beliefs about her written fiction - rather than the more general question of how fictions are identified with particular possible worlds. He goes on to show, quite correctly, that authors can be mistaken about what is true in their fiction:

Suppose that several events in the story, taken in conjunction, imply that nobody but the maid could have committed the murder -- but Rowling has not noticed the implication, and mistakenly believes that she has left the identity of the murderer as an open question. Then what would be the case from the external perspective?

David rightly concludes that the author's perspective is inadequate when it comes to explaining truth in fiction. However, because he identified the author's perspective with the external perspective, he also dismissed the latter. I would argue that this is not justified. We can explain truth in fiction by appeal to external facts other than those of authorial intent. We could also refer to the implications of what is written in the text, for instance. So what David showed is not that the external view is inadequate, but rather that authorial intent is the wrong analysis of the external view!

I have one last disagreement to voice. David claims that "fictional worlds are complete from the internal perspective." He doesn't provide any real argument for this claim, however, and indeed I think it is false.

Referring to the proposition (e): 'In HP's world, there are an even number of stars', David writes:
From the internal perspective, (e) is true (or false). It wouldn't surprise me, in fact, if some wizard in Harry's world knew that (e) is true (or false); wizards seem often to know those sorts of things.

Here's the problem. There is a possible world where (e) is true and the wizards know this. However, there is another possible world where (e) is false, as is (again) known by the wizards of that world. Now, which of these possible worlds is the world of the Harry Potter fictions? This is a question for the external view (by my definition) to answer. But in fact there is no such answer, the fiction is underdetermined. So we would do better to conclude that the fiction is (as Chris put it earlier) a partial description of both worlds. Accordingly, there is no fictional fact as to whether (e) is true or false, and nor is there any fictional fact as to what the wizards believe about it. These facts will vary from [possible] world to world, and the fiction describes all of them equally.

To conclude this (perhaps overly) critical post, I want to offer David my sincere thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post to begin with. Clearly I disagree with him on several points, but his post inspired these ideas that I otherwise would not have had. I especially appreciate his internal-external idea, and hope he does not mind too much the alterations I made to it!

Morality as Means

A while back, I argued that value is relational but objective, and that specifically moral value takes the interests of all humanity as its relational standard. This is consistent with the instrumental conception of rationality, as being concerned only with the means to any presupposed (arational) ends. If we take the interests of all to be an end in itself, then morality is the means by which to achieve it.

But one might wonder why we should care about this particular end. If it's completely arbitrary, then moral obligations would seem to lose much of their force. One might as well choose to make evil-doing their ultimate end, and from that perspective one can just as well criticize the altruist. So the big question is: do we have any reason to prefer the ends of morality to those of its opposite?

I think we do, and I hope this isn't just wishful thinking on my part. Though in my case, at least, it doesn't much matter. Fact is, I do value this end, and I think many other people do too, and that in itself is enough for us to care about morality. But on to the larger question...

There is an obvious sense in which morality is in everyone's interests, since the achievement of those interests (i.e. of everyone) is precisely what morality aims at! If everyone behaves morally, then we're all better off than we would be if no-one was moral. The moral perspective is one of social rationality (rather than mere individual rationality), and we need to appeal to this view in order to best resolve the prisoners dilemmas and other collective action problems that otherwise arise. Put another way: we're all better off if we live in a more moral society, so there's a shared 'common interest' we can appeal to here. Just as individual rationality leads us to care about our self-interest, so does social rationality lend reason to care about morality.

To see how this works in more practical terms, note that I've previously argued that morality plays a complementary role to law. Our actions are caused by the interplay of our beliefs and desires. Laws change our beliefs so that we realise that harming other citizens won't help fulfill our desires (because you might get caught and sent to jail). Morality tries to pre-empt the need for this by changing people's desires, so that they prefer to do no harm to begin with. So, insofar as we have reason to care about law, we have similar reason to care about morality. Both are recommended by social rationality, as means to the achievement of our common ends.

This parallel makes it particularly clear why we should care that others behave morally. It's not so clear that individuals must necessarily care about their own morality, however. I don't see that as a major problem though. I can concede that a scoundrel may have no (individually rational) reason to behave morally, without that diminishing the importance of morality more generally. Even the scoundrel should agree that it's best for all involved (including himself) if others are moral; and he should even agree to civil/political measures that would help promote the formation of moral character generally - even in himself. If the measures caused him to acquire a more moral character, this 'cost' (in individually rational terms) would be more than offset by the benefits of having more moral neighbours.

Further, to quote Railton in 'Moral Realism' (from Facts, Values, and Norms, p.31):
[G]ood, general grounds are available for following moral 'oughts', namely, that moral conduct is rational from an impartial point of view. Since in public discourse and private reflection we are often concerned with whether our conduct is justifiable from a general rather than merely personal standpoint, it therefore is far from arbitrary that we attach so much importance to morality as a standard of criticism and self-criticism.

The existence of such phenomena as religion and ideology is evidence for the pervasiveness and seriousness of our concern for impartial justification. Throughout history individuals have sacrificed their interests, even their lives, to meet the demands of religions or ideologies that were compelling to them - in part because they purported to express a universal - the universal - justificatory standpoint. La Rochefoucauld wrote that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, but 'hypocrisy' suggests cynicism. We might better say that ideology is the respect partisans show to impartiality. Morality, then, is not ideology made sincere and general - ideology is intrinsically given to heartfelt generalization. Morality is ideology that has faced the facts.


So, I've argued that we have reason to care about morality because it is a means, recommended by social rationality, to our common ends. Another issue I'd like to consider is whether morality is merely a means. In other words, is moral behaviour intrinsically good (does it 'add more goodness' simply in virtue of being moral?), or is it merely good insofar as it brings about non-morally good effects (such as fulfilling some person's desires)?

I think it is merely a means. Suppose we have a moral obligation to keep our promises. I might then increase the quantity of moral behaviour in the world by promising to do things that I intended to do anyway. ("I promise to breathe in... I promise to breathe out...") Clearly there is nothing particularly good about such behaviour.

Whether evildoing is intrinsically bad might be more controversial. Derek Parfit (in Reasons and Persons, p.47) asks us to consider a case where you have a chance to prevent either a murder or an accidental death (in a forest fire, say). Suppose that you are slightly more likely to succeed at preventing the accidental death. Also, suppose the murderer is about to die soon afterwards anyway, so concerns about any consequences for him are irrelevant to the case. Who would you try to save? Most of us would probably choose the accidental victim. But if evil-doing was intrinsically wrong, then the importance of this would surely outweigh the slightly improved chance of success in the forest-fire-rescue. So, if your intuitions here agree with mine and Parfit's, you would seem to be committed to also agreeing that the mere 'evilness' of an act does not itself make for a worse state of affairs (though it may be that the bad consequences of an act are precisely what led us to call it 'evil' to begin with!).

So I tentatively conclude that morality is means to a worthwhile end, and only a means. But if anyone can think of a counterexample which shows morality can add value independently of non-moral value, I'd be curious to hear it.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Personal Identity

What makes me now the same person as I was five minutes, or five years, ago? Can we even be sure that I am the same person? Sure, I've got memories, but they could be false memories (e.g. if the world was created mere seconds ago), or they could be 'quasi-memories' of experiences that were actually had by someone else, whose body and brain I have merely 'inherited'.

The common-sense view seems to involve a separately existing 'self', or 'Cartesian ego', to which our bodies and minds belong. This ego is the subject of conscious experiences. We can imagine magically finding ourselves in someone else's body. We may even be able to imagine having total amnesia and a sudden change in personality. So neither physical nor psychological continuity seems necessary for the folk conception of personal identity. All that matters is that it's me that has the conscious experiences.

I think this is one case where common-sense is utterly senseless. This picture posits a pure ego entirely independent of any physical or psychological facts. So how could we ever know about it? Our egos might be swapping bodies all the time. Perhaps five minutes ago I was you and you were me. My ego had your experiences, but then swapped bodies (entering 'Richard Chappell'), adopting my memories and forgetting all about yours. I seem to remember writing the previous paragraph five minutes ago, but perhaps it wasn't really me back then at all. Maybe you actually had that experience, and I just gained the memory when my ego jumped into this body more recently? How could we ever know?

Such talk of swapping bodies casts doubt on the very intelligibility of independently existing and undetectable egos. What does it even mean to say that you had the experiences in my memories? What sort of a 'you' is that, if you haven't been in any way influenced by the experienced event? (By that I mean that there is no causal connection between the event and your current self; it's as if it never happened. You don't have any memories of being Richard Chappell, your beliefs and behaviour are in no way affected, etc.) I don't think the claim has any sense at all! It's just so much gibberish masquerading as meaningful English.

But what's left if we dismiss the Cartesian pure ego? What am I, if not that fleeting spirit? Don't misunderstand me; I'm happy enough with the concept of 'me now'. I'm currently having conscious experiences (mostly consisting of various shades of puzzlement), and indeed am quite enjoying it. That much seems unproblematic. No, what I'm concerned about is not 'me now', but 'me then', and 'me later'. Will the Richard Chappell of ten minutes from now be the same person as I? He'll no doubt think he is [update - indeed I do!]; he'll have memories of being me, and so forth. But what if he's not? Perhaps 'I' am changing every single moment. Maybe each human life is made up of billions of consecutive persons, each owning the body and mind for a brief moment, before passing it on. It's a grim thought, really. I want to experience the future. I don't want to die and have some other 'self' usurp my mind and body, even if he mistakenly believes himself to be none other than I.

But I'm still thinking in Cartesian terms. I must stop that. Suppose instead there is no independent 'I', no subject or 'pure ego' independent of the experiences themselves. (This is awfully counterintuitive; I'm having trouble wrapping my - er, this - head around the idea.) Then such problems disappear. But it raises new ones: what is the connection between my temporal parts? What makes them together one whole? We can note a particular body's physical continuity through spacetime. We can also note the psychological continuity of its mind, in terms of overlapping memories and other such psychological connections between the temporal parts. Common sense suggests that personal identity is some further fact on top of these, but the problems mentioned above count against such a view. Perhaps talk of 'personal identity' really adds nothing new to the discussion. This is what Derek Parfit argues in Reasons and Persons (which I'm just halfway through - perhaps this explains my confusion!). He asks us to imagine a case of 'teletransportation', where his body is destroyed but an atom-for-atom replica is reconstructed elsewhere:

We could say that my Replica here will be me, or we could instead say that he will merely be someone else who is exactly like me. But we should not regard these as competing hypotheses about what will happen. For these to be competing hypotheses, my continued existence must involve a further fact. If my continued existence merely involves physical and psychological continuity, we know just what happens in this case. There will be some future person who will be physically exactly like me, and who will be fully psychologically continuous with me. This psychological continuity will have a reliable cause, the transmission of my blueprint. But this continuity will not have its normal cause, since this future person will not be physically continuous with me. This is a full description of the facts. There is no further fact about which we are ignorant. If personal identity does not involve a further fact, we should not believe that there are here two different possibilities: that my Replica will be me, or that he will be someone else who is merely like me. What could make these different possibilities? In what could the difference consist? (p.242, original emphasis)

'Me now' isn't going to have any other experiences, because 'me now' is stuck here in the present. (And look at that, he's gone already.) Very soon, someone physically and psychologically continuous with 'me now' is going to have some new experiences (and hopefully some sleep! Why oh why do I blog so late at night!?). That's it. End of story. Is that person really me? That simply depends on what we choose to make 'me' mean. We might as well stipulate the answer as 'yes', or our everyday language is going to run into a lot of problems. But there's nothing metaphysically significant going on here. There's no shared 'ego' who has both experiences. There's just two slices of spacetime that are connected by various physical and psychological relations. That's all I am, and you too.

Maybe it'll make more sense in the morning.

Expandable Posts

Following the clear and simple instructions at No Fancy Name, I've added 'expandable post' functionality to my blog. What's especially good about this hack (compared to others I've seen) is that the 'continue reading' link only appears if there really is more to read.

So now when I write a hideously long and boring post, I can make it so that only the first couple paragraphs (or whatever) clutter my main page, with the rest of it hidden away on the individual post page.

Then again, some people might prefer being able to read the whole thing from the main page without having to bother clicking through at all. Hmmm. Well, I'll do a quick poll: Who prefers long posts to be represented on the main page by a brief excerpt only, and who prefers the whole thing to appear?

Update: I've gone ahead and excerpted my longer posts, so now I can fit twice as many entries on the main page. For those who prefer to read several full posts together on one big page, just use the monthly archives (e.g. here) instead.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Blog Review: Positive Liberty

Today's target for review is Positive Liberty. To quote the blog's description:
Jason Kuznicki is a history graduate student in a same-sex marriage. He blogs on culture and politics from a classical liberal perspective; frequent topics include pluralism, gay issues, history, and religion. He also writes short fiction.

Jason's one year bloggiversary was just a couple of days ago, and he marked the occasion with some interesting reflections on blogging and the personas we create in doing so. Other recent posts have discussed religious tolerance, the origin of existence, the efforts of a democracy-loving nation (with a clever twist), and the soft midsection of gay politics.

Delving deeper into the archives, Evil Robots would have to be one of my favourite blog posts of all time. I'll quote Jason's own introduction:
I wanted to come up with a good working explanation of compatibilism, the idea that free will exists, complete with meaningful moral judgment, even in a deterministic universe. [...] I had hoped to create a description... that would make compatibilism respectable as a workingman's philosophy, just like fatalism and theism have been for centuries.

He goes on to describe how we could plausibly hold a deterministic robot to be morally responsible. I found it very compelling, though I may be biased since I already shared his conclusion. Still, whenever I come across an incompatibilist, I make sure to point this post out to them!

My favourite historical post contrasted the Reformation and Enlightenment - I've quoted it previously.

A particularly novel* feature of Jason's blog is the fiction. He wrote The Asan Heresy last November - start from the bottom of the archive page and work your way up. [Psst, Jason, what happened to the contents page?] My favourite sections are excerpted here. To repeat one particularly good bit:
"Philosophy is not the greatest pursuit, but the vainest."

"But philosophers teach people how to think," I replied. "They challenge preconceived notions and help build up knowledge on a sounder, more rational footing."

"Nonsense. Scientists advance human thought; philosophers argue about figments of their own imaginations. Admit it: You too have experienced that guilty rush of pleasure that comes when you consider that the philosopher is the king of all thinkers. It's damn near the only thing that all philosophies agree upon: 'Philosophy is the best.' If shoemakers went prattling about like that, we'd lock them up, and with good reason. Can you imagine anything more transparently self-serving?"

Ha, guilty as charged...

* = please excuse the awful pun, I couldn't help myself.

Carnival of the Godless

The third Carnival of the Godless is now up at Science and Politics.

I'll be hosting the next one here, in one week's time. Submission instructions are on the carnival homepage (linked above). Alternatively, you could email me directly at r dot chappell at gmail dot com

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Divine Opinion

A couple of my friends have recently been arguing about whether God could have opinions. The dispute may be less about theology than the meaning of the word 'opinion'. (A pity. I find it surprisingly fun to speculate about the characteristics of a non-existent being. Isn't that odd?)

One might define 'opinion' simply as "a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof". If that's accurate then, by definition, an omniscient being would have no opinions - for he would never fall short of knowledge.

But I'm not sure that this definition is correct. Patrick writes:
In many contexts, "opinion" seems to have definite connotations of weak justification or uncertainty; but I think, perhaps, they are just connotations... The fact that 'opinion', rather than 'knowledge' was used in the sentence will often be a reason to take it as meaning 'merely opinion' or 'opinion and not knowledge' even though the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Scalar implicature is the technical term for this semantic phenomenon. An underlying assumption of communication is that the speaker will convey sufficient information. If a set of statements can be compared in terms of their relative informational strength, we can assume the speaker chose the strongest possible statement. So we infer that any stronger statements are false (even though this isn't strictly entailed by the statement).

Consider: "Ten guests came to a dinner party. One guest died of food poisoning." Strictly speaking, all this entails is that at least one guest died, and possibly more. But of course we infer that only one guest died; for otherwise the speaker surely would have said more. Similarly, if I say something is "possible", you will usually infer that it is "not certain" - even though that's not a strict entailment.

Now, it may be that <opinion, knowledge> is a scalar ordering much like <possible, certain>. This could explain why we find it odd to call knowledge 'opinion'. Knowledge is the stronger term, so we should attribute that instead whenever both are true. 'Opinion' alone would implicate 'not knowledge'.

But how can we tell whether the strangeness we observe is due to contrary implicature or outright contradiction? The standard test is that implicatures can be 'cancelled' by further clarification. I could say "one guest died - indeed, several did", and this is not a contradiction. We no longer infer that only one guest died. (Compare: "exactly one guest died - indeed, several did".)

So, how about this: "I am of the opinion that X is true; indeed, I know it is." That sounds like a reasonable statement, not a contradiction. This shows that knowledge and opinion are not mutually exclusive after all. Any appearance to the contrary is merely due to the connotations that arise from scalar implicature.

Alternatively, consider moral judgment. It seems natural to call value judgments 'opinions'. I think this holds even if we are realists and believe that there are objective moral facts. Being omniscient, God would know these facts, e.g. that murder is wrong. But I think it's still natural to concede that God has the opinion that murder is wrong. (Perhaps my intuitions are unusual here; as always, I'm curious to hear what others think.) So, at least in the case of morality, we can have opinions even about things we know. [I assume this case applies just as well to mortal people. If you doubt we can have moral knowledge, just replace 'we' with 'He'.]

We've established what opinion is not. But what is it, then? I think the key is not uncertainty, but subjectivity. By that I mean subjectivity of representation, not of truth. You can have opinions about objective facts, but the opinion itself is a subjective thing. There is a sort of 'agent-centeredness' to it. (I think that's why opinions and values go together so naturally - even for God.) An opinion is a relation between a person and a proposition, whereby the former entertains some sort of commitment to the latter. It's as if you were to say, "Well, based on my experience of the world, it sure does seem to me as if X is the case."

I think Patrick was getting at something similar when he wrote:
In order for god to have any sense of self at all (or any personality), he must have opinions. Sure, his subjective truth will correspond perfectly with objective reality, but thats what it means to be omniscient. Without an opinion, he wouldn't be god, he would just be objective truth.

What's interesting about this is that the introduction of intentionality almost threatens God's perfection. An essential characteristic of believers is that though they can represent the world, they can also misrepresent it. So if God can have beliefs, then he can have false beliefs. It just so happens that he doesn't, assuming he's omniscient; but such errors are within his powers (and 'nature') as an opinionated self.

Further, opinions and beliefs represent some proposition as true. It may even be true. But beliefs and opinions are not the truth, itself, directly; they're a step away, representing reality rather than embodying it. We may decide that the most perfect being would not be separate from truth. That is, rather than representing the truth, we may prefer to say that God is the truth. But then we cannot use personal pronouns, for there is no person left. Some impersonal 'truth' is not what most people are talking about when the use the word 'God'. So I think we should conclude that God can - indeed, must - have opinions.

Comment Changes

The folks at Blogger.com have improved their commenting system, so I've altered my template accordingly. If you click the "X comments" link below each post, that takes you directly to a special "commenting" page, where you can read previous comments or post your own. It's quite flexible - you can even choose whether to show or hide the main post while you write your response. And anyone can comment using the name of their choice (and an optional link to their homepage) - no more compulsory "anonymous" postings for non-Blogger users.

If you click the usual 'permalink', it should take you to the item page, with the comments displayed after the main post as usual. But you'll need to go to the 'commenting' page if you want to add a comment of your own. (I've gotten rid of the hack which allowed comments from the item page itself.)

Hope it works - there's always a chance I will have screwed something up while playing around with the template code. Let me know if you have any problems or suggestions. (I could make the comment page open in a new window - would that be convenient or irritating?)

If the item-page comment hack is sorely missed then I suppose I could bring it back. I just think it might be confusing because after you post a comment (even using the hack), it now automatically redirects you to the separate "commenting page". So the hack seems a bit of a waste of time. I'll keep the 'recent comments' hack though - I think that one's still worthwhile.

So... any comments?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Ethics of Generalization

This raises some tricky ethical issues:
For decades, the science of predicting future criminality has been junk science - the guesswork of psychologists who were wrong twice as often as they were right. But today, the detailed collection of crime statistics is beginning to make it possible to determine which bad guys really will commit new offenses. In 2002, the Commonwealth of Virginia began putting such data to use: the state encourages its judges to sentence nonviolent offenders the way insurance agents write policies, based on a short list of factors with a proven relationship to future risk. If a young, jobless man is convicted of shoplifting, the state is more likely to recommend prison time than when a middle-aged, employed woman commits the same crime.
...
For [those] who would have stayed clean despite the odds, that heavy sentence would seem unjust. But for states faced with overcrowded prisons and limited budgets, it may not be irrational.

Is it wrong to discriminate in such a way? I've said before that I'm uncomfortable about it: it seems dehumanizing to treat individuals differently purely because of their group affiliations (especially unchosen ones like gender, race, etc.). It denies free will and individual responsibility, suggesting that we are nothing more than the groups that we belong to. That's not the concept of personhood that our society should be promoting.

Another problem is that of ignoring multiplicity, and focusing on just a few salient categories. But a real person (and reality in general) is so much more than that, so one gets a very incomplete picture. I'm a young white male, but I'm also a student, an aspiring philosopher, a liberal, an atheist, and so forth. How many of these would be considered when making a judgment about me? How many should be?

I guess we're just trying to get a more efficient process. If it works, it's not immediately clear that I have any grounds to complain. After all, I'm a utilitarian. Prisons are to protect the innocent, not punish the guilty. If we have good evidence that someone poses no further threat to society, then we shouldn't lock them up. I firmly believe that. But does being a member of a certain group count as such evidence?

It's statistical evidence, for sure - we can say that a random member of group X is more likely to reoffend than a random non-member. But that doesn't really say anything about a given individual (a real person, rather than a mathematical abstraction). I'm not a 'random member', I'm me. The fact that I happen to be a member of group X does nothing to show that I as an individual am any more likely to commit a crime. One can only get into statistical probabilities by abstracting away all the personal details, and dealing with a de-individualized (i.e. dehumanized) number instead. I'm not convinced that treating someone as a number gives you any genuine evidence about that person.

But, returning to efficiency, maybe good personal evidence is not required here. Maybe it's enough for an institution to get good results overall. A good utilitarian could hardly disagree with that. And it's plausible that 'sentencing by the numbers' would get good results, overall. The statistics more or less guarantee it. Viewed over the long run, we are just numbers, not people. Each individual gets averaged out, to become that abstract 'random member of group X' that the formula requires. It would work. So why oppose it?

I think the problems hinted at earlier provide some reason to think that the long-term effects of such discriminatory policy would be harmful. State institutions affect the broader culture. If individuality is no longer a legal reality, it may only be a matter of time until it is no longer a social reality. (When the very legal foundations of society are prejudiced, what sort of message does that send to its members?) Such a cultural disaster would far outweigh the benefits of preventing a few extra crimes.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Truth and Value

I've often said that value derives from desire fulfillment. But perhaps I have this backwards. It seems plausible to suggest that desires aim at value, rather than produce it. This would be analogous to the common understanding that belief 'aims at' truth. On this picture, value is something objective (mind-independent), and it is the role of our desires to recognise this value in the world. The ideal agent would desire all and only things of worth, much as he would believe all and only truths.

One might complain that we can't actually separate value from desires. That is, our only acquaintance with value is through our desires - we have no direct access to the 'objective values'. So we have no reason to think there is any such thing, above and beyond our desires themselves.

But this objection may be too strong, for it seems to apply just as well to truth! "Our only acquaintance with truth is through our beliefs - we have no direct access to the 'objective truth'. So we have no reason to think there is any such thing, above and beyond our beliefs themselves."

We might appeal to the possibility of learning, and argue that there must be something objectively real that we are learning about. We often judge that our past beliefs were mistaken. This might seem to require objective truth (to provide a standard for such judgments). Similar claims could be made of our desires: something desired can turn out to be bad for us. However, such judgments can only be made in light of other desires (e.g. one might deem smoking bad after realising that it conflicts with one's desire for good health). So we need not appeal to 'objective values' after all. But the same holds of truth: we can only judge a past belief false in light of our new beliefs. So wouldn't this argument lead us to also reject objective truth?

This is a problem for me, because I want to say that truth is objective [belief-independent], yet value is subjective [desire-dependent]. But the close analogy between belief/truth and desire/value makes it difficult to justify treating the two pairs differently.

A big problem I have with the 'objective value' picture is that it leaves 'value' a complete mystery. What is, or constitutes, value? How does it exist, and in what form? What makes something valuable but something else not - what difference in their makeup explains this difference in worth? It seems that none of these questions have meaningful answers, unless we use something like the desire-based reduction I've previously advocated.

Perhaps here we finally have a disanalogy with truth. Perhaps objective truth is understandable in a way that objective value is not. Truth is just how things really are. It's an intuitive concept that we can easily grasp. It requires no further explanation. Perhaps a value-objectivist could say that value is just "what things are really worth". But although there may be no logical basis for judging this explanation any worse, I simply can't make intuitive sense of it. I think I understand objective existence (though I might be misleading myself). I'm sure I don't understand objective worth. But I'm not sure whether that's a good enough reason to treat them differently.

I should note that we don't actually require mind-independence (of truth or value) in order to normatively evaluate beliefs and desires. As I've said before:
We can evaluate a desire against how well it would help us fulfill all our other desires. So we can reconcile DF with the idea that desires aim for wellbeing - it's just that this 'aim' presupposes some set of (other) desires to evaluate our wellbeing against.

So we can have a sort of quasi-objectivity even if value is mind-dependent. Does the same hold for truth? It might. Suppose we held 'truth' to simply be coherence with our other beliefs. Then we could still evaluate our beliefs in terms of how well they cohere with all our other beliefs. The odd ones out could be deemed 'false', just as a conflicting desire will be called 'bad'. In neither case do we need to appeal to a mind-independent reality for underlying structure. Coherence within our superficial mental structures is enough.

This is troubling - I'm actually half-tempted to dismiss the correspondance theory of truth after all!

The benefit of positing an external world (of mind-independent truths) is that it can help explain why we have the experiences and beliefs that we do. Is there any corresponding benefit to positing the existence of external values? This I'm not sure about. I think we can have naturalistic normative explanations (e.g. "Bob failed the exam because he didn't study as much as he should have"), i.e. ones which can be 'reduced' to purely descriptive facts. I can't imagine how any irreducibly normative facts could ever figure in worldly explanations, however.

So I think this provides some grounds for rejecting non-naturalistic theories of 'objective value', at least. Could one have naturalistic value grounded in mind-independent natural facts? It's not something I know anything about, but I guess it must be possible. If such a theory - with genuine explanatory power - was offered, then the analogy with truth might make it very hard for me to reject it. (But then, I probably wouldn't want to reject it - I don't find subjectivism all that appealing; it's just that I haven't yet come across any plausible [i.e. naturalistic] alternatives!)

What do you think? Should we accept both objective truth and value, or reject both, or do we have grounds for discriminating between the two?