Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Weakest (Philosophical) Link

Which of your philosophical views are you least confident of?  What do you think are the most compelling objections -- the ones you really take seriously, and are closest to being convinced by?

I'm perhaps most ambivalent about normative realism.  The metaphysical extravagance and epistemological leaps of faith are certainly worth worrying about (though not, of course, decisive objections).  My main reasons for accepting normative realism are (i) strong "Moorean" priors in favour, and (ii) the "might as well" argument that it can't very well be a normative fault to believe in normative facts.  The belief is properly evaluable only if true, after all. [Update: Helen suggests a third option, of distinctively moral reasons, which I'll explore in a future post.]

Within ethics, I have trouble taking any thorough-going anti-consequentialist view remotely seriously.  But that still leaves a lot of scope within the "broadly consequentialist" tent for uncertainty -- e.g. about the correct theory of value, whether there are agent-relative values, etc.  So my self-identification as a "utilitarian" is rather more tentative, in at least three respects:

(1) Partiality: I've never had much sympathy for the idea that we must give extra weight to our own interests, but there's something much more compelling about the idea that it would be a deep mistake not to fundamentally value my wife more than (even comparably awesome) others.  So I'm somewhat more agnostic about impartialism these days, and much less sure of the "might as well" argument that partiality could be at most permitted, not required.

(2) I'm also not entirely sure what to think about the non-identity problem, and whether we should be biased towards actually existent people -- preferring the actual state of affairs over another with a slightly better-off population consisting of completely different people.  I certainly feel some pull towards the Cohen-conservative idea that our concerns should, in a sense, "latch" onto the actual things that are of value.

(3) Then of course there's the question of "welfarism" -- whether welfare is the only thing of value -- about which I have long been torn.  I'm strongly inclined to think that various kinds of intellectual and cultural/artistic accomplishment have non-instrumental value.  But they may be included as constituents of our welfare, so they don't make for clear counterexamples.  Tricky questions also arise in the case of natural beauty -- is the waterfall in itself, or rather our appreciation of it, that has final value?

Moving on to metaphysics... The non-existence of popular deities seems pretty obvious to me, though once unbundled from the usual religious baggage I'd give some non-trivial credence to a non-traditional "creator deity", supported mainly by the fine-tuning argument.

Epiphenomenalism may be one of my most controversial views, though if anything it seems better supported than non-naturalist normative realism. (The arguments against naturalism's capacity to accommodate the phenomena are similar in both cases, but the phenomenon of consciousness itself is much more difficult to deny.)  The most pressing worry is of course the paradox of phenomenal judgment, but the availability of correlative explanations -- together with the Humean observation that we never actually observe our qualia causing anything, but merely a "constant conjunction" between them and their apparent effects -- does pretty significantly mitigate the concerns, to my mind.  As far as competing views go, I've nothing against Russellian monism / "panprotopsychism" -- in fact the view seems so similar that I hesitate to call it a "competitor" at all.

What about yourself, dear reader?  What would you identify as your "weakest link(s)"?  (Or, alternatively, how would your diagnoses of mine differ from the above?)


  1. I like your "might as well" argument from 2006, which now appears on p. 619 of On What Matters, Vol. II. But I wonder why should we accept this premise: If there are some normative truths, then we ought to believe that there are such truths. Is it not possible for us to have decisive (or even sufficient) epistemic reason to be nihilists about normativity? Of course, we couldn't *believe* that have such reason, since we would be nihilists, but couldn't we have such reason without believing we have such reason?

    I also feel the pull towards Cohen's small-c conservatism. I'm writing my thesis about it (and status quo bias), and I'm pretty torn about what to think. But I agree that it has important connections to common intuitions in population ethics, especially stuff about extending actual lives vs. creating new lives.

    1. Yeah, that's an interesting objection. One way to support the premise is to first run the argument using "objective" reasons, which in the epistemic case are just reasons to believe whatever's (actually) true (cf. practical objective reasons to do whatever is actually best). So the argument at least works for the "objective" mode of normativity. But now one might think that the more "subjective" modes of normativity are in a sense derivative -- aimed at getting us as close to satisfying the "objective" norms as we can (though mineshaft cases suggest this characterization isn't quite right). So if we can know that any objective epistemic norms support belief in normative realism, then that very knowledge might suffice to make it the case that we also subjectively ought (if there are any oughts) to hold this belief.

  2. Paralleling your comments about epiphenomenalism, I guess my weakest link is physicalism. I'm pretty convinced by Fodor, Rosenberg, and others that physical states, no matter how sensitive to causal distinctions, cannot contain representative or at least descriptive content. But my primary experience seems to be of mental states full of content. Unlike you, I'm unable to embrace epiphenomenalism. Thus the only hope of reconciliation seems to rest on the possibility that all concrete things, including the entities studied by physicists, are composed of contentful mental states. This would entail the kind of panpsychism or neutral monism pursued by Galen Strawson or, less recently, by Whitehead. But the idea that an electron is intrinsically a contentful mental state is pretty hard to swallow - for one thing electrons have no perceptual apparatus. Maybe I should give epiphenomenalism another look in, but it has so many problems of its own, as you note.

    1. (I don't mean to imply that Fodor claims what I say about physical states. What I mean is that some of his arguments, combined with certain other to me plausible physicalist and reductionists commitments, seems to lead in a certain direction. Just thought I should clarify that.)

  3. Perhaps this is a season, or the result of naivety (or laziness?), but I am becoming increasing attracted to antirealism about many of our philosophical judgments (about the existence of truth, moral facts, sameness, law of excluded middle, etc.). When I look to the sciences of mind, I find little evidence to resist this attraction.

  4. I have long defended the internal reasons thesis, but recently suffered something of a crisis of conscience about it. In particular, I found myself unable to specify what *would* count as a decisive consideration in its favor, and this lead me to realize that many of the other positions I am more solidly attached to are logically independent of it. So this is definitely the one that currently hangs by the thinnest thread.


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