Friday, May 28, 2004


Wow. I just came across the most hilarious blog ever. Honestly, I don't think it's possible to read it without laughing out loud. Good stuff. Here's a sample:
Today we interview Focus on the Family leader James Dobson.

FAFBLOG: So! How's the Family?
JAMES DOBSON: The Family is in deadly danger, Fafnir.
FB: Danger? Oh no! I like families!
JD: Yes, danger from the homosexual agenda which has been trying for decades to destroy it.
FB: I never knew homosexuals had an agenda! I just thought they were ordinary people who were easily stereotyped as lovers of musical theater.
JD: So they and the gay-controlled Hollywood elite would have you believe. But the Forces of Gay are now closer than ever to destroying the divine institution of the civil marriage certificate, and with it, the family itself.
FB: You must hate gay people then, since they're trying to destroy the family.
JD: We don't hate gay people, Fafnir. We just want them to functionally cease to exist by having them suppress all their natural physical impulses and force themselves to marry and have sex with members of the opposite gender.
FB: Wow. That's a very loving attitude to take Dr. Dobson.
JD: Yes, it is.

And their FAQ on Iraq:
Q: What are the new five steps?
A: They are: 1. Handing over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government. 2. Establishing security. 3. Continuing to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. 4. Moving toward a national election in Iraq.
Q: Those are good steps!
A: We are glad you like them.
Q: How are they different from the old five steps?
A: They are the same as the old five steps, but they have the newly-added quality of newness.
Q: But -
A: We are staying the course.

Q: How sovereign will the new sovereign Iraq government be?
A: It will be so sovereign. You have never seen anything as sovereign as this new sovereign Iraqi government!
Q: Does the UN draft resolution prepared by the US give Iraq full sovereignty?
A: No.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Gotta hate it when that happens

I know, I know, whenever you have a good idea, chances are someone else had it long before you. This seems especially true in philosophy. Hell, it's probably a natural law the universe is set to run by - a variation of Murphy's law perhaps.

But what's really annoying about this one is that I was so damn close. I'm talking about my counter-argument to Van Inwagen, which denies his premise 4 (rather than the usual 5 or 6). I was quite proud of that. But it turns out someone else beat me to it.

Benjamin Schnieder, in the Feb 2004 volume of the Philosophical Studies journal, makes a depressingly similar argument to mine. How about that... just 3 months out! Damn.

Update: Hmm, I've found another article from 1977 based around the same core idea. Looks like it's not so new after all. Oh well. Maybe next time...

[Update 2: edited to fix errors and remove a joke that was in poor taste.]

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Conceptual Nominalism

This post will give a brief overview of the 'universals debate' in metaphysics, and my thoughts on it.

A 'universal' is special sort of entity, one which can be possessed or exemplified by many different objects ('particulars') simultaneously. The idea is that when different objects agree in attribute, this is because there is some part of them which is literally shared by both: namely, that they both exemplify the same universal. For example, when we say "Socrates and Plato are both wise", we are saying that they both possess the same special entity (universal) of 'wisdom'.

At least, that's what metaphysical realists suggest. Nominalists, however, deny that (mind- and language-independent) universals exist. They say there is not actually any such entity as 'wisdom' (for example) floating around in the world. To say 'Socrates is wise' is taken to be a basic unanalysable fact about the particular thing that is Socrates (rather than interpreting it to mean 'Socrates possesses the universal of wisdom', which the realist takes as being the basic unanalysable fact).

I see realism here as a sort of last-resort: we really want to be able to explain the world without postulating any unnecessary entities (ya know, Ockham's Razor and all that). The question then, is whether universals are necessary...

The challenge for Nominalism:
The biggest problem for nominalism is to explain our use of abstract reference (eg 'Wisdom is a virtue', or 'Red is my favourite colour'), i.e how it is that we can speak truly about universals if they don't exist. The usual method of response is to somehow translate sentences which seem to be about universals, to instead be about something else (and so avoiding any mention of universals. Adjectives are okay, since they merely describe particulars. What we need to avoid are those dratted abstract nouns!). The big question is what that 'something else' should be.

Austere nominalism suggests the answer is particular objects (eg 'wisdom is a virtue' gets translated as something like 'wise things are virtuous things'). Such translations can run into difficulties however (though I won't go into details here), so this seems a less than ideal option.

Metalinguistic nominalism recommends interpreting talk about universals as instead being talk about language. Here, 'wisdom is a virtue' becomes 'the word "wise" is a virtue predicate', and 'courage is a property' becomes 'the word "couragous" is an adjective', etc. This can eventually form a coherent (and not too complicated) theory, but it's so counter-intuitive I find it difficult not to discard the whole approach as just plain wrong. After all, we generally think that when we're talking about wisdom, we're really talking about the concept of wisdom, rather than something so trivial as the mere word.

So that suggests an alternative answer... that talk about universals is really talk about concepts.

Conceptual nominalism:
I'm kind of making this section up as I go along - there was nothing on it in the textbook, and our lecturer only mentioned the possibility in passing, so I don't know what the details are supposed to be like. So I'm making up my own details. Here goes...

It might be thought that concepts are universals, that this position is no different from realism. However, recall that the realist's universals are supposed to be mind- and language-independent; entities which really exist out there in the world somewhere (though possibly outside of space & time). Concepts, by contrast, are mind-dependent; they only exist in people's minds.

Apart from that crucial difference, I do see concepts as being fairly similar to how a realist conceives of universals. A few key points though:

1) Predication: Objects may 'exemplify' concepts, but they do so in the sense of 'being a good example of', rather than the 'possession' associated with universals. That is, an object exemplifies a concept if it shows relevant similarities to the paradigmatic instance of a concept. For example, we have a concept of 'wisdom', and a rough idea of what it means for someone to be wise. So when we say that 'Socrates is wise', we are saying that Socrates is relevantly similar to this paradigmatic case we have in mind (i.e. Socrates behaves in a relevantly similar way to how our idealised conception of a 'wise person' behaves).

2) Attribute agreement: Similarly, to say that 2 objects agree in attribute is not to say that they share some metaphysical essence, but rather, it is because we see them both as exemplifying (being a good example of) a single concept we have in mind.

3) Abstract reference (i.e. abstract nouns like 'wisdom') is used not to refer to universals out in the world, but rather, concepts within our own minds. To say that 'wisdom is a virtue' is to say "I have this concept of wisdom, which exemplifies ('is a good example of') this other concept of virtue".
That translation only sounds complicated because I also had to include the explanation of predication (for the general 'X is a virtue'; see #1 above).

For a simpler example: 'Bob prefers red to blue' becomes 'Bob prefers the concept of red to the concept of blue'. It's an extremely simple procedure - whenever you come across an apparent reference to a universal, simply replace it with a reference to the appropriate particular concept.

So... that's my initial (rough) thoughts, anyway. Do let me know if you see any flaws, or have any suggestions, etc.

Saturday, May 22, 2004


Well, it doesn't look like the new built-in 'blogger' comments are such a big hit, so I've removed them from future posts (starting now, that is). I can easily put them back though, if anyone would prefer. Otherwise, just use the good old Haloscan ones :)

Oh, and if you're writing a comment that goes over the 1000-char limit, don't forget to wait 30 seconds between posts, or your second comment won't get through (you might want to copy it to the clipboard, just in case).

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Identity, Properties & Reduction

It seems intuitive that identical objects must share all the same properties. Right? Since if they have different properties then they clearly aren't strictly identical.

It seems similarly intuitive that any object is identical to the totality of that which it is reducible to. We want our 'reduced' description to match the original object, not some different object. For example, a table is identical to the totality S = {its four legs, the tabletop, and all the relations / inter-connections between these parts}.

But these two principles can't both be true. Why not? Because any 'reduced version' of an object necessarily has some different properties from the original X - for example, the property of 'being a reduced version of X'. So either (1) reduced-X is not identical to X, or (2) identical properties are not necessary for metaphysical identity.

Initially, (1) may seem the more appealing response. It seems reasonable to say "the whole is more than the sum of its parts". Indeed, if "parts" is understood only to mean the material component parts (excluding the relations between them), then this famous phrase is most certainly true. But here we are including the relations between the separate parts, so they are no longer separated at all. Rather, we are considering their interconnected totality. The gestalt motto now seems far less plausible (to me, at least).

What could a table possibly have that the set S does not? There are some different properties, as identified above, but these are far from obvious. It strikes me as very strange indeed that an object could be fundamentally different from its reduced counterpart, merely by virtue of its being unreduced. Where do these differences come from? Imagine reducing an object down to the atoms which make it up (and all their relevant relations / connections to each other, of course). If there is a difference, then the object must consist of some non-physical component parts. Well, I guess that's exactly what 'properties' are?

Hmmm. I did intend to go on and argue that we're better off with response (2), but I'm tired and confused - hopefully I'll be able to make more sense of this another day.

Update: Okay, now that I've actually learnt some metaphysics, I realise that we don't want to go with response (2) either, for that is to deny the widely-accepted indiscernibility of identicals principle.

Instead, we can either:
3) Deny that 'is a reduced version of X' is a property
or 4) Deny that reduced objects actually possess this property.

Now, (3) is rather ad hoc, so probably isn't the most convincing move. (It does have precedent though, since realists have to claim 'exemplifies' isn't a proper relation in order to avoid various paradoxes).

How about (4)? I think that's probably the right one, strange though it may at first seem. This works, I think, because a reduced object isn't actually a different object from the original at all, it's just a different way of describing it. So this special property doesn't belong to the 'reduced object' at all, it just belongs to the description.

In support of this idea, consider Superman, who is Clark Kent in disguise. However, we surely don't think that the person denoted by 'Superman' has the property of 'being Clark Kent in disguise', because that very same person is Clark Kent, and he's not always disguised. It's the name/persona/description 'Superman' which is the disguise. The person himself stays the same throughout.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Currents in Applied Naturalism

Thanks to B&W, I've just found a very cool site with plenty of interesting nuggets for anyone interested in the free will debate (amongst other things).

I especially recommend the section on "moral levitation", and the brief section "Free will? Not really" which makes some similar points to my recent posts on the subject.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Category: Logic & Semantics

Logic & Rationality:

Formal Semantics:
  • Scopal Ambiguity - Using formal semantics to help shed light on why scopal ambiguity arises (and sometimes disappears)

  • Longer than it is - As above, but regarding ambiguities between de dicto (of the words) versus de re (of the object) interpretations of intensional sentences.

  • Naming and Necessity - examples of empirical necessities and a priori contingencies, as described in Kripke's famous work.

  • Analyticity - On Quine's rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction.

  • Future Truths - Do they already exist?

  • Truth and Relativism - on the absurdity of extreme relativism, but the usefulness of a more limited sort, which can help us to understand value-claims objectively.

  • Semantic Contextualism - An intuitive theory of truth as relative to a contextual 'world' (understood as coarser- or finer-grained views of the ultimate reality)

  • The Law of Non-Contradiction - why it cannot easily be denied.

  • True Contradictions - Could they exist? What would this even mean? I argue that truth is a feature of our descriptions, not of the world itself, and as such a contradiction is symptomatic of a bad description, i.e. not one that we would ever want to settle for (accept as true).

  • Truth and Value - Given the close analogy between {belief, truth} and {desire, value}, can we plausibly hold truth to be objective but value not? See also Convergence, Ethics and the a priori

  • Essential Meanings - Essence is a feature of our descriptions, not of things in themselves.

  • So Many Possibilities - What's really possible?

  • Logic and Possibility - Exposing a question-begging defence of the 'necessary' nature of logical laws

  • More Modality - Expanding on the previous post, and (roughly) outlining a pragmatic formalist approach to modality.

  • Real Possibilities - What does it mean to say some counterfactual event was "really possible"? Is this even a coherent concept?

  • Formal Systems and the Absolute - Comparing formalism about mathematics, modality, and normativity.

  • Modal Cognition - Outlining a psychology experiment to test whether our modal judgments are framework-relative.

  • Fiction & Emotion - Are our emotional responses to fiction irrational?

  • Complete Fiction, inside and out - Is there any fictional fact as to which shoe Harry Potter put on first, or can fictions be incomplete? Also discusses internal vs external explanations of truth in fiction.

  • Fictional Worlds - Can we analyse fictions (and the problem of 'truth in fiction') in terms of possible worlds?

  • Interactive Fictions - a.k.a. The Philosophy of Video Games.

Related Topics: See also Metaphysics and Mind. Also, for more on the topic of "reasons", see Ethics.

Is everything reducible to physics?

Here's an excerpt from a recent article by physicist Freeman Dyson:
One thing that I remember clearly is the phrase "We are done," meaning that once we physicists have found the fundamental equations the era of basic scientific inquiry is over.

...But the reduction of other sciences to physics does not work. Chemistry has its own concepts, not reducible to physics. Biology and neurology have their own concepts not reducible to physics or to chemistry. The way to understand a living cell or a living brain is not to consider it as a collection of atoms. Chemistry and biology and neurology will continue to advance and to make new fundamental discoveries, no matter what happens to physics. The territory of new sciences, outside the narrow domain of theoretical physics, will continue to expand.
It's certainly true that our current understanding of neurology (for example) is not reducible to our current understanding of physics. But that does not mean that such a reduction is in principle impossible.

What would it mean for a science (biology, say) to be truly irreducible in this way? Wouldn't it mean that the science depended somehow upon the non-physical? If so, isn't that a problem?

But I should emphasise that what Dyson seems to be getting at here (if I'm interpreting him correctly) is an epistemological, not metaphysical, issue. He isn't saying that living cells are made up of anything non-physical. Rather, he's suggesting that we cannot (ever) understand them using only the concepts of physics.

I'm not sure about this. It seems to me that if we ever advanced to such a stage that we truly did know everything about physics, then we should, in principle, be able to work out the answer to any biological question also (that is not to say that such an approach would be practicable). That is, I wonder if epistemological reducibility would follow from metaphysical reducability. (I assume Dyson accepts the latter - aren't most scientists materialists? Please do correct me if I'm wrong here though!)

Here's my argument to that effect:
1) All objects of scientific study are (metaphysically) fully reducible to the fundamental building blocks of the universe and their interactions. (Materialist premise)

2) Any fully-reducible object is identical with the totality of that to which it is reduced. (Otherwise it wouldn't be fully reducible, would it?)

3) If you know K about X, and know that X is identical with Y, then you know K about Y. (Knowledge is closed over identity, right?)

4) If we know the fundamental equations of physics, then we can work out everything about the fundamental building blocks of the universe and their interactions. (Such is physics)

5) If we can work out X, then we can know X

6) All objects of scientific study are identical with 'the fundamental building blocks of the universe and their interactions' of which they are composed. (From 1 & 2)

7) Any knowledge we seek of 'an object of scientific study' will be obtained if we gain that knowledge about 'the fundamental building blocks & their interactions' of which said object is composed. (From 3 & 6)

8) Therefore, any knowledge we seek of 'an object of scientific study' can be obtained if we know the fundamental equations of physics. (From 4,5 & 7)

But being theoretically capable of obtaining knowledge in no way guarantees that this is practicable. And even if we did obtain such knowledge, we still might not be capable of properly understanding it (which I think was Dyson's main point there anyway).

Plus, there's the difficult (practically impossible?) matter of knowing exactly what any given object reduces to (i.e. what precise arrangement of particles, or whatever). So even once we know everything about physics, we still have to figure out how to 'build up' all our other knowledge out of that - a process Dyson calls "synthetic science":
Theoretical science may be divided roughly into two parts, analytic and synthetic. Analytic science reduces complicated phenomena to their simpler component parts. Synthetic science builds up complicated structures from their simpler parts. Analytic science works downward to find the fundamental equations. Synthetic science works upward to find new and unexpected solutions. To understand the spectrum of an atom, you needed analytic science to give you Schrödinger's equation. To understand a protein molecule or a brain, you need synthetic science to build a structure out of atoms or neurons. Greene was saying, only analytic science is worthy of the name of science. For him, synthetic science is nothing but practical problem solving. I said, on the contrary, good science requires a balance between analytic and synthetic tools, and synthetic science becomes more and more creative as our knowledge increases.
So while I think I would like to say that everything is ultimately reducible to physics (in theory), I certainly agree with Dyson that other sciences will continue to progress even after it seems that "we are done" with physics (if we ever are, that is!).

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Category: Ethics


Reasons, Moral Motivation and Normative Force:


Value and Well-Being:
  • The Population Paradox - How can we avoid Parfit's "repugnant conclusion"?

  • Methods for Analyzing Well-Being - Is there some procedure we can use to help us decide between rival theories of well-being?

  • Desire Fulfillment - What is the good life? Where does value come from? What constitutes a harm?

  • An Analysis of Value - Outlines Fyfe's four-dimensional analysis of value claims, but focusing on non-moral value.

  • Flourishing - Do desire-fulfillment (DF) theories of welfare provide an adequate account of human flourishing? This post attempts to defend DF against various objections.

  • Ideal Decisions - Would an ideal agent ever choose something undesired?

  • The Origin of Ends - How do people adopt new ultimate ends? Does it matter?

  • Third-Person Wellbeing - A thought experiment suggesting that our concept of wellbeing may vary depending on whether we judge from a first- or third-person perspective.

  • 'Good To' and 'Good For' - The distinction between personal value and well-being in particular.

  • Welfare and the Good Life - Can we distinguish a person from their life, and so judge a person's well-being independently from the success of their life?

  • Veridical Enjoyment - A compromise between hedonistic and desire-fulfilment theories of well-being.

  • Counterfactual Preferences and Elitism - Can desire theorists justify the claim that some preferences are better than others?

  • Respecting Past Desires - Are past desires ever relevant to our well-being?

  • Global Preferences - Why brute maximization of desire-fulfilment need not be what's best for us. Why the content of a desire may count for more than its strength.

  • Well-Being Essay - What is the best conception of well-being?


Other ethics links:

Related topics: for posts on applied ethics, see the Politics & Society category; for posts on religious ethics and the meaning of life, see the Religion category.

Category: Epistemology


Other Epistemology:


Now that my posts are archived individually, I've decided to make a series of "Category" posts. Their purpose will be to provide links to all my posts on a given subject.

The best blogging tools allow you to automatically archive your posts into categories. Alas, Blogger (being free and all) is not the best. So I'll have to do this manually - and update them regularly - which is rather time-consuming. I think (and hope) the added convenience will make it worth the effort.

They should also prove useful to any new readers to this site, in helping you to get a feel for the place. Some of my individual posts might seem out of place and hard to follow; hopefully tying them together like this will help readers to see the common thread which runs through (some of) them.

I might also include some off-site links, where appropriate.

One last note - the diversity of topics I've posted about means that it's not worth creating categories for every subject I've blogged on. Many of my old posts will just sit away in the monthly archives, uncategorized, until I write more on the subject - enough for it to be worthwhile grouping the posts together.

So although I'll probably start off with very few categories (and not all my posts will be included in them) more will get added as the site grows.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Destiny & Determinism

The initial dissatisfaction many people feel towards determinism may be largely due to their conflating it with a notions of pre-destination, fate, or destiny. I want to take this opportunity to highlight the differences, and so assuage some of the common concerns about freedom & determinism. The key differences are in regard to the 'overall purpose of things', and - most importantly - the impact of individual strivings & contributions to history.

First, the notion of 'purpose'. I simply want to emphasise that determinism has none. Those other quasi-religious notions are all built around the idea of events leading up to some inevitable goal which must be realised no matter what. Determinism, by contrast, has no inherent goals, it's just the way things are. Sure, it means that future states are inevitable given the past states and the laws of nature, but there is no personal driving force behind it all, no God or gods imposing their will upon us hapless mortals. I think that's an important distinction to bear in mind.

Most important of all, of course, is the question of an individual's power to contribute to the shaping of history. According to 'destiny' notions, there is a fixed (divine) goal which will be attained no matter how much we strive against it. Human actions don't make any difference - fate ensures the future will turn out the same no matter what we choose or how we act. The phrase "you can't fight fate" pretty much sums it up.

Our cultural heritage has tied 'determinism' and 'destiny' notions very closely together. This makes it a difficult link to break, though for purely psychological reasons. For hard though it may be for us to see (at first, anyway), the gulf between these notions is vast indeed.

The key difference is that while destiny excludes us from influencing the future, determinism does quite the opposite - in fact, it needs us to shape the future. This is best demonstrated hypothetically: suppose you die in a car crash tomorrow. Now, according to 'destiny' notions (e.g. suppose you are destined to die tomorrow), then even if you avoided cars altogether, fate would nevertheless contrive some way to kill you off. Maybe you'd get struck by lightning, or have a heart attack, whatever. Contrast this with determinism: if (contrary to fact) you had avoided cars altogether, then you would not have died that day at all. Your different actions would cause all sorts of different consequences - perhaps you would go on to cure cancer and live to see 100!

You may think these hypotheticals irrelevant - "what matters is reality, and in reality it's determined that I die in a car crash tomorrow and there's nothing I can do about it!". This complaint sounds plausible, because there is a sense in which it is literally true. But it's also severely mistaken due to a conceptual confusion about the nature of control.

You lack control if your actions lack causal power, i.e. if no matter how you act, the future will not be affected. Hypotheticals are thus central to the notion of control; to assess whether you have control or not, simply look at those (hypothetical) possibilities where you act differently, and see if a different state of affairs results. According to destiny, it won't. But according to determinism, it will.

Your actions determine the future. That is the way to understand determinism without making the all-too-easy mistake of conflating it with destiny notions. It is also the case that "past events determine your actions", but we are in a far worse position to understand the true nature and implications of that proposition, so if you focus on it too much (as people commonly do), then misunderstandings of determinism will inevitably result.

The heart of the matter is that destiny notions deprive us of a place in history. They imply that the same future would result with or without us - they exclude us from the causal chain. Determinism, by contrast, embeds us deeply within the causal chain. Sure, other stuff makes us happen. But then we make things happen. Without us, they would not. If we acted differently, things would turn out differently. Of course it is true that in reality we don't act differently - we act the way we do. But that doesn't mean our actions don't have consequences. It doesn't mean that we are excluded from the causal chain. It doesn't mean that we don't shape history.

It is commonly believed that determinism implies we lack control over our lives. This couldn't be further from the truth. Determinism not only co-exists with personal freedom, but indeed, by embedding us within the causal chain, it provides our freedom.

Blog Changes

I've finally gotten arounding to utilizing some of Blogger's great new features into my blog. The coolest thing is probably the permalinks: all my posts are now archived individually, which makes them far easier to access (I'll need to go update all my old links now...). I'm also trying out the new "comments" feature, which might turn out to be better than the old HaloScan comments I was using - I'm not sure about that yet though.

If you guys have any preferences about the comments, let me know. These are the options I can see:
1) Keep the old haloscan comments, don't bother with these newfangled ones
2) Have both Haloscan & Blogger comments, so people can use either (this is the current state of affairs, but I intend it to be temporary!)
3) Keep the new blogger comments, remove the old haloscan ones (after a few days transition period)
4) Use the new blogger comments from now on, but keep any old haloscan comments from before (since blogger comments don't work for any posts written before May 13 by the look of it)

To quickly list the pros and cons of each type of comment:
Blogger Comments: These comments are implemented right into the post page itself (the permalink page, that is). Also, I think there is no size limit, which is a big plus. Only downside is the lack of any way to check the 'recent comments'.

Haloscan Comments: External comments, 1000-character limit (it's amazing how fast that runs out!), but I do get an RSS link to 'recent comments', which is quite useful.

Of course, having both would be no use at all. So I think #4 is probably the best option, if I can work out the code to do it properly...

By the way, feel free to offer any general comments/suggestions about the site & template (fonts, colours, etc) here. I can change pretty much anything.

Friday, May 14, 2004

The Little Philosopher Who "Could"

In my original free will post, I took it for granted that to say someone "could have done otherwise" conflicted with determinism only if that 'could' was interpreted categorically, rather than hypothetically.

I originally thought Van Inwagen's argument (that "could have done otherwise" is inconsistent with determinism) was only intended to apply to categorical coulds, and so was a waste of time (since it's arguing for something which nobody disputes). But apparently Van Inwagen meant for the argument to apply to hypothetical 'coulds' also - which is a much more interesting claim.

Here's a summary of the argument: Saying "S could have done otherwise" is equivalent to saying "S could have rendered the current state of affairs (P) false". But according to determinism: the past state of the universe (P0), in conjunction with the laws of nature (L), together necessitate the present state of affairs (P). So to make P false, you must make either P0 or L false. But surely S could not change the state of the universe before he was born, nor break the laws of nature. So S could NOT render P false. Therefore, determinism implies that S could NOT have done otherwise.

But let's have another look at what "(hypothetical) could" means: S could have done X if he had wanted to. That is, if there had been a different past state of affairs (which led S to have different desires), then S would have chosen differently. This is fully consistent with determinism (obviously so, I would have thought!), so lets see where Van Inwagen's argument fails...

Van Inwagen's challenge is to resolve the apparent inconsistency of the following triad:
1) S could not have rendered false either P0 or L.
2) P0 & L necessitate P.
3) S could have rendered P false.

I want to argue that #1 is either false or unimportant(i.e. it doesn't conflict with #3). The key is, of course, the precise meaning of "could" as used here. Recall we're talking about hypothetical coulds here. To save me effort, let's introduce the abbreviation SDDT to represent the counterfactual proposition that S's Desires had been Different at time T. Now, whenever we say 'S could X' above, we really mean If SDDT, then S could X. But we need to make a further distinction, regarding what sort of power the 'could' is assigning to S (or rather, to S's desires): Causal power, or logical power.

a) Logical power: This merely requires that there be a logical connection between SDDT and X, such that the truth of SDDT guarantees X, i.e. if SDDT, then X. So to say "S could make P0 false" is simply to say that "if SDDT, then P0 would be false". But this is a true statement!*(see update) P0 must be false as a precondition of SDDT (if the previous state of affairs were not different, then S's desires could not be different either! [note: determinism is assumed true for the sake of the argument]). So, according to this interpretation of the hypothetical 'could', #1 is false, thus rendering Van Inwagen's argument unsound. This interpretation may strike you as implausible, because it effectively takes S out of the picture.

b) Causal power: This more natural interpretation requires a stronger connection, to the effect that SDDT causes X (or, to rephrase it with a greater focus on S, "if SDDT then S would cause X"). Now, #1 is surely true (the present might be able to guarantee the past, but it cannot cause it!), but it means that the set is no longer inconsistent. The key here is the distinction between immediate and ultimate causes.

Let's start with a simple analogy. Imagine you're ten-pin-bowling, and although you aim down the centre, the ball curves off to the left and so misses all the pins. Bugger, eh. Anyhoo, now suppose a friend had advised you to aim to the right instead, so that the leftward curve straightened the ball, resulting in a strike. Now, we surely recognise the following three statements can all be simultaneously true:

1') Your aiming to the right did not cause your friend to advise you thus.
2') Without the advice, you would not have bowled a strike
3') Your aiming to the right caused the strike.

To sum up the crucial point as simply as possible: you can cause an event without being the ultimate cause of it.

The appropriate response to Van Inwagen's argument should now be clear: #3 effectively says that "SDDT causes P to be false", which is true. #1 says that "SDDT does NOT cause the falsity of P0 or L" - also true. The fallacy is thinking that there is any conflict here. The implicit inference is something along the lines of "if X causes Z, and Y does not cause X, then Y does not cause Z". But such an inference is clearly invalid, as the bowling example demonstrates. You can have a causal chain X -> Y -> Z, or in our case: ~(P0 & L) -> SDDT -> ~P.

So no matter whether you interpret the hypothetical 'could' as conveying a logical power or causal power, Van Inwagen's argument fails.

As far as I can tell, the main weakness of my argument here is in forging the logical/causal dichotomy regarding interpretations of hypothetical 'could'. I'm concerned that it may be a false dichotomy. Perhaps there is an alternative, more appropriate, interpretation which I have not considered here. If you can think of any possibilities, please comment and let me know! (Just be careful not to sneak in any categorical notions - i.e. don't forget the 'if' part in "if SDDT, then S could X")

P.S. For any readers from my metaphysics class following Van Inwagen's extended argument as presented in our lectures, the 'logical' response denies premise 5 (F->G), whereas my 'causal' response denies premise 4 (E->(B->F)).

* Update: I made a slight mistake above. Technically, SDDT implies the falsity of either P0 or L. Above I assumed that the hypothetically false one is P0, but now I think L is actually the better option.

Recall that SDDT is the hypothetical situation we are considering. What I'm now asking, is how we are imagining this hypothetical situation to have come about. I previously assumed that we imagine the laws of nature (L) are held constant, but we change the original state of the universe (i.e. make P0 false) just very slightly, so that the situation of SDDT would come about with as little other deviations from historical reality as possible. But this may not be possible, given chaos theory - a tiny change in initial conditions can have momentous consequences (ya know, butterflies causing hurricanes and all that).

So I think the hypothetical situation of SDDT is best understood as follows: The past all progressed exactly as it did in reality, right up until the moment before time T. At this moment, the laws of nature are (hypothetically, remember!) broken, so that S's desires at T are different. That is, we make SDDT true by making L false, but P0 remains true.

What does this mean for my original argument? Well, the only part of my argument affected is that 'logical power' part. You simply need to take every mention of P0 (in that one paragraph) and replace it with "P0 or L". That fixes it. It's useful to consider the two possibilities separately though, which is why I've written this long update instead of making the simple replacement before anyone noticed ;)

Why is it useful? Because it effects my formal response to Van Inwagen. The original "P0 is (hypothetically) false" version leads to the denial of premise 5 (F->G, as noted in my post-script above). But the new "L is (hypothetically) false" option discussed here will lead to the denial of premise 6 (~G) instead.

So that's that. Sorry for being long-winded. From what I've heard (which is not much), denying 5 or 6 is the usual response to Van Inwagen. So I'm much more interested in my 'causal' response which denies 4 instead - I'm unaware of that being tried before.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

What we know about Freedom

Dennett has an interesting, but invalid, argument for the compatibility of freedom & determinism. But I think I've come up with a modification which solves the problem.

Dennett's argument is that no-one knows whether determinism is true, but (according to incompatibalists) determinism implies not-freedom, which then implies not-morally-responsible. So, Dennet argues, the incompatibalist must think we never know whether people are morally responsible. But obviously we do, so the incompatibalist is wrong.

Despite it's initial plausibility, this argument is actually invalid, as our lecturer pointed out. if P implies Q, you CAN know Q without knowing P. For example, "If it rains tomorrow then 2+2=4" is true, but just because I don't know whether it rains tomorrow, does not mean that I don't know 2+2=4.

So it is logically possible to know whether we are morally responsible WITHOUT knowing whether determinism is true. So Dennett's argument falls apart.

But let's look at the logic more closely: If P implies Q, you can know Q without knowing P. That was Dennett's mistake. BUT, we can safely assert the reverse: If you know P implies Q, and you know P, then you DO also know Q. (This 'closure principle' is an important epistemologial principle. See my post on Nozick for more detail).

This suggests Dennett's argument might work if we run it in reverse:

My Argument:
1. No-one knows whether determinism is true.
2. We can (sometimes) know that S is a morally responsible agent.
3. If S is morally responsible then S is free.
4. (Incompatibalist premise) If S is free then determinism is false.
5. Therefore, we can (sometimes) know that determinism is false

I think the logic here is valid. If you can see any flaws, please comment & let me know!

These 5 statements are clearly inconsistent. But 1,2,3 all seem true, and 5 follows from 2,3 & 4 (via the closure principle, i.e. if X knows P, and knows that P implies Q, then X knows Q). Our best option seems to be to deny 4: That is, we should conclude that the incompatibalist is wrong.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Indeterminist Innuendo

Now to tie up a few loose ends from my previous free will post. I said there that indeterminism seemed to be an obstacle to freedom, but Robert Kane has an argument to suggest that this is not always so. Put simply:

We hold people responsible for their actions, even if luck might have (but didn't) thwart their intention. To adapt an example Patrick offered in class, suppose you flip a coin and decide to murder someone if it lands on heads. Heads it is, so you commit murder. Now we surely think it absurd for the murderer to argue "it's not my fault, it might have landed tails! It was just a matter of luck!". We consider intentional action to be free action, despite indeterminancy (so long as it happens to succeed).

But now consider a person torn between two possible choices. Kane argues that we should consider both options as being intentions of the agent. The intentions are conflicting, so only one of them can win out. But no matter which one it is, we should hold the agent responsible, just like we did the murderer in the above example, even if it's indeterminate ("just a matter of luck") which of the agent's intentions gets realised.

I think it's a good argument (any flaws here are probably due to mistakes in my summary, rather than Kane's original argument), and it shows that freedom is compatible with indeterminancy as well as determinancy. However, it does not show as much as Kane had hoped for. Rather than supporting a libertarian conception of free will, I think it just further reinforces the compatibalist conception - at least, as I previously characterised those positions in terms of "ultimate" and "proximate" causes.

Kane's view centres on the idea of a "self-forming action" (SFA). An SFA is a rare event where an agent's choice shapes their future character (desires, values, etc), and furthermore, this choice is a truly indeterminate one (because of quantum fluctuations in your brain, say). Later actions may be determined by these desires, that's fine by Kane. The point is that your desires themselves aren't fully determined by events before you were born.

Woop-de-doo. Here's the problem: your desires weren't caused by YOU either! Being caused indeterminately doesn't make them any more free than they otherwise would be. The above argument shows that we can still call the agent responsible for the results of the SFA, but it doesn't show that he's any more responsible than he would be if it were all pre-determined. We don't have any more control over the SFA than over all our other (determined) actions. So Kane's indeterminist freedom has no relevant differences from (and thus is no more 'free' than) the compatibalist conception. All Kane has done is extend compatibalism so that freedom is compatible with both determinism and (some small degree of) indeterminism.

As mentioned in my previous free will post, what the Libertarian requires (if he wants something special) is not indeterminate causation, but transcendent causation. And that's just crazy talk.

Update: The Garden of Forking Paths has more on libertarian views that actually support compatibilism.

Personhood, Family Resemblances, & Abortion

(Update: just to clarify, throughout this post I use 'person' not in the philosophical sense, but merely as synonymous to 'human')

It strikes me as obvious that a single-celled zygote is not a person. It seems similarly clear that there is no relevant difference between an 8-month old foetus and a newborn baby. So when does the magical transition to 'personhood' occur?

It's almost like a (sort of) sorites argument - e.g. the paradox of the heap:
1) A single grain is not a heap.
2) If n grains is not a heap, then neither is n+1 grains.
3) Therefore, [insert absurdly large number here] is not a heap.

Of course, this is not a particularly strong analogy, because all sorts of important developments take place during foetal development (eg first heartbeat, brain activity, pain sensitivity), any of which may be used to draw a line between "clump of cells" and "person". But any such partition seems just as arbitrary as those previously discarded. What are we to do?

"Is a foetus a person?" - It's a yes-or-no question, right? Maybe not. Maybe the best answer is "sort of".

Perhaps there is no defining characteristic of 'personhood', no perfectly necessary or sufficient conditions for analysis to reveal. Instead, it could be a set of loosely-connected concepts, what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances".

Take the concept "game". There isn't anything all games have in common. Many are competitive, but not ring-around-the-rosie. Most are played for fun, but not professional sports. Often they involve many players, but not solitaire. So we have this fuzzy idea of a 'family resemblance' - each instance of a 'game' tends to have something or other in common with the other family members, but they may have many differences also.

So I think that 'personhood' may be another category which involves family resemblances. Most people have 46 chromosomes, but genetic disorders (e.g. Down's syndrome) may alter that without making you a non-person. Rationality? Empathy? Ten fingers and ten toes? We could come up with counterexamples to any of these suggestions. There simply is no single defining characteristic of humanity.

What are the implications of all this? Well, I think it shows that there is no metaphysical 'essence' behind the concept of 'person'. It is not a natural category (perhaps there are no natural categories, in this sense?). It's an artificial concept we made up to help us make sense of the world. To decide whether a specific object should be called a 'person', we simply judge whether it has enough of the relevant family characteristics, for it to be useful for us to class it as such in this particular context.

In other words, 'personhood' is one of those interesting concepts that must be decided, not discovered. We could know all the empirical facts about foetuses (their biology, neurology, psychology, etc), and still be at a loss as to whether they are persons or not.

In terms of the abortion debate, what we're asking is whether foetuses should be given the legal rights (particularly the right to life) normally accorded to persons. Within this context, to ask whether a foetus is a person is simply to ask whether a foetus should be given those rights. That is, the status of a foetus (as human or not) is not a part of the abortion debate, but a consequence of it.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Choosing Freedom - Choosing Determinism

Continuing on from my previous post about Free Will, I want to more closely examine the different conceptions of freedom which are on offer:

  • (F1) X's action was not deterministically caused.
    i.e. Holding everything constant (including X's mental states), X could nevertheless have done differently. Even if his beliefs, desires, and reasoning were exactly the same, a different decision may have resulted.

  • (F2) X's action was caused by X's own desires, values, etc.
    i.e. X could have done differently if he had wanted to.

  • Let's examine these alternatives by way of an example:
    Suppose I'm driving along the motorway, when the thought crosses my mind that I could swerve across the road and crash into the oncoming traffic. I have no reason to do such a thing (for I believe that doing so would cause injury or death, and I have a very strong desire to avoid injury or death). But suppose that, after going through the reasoning which surely should result in my decision not to swerve... suppose instead that I (inexplicably) decide to swerve... I die moments later.

    Does that sound like a free action to you? I really don't think it is. I would actually feel much more free if I knew for sure that my actions were reliably caused by my beliefs and desires. I would feel much more free if, in that given scenario (i.e. given my current beliefs & desires) , it were truly impossible for me to kill myself (and possibly others) like that. The possibility that I could go through all the reasoning necessary to reach a good decision, and yet have the opposite decision spontaneously result... it sounds more like some kind of mental malfunction, than 'freedom'.

    I think that sort of example demonstrates quite nicely the advantage of F2 over F1. I am free (according to F2) because I could have swerved if I had wanted to. But I didn't want to! Given the fact that I didn't want to, surely I can only be said to be free if my actions conform to my desires in a rational manner. Surely I am only free to the degree that my desires deterministically influence my behaviour. That is to say, surely I am truly free only if (given my beliefs & desires) it is ensured that I would not have swerved at that moment.

    Freedom requires that our actions be caused by our mental states (beliefs, desires, etc). Yet F1 seems to require that our actions be uncaused (or, rather, caused in some unpredictable, or "random" manner). The indeterminate causation required by F1 thus strikes me as being not freedom at all, but rather, an obstacle to freedom's realisation.

    I think what the libertarian needs to do (if he wants to hold onto a coherent notion of freedom) is modify F1 to allow actions to result determinately from our mental states, whilst simply insisting that our mental states not be externally determined.

    To clarify: the compatibalist (F2) merely requires that our desires (etc) be the proximate cause of our actions - but it's okay that our desires were themselves caused by preceding events that were outside of our control. In contrast, the libertarian (F1) would require that our mind be the ultimate cause of our actions. The mind itself - according to this view - must be somehow uncaused ("transcendent", perhaps), and "free" from external influence.

    Put like this, the libertarian view at least makes a bit more sense. But it asks the impossible. Our personalities don't come from nowhere... we are hugely influenced by both nature and nurture - our genes and upbringing - both of which are external to us, i.e. outside our control. If that makes us unfree, then freedom is an impossible ideal, which has never been attained.

    Alternatively, we could choose F2 - a concept of freedom which is fully consistent with determinism, yet nevertheless provides a useful and plausible account of free action (i.e. action as a result of our mental states and reasoning).

    Update: see also Jason's excellent post, Evil Robots, which shows how a machine could have free will.

    Saturday, May 01, 2004

    Free Will - mere semantic quibble?

    Our metaphysics class is currently discussing 'free will'. There is a sense in which the entire controversy is about nothing more than what you mean by the word "could". Of course, any discussion depends on the meanings of the words involved. But in some cases, equivocation between two distinct (but equally valid) meanings of a word can cause confusion, leading people to believe a deep problem exists when this is not in fact the case. Rather like the old (non-)puzzle "does a tree falling in an empty forest make a sound?", discussed in my Words & Meanings post.

    The basic incompatibalist argument can be expressed as follows:
    1. X is free only if X could have done other than what he did
    2. If determinism is true then X could not have done other than what he did
    3. Therefore, If determinism is true then X is not free.

    Our lecturer then analysed Nielsen's compatibalist argument in terms of a counter-argument to the above, suggesting that Nielsen denies premise 2. I disagree - and what follows will explain why...

    The idea of "could have done otherwise" is a crucial to our concept of 'freedom', but the 'could' there can be interpreted in two different ways:
  • Categorical 'could' - (F1) Holding everything constant (including X's mental states), X could nevertheless have done differently. Even if his beliefs, desires, and reasoning were exactly the same, a different decision may have resulted.

  • Hypothetical 'could' - (F2) If the circumstances had been different, then X could have done differently. The usual focus here is on X's mental states, e.g. "X could have done differently if he had wanted to".

  • Which version of 'could' does the incompatibalist intend?
    Suppose we go with the 'categorical' version: then premise 2 of the incompatibalist's argument is trivially (tautologically) true. Determinism simply means that the state of the universe at time T precisely determines its state at T+1. There are no alternative possibilities to choose from, no categorical 'coulds'. This premise, a logical truth, cannot be attacked.

    How about the 'hypothetical' option? Well, then premise 2 is obviously false. If the initial circumstances are different, then of course a different situation can deterministically result! This premise cannot be defended.

    So either way, premise 2 is not worth arguing about. The real disagreement is about the meaning of 'free', about whether it requires a categorical 'could', or merely a hypothetical one. Clearly the incompatibalist intends his use of 'could' to be interpreted categorically (his assertion of premise 2 would be idiotic otherwise!). Given that premise 2 is thus a logical truth, any counterargument must instead attack the first premise. This is precisely what compatibalists (including Nielsen) do when they argue that freedom requires F2 rather than F1. Put another way, it is a redefinition of freedom to mean "not coerced", rather than "not (deterministically) caused".

    Note that F1 and F2 are both genuine concepts. The argument seems to be about little more than which concept should be called by the word "freedom". That's all. Described like this, it's really no big deal. We could always just make up a second word to describe the other (say, "Shfreedom"). Words are arbitrary, it's the concept that matters.

    Is this whole debate really that trivial? Well, not exactly. After all, we do use the word 'freedom' a lot, so it's fairly important to be clear about which concept we are referring to. The really important question, then, is "which concept (F1 or F2) is most useful for our purposes (when using the word 'freedom')?"

    That, I think, is what the free will debate is really all about.

    Update: Kip Werking at The Garden of Forking Paths makes a similar point.