Thursday, July 28, 2005

Gone Again

I'm going away for the weekend. Actually, I never got around to removing the guest-bloggers' posting privileges, so they're most welcome to post again over the weekend if they want...

Education vs. Training

Last week's edition of Canta magazine ran a page on "National Deputy Gerry Brownlee in his own words". Here's the first section:
"We think [fee freezes are] the wrong way to approach things -- the real issue is University's [sic] being able to control their costs. We certainly want access to tertiary education at a minimal cost and what we have said is that we're going to shift funding away from non-vocational courses to ones more vocationally oriented." [emphasis added]

Does this mean that it's now National Party policy to withdraw all funding from universities? Universities are (ideally) centres of higher learning, not vocational training. The latter is instead provided by trade schools and polytechnics. They have their value, of course, but so do the more intellectual pursuits of the University. I can't really believe that our major opposition party would want to turn New Zealand into a stagnant intellectual backwater.

Of course, there are vocational degrees like Commerce, Engineering, and so forth. But I'm not convinced that they really belong in universities anyway. Again, if it's explicitly vocational, it belongs in a Polytech or the like. Universities are to provide an education, not training. Training is merely a means to an end: preparation for some specific vocation. Education has both intrinsic and instrumental value. It is about developing the intellect, and broadening one's understanding of the world. This does serve to prepare one for later life, as the general skills one picks up from a liberal arts education are almost universally applicable. But, even more importantly, it develops one's excellence as a human specimen and rational agent.

Brownlee's comments express the values of a philistine. Yet another reason not to vote National. They want to turn our universities into glorified trade schools. *shudder*

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Impressions of Oz

This post will present a rough overview of my recent trip to Australia. I'll update it later with links to any new posts I write on the specific talks given at the conference. Oh, and the photos from Dave Chalmers -- you can see some here, but he was kind enough to send me some more of us undergraduates, so I'll upload those tomorrow. [Update: see here.]

I'm not sure where to begin. The trip was great fun, not least because of all the nice people I got to meet -- especially the other visiting undergrads. (And the philosophy wasn't half bad either, of course.) The atmosphere was very friendly and informal. We'd all go out for dinner together, then later head down to the pub, where we got to discuss philosophy with Dave Chalmers over a beer. I thought that was pretty neat.

Remarkably, a few of us there already knew of each other through our blogs. For example, at the start of Tuesday's workshop Lipin (another visiting undergrad, and who is friends with Brad of et cetera) saw my name tag and asked if I had a website. Then a couple of others chimed in "Oh, yeah, I think I've seen that too!" I found it quite funny (in both senses of the word). Then at dinner that evening I met Kenny from Antimeta -- who was very interesting to talk to -- and he later introduced me to Gillian Russell and Jon Cohen. Other bloggers there included Ken Taylor and of course Dave Chalmers, who has some thoughts on the conference here.

On to the content...

It started on Tuesday with the (pre-conference) undergraduate workshop, which had three sessions. First, Daniel Stoljar led an interactive discussion of our assigned reading (Carnap's Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology). Next, Alan Hajek described ten useful "philosophical heuristics", and discussed some fun examples of philosophical logic along the way. Finally, Dave spoke on "terminological disputes" -- imparting what were probably the most valuable methodological lessons I picked up from the trip.

On Wednesday, Sally Haslanger got the conference off to a great start with a very clear and engaging talk on different types of conceptual analysis, and how these relate to social issues (with a focus on the concept of race). Next, Martin Davies discussed warrant transmission. Then the day closed with Tim Williamson's discussion of Gettier intuitions and counterfactual thinking. (I actually chimed in the discussion for that one, which I'm quite happy about. More details in the appropriate forthcoming post.)

Thursday began with another brilliantly-delivered talk, this time from Steve Yablo, who gave a very fun talk on modal epistemology and how we can go wrong in our modal intuitions. Then Peter Godfrey-Smith gave a fascinating talk suggesting that we understand metaphysical theories as "models" rather than attempts to literally describe reality. Lastly, Frank Jackson offered a controversial argument from the transparency of language to a multiplicity of properties.

Friday morning was for general discussion, though I had to leave a bit early in order to catch my ride to Melbourne. (Anyone who remembers the later discussions is very welcome to leave a comment summarizing them -- I'd really appreciate it!)

[Melbourne was cool too -- Tennessee was generous enough to let me stay with him, and guided me around the city. We saw some neat art exhibitions, visited various cafes and bars (The Deanery was especially nice) and had some interesting discussions with T. and his friends.]

One minor disappointment was that the ANU conference didn't really address what I see as the central problem of philosophical methodology: our reliance on "intuitions", and questions relating to their reliability, the implications of cross-cultural variations, and so forth. You know, all that stuff they discuss over on the experimental philosophy blog (and some at Mixing Memory too). I would have liked to hear more about those sorts of issues. But again, that's just a minor point -- overall, the trip was really enjoyable and worthwhile. I was actually kind of sad to be leaving Canberra. On the other hand, it's nice to be back in a city where water actually tastes good. (That's not a dig at Canberra specifically -- its fault lies in being non-identical to Christchurch, which is a property that many other cities also share. But thankfully not mine!)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Omniscience and Moral Perfection

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

Let’s take a break from my grand account of normativity and just do some old-fashioned conceptual analysis. I am going to try and show that God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect.

Omniscience does not only require having all propositional knowledge (although indexicals provide some problems there), it is also requires that you have all phenomenological knowledge (again, setting the indexical problem aside). That is, you can’t just the 0-60 time of a Ferrari you must also know what it is like to smell a flower.

I think this presents a problem with God’s moral perfection. To be omniscient, God must know what it is like to murder or rape someone. And the only way that God could know what it was like to do these things is to actually do them. Clearly, a person who rapes and murders is not a morally perfect being.

Now, one might object here that God might simply be able to simulate doing these things in His mind, and thus avoid the heinous acts. I think Christians should be uncomfortable with this solution since they think the intention is as evil as the deed but set that aside. I think the problem is that God is omniscient: She knows that these are simulations. Simulations work for human beings because you can fool our mind into thinking that it is real by simulating neuro-physiological states. But God can’t be fooled; She will always know that She is engaged in a simulation and cannot have genuine phenomenological knowledge of the bad acts.

The other way you might want to go is to argue that omniscience does not require phenomenological knowledge. Alas, I don’t think this works. First, it seems to be a fairly important constituent part of our own knowledge sets. But more importantly, it is a very odd omniscient being that has total knowledge of the universe, but doesn’t have the kind of knowledge that ordinary, fallible human beings have. Very odd.

Or you could argue, similarly, that God can obtain phenomenological knowledge through some other mechanism besides becoming embodied and actually doing certain activities (or taking control of human bodies engaged in those activities). But this is logically incoherent: phenomenological knowledge just is the knowledge that we gain from being embodied and experiencing the world.

I am curious if anyone sees an obvious flaw in my argument.

Willing and Normativity: Part Two

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

At the end of the post “Willing and Normativity: Part One,” I argued that even though we had established the categorical imperative is the law of rational agents, we had not gotten to where we needed to be because of the range problem. What is needed is to tie these discussions with our own practical identities.

There are two very important reasons why any account of normativity must be tied, in some way, to our practical identities.

1. The demandingness of morality: morality is hard. Sometimes it even requires that we die rather than do something wrong. The only way I can see this making sense is if we would, in some way, die or cease to be if we did wrong. Think of the remarkable statement, “I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.” Or, “I could do that, but it just wouldn’t be me” or “I am not that guy.”

2. Identities are the source of obligation. Think on it. Where do our day to day obligations come from? They are the obligations that stem from us being friends, lovers, citizens, teammates, or professionals. And these roles are the components of our practical identity. So any theory that wants to show how our obligations can be normative must deal with that identity.

But there is a sense in which our moral obligations trump our other identities. Our response to the gangster or the deceitful womanizer who says, “That’s who I am” is “Well, you’d better damn well change.” We say the same thing to the person who lines up in a firing squad or appears on a concentration camp walls saying, “I do this for my country.” So, our moral identity is, in a sense, deeper than our other identities, and we have to be able to explain why that is.

But, as I alluded to at the end of the last post, there is a “gap” in my argument that the categorical imperative is the law of rational agents. And that is, we need to show that the domain of the categorical imperative for an individual agent is all rational agents and not just herself. The identity that Kant relies on to motivate our following the Moral Law is our identity as citizens in the Kingdom of Ends.

Thus, my account of normativity is going to rely on the idea that our identity as citizens in the Kingdom of Ends (thus solving the range problem) is deeper and more fundamental than our other contingent identities. This explains why the obligations of our contingent identities often have to face a trial by fire in the face of our moral obligations.

But how do we show the priority or depth of our moral identity when compared to our identities as friends, siblings, citizens, or lovers? The Korsgaardian answer is that operating as a citizen in the Kingdom of Ends is constitutive of having an identity at all. To put it more formally, acting according to the categorical imperative is the constitutive standard of possessing any identity whatsoever.

Before we proceed, let’s talk about what constitutive standards are. Let us take the constitutive standards of building a house. Constitutive standards are founded in the purpose of the object. In this case, the purpose of a house is to provide shelter. The walls are linked tightly with a roof placed on top, with insulation and strong materials. A good house is simply a house that fits those constitutive standards well (as opposed to the house being a good thing for the neighborhood or the environment or whatever). Producing a good house is not a different activity from producing a house, it is simply the same activity done well.

Now let’s look at a giraffe. What are the constitutive standards of being a giraffe? Well, the purpose of a giraffe is to…continue being a giraffe. This is where we get the activities of a giraffe: nutrition, reproduction, digestion, respiration, and the like. And this makes sense of the notion that things can go better or worse for a giraffe. But more importantly, it must be seen that being a giraffe is an activity, not a state. It is only by artificially slicing up the giraffe (heh…a temporally extended rabbit part) that we see being a giraffe as a state. Being an unhealthy giraffe is not different from being a healthy giraffe, it is the same activity poorly done. Korsgaard puts it this way, “Living things are continuously engaged in the activity of self-constitution.”

The same applies to our identities, to our personhood. A person is different from being an animal in that a person is a rational being, a self-conscious causality. To be a person is to be constantly engaged in the self-conscious activity of making oneself into a person. Being self-conscious means we have to be governed by some kind of practical identity. We might reject some parts of our identity or consider other parts more important upon reflection, but it is certainly true that we must have an identity-a self conception-of some kind.

And being a person, like being a giraffe, is a kind of activity. We make ourselves into what we are. In fact, that is what having an identity means. It is the self-conscious choice (perhaps not all the time, but at least some of the time it is self-conscious; other times we take shortcuts) to continually re-make oneself in a particular way. Now, the content of those choices is provided by the natural and social contingent circumstances of our existence. But, just as the materials used to make a house are different from the form of a house so are the content of the maxims of our action different from their form.

But what does it precisely mean to talk about our identity as “citizens in the kingdom of ends”? In order to answer that question, let us look at Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative:

1. The Formula of Universal Law: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.

2. The Formula of Humanity: So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time an end, never as a mere means.

3. We must see ourselves as a legislative members in the Kingdom of Ends.

What should be noted is that, for Kant, each formulation is equivalent. Being a member in the Kingdom of Ends just means that you follow the other two formulations (as well as the hypothetical imperative: If I will that I do X, then I also will the means to X).

Now, in order for our membership in the Kingdom of ends to be a fundamental and unavoidable, it must be the basis for our having an identity at all. That is, the categorical and hypothetical imperatives are the constitutive standards for having an identity (for being a person) just like the principles for creating a shelter (linking the walls, putting a roof on top etc) are the constitutive standards for building a house.

I don’t really have the space to parse out the consequences (or even argue for each step fully), but you can see how this might work. Categorical (and hypothetical) imperatives are the principles of a self-conscious causality: of a being that takes itself as the originator of actions. And if we accept the idea that being a person consists in actions. That is, being a person is fundamentally an activity of creating, endorsing, maintaining and reproducing one’s identity. If so, then the constitutive standards of being a person (or being an agent) at all are the Kantian imperatives.

And this explains normativity. Normativity arises because one can fail to act properly or recreate one’s self effectively or autonomously. If one cannot fail to act, then the idea of normativity makes no sense. I believe this idea comes from Wittgenstein, who argued similarly about speech acts: there are have to be public standards of communication, otherwise it makes no sense to have “a failure to communicate.” You can make a house poorly, and you can be a bad person.

I am not going to say that I have come close to proving these claims. Rather, I have pointed at one possible way that Kantian constructivism can run. And I think this is a very promising account indeed. But all forms of Kantian constructivism I think have this in common: they all try to show that the categorical imperative is the law governing the rational will, but how that is linked to human life, actions, and morality is distinctive. I have merely argued from the standpoint of the thinker I have found most convincing: Professor Christine Korsgaard.

If you are interested in reading Professor Korsgaard’s account in greater detail, I recommend you go here ( and scroll down to her Locke Lectures (there are 6). They are all accessible and interesting, with good exegesis of Hume, Aristotle, and Plato as well as Kant.

Next up: one major difficulty that I find with the Korsgaardian account. And a discussion of constructivism versus realism.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Left-libertarianism again.

[Guest post by David Killoren]

Richard's posted recently about left-libertarianism. Here I'll just say a few things, in no particular order, about that view. There will not be much in the way of argument here; this will be mostly a series of pronouncements.

First of all, as Richard notes, various libertarians who advocate property rights typically start out with the claim that agents "fully own themselves," and move from there to the claim that agents have property rights which extend over other things, e.g. the products of their own labor. This, however, is not the direction of inference I prefer; I don't think it is obvious that agents own themselves, so I don't think it is legitimate to begin by making that claim. In my own view, the beginning should be with the claim that legitimate property rights derive from the creative activity of an agent, and extend over whatever is the product of the agent's creative acts. And I think that agents fully own themselves only insofar as they are the products of their own creative acts.

So, I think that while it is neither obvious nor self-evident that agents own themselves, it is self-evident that a creator has some sort of right to freely use and dispose of her creation. Let me put that latter point in a slightly different, perhaps more correct, way. Suppose you and I disagree about what ought to be done with some object; you want to dispose of it one way, and I want to dispose of it another way. I think it is self-evidently true that, if I am the object's creator, then that is a reason why our dispute should be resolved in my favor. Perhaps this reason can be overridden by other reasons, but, according to me, there is automatically some weight thrown behind the wishes of a creator for her creation. The claim that such weight gets thrown is a claim which I will call "the creator principle," and my assertion is that the creator principle is self-evidently true.

"If it weren't for me --": sentences that begin that way usually end up asserting some right to something or other. Suppose I spend the day making a quilt. You want the quilt. "But it's my quilt," I say, "because if it weren't for me, there wouldn't be any quilt." I think that when we say things like this, we aren't simply basing our claims of ownership on the above counterfactual conditional. I think what we mean is to say that since I am somehow the cause of the quilt, you can't have the quilt unless I'm willing to give it to you. Why is this line of reasoning so routinely held to be valid? I don't have any good explanation. I can only report that it does seem, to me and to many other people, to be valid.

Another example: Many (most? all?) of the people who believe that God created the world, also believe that having created the world entitles God to do pretty much whatever he wants with, or to, the world. God, they will say, may destroy the world, or abandon it, or turn it into a paradise, or do whatever he wants. If you want to argue with such people, you are better off trying to show that God did not create the world; it will be difficult to convince them that even if God did create the world, he still isn't entitled to dispose of it however he pleases. They are likely to think that the latter assertion is self-evidently false, and that its negation is self-evidently true.

I think this example does show that people do, in a kind of automatic way, ascribe special rights to a creator, deriving from his or her creative activity. Of course, since people do all sorts of stupid and groundless things automatically, I don't expect the above example to be particularly convincing to anyone. But perhaps by considering this or similar cases in more depth, something convincing might emerge.

By the way: Human creative activity is, of course, not at all like divine creative activity, and this makes application of the "creator principle" to human situations a bit more complicated. Whereas if God wanted a chair, he would simply will it into being, a human being who wants a chair must begin with some raw material -- a piece of wood, say -- and chop away at it until it takes the shape of a chair. Since human beings do not create the raw material of the world, they cannot, by means of the creator principle, lay claim to that raw material. This, I think, is the basis of a rationale for the left-libertarian view that natural resources should belong to everyone in common, and to nobody in particular. One can argue that, in the case of chair-making, for instance, the chair-maker does not own the wood out of which his chair is made, but does own the change made to the wood, since the change is what the chair-maker has created. This change is the difference between the chair and the wood. So, what the chair-maker owns is not a chair; it is rather a chair "minus" the wood out of which it is made. Metaphysically, this is weird, but I think it can be worked out, although I won't attempt to work it out here.

I'll finish by saying this: Besides the creator principle, I think there are other, conflicting principles, which are also self-evidently true. For instance, I think that some principle, asserting that there is some presupposition in favor of those policies or political institutions which maximize aggregate human well-being, is self-evidently true. Perhaps there are other self-evidently true principles (e.g. egalitarian ones); however, I can report that, when I consider questions about public policy or political institutions, these are the two principles which seem to be most pressing. Anyway my view is that, in the sorts of issues with which libertarians concern themselves, weight gets thrown behind more than one sort of claim, and that the correct decisions, policies and political institutions can be identified by watching the resultant interplay and conflict among those claims.

The Categorical Imperative

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

We ended Part One with the idea that the categorical imperative must be the law under which rational beings act. And contrary to Hegel, the categorical imperative is not an empty formalism in the sense that it allows or prohibits everything. Before we move on to the domain problem, I would like to give a short discussion on how the first formulation (the Formula of Universal Law) of the categorical imperative works.

Let’s take Kant’s famous example: you are strapped for cash, need it badly, and the only way to get is to lie to someone (or a bank) that you will pay it back. So, you plan to tell a lie in order to get some money.

The first thing to do is to formulate your maxim, which follows the lines of “I will do Act-A in order to achieve Purpose-P.” The foundation of this maxim is the idea of a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative is an imperative of the will: If will End-E, then I will the means to that end. Kant believed that this was analytic based on the concept of willing. If you will an end, and you take yourself as a being that wills (that is, as a cause of something), then you must will the means to that end. If you don’t, then how are you taking yourself as the cause of the end? It’s a pipe dream, not a willing, otherwise.

So, we start with a valid and true hypothetical imperative: If I will that I get ready cash, then I will that I make a false promise to repay a loan.” And you turn it into a categorical imperative: I make a false promise in order to get ready cash.

Now what? We imagine what the world would be like if everyone in world adopted that maxim under those circumstances. That is, whenever someone needed money, they would make a false promise in order to get it. This is the World of the Universalized Maxim. Imagine further that this is along the lines of natural law (gravity pulls things to earth) and is well known.

And now the 64 dollar question: can you still act on your maxim? No you cannot. Your maxim fails because, as a practical matter, it no longer works. In the World of the Universalized Maxim, no one is going to believe you when you make your false promise. It will be laughed at as a “vain pretense.” The effectiveness of your false promise depends on you being an exception to the rule that people generally promise truly. Take that general rule away, and promising as an institution disappears. Without people generally trusting promises to repay money, your false promise will be ineffective in gaining any actual money.

Thus, you cannot simultaneously will your maxim and will that everyone adopt it. You have contradicted yourself. Thus, giving a false promise in order to gain ready cash is impermissible.

Recommended Reading:

-Korsgaard, “The Formula of Universal Law” in Creating the Kingdom of Ends

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Willing and Normativity: Part One

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

(Nota bene: What follows is a story that is unapologetically Korsgaardian, so it should not be taken as representative of Neo-Kantian constructivism. They all have their unique elements.)

How does the issue of normativity arise? It arises because we are self-conscious causalities. That is, we face the problem of morality because we have to decide what to do. If we weren’t causalities, like a rock or a chair, then there would be no problem of morality or of normativity. If we weren’t self-conscious about our causality, like a worm or a dog, then likewise the issue of normativity wouldn’t arise. The real problem of morality is that we can reflect upon our values and might decide that we aren’t justified in having them.

From the standpoint of the agent (first-person), the agent is presented with many desires (or as Kant calls them, incentives) vying for attention. But above those desires there is something that is you, something that ultimately has to endorse one of those desires in order to act. If I desire to go to a party, but also desire to study and do well on the test, I cannot simultaneously endorse (i.e. act upon) both desires. In order to act at all, I must pick the desire that I act upon, I must choose (We’ll get to the incompatibilist/ compatibilist discussions a little bit later).

To see why this must be so, let’s consider a paradigm case where it isn’t: addiction. In the most extreme forms of addiction, one desire simply takes control of you. In this case, a behavior is imposed on you to the point where it seems improper to say that you are the one acting at all. To be a self-conscious causality is to see oneself as a cause that acts upon reasons based upon desires that one reflectively endorses.

So, when we will an action we are responding to a reason, but it is a reason that results from us endorsing a particular desire. Now, if we stop here we are still far away from Kant and certainly far away from any kind of normativity. To get to Kant, we have to think on the argument in the beginning of the Section of 3 of the Groundwork.

Kant puts the reflective problem I mention above in terms of freedom. A free will is an autonomous causality. Because we are causalities, we have to operate according to laws. But we are autonomous causalities, so we cannot have an external law be imposed upon us. Nothing can determine, in advance, what the content of that law will be, so the only requirement of an autonomous will is that it will universal laws (which is redundant, laws that govern causes must be universal). Now consider the first formulation of the categorical imperative: "I ought never to act except in such a way that my maxim should be a universal law." A free will must act according to universal laws, and that is all the (first formulation) of the categorical imperative demands of us: that when we act, the only thing that determines our will must be a law.

Furthermore, consider what happens when we try to deny that our willing must be, in some important sense, universal. Well, if willing doesn’t have to be universal, then it can be one hundred percent particular. But particularistic willing is a very strange animal indeed. Particularistic willing is not "willing a different maxim" for each situation because every situation might be importantly different, thus justifying a different universal law for each situation. Nor is it endorsing whatever your strongest desire happens to be because you are still following the universal law: "I will do whatever my strongest desire is." And for similar reasons, particularistic willing cannot be something like egoism. Rather, particularistic willing must involve simply bouncing from one desire to another as soon as it seizes you, without reflection. You cannot see that desire as being representative of a general type of incentive; you must be entirely taken with the utterly particular nature of the incentive. But this is makes particularistic willing impossible. To quote Korsgaard:

"This means that the person who wills [particularistically] is at each moment identified entirely with ultimately particular incentive which he endorses. But that in turn means that particularistic willing eradicates the distinction between a person and the incentives on which he acts. And I think that means there is nothing left that is the person, the agent, whose will is distinct. He is not one person, but a series, a mere conglomeration, of unrelatedly causally effective impulses. There is no difference between someone who has a particularistic will and someone who has no will at all… (My emphasis)."

Remember our reflective structure: above our incentives there is something that is us. But if we will particularistically, then that part disappears leaving us unable to will anything at all. So particularistic willing is impossible.

Okay, let’s take stock at this point. The reflective structure of ourselves as self-conscious causalities gives rise to the requirement (both through Korsgaard’s and Kant’s arguments) that our willing use universal laws. And since this is the sole requirement of the categorical imperative, we can conclude that the categorical imperative must be our law. The categorical imperative is at least part of the constitutive standards of willing.

But this isn’t the end of the story because we need to demonstrate that the range of the categorical imperative for a free will (i.e. self conscious causality) is that of all rational beings. But that is the subject for the next post.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Introductory Materials

[Guest post by Pat Smith]

Hello, everyone. I’d like to start off by thanking Richard for letting me to guest blog and by pointing out that Richard is totally, totally wrong. But I am getting ahead of myself. We'll get to that later in the week.

In my humble opinion, the rise of Neo-Kantian constructivism is the most exciting development in ethics in the 20th century (and, um, the 21st so far). So, I hope I can convey that excitement as well as what I think is deeply right about it. I also apologize to those more knowledgeable if some of the stuff I start off with is review,

Neo-Kantian constructivism began with John Rawls and his work leading up to and including A Theory of Justice, but his influence in this regard isn’t reducible to his published work on the matter. Rather, it was his role as graduate adviser that lead to his views on Kantian ethics being developed and moved more fully into the academic public eye. Barbara Herman, Onora O’Neil, and Christine Korsgaard were all students of Rawls who have been instrumental in refining (and making their own) the view of Kant you can find in Rawls’ work.

But, as way of introduction, I want to discuss what is required of a moral theory. I think a normative moral theory has at least three responsibilities (Sources of Normativity 12-18):

1. A moral theory must account for the certain facts of our psychology and our moral experience. That is, if a person thinks that something is wrong, they take it as a reason not to do it and are generally motivated not to do it (this isn’t to take sides in internalism/externalism debate, which is an argument over the conceptual connection between being motivated to do X and thinking that X is the right thing to do). Furthermore, morality is often demanding. It asks us to do things we don’t want to do, even unto death. These psychological and conceptual facts require explanation. Let us call this the requirement of explanatory adequacy.

2. A moral theory must also provide justification to those who are actually acting. If a moral theory can explain why we act morally from a third person perspective but are simply unacceptable (or in some way incoherent) to the person who is trying to figure out what to do have to be discarded. We need to not only know what we think the right thing to do is and why we are motivated by that thought, but also that we really ought to do it. By addressing us as agents deciding what to do and justifying our normative beliefs/actions, we can say that an account is normatively adequate.

3. This gives rise to what Korsgaard calls the requirement of transparency. That is, if a moral theory is explanatorily dependent on the source of morality being hidden from us, then it fails as a normative account. Suppose you have a moral theory that says, "Morality is simply a hidden way for those in power to keep power." Well, if we come to believe this account, then our own commitment to acting morally would be weakened. If so, then something has gone very wrong if you want to account for the normativity of morality.

These will be important later on because I think that consequentalism fails on counts 2 and 3, and I hope to demonstrate that later in the week. Next up, Neo-Kantian constructivism defined and defended. I know you all can’t wait.

Recommended Reading:
1. John Rawls: A Theory of Justice and Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (the Kant chapters)
2. Christine Korsgaard: The Sources of Normativity
3. Barbara Herman: The Practice of Moral Judgment
4. Onora O'Neil: Constructions of Reason

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Guest Bloggers

After I get some sleep, I'll be off to Australia for the week (returning next Sunday night). It is with great pleasure that I introduce the three guest-bloggers who will be tending to this blog in my absence:

Jonathan Ichikawa - of Fake Barn Country fame - will be blogging here part-time. I'm especially honoured to have Jonathan visit, as he was something of a role-model for me when I first started blogging. I've enjoyed discussing his views on dreams and imaginings in the past. If we're lucky, he might offer some more thoughts on these topics during his stay here.

David Killoren of E.G. will be posting on a variety of topics, possibly including our ongoing discussion of value paradoxes -- the most recent installment of which can be found here.

Last but not least, Patrick Smith of Tiberius and Gaius Speaking will offer a neo-Kantian perspective, in contrast to my unrepentant consequentialism. He'll probably try to convince you all that I'm terribly misguided. So don't believe everything he says ;-)

Welcome all, I hope you enjoy your stay! Feel free to introduce yourselves further, or dive right into the philosophy, as you prefer.

Red Pill: Truth and Certainty

[The following is a short article I wrote for Canta magazine's new philosophy column: "Take the Red Pill". The next edition comes out Wednesday.]

You might think that philosophy just involves arguing around in circles, never getting anywhere. You might think that all opinions are of equal merit. You'd be wrong.

Some positions are better justified than others: supported by stronger evidence or better reasons. Sad to say, we often believe things without good reason, having been misled by bad arguments or wishful thinking. Philosophy aims to expose such errors and help us to discover which positions are in fact supported by the best reasons, and so most likely to be true.

You might be suspicious of the notion of 'truth', supposing that it leads to dogmatism. There's no denying that the zealot who believes himself in possession of the "absolute Truth" can be a right pain in the ass. You might think it more humble or tolerant to believe instead that truth is "relative", that what is true for you might not be true for me. But again, you would be mistaken.

The problem with the zealot is not that he believes there is one right answer out there. Rather, the problem is that he mistakenly takes himself to know it. It's absolute certainty, not truth, which we should be wary of. A more rational person would recognize that, although there may be just one true answer, he can't be entirely sure of what it is. It's possible that he could be in error – that the truth of the matter wasn't as he believed it. That's not to say that truth is relative. Not at all. Rather, it is simply to recognize that we are all fallible. The truth is out there, but whether we've grasped it is another question entirely.

Indeed, absolute certainty is almost never justified. Think about it: can you be certain that you're not dreaming, hallucinating, or immersed in a Matrix-like world of deception? Can you prove that the world wasn't created just five minutes ago, complete with false memories and all? It seems not. In most cases, then, our knowledge is fallible. No matter how well-justified our beliefs, it's always possible - if unlikely - that the truth lies elsewhere.

Remarkably, such admissions of fallibility do not seem open to the relativist. If truth is whatever each individual believes, then he cannot be mistaken about what is "true for him". No matter the weight of evidence against him, the relativist can reply, "maybe that's true for you, but it isn't for me!" He can block his ears from the demands of reason and reality, and hold unwaveringly to his own dogma. So long as he continues to believe it, then that makes it "true for him", and to the relativist that's good enough.

Once we note the distinction between truth and certainty, it becomes clear that the latter merits more suspicion. Indeed, far from posing a threat to open-minded tolerance, the notion of objective truth might prove an essential weapon against irrational dogmatists.

Kiwi Carnival #3

The third Kiwi Carnival is now up at No Right Turn.

Freedom and Fallacies

Nigel of Kiwi Pundit explains why he doesn't think much of the notion of substantive freedom. Unfortunately, his post exhibits some serious misunderstandings. (It doesn't help that he offers his readers no direct links to the ideas of mine to which he claims to be responding.)

For example, it simply isn't true that substantive freedom "means the same as standard of living". This conflates the distinct concepts of opportunities and material welfare. The difference is made clear by Nigel's own case of the well-provided slave. Having a big-screen T.V. is no guarantee that you are able to pursue the life you want to live. The slave might be rich, but insofar as he is forced to pick cotton, and otherwise do his master's bidding, then he lacks substantive freedom.

The most we can say is that he has more freedom (because more opportunities) than a slave who is locked in a dungeon all day and so prevented from pursuing anything he values in life. Perhaps the first slave is at least free to develop his mind, look after his family, enjoy some leisure, etc. But one cannot conclude from this that he is "free", simpliciter. An important implication of my position, after all, is that there are degrees of freedom -- it's not an "all or nothing" binary concept.

So, to clarify: although increasing the standard of living will generally tend to increase the number of valuable opportunities open to people, and thus their 'substantive freedom', these are nevertheless distinct concepts, and ought not to be conflated.

Nigel goes on to misapply my "well" example. He thinks it involves an "unspoken assumption" (though one he agrees with) that "B ought to release A from the well". He then goes on to interpret it as concerning "what the government can justify forcing us to do". But that is not the purpose of the well example. I use it merely to demonstrate that negative freedom, i.e. freedom from interference, is not the (only) sort of freedom that we really value. (If you think the man stuck down the well lacks freedom, then you are forced to go beyond negative freedom, for he has no lack of that.) That is all. Period. It is not about morality, or politics, or justified coercion. It is simply about the concept of freedom. It makes no assumptions about whether freedom ought to be promoted. That's a separate question. And the well example is surely too unusual to serve as a practical example concerning political intervention (as Nigel's fumbling attempts demonstrate). Better examples might involve education or basic healthcare rather than wells.

The political question -- as independent from the conceptual question -- is addressed in my post: Enabling Humanity. There I argue that we should take the promotion of substantive freedom (rather than negative freedom, or even material welfare) as our core political value. That is, we should aim to enable as many people as possible to lead the lives they want to live. I leave open the empirical question of how best to achieve this. (Obviously it will need to take incentives and similar issues into account.)

I do tentatively suggest that an unconditional basic income, to complement the market economy, would likely be beneficial in this respect. But Nigel hasn't addressed any of the arguments I present in the linked posts (as opposed to his blanket dismissal of "socialist policies"). Indeed, he hasn't really addressed any of my arguments at all.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Philosophers' Carnival #16

The sixteenth Philosophers' Carnival is now up at Dinner Table Donts. Fittingly enough, Peter has presented it around the theme of a dinner party, with 18 "guests" presenting their entries. I appear to be a particularly unruly dinner guest ;-)

In addition to the fun presentation, the entries look interesting too. Go see for yourself...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Multi-Dimensional Time

Blar's sharp comment raises some objections to the temporal character of my "You are God" religion. He suggests that I'm "going to have to do some fancy philosophical footwork to support [my] theology". My mental jig follows; I hope it is sufficient to assuage his doubts. (Later in the post I argue that presentists are committed to infinitely many temporal dimensions. You may wish to read that bit even if you don't care for my theology.)

The first thing to note is that my theology implicitly suggests a separate temporal dimension for 'God-time', since God's consciousness jumps back and forth in physical time, reliving the same physical time-periods over and over from different human perspectives. Any such time-travel presupposes a separate dimension of time for the traveller, for how else can we make sense of the claim that he experiences the physically-earlier moment after the physically-later one? The scale we measure this against obviously is not the scale of physical time.

Now, on to Blar's objections:
One concern is that your theology may entail a kind of partial predestination. I am God now. Out of the 6 billion people in the world, my best guess is that about half of them have already been God. Every aspect of my life that influenced the 3 billion people who already lived must already have been determined before I was born... Sequential God-lives create a similar problem with respect to morality... It is not clear that morality/rationality says that you should care about making your past life better, and, depending on how your theology deals with the problem of causality and partial predestination, it may not even be possible.

The implication is that we/God (seemingly) should not care about anyone older than ourselves, since their entire life has already been and gone in God's experience. We should only care about younger people, since those are the ones which God/us is yet to live through.

To avoid these problems (of predestination and moral rationality), we should take physical time as fundamental. Divine time emerges out of this, by "replaying" periods of physical time from a new perspective.

What this means is that the apparent temporal orderings are merely illusory. It is not the case that the first person lives their whole life and makes all of their causal contributions to the world before the second person gets to do anything. No. Physical contemporaries are genuinely contemporary in their causal impact. The lexical ordering (whereby God makes all of his choices as person 1 before making any as person 2) only occurs within "God-time": that is, the ordering of appearances within God's consciousness. This has no impact whatsoever upon the physical universe. Physical time behaves normally.

Let's clarify this with an example. Suppose young Biff is choosing whether to hit old lady Sue. In physical time, Biff's violent decision A occurs before the event B of Sue getting hit. Whether or not Sue gets hit depends upon Biff's decision, just as we would normally expect: A causally influences B. By contrast, God will experience the outcome B (as Sue) before he experiences the making of the decision A (as Biff). However, it is the former dimension of time that is fundamental.

Blar worries that the order of God's experiences suggests that B is fundamentally prior to A. Once B happens, and happens "first", then A is predetermined. Once God is conscious as Biff, he is forced by fate into making violent decision A. Alternative possibilities are not open to him. That is the concern. (The point is stronger if we assume incompatibilism between free will and determinism.)

But it gets things backwards. Once we make physical time fundamental, these problems disappear. A causes B, not vice versa. A is not predetermined by B. Although God experiences B first, that is just the order of appearances in his consciousness.

It is a proven fact that orderings in "experienced time" can diverge from the objective (physical) order of events -- see here. In the discussed "cutaneous rabbit" experiment, whether one experiences the second tap as on their wrist or further up their arm will depend upon where (and whether) subsequent taps occur. The (objectively) later event affects our (subjectively) earlier consciousness. I am suggesting that God-time is like this. Whether God-as-Sue experiences B (the subjectively earlier, but objectively later event) will depend upon whether he-as-Biff makes the violent decision A (the subjectively later, but objectively earlier event).

So it is still rational to be nice to older people. If God-as-Biff hits Sue, then that will cause God-as-Sue to feel pain, even though God experiences being hit (or not) subjectively-before he-as-Biff makes the violent decision. If Biff chose a more peaceful path, then he would avoid the subjectively-earlier sensations of pain (experienced when God is incarnate as Sue). I hope by now it's reasonably clear why this is indeed coherent.

I think my elaborations here successfully counter Blar's objections. If he agrees, I look forward to him converting to my religion -- which, by the way, needs a name. Any suggestions?

One final point of interest: We may in fact need at least three dimensions of time. I noted above that the time-traveller and the cutaneous rabbit both involve temporal dimensions distinct from physical time. But they are also distinct from each other. The time traveller's temporal dimension is objective, like the physical. It could even apply to molecules, for example. (The time-travelling molecule goes backwards through physical time as its traveller-time progresses forwards.) The cutaneous rabbit, by contrast, involves subjective time which is inherently representational. A molecule could not have subjective time. It has no 'order of appearances', since it is not conscious and so is not "appeared to" by anything.

But one might plausibly deny that subjective time is really time at all. It is rather the appearance of time. (When I say 'order of appearances', I really mean 'the appearance of an ordering'.) This could simplify my theology. We could simply deny that the God-lives are really sequential. Rather, they appear to God as if sequentially. God seems to live all of person 1's life, then all of person 2's, and so forth. But there isn't really any time-travel going on here. It's just an illusion, a representation of temporal orderings, nothing more. If one further denies the possibility of time-travel, then we are back at the standard one-dimensional view: the only time is physical time.

Actually, there's more: only eternalists can be one-dimensional about time. If you're a presentist and believe that there is a "moving 'now'", an ever-changing one-true-present, then you are committed to infinite temporal dimensions.

For what is the 'now' moving through? Clearly not physical time, as that is instead what it moves along. To see the difference, suppose that the moving now started moving backwards in physical time. That is, it moves from 14 July, to 13 July, and so forth. As the 'now' progresses (along what?), it goes backwards in physical time. The "along what?" dimension cannot be physical time, because that is regressing, not progressing. It must be some meta-time: a 'traveller-time' dimension for the 'now' to move along.

This then threatens infinite regress, as one can raise questions about what the 'now' is moving through as it moves along meta-time. We seem to require a meta-meta-time. And so forth. (I think this argument is from McTaggart. It was discussed in philosophical logic class today, anyway. Fascinating stuff.) So I'd recommend ditching presentism - again - unless you're willing to accept an infinite number of temporal dimensions.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Guest-bloggers Wanted

Update: It's all sorted now. I'm very excited about the great line-up we'll have here next week. I'll offer more details and introductions on Sunday before I leave. Original post follows below the fold...
I'll be away in Australia all next week, without regular internet access. So I'd like to find a couple of volunteers to pick up the slack by "guest-blogging" here while I'm gone. Ideally, I'd want someone who has a style of argumentation similar to my own (though if it leads you to different conclusions, that's fine) -- in other words, a strong commitment to analytic philosophy.

As far as the guest posts go, I'd be much more interested in quality rather than quantity: so even if you just write two or three substantial posts during the week, that'd be great. (Especially if I could get two or three such volunteers, so as to add up to roughly daily postings in total.)

If you're interested, please send me an email within the next day or two, as I'd like to have this all sorted out by Friday. It would be especially helpful if you could include a brief overview of what you might post about -- just to give me a rough idea. (For example, if you have a blog of your own already, you might take advantage of the new audience by reproducing or 'remixing' some of your favourite past posts and ideas.) But don't worry about the C.V. ;-)

You are a God

A more whimsical - though very attractive - answer to the Big Question of locative consciousness is provided by the neat religion that Patrick and I invented last year. I guess you might classify it as a form of pantheism. The core idea is that there is only one 'pure ego' or subject of conscious experience - let's call him 'God'. God is sequentially reincarnated as every conscious being that ever lived (including future times). He lives one human life, dies, pauses in limbo for a while to "think deep thoughts" (as Paul Studmann would say!), and then is reborn as the next person. Of course, he loses all his memories and divine powers while human. But he regains them again after each death, and so spends his time in limbo reflecting upon his experiences, fitting the new things he's learnt into his general knowledge structures, and so forth.

For an interesting twist, we might stipulate that God lacks omniscience, instead beginning existence as a 'blank slate', and learning everything he knows from his human lives. I cannot imagine any other theological position which gives more value, dignity, and sheer importance to human lives. Can you?

It might even serve to make sense of Christianity. Having children inherit the blame for their ancestor's Original Sin might actually make sense if they are all the same person/ego. It would just be God punishing himself for his own shortcomings. A little odd still, for sure, but at least no longer grossly unjust. And Jesus? Well, he is the one time God decided to retain his divinity whilst incarnate. Sound good? And it would make more sense of the atonement of crucifixion, as God died for his own sins, and so that he himself might be forgiven. None of this 'whipping boy'-style injustice. There would be some theological costs too, admittedly. The notion of salvation no longer makes much sense, since there are no souls besides God in any case. But at least this allows you to avoid the argument from hell. So I encourage all Christians to convert to my denomination! (I personally would leave all of that out of my own religion, of course. I'm merely suggesting that the potential is there to make the core idea more compatible with Christianity, if you're really into that kinda thing.)

Another interesting implication of this view is that it gives the strongest possible answer to the Why Be Moral? question. Indeed, the Golden Rule takes on a whole new meaning: whatever you "do unto others" will be "done unto you" in your other lives! Utilitarianism is looking pretty good right now... and wouldn't it make those who put forward the "separateness of persons" objection look silly! (Though the rationality of my mocking them right now is questionable. Either the mockery is unjustified or else, if I'm right, then I'm really just mocking another incarnation of myself! Oh dear.)

Anyway, back to the main point: I was wanting to answer the question, why am 'I' the subject of Richard Chappell's conscious experiences, rather than someone else's? I gave my sensible answer in the previous post. But my whimsical theological answer is that there is no "rather" about it! I am the subject of all experiences. It just happens to be Richard Chappell's "turn" at the moment. I was you a few incarnations ago. (Alternatively: you will be me in a few reincarcations' time.) We are all the same one conscious ego. We are, each of us, God.

The Camera of Consciousness

Perhaps my favourite of the mind-boggling Big Questions is the one that asks, "Why am I me and not someone else?"

Note that this is not really a question about ontological identity. It's not like asking why this chair is not instead a table, or anything silly like that. I'm not asking why the physical object denoted by 'Richard Chappell' is not instead some other object. That would be silly. Rather, it is a question about the location of my consciousness. I am asking why I (the Cartesian 'pure ego') happen to have my 'camera of consciousness' located in Richard Chappell. Why isn't my camera located somewhere else? Why don't I instead see the world from some other perspective?

Nor is it a question about access consciousness per se. Richard Chappell can only access the information that is stored in his brain. He doesn't have direct access to the brains of other people. He isn't surprised by this (and nor am I). What is surprisingly is the locative fact that I = Richard Chappell. Again, why am I - the disembodied metaphysical subject of experience that I am - not somebody else instead?

It seems that the only sensible answer is that I am not a disembodied metaphysical subject of experience! There does not exist any 'pure ego' above and beyond the physical object that is Richard Chappell. I am reducible to him. No doubt Dennett would dismiss my 'camera of consciousness' metaphor as every bit as pernicious and misleading as the Cartesian Theatre (you know, that place where consciousness 'happens'). But it's so difficult not to think of consciousness and selfhood in terms of these 'pictures', misleading though they may be. It's especially difficult to reject them when we lack sufficiently clear and developed alternative pictures to replace them with. *sigh*

Wholes as Summed Parts

Today I attended an interesting guest seminar by the famous metaphysician (metaphysicist?) Ted Sider, on Parthood. The core idea was that there seems to be a special 'intimacy' between a whole and its parts, an idea which we grope towards with such phrases as "the parts exhaust the whole", or "the whole is nothing above and beyond its parts", and so forth. Sider was exploring how best to explicate this intimacy. In particular, he examined (and rejected) the most obvious contender: the principle of "Composition as Identity", according to which the whole just is its parts (understood as a plurality).

I won't discuss Sider's main argument. You can read the paper if you're interested in that. But one thing I liked about Sider's talk was how, during question time, he clarified the often-misinterpreted gestalt motto that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts". As I've said before, the idea behind this principle is entirely compatible with reductionism. It is obviously true that the whole may possess properties which its individual parts, considered in isolation, lack. For example, water is wet, though no individual H2O atom is wet. But this problem only arises when one ignores the relations between the parts, and fails to consider them in their totality. Of course considering each part in isolation will leave out much of importance! For although no individual H2O atom is wet, a bunch of them together can be.

So, the gestalt motto is right in that the whole is more than the sum of its parts considered in isolation. But that is no threat to reductionism, for the reductionist is instead claiming that the whole is nothing above and beyond its parts considered as a totality (which includes the relations between those parts). The parts are considered in context, not in isolation. That's the crucial difference.

That's not to say that I accept Composition as Identity. I think I would prefer to introduce some sort of 'sum' function, to keep identity as a one-one relation. For note that parts are many in number, whereas the sum of the parts is one in number. The whole is also one in number. CaI treats identity as a many-one relation (holding between the *many* parts, on the one hand, and the *one* whole, on the other). Further, if the parts are many in number, and the whole is identical to the parts, then it follows that the whole is many in number too. That doesn't sound very sensible to me. So I would reject CaI - the view that the whole just is the parts - and hold instead that the whole is the sum of its parts. (I hope I've made the distinction there clear enough?)


Posts from this blog are featured in the latest editions of both the Carnival of the Capitalists and the Carnival of the UnCapitalists. This amuses me ;-)

Indexical Paradoxes

I just fell across a fascinating digression over at Maverick Philosopher:
'It is now tomorrow' is incoherent given that 'tomorrow' is a temporal indexical the referent of which is the day after the day on which the indexical in question is tokened (uttered, written, etc.) Or can a word like 'tomorrow' function both as an indexical and as a rigid designator?

Strange as it may sound, I think this might be possible. (At least, it might take as its 'base index' some time other than the time of utterance.) Consider the following piece of (bad) fiction, which I will entitle Blackout:
It is late at night, and you fear that you are being followed. You turn around, but too late -- there is a dull thud as you are hit on the head, and everything goes dark.

It is now tomorrow. You feel groggy and disoriented as rays of sunlight slip through your squinting eyelids. The End.

Now, it seems to me that, within the context of Blackout, the sentence "It is now tomorrow" makes perfect sense and even sounds fairly unremarkable. (Quick survey: do you agree, or does it intuitively sound 'wrong' or 'unnatural' to you?)

I presume that, in this context, the word 'now' is indexed to the time of utterance as usual, whereas the base index for 'tomorrow' is instead taken to be the previous moment of narration. Or something along those lines.

A similar phenomenon occurs when one stays up past midnight and wryly observes, "Hey, it is now tomorrow!" (BV's original remarks were inspired by such an offhand remark from Jim Ryan.) Again, the base index (for 'tomorrow') is not taken to be the time of utterance, but rather, the day that has just passed. One might dismiss this as merely idiomatic, and not a proper - semantically coherent - sentence. But I don't see why one couldn't just as reasonably conclude that indexicals really can take as their 'base index' a time other than the time of utterance.

I'm put in mind of the complex tenses, e.g. "By the time I'm a grandparent, I will have had children." The "had" indicates a past tense, but relative to the future "will have", rather than relative to the present as is normally the case. I don't see why we couldn't treat indexicals similarly. The base time used to index 'tomorrow' is usually the present, but perhaps it can also take other bases, in the appropriate contexts (e.g. the examples above)?

One last thought: it seems to me that the sentence "I am not here" has a similar appearance of paradoxicality to "it is now tomorrow". Do you agree? Are there any contexts in which the sentence might be true when uttered? Can you think of any other sentences like this?

Monday, July 11, 2005


Take the MIT Weblog Survey

It was less lame than I expected. I thought their automatic link-grabber was neat.

Upcoming Carnival

[Updated from July 8]

The 16th edition of the Philosophers' Carnival will be held next Friday, July 15. Entries should be in by Wednesday. Submit a post of your own here, or make a nomination to the tag: PhilosophyCarnival.

I'd also note that the third Kiwi Carnival is coming up this weekend. Follow the link for submission instructions.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Transphysicalism and Virtual Happiness

The ideal behind transhumanism is to free humanity from its biological constraints. Our frail bodies and physical environments limit us in many ways. The standard solution is to make use of technological developments that allow us greater control over the environment -- and eventually even our biological selves. But I wonder if it might be worth considering an even more radical idea. Perhaps we could shift our very medium of existence, and live in a world of our own creation -- a "virtual" world -- rather than this physical world that limits us so. Perhaps we should not stop at mere 'transhumanism', but rather, go all the way and embrace what I will call transphysicalism.

It is important to note that this virtual world would be no less "real" than our own. It would just be real in a different way. (Cf. me and David Chalmers on The Matrix.) The fundamental building blocks of our physical universe are (we may suppose) particles like quarks, electrons, and the like. Our created universe would rest upon a computational rather than physical substructure. Its fundamental building blocks would be computational 'bits'. But those bits are real, just as real as electrons, and when arranged correctly they can yield a computational representation of an object, just as particles can be arranged to form physical representations of objects. This difference in 'medium' has no intrinsic importance. And at the 'surface' level, the results would be indistinguishable.

The difference is of practical significance, though, because humans could potentially create a computational universe. I do relish that thought. We could design and build our own universe, to meet our own specifications. We wouldn't just be free from our biological constraints. We would be free from the freaking laws of nature. We could do anything!* I feel giddy just thinking about it.

Realistically,** I guess we would end up imposing our own constraints on the created world. Omnipotence would soon get boring. Humans need challenges. It sounds cliched, but often striving for a goal really is more important than attaining it. So we would need to bear that in mind, in creating a universe ideal for human flourishing. Still, I expect it should be possible to improve upon the present one.

One might question how well this fits with my desire-fulfillment theory of well-being. Recall that what matters is whether our desires are fulfilled in actual fact, not merely whether we believe them so. But the implications for transphysicalism will depend upon the content of our desires. I have previously suggested that most of our everyday desires are concerned with the "common world", i.e. whatever world it is that we happen to inhabit, which contains tables and chairs and such. It would not matter if it turned out that those tables and chairs were fundamentally constituted by computational bits rather than physical particles. If I'm in the Matrix, and I want a car, then what I desire is that I have a car in the Matrix, it doesn't matter that I don't have a car in the physical world. That turns out not to be the world that I care about. I care about this world.

Now, supposing that our current world is physical (we're not in the Matrix), could we create our own "Matrix", or computationally-based universe, and transfer our desires into that world? I see no necessary reason why not, though it would depend on the individual. Some people would be happy to pursue their projects in the computational world, and others might continue to care exclusively about the physical world. The latter group would presumably refuse to join us in moving to the new world. (That's fine, nobody's forcing them.) But the former group, at least, would have goals that can be achieved in fact through the computational world (for short, "the Matrix"). For example, a budding politician might desire to be president-in-the-Matrix. Others might merely desire to start a family***-in-the-Matrix, get a good job-in-the-Matrix, and so forth. All of these goals are indexed to the computer world. If you desire to get X-in-the-Matrix, and so you enter the Matrix and achieve X, then your desire has been fulfilled in fact. It is objectively true that you have X-in-the-Matrix. Your desire is fulfilled, it's not merely an illusion. (Alternatively: if you desire an illusion, and achieve it, then the fact that it's an illusion does not matter. You really have achieved just what you wanted.)

Now, all this has been pretty "out there" so far. It's not like any of this is going to occur within our lifetimes. But we can already take moderate steps in this direction. There are multiple "worlds" with which we interact, each offering different advantages and opportunities. Video games are an obvious example of "virtual worlds". People can create their own characters, and achieve great**** things with them. Granted, most of us don't care about such worlds very much. But if somebody really did care deeply about a virtual world, and managed to achieve many of the goals they set themselves within it, then I see no reason to deny that this would contribute value to their life, and boost their well-being.

The same goes for cyberspace more generally. Indeed, just look at blogs. We all get to create our own little worlds, our own goals, our own standards for success. And if we achieve them, then isn't that something important? Isn't that something real? I can't see any principled reason to think it any less real than success in such "socially constructed" physical arenas as sports, acting, or pop music. Obviously it doesn't come with the same incidental benefits -- you won't get rich or famous from it. But insofar as the intrinsic value of achieving one's goals is concerned, I don't see any good reason to privilege the physical world over computational ones.

So, should people be encouraged to emotionally invest more in cyber-pursuits, if this would provide them with greater chances of success than might otherwise be open to them? I'm not sure. Probably not - at least, not too much. The cyberworlds available at present are awfully limited, too "artificial", and generally not capable of providing the sort of emotional nourishment that humans need, and that - at present - only the "real" world can provide. But that is due to differences in surface structure, and to how people relate over the internet. It isn't a fundamental difference between the mediums. (As noted above, a computational world could potentially be indistinguishable from our physical world, and thus equally emotionally nourishing.)

But perhaps we can conclude that it would be desirable if cyberworlds were developed so as to become more able to provide for human needs, more able to mediate meaningful human connections, and so forth. The transphysicalist ideal might be a long way off yet, but I hope that this post has at least presented some reasons to think it worth aiming for -- a genuine 'ideal'. And in the meantime, even if it would be unhealthy to overinvest in cyberworlds, we can at least grant that they can contain value, and that some (limited) personal investments in them could well prove worthwhile.

*(Well, within logical limits.)
**(that word so does not belong in this post, ha.)
***(note that the other people you interact with would be quite real, just like you. We want to interact with real people, not artificial simulations, of course. But the computational world allows for that. It is inhabited by other real people, with whom you causally interact. Again, the only difference is that the causal interactions take place against a computational rather than physical backdrop. Cf. my comment here.)
****(by the internal standards of such worlds.)


Last week I published my 500th post. And now, this blog has just passed 50 000 visitors! My initial (non-existent) expectations for the blog have been far surpassed. Thanks to everyone... especially other bloggers generous enough to link here every now and then, and everybody who leaves interesting comments.

Update: I forgot to mention another cool stat: there are over 50 readers subscribed to this blog's atom feed with Bloglines. You guys rule. Feel free to join in the discussion with a comment some time - it'd be cool to hear from you.

"Hands-Clean Hypocrisy" Arguments

I've recently been thinking about those "hands-clean hypocrisy" (HCH) arguments which say, for example, that you shouldn't support the death penalty unless you'd be willing to carry out the executions yourself. A couple more examples pop up at Sir Humphrey's: you shouldn't advocate war unless you're willing to enlist in the army yourself, and you shouldn't eat meat unless you're willing to carry out the butchery. Do these types of arguments have any rational force?

I'm not convinced. If we try to identify the common general principle that HCH arguments are appealing to, it would appear to be something along the lines of:
(P) people ought not to encourage actions that they would not be willing to perform themselves.

But surely (P) is false. I would not want to perform open-heart surgery, or an abortion, or any other medical procedure for that matter. But I'm glad that other people are more skilled and less squeamish about such matters. Am I somehow a "hypocrite" for approving of modern medicine? That doesn't seem very plausible.

So this general principle is false. Is there any other grounding for HCH arguments? It's not necessarily inconsistent to think that something ought to be done, whilst being averse to doing it yourself. But it might involve a sort of free-riding. I think that's what's involved in the war argument, especially. For example, Looking In NZ complains:
The Left is compassionate with other people's money. The Right is patriotic with other people's lives.

The underlying principle here is that one ought not to offload the costs of one's preferences onto others. If you want the benefits of X, you should also be willing to pay the costs - don't expect others to do it for you. (I think this individualistic argument has limited applicability. It is legitimate to demand that others join you in contributing towards a morally-required common goal. Leftists are generally quite happy to pay higher taxes along with everyone else. They are not trying to be free-riders. Quite the opposite: they want everybody to pull their weight, and contribute appropriately towards the demands of social justice.)

In any case, the free-rider argument is distinct from the hands-clean one, and doesn't seem to apply at all to other cases such as butchery or capital punishment. ("You want the benefit of tasty meat, but you selfishly offload all the costs onto those poor butchers!" Doesn't quite work does it.)

In those other cases, I think the HCH argument serves as a rhetorical ploy aimed to engage one's imaginative sympathies. It doesn't really serve as an argument in itself. Rather, it is a plea to think through the real implications of your position. The point is simply to combat ignorance that arises from intellectual 'distance'. It's like saying: "Sure, you can support the death penalty from the comfort of your armchair, where you can ignore or abstract away the details - and even the death itself. But could you continue to support it after confronting the harsh reality?" If you can truly answer "yes", then that's that. The argument has no further force against you.

This "ignorance argument" is quite legitimate, I think. But it's also very weak, as the above makes clear. The literal HCH argument is an illegitimate extension of it. It makes much stronger demands (you don't just have to confront the reality of X, you must take part in it!), demands which are harder to meet, and so have greater rhetorical strength. But they're also entirely unreasonable demands. Because principle (P) is false, the mere fact that I am personally unwilling to X does not exert any rational force on me to universally denounce X (or even refrain from encouraging others to do X). Further, the charge of "hypocrisy" is smuggled in from an entirely separate argument - the "free rider" one discussed earlier - and has no basis in the present context, where the fundamental problem is supposed to be imaginative ignorance, not selfishness.

So, I conclude that HCH arguments lack rational force. Their proponents probably should be making "free-rider" or "ignorance" arguments instead. But if so, they should be clear that that's what they're doing. Avoid the rhetorical questions enquiring as to whether others are willing to get their hands dirty. It simply isn't relevant.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Wishful Thinking Alert

Ian Olasov suggests that we all 'fess up to the list of philosophical claims that we "want to be true whether or not they are." He further explains:
I write as an exercise of honesty and to put myself (and my peers) on alert for irrational convictions I may harbor or areas of thought in which I might irrationally relax my skepticism.

So, here's my list...

I want the world to be understandable:
- to me: I want amazing complexities to be explicable in terms of amazing simplicities. (Hence my attraction to metaphysical naturalism and all forms of reductionism.)

- to others: I want there to be rational pressure towards convergence in the beliefs of all sufficiently informed and rational agents. If two people disagree, I want this to be traceable to an intellectual flaw (in either knowledge or rationality) on the part of one or other party.

I want all "revealed" holy-book or tradition-based (or otherwise backward-looking) religions to be fundamentally in error, and demonstrably so. I don't care about deism though. And I would be delighted if the sort of religious picture explored here turned out to be true.

I want it to be possible to really improve the world; for left-wing political ideals (like an unconditional basic income) to be practical and successful; for egoistic and parochial doctrines to be refuted.

I want artificial intelligence to be a real possibility.

I want philosophical progress to be possible -- and actual.

Society and Morality

Many people claim that morality is defined in terms of the beliefs that are widely accepted in a society. Thus Melbourne Philosopher, for example, suggests that "it cannot, by definition, be a moral act to do something immoral in the eyes of the wider populace." Now, I think this claim is quite easy to refute. Simply approach any competant speaker of the English language, and ask them whether the sentence: "My society approves of slavery, but slavery is wrong." is a self-contradiction. It clearly isn't. So morality must not be defined in terms of societal approval after all.

Why do so many people believe a theory that's so clearly mistaken? It could arise from the failure to distinguish between descriptive and normative "morals". The former concerns those norms that happen to be accepted within a society, as a matter of descriptive fact. Normative ethics, by contrast, concerns how people ought to act, or what norms ought to be accepted by society. Hopefully you can see that these are two very different concepts. And note that moral philosophers are interested only in the latter. (The former is a subject for anthropologists.)

Another important distinction is between moral beliefs and the "truthmaker" for those beliefs. Moral facts concern not what people believe, but rather, what makes those beliefs true (if indeed they are true). It seems clear to me, given what we mean when talking about normative ethics, that moral facts are independent of what anyone happens to believe about them.* Again, this linguistic intuition is supported by the "slavery" example above.

I suspect that what really motivates many relativists is their skepticism about moral realism. They do not believe that there are any mind-independent "moral facts" existing out there in the world. Fair enough. But relativism is not the most plausible form of anti-realism. There are other, better, options. The Ethical Werewolf offers a good introduction to two of them: error theory, and simple non-cognitivism. (According to the former, moral beliefs are simply all mistaken, like religious beliefs are if God does not exist. On the latter account, moral attitudes are not beliefs at all, but rather serve to express an individual's emotive attitudes, or such like.) Better yet, one might opt for a meta-ethical theory that's closer to the borderline between realism and anti-realism, such as constructivist non-cognitivism, or reductive ethical naturalism. These provide plausible truth-makers for our moral beliefs (rather than the patently absurd** "whatever society approves of"), without committing us to the bizarre metaphysical entities of non-reductive moral realism. Follow the links for more detail.

* (At least, people's actual beliefs are irrelevant. Perhaps some particular "ideal"/hypothetical beliefs could be relevant - see here.)
** (Again, it's just clearly false on linguistic grounds. The folk concept of "morality" does not involve agent- or cultural-relativity. Any analysis which suggests otherwise is simply changing the subject.)

P.S. Don't miss Hilzoy's excellent post on why people often think that they are moral relativists when really they're not. Relatedly, David Velleman explores some reasons why people claim to be attacking "moral relativism" when their real target lies elsewhere.