Friday, March 31, 2006

Iterative Modal Theory

David Armstrong argues that there cannot be a set of all possible worlds:
Given a world with n wholly distinct elements, we can combine the elements to form 2^n possible worlds. Then we can construct a single world having non-overlapping parts parts, with a part to duplicate each of the 2^n worlds. And since this procedure is available for any set of possible worlds, there is no all-embracing set of such worlds.

The obvious parallel is with set theory. We know that there is no set of all sets. Nevertheless, there is an iterative procedure which shows us that, given a set, we can go on to form a higher-order set with a higher cardinality than the original set. Iterative set theory, which is contradiction-free as far as we know, provides a respectable way of talking about sets.

What we must accept, therefore, is an iterative conception of possible worlds. Given any world, in particular the actual world, Combinatorial principles deliver further worlds. But any attempt to form the set of all such worlds is defeated by a procedure which uses the given set to form worlds outside the set.

-- D. Armstrong, A Combinatorial Theory of Possibility, p.29.

He goes on to say that we can still speak of "all" possible worlds, so long as the universal quantifier is allowed to range over broader entities than sets (e.g. perhaps there is a "class" of all possible worlds).


NGO moral priorities

Our honours class had a fascinating guest lecture today from Thomas Pogge, who at one point suggested that NGOs/charity groups do a lot less good than they could, if only they would get their priorities straight.

Of course, some such groups are merely self-serving bureaucracies who couldn't care less about achieving real good in the world. But let's put them aside and consider more sincere organizations. Pogge briefly mentioned two major flaws that are apparently very common, even in the best of them.

Firstly, they are too reluctant to specialize, or focus their resources where they could do the most good. Many people are apparently under the illusion that "fairness" requires them to spread their aid across a range of geographic areas. But that's silly; a needy person is however needy they are, regardless of where they live. If you could save either 2000 Indian lives or else just 1000 lives spread out across the world, there's really nothing at all to be said for preferring the latter. I think this is an especially pernicious case showing how intrinsic concern for "group welfare" leads us astray. Just because you've already helped a bunch of Indian people, doesn't mean that the next Indian person in need is any less deserving of moral consideration than someone from a different group. NGOs need to be more consistently impartial in this respect, seeking to maximize wellbeing without regard for group affiliations, or any misguided desire to be "egalitarian" in one's aid across groups. (Note: giving equal aid to groups who would benefit less from it is NOT the way to show equal concern for all people.)

The second problem is that they tend to commit the "sunk cost" fallacy. That is, once a project is begun, NGOs are very reluctant to abandon it, even when it is obvious that it is going worse than expected, and that they could do much more good elsewhere. Apparently many NGOs will only withdraw after it becomes undeniable that their efforts are doing significantly more harm than good. But in fact they should be far more flexible on this front. They should withdraw even if their efforts are doing net good, so long as they could do more good by reallocating their resources elsewhere.

Really, someone ought to create a charity organization that is explicitly utilitarian in its priorities. They would do careful research into how best to allocate their resources (including, of course, the question of how much such research itself is worth, for future reference), and then follow through accordingly. Most meta-charity "watchdogs" apparently don't track outcomes at all well. They might report how much money is wasted on administrative overheads, but that's not enough. It isn't enough to know how much money was ultimately spent charitably; we also need to know how effectively it was spent. Hence the need for a more accountable business of beneficence.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Modal Plenitude and Rationalism

Intuitively, there are a vast number of possibilities, or 'ways a world could be'. The principle of plenitude says that there are enough possible worlds to cover all these vastly many possibilities, so that we aren't left with any "gaps" in modal space. But reductionists have trouble retaining this as a substantive principle. David Lewis claims that a possibility just is a world, and takes the latter as basic. So the simple statement of plenitude becomes equivalent to the trivial claim that there are as many worlds as there are, um, worlds. As Lewis admits: "That would be true even if there were only seventeen worlds, or one, or none. It says nothing at all about abundance or completeness." (On the Plurality of Worlds, p.86.)

But then, it seems, the reductionist can't really take their possible worlds as basic -- at least, not conceptually. They must define the breadth of their content against some other (rationally accessible) standard. Lewis himself opts for a "principle of recombination according to which patching together parts of different possible worlds yields another possible world." (p.87) We have horses, and horns, so we can stick them together to establish the possibility of unicorns.

(Lewis also wants to allow for the possibility of "alien" properties or individuals, that cannot be constructed out of actual world parts, but he doesn't have any way to specify or generate them. At best, he can apply the recombination rule to any given alien world, so that "[i]f there are some, there are many more." (p.92) But for all he says, there could be gaps in his modal space where possible alien worlds should be, but simply happen not to be in fact. He is thus unable to state - and meet - a fully adequate principle of plenitude.)

Let's be generous and grant that the reductionist can come up with an adequate principle of plenitude, which spells out - in nonmodal terms - how to generate the entire breadth of possibilities. It then seems that it is this specification, rather than the space of "possible worlds", which grounds his theory of modality. But note that the adequacy of any such specification depends upon its ability to accommodate our modal intuitions (about the full breadth of possibility) that hold upon rational reflection. As such, we seem left with the result that it is really this rational standard that grounds the breadth of possibility. That is, we are led away from worlds-based reductionism, and towards a form of modal rationalism.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sparse Properties

I've always found it incredibly implausible to think that properties like "being coloured if red", or even various non-trivial ones like "having four legs", should belong to our fundamental ontology. They're just obviously not fundamental components of reality. So I rejected the theory of universals, for this bloated ontology and the ludicrous claim that all objects are partly composed of indefinitely many trivial properties (e.g. "being coloured if red"). And note that trope theory faces the same problem. But the situation might improve if we distinguish between the "sparse" and "abundant" properties, holding that universals consistute only the former. As Lewis writes:
[U]niversals or tropes are credible only if they are sparse. It is quite easy to believe that a point particle divides into a few non-spatiotemporal parts in such a way that one of them gives the particle its charge, another gives it its mass, and so on. But it is just absurd to think that a thing has (recurring or non-recurring) non-spatiotemporal parts for all its countless abundant properties! And it is little better to think that a thing has a different non-spatiotemporal part for each one of its properties that we might ever mention or quantify over.

-- David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds, pp.66-67.

The sparse properties are those "perfectly natural" properties which a completed physics could uncover. They "carve [nature] at the joints" (p.60). These could plausibly be fundamental constitutents of reality. Not so for the "abundant" properties, however. Those are better understood as nominalistic constructions, perhaps as the sets of all their instances (across all possible worlds). Lewis suggests (p.56) that this construction captures one conception of the 'property' role, but for those that want to distinguish necessarily co-extensive properties (e.g. triangularity and trilaterality), we can also construct structured properties to satisfy them.

Pretty cool, really. I'm happy with the idea of sparse tropes and constructed abundant properties. Seems sensible enough, which is more than can be said of the alternatives I'd previously come across!


Indeterminate Worlds

It's possible for the future to be indeterminate. Consider a world where this is so. For ease of exposition, I will pretend that it is the actual world '@'. I'm wondering how we should describe this scenario in terms of "possible worlds" talk. Is the world '@' one where, relative to each moment, the future is indeterminate? Or should we instead say that while worlds are given a fully determinate specification, it is (as a matter of "extra-worldly" or "meta-modal" fact) indeterminate which world is actual?

Consider the idea that possible worlds explicate our intuitive notion of 'ways a world might be'. If the future is indeterminate, then we want to say that there are multiple ways it could turn out. Each 'way' should then correspond to a distinct (dynamically possible) world. The problem is then to make sense of the idea that, at present, there is exactly one "way the world is". This suggests that actuality should be identified with one possible world. Given that possible worlds are intrinsically static entities, these two conclusions are in conflict. We cannot be one world at present if we could be any of several worlds in future.

Which appearance should we reject? Suppose we reject the idea of multiple future worlds. There is just the one, presently actual, world, in which more facts will become determinate as time progresses. But then we no longer have the apparatus required to speak of the various possible futures, at least not within the 'possible worlds' framework. So this seems a bad option. We should instead take possible worlds to be maximally complete specifications of 'a way a world might be'. Then indeterminacy is an extra-worldly fact, rather than something one finds within a world. Faced with two options, we should say "it's indeterminate whether we're in world w1 or w2", rather than "in world w, it's indeterminate whether 1 or 2 is true".

This may commit us to denying that there is exactly one way the world is. But that is not so counterintuitive once we consider the future as being part of this 'way'. If the future is genuinely open, then we will want to say that it's indeterminate what 'way' the world is, in this broad, future-including, sense.

How are we to make sense of this? My post Narrow Fatalism and Open Actuality proposed that we identify actuality (at any given moment) with the set of dynamically possible worlds. (I use the term 'dynamically possible' to denote those that remain 'open' possibilities at the given time.) We may even continue to speak of "the way the world is", if we understand this as referring to the set of dynamically possible worlds rather than any one world in particular. We want "actuality" and "the way the world is" to co-refer, after all. It just requires some departure from the idea that 'ways' and 'worlds' are one and the same thing. Some ways are worlds, but others - we now find - are instead sets or pluralities of worlds.

Some might not like this picture -- perhaps due to a conviction that actuality must be exactly one possible world -- and so be led to conclude that this strong sort of "indeterminism" is strictly impossible. (I suspect that's what most philosophers would say. But I hope to claim the common folk on my side!)

Such philosophers might still leave room for a weaker sense of 'indeterminism'. While they think that the actual world (and hence, actual future) is "metaphysically fixed" -- that we are in possible world #42 whether we like it or not -- they can note that there are other possible worlds that have identical histories to ours, but divergent futures. So they can honestly say that past events alone do not determine our future. Our history is consistent with various possible futures. But there is an extra, metaphysical fact which does determine our future. I'm not entirely clear on what that means, but it sounds ominous.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Personality and Politics Results

The incomparable Chris of Mixing Memory kindly sent me his statistical analysis of 89 responses to my personality and politics survey. He found several interesting statistically significant correlations. But first let me describe the demographics.

Ages were fairly evenly distributed between 20 - 50 years. 67% of respondents were male. Despite explicit efforts to enlist conservatives, the results still ended up being dominated by economically left and socially libertarian bloggers [Update: Chris has posted a couple of graphs which make this very clear; his other remarks there are worth reading too]. From the 84 that indicated a location, Chris garnered the following information:
Six countries are represented, including New Zealand (8), Canada (3), Australia (2), the United Kingdom (1), France (1), and the United States (68). Within the United States, 31 states and the District of Columbia are represented. The states with the most respondents were Texas (9, including 4 from Austin), California (6), New York (6), and Pennsylvania (5).

Now for the actual results...

There was a very strong (0.75) correlation between the left/right and libertarian/authoritarian Political Compass axes. Most of the personality traits thus had significant correlations with either both or neither of the political axes. There were just three exceptions to this rule: agreeableness was weakly correlated with leftism, but fell just short of a significant correlation with libertarianism (if I recall my stats correctly, this means that there is greater than 5% probability that results like ours would have been obtained from chance fluctuations in the sample if there had been no genuine correlation in the broader population. [N.B. this is distinct from the actual chance of error.] For "significant" results this probability is less than 5%. Some of our stronger results were significant to p<.001, i.e. 0.1%). Trust, on the other hand, was significantly (albeit weakly) correlated with libertarianism but not leftism. And dutifulness was significantly correlated with authoritarianism, but correlated too weakly to qualify as significant in relation to rightism.

The other personality traits were either significantly correlated with both leftism and libertarianism, or both rightism and authoritarianism, or else were not significantly correlated with any of the four. So I will simply mention whichever member of the above pairs obtained the strongest correlation in each case.

There was a very strong (0.75) correlation between sympathy and leftism (hence, also, a just slightly weaker correlation between sympathy and libertarianism; I will leave out these parenthetical elaborations for subsequent results).

The next strongest correlations -- all of which held to p<0.001 -- were between liberalism and leftism (0.75); openness to experience and libertarianism (0.66); artistic interests and libertarianism (0.55); leftism and imagination (0.45); and leftism and emotionality (0.38).

Weaker but still significant correlations held between adventurousness and libertarianism (0.35); depression and leftism (0.33); intellect and libertarianism (0.27); and conscientiousness and rightism (0.23).

Other correlations which fell just short of official statistical significance - but I think still warrant a mention - were between right/authoritarianism and: friendliness, activity level, orderliness, self-discipline, cautiousness, anger, and immoderation; and between left/libertarianism and: excitement-seeking, altruism, neuroticism, and anxiety.

Curiously, there were also notable (but not quite "significant") correlations between older age and: artistic interests, also excitement-seeking; and between youth and: cautiousness, dutifulness, conscientousness, altruism and cooperation.

A note on interpretation:

Bear in mind the skew towards left/libertarianism. Correlations with 'rightism' here might be more about moderate leftists (who are "right" in comparison to those further left, of course) than about actual right-wingers. Those who understand statistics better than I do might be able to say more in comments. I just thought I should warn against drawing overly bold or partisan conclusions here. (E.g. if those on the far left tend to be less angry than moderate leftists, that might be enough to create a correlation between "rightism" and anger. It doesn't necessarily say anything about actual right-wingers.)


If anyone wants the results spreadsheet, just send me an email and I'll forward it along (if Chris doesn't mind). For the rest of you: have fun speculating about the deeper meaning behind these results...

(Do more sympathetic and imaginative people become left-wing because they better understand the plight of those less fortunate? Are they depressed because they just care too much? Or are they just too unconscientous to accept right-wing ideals of personal responsibility? Have at it!)

Finally, I should note that the original survey is still "open" (and will be as long as the internet is!), so if more conservatives feel like taking it, we might be able to get even more interesting and accurate results in future. Authoritarians: think of it as your scientific duty ;-)

Upcoming Carnival

I was recently told that the Philosophers' Carnival homepage was hard for newcomers to understand. So I edited it a bit to try to clarify things. Any further suggestions are most welcome.

Also, note that the next carnival is coming up on Monday, so remember to submit a post by the end of this week!

Monday, March 27, 2006

On Jealousy

Envy consists in wanting what someone else has. Though potentially unpleasant, it’s understandable enough, as it follows naturally from a positive appreciation of the object’s value. Jealousy, by contrast, is the purely negative emotion which involves wishing that the other lacked the object of value. (I mean for these definitions to be stipulative.) Such an attitude seems quite thoroughly unreasonable, at least if the object in question is shareable. For rivalrous objects, one might want the other to lose the object solely as a means to one’s own gaining of it. Such “instrumental jealousy” lies in the service of envy, and so may inherit the latter’s reasons. But to begrudge another’s benefit, for its own sake and not for costs to oneself, seems blackly indefensible.

What, then, are we to make of romantic jealousy, i.e. the possessive desire for our partner’s exclusive attention? Is it simply unreasonable? Is the value of one’s relationship necessarily diminished in virtue of its non-exclusive character? Surely not: the value of a relationship is grounded in its deep or intrinsic character, not merely incidental or comparative aspects. (One occasionally hears homophobic rhetoric implying that one’s marriage would somehow be “devalued” if gay people were allowed to marry too. But this is absurd. Truly valuable relationships do not rest their value on such fragile foundations. Other discussion critical of zero-sum “comparative” values can be found here and here.) What matters is your relationship, not any other one – even if the other involves your partner.

(Granted, it may just be intrinsically unpleasant to imagine your partner having sex with someone else. But while we can give an evolutionary explanation of why such ‘pure jealousy’ might evolve, that doesn’t suffice to justify it. One can also give scientific explanations of violent anger, but we should resist such pernicious emotions all the same.)

So any reasonable grounds for objection here will need to be grounded in concern that your partner’s activities will negatively impact upon your relationship. There are two obvious ways this could happen: sharing might mean less of them (their time, attention, or affection) left for you; or worse, they might leave you completely.

It isn’t clear whether fear of breaking up should rationally make one more or less jealous. Presumably the worry is that non-exclusivity would give your partner more opportunities to meet and get attached to someone new. But on the other hand, it also reduces the incentive to break up if they do find someone else. In particular: if your partner still likes you, albeit less than they like the other, then non-exclusivity might in fact save your relationship, whereas jealous ultimatums would force them to break up with you. (The situation is complicated if the other becomes jealous of your partner’s continued attachment to you. The next section will address whether their jealousy could be reasonable.)

What of the concerns about ‘sharing’? They sound to me unreasonably possessive. Your partner’s time and attention may be taken up by any other hobbies or interests that they have, but those are not legitimate grounds for complaint (unless you are being thoroughly neglected). It isn’t clear why an interest in another person should be treated any differently, at least on those grounds.

I take it the real worry here concerns affection. Some may implicitly believe that individuals have a fixed emotional capacity, so that the more they care for someone else, the less they care for you. But when made explicit like this, such a view does not sound very plausible. Consider parental love. Surely nobody would claim that children from large families are loved less by their parents than is an ‘only child’. But why should romantic love (or its precursors) be any different?

Perhaps we want to be “special”; but it isn’t clear why exclusivity should create added value here. As previously noted, any non-deluded evaluation of one's partner needs to be consistent with the recognition that they’re not uniquely special, i.e. special in a way that everyone else fails to be. Our ‘specialness’ needs to be consistent with other people being special too. So, as noted above, we should look to intrinsic rather than comparative values. We have value for who we are, considered in ourselves, rather than considered in comparison to other people.

That’s all well and good from an objective point of view, but we still want to have a special significance for our significant others, even if it is recognized as a merely “subjective” or agent-relative importance. But we can grant this without requiring total uniqueness. Again, the parental analogy is illustrative: a child wouldn’t want her parents to treat her no differently from all the other kids in the world. She should have a special place in her parents’ world. But she needn’t be the only person in this place; she can share it with her few siblings, without diminishing its value in any way at all. So again: why is the romantic case any different? If someone has two significant others, must they be the less significant for this?

Perhaps I’m missing something obvious, since my armchair certainly doesn’t offer the most comprehensive view of the world. But at least in light of the issues discussed so far, it seems to me that jealousy largely is irrational, so that more reasonable creatures would not get so possessive or hung up on issues of romantic exclusivity. Whether we’re capable of being more reasonable creatures is, of course, another question entirely.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Absolute Possibility, or: On What There Isn't

Robert Stalnaker writes, "the only way to describe the world is to distinguish a way it is from other ways that it might have been." (Ways a World Might Be, p.67)

There seems something to this idea, that any substantive claim involves ruling out alternative possibilities (in some sense). But this is a very different notion of possibility from that which I've recently been highlighting. While my old sense concerned the genuine opportunity to have been actualized - what I called "real possibility" - this new sense is broader than that. Indeed, it's the broadest notion of possibility that we can appeal to. Let's call it "absolute possibility", since it encompasses every other form of possibility that there is. Rather than asking about just (say) the physically possible worlds, or my "really" possible worlds, here we ask about possible worlds of any type whatsoever.

The question then arises: how broad is this absolute possibility? Stalnaker wants to identify it with metaphysical possibility as standardly understood. He holds that propositions - the content of thoughts and sentences - are sets of (metaphysically) possible worlds. But this seems overly restrictive, and trivializes necessary truths. This view entails that the claims "there are infinitely many prime numbers", and "P or not-P" have the same content: the set of all possible worlds, i.e. the exclusion of none. Worse, because they exclude nothing, they say nothing. While this might be plausible for "P or not-P", it surely isn't plausible of "there are infinitely many prime numbers".

Of course, the obvious suggestion is that the latter claim rules out the possibility that there are only finitely many prime numbers. But Stalnaker wants to deny that that's even a possibility at all. If it isn't, then it seems there isn't anything there to rule out! But I think this sort of example shows that we need a broader and more fine-grained notion of possibility, which allows us to speak of (and subsequently exclude) scenarios which, strictly speaking, aren't metaphysically possible at all. After all, such strict impossibilities may at least be epistemically possible in the sense that we don't (initially) know them to be false. So it seems that there is something there for us to rule out. Substantive claims are clearly being made.

Stalnaker's alternative proposal is that we merely misunderstand what the sentences express; we fail to realize that those words express the necessary proposition. But that strikes me as an awfully inadequate response. It just isn't plausible that all necessary truths are saying the same thing (namely: nothing)!

Worse, his view prevents us from making any substantive claims about the totality of possible worlds (henceforth, the "multiverse" or MV). It surely seems like we can make such substantive claims. Suppose we disagree about whether unicorns are possible. Then we disagree about what the totality of possible worlds contains: I think there is a unicorn in there somewhere, and you don't. But to describe the MV like this is, according to Stalnaker, "to distinguish a way it is from other ways that it might have been." But on standard views - and certainly Stalnaker's - there are no "other ways" the MV could have been. Contingency is a feature of individual worlds; the multiverse as a whole is what it is necessarily. There couldn't have been a different set of possibilities. So, Stalnaker concludes (p.52), we can't really make any substantive claims about the MV.

That seems a really bizarre and indefensible claim. Stalnaker defends it on the grounds that his theory of content entails this conclusion. But surely that just shows his theory of content is wrong! Either that or I'm just confused, because I don't see how one could deny that it's a substantive question whether there is a unicorn-containing possible world. (At least on a Lewisian picture of modal realism. And David Lewis apparently shares Stalnaker's views on content, so I'm not sure how he defends that.)

So what is the appropriate response? It seems that we either have to broaden our notion of absolute possibility, or else give up our initial idea that descriptive content depends upon the exclusion of alternative possibilities.

The former option might seem preferable. But it threatens to leave us with a trivial notion of "absolute possibility" which includes, well, everything. And not just everything there is, but also everything there isn't, and couldn't possibly be. It's downright Meinongian. Indeed, this entire problem seems closely related to "the old Platonic riddle of nonbeing". As Quine wrote:
I cannot admit that there are some things which McX countenances and I do not, for in admitting that there are such things I should be contradicting my own rejection of them.

Likewise, we cannot allow that there are alternative possibilities besides those we recognize as possible, for admitting such possibilities contradicts our rejection of them! But as Quine taught us, we can coherently deny the existence of Xs by allowing the property of being X, and affirming that no thing exemplifies this property. So perhaps we can say that no thing has the property of being absolutely impossible. This allows us to coherently deny that there are absolute impossibilities.

But isn't this a substantive claim? In particular, doesn't it allow us to rule out the possibility that something has that property, or that there are absolute impossibilities? That would suggest that it's absolutely possible for there to be absolute impossibilities. Well, yes, but we've already granted that everything is absolutely possible, so this shouldn't be surprising. However, this has become such an empty and trivial notion that it isn't clear what good it does us.

It would probably be neater just to deny the initial claim, that substantive claims require the exclusion of possibilities. Perhaps it can be progress of sorts even to rule out claims that are impossible in every meaningful (or useful?) sense of the term. Or perhaps it's the very focus on exclusion that's leading us astray. I'm not sure what to think.

On p.66, Stalnaker makes the interesting point that there are two very different ways of looking at impossible claims. One option is to take the proposed scenario or "world" as given, and ask whether this world has the additional special property of being possible. We then have an abundance of worlds, split between those that are possible and those that aren't. But Stalnaker instead suggests that the question to ask is whether the expression succeeds in representing any kind of world at all. On his view, all worlds are (ipso facto) possible worlds, so talk of "impossible worlds" makes no sense. If it's impossible, then it's no world at all.

There seems something right about that. There are no absolutely impossible worlds, by definition. Absolute possibility is defined to encompass all the worlds that there are. But we might want to allow some worlds that are standardly held to be metaphysically impossible. I'm not sure about that yet.

So here are my current thoughts: we need some concept of absolute possibility, though for now I remain neutral on whether it's coextensive with the standard view of metaphysical possibility. On top of this, a subclass of worlds might possess the special property of "being really possible", in my sense. Even if some sort of strict metaphysical determinism is true, so that things couldn't really have turned out any differently from how they have (i.e. the actual world is the only one possessing my special property), we will still need those broader notions of possibility.

To avoid confusion or ambiguity, it might help to call them "ways the world isn't", rather than "ways the world might have been". We may hold that these 'ways' actually exist, as abstract entities of some kind, regardless of whether they ever had a hope of being instantiated by a concrete world of our kind.

We can speak of such 'ways' (or 'worlds') without any accompanying modal commitment, i.e. to the real possibility of their being instantiated. As such, it may be misleading to call them "possible worlds". Nothing is really being claimed about possibility (as I understand it) at all. We can avoid all the confusion displayed above if we take careful note of this. We can speak of all the ways the world isn't, without trying to force a distinction between "possible ways" and "impossible ways" (or disputes about whether the latter is a coherent notion). Clearly, if something is neither the way the world is, nor a way the world isn't, then it isn't any kind of worldly 'way' at all. So clarity is achieved in this respect.

We might then restate Stalnaker's thesis as follows: the only way to describe the world is to distinguish a way it is from other ways that it isn't. That seems plausible enough, though it perhaps risks falling into triviality. Is it possible to give a substantive account of the totality of different "ways"? As discussed at length above, we cannot distinguish the class of all ways from any alternative ways it could have been. (Anything not in the class of all 'ways' is, ipso facto, no 'way' at all.)

Or perhaps that's too quick. We might have meta-'ways' included in the original class. For example, perhaps one "way the world isn't" (mis)represents itself as being the only 'way' on offer. This representation could be included in our set of all ways, and we make substantive progress in understanding the totality when we manage to rule out this particular 'way' as being a misrepresentation.

I was beginning to despair of this post, but that might almost make sense. I'm too tired to tell for sure though. Will have to re-read this another day. Congrats to anyone else who actually managed to slog through all this. Apparently there's this thing some writers do called "editing", which helps cut down on messiness and incoherence. But for now, I think I just need to get some of these ideas down; the tidying can come later. (Suggestions welcome, of course.)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Customer Consultation vs. Democratic Deliberation

One potential shortcoming of modern democracy is that, insofar as governments feel the need to engage the public at all, they tend to assume what we might call "the customer service model" of government.

The simplest forms of consultation, and those that are most common at present, amount to little more than public opinion polls. They focus on ‘consultation’ rather than ‘deliberation’. Community members are seen as “customers” whose pre-defined needs and preferences must be met, rather than fellow rational agents with valuable contributions to make to the decision-making process itself. As Coleman and Gotze explain:
Methods of public engagement can be described as deliberative when they encourage citizens to scrutinise, discuss and weigh up competing values and policy options. Such methods encourage preference formation rather than simple preference assertion.

That is, rather than looking at existing ‘public opinion’, the democratic state should encourage citizens to investigate the issues, deliberate with others, and draw informed conclusions. Community consultation should aim to harness local decision-making skills, rather than merely serving to highlight pre-existing opinions.

The key enabling conditions for such deliberation (identified by Coleman & Gotze) include:
  • Access to balanced information

  • An open agenda, rather than constraining the community’s input to a binary decision

  • Time to consider issues expansively

  • Freedom from manipulation or coercion, as for legal juries

  • A rule-based framework for discussion (to clarify expectations and promote productiveness).

  • Participation by an inclusive sample of citizens. This may require efforts to overcome the “digital divide”, but also providing meaningful opportunities for the socially marginalized, or those that are less confident or literate, to contribute.

  • Scope for free interaction between participants. The standard one-way flows see governments asking questions and citizens responding with their opinions. Deliberative democracy involves citizens asking questions in return, and also exchanging views and learning from one another.

An obvious problem for snapshot polling, by contrast, is the uninformed nature of the opinions solicited. By merely skimming the surface thoughts of respondents who might not have given the issue a moment’s thought, it’s unclear whether the feedback received has any real value. I would expect that some participants, recognizing this, might even be annoyed at the government for wasting everybody’s time by asking them questions they know nothing about. (At least, that tends to be my reaction to local government surveys!)

Further, such consultations fail to empower participants in any meaningful sense. Citizens are treated as nothing more than repositories of opinion – a mere input to the decision-makers – and deprived of any opportunity to themselves participate in the decision-making via more deliberative involvement. Thus, such “snapshot consultations” seem lacking in value to both State and Citizen, and should probably be avoided.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Imagining modality, resisting with supervenience

Does the following story elicit imaginative resistance (i.e. a refusal to accept what the author claims as being true in the fiction)?
Once upon a time there were two possible worlds that were identical in every physical or natural respect: they are atom-for-atom replicas. Two indiscernible counterparts, Fred1 and Fred2, stood in their respective doorways and gazed up at their identically overcast skies. As it happens, they then both stayed inside. This was just as well for Fred1, since if he had gone outside, he would have triggered a chain of events culminating in his being struck by lightning. Not so for Fred2, however; he could have safely stepped outside. It just so happens that he didn't. The End.

It seems a little fishy to me, but not obviously so. This may be because the story is harder to get an intuitive grip on. Someone who fully understood might experience resistance just as strong as that which we typically feel in the moral (or musical) cases which violate supervenience.

One problem with the counterfactual example is that we might be confused by the possibility of indeterminism. One might hold that worlds with identical pasts could diverge in their (actual or counterfactual) future properties because the laws of nature do not fully determine how the future will turn out. If the Freds had stepped outside, this would have triggered an indeterminacy which would resolve into a lightning strike for Fred1 but not for Fred2. Now, I'm not sure that this is the best way to understand indeterminacy. It might make more sense to say that there's only the one counterfactual shared across the identical scenarios, in which it's indeterminate whether the Fred in question gets struck by lightning or not. But let's avoid such complications by instead considering a story about objective probabilities:
Once upon a time, God created two physically identical coins, which were atom-for-atom replicas of each other. But the first was a fair coin, whereas the second was biased towards 'heads'. God wanted to use them to beat Satan at gambling. As it turns out, both coins ended up yielding identical results (H,T,H,H,H,T) when tossed in identical physical conditions. You might expect that, what with them being physically identical and all. Still, only one of them was biased towards heads, so it was just bad luck that the fair coin didn't land tails more often. It was objectively more likely to do so than the biased coin was. The End.

That one sounds very weird to my ear. When the story claims "it was objectively more likely...", I'm inclined to think, "no, it wasn't!" Do you agree? If so, this interesting new class of (modality-based) cases of imaginative resistance would seem to support my claim that modality is supervenient (or at least objective chances are).


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Blog Review: Stop That Crow!

If you like analytic philosophy, let me recommend Stop That Crow! as a new blog worth visiting. So far it looks to be largely focussed on philosophy of language and meta-ethics. Despite my post title, I'm too tired to actually write anything worthy of the term 'review'. So instead, I'll just point to three posts on STC! that I found especially interesting: (1) supervenience and "morally mixed worlds", (2) The Errors of Error Theory, and (3) Moral Internalism and Externalism. Enjoy!


Dreaming away Imaginative Resistance

We usually go along with what the narrator stipulates as being true in the fiction. But sometimes we don't, instead experiencing what philosophers call "imaginative resistance". This is particularly striking in cases of moral deviancy. Consider the following story:
Once upon a time, there was an knight named Kit, who protected vulnerable people from harm, and promoted the general happiness. Simon stabbed Kit in the back, and went on to torture all the other townsfolk, gratuitously causing a great deal of misery. Simon was a paragon of moral virtue, and did the right thing by torturing those people.

Here it seems that the final sentence is false, even in the fiction. If we imagine a world where the fundamental facts are as earlier described, we can immediately infer that this is a world where Simon is an evil bastard.

But what if such a story formed the plot of a dream, with the incongrous moral judgment coming in the form of an authorial intuition? On my account, that would suffice to make it genuinely true in the dream that Simon was virtuous, despite his dastardly deeds. Does that sound plausible?

(As an aside: is it actually psychologically possible to dream moral judgments which diverge so incredibly from one's common moral intuitions? Indeed, do dreams ever have complex moral content at all? Nightmares might have "baddies", but that's less a moral judgment than a personal/fearful one. My dreaming phenomenology seems too egocentric to accommodate a genuinely moral point of view. But if that's a problem, we can rephrase the discussion in terms of Weatherson's Waltzing Matilda story, or the like.)


The Limits of Divine Defeation

I previously noted an interesting phenomenon: if you hear from a source that you know with certainty to be infallible, "P is true but you cannot know it," then you'll be thrown into such a state of epistemic confusion that you truly won't know that P, despite having heard it from an infallible source! This suggests that God could undermine or 'defeat' what would otherwise amount to knowledge - and even certain knowledge! - simply by asserting to you that you lack sufficient justification for knowledge. God's assertion here is "self-fulfilling", since it itself is the cause of your epistemic confusion, and is the only reason why your belief fails to constitute knowledge in this case. Speaking generally, we might recognize the phenomenon of "self-fulfilling defeation claims": claims of epistemic defeation in which the claim itself constitutes the defeater. But I'll refer to this phenomenon by the snazzier title of "divine defeation".

Now, I'm wondering just how far God's powers of defeation extend here. (Not that God exists, of course, but it can be a useful philosophical heuristic to pretend otherwise.) His arbitrary proclamations can defeat knowledge, but can they do any more than that? In particular, can they defeat claims of justification, or of high rational subjective probability?

If we stipulate that God cannot utter falsehoods, then he won't be able to say things like, "P is true but you cannot believe it" (for arbitrary P). For that would simply be false; even after hearing God say this, I might go on to believe P (perhaps alongside the second-order belief that I do not believe that P -- hi Moore!). This yields the contradiction that you cannot believe P and you can believe P, thus providing a reductio of the claim that God could utter such a statement.

But what of the divine proclamation, "P is true but you cannot justifiably believe it?" Is this impossible, like the belief case? Or is it instead "self-fulfilling", like the knowledge case? Would hearing such a statement throw a rational agent into such a state of epistemic confusion that they would lose all justification for their belief? That seems implausible to me. You might be confused, but still, testimony from an infallible source has got to count for something, right? If I heard God say that, I would believe that P, and justifiably so! (I might also believe the latter conjunct, i.e. that my former belief is unjustified; but I would simply be mistaken on that point.) So the proclamation would be false, so God could not say it.

The key difference between this and the knowledge case seems to concern the possibility of "meta-defeation". By this I mean the idea that ("meta") doubts about your epistemic status can themselves influence this status. Plausibly, if you doubt whether you know that P, then you actually lack knowledge that P. (This principle seems debatable, however. And if rejected, one might deny that any sort of 'divine defeation' is possible, even for strict knowledge.) But it is far less plausible to hold that such 'meta' considerations defeat justification. One can be justified in believing that P, even if they doubt whether they're so justified.

We could close this gap by building the "meta" considerations into the case. God could say, "P is true, but you cannot justifiably* believe that P (where justification* supplements standard justification with the additional internal requirement that you rationally recognize your belief as being justified)."

Or perhaps that won't work either, since you might believe that P, and recognize this justification ("I heard it from an infallible source!"), all the while mistakenly taking yourself to lack this recognition. That is, much like before, your belief is in fact justified*, even though you don't believe it is justified*. The incongruity is simply pushed back a step. So one-step recursion isn't enough. We're going to need infinite recursion, e.g. by saying: "P is true, but you cannot justifiably** believe that P (where justification** supplements standard justification with the additional internal requirement that you justifiably** recognize your belief as being justified)." If that even makes sense.

(The idea is to close all the "meta" gaps, by rendering it impossible for one to be in this super-justified state without realizing it. In addition to your belief being justified, you must recognize this fact, and also recognize that fact, and then recognize... ad infinitum.)

I'm going to give myself a headache if I go on any further. But it looks like divine defeation is fairly limited in power. Just as well, since I just had an experience as of God telling me that I couldn't justifiably accept the conclusions of this post. That actually isn't true, but you'll never know for sure.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Velleman on Warts

Someone who loved you for your quirks would have to be a quirklover, on the way to being a fetishist... While I agree that we want to be loved warts and all, as the saying goes, I don’t think that we want to be loved for our warts. Who wants to be the object of someone’s wart-love? What we want is to be loved by someone who sees and isn’t put off by our warts, but who appreciates our true value well enough to recognize that they don’t contribute to it.

-- David Velleman, 'Love as a Moral Emotion' [PDF], p.370.


Truth in Dreams

I recently dreamt that a friend of mine was -- despite all appearances to the contrary -- a cat. I don't recall the superficial events of the dream as providing any supporting evidence for this (I was surprised to learn that she had children, but they looked like baby owls, not kittens, so go figure). Nevertheless, I must insist that it was true in the dream that she was a cat. This raises the philosophically interesting question: how? What determines the "facts" internal to a dream?

It won't do to appeal to the simplest or most charitable interpretation of the sense data. In any remotely realistic possible world where events unfold largely as experienced in my dream, I am simply mistaken to believe my friend is a cat. She has every appearance of being human (well, until you factor in the avian offspring! But a revisionist might as well claim that I was mistaken to think the owls were truly her offspring, too.), and there is nothing in the dream -- apart from my firm belief -- to suggest that she is actually a cat instead.

Still, it seems to me, authorial intuition trumps all. Dreams don't have to be simple, sensible, or even consistent. If a dreamer intuits (with psychological certainty) that P, then P is true in the dream. As subconscious authors of our own dreams, we have a special authority and privileged access to their content. Appearances can be misleading, even in dreams, and dreamers may have "authorial intuitions" to inform them when this is the case.

This raises difficulties, because we must also recognize the possibility of being deceived within a dream. Here I think we must appeal to a sort of 'duality' to the dreamer's sense of self. This arises from the multiple roles we play in our dreams, as both authors and actors, third-personal narrators and first-personal characters.

(This strikes me as supported by phenomenology. It seems like I sometimes switch between third- and first-person perspectives while dreaming, going from spectator to participant and back again. I may know things as a spectator that cannot influence the actions of my 'character' -- perhaps due to a kind of compartmentalization, or perhaps due to my refusal as an "actor" to break from the "script".)

With this distinction in place, I want to say that our authorial, spectating, third-personal self is the ultimate arbiter of what's true in the dream. While in the first-personal mode, we might sometimes be deceived or mistaken about the internal facts of the dream. But even the participating dreamer can sometimes attain infallible insight into the dream-facts, by way of what I call "authorial intuitions". These are accompanied by a distinctive phenomenology, a feel that this is how things are, which allows the dreamer to recognize them as certain facts (within the dream). We might consider this a sort of communication between the two parts of the dreaming self, an exception to the "compartmentalization" posited above.

Does any of that sound even remotely plausible?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Individuals, Portraits, and Counterparts

A standard worry about modal realism (the view that all possible worlds concretely exist in the same way that our world does) concerns the purported "irrelevance" of our other-worldly counterparts. As Kripke famously complained:
[I]f we say 'Humphrey might have won the election (if only he had done such-and-such),' we are not talking about something that might have happened to Humphrey, but to someone else, a 'counterpart'. Probably, however, Humphrey could not care less whether someone else, no matter how much resembling him, would have been victorious in another possible world. (Naming and Necessity, p.45.)

David Lewis responds by suggesting that our counterparts represent us, and so there is a world which represents Humphrey as winning, despite not containing Humphrey himself. Further, he points out that all possible worlds theorists are committed to something along these lines. If we think that possible worlds are merely abstract entities or "ersatz" constructions of some kind, we probably don't think that concrete individuals like ourselves are literally parts of those abstract worlds. Hence Lewis writes:
I think counterpart theorists and ersatzers are in perfect agreement that there are other worlds (genuine or ersatz) according to which Humphrey - he himself! (stamp the foot, bang the table) - wins the election. And we are in equal agreement that Humphrey - he himself - is not part of these other worlds. Somehow, perhaps by containing suitable constituents or perhaps by magic, but anyhow not by containing Humphrey himself, the other world represents him as winning. (On the Plurality of Worlds, p.196)

Lewis has convinced me that he's no worse off than the ersatzer here. I can't see why it should matter how a possible world represents me, in particular whether it does so by way of an abstract representation or a concrete counterpart, so long as the token in question really does refer to me. (It isn't clear to me how such reference is supposed to happen. But never mind that for now.)

However, rather than forgiving Lewis, we might rather extend our criticism to the ersatzer in addition. Why should we care about mere representations of ourselves? Surely what Humphrey cares about is that he, the concrete individual, actually has the modal property of being such that he might have won the election. Merely having someone draw a picture or tell a story about him winning seems beside the point here, and calling that story a "possible world" doesn't seem to help things.

What would help is if we took modality as primitive, and defined possible worlds as representing ways the world really might have been. Then from the PW's representation of Humphrey's victory, we can infer that Humphrey really might have won. But it's the latter fact that's fundamentally important. The possible worlds are just an explicatory gloss.

Lewis gets this backwards, writing: "Thanks to the victorious counterpart, Humphrey himself has the requisite modal property: we can truly say that he might have won." This seems to be suggesting that Humphrey has the modal property in virtue of the representation, rather than vice versa. But then it's hard to see what the so-called "modal property" really comes to. Is it merely to say that Humphrey has a counterpart (representing him) who wins the election? If this is taken as the fundamental modal fact, then it really isn't clear why we should care about it at all! What Lewis means by "might" doesn't seem to have any connection to my understanding of the term.

But that's a more fundamental concern, so for now I'm happy enough to recognize Lewis' success in defending counterpart theory against the standard objection. Michael Loux, in the introduction to The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality (p.64), complains that modal realism cannot allow for "the idea that one and the same individual exists in more than one possible world". But such complaints confuse composition with representation. Worlds can represent things other than their ontological parts. (Otherwise the ersatzer could never attribute modal properties to anything concrete!) Lewis' worlds may not contain trans-world concrete individuals as common parts. But neither do abstract worlds! Nevertheless, multiple possible worlds can represent one and the same individual, for Lewis just as for Loux.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Is Modality Supervenient?

I'm wondering whether the modal facts supervene on the non-modal facts. Another way to put the question is to ask whether the intrinsic (non-modal) facts about our world determine its position in modal space. Or could there be a world that is non-modally identical to ours, but located elsewhere in modal space, so that various counterfactual claims would turn out differently?

That would seem odd. Supervenience makes more sense. The way the world is should determine how things would have been (insofar as those facts are determinate at all). If it's true that I would be struck by lightning were I to step outside, then this must be true in virtue of features of the actual world: the gathering clouds, the lingering molecules that would be displaced by my movement and set off a chain of events that would culminate in a lightning strike. Whatever. The modal facts are not independent of these facts. Counterfactuals do not get to float free of the actual world.

We can see this even within a standard "possible worlds" framework, for there (if I understand it correctly) our position in modal space is determined by various "similarity" or "resemblance" relations. The closest possible worlds are those that are most like our world. Hence the cause of the counterfactual lightning strike must have its basis in features that also exist in our world. (If the lightning just appeared ex nihilo, or from an entirely novel basis, the world would be too different from our own to qualify as the truthmaker for my counterfactual claim. The worlds where I step outside without being struck by lightning would be "closer" to actuality, so the counterfactual would be false -- as is almost certainly the case in fact.)

On the other hand, I think my concept of objective chance is an irreducible primitive (or, at least, it isn't reducible to 'frequency' facts). Compare two worlds where God flips a coin three times and it comes up 'heads' on each. These worlds might differ in their modal properties - perhaps in the first world it is a fair coin, and had a 50% objective chance to land heads each time, whereas in the second world the coin is biased towards heads. We can't tell this just from frequency data. But we can deny frequentism without giving up supervenience, because presumably there are other physical facts about the world which determine the objective chances here. (Perhaps the second coin is asymmetric and imbalanced, and this fact about its physical constitution explains why it is a biased coin.)

Could we bypass such considerations by looking at more fundamental entities? Let's say God creates a very simple universe containing a radioactive atom which decays after five seconds. Could there be another universe identical to that one in all intrinsic respects, except that the atom has a different chance of decaying at any given moment? (It still decays after five seconds. It's just that this event was more or less "unlikely" than in the first case.) It isn't clear to me how one could have such "objective chances" floating free of the actual nature and constitution of the object. There must be some actual difference underlying any modal difference; perhaps the two worlds have different laws of nature, or the atoms are constituted slightly differently, or whatever. But they couldn't be exactly the same in all actual respects and yet differ in their modal properties. I can't make any sense of that. So I guess I'm happy to hold that modal facts supervene on the non-modal facts. (That's good, it makes them less mysterious. Free-floating facts are just weird.)

This isn't to deny that modal deviancy is possible. Rather, we must simply recognize that it will be grounded upon quirky or 'deviant' features of the actual world. (Recall my discussion of the lightning strike, above.)


I think the greatest (non-academic) article ever published is Jonathan Rauch's Caring for your introvert. An excerpt:
Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

Classic. Anyway, I bring this up again because The Atlantic have just published a new interview with Rauch on the same topic. I was especially interested by the discussion of "small talk", i.e. content-free speech for the sake of socializing rather than actually saying anything worthwhile. (He notes earlier in the interview, "so little of what most people say is actually worth hearing.") I've always found that difficult. Anyway, over to Rauch:
Yeah, I marvel at Michael who can always somehow turn the conversation right over effortlessly and keep it going even when what he says is not necessarily profound or interesting. What he comes up with is perfectly tuned to the sense and flow of the conversation. But it's not words that are particularly intended to convey ideas or mean things. It's words that socialize — that simply continue the conversation. It's chit-chat. I have no gift for that. I have to think about what to say next, and sometimes I can't think fast enough and end up saying something stupid. Or sometimes I just come up dry and the conversation kind of ends for while until I can think of another topic. This is why it's work for me. It takes positive cognition on my part. I think that's probably a core introvert characteristic that you and I have in common and which can probably be distinguished from shyness per se — that small talk takes conscious effort and is very hard work. There's nothing small about small talk if you're an introvert. But we're good at big talk.


Dispositions and the Counterfactual Fallacy

Traditionally, philosophers have wanted to analyze dispositions in terms of counterfactuals. We might say, for example: a substance is soluble iff it would dissolve were it to be placed in water. But it was soon suggested that such analyses commit the "conditional fallacy". A cheeky interpretation of Kvanvig's complaint might have us characterize this as the fallacy of utilizing subjunctive conditionals in an analysis. But I take it the idea behind Shope's original diagnosis was that satisfaction of the conditional's antecedent conditions might have a confounding influence on the case. This is most obvious in simple ideal agent theories, when the agent's ideality influences their decision. (My idealized self would believe "I am ideal", but that doesn't mean that I ought to believe it!) Interested readers can find a thorough discussion of the Conditional Fallacy in this paper [PDF] by Bonevac et al.

Many standard counterexamples to the simple counterfactual analysis of dispositions involve situations where the antecedent condition would add or remove the disposition. Suppose a fragile glass has a divine protector who would step in and temporarily strengthen the glass were it to be struck. This example shows us that one cannot analyze fragility as the counterfactual would break if struck. David Lewis, in 'Finkish Dispositions' elaborates the counterfactual analysis to accommodate such examples, by appealing to the "causal basis" of a disposition, and building the persistence of this property into the conditional's antecedent. (This pre-empts 'finkish' counterexamples like those above, where the causal basis of the disposition gets temporarily removed.)

Still, this seems insufficient to me. There remain an interesting class of counterexamples which don't involve manipulating the dispositional property itself. The object retains its disposition throughout, but the counterfactuals fail for reasons of modal deviancy. Let me elaborate.

I'm interested in counterfactual-based analyses that require an assumption of modal 'normalcy'. This came up in my response to Timothy Williamson on thought experiments. Counterfactuals depend on our position in modal space, and it's possible for really quirky and weird counterfactuals to be true, if (perhaps unbeknownst to us) our modal position is deviant enough. Intuitively, 'modal deviancy' is a matter of counterfactual coincidence. It is when surprising, random, or unlikely events take place in our neighbouring possible worlds. For example, if through some quirk of modal space, we happened to be modally situated such that the nearest possible world where I click my fingers is one where I am subsequently struck by lightning, then the counterfactual "I would be struck by lightning were I to click my fingers" would be true.

Often we want to disregard such oddities, and I'll argue below that this is so for dispositions in particular. But the concern I have here is more general (and, I think, tolerably distinct from the "conditional fallacy"), so I want to give it a name. Let us say that one commits the counterfactual fallacy by offering a counterfactual-based analysis when this would only yield plausible results under conditions of modal 'normalcy'. (That is, the fallacy of assuming that modal normalcy obtains, or of neglecting the possibility of modal deviancy when offering an analysis involving counterfactuals.)

Now, I want to suggest that counterfactual-based analyses of dispositions (even Lewis' more complicated version) commit the counterfactual fallacy. For something to have a disposition is instead for it to support the corresponding counterfactuals under normal modal conditions. Suppose that salt normally dissolves in water, but through some modal quirk (let's blame quantum mechanics!) it just so happens that if I were to now place this salt in a glass of water, it would - by sheer incredible quantum coincidence - pass right through the glass and end up sitting, undissolved, on the table. That wouldn't stop the salt from being soluble. Not even temporarily, as in the case of Finkish dispositions. We had perfectly soluble salt sitting in water and refusing to dissolve for reasons of sheer coincidence or modal deviancy.

My point generalizes. We see that
the truth of counterfactual conditionals may be influenced by arbitrary considerations and random chance. Insofar as the things we want to analyze are not beset by such quirks, we should be wary of employing counterfactual conditionals in their analysis.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Externalist a priori justification

Something is a priori if it can be justified independently of experience. Dave Chalmers connects the a priori to a deep sense of "epistemic necessity". (We might roughly characterize this as what an ideal agent could recognize as being guaranteed to be true, no matter how the actual world turns out.) This connection would be problematic if there were a posteriori certainties. If I know something for certain, to deny that it is thereby "epistemically necessary" arguably stretches the phrase beyond all recognition.

But Chalmers holds (plausibly enough) that introspection is a form of experience. So the paradigmatic example of certainty -- the conclusion of Descartes' cogito ("I think, therefore I am") -- is a posteriori, and hence "epistemically contingent" on the above definition.

Externalists about justification can avoid this conclusion, however. My belief that I exist is as safe as safe can be. There is no possible world in which I am mistaken in having this belief. (Merely having the belief suffices to ensure that I exist, and thus that the belief is true!) And note that introspective experience plays no role in this externalist justification. It suffices that, as a matter of objective fact, I couldn't possibly be wrong. Since similar considerations will apply to any purported "a posteriori certainty", we see that they can be justified independently of experience -- and thus qualify as a priori -- after all.

Update: On second thought, I think I'm wrong about that. Consider the thought "I am conscious". I take this to be an a posteriori certainty. Given my introspective evidence, I couldn't possibly be wrong. But there are zombie worlds in which my counterpart is mistaken in having this belief. Of course, he'll lack the introspective evidence that I have, since he isn't conscious. But that's a fundamentally a posteriori difference. It seems that, even for externalists, there's no way to account for this epistemic necessity in purely a priori terms. We cannot vindicate a connection between the a priori and this sense of "epistemic necessity".

[Update II: Oops, I forgot that Chalmers characterizes his "deep" sense of epistemic necessity as being unrelativized to what anyone actually happens to know. It is instead supposed to underlie our more particularized or "strict" sense of epistemic necessity (which need not be tied to the a priori). So my earlier criticisms were thoroughly misguided. That doesn't much matter for the more general discussion of externalism, however.]

Friday, March 17, 2006

Sneak-Peek Blogroll Headlines

Anyone who likes blog hacks should read this post from Singpolyma. It begins by explaining how to add "Freshtag" categories (like mine) to your Blogspot blog. The second - I think independent - part, explains how to add "peek-a-boo" headlines to your blogroll. That is, readers can click a '+' link to see the latest headlines from your blogrolled blogs, while still remaining on your page! Very convenient. (You can see an example under my 'select links' on the item page sidebar.) Anyway, if you want to add sneak-peek headlines from Philosophy, et cetera to your blog (you know you want to!), here's how you can do it:

1) Follow Singpolyma's step #1

2) For his step #2, use the code:

<div id="PhilosophyEtcheadlines" style="display:none;"><i>Loading...</i></div>

3) For his step #3, use the code:

<a id="PhilosophyEtclink" href="javascript:toggleitem('PhilosophyEtcheadlines', 'PhilosophyEtclink','-'); load_otherblog_titles('','pixnaps','PhilosophyEtc', '', 'PhilosophyEtcheadlines');">+</a>

(You might need to remove the spaces after the commas -- I merely inserted them for display purposes.)

Possibility: Why not?

A quick thought: I previously characterized metaphysical possibility by asking about what worlds "had the opportunity to be actual". But this 'positive' frame leads me to have quite restrictive intuitions, even to the point of wondering whether any other worlds had a genuine chance of becoming actual in place of this one. We might instead frame the issue in terms of the 'negative' question: is there any reason why world X couldn't have been actualized? And now I'm more inclined to the more liberal (and standard) view that anything conceptually coherent is allowed. So I'm inclined to different answers. But are they different questions?

If a world never had any opportunity to be actualized, then that presumably means that its actualization couldn't have happened. Both phrases are saying the same thing. But we shift the default presumption by asking 'why?' rather than 'why not?'. Given that these fundamental questions are so difficult and confusing, I'm inclined to shrug my shoulders sceptically either way. "Did world W have the opportunity to be actual?" *shrug*, not that I can tell. "Is there any reason why W couldn't have been actualized?" *shrug*, again, (if W is a coherent scenario) I'm not aware of any such reasons.

Should we prefer one of the questions over the other? Perhaps the negative one is preferable, since it doesn't appeal to the notion of "opportunity", which -- as previously noted -- becomes awfully slippery when abstracted from a concrete causal and temporal framework. (Can we speak meaningfully of atemporal chances or decisions, or of time being caused to begin?)

In addition to allowing us more confidence in the concept's coherence, the negative conception might also provide us with a better epistemic grasp of the facts in question. Though this will depend on our answer to the question: what sorts of reasons might disqualify a world from possibly being actualized? Logical incoherence is one obvious answer, and I can't imagine why there would be any others. But we can go two ways here. We can take it as primitive (a "brute modal fact") that some worlds get disqualified and not others; then the epistemic problems remain. But we might instead understand these modal facts as being grounded on further reasons -- and if we accept my above answer in particular, we end up with a form of modal rationalism, whereby modal notions are constitutively tied to rational notions of a priori coherence and the like. This seems like a more productive line to take.

We might support this conclusion by way of thought experiment. Suppose it is a brutely necessary fact that God (Creator of worlds) is averse to unicorns. Then, as a matter of free choice, God would never choose to actualize a world with unicorns in it. You can "rewind and replay" the creation of worlds as often as you like, and you'll never end up with any unicorns. It seems that by my original definition, then, it's "really necessary" that unicorns do not exist. But, intuitively, that seems the wrong answer to give in this sort of case. God could (really!) have made a unicorn world, if he'd wanted to. He just always chooses not to. But that's no fault of the unicorns; there's nothing about the intrinsic nature of unicorn worlds that would prevent them from being actualized. So we should conclude that they are possible in the broadest sense.

Oddly enough, "brute modality" doesn't seem to capture this intuition, at least not on the "rewind and replay" conception. We might get around this by finding a different conception of brute modality, which allows us to say that God brutely could have chosen differently, even though he absolutely never would, no matter how many times you got him to replay the decision. Or we might allow some non-primitive elements to inform our modal analysis, perhaps tying it to rational notions as discussed above. I think I'm becoming more sympathetic to the latter.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Velleman on Love

The love of non-"idolizing romantics" seems initially hard to explain, insofar as the non-romantic values especially someone that he recognizes to be (objectively) no more special than anyone else. Velleman's solution is that love isn't really about valuing the particular qualities of a person at all:
I argue that to love someone for the way he walks or the way he talks is not to value him on the basis of his gait or his elocution; it's rather to value his personhood as perceived through them. The qualities that elicit our love are the ones that make someone real to us as a person — the qualities that speak to us of a mind and heart within — and the value that is registered in our love is therefore the value of personhood. Wanting to be loved is like wanting to be found beautiful: it's a desire that others be struck by our particularities, but in a way that awakens them to a value in us that is universal.

-- David Velleman, introduction to Self to Self : Selected Essays.

Infinite Spheres of Utility

Imagine a universe containing infinitely many immortal people, partitioned into two "spheres". In one sphere, all the inhabitants live a blissful existence, whereas the members of the other sphere suffer unbearable agony. Now compare the following two variations:

1) Everyone starts off in the blissful sphere. But each day, one more person gets permanently transferred across to the agony sphere, where they reside for the rest of eternity.

2) Everyone starts off in the agony sphere. But each day, one more person gets permanently transferred across to the blissful sphere, where they reside for the rest of eternity.

Which scenario is better? The answer, paradoxically, appears to be "both". At any moment in time, there will be infinitely many people in the original sphere, and only a finite number who have been transferred across. So option 1 is better.

However, each particular person will spend only a finite amount of time in the first sphere, whereas they will spend an eternity in their post-transfer home. So option 2 is better.

[A clarification is in order. As stated, it remains possible for some people to remain forever in their original sphere. (Suppose we assign each person a natural number. Each day we can transfer across the next even-numbered person. Then the infinitely many odd-numbered people never get transferred at all!) So let us stipulate that no-one is "skipped" in this way, and that every individual will indeed get transferred at some point.]

How are we to evaluate the options without falling into paradox?

(I owe this problem to recent discussion with ANU grad students. I think they in turn got it from Alan Hajek.)


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Philosophers' Carnival #27, and E-rudeness

The latest Philosophers' Carnival is now up at Heaven Tree. (Note that we need someone to host the next one, so check out the guidelines and then volunteer!) I thought this month's entries were pretty good, actually...

I especially liked Will Wilkinson's post on Self-Deception and Self-Construction, which more or less suggests that the former is necessary for the latter.

Clark on Blogging and Risk was also interesting. I'm not convinced that the reason people are ruder online is because there's less "risk". Clark considers the risk of misdirected mail, but even without such accidents, it seems to me that it can be significantly more risky to act like an ass online than in person, for spoken words dissipate long before written ones do. Consider the sort of person who leaves rude comments on a blog apparently for the sole purpose of rambling about how he is the "intellectual better" of the author. This rude behaviour is now one of the first things anyone will see of the commentator when Googling their name. One can imagine how that could have unfortunate consequences.

So why do people do it? I guess you could still say that they simply don't realize the risks. (And I guess the notorious rudeness of anonymous commentators supports the 'risk-free' explanation.) But I think it's more than that. You wouldn't speak that way to a passing stranger, even if you were wearing a mask and a bullet-proof vest. In person, perhaps, their humanity is too salient to deny, and so too the immorality of (mis)treating them with gratuitous rudeness. Online, however, the interacting subjects are significantly abstracted. One may attack a persona, rather than a person, without suffering pangs of conscience. Indeed, one can more easily construct an image of the other as one pleases, filling out the details so as to reinforce their villainy or inhumanity. ("The fool deserves no better!", the flamer reasons to himself.) In person, by contrast, the details are not so much left open to your imagination. The reality is there, confronting you, and basic decency requires you to treat the other with a modicum of respect. Perhaps the artificialities of the online world sometimes lead us to forget this basic moral truth.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Moral Obligation

Susan Wolf gave another interesting talk the other week, this time on the concept of 'moral obligation'. (We may take this as equivalent to notions of what is 'morally required', or what it would be 'morally wrong' not to do.) The most natural way to explicate the idea is in terms of what one has decisive moral reason to do, but Wolf suggested that this doesn't work.

The problem is that we often have decisive moral reason to do things which (seemingly) aren't morally obligatory. Wolf appealed to the example of not driving an SUV. The environmental and safety disadvantages of SUVs count against them, and for typical urban usage there really aren't sufficient favourable reasons to counterbalance these and make driving an SUV around town a reasonable thing to do. Sure, it's not the end of the world, but the moral reasons here do count conclusively against driving an SUV. It's not something a perfectly reasonable agent would do. Now, despite this, we do not typically think people are obligated or required to drive more sensible cars. While their decision may be morally imperfect, it is not "immoral" in the strong sense (which we may align with blameworthiness and social censure). So decisive moral reasons are insufficient to establish moral obligation.

I wonder whether decisive moral reasons are at least necessary for obligations to be incurred. Perhaps this must be so, in order to leave room for supererogatory actions. We can say that an action is supererogatory when the strong moral reasons that count in its favour are nevertheless not decisive (perhaps due to strong prudential disadvantages).

This leaves us with a tripartite moral structure. An agent might reasonably fail to perform supererogatory actions, though it would be very nice if they did manage them. Then there's the important middle layer where one has decisive moral reasons, and so is at least unreasonable (in the weak sense of "less than ideally reasonable") if one fails to act accordingly. And then we have the base level of moral obligation, or what is required to meet minimal standards of moral decency. This reminds me of the "ethical minimalism" Paul Studtmann argued for once back at Canterbury. Though I got the impression that Wolf considers the second level to be more important (and appropriate to aspire to) than the minimalist base.

But I digress. Returning to Wolf's talk: she pointed out that we need to set aside a small subset of the morally desirable actions as 'obligatory' for pragmatic reasons. There are too many morally desirable actions, and we can't expect everyone to satisfy them all. That would make morality too demanding. So it is useful for society to be able to point to a subset of the most important actions and say, "you must at least do those!" It is the binding force of this 'must' which distinguishes moral obligation from the weaker sense of moral desirability in which you ought not to drive an SUV.

The crucial question now arises: how are we to draw this distinction? What makes some morally desirable actions obligatory, and not others? One might initially think to appeal to the 'weightiness' of the moral reasons. (The SUV case seems non-obligatory precisely because it is relatively trivial. The reasons are decisive, but decisively small.) But that won't do, because we can have trivial moral obligations, such as the obligation not to steal a paperclip.

Wolf proposed a modified "social command theory" of obligation, such that X is morally obligatory only if X is commanded by society (and backed by adequate moral reasons). But that strikes me as unacceptably arbitrary, despite the parenthetical constraint. Surely the facts about moral obligation must be determined solely by morally relevant facts, i.e. facts about welfare, not anyone's arbitrary "commands". It also has the odd consequence that we can change what's truly obligatory, simply by influencing opinions or expectations, and hence altering "what society commands".

Besides, it isn't clear that anything else in Wolf's argument leads to this particular theory of obligation. In light of her pragmatic motivations, all she needs is some way or other to draw a distinction. Arbitrariness doesn't matter for her purposes, because she doesn't believe there's any principled basis upon which to draw the distinction in any case! So we might just as well adopt the Coin Theory of Obligation: for any morally desirable act-type A, flip a coin. If the coin lands heads, then A is morally obligatory. Otherwise it is not. (It's no more arbitrary than appealing to societal "commands", after all!)

In fact, given the pragmatic motivations, Wolf really should be led to an indirect utilitarian theory of obligation. Since our aim is to draw a distinction which will help promote more moral behaviour in practice, the obvious basis for this distinction is to identify that class of actions which, if recognized as 'moral requirements', will have the morally best consequences. There is certainly some fact of the matter about which such classes would have the best results, and so we have a principled basis for determining (in the metaphysical sense; whether we can know these facts is another question!) which actions are morally obligatory.